Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Zombie Rock Stars by Bobby Harrell

I can see why the Author’s Note indicates that the finished story will have a different title than “Zombie Rock Stars,” but I have to admit, that’s what caught my eye first as I made my Editor’s Choice picks for this month. It’s not a fancy title, but it’s evocative.

It is a spoiler for the plot surprise. On the other hand, sometimes a reader will keep reading because of the spoiler. It’s a different kind of experience: anticipation rather than unfolding revelation. Even knowing what the punch line is, the reader is eager to find out how the story will get there.

That’s how I read this submission. I figured out what the ending would be as soon as I got the parameters of has-been journalist and classic rock star, knew it when I saw the security measures, but read on with relish because the idea was so much fun. What might have added to the fun for me would have been a line or two about rock immortals—Keith Richards, anyone? Especially since the story is set in 2039. He could conceivably still be alive by then, but it would be a bit of a stretch…unless he’s had the treatment, too. But that’s not essential to the story–there’s plenty there to keep me reading.

As for the story itself, I’d recommend a thorough copyedit of the final draft before submission. In this draft, the verb tenses and T.J.’s gender both fluctuate in ways that point to revision artifacts rather than author planning.

I found myself wondering about the worldbuilding as I read. The  background in general has a feel of 2019—few changes, nothing that stands out as saying This is the future. Just think about how different 2009 was from now—over the weekend I was watching a TV series on Netflix from 2010, and the phones were downright ancient in size and design. In 1999, plots could revolve around people hunting for a pay phone, because everybody didn’t have a phone in his pocket, let alone one that was also a camera and a powerful computer.

For a short story, there doesn’t need to be a ton of worldbuilding, but one or two background details would go a long way toward establishing the futureness of it all. Small everyday things that nobody thinks about. Instead of a phone, for example, what if Jared is told to turn off his phone chip (which, it might be implied, is implanted in his head or arm)? If he’s given a pad and a pen, does he know or remember how to use them? Does he try to find the save button on the pen, or look for the power switch on the pad? I find myself doing that now when I’m reading a book—I look for the timestamp at the top of the page, and sometimes I try to turn the page by tapping it. Habits form fast and die hard.

The draft also made me think about how dialogue works to establish character and advance plot. Real-world dialogue doesn’t work in fiction because so much of it is throat-clearing and social filler. Very little of it introduces new information or moves a story forward. Introductions, hello-how-are-you-how’ve-you-been-how’s-the-wife. Telling each other things the reader would already know from previous scenes. Explaining things that are clear to the reader from context.

The best story dialogue conveys information that’s new to the reader, while establishing the personality (the voice, both literally and metaphorically) of the person speaking, and clarifying her relationship to the person she’s speaking to. It’s generally concise, and it cuts away once it’s conveyed the information the reader needs to know.

Jared and T.J. clearly have catching up to do, but all we need to know as we read is that they do this. A line or two about how they swapped updates would do the job, and leave more story space to build up to the climax. In short: the pacing would be quicker and the climax punchier.

It’s perfectly fine to write it all out in draft. Getting it down on the page or screen makes it clearer what can stay and what needs to go. Just keep what’s new, what’s essential, and what’s most effective. And, in this story, that will help the humor as well: sharp, biting wit and the final Ahhhh Shiiiit that we (well, I) have been looking forward to since we saw the working title.

–Judith Tarr


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