Editor’s Choice Award February 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.

Ammi’s Broken Vase by S.Z. Siddiqui

Flash fiction is an art unto itself. To tell a complete story in as few words as possible, without sacrificing any of the elements of good storytelling, takes both guts and skill. Every single word counts.

“Ammi’s Broken Vase” ups the ante by working in two separate timelines, builds a world and a complex set of emotional conflicts, adds in literally breathless tension, and does it all in under a thousand words. I salute the author; even in draft, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

I’d like to suggest a couple of ways to make the prose even leaner. The structure of the story, to my eye, is sound; the transitions between the timelines might be a little smoother, but overall it moves well into and out of past and present. There are a few places where paring and streamlining may help with both pacing and narrative flow.

The question I always ask when I line-edit, whether it’s my own prose or a fellow writer’s, is: “Is this word or phrase absolutely essential? If I take it out, will the story make just as much sense? Do I really, really need it?” I also ask: “If I do need this word, is it the exact right one?”

In the final paragraph, for example, do we need to know that the steps are blue? Do we need the word “foyer” or the viewpoint tag “She knew” or are these concepts implied in the rest of the sentence?

Repetition of words, phrases, and ideas can be an effective rhetorical device, but in a flash piece, the rule of less is more tends to apply. A sequence like this

She passed out drunk at Kulsoom’s house. When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV with no ulterior motives, Lubna resolved to drown herself in the red wine she brought.

might be condensed into a single, shorter sentence:

When it became clear that Kulsoom had genuinely invited her over to binge watch TV, Lubna passed out, drowning herself in the red wine she’d brought.

Sometimes when we want to keep the word count down, we may condense multiple ideas into a long phrase or string of phrases—packing it all in as tightly as possible. The effect can be a bit crowded, as in the last paragraph: Her lungs almost escaped with the air they expelled as the first cough erupted. There’s an almost songlike quality to this sentence, but it’s a little hard to parse. Opening it up and rearranging it, even adding a word or two, would make it clearer. This might even be an occasion to wield a familiar phrase: she’s literally coughing up a lung.

The overriding concept of flash fiction is focus. Focus on the point of the piece, focus each word and phrase, choose effects with care. No excess; nothing superfluous. It’s wonderful how a well-conceived flash piece—and I think this one is; I love the theme of the broken vase, and the world in which breathing is anything but a natural or simple process—can do so much with so few words. It’s a kind of magic.

–Judith Tarr

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