Editor’s Choice Award December 2019, Short Story

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.

No One Left To Save by Dave Herz

I was struck this month by the goofy, gutshot way “No One Left to Save” tackles its central ethical question: what do you do with a nuclear payload when there’s nothing left to lose? While this piece manages to juggle action, genuine emotion, a philosophical problem worth considering, and a slightly tragic screwball feel, I felt the ending didn’t quite bring all those elements home. So this month, I’d like to dig into the difference between resolving the surface plot conflict and the deeper emotional or thematic conflict we’ve set up, and how to bring those closer to each other so the end of a story satisfies readers.

Well-paced, well-planned, and built around an absolutely solid plot twist, “No One Left to Save” sets up, despite its tongue-in-cheek and fairly dry sense of humour, a serious dilemma from the second scene. With the entire crew reeling from their own personal losses and taking very different sides, it’s an effective and compelling engine for story, one which keeps its stakes fresh and relevant until the last paragraphs.

The tone is also key in making “No One Left to Save” work for me: the slight absurdity of starting with Joseph’s decision-making lifehacks conveys something of the futile feeling of staring into a tragedy without making the story itself so heavy I can’t read on. Lines like “Joseph underlined everyone twice for emphasis” and the Happy Show soundtrack are legitimately funny, and work as a solid counterbalance to the grimness of the situation—and tiny, awful details like Nasrine’s burn marks, where the real emotional impact of what’s just happened above peeks through. It’s legitimately impactful to see the slightly goofy and definitely dark idea of torture through kids’ program jingle just serve to remind Joseph how much he loves—and misses—his family, and there’s real skill on display here in how those emotional moments weave together with thrillerlike action and sidelong humour, keeping the story balanced and moving without miring it in awfulness or getting so unserious that the stakes are undermined.

However, the side effect of that combination is that the emotional conflict (Joseph’s sense of responsibility versus his personal grief) and the plot-level conflict (nuke Garland or not?) aren’t always given the same depth and screen time, and that means when Joseph takes a third way and pulls something unknown to the reader out from up his sleeve, it resolves the plot conflict, but in a way that feels significantly weightless. If Joseph had a self-destruct code from High Command all this time, why bother with the general escapades of the previous scenes? Garland is saved, but Joseph’s complex feelings about duty, grief, and children terminate in an abrupt bullet and an explosion, and leaves the question of his grief and what he’s doing with it—the emotional engine of the whole story—running in thin air, unresolved.

This is where the question of emotional versus plot conflicts come into play—and where the two pull apart. Readers take a few cues from a story to figure out what the most important issue is, one of the simplest being page space spent on a question—and “No One Left to Save” spends a lot of page space on Joseph wrestling with the question of ending children’s lives explicitly because of his family, his own children. His reaction to Serena’s threat is a feeling of peace, but that’s one line of prose; there’s no explicit tip into proactively choosing to die for this—a very different headspace indeed. What I remember as the reader is the feeling that got the page weight: grief, and love, and wanting people to live—and his actions in the ending as written does not follow reasonably from that tone. That leaves an overall feeling of a mismatch in play between what the story’s telling us is the problem and the problem it solves. The solution’s reasonably clever, but what I was reading “No One Left to Save” for was its goofy side, its snarky side, its loving side—all those things that counterbalanced the grimness and made the piece so readable. In short, its heart.

What I’d suggest in addressing that is patching from either side, depending on the effect you’re looking to achieve: a grimmer story that sets up that Twilight-Zone plot twist of the self-destruct code, or the more wryly screwball story that brings humanity into a somewhat stock situation. Depending on which end the revisions come from—and which result they move towards—I’d look to bridge that gap by either adjusting page weight to emphasize the emotion that leads logically to that decision, or thinking back through the decision to see if one that flows more logically from Joseph’s headspace as described can be found. Either way, it’s substantive work, but the kind of work that’ll bring what happens—the plot!—and why it happens closer together so the story feels like a unity.

In terms of more minor suggestions: I’m not entirely sure that the opening scene works for me. It’s beautifully written in and of itself in terms of texture, sensory information, and effect, but the tone never matches the rest of the story’s claustrophobic atmosphere; that perspective is never revisited. It ends up feeling extraneous, when the information about what’s at stake—and what happened to Arkhaven—is already embedded in the second scene. As it stands, I feel like it just delays the actual start of action: Joseph’s briefing.

This is also marked as a middle draft, which means it’s probably already slated for more polish, but I’d also suggest a revision that looked at line-by-line edits: from checking on the rhythm of prose to trimming out duplicate information, and finding ways to make lines like “Nasrine smiled. ‘You’re welcome. We are old friends, after all.'” potentially less obviously designed to give information to the reader over showing how two old friends would, more naturally, talk. I think there’s a chance of trimming a few hundred words out of this piece just on small edits, tightening, and line-by-line work, and making it more accessible for magazines with wordcount caps in the process.

I think there’s great potential here for an impactful, claustrophobic, meaningful narrative that doesn’t lose its tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and humanity—with a few edits and some careful thought about what kind of action would close the question Joseph’s relationship with his family opened.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

Leave a Reply