Editor’s Choice Award April 2020, Short Stories

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.

The Meek Shall Inherit by Bill S.

I was drawn to “The Meek Shall Inherit” this month not because of its topical content, but its clean, clear voice work, its humility, and its ethic of rebuilding: viral intelligence as a literalization of resilience in the face of disaster. And because it’s a story about handling failure and what living is. However, it’s also one that’s not quite put together yet mechanically, and the author’s notes speak directly to that. So this month, I’d like to discuss diagnosing a story’s potential issues based on feedback—and how to decide which adjustments will address them.

There are a lot of strengths in “The Meek Shall Inherit”: its narrative voice is cleanly, quickly established, vivid and complete inside a few sentences. Cadence is still a visible strength here, and a quiet but sharp emotional intelligence that’s visible in Sibby, Sorely, Stub and the protagonist’s interactions.

Imagery is also a strong point, as it’s been in this workshopper’s other pieces. The gentle tactility of “the swimming pools filled in bit by bit as fingers of green reached out from all edges of them” and vividness of “skyscrapers like massive gray jagged teeth chewing up the sky” go a long way to making “The Meek Shall Inherit” compelling as it sets up its world and characters.

Foremost, though: It is kind. There is an unvarnished simplicity to this narrative voice that radiates love for the protagonist’s people and the places they travel through. I found “Sorely keeps me sane, and safe. James–Stub we call him–keeps me honest, and kind. The world keeps me on my toes, but mostly I keep us going” deeply emotionally affecting: both in how it sets the tone for what this post-apocalypse’s particular values are and how ably it shows the protagonist’s love for their family.

Plotting was mentioned in the author’s notes as a frequent point raised in rejection letters, so I’ve focused on peeling those strengths back to see what they’re compensating for—and what might be able to be reinforced or reworked to get this piece from positive rejection letters to acceptances. I think there are two potential ways to consider that feedback.

Firstly, I’d suggest some of what’s being discussed as plotting here overlaps with pacing. “The Meek Shall Inherit” is a very long piece when weighed against what happens in it when it’s stripped down to a summary. It’s potentially twice as long as it needs to be to handle the action it’s tackling; to set up the problem and find a solution to it. By “Every day is a treasure” I’m looking for a moment of change, choice, or challenge—even the hint of one coming over the horizon beyond a notice that things were going to go bad.

There’s a frequent temptation to establish a character’s “normal” so readers can feel the impact of its changing, but especially in aiming at genre markets, that pause can stall the narrative motion—the plotting. I’d suggest taking all the information on the family’s normal routine and finding whether there’s a place to work that into other scenes without giving readers informational overload in those moments—and just cutting any that’s not actively relevant.

I’d also look at the sentence level for chances to be more deliberate about the pace. Each one of the protagonist’s observations is lovely individually, but together they start to bunch and clog. I’d suggest considering: where are they most effectively deployed? How do the descriptions interact with other elements of the story—where are they slowing those down, and where supporting them? Where is a point becoming a speech and then a rant, and would it be made effectively as just a point?

Secondly, I’d look at the approach toward its conflict. Ayla and Went’s basic disagreement—knowledge and intellectual literacy versus guns, science versus religion, communal societies versus authoritarian—is not precisely a new or novel battle line. These are the obvious fault lines in our current society, and while that’s a tricky business, because it means they’re relevant fault lines, they’re also the ones that are hard to place into fiction explicitly without having readers think I’ve seen this a hundred times before.

I think “The Meek Shall Inherit” has a good thing to say about that question and what the act of protection is, but would suggest that this story could be effective if it even tackled one of those conflicts, without having to be about all of them. There’s an overwhelm in trying to handle the entirety of society as it is—for readers as well as writers—and just like when we’re writing a description, the right detail is often better than a generality.

This is, I think, not a question of genre versus literary but sheer structural execution. And when the question of what “The Meek Shall Inherit” wants to specifically tackle—which of those conflicts best sets up its emotional realization—and how many words of story are right for that plot is handled, I think there’s a place for it in the current genre environment.

Best of luck!

And to everyone reading the Editor’s Choices this month: I hope you and your loved ones are well and healthy, and please stay safe.

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

Leave a Reply