Editor’s Choice Award July 2020, 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.

Automata Part I of II by Joseph Ahn

The moody worldbuilding in “Automata” caught my attention this month: a muted, constantly shapeshifting story set in a postapocalyptic world trembling like a soap bubble, painted against stark, striking imagery: twisted metal against soft orange skies. However, the author’s concern about its length dovetailed with my own about its wandering, constantly-shifting plot, and so this month I’d like to talk about pacing and deciding which of a world’s many strands is the story.

There’s a lot to play with, narratively, in “Automata”: Barda and Vela’s relationship, the mystery of the automata, the broken oscillator, the missing people, the crisis of leadership in the commune. All of these questions have enough proverbial meat on them to potentially make the central plotline of a story in this world—or at least half of one.

However, since the author’s notes ask about condensing wordcount here, that profusion of questions and potential conflicts is also the first place I go when considering that issue: how are those questions interacting with each other, and is there a way to make them interact that would compress this from 10,000 words to something more manageable?

The conflicts or challenges in “Automata” string together consecutively: plots tagging in and out instead of subplots supporting or weaving through a main question or thoroughline. There’s a great deal done to set up the problem with the oscillator, which only proves to be a setup for the problem of the leadership and then the automaton murder, which only proves to be a setup for the quest to find Panu, which only sets up the problem of the dreaming queen. It’s all neatly causal—things aren’t just necessarily happening in a string but are leading into each other with a solid logic—but it takes a while for “Automata” to get where it’s actually going (Barda’s parents and being happy with where he is, with Vela) and the questions at the beginning don’t necessarily have a relationship with the questions at the end. To this reader, it feels as if they’ve (tidily) drifted toward a conclusion, rather than deliberately resolved a question that was at least implied in the first pages.

The second half almost morphs genre, into cosmic horror/grimdark from the dreamy postapocalyptic SF, and while there’s nothing wrong with being flexible, I find myself wanting at least the seeds of that world sown in the first half, so that when it shows up, it feels like a satisfying payoff, not a surprising sharp turn—so they’re in relationship.

I think there’s a way to bring everything here into alignment—and that having a story in this space isn’t atypical of early or middle drafts, where we figure out all possible universes of the story before deciding which one we want to use. The major question I’d suggest asking: What is the action of the story? What does it want to specifically explore, discuss, illuminate? It’s when we figure out what we do want to say that we can start arranging the rest to support it, reflect it, embroider it—or just see what doesn’t run in the same direction and file that for another piece.

There is some material that, I think, could probably be condensed or outright stripped out: Vela and Barda’s journey underground diverts into more standard tropes about subways, sewers, and the Fall of the World Before, which stands out strongly against the more specific, unique-feeling worldbuilding of the first half. I know the author’s notes mention this is an older story, and there was little way to tell which tropes would age in that time, but trimming with an eye to what the rest of the subgenre assumes as true—what you can just imply now and let readers do the rest—would definitely save wordcount.

Likewise, there’s a good strategy in asking what “Automata” might look like if the same questions were layered instead of tackled consecutively, one after the other. How can those conflicts inform each other and weave through each other, instead of happening one after the other? Can the questions of Barda and Vela’s relationship, of Barda’s restlessness, happen within the action of the rest of the story instead of before or after it?

There’s benefits to rethinking the pacing and structure here that’ll communicate into the line-by-line level. There’s a somewhat abrupt jump from that dreamlike narrative pace into the trapped automaton’s death scene at present—it’s something that can, I think, be sorted out by folding a little more action into Barda’s ruminating earlier, and a little more reflection into that encounter.

Likewise, the hesitancy Barda has about his own emotions early on—”Something about their endless hunt inspires a strange feeling within my heart – like pity, perhaps. Maybe it is nothing more than sadness” and “It feels somehow eerie and out of place, though I cannot explain why.”—feels as if it doesn’t quite serve a strong purpose at present, but those can be accessible sites in the story to start off clues about his restless loneliness—and present the problem being home with Vela would solve.

This is structural work—basically, editing work—but I think the positive is that the material needed to make “Automata” hum is already here. It’s a question of rearranging, layering, pruning, and shaping it to go in the direction the author would like, and form a story that says, asks, resolves what’s most satisfying.

Best of luck!

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

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