Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Papyrus, 1 OF 2 by C.K Attner

I was drawn to “Papyrus” this month by its worldbuilding: a beleaguered ethnolinguist on a financially-strapped extraplanetary dig, surrounded by an interestingly different sentient species—and the question of whether the present matters more than the past. It’s the setup for a whole raft of interesting conflicts, but the way they’re organized in this early draft isn’t yet to best advantage. This month, I’d like to talk about how our characters’ reactions prime the reader, and how they affect how plots get where they’re going.

There’s lots of material to play with in “Papyrus”, a clear thematic question, and choices that have a tangible cost. All those variables make Sarah’s worlds—both Yeg and her professional sphere—feel wide, diverse, and lived-in, but they also send the direction of the plot constantly outward rather than forward. A great many potential conflicts are thrown out there in the first scene and mixed together, and not all of them connect with each other or bear results—or can be explored with any depth.

The depth question most obviously surfaces where what Sarah’s telling us and what the story shows don’t yet add up. Her initial description of Dr. Torma—as someone she wants approval from, to impress—and Dr. Torma’s introductory long, hectoring speech are directly at odds with each other. She eventually reveals an interesting motive behind her abrupt, aggressive behaviour—planetary protection—but it’s not yet visible in the actions she took or reactions she’s shown, and for most of the piece, Dr. Torma reads as a somewhat flat villain.

Likewise, there’s a hint of the noble savage in the Lepids and their “punishment” to live low-technology lifestyles; in wanting “nothing more than to preserve their traditional way of life”. I don’t think this is because of malice or a fault in the author; I think it’s because they haven’t been rendered with more than a surface reading, because there is so much going on in “Papyrus”—but surface readings can interact with stereotypes to give readers an opposite impression from what we want.

However, that problem of depth is especially visible in the suddenness of plot development in “Papyrus”. Major turns in the story come on quickly, and don’t read as strongly supported by what’s come before—or show reactions that are out of proportion for what’s just happened. For example, Sarah and her team’s reaction to MolO’s sudden English skills feels drastically underplayed—they just brush by it, when that opens the major question of sentience, diplomacy, and archaeological rights at the centre of the story—and then because it’s just brushed by, Sarah’s reactions for the rest of the story feel rather extreme for the problems presented, and her discovery of ethics even more sudden.

There’s a calibration of readers’ expectations that happens when a story shows its protagonist or secondary characters reacting: it shows us what the story thinks a reasonable reaction is in that society, context, or space. By downplaying the entire team’s reaction to the first major reveal, the effect boomerangs.

It also has an effect on structure, something the author’s notes asked about. I think structure is where the major work can be done on the next draft of “Papyrus” to start pulling it into shape.

There’s a tangible circularity in the structure in the early background, before Sarah recruits the MolO to help her: information such as how long she’s been working (why?) and the fraught relationship with the younger Dr. Torma is come back to, rather than built in early, so external actions—packing, loading—are circling every time new information is added. The Egg is moved away from narratively, and then come back to. When it lights up, Sarah reacts twice: “I let out a gasp loud enough to wake the extinct” and “Disbelief and excitement forced adrenaline through my veins” read at present like two versions of the same event, side by side, instead of one having been chosen and run with.

This circling effect keeps happening, more widely, because of the muted and reset reactions Sarah and her team have to the discoveries they make. The failure to react the first time means setting up the situation again to get the right reaction—the one that moves the story’s core question forward!—and just having Sarah’s reactions get stronger to prove there’s a real issue here. But: readers have already been to this question. From the other side of the page, the repetition is felt.

I think there are a few good questions to ask, when it feels like a question’s repeating in the structure of a story: Is there a realistic way these characters might react that would get the plot moving forward the first time? If a question is structurally repeating, is the second time around an evolution of that question, or asking something different or more interesting? Is there a question that can be asked in the plot that takes the characters through this position and into the next?

I’d suggest, when looking at the next draft, using some of those questions to rearrange the information in the first half of “Papyrus” so there’s a logical flow from one fact to the next. What are the relationships between the questions this story is asking? How many versions of each problem are there, and do they move the story forward? I think if that’s done, this piece could be tightened up both structurally and in terms of raw wordcount, and solve the length problem while you’re there.

As the author’s notes have said, this is a quite early draft, and the job of an early draft can be to get all the elements on the table. Focusing the next draft on arranging them into a more cohesive picture—one that emphasizes how they work together—is a great way to get a revision started and make the most of the pieces you have.

Best of luck!

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


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