Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Far From Every Strand by Kate Wooderson

“Far From Every Strand” captured my imagination this month with its remote setting, brutal economics, and the beginnings of clean, stark lines of conflict and power and beauty that bring one of the best attributes of literary fiction into a genre setting. It’s evoking modern colonial-era literary fiction in both content and (partially) style, but doesn’t quite read finished to me yet on the sentence level. This month, I’d like to talk about strategies for cutting, tightening, and polishing prose: getting the tone of a story to shine through.

The plot of “Far From Every Strand” is stark, simple, and dignified: an interesting inversion of the selkie trope that feels rich and lonely and troubled. It’s bolstered by highly effective imagery: the flayed girl is a powerful way to drive the point home in one image—believable as the kind of vision that would motivate John to action—and the kineticism of the last lines is deeply effective.

I haven’t seen the prior draft, but think John’s participation in the sealing wouldn’t harm this piece overmuch: a lot of what it’s examining on the thematic level is moral ambiguity, finding a way to right and wrong, and violent systems rather than individuals, and I’m not sure pulling off a character arc that addresses those things requires a protagonist who is and always has been Right™.

Because of that tone wafting through—huge, unpopulated spaces and the harshness of sealing—and the associations it can make with whaling fiction, New Zealander and otherwise, my major suggestion for making “Far From Every Strand” stronger would be concision.

There is deeply beautiful language in this piece: He’d been a clerk long enough to conceive a hatred for quill driving, a planter long enough to realize he could not stomach slavery, and a colonist long enough to know he had no great desire to settle is an elegantly balanced, gorgeous sentence that manages to be thoroughly evocative in a way that’s carrying no extra baggage. It’s rich with wordplay, texture, and character information in a way that doesn’t feel crowded or overstuffed. However, there are other spots in the piece where information is being mulled a few beats too long or reiterated, where sentences are unbalanced, where the pace drags.

The question: how to align some of the phrasing and pacing and a theme of spare-but-rich places with that strength in the author’s style, and make them all work together. Or in short: How to bring the rest of the piece consistently up to its strongest points?

There are a whole double handful of approaches to trimming a piece down and looking into pacing without losing meaning. First—and maybe easiest—is to find places where extraneous words and what a lot of writers call scaffolding could be cleaned out of the prose—for example, “Chill seawater soaked the hem of his coat” edits quickly to “Chill seawater soaked his coat hem”. The result is a tighter, more concrete voice.

Another way to do this is to find active and interesting verbs that could incorporate description without adding adjectives. For example, “The slanted beach rose into a glacial valley shrouded by mist” can be tightened by trying “The beach slanted into” and pulling that sense of motion into the verb itself. Fewer words but stronger words, and nothing’s been lost.

There’s also a strategy for finding places where one on-target adjective could replace two or three that aren’t as precise: for example, “A sweet honeyed fragrance rose from the forest and mingled with the smell of salty foam” has the same meaning but a lot more concision and precision as “A honeyed forest fragrance” and “the salt of seafoam.” Readers will fundamentally expect honeyed smells to be sweet, seafoam to smell salty, and something described as salty after a smell is described as sweet to also be a smell; it’s a place a writer can rely on readers’ existing knowledge and assumptions.

Finding places where implications are being spelled out explicitly—where that readerly assumption could fill in that blank tidily without on-page help—is another good site for shortening and cutting. For example, “She laughed. ‘We’re not afraid of empty ocean. We are the daughters of the seas'” might not need that second phrase: it’s quite apparent why a selkie wouldn’t fear empty ocean; they live in it.

Finally, there’s space in clearing out potential false trails. For example, the sequence in the last paragraphs where the crew mock and berate John overstates the case by a lot, and draws parallels between the selkies and homophobia that aren’t supported in the rest of the story. It’s a late lead, and one that doesn’t go anywhere—John is already leaving. The readers have already figured out that the crew is morally poisoned. If there’s not enough work being done by those insults, do they need to be there?

These are all examples and suggestions—obviously, we each find our own ways to tighten prose while keeping in our own voice!—but with this, as in a lot of things, when we make a handful of smaller adjustments they add up to something more. It’s, at the core, about thinking through one’s prose from readers’ perspective—what might be obvious, what the story’s already told them, what they need to move forward—and adjusting accordingly.

There’s a lot of beauty in this piece, and a lot of smarts. Once that signal’s finely tuned, I think this will have little trouble finding a home.

Best of luck!

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

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