Editor’s Choice Award May 2021, 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.

The Machine Wasn’t In The Mood by Kate Ellis

“The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” is a gem in the making: dryly funny, sincere, thoughtful, and instantly relatable when it comes to those desperate attempts to suss out what’s behind your favourite band’s lyrics. I was drawn to this piece this month by its instant sense of atmosphere, but saw what the author’s notes are describing as confusion in this draft. So this month, I’d like to discuss some strategies for handling ambiguity in a way that helps readers digest it smoothly.

Nostalgia, whether it’s being thwarted or not, works on evoking the feeling of a time and place, and “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” has a wonderful hand with its descriptive metaphors—each of them unique and precise and just full of personality—and a great eye for detail. The use of pop culture references is deft and well-timed, not too many to overwhelm but enough to shorthand a few personalities and places without eating page space.

But where this piece really shines is in how it lines up every aspect of its craft to express its central themes.

“The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” subtly and smartly layers together a peek at that gap between projection and what’s really going on in a number of ways, all of which are slightly different but work together to—to borrow the metaphor—form a harmonic chord. The point about the difference between algorithms and real people, the difference between “authentic” and flawed music (The Waffle Irons) and Niles Deep as the stand-in for formula and what’s most acceptable, and the town built by people overrun now with car dealerships and chain stores (but still never Barry’s idea of Americana) all work together to establish that question from different angles. And then it’s neatly developed with the idea that no, a whole town isn’t going to stop dead to become a shrine to a half-successful indie band regardless of what the fandom might yearn for; it’s alive, it’s real, and it’s going to keep living—resonating with Flo’s “question is would I want to” at the idea of flattening Mapes out into something simple and digestible, and a classroom full of comp sci students Sam thinks of as “the next generation of Niles Deeps” nonetheless slipping the leash of what they’re expected to be doing.

As a diagnostic: I can tell as a reader that this silt of thematic ideas is working because when their conclusion pays off—“It was okay to make the wrong moves because you eventually landed on the right ones. And if you didn’t? You were still running on your own algorithm and not someone else’s.”—it’s powerful for me.

These aren’t ideas calling explicit attention to themselves; they’re tucked in the corners, slowly adding up like mercury. The way they accrete forms a foundational cohesion: Those layers of thematic imagery here resonate so very well that despite the author’s feeling of mess, they’re telling me what “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” is about and how to read what develops next on the plot level.

That’s why when the speculative element and the mathematics come in, it doesn’t read to me as out of left field, but surprising and fascinating: I’ve been primed as a reader for something other than the story the tropes say to expect, and it hooks perfectly into the already-established question of patterns and algorithms Niles Deep created.

I am hearing the author’s concern about complication and confusion, and while I don’t think this is in as rough shape as spending a pile of time with a story can make us feel, there are places I can suggest sharpening and focusing—and some thoughts on how to diagnose the ending. They’re mostly to do with how the ambiguities in the story are handled.

I think where “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” can be more focused—and achieve its effects more strongly, is where the resonances and ties between ideas are weaker. Some of the arcs in “The Machine Wasn’t In the Mood” do resolve satisfyingly, but in a story that’s built so strongly on its thematic layer, it’s ideal to be able to take every single one of those threads and trace it through an arc of conflict: problem, process, resolution. I’d suggest disentangling that stuck feeling by looking at places where those ties aren’t as cohesive, or where problem doesn’t make it through process to some new understanding, or fold into the resolution of another problem. Those are little things, but they introduce elements of ambiguity that can fuzz or distort the ambiguities you’re putting there on purpose, and the more noise we can clear as writers, the better the signal can come through.

Notably, I think there’s still room to anchor the core ideas of that projection gap and the glory of real things being weirder and sometimes better than we imagined to some of the other stuff floating around Sam’s life: Lise’s obvious cheating, Sam’s mother’s professional lack of faith, that overwhelming sense of freelancer poverty failure (good observation on the age-inappropriate sneakers, by the way; your Resident Editor knows those feels), Barry’s idea of “when it was okay to be aspirational”, the liner notes’ idea of ideal women as “girls with (the) unambitious dreams”, and the whole emergent question of what failure and success means. There’s something rising through the subtext here about how the notion of fucking up isn’t even a yardstick, it’s 100% the wrong question, but depending on where the author wants to go with that, the connections could be a little more explicit or tighter.

On the plot level, I’m personally fine with stories where the speculative element is standing just offscreen, in the shadows. It’s visible enough to readers to be fun and intriguing in that Where’s Fluffy? kind of way—Mapes’s money, the shadowy government men, and the very commitment to unknowability—but I’d suggest bringing out at least one element of the ending just slightly more.

On one hand: Sam and Flo obviously break into the house, and see something, and Sam decides not to talk about it in print but imply that there’s more to the story.

On the other hand: There’s the ghost of some embryonic relationship between Sam and Flo forming (“yet another possibility bouncing between them”), but given the age gap and where their arc ends—about to break into Mapes’s house (why specifically?), there’s not enough on the page at present to tell me what it is. I think part of the trouble here is there are clues that can read in a few different directions: the potential connection between Flo’s ENIAC comment and the pressure on Sam to become, specifically, a teacher could suggest she’s helping Flo reclaim a lost road and get back to her own self; the trouble with Lise and that quote above could suggest something romantic. But it’s not quite on the page yet.

I think some of that ambiguity in both elements of the ending—plot arc and character arc—is part of the trouble the author’s been feeling with the ending. If there’s more solidity in one element, the ambiguity in the other can come through more clearly as signal—and as the kind of narrative potential readers can fill in in their heads, off the page. When both elements that are supposed to be closing in a way that produces readerly satisfaction are uncertain in terms of what happened, and their outcomes, it’s harder to figure out which way to go. I think putting a little more on the page in just one of those areas could really help focus and solidify that confused feeling at the end—or at least provide a solid starting point for further repairs.

But I would very much not give up on this. It’s delightfully complex, subtle, funny, and original, and it’s well on its way to gelling—and, I think, finding a good home in print.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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