Editor’s Choice Award June 2021, Fantasy

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.

Lost Leaves by Charlotte Haley

This is a powerful and evocative piece. I feel it deeply. My undergraduate senior thesis had a similar theme, and often felt as if it were shaking the world apart. It had a tendency to bleed green ink.

Because the story is so short and so intense, writing tight is more than a virtue, it’s a necessity. This draft has made a strong start. I have a few suggestions to help with revision.

First, a shift from passive to active formulations. Gerunds—words that in end in –ing—have a way of slackening the tension in a sentence. Stirring milk, rounding from the kitchen, returning to the computer, chalking it up, letting out a long sigh—the story is in love with gerunds. Count them all, and think about how to make their individual clauses and sentences stronger, more active. I might almost set a challenge to eliminate them, then see if the story needs them.

Shortening sentences will help, too. Sharpening the focus of each phrase. When clauses connect with and, see if they work better as separate sentences, especially if the clauses refer to different actions or concepts:

The fresh coffee burned her tongue in punishment and she looked around for her energy drink

Grey light streamed into the yellow cave and, slipping on her hood to protect from falling debris, she tried to read the essay’s introduction

—the latter even includes a gerund, which might be replaced with an active construction.

Think about clarity, and the meanings of words. Reticent, traipsing—do they mean what they want to mean here? Are feet compounding earth or pounding it? What does “compounding” mean? Is “wettened” a word? What does “mottled” mean in the context of rain? Is it God’s remonstration or Their remonstrance? I’m not sure what “the slits of his gaze” are—it almost seems as if the slits are his nostrils, but then again, they have to be his eyes, even though they’re mucous-membrane-colored. On the one hand, the small shock of surprise at an unusual word or phrase can be effective in a mood piece, but the reader should be clear on what the author is trying to say.

Make sure details are relevant to their context. Do we need to know that the sweatshirt is a gift? Is it significant that the window is to her left, as we’re told more than once? While it is important to know that Joanie is drowning in a sense of futility, that she expects to fail, do we need to be told that there’s no way she can fix the door, when she proceeds to do so as best she can? Perhaps a moment of near-collapse, a brief flash of can’t, then she pulls herself together and does what she can. Which, in its way, is a metaphor for everything she’s doing or trying to do in the story.

Watch out for slack phrasing. For example:

Joanie wore the 6-day-extension like a participation ribbon torn from the hands of the examiners. The focus loosens after ribbon. The sentence seems to wander into another context.

She was pushing the ideas into holes that were too small, the wrongness of it all beginning to creep up her hands and arms in stiffness. The last two words don’t fit the rest. Are they creeping or stiffening? Which is the closest to the intended meaning?

And finally, watch for repetition, for word and phrase echoes: she went, then she went again; the house falls down in the same way over and over, with much the same phrasing. Pare down the repetitive bits, focus on what’s most important. Keep the goal in mind, the collapse of the house while she clings grimly to her essay, and in the end her surrender to the god of entropy.

One element that I quite like, which might be worth a little more attention, is the way in which her body parts, and adjacent objects, act on their own. Her hands on the keys, her chair not moving. Her laptop undoing her revisions. It feels in these bits as if she’s lost volition; she’s no longer in charge of her own body, let alone her life or her house. A bit sharper focus on that would make the theme stronger and the ending even more effective.

–Judith Tarr

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