Editor’s Choice Review July 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.

She Doth Teach The Stars To Sing by Sam Pisciotta

My attention was caught by “She Doth Teach the Stars to Sing” this month because of its dreamlike, novel approach to a neurological space-time travel and a somewhat tender approach to the meaningfulness of communication. However, I think this isn’t quite reaching its full potential yet—and mostly because of how it’s handling information for readers. So this month, I’d like to discuss how we arrange our ideas to give them space to grow and reflect off each other.

Initially, the information management in “She Doth Teach the Stars to Sing” is great. The simplicity of the opening line—”Mademoiselle laughs”—is enough to create an effective hook. There’s a lot of work being done in those two words: the sense of narrative motion is started off by dropping readers, in media res, into a reply—and thus implying a story already moving. The slightly antiquated diction evokes older, more formal French literature to me (bolstered later by a few word choices; cervine is an interesting one), which is in and of itself intriguing.

It’s the contrasts that follow that let “She Doth Teach the Stars to Sing” build up the interest of that first line. Each sentence in the first paragraph of the piece partially refutes the assumptions built by the one before: Mademoiselle laughs, but in the second sentence the laugh sounds wrong and heavy; but her eyes are dark and deerlike and that’s something generally connoted as vulnerable, attractive; but they’re wrong in her face; but the flirtation of the eyelashes; but then her expression is a supernova, something with power; but the effect isn’t distance, it’s intimacy.

That constant string of contrasts builds up a sense of the uncanny that’s necessary for this plot and this world, but it also works to draw readers deeper because it keeps moving her from the assumed—big dark eyes mean vulnerability—to the specific. The signal to readers is pay attention; it’s delivered efficiently and in just a few words, and in a structure that creates little problems to solve in readers’ heads. We talk month-to-month about a sense of narrative motion, and this is one of the ways to create that feeling that progress is being made, that the story is moving somewhere: setting up little facts and then visibly developing them into more.

However, once the questions of Keats, Shakespeare, and the narrator’s mother come in, the story starts to feel increasingly crowded and it becomes easier to lose the thread of what’s happening here—and lose the ideas that make this piece interesting.

It might be worth thinking of a short story as a room readers move in: every time we bring something in—a new idea thread—it gets a little fuller and there’s a little less space to move. The trick we’re after is to add our ideas without making it feel cluttered: either by closing off another question or idea or toning it down: otherwise it’s a room full of accent furniture, and the eye doesn’t know where to go, and you’re liable to bump into a chair and bruise your leg.

Short version: Just like in poetry, half the trick of pulling off a lush, idea-rich style is in knowing where to use restraint.

Along those lines (and that very long extended metaphor), I’d suggest exercising a bit more of that early stylistic restraint further down in the piece. There are a lot of ideas introduced early in the first scene that have room to be looked at because the style goes very spare in those paragraphs—and that’s a tool you can use again, in spots where there’s a lot of information. One aspect of the story backs into the wings to let the other one have the spotlight, instead of both crowding it—and splitting the eye. A little variation in the language density will highlight those informational bits for readers’ attention—hey, readers, this bit is important—while giving them a bit of breathing space to move around the idea, assimilate it into their model of the whole story, and keep going.

As it stands right now, phrases like piscine balladry are covering over the fact that the narrator’s space-traveling, and that fall into abstract language only increases for me as a reader the farther we get into the backstory of Yurei 247. By the time I’m supposed to be feeling the impact of its demise, I’ve tangled in the language and that feeling is blunted.

The catch: I feel like once some of the excess language is trimmed and rebalanced out of this piece to give the ideas equal time, some flaws may come visible—and “She Doth Teach the Stars to Sing” will find itself facing another structural revision. There are parts of the characterization and the plot here that are, ultimately, a little slight: the entire action is having a story communicated, and nothing done about it, no realization made for the protagonist that they didn’t already seem to know. Once the distraction of style is balanced out, those issues are going to become more noticeable.

And—that’s a good thing. Because that’s the opportunity for an author to solve them, and build a fundamentally stronger piece with that skill with metaphor and contrast and those very, very interesting ideas.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

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