Editor’s Choice Award July 2021, Science Fiction

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.

Cold Binary by Kate Ellis

There’s some strong writing in this piece, some lovely images and memorable lines. I like the grittiness of it, the noir undertones of Joss’ life and the worlds she lives in. Character and setting fit together nicely.

I do think the braided timelines need work. The interweaving of past and present has the potential to be really effective, but in this draft, the shifts can be confusing. I had to read and reread to figure out who was doing what and when.

Part of this is a small but mighty prose blip: a tendency toward pronoun confusion. There may be two or more she’s in a clause or sentence, and it’s not always immediately clear which character each identical pronoun refers to. The reader has to stop and untangle the meaning.

Transitions can be a bit complicated as well. When Joss flips from Annie and the bar to the aftermath of the explosion, the flip happens in the same sentence. That actually comes close to working, but as we shift back and forth from the explosion to Alice to the investigation to the aftermath on the station, there’s not always a clear demarcation between each timeline. Characters and events tangle rather than intertwining. It’s sometimes hard to be sure which past or present the narrative is in.

The paragraph about Mathieu Severn is a good example of what I mean here.

They were the motive for Mathieu Severn, just 22. Younger brother of Radke Severn who’d been buried with the others. It was easy enough to whittle down the suspects. Miners rarely came with family. They said their goodbyes, put in their three years, and floated home with fat paychecks to show for cheating spouses and disaffected children. The miners on KM-427 made enough to retire. They were extracting Kyrenium, a rare and priceless substance that could power up an Alcubierre drive without the need of a nearby gas giant. Severn had hacked the blueprints for the tunnel in his datapad, found evidence for Zofia’s cost-cutting. He’d confessed eagerly enough. 

The paragraph segues out of the casualty count for a mining accident. We get Severn’s age and that he had a motive—presumably the dead in the previous paragraph. Next we get a snippet of his relationship to one of the dead, followed by a quick shift to, apparently, Joss’ viewpoint, a bit of exposition about the miners, who they are and why they are and what they’re mining, followed in turn by a shift back to Severn, and finally another shift to the crime and his confession.

It’s all information we need to know, but it’s organized almost randomly. On one hand it does reflect the process of free association, as if we’re following Joss’ thought process point for point. On the other, the shifts and jumps make it hard to keep track of what’s going on from one sentence to the next. By the time we get to the end, we’re far enough from the beginning that we aren’t entirely sure how we got there.

Cleaning up and clarifying the transitions between timelines will help. So will organizing details and actions a little more consistently.

It can be as simple as giving each set of ideas its own paragraph. In the paragraph above, if a new one began with It was easy enough, it would be clear that the train of thought is shifting. Then maybe rethinking the progression from retirement to Kyrenium, and how we get from that to Severn’s hacking and the cost-cutting, and from there to his confession. There are connections missing, links between the concepts, as well as sense of why they follow each other in that particular order. If we have those pieces of story-data, we’ll be able to follow the narrative more easily.

–Judith Tarr

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