Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Bark by Jon Little

As soon as I saw what this submission was about, I had to read it. For I confess, I am a certified Armchair Musher, and sled dogs are my not-so-secret passion. How could I not read a series of scenes narrated by sled dogs and their humans?

I did not have trouble with the somewhat episodic nature of the narrative. Opening scenes can seem a bit disconnected as they set up different threads of plot and character. The reader will expect and trust that those threads will weave together as the story progresses.

My main question about the draft has to do with its extreme spareness of detail. The opening scenes are fairly well fleshed out, but once Terry gets to the store, the narrative consists almost exclusively of dialogue. There are almost no visuals, and the reaction shots are sparse.

While this style of narration can be extremely effective, it tends to work best in small doses or very short pieces. In a novel, it can become a little bit frustrating for the reader, unless the prose is very skilled and the details that are doled out are very carefully chosen.

Here I might suggest adding another layer or two to these scenes. Expand the visuals just a bit, and let us see a little more of the characters’ actions and reactions. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and it doesn’t need chunks of description or exposition, but as a reader I’d like to see more than what’s here.

I would like a better sense, too, of where the narrative is going. What challenges do the characters have to face? What are their goals? Where are they headed, emotionally and physically? What, in short, is the story about?

It doesn’t have a strong feel of genre, aside from the leather harness that sort of suggests steampunk—sled harness these days is much more likely to be synthetic webbing, and I believe the older version would be canvas. The rug would be fur, as well; plain leather freezes and cracks, whereas furs hold up well to arctic temperatures. Is there a reason why characters in this novel won’t be wearing furs? Or why, if those aren’t used, there are no synthetic substitutes?

In short, I find myself wanting something to hang my expectations on. What period is the novel set in? How does it diverge from that period in our own timeline? What elements distinguish it from the world we know? And how will those elements drive the story? They don’t all have to be piled into these first pages, but we should be able to get a hint, through a few well-chosen details, of what genre this is and how it’s doing to develop as we read.

One last thing that caught my eye was the dialect. I tend to prefer the minimalist version: less phonetic rendition, more sentence rhythms and a pointer or two toward the distinguishing characteristics of the character’s speech. Full-on phonetic dialogue is viewed as questionable these days, in that it “others” the character. (Also, as a New Englander born and bred, I have never used or seen the construction “You be Roy.” There are dialects that use it, but not either my Boston relatives or my Maine compatriots.)

I’ll be interested to see where the narrative goes, and how the sled dogs help keep it running forward. Best of luck with it, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

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