Editor’s Choice Award April 2022, 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.

Stones: Lost Avar-Tek by Darrell Newton

I like the idea of this story series. It’s a nice riff on the mysterious alien artifacts trope, with bonus time travel. The voice of this section is nice, too, with its own distinct attitude and style. It gives a pretty believable impression of a modern guy telling a story he doesn’t think you’ll believe, because he’s not sure he believes it himself.

I have a question about the draft as written. Jenny hands the stone to call-me-Austin and runs away from two people who she believes are a danger to her. The stone has powers, and she tells him what they are and how to use it—including how to recharge it. Austin understandably doesn’t believe her, until he more or less accidentally uses the stone.

This is a trope in itself, and it raises certain expectations in the reader. We expect him to gradually come around to believing what he has. He might at that point overuse or misuse his amazing new toy. He may discover that he’s under the same kind of threat as Jenny was, from the same forces. Then he’ll find himself on the run as well, which in fact is the frame of his narrative.

Because the story is framed as a flashback, we know what the outcome will be; the interest is in how and why he’s running. The story starts off on a note of high tension. We’re meant to hang on tight as we’re pulled along toward the outcome we already know.

The draft needs two things in order to get the job done. The first is a clearer and stronger emotional arc. We need more sense of what Austin feels and why. He evolves from disbelief to belief, but more than that, he wakes to the realization that Jenny has made him a target—of what, he needs to find out, for his own life and safety. If he’s using the stone, he has to at least wonder if it can be tracked; if every time he powers it up, the people looking for it may be able to detect it. That might give rise to a moral dilemma. Use it and risk his own life, or not use it and risk the life of the person who needs to be healed.

And then there’s the question of the bag and the marks. What are the marks? What do they mean? Wouldn’t he wonder? And wouldn’t we see what they are, and go along with him as he finds out what the bag does, even while he discovers the limits of the stone?

The other thing that the draft needs is closely connected with the emotional arc: tension and suspense. We know Jenny is being pursued. Austin sees the weird couple who are pursuing her. But he doesn’t worry that they’ll go after him instead, once he starts using the stone. Even if there’s a strong and sufficient plot-based reason for them not to do it, wouldn’t he worry about it? Wouldn’t he try to find out who they are and what they’re doing?

Nor is it only the lack of emotion that undercuts the suspense. The timeline stretches out through days and weeks, without a clear reason for everything taking so long. He jumps from event to event, but nothing happens in between. It’s a kind of dead air.

This would work if he were in, say, a time warp; if the stone had some other power beyond healing, to twist and bend time around the person who carries and/or uses it. Then something would break the barrier, maybe a misuse or overuse of the stone and a failure to charge it before the (I presume) time agents detect it. And that would be the reason why he’s suddenly on the run.

What the draft needs, in short, is more layers of emotion and motivation, and if the timeline needs to be stretched, more sense of why that has to happen. Otherwise, I would suggest tightening it up considerably, concentrating events into a much shorter span, and keeping the action moving without pause until it ends in Austin’s flight to whatever safety he can find. Maybe too some indication of Jenny’s fate, some sense that he might be running either toward or away from her, and something to point us toward the question of why she had to keep running even after she gave up the stone. Maybe some explanation of the subtitle as well; some pointer toward “Lost Avar-Tek,” some indication of its meaning.

There’s quite a lot to work with here. With more layers and more clarity, it will be a stronger story.

–Judith Tarr

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