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.
Five Sorties (V2) by Albert Chu
“Five Sorties” caught my attention this month with its softly postapocalyptic twist on mecha fiction, and how much plot it burns through in a relatively short space. It’s a big ride, and a wild one—but one with real heart. However, I think “Five Sorties” is sometimes hampered by the amount of terminology and technical information wrapped that it’s wrapped around a core that’s mostly about relationships. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we can give readers factual, technical information in ways that make it feel vibrant and alive.
The beating heart of this piece seems to be Nusrat and Andre: a gorgeous characterization of a pair of futuristic mecha pilots and their machine-mediated intimacy—how they fear it, embrace it, compromise with it when political machinations reach their door. It’s lovely to see Nusrat written as a religious person, and the way that informs her perspective on life and the Commander’s drive to prove their worth feels organic to me. Nusrat’s keen awareness of bodies when she’s trying to unbind gives a reality and depth to everything around it.
When the writing here is vivid and in-the-moment, it’s also extremely effective: the slow way the Thresher unfolds is very cinematic.
There are also some moments of very strong worldbuilding in “Five Sorties”—keen, sharp strokes that give me the flavour of this world. The description of Andre’s town establishes more about both him and the ruined United States quickly and effectively, and the bits of Nusrat’s family history are likewise doing a lot of work. Both moments succeed for me because they’re efficient: they build character context and relationship while also establishing facts about the world, hitting three goals in each sentence.
It’s how much each sentence does which is at the heart of how I think “Five Sorties” can get stronger. I think there’s room to refine how most of the story’s action is communicated. The author’s notes ask whether the worldbuilding and plot are clearly communicated, and I think that question’s a good one. To my eye, what’s happening is clear but can be somewhat lifeless and occasionally quite distanced—notably in the battle scenes, where as a reader I felt very separated from the stakes and action. That sameness of tone: factual statements, moving past readers at the same pace, tends to blur the plot and sand down which parts of it are important.
So my suggestion would be to think about how to make “Five Sorties” telegraph what kind of story it is: not just in what it says about the world and plot, but how it says those things. How the sentences move when it talks about them.
For an example, I want to take the first paragraphs, which are fairly factual, until the dialogue kicks in; it’s necessary setup, but the way they’re presented makes for a slightly dry and technical introduction, one that’s not giving readers the spirit of this story: action, ethical dilemmas, intimate relationships, pride, failure, heartwrenching duels, protection, destruction.
When thinking about how to make the first paragraphs of “Five Sorties” carry the heart and soul it’s describing, I don’t think this needs a change in content, just in presentation. There are a lot of tools I think you could use to get this job done.
First off and primarily, I’d think about varying up sentence structure and rhythm—longer sentences, shorter ones, ones which build rhythm in their paragraphs and read well aloud. In the first paragraphs, the waves moving in slow motion is an excellent hook for this. If there’s a way to make that sentence sound more like the rhythm of those waves—to encapsulate the thing you’re describing in how it’s described—that small touch can ground the story solidly in the sense of a real, kinetic world.
I’d also suggest giving more of a spotlight to the evocative images that are already there. Spotlighting and the amount of page space we give something are a clue to readers as to whether it’s important or not, and a lot of the muddle in the plot of “Five Sorties” is, for me, the lack of spotlighting to show which parts of it matter.
Again, in the early paragraphs, the golden sparks of the repulsor fields against the water are a great visual—there’s potential to grow it a little, linger on it, and let it take up more space. Likewise, the small support ships around the Kaina-Batra Unit give you a great opening to give readers a sense of scale: how big are we talking here? How much, how vast? There’s a chance to spend another half-sentence on that, and really paint a picture for readers to start with.
Another tool is thinking about more sensory information. There’s already a line here about rain hammering against the rest capsule; a note about its sound, its smell, the streaks it leaves on the glass could make this idea vivid and immediate without having to change the idea itself. Which aspects of the world and Nusrat’s experience can be grown into more vividness?
You might notice that all these strategies increase wordcount—and that’s a major decision I think the author’s going to have to make. The ways “Five Sorties” narrates over action, instead of delving into it can sometimes feel like a story straining against how long it is already; trying to get things across while cutting wordcount. I’d suggest that this story, told richly, might not be a short story—and that’s actually fine. There may be enough going on here to make novelette length make sense.
So finally, I’d suggest taking all these tools to make “Five Sorties” live, kinetic, emotional, vibrant—to take that technical and factual information and bring it to life—and then, just seeing how long the story needs to be. If it’s filling its natural length—if it’s longer when told vividly—then the longer form is the right decision, and there’s no sense in selling it short by trying to keep it short.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)