Editor’s Choice Award December 2022, 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.

A Knot Of Silken Memories by Shannon Walch

“A Knot of Silken Memories” got my attention this month with its treatment of intergenerational memory and a rare moment of emotional insight. I think it’s in a much earlier stage of development than the author might be thinking—but also that it’s a piece well worth developing. So this month, I’d like to talk about strategies to build out early-stage sketches into something wide, deep, and memorable.

There’s a lot of foundation already laid in “A Knot of Silken Memories”: a working magic system, central characters with tangible history in their relationships, and the lacework motif binding it together in a way that’s structurally pretty pleasant—that idea of knit shawls connects the rest of the story elements just like the peacock tails. There’s also a nice hand with prose. Even in a piece this brief, there are some lovely lines in here: “all grey and brown in expectation of both winter and mourning” is clean, fine, and evocative in equal measure.

There are some notable gaps in the draft; places where information’s missing. The sense of place and time are quite ambiguous (French sometimes, a slightly fairytale-feeling England in others), emotional arcs still somewhat erratic (how does Jeanne move from the contempt of “the fish-scented spit of soon-to-die worms” to explaining the Countess’s humanity to her own daughter?), and the heart of the story—the narrating, the knitting—can feel a bit brushed-over and passive. Names like Countess Whipstaff and Miss Knitter are a little on the nose, and that sends a mixed signal to me, as a reader, about what kind of story this is: fairytale allegory?

The most important thing I’ve taken from this draft, though, is that “A Knot of Silken Memories” isn’t quite structured as a story yet; at this stage, it’s more a beginning concept. If we pull back from the plot of the piece, it’s mostly a demonstration of the idea—there are people who knit memories into shawls—and how that would technically work, sort of like a trailer or demo for the concept itself. The characters and plot we have are just enough to hold that demo: a way to think about the idea aloud.

I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a stage a lot of story ideas go through—how would this interesting speculative idea work? In what situations, and what are its mechanics? The important next step for us as writers to take, though, is to ask: And knowing how it would work, then what? What would I have to say to other people using that idea?

There’s a switch in thinking that happens here in us, in our own heads, that’s crucial to making a story that sticks with readers. As writers, we have to make the hop from Isn’t this idea neat? and building a box to hold it, to making of the idea itself a box to hold something we want to explore or speak about. Instead of a goal, the fun fantasy element has to become one of the tools. That’s the point at which we’re not just demonstrating the thing that struck us as cool; we’re writing a story that moves and works on all levels.

And the thing is, I really do think “A Knot of Silken Memories” has the seeds of something to say. There’s a legitimate insight in the end of this piece: that different people in a family see the same things through completely different perspectives and contexts, and it’s a disorienting, heavy, complicated thing to see yourself through the eyes of a parent or caregiver. (And I’m saying that as someone who inherited her grandmother’s diaries.) That split in perspective can be painful, powerful, and revelatory, especially when people express love in different ways, or there are different goals and lots of disappointment. There’s a lot to talk about in that one line—and a lot of places to take that idea. This piece has, even in early draft, hit something real.

So what I’d mainly suggest for this piece is to chase that truth at its centre—and push everything deeper and farther.

It’s not difficult to start building a story into more: the first step can just be looking at what’s here, and going Okay, but then what? and What are the consequences of this worldbuilding? or But how do these people really feel and impact each other? Natural consequences are a great way to generate plot; sometimes all we have to do is follow them.

Another great way to do that—to turn the speculative mechanic into a tool to say something bigger—is to ask ourselves a series of questions about what made the idea stick in our heads in the first place. Every piece starts somewhere; there’s something in it that compels us. If we get back to what we found compelling enough to write it in the first place, we can often find what we’re saying—and then get about saying it more deeply or clearly.

Another strategy we can use alongside asking good questions is to look at those gaps in the draft as not problems, but available working space. If there’s space where something should be, there’s space to plant more story, more depth, and more texture there without disturbing the basic structure of what we already have. So I’d also suggest using those missing pieces as the equivalent of empty planters in a garden: they’re the first spaces you can use to pursue what you want to say, once you’ve nailed down what that is.

Finally, we can look at the characters: What facts do you know about them that got left off the page—but make for interesting story, new conflict, or potential? The solution to deepening a piece can sometimes lie in what else the characters have going on—and how it connects to or clashes with the things this draft’s already said.

So there are a variety of approaches here: ones we can use in combination or on their own to find what else is living in the world of “A Knot of Silken Memories”. And I think growing this piece in a deliberate way—a way that makes its speculative element the tool to say something bigger—has the chance to make a story that’s honest, adventurous, and affecting.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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


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