Editor’s Choice Award January 2023, Cross Genre

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 Bright And Clouded Future by Tris Lawrence

I like the title of this story, and I like the concept. Bargaining with Death, trying to cheat Death: it’s classic.

As for the luck of the submission draw so far, it’s always good to remember that it is mostly luck. A well-crafted story still has to stand out among a crowd of others, and then it has to hit the editor and the publication just right. The only way to succeed is to keep trying.

I do think it was a good idea to submit the story to the workshop. It’s a good start, but there are a couple of things that might work better with another round of revision.

The author’s note mentions that the story has been edited to bring down the word count. That was well done. I would suggest pruning even further, to tighten and focus the prose.

There’s quite a bit of repetition, information that’s duplicated within sentences and paragraphs and from one scene to the next. Some of it is necessary; the story needs it in order to move forward. Death says, “You’re going to die today.” Austin answers with some version of “Hell, no.” The evolution of his responses from flat refusal to negotiating terms is crucial to the story.

At the same time, this kind of repetition needs to be just right—not too little, not too much. It can be tempting to double and triple down. For example, at the beginning:

That can’t be possible. Because if Death is here, that means Austin is going to die.

Nope. No way. Not true.

Not ever, if he can help it, and especially not today.

It might be more effective to cut this sequence down to a single line, or at most two, and reduce the number of Nope-words to two or three. Get us into the story, and let the Nopes build up over the course of the narrative.

There’s a tendency to say the same thing several times in slightly different ways:

“You’re not a person.” Even though she looks like one. Like a teenaged girl, maybe a year or two older than himself. Like someone on the brink of living her life, about to get out there and experience the world. It makes it easier to think of her that way, like she’s just another teenager, no different than him.

I would cut the four sentences of narrative to one. Focus on one or two details that are directly relevant at this point. Try to vary these from one paragraph to the next.

Watch for repetitions of ideas, phrases, concepts. How impossible the situation is. How she looks—her hair in particular, and her cowl that keeps slipping in the same way, with the same phrasing. If you say it once in the right place, it will resonate through the rest of the story. You won’t need to say it again unless it’s relevant to what’s happening right then and there.

Another thing to watch for is stage business: characters’ actions, their body language, what they do as they speak. I am a fan of well-framed dialogue; I like to see how characters move, how they express themselves in actions as well as words. But, as with repetition, a little goes a long way.

Note how many things Death and Austin do in this paragraph:

“Stop!” His voice echoes off the walls as he turns his back on her, does his business. His hands are shaking, and he has to pause long enough for the adrenalin to fade before he can zip up. She slides off the sink, waits while he washes his hands. She hands him a paper towel, and he mutters, “thanks,” under his breath.

Action piles on action, detail on detail. How much of it do we absolutely need to know? Try cutting the paragraph in half. Focus on one thing Austin does that sums up the rest, and likewise, one thing Death does—I would pick her handing him the paper towel. Is it essential that we know where she’s sitting, that she slides, that she waits? Or can we pick that up by implication, as he shakes and fumbles?

Or here:

Lana has one hand out, and when Austin just stares at her, she wiggles her fingers. He curls his fingers around hers. She’s so much smaller than him, her skin pale against the deep brown of his own. Her touch is warmer than he expects, and she squeezes firmly.

The level of detail is cinematic, but is it necessary? Do we need to be reminded again that she’s smaller than he is? Which of her multiple gestures is most important here? Choose one or two, and let the rest happen in the background. If you’ve chosen well, the reader will pick up on them. That’s the magic of the writer’s craft.

— Judith Tarr

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