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.
“Pigeon” caught my attention this month with its atmosphere, its finely detailed world, and its potential. While it’s in translation from Dutch—and there are places the translation still does need help from a native English speaker or translator—it has a lot of potential because of its interesting, communal, domestic future world. But there’s also still a lot of work to be done on pacing, structure, and plot. So this month, I’d like to talk about what scene pacing can do for us, and how we find the story within our worldbuilding.
The strength of “Pigeon” is absolutely its worldbuilding. Its future Rotterdam is a fascinating place: a world that’s divided on political and ideological grounds, but not the stereotypical English-language science fiction ones, and grounded in an intricate social structure that quickly makes sense. It’s a very quiet story in some respects—how all these historical forces and social currents affect Brem’s little also_house on one Sunday morning—but one that makes that idea work through careful attention to people’s interactions, body language, and surroundings.
While it has a certain amount of invented terminology, most of it is very easy to understand on first contact: the invisible NihiLibs are absolutely clear (and more than a little funny—and tells readers more than a little about Brem’s politics), and the tek_house, also_house, grow_house, and spirit_house designations are quite clear.
The also_house itself is a cozy mix of mutual aid community-building, old-school survival skills like canning and gardening, diverse experiences, and high-tech know-how. It’s also an interesting blend of rules, restrictions, and freedoms that aren’t always where the genre shortcuts would take you. The most basic way to think about tropes is that they’re the times a story does, for whatever reason, what you expect. The times stories don’t do what a reader expects can be either jarring or delightful, depending on how we handle them, and the ways “Pigeon” combines ideas absolutely didn’t do what I expected. The combination of concrete practicality and elaborate coding skill that makes the explosive pigeons so dangerous—and weird, and intriguing. They’re not all machine or all modified bird; it’s in how the idea of natural world and artificial have been combined, and where.
“Pigeon” leans very heavily on that worldbuilding, though, to the point where other elements of the story—characterization and plot—are still figuring themselves out, and there are more than a few ways to address that situation.
One of the major suggestions I’d make is to rethink the story’s structure. “Pigeon” is organized in timestamps, some of them only minutes apart, and it can create a very choppy, interrupted reading experience. There are scenes in “Pigeon” that I think would benefit from being allowed to flow longer, be combined together, or transition into each other so that they feel more cohesive.
For example, while the first scene break emphasizes the threat of the pigeon, the break between the 7:21 am and 7:24 am timestamps probably doesn’t need to happen—or perhaps that 7:21 am scene isn’t needed at all. It’s not necessarily moving the narrative forward, and shorter scenes—ones that increase tension—don’t do the best work when they’re not building to something specific. The next major piece of action that happens is Karla’s arrival, and connecting some of the scenes that lead up to it would help pace “Pigeon” according to what’s happening in the story—a pace that’ll feel more organic.
Scene pacing is a tool like anything else, and while tying our stories closely to their structures can make us work more creatively to tell a story within those restrictions, they can also take good tools out of our hands. Having a flow of longer and shorter scenes lets the author set a pace that tells readers what’s important here. It also lets us use the length of scenes as a tool—like short and long phrases in music—to keep readers’ attention on the plot. It’s a tool worth having, I think, especially in a story as subtle and atmospheric as “Pigeon”.
Pacing is especially important for “Pigeon,” I think, because the story’s about a certain kind of social cohesion. If the structure of the story isn’t reflecting that idea—if the way the story is told is chopped-up, separated, and atomized—the structure and theme will pull against each other, and readers will feel lost—but might not know why.
Most importantly, it’ll also force “Pigeon” to stop covering over its weakest point: falling into explaining some aspect of its world, and then just interrupting that with the scene break instead of finding a way to integrate its worldbuilding information into the story proper. “Pigeon” spends a lot of time telling readers about its world instead of moving its characters within that world. It’s a technique that gets more and more visible as it’s repeated, and it means “Pigeon” slows down, wanders, and loses steam in the middle—after the pigeon threat is dealt with.
For the same reasons, I’d also suggest creating stronger ties between the different elements of Brem’s Sunday. Brem’s friends, guests, and companions are a community; what connections can “Pigeon” show between them, and not just to Brem? They have relationships that don’t involve him, but as it stands, mostly they interact with Brem—and not each other, or the house by itself. The secondary characters aren’t getting to be people right now.
Building this space into an actual community with those interacts would add some nuance and texture to some of the more generalized character descriptions. For example, Fariq gets pushed into a stereotype a little too easily: “Fariq grew up during the first decades after the crash and lived in a small flat amidst a lot of domestic violence, but despite everything, he has a curious and cheerful personality and boundless energy.” It’s a little more like how a social worker or work manager would talk about a staff member than how someone talks about the people they care about and live with. Being able to see Fariq interact with others, and through others’ eyes, would give him a stronger personality without having to add too much more to the story.
I think those major points will get “Pigeon” to a middle draft—one where the structure is better set, the characters feel more like a community, and what’s important in this plot is clearer. They won’t yet get it to a state where it’s ready to submit to magazines. But sometimes working on our fiction is a process of dealing with the most obvious fixes first, and then seeing where that gets us. I’m pretty sure that once the fundamentals are dealt with, “Pigeon” will emerge into the unique story it is.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)