Editor’s Choice Award April 2023, 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.

The Sealing Of Scars by Chanon Wong

“The Sealing of Scars” stood out this month on the strength of its emotional arcs and worldbuilding: a pair of aging people trapped in their own loop of love and hurt and stubbornness, and the breaking of it, all in physical, beautiful prose. It’s a powerful story already, but I think there’s some space for the author to get what they want in terms of more subtext, less explanation, mostly by shuffling things around structurally. So this month, I’d like to discuss how we organize ideas in our sentences and scenes—and how diversifying them gives our writing texture.

First and foremost: “The Sealing of Scars” is a deeply beautiful story. It establishes a complex history between Sekha and Suriyan even before he lands, and pays off that promise in a way that’s heartbreaking but necessary. It’s hard-won, but it feels like tangible progress.

The visual metaphors here are spot-on, evoking characters in quick, effective ways: Suriyan is first introduced not as a person, but a body in a shroud, “leaving a long stubborn trail.” It’s a perfect way to instantly encapsulate his grim, rigid endurance: what defines him, and what’s caused all the trouble for him, and for Sekha. That there is a trace of joy in Sekha’s face that can vanish, even after her harsh words—it says everything.

The author’s asked if this works as a standalone piece or if establishing the world is too ambitious a task here, and I think it does work. The centre of the piece is the emotional loop Sekha and Suriyan are caught in, and the details of the three killings only build that loop. It’s working toward the problem that’s been spotlit for readers—the hurt between these two people—so: it’s working.

The author’s notes also ask about writing from a Thai perspective toward an international audience. I think that’s functioning well too. I don’t by any means imagine that readers unfamiliar with Thai culture are going to catch all the nuances here, but as someone who also writes from backgrounds and experiences that aren’t typical, I’ve learned: largely what readers recognize is human motivation. When we’re reading, we connect to people. There is only so much any given reader—especially fantasy readers—needs in terms of concepts if your characters are well-rounded enough, their needs are real enough, and their lives textured enough.

That said, I do get what’s being asked here: it’s a question of managing information. What should “The Sealing of Scars” assume readers already know, and what needs to be explained, or won’t be recognized? I’d like to offer a suggestion about how that information’s organized, versus how much, that might help manage that load. It’s a bit of a sideways strategy, but it’s a way to lighten readerly work in other parts of the story so that there’s room for what “The Sealing of Scars” wants to do with its world.

Generally, I think there’s space in “The Sealing of Scars” to say less. There are instances through the story where the narration is saying the same thing—or using the same structure, or establishing similar ideas—a few times over, and not all of them are necessary, or getting the maximum rhetorical effect. Trimming some of those repetitions down (intelligently, though; thinking about where they’re working and where they work less) is, I think, a simple way to tighten and sharpen the story.

As an example: Sentences like “The prow breached the sand with a crunch and the figure rolled out of the boat, splashing limp into the shallows.” There are a lot of ideas around movement for readers to keep track of in this sentence (breached, crunch, rolled, splashing, limp, shallows). It’s a coherent chain of events, but everything in this sentence is movement—all one kind of idea.

Sometimes we do need a lot of things happening in our sentences, but there can be a benefit to making them different things. Three movements and a smell, for example; a movement, a smell, a sound, a movement again. These set up slightly different rhythms in our sentences that readers won’t explicitly recognize—just the feeling of not too much happening, of manageable information and a rounder world in that moment.

This applies a little more broadly, too: I think I would qualify Sekha’s impressions less in the first scene. She comes across with a bit of a tendency to overthink and overguess others’ motives—a technique to get worldbuilding information in, yes, but one that splashes back on the sense of her as a character and the pace of the scene.

This is the place where we establish our world, our characters, our situations, and it does build characterization and voice. By the time she asks Tortoise Father whether he could sink the boat, I’m starting to have a sense of her—wry, and pained, and a little funny—and the sense of an oral storytelling rhythm: it was not this, it was not this.

But while it’s a useful technique to establish our worlds—and how our characters think—by listing off what something is not, I’m finding that in “The Sealing of Scars” that repetition undercuts my sense of the world. Each of those denials has the same shape, as a sentence or idea: “It could be this, but it isn’t.” And I think that would matter less if the shape wasn’t no. It’s starting the story by telling readers a lot of no, and very little yes, without the benefit of the call-and-response an actual oral story would have (“was it…a turtle? No!”) and that starts to build up into a barrier.

This is where I think varying the shape of the ideas might also come in handy. In the same way we can mix up a sentence from all movements, could get across a firmer impression of either Sekha or the island and give readers a yes into the story. The oral cadence is already there in other places, like Tortoise Father’s questions; I don’t think it’d be lost entirely.

This is kind of abstract, structural work to suggest, but it’s a tool I think could deliver some interesting results for “The Sealing of Scars” if you’re willing to play with it a little, manage the information a little differently, and see what you get. It’s a great piece: emotionally honest, complex, and gorgeous. I think either way, it’ll go far.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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


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