Editor’s Choice Award June 2023, Science Fiction

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.

Time Is Unkind by Bobby Harrell

I definitely get the fun part of this story. It’s fast, action-packed, and the plot is full of twists and turns. The characters have a distinct tendency toward the weird. And the last couple of lines are lovely.

The prose could use a close line edit and some thinking through of the characters’ feelings. In this draft, in spite of the rapid plotting and the high-stakes action, the emotional affect is rather flat.

Part of that has to do with the sentence structure. Lots of clauses strung together by and or as. Lots of words ending in –ing, sentences that start strong but dribble off into participial clauses. A tendency toward passive verbs, lots of was-constructions.

The overall action follows a similar pattern. Thing happens, thing happens, thing happens. Elements of the plot hum along in the same rhythm and at the same frequency, line after line. Where they might pause, where we might look for a dip, however brief, into the character’s feelings, they move on instead, to the next thing-that-happens.

The stakes objectively can be quite high, but the prose flattens them out. We need more highs and more lows; more friction as the plot moves forward. It doesn’t need a lot of extra wordage, just a little more development, a touch more rounding out of actions and their consequences. Open up the action just a bit and let the characters take a moment to process.

One thing that contributes to this—and I say it as a devout believer in the doctrine of There Is Nothing Wrong With “Said”—is the use of said in framing dialogue. It’s particularly notable when a character is asking a question. The neutral word there would be asked. Or the character might do something, offer some action or expression or form of stage business, in place of said. Something that varies the rhythm and changes the tone of the narrative.

The prose in general has a habit of echoing itself. Once a word or phrase occurs, it shows up again within a few phrases or sentences, usually two or three times, and sometimes more. The word hand is a particular favorite. Paring down the echoes and tightening the phrasing will open up space for more variety in rhythm and tone, as well as more depth in character and motivation. Then each word will earn its keep, and the story and its characters will be that much stronger.

The story itself is strong and the characters have plenty of potential. They just need a good coat of polish. Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

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