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.
This month, “Prickly Rats” got my attention with its ruined, eerie setting, subtle plot, and mirroring between animals, androids, people as living things who matter in a world that disagrees. It’s trying to do a lot of narrative work in a very short space—about 2,000 words—and so this month, I’d like to talk a bit about how we can build place and character efficiently at very short lengths, and knowing where to best use the page space.
The structure in “Prickly Rats” is already doing that work quite well: within a straightforward narrative style, it sets up space, place, and tone immediately with the boat’s disrepair and Shipwreck Cay’s barrenness. And, notably, just the sheer amount of trash scattered over this whole setting (it’s a very textural setting: full of floating and chewing and desalination). It’s a subtle but excellent visual clue as to the state of Demi’s Australia, and how she and Leo are being regarded: more discards. And it’s a great way to contrast her tenderness to the chickens and care to not step on seabird eggs—and clue us in that that’s meaningful.
As a narrative strategy for shorter pieces, this is smart: knowing which elements of craft we want readers putting their work into—plot and theme, here—and making sure the others are fairly clear and direct, so it’s harder to get sidetracked. There’s a sense of where to use one’s page space built into “Prickly Rats”: being straightforward with the elements that support the point, and giving readers more subtlety with the point, so we engage them more actively.
The end isn’t quite firing yet, however, and I think it’s because there are parts of that plot layer that are still a bit too subtle. However, I think there are ways to add the information “Prickly Rats” needs to work while keeping it compact.
Some narrative moments here do, I think, just need a little more air: The idea that Demi’s normal home is a cage slips right by very easily, considering everything else going on in that paragraph, and it might need a little more support in order to reinforce why she makes her choice, and why this ending should hit emotionally. It’s also pivotal to the metaphor being drawn between her, Leo, the discarded robots, and the animals, which flags it to me as something that shouldn’t just be slid by, and deserves more page space. As a litmus test: This detail is feeding the central theme, so it merits a bit more attention.
Likewise, some of the major plot points do come on a little suddenly: the idea that Leo’s being discarded because he knows something worth blackmail, and Demi’s decision to spare his life. If the blackmail angle is more than speculation on Demi’s part—and the ending implies it is—there might be value in ramping up to that a little, or building a bit of context around that idea to show that there’s cause to jump to that conclusion. I think there’s probably room around his introduction, in terms of what the androids are for, to establish what facts about the world would lead Demi down that road.
As for Demi’s decision to spare Leo: it’s a big moment, and the turning point of the entire piece. I think it’s another place where a little air, a little introspection could help spotlight that point. Again: It’s crucial, so it’s something that would have priority to spread out a little.
It is still somewhat unclear what happens at the end: Whether somehow the lightning in the sky implies that something Leo did wrecked the lighthouse, and Shipwreck Cay itself is sinking. It’s another place a few more words would be welcome, especially given the implication that they’re adrift, and no one is coming.
Of course, building out a little needs to be balanced by some strategies to round out “Prickly Rats” at the same length, and I think that tool can best be used in the supporting layers of craft—the ones that aren’t as crucial to understanding the story, but support its sense of realism.
There are ways I think you could round out this world even at the short length, and one of the most notable I missed was colour. There’s a lot of texture in the description of Shipwreck Cay, a lot of height and motion and utility, but not much colour until the second scene. I think it would take very little page space to pull this island into three dimensions with that kind of visual information: colour, the difference in the light off the sea and the boat and the fur of the rats, what Leo actually looks like.
Likewise, I think there’s space to get some physicality in Demi’s mentions of the heat—especially leading up to her heat exhaustion. It’s 50C, which is terrifically hot; what does that feel like in her body, rather than as an abstract? It’s small information, but information which, again, makes this story-world rounder and more real.
Likewise, her class background; is there a difference between dialects or regional words Leo and Demi use? It’s a subtle way to suggest Leo’s used to blackmail-worthy circles and that Demi is not, without adding words per se, just changing a few of the ones already in use.
I’ll note that these are substitutions because they’re not crucial details: they can take up less space because it’ll matter less if that specific piece of information is missed. But they’ll be picked up by readres in the texture of the story, and contribute to an overall feel of who these people are, and where this place is.
The author’s notes ask if this piece is convincing; I think it’s most of the way there. With a little more clarity on those points that need to breathe—crucial points, like plot and theme—and a few careful, considered layers added with substitution to make this world pop more strongly, there’s no reason it shouldn’t stand out on the page.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)