Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Time And Space And Other Relationship Conflicts by Bobby Harrell

This is a very Whovian story. Lots of time travel, plenty of breakneck action, and that ever-useful Omni-Tool. I particularly like the concept of the Newlyweds. They’re so adorable and yet so subtly terrifying.

I would recommend a careful line edit and a close copyedit before submitting to a market. Look particularly for slippages in verb tenses, and the occasional idiomatic oddity: She shook her head in agreement (which is a contradiction in terms), for example. Note the tendency toward word and phrase echoes, too, notably I say with a smile and the less frequent say in unison. In some ways it reads as if the story was written in a single headlong draft, pouring out the words exactly as they came, without looking back at what had gone before.

I have two larger questions about the draft as written. First, there is so much going on, so many ideas and concepts and images and places and times and characters both organic and mechanical, that it can be hard to keep track. We eventually find out the origin story of the Newlyweds, but the Fleet Commander’s nature and purpose are not so clear. She seems to be a veteran traveler through space and time, and she says she has a built-in ability to jump to the Hangar, and yet Tanisha instructs her as if she’s never done it before. This reads like a continuity glitch, or else as if there’s some data missing from the draft. Or maybe there’s so much data that it’s tumbling over itself; it needs to be pruned rather than expanded, with fewer details and a clearer focus on the main line of the plot.

The other question relates to the emotional temperature of the story. With all that’s going on, the sweep and scope of the setting and the rapid progression of events, it feels rather flat. The highs are not very high, and the lows are not that much lower. The stakes are astronomical—the Newlyweds are a threat to the very stability of spacetime—and yet the prose smooths it all out.

The characters’ speeches are mostly deadpan. Nobody asks or yells or demands or insists. It’s all just says. When bad or scary things happen, the characters slide on by. Things blow up, rogue machines attack, but they don’t do any real damage. When the Newlyweds get wiped out, that’s all right; it’s just their holograms. Nobody gets too terribly upset.

Some of this has to do with sentence structure. The same rhythms, the same arrangement of clauses, often the same words and phrases, over and over, with minimal variation. Writers’ craft advises us to convey action in short sentences and paragraphs, but when each one is similar to the one before, we lose the effect of speed and urgency. It’s like a metronome: tick tick, tick tick, tick tick.

Many of these sentences avoid committing to an action or an emotion. Somehow a thing happens, or a character knows a thing. Something like halves of a ladder slide up; or something crackles in the air. It’s nebulous; it’s undefined. It slips away from engaging with a concept or a feeling.

I would suggest shifting the focus from the vague or abstract to the specific and concrete. What crackles in the air? How does this part of the adventure feel? What lingering effect does it have on the characters? How does it change the way they see the universe? Let the characters feel more of what’s going on, and react in more depth, with more complex ranges of emotions.

There’s a lot to like about this story. It just needs some refining of the prose, and a deeper dive into the characters’ inner worlds.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

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