Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Razer’s Loop by Philip Delisle

Writing tight is hard. We want to relax and Explain Things. We let superfluous words creep in, and repetitions of words and phrases, and dialogue that resembles real-world conversations, padded out with bits of fluff and filler.

In a flash piece, even more than in the usual short story, every single word has to count. There’s very little room to maneuver. The more concise the writing is, the more lean and spare the prose, the better—without sacrificing clarity.

This story has an interesting premise. Razer is caught in a loop—software, presumably, but it translates as a set of time loops, each perceptibly different from the last. There are interpolations from outside, but he’s focused on what’s happening inside the loop: the bar, the bathroom, the escape.

I think the frame could be a little bit clearer: what’s going on outside, and why he’s in such danger. There’s room to do that if the prose is pared down.

I can see where the author has made efforts in this direction. They translate for the most part as short, choppy sentences, or else as strings of modifiers meant to round out the setting and the action. But there’s more that could be done, and a few habits that tend to add words rather than subtract them.

One of these is a tendency toward filler phrases in dialogue. Take this exchange for example:

“Sure.” He spilled a couple of pills onto the bar. Razer downed them.


“Don’t mention it. So, wha’d they do? Neural enhancement?”

“Thanks” and “Don’t mention it” are polite social filler. In context, as rough as the bar is, I don’t think it’s necessary. And that’s four words off the count.

The back and forth about the chip might go, as well. It’s kind of funny, but does it add enough to the story to be worth the couple of dozen words? Will Doritos even be a thing by the time of the story, and if so, are they important enough for the name-check and the extended comic turn?

Jane’s apologies, too: can they be shorter? Can she be tougher? Maybe he sees her cry, but she scrubs the tears away and gets down to business. Less apology, more hit the gas and go.

There are a number of doors in the narrative, with characters walking or running through them. What if the scene shifts without the transition, and the character appears in the new space? Do we need to see them walking or running, or can those actions be left to implication? Say Razer bursts into the bathroom, and there’s a bald guy on the toilet. Fewer words, tighter action.

Or this sequence:

“Looks like your pals are here.” Lone said, nodding to the door and the two agents who had walked in. They were dressed in black.

How about something like this:

“Looks like your pals are here,” Lone said, nodding toward the two black-suited agents who had just come in.

We can assume they came through the door, but we’re hearing about it in different words. The story moves faster, and is closer to making the 1000-word limit.

When they appear in a later sequence, instead of three choppy sentences–

He nodded to the door. Two agents walked in. They wore Sombreros–

try tightening them up: “He nodded toward two agents in sombreros.” Try for a smoother flow, with less chop—and, as a bonus, fewer words.

Watch for passive verb forms, too. Was using, were swirling. Think about shifting to active. In the first, “He climbed up over pissing-man,” and in the second, just “swirled.” Try to avoid “there was/were.” Go straight to whatever “there” refers to, and shift it to active voice.

It’s mostly a matter of a word here and a phrase there, but they really add up—or, in this case, subtract—without sacrificing either clarity or pacing. The story will move faster, with more tension and suspense. In a sci-fi thriller, that’s a good thing.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

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