Editor’s Choice Award January 2024, Science Fiction/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.

Like Mama Used To Do by Allen Dyen-Shapiro

This is a nicely chilling very short dystopia. I like the way we get background details organically through the narrative, as they become relevant to Kristin’s story. They’re quite concise, but surprisingly comprehensive. We can project the wider history through what Kristin shows us.

I’m not sure I would call this YA. As the author’s note points out, the protagonist is much younger than “young adult,” and the rule of thumb for age ranges would put the likely readership around age 8—i.e., elementary school, not quite tweens. But I wouldn’t submit to that market, because the themes and resonances seem to me to need a more adult perspective. Ultimately, in my entirely idiosyncratic opinion, I think its likely market is adult dystopian science fiction. But an editor well might disagree.

One question I have about the story relates to the protagonist’s age and level of maturity. Because the piece is so short and so concise, every word counts, and each one should do its part to develop the author’s voice.

That voice tends toward the simple in both diction and sentence structure. I can hear the child speaking, and see the world as she sees it. The imagery tends toward the concise and the concrete; it works best for me when it stays away from abstract images and concepts, and longer words.

Sometimes the diction slips, and I hear the adult speaking. These phrases read like an adult’s interpretation of Kristin’s story:

the TV special eight-year-old me had loved

Wouldn’t she name the show, because to a kid, it’s the name that sticks, rather than the generic description? And would she refer to herself as “eight-year-old me”? Maybe something like “I used to love when I was eight.”

I was eleven—surely, I was mature enough to handle fire.

I can really hear the adult Kristin here (if she makes it to adulthood). Perhaps something more along the lines of, “I was old enough to do that now.”

My giggling amused Jamie so much that she wrapped her arms around me.

This seems a bit abstract compared to the concrete imagery of the rest, especially the word “amused.” How does she show her amusement? Smile, laugh, giggle back?

I was like Supercop from my favorite TV program.

Same question as above. Wouldn’t she name it? We can pick up that it’s her favorite without her having to tell us.

For fun, I would use the police words from TV.

Kristin seems to have stepped outside the story here, and it’s not clear which timeline she’s in—the one with Momma or the one with Jamie. Maybe just let the dialogue say it for her?

black, white, and grey feathers arranged like a tuxedo

This is somewhat awkwardly phrased, and would Kristin know what a tuxedo is? Maybe turn it around a bit and smooth it out? “because they looked like they were wearing tuxedos”?

allowed myself to cry

“Let myself cry” might work better in the overall context.

And Jamie’s backpack with the Coleman gas canisters, of course.

“Of course” feels to me like an adult interpolation. Does it need to be there?

My other question has to do with the action sequence at the end. I think the prose could be tighter, the narrative flow both smoother and faster. For example,

We’d had close calls where we’d had to run away before

Do we need “where we’d had to run away” to understand what Kristin means?

Or here:

Or maybe they did on the shows Momma hadn’t let me watch. It was awful. My stomach turned somersaults. Breathing hard,

Do we need the aside about the shows? Can her somersaulting stomach convey the awfulness without her spelling it out? And do we need to know she’s breathing hard, or does the fact she runs to Jamie sum it up without the extra words?

And here:

Any other day, a three-in-a-row finish to win the game would’ve made me happy. Instead, I felt numb. I sat, arms and shoulders heavy, throat all scratchy.

There’s a lot going on, but much of it says the same thing. The one thing we absolutely need to know is that she’s numb, and she feels too heavy to move. The game score and the arms and shoulders and the scratchy throat are a bit of a distraction. Does the story need these details, or can it convey the force of her emotion without them?

I think the story is at its best when it’s pared down and streamlined, with very clean, deceptively simple prose. One more line-editing pass, with some tightening up and sorting out of the voice, should take it where it needs to go.

Best of luck with the story, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

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