Editor’s Choice Award October 2021, Horror

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.

Melisandre With The Good Hair by Kate Tyte

This story provides an exciting new perspective on the fairytale “Melisande” by setting it in a near-future world and exploring the consequences of hair that won’t stop growing and grows faster each time it’s cut.  That novum is conveyed quickly through details of the setting, so by the end of the first paragraph I’m excited and engaged.  The way that the hair is managed and handled and all the ways that it’s used in the society are fascinating, and I think those are the greatest strengths of the story.

The story also has some vivid, chilling description of the way Melisandre is kept so that her hair remains controlled.

The story builds anticipation as the first-person narrator, Leonore, or Leo for short, heads to Melisandre’s Tower, where the woman with the magical hair lives, to start her job.  Starting a story with a character traveling and thinking about her life is usually a weak way to start.  Here, the character is traveling but not thinking about her life.  She’s simply describing the setting, and it’s a very interesting one, revealing the different attitudes people have about Melisandre.  This provides us with different possibilities to consider as we realize Leo has a secret agenda in taking this job that gives her access to Melisandre.  I get very involved in trying to figure out what Leo’s relationship with Melisandre is and what Leo’s goal is.  The mystery aspect of the plot works well until these two questions are answered.

One area of the story that could be strengthened is the plot after the mysteries have been revealed.  As Leo converses with Melisandre, we realize they are sisters and that the plan is for Melisandre to be scalped, so she can finally be free of her hair.  The idea of scalping her, which they may or may not be able to do without guards stopping them, and which Melisandre may or may not survive, and which may or may not stop the supernatural hair growth, carries a lot of suspense.  Once the story allows me to figure these things out, I’m eager to see the attempt be made, so I can see whether they’ll be able to pull it off and what the results will be.  The story allows readers to solve these mysteries about 4200 words into the story, so there are about 2900 words after that.  Unfortunately, during those final 2900 words, instead of the plot building to a climax, it simply provides exposition about how Melisandre came to have this magical hair (she doesn’t know) and what happened as she and the world struggled to deal with it before developing the current system.  Since Melisandre doesn’t know how she came to have magical hair, except that she wished for it a lot, I think that could be dealt with in a sentence, since spending more time on it doesn’t add to the story.  Since everyone in the scene would already know what happened as the world struggled to deal with Melisandre’s hair, this is “as you know, Bob” dialogue, in which one character tells another something they both know.  This is generally weak, since people don’t tend to talk to each other this way.  This additional dialogue/exposition, which takes up most of the remaining words, doesn’t add significantly to the story.  No new mysteries or sources of suspense arise, and the existing suspense declines.  At the end of the story, Leo contrives to slip a piece of glass to Melisandre, with which she can attempt to scalp herself, and the story ends.  So the events I’ve been waiting for through the last 2900 words never happen; the suspense I felt is not resolved in a satisfying way, and there is no climax or catharsis.

If we knew that all Melisandre needed was a piece of glass and she would scalp herself, survive, and be free of the curse, then ending as this story does would be fine, because we could fill in the rest ourselves.  But these things are not at all certain, which is what creates the suspense and keeps me reading to find out what will happen.  That makes those last 2900 words disappointing.

It’s also hard to believe that a person could scalp herself, so Leo’s plan seems unwise and cowardly.  I think Leo would have a much better chance of scalping Melisandre than Melisandre would of scalping herself.  Since Melisandre is watched constantly, the guards will be an issue in either situation.  The only downside of Leo doing the scalping is that the other two nurses would be nearby.  But they don’t seem the type to put up a fight.  I think Leo could have a plan to tangle them up in the hair or the IV line, or jam the door with the nurses outside, and then attempt the scalping.  I’d be very excited to see this, whatever the outcome.

The other element that could be strengthened is the relationship arc between the sisters, which relates to the characterization and the causal chain.  Right now, both sisters remain the same through the story, and the relationship remains the same, with Leo basically coming and saying, “Here’s a plan for you to scalp yourself,” and Melisandre accepting that.  That’s not terribly dynamic.  Some change in the characters or their relationship would make the story stronger.

What does that have to do with the causal chain?  We don’t know why Melisandre’s hair became magical, which is one weakness in the causal chain.  We also don’t know why Leo is doing this for her sister or why she leaves the task of scalping to Melisandre.  It seems like there was a rift between the sisters and the father made Leo promise to try to save Melisandre.  If he had to make her promise, that suggests she wouldn’t have helped Melisandre otherwise.  That reinforces my feeling that there was a rift and that’s why Leo stayed away for so long.  I don’t believe she was training for years to learn how to help her sister.  So if there was a rift, does Leo still resent her sister?  Is that why she’s going to make Melisandre scalp herself?  I don’t think that’s what the story is trying to convey, though that would be one way to strengthen Leo’s motivation in leaving the glass with Melisandre.  It could be a sort of “screw you” solution:  You want to be free of your beautiful hair?  Scalp yourself.

Another solution could not only explain why Leo has come but why Melisandre’s hair became magical.  What if Leo resented Melisandre with all her vanity and put this curse on her?  And now, finally, with the father’s deathbed plea and her promise, she feels she has to do something to try to put things right.  If she’s still resentful, she could plan to do the screw-you solution, giving Melisandre the piece of glass and considering her promise to her father fulfilled.  If she’s horrified by the curse she placed as a child and wants to help, then she could plan to do the scalping herself.  Or, probably the strongest option, if she walks into the room resentful and planning the screw-you, but seeing Melisandre and interacting with her makes her realize what a horrible thing she did to her sister, she could have a change of heart and decide to do the scalping herself, though it will almost certainly lead to her incarceration or death. That would allow a change in character and a change in the relationship.

For myself, I’d love to see that last option, with the sisters working out some of their problems in the subtext of the dialogue.  At first, the anger they feel toward each other could come out, but then they could move beyond it, Melisandre apologizing–in the subtext–for her selfishness and vanity, Leo apologizing for her resentment and jealousy.  A relationship arc like that, leading them both to take this dangerous action, could be very moving.  In that case, I don’t know that I’d need to see the outcome.  The story would be more about these two sisters coming together.

One other option that would accomplish some of the same things would be for Melisandre to have the plan to scalp.  Leo might come in to gloat over Melisandre’s predicament, and Melisandre could try to convince her–in the subtext–to help her execute the plan.  Leo might have a change of heart and help Melisandre, or not.

The story has many strengths.  The world and the situation are striking, and the mystery of Leo’s identity and mission is engaging.  I hope my comments are helpful.

— Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

Editor’s Choice Award October 2021, 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.

Safety Net by Bryan Andrews

“Safety Net” caught my eye this month with its observant but not cynical portrait of a cashless company-town in a post-ecological-disaster world and the difference between indirect and concrete aid. It’s an interesting—and deliberate—update of classic hard-boiled tropes which just underlines how relevant those tropes are to us right here and now. However, in sticking a little too close to the tropes it’s, I think, underselling its own conclusion. So this month, I’d like to discuss where tropes help us—and their limits.

The most obvious strength in “Safety Net” is how every element of craft is working together to underpin its themes. Hardboileds are absolutely, completely about precarity, class, and a certain idea of how integrity stands or falters in the face of everything else. And “Safety Net” pulls that question into play from every direction, explicitly and implicitly.

Precarity is everywhere in this story, and it’s been built in a way that doesn’t feel overexposited or underintegrated. The worldbuilding sets the tone with zeppelins, greenhouses, lack of real wood hinting at an ecological catastrophe in progress quietly in the background. There’s also a great dose of people working with their environment: the multiplicity of transit modes is both a great way to show class disparity in a multicultural, ecologically ravaged context, but also, it’s just pretty fun.

On the next layer, how people interact with this environment and each other underscores that tension. There’s a lot of playfulness in things like the casual death of gendered dress codes, but underneath it lurks a visible scarcity of human connection and trust—between Greg and his son or bodyguard, between the businesspeople on the zeppelin, between the father and his robot-tended baby. Horace’s almost gleeful reactions to having expense accounts make him a part of this system, even as he tries to resist it, in a very believable way.

And that’s what cements the precarity of this world: the ways people try to resist their it. Behind the roiling, oppressive atmosphere of labour unrest and harsh policing, everyone in this piece is covertly trying to help someone else: Greg’s management business, Crayg’s unsatisfying advocacy work, Horace’s quasi-detective career. They all mean well, and they all come up hard against their own limits in this system, and that pulls the tropes of hardboileds and noir through absolutely.

The prose is fairly clean and transparent, although there’s a distinct habit around comma splices, which can really throw a lot of readers. I’d suggest putting some attention into that not out of a prescriptive idea about grammar, but because there are a lot of ways punctuation can slow, speed up, mediate, or move the rhythm of a sentence, and sticking so closely to one (and one that frequently hides the meaning of the sentence) takes tools out of our hands as writers.

But there are some great descriptive moments here. “Face like an arrowhead” is a unique, concise description, and Crayg being defined by a beard he’s yet to grow into says a great thing about his relationship to adulthood and what he’s striving for without having to explicitly say it. But there are also a few instances where the thought hasn’t entirely made it onto the page. What “Safety Net” means that Ross “made four right turns in a row” is interpretable, but it takes a minute. I think it’s possible to slightly build out some of those moments and phrases that are only sketched in at present to make this a smoother read.

The main thing I’d suggest as a focus for the next draft, however, is that the ending of “Safety Net” strikes a little lightly. Despite the little bit of a crush he’s nursing, Horace exposes Greg’s corruption to Crayg and resolves that he’s going to take a beating for outing Greg as being behind the crackdown. But as a reader, I’m left a little unsatisfied: how does this ending resolve, comment on, or extend the questions “Safety Net” has been asking about precarity, change, how people mash up against systems?

This is where, I think, the modern story has run into the historical tropes and lost a little: the idea of a detective figure who ghosts through others’ lives, setting things right and then moving on, is pretty foundational to the genre. But when it’s ported into this context, things change. It takes on a certain tone when Horace is the precarious-living, poverty-struck expert on how people really live in Cable—stuck in his situation, cheerfully resigned to everything staying the same—and the people who experience change and resolution are the hyper-rich plutocrats. The loneliness of a person with a code, when it’s set against the labour protests, the stacked game, and the reasonable doubt that a rich son is actually going to entirely ruin his rich parent or their platform—tips into something like futility.

It’s a moment to perhaps step back and ask: What is this story saying in the now, outside the references, and what do I want it to say?

I think there are ways to create that modern narrative satisfaction—to write a workable end for this story—while still sticking to the mission of inverting, updating, and commenting on hardboiled and noir tropes. It might require stepping back from what the genre does and thinking first about what “Safety Net” does, and what it’s supposed to communicate to readers, and then tying that idea back to how its genre talks.

But I think this piece is well on its way, and with some thought, some polishing on the sentence level, and a few more rounds of revision, should be ready to send out into the world.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

 

Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, Science Fantasy

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.

Bee Houe Rising – CHAPTER 1 by Keby Boyer

I was drawn to this submission by its title (even with the typo on the website) and by the author’s voice in the introductory note. It’s concise and confident, with a distinct edge of humor, and it says precisely as much as it needs to say about the novel and the chapter. I’m impressed. It’s not easy to make it look that effortless.

The chapter, for me, met the expectations set by title and note. It’s tightly written, sharp and focused with a distinctive, wryly funny, yet lyrical style. It knows just how fast the story needs to move, and just how much the reader needs to know in order to ride along with the shaman and her companions.

If the rest of the novel keeps up the pacing I see here, and the overall structure of plot and development of character is as solid as it is in this first chapter, I think it’s just about ready to go to line edits. Characters, setting, and story are strong and sure of themselves. The minutiae of the prose are where the ms. needs work.

That’s especially important when the rest of the writer’s craft is as accomplished as what I see here. The structure is beautiful. Cleaning up the prose will apply the last layer of polish.

The first question I would ask is, why is the main character persistently referred to as “the old shaman woman”? A shaman can be any gender or none. Is there a plot-related reason why we have to be told, repeatedly, that the shaman is a woman? If so, maybe a phrase or a line could clarify this, or point toward a later explanation?

I think too that I would have liked to know how much taller and broader she is than Joe Ironhorse, right at the point when we first see them together, rather than toward the end of the chapter. There’s a hint of it when she teases him about his height, but we don’t see the full contrast between them. It seems as if that detail might be more apposite there than later on in the scene. Then when he performs his feat of strength, we’ll be even more impressed by it, because we’ve been getting the visual all along.

The writing in general, the imagery, the vividness of description and phrasing, is very, very good. There is however a particular habit that might bear rethinking, and that is the tendency to dangle phrases. For example:

All scraped knees and missing her two front teeth, the intensity of the girl’s aura crackled like lightning through the desert heat. 

This is a wonderful image, but the structure of the sentence is broken in the middle. The knees and teeth belong to the aura rather than the girl.

The same applies to

A stoic, stooped-shouldered old man dressed in a red plaid shirt and worn Levis, his long white hair fell straight down

Syntactically, the sentence says that the hair is a man dressed in a shirt and Levis. It’s inside out: hair contains the man, rather than the other way around.

In a subtler way, a similar thing is happening here:

Joe pulled a handkerchief that smelled of wind and spice and magic from his back pocket,

Gorgeous imagery, inside-out phrasing. Wind and spice, and magic from his back pocket. Which is actually a lovely image, but I don’t think it’s what the sentence wants to mean.

One last thing that struck me as I read was that when Joe and the shaman are talking, they seem to be completely alone. The chanting and drumming disappear. It’s summed up pretty clearly here:

The sounds of drums, bells, and chanting continued as they drank the scotch, smoked the weed, and enjoyed the comfortable silence that often happens between two very old friends.

On the one hand I love the juxtaposition of noise and silence. On the other, I feel as if I want just a little more. Another phrase or two layered through the scene, that establishes how they can be alone together no matter how tumultuous their surroundings are.

I think what I may be missing is the sense that the other people in the scene are real; that they have independent existence. Eddie and the little girl and the dog vanish once Joe and the shaman meet. It feels as if they, and the rest of the people gathered there, need to be more perceptibly present, even if they’re far in the background. The writer’s craft that I see here is strong enough to do that, without losing the tight connection between Joe and the shaman.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece, and promises some strong, witty, deft writing as the story unwinds itself. It just a needs a little shining up here and there.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, Fantasy

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.

Hell Kitchen Chapter 3 by Anneloup Roncin

This chapter has a lot of energy. It’s hectic, almost frenetic, even though Clay’s voice is tired and jaded and seen-it-all. It moves along briskly. There’s no slack in it; no dead air. It keeps the pages turning, and ends on a note that pulls the reader along toward the next chapter.

For me, the exposition works. It explains where it needs to, without stalling out the movement of the story. If it repeats information conveyed in the earlier chapters, then it might be worth deciding which iterations to keep, but on a cold read, straight into chapter 3, it does what it needs to do. There are some quietly startling bits, and I like those: the freezer full of human meat, for example. That sums up this world in a single gut-punch of information.

One thing I would suggest when the ms. gets to the line-edit phase is to pay really close attention to the meaning of words and the framing of idioms. I had to stop here and there and try to figure out what the words were trying to say:

watching Cleo take a Fang’s order with a crisped expression,

for example. I’m not sure what crisped wants to mean.

his back to a wall, his baskets that clash with his suit.  

The same with baskets. Maybe I’m missing a reference in an earlier chapter?

The one other thing I might ask is more of a structural question. Clay notes that the staff have been making a point of staying after hours, but he doesn’t seem to wonder why they’re doing it. It’s an inconvenience, but he isn’t making an effort to find out what it means. Nor does he seem perturbed by it, though it’s clearly a major departure from normal behavior. That needs a bit more clearing up, I think, and a bit more attention on his part. Or if he has a reason not to care, that could be clearer, as well.

As for the introduction of Mia Herrera, it is certainly dramatic. Clay doubles down on her being angry. Angry is her defining trait. She might show a few more layers of personality here, a little more complexity. Not a lot—it’s clearly the prelude to an action scene, and it needs to move along quickly. But she could show another trait or two that enhances the anger and hints at who and what she is apart from the fiery temper.

Overall I think it’s a pretty effective chapter. It builds on the situation established by the opening chapters, adds further complications to the plot, and moves on quickly toward the next stage of the story.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, Horror

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.

A Gift Of The Spirit by Michelle Dupler

It can be difficult to pin down exactly how a character is developed in readers’ minds, which details, which actions, and which thoughts stand out, and how they combine to build a sense of character for readers. In “A Gift for the Spirit,” the protagonist, Marit, is defined primarily in two strong sections:

“Marit liked the feeling of driving, of being in control and leading the way on the winding dusty roads.”

“Marit was an attractive young woman. She knew that, knew it was part of the draw. She had movie star platinum hair and red bow lips and made sure she was always immaculately dressed for them in pure white. Truth was, she enjoyed how they revered her, revered her gift. She had become more than some pretty girl that men wanted to use. Now, she was these folks’ angelic touch of Heaven, and their spare dollars and coins kept her and Mama Jo and Papa Luke well fed.”

While more information about Marit is provided, particularly in exposition about her past, it’s these passages that most strongly define Marit in the present of the story, the type of person she is and what is important to her.  Each of these passages accomplishes multiple things, making them both efficient and effective.  In the first one, we get description of setting, an evocation of the sensory experience of driving that attaches us to Marit, and the emotional effect of driving on Marit.  The second passage provides a vivid image of Marit’s appearance, Marit’s assessment of how others see her, Marit’s feeling about that assessment, several aspects of her motivation for becoming what she is.  The interaction of the different elements within these passages gives a sense of reality and depth to them, so Marit’s character comes through strongly.  They also provide density to the prose, so each sentence and each paragraph is accomplishing multiple purposes.  That’s an important technique for all fiction, and especially for flash fiction, which this story is.

An area of the story that could be strengthened is the plot, which is about Marit’s deal with a dark spirit that has consequences she didn’t expect.  The story provides exposition about the formation of the deal and the price Marit has agreed to pay:  giving the spirit a good memory for every time she receives his power.

As Marit holds her latest session showing her power to the people, she realizes she’s giving her last positive memory to the spirit.  At the end of the story, the spirit blasts fire over the people, killing everyone but Marit.

While Marit’s personality comes across pretty strongly, she’s a fairly passive protagonist.  She knows she’s running out of positive memories, but she just continues using them up, down to the last one.  She doesn’t seem to have any plan for what to do after she has no more memories to continue her deal with the spirit.  She doesn’t seem to have saved money to sustain her after she can’t make money with her gift.  Perhaps Marit feels she has no options and feels trapped in her course of action, or perhaps she’s addicted to the reverence others give her and can’t resist this last fix, or perhaps she feels there’s nothing for her in life without the power.  But none of those are established or even implied.  While motivation can sometimes be left ambiguous, readers generally need several compelling possibilities to be implied that they can contemplate.  For me, instead of this, her motivation seems neglected.

If we had a sense that she feels there’s nothing for her in life without the power, so she just wants to experience it as many times as possible and then doesn’t care what happens to her, that could make her seem more active, since she’s making a decision to go ahead despite knowing she’s losing her last memory.  This could also give the ending more significance, since we would see that her selfish decision leads to harm for the people.

The plot also lacks a strong causal chain.  Instead of this final experience going as usual, black flames burst out and consume everyone.  Why?  When there isn’t a strong reason for something happening, it feels as if the author made it happen.  That undermines readers’ belief in the story and the emotional impact of events.  If Marit’s lack of positive memories makes her very angry and dark, and she gets jealous and even angrier when she senses the positive memories in the audience, maybe she would use the spirit’s power to burn everyone up.  That would provide a strong causal chain.

Without a stronger understanding of why Marit gives up her last positive memory and a stronger cause for the black flames that burn everyone, it’s hard to find meaning or emotional impact in the end of the story.  But adding those elements could make the story more powerful and resonant.

The story has many strengths and kept me engaged throughout.  I hope my comments are helpful.

— Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

 

Editor’s Choice Award September 2021, 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.

The Talisman Plant by Bronwyn Venter

was drawn to “The Talisman Plant” this month because of its charming but substantial quest, the nuanced turn it took to its subject matter, and the question in its author’s notes: “Curious to know if the vocab is too difficult for a middle grades/YA audience”. It’s a question which opened a large door, and this month, I’d like to explore how we cut through standard writing advice to find deliberate approaches in our work.

(Yup, this is the meta-Editor’s Choice: the advice about writing advice!)

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Vasi’s quest for a hedgehog—to find the raskovnik, to free his father—is terribly sweet, in a Victorian animal drawings kind of way, and then deepens considerably in a way that feels organic as this piece gets into the realities of fairy-tale logic slamming into political worlds. Overall, it’s got a really tidy marriage between that fairy-tale logic and some sophisticated concepts, being tackled in a way that reads fairly clean and uncomplicated.

I think the goal of creating appeal to both younger and adult readers is being met right now: there’s a way to read Vasi’s quest as straight-up adventure for a kid, and an intensely bittersweet last gasp of heartbreak for an adult.

Pacing is something I do want to draw your attention to. There’s a huge section—once Vasi finds out his friend is a fae and before he goes to do something about it—which can easily be condensed down to a few paragraphs or cut. Not much action is moving forward in that space or new information being learned; it’s rather ruminative, and every character introduced is secondary or disposable. I think there’s room to reduce it and keep the story overall on target.

But most of all: The author’s notes ask if the vocabulary here is accessible for a younger audience, which is a good question to ask. Stories that are ostensibly written for kids but have all the structural assumptions of adult readerly knowledge are definitely a thing we can produce as writers.

Here’s the thing, though: My instinct is no, it isn’t. If anything, based on contents, this piece would be middle-grade rather than YA—the concerns of YA are much more relational and identity-related (who am I as an adult, how do I fit into my world as I change?), much less cute or soft-focused, and much emotionally sharper, harder, or more complex. This is definitely not a YA piece in what it’s talking about and how.

But what advice do I give to help realign “The Talisman Plant” into middle-grade conventions? I quickly realized I don’t confidently know: middle-grade has always been a weak spot in my own toolbox, because I was one of those kids never really reading at the age bracket I was supposed to. I can’t backfill that experience or learn it later, because I’ll never be a kid again. I can just try to work the problem for you and admit that answer’s going to be flawed.

But: What I’d like to offer up is modeling the process I used today to try to work that problem for you—and with that, talk about how we can learn to evaluate what works and what we can do as writers in an industry that can frequently drown in ideas about what a book should look like. What approaches can we take to writing advice and applying it when we don’t have good context?

The real question here: What do we do next when we don’t know something about our readership?

Find what the standard advice emphasizes. Fortunately or unfortunately, writing advice is never more than a Google search away; the problem we have is sorting it for relevance and credibility. The standard advice for writing middle-grade is plain, simple, digestible language that focuses on action over theory of mind or description. Active verbs over passive verbs, simple sentence structures, and literalism over metaphor.

In this case, if “The Talisman Plant” wanted to take that approach, there might be a balance to be struck between words that give the slightly historical flavour of a fairytale (“surmised”, “countenance”) and kids’ vocabularies; “went for a piss” might be rougher than a kid that age is used to from fairytales. There’s also something to look at in the sheer amount of information this story keeps in subtext and its accessibility to young audiences; that standard advice emphasizes being direct with your information and not assuming that younger readers will get your inferences.

I’d also extend that to suggesting a little less explanation and more action, especially with the fae’s early actions; kids are, for better or worse, used to a world where adults do arbitrary things without justifying themselves, and they’re used to not understanding things yet.

That’s one approach we can take with “The Talisman Plant”; take that advice as written and use it rigorously to get the story it’s telling within the storytelling conventions that advice describes.

But—there’s probably better work we can do on that front. It would mean not following that advice blindly, but using it as an idea of where to start asking questions.

Find the holes in the standard advice—but intelligently, not reactively. However—we might think—kids read fairy tales, and have for a very long time. It’s worth asking who a standard piece of writing advice is for: American eight-year-olds? British twelve-year-olds? From what background (they might well know about the police brutality, but not what a florin is). Who is this advice thinking of as the normative reader? What ideas does it hold about them—and this is especially important when writing for kids, because adults have all kinds of odd ideas about how kids think and act. The major obstacle, I’ve noticed, in working with young readers is adult projection; adults treat the question of “how childhood is” in an extremely politically loaded way, and that can get between writers and our younger audiences.

Middle-grade is technically 8-12, which is a huge spectrum of life experience, vocabulary, and mindset. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural attitudes toward childhood, regional education systems, ideas about reading, class privilege, and experiences with English. It covers very young children with dyslexia, the kids who have been already reading into the adult section, and everything in between.

I think ultimately, to navigate our question in that stack of complexity, we have to do the usual thing writers do with stories and decide who we are talking to. And then sort out what advice is useful for that choice from what isn’t as we move forward.

There’s a way of thinking about the story, in this context, which asks:

What are we assuming a nine-year-old reader already knows about stories? Do they have the concept of a gamekeeper or bailiff? Do they know what faeries are? Are we assuming too much? Are we assuming too little?
What are we assuming a nine-year-old reader already knows about the world as it is right now? Do they have the concept of police brutality (where does this nine-year-old live? They might well have this one down; they might have been sheltered from it or it might not be part of their experience).
And then: how do we then rewrite this one to fit with what that archetypical reader we made up does know?

Draw on any experience we might have—or can acquire—to get deeper. A third approach—a complementary one!—is to just try to get more information. And that’s always a good one, no matter what we decide to do next.

In trying to tackle this, I thought about my own bookselling experience and how I used to get around the problem of recommending books to kids and parents when I’d never been a middle-grade reader: finding out what else that particular reader liked, and ditching all ideas of what kids as a unit like. The first time I had to review a middle-grade book, I asked friends who had young children how they read and what they enjoyed. Is there a way to get more information about your particular archetypical reader?

Asking a bookseller or librarian what’s currently popular in their store beyond the usual series—with that reader we’re thinking of!—can be a good strategy. Talking to parents of readers who are themselves readers—and can deconstruct a book that way—can really help. Reading a dozen middle-grade books in a row aimed at that reader (they’re quite short!) and finding what they have in common is another.

These are ways to focus down a little more strongly, because we can ask finer-grained questions: what makes an MG book successful commercially? What makes one successful in terms of awards? How are those different? What do MG books that are written to uphold an idea of what kids are like do, and what do the books that want to argue kids are different do differently? What makes a MG book successful now versus ten years ago (whole new generation of kids!).

#

What I’m outlining here is probably the longest and most complex answer to “Does the language work?” that’s ever been thrown across the proverbial desktop, but what it’s getting into is the foundations of building our own knowledge. It’s learning our industry—and our craft—with our own ears and eyes and fingers.

Ultimately, the problem with writing advice (this advice included!) is it means relying on authority to solve our writing conundrums—and authority is not really a thing in the very personal, very individual universe of what stories people like, why they like them, how children are, what a person knows or wants to know, and whether we’re communicating well with someone else. Authority has to generalize when it answers that question, so authority always misses.

When we start to build our own processes for finding things out about writing and stories, we start to have the information we need to make our own choices. Yeah, we’re going to miss too; but we’re going to miss things as a result of the decisions we’ve made—deliberately setting certain things aside—instead of the information we didn’t have, the person we believed, what they missed, what we didn’t know enough to ask about. Setting certain things aside and choosing others: it’s how we build a style, a voice of our own, and an aesthetic for our lifetime of writing.

So I hope this long detour into how to build a meaningful process to answer that question—how’s the language look?—is a useful one. Not just for answering that simple question, but for all the things that it’s possible to learn about writing and publishing on the way to the answer, and how that knowledge can shape your approach to writing in future.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above {2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

Editor’s Choice Award August 2021, 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.

A Voice From The Moon Chapters 1 & 2 by Samuel Finn

 I like the premise of this novel. The dying Earth is very topical, and the wise, older alien race that comes to save it is a favorite trope. The action-adventure aspect and the hard-science-fiction elements make a nice combination. Then, as the second chapter comes to end, we get the beginnings of a mystery. I am a sucker for a good mystery.

I’m a sucker for a good dog, too. Basing the Aya on dogs really makes the submission for me. Clius is a great character, and a great way to explore the human species through the eyes of an outsider.

When it’s time to either self-publish or submit the novel, I would suggest running it by a good, thorough line editor. The prose has a lot of repetitive phrasing, word echoes, and odd or awkward constructions, which might be smoothed out for greater clarity and faster pacing especially in the action scenes.

In the meantime, for this Editor’s Choice I’d like to focus on what for me is the most striking aspect of these chapters: the alien viewpoint. I actually like the slight awkwardness and stiffness of the prose in Clius’ scenes. They make a nice, subtle point that he is not human and he is not a native speaker of human languages. When the viewpoint shifts to Z, that line edit and that smoothing out will help to indicate the change of species as well.

I did wonder as I read, if the worldbuilding might go further than it does. The draft establishes Clius’ physical appearance and his ongoing attempts to understand human language and thinking. It also makes the point that he sees differently; he can see in infrared as well as in the human visual spectrum.

This strikes me as a very human way to construct an alien based on a dog. The one human sense that tends to be presented as superior to the canine is sight. The human eye can see a wider range of colors in the visible spectrum, and see more detail within those colors.

But if the alien is more doglike than human-like, might he not also have a dog’s range of senses? If you look at it that way, it’s not sight that distinguishes him from the human. It’s smell and, to a lesser degree, hearing.

A dog’s sense of smell is a truly amazing thing. I would love to see what would happen to Clius’ perception of the world around him if smell were his primary sense, with hearing and sight subordinate to that. Sight would still matter, but think about how the scene in the bar would seem to him, how he would identify different people of whatever species, what he would have to do not to get overwhelmed, and what details he would pick up about everyone, not just those present now but those who have come through previously.

And then in the training exercise, he would have a tremendous advantage, because he would know where everyone was and how long they had been there. Would that cause the all-human units to object to his presence? Or would he have to be blocked or suppressed in some way, so that the competition would be more fair? For that matter, other units might come up with ways to short-circuit his nose, hit him with a hellacious stink or, perhaps more evilly, with something pheromonal and severely distracting, like the scent of a female in estrus.

There are so many possibilities there. In terms of craft, too, the Clius scenes could be presented with emphasis on the senses that for him are primary. Then when we shift to a human viewpoint, we’ll get a different sensory emphasis. The reader can pick up on that as the scenes and viewpoints change, and get different perspectives on the same settings and characters.

One thing to keep in mind when doing this is that when Clius is telling the story, the perspective will be different than when a human is telling it. Think about what he takes for granted, and what he accepts as normal. These will not be the same things that a human would perceive. He won’t particularly notice that he sees heat signatures unless it’s pointed out to him, or unless it’s relevant in some way to what’s happening around him.

After all, do we stop to think about the range of colors we can see, all the different shades of blue or red or green, or do we just go ahead and accept that we see them? We may only think about it if we’re talking to someone who can’t see in those ranges, or if for some immediate and compelling reason we have to be able to discern subtle shades of color. Or maybe not so subtle—think about red-green color blindness and the reason why traffic lights are arranged in a specific order.

This isn’t something that needs a lot of exposition or explanation. It’s more of an underlying rationale for how different characters perceive their environment. It’s a set of choices: what words the character uses, which senses come into play first, and how they affect what he does and thinks and feels.

I just have one further question. It’s clear that gender parity is a thing in this universe. And yet there are no females in Clius’ unit. Is this deliberate? Is there a plot-based reason for it? If so, maybe that could be made a little clearer?

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award August 2021, Fantasy

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.

Revised: Bodies for Gods Chapter 1 by James Cooper

I did something for this Editor’s Choice that I’ve only done once before: I read the original version as well as the revision. I’m glad I did. It’s always interesting to see how a draft changes from one version to the next.

In this case, the goal was to be clearer about what is going on in the chapter, and to reduce confusion. I think the revision does this. It certainly pares down the prose and focuses on the characters and the action.

There are a few things that might help the chapter become even clearer and even more focused. One is quite basic. The revision is much less prone to passive voice and word echoes than the original, but I think another pass would be even more effective. Try the Kill Challenge: kill all the passives and the repetitive phrases, then see how it reads, and whether any of them needs to go back in.

I understand why the revision gave up on the attempt to convey different viewpoints within the same character. It’s a great idea but a serious challenge for both the writer and the reader. Better to go simple, stay in one viewpoint and let the story unfold through that pair of eyes.

The revision works hard at this, and maybe goes a little too far in the direction of making sure we know exactly whose point of view it is. There are frequent viewpoint tags; we get multiple repetitions of words and phrases that emphasize which version of Signy is telling the story, words like know, remember, watch. At one point we’re told in no uncertain terms that the Signy-viewpoint is the adult, and she’s in the time of the child:

If any looked her direction at all, it was as if she wasn’t there. Of course, she wasn’t. They looked right through her. Occasionally, they even walked through her.

I think it’s clear enough that she’s not physically there. One iteration of that is all the narrative needs; then it can move on to meet the child Signy.

TOnce it’s established that Signy is having an out-of-body experience, the tags become a distraction. It might help to run another Kill Challenge. After the first couple of tags, delete the rest and see if the narrative makes sense. Then just restore them where it’s absolutely necessary to clarify the meaning.

One more thing I think might help with clarity. I get from the context as well as the author’s note that viewpoint-Signy has had large portions of her memory eaten by the god that’s taking her over. There are references to what’s missing, and we’re told that she can’t remember who the people are that she sees. I’m still not absolutely clear on how the process works.

There’s another layer or two of worldbuilding to be done here, I think. I feel as if I’m wanting a bit more on how she knows what’s missing, and how she feels about it. Does she build new memories through these visions, or is that also taken from her? Can she form new memories and process them into longterm memory, or has she lost that capability? How aware can she be of what’s happening to her, and will that awareness erode as the damage progresses?

Those questions are probably answered in the novel as a whole. I just find myself wanting a little more at this opening chapter, a hint of what it all about, and a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Asha will give us some of that, but maybe there could be a little more here.

It’s an intriguing concept, for sure. The loss of Signy’s memory and self is both epic and tragic, and at the same time, it’s deeply personal. That comes through even in this short chapter.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2021, Horror

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.

Two Versions Of Flash Fiction Using Same Elements by Tim W. Burke

It’s interesting to see two different versions of the story right beside each other.  Exploring different options and seeing their impact on readers is a good way to learn how to improve your writing.

Both versions of the story are about April, who made a deal with the devil to live a hundred years and have unlimited wealth in exchange for–I think–her soul and the life of a baby.  The story takes place in the last few minutes of her life.  One good technique for writing flash is to focus the story solely on the climax and resolution, to keep the piece short, so both versions of the story are making use of this helpful technique.  For me, the second version is stronger in several ways.  It is clearer, and Nurse Schoen, who appears only in the second version, is a vivid and compelling character.  The second version also gives April a choice to make, which gives her some power and makes her a little more active as a protagonist.

For the remainder of this critique, I’m going to make suggestions that I think could strengthen either version.

For me, the story raises some very intriguing questions.  April apparently did a lot of good in the world in her hundred years.  The devil obviously thinks April’s soul is worth more than all the suffering she eliminated.  Is that because the devil doesn’t really want suffering in the world?  Or is that because the devil will restore all the suffering as soon as April is dead, undoing all that she did?  Or is it because the seeming good she has done is not really good?  Can good really arise from the murder of a baby?  These are compelling questions that I would love to see explored more in the story. (The last question carries echoes of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin.)

Instead, the story focuses on whether April thinks all the good she did is worth the price of her soul and of a baby that I think she killed to seal the pact.  But whether April thinks it is worth it or not has no effect on events.  That’s really a decision she made back when she formed the pact with the devil.  It seems like at that time she would have decided that having unlimited money and a hundred years would allow her to do so much good in the world that she wouldn’t mind sacrificing her soul and killing a baby.  At the end of her life, this is a done deal, so the question of whether she now thinks it worth it doesn’t really matter.  (And the one to judge is really the baby, not April.)  The questions that are more relevant at this point in her life are whether the good she did will last beyond her lifetime.  I think that’s a question many of us might ask.  Tying this question to the outcome of the story could be a way to strengthen the climax.

So let’s look more closely at the climax.  Generally, a strong climax will feel both surprising and inevitable.  In both versions, the devil is coming to claim her soul at her death.  In the first version, April has no power to change anything, so she’s simply waiting until the time comes at the end.  That makes April a passive protagonist and makes the climax feel inevitable but not surprising.

In the second version, April has the power to make a choice between letting the devil take her or becoming a vampire to avoid death and avoid the devil.  The revelation that the nurse is a vampire is surprising but doesn’t feel inevitable.  Becoming a vampire usually involves dying first and then being raised from the dead, so I would think the devil would be able to grab April’s soul when she dies.  Also, vampires are generally portrayed as not having souls, so in that case, it would seem that the devil would have gotten his price and April would have lost her soul.  And since vampires usually feed on people, it seems that April would be doing a lot of harm in the world as a vampire.  So her decision, in this case, seems to be to continue to have an existence on earth even though others will suffer because of her.  If this is going to be the choice April makes, these issues need to be raised and explored.  Was it easy to do good when she had time and money, but now that those have run out, she just wants to continue her existence and doesn’t care about doing good?

So neither climax has both of the desired qualities.  I think part of the problem is April’s memory loss, which leaves her unable to be an active protagonist and makes any decision seem random/uninformed.  If she had more of an understanding of what’s happening, I think that would allow the story to have more depth, April to be more active, and the climax to be stronger.  In that case, April might have spent the last year getting every medical expert to work on her case and find a way to stop the deterioration of her health.  She might also have gathered all the experts on the devil to see if they can get her out of her deal.  They might be making their last attempts as the story begins, injecting her with treatments or splashing her with holy water or whatever.  And at the same time her many assistants could be reporting on the success of various projects, and letting her know about new projects that need her help, and informing her that she’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, etc.  But none of the treatments help, and she dismisses everyone, but a strange nurse appears.  That nurse could offer her a deal.  The nurse could give her immortality and renewed health.  April could be alive to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  She could do whatever she wants, with no time limit.  April could question the nurse about how she can do this, how she can overcome the devil.  Can the nurse really get April out of her pact?  The nurse says yes.  Unfortunately, April will lose her soul, the nurse can’t save that, but the nurse can save April’s body and physical life.  April could ask what the nurse’s price is.  The nurse might say that doing this work is its own reward.  This gives April a difficult decision, which is a good element to have in a climax.  April could think about all the additional good she could do with more time, and how great it would be to receive the Nobel, and decide to agree to the nurse’s terms.  The nurse might then morph into the devil.  The devil takes April’s soul and restores her health.  April feels energized and powerful and excited.  She calls in all her assistants and gives them new orders, shutting down all her positive projects and using the money for a personal spending spree.  We could get the feeling she’s going to undo all the good she has done.

Anyway, something like this could make April more active and could be both surprising (because the nurse turns out to be the devil) and inevitable (because without a soul April would have no impetus to do good).

I’d like to cover a couple other areas briefly.  First, I had a hard time falling into the story because a number of the sentences are unfocused or awkward.  For example, “In April’s lustrous bedroom, the night nurse checked her smartwatch and shook her head. Yes, it was thirteen, April did count correctly, sharp-eared, over her beeping diagnostic bed and her video wall showing rows of healthy babies in a sparkling new maternity ward.”  The first sentence quoted seems at first to be about April’s bedroom, since it is describing the bedroom as “lustrous.”  But then it moves to another topic, describing the nurse’s actions.  Is the sentence about the bedroom or the nurse?  If it’s about the nurse, the word “lustrous” should not be there.  If it’s about the bedroom, then we should get specific, significant details about the bedroom and nothing about the nurse.

The second sentence quoted is a run-on sentence as well as being unfocused.  The first part of the sentence, up to “bed,” is about the clock striking thirteen.  The second part of the sentence describes the video wall and has nothing to do with the clock striking.  So is the sentence about the clock striking or is it about the video wall? These two things don’t belong in the same sentence. (Also, I think “April” is not the right character.  Isn’t it the nurse counting?)

A sentence is an idea; it can be a simple idea or a complex idea, but it should be only one idea, and it should be a focused idea.  This can be a helpful way to figure out what details belong in a particular sentence.

One final area I want to touch on is the point of view.  The POV seems to shift a lot in the story, sometimes in the nurse’s head, sometimes in April’s head, and sometimes giving us the narrator’s description of things.  Those shifts are jarring and make it difficult to get settled in the story.  I think the story would be stronger if told from April’s third person limited omniscient POV.

The story engaged me with some unusual questions.  I hope my comments are helpful.

— Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

Editor’s Choice Award August 2021, 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.

Eerie Appendages, Part 1 of 2 by William Broom

“Eerie Appendages” caught my eye this month with its uncanny, shadowy science fiction narrative, a whip-smart set of thematic ideas, and a careful deliberation in its clues and word choices. It’s a piece alluding to about four subgenres in SFF, but integrating them all into a cohesive—and unsettling—whole that uses every inch of its material. So this month, I’d like to discuss another way to think about thematics, and what unifying our elements of craft through them can do for our work.

If “Eerie Appendages” has a major shining strength, it’s efficiency and a thorough commitment to its core question. Each of its elements does something to further at least two story goals; everything works together, without a moment wasted. And everything runs through the mental lens of the question it’s exploring: the Uncanny Valley, what precisely is wrong on this planet, what feels wrong, what we’re told is wrong but feels right, and the whole idea of false consciousness.

That commitment begins immediately: “Eerie Appendages” derives a lot of its narrative tension from establishing and exchanging threats, and it wastes no time in setting up the disjuncts that power that sense of dread. The first line—that Harwen “feels he must want for nothing”—immediately bounces off the grotesque implications of being “mostly” free from parasites, setting up that core question of something is wrong here, and building it through individual elements that each approach a compromised reality: mind-controlling aliens, pheromones, trans-dimensional space travel, an unacknowledged queer relationship, colonialism, dissociation, and the gap between the professional and personal.

Even though that’s a quite disparate collection of elements to put in one story—never mind one this short—that question of false consciousness refracts ruthlessly through each one of them and ties them together into a Mieville-esque colonial Age of Sail narrative that’s smart, creepy, and narratively riveting.

What’s doing the heavy work here is the thematic level. Themes!

There can be a tendency when we’re first building our storycraft to think about theme as an allegory or a message, but it can be more constructive to think of it as how these things are each like the other—and then arrange those elements of story so they’re all catching the same proverbial light and sending it in the directions we want readers to look.

“Eerie Appendages” is flat-out great at this job. Thematic implications lurk under the surface constantly—but are confident enough to not make themselves too explicit, trusting readers to put them together ourselves, as every piece of thematic information is also doing plot or atmospheric work.

The true bodies’ composition as mounds of flesh that don’t move or sense, only consume and discard from the same holes, is both a huge foundation for the grotesque atmosphere and visible as a comment. The way those bodies play off readers’ sense of the Uncanny Valley—while reversing that perspective to show Harwen feeling that same disgust for human bodies—is a looping resonance that’s bluntly brilliant work. It generates buckets of tension and conflict without ever having to explain a thing.

“Eerie Appendages” is also making absolutely the most of its pseudo-historical trappings. Harwen’s period costume, the “feverish air of a foreign land” on-planet, live animals imported from faraway colonies immediately evoke a genre of colonial literature that’s inherently fairly brutal and bodily—a genre of bought and sold bodies, flogged bodies, rigid hierarchies—and bring all that brutality into play for readers without saying a word. It’s a very interesting subgenre in which to set a piece that plays with the Uncanny Valley like this; a story about false selves eating real ones and whose bodies are identifiable-with—whose bodies are real. Both are obsessed with bodies in a way that feeds each other, nourishes each other, and makes the material richer by bringing in whole other frames of reference, smashing them together, and going look, these are the same.

Harwen’s dismissive colonialist attitudes toward the planet’s Indigenous people fits into the Age of Sail ambiance perfectly, and is well-counterbalanced by Viltrand’s more functional, cooperative relationship with them—Harwen’s natives versus Viltrand’s locals. There’s a puzzle piece in this too: how Harwen’s inability to identify with them robs him of the social narrative he’d need to withstand the trauma of having his sense of self shaken.

Harwen’s obviously a complex character, even though we’re seeing him filtered through the lens of a possession—one that has him declaring “He is a simple man” in ways that are, every single one, proved a lie afterward. Harwen and Viltrand’s half-obscured romance puts the lie to him being just a husband and father; his increasing inability to master the situation and ultimate salvation through interreliance on his crew complicates the ideas in captain. His moment of startling compassion before the water drags his consciousness under gives me a glimpse of how he got his captaincy, his love triangle, and his liminal identity: a blink of the true person before he’s snuffed out.

These are all fascinating ideas to cluster around the core of a planet where you can be parasitized into self-destruction by who you identify with. They are all visible puzzle pieces readers can put together when reading into how “Eerie Appendages” thinks one’s instincts can be co-opted by systems not in your best interests. And they all worked well for me, because all these elements move in the same direction: from a false, grotesque simplicity to a more honest complexity. None of them fight the others, merely inform each other. Those themes—that question of identifying, false consciousness, and risk—becomes a steady organizing principle through which a half-dozen ideas can be compared and explored, and “Eerie Appendages” grown from the rote horror of losing control to something textured, deliberate, emotional, existential, and ultimately really very tragic.

The author’s notes mentioned clarity as a challenge; while I find myself having to reframe my idea of where objective reality sits as I start “Eerie Appendages” and move through to Viltrand’s explanations, it’s not creating confusion. There are enough clues—Nicolas’s very human name versus that alien body, his protestations of simplicity—that I’m comfortable riding that wave, knowing the disjuncts have been pointed out to me as something to follow. And I’m personally all right with the physics of the Linear Sea being weird in a story about unstable realities; the point of the solid clouds on the first page is the crushing on the last one, so I don’t personally need to understand the mechanics behind them.

There aren’t a great many suggestions or notes in this critique, but on the whole, I think this is fabulously done: smart, subtle, horrifying, wildly imaginative, and absolutely making the most of itself. And I think it stands a strong chance of finding an excellent home.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)