Editor’s Choice Award January 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.

Spidersick In San Francisco, 2049 by Chuck Saul

“Spidersick in San Francisco, 2049” caught me this month with its fast-moving prose: kinetic, descriptive, and anxious. It’s a story that’s already got a lot of life in it, but stylistic elements and worldbuilding that are currently overwhelming the rest. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we immerse ourselves in a complex future world while delivering information in a way readers can digest.

“Spidersick in San Francisco, 2049” serves up an immediate and vivid opening: establishing Atti’s postapocalyptic neighbourhood, her paranoia, and the surveillance she’s living with in one paragraph. The stakes come in quick, but my questions start when it comes time for them—and Atti herself—to be developed.

Atti’s San Francisco has a lot of detail tucked in: the orange glow of forest fires alluded to, but not explicitly mentioned; drones policing unhoused people; coping mechanisms that are wonderfully grounded in the body; a normalized social breakdown so serious Will’s honest smile takes Atti aback. It’s a rich world, one that’s clearly thought about class disparity and how different risk and enforcement look to different people.

However, there’s also a lot of detail that never pays off—what spidersick actually is (and how little the world knows about it versus how little Atti knows), whose drones these are, any of the why of Atti’s situation—and in all the detail, things get lost. Between the spiders and the renamed everything, it takes a great deal of page space to realize that what’s happening here is a nanotech-fueled, nightmare-tinged extended lockdown seen from a child’s perspective, and that the core question we’re asking here is about isolation and trust.

It’s not that “Spidersick” isn’t communicating questions of isolation versus trust. It’s that there’s so many other new concepts going in that those immediate definitions draw so much of readers’ attention that there’s little space left for what the story’s actually about.

There are a few ways to tackle this question: trimming down or reorganizing that concept work, solidifying general pacing and clarity, or restructuring the story overall.

Trimming down the concept/worldbuilding work is the most direct approach. There are a lot of ways word choice is building this storyworld, but there are also places where the terminology or word choice isn’t quite serving the story right now—and it’s a question of balancing out what you get from each idea with the attention budget it costs. Every new term is something readers have to solve, get used to, and metabolize: if only for a few lines. When they don’t add enough—like, for example, “kalladamn,” which just seems to be a fancy way to say “damn”?—it’s extra processing for not enough substance, especially when it’s coming on the heels of a wonner and The Link, two more new concepts in the same line.

Solidifying the general clarity, as a tactic, works to free up more attention from other spaces. If we think about the opening of a story as an attention budgeting question, where points that get allocated to conspicuous style are coming out of establishing person, place, situation, we can look at sentence pacing, word choice, and other decisions through the approach of balancing those budgets. I’d suggest that in the early paragraphs, both style and situation budgets are a little overloaded right now—and simplifying sentences where the ornamentation or style isn’t actively adding something is a solid strategy.

There are a few early places where sentences could be tighter: “just as Atti was readying to continue the search for food,” for example, or “the familiar wetness of sweat under her mask and wherever else her loose clothing touched her skin.” There’s already a lot of ornamentation in this story’s word choice, and that takes resources for readers to take in—especially early in “Spidersick,” when we’re still orienting ourselves to the world.

Likewise, there are spots where the scene-to-scene pacing of “Spidersick” could be tighter—where the ways it’s paced now use attention, but aren’t quite spending it on something that takes the story forward. For example, between the first and second scenes Atti runs from Will—but he catches up to her pretty much immediately. It’s a cliffhanger of tension that doesn’t pay off in any real form in terms of different plot, different character relations—just different backdrops—and just resets our need, as readers, to ground ourselves in the action. Moments like this can be neatly combined or sliced out without actually losing anything that pushes the story forward. Stronger overall pacing helps by highlighting which questions and ideas are actually important here, and making sure readers aren’t misapprehending what’s going on, or expecting something entirely different.

I think a lot of the next draft’s worth of work here will be about managing the style: making it work for the plot and themes of this story instead of draining all the attention. But after that, I think the primary suggestion I’d make for the draft after that would be to focus more on the plot.

Sometimes getting our style work right also shows what the style’s been obscuring, and when the elaborate worldbuilding terms are stripped down? Most of the action of this piece is Atti running, stopping to think, and running again. Random threats occur; she reacts; she gathers herself for the next one, until Will offers her a home and she takes it. We don’t get to know them too well; we don’t see Will as anything but slightly clueless but good, and Atti as much but suspicious and desperate. Who are they as people within this world, and why?

This is a rich, if dark future. There’s a lot to explore in it, if we can keep our thematic questions, our story, and the wholeness of our characters intact in the face of that 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 January 2023, Cross Genre

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 Bright And Clouded Future by Tris Lawrence

I like the title of this story, and I like the concept. Bargaining with Death, trying to cheat Death: it’s classic.

As for the luck of the submission draw so far, it’s always good to remember that it is mostly luck. A well-crafted story still has to stand out among a crowd of others, and then it has to hit the editor and the publication just right. The only way to succeed is to keep trying.

I do think it was a good idea to submit the story to the workshop. It’s a good start, but there are a couple of things that might work better with another round of revision.

The author’s note mentions that the story has been edited to bring down the word count. That was well done. I would suggest pruning even further, to tighten and focus the prose.

There’s quite a bit of repetition, information that’s duplicated within sentences and paragraphs and from one scene to the next. Some of it is necessary; the story needs it in order to move forward. Death says, “You’re going to die today.” Austin answers with some version of “Hell, no.” The evolution of his responses from flat refusal to negotiating terms is crucial to the story.

At the same time, this kind of repetition needs to be just right—not too little, not too much. It can be tempting to double and triple down. For example, at the beginning:

That can’t be possible. Because if Death is here, that means Austin is going to die.

Nope. No way. Not true.

Not ever, if he can help it, and especially not today.

It might be more effective to cut this sequence down to a single line, or at most two, and reduce the number of Nope-words to two or three. Get us into the story, and let the Nopes build up over the course of the narrative.

There’s a tendency to say the same thing several times in slightly different ways:

“You’re not a person.” Even though she looks like one. Like a teenaged girl, maybe a year or two older than himself. Like someone on the brink of living her life, about to get out there and experience the world. It makes it easier to think of her that way, like she’s just another teenager, no different than him.

I would cut the four sentences of narrative to one. Focus on one or two details that are directly relevant at this point. Try to vary these from one paragraph to the next.

Watch for repetitions of ideas, phrases, concepts. How impossible the situation is. How she looks—her hair in particular, and her cowl that keeps slipping in the same way, with the same phrasing. If you say it once in the right place, it will resonate through the rest of the story. You won’t need to say it again unless it’s relevant to what’s happening right then and there.

Another thing to watch for is stage business: characters’ actions, their body language, what they do as they speak. I am a fan of well-framed dialogue; I like to see how characters move, how they express themselves in actions as well as words. But, as with repetition, a little goes a long way.

Note how many things Death and Austin do in this paragraph:

“Stop!” His voice echoes off the walls as he turns his back on her, does his business. His hands are shaking, and he has to pause long enough for the adrenalin to fade before he can zip up. She slides off the sink, waits while he washes his hands. She hands him a paper towel, and he mutters, “thanks,” under his breath.

Action piles on action, detail on detail. How much of it do we absolutely need to know? Try cutting the paragraph in half. Focus on one thing Austin does that sums up the rest, and likewise, one thing Death does—I would pick her handing him the paper towel. Is it essential that we know where she’s sitting, that she slides, that she waits? Or can we pick that up by implication, as he shakes and fumbles?

Or here:

Lana has one hand out, and when Austin just stares at her, she wiggles her fingers. He curls his fingers around hers. She’s so much smaller than him, her skin pale against the deep brown of his own. Her touch is warmer than he expects, and she squeezes firmly.

The level of detail is cinematic, but is it necessary? Do we need to be reminded again that she’s smaller than he is? Which of her multiple gestures is most important here? Choose one or two, and let the rest happen in the background. If you’ve chosen well, the reader will pick up on them. That’s the magic of the writer’s craft.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award January 2023, 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.

The Devil’s Hand Meddles In The Design Of Sin by Roi Aharonson

One of my favorite types of horror story is the kind that leaves you uncertain whether the horror exists in the real world or only in the character’s mind.  “The Devil’s Hand Meddles in the Design of Sin” definitely accomplishes that.  From the beginning of the story to the end, I don’t know whether the first-person narrator is seeing the devil or only imagining the devil.  This raises a question in readers’ minds about what is real and generates curiosity that makes readers want to keep on reading.

This story resonated for me with a very famous story of this type, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.  I wondered if Poe’s story might have been an inspiration for this piece.

The story also has some nice description, such as the “crystalized geometries” and “there was an early mist above the short cut grass that faded the green tips of the plantation into murky greyness. It was quiet and serene and to me it seemed the whole world was like that at the moment.”  That second sentence is very evocative and makes me recall similar moments in my life.

In this passage, the rhythm and repetitive sentence structure come together strongly to create a suggestion of dissociation:  “My hair was covered in blood and I could see it dangling in front of my face. I went to the sink to wash it off and as I did I started weeping like a child. I felt abhorrently sick and deranged. I knelt my forearms on the sink and ran my head under the water. My hands were a mix of blood and water and I ran them over my face and my hair. It was wet and murky on my skin. I let out a short laugh. I felt deranged.”  I found this passage and the end of the story the strongest part.

I also enjoyed some of the character moments.  This one–“I thought if I came out in my lounge wear, that nothing dangerous would happen because I was not dressed for more”–made me laugh and felt very human.

Here are some thoughts about how the story might be strengthened.

Some stylistic weaknesses prevent me from becoming as immersed in the story as I’d like to be and disrupt the flow.

The tense shifts throughout the story between past and present.   For example, the story begins in past tense (“I rode my bicycle”), yet by the end of the first paragraph it has changed to present tense (“A bus stops next to me”).  Each tense shift makes me stumble as I’m reading and prevents me from falling into the fictional dream of the story.

Some sentences are unfocused.  A sentence should be one, focused idea.  With description, the description needs a focus.  What is the character looking at or perceiving?  Why?  What stands out for that character?  For example, “The street lights and their reflections in the buildings of the city tinted the dark sky above so that the many stars were hidden from my vision.” Is the sentence about the lights and their reflections?  Or about the dark sky above?  Or about the stars being hidden?  I don’t know where the character is looking.  He seems to be looking everywhere at once.  If the character is searching for the stars and the city lights are hiding the stars, I think there’s a more focused way to convey that.  But since the narrator seems to be riding a bike down a busy road, I don’t think he’d be able to search for stars.

There are some awkward phrases and sentences in the story.  For example, “I must attend to her these days as the cancer has picked up a heavy hand against her.”  I haven’t heard “heavy hand” used in this way.  As far as I know, one might “rule with a heavy hand,” but I don’t know what it means to “pick up a heavy hand.”  So this threw me out of the story.  If you’re not 100% sure of the meaning of a word and of how it is used in sentences, it’s a good idea to check, to not only look up the definition but also to look for examples of sentences using the word or phrase.

The story tells more than it shows.  For example, “It was not the face it was the night of the murder. Nor was it the gloomy, hopeless, and depressed face of the accused during the trial. It was a face unlike a regular face. A face comprised of pure malice and mischief.”  I’m not getting any concrete details to visualize here.  The first three sentences are an example of what I call “negative information,” when the author describes what isn’t present or what didn’t happen instead of describing what is present or what did happen.  The last sentence is positive information, describing what is there, but it’s all telling (abstractions, judgements) rather than showing (concrete sensory details).  So I still don’t know what this face looks like.  The main thing I want to know as a reader is whether this is the same man the narrator saw before.  And I don’t get the answer to that question.

Some of the telling involves emotion.  While that can sometimes work (such as when an emotion is different than we might expect from the situation), using multiple emotional labels tends to create confusion and no clear emotional impression.  For example, “Mad with the painful anxiety I flew into a rage” leaves me not really feeling anything.  I would need to feel the anxiety building more and leading into the rage, rather than just being told it happened.

Some of the showing is imprecise, not creating images I can form in my mind or believe.  For example, “Pub goers sit in the bar, outside it, and on the sidewalk on small tables and wooden chairs.”  If the pub goers are sitting in the bar and on chairs on the sidewalk, then the phrase “outside it” seems unnecessary.  The sidewalk is clearly outside.  So when three locations are listed–in the bar, outside, and on the sidewalk–I don’t know what to visualize.  I don’t know where “outside” is besides “on the sidewalk.”  Also, the sentence is saying that people are sitting on the sidewalk on tables and chairs.  I don’t believe they’re sitting on tables.  So my mental process as I’m reading this sentence involves stopping, being puzzled, and ultimately reimagining the sentence in my mind so it makes sense to me and I can then form the image. If I could skip the interim steps and just read the sentence and see the image, that would be more involving.

Regarding the plot, I think the extended timeline weakens the causal chain (a chain of cause and effect running through the story) and the character believability.  I don’t feel the impact (the effect) on the character when the Volvo’s driver is not convicted.  We’re told he declines, but I don’t see that in concrete ways.  For example, does he never ride his bike again?  Does he change jobs so he doesn’t have to travel on that street again?  Is he fired because he can’t concentrate?  The red Volvo keeps appearing outside, but then it stops.  Why?  I don’t know any cause for the Volvo to leave him alone.  Time passes, and then the Volvo returns.  Why?  And the narrator, who seems to have recovered from his decline and made a life for himself, approaches the car in a friendly manner.  Why?  And then loses control of himself and kills the driver.  Why?  These abrupt changes make it hard for me to believe in the narrator and the situation.  If the narrator is struggling against the man in the Volvo, and the struggle escalates, and the narrator moves away to escape the Volvo, but the Volvo is back a week later, we would understand that the Volvo has been searching for him during that time and has now found him again.  And we would understand the narrator’s violent reaction because he’s still upset; he hopes he might have escaped, and just when he thinks he’s safe, the man in the Volvo returns.  Stories extended over a long period of time make it more difficult to establish a strong causal chain.

I think the time period was extended so the narrator could have an ill wife at the end.  But the narrator might have been older at the start and already married with an ill wife.  The wife could serve as someone for him to talk to her about what he saw, and someone he could urge to the window when the Volvo appears, to make the story more external.  It’s usually good to give the main character someone to interact with to externalize both the internal and external conflicts.

I enjoy the narrator being inhabited by the devil (or believing he’s being inhabited) at the end, but I’m unclear what has killed his wife.  I’d love to have some sense of momentum at the end with an indication of what’s going to happen from here.  Does the narrator get the keys from the dead driver and head out to the Volvo?  Does he get his own keys and head to his own car?  Does he take his wife and lay her head in front of the tire of the Volvo before getting in?

I enjoyed reading this and was engaged throughout in trying to figure out if the narrator was imagining the devil or the devil was really stalking him.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

 

 

 

Editors Choice Award January 2023, 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.

The Last Warrior Chapter 1 by Erica Blumenthal

When a story gets stuck, there are as many reasons for it as there are stories. I salute the writer who sticks with it, who believes in the story no matter how often or how strongly it resists being told. That’s a story that needs to be out in the world. The trick is to find the best way to tell it.

This chapter is working hard to find its feet. We have a viewpoint character. There are hints of backstory and glimpses of the world. There’s a new arrival, a mystery, and a set of actions and reactions that help to move the story forward.

What I’d like to talk about here may be an issue for much later in the process, when it’s time for line edits. Or it may be worth noting now, to shift the direction a little bit, to point toward a slightly different way of telling the story.

This chapter is told through filters. There’s Brienna’s viewpoint, expressed in first person, which means we experience everything through her. The narrative unfolds through her thoughts and feelings.

This is an ancient and honored way of telling stories. Maybe it’s one of the first; who knows? I did this, I felt this, I thought this. I tell you what happened. I determine what you can and can’t know.

Where it gets tricky is when the original filter takes on additional layers. We as readers never forget that the narrator is “I,” that we’re being told a story. But “I” may place more barriers between us and what’s happening.

Here for example Brienna tells us what she does and why, but she does it in a particular way. She conveys information primarily through internal monologue. She’s telling a story to us, but she’s also telling one to herself.

This additional layer of filter comes through in a couple of ways. Thoughts expressed in italics are a popular narrative technique; I think they’re meant to make us feel as if there’s a dialogue happening, though there’s just one person talking. They mix up the text on the page, make the reader’s eye jump a bit at the shift from roman to italic and back again.

The question to ask is whether the typographical change does what it’s meant to do. Does it punch up the narrative? Does it give the reader a clearer sense of what’s going on? Is it effective? Can the story progress more smoothly without it?

The answer to these questions can perfectly well be yes, it does make a difference. The story is better for it. But it may help a stuck revision to ask whether there’s a different way to get the idea across.

The same applies to an equally or perhaps even more popular technique in internal monologue, the rhetorical question. The protagonist thinks about what’s happening or has happened or is about to happen, and wonders about it. Is this true? Is that going to be a problem? Has she done the right thing? Does she know what’s going on here?

I admit that I’ve maxed out on this in recent reading—this part of my TBR pile is unusually well populated with characters who tell their stories to themselves and then to us. I find myself wanting to be told it straight. To see it through the characters’ eyes without the ongoing sense of being told rather than simply being. I want to be there, to live the experience.

That’s a personal reaction, to be taken as such, for as much as it’s worth. What I hope it may do is point the way toward a more effective manner of telling the story. It may be as simple as reducing the number of italicized thought balloons or rhetorical questions. Or these filters may be exactly what the story needs in order to evolve according to plan.

If I were to make a suggestion, it would be to try a more direct mode of narration. We can still experience it through Brienna, but more subtly. Let us see what she sees, but perceive it through the words she uses, through the connotations they carry. Maybe a bit of backstory might come through as a flicker of memory, an image, an emotion, a flash of sensory information: a color, an odor, a sound. We’ll feel what she feels, rather than being told what she feels; we’ll hear what she hears, without the character’s voiceover.

Try it and see. The story might move faster, and the characters and events come through more clearly.

Or not. But it may be worth the experiment, just for a short chapter, to see if it works.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2022, 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.

Transient Prologue and Chapter 1 by Chuck Saul

This is an intriguing set of scenes. I like the concept, and the direction the plot seems to be going in. There are enough glimpses of the world and its people and institutions that I can start to get a picture of what sort of story this is going to be.

Two things might be worth pondering as the draft evolves.

First, the Prologue works for me in a general sense. It seems to be set in the future of the first chapter, and points toward an unexpected, possibly catastrophic outcome. That’s good, and pulls me forward into the story proper.

One thing to think about in revising this section is to be very, very attentive to the construction of sentences and the meanings of words. A good part of the effect here is based on the prose style. Watch out for awkward phrasing and incorrect or off-kilter choices of words. For example:

the moaning body

Usually I’m in favor of tight writing and condensed phrasing, but this is a just a bit too condensed. It’s distracting, as I try to make the noun and the adjective fit together.

The same thing happens with

striped red with wet streaks

I have to stop and parse it. Is the body red-striped? What are the wet streaks? Water? Some other liquid? It takes a moment to realize it’s the streaks that are both red and wet, i.e. blood.

Be careful of awkwardness as well, such as this:

Words take shape like the gurgling sound water makes when submerged within it

The words don’t seem to follow each other. Words, shape, gurgling, submerged, come from different places and have different meanings. The metaphor strains and breaks. And what is submerged? What is it?

Rich and evocative language when done well is an wondrous thing. But every word has to be carefully chosen and every sentence meticulously constructed. Especially in a prologue, which is the reader’s introduction to the world and the characters.

The narrative proper sets a completely different tone. It’s both disconcerting and refreshing to switch to breezy corporatese. We’re clearly in a different, more pragmatic universe. Part of the interest will be to find out how we get from here to the universe of the prologue.

I do think however that this section needs some rethinking and recasting. Rather than opening with two emails in a row from the CEO, I wonder if it would be better for the pacing of the story to intercut them with character actions and reactions. Give us more of the human element, and introduce it sooner.

The human element in this draft needs work as well. The narrative consists almost entirely of Ihara’s internal monologue. He relays information, provides chunks of exposition, and ruminates on various subjects. His coworker Malick comes across less as a character and more as a plot device—an irritant that drives Ihara outside.

The world beyond the office is nicely described. But here again, when he’s interacting with other humans, Ihara lives inside his own head. His conversation with Mani is filtered through his headset. It’s almost as if she doesn’t exist except as a voice in his ear.

This could be very effective if it’s meant to be a foreshadowing of what is going to happen to Ihara. If that’s the case, it might be worthwhile to make it clearer, to let us see that Ihara is already dissociated from other humans. If and when he becomes whatever he is in the prologue, it will be a natural progression from his existence prior to the flight.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2022, 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.

The House Of Faegrim by Susan Curnow

This chapter has a great deal of promise. There’s an intriguing protagonist with a tragic backstory, a fish-out-of-water plot, a rescuer with a mystery of her own—and that’s just the beginning. I will add that when I chose this chapter for an Editor’s Choice, I read the author’s note plus the first screen. I didn’t realize it went straight into my wheelhouse and camped there. Horses! A Kelpie! Surprise and joy!

At this stage in the draft I don’t think there’s much need to worry about grammar and line edits. That will come later on, when the text is more solidly established. For now, I’d suggest keeping the focus on structure and plotting.

There is a lot of plot in this chapter. Enough in fact for at least two novels. What the chapter is, essentially, is a set of proposals for those novels.

The first novel begins with Aiellessen’s arrival on earth. We know he’s been exiled, and we soon find out why, with a hint of complexity: he did commit murder, but he had good reason for it. This sets up an expectation that, as the novel progresses, we’ll find out more. He’ll be trying to get home, and trying to clear his name. Meanwhile, he has to try to survive in this alien and hostile environment.

This brings us to the horse herd and the revelation that Aiellessen is a horse shifter—a Kelpie. He settles in there, with a swift reversal: the herd is rounded up and captured. As a result, he meets a key person in his new life, Josie.

Josie is far more than she seems. She knows how to bind a Kelpie, and she binds this one to her for seven years.

At that point the narrative jumps ahead seven years. Josie, who appears to be a Selkie, is swimming away, apparently abandoning her bondservant. And then there’s another jump to a completely new character and plot.

Snow Erwin has her own reasons and motivations for being where she is. While she’s reflecting on that, she’s stalked and bitten by a Barghest. Then she’s rescued and bound by the Kelpie.

There’s the second novel. The first one is the story of Aiellessen’s arrival on Earth, his life with the horse herd, his capture and binding. The seven years that the chapter skips are the bulk of the novel. How he deals with the binding; what he does about finding a portal and getting home, or how he’s prevented from doing so; how he discovers Josie’s secret, and the events that lead up to her swimming away and leaving him on the shore.

We might expect more development of his life as a horse. Does he breed any of the mares? Is any of them in foal when they’re captured? How does he feel, if so? Will the offspring be horses or Kelpies or some combination of both? What effect will that have on the fauna of Earth? Will more magic seep in, or will it be drained out? What’s the story there?

Even more, we’ll want to find out what happened during his life with Josie. What is their relationship? Does he hate her? Resent her? Try to seduce her? Try to get her to free him so he can go back home? Why does she keep him for the full seven years? What does she need that only he can provide? Is she solely his enslaver or is it more complex than that? Is there some bond of honor, above and beyond the bridle, that compels him to stay? Do they become lovers? Does she enlist him into whatever plan led her to bind him in in the first place?

There’s so much story here. So much that goes into a seven-year relationship—whether it’s consensual or not. So many questions about the why and how and what leads up to that final scene by the sea.

The ending of that novel would be her swimming away and him being freed. What he does next will depend on what’s happened during those seven years, why she’s kept him and what he’s done to either accept or resist his servitude. Does he try to escape? Are they adversaries or allies? As the scene by the sea is written, it appears they may have evolved into the latter.

The Snow story is a completely new situation. There are parallels with the Josie story. This time it’s Snow who is rescued and bound, and the Kelpie who binds her. Is this revenge? Does he have a plan? Is she crucial to some part of it? Is there something about shifters and bindings and some process they have to go through, some reason they have to do it? Is it connected with Aiellessen’s past and his presumable desire to return home?

A key part of the writer’s job is to figure out how much story an idea contains, and then to determine whether the idea fits into shorter or longer form. This draft has more than enough story for two novel-length works. It’s possible they might be condensed into two or more novellas, but the setup has enough character, motivation, and potential plot complications to go the full length.

I hope the draft does open up into two novels, or at least into a novel-within-a-novel, the story of his past and the story of his binding contained within the story of story of Snow and her own binding. The protagonist should be able to support it. His story on Earth, his story with his fellow shifter, and his backstory have plenty of scope. So does the teaser about Snow and the Barghest. Does the Barghest bite cause her to turn into a shifter? Or is she one already? What is her story? I’d love to know.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2022, 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.

A Knot Of Silken Memories by Shannon Walch

“A Knot of Silken Memories” got my attention this month with its treatment of intergenerational memory and a rare moment of emotional insight. I think it’s in a much earlier stage of development than the author might be thinking—but also that it’s a piece well worth developing. So this month, I’d like to talk about strategies to build out early-stage sketches into something wide, deep, and memorable.

There’s a lot of foundation already laid in “A Knot of Silken Memories”: a working magic system, central characters with tangible history in their relationships, and the lacework motif binding it together in a way that’s structurally pretty pleasant—that idea of knit shawls connects the rest of the story elements just like the peacock tails. There’s also a nice hand with prose. Even in a piece this brief, there are some lovely lines in here: “all grey and brown in expectation of both winter and mourning” is clean, fine, and evocative in equal measure.

There are some notable gaps in the draft; places where information’s missing. The sense of place and time are quite ambiguous (French sometimes, a slightly fairytale-feeling England in others), emotional arcs still somewhat erratic (how does Jeanne move from the contempt of “the fish-scented spit of soon-to-die worms” to explaining the Countess’s humanity to her own daughter?), and the heart of the story—the narrating, the knitting—can feel a bit brushed-over and passive. Names like Countess Whipstaff and Miss Knitter are a little on the nose, and that sends a mixed signal to me, as a reader, about what kind of story this is: fairytale allegory?

The most important thing I’ve taken from this draft, though, is that “A Knot of Silken Memories” isn’t quite structured as a story yet; at this stage, it’s more a beginning concept. If we pull back from the plot of the piece, it’s mostly a demonstration of the idea—there are people who knit memories into shawls—and how that would technically work, sort of like a trailer or demo for the concept itself. The characters and plot we have are just enough to hold that demo: a way to think about the idea aloud.

I want to be clear: there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a stage a lot of story ideas go through—how would this interesting speculative idea work? In what situations, and what are its mechanics? The important next step for us as writers to take, though, is to ask: And knowing how it would work, then what? What would I have to say to other people using that idea?

There’s a switch in thinking that happens here in us, in our own heads, that’s crucial to making a story that sticks with readers. As writers, we have to make the hop from Isn’t this idea neat? and building a box to hold it, to making of the idea itself a box to hold something we want to explore or speak about. Instead of a goal, the fun fantasy element has to become one of the tools. That’s the point at which we’re not just demonstrating the thing that struck us as cool; we’re writing a story that moves and works on all levels.

And the thing is, I really do think “A Knot of Silken Memories” has the seeds of something to say. There’s a legitimate insight in the end of this piece: that different people in a family see the same things through completely different perspectives and contexts, and it’s a disorienting, heavy, complicated thing to see yourself through the eyes of a parent or caregiver. (And I’m saying that as someone who inherited her grandmother’s diaries.) That split in perspective can be painful, powerful, and revelatory, especially when people express love in different ways, or there are different goals and lots of disappointment. There’s a lot to talk about in that one line—and a lot of places to take that idea. This piece has, even in early draft, hit something real.

So what I’d mainly suggest for this piece is to chase that truth at its centre—and push everything deeper and farther.

It’s not difficult to start building a story into more: the first step can just be looking at what’s here, and going Okay, but then what? and What are the consequences of this worldbuilding? or But how do these people really feel and impact each other? Natural consequences are a great way to generate plot; sometimes all we have to do is follow them.

Another great way to do that—to turn the speculative mechanic into a tool to say something bigger—is to ask ourselves a series of questions about what made the idea stick in our heads in the first place. Every piece starts somewhere; there’s something in it that compels us. If we get back to what we found compelling enough to write it in the first place, we can often find what we’re saying—and then get about saying it more deeply or clearly.

Another strategy we can use alongside asking good questions is to look at those gaps in the draft as not problems, but available working space. If there’s space where something should be, there’s space to plant more story, more depth, and more texture there without disturbing the basic structure of what we already have. So I’d also suggest using those missing pieces as the equivalent of empty planters in a garden: they’re the first spaces you can use to pursue what you want to say, once you’ve nailed down what that is.

Finally, we can look at the characters: What facts do you know about them that got left off the page—but make for interesting story, new conflict, or potential? The solution to deepening a piece can sometimes lie in what else the characters have going on—and how it connects to or clashes with the things this draft’s already said.

So there are a variety of approaches here: ones we can use in combination or on their own to find what else is living in the world of “A Knot of Silken Memories”. And I think growing this piece in a deliberate way—a way that makes its speculative element the tool to say something bigger—has the chance to make a story that’s honest, adventurous, and affecting.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2022, 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 Flight Of The Ladies’ Helium Society by Robyn Hamilton

“The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” caught my eye this month with a nod to Victorian adventure fiction, wide worldbuilding, and However, it’s not yet hitting its full potential, and can read, at times, more like the outline than the story itself. So this month, I’d like to talk about worldbuilding details: how, where, and why we use them—and how that changes how our stories read.

“The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” has all the set pieces necessary for an interesting, wild adventure: dirigible-flying scientists questing for helium in an implied energy crisis, Victorian-style scientific societies, sabotage. It’s efficient with its opening paragraphs: they immediately evoke subgenre and atmosphere—that Waterman and Bentson’s expedition isn’t precisely being celebrated—and introduces a problem inside one scene: the rivalry between them, and gender equity in their field.

However, the way it uses detail and information doesn’t strongly address those questions—the ones the story itself has given readers as being important.

It’s very worthwhile, for this piece, to think about the details that get glossed over. “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” isn’t quite being deliberate yet with where it’s specific about action, and how much—and what that tells readers about which parts of the story matter.

Sometimes those specificities aren’t, in my mind, serving the story as well as they could. For example, some of the in-subgenre metaphors (Mrs. Bart being “more ballast than dirigible” particularly) are a little too on the nose. There’s an opportunity there to widen out Waterman’s world a bit, and pull in other things she cares about, other ways she thinks.

At other points, action is being glossed over in a way that makes Waterman’s world feel less real, or misses opportunities to ground and pace it. In the first scene, “the ship’s captain shouted into a bullhorn from the bridge”—but what did they shout? The supplies of helium are “in the US desert”, but which desert, and where and when is Waterman from that she refers to “the US”, and what would a more specific term add to the story in terms of telling readers that information on the sly? Is there a particular sort of place “men wouldn’t think to look”, and if not, what does that kind of rigid thinking around gender say about Waterman, and how can that be developed? Is Waterman’s antisocial tendency and professional sabotage normal for her society, and what does it say about her, and how do others react? Who are these teenage crew, and what are they like, and what are the implications of an expensive airship crewed by teenagers? If it doesn’t matter who finds the helium, and this is a crisis, why’s Waterman sabotaging Bentson? In the long-term, it’s awfully self-destructive—and ends up potentially marooning them all.

On the other hand, where details are deployed isn’t always the most effective. The crew’s elevator system for crates doesn’t exactly speak to the core challenge of the story: the quest for helium, and the two scientists’ rivalry. The same problems start to appear with the itemizing of Waterman’s experimental days and where to drill. It’s worth asking: Is it the best use of page space? How do these details get back to the bigger question?

Thinking about how “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” can do more with details affects not just the worldbuilding and characters, but the pacing of the story. How could the information dump in the second scene be combined with Mrs. Bart’s glossed-over speech in the first to tighten the story up and make everything feel more organic?

In short: Especially when we’re building speculative settings, ones that move us in where and when, details matter.

What I’d really like to call attention to is that how those missing details and present details interact—what’s not there that you’d think might be, and what is there that doesn’t answer the core question—is part of this equation of what matters.

Everything we tell readers about our worlds is also an act of setting expectations: together, those details build the lens that tells readers, invisibly, about the viewpoints this story takes. If all the details are in logistics, but none in character and motivations, “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is saying—without having to say it explicitly—that logistics are important, but motivations aren’t. When it says the problem is this world’s energy crisis, and solving it, but all the details go to Waterman proving herself better than Bentson, the message is that the second thing is really what this story’s about, and the first was only window dressing. When it makes the major reveal that Alex is a woman in disguise, it says that your gender is more important than your actions—and reinforces that message with both Waterman and Bentson being more than a little selfish and awful.

What these instances all bring to a head for “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is making what it says it’s about actually what it shows us it’s about—or vice versa. In short, making the details it uses—when, how, and where—actually match what its proverbial mouth is saying so readers don’t expect one thing, and leave disappointed.

So my suggestion would be to go back to first principles and think about what “The Flight of the Ladies’ Helium Society” is about: what in this story is important, and what readers should take from it. And then to deliberately arrange the details and attention it pays to those topics to make it plain—not through what the story says, but what it does—that those ideas are the centre of the story.

Working with details in this deliberate way will let this story do more: Deepen its setting into a fully-realized world, round out its characters into more than a gender difference, and clarify what their conflict’s about. The bones are there: with careful work and diligence, this has the potential to be much more.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2022, 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.

By Way Of Madness Chapter One by A.S. Walker

There’s an interesting story taking shape here. The body in the wagon, the hints of complicated politics, the sense that this world is probably more drimdark than noblebright, all come through in this opening chapter. There’s also a sense that we’re settling in for the length and depth of an epic fantasy. The pacing is leisurely, with frequent pauses for description, backstory, ruminations on this subject or that.

Not every novel needs to begin with a bang, literal or otherwise. Epic fantasy in particular takes its time, travels down sometimes lengthy byways, explores the world in detail. The reader knows they’re settling in for a long read. It’s an immersive experience.

With that in mind, I’m going to comment not so much on the pacing as on the ways in which the prose tends to slow it down. Some of what we see here may work later in the narrative, when the reader knows the characters better and is more invested in the minutiae of the story. At the beginning, the prose may want to be a little more economical, with fewer repeated facts and phrases.

We may for example want to move more quickly from road to city, and then from gatekeeper to magistrate. Shorter conversations with less repetition. More concise descriptions, and less backstory—retaining details that are directly relevant to the context, but saving the rest for later.

One thing that may help with this is to note how often we’re tagged with Ryndal’s viewpoint. We’re constantly reminded that he’s thinking, reflecting, noticing, seeing, feeling, reacting. Each reminder sets up a barrier between the reader and the protagonist, distancing the reader from Ryndal’s experience.

It might be worth removing the tags and seeing how the narrative works without them. We may need some of them, but the story may come through more clearly without the rest. We’ll be right there with Ryndal, rather than standing apart from the action and being told what he’s thinking and seeing and feeling.

We don’t want to gallop madly from scene to scene. That’s not how epic fantasy works. But the scenes can move ahead more smoothly, and the pacing can be less leisurely, without losing the essential character of the genre.

My other observation about this chapter is more logistical. Ryndal has a horse and a wagon. The connection between the two isn’t as clear as it might be. Ryndal appears to be riding the horse, which is possible when a horse is hitched to a vehicle, but I’m not getting a clear sense that the vehicle is hitched to the horse. In places it reads as if Ryndal is riding the horse and pulling the wagon himself.

Presumably that’s an issue of clarity in the prose. I’m supposing that in fact the wagon is hitched to the horse and Ryndal is riding the horse. If that’s the case, is he not sitting in the wagon and driving the horse because it’s too close to the stench of the corpse?

A few notes here. Horses and corpses don’t mix well—horses get spooky around dead things, which means it can be very hard to get them to go near a corpse, let alone be harnessed to a vehicle containing one. The horse must be very well trained to drive, or Ryndal may have found some way to deaden its sense of smell, an ointment or herb or similar. Or both, since even well-trained horses don’t always manage to overcome instinct.

If the horse is Ryndal’s riding horse and has been drafted to pull the wagon, it’s worth noting that horses have to be trained separately to ride or drive. Riding horses can freak completely out when hitched to a wagon. Add a corpse and you’ve got a pretty conclusive No Go. Or, more precisely, Go Very Very Fast Very Very Far Away From Rattly Reeky Chasey Thing. And Never Come Back.

Conversely, if the horse is trained to drive, it may not necessarily be trained to carry a rider. Pulling a cart is a different skill than carrying a live weight. The equipment is also different, with different attachments, locations, and purposes. Driving in particular requires a fairly complex harness, and the wagon is attached to this by means of a shaft or shafts. You can’t simply tie the wagon to the horse’s saddle or bridle.

Horses can be trained to both ride and drive, and often are, but it’s something to keep in mind. Contrary to what we see in movies, if a horse isn’t trained to do a particular thing, it’s not as simple as hitching it up to the cart or jumping on its back. There’s a process, and the horse has definite opinions as to how it will go.

As long as we’re on horses, don’t forget: A horse is not a motor vehicle. It’s a live animal. It needs frequent stops, considerable and regular amounts of feed and water, and rest, which in a city will mean a stable of some kind. It can’t be left standing for hours or days without consequences to its fitness or soundness. It also has a mind of its own, and may wander off if left unattended. And, as I noted above, if it takes sufficient exception to its surroundings, it will leave at speed. Often going through and possibly obliterating anything in its way, including people, other animals, walls, doors, fences, market stalls…

Best of luck with the novel, and happy writing!

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2022, 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.

 

SSlam by Noel Gonzales

One of the things I like most about about writing workshops is the opportunity to see a variety of work at all stages from first draft to just about ready for prime time. I particularly love first drafts, because they provide so much insight into the individual writer’s process. There is no wrong way to write a first draft. However the words get onto the page, whatever shape they take, that’s the right way for that particular writer.

This submission has a great energy. I like the way it starts right off with the big event, as seen through the narrow focus of a first-person protagonist’s day job. The characters are quickly and clearly sketched; I get a sense of who they all are, how they talk, how they react to the unthinkable.

The protagonist comes through even at this early stage. I don’t know their name yet, or their gender, or their history, but I’m invested enough to stay with them. They’re more than just a pair of eyes. They’re an active part of the narrative, and their actions and reactions help it move along.

I would, in further revisions, like to see the synopsized portions written out. I do that in first draft, too—quick sketch to get to the next part that’s demanding to be written. The final section of the chapter needs to be a fully realized scene, like what comes before. Let us experience it directly, as it happens, in real time.

I have one question about the actual content: Would meteorologists have to guess about radiation? Isn’t there some way to measure it, that authorities would have access to?

Way back in the Sixties, my dad was part of the Civil Defense force. He had a geiger counter and would go out regularly to check radiation levels around the area. The technology would have been considerably updated, but surely there’s something like it in use around the country. I can recall news reports about aftereffects of the Fukushima disaster, for example, with data from various locations, though I don’t recall which agencies were doing the recording.

Overall, this is a good start. I’m sure the prose will sort itself out in line edits, smoothing awkward or repetitive phrasing and reducing the number of viewpoint tags (I noticed, I saw, I looked, I thought, I felt). It’s not anything I’d worry about at this stage. The plot and characters are taking shape nicely; I’ll be interested to see where they go from here.

— Judith Tarr