Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Ylodch – Under A Darkened Sun Chapter 1, Revised, by J. Rokusson

This is an interesting submission, not only in itself but for what the author says about it in the author’s note. It’s not a first draft; it’s been revised with care and attention to prior critiques. There are things it’s explicitly trying to do, and questions for the readers of the earlier draft.

I like a good author’s note. It’s a great guide to the author’s intentions, and it gives this Resident Editor some directions to take in reading the submission. Here, I’m coming in as a cold reader. I haven’t seen the first draft. All I know is what I see here.

While it’s both fun and educational to compare drafts and discuss changes, if the work is going to be published, the only person who counts is the cold reader. The person who buys the book, who doesn’t know the characters or the story. If the author or the world are familiar, there may be preconceptions and expectations. But it’s still a new book, going off in new directions.

There are some intriguing things going on here. I love the imaginary unfriend—it’s a great concept, with lots of potential as the story unfolds. I get that there’s some portal fantasy going on here, and some sorcery, and for sure some swords. Or a sword. As far as I can tell, there may also be elements of impaired memory, either absent or tampered with in some way, so that what Azran knows or thinks he knows will shift from one moment to the next.

That’s an ambitious thing to do. It demands a great deal of the author’s craft, and expects a lot of the reader as well. It certainly can be done—I’m reminded somewhat of Gene Wolfe’s Latro in Soldier of the Mist and its sequel. But it’s not easy.

As the novel goes through further rounds of revision, I have a few thoughts.

First, I don’t mind a prologue, so put me on the Pro side of that argument. Labeling an introductory chapter a prologue can be useful in that it tells the reader that this is a separate section of the narrative. It generally takes place in the past, before the time of the main plot. It may address different issues, and it will set up essential backstory. The reader will expect a shift between the prologue and the first chapter, probably in time and possibly in setting or characters as well.

I get the idea of mystery. We don’t want to be told everything at once. We like to pick up just enough to keep us turning the pages, but not so much that it bogs everything down.

At the same time, we have to have enough clarity to understand what is happening in each individual scene. Mystery is good. Confusion, not so much. It’s a delicate balance.

In this draft, Azran is pursuing an agenda set for him by an unspecified they. He has orders (which seem to shift, as does his memory); he’s following them as closely as he’s able. Something happened yesterday—we get multiple references to this prior set of events.

What this ended up doing was make me wonder why the novel starts here. Why doesn’t it begin the day before? That’s when the precipitating events seem to have happened.

There must be a reason why it’s a mystery, but as the draft is written, it’s not clear what this reason is. The repetition of they and orders and yesterday needs more polish. Each reference should illuminate a little more, add a bit of new information to what we already know. There’s some of that in the draft, but it’s still more confusing than clear.

One thing that is getting in the way of clarity is the prose. The novel is still very much in the structural phase, still figuring out how best to construct its story and develop its characters; I would tend to suggest not getting too deep into a line edit at this stage. But a couple of stylistic changes might help make the story more comprehensible to the reader.

There’s some gorgeous imagery here, but there’s also a fair bit of awkward phrasing and “if one word is good, six is even better.”

The mountain looming above him: It’s clear what the mountain is doing. No need to explain.

With the gate materialised, his orders reclaimed a sense of impending realism: I’m not sure realism means what it wants to mean here. The passive constructions, the abstract concepts, move us away from the character and slow down the action.

A similar thing happens here: the earthy smell associated with underground caves became prevalent.

And here: High on her back, wings reached towards the ceiling, and her posture suggested she moved halfway from a crouch towards leaping into the air.

Think about how to tighten, shorten, transform from passive and abstract to active and concrete. Try to avoid suggested and seemed. Commit to it; make it definite. Think immediate and direct and active.

The tendency toward the passive and the prolix insulates the reader from the character, and filters away the sense of direct experience. We’re told the story from a remove, rather than living it with him. The words get in the way of the story, and the character’s emotions flatten out. It becomes harder for us to feel what he’s feeling—and when that happens, it’s also harder to keep turning the pages. We have to care, even if we dislike him. We have to want to know what happens next, and what he’s going to do about it.

Azran’s actions play into this as well. When he dropped his knapsack without seeming to care what happened to it, I wondered why he would do that. Is he under a spell? Why doesn’t he worry about losing his supplies? What makes him trust this strange place enough to dump his belongings? Not wanting the added discomfort seems like an odd and insufficient reason.

I’m not sure why he doesn’t know what he’s carrying, or why he hasn’t looked in the box or discovered the note. Wouldn’t he have made sure he’s properly prepared before he goes on the quest? If not, why is it essential that he only discover important information while he’s in the middle of his adventure? Again, it needs to be clearer (even if some mystery still remains) who has sent him here and why. Can we get a glimpse of them? A line or two flashing back to the giving of the orders? Something about how those orders, and the means of their being conveyed, may shift magically as he tries to carry them out?

It is clear that reality shifts as Azran moves through it. Some, he’s doing himself. The rest is being done to him, and apparently it’s part of the plot—presumably to be revealed as the novel goes on. But tighter, more focused prose and closer attention to the meanings of words will help readers as they try to follow what’s happening. Give them more clarity from line to line, and they’ll embrace the mystery. They’ll want to know what it all means, and where it’s going.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Diaries Of A Space Princess by Nora Schinnerl

I like the idea of this submission. It’s a nice riff on the fairy tale of the princess in the tower. Shifting it out into space and setting it in a high-tech future has the potential for some interesting and enjoyable storytelling.

The chapter as written needs some rethinking in order to work as a story. The author’s note describes it as an epistolary novel, but that is not actually what it is. An epistolary novel is an exchange of letters between two or more characters. If this were an epistolary novel, we would be reading letters written by the princess and presumably the king (or the king’s secretary), responding to each other and telling their respective stories in their own words.

The chapter presents as a proposal or detailed synopsis, a description of the story that the author wants to tell. The character exists at a remove. We’re not living the story with her; we’re being told the story by someone else.

The third-person narration could work if there were some clarification as to why the princess needs to tell her story in that way. What is she hoping to accomplish by filtering her experiences? How does the third person work in a way that first person can’t? Is she telling her story right now, or is she telling it in retrospect—as an older person looking back on what happened to her in the tower? Are her experiences too painful to tell directly? If so, we should have a hint of that, a suggestion that something is going to go wrong.

We should also be seeing more description of setting and background, and more telling of story. The diary should record dialogue and frame scenes, rather than presenting them in synopsis or summary. Even though the device of the diary presumes that we’re reading about events after the fact, we can (and should) still have some sense of direct and lived experience.

There’s another thing to think about, too. If the intended audience is young—and since the princess is eleven years old, by the rule of thumb for kids’ books, the readership would be a few years younger, say around seven or eight—if the storytelling is too indirect, young readers won’t stay with it. They’ll expect a diary to be told by the person who’s writing it, the “I” of first person. They’ll also want to know why they should want to read it. What is the story about? What does the protagonist want? What is she doing to get it? What factors are helping her, and what factors are getting in her way? What obstacles does she have to overcome in order to do what she needs to do?

I think young readers would also ask why she doesn’t have a friend, and if that’s the case, why she isn’t looking for one. She does try to turn the Blue Fairy into a kind of magical sidekick, but it seems strange that she’s so totally alone. Why can’t a robot be her friend? Enc is a possibility, but it needs to engage with her more, and have more of a personality. Or she needs to figure out how to make it develop one.

The princess reads young for eleven. An eleven-year-old is a late tween, within sight of her teens. She may already be having her period, and she may be starting to be interested in having a partner, though she probably won’t be thinking in sexual terms yet. Even if she isn’t interested, she probably will have some thoughts about it, even if they’re still the younger child’s “Eeeeuuuwww ick.”

It might help to read more widely in the middle-grade genre, to see how eleven-year-old characters are portrayed. How do they talk? What do they talk about? How do they feel about various things, especially school, parents, and peers?

Pay attention to the way the books are written, too. Voice is very important in writing for younger readers. By that I mean prose style, choice of words, the way the narrator describes the world and the people in it. The reader should be able to hear the character talking, especially in a diary. They should feel that they’re right there with the character, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling.

Study how published works in this genre tell their stories. How do they introduce their characters and settings? How do they set up the structure of the plot, and how do they move it forward from scene to scene?

Pacing is extremely important in writing for younger readers. Attention spans are shorter than older readers’. The progression of the plot should be clear and it should also be clear what the story is about, where the action comes from and where it’s headed.

In this chapter, I think shifting to first person would be a good first step. Then, opening up the synopsis into scenes with action and interaction. Write out dialogue. Give the king a voice; let him speak, and the princess will record what he said. Do the same for the mechanical inhabitants of the tower, and maybe think about giving them different ways of talking, different personalities and different voices.

Make sure we know there’s a direction to the plot. She’s in the tower, her father has shut her up there for Reasons. Maybe she could set about discovering what those reasons are. Can she start to become less submissive to her father’s wishes? Could she miss her past life more clearly? What about friends and family? Would she want to communicate with them? Would she understand why she can’t—for that matter, why can’t she? Why isn’t anyone else here with her? Why does she have to be alone? What danger is so great that no other human being can either be with her or know where she is?

There’s a lot to work with here. It begins by opening up the narrative and thinking through where it needs to go and how it needs to be told. Once that starts to happen, the story and its characters will start to come alive.

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

House of Sugar, House of Flesh by Lyndsey E. Gilbert

Although this submission is labeled “Fantasy,” it resonates for me as one of the purer kinds of horror. Fairy tales can go dark—very dark. This is as dark as they come.

The blending of “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Juniper Tree” works for me through the common theme of the mother as both protector and destroyer of her children. I do have a couple of thoughts about the draft. One applies to theme and content, the other to the prose.

The mother theme is clear, as is the juxtaposition of House of Sugar and House of Flesh. But there’s one more important theme that could be established from the beginning. The idea of “the knowing” becomes a driving motif late in the story. I think it would be even more powerful if it came through from the beginning. The mother is born with the knowing but keeps her daughter from it. This is a key to the development of the plot, and a pointer toward the inevitable conclusion.

The fact that the boy is denied the knowing is important, too. Is it because he’s male? Is the knowing only for females? A little more about that would deepen the impact of the theme.

Some of the emotional arcs could do with a little polish. When the mother-bird leads the children to the House of Sugar, she seems to be doing it to save them from starvation. But when they get there and the witch comes out, suddenly she changes her mind and calls on them to flee. Is this because she’s lost the knowledge of what lives in the house and what it will do to the children? Did she not realize she was leading them into danger? Does she have a plan, or is she so diminished and damaged that she’s not capable of developing one?

When the children disregard her warnings and enter, she seems to lapse into a kind of emotional flatness. Has she given up? Has she drained herself of feelings? What is happening to cause these shifts in her levels of knowledge and emotion?

In a story as short as this, every word carries even more than the usual amount of weight. Every sentence, every construction, every image, has to be just right. There are some powerful images in the draft, but a few that might be stronger. For example:

The prologue is stark and powerful. But does it need that last line, I was such a one? Does it need to define itself? I think the rest is clear enough that the line of explanation doesn’t need to be there.

Sometimes words or descriptions don’t quite hit the mark. Our two waifish children, for example. “Waifish” seems a little abstract. Compare that the description of the narrator as a “bone woman”—there’s that extra edge to it, though defining it by way of “a fragile figure” blunts it a bit. Can a birdlike thing and a bone woman stand on their own? Do they need the third qualifier?

In one of many vivid passages, the narrator describes how I make the journey back to the cottage and peck my husband’s eyes from his head. I sink my very real, sharp pale beak through his brain matter. Perhaps fewer words: “I journey back to the cottage and peck my husband’s eyes from his head. I sink my very real, sharp pale beak through his brain.” Just a small change, but tighter and perhaps more effective.

Watch out for awkward turns of phrase, such as:

Beaten like eggs in a bowl into stiff submission—perhaps turn that inside out, “beaten into stiff submission like eggs in a bowl.” Or this:

Groaning out a wet and squelching song—a groan is a very different sound than wet squelching. What other word might match the rest of the image?

There are a lot of good things going on in this story. With polish I think it will be even more visceral and powerful.

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Polish Resistant by Robyn Hamilton

“Polish Resistant” caught my eye this month by focusing on a small and hugely practical corner of spacebound futures: what we wear, and how the physical changes low gravity puts into bodies would affect that. It’s a neat, focused story that integrates a lot of big ideas well. However, it’s somewhat underplaying its closing act, and this month I’d like to talk about how what we let make an impact spotlights what matters in stories.

The real star in “Polish Resistant” is how it handles its idea work. This is a deeply focused—I won’t say small, but focused—story: it runs everything through the question of how fashion works in space, what those costs are, and why it happens. Textile production is an aspect of science fiction that doesn’t often get deep attention; the obvious thought that “Polish Resistant” puts into those practicalities is an effective hook.

The story’s also skillful in growing that hook into a sustainable picture of its world. Even though the immediate setting of “Polish Resistant” is a pretty small space—Talia’s workshop and other parts of Magda’s textile operation—it finds a lot of ways to grow that setting off the page, just through the ideas built into Fay’s dyeing job. We never leave the shop, but we see Earth’s environmental regulations, interplanetary disease concerns, the expense of spaceflight, low-gravity effects on human bodies, a ruthless social media-based economy, and automated labour all have measurable impacts on the action of the story.

It’s the impacts that deserve the attention here. What makes those background details feel round and real—moreso than just mentioning that these things happen—is the fact that they have consequences. Each one of those ideas about how the world of “Polish Resistant” works intersects with each other, produces secondary effects, and changes the choices people make in the story itself.

Talia’s not just stuck in a demanding piecework system for no reason; it’s because of the cost of spaceflight. She’s not working with recyclable castoffs and richer planets’ dirty work for effect (although it’s a tidy evocation of the ways Western used clothes are dumped on other countries here and now); it’s because of the environmental regulations.  Even though they’re happening off-camera, so to speak, those aspects of this world affect how people move within the space of the story.

“Polish Resistant” also manages to integrate its characterization in the same accreting, detail-oriented way. Fay’s flair for social performance—every kind of social performance—immediately makes it plain why Talia dislikes her. The little ways Fay deflects discussion of the ways she’s exploiting Magda, Talia, and Rich, the ways she constantly repaints herself as a benefactor, are extremely telling—and they’re very effective characterization, especially when they’re set up against the more blunt, obvious ways Magda’s exploiting her staff and gets increasingly competitive through the visit.

We learn who Talia is almost as a reflection of these two characters: all the ways they are and she’s not. It’s interesting that Talia does custom: quietly meeting everyday personal needs versus the prestige and performance of Fay’s design career. It’s interesting that she thinks of her client as “the tall boy”—a design problem—but that not knowing how to make him happy with the work is destroying her schedule. “The tall boy’s jumpsuit” turns into a kind of chorus, seaming through the entire story.

The author’s notes are worried that Talia’s problem is too small to be interesting, but I think its smallness—and persistence—up against the grand gestures Magda and Fay make is exactly what makes it interesting. She’s stuck on just getting things done for known human people, and doing them well. It underlines her very real commitment to the people wearing her clothes.

I think the gap to still be filled in “Polish Resistant” happens, however, when that comparison falls away: between when Fay buys out Talia’s contract and her decision to open a shop of her own. It’s been made plain throughout the piece that Talia’s not interested in what Fay’s offering, so there’s no realistic source of interest or conflict there; I’d have been shocked if she did act the ways Fay—and Magda—expect. But to me, as a reader, it feels like there’s a missing piece between the closure of what they think she wants to do and what she actually wants to do, and that ending comes as a surprise; one where I’m not sure it’s telegraphed enough to be satisfying. And I think it’s because of this emphasis on outside forces, obligations, and who Talia’s not that we haven’t gotten any real picture of who Talia is.

The emphasis Talia puts on comparing herself to Fay throughout “Polish Resistant” spotlights a different part of the story: if Talia’s a failed version of Fay or as someone doing a different thing well. She hasn’t been finishing things on time, true—and it’s implied this was a problem in the past—but we don’t get a sense of why that’s something that’s plagued her through her career, in the same way we get a sense of why Fay took her job to Magda’s shop. Yes, Talia’s been persistently putting off the end of that jumpsuit all story long, but there’s no information as to the conditions that made this true, and what we see on the page doesn’t help us. Talia actively pushes away her deadline problems; the major emotion around them is trying not to think about them. Every interruption and distraction she faces on the page is about Fay, and Fay’s visit is temporary. Finishing should be no problem, once she’s gone.

However, the question of finishing things on time rushes to the centre of the story at the end: Magda raises it at the end as the major, real barrier to Talia having her own shop. And it turns out readers haven’t had the chance to get that same insight into Talia’s prior shops, her failures, her process. The ending as written feels less like a door satisfyingly closing than one that we didn’t know was a door in the first place.

So I’d suggest thinking about ways to construct Talia’s deadline problems more substantially—with the same attention the garment work process got in “Polish Resistant”. Build a more tangible question around that personal character arc, and readers can feel the satisfaction of it being resolved.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

 

Growing Thorns 1 by Elizabeth Porco

I love the concept of this piece. I would almost say the magical system, but it slips over the line into science fiction, because Tesla and electricity and science. It’s further brightened by its narrative voice: just the kind of wry, dry wit that makes me a happy reader.

Even without the author’s note I can pick up the sense that this is part of a series. But because it’s presented as a first chapter, there are a few things that might help the cold reader figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t need chunks of exposition or a detailed backstory; a line here and a clarification there would do it.

I would suggest mentioning the electricity infection closer to the beginning. The setup with the Faraday armor is great fun, but if I knew more at the start about the timeline and the origin of these powers, I’d have a better sense of what was happening. I gather Robin is a casualty of the syndrome or disease or whatever it is? Just a hair more clarity about that would deepen the emotional impact of his loss.

The opening seems to assume that the reader knows who Rose and Deborah are and why they’re driving in the Tesla, and what they’re going to do once they reach their destination. It reads as if there’s a page or two of setup that I’ve missed. I like the technique called in medias res—throwing the reader right into the middle of things—but maybe not quite so deep in to start with. I’d have liked to have a line or two about the electricity infection, and something about what the women are up to and why. Maybe just a bit more about what happened to Robin, tying it in with what the women are trying to accomplish.

The place they drive to is a generic setting, beach. If it were more specific, it might be clearer why they choose this particular place. Where exactly are they? Is it a lake? The ocean? Are they here because of the open space? Something about the sand? The water? How remote is it? Would they worry about being seen, considering that they’re setting up for a pretty spectacular light show?

It seems they haven’t thought things through. They don’t seem to have taken precautions against being caught—and not only because the park is closed. The ranger just barely misses getting fried. Is this because they’re new to their powers? Have they done anything like this before? Is this the first experiment, or are they further along in the process? What’s the purpose of it, and what do they hope to get out of it?

This is probably answered in previous stories, but is the infection universal, or is it just happening to a few people? The park ranger doesn’t seem to be aware of it, but it must be happening all over the world, if the women are in San Francisco and Robin died in London. The new reader needs more context, and the returning reader might appreciate a quick reminder.

This is a strong first draft, but it needs more layers. A little more setup, a more specific setting, a clearer sense of what the characters are doing and why. I’m intrigued by what’s here. I’ll be interested to see where it’s going.

— Judith  Tarr

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Ros And The Dragons by Robyn Wescombe 

The author’s note on this submission talks about some of the issues readers found in the earlier version, and especially the question of exposition. Exposition is an essential tool in the writer’s box, but it can be complicated to figure out when, where, and how much to include in the story. I like the way the author approaches earlier critiques, and their attitude overall to drafts and revision. It’s a voyage of exploration, and a learning experience, always, even for a very experienced writer.

Exposition is about making sure the reader knows what they need to know in order to understand the story. It enhances the action and helps to explain how and why characters act and feel the way they do. Too much and the story bogs down. Too little and the reader is missing essential information.

The writer walks a narrow line down the middle. I like to define that line, when I’m writing, by asking questions. These questions can apply to other aspects of the story as well, including the number of characters in the scene.

1. Does this (expository bit, character, description, plot element, etc.) need to be in this exact place at this exact time? Is it essential for the movement of the plot? Can the plot move forward without it? Does the plot slow down or stop because of it?

2. What happens if I leave it out? Does the story still make sense?

3. Can I shift this piece of information to another part of the story? Will it work better there? Is it absolutely essential that this information appear here?

4. Does it need to be in the story at all? Have I provided enough information that the reader can extrapolate the rest?

5. Am I trusting my own skills? Am I trusting the reader to get my point?

These and other questions can help a writer choose when and how to convey information. It’s an art to keep the story moving while providing enough enhancement to make it both rich and satisfying, but not so much that it clogs the works. A good part of that art is knowing which information to convey—what to leave in, and what to leave out.

In this chapter, because it’s the first chapter, it’s even more important to get the balance right. The introduction of each character, with description and backstory, slows down the action and distracts from the main theme, which is House’s gender reveal and what the dragons do to disrupt it. We need to know a few things—what House is, what the party is about, and why it’s such a big deal that dragons have shown up—but count me on team Too Many Characters.

It’s not that there are a lot of people in the scene. It’s a party. There’s a crowd. But as a reader, I don’t need to know in detail who each person is. I don’t need the round of introductions. What I need to know is that are a bunch of people here and suddenly there’s a pair of party crashers.

It’s about need-to-know. Essential information. Right here, right now, I only need to meet the main players. Ros, House, the dragons. One or two others to give me a sense of the rest of the crowd.

The rest can wait for a later scene. Then we might get a quick line or so of “Oh, yeah, Bob was at the gender reveal, he knows what’s up, now it’s his turn to move things forward.” We’ll have time to get to know them, and to see how they fit into the story as a whole. For now, it’s enough to know they’re there. We’ll trust the story, and the author, to give us more when the time comes.

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2022, 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.

Our Days Are Numbered These Days by Jim McDougall

There’s something about images of people–videos, movies, photos, and paintings–that can be very disturbing.  “Our Days Are Numbered These Days” builds on the disturbing potential of images to provide some creepy moments.  When Craig realizes that something like an old home movie is somehow playing on the boarded-up window of a deserted house, that’s quite strange and disturbing.  The moment when this “movie” starts playing on his phone is super creepy and really disturbed me (in the best possible way).  For me, that’s the strongest moment in the story.  A man in the “movie” seems to appear in reality, which is another disturbing moment.

The story offers some other powerful moments that don’t involve images of people.  Craig finds the calendar with the current date circled and only blank paper after that date.  That feels very fresh to me and horrific.  And then Craig discovers his phone is stuck on that date.  There’s a lot in this story to enjoy, but I do think it could be strengthened in several ways.

I had a hard time believing the reactions of Craig and Angela, so I wasn’t able to relate to them or care about them very much.  That weakened the horror.  My first difficulty occurs when Craig wants to go over to the abandoned house to investigate the light.  To me, it seems like Craig and Angela should think the light is most likely caused by people using the house to sell drugs or engage in some other illegal activity, or by homeless people using it for shelter.  Either way, I would expect Craig and Angela to anticipate the people in the house would not welcome anyone snooping around and that danger might result. But neither one of them anticipates danger.  If Craig is supposed to already be drawn by the light, that’s not clear now.

Once Craig and Angela get to the boarded-up window and start seeing the movie images, there reactions again are hard for me to believe.  They are concerned with what’s happening in the movie, when the movie was made, and the fact that the burgers look tasty.  I think they ought to be concerned with how they are seeing images when there is clearly no projector around, an idea that would be followed in short order by freaking out and probably running away.  I think the story is trying to suggest that they are mesmerized by the images, but that doesn’t come through.  I don’t feel the images or the light drawing them in.  For me, the story would be stronger if Craig were fighting the influence of the light, so we could feel an internal conflict between the attraction and his knowledge that this is strange/wrong and should be resisted.  When Craig thinks, “This was getting really crazy now,” I’m thinking he should have thought this much earlier in the story.

Another element that could be strengthened is the plot.  I think it works pretty well up until Angela disappears and Craig finds the calendar.  After that, the suspense and fear seems to drain out of the story as Craig easily flees the house, and we learn he’s been detained by the police and this is a letter to the inspector.  It feels as if we’re promised a story about Craig and Angela and this landmark of the house, but what we end up with is Craig’s plea for the police inspector to solve his problem. That’s not a satisfying delivery on the promise.  It feels like I’m reading one story up until he flees the house, and then I’m reading a totally different story.  For me, delivering on the promise means continuing the story of Craig, Angela, and the house until it’s resolved in some way.  Craig might struggle to find Angela in the house.  For example, maybe he sees her in the movie on his phone, and in the movie, she’s in the backyard.  So he goes into the backyard to try to find her, but she’s not there.  And in the movie she goes into the basement, so he goes into the basement, but she’s not there.  But he might find some other disturbing things in the basement or get trapped there.  Maybe the door opens when it’s past midnight.  The day resets (because it’s the last day on the calendar), and the movie/supernatural won’t appear again until dusk on this day.  He wouldn’t know this, but he could search around, and then weird stuff would start happening at dusk. This could happen a couple times with things getting worse each time.  Maybe he has to write something on the calendar to resolve the situation.  That might be “Join the party,” which might get him into the movie with Angela.  Or it might be “Marry Angela,” which might get Angela released, or “Stop the murder.” Maybe Angela would provide clues while in the movie, or maybe she can send texts on his phone.  There’s a lot of potential here; it’s a matter of figuring out what the story is about and how best to fully realize that.

I wonder why Angela is taken into the movie and Craig isn’t.  It seems like perhaps Craig closes his eyes to the light and Angela doesn’t.  But Craig was the one eager to investigate the light, so it seems odd or counterintuitive that he’s the one who resists it.  If Angela is unhappy in her life, and that’s what leads her to open her eyes and be taken into the movie, I think that needs to be established up front, before they see the light at the house.  Whatever the story is about, I think it reflects or relates to a relationship problem between Craig and Angela, and that needs to be set up at the beginning, get worse when Angela is taken, and then get resolved along with the conflict between Craig and the movie/supernatural at the end.  For example, if Angela wants to be part of a committed relationship and Craig doesn’t, then perhaps the desire for a strong bond and belonging is what appeals to her about the movie, which shows a family gathering, and what leads to her being pulled into it.  Craig’s desire to avoid commitment may have caused him to remain outside the movie.  Craig resolving his issue one way or another could lead to him resolving the issue with the movie/supernatural.

One final element I want to mention is description.  I’m confused a number of times about what’s happening because the description is not clear for me.  For example, the house is described as being “silhouetted in the amber glow of the lights up on the freeway.”  But they are on the street where the house is; they are on the same level.  The lights are above.  Something is silhouetted, at least in my mind, when the light is on the far side of the object.  That means the light needs to be behind the house to silhouette it, not above the house.  This may seem picky, but as I read I’m trying to form images, and I couldn’t form this one.  Another example occurs when Craig has first reached the window and sees the light:  “Its brilliance completely obscured the boards over the window.”  Previously, the light has been described as if it is leaking out from cracks between the boards.  So when I get to this sentence, I still think it’s leaking out from within the house.  It’s not clear to me that the light seems to be coming from outside the house.  It took me a while to understand and be able to visualize what was happening, which made it less scary.

I hope my comments are helpful.  I really enjoyed the disturbing elements in this story.  It was nice to read more of your work.

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

Editor’s Choice Award May 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 Only Beautiful Thing by Nora Schinnerl

“The Only Beautiful Thing” caught my attention this month with how its cloistered, gossipy corporate world contrasts the rich, subversive lives of the least important people living in and around it: a pair of human corporate decorations hired to pad out local staffing requirements. This far-future slice-of-life veers into active—if understated—liberation when a space privateer hatches a desperate plan to blackmail their CEO, and the AAPs see their chance. However, as the action ramps up, “The Only Beautiful Thing” falters somewhat into a slightly-too-pat ending. So this month, I’d like to take a closer look at the idea that what we set up has to pay off; or, what goes up has to in some way come down.

The slice-of-life far-future world of “The Only Beautiful Thing” is its first and most obvious star. From the muffled, regulated rooms of ChippedTM to the hinted-at complex colonial politics of Takamaha, Samir and Dash’s universe is wide, varied, and delightfully rich: filled with rules and how people ignore or break them, motivations and counter-motivations, relationships just out of focus, terrific natural beauty, and some ultimately pretty wholesome desires in the midst of a very exploitative framework. The way the organic—salt-stained stone pillars, a bedroom herb garden, good coffee, makeup with natural smells—is splashed against the artificiality of ChippedTM’s perfectly positioned beautiful people sets up a set of opposed ideas, but it’s the ways they keep being riffed, complicated, and there’s always more that keeps this world from feeling small or reductive. There are always about five parallel things happening, and none of it feels binary or laced with trauma reaction: Takama and its interlaced workforces are all vibrant and alive.

It’s a generous complexity that’s rooted directly in Samir and Dash themselves. “The Only Beautiful Thing” sets up an opposition immediately—beautiful and stupid—and telegraphs that whatever happens here, Samir is about to be underestimated. It’s a good way to immediately establish tension: there’s a really specific readerly pleasure in seeing how something plays out, even if we know that it’s going to, and “The Only Beautiful Thing” taps into that instantly and well.

But that dichotomy also lets the story characterize Samir quickly, calling readers’ attention to where he’s pragmatic, sarcastic, sharp, and adaptable—by putting forward the lie that he can’t be as a lie, and using the space that marks out to show Samir’s complexity. It’s a technique “The Only Beautiful Thing” uses in a few places, notably with the food-coloured skin trope: setting it up, setting up the pushback against that idea, and undermining both to make Samir real.

Guiding readers’ attention this way is a solid technique for prompting readers to pay closer attention to the finer points of a character and invest in him as a person, not a kind of person. It’s also, incidentally, a great structural technique to use in a story about being seen past the surface: one that flows with what “The Only Beautiful Thing” is talking about.

And it works well. When we find out Samir has a horrifically sad backstory—orphaned, unskilled, exploitable—in the third scene he’s already so firmly established as smart, funny, idiosyncratic, boundaried, adaptable, coffee-loving, big-brotherly, a bit of a drama queen, still and always a work in progress—a person!—that he doesn’t slide into a stereotype. He just gets more visible in context.

A lot of thematic work’s being done here, in the ways Samir and Dash keep taking the structures of oppression and casually undermining them—sometimes, funnily enough, in ways that literally nobody notices or cares about, even when those tiny interventions take down ChippedTM. Instead of throwing themselves into one rigid ideal or the other, Samir and Dash use a handful of little tricks to navigate the distance between them. Faced with becoming objectified for or by either cause, they stay human—and grab what they wanted all along.

If I have a major criticism, it’s that the balance between slice-of-life/buildup and the action—both what Samir and Dash do, and what the privateer does to bring down ChippedTM—still feels like a work in progress. The actual logic around the explosion—what happens, what Samir and Dash did, the aftermath—is a little bit underexplicated for my eyes. It’s hard for me to piece together the particular flavour of double-cross they’ve managed with Dash’s unmonitored watch: notifying security, but also…? Especially when contrasted with the loving attention given to Samir’s everyday life, that underexplanation makes the scenes where everything actually goes down feel rushed and scant. I’m missing the how of the money moving, the messages sent, and the impact Samir had on the privateer’s plot, so I can’t really appreciate what happened.

There are a few ways to repair this: either a little more time spent on those events, or a few more solid hints dropped, or a stronger setup so that the light, allusive payoff feels like it’s paying something off that I already, as a reader know. But I’m flagging the issue for whichever road the author wants to take.

I’d also think about where the ending lands. There’s such a rich fabric of events and motivations here that landing the title on a pat, tidy, almost sitcom-like punchline, and that feels a bit too light and unsatisfying. This is also, as I said early on, a question of payoff for me. Very little in “The Only Beautiful Thing” has been surface-level, or about appearances and shorthands; there’s no reason that Samir and Dash’s happy ending should be either, when everything about their complex, crappy working situation was nuanced, textured, and layered.

I’d love to see a way to land “The Only Beautiful Thing” that also takes that nuanced, textured, layered approach. The outcome of actions isn’t neat and tidy; I’d love to see this in all the richness that everything else in this story—and world—has displayed.

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As a final note: The author’s asked if there are any concerns critiquers see on how the sign language is used. I’m not an expert in sign, but I do have a linguistics background, and there were some features here that really stood out and showed an underlying logic to the language. The visible case markers in the lowercased possessive markers tied together nicely with functionally casting the pronoun as a single word with a gendered affix; it feels like a unified logic. And the depiction of fingerspelling proper nouns also communicated beautifully and grounded “The Only Beautiful Thing” in how sign speakers use language.

I also loved how much more expressive Samir and Dash are in sign—another true-feeling thing!—and how strongly that’s contrasted thematically with their jobs of not moving a muscle. Putting the signed dialogue in allcaps just emphasizes that feeling—of huge, gossipy, warm personalities stretching out. It’s a great choice.

Beyond that, there’s an opportunity here to think about a few basic cross-checks when we’re concerned about showing people fully and well in our work.

Are Dash and Samir’s shared vocabularies largely consistent? Do they have similar enough collections of words, and—in Samir’s case especially—different enough to reflect who they are as people and Samir’s limited sign vocabulary?

Is the syntax Dash and Samir use accurate to one of the currently used sign languages? This is an invented sign vocabulary, and invented language does give us a lot of room to play, but English-speaking readers take a lot of information out of syntax: the word order of a non-English language. It’s worth checking if the syntax is consistent, and making sure it’s not echoing any of the particularly derogatory ways propaganda’s depicted the ways non-English speakers speak.

On the whole, though, I think there’s a lot of joy and potential in this piece—and with a bit more balancing, it’s likely ready for print.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Stones: Lost Avar-Tek by Darrell Newton

I like the idea of this story series. It’s a nice riff on the mysterious alien artifacts trope, with bonus time travel. The voice of this section is nice, too, with its own distinct attitude and style. It gives a pretty believable impression of a modern guy telling a story he doesn’t think you’ll believe, because he’s not sure he believes it himself.

I have a question about the draft as written. Jenny hands the stone to call-me-Austin and runs away from two people who she believes are a danger to her. The stone has powers, and she tells him what they are and how to use it—including how to recharge it. Austin understandably doesn’t believe her, until he more or less accidentally uses the stone.

This is a trope in itself, and it raises certain expectations in the reader. We expect him to gradually come around to believing what he has. He might at that point overuse or misuse his amazing new toy. He may discover that he’s under the same kind of threat as Jenny was, from the same forces. Then he’ll find himself on the run as well, which in fact is the frame of his narrative.

Because the story is framed as a flashback, we know what the outcome will be; the interest is in how and why he’s running. The story starts off on a note of high tension. We’re meant to hang on tight as we’re pulled along toward the outcome we already know.

The draft needs two things in order to get the job done. The first is a clearer and stronger emotional arc. We need more sense of what Austin feels and why. He evolves from disbelief to belief, but more than that, he wakes to the realization that Jenny has made him a target—of what, he needs to find out, for his own life and safety. If he’s using the stone, he has to at least wonder if it can be tracked; if every time he powers it up, the people looking for it may be able to detect it. That might give rise to a moral dilemma. Use it and risk his own life, or not use it and risk the life of the person who needs to be healed.

And then there’s the question of the bag and the marks. What are the marks? What do they mean? Wouldn’t he wonder? And wouldn’t we see what they are, and go along with him as he finds out what the bag does, even while he discovers the limits of the stone?

The other thing that the draft needs is closely connected with the emotional arc: tension and suspense. We know Jenny is being pursued. Austin sees the weird couple who are pursuing her. But he doesn’t worry that they’ll go after him instead, once he starts using the stone. Even if there’s a strong and sufficient plot-based reason for them not to do it, wouldn’t he worry about it? Wouldn’t he try to find out who they are and what they’re doing?

Nor is it only the lack of emotion that undercuts the suspense. The timeline stretches out through days and weeks, without a clear reason for everything taking so long. He jumps from event to event, but nothing happens in between. It’s a kind of dead air.

This would work if he were in, say, a time warp; if the stone had some other power beyond healing, to twist and bend time around the person who carries and/or uses it. Then something would break the barrier, maybe a misuse or overuse of the stone and a failure to charge it before the (I presume) time agents detect it. And that would be the reason why he’s suddenly on the run.

What the draft needs, in short, is more layers of emotion and motivation, and if the timeline needs to be stretched, more sense of why that has to happen. Otherwise, I would suggest tightening it up considerably, concentrating events into a much shorter span, and keeping the action moving without pause until it ends in Austin’s flight to whatever safety he can find. Maybe too some indication of Jenny’s fate, some sense that he might be running either toward or away from her, and something to point us toward the question of why she had to keep running even after she gave up the stone. Maybe some explanation of the subtitle as well; some pointer toward “Lost Avar-Tek,” some indication of its meaning.

There’s quite a lot to work with here. With more layers and more clarity, it will be a stronger story.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 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 Unseen God by Anne Hansell

As I read this submission, I found myself pondering the nature of story—how it evolves from concept or idea, and how it differs from summary or synopsis. I reflected too on how the title of a story affects the reader’s reaction to the story itself. The title drew me in, and it created certain expectations, which as a reader I hoped would be fulfilled.

The submission opens with an intriguing setup: a petitioner approaching a god whose face must not be seen because the sight of it will blind him. He wants two things, relief from the drought that besets his farm, and the rescue of his daughter from an undesirable suitor. The god grants his wish on one condition. He must give the god the first thing that greets him on his arrival home. He assumes that will be his old dog. Of course it’s not the dog who comes out, but his daughter, and he is forced to surrender her to the god for ten years. Not only does that save her from her suitor; the god further punishes the young man by causing him to be blinded for those ten years, until he sees her married to someone else.

This is one of the classic plots, with an interesting twist in the nature of the god. In this draft, it proceeds in a linear fashion, from the petition to the twist. It then turns into a summary of what happens after the daughter goes into the temple, concluding with the elderly farmer’s realization that the god orchestrated it all. He’ll send a fruit basket, he thinks, to thank the god for treating him so well.

There’s a story here—in fact, there are a number of stories. The first one rises from the emphasis in the opening scene on the fact that the god’s face must not be seen. It reads like a setup for a story in which we ultimately either see the god’s face, or we reach a better understanding of why that face must be hidden. Either Kinjiro the farmer wonders about this to the point that he can’t keep himself from trying to find out, or his daughter, who comes a priestess, devotes her tenure to discovering the truth. Or the suitor, Josh, is blinded after seeing that face, and is probably also prevented from telling anyone else what he sees—but he knows, and that knowledge changes him forever.

One thing that makes story is change. Characters change as their circumstances change. Does Kinjiro simply accept what happens, or does it alter the way he sees the world? Does he resent losing his daughter for so long, or does he make up his mind to be grateful to the god for granting him prosperity and saving her from a bad marriage? What progression of emotions does he undergo as he reaches this conclusion?

Likewise, would blindness change Josh? Would it make him bitter and hungry for revenge? Or would it make him a better person, even make him worthy of Rosemarie? That would be a twist in itself: the god promises that she’ll be married to a different person, but that different person is Josh.

Another thing story does is answer questions. It may not necessarily solve a mystery—sometimes the mystery is the best part—but it may give the reader more clues as to what’s going on. Kinjiro eventually figures out what the god is up to, but the story might be stronger if we had clearer indications throughout that there are deeper motivations than Kinjiro at first understands.

We might also learn why the god singles him out. Why not someone else? Are there other gods in this world, a pantheon? Do they have quotas for good and bad gifts to their mortal charges? Is there something special about this particular family, or about Josh? What happens if these gifts are not given? What consequences will there be for the people or the town or the god himself?

That’s where story is. In questions. In change. In friction between characters. A very short story like this one will be tightly focused. It may pick one set of answers and concentrate on one set of changes, but it will delve, however concisely, into the reasons for these answers and these changes.

It will also, most likely, keep to a fairly tight timeline. If it wants to talk about the future, it may do so by presenting the heart of the story as a flashback. We may get a frame story; Kinjiro at the end of his life, prosperous and happy, reflects on how he got there, and then shows us how it began. That would include his fear and uncertainty, the shock of losing his daughter, and both the pathos and the satisfaction of seeing what happens to Josh. Then the end would be his realization that the god meant this all along, with perhaps an additional revelation, the reason for it all, something that he or his daughter or her children has done, that would never have happened without the god’s intervention.

That might be something above and beyond simple prosperity. Some great good thing that helps the whole town. Maybe Josh would become a tyrannical ruler, but blindness stops him and reforms him. Maybe the drought would cause a famine that destroys the town.

None of this needs to add a great deal of word count. It’s more a matter of focus. Of deciding which questions to ask, and seeing how the answers affect the characters. How do they react? How do they change? How do those changes affect the world around them?

Story lives in the twists and turns of the characters’ lives, not only in what is done to them by others (including gods) but in the decisions they make, and the reasons for those decisions. Story, like life, is seldom smooth or easy. Nothing is ever really simple or straightforward. It’s messy; and that’s what makes it interesting.

— Judith Tarr