Editor’s Choice Award January 2021, Horror

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Specter by L.K. Pinaire

This story has many appealing ingredients:  the old mansion, the new residents, the tension of a newly forming family, the signs of ghosts, a mystery from the past.  I enjoy the way the story uses multiple senses to suggest the presence of the supernatural.  The strongest part of the story, for me, was when Darrelle was poking the yard fork into the ground around the cherry tree.  That generated good suspense and dread.

While I’m interested from the start to the end, I think the story could be strengthened in several ways.

As I mentioned, I feel suspense and dread as Darrelle searches for the baby’s grave, but for much of the rest of the story, I don’t feel a lot of emotion.  Ghost stories generally generate emotion by making us fearful or anxious about what the ghost might do and by involving us in the internal struggle of the protagonist facing the ghost.  After the first couple of interactions with the ghost, I’m not too afraid of what the ghost might do, since it doesn’t directly threaten anyone.  More important, for me, is that Darrelle doesn’t seem to have any significant internal struggle.  He approaches the problem pretty rationally and reasonably.  The story tries to suggest an internal struggle, telling us that he was “compelled” to learn more, and that part of him “wanted to believe” and “the rest of [him] didn’t,” but he behaves more or less like a detective searching for clues, and the ghost provides the clues, so he’s able to solve the mystery without too much physical or mental threat to himself.  I don’t feel he’s in danger of losing his sanity or his self, or in danger of turning against Donna or Terri, or in danger of being possessed by some evil presence, or in danger of hurting himself.  With a stronger sense of internal struggle or threat, along with a stronger sense of external struggle or threat, I think the story would be much more emotional and involving.  I’m not really sure what’s at stake right now.  Terri has a few scares but is okay; Darrelle’s relationship with Donna never seems in danger of breaking down; even their finances don’t seem in serious trouble.  That makes the story feel more like the adventure of an amateur sleuth than a horror story dealing with infanticide and sex slaves.  If this is intended to be a ghost story with the flavor of a mystery, that’s fine, but then the mystery needs to be more difficult to solve and require more struggle and cleverness on Darrelle’s part, and less help from the ghost.  In either case, I think Hastings needs to attack Darrelle and/or his family; he’s set up like the gun but his potential for the story is never realized.

Another area that I feel could be strengthened is the flow of the prose.  Flow involves establishing something in one sentence (or one phrase) that leads us to want to know the information in the next sentence (or phrase).  That pulls readers ahead.  For example, the second sentence of the story, “From outside, you’d never know how much work the century-old, riverside home needed,” makes me want to get a description of the outside of the house.  That’s what the sentence sets us up to receive next.  Instead, we jump to the narrator’s personal experience:  “I pulled up my jacket against a chilling breeze and unlocked the thick, weather-beaten door. I pushed it open.”  The shift to the narrator feeling chilly is jarring, and the rest of the sentence doesn’t provide more information about the chill and the breeze, which is, at that point, what I want to know next.  It shifts to the door.  It doesn’t make sense to me that someone would try to gain warmth at the moment he’s going inside; it seems too late at that point.  Such a detail might fit better when they are crossing the lawn.  Then it seems odd that the unlocking and pushing of the door are in two different sentences.  Those seem like two parts of one action and more appropriately put into a single sentence.  Once he pushes the door open, we get the next sentence, “It didn’t feel like June.”  This belongs back with the chilling breeze, not after he’s pushed the door open.  This might seem very picky, but arranging details so they provide exactly what the reader is curious to know at the moment the reader is curious to know it can be extremely powerful.  When people say they couldn’t put a story down, that’s often why they couldn’t.  (I have a blog post about flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.)

One other area I want to mention is description.  While the story provides some vivid details of the smell of the cherry blossoms and the fragments of wood, I have trouble visualizing the house itself, both the outside and the inside.  Their bedroom has “a bed and provisional furniture,” and Terri’s bedroom has “a bed, a dresser, and a nightstand.”  These are pretty vague descriptions that don’t add to my understanding of the house or the characters.  Is this furniture left from a previous owner?  Is it Darrelle’s old furniture before he moved in with Donna?  Is Terri’s furniture new?  If they spent too much on the house, or they’re short on funds, did they buy Terri’s furniture at a garage sale?  Are they sleeping on an air mattress?  I think the story could be much more specific in the details it provides, and those details could do much more to reveal the house, its history, and the characters.  After a day of work, Darrelle says his “back hurt.”  There are many ways in which ones back can hurt; I don’t feel what he’s feeling here.  Terri is repeatedly described as playing with her phone.  What, exactly, is she doing?  Playing Angry Birds?  Posting photos of the house on Instagram?  Texting with old friends she had to leave behind?  Leaving this vague not only keeps us very distant from Terri–she never comes to life for me–but it also belies Darrelle’s claims of concern over Terri’s welfare.  If he really cared about her, he’d take an interest in what she’s doing on her phone.  Since we’re in Darrelle’s point of view, the details in the story are the details that he notices, so they have the potential to reflect and reveal his character.  I’d love to see more specific details, and I’d love for all three of them to be more fully realized, so I can care and worry about them more.

I hope this is helpful.  I was interested throughout the story and glad to see the mystery solved at the end.

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

Editor’s Choice Award January 2021, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Some Women Like To Hear The Cannon Balls/Akash And The Ship Of Ice by Kate Wooderson

I really liked the wild, frozen setting of “Some Women Like to Hear the Cannonballs”, and its small-but-consequential story: the polar quest for a dead King’s will, and the consequences it might bring down on the living. However, I was caught by the metaphors here: when they work, they really work, but they aren’t entirely tuned up in other places. So this month, I’d like to talk about resonances between our themes and our plot, how they work to tie a story together, and how to fix the ones that have come a little loose.

“Some Women Like to Hear the Cannonballs” is ultimately working as fun: an adventure story that balances its romance and its epic consequences without making either feel like they’re too big or too small. The title—even if the reference is gone!—is deeply fun, and I think better than the other ideas. It captures Akash’s sense of humour very well.

But most of all, from the beginning, this piece is deeply atmospheric in a way that clearly signals what’s coming, and what each place and element of story is for. The first paragraph’s description of fog—how it limits the space—creates an intimate opening that really strongly sets up the nature of the story to come. The mention of Akash’s compass roses, right after a comment about direction, builds a resonance around her as a navigator of physical but also emotional spaces. The Sceptre‘s blind figurehead tacks a feeling of abandoned melancholy onto the ship—and then the government it belonged to—and the description of its silence is deeply evocative.

All of those references work because they’re pairing externally-focused elements of story—things like description and plot—with internally-focused ones, thematics and characterization, and using one line to say something about both of them. As a reader, I’m feeling the sense of depth, because each line is lifting more than its surface weight.

However, the way Akash and Dell’s romance is set up breaks that pattern somewhat. The “Akash and Dell had spent the long voyage north circumnavigating friendship’s globe” set of metaphors felt to me, as a reader, somewhat forced compared to those more subtle resonances; it hops quickly from comparison to comparison without developing them as strongly. Most importantly, while it’s telling me about the internal question of the relationship, the information I’m getting as a reader—that this story takes place in the sea and on ships and in the ice—is information I already know. Those lines only work to pin the relationship to the nautical setting, and not tell me anything about that setting like the ones above, and so they feel less deep to me, less effective—only going one way.

It’s where “Some Women Like To Hear the Cannonballs” does this—overstates its case, or states it three different ways and less precisely, or builds metaphors that only go in one direction—that I’d focus on as places to shore up (pun not intended!). I’d suggest looking at each paragraph to see if the same thing’s being said in different ways and settle on what the author feels is the better one. For example, “Instead of the chests of gold coins she had hoped for, she saw only gilded gewgaws” and “She’d hoped for diamonds but found only ice” are functionally the same sentence, expressing the same emotion and doing the same work in terms of moving the plot forward. If one is cut, that paragraph will read sleeker, more directional, and more confident afterwards.

There are a few other bobbles there’s a chance to handle in a line-by-line revision: for example, a little more variance in word choice. There are a few runs of repetition in “Some Women Like to Hear the Cannonballs”; two sentences that end with “herself” in a row, or little batches of them starting with “she” that set up rhythms that aren’t being used deliberately. And it’s a space to resolve some small confusions: In Fortune’s introduction, it’s hard to tell if this is a sailor or the wider concept (favouring the bold!).

Aside from a line edit, I noticed the author’s mention of having developed character motivations and the romance from a prior draft, and think there could be room in the next draft to continue that work. As it stands right now Dell and Akash don’t quite have the tone of voice, the body language, the emotional connections of a friendship turning romantic. We’re told they’re friendly and involved, but I’m not seeing that come through their interactions just yet. Fortune is also never quite established as a character, and so his betrayal in the second half of the piece reads as very sudden to me, and slightly arbitrary.

There’s a good site to do that work, I think, in that early hint of threat to Akash’s captaincy (“For now“). Right now it isn’t ever really exposited on: did Akash have hints this was coming or not? But it’s an obvious place to develop the setup for that inevitable betrayal.

But overall, the bones of this story are well in place, and the technical work that I think could make it stronger is already being done in other parts of the piece. It’s just a matter of a tighter line-by-line revision, adding in some supports, and cutting some lines that aren’t necessarily needed, and I think this’ll be ready to go.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, 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 Broken Roots (Mahohma I) Chapter 1: The Siege of BRAY’ZAK’YENI by Joseph Ahn

There’s so much to love in this chapter. The depth and breadth of the worldbuilding. The well-drawn characters who play off each other in interesting ways. The prose that, with a few stumbles here and there, is remarkably strong and will be stronger with polish. And that twist in the end—lovely.

The overall structure makes sense to me, with the heir coming in person to confront his Empress with hard facts. I do however have questions about the details—and I mean this literally. There is so much backstory here, so much intricate politics, and so many names and places and events to keep track of. In many ways this feels like a chapter from the middle of the book rather than an opener.

At the beginning of a novel, the reader isn’t invested yet. They don’t know the characters or their world. In secondary-world fantasy especially, everything is strange. They have to be won over; they need reasons to learn the new vocabulary and history and culture.

For the author, it can be a challenge to introduce their world to someone who is completely new to it. Complex worldbuilders especially have to figure out how much information is enough, and how much is too much. Here, there’s a complicated backstory, and an epic tangle of politics both within and outside the empire. It all comes together in this meeting between Vyxlis and the Empress.

There’s a rule of thumb that Harry Turtledove often cites—and Harry knows all about complicated politics. “In every scene, the writer knows at least five hundred details about that scene, the world, the characters, the history. Their job is figure out which three of those details to pick, that will contain all the rest.”

That’s especially germane to an opening chapter. Later on the novel, characters can sit down and talk over the complicated stuff. The reader is invested by then, and has enough grounding in the world and its peoples to follow along with the discussion. At the beginning, it’s all new, and the writer hasn’t earned the reader’s patience—their goodwill, their willingness (and ability) to absorb a lot of details all at once.

The key elements of this chapter are Vixlis’ arrival at the siege, his meeting with the Empress, and the break point near the end when everything changes. The decision to make here is which three (or so) details of the backstory are absolutely essential for the reader’s comprehension, and which of the rest can either be implied in context or left for later scenes. The in-depth discussion of satyr dynastic politics might be concentrated into its simplest form: the chief/king/supreme ruler is dead and his heirs are fighting over who gets to rule. We don’t need all the names or the specifics right at this point. We just need the bare facts. The same goes for internal politics. As wonderful as the depth of detail is, it clogs the works here. One or two essential details, with as few names and terms as are strictly needed for clarity, will give the reader a sense of the issues and the stakes. The names and terms can come in later as they’re relevant.

Some of what’s discussed might be shown as a scene or flashback either here or in a later chapter—probably the latter, since there’s plenty going on this chapter without additional action. We get that there’s a siege, that it’s been going on for months, and that the bean-counters back home are trying to slam on the brakes. We also get that the satyrs are in a political mess of their own, and that might be turned to advantage if the Empress will just listen to her advisors.

In short: Big general details here, while the reader is still finding their footing in this world. More names and specifics later, as they become relevant to the progression of the story. The interaction between the prince and the Empress is what really matters in this chapter, and that shines through beautifully. The rest is pruning and paring and polish, and picking just the right set of details to bring it all together.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, 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.

Black Charybdis by Barry Donnelly

The novum in this story, an old-school LP record that, when playing, erases any documents and their associated reality, is fascinating and creepy.  As soon as I realized what was happening, I was drawn into the story.  Martin, the protagonist, is easy to relate to.  We’ve all had failures we’d like to erase, so his actions feel believable, and the unintended consequences are all too believable.  The most exciting part of the story, for me, came when Martin heard the music when he wasn’t playing the record.  The idea that someone else was playing it escalated the stakes.  Then the revelation that the pianist had manifested in his house (or he’d been sucked into the record) escalated things much more.  That created a lovely build to the climax.

While I’m engaged from scene 2 on, I think the story could have significantly more impact if some elements were strengthened.

Throughout, I feel significant distance from Martin’s thoughts and emotions.  The story is ostensibly told from Martin’s third person limited omniscient point of view, but I often feel like I’m being told about Martin from an omniscient narrator.  For example, “A deep part of his brain stem began flooding his veins with an ancient alarm system causing his skin to prickle while his stomach sank.”  Martin can’t know this.  This is not his perception; this information is coming from an omniscient narrator.

Another cause of POV distance from Martin is filtering.  Filtering establishes the means of perception of some detail, using phrases like he saw, he watched, he heard, he smelled, he felt, he could see, he could taste, he remembered, he knew, he thought, etc.  Filtering puts the stress on how the detail is being perceived rather than on the detail itself, so it distances us from what’s happening, reducing the impact.  It also makes us picture the POV character seeing (or hearing or smelling or whatever) the detail, rather than putting us into the head of the POV character and experiencing the detail along with him.  Thus it causes distance from the POV character.  The main place where filtering is necessary is at the beginning of a story or the beginning of a new point of view, to establish the means of perception.  Once we know the POV, the filtering is unnecessary.  We know that if something is visually described, it’s because Martin sees it.  There’s lots of filtering throughout this story.  For example, “He knew there was something invisible eyeing him.”  This only gives me Martin’s conclusion.  It doesn’t allow me to experience what he’s experiencing and draw my own conclusion–it doesn’t allow me to feel a weird sensation and realize it’s something eyeing him.  That’s the very thing I’m reading this story for–the horror of that sort of revelation.

In other places, Martin’s reaction to events is missing, again making me feel distant from him.  For example, “Martin watched as the pure white notebook in his hands crumpled and vanished into dust as though it had been burned by invisible fire. He finally stopped the record when a book at the top of the pile turned bone white.  He was flipping through the pages of what used to be Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music when Vera walked through his door. Startled, Martin slapped the blank book down onto the pile just as it burst into dust.”  In this passage, Martin is watching all his musical compositions vanish (as he discovers the power of the LP), and his only reaction is to stop the record when another book starts to crumble.  We then seem to jump ahead in time to Martin flipping through another book and Vera arriving.  We’re told Martin is startled, but it seems like he’s only startled by Vera’s appearance.  I don’t feel his emotions or thoughts in response to his compositions disappearing or to the power of the LP.  This is one of a number of key moments in the story that need to be dilated.  That means the pace needs to be slowed by describing the moment in intense detail.  Choosing details that Martin would notice in this moment, details that reflect his emotions and thoughts, will help to make us feel close to him and to experience the moment in a heightened state.

Another cause of POV distance is giving details out of chronological order.  I quoted one example in the previous paragraph, when Martin “stopped the record when a book at the top of the pile turned bone white.”  Clearly, the book at the top of the pile turns white first, and this prompts Martin to stop the record.  But the sentence gives the information in the reverse order.  That requires us to stop at the end of the sentence and reorder the events, taking us out of the moment and away from Martin.  Here’s another example:  “Charybdis had grown so enormous and filled the room so quickly, her gradual drain back into the record felt far too long for Martin’s comfort.”  This sentence comes as the power of the entity in the LP is draining away.  We needed to know that the power had grown greater and expanded more quickly back when that happened earlier in the scene.  Learning it here requires we go back to the beginning of the scene and reimagine what happened.

Anyway, if you can bring your POV closer to Martin and allow us to more intensely experience what he’s going through, the story will have more impact.  A couple resources that touch on some of these issues are the essay “The Inner Voice” by Nancy Kress, which you can find in several Writers Digest books, including Writing Voice; and the book Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.

Another area that could be strengthened is plot.  Each scene should show a change in a value of significance to Martin.  It’s not clear what has changed for Martin at the end of the first scene or the second scene.  I think the first scene could easily be reorganized to end with Martin deciding that he needs to fix his latest failure.  That would create momentum and expectation in us and propel us into the next scene.  Instead, the ending leaves us with Martin rejecting a possible action, leaving us with no expectations.  The second scene, rather than ending with Vera’s reaction, which doesn’t matter, could end with Martin perhaps deciding his erased musical compositions weren’t very good anyway, and it could be good to start over.  This would establish how he deals with perceived failures and create anticipation that he’s going to do the same with his latest failure.  Or he could resolve to write new and better music with confidence that he’s getting better all the time, contrasting with how he feels ten years later, after more failures.

As I discussed above, the climax has several strengths going for it.  I had guessed that the piano had two players when Martin heard what “couldn’t just be ten fingers.”  The fact that the other player turned out to be Martin was an exciting revelation.  But once he starts to play, I feel distant, as discussed above, and don’t understand what Martin is going through.  We are told that “The performance grew from the dialectical give and take into a full synthesis of two roaring passions, a song that only four hands could play.”  This is the omniscient POV at a time when I most want to be close to Martin.  I have no idea what Martin’s passion is.  Is this a passion for playing the piano?  I didn’t know he played.  Is this a passion borne of his loss of Vera?  Of his life?  Or finding the better life and the musical skill he always sought and lacked?  I want to be in his body, to feel his fingers on the keys, to be swept up in the rhythms and chords.  What is going on here?  Why is this the end of Martin’s character arc?  How has everything led to this?  I don’t know.  I really want to feel it, and I think this thread of the story needs to be more developed throughout and come to its culmination here.

I’ll briefly touch on a few other elements.  Missing commas, run-on sentences, tense shifts (and the failure to use the past perfect for events that happened earlier), some awkward sentences, and some lack of flow trip me up as I read.  (I have an article on flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.)

I really enjoyed the story.  I hope this is helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, 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.

Mindblades Chapter 1 by Andrew Wang

The first thing that drew me to this chapter was the title. It’s got definite science-fictional resonance, and promises a story that’s both edgy and high-tech. Some of the concepts introduced here are very cool as well, especially Dust (which I’d like to see more of, as I’m sure there will be in subsequent chapters) and the Crystal.

The chapter needs some work, and some rethinking of its structure and choice of scenes. I have some questions about the worldbuilding, too.

First, the structure. The chapter begins with some scene-setting and some rather lovely description, then moves into a series of conversations with people Raedan meets. These conversations serve to convey exposition and backstory, and show Raeden interacting with persons who may or may not reappear later on in the novel. The fight at the end features a fair amount of verbal byplay as well as a sample of Raedan’s athletic and fighting skills.

The opening dialogue introduces Raedan and tells us who he is and some of his background. There’s not much actual story there; it’s mostly setup and exposition. I found myself wishing for something more active and concrete. Say the guy is watching a recording of Raedan’s latest game, and we get to see what he does more directly, and maybe the guy recognizes him and then there’s some back and forth about who he is and why he’s here. In the draft, there’s a fairly high ratio of exposition to action and experience. Shifting that balance might help make the opening more vivid and engaging.

Raedan’s interaction with the Chinese woman has more oomph and more overall cool factor. For one thing, it’s got Dust, and we learn some things about it and also about Raedan and the world he lives in.

The encounter with Denise however shares some of the same issues as the first conversation. It’s clear there are strong undercurrents, and Denise is very uncomfortable and seems to be hiding secrets. But Raedan either misses or disregards the signals she’s sending. He doesn’t ask her what’s going on, or seem curious about her reactions.

This may be an aspect of his character, that he’s oblivious or clueless. If so I think the narrative needs to convey more sense that it’s intentional. As it is, the emotional temperature is rather low, and that damping down of feeling carries through to the fight.

There’s a tendency in the fight scene to downplay both the feelings and the stakes. The action moves almost slowly. The fight comes across as low-key in spite of the subject matter. It needs more tension, more suspense, and overall, more oomph.

I’d suggest some rethinking and re-framing of the chapter, starting with the reasons why Raedan has come home, and why he goes to his old apartment. “The tenant left” is a start, but why go to that particular place? He ends up somewhere else anyway after the fight, without seeming terribly upset about being driven away. What compelling reason does he have to go to the old neighborhood? What does he want to accomplish there? Is he hoping to meet someone? To resolve old issues? To revisit his childhood, and if so, why?

I found myself wondering about his political status since he’s the son of a woman executed by the Crystal. Does that affect his own status at all? He seems to be in a position of great trust, with a great deal of privilege. How does that connect with what happened to his mother? Does he have any emotional issues with it, any past trauma? If not, has he been “cured” in some way, or has he found his own way through it? Is his flat affect a side effect of whatever he’s had to do, or had done to him, in order to deal with his past? If so, a quick line or allusion might help clarify that aspect of his character.

That leads to me to ask further questions about the worldbuilding. Is there a plot-connected reason why the date and time are so specific? A lot of space opera just sort of generally alludes to being in the future—a thousand years, ten thousand, or however long it happens to be. The worldbuilding itself carries the weight of time, as we’re shown the extent of human expansion into space, and given relevant details of its history.

Since this is specific down to the year, we have a clear sense of how much time has passed between now and this future. But we also may have questions about the way the future universe has evolved. How does it happen that people are still speaking English? Is that just on this planet or is it more universal? What language are Raedan and the guy on the ship speaking?

As I read, I wondered what happened to the internet. The Singularity didn’t happen? Or did the Crystal shut off human access to any kind of universal cybercommunications? How to people communicate at long distance in this universe? How does space travel work? What about communications between worlds?

Most of these questions are probably answered in later chapters, but I did wonder, specifically in this chapter, why Raedan doesn’t know what’s happened to the old neighborhood. Wouldn’t he check it out before he goes there, to make sure the transport route is still the same and to see what amenities still exist around the apartment? If he were checking it out in 2020 he’d do a web search and some online mapping. How does it work in the 37th century?

Ultimately I think the chapter could begin a couple of scenes later than it does. The arrival has some very nice description but the story takes a while to get going. If it’s clear why he goes to his old apartment, and if he has a strong and specific reason for doing so—maybe finding out something about his mother, or looking for something she left him, or…?—then the story would start with his arrival there. There’s still room to talk about this being a sort of Earth-alike, maybe in the landscape or a particular tree or flower or the color of the sky, and maybe the apartment, or the lobby, or the wall outside, has a mural that depicts the planet from space. He might talk about his career when he meets Denise, or give us a flashback to the game, or get a communication that shows us who he is and what he’s on (presumably) vacation from. Or is he on leave and this is a specific quest or mission related to his past?

The rule of thumb for opening chapters is that in general they should start as close to the end of the story as possible while still leaving room for the story to unfold. Characters’ actions and interactions should have purpose and well-established motivation. Later on it may be possible to slow down and ramble a bit, but at the beginning, before the characters have won the reader’s trust, it’s a good idea to keep the story moving in a clear and focused way. Then the reader is eager to keep reading, and the story pulls them forward all the way to the end.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, 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.

Six Plastic Bags by James Victor

I was caught by the powerful combination of pace and voice in “Six Plastic Bags”—and the skill it shows in balancing buckets of information to create an immersive, textural world. However, those strengths aren’t yet matched when it comes to the story’s plotting. This month, I’d like to talk about what we want from our readers, how to help them get there—and how to evaluate if we’re providing them a worthwhile interaction.

There’s a lot of skill in how the world of “Six Plastic Bags” is built. Indra’s world is the kind of grim, brutal setting that’s easy to lay on far too thick, but “Six Plastic Bags” handles its worldbuilding and information with a thoroughly deft hand. It’s full of fascinating little tidbits folded in organically enough to create texture without overwhelming—the sheer amount of worldbuilding information in the fourth paragraph, parceled out so it’s only the quick sprint through a night-long chase, is an incredible example of how to do verisimilitude with a light hand. Every detail is just important enough, and matters later. The details of Indra’s world (the tinted skin on “ski-slope nose”, the fish guts) are precise, unexpected, and visceral.

Indra also works very well as a protagonist: glib and halfway immoral (the “clever thing to say” line is deeply funny), but never crossing the line into outright awfulness. He’s quirky and a little crappy in true Neal Stephenson style, but still someone I’m able to cheer for, and his self-regulated, artificial lack of terror at the situation he lands in is a clever way to make the more horrific action of the story readable; it’s a wonderful balancer.

But while it’s very well-executed on that prose level, as above, plotting is a point where “Six Plastic Bags” could be worked on. When I step back to summarize the piece, the plot is very straightforward: Indra does something stupid in the first paragraphs—for no discernible reason, with no motivation—and in the end he is punished for it, or what the creepers thought it was for some reason (not discernible, no motivation), in the same exact way as the last guy who actually did that thing.

Unfortunately, when I step back yet farther and start to test the logic of this world, the entire story falls apart: the creepers had him in custody. Why not just kill him then? Why bother with another chase—the main action of the story?

I’d suggest there are two approaches to consider when taking a look at what’s not quite firing in the plot of “Six Plastic Bags”: character motivation and emotional arc.

Whenever a critiquer finds themselves asking “Okay, but why?” it’s a good diagnostic for a motivations problem. I think motivations are a source for some of the trouble here, and on a certain level the story is aware of that:

He had known that he would keep going until he’d passed all reasonable limits, brought down the wrath of the slum lords and for what? One night and seven shags? It doesn’t make sense, even to himself. Except of course that perhaps he wants some wrath.

Indra’s motivations don’t “make sense, even to himself”. The creepers’ motivations for disbelieving his multiple protests and insisting this was personal are opaque and arbitrary as well—and two parties with no real motivations make it very difficult to infuse a plot with weight, meaning, or stakes.

This is a question that runs through the entire piece, even into the endgame. Indra goes to the Lighthouse—but why? He risks Constant Rex, who is a risk for him—but why, and why is that a risk? That threat isn’t well-defined, and is truncated before it ever has a chance to develop into a meaningful plotline. The whys pile up, the narrative tension—the sense of progressing through a plot, answering questions to find new ones and raising the stakes—falls away, and then “Six Plastic Bags” abruptly stops.

I think one route to making this story work more effectively would be going back to the beginning building blocks of its plot to consider some of those questions about motivation and choice. Why our characters do things is fundamental to why they matter to us as readers, and why the action of a story is important, and not just actions—which brings me to the question of emotional arc.

When it’s boiled down, readers read stories to satisfy something: to feel whatever question is opened in the first paragraphs resolve in a way that makes it feel complete. There’s a reason the end of the story is called a resolution. That sense of completion is something we can play with as authors, but it’s always worthwhile to consider our plotting in terms of its effects. If readers pick up a story to feel something, plot is the engine by which we, as writers, create the feeling. What feeling are we creating, how, and why? And is that why a good reason?

So the second route I’d suggest is to ask what readers are meant to feel by the closing bars of “Six Plastic Bags”? Which plot points or pieces of information are the stepping-stones to get them there? And most importantly: Why do you want them to feel this way about this information?

Thinking about this piece’s plot in terms of what effect you want it to produce is a great diagnostic for finding why each component of action is there, and where they’re all taking readers together. But it’s also a useful tool for evaluating our own motives as authors, because when stripped down to the emotional movements, it’s easier to evaluate what we’re saying in terms of the emotional context of the time we’re in.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lot of skill in play here: more than enough to discover where “Six Plastic Bags” wants to take readers—and what effect it wants from their going there.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award November 2020, 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.

Revelations Chapter 1 by Liam Soffe

I like the idea of this novel. I love the range and variety of aliens that share the universe. There’s so much potential here for developing characters and cultures, and building cooperation and conflict.

When the draft comes closer to final, I would suggest a thorough and careful copyedit. Make sure the words mean what they want to mean. Pay attention to the bits and bobs of spelling and grammar and syntax—dangling phrases, you’re for your and vice versa, punctuation and paragraphing and all those nitpicky essentials.

In the meantime, I was particularly struck by the author’s comment that the novel “needs more soul.” I take that to mean that it needs more depth and layering of emotions, and stronger character development. More sense overall of people being people, living and breathing and moving together and apart through a complex universe.

The draft makes a good start on these things. Focusing on Wiltar at first and then shifting to Yindi allows the reader to see events from two very different perspectives. I like that we start with a small person, literally and figuratively, before we shift to one of the senior officers.

I have questions about Wiltar. What species is he? Is he Ariol? I don’t know why I thought he might be human—maybe that’s my innate human bias showing. I wondered as I read, how and why he came onto the ship, and how he could have been there for as long as he has without receiving any apparent training or, despite his having been in multiple engagements in some capacity, being aware of the ritual with daggers and the prisoners. If he has no training, what is he doing in armor and apparently serving as part of a fighting unit? How has he achieved that status despite being extremely small, young, and uneducated?

His scenes are potentially quite powerful. In revision I might think about pruning the prose considerably. Note how often the same thing gets said two or more times:

He had survived! His first boarding and he had lived.

A child. It must be a child.

…these Traluians were scared and their eyes were alive with pink veins flashing across them and their flat noses opened and closed rapidly. They were panicking.

Repetition can be effective if used sparingly, but in general it makes for clearer, crisper prose to cut out the duplications. In the last example particularly, the first sentence does a great job of getting the point across. It’s clear they’re panicking. We don’t need the extra explanation.

Think too about shifting passive verb constructions to active. This is especially true in action scenes. Short, active sentences and paragraphs speed up the pacing and heighten the tension.

I would also suggest rethinking a couple of things about how characters present themselves to the reader. The first is what I call viewpoint tagging. These are all the little reminders that we are seeing the story through the eyes of a particular character. Words like thought and saw and heard and knew.

While it is important to establish the viewpoint, as with pretty much everything else about writing, a little goes a pretty fair distance. A character’s viewpoint can come through in more subtle ways: focusing on one character, showing how they move through the space, what they’re doing, how they see the world around them—not just by telling us they see it, but by giving us their camera angle so to speak. If we see clearly through a character’s eyes, we don’t need regular reminders. We’re right there, living in their head. We think the way they think, use their vocabulary, react to things and people the way they would.

One thing to watch here is a habit that writers tend to fall into, which is to present a character’s thoughts as a series of rhetorical questions.

Was that enough? If he froze or was killed and blocked the corridor would the fourteen crewmen in front of him be enough to storm a Traluvian battleship?

Was this an apprentice like Wiltar? Did the Trivs even have such a thing[?]

Some questions may make sense in context, but whole series of them slow down the story. There may be other, more active ways to get the information across, maybe through action and reaction, maybe through actual dialogue between characters. Or maybe just by making a simple declarative statement: If he froze or was killed, the rest of the unit would have to do the job without him; maybe this was an apprentice, if the Trivs had such a thing.

It might help the novel’s emotional affect to think about the way non-viewpoint characters appear in the narrative. There are a number of vivid personalities here already, notably Nux and Shint and Kesh, but there are quite a few generic characters as well. We’re missing a sense of Wiltar’s unit as a group of individuals.

He must know them well if he’s (presumably) trained with them, but we only see Nux as a distinct personality. While there’s no time or space to get to know every single person on the ship, we can catch a glimpse here than there—give us a name or a characteristic or a very brief description in place of “a crewman.” Even a word or a short phrase can bring the character alive without slowing down the action or adding to the word count.

I wonder if it might be worthwhile to recast the opening to show the unit waiting in ambush together rather than separately, or if their hiding in individual tiny spaces is essential to the battle plan, to put Wiltar together with a mentor or buddy of sorts. Nux seems like a possible candidate here. This would move the opening sequence out of Wiltar’s head, make it more active (and interactive) and less introspective. It might speed it up, too, if we pick up some or all of the exposition through some quick verbal and physical byplay between the veteran and the kid. Then along with tighter prose and more active action scenes, the whole chapter will pull us swiftly into Chapter Two.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2020, 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.

Silver Rain, Chapter 1 by Alice Baine

There are some interesting things happening in this opening chapter. We have a classic fantasy setup, the small, prosperous, isolated village in which our unusual hero happens to live. He is, in the tradition of fantasy heroes, an orphan and a foundling. And now, it appears, he’s about to learn what and who he really is. I’ll be interested to see how the evocative title manifests in the story.

When the ms. reaches the state of line and word edits, I would recommend a close reading and a thorough copyedit to make sure all the words mean what they want to mean. (Including one of my favorites: locating a frown around the jaw instead of the forehead. A frown used to mean a drawing together of the eyebrows, but in recent years it seems to have slipped downward to the mouth and chin. When Haley furrows her brow, that’s another and perfectly acceptable way of saying she’s frowning.) At this stage however, there are more general issues to think about, so I wouldn’t worry too much. Just keep it in mind for a later draft.

The first thing to think of here is whether the story has begun at the right point. By this I mean, is it opening as close to the end as it effectively can? Are the events of the chapter absolutely essential to the movement and development of the story and the characters? How is the pacing? Is it fast or slow? Are we getting to the point of this section of the story, or are we waiting for something to happen?

The key event here seems to be the arrival of strangers in town. At the end of the chapter, we see what appears to be one of them. He’s nicely sinister and mysterious, and the ending does a nice job of encouraging us to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Before he shows up, there’s quite a bit of introductory material. We meet Dryden, our viewpoint character. We learn what he does for a living, meet his boss and some of his family, and find out what Dryden’s position is in this world. Then we meet his girl crush, Haley, and one of Haley’s would-be suitors. Dryden and Haley show us some of the landscape, including the very dramatic seashore. Finally the sinisister stranger comes into the picture, and we can tell things are about to get complicated.

One suggestion I would make in revision is to think about what dialogue is and how it works in fiction. In real life, most of what we say to each other is what I call filler. Stock phrases, small talk, a kind of social shorthand that people use to keep in touch. For the most part it doesn’t convey much real information. When it does, it tends to spell out what we’re doing now or what we’ve done or what we’re planning to do.

In story terms, it’s a kind of null space. Story is what happens, as it happens. It can be told in flashback, as something that happened before the story’s present, and it can manifest as characters planning what they’re going to do in the future. But the main line of story is happening as if we, the reader, are living it.

The tricky part here is that if we wrote everything that happens, novels would be thousands of pages long, and there would be no way for the reader to tell which of the innumerable happenings were more important than the others. That’s why I like to think of a novel as the “good-parts version.” Stories condense everything that happens in the characters’ lives and focus on the parts that matter the most. They pare away the manifold details of daily life and focus on the ones that develop the characters and move the story from one main event to the next.

The same applies to dialogue. All the social lubricant, the standard phrases, hello-goodbye-how are you-what are you up to-where are you headed and so on and on, act as speed bumps for the story. The reader is looking for Stuff That Happens. Filler dialogue, dialogue without new or essential content, gets in the way of that Stuff.

When writing dialogue, the questions to ask are: Is this conversation conveying new information? Does it move the story forward? If it’s meant to develop character, does it define that character in a clear or memorable way? Does the reader (and the story) need this particular set of phrases, or can they be left to implication while we move on to the next bit of new information?

Or, to put it another way, Is this passage of dialogue absolutely essential for the movement of the plot and the understanding of the reader? Can I take it out without sacrificing plotting, characterization, or clarity? If my characters are conveying information, can that information be more effectively conveyed through a dramatized scene? Are my characters talking about something that happened offstage, and if so, would the story be more direct and immediate (and the pacing faster) if that event happened onstage?

Think too about what the characters are doing while they’re talking and interacting. Do their speech and movements have clear purpose in the story? If they need to be in a particular place at a particular time—as here, Dryden and Haley happen to be by the seashore when the dark stranger comes by—are they getting there quickly enough, or does it seem as if they’re wandering around aimlessly?

If the story requires that Dryden encounter the stranger at this particular point, does it make sense for that encounter to be apparently random? At first it seems as if he leaves work with a plan to scope out the strangers, but then he seems to make a random decision to stop by and see Haley, and then Haley decides they’re heading for the beach. He doesn’t seem to be acting with volition—or agency as we might say in writing class. Other characters are making his decisions for him, and deciding where he should go. Is this a plot element, in that Dryden is naturally passive and over time will be forced to be more active?

I would ask too if he would have any concerns about being hunted at this early stage. He knows he’s the only druin in town. Is this a dangerous thing to be? Or is he just concerned about casual racism? How complex is his situation, and how well aware of its full implications is he at this point? It doesn’t all have to be spelled out in this first chapter, but thinking it through might affect how Dryden thinks and feels, and how he reacts to the stranger.

It might also change the structure of the chapter. Do we need all of the introductory material, or might the opening be stronger if Dryden’s perambulations are shorter and his actions more focused? Maybe he asks to leave work so he can catch up with Haley and take her somewhere. Maybe he goes to town, and the stranger passes them on the way.

If he does go to the beach, what specific thing can he do there, or plan to do there, that makes it essential for him to be in that place and nowhere else? Or, if it’s Haley’s decision, what specific thing does she want to accomplish by going there? How can Dryden be more actively involved in the decision? Is he just following her because he wants to be with her, or does he have his own agenda?

The main thing to keep in mind is that whatever goes into the story is essential to the story. It develops character. It moves the story forward.

If Dryden is on the beach when the stranger shows up, how he gets there does matter, but we don’t necessarily need all of the different stops he made or the conversations he had on the way. Just the ones that are directly relevant to his being in that place at that time. We might not even need those, if there’s enough setup in the scene on the beach. If we know he got the time off work, and if we know Haley manipulated her father into letting her go with him, we may not have to see those things happening, just know that they did. Then the chapter begins with them on the beach, Dryden reacting to the ocean, and the stranger showing up. And that moves us on to the next section of the story.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2020, 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.

My Lakeside Graveyard by Peter S. Drang

The interesting setting of this story draws me in immediately.  I actually enjoy imagining living with a cemetery in my backyard.  The plot is nice and tight, with the ending set up in the first two paragraphs.  The term updig makes me curious, so I want to keep reading to understand.  The ending feels satisfying.

There are some elements, though, that could be strengthened to give the story more impact.

Some events feel rushed over or not clearly described, and this weakens both the story and the narrator.  Part of the reason for this may be the desire to keep the story to flash length.  But I’d love to feel more vividly in the moment with the first-person narrator.  The narrator digs up the corpse of Elenore Heckerson, since she’s had no mourners visit her grave in years.  He’s planning to dump her body in the lake and re-sell the plot, as taught by his deceased father:  “No mourners, you get the lake.”

As he takes her body to the lake, he hears Elenore’s voice, but I don’t get any clear sense of how he’s hearing her.  Does he actually hear a voice?  Or is it more like a thought planted in his mind?  Or does it feel like he’s just imagining what she might be thinking, if she could think?  Has he heard other corpses speaking?  Or is she the only one?  He responds nonchalantly to her at first.  Later, he thinks he’s going crazy, but that reaction belongs earlier.  Why would he respond nonchalantly and later think he’s going crazy?  I also don’t understand why he calls her “darling.”  That doesn’t sound like the narrator’s voice.  He seems concise and clipped in most of his thoughts.  He’s an isolated man who has never been close to anyone except his parents.  I don’t think the word darling would even be on his radar.  I’d like to feel much more of an emotional reaction to this interaction; I think this could be very chilling or disturbing, or it could reveal some fascinating connection between the narrator and the dead.  Right now, I don’t feel much except a bit of confusion.  My belief in the narrator’s character is also undercut by his reaction.

The climax could profit from dilation, slowing the pace by describing events in great detail.  Let’s look at this paragraph:

“The scratching becomes a pounding, boiling hot water splashes up and scalds my arms.  I lean into the coffin, push hard–it slides.  I lose my footing, try to catch myself–that jagged metal corner swipes me, sinks into my jeans.  I wriggle and pull but it’s got me good.”

The narrator has previously noticed the bubbles in the water and compared them to boiling water, but he doesn’t know that the water is actually boiling.  He should be startled when the water scalds him, have some reaction to the pain, and realize it is boiling.  He might then panic, or frantically try to figure out why it’s boiling, or consider different actions he might take.  He has very little reaction, just continuing his plan.  In the third sentence, I don’t know why he loses his footing.  Is he being clumsy?  Is the barge wet?  Are supernatural forces at work?  How exactly does he try to catch himself?  How does that lead to his jeans getting caught?  Where are his jeans caught?  By the ankle?  By the thigh?  On the belt loop?  This needs to be more specific to allow me to experience it along with the narrator.  Making it more specific will also better define the personality of the narrator.

One element that arises in the examples I just discussed is the causal chain.  The causal chain isn’t as strong as it might be, so events sometimes feel manipulated by the author rather than arising out of a chain of cause and effect.  If he’s never heard a voice from a corpse before, why does he hear Elenore’s voice?  Why does the water boil as if the corpses that have previously been dumped are demanding justice?  Why does he slip?  At the end, we see that the narrator, whose mother died the previous month and has no one who cares for him, gets dragged into the lake, suffering the same fate as Elenore and others.  While the main parts of this have been set up, other parts have not, and they feel kind of forced as we approach the climax.  A dead body with no mourners gets the lake, but the narrator is not dead.  He may have no mourners some day, but not this day.  So the story hasn’t quite set up why he’s pulled into the lake now.  The story seems to be drawing on other stories in which someone doing wrong gets his comeuppance.  That’s a plot structure I enjoy.  But usually the comeuppance is triggered by the character’s wrong actions growing worse and worse.  In this case, the narrator is simply doing something he’s done many times before.  The story is mixing a plot about a character caught in a rule that now works against him and a plot about a character getting his comeuppance.  There’s nothing wrong with mixing plots; it can lead to something fresh.  But the author needs to be clear about the story he’s telling.  If he’s used this rule to cruelly abuse the corpses in the cemetery–then a mix of the two plots could make sense.  If he’s using this rule only when he must to make enough to survive and keep up the cemetery, then the comeuppance plot isn’t appropriate.  Right now, the story feels more like the latter, so the corpses rising up to demand justice don’t quite seem to fit.

I wonder if the narrator perhaps only did updigs with his father.  After his father died, perhaps his mother convinced him to stop that practice, telling him he should respect and honor the dead and make a living some other way.   Perhaps, because of that, he didn’t have much money for her healthcare when she got breast cancer.  So she died.  Now, driven by grief, he might feel fed up with respecting and honoring the dead.  He might decide to do a bunch of updigs, sell a bunch of plots, and then take off with the money.  Elenore might be the first.  In that case, a plot that combines the rule working against him and the narrator receiving his comeuppance could be appropriate.

If the comeuppance plot does not belong in the story and it’s about a character who lives by a rule that turns against him, then I think the rule needs to align a little better with what happens to him–the word mourners doesn’t quite fit, since he’s not dead–and probably the narrator needs to be more of a sad sack, loser character.

Finally, all of these points tie to the character of the narrator, which I think could be better defined.  He claims that living with a graveyard in his backyard has prevented him from making friends or finding a wife.  I don’t think the graveyard is what’s stopping him from finding companionship.  It might be a factor, but there must be other factors.  What are they?  Thinking out his character some more may help clarify the story, as discussed above.

My advice is that, as you explore these issues through revision, that you put the length of the story out of your mind.  I don’t think this needs to be a long story, but it may need more like 1500 or 2000 words.  A good goal is to allow the story to find its ideal length rather than trying to force it into a particular length.

I really enjoyed the setting and the tight plot.  I hope this is helpful.

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



Editor’s Choice Award October 2020, 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.

Lineage: Part 1 by M.T. Preston, Jr.

I like the voice and style in this excerpt. It’s deft and sure of itself, and it knows what it wants to accomplish. There are a few things that might benefit from a little polish, but overall it’s a solid draft.

One thing I would point out is the need for close attention to small details. It’s not a huge problem in a draft, when getting the words down is the first priority. In revision, really think through the individual lines and paragraphs and scenes, and make sure everything fits together.

For example, the opening sequence is careful to make it clear that the dark ship is difficult to see, but the first line refers to it as a “hideously mutated shark.” That’s a great image and fits what Tamra eventually sees through the viewport, but in immediate context it’s a viewpoint slip. What other image can convey what’s needed while still staying within Tamra’s field of vision?

Another thing to take note of in the next draft is a quite common tendency (I’m guilty of it myself, I freely confess) to drop lines of dialogue into a sort of null space. One of my editors calls it “floating heads.” There’s nothing to frame the interchange. A little bit of stage business–tone, expression, gesture–might add a layer or two of emotional complexity and round out the characters just a shade more.

Tamra’s character in general could use a few more layers as well. She’s primarily a viewpoint here, and there’s not a lot to distinguish her as a person. The exposition about her background and her enhancements could be woven in more organically from the start: give us a clearer sense of how those enhancements work for her as the dark ship comes in; let us experience it with her in a more immediate way.

The same applies to Jaelyn’s explanations in the latter part of the excerpt. It’s important information, but Jaelyn functions as a device to deliver exposition. Think about how to round out her character a little more, and how she can convey the information organically.

Maybe Tamra is more involved in eliciting it. Maybe she pushes in and compares tattoos, and insists on knowing what they mean. Or maybe some of it is left for later in the story—Jaelyn is called away to take care of an issue with the ship or crew, or opts for Reasons (to be hinted at or stated outright, whatever works) to leave Tamra wanting more.

These bits of friction should help develop both their characters. It doesn’t have to be a whole long chunk of story. The right few lines, the right words or actions, gestures or expression or tones of voice, would convey a great deal in a small space.

That in fact is my philosophy of revision. If you find the right words and fit them into the right place, they resonate through the whole story.

–Judith Tarr