Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Matryoshka City, Part One by Albert Chu

“Matryoshka City” isn’t the most polished piece on the workshop this month—it says it’s a middle draft, and it is. But it’s this month’s Editor’s Choice is because it’s the most uncanny and atmospheric: a journey through a shimmering, ephemeral city with limits more psychological, mirrored on opposite sides of a massive wall. It’s got tangible shades of China Mieville and an eerie political allegory that ultimately has something to say about social forgetting, denial, and hope. However, it’s not yet making its worlds distinct, deep, and different—and so this month I’d like to talk about seeing our worlds through the lens of social intelligence.

“Matryoshka City” begins with a small juxtaposition: a murdered man’s sister cheering. It’s enough to create a solid hook: the kind of disjunct in readerly expectations that makes me curious about what and why. And it does a sensible thing in paying off that curiosity quickly and transforming it into a bigger question—interplanetary repair work—instead of stringing it out.

There’s consistently nice visual and metaphor work through the piece—one of its strongest points. A perfectly rectangular patch of garden sky, a highway as an “overgrown centipede”, a parade slow “like syrup through a straw”—and a final paragraph that feels like a breath of fresh air.

The worldbuilding’s another major strength: done in broad strokes, sketched in, but tangible enough that when Gose crosses to the capitalist version of Ronemat, the differences are visible as not just another neighbourhood, but another society. “Matryoshka City” does a lot of worldbuilding by gesturing at concepts: the combination of an Automation Guild, but not union, and Guild Day, but not Labour, instantly generates a sense of genre and era. Subways coexist with café politics and oppressive power plays. I may not know the precise place and time, but I have the sense of them and what’s important in them: fine and rigid definitions of class, human rights, and allowable injustices.

But where I run into problems with “Matryoshka City”—and the place I’d suggest focusing deeply in the next draft—is questions of plot, worldbuilding, and character logic. Occasionally the logic’s been skimped on a bit in ways that stick out—and it’s consistently in ways that tackle how people respond psychologically and emotionally to their circumstances.

How would Victoire infer that a foreign-looking stranger is here about her brother, and why go with him to a secluded location without telling anyone when she’s just lost that brother to a murder? Why would Gose’s presence be enough to blunt the Anomaly? Did he genuinely expect that offering Victoire a murder theory—without evidence—would be enough to have her believe him, against her entire society and upbringing? And later on, when he evaluates a whole society based on never having heard the names of the dead spoken in the subway construction clashes—it’s hard for me as a reader to forget that he’s been in town an entire week. Of course he hasn’t; he’s new here, and alone. He’d barely know, in a normal city, where to get a sandwich.

Gose himself frequently breaks the story-logic in ways that I’m not sure contribute, although setting up the arc for his eventual personal growth. He’s an agent of the covert, interstellar Fond—a distant organization whose mission is quite fuzzy and doesn’t involve communication or backup, but leaves him with superhuman abilities and technology. Those abilities fall into and out of the story as they’re needed, conveniently, not setting up or paying off anything he can or can’t do.

This underdeveloped side of “Matryoshka City” gets deeper in terms of how the Anomalies are vulnerable: to explanation and simple logic tricks. It’s completely functional as a way for a magic element in a story to work, but as the last few years have proven, it’s absolutely the opposite of how people work: more often clinging harder to tightly-held beliefs instead of dropping them when faced with a contradiction.

What readers always bring to stories—every time, no exceptions—is what we know about people: ourselves and others. It’s the most fundamental place where, as speculative fiction writers, we can build a bit of trust with our readers—the kind of trust that gets people to go “okay, unicorns, spaceships? I’ll go with it.” And while it’s a moving target—different societies and people have different beliefs on how people work—writers have an ability to guide that, a little, with what we say and when.

Readers tend to notice what we, as writers, ask them to notice: the ideas we spend more time on, especially early in a story, are the ones they’ll flag as important, and keep looking for. “Matryoshka City” opens with loss, murder, trust, and a complex political class system, and has a barrier protected by nothing more than a social consensus, hiding a political allegory about the city’s past. It says things about who’s the arbiter of social forgetting; that there is a right way and a wrong way to have a society and a relationship with one’s social past. Its major payoff, as a story, is Gose changing his mind on some of those questions.

Every single one of these ideas is fundamentally a matter of how people relate to others in their society. Readers are being asked to think socially and politically to read this piece, and so the terms of success or failure for the story are going to be how well it thinks socially and politically too. In short: “Matryoshka City” quite deliberately puts readers’ eyes on the question of how human beings relate to each other, their societies, and their political systems—which means this is the part of the world it’s created that has to feel the most real, sound, and thought-through of everything in the piece.

So I’d like to suggest spending serious time on that question: every interpersonal interaction, every viewpoint—including our narrator’s. (The Fond is a society; it’s not neutral. He will have a subjectivity, opinions, and blind spots, and they will impact what he does here.) How are these interactions driven by or inflected by the version of Ronemat this person lives in? How are they driven by that person’s position and history there? What works in some versions of this city; what doesn’t work in others? What, in short, is actually different? And ultimately—how does that make Gose’s understanding of who he’s really supposed to talk with important, and life-changing?

It’s a repair for a worldbuilding that isn’t quite hanging together, but I’d like to suggest that thinking more deeply about Ronemat’s social mechanics—in all versions of the city—is also an opportunity. “Matryoshka City” shows the same place run under some very different political systems, and yet in this draft, no one in any of those versions acts or relates to each other differently. Different places, built differently, run differently produce different ways of thinking about other people, and being with them. There’s a chance to produce a delicious sense of familiarity and alienation by making Ronemat’s versions just different enough. Right now visiting them is a comparison in political theory; with thought, work, and deeper engagement, it could be a ride.

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I think there’s lots of promise in this piece: it’s got atmosphere, it’s got ideas, it has a sense of a much wider, stranger world than any of its individual characters can imagine, and it’s got some very cogent things to say about where power lives, how we handle it, and how we relate to each other. But to live up to that promise, I’d suggest “Matryoshka City” needs to roll up its sleeves and think through the implications of everything it says about Ronemat and its people, in every era. The theory is there; I’d love to see this story when it’s gotten into how that theory touches people’s lives and hearts.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Accidental Uplift by Green FitzYellow

Welcome to SFF Online Workshop! It’s a great group, with some very experienced critiquers. I hope you’ll find your experience enjoyable as well as useful.

I like the concept of the submission, and appreciate the challenge of writing multiple Rashomon-style viewpoints to build a fuller picture. It’s working for me so far, no problems keeping up with the action, and the characters are clearly enough delineated that I don’t the changes of viewpoint confusing.

I especially like Luna. She makes sense to me as a cat. The way she views the world, the use of sensory imagery, the focus on the wrongness of her human’s smell, are all nicely done. The use of present tense works well here; I would recommend sticking to it in the scene.

Verb tenses tend to wobble throughout the submission. Mostly it’s something to address during line edits, to make sure the narrative moves along consistently. Luna’s scene however (and any subsequent scenes in which she may appear) could gain just a little extra oomph if she sees the world as a perpetual now, versus humans who tell their stories in more conventional past tense.

One thing I would like to suggest in general is to frame the dialogue a little more clearly. Conversations have a way of cutting loose from the narrative, a phenomenon that is sometimes called “floating heads.” Passages of unsupported dialogue can work well in small doses: rapid back-and-forth, no stage business, no reaction shots, just the words of the exchange. At greater length however, the reader’s eye may start skipping, and they’ll lose track of who’s saying what.

Breaking up the dialogue with bits of action or reaction can help. So can plain old “said.” Don’t be afraid of the word. It’s nice and neutral and it does its job. Trying to vary it with “answered” or “responded” or similar options may actually bump the reader out of the story.

Make sure all the dialogue is actually there, too. I noted several instances of summary rather than speech: instead of characters interacting, the story slips into synopsis. Give these bits a little space. Let the characters speak directly. As long it’s concise and to the point, it will be just a bit more sharp and immediate.

And finally, a note on punctuation. The exclamation point is a very strong symbol. It hits the reader in the eye. It yells, I’m! Making! A! Point! Here!

Of all the punctuation marks, the exclamation point is the one that works best if used most sparingly. Save it for major emphasis. Mostly that will appear in dialogue, when characters are literally yelling.

In narrative, it’s almost never necessary to amp the volume that high. Trust your craft; let your words convey the emphasis. If they’re the right words, put together in the right way, they won’t need that extra smack upside the head. The reader will pick up what they need to pick up.

Best of luck with the rest of the story, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Uncanny Six by K.A. Tutin

Stories with numbers in their titles have an amazing power to create anticipation, curiosity, and suspense in readers.  Whether it’s Thirteen Ghosts, The Hateful Eight, The Three Faces of Eve, or “The Three Little Pigs,” we want to keep reading or watching until we’ve explored the full number of items counted in the title.   The same is true of “Uncanny Six.”  The title makes me want to keep reading to learn about all six of “uncanny.”  The first sentence adds to the curiosity and suspense generated by the title, establishing that the uncanny six are children who vanished.  This generates several questions:  What happened to the children?  Why were they taken?  In what ways are they uncanny?  Who is responsible?

Stories that begin by raising a clear and compelling question (or questions) create a strong need in us to keep reading to find the answers.  Mystery stories often draw us in by raising a compelling question.  Horror stories also often have a mystery component and draw us in with a question.  “The Boogeyman” by Stephen King is one example.

“Uncanny Six” drew me in with the title and opening, and then sprinkled hints of answers throughout the story, keeping me reading until the end.  The story offered several surprises along the way:  the narrator is revealed to be the collective first-person point of view of the Uncanny Six, and the answer to the mystery we receive turns out to be one of several, none of which is true.  All of these elements kept me intellectually engaged throughout the story.

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

While I keep reading throughout to find out about the six, I don’t receive as much of the pleasures I’d hoped the story would provide.  I’m expecting a progression in which each of the six provides either more clues about what’s going on or a different type of experience that allows me to see the situation in a new way.  While the details do progress a bit, they are fairly similar for the various children and don’t really seem like clues because they don’t combine to provide the answers to the questions I had at the start.  We find out that when a child vanishes, the other missing children briefly appear, and a nauseating smell and a puddle of water are left behind.  That’s strange and a bit creepy, but it’s not too frightening or disturbing.  The distant point of view means I don’t really know or care about the individual children, so the circumstances of their disappearance have to generate all the emotion and horror in the story.  The details given don’t lead to clear answers about who is responsible, why the children were taken, or what happened to them.  Horror stories sometimes don’t provide clear answers about what has happened, but if they don’t, they usually need to provide a resonant, compelling issue or question that will linger in readers’ minds.  It’s quite challenging to create an ending that resonates with us long after we finish reading it.  I’m not feeling that sort of resonance at the end of this story yet.  We learn of Mister, who is apparently behind the abductions, and the story offers multiple possibilities about who Mister is and why Mister did this, but for me, these possibilities didn’t create a resonant, disturbing question stayed with me after the story was over.  Since I didn’t really care about the children, and the details weren’t especially disturbing for me, I wasn’t very concerned about Mister.

I think there are opportunities in the story to provide more disturbing details, involve readers more, and create stronger resonance.  I would love to get a compelling, horrifying account of how the children were changed, or of how the repeating cycle affected their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  The children, on their return, are quiet and like water and amphibians, which is interesting, but as a reader who has read a fair amount of horror, I’m wanting and expecting more.  Do they look at their parents differently?  Can they remember their parents and their previous life?  Can they still read and speak?  I don’t need to know everything about them in their changed state, but I need some significant details that together paint a very disturbing picture.

I’m not sure I understand what the repeating cycle is.  I think it’s that the children are abducted and returned and abducted and returned over and over.  If so, I think that is by far the most disturbing thing in the story and should be shown more vividly, along with the consequences of that.  For a parent to see her child grow more distant and strange with every reappearance, for a transformation to be more fully realized each time, for more people to be abducted with each cycle, and for the world to change with them could be chilling.

Another area that might be more disturbing and horrifying is the point of view.  We find out near the end that the point of view of the story is the collective first-person perspective of the six children.  Revealing the POV late in a story can provide powerful surprise and a complete reframing of the story in the readers’ minds, which can be exciting and disturbing.  A very exciting reveal using a first-person collective POV is in the novel The Perfect Wife by J. P. Delaney.  In this case, I was excited to find myself in the POV of the children, but when I thought back over the story, it didn’t seem like it had been told by the children.  It spoke of the events in a distant way, not the way the children–even if transformed–would relate the events.  For a revelation like this to be effective, clues need to be planted throughout the text that readers don’t recognize as clues.  They just feel like some odd bits.  But once they get to the revelation, they can think back over the story and realize that those weird aspects of the POV actually make perfect sense now that they know the children are telling the story.  I’m not feeling that yet.  Those odd bits could also make the story seem more disturbing, because the narrative voice is not conveying things in the way a person would normally relate these events.  The POV could relate things in a strange way, and once we got to the revelation that the POV was that of the children, not only would it make sense, it would reveal something more about the transformation of the children and how they had changed.

Finally, I think the style could be strengthened.  Awkward sentences and inappropriate word choices often made me stumble and forced me to re-read sentences to try to understand them.  For example, this sentence tripped me up in several ways:  “Three months later of the same year, another child, a twelve-year-old, Thomas Bigsby, or Tommy as he preferred, was shy and introverted and rarely left his home unless in the company of his parents.”  The initial phrase has unnecessary words and could convey the same information more clearly with “Three months later.”  I think the sentence is meant to convey that three months later Tommy was abducted.  But instead, it says that three months later Tommy was shy and rarely left home.  I think if Tommy was shy, he wasn’t just shy three months after the first abduction.  I think he was shy for an extended period of time.  So it seems like the author lost track of the purpose of the sentence between the beginning and the end.  I realize this is an early draft, but the awkward sentences made it hard to become immersed in the story.

This story definitely pulls me in and keeps me reading to the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Grayson Chapter 7 by Daniel A.

This is an interesting combination of nuts-and-bolts historical fantasy and werewolf adventure, with a mystery to solve and a world to save. I especially like the idea of Yellowstone staffed by shifters and elementals. And maybe other parks, too? I’ll be taking a closer look at the rangers next time I head up the road to Saguaro National Park.

The idea, in short, works for me. Some aspects of the execution might benefit from a little more polish.

As I read the chapter, I noted a tendency toward what I call “floating heads” dialogue. There is some framing of the conversations, and some stage business to help orient the reader, but I think they need more. At times I had trouble sorting out who was saying what, and in a couple of places I couldn’t be sure how many people were engaging in the conversation. A few more lines of framing, even the use of good old “said,” would help the reader keep track of the speakers.

I noted too that Grayson has issues with agency. This may not be true throughout the narrative, but in this chapter, other people tell him what to do and think. They deliver explanations and exposition, and he waits for them to make decisions. They move the plot; he is moved by it.

While it’s clear that he has twenty-five years of human history to make up for, I think he could play more of an active role. He uses his experience as a wolf to help him navigate the world, and that works nicely. But he is the protagonist. He could do more to help move the story forward.

Some of that might be a result of the way the chapter is written. Grayson spends much of the time at a remove from both the action and his own feelings. His internal monologue, like the dialogue, defaults to exposition. We’re reminded frequently that he’s the viewpoint character: he wonders, he realizes, he thinks, he remembers.

It might be worth removing these viewpoint tags and seeing how the narrative works without filters. Let us inhabit his skin. Let us be Grayson: sharp, focused, right up close and immediate. The potential is already there, especially when he transforms from man to wolf. That’s some of the best writing in the chapter. I’d like to see more of it.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Brightgloam by Peter S. Drang

This is fun. I like the way it embraces its weirdness—the colors, the shapes and distortions, the synesthesia. There’s an off-the-wall sweetness about the meet-cute and the way the two characters mirror each other’s transformations.

I have some questions about how it all works. Is there any sense of the physical shift? Do people have to adjust to the changes in their bodies? Balance would change, movement would be different. Viewpoints—what happens to vision when both eyes are on the same side? Obviously in a short-short, you won’t want to go into detail, but maybe a line or so, a quick sketch of the feel as well as the smell and taste and sound and sight?

I’m not quite convinced by the beginning of their meeting. It seems as if there needs to be just a hair more to her invitation. A glance, a turn of the head. Some indication as to why she does it. Is it the fact that they’re mirror twins? That she’s looking for a perfect moment, and she believes he’s the perfect one to share it with? Even if it’s pure impulse, it feels as if we need more of a sense of that.

Same applies to the parting. He gets distracted, but why is that a dealbreaker? Is she that strongly opposed to any variation on The Question? If so, why does she agree to meet him again tomorrow? Why not try again today? Why not do a reboot right then and there? What makes it essential that they wait? Can they even trust that the world will be the same, or that they won’t be transformed out of all recognition?

None of this needs a lot of wordage. A line or a phrase would do it. Just a touch of clarity, to make it all shine brighter.

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Library Of The Mind by Jamie Boyd

I like the concept of this story. It’s an intriguing direction for psychotherapy to take. I’m particularly moved by the fact that the librarian suffers from dementia: that she’s both therapist and patient.

I have some questions about the patient’s motivations. While the librarian does explain (or seems to) why he’s had his memory wiped, I’m not sure I’m convinced. She lets him think that he’s a therapist in training, but it doesn’t quite make sense for him to have asked to enter the therapy as a blank slate. What would be the advantage of total ignorance? Wouldn’t he want to retain some basics, to hang his therapy on?

Of course the twist is that he’s not a therapist, he’s a patient, and he’s being trained to treat himself. I wonder if there might be just a little more ambiguity in the beginning, a little more questioning on his part—if he’s a trained therapist, why doesn’t he let himself access those skills? Might he start to suspect that something’s off? He does say that he doesn’t feel like a doctor, but I think there could be some more layers to that feeling, some sense that the librarian might be misleading him.

It doesn’t need to be more than a line or two, but I think it would help make his earlier scenes more believable. Then when the twist comes, there’s more of an OH! That makes sense. And then it all falls into place.

The other thing that might bear thinking about is the way the narrative develops. The librarian has a lot of what I call “exposidialogue.” That’s dialogue as exposition. Lecture mode. She tells him what to see and do, and to an extent, what to think.

While he is there to be trained, and she is there as an instructor, I wonder if she might be more indirect in her methods. Set him up in a scene, present the situation, but rather than spelling it out, let him figure it out for himself. Ask rather than tell. Guide him toward his own conclusions.

She does more of this toward the end, but initially she’s almost mechanical in her speech and mannerisms. The prose even points toward it, describing how she prattled on. Could she prattle less and guide more? Or, if he’s perceiving her speech as prattle but it’s actually serving an instructional purpose, maybe he could come to this realization a bit more clearly as the story progresses.

The one last thing I would suggest in the final round of revision is careful attention to the choice of words and constructions. A couple of phrases made me pause:

she said, tsking her mouth into a sympathetic shape.

tsk is a tongue sound, not a mouth shape. It’s not sympathetic; it’s a way of indicating he’s on the wrong track.

A dimple of approval flashing briefly on her face

Again, not sure the words mean what they want to mean. Dimples tend to be more about humor than approval, and the visual of flashing seems to point more toward some aspect of light than an indentation in the skin.

I didn’t think the ending was overly obvious, by the way. The way the plot was moving, it was inevitable. But that’s what I tend to want out of an ending.

To me this draft reads as if it’s working its way toward completion. Mostly it seems to need more layers and more polish, and some rethinking as to how the story is told, especially when it comes to dialogue.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Hitler’s Lips by RedDwarf Star

“Hitler’s Lips” caught my attention this month with its smart, multilayered dive into social trust and how we see each other as people, not categories. This is a refreshingly humane story, one that observes all kinds of social lines incisively without lashing out at them or falling into sentimentality. More importantly, it does a great job at choosing tools that reflect the story it wants to tell: ones that refract and reflect its themes. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we align our tools with our idea—and how to diagnose the gaps between them.

There’s a lot going on in “Hitler’s Lips”: grief, social ostracism and intimidation on multiple levels, a pandemic in progress—and underpinning them all, how people carry the weight. What makes all that fit into a few thousand words is a keen awareness of structure and how each question can tie into—and play off—each other in a way that feels seamless.

One of the most useful questions I have for thinking about structure is: Does form follow function? Or in other words, are we using tools, structures, word choices, POVs, and worlds with the same attributes as the central idea we want to express? Do the stories we’re telling and the ways we tell those stories have something in common? Readers might not be able to pick out every feature of those common points, but will notice those resonances in a way that feels like good story.

When “Hitler’s Lips” is at its strongest, it’s meeting that question well. As a story about people being more complex, organic, and multilayered than demographics, categories, and shallow assumptions capture, it’s powerful when its techniques reflect that idea: complex, multilayered themes, a non-linear timeline, and actively leveraging and subverting expectations about what a story named for Hitler might do.

The most notable place this works is in the story’s skillful imagery. When Lisa sees Gerald through expectations, she’s looking for swastikas, seeing light like “sepia-toned photographs”, and assuming that Gerald’s lurking and lonely. The language is more than a little loaded and dehumanizing in those moments—and in some wonderfully expressive, inventive, and specific ways: the “obese couch” and panic that smells like raw pork.

This tendency works on the larger scale too: the description of Lisa’s suburban childhood neighbourhood “where the chrome flagpoles beside front doors and the polished metal of cars gave off a hateful glare,” does possibly the most work in the whole piece. It’s a space described in angles and bunkers, red, white, and blue, and imbues the space itself with an unending, oppressive rigidity. It’s very clear how much Lisa feels dehumanized by this environment: how bright, harsh, and unforgiving it is.

But when “Hitler’s Lips” gently strips those expectations back to let the actual people in the room emerge, the language follows it: the all-too-organic description of Gerald’s hands and the deliberately ambiguity Lisa peppers her memory with. There are a few images that follow this progression explicitly: from Gerald’s mask blurring him into an age range instead of an age to Lisa parsing his emotions through it, to the realization that it has been off, and he hasn’t flinched from her naked face. Aside from establishing the very real feeling of front-line jobs during COVID, this creates an active thematic progression through using the same visual in different ways.

Another great example, in this case, is “white-coated professional free of pain”, a phrase that’s blurring the meaning of those first words rather expertly. It evokes both the white coat of a doctor—the literal description—and the idea of a thin coating of whiteness itself, one that ostensibly protects her from harm. Those two words do twice as much work in the same space, and the experience of reading them both ways at once opens the door for a feeling of non-rigidity, ambiguity, context.

What makes this work isn’t just the objective quality of the metaphors and word choice, it’s how those choices change to reflect Lisa’s emotional progress through the story from archetypes and stereotypes—”Dragon Lady Meets Hitler”—to two human beings candidly working the question of how to cope. It’s a shape that resonates with the idea it’s carrying, and that’s what makes it powerful.

Likewise, the places where “Hitler’s Lips” could be strengthened are places where ideas aren’t tied into that progression and structure, where form isn’t quite following function yet. And notably, to my eye, the scenes between when Gerald has his indigestion attack and Lisa’s leaving the house.

This ranges from small thoughts to larger ones. For example, Lisa’s thought about milky eyes and lactose intolerance is one that I’m not sure adds enough, considering the immediacy of the situation—a person in possibly life-threatening pain. It’s a riff on the idea of intolerance, but not one that ties in or pays off, and it’s a new idea introduced right as that idea’s about to change. Because of where it is, the sum total for me was to see it as a distraction, pulling away from the idea that people are the most important thing in a dangerous situation.

That question of danger also can potentially be handled more structurally. Because Gerald’s not in as much danger as Lisa thinks—which highlights that same central themes of assumptions being fatal—there’s a little possible backlash from readers. We’ve been told there’s danger, and then it’s been pulled back just as easily, and this has a chance of damaging readers’ trust in the story.

I don’t think it’s fatal, but I would look carefully at ways to handle that that don’t just have Lisa berating herself as stupid and closing the issue. The symptoms she sees are reasonable symptoms; she has reasons for reacting in the ways she does, and all they need to do is be surfaced well.

There are ways, I think, to tie that incident and her reaction more tightly into her history with the CPR class, her mother’s drowning, her still-fresh grief for her father, the way her brother can’t quite handle the shape of that loss and falls back into childishness. This is less about having more of that information—it’s all there—but just organizing it more mindfully in that part of the story. This is an important moment—important enough that it’s the title of the story—and handling it with more depth and richness, instead of falling back into scripts and shorthands (that she’s stupid) might be a path to making that mini-crisis not feel like a source of tension that was immediately walked back, but like a revelatory piece of character work, and a turning point in the plot.

Finally, as Lisa’s leaving, there are structurally also two emotional payoffs: one where Gerald says that he’d find a way to deal with things if it meant living, and the second around changing his name. From here, they feel like two alternate variations of the same structural scene: Gerald offers Lisa a piece of experience about being strong, taking care of yourself, and perspective that changes how she thinks about her own life. They’re fulfilling, ultimately, the same function.

I’d suggest either choosing between those ways of expressing the structural scene, or combining them in a way that makes them one conversation in one space. It’s a chance to take that little bit of repetition out, and concentrate the impact both of them would have into one space.

The second major place I might suggest for polish is in carrying Lisa’s revelation through structurally. She gains an understanding about being whole, about treating people as they are rather than checkboxes, that there is no such thing as “an accurate census of everyone”, but when she returns to the Census office she’s still thinking of her coworker as “a Nigerian woman”. The form’s not following the function here, in how she thinks of people, and that’s a small contradiction that I think can be worked.

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All in all, what “Hitler’s Lips” has to say for itself is beautiful and necessary: Loss was inevitable. You had to not be reduced by it. Stay whole or try to be so again. It’s a thought that deserves the best framing possible, and I think this one’s almost there. By extending the thinking it’s already using—making the tools match the goals—this has a chance of being wonderfully elegant, and doing some real good for readers.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Team MARU by Lyri Ahnam

I really like the premise of this story. The protagonist is strong, with a clearly defined voice. And of course I love Maru.

The opening tries for fast pacing and taut tension, and mostly succeeds. By the time Starling kills the snake, the pacing has slowed down and the exposition has ramped up. The trek from the lab to the base camp has a tendency to focus on nonessential details, with a fair amount of repetition: Maru’s claws on Starling’s skin, Starling’s genetically engineered status, her prolonged deafness after the blast.

Her passage through the camp is remarkably easy, as is her escape in the General’s plane. There don’t appear to be any people in the camp except for the Eyes, who don’t catch on at all to the fact that she’s not one of their superior officers. She escapes with ease. There’s no pursuit, and she waits a considerable while to disconnect the black box and dump the stolen com. Then it’s off to the next mission, cat in tow.

I have a number of suggestions for revisions. While the prose could be tightened quite a bit to meet the goal of 5000 words (and actually come in a fair bit under), I think the emphasis for now should be on the structure of the story.

First, I would recommend moving a good chunk of the exposition from the second half, and especially the final third, to the earlier part of the story. Tighten, pare, and streamline these passages, and weave them into Starling’s escape from the lab and her trek to the base camp. Give us quick, concise references to Starling’s past and especially her relationship with General Dikson, to Gem’s past and her mission at the lab, and make it clearer why she’s killed herself. A line here and there in the action sequence at the beginning, then further clarification as Starling makes her escape and processes (or doesn’t) her grief.

By the time she gets to the base camp, the reader should have a pretty good sense of who she is, who Gem was, and what their mission is. I’d like to be clearer on how their arcs connect, too. Are they allies? Are they working for the same forces? Are their goals the same? Some of that is in the draft, but I think it needs more.

During her trek Starling deals with obstacles and evades pursuit, but once she’s in the base camp, that mostly disappears. Her passage through the camp and her escape should be messier and more complicated. There’s room for that once the esposition and backstory are streamlined and moved to earlier scenes.

I think too that she might have a stronger sense of purpose, more of a defined mission. Instead of more or less randomly coming across the camp, she might be looking for something like it—the pursuit has to come from somewhere. It almost might be less of a coincidence that Dikson shows up. Could she be looking for the source of the surveillance, and have reason to suspect that it’s someone she knows from her own past?

Her escape could have more sense of purpose, too. Would she have a goal, a place to be? In the draft, she’s just running, evading pursuit. She could be aiming in a particular direction, or thinking about where to go next. In short—more overall sense of mission, and more purpose in what she does.

The same, I think, applies to Maru. Starling says she’s not a cat person, but Gem entrusted the cat to her. It’s an act of love and tribute to honor Gem’s last wishes. But since she is in the story, and since every element of a short story ought to earn its keep, could Maru play a greater part in the development of the plot?

It doesn’t have to be a whole new plot-thing. But Maru is remarkably docile for a cat, and stays remarkably close to Starling, who is not her human. Can that be turned to advantage in some way? If she’s genetically engineered, is there some useful thing she can do to help Starling accomplish her mission? Can she alert Starling to threats, serve as ears while her own are damaged, help her find the base camp? Might her hunting skills come in handy in the camp, or for that matter, could her cuteness be weaponized to distract camp personnel from Starling’s campaign of sabotage?

Not to mention that she has actual weapons in the form of claws. She uses them freely on Starling. Could they be aimed at others as well?

The title of the story after all is “Team Maru.” Maybe think about how to weave that concept more strongly into the plot, and make Maru a fully contributing member of the team. Even if Starling wants to stow her out of the way in the camp, she could escape and do something helpful, possibly something that Gem taught her to do, or that she was programmed to do by whoever grew her in the vat. There’s a lot a cat can do to turn military order into chaos.

Best of luck, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Reflections On The Anniversary Of My Descent, Chapter 1 by Kell Shaw

In response to the question in the author’s note, for me there’s enough mystery and ambiguity especially toward the end, that I’d keep reading to find out what happens. The concept is interesting and I like the idea of a dispatch from beyond the grave.

What I’d like to talk about for this Editor’s Choice is a more general topic: distancing and filters. At first I thought I’d call it passive writing, but it’s more complex than that. It’s a tendency to separate the reader from the narrative and the characters through the use of passive voice and temporizing constructions.

Passive voice is a powerful tool. When the subject drops out of the discourse, when actions happen without an agent, the story takes a step away from immediate and lived experience. It’s filtered. Emotion is muted, tension weakened.

When it’s deliberate and calculated, it excludes the reader from the direct experience. It can twist the meaning in subtle and even pernicious ways. “A shot was fired” as opposed to “X shot Y.” X and Y are no longer there. It’s just the shot, exploding in empty space.

Passive prose isn’t only the direct use of the passive voice. It creeps in through the use of passive or distanced constructions. I am by no means opposed to the use of was and were and their relatives, but when they show up frequently and to the exclusion of active constructions, the cumulative effect is to distance the reader from the characters and the story.

Look at this progression:

There were several useful things I should have done.

Then a little later:

There were two more. One was a guy watching everything

And shortly thereafter:

That was the three of them

There are active bits in between these passages, but the repetition of there were/that was adds up. Think about how to shift the discourse toward the active. “I could have done several things.” “I saw two more. One was watching everything.” And maybe the third doesn’t need to be there; it’s already clear that there are three.

A similar thing happens with temporizing phrases. They seem to be an attempt to make the narrative more conversational, to establish that the narrator is telling a story in an oral-ish style. What mostly happens however is that the narrator inserts herself between the reader and the story.

Here at the beginning:

well! I pulled through

Does “well!” add anything to the story? Does it need to be there?

C’mon—the Dark Emperor’s insignia?

Here too. Is “c’mon” necessary?

Another form of temporizing is the use of negatives or inherent contradictions:

And it’s not because I have a genetic demon dad—it’s because…

Or here:

Like I was going to lie quietly while they cut me. Instead

Such constructions can make the reader feel as they’re being pushed away from the direct action. The emotional affect flattens and the pacing slows down. Again, as with passive constructions in general, a little can go a long way and be very effective in setting up a contrast between the predominantly active narration and the brief shift to a more filtered experience. It’s what horse riders call a half-halt: a pause, a brief break in the movement. But too many half-halts can stop the movement altogether.

One last thing to watch for is the tendency to minimize a particular action or line of thought. It often expresses itself as some version of the phrase,

I didn’t have time to worry about that.

What this tells the reader is that the information they’ve just been given is not relevant. It erodes their trust in the narrator. If she’s explicitly not giving them the information they do need in order to understand what’s going on, how much of the rest is relevant, either?

All of this, when done deftly and deliberately, can make the story stronger. An unreliable narrator can be fascinating. But it has to be careful and intentional and above all, sparing in its use. A little goes a long way.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Saints of Flesh, Chapter 1 by Tim W. Burke

The bones of this chapter are solid. There are some vivid and memorable images, and the story moves rapidly forward. Olivia is a strong character; her motivations are clear. There’s no question about what she wants or how she intends to get it.

My main questions have to do with the prose. It wants to be powerful and evocative, and it does achieve this to a degree—especially at the very end of the submission. That last sentence is just right.

Often however it doesn’t quite hit its mark. Phrasing can be awkward or syntactically incorrect:

It stabbed and scraped and sliced her from self-loathing.

The “from” is hard to parse. Sliced her away from it? Kept her from hating herself? Or is it meant to be “out of,” as the reason for the stabbing and the rest?

as he smiled back up to me

Should this be “back up at me”?

Sometimes images are odd or confusing:

every moment savored like a coming thunderstorm

The mixed metaphor acts like a speed bump—the reader has to stop to figure it out. Savoring the moment, that makes sense, but how does it connect with a potential weather event? How do they fit together?

Gretchen’s aura drooped with icicle prickles.

A similar thing happens here. How does an aura droop? And how do icicles prickle? Or droop?

The air stung of stale incense and alcohol.

Here too, the metaphor starts in one place and ends up in another. Or is it a typo? Is it meant to be the ungrammatical stunk, meaning stank?

Heart squirting with alarm

I’m not sure what the image is here. Squirting blood? Squeezing like the digestion a few paragraphs later? Is this another typo, or a word that isn’t quite the right one?

Some habits might bear rethinking, too. There’s a tendency to undercut an image:

a seemingly regretful glance, for example, or

He seemed spiteful for some reason

The context would be clearer and the emotional impact more effective without the qualifiers.

The underpinnings are there. It’s pretty clear what the characters’ arcs are and where they’re headed. Once the prose is tightened and clarified and the words and images are under control, both the story and the characters will come through more strongly.

— Judith Tarr