Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

The Other Side of Midnight (Dialect Ask) by Paul O’Neill

The opening quickly draws me in as Charlie and his friends are attacked by a pair of bullies.  The bullies seem to pose a serious threat, so as the conflict intensifies, the suspense rises.  And as Charlie’s friend, Gavin, deteriorates and begins to ramble about the “lightning lady,” my anticipation about where the novella is leading grows.  That works well.

Since this is the opening scene from a novella, I won’t talk about overall plot and character issues.  Instead, I’ll focus on style and viewpoint.

The dialogue uses quite a bit of phoneticization or eye dialect, words misspelled to reflect their pronunciation.  In this case, the characters seem to speak with a Scottish accent.  I recommend against using misspellings in most cases, for several reasons.  First, it’s a barrier for many readers.  As I’m reading the excerpt and come to some dialogue, I see a bunch of words (misspelled) that I don’t recognize, so I’m brought up short.  The flow of the story stops, I’m thrown out of the story, and my eyes jump ahead to see how much dialogue there is to decode.  I try to pick out a couple words I can understand to get the overall meaning of the dialogue, and then jump ahead to the end of the dialogue.  When it’s clear I didn’t understand the dialogue sufficiently, then I go back over it again and try harder to understand it.  At this point, I’ve completely lost the sense that events are unfolding and have separated from the story.  Then I have to try to get immersed again after the dialogue ends.  So it’s quite disruptive, and I don’t think it’s adding anything to the story.

Second, these sorts of misspellings generally suggest the speaker is speaking incorrectly and imply a negative judgment about the speaker.  No one actually speaks every word exactly as it is spelled.  But we usually spell the dialogue correctly, and the reader gets a sense of how the character speaks based on word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, and syntax.  I suggest using these elements rather than misspellings to indicate the accents of the characters.  Some of the dialogue already does this.  For example, taking some dialogue from the story and spelling it correctly, “Time to shut that big gob of yours, man,” “Or what, you nothing bastard?” and “Mike Tyson stuff there, likes.”  These all give me a clear sense of the characters’ accents.  The misspellings are unnecessary.  Strengthening these elements throughout would convey the dialect without the phoneticization.

There is an additional problem in that there’s a disconnect between the dialect and the narrative.  This relates to a weakness in the point of view, which I’ll talk about first.  While we are clearly receiving sensory input through Charlie, the POV rarely gives us a sense of Charlie’s thoughts or emotions.  The thoughts and emotions become a little more common after Charlie discovers the pencil in his hand, but I never really feel close to Charlie.  The long paragraph beginning, “Charlie had drawn every day” seems like a belated attempt to introduce us to the character and provide an explanation for his words after the fact.  I think the novella will be much stronger if the POV is more psychically close to Charlie.  As is, I feel somewhat distant from the characters and events, which means I don’t care about them as much as I might.

Drawing us psychically closer to Charlie isn’t just about giving us a stronger sense of Charlie’s thoughts and emotions.  It’s also about choosing sensory details that Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  When Charlie’s friend Gavin is hit by a brick, the details provided are a rivulet of blood on Gavin’s forehead and the reflection of rustling leaves in the blood’s surface.  For me, a rivulet isn’t enough blood to show a reflection of leaves, so I don’t get a clear image from that.  More important, though, is this reflection of leaves really what Charlie is focused on as he kneels beside his injured friend?  I would think he’d be frantically trying to figure out if his friend is okay–conscious, coherent–and trying to spot the bullies who threw the brick, to determine the level of threat.  In the next sentence, we get details about Charlie’s other friend–what the friend is doing, what he’s wearing, and how his shins look below his shorts.  Again, this doesn’t seem to be what Charlie would be focused on.

As I mentioned above, bringing us psychically close to Charlie is both about including sensory details Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  The descriptions, though, do not use word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, or syntax to give us a sense that Charlie is Scottish.  The narrative voice, to me, feels like American English, while the dialogue feels like Scottish English.  That increases my distance from Charlie.

I don’t know how important it is that these boys are Scottish and this story is set in Scotland.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the story thus far.  My suspicion is that this “lightning lady” is going to connect to some Scottish myth.  If it is important to the story, then my suggestion would be to cut most of the eye dialect, indicate the dialect through those other elements, and turn down the dial on it from 9 to 3.  Then I’d suggest increasing the sense of Charlie’s dialect in the narrative, turning the dial up from 0 to 3.

One other point I wanted to mention is that many times in the excerpt, the pronoun he is used to refer to Charlie, but it’s not clear that it refers to Charlie.  Since all the characters are male, you need to clearly put the focus on Charlie, by name, before replacing his name with he.

A more in-depth discussion of dialect is available in Odyssey Podcasts 127 and 128 by Nisi Shawl here:  https://odysseyworkshop.org/podcasts.html.

I enjoyed reading this excerpt, which left me excited about where the novella is heading.  I hope this is helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Far From Every Strand by Kate Wooderson

“Far From Every Strand” captured my imagination this month with its remote setting, brutal economics, and the beginnings of clean, stark lines of conflict and power and beauty that bring one of the best attributes of literary fiction into a genre setting. It’s evoking modern colonial-era literary fiction in both content and (partially) style, but doesn’t quite read finished to me yet on the sentence level. This month, I’d like to talk about strategies for cutting, tightening, and polishing prose: getting the tone of a story to shine through.

The plot of “Far From Every Strand” is stark, simple, and dignified: an interesting inversion of the selkie trope that feels rich and lonely and troubled. It’s bolstered by highly effective imagery: the flayed girl is a powerful way to drive the point home in one image—believable as the kind of vision that would motivate John to action—and the kineticism of the last lines is deeply effective.

I haven’t seen the prior draft, but think John’s participation in the sealing wouldn’t harm this piece overmuch: a lot of what it’s examining on the thematic level is moral ambiguity, finding a way to right and wrong, and violent systems rather than individuals, and I’m not sure pulling off a character arc that addresses those things requires a protagonist who is and always has been Right™.

Because of that tone wafting through—huge, unpopulated spaces and the harshness of sealing—and the associations it can make with whaling fiction, New Zealander and otherwise, my major suggestion for making “Far From Every Strand” stronger would be concision.

There is deeply beautiful language in this piece: He’d been a clerk long enough to conceive a hatred for quill driving, a planter long enough to realize he could not stomach slavery, and a colonist long enough to know he had no great desire to settle is an elegantly balanced, gorgeous sentence that manages to be thoroughly evocative in a way that’s carrying no extra baggage. It’s rich with wordplay, texture, and character information in a way that doesn’t feel crowded or overstuffed. However, there are other spots in the piece where information is being mulled a few beats too long or reiterated, where sentences are unbalanced, where the pace drags.

The question: how to align some of the phrasing and pacing and a theme of spare-but-rich places with that strength in the author’s style, and make them all work together. Or in short: How to bring the rest of the piece consistently up to its strongest points?

There are a whole double handful of approaches to trimming a piece down and looking into pacing without losing meaning. First—and maybe easiest—is to find places where extraneous words and what a lot of writers call scaffolding could be cleaned out of the prose—for example, “Chill seawater soaked the hem of his coat” edits quickly to “Chill seawater soaked his coat hem”. The result is a tighter, more concrete voice.

Another way to do this is to find active and interesting verbs that could incorporate description without adding adjectives. For example, “The slanted beach rose into a glacial valley shrouded by mist” can be tightened by trying “The beach slanted into” and pulling that sense of motion into the verb itself. Fewer words but stronger words, and nothing’s been lost.

There’s also a strategy for finding places where one on-target adjective could replace two or three that aren’t as precise: for example, “A sweet honeyed fragrance rose from the forest and mingled with the smell of salty foam” has the same meaning but a lot more concision and precision as “A honeyed forest fragrance” and “the salt of seafoam.” Readers will fundamentally expect honeyed smells to be sweet, seafoam to smell salty, and something described as salty after a smell is described as sweet to also be a smell; it’s a place a writer can rely on readers’ existing knowledge and assumptions.

Finding places where implications are being spelled out explicitly—where that readerly assumption could fill in that blank tidily without on-page help—is another good site for shortening and cutting. For example, “She laughed. ‘We’re not afraid of empty ocean. We are the daughters of the seas'” might not need that second phrase: it’s quite apparent why a selkie wouldn’t fear empty ocean; they live in it.

Finally, there’s space in clearing out potential false trails. For example, the sequence in the last paragraphs where the crew mock and berate John overstates the case by a lot, and draws parallels between the selkies and homophobia that aren’t supported in the rest of the story. It’s a late lead, and one that doesn’t go anywhere—John is already leaving. The readers have already figured out that the crew is morally poisoned. If there’s not enough work being done by those insults, do they need to be there?

These are all examples and suggestions—obviously, we each find our own ways to tighten prose while keeping in our own voice!—but with this, as in a lot of things, when we make a handful of smaller adjustments they add up to something more. It’s, at the core, about thinking through one’s prose from readers’ perspective—what might be obvious, what the story’s already told them, what they need to move forward—and adjusting accordingly.

There’s a lot of beauty in this piece, and a lot of smarts. Once that signal’s finely tuned, I think this will have little trouble finding a home.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Thaw Of Neptune, 06 Dulmer by Joseph Bixby

There’s some good, solid hard-SF stuff going on in this chapter. Plenty of action, too, and some interesting characters.

For this Editor’s Choice I would like to talk more generally than specifically, about a couple of authorial habits that stood out for me as I read the chapter. I find it fascinating that these habits tend to come in clusters. It’s as if everybody who’s writing and publishing decides to do the same things at the same time. Recently I’ve noticed two tendencies in published works that I’ve read as a reader, and in mss. that I’ve read as editor.

1. Italicized internal monologue

This has been cropping up a lot lately. Characters narrate their own story. They react to what’s happening, register opinions, make plans. They do this regularly. Sometimes it’s every paragraph or two. Paragraph, commentary, paragraph.

I’m not sure where this started. It’s been around for a long time, but I’ve noticed an uptick in the past year or two. It seems to be a way of asserting the viewpoint and registering the character’s thoughts and feelings. Maybe it’s meant to punch up the neutral narrative with a layer of personal observation. Rather than straight exposition, we get the character’s perspective.

I do wonder though, how much it adds to the story. Does it enhance the reader’s experience, or does it distract from the flow of the action? Does the commentary clarify the narrative, or can the narrative stand on its own? What does it want to accomplish? How does the story change with it as opposed to without it?

If the answer is that the story needs that commentary at that particular point, then the story needs it. If it’s a distraction, or if it doesn’t add anything that isn’t already there, then it can go away. It’s up to the author to decide what works for the story they want to tell.

2. “Floating Heads” dialogue

Confession: I’m prone to this when writing draft. Characters go back and forth in rapid exchanges without much or indeed any stage business or framing. When I’m taking dictation as I often am, it all makes sense to me, but when the editor gets their eyes on it, the reaction can all too often be, “Whut?”

One of my editors calls this form of dialogue “floating heads.” Lots of talk, no backup. In small doses it can really work. It’s fast, it’s lean, it moves things right along.

Longer passages are a harder sell for the reader. If they have to stop and go back and figure out who is speaking, that’s a distraction from the story. Even if the speakers are clearly labeled (and this chapter for the most part they are), the story may need a little bit more. A gesture, a facial expression. A brief visual to let the reader see what’s going on, where the conversation is taking place, how the speakers look, act, sound. What are they adding to the bare words of the script? How are they fleshing it out?

It doesn’t have to be a lot of exposition or description. If there’s too much stage business, that’s distracting, too. But a line here, a phrase there, can make an amazing amount of difference. It’s just a matter of figuring out where it will have the best effect.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

 

Drunken City by Beth Berg

This chapter has some interesting worldbuilding and an eerily compelling narrative style. It seems to be set in a dystopian future, maybe not too distant from now, but far enough to feel just a bit strange. It’s not clear where it’s set, whether on Earth or on another planet; that’s something I would expect to find out as the story unfolds.

It’s labeled fantasy, but that doesn’t lock it into any particular planet or era. What that does for me is suggest that the plot will resolve through some form of magic or the supernatural rather than through technology. Again, the rest of the novel will tell me if I’m right about that.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out for aid in revision. The movement of the story is clear enough in the draft, though I would suggest a couple of simple copyediting-type fixes to help the reader follow the narrative. When a viewpoint shifts, for example, start a new paragraph. That way, the reader knows to expect the change. The same applies to dialogue. New speaker, new paragraph.

The prose, word by word and line by line, needs a fair amount of work. The ongoing echoes and repetition can be effective if they’re calculated carefully, but make sure all the words mean what they need to mean. Instance here, for example, actually should be a slightly different word, instant.

Think too about whether the repetitions make the story stronger, or whether it could use more variety in choice of words and phrases. Note the frequent flyers: yelled out, for example, and seem and appear in various forms, and surprise. Can some or all of them be replaced with other words or phrases?

Watch for passive voice and passive constructions. Think about how to make them active. People doing things make for stronger story in general than people having things done to them. The same applies to things happening. If there’s a subject to the verb, instead of a passive “was done to,” it moves the story along more briskly and pulls the reader with it.

And finally, adverbs. There’s a school of thought that says we should kill them all. I don’t agree with that, but I do think that with –ly words, a little goes a long way.

This chapter has a lot of adverbs. Try taking them all out and see what happens. If the sentence stops making sense without its adverbs, are there other ways to get the meaning across?

Especially with dialogue, how a character says something is important. But rather than tagging with an adverb, try indicating tone or intent through the words the character chooses and the actions that accompany it: stage business, so to speak, gestures or movement. Tone of voice, too, and expression, or body language in general. There are all sorts of ways to get the job done without adverbs.

Then if an adverb still seems to be indicated, go for it. Just remember the maxim here as in everything else: Less is More.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Trouble With Townhouses by Michelle Tang

This story has some delightfully creepy details.  I get quite excited by the idea of a woman living between the walls, which is horrific to imagine, and by the ghost of the woman who once lived between the walls.  The plot has some good escalation as the sounds Agathe hears grow and evolve.  One particularly nice description is “My heart was pounding so loud it was as though she was knocking from the inside of my chest.”  The whispering from the air vents is disturbingly easy to imagine.  The situation escalates further as the hidden bricked-up doorway is discovered and Agathe finally sees the space between the walls and the skeleton “in the bed so close to where I slept that we might have been lovers.”  That’s very nice.

I think the story could be strengthened in several ways.

Agathe’s actions in the story could be better developed.  Right now, Agathe complains about the noise to her neighbors, starts sleeping in the basement, discovers the missing space, learns the previous tenants complained about noises, tries headphones, and then the flooded basement leads to the discovery of the hidden door.

For me, the actions don’t seem to be in the order that they would really occur.  I would think she would try headphones within the first week of hearing the noises, not months later.  And I think she would try that before she’d start sleeping in the basement, which would require getting a cot and/or getting help to move it into the basement.  It also seems like she’d complain to the landlord around the same time that she complains to the neighbors.

While the presence of the ghost grows stronger as the story goes on, the actions of the narrator, Agathe, don’t seem to escalate alongside it.  I wonder if she might hang a tapestry or rug against a wall where a lot of the knocking occurs (perhaps the wall beside her bed), and then might start pounding against the wall to get the person on the other side to be quiet, and then pound with a hammer against the wall, and then crawl alongside her cats to try to find the shifting source, and maybe crawl so much her knees get bloody, and maybe she hears sounds downstairs and rushes down the stairs and falls.  I think there’s quite a bit of room for escalation on Agathe’s part.  I don’t believe she’d stay in the townhouse once she realizes the doorway is open and the sounds have moved into her house.

I never feel Agathe is in danger, either due to the ghost or due to her own actions, so nothing much seems to be at stake.  Usually in a ghost story, there is a physical or mental threat to the protagonist, or both.  At first, I think the story is foreshadowing a breakdown for Agathe, when she loses control and speaks so rudely to the neighbors, and with descriptions like, “as though a little old lady could be dangerous” and “The image of a crazed woman, wiry grey hair wild about her face.”  Yet Agathe seems to be rational and pretty calm through most of the story.  How does the ghost pose a threat to Agathe?  She loses sleep and gets crabby, but that’s about it.  I offered some suggestions in the previous paragraph that could lead to physical dangers.  Some other physical dangers could come from the ghost.  Maybe she pounds so hard on a wall that a large, heavy framed photograph falls and almost hits Agathe (or does hit her).  Maybe Agathe hears whispers out of the plumbing, like from the sink drain, so she plugs it up.  The ghost then makes water pour out of the sink faucet and overflow to the floor and Agathe slips and falls.

What mental threats could the ghost create?  Does Agathe come to think of herself as trapped, and does she start knocking on the walls in hopes of being freed by the person on the other side?  Does Agathe think Claire rejected her (maybe she wanted to live with Claire) and consigned her to this lonely townhouse?  Agathe seems to have no friends and no activities.  Does she perhaps start out with a friend but then get in an argument with that person about the voices and lose her friend?  Does she start to hallucinate from sleep deprivation and attack Bobby?

The events could also have a stronger causal chain.  Generally, one event in a story should cause the next, and so on, so events don’t seem to happen randomly.  When an event seems to occur without a cause, it feels like the author is making the event happen.  The causal chain gives readers the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference by the author.  Right now, the basement flood occurs without any clear cause.  I don’t know why the ghost would be able to do this, and I don’t know why the ghost would do it at that point.  Some research into basement flooding may help.

Several elements are set up but don’t pay off.  The neighbors are one and the cats are another.  Having pets die has become a cliché in horror, so I’m not recommending that.  But perhaps the cats could provide some clue that leads to some action by Agathe.  Or perhaps the cats could turn on Agathe and attack her, possessed by the ghost.  Or maybe the cats meow into the air vent and hear an echo of a meow in return.  Perhaps the human skeleton in the hidden space is accompanied by a cat skeleton.

As far as the neighbors go, if Agathe starts banging at the wall with a hammer, maybe the vibration knocks something over in Bobby’s bedroom and it hits him in the head and Stephen comes over, angry.

The story seems to be missing a climax.  The hidden space is revealed, but there’s no resolution to the conflict between Agathe and the ghost.  I’d love to see the ghost, now free of her little space, doing whatever she wants to do to Agathe, and Agathe trying to escape the house.  Perhaps her only escape–driven by the ghost–is to go into the little space where the ghost lived, and perhaps the ghost traps her in there.  Then Agathe can tap.  And perhaps she’d hear the ghost taking over her life, going to live with Claire.  That would be a disturbing end to the story.

Another element I want to discuss is the voice.  For me, the voice feels like it belongs to someone who lived in some past time, like 1900 or earlier.  It doesn’t sound like a senior citizen in current times.  The first paragraph is an example of this old-fashioned voice.  You could move the setting to an earlier time or update the voice.  To update the voice, my suggestion is that you talk to some seniors around Agathe’s age and record them.  You could also look for videos of seniors online, or look for nonfiction books written by seniors in the last few years.  I’m also wondering if Agathe has a cell phone and would text Claire.

A couple very small things.  I don’t know who Annie is.  And I thought the missing space existed only in the top floor, not in all the floors, including the basement.

I hope this is helpful.  I really enjoy imagining the situation you describe.

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

 

 

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Papyrus, 1 OF 2 by C.K Attner

I was drawn to “Papyrus” this month by its worldbuilding: a beleaguered ethnolinguist on a financially-strapped extraplanetary dig, surrounded by an interestingly different sentient species—and the question of whether the present matters more than the past. It’s the setup for a whole raft of interesting conflicts, but the way they’re organized in this early draft isn’t yet to best advantage. This month, I’d like to talk about how our characters’ reactions prime the reader, and how they affect how plots get where they’re going.

There’s lots of material to play with in “Papyrus”, a clear thematic question, and choices that have a tangible cost. All those variables make Sarah’s worlds—both Yeg and her professional sphere—feel wide, diverse, and lived-in, but they also send the direction of the plot constantly outward rather than forward. A great many potential conflicts are thrown out there in the first scene and mixed together, and not all of them connect with each other or bear results—or can be explored with any depth.

The depth question most obviously surfaces where what Sarah’s telling us and what the story shows don’t yet add up. Her initial description of Dr. Torma—as someone she wants approval from, to impress—and Dr. Torma’s introductory long, hectoring speech are directly at odds with each other. She eventually reveals an interesting motive behind her abrupt, aggressive behaviour—planetary protection—but it’s not yet visible in the actions she took or reactions she’s shown, and for most of the piece, Dr. Torma reads as a somewhat flat villain.

Likewise, there’s a hint of the noble savage in the Lepids and their “punishment” to live low-technology lifestyles; in wanting “nothing more than to preserve their traditional way of life”. I don’t think this is because of malice or a fault in the author; I think it’s because they haven’t been rendered with more than a surface reading, because there is so much going on in “Papyrus”—but surface readings can interact with stereotypes to give readers an opposite impression from what we want.

However, that problem of depth is especially visible in the suddenness of plot development in “Papyrus”. Major turns in the story come on quickly, and don’t read as strongly supported by what’s come before—or show reactions that are out of proportion for what’s just happened. For example, Sarah and her team’s reaction to MolO’s sudden English skills feels drastically underplayed—they just brush by it, when that opens the major question of sentience, diplomacy, and archaeological rights at the centre of the story—and then because it’s just brushed by, Sarah’s reactions for the rest of the story feel rather extreme for the problems presented, and her discovery of ethics even more sudden.

There’s a calibration of readers’ expectations that happens when a story shows its protagonist or secondary characters reacting: it shows us what the story thinks a reasonable reaction is in that society, context, or space. By downplaying the entire team’s reaction to the first major reveal, the effect boomerangs.

It also has an effect on structure, something the author’s notes asked about. I think structure is where the major work can be done on the next draft of “Papyrus” to start pulling it into shape.

There’s a tangible circularity in the structure in the early background, before Sarah recruits the MolO to help her: information such as how long she’s been working (why?) and the fraught relationship with the younger Dr. Torma is come back to, rather than built in early, so external actions—packing, loading—are circling every time new information is added. The Egg is moved away from narratively, and then come back to. When it lights up, Sarah reacts twice: “I let out a gasp loud enough to wake the extinct” and “Disbelief and excitement forced adrenaline through my veins” read at present like two versions of the same event, side by side, instead of one having been chosen and run with.

This circling effect keeps happening, more widely, because of the muted and reset reactions Sarah and her team have to the discoveries they make. The failure to react the first time means setting up the situation again to get the right reaction—the one that moves the story’s core question forward!—and just having Sarah’s reactions get stronger to prove there’s a real issue here. But: readers have already been to this question. From the other side of the page, the repetition is felt.

I think there are a few good questions to ask, when it feels like a question’s repeating in the structure of a story: Is there a realistic way these characters might react that would get the plot moving forward the first time? If a question is structurally repeating, is the second time around an evolution of that question, or asking something different or more interesting? Is there a question that can be asked in the plot that takes the characters through this position and into the next?

I’d suggest, when looking at the next draft, using some of those questions to rearrange the information in the first half of “Papyrus” so there’s a logical flow from one fact to the next. What are the relationships between the questions this story is asking? How many versions of each problem are there, and do they move the story forward? I think if that’s done, this piece could be tightened up both structurally and in terms of raw wordcount, and solve the length problem while you’re there.

As the author’s notes have said, this is a quite early draft, and the job of an early draft can be to get all the elements on the table. Focusing the next draft on arranging them into a more cohesive picture—one that emphasizes how they work together—is a great way to get a revision started and make the most of the pieces you have.

Best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award July 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 Art Of Surviving Dragons Chapter 1 by Jamie Perault

I have a weakness for breezy, sassy voices in epic fantasy. They’re a little paradoxical and quite a bit iconoclastic, and they have to be absolutely on point in order to work. But when they do, they’re a rollicking delight.

This chapter has potential. It’s got the wry, dry tone, and it has some nice plot and character twists. The style is distinctive; the protagonist defines himself clearly in the way he speaks and thinks.

This guy is a storyteller. I can see him kicked back in the tavern, telling his tale at his own pace and in his own time. His rhythms are spoken rhythms. He’s addressing an audience. He editorializes as if he’s answering questions or responding to listeners’ expressions or body language.

That’s some nice craft, and I think it can be even nicer with a round or two of revision. There’s a fine line between the storyteller telling his story at leisure, and the guy who takes forever to get to the point. On the one hand we can appreciate the layering of action and information. On the other, too many layers can keep the story from moving. It does need to move, especially in action sequences.

First I would suggest paring down the repetitions. They’re meant for effect; the ongoing double and treble and sometimes quadruple echo of words and phrases can create a rolling rhythm that enhances the story. But rhetorical devices like this are like spices or seasoning. A little goes a long way.

One repetition here and there can wake the reader or listener up and make them pay closer attention. Constant repetitions have the opposite effect. After a while they turn into a sort of white noise. The trick is to figure out just how much echo effect is enough, and prune the rest.

Pay attention too to the pacing of the action scenes. Watch for wordiness and digressions. Keep a close eye on what the characters are doing, and be careful of interrupting a heated fight or a desperate flight with passages of explanation or exposition. Fast action needs fast prose. Shorter sentences, fewer words. Tighter focus.

One thing that might tighten and strengthen the prose in general is to notice how many negative constructions show up throughout. Note how often the narrator uses didn’t and wasn’t, and how often he undercuts himself by saying he’s not sure or he doesn’t know. He’ll describe something, and then walk it back:

If I didn’t know he was a mad, murdering monster, I would have been tempted to sketch a picture. Not that I could actually draw all that well, but

Or he’ll set up an image and develop it it and redevelop it and develop it some more:

In that moment it sounded… young. Not child-young, but lazy apprentice young, someone still growing, whose body didn’t understand why work needed to be done instead of sleep. Perhaps that was why my next strike missed. Was I thrown off balance by that unexpected voice, pulling up just a little short instead of following through?

He’s in the midst of a fight for his or the dragon’s life, and he stops to develop a metaphor, in part by telling us what it’s not. Then he takes time for a rhetorical question. Meanwhile the action is on hold and the audience is waiting for the next blow to fall. This can work nicely in small doses, but if it happens frequently through the narrative, it keeps the story from moving forward. In a tavern, that means the rotten tomatoes will start to fly.

Luckily this is written rather than spoken prose, and there’s plenty of time to revise before it meets its audience. Keeping it focused, keeping it tight, and reining in the rhetoric will make a strong story and its intriguingly quirky characters even stronger. I certainly want to know more about the dragon who happens to be a werehuman, and the dragon hunter with the distinctly checkered past.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Take Off Your Shoes, Chapter 55 by Peter Mackay

Usually in selecting Editor’s Choices I try to go for opening scenes or chapters. That makes it a bit easier to understand what’s going on. Once in a while however I like to mix things up. Hence, this time, a final chapter.

From the author’s note I gather that the big picture is pretty well under control. Reviewers have weighed in on plot and characters and suggested useful changes. There seems to be somewhat less emphasis on the line by line, on the final polish.

I have a few thoughts on that. Polishing the prose will add that last bit of extra oomph, sharpen up the characters and heighten the emotional impact of the finale.

The first thing I would suggest is checking for “frequent fliers”—words and images that repeat throughout the chapter (and possibly through the rest of the novel. For example, note all the things that people do with their eyes, passing and sharing and exchanging looks and glances. Count the number of times characters nod or sigh, and how often they wave hands or arms. In what other ways can they express similar emotions or reactions?

Sometimes the phrasing is a bit odd, the words not quite as precise in their meaning as they might be:

She relaxed, tingling with relief.

She folded a hand against his cheek.

Martin’s head twitched.

Watch the idioms and the phrasing; be sure they’re on point. She glanced to would more likely be She glanced at, for example. Putting hands to her hips might read more smoothly as putting hands on her hips.

There’s a lot of stage business in general, a lot of actions surrounding passages of dialogue. Often it’s the same actions, characters doing the same things over and over, nodding, sighing, looking/glancing, smiling/grinning. Think about whether all of these actions are essential. Can some of them be dispensed with? Are they absolutely necessary? And if so, are they exactly the right actions?

Often too characters do two or three or more things in a row, piling action on action:

She took his hand in hers, kissed it, and gave him a hug. They held close and breathed in time with each other.

Unfar’ckt’s face tightened with a frown. He blinked, nodded, and looked at her.

In both of these passages, multiple emotionally fraught things happen. Putting them all together at once has the paradoxical effect of diminishing their effect. Try choosing the one that best conveys the feeling of the moment, and see if that actually heightens the emotion.

In short: paring and tightening the stage business, finding different ways for characters to act and react, and paying careful attention to choice of words and construction of idioms, will add that last bit of polish to the text, and make it that much stronger. Then the finale will pop even more than it does in this draft.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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 Fire, Chapter 3 by Michael Keyton

First, one of my standard disclaimers. Line edits and word-by-word critiques are the last thing a writer should worry about, after all the other elements of the work are in place and it’s time to apply the final polish. Fix the big things first. Then, at the end, make sure all the words are in the right place and doing what they’re intended to do.

With that in mind, I have thoughts about the prose of this submission. Style and word choice are crucial in the horror genre; they create the mood and establish the ambience. This chapter has some lovely things going on in that department, but there’s still a bit of work to be done.

First of all, clarity. Every word and every sentence should be clear as to its meaning and intent. A reference can be obscure or a passage mysterious—sometimes the story needs that. But word for word and line for line, the reader should be able to parse the meaning. If they have to go back repeatedly and reread a passage, and still can’t quite get what the author is trying to say, they’ll lose their trust in the author’s ability to guide them through the story.

Here for example:

They looked at her in turn, and she recognised Perun . . . Dazhbog . . . Stribog, Hors and what she had been came back to her, and her mind finally broke.

The sentence starts with her recognizing a series of individuals, then swerves off in a different direction. The structure of the sentence points toward her recognizing what she had been, but what she had been is actually a different clause, a new train of thought: she’s remembering what she was, probably as a result of recognizing the four persons.

The prose does this fairly often. A sentence starts on one track and then switches to another. Generally the solution is as simple as adding a comma to mark off the separate clauses, or breaking up the clauses into separate sentences. Here, I’d say end the sentence with Hors and start a new one with What she had been.

Stringing together disconnected clauses with and weakens the effect of each clause, as well as confuses the meaning. Think carefully about what is going on in the sentence and the paragraph, and make sure the different parts of the sentence flow coherently from one to the next. Keep track of the whole as well as the parts.

Keep an eye on individual words, too. Make sure each word means exactly what it needs to mean in that particular context. This sentence starts off rather nicely:

And then they were there, subtle and eel-like, sinewy ribbons on fast moving currents, herding and directing, keeping her tight.

The image of the ribbons is vivid, but the final half-dozen words wander off the metaphorical track, until the last word pulls it up short. It’s not quite clear what tight wants to mean. Confinement? Tension? Tight in the street-talk sense, or in the literal sense, or the emotional one, or…?

Watch the emotional temperature, too. Make sure the word or phrase matches the intensity of the moment.

The sobbing started and wouldn’t be stopped.

The emotion here is strong, but the verbs are passive. The result is a sense of disconnection from the feelings that caused the outpouring of grief. It might be more effective to shift to active voice: The sobbing started and wouldn’t stop.

And then the response is perhaps too understated:

He sounded concerned.

Is concern enough? Is it strong enough, or specific enough? Does it convey all that it needs to convey?

Thinking through each word and phrase, the structure of each sentence, the effect of each image and rhetorical flourish, can seem like a lot of work. But with practice it becomes easier. It’s all about clarity, about focus, about making sure the different pieces of the prose fit together into a strong and coherent whole.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Automata Part I of II by Joseph Ahn

The moody worldbuilding in “Automata” caught my attention this month: a muted, constantly shapeshifting story set in a postapocalyptic world trembling like a soap bubble, painted against stark, striking imagery: twisted metal against soft orange skies. However, the author’s concern about its length dovetailed with my own about its wandering, constantly-shifting plot, and so this month I’d like to talk about pacing and deciding which of a world’s many strands is the story.

There’s a lot to play with, narratively, in “Automata”: Barda and Vela’s relationship, the mystery of the automata, the broken oscillator, the missing people, the crisis of leadership in the commune. All of these questions have enough proverbial meat on them to potentially make the central plotline of a story in this world—or at least half of one.

However, since the author’s notes ask about condensing wordcount here, that profusion of questions and potential conflicts is also the first place I go when considering that issue: how are those questions interacting with each other, and is there a way to make them interact that would compress this from 10,000 words to something more manageable?

The conflicts or challenges in “Automata” string together consecutively: plots tagging in and out instead of subplots supporting or weaving through a main question or thoroughline. There’s a great deal done to set up the problem with the oscillator, which only proves to be a setup for the problem of the leadership and then the automaton murder, which only proves to be a setup for the quest to find Panu, which only sets up the problem of the dreaming queen. It’s all neatly causal—things aren’t just necessarily happening in a string but are leading into each other with a solid logic—but it takes a while for “Automata” to get where it’s actually going (Barda’s parents and being happy with where he is, with Vela) and the questions at the beginning don’t necessarily have a relationship with the questions at the end. To this reader, it feels as if they’ve (tidily) drifted toward a conclusion, rather than deliberately resolved a question that was at least implied in the first pages.

The second half almost morphs genre, into cosmic horror/grimdark from the dreamy postapocalyptic SF, and while there’s nothing wrong with being flexible, I find myself wanting at least the seeds of that world sown in the first half, so that when it shows up, it feels like a satisfying payoff, not a surprising sharp turn—so they’re in relationship.

I think there’s a way to bring everything here into alignment—and that having a story in this space isn’t atypical of early or middle drafts, where we figure out all possible universes of the story before deciding which one we want to use. The major question I’d suggest asking: What is the action of the story? What does it want to specifically explore, discuss, illuminate? It’s when we figure out what we do want to say that we can start arranging the rest to support it, reflect it, embroider it—or just see what doesn’t run in the same direction and file that for another piece.

There is some material that, I think, could probably be condensed or outright stripped out: Vela and Barda’s journey underground diverts into more standard tropes about subways, sewers, and the Fall of the World Before, which stands out strongly against the more specific, unique-feeling worldbuilding of the first half. I know the author’s notes mention this is an older story, and there was little way to tell which tropes would age in that time, but trimming with an eye to what the rest of the subgenre assumes as true—what you can just imply now and let readers do the rest—would definitely save wordcount.

Likewise, there’s a good strategy in asking what “Automata” might look like if the same questions were layered instead of tackled consecutively, one after the other. How can those conflicts inform each other and weave through each other, instead of happening one after the other? Can the questions of Barda and Vela’s relationship, of Barda’s restlessness, happen within the action of the rest of the story instead of before or after it?

There’s benefits to rethinking the pacing and structure here that’ll communicate into the line-by-line level. There’s a somewhat abrupt jump from that dreamlike narrative pace into the trapped automaton’s death scene at present—it’s something that can, I think, be sorted out by folding a little more action into Barda’s ruminating earlier, and a little more reflection into that encounter.

Likewise, the hesitancy Barda has about his own emotions early on—”Something about their endless hunt inspires a strange feeling within my heart – like pity, perhaps. Maybe it is nothing more than sadness” and “It feels somehow eerie and out of place, though I cannot explain why.”—feels as if it doesn’t quite serve a strong purpose at present, but those can be accessible sites in the story to start off clues about his restless loneliness—and present the problem being home with Vela would solve.

This is structural work—basically, editing work—but I think the positive is that the material needed to make “Automata” hum is already here. It’s a question of rearranging, layering, pruning, and shaping it to go in the direction the author would like, and form a story that says, asks, resolves what’s most satisfying.

Best of luck!

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