Editor’s Choice Award January 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.

Summer Of The Quarantine Killer by RedDwarf Star

The opening paragraph of this story draws me in with Mark’s claim that he may be the serial killer juxtaposed with his pleading look.  The claim seems so odd, and then seems even more odd when he’s pleading.  So I’m very intrigued and intellectually engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on.  That’s quite effective.

The description in the story is another strength.  A couple descriptions that work well are “He’s grown a mustache of sweat and his head moves with birdlike twitches” and “My friend’s lingering sweat and breath would coat my face, like putting on another’s life.”  That’s quite vivid and evocative.

The setting also generates a lot of interest in me during the early part of the story, but as the story goes on and the setting isn’t developed, I become disappointed.  If movement is restricted and that makes things more difficult for the killer, we need some sense of that. If people are getting ill, we need to see that.  Are they wearing masks?  Washing their hands?  There’s ash raining down from fires.  How does that affect the characters and story?  There are street battles and protests, but we only hear about them and never see them, and they have no effect on the story.  We’re told several times that the world is falling apart, but we don’t see it and it really doesn’t seem to matter.  Serial killers kill whether times are good or bad.  The setting should serve the story, and that doesn’t seem to be happening yet.  The setting is establishing many potential obstacles for both the narrator and the killer (who happen to be the same person), but we don’t see those obstacles having any effect on the plot.

Part of the reason for this is that the story really doesn’t show any character struggling against obstacles to achieve a goal.  We might think that the narrator, Jake, is trying to solve the murders, but we don’t see him struggling to do so.  Once we get close to the end, we might realize Jake was working to get Mark interested in the Quarantine Killer, but we didn’t seem him struggling against obstacles to do so.  And Sherry and Jake’s plan to kill Mark doesn’t seem to involve any struggle.

Since a story usually follows a character struggling to achieve a goal and possibly changing in the process, the story is missing the momentum, anticipation, and suspense that would usually be generated by this struggle.  An evolving struggle also helps to create a change to a value of significance in each scene.  To earn its place in the story, a scene generally needs to show something that the character values changing in a significant way.  For example, the character could go from freedom to imprisonment, from trust to distrust, from poverty to wealth, from ignorance to knowledge, and so on.  If Jake realizes Mark killed the victim who was cut in half in the scene where he studies the body, that would be the first scene that shows a change of significance in the story, as far as I can tell.  So while I start the story with a lot of interest, my interest fades as I keep reading and nothing of significance seems to change and nothing seems to be at stake.  Only at the end do I feel something is at stake–Mark’s life.  But he doesn’t seem to have a chance, so I don’t feel much suspense over it.

Before I make any suggestions, let me talk about one more element.  The story withholds a lot of information from us that the narrator, Jake, knows.  For some reason, writers seem drawn to write stories in which they withhold information that the point of view character knows.  Readers, on the other hand, tend to get quite upset when they realize the viewpoint character has known things all along that haven’t been revealed to them.  For myself, I sense that the viewpoint character is withholding a lot, and I suspect he may be the killer, and I feel cheated when that is revealed.  This also makes Jake kind of a cipher through most of the story.  I don’t feel I know who he is, what he wants, or what struggles he’s going through.  In much of the story, he seems to be drifting along and conveying information to us.  There are a few suggestions that he has dissociative identity disorder, but that’s not really developed.  I think he’s just withholding the fact that he and Sherry are the killers, and then he reveals it for no particular reason near the end of the story.

Stories do sometimes reveal a key piece of information around the climax, but usually that piece of information is unknown to the viewpoint character until that point.

I see two possible ways to deal with these issues.  One would be to use a third person objective point of view for the story.  Objective POV limits the story to concrete sensory details.  The story can’t enter any character’s head or provide any judgments or conclusions that an omniscient narrator might provide.  In addition to this change, Jake could struggle more, seemingly wanting to solve the murders, but in actuality putting on an act.  It would be helpful if he had a partner or a forensics expert to interact with, since he doesn’t need to pretend to be trying to solve the murders unless someone else is around.  Inspector Cho’s role could be expanded for that purpose.  If Cho thinks something is off with Jake, that could make Jake struggle more, and Cho could be an obstacle.  We could also see some obstacles in the setting (or the setting could be simplified/changed) making it harder for Jake to try to solve the murders.

Another possibility that I think might work better would be to make Mark the main character.  For me, Mark’s story is much more interesting, fresh, and unexpected than Jake’s story.  I’d love to be in Mark’s viewpoint (either third person limited omniscient or first person) as he’s struggling to hold onto mental stability in these very stressful times, becoming obsessed with the serial killer, and growing more and more concerned that Jake may be the killer.  He might follow Jake in his struggle to satisfy his obsession with the serial killer, perhaps thinking he can stop Jake from killing and save him.  Instead, he might follow Jake into a building and see Jake talk to someone, but Jake doesn’t kill him and goes home.  But the next day, that person is dead and Jake tells Mark the police suspect him.  So now Mark thinks Jake isn’t the killer but is worried Jake will take the blame.  He searches the streets for the killer but ends up being drawn to kill someone (allegedly to prove Jake couldn’t be the killer, but we can feel how much Mark wants to kill).  After the body cut in half is found and declared the most ingenious act of the killer’s, Mark goes to Jake’s to turn himself in.  Jake and Sherry can then reveal and truth and kill Mark.  This would allow the story to follow a protagonist who is struggling to achieve goals and who, in his point of view, doesn’t have to withhold anything he knows. And that would allow us to get to know mark much more strongly.  I think it would also make the story more emotional and horrific.

I hope this is helpful.  The story has a number of intriguing elements, and I really enjoy the description.

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

Editor’s Choice Award January 2022, Short Story

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

The Wilding Year by Jamie Boyd

I loved the rich, emotional atmosphere of “The Wilding Year”: a young single mother discovering how little she knows her own teenaged son—and both of them transforming. However, on the plot and thematic level, it’s a piece that has the potential to dig a lot deeper, think a lot harder, and go a lot farther. We’ve occasionally talked about the gap between subtext and allegory, and how to make our stories richer and less straight-line allegorical. But this month I’d like to discuss thinking about allegory as a tool—and how we, if we want to, we can use it.

“The Wilding Year” starts with a shapeshifting version of puberty—Erin’s sun Bryce turning into an animal for a year, as all teenagers do—but quickly broadens and refracts the metaphor: painting the wider struggles of growing up, competitive parenting, and lack of community support a little larger.

What works best is how intimately this piece talks about the conflicted emotional landscape that can be parenting growing kids. Erin’s mixture of love, fear, and shame at her son’s bodily—and then social—strangeness is an atmosphere in itself, as sensory and instinctive as her fuzzy memories of her own Wilding year. It’s notably her sense of abandonment in the situation that’s so visceral: struggling to interpret signals that she can’t verify as she desperately runs interference between Bryce and the rest of the world. It makes the eventual cooperative solution feel like legitimate relief, and when that’s tied to her and Ruth’s situations—grappling alone in the aftermath of family addictions—hints at an echo of something deeper.

That mix of emotions is bolstered by evocative language that comes in from the very first paragraphs (Bryce as “a blister about to pop”). The vividness of the description here is a huge asset for the piece, letting it come across as sincere while implying entire emotional histories. Bryce’s bat body is legitimately eerie and intimidating, and the brief meeting between Erin and Robert explains, in one line full of machismo, something of why she left him.

It also lets “The Wilding Year” signal something of an emotional turn. Its emotional landscape of motherhood, hypervigilance, and puberty is, for the first half, grounded in a suburbanness that pervades everything; its metaphors are about chlorinated pools, its heart-wrenching life events take place in chain restaurants. There’s a tangible shift when the everyday metaphors reverse: bookkeeping numbers turning animal, instead of animal fluids turning pedestrian. It’s a great, subtle way to build in a sense of emotional change.

However, not all of what’s been set up in “The Wilding Year” is paying off at present. When Bryce starts his turn back into a human body, Erin’s sudden showing of growth through—and out of—their former Miami Lakes life feels somewhat abrupt, running fast to an almost-pat conclusion. She resolves to give Bryce more space to spread his proverbial wings, but it leaves the ending feeling somewhat sketched in, rather than as fully developed as the rest of the piece.

I think for “The Wilding Year” this is mostly a pacing and structural problem: the weight of Erin’s struggle and bewilderment doesn’t have an equal weight of emergence and solution to balance it out. The problems opened (massive debt, a lack of support system, general sexual shame, an alienation between Erin and Bryce) haven’t entirely been addressed—and I don’t think they all have to be solved, but since they’ve been opened, probably should be acknowledged. The story instead narrows them down to an obsessive focus on Bryce’s relationship with Robert and how Erin’s fear has impacted parenting him. While the answer given there is satisfying for a one-question story, it feels a little emotionally inadequate to the stack of still-existing external-conflict issues on Erin’s plate. As a reader, I’m left with a handful of open threads.

Because we’re looking at questions of tension and satisfaction, it might be worthwhile to think about how allegory functions. Every genre story has a small element of puzzle-solving: we’re asking readers to figure out the lines and limits of how the speculative element fits into the world they know. In a largely allegorical story, the puzzle we’re designing is fairly simple: if the speculative element is X, and we know X = Y, what real-world experience or feeling is Y? How do we apply the story’s conclusion to the real-world problem it’s standing in for?

Over the life of these EC crits, we’ve talked a lot about tension and resolution: setting up a problem and solving it, or letting readers solve it, in a way that’s satisfying. For readers, there’s a certain resolution that’s going to be provided by solving the allegory itself: figuring out what equals Y. The question then becomes: How to build the story so solving the allegory doesn’t feel like Game Over on the whole story—and everything after that realization doesn’t feel like padding?

The allegories of “The Wilding Year” solve early; most of the metaphors it’s spinning with the Wilding year are accessible inside the first thousand words. It’s what makes the later extensions of the idea of teenagers as foreigners, as animals—notably the parody of free-range parenting—strike more than a little hollow. And while having temporary community care is a solution to Erin’s troubles, it’s also the most easily-reached and obvious one, a solution that’s not complicated by anything after it’s posed.

“The Wilding Year” seems to notices it solves a little too early, too, because it’s been structured to heap problems on top of its main concept—debt, estrangement, shame—to keep itself going, generate more of the tension that the allegory held and dropped. But because this is an allegory, there’s a point at which the concrete problems set up have detached from the action of the story. What’s happening on the page and what’s happening in the metaphor it stands for peel apart, and the metaphoric problem gets solved (parenting a teenager through a rough patch), but—the problems on the page still exist. As a reader, I’m being told this solves everything. Given the list of everything that was handed to me in the name of generating conflict—no, this does not solve everything at all, and the solution wouldn’t be half this simple.

What are Bryce’s feelings about his change of scene? Does everyone at the farm get along, and how does money play in (with Erin’s debts hanging over her head, with her job on the line already, with taking care of the house in Miami Lakes)? Did Erin have any friends or other attachments she’s abandoned to move out to the country? Do all the transformed teenagers get along?

These aren’t complications I’m asking to see addressed in text, like a checklist. But they’re holes that are supremely pokable in this particular pat solution; questions that are glossed over in the name of harmony. And they’re why I think “The Wilding Year” isn’t fundamentally developed as a story yet. There’s a gift and a disadvantage to having an ability to write polished, appealing prose: it can cover over deeper, more structural issues that are core to a story’s functioning.

At this point, I know this author can write rich, engaging prose. But as an editor and the person who lurks around, reading each and every OWW short story every month, this is the stage where I want to see someone stretch their own wings and challenge some limits.

So my suggestion for this piece is to open it up, chart both the plot as given on the page and the allegories it stands for, see what action resolves which branches of the conflict and where they have unbalanced—and then do some major restructuring until the piece balances again. What are the implications of going beyond temporary community support for this kind of parenting problem? What are the implications of how the problems Erin faces that are purely plot-based could impact the allegorical metaphor?

In short: What happens if “The Wilding Year” takes the allegory and commits?

It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s worth doing. Stop here and “The Wilding Year” will be clever, and probably saleable. Reach farther, think harder, rip open the floorboards, and address those questions of parenting, love-hatred, and lack of support more deeply, and it’ll be memorable.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2021, 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.

Lying With Strangers Chapter 2 by Samia Hayes

This chapter is deftly and confidently written. It sketches the characters in vivid, memorable images, and moves the plot along briskly. The bits of exposition and backstory are nicely woven in, supplying details that illuminate both the immediate context and the overall story. The same applies to the bits that point to the fact that it’s a period piece: fashion, popular culture, the prevalence of smoking in public places.

Since this ms. is in all-but-final form, I would suggest a thorough read-through, sentence by sentence, to make sure everything is clear and the images do what they’re intended to do. For the most part I believe they do, but here and there, a turn of phrase made me catch my stride. For example,

A pale man with a shock of untidy black hair surrounding his melancholy face

He has hair completely around his face? Beard, too?

This is a little less odd, but still enough to give me pause:

A rogue lock fell in front of his face.

It seems as if the lock is coming from somewhere else and landing in front of him. Fell into? Fell in front of his eyes?

Sometimes words echo, as if they’ve stuck in the mind and repeated themselves inadvertently:

a harrowing feeling of deep sadness that stopped my heart for a beat. A serene feeling swept over me

But I must salute the splendid cascading repetition of bothered, which is clearly intentional, and it works.

The dialogue is fast, snappy, and spot on. I would only ask why it shifts to summary right before Abacus fails a snatch and has to answer the central question. Though it seems to be meant to speed up the narrative, I think the command of dialogue and interaction is solid enough to allow it to continue rather than to recede into the emotional and physical distance of synopsis.

The one larger question I have is about Abacus and his constant lying. Does he know about Allie’s power of detecting truth and lies? If so, is he intentionally provoking her? Or is he unable to stop himself, in the way of con men and habitual scammers? If it is intentional, could that be pointed up just a bit more?

Overall this is well done, and I would definitely read on. As a fan of mystery and thriller, I especially look forward to the start of the murder mystery, and to seeing how Allie and company handle it.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2021, Horror

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

Small Gods and Monsters by Chris Clarke

Stories structured with repeated patterns can build anticipation and suspense and set up a climax that feels both surprising and inevitable. Seeing how the pattern evolves can be delightful and pull us through a story. I enjoyed the pattern in this story. In each section, a small god (or demon) visits the first-person narrator. They have a brief conversation, and in the first three sections, the small god brings up something that the narrator needs to do or feel to enter the afterlife. The story makes me curious about the various small gods and what they require for a person to get into the afterlife. I’m also interested in whether the narrator will be able to do what’s required to have a positive experience in the afterlife. So those elements help to create curiosity and interest and engage me in the story. The story also has some vivid imagery, and I enjoy how that evolves as well, such as the water going from creek to pool to hot tub to ice.

I do think the way the pattern evolves could be strengthened. The first small god is the god of reflection, and when the narrator asks if there is a place for him in the afterlife, the god advises reflection. The second small god is the god of remorse, who says that “Remorse is required.” The feeling I have thus far is that the narrator hasn’t reflected upon his murder of his father and has no remorse. The third small god is the god of forgiveness, who says that forgiveness “is the key to the afterlife.” I’m thinking that the narrator has to forgive his father, because the pattern thus far is for the god to tell the narrator something he must do. Yet this time, the forgiveness seems to be something the dead father needs to give to the narrator. Since this is out of the hands of the narrator, it’s not terribly satisfying, and it makes the visits of the first two gods irrelevant. It seems like they could be cut from the story and it wouldn’t matter. If the father isn’t forgiving the narrator because the narrator hasn’t reflected and felt remorse, that’s not clear. The final visit of the small demon doesn’t, for me, provide that feeling of a surprising and inevitable climax. The demon welcomes the narrator to a hell-like afterlife. The narrator protests that the demon promised redemption. That seems to come out of nowhere, since that word redemption did not previously appear in the story, nor did the demon. If the narrator is saying that the small gods implied redemption was possible through those three qualities, that’s not clear. The narrator seemed not to care enough about the afterlife to reflect or feel remorse or seek forgiveness, so it seems odd for him to protest that redemption was promised. And when the demon says he promised nothing, that has no impact, since the demon has not appeared before and so of course has promised nothing. I get the sense that the story changes its focus halfway through from the narrator to the father, and that the last two visitors are designed to show that the father is as harsh as the narrator remembers and won’t forgive his son.

So for me, the four sections aren’t tied together in a strong way that contributes power to the climax.

I think the story could be stronger if it focused throughout on one character–either the narrator or the father. I would love to feel closer to the narrator; I don’t feel I understand him yet. In the first section, he’s fishing, something his father taught him. Similarly, in the second section he’s swimming, something his father taught him. If he really hated his “smug, self-righteous” father, it seems like he’d have negative memories about being taught these things and would avoid them as an adult. If something in this thinking is wrong, that needs to be brought out. In the third section he has just finished gambling, something his father taught him not to do. So the narrator seems like he’s becoming more rebellious and angry at his father the further we move in time from the father’s murder. That doesn’t really make sense to me. It also doesn’t quite make sense to me that the narrator repeatedly asks the small gods about the afterlife, suggesting he’s concerned about where he’s going to end up when he dies, yet he doesn’t seem to act on their advice. While drinking and taking drugs might suggest that he’s feeling remorse, gambling doesn’t. If he feels remorse over killing his father and so purposely gambles all of the inheritance away, that’s not clear. And if he feels so bad about what he did that he’s on this self-destructive course, it hardly matters whether his father forgives him or not; if he’s punishing himself already, then any punishment the father might add on doesn’t seem to matter.

If he’s not gambling to be self-destructive but instead to spite his father by doing things his father disapproved of, then the first half of the story doesn’t seem to fit.

Perhaps he’s drinking, doing drugs, and gambling simply because he’s dissolute and enjoying the money, though it seems to take him a while to do that, when I would think he’d be a big spender immediately after getting the money.

But I don’t know why he’s doing these things, and they don’t seem connected to the visits from the small gods.

A stronger, more consistent progression, with a narrator whose personality, goals, and emotions come through more clearly, could provide more of a punch and more emotion at the climax.

For example, perhaps he’s dissolute and gambling in Vegas and has a health crisis with the first god’s visit, so he’s concerned about the afterlife. He asks the god if redemption is possible. The god says reflection is necessary. After the visit, the narrator moves to a house outside of Vegas and gets counseling to help him reflect on his life. The second god visits him there and tells him he needs to feel remorse. Perhaps he visits his father’s brother, who tells him what a good person his father was when younger, and he feels remorse. Then the third god visits him and tells him he needs to do penance. Perhaps he gives all the money he inherited to the poor and becomes homeless and dies. Then the demon welcomes him to the hell-like afterlife, and the narrator protests that redemption was promised, and the demon says he promised nothing. And then the father appears, ready to spend eternity tormenting the narrator.

This is nothing great, but I think the narrator’s goals and emotions are clearer, and the impact of each visitor is clearer, and one thing causes the next, building up to the end.

One more thing I wanted to briefly mention is the third paragraph, which for me, had an awkward rhythm with all the adjectives. Most of the story is written very nicely, but this paragraph tripped me up. In the first four sentences, almost every noun has an adjective attached to it. It’s usually better to choose what the sentence will focus on and attach adjectives and other modifiers to that noun. Attaching modifiers to all the nouns makes it difficult to find the focus of the sentence.

I hope this is helpful. I enjoyed the spare, compact nature of the story, the strong imagery, and the intriguing pattern.

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2021, 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.

Bark by Jon Little

As soon as I saw what this submission was about, I had to read it. For I confess, I am a certified Armchair Musher, and sled dogs are my not-so-secret passion. How could I not read a series of scenes narrated by sled dogs and their humans?

I did not have trouble with the somewhat episodic nature of the narrative. Opening scenes can seem a bit disconnected as they set up different threads of plot and character. The reader will expect and trust that those threads will weave together as the story progresses.

My main question about the draft has to do with its extreme spareness of detail. The opening scenes are fairly well fleshed out, but once Terry gets to the store, the narrative consists almost exclusively of dialogue. There are almost no visuals, and the reaction shots are sparse.

While this style of narration can be extremely effective, it tends to work best in small doses or very short pieces. In a novel, it can become a little bit frustrating for the reader, unless the prose is very skilled and the details that are doled out are very carefully chosen.

Here I might suggest adding another layer or two to these scenes. Expand the visuals just a bit, and let us see a little more of the characters’ actions and reactions. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and it doesn’t need chunks of description or exposition, but as a reader I’d like to see more than what’s here.

I would like a better sense, too, of where the narrative is going. What challenges do the characters have to face? What are their goals? Where are they headed, emotionally and physically? What, in short, is the story about?

It doesn’t have a strong feel of genre, aside from the leather harness that sort of suggests steampunk—sled harness these days is much more likely to be synthetic webbing, and I believe the older version would be canvas. The rug would be fur, as well; plain leather freezes and cracks, whereas furs hold up well to arctic temperatures. Is there a reason why characters in this novel won’t be wearing furs? Or why, if those aren’t used, there are no synthetic substitutes?

In short, I find myself wanting something to hang my expectations on. What period is the novel set in? How does it diverge from that period in our own timeline? What elements distinguish it from the world we know? And how will those elements drive the story? They don’t all have to be piled into these first pages, but we should be able to get a hint, through a few well-chosen details, of what genre this is and how it’s doing to develop as we read.

One last thing that caught my eye was the dialect. I tend to prefer the minimalist version: less phonetic rendition, more sentence rhythms and a pointer or two toward the distinguishing characteristics of the character’s speech. Full-on phonetic dialogue is viewed as questionable these days, in that it “others” the character. (Also, as a New Englander born and bred, I have never used or seen the construction “You be Roy.” There are dialects that use it, but not either my Boston relatives or my Maine compatriots.)

I’ll be interested to see where the narrative goes, and how the sled dogs help keep it running forward. Best of luck with it, and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2021, Short Story

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

The Algorithm In The Skies Above Chiloe by Rodrigo Culagovski

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and information-handling in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé”: an alive, breathing, faintly William Gibson-esque future written with a great sense of cadence and a handful of interesting ideas around urban life and linguistic hacking. However, it doesn’t always handle all its information and ideas organically—and the ones it’s doing well with highlight the places it isn’t. So this month, I’d like to discuss information integration in worlds where we need readers to learn a lot quickly.

There’s a lot of smart craft choices being made to lay out the information-rich world of future Chiloé without stalling the story to a halt—and the opening is the biggest one. Opening with the opposing ends of the unfinished bridge works excellently to three purposes: establishing a strong opening image, establishing an early sense of conflict—why isn’t the bridge finished?—and setting up a core thematic symbol for the action at the heart of the story. Connected by fragile but strong ties, one side thriving with practical, diverse human and marine life, and the other the largest city still standing on Earth, patrolled by quasi-fascist armed guards.

By later on, it’s visible how that disconnected, restranding bridge can be a metaphor for Mila and Alex’s tenuous family connection, the Algorithm versus the Heuristic, humanity facing off against machines it made.

Why that’s important: What we open with can give readers an instant framework for what to look for in the story. It’s a subtle way of flagging what’s important in the piece, and it’s a tool for helping readers navigate a setting with a lot of information well.

The market at the base of the bridge is also just a great image: it’s rich and fascinating, the kind of place that springs off the page and eases readers into the story in a way that’s really productive for a science fiction thriller. If you think of the action of a story as breathing—moments of high action that punctuate moments of rest—we join “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” on one of the exhales, easing readers into this world when it’s less chaotic. It’s a quick way to get readers established and caught up in this world, and an appropriately slow introduction to Mila’s pretended slower lifestyle as someone ostensibly without network integration—a characterization bonus. When things kick into high gear after Mila’s detained, we have something to compare that rush of action to, making it feel sharper and more visceral.

It’s also a good choice to open with exploring a small place, before Mila gets up to exploring a larger one. As a reader, the bridge market was interesting, so I’m more willing to follow her exploration of Chiloé and more scene-setting on the other side of the bridge, having had a positive experience with that the first time.

There’s also a great handling of worldbuilding just through Mila’s opinions and watching others interact with it. Comments like the moving sidewalks “couldn’t possibly be safe” make the description more than just background dressing; they establish Mila’s opinions and personality and instantly relate the built infrastructure to everyday human living, making it concrete and real.

The metaphor of human neurology (portals “sphincter”, the kinesthetics of the sidewalks feel “wrong”) does the same: Chiloé’s infrastructure is relevant because it’s not just a backdrop, it’s a body—one that grows unevenly and has a number of parts working together, and one which people find ways to use outside the rules. Watching people like Tenche adapt that technology to their lives, rather than adapting their lives to the technology reinforces the organic feel of future Chiloé—and its realism.

But one of the smartest things “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” does to manage information is how it establishes conflict alongside all the things it tells us about this world. Immediately giving readers the clues that Mila is up to something suspicious—in how she tries to make the border guards think she’s not, in the samples she’s collecting, in her eating everything with sugars, the reveal that yes, she does have a net and is well-off—establishes there’s a question here (What is Mila really doing here? Why has she lied about the net?). The way those questions are paced out in clues moves the conflict forward even if, on the surface, all she’s doing is taking a tourist day and acting a little shifty. That sense of narrative motion, that we as readers are learning something more even if she’s just wandering, is enough to create conflict and stakes.

Once that explodes in Mila’s anime-like fight scene—and then immediately deflates because, whoops, wrong place (which is funny!)—there’s been enough buildup that it’s satisfying, and I’m already invested as a reader.

It’s a very smart way to overall handle an information-heavy setting, which is why, I think, it’s so notable in the places that aren’t quite working yet.

There are two aspects of the information-handling in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloé” that I think could be improved, and the small one is tightening up the dialogue. There are some conversations—with the border guard, with Carmen, with Alex—where the pace lags, and readers might not need all the small talk, but just a taste of it until Mila gets to the point of whatever that conversation is.

But the main thing I’d look at: a more subtle way to get the Algorithm backstory and current threat in than a hostage-scene video and an exposition-heavy argument. Compared to the way all the other information in “The Algorithm in the Skies Above Chiloté” is handled, this one’s a bit clumsy and unmoored from the rest of the worldbuilding.

The practicalities of the scenario are a little unintentionally funny: Where did Mila get time to carry in a documentary about the new genetically-based algorithm, and what would have happened if he’d woken up sooner—or later? Does she have to rewind the video and they sit in tight-lipped silence until it plays again, and she can restart her speech? It’s a solution where dramatics outweighs practicality in a story where that hasn’t happened to date. More importantly, it’s the place in this story where people stop talking like people and start talking and acting like conspiracy theories, and I’d be very interested to see how this would play out if Mila and Alex were—super-genetics or not—still talking and acting like people, in the same ways moving sidewalks didn’t make Chiloé a city without food hawkers. If this story, at this point, didn’t start working against everything it’s established about how people interface with technology and ideas.

So the main question I’d have for this piece: Are there ways, like with Chiloé, it’s possible to work some of that information in more organically—set it up to be paid off at the climax with Alex and make that conversation between Alex and Mila less performative? The same toolset that worked with the bodily nature of the city will work here: inference, people’s reactions to the facts, hints that build, opinions. Clues that finally add up to something in the climax are more effective, ultimately, than sudden reveals.

Obviously I don’t have the end of the piece—this is only the first 7,500 words—but it’s a fascinating world and a promising story, and I’d love to see how it turns out.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, 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.

Operation Spacewatch Chapters 1-3 by S. Writes

This submission hits a number of my sweet spots. Galaxy Quest. Fish out of water/aliens on Earth. Genre bookstores. Fanfic come to life. Misfit teens finding their fit (and presumably saving the world). I don’t have a problem with the flow, though I would be interested to see what would happen if the gun battle were popped back in—a lot depends on where it comes from and how it plays out and what events ripple outward from it.

The narrative voice is pretty sure of itself. It’s got the breezy tone and the quick rhythm that this corner of YA and this subgenre tend to go for. It moves along briskly, also a good thing for what it wants to be and do.

I have a few questions about the underpinnings of the story. The mood is gonzo and the genre is Adventure, but that makes it even more important to think through the reasons why people do what they do. The more solid the motivations are, the easier it is to believe in what’s happening.

There’s a kind of caculus in developing motivations. The why of the characters’ actions should come up to the level of the consequences. If they’re just doing something because it’s cool or fun or they feel like it, but if they get caught they’ll be thrown into ice moon prison for a thousand years, the two elements can feel as if they exist in separate plot universes. They need to balance each other.

In these chapters, the cadets are committing a galactic crime, but they’re more or less just doing it because Earthgirls are easy and it’s a cool, crazy prank. The fact the Meta isn’t working adds to the imbalance, because in this draft, there’s no explanation for it—probably because the scene in which it was explained was cut?—and nobody seems unduly concerned about it. We need to understand more clearly what the Meta does, why there’s no apparent security around it that the cadets have to elude before they make it to earth, and what the consequences are on all sides of that equation: for the cadets, for their superiors, and for Earth.

The same applies to their reasons for defying galactic law to invade Earth. The stakes are extremely high. Their motivations should match. Is there a game that all the cadets play, under the radar of their superiors, with some sort of powerfully tempting reward for whoever comes out on top?

Think about TikTok challenges, some of which are actively criminal—what do the perpetrators get out of it? Why are they willing to take the risk? These cadets clearly understand risk, and know right from wrong. Their choices to do wrong are intentional. Why? What is the payoff?

It has to be more than simple curiosity or even another few data points on the alien-behavior chart. If they’re committing a major crime, they need to get a major prize that makes it worth the price. Maybe they win the secret game and get all the cool points and the whole cadet universe will bow before them for years after. But that also means they have to take extraordinary measures to avoid being caught before they win whatever they’re trying to win.

What are they trying to win? Again, it has to be something big. Something extra special. Maybe there’s a rumor that the ultimate Pokemon has been seen on Earth, and if they score it, they win all the points forever and ever. Or there’s a super secret challenge with a clue that can only be found in a particular spot on the planet, that happens to be right where the bookstore is standing. If they find the clue, it will lead them to something tremendous, something outstanding. Some treasure, either physical or metaphorical.

Treasure hunters will literally die to find the secret stash. If the cadets are hunting treasure, that would explain why they’re so determined to break all the rules and risk criminal prosecution. It doesn’t need to be gold or artifacts, it can be something of value to their culture, that might be insignificant to Earthlings. But to them it’s everything.

The main thing is that the why of their coming to Earth should match the stakes if they fail. So should the obstacles they have to overcome—including the malfunctioning Meta. They can still have petty personal reasons: girls, peer pressure, curiosity. But the big overriding reason has to be a big deal.

This is particularly applicable to Gregg, who doesn’t even want to go. It’s clear that peer pressure is a major part of it, but what else could motivate him as well? Does he have a bet with one or more of the cadets, or possibly with someone from another ship? Is there something he personally hopes to find on Earth, that tips him over the edge from resistance to acquiescence? Does he have family history connected with Earth or with the ban on visiting the planet? His reasons in the draft are simple and rather flat. Adding layers and messing them up will make both the story and his character stronger.

Best of luck with revision. This is a lot of fun. I’ll look forward to seeing how it grows and evolves through future drafts.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, 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 Soul Carpets Of Maret (Prologue, Chapters 1 and 2) by Karen Dudley

There are some wonderful things about this submission. The worldbuilding is rich and deep. The prose is smooth and sure of itself. The magical system has lovely and unusual aspects. And I can see the scope of the epic in the range and variety of characters and settings.

The market right now is very, very tough. Above and beyond raw quality, a sample has to come in at just the right angle, at just the right time. It has to be just what the agent or editor is looking for, at that particular moment. All a writer can do is keep submitting, and keep hoping.

In this case there may be a couple of ways to sharpen the angle of approach, to catch that elusive moment of Yes! I want to see more.

For me as a cold reader, the submission truly comes alive in Chapter 2. The prologue and the first chapter create an intriguing and fully realized world, and there’s plenty of raw drama first in the chase and killing, and then in the funeral of the village headman. What’s missing for me is what Chapter 2 has in full and strong measure, and that is directness and immediacy. In Chapter 2, we are right there with Aram. We’re living the healing with him. We get a quick sense of who the victim is, and who Aram is, and what he’s doing there and how and why. We are there.

In the earlier scenes, events are filtered through the internal monologues of the central characters. We experience them at a remove, through layers of exposition and backstory.

Mona’s flight has plenty of drama, but it’s woven through with exposition and passive prose. And it’s aware of that. She urges herself repeatedly to focus. At the end of course, she is forced to; but then it’s too late.

Talayah is in much less direct personal jeopardy, but she too wanders through her personal, internal landscape, and like Mona, has to exhort herself to come out of her head and into the immediate and present world. In her case, the funeral is a powerful and affecting ritual, but is it actually the precipitating event for her arc of the plot? Or is that event the scene in which she is told that she must leave, and that she is to be the Dreamer for the entire kingdom?

That’s the point at which her life changes. That’s where the story is. That’s the scene I want to read.

As intriguing as the details of the village and its people are, are they directly relevant to Talayah’s journey? Will they move her forward along her path? Will it matter what kind of person the headman was? Has he done something to her personally that will affect her larger arc? If so, that’s the detail that needs to be in the narrative at this particular point.

What we do need, in the draft as written, is the part that’s not written out except in summary: when Romineh tells her she has to leave. Everything else proceeds from that, including her relationship with her best friend, and the way she feels about the funeral, and how she goes about the ritual.

Later on in the story, internal monologue and exposition and backstory can enhance the movement of the plot in interesting ways. At the very beginning, before the reader is invested in the characters, focus and immediacy are particularly important. We need to be be right there with them the way we are with Aram. Sharp focus; no filters. Let us live the story with them—and give us the scene we most need to see, that rises out of the background of the story, and leads us forward to all the rest.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, Horror

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

A Cure For Witching: Part Three by Lyndsey E. Gilbert 

It’s an interesting experience to jump into a story in progress for critique.  There are obviously disadvantages, since one doesn’t know what’s been previously established.  But there are also advantages, since the nature of this section can stand out more clearly by looking at it separately.

I haven’t read the other parts of this story, but I was quickly drawn into this part with the sense of change, with the narrator having to adopt a new wardrobe; and the sense of conflict between the narrator and her husband.  The excerpt has several strengths.  The world, with the Time Devoured and the Righteous Era, is quite intriguing.  I can feel the narrator’s concern about Cillian, which makes me feel tense about what he might do.  There are some moments when the story conveys well what the narrator is going through, such as, “It was less than a week ago but it feels like an age has passed. Like I am a silly mortal girl who stepped into a faerie ring for but a moment, only to stumble back out and find a thousand years has come and gone.”  The story conveys the strong bonds between the narrator, the mother, and Cloda well.  The mother comes across as a compelling character here:  “She smiles wanly, but some mischief sparks in her eyes. ‘I was no lady, nobody of any consequence at all before I met your father. I know how to survive in rags as well as I do in ballgowns.'”  Sorcha also intrigues me.  Many things remain uncertain and mysterious, which makes me want to keep reading to find the answers.  The story also has some evocative description, such as, ” I picture Father’s face, his wry smile and sharp features, his kind eyes alight with love and pride.”

One area that could be strengthened is the scene structure.  Each scene should show a change to a value of significance for the protagonist.  While things change in the three scenes included in this part, I don’t feel a strong change to a value of significance.  Such changes give us a feeling of the story moving ahead, provide a reason for the scene to be included in the story, and get us excited about what has been gained or lost.

In the first scene, the narrator seems to already know she must wear new clothes and get rid of her old ones, so that’s not a change.  She plans to send the clothes to her sister, and instead Cillian burns them, so that is a change.  But what value of significance to the narrator changes?  It’s not clear.  One possibility is that the narrator starts out feeling that her past will survive in some sense with her clothes going to her sister, and she ends the scene feeling that her past is being wiped out with the burning of her clothes. I get some hints of this, but it isn’t conveyed strongly.  To do so, we need to clearly understand at the beginning of the scene that the clothes represent her past, and by sending them to Cloda, the narrator feels her past is being preserved. Right now, the first indication that the clothes carry strong memories is given after Cillian starts throwing the clothes into the fire:  “But all I can think of is how each outfit carries memories, both good and bad, memories of Father, memories of my life before now.”  That is too late.  And it is telling us of the connection between clothing and memories without showing us the connection.  What is shown is this:  “I busy my hands folding an emerald gown with sumptuous silk skirts.”  This makes it sound like the narrator has never seen this gown before.  It is “an” emerald gown, not “the emerald gown I wore to the spring dance when I was fourteen.”  It is not “the emerald gown with the golden clover Cloda embroidered on the bodice for me.”  We aren’t seeing memories attached to the clothing before it is burned.  So the burning of the clothing doesn’t carry a strong impact or seem to show a change in a value of significance.  We need to feel that embroidered clover (or whatever) and all the sewing sessions she had with her mother and Cloda burning, and we need to feel her memory of the dance burning, etc.

This issue is connected to another one, which is the protagonist struggling to achieve a goal.  A story generally shows a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal, and in the process she’s changed.  In this context, each scene generally shows the protagonist either moving closer to achieving the goal or moving farther away from achieving the goal (or both, such as progress with a new complication).  These often comprise the changes to the values of significance.

Throughout this excerpt, the narrator’s goal is unclear to me.  The narrator feels passive and reactive rather than active.  Rather than struggling to achieve a passionately desired goal, the narrator reacts to the various things that happen to her.  That means I don’t know what values have significance for her, and that means I don’t know what would comprise a change to a value of significance.  Returning to the first scene, if I knew that her goal was to pack up her old clothes and get them sent on their way to Cloda before Cillian found out, and I saw all her efforts going toward that goal, then it would clearly be a change to a value of significance when Cillian interrupts the process and burns the clothes.  So giving the narrator a clear goal (or a series of goals) she is actively struggling to achieve in the story would strengthen the story and each scene and make these changes of significance clear and strong.

The second scene feels especially scattered, with the narrator reacting to many different things but having no goal she is struggling to achieve.  One possibility could be that the narrator has seen ghosts at church before and her goal is to behave as Cillian would approve (not act weird when she sees the ghosts she know will show up) because if she acts weird, Cillian will say she’s ill and prevent her from attending the rest of the funeral activities, where she wants to remember her father and bond with her mother and Cloda.  This would allow the narrator to continue to have the goal of honoring and preserving the past, as in the previous scene.  In this case, the ghosts would need to show up sooner and be more difficult to ignore (perhaps they would hover around her father and torment her father’s ghost), so the narrator would have to struggle to achieve her goal.  She might succeed at achieving her goal with the complication that she realizes the ghosts are after her father, or that the ghosts are after her, or that her vision of the past world is growing.  In that case, the change in the value of significance would be that she goes from thinking she can ignore the ghosts to realizing the ghosts are more powerful and threatening than she knew.

In the third scene, the narrator again seems reactive and without a consistent goal.  She might start the scene with the goal of having a good time, but that seems forgotten when the various monsters show up.  And it seems inconsistent with her previous desire to not provoke Cillian.  So I have a hard time understanding why she does what she does, and I don’t know why the monsters show up when they do, seemingly become more numerous, and then she either goes back in time or sees events from the past.  Things seem to happen for no reason, and I don’t know what the narrator is trying to achieve.  If she was trying to behave in a way Cillian would approve of but also have a chance to talk to her mother and Cloda, that could provide both external and internal conflict, and behaving well could become very difficult when the monsters show up.  I’d love to see her going through that struggle rather than seeming to forget her situation and screaming and running outside.  She could still fail to maintain self-control, if you want her to fail, but seeing her trying would make me understand her and like her more.

One other area I wanted to discuss briefly is that the exposition often feels like the narrator is thinking information to herself that she already knows (what I call an “as you know, self”).  For example, the narrator thinks, “In the Time Devoured the dead were mostly buried. Remains were exhumed when our new world was built. A world dedicated to clean living and faith. For thousands of years gravestones were erected, places to go to remember a loved one, to lay down flowers and keepsakes.”  The narrator knows this; there is no reason she would think it or explain it to herself.  In first person past tense, writers can often get away with this because it can feel like the narrator is speaking to a reader throughout the story.  But first person present tense generally gives us the feeling that we’re going through events with the narrator, not being told of the events by the narrator.  In that case, it’s usually better to include necessary exposition by having the narrator think about her opinion on the information rather than simply thinking the information.  For example, the narrator might think, “The fact that the dead in the Time Devoured were buried disgusted me.”  The story actually offers something like this immediately after the sentences I quoted above:  “I feel drawn to this idea but in truth I cannot bear the thought of lowering Father into the ground, allowing him to rot away. For me our way is preferable.”  Phrasing exposition in this way makes it feel more like a real thought the character would have.

I enjoy the world and feel growing tension over the situation.  The unanswered questions make me want to keep reading to find out the answers.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award November 2021, Short Story

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

The Shearing by Jamie Boyd

“The Shearing” caught my attention this month with its clear, accessible handling of complex relationships, an evolving Galician ranch community, and a character arc that transcends binary ideas of the world. It puts forward a nuanced set of questions to tackle, handles them with grace, and keeps the entire read thoroughly satisfying—mostly by how it deploys its most complex elements. So this month, I’d like to dig into interpersonal dynamics as worldbuilding—the worldbuilding that’s not about unicorns and mountains, but relationships—and how we can think about what readers expect to make it really work.

The best thing about “The Shearing” is, surprisingly, not the wild, spotted unicorns in the Spanish hills; it’s how the community around them lives in an interrelated web of choices and relations with those herds, each other, and the land. It’s a story about the consequences of unicorns, both personal and far-reaching—and because of that, one of the more unique and thoughtful unicorn stories I’ve read.

It’s also a story that employs a kind of worldbuilding seen more consistently in character-driven literary fiction: one that has no reason not to show up in genre fiction (see: Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, Rivers Solomon), and which can give genre fiction a gut-deep emotional realism that creates lasting impact. Most of the worldbuilding in “The Shearing” is done between people, and it’s the textures of their relationships that we explore for plot, conflict, and resolution.

Technically speaking, everything we understand about worldbuilding on a more geological or magical scale applies to the universes of our fictional relationships. Readers learn a lot about what kind of worlds to expect from the facts everyone in those worlds takes for granted and the way those facts telegraph the underlying systems of our stories. For example, “people need The Spice to travel in space” gives readers a whole lot of information about what logic Dune runs on.

One of the core systems of “The Shearing” is that everyone in this story is a messy human being, no questions asked; that complex motivations, competing priorities, and different relationships with others are how people normally exist. It’s an important system and assumption to establish, because it’s where the core conflict of the story comes from: Maruxa’s struggles with that complexity, rooted in her yearning and resentment for the father she loves deeply to “for once really [see] all of me”.

“The Shearing” sets up this expectation in the first paragraphs by handing readers a balance of little contradictions: details that look like basic character and worldbuilding introduction but carry a lot more, because of the pattern they repeat. Maruxa hates how her body is treated, but is proud of it and insists she can do anything a boy can; her father is stern and emotionally distant, but devoted to stewardship of his land, traditions, and children; the rapa is dangerous, but draws necessary tourist money and prevents financial dangers; sacrificing colts prevents more loss through overgrazing and overpopulation. Maruxa’s brothers are having entirely different complicated relationships with their father just out of view, and every time one of them makes a major choice, it inflects how she and her father interact—just like in real life. There are unicorns—and everything readers bring to that word!—in a world where they’re ordinary animals; where there is no unique bond that grows just by being a unicorn and a girl, and then one grows anyways.

People are sensitive to patterns, whether we know it or not, and by consistently showing that each character is living in a space of contradictions—two things which are both at least a little true sitting together—”The Shearing” establishes the rules of its world, and shows readers what to look for: the space where those complexities develop.

As the pattern of complexity’s introduced, “The Shearing” grounds—and counterbalances—it with another classic worldbuilding strategy: supporting something newer or stranger with something quite familiar.

At its heart, “The Shearing” shows a clear, simple conflict familiar to genre readers: duty, tradition, and community versus individual needs, difference, and exploration. It’s basically the Spider-man question, just leading to a different answer, down different roads. While that world of people-are-complex is being established, beside it this very familiar conflict is built as Maruxa’s urge to warn the unicorns collides with her duty to her family. Genre readers are left with one very familiar thing to treat as a narrative “home base”, from which it’s possible to solidly explore what might be an unfamiliar setting and unfamiliar community needs.

The most crucial thing “The Shearing” does, though, is use that familiar conflict as a stepping-stone—and start to work it and the complexity of its world together. Once readers are in familiar territory and primed to look out for complexity, it’s quick to establish that the path of individual needs, fleeing, and freedom has consequences. Maruxa’s pressed into the rapa because her oldest brother has left “without a backward glance”—and there’s a world of her own hurt embedded in that phrase. And likewise, the world of tradition and duty isn’t even close to static: the rapa’s evolved from quasi-mystic stock breeding ritual to almost a public health measure. Both paths are real, vibrant, and potential positive choices.

As the piece slowly layers considerations and consequences—habitat protection, and then gentrification and Maruxa’s generation’s flight to the cities—at a pace that lets readers digest the last one before adding another aspect of the problem, all those questions continue to develop and evolve together. Having Demo changes Maruxa’s feelings toward her body; her changed sense of self affects the fate of the ranch; the ranch’s fate affects Demo and the family; Demo’s plight changes Maruxa’s reading of what her father’s chosen. By establishing needs and consequences on all sides, “The Shearing” remakes this fairly traditional binary conflict into something more like a real choice—and a much more compelling read. And it’s all because information’s managed at a digestible, sensitive pace for the audience—and because the story’s grounded in those endless interactions.

As always, other layers of craft have a real role to play in making that approach work. The organic complexity of the thematics and plot is supported by the sentence-level prose: a style that’s on the whole clean, transparent, and factual, but sprinkled here and there with phrases like “a wild blessing” and precise sensory details which act as the verbal unicorns in this space—a touch of wildness and grace.

The images and ideas “The Shearing” puts forward are also ones that work with the question it’s asking, rather than against it. How Maruxa thinks about her own tall, strong—indelicate—body (echoed in the wild unicorns’ less-valued colorings) inflects her choices when it comes to her family, her career, and the land around her: she thinks back to her own physicality and draws from that lesson to make the choices that come next. And ultimately, her relationship with her father explicitly parallels with Demo testing his limits and her realization that Demo’s discontent.

But what keeps it from being didactic is something important to point out: it’s Maruxa’s authentic experience with these questions. As readers, we see Maruxa reflecting, considering these similarities, and learning her own way. “The Shearing” doesn’t feel heavy-handed because readers aren’t being asked to consider the moral of the story; we are being asked to watch this one person struggle, think, and learn something a little larger than she had before—something that’s satisfying to watch because she earns it through active struggle. Letting Demo free and hoping the herd will have him isn’t the answer, but it’s an answer, and in a world where questions proliferate, an answer can definitely be enough.

There’s a lot to like here—and a lot of great, thoughtful craft being used to convey it. I think with just minor polishing, it’ll have little trouble finding a home.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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