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)

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 Falcon Arrives, Chapter 1 by Adrian Cross

There’s some good story-stuff here, and some interesting pointers to where it’s all going. I have a sense of the world, what level of technology it’s reached: armor and spears, but factories and pharmaceuticals. Or are the drugs made with magic? I’m sure the story will answer that as it unfolds. It seems to be a raffish sort of swords-and-sorcery underworld, with deep poverty and a good amount of brutality. I want to read more in order to get a wider picture of the world and its people.

In this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about language, but first, a disclaimer. There is no wrong way to write a draft. When a story is finding its way through the writer’s mind and screen, what matters most is not the specific words they use, but getting the story blocked out in whatever way works best for the writer’s process. The time to worry about finer points of language and line editing is much later. Build the framework first, get the walls and floor and ceiling in place, then concentrate on the decor and the colors.

When the revision gets to that point, I would suggest focusing closely on language and choice of words, especially figurative language. The language of the draft aims to be vivid and striking and memorable, with unusual metaphors and strong sensory and emotional images. When it succeeds, it gives us a clear and immediate sense of what it’s like to live in this world. We can feel and hear and smell and taste the action as it happens.

Right now, it’s a bit over the top. Images pile up and tumble over one another. The opening sentence pays homage to the great trope, “It was a dark and stormy night,” with striking imagery, but it loses control of itself toward the end:

The storm whipped the city with barbed nets of rain and wind, and occasionally lashes of lightning that shred the sky like the spine of a captured street rat.

Whips and nets don’t quite mesh, though there’s a raw power in the barbs. The rat’s spine seems to come out of nowhere after the image of lashing and shredding. How does a spine connect with whips and nets?

I think here, less is more. Pick a concept—whips, for example—and keep the imagery focused on that. Think about what would wrap up the image in the most effective way. It might be as simple as ending the sentence with lashed the sky, and saving the rat’s spine for another scene.

Another tendency in the draft is that words don’t quite mean what they want to mean. The rain moaned, for example: usually it’s the wind that does that. Think about what rain sounds like, what sounds it can make. Can it moan? What mechanism would make it possible? Think too about how a reader will react, whether the image will throw them out of the story while they try to figure out what it means or how it works.

Clarity of meaning is important to keep the reader in the story. In the same paragraph in which the rain moans, there’s this:

The smell of the vats was heavy, unpleasant, but comfortingly familiar. It kept people away without reason.

I’m not sure what “without reason” means. The vats smell bad, though Jay finds the stink comforting. How does that translate into keeping people away for no reason? People who don’t have the comfort of familiarity would have reason to avoid the area, because it’s unpleasant. The apparent contradiction made me stop reading, and I lost track of the story while I tried to figure it out. In revision, rethinking or rephrasing would make the meaning clearer and keep the story flowing onward without interruption.

Watch in general for contradictions and confusions. Even as Jay focuses on finding medicine for Kalp, right after he remembers the sight of the sick person and his desperate sister, he says, I had no family, no friends. What are Kalp and his sister, then? Why is he trying so hard and at such personal cost to save Kalp?

Be careful too about how characters react and interact. Think about the balance between action and reaction, provocation and response. For example when the guard materializes out of the storm, we feel the power and terror of his presence. But after he’s interrogated Jay, he shrugs and leaves. We’ve been set up for a conflict that dissipates before it really gets started.

Another line or two, a sharper conflict, maybe a scowl or a warning from the guard, might give the encounter a bit more weight while still letting Jay off. Maybe tone down or delete the garbage-hat, too. It’s a strong provocation, but the guard’s reaction is disproportionately mild. It promises but it doesn’t quite deliver.

At this stage of the draft, I would recommend focusing on the story and the characters, and making sure the overall structure is solid. Once that’s where it needs to be, then go word by word and line by line. That will bring it all together, and the story will be stronger

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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 Black-Leopard Numen by Rita de Heer

This chapter has lovely bones. The setting, the characters, and the worldbuilding have great potential, and the voice and narrative style, while still figuring themselves out, are starting to show what they can be. It’s a good draft, with more to come.

I love the title. I want to know what it means. I see hints of it in the chapter, a reference here and a phrase there–the leopard eye, the cat imagery. And that, for an opening chapter, is a good thing. It encourages me to keep reading, makes me see certain words and concepts a little more clearly, and leads me onward through the story.

I think as the hominids’ nature and culture come more into focus, the verb tenses will sort out as well. It’s not clear yet whether the shifts are the author experimenting with different tenses to see which one works best, or whether the changes of tense serve a purpose in the narrative. If it’s about whether to tell the story in present or past, it comes down to what feels right—what works best for the story as it wants to be told.

If the shifts of tense are more complex, if they reflect the characters’ states of mind, or where they are on their personal timeline, or what they’re trying to do at a particular moment, that will take a little more time to develop. What’s most important is that the shifts be consistent, and that they be clear, especially early on. Once we have the pattern, once we know what each shift means, we can follow the story as it flows from past to present and, maybe, future. I’ve never actually seen a story written in future tense, but I’d be open to the concept.

Even in draft I get a sense of how these hominids have their own culture, their own ways of seeing the world. Moggy’s viewpoint is intriguing because he’s a child. His thought processes are still developing, and he’s learning how the world works. He doesn’t have a name yet, which is a nice insight into how his people approach language and identity.

I do have questions about the two sides? personalities? worlds? of Moggy. There’s the I, and there’s the kid. Are they separate personalities? Past and present selves? States of existence—Moggy in the world of the living, the kid on the border between life and death? A good part of that will probably come clear later in the story, but a little more clarity might be useful here.

One thing that might help with this is the mirror-description sequence. The character looking at himself in the mirror and describing himself is a venerable and somewhat disreputable trope. Usually in writing classes we’re told, Don’t Do That.

But, if there’s anything I’ve learned about rules of writing and elderly tropes, it’s that if you can put a new spin on it, and if you can carry it off, you can get away with just about anything. Since Moggy is not “us-human” as the author’s note says, and since his world and his culture differ in various ways from ours, maybe the mirror can be part of that. Might it be a way of grounding himself in this world? Of establishing that he is in this timeline, in this body? Could he use the mirror to suppress the kid and anchor himself among the living? Or might there be other and even more intriguing cultural aspects to the act of looking at himself in the mirror?

For that matter, if we think of a mirror as a portal to another world, maybe looking into one is dangerous. It might bring the kid even more to the fore, and Moggy might risk being lost between worlds. There’s a whole range of things that could happen when Moggy meets the mirror.

I’ll be interested to see how this story and characters evolve. There’s so much going on already, and so much still to discover.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Freets, Chapter One by Tracey V. Brown

I’m going to do something here that I haven’t done for a while, and that’s to discuss a more general topic rather than offering a specific critique of the submission. It’s a good start and I like the voice and the overall level of skill quite a lot. The writing is solid, and keeps me turning the pages. I’m interested in discovering what happens.

What I’d like to talk about is the conundrum in the author’s note. There seems to be a sharp division between readers who are satisfied with a more allusive narrative style, and readers who want things spelled out up front.

This cuts rather close to the bone of my writer-self, and I’ve had some spirited discussions with editors and copy editors. I like to be allusive. Some editors, speaking on behalf of a certain demographic of readers, really would prefer that I not do that.

To a degree it’s a matter of personal taste, but it also speaks to the question of how and when to convey information so that it’s clear to the reader. Some writers put it all in, tell it step by step, explain as they go. Others hint and suggest, as this chapter does with the coffin—touching wood for luck and for protection. To me it’s clear from context what the gesture means, but as I said, I’m good with suggestions rather than plain statements.

What to do here? I believe it’s up to the author to make the final decision. It’s impossible to please every reader. There will always be one (or more) to whom a particular submission does not speak. We’re all different, we all have varying tastes and preferences, and sometimes the work just isn’t for us.

In this case, I would ask what the writer wants to accomplish. Horror by its nature tends toward the allusive—so much of it is voice and tone and atmosphere, and its effects tend to build gradually. If there are questions at the start of a story or novel, if we’re not clued in immediately to who or what the people in the hidden village are, we can be sure we’ll get at least some of the answers by the end—and if some part of the mystery remains, we’ll embrace that, too, if the author does it right.

It’s all in how the story wants to be told. Does it want the answers up front, thriller style, so that the reader runs ahead of the characters, waiting for them to figure it all out? Or does it want the reader to live through the process of discovery with the characters? Either way is valid, but the ultimate decision is the author’s.

There’s a further complication in workshopping a portion of a larger work, when what we have in front us can’t and won’t contain all the information we need in order to get the overall picture. Many times, a question is answered in a later section, or a piece of information that’s not quite fully explained in one scene or chapter is clarified as the story goes on. Maybe it needs to happen that way; the story grows and expands, and the reader’s understanding grows with it.

Again, in the end, it’s the author’s call. We do want clarity, and clarification, but sometimes we want to keep a little mystery, too; a little something for the reader to discover as they read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Titaness by Billy Forshaw

I was struck by the sense of distant quiet in “Titaness” this month: a lonely image of a woman wandering across far terrain, and a conclusion that’s grief-struck, ominous, but gentle. However, the author’s notes mention a sense of something missing—and for me as a reader, in a story about relationship, that was relationship between these characters and the details of their world. So this month, I’d like to talk about integrating science fictional worldbuilding into the stories we tell.

“Titaness” starts strong: an instant situation (a woman is outside), the implication that situation is ongoing, the implication of which kind of character would see this as a problem and tension within Maria’s home. However, it immediately moves into exposition about Titan and class: a briefing on what everything is supposed to mean that sinks the interest generated by that question in technical information.

It’s four paragraphs before anything more is mentioned about that character in a situation with a problem—Maria seeing a woman outside again and something about that is wrong—and by then, the tension and interest that problem creates has already been diffused and undermined.

This is the core issue I found personally with “Titaness”. Every time there’s mention of a speculative worldbuilding element—the Skins, the idea of charmed material, Equalizers—the story immediately diverts into a technical explanation purely in service of getting readers up to speed, and breaks the thread of what it’s explicitly told us to care about in the first lines: Maria, the isolation of Titan, the woman outside. And many of those speculative worldbuilding elements aren’t helping specifically to tell the story of Maria, her marriage, the woman outside.

It might be helpful to think about this as delivering structural mixed messages: “Titaness” has told readers a certain thing is important, that it’s the thread and core of the story—but keeps dropping it in service of a whole other thing. And then it becomes hard to tell what’s actually important here.

“Titaness”, by the end, feels as if it’s trying to encompass the background worldbuilding information of a classic hard SF story—noting every bell and whistle along the way—as well as the close human-centred, emotive perspective of Bradbury, and instead of building a structure that can hold both, or funnel both through the same channels, it’s switching between the two structures—and losing readers as it does, because those structures are working at cross-purposes. They don’t complement each other well. This is what the Gap symbolizes is a less effective tool than letting the Gap be a symbol and building the kind of structure that primes readers to look for symbolism when you’re speaking in the language of an emotive Bradburyan perspective; once they had been in love is less interesting than getting to see Maria reach for him, and Julien fall short.

I think it can be easier to consider how structure works in action-packed, fast-paced stories, but a structure of action, consequence, and attentional flow is part of every story we write; it’s just a question of how we keep attention flowing, and how that structure is dressed.

Since the author’s notes mention explicitly wanting to capture that Bradburyan feeling, I’d suggest it’s worthwhile to go back to Bradbury and study what he’s doing and how he maintains a character’s internality, voice, and tone when conveying worldbuilding information. Facts like how long it rains on Venus in “All Summer in a Day” are filtered through what they mean to the story’s protagonists—their impressions and relationships with those facts. There’s a lot of hard science fictional information passed on to the reader, but it’s not directly. That information does two things: inform about the world and introduce readers to the character.

So—all that being said!—I’d suggest tackling the structural issue in “Titaness” by putting the facts about Titan, the Gap, and more into relationship with their people, instead of letting them just interrupt those relationships.

What does any of this mean to Maria, even as a fairly reserved, opaque character who’s been, it seems, helping that woman all along and didn’t just hear anything? What does the fact that she’s telling Julien this as if it’s abstract mean about her relationship with him, and what she’s trying to elicit from him? There’s a possibility to go deeper into those dynamics by filtering through her perspective more strongly; what she leaves out and when.

I’d suggest taking this approach in small ways and large: How can “her husband, Julien” read more interestingly when Maria knows Julien’s her husband, and doesn’t have to highlight that fact because it’s apparent they’re in a relationship from how they interact? What more interesting information about Julien would she notice, and can take its place?

Ultimately, that’s the question I’d put forth: What would “Titaness” look, read, and feel like if the facts about Titan were being conveyed through the lens of what they meant to Maria—what she already knows, what she feels, and what she’s interested in?

I think with the structures more integrated—a hard science fiction story about relationships and told through them, not at war with them—any issues the author’s still feeling will come clearer, and get this closer to a final draft.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Forged By Death by Jennifer Dawson

This chapter features some of my favorite elements: books and magic, and portals (or rifts). There’s a bit of a sendup of the usual pattern, with the parents who live a life of adventure and the daughter who doesn’t want adventures. She just wants to go to university and immerse herself in All the Books. I can relate to that.

I do get the sense that Nacie is going to be forced into having adventures, and (in light of the title) that there is tragedy ahead. Her relationship with her parents is so sweet that it begs for a reversal. Her life is just about perfect. That’s always a bad sign.

While it’s important to establish that Nacie has had an idyllic if hard-working childhood, it might actually make the effect stronger to tone down the sweetness. Maybe give the parents a bit more of an edge and a bit less chuckling and smiling and teasing. Sharpen the hint of conflict with her father, let us see how life has taught him to be wary. Maybe he overprotects his daughter a little, as the mother pushes her studies just a bit too hard.

Maybe the daughter is a touch more rebellious, a touch less content. She might accept that she has to wait to go to university, but she might also chafe at it, wish she could be older now, could have it now. And maybe there’s a bit of a chill down her spine, a sense that this can’t last, that one of these trips, they won’t come back. If they’re the only ones who can cross the rift, if no one else can do it, who can find them if they’re lost? How will anyone be able to follow them? Which leads to another question that’s probably answered later on in the story: If it’s only the two of them, did Nacie inherit the ability? Does she know how it works, even if she hasn’t done it herself?

Nacie in fact feels younger than sixteen. Her study of arithmetic makes me think elementary or middle school. By sixteen, which is a year or two from college, students in the US are studying more advanced mathematics, algebra and even calculus. The way she interacts with her parents, and the reference to the long wait, makes me think she’s a younger teen or even a preteen. Still old enough to stay alone with her schoolwork in the heavily warded house, but not so old that she’s almost ready to take her studies to the next level.

My other thought was that her elven blood might mean she’s slower to mature than a full human, and that’s why she seems so young and is still so many years away from university. If that’s the case, a line or two would make it clear. Might she fuss a little bit about it, that humans her age are almost ready, but she has to wait?

There are plenty of reasons to read on, and plenty of questions to be answered. I’ll be interested to see how Nacie grows and changes in revision, and where her story takes her.

–Judith Tarr