Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Night Eyes/A Cozy Fire by Tony Valiulis

This is quite an interesting experiment:  two versions of the same story with some different details and with the order of the material changed.

Both stories follow a first-person narrator as he warms himself beside a fire on a stormy night and thinks about the events of the day.  He throws the head of the wife he killed on the fire, and it shoots fire at him, presumably killing him.

For me, the second version, “A Cozy Fire,” gets my interest more quickly and creates more curiosity and anticipation.

One key moment in both versions is the narrator having a drink:  “I pour myself a drink, Balvenie 40-year-old single malt. A costly extravagance (about $8,000 a bottle), the scotch has sat on the shelf for years waiting for the right moment. I sip the whisky, savoring the aroma of ripe fruit, figs, and almond. Its soothing warmth calms me.”  This passage tells us that, for the narrator, this is the “right moment” for this special treat.  Something big has been accomplished.  The narrator requires a bit of calming, but what comes through the most for me is that this is the pinnacle moment the narrator has been striving for.  This creates an obvious question in readers’ minds:  what did the narrator accomplish?  That makes me want to keep reading to find the answer.

In the first version of the story, “Night Eyes,” this moment comes in paragraph 4 out of 10 total.  In the second version of the story, this moment comes in paragraph 1.  That means I’m not really drawn into story 1 until I reach the 40% mark, while in story 2 I’m drawn in at the start.

In story 1, once he has the drink, he smells rancid meat (revealing someone has been killed) and thinks of his wife, who is not present.  It’s pretty clear almost immediately that he has killed her, so once I’m drawn in and form the question about what he accomplished, I get my answer right away.  That doesn’t allow suspense to build.

In story 2, he has the drink at the start, then spends a couple paragraphs thinking about the nasty events of the day–which leaves me uncertain what those events were.  A line of what might be thought or remembered dialogue is provided–” Not yet, my love. Rest with me a bit longer”–which I’m not quite certain how to interpret.  Then we get a paragraph of description of the storm, and then another thought that makes it clear to me that he killed his wife.  So there are 5 paragraphs (out of 17 total in this version) between the time I form the question of what he accomplished and the time I figure out the answer.  That allows curiosity and suspense to grow.

After that, in story 1, suspense declines.  The narrator thinks more about his wife, hinting at why he killed her, but as a reader, I really don’t care, since this piece is short and I haven’t had a chance to get to know the narrator or his wife.  And then the head gets thrown on the fire.

In story 2, the thoughts, which are explained as the narrator’s imagining of his dead wife’s voice, continue, arguing with the narrator.  This builds some conflict, which helps to sustain my interest, though nothing seems to be at stake, so there’s not much suspense.  As they argue, we discover why the narrator killed his wife and get a hint that she’s not entirely dead, foreshadowing her shooting fire at him at the end.

In both versions, we’re not aware of any reason why her disembodied head should be able to shoot fire at him, so that seems to come out of the blue.  While it’s surprising, a climax generally works best when it feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable.  That means the climax feels right, that it feels like the only thing that could have happened, though we didn’t see it coming.  I don’t feel that in either version.  We get a little hint in story 2, which is better, but it comes only 4 paragraphs before the end, so it feels more like a last-minute explanation than foreshadowing.  Foreshadowing is best done well before the event that’s being foreshadowed occurs.  It often works well near the beginning of a story.  That allows readers to register the information without figuring out what’s going to happen because they’re still getting oriented in the story.

Here are some additional thoughts about how story 2 might be strengthened.

Using the word “kindling” to refer to his wife’s body parts makes me feel like the story is cheating me.  Since this is a story that invites readers to figure out what’s going on, readers will feel more satisfaction if they feel the game is being played fairly.  Instead of giving us an incorrect piece of information by saying “a bag of kindling,” the narrator might just not give us the information and say, “my bag.”  That will raise the question, “What’s in the bag?” and make readers more engaged.

I think the narrator’s attitude toward killing his wife could be clarified/strengthened.  I really don’t know how he feels about his wife, so I don’t know how to feel about him, her, or what happens.  The expensive drink makes me feel like he’s rewarding himself, and he’s savoring it, but then he needs to be calmed.  I’m not sure if he wants to be calmed after excitement or he wants to be calmed after tragedy. Then he says the events were nasty but contained pleasures.  The imagined voice of his wife makes me think he feels guilty, but I don’t feel guilt from him.  He smiles at the smell of rancid meat, which I assume is her head and possibly other parts.  He says he’ll miss her terribly, but I don’t feel that either.  So there are a lot of mixed signals.  I generally conclude that he’s kind of a standard bad guy who killed his wife and should pay the price for that.  But that’s not terribly interesting.  Instead of telling us he has two contradictory feelings, it could be stronger to show him having one feeling and then imply there is another feeling, unstated, beneath that.

Before I go into that, let’s consider the emotion the story is trying to generate at the end.  I think the story wants to show the narrator getting his comeuppance and satisfy the readers’ sense of justice (with a bit of horror thrown in).  If that’s the case, then we need to feel the narrator is deserving of this fate.  He’s a murderer, so I guess he may deserve death, but I don’t really feel what a horrible person he is.  Yes, chopping his wife up is horrible, but that’s not in the story.  If the story is trying to show me a horrible guy deserving of being burned to death, then I think his attitude toward his wife and the situation that led to her murder might be adjusted to make us feel he’s a really awful person.  Perhaps, instead of stumbling upon his work, they were working together, and she figured out the key, stealing the glory of discovery from him.  In that case, returning to the issue of his feelings about her, perhaps he’s thinking that she was a wonderful “assistant,” and her enthusiasm was admirable, but her ideas would have taken his work in the wrong direction.  He’s better able to carry the work forward.  We could then sense, in the subtext, that he was threatened by her superiority and that’s what led him to kill her.  Creating subtext can give us a sense that the narrator has layers to his character rather than that he’s saying contradictory things.

The idea that she was involved in his work might also provide a possible reason why her head is able to shoot fire at him.

Finally, I’d suggest that the narrator not explain that the words he’s hearing are his imagination of his wife’s voice.  He might wonder if he’s imagining it, or think he must be imagining it, but if you leave a bit of uncertainty, that again will engage us by raising the question, “Is he imagining it or is it something else?”

Questions, when they’re clear and not overwhelming, can create reader engagement and suspense.

I enjoyed the challenge to compare the two versions.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2022, Fantasy

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

The Dreamer-Chapter 7: My Partner In Investigation by Kristen Welsh

This submission has a promising premise. I particularly appreciate the thorough summary of previous chapters. It gives me a good sense of what’s gone before, and makes the events of the chapter both clear and easy to follow.

I’d like to focus on two aspects of craft in the chapter. The first is what I call emotional temperature. Characters’ feelings are crucial to the development of the story as well as the characters themselves.

The intensity of those feelings is equally important. If a reaction is too strong for the context, the reader can feel as if the writer is trying too hard. Conversely, if the reaction isn’t strong enough, it may seem to the reader as if they’re not getting as much out of the story as they’d like to. Are they missing something? Is this scene not really important after all?

When Neil arrives in Kat’s apartment and meets Luna, his reactions tend toward the former. His eyes bulge, they water, he’s stunned, he’s weak, he’s floored. But then he shifts in the opposite direction. He chuckles, he laughs, he invites Kat and Luna to IHOP. He seems to jump from one to the other.

In revision, I would suggest smoothing the emotional arc somewhat. Tone down the strong reactions. Show a more gradual shift from shock and astonishment to casual social interaction. Give us a clearer sense of how his emotions change, and why. Does he realize he’s reacting strongly and make an effort to tone it down? If so, is the effort perceptible to Kat? If not, how does he get from OMG! to Hey, kid, let’s have pancakes?

The second thing I’d like to point to is the nature and purpose of dialogue. In real life, most of the things people say to each other are basically filler. Set phrases that everyone utters, that grease the social wheels and set up common expectations. That’s how people can develop the tic of finishing other people’s sentences for them. Most sentences are going to contain the same words in the same order.

In fiction, however, dialogue serves a different purpose. It conveys information that the reader needs to know—new information, or new light on old information. It develops character and establishes relationships between characters. It moves the plot forward.

Real-world conversation, for the most part, doesn’t do any of these things. All the stock phrases, the small talk, the back and forth of Hello-How Are You-I’m Fine-How Are You, get in the way of the story. Take them out and the story doesn’t lose anything.

Rather, it gains clarity. It lets the reader see the important things, the details they need in order to follow the movement of the story. It’s the Good-Parts Version, the part that has all the nice chewy spicy bits.

The rest of it can still be there—but not on the page. It’s implied. You know they’ll say hello, invite the guest in, make introductions. What matters to the story are the details that we either don’t know yet, or don’t have all we need in order to move on to the rest of the story.

Most of the dialogue in this chapter is realistic in that it reflects how people in the real world talk. But the story needs to focus on the good parts: the parts that reveal new information and provide new details about who these people are, what they are or will be to each other, what they want and what they need and why. If a character doesn’t know something but the reader does, repeating the information would, again, be realistic, but it stalls the story. Even if they need to know it, the reader doesn’t. The story can skip over the explanation and focus on the next piece of new information.

It’s a balancing act. Too much filler or too many extraneous details and the story gets lost. Not enough information, or not enough new information, and the reader gets confused. The writer’s art and craft (and challenge) is to walk the line between the two.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 2022, Science Fiction

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

The New Shah (Prologue) by Griffin Ayaz

I love the combination of ancient history and science fiction. It is not easy to do, and it’s even harder to do well. The writer needs to have a solid grasp of both the historical background and the tropes and traditions of science fiction.

This submission, so far, works for me on both levels. It’s well written, though in the line-edit stage I might suggest that the synonyms be pared down considerably in favor of the characters’ names, their pronouns where possible to avoid confusion, and just one or two alternative phrases. It’s confusing and rather distracting to try to keep track of multiple epithets for each character.

As brief as the prologue is, it does a good job of establishing the relationship between the princes. We quickly come to sympathize with Vidarna and despise Pashata, and we get a quick but compelling glimpse of the Shah as well. Through the references to Vidarna’s later self and the examples of friction with his father, we can see a hint of conflict that may move the plot of the novel proper. Is Vidarna now truly free? Will people finally see which of the princes was the true villain? Or will Vidarna be accused of orchestrating his brother’s murder, and have to suffer even worse consequences than he did when Pashata was alive?

I like it when I can ask questions like this. It means the story is set up well enough to capture my imagination. It makes me want to find out what will happen next.

The overall atmosphere of the prologue feels more historical than science-fictional to me. Certain details point to the novel’s genre: the packbeasts in their lack of specificity (rather than mules or camels or another terrestrial species), and the glow-lily, and of course the Immortal. I wonder if there might be one or two more hints of the alien in among the familiar, plants or animals, foods or fragrances, that aren’t the ones we know. Maybe even a reference to a weapon that signals far future albeit low tech, or a form of technology that’s distinctly not ancient Persian.

I also wonder if there might be more sense of agency in what the Immortal does. Can Vadarna predict where it will emerge, or can he do something to provoke it (voluntarily or otherwise) that then (voluntarily or otherwise) causes Pashata to fall into its maw? I like ambiguity, but I think there might be just a little more here to clarify the truth about what’s happened.

The creature makes me think of Dune with its equally destructive, similarly divine native life, which the Fremen can manipulate for their own purposes. If the parallel is intentional, it might be useful to make the Immortal similarly controllable as well.

Overall, as I said, this prologue works for me. I would definitely read on.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

The Dark Of Night by Tyler Burns

Atmosphere is an important component of horror, giving a story an emotional tone that colors everything that happens.  This story, through its setting, situation, and descriptions, succeeds in conveying an atmosphere of barrenness, isolation, darkness, and doom.  The atmosphere contributes to the emotion and suspense of the story, since it makes me feel as if the characters don’t have a chance, and I want to keep reading to find out what happens to them.  The story also employs a classic motif in which those who eat the flesh of someone or something are destined to die.   That provides a causal chain to the plot, a chain of cause and effect, so it doesn’t seem as if the characters are being attacked randomly or because the author wants it to happen.

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

Blaze, the first-person narrator, explains to Sawyer that he encountered the beast, shot off its tail, and then served it for dinner.  But this information comes fairly late in the story, too late to have much effect, though it has been tormenting Blaze throughout.  Coming late in the story, it seems more like an excuse for the beast’s attack rather than a cause for the attack.  And we feel fairly distant from Blaze because he’s very concerned with what he did, and we don’t know what that was for a long time.  It would be better earlier in the piece.

Before I go into that more, I’d like to discuss another element.  Blaze has strong, unspoken affection for Sawyer, and Sawyer feels the same.  In the middle part of the story, Sawyer shares his feelings with Blaze and they consummate their relationship.  There’s not much tension in this portion of the story.  Sawyer says, feels, and does exactly what Blaze has been hoping for.  It could add tension to the story if Sawyer was reluctant.  Perhaps Sawyer had been acting more friendly toward Blaze as Blaze has taken on the cooking duties and worked to create some delicious, hearty meals (as it has been said, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach).  Since they ran out of meat a few days before, Sawyer might have been withdrawing and talking about moving to the city alone.  So when Blaze shoots the tail off the beast, he decides to serve it for dinner in the hope of winning Sawyer over.  This would add some suspense to their relationship and put more at stake when Blaze confesses what he’s done.

In this case, perhaps the story begins with burying Wyatt’s body, and then Blaze and Sawyer return to the cabin, and Blaze serves the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner (of the beast’s tail), and Sawyer says how good it is, and there probably won’t be such good food in the city, and Blaze, knowing this is his last chance and forcing himself to speak, says he could go with Sawyer and cook for him and take care of his needs.  So this might be portrayed a little more as Blaze seducing Sawyer.  This would make Blaze a more active protagonist, struggling to achieve his goal, rather than having Sawyer’s love handed to him with no effort.  This would also give Blaze a stronger motivation for cooking and serving the tail, this key action that leads to their deaths.

Another element that could be strengthened is the first-person voice.  Voice is an important and often overlooked element of story, and it’s extremely prominent in first person.  First person subjective feels like the narrator talking to us, telling us his story.  Because of that, the voice needs to sound like this particular character’s authentic speech.  This can help reveal the character and the world.  In this story, the voice feels inconsistent, shifting fairly often.  At times, Blaze sounds like a cowboy in the old West.  At other times, he sounds like a British man from several centuries ago.  At other times, the voice sounds somewhat Lovecraftian.  Voice can be a slippery thing.  Finding good examples of the voice you’re trying for can help.  For example, if you’re going for an old West feeling, you could find a collection of letters written by people living in the old West, type some of those into your computer five times to get the word choices and phrasings into your mind.  Then you can try to take some of the sentences and change the content to connect to your story while retaining the sentence structures.  Then eventually you can try to write a paragraph from your story in this voice.  You might also find the book Voice by James Scott Bell useful.

There are also some unclear, awkward, or overwritten sentences that take me out of the story.  A study of strong prose could help.  A good way to do this is to find a story by someone else that you think is written really well, written in a way that you would like to write.  Pick a good paragraph and type it into your computer five times.  Then try to type it in without looking at the original.  Compare the two and see what you changed or left out.  Then try again.  Do the same thing with stories by other writers, so you’re feeding yourself really strong prose in a variety of styles.  I would also recommend the book Description by Monica Wood.

Thanks for sharing your campfire story.  I hope these comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

When The Oracle Speaks by Albert Chu

“When the Oracle Speaks” caught my attention this month with its lush worldbuilding and complex espionage game—a future always at one’s fingertips, that’s being refused, in a lavish and dangerous political setting. It’s also the second Editor’s Choice piece by this author in two months, one that shares some of the same issues, and that coincidence opens up an opportunity. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we do when we find a pattern not just in a story, but across our work as a whole.

The major strength in “When the Oracle Speaks” is how it handles information: establishing its space and stakes from the very first line. The central question that drives “When the Oracle Speaks” is placed right there—Iuno’s ability to predict the future—and the kind of story is put right on the page by how readers are told it. The distinct oral-storyteller’s rhythm to its prose combines with its list of players (palanquin-bearers, dressing-girls) to establish where we are: folkloric, hierarchical, lush, and playing by aesthetic courtly rules. It doesn’t matter that we’re in an interplanetary future; readers can intuit some of the rules of that future society, and that’s enough to get our bearings in what to expect from this piece. It’s smooth, seamless work, and builds a world that’s easy to slip into without hanging on details.

There are also some great descriptive details in here, grounding the sense of place: Iuno’s steps pressing rainwater out of his sandals with a squelch, the ugliness of his big laugh. When attention’s in place, “When the Oracle Speaks” is full of great, lively descriptive writing and good use of subtext: Ahpa’s conversational gamesmanship showing he’s not quite as secure in his position as he wants to project. That episode’s functional as a gateway conflict—something for him to solve that brings Ahpa and Iuno together, and brings them into the bigger picture of succession and war.

It’s once Ahpa starts out to investigate the warehouse that the smoothness of “When the Oracle Speaks” starts to fray, and the relationship between characters and choices and plot starts to come apart. After building up the danger of his brothers’ communal politicking, Ahpa’s decision to go investigate the warehouse himself hits as hasty and reckless; the narrative has just told readers the situation is extremely dangerous, and Ahpa’s decision to go alone can’t be seen by readers in any light other than that one. The signal being sent isn’t that he’s brave, but that he’s making bad decisions. That impression gets reinforced quickly: it’s a very badly planned spying expedition. Ahpa doesn’t get the keycode or memorize the look of the place—or bring backup. If it’s a trap, he’s walking into slaughter.

Likewise, there’s been no signal that Iuno is anything less than content with not being asked to use his powers, so the sudden sarcasm is surprising—and justified backwards in the next paragraph, instead of planned ahead.

The discovery of the Samandiran hover-bomber is all a little too serendipitous. If Ahpa’s spies are looking for threats to do with the conflict he’s in—the one against his brothers—why would they have flagged this particular incident, and if he’s not sure he can trust them, why go alone? If the King is keeping an enemy aircraft in the warehouse to stage a false flag operation—why would there not be a better security system on the space, or guards? Since when does Ahpa just have military capacity studies for Samandir in his back pocket—but also can’t plan a warehouse raid? And why is Ahpa wounded at Iuno’s concealing the truth of the matter when he’s spent the whole story actively socially signaling—to both readers and Iuno himself—that he doesn’t want that foreknowledge? In the next scene, he’s right back to aggressively refusing it, and the moment is extinguished.

The pattern’s plain: When what happens in an action sequence is set up against what “When the Oracle Speaks” says is happening here more broadly, the logic just falls apart. There are too many aspects of both these plans that rely on people being willfully incompetent—and getting away with it—or fudging in background facts to justify the action.

As I said, last month’s Editor’s Choice came from the same workshopper—and some of the underlying issues in both pieces are the same: plot developments built on convenience and aesthetics instead of a solid foundation of who these people are, what they want, and why they’ve done things. When the action turns on, the rest of the story-logic blinks out, and the story runs aground.

When we recognize a pattern emerging across our work—and as we study our craft, that’s going to happen to all of us—there are a few ways to step back and think about it.

One of those is to ask why that might be occurring. Is there something in our reading or experience we’ve skipped over, a skill we can put attention into to hone? Or is there something about the story we want that makes the missing thing repeatedly come second, not feel like a priority? Is there something about the physical process of how we put a story together—how long our writing sessions are, for example—that produces this situation? What turns up on the page when we write is an effect; thinking about the cause of it can help us choose a strategy that fits and solve the right problem.

Another is to ask where in the piece the pattern shows up—and where it doesn’t. Sometimes, issues come out because we’re strongly focusing on something else in a very specific kind of scene or part of a story. Thinking about what our brains are doing in different parts of a piece can lead to better answers.

I’d also suggest asking if there are simple things one can do in revision—in the second draft, or the third—to counterbalance the tendency, and just make them a regular part of the process. Sometimes our instincts are going to be where they are in drafting, and that is what it is. If we can acknowledge that and adjust later, we’re growing a deliberate process—an important part of being a writer.

There’s lots of room to move within all these questions—to experiment, interrogate the process, and push it forward. I’d suggest “When the Oracle Speaks” needs to do some thinking and reconstruction—and that every tool developed to do it will be helpful for more than just this story.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 2022, Short Story

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

Matryoshka City, Part One by Albert Chu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 2022, Science Fiction

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

Accidental Uplift by Green FitzYellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award September 2022, Horror

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

Uncanny Six by K.A. Tutin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Choice Award September 2022, Fantasy

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

Grayson Chapter 7 by Daniel A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2022, Fantasy

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

Brightgloam by Peter S. Drang

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

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

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

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

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