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)

 

On The Shelves

Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer (Jo Fletcher Books August 2020)

Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who put Charles VII on the throne and spearheaded France’s victory over Britain before being burned by the English as a heretic and witch.

But things are not always as they appear.

Jeanne d’Arc was only five when three angels and saints first came to her. Shrouded by a halo of heavenly light, she believed their claim to be holy. The Archangel Michael and Saint Margaret told her she was the foretold Warrior Maid of Lorraine, fated to free France and put a king upon his throne.

Saint Catherine made her promise to obey their commands and embrace her destiny; the three saints would guide her every step. Jeanne bound herself to these creatures without knowing what she’d done. As she got older, Jeanne grew to mistrust and fear the voices, and they didn’t hesitate to punish her cruelly for disobedience. She quickly learned that their cherished prophecy was more important than the girl expected to make it come true.

Jeanne is only a shepherd’s daughter, not the Warrior Maid of the prophecy, but she is stubborn and rebellious, and finds ways to avoid doing – and being – what these creatures want. Resistance has a terrifying price, but Jeanne is determined to fight for the life she wants.

But when the cost grows too high, Jeanne will risk everything to save her brother, her one true friend and the man she loves.

Not everyone is destined to be a hero. Sometimes you have no choice.

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

Grapevine/Market News

Upon a Once Time anthology is open for submissions from July 1, 2020-February 28, 2021.  They are looking for stories where you choose two of your favorite fairy tales, and a genre of your choice, and mash them up to make something new. Stories may be of any genre (SF, Grimdark, New Weird–anything) as long as they incorporate two fairy tales. They are looking for stories between 1,000-3,000 words and paying 8 cents per word. Full details here. 

The Wild Hunt Anthology is also open for submission from July 2, 2020-February 28,2021. They are looking for stories that incorporate that incorporate the theme of the Wild Hunt, in any genre. Stories should be between 1,000-3,000 words and they are paying 8 cents per word. Full details here. 

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)

On The Shelves

When Jackals Storm the Walls (Song of Shattered Sands) by Bradley Beaulieu (Daw July 2020) 

The reign of the kings of Sharakhai has been broken. The blood mage, Queen Meryam, now rules the city along with the descendants of the fabled twelve kings.

In the desert, Çeda has succeeded in breaking the asirim’s curse. Those twisted creatures are now free, but their freedom comes at great cost. Nalamae lies dead, slain in battle with her sister goddess. Çeda, knowing Nalamae would have been reborn on her death, sets out on a quest to find her.

The trail leads Çeda to Sharakhai where, unbeknownst to her, others are searching for Nalamae as well. Çeda’s quest to find her forces her into a terrible decision: work with the kings or risk Sharakhai’s destruction.

Whatever her decision, it won’t be easy. Sharakhai is once more threatened by the forces of the neighboring kingdoms. As the powers of the desert vie for control of the city, Çeda, her allies, and the fallen kings must navigate the shifting fates before the city they love falls to the schemes of the desert gods.

Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders: A Dominion Of The Fallen Story by Alliette de Bodard (JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc July 2020)   

From the author of the critically acclaimed Dominion of the Fallen trilogy comes a tale of dragons, and Fallen angels—and also kissing, sarcasm and stabbing.

Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.

But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.

It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….