Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Our Days Are Numbered These Days by Jim McDougall

There’s something about images of people–videos, movies, photos, and paintings–that can be very disturbing.  “Our Days Are Numbered These Days” builds on the disturbing potential of images to provide some creepy moments.  When Craig realizes that something like an old home movie is somehow playing on the boarded-up window of a deserted house, that’s quite strange and disturbing.  The moment when this “movie” starts playing on his phone is super creepy and really disturbed me (in the best possible way).  For me, that’s the strongest moment in the story.  A man in the “movie” seems to appear in reality, which is another disturbing moment.

The story offers some other powerful moments that don’t involve images of people.  Craig finds the calendar with the current date circled and only blank paper after that date.  That feels very fresh to me and horrific.  And then Craig discovers his phone is stuck on that date.  There’s a lot in this story to enjoy, but I do think it could be strengthened in several ways.

I had a hard time believing the reactions of Craig and Angela, so I wasn’t able to relate to them or care about them very much.  That weakened the horror.  My first difficulty occurs when Craig wants to go over to the abandoned house to investigate the light.  To me, it seems like Craig and Angela should think the light is most likely caused by people using the house to sell drugs or engage in some other illegal activity, or by homeless people using it for shelter.  Either way, I would expect Craig and Angela to anticipate the people in the house would not welcome anyone snooping around and that danger might result. But neither one of them anticipates danger.  If Craig is supposed to already be drawn by the light, that’s not clear now.

Once Craig and Angela get to the boarded-up window and start seeing the movie images, there reactions again are hard for me to believe.  They are concerned with what’s happening in the movie, when the movie was made, and the fact that the burgers look tasty.  I think they ought to be concerned with how they are seeing images when there is clearly no projector around, an idea that would be followed in short order by freaking out and probably running away.  I think the story is trying to suggest that they are mesmerized by the images, but that doesn’t come through.  I don’t feel the images or the light drawing them in.  For me, the story would be stronger if Craig were fighting the influence of the light, so we could feel an internal conflict between the attraction and his knowledge that this is strange/wrong and should be resisted.  When Craig thinks, “This was getting really crazy now,” I’m thinking he should have thought this much earlier in the story.

Another element that could be strengthened is the plot.  I think it works pretty well up until Angela disappears and Craig finds the calendar.  After that, the suspense and fear seems to drain out of the story as Craig easily flees the house, and we learn he’s been detained by the police and this is a letter to the inspector.  It feels as if we’re promised a story about Craig and Angela and this landmark of the house, but what we end up with is Craig’s plea for the police inspector to solve his problem. That’s not a satisfying delivery on the promise.  It feels like I’m reading one story up until he flees the house, and then I’m reading a totally different story.  For me, delivering on the promise means continuing the story of Craig, Angela, and the house until it’s resolved in some way.  Craig might struggle to find Angela in the house.  For example, maybe he sees her in the movie on his phone, and in the movie, she’s in the backyard.  So he goes into the backyard to try to find her, but she’s not there.  And in the movie she goes into the basement, so he goes into the basement, but she’s not there.  But he might find some other disturbing things in the basement or get trapped there.  Maybe the door opens when it’s past midnight.  The day resets (because it’s the last day on the calendar), and the movie/supernatural won’t appear again until dusk on this day.  He wouldn’t know this, but he could search around, and then weird stuff would start happening at dusk. This could happen a couple times with things getting worse each time.  Maybe he has to write something on the calendar to resolve the situation.  That might be “Join the party,” which might get him into the movie with Angela.  Or it might be “Marry Angela,” which might get Angela released, or “Stop the murder.” Maybe Angela would provide clues while in the movie, or maybe she can send texts on his phone.  There’s a lot of potential here; it’s a matter of figuring out what the story is about and how best to fully realize that.

I wonder why Angela is taken into the movie and Craig isn’t.  It seems like perhaps Craig closes his eyes to the light and Angela doesn’t.  But Craig was the one eager to investigate the light, so it seems odd or counterintuitive that he’s the one who resists it.  If Angela is unhappy in her life, and that’s what leads her to open her eyes and be taken into the movie, I think that needs to be established up front, before they see the light at the house.  Whatever the story is about, I think it reflects or relates to a relationship problem between Craig and Angela, and that needs to be set up at the beginning, get worse when Angela is taken, and then get resolved along with the conflict between Craig and the movie/supernatural at the end.  For example, if Angela wants to be part of a committed relationship and Craig doesn’t, then perhaps the desire for a strong bond and belonging is what appeals to her about the movie, which shows a family gathering, and what leads to her being pulled into it.  Craig’s desire to avoid commitment may have caused him to remain outside the movie.  Craig resolving his issue one way or another could lead to him resolving the issue with the movie/supernatural.

One final element I want to mention is description.  I’m confused a number of times about what’s happening because the description is not clear for me.  For example, the house is described as being “silhouetted in the amber glow of the lights up on the freeway.”  But they are on the street where the house is; they are on the same level.  The lights are above.  Something is silhouetted, at least in my mind, when the light is on the far side of the object.  That means the light needs to be behind the house to silhouette it, not above the house.  This may seem picky, but as I read I’m trying to form images, and I couldn’t form this one.  Another example occurs when Craig has first reached the window and sees the light:  “Its brilliance completely obscured the boards over the window.”  Previously, the light has been described as if it is leaking out from cracks between the boards.  So when I get to this sentence, I still think it’s leaking out from within the house.  It’s not clear to me that the light seems to be coming from outside the house.  It took me a while to understand and be able to visualize what was happening, which made it less scary.

I hope my comments are helpful.  I really enjoyed the disturbing elements in this story.  It was nice to read more of your work.

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

Editor’s Choice Award May 2022, Short Story

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

The Only Beautiful Thing by Nora Schinnerl

“The Only Beautiful Thing” caught my attention this month with how its cloistered, gossipy corporate world contrasts the rich, subversive lives of the least important people living in and around it: a pair of human corporate decorations hired to pad out local staffing requirements. This far-future slice-of-life veers into active—if understated—liberation when a space privateer hatches a desperate plan to blackmail their CEO, and the AAPs see their chance. However, as the action ramps up, “The Only Beautiful Thing” falters somewhat into a slightly-too-pat ending. So this month, I’d like to take a closer look at the idea that what we set up has to pay off; or, what goes up has to in some way come down.

The slice-of-life far-future world of “The Only Beautiful Thing” is its first and most obvious star. From the muffled, regulated rooms of ChippedTM to the hinted-at complex colonial politics of Takamaha, Samir and Dash’s universe is wide, varied, and delightfully rich: filled with rules and how people ignore or break them, motivations and counter-motivations, relationships just out of focus, terrific natural beauty, and some ultimately pretty wholesome desires in the midst of a very exploitative framework. The way the organic—salt-stained stone pillars, a bedroom herb garden, good coffee, makeup with natural smells—is splashed against the artificiality of ChippedTM’s perfectly positioned beautiful people sets up a set of opposed ideas, but it’s the ways they keep being riffed, complicated, and there’s always more that keeps this world from feeling small or reductive. There are always about five parallel things happening, and none of it feels binary or laced with trauma reaction: Takama and its interlaced workforces are all vibrant and alive.

It’s a generous complexity that’s rooted directly in Samir and Dash themselves. “The Only Beautiful Thing” sets up an opposition immediately—beautiful and stupid—and telegraphs that whatever happens here, Samir is about to be underestimated. It’s a good way to immediately establish tension: there’s a really specific readerly pleasure in seeing how something plays out, even if we know that it’s going to, and “The Only Beautiful Thing” taps into that instantly and well.

But that dichotomy also lets the story characterize Samir quickly, calling readers’ attention to where he’s pragmatic, sarcastic, sharp, and adaptable—by putting forward the lie that he can’t be as a lie, and using the space that marks out to show Samir’s complexity. It’s a technique “The Only Beautiful Thing” uses in a few places, notably with the food-coloured skin trope: setting it up, setting up the pushback against that idea, and undermining both to make Samir real.

Guiding readers’ attention this way is a solid technique for prompting readers to pay closer attention to the finer points of a character and invest in him as a person, not a kind of person. It’s also, incidentally, a great structural technique to use in a story about being seen past the surface: one that flows with what “The Only Beautiful Thing” is talking about.

And it works well. When we find out Samir has a horrifically sad backstory—orphaned, unskilled, exploitable—in the third scene he’s already so firmly established as smart, funny, idiosyncratic, boundaried, adaptable, coffee-loving, big-brotherly, a bit of a drama queen, still and always a work in progress—a person!—that he doesn’t slide into a stereotype. He just gets more visible in context.

A lot of thematic work’s being done here, in the ways Samir and Dash keep taking the structures of oppression and casually undermining them—sometimes, funnily enough, in ways that literally nobody notices or cares about, even when those tiny interventions take down ChippedTM. Instead of throwing themselves into one rigid ideal or the other, Samir and Dash use a handful of little tricks to navigate the distance between them. Faced with becoming objectified for or by either cause, they stay human—and grab what they wanted all along.

If I have a major criticism, it’s that the balance between slice-of-life/buildup and the action—both what Samir and Dash do, and what the privateer does to bring down ChippedTM—still feels like a work in progress. The actual logic around the explosion—what happens, what Samir and Dash did, the aftermath—is a little bit underexplicated for my eyes. It’s hard for me to piece together the particular flavour of double-cross they’ve managed with Dash’s unmonitored watch: notifying security, but also…? Especially when contrasted with the loving attention given to Samir’s everyday life, that underexplanation makes the scenes where everything actually goes down feel rushed and scant. I’m missing the how of the money moving, the messages sent, and the impact Samir had on the privateer’s plot, so I can’t really appreciate what happened.

There are a few ways to repair this: either a little more time spent on those events, or a few more solid hints dropped, or a stronger setup so that the light, allusive payoff feels like it’s paying something off that I already, as a reader know. But I’m flagging the issue for whichever road the author wants to take.

I’d also think about where the ending lands. There’s such a rich fabric of events and motivations here that landing the title on a pat, tidy, almost sitcom-like punchline, and that feels a bit too light and unsatisfying. This is also, as I said early on, a question of payoff for me. Very little in “The Only Beautiful Thing” has been surface-level, or about appearances and shorthands; there’s no reason that Samir and Dash’s happy ending should be either, when everything about their complex, crappy working situation was nuanced, textured, and layered.

I’d love to see a way to land “The Only Beautiful Thing” that also takes that nuanced, textured, layered approach. The outcome of actions isn’t neat and tidy; I’d love to see this in all the richness that everything else in this story—and world—has displayed.

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As a final note: The author’s asked if there are any concerns critiquers see on how the sign language is used. I’m not an expert in sign, but I do have a linguistics background, and there were some features here that really stood out and showed an underlying logic to the language. The visible case markers in the lowercased possessive markers tied together nicely with functionally casting the pronoun as a single word with a gendered affix; it feels like a unified logic. And the depiction of fingerspelling proper nouns also communicated beautifully and grounded “The Only Beautiful Thing” in how sign speakers use language.

I also loved how much more expressive Samir and Dash are in sign—another true-feeling thing!—and how strongly that’s contrasted thematically with their jobs of not moving a muscle. Putting the signed dialogue in allcaps just emphasizes that feeling—of huge, gossipy, warm personalities stretching out. It’s a great choice.

Beyond that, there’s an opportunity here to think about a few basic cross-checks when we’re concerned about showing people fully and well in our work.

Are Dash and Samir’s shared vocabularies largely consistent? Do they have similar enough collections of words, and—in Samir’s case especially—different enough to reflect who they are as people and Samir’s limited sign vocabulary?

Is the syntax Dash and Samir use accurate to one of the currently used sign languages? This is an invented sign vocabulary, and invented language does give us a lot of room to play, but English-speaking readers take a lot of information out of syntax: the word order of a non-English language. It’s worth checking if the syntax is consistent, and making sure it’s not echoing any of the particularly derogatory ways propaganda’s depicted the ways non-English speakers speak.

On the whole, though, I think there’s a lot of joy and potential in this piece—and with a bit more balancing, it’s likely ready for print.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Stones: Lost Avar-Tek by Darrell Newton

I like the idea of this story series. It’s a nice riff on the mysterious alien artifacts trope, with bonus time travel. The voice of this section is nice, too, with its own distinct attitude and style. It gives a pretty believable impression of a modern guy telling a story he doesn’t think you’ll believe, because he’s not sure he believes it himself.

I have a question about the draft as written. Jenny hands the stone to call-me-Austin and runs away from two people who she believes are a danger to her. The stone has powers, and she tells him what they are and how to use it—including how to recharge it. Austin understandably doesn’t believe her, until he more or less accidentally uses the stone.

This is a trope in itself, and it raises certain expectations in the reader. We expect him to gradually come around to believing what he has. He might at that point overuse or misuse his amazing new toy. He may discover that he’s under the same kind of threat as Jenny was, from the same forces. Then he’ll find himself on the run as well, which in fact is the frame of his narrative.

Because the story is framed as a flashback, we know what the outcome will be; the interest is in how and why he’s running. The story starts off on a note of high tension. We’re meant to hang on tight as we’re pulled along toward the outcome we already know.

The draft needs two things in order to get the job done. The first is a clearer and stronger emotional arc. We need more sense of what Austin feels and why. He evolves from disbelief to belief, but more than that, he wakes to the realization that Jenny has made him a target—of what, he needs to find out, for his own life and safety. If he’s using the stone, he has to at least wonder if it can be tracked; if every time he powers it up, the people looking for it may be able to detect it. That might give rise to a moral dilemma. Use it and risk his own life, or not use it and risk the life of the person who needs to be healed.

And then there’s the question of the bag and the marks. What are the marks? What do they mean? Wouldn’t he wonder? And wouldn’t we see what they are, and go along with him as he finds out what the bag does, even while he discovers the limits of the stone?

The other thing that the draft needs is closely connected with the emotional arc: tension and suspense. We know Jenny is being pursued. Austin sees the weird couple who are pursuing her. But he doesn’t worry that they’ll go after him instead, once he starts using the stone. Even if there’s a strong and sufficient plot-based reason for them not to do it, wouldn’t he worry about it? Wouldn’t he try to find out who they are and what they’re doing?

Nor is it only the lack of emotion that undercuts the suspense. The timeline stretches out through days and weeks, without a clear reason for everything taking so long. He jumps from event to event, but nothing happens in between. It’s a kind of dead air.

This would work if he were in, say, a time warp; if the stone had some other power beyond healing, to twist and bend time around the person who carries and/or uses it. Then something would break the barrier, maybe a misuse or overuse of the stone and a failure to charge it before the (I presume) time agents detect it. And that would be the reason why he’s suddenly on the run.

What the draft needs, in short, is more layers of emotion and motivation, and if the timeline needs to be stretched, more sense of why that has to happen. Otherwise, I would suggest tightening it up considerably, concentrating events into a much shorter span, and keeping the action moving without pause until it ends in Austin’s flight to whatever safety he can find. Maybe too some indication of Jenny’s fate, some sense that he might be running either toward or away from her, and something to point us toward the question of why she had to keep running even after she gave up the stone. Maybe some explanation of the subtitle as well; some pointer toward “Lost Avar-Tek,” some indication of its meaning.

There’s quite a lot to work with here. With more layers and more clarity, it will be a stronger story.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 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 Unseen God by Anne Hansell

As I read this submission, I found myself pondering the nature of story—how it evolves from concept or idea, and how it differs from summary or synopsis. I reflected too on how the title of a story affects the reader’s reaction to the story itself. The title drew me in, and it created certain expectations, which as a reader I hoped would be fulfilled.

The submission opens with an intriguing setup: a petitioner approaching a god whose face must not be seen because the sight of it will blind him. He wants two things, relief from the drought that besets his farm, and the rescue of his daughter from an undesirable suitor. The god grants his wish on one condition. He must give the god the first thing that greets him on his arrival home. He assumes that will be his old dog. Of course it’s not the dog who comes out, but his daughter, and he is forced to surrender her to the god for ten years. Not only does that save her from her suitor; the god further punishes the young man by causing him to be blinded for those ten years, until he sees her married to someone else.

This is one of the classic plots, with an interesting twist in the nature of the god. In this draft, it proceeds in a linear fashion, from the petition to the twist. It then turns into a summary of what happens after the daughter goes into the temple, concluding with the elderly farmer’s realization that the god orchestrated it all. He’ll send a fruit basket, he thinks, to thank the god for treating him so well.

There’s a story here—in fact, there are a number of stories. The first one rises from the emphasis in the opening scene on the fact that the god’s face must not be seen. It reads like a setup for a story in which we ultimately either see the god’s face, or we reach a better understanding of why that face must be hidden. Either Kinjiro the farmer wonders about this to the point that he can’t keep himself from trying to find out, or his daughter, who comes a priestess, devotes her tenure to discovering the truth. Or the suitor, Josh, is blinded after seeing that face, and is probably also prevented from telling anyone else what he sees—but he knows, and that knowledge changes him forever.

One thing that makes story is change. Characters change as their circumstances change. Does Kinjiro simply accept what happens, or does it alter the way he sees the world? Does he resent losing his daughter for so long, or does he make up his mind to be grateful to the god for granting him prosperity and saving her from a bad marriage? What progression of emotions does he undergo as he reaches this conclusion?

Likewise, would blindness change Josh? Would it make him bitter and hungry for revenge? Or would it make him a better person, even make him worthy of Rosemarie? That would be a twist in itself: the god promises that she’ll be married to a different person, but that different person is Josh.

Another thing story does is answer questions. It may not necessarily solve a mystery—sometimes the mystery is the best part—but it may give the reader more clues as to what’s going on. Kinjiro eventually figures out what the god is up to, but the story might be stronger if we had clearer indications throughout that there are deeper motivations than Kinjiro at first understands.

We might also learn why the god singles him out. Why not someone else? Are there other gods in this world, a pantheon? Do they have quotas for good and bad gifts to their mortal charges? Is there something special about this particular family, or about Josh? What happens if these gifts are not given? What consequences will there be for the people or the town or the god himself?

That’s where story is. In questions. In change. In friction between characters. A very short story like this one will be tightly focused. It may pick one set of answers and concentrate on one set of changes, but it will delve, however concisely, into the reasons for these answers and these changes.

It will also, most likely, keep to a fairly tight timeline. If it wants to talk about the future, it may do so by presenting the heart of the story as a flashback. We may get a frame story; Kinjiro at the end of his life, prosperous and happy, reflects on how he got there, and then shows us how it began. That would include his fear and uncertainty, the shock of losing his daughter, and both the pathos and the satisfaction of seeing what happens to Josh. Then the end would be his realization that the god meant this all along, with perhaps an additional revelation, the reason for it all, something that he or his daughter or her children has done, that would never have happened without the god’s intervention.

That might be something above and beyond simple prosperity. Some great good thing that helps the whole town. Maybe Josh would become a tyrannical ruler, but blindness stops him and reforms him. Maybe the drought would cause a famine that destroys the town.

None of this needs to add a great deal of word count. It’s more a matter of focus. Of deciding which questions to ask, and seeing how the answers affect the characters. How do they react? How do they change? How do those changes affect the world around them?

Story lives in the twists and turns of the characters’ lives, not only in what is done to them by others (including gods) but in the decisions they make, and the reasons for those decisions. Story, like life, is seldom smooth or easy. Nothing is ever really simple or straightforward. It’s messy; and that’s what makes it interesting.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Where Wings Beat On Stone by William Broom

An important quality of successful fiction is that it evokes in readers a feeling of confidence and faith in the author.  This affects the entire reading process.  For example, if readers have confidence in the author, then moments when information is withheld become intriguing mysteries for them to solve.  If readers don’t have confidence in the author, then moments when information is withheld become sources of confusion and frustration, with no expectation that an exciting mystery will be revealed later in the story (whether it is or not).

How can a writer make readers feel confident that they are in good hands?  That confidence is usually a cumulative effect arising out of every choice the author makes–every sentence, word, and punctuation mark.  In this case, the author gains my confidence through a strong, consistent narrative voice, vivid descriptions, a unique and intriguing setting with a creepy atmosphere, original elements, and knowledge of both birds and Christianity, which play prominent parts in this story.

That last item, knowledge of the elements in the story, can be tricky.  Some writers don’t like to do research and so end up making up their own facts, which is a sure way to disappoint readers who know more about that topic than the author.  Other writers do far more research than necessary and often feel the need to include all that information, when it doesn’t contribute to the story.  This story seems a pretty good example to me of avoiding those two extremes and including close to the right amount of information.  I think the story could be strengthened with perhaps 20% more details about the birds (the right details, of course, not just any details), so I could experience them more vividly, understand their situations more clearly, and feel the expertise of the narrator more strongly.  And perhaps 10% more details on the religious parts of the story.  For example, the dove beats itself to death against the top of a cave, trying to escape.  When it dies–after the narrator has observed nothing dying in this place–I think we need a bigger reaction from the narrator.  I think, with his background studying birds, he would check to see whether the dove was truly dead and what had killed it.  We could get some details about the dove at that point and also some thoughts on whether the dove’s spirit had moved onto a better place as a reward for its persistence, or a worse place as a punishment for its rebellion.  Or whether it had simply been moved to another chamber in the caves.

Raising the question more clearly–why did the dove die when nothing else in the cave dies–would help to establish that this is a mystery for readers to explore.  The problem is that there is no answer to this mystery, as far as I could see.  Does he think the dove’s death is a sign from God, since doves commonly serve as symbols for the holy spirit?  Or does he think that only the sin of suicide will provoke God sufficiently to take action?  He may never know, and we may never know, but without some hint at an explanation, this plot development seems forced into the story by the author to get the narrator to do what the author wants.

Another area that I think could be strengthened is the narrator/protagonist.  While the voice is strong, the narrator’s actions sometimes don’t feel believable or aren’t as strongly developed as they might be.  Once I get about halfway through the story, I find it very difficult to believe that the narrator killed and partially ate a bird, multiple times, when not even hungry.  Part of the reason for this difficulty is that the story provides us with several possible motivations:  “boredom, or misery, or–an effort to provoke a response.”  I don’t believe boredom or misery would lead him to eat a bird.  I can believe that, after realizing the caves are endless, there is no way out, and he will not die from starvation or illness, that he might be desperate enough to try to kill himself.  And being cowardly and wanting to avoid eternity in a crippled state, he might first try killing a bird–which might seem a mercy, considering how they are living.  If the bird dies, then he would try killing himself.  But the bird doesn’t die, so he gives up on that plan until he sees the dove.  At that point, he might theorize that being murdered doesn’t get you out but committing suicide does.

One way to show him reaching this point of desperation would be to describe him trying to find a way out, an end to the corridors.  We’re told he’s walked a lot, but that doesn’t seem enough.  How does he know he’s not walking in circles?  How does he know they stretch on forever?  Does he, perhaps, mark the entry to each chamber and mark each branching of the corridors to keep track of where he’s been?  And when he thinks he’s finally explored all the chambers, finds another corridor that leads into many more, and that’s why he thinks it’s endless?

I also don’t believe that the narrator doesn’t try to free any birds from their cages until the end of the story.  Why wouldn’t this be his first reaction?  I love cats, and when I imagine myself in this world with a bunch of cats, I would definitely try to free them.  Perhaps he tries and fails because the nails and wire are so strong.  Perhaps he hurts his finger badly freeing one bird (the dove?) and realizes, with the infinite number of cages, it’s an impossible task, so he gives up.  Having him free the dove would create a stronger causal chain.  Because he frees the dove, it now tries to escape the cave, and because it tries to escape the cave, it reveals to the narrator how he can escape.  Also, showing the horrible consequences of him freeing one bird would make his decision at the end to free the thousands more powerful and emotional.  This story provides both intellectual and emotional pleasure to readers, but the intellectual aspect becomes more prominent once he starts to build his ladder to commit suicide, and that remains the case through the end of the story.  It would be nice to increase the emotion in that section.

One final point I want to mention is that sometimes a piece of description comes too late. Here’s an example:  “The corridors and chambers stretch on forever, mile after mile of grey-brown stone. I have walked until my feet blistered, but never found any end to them. In every corridor and chamber there are birds being tortured.”  As I read, I picture empty corridors and chambers.  So when I get to the last sentence, it contradicts the image I’ve already formed in my head, and it’s difficult to re-imagine the setting with birds in it.  This would work better if the initial focus was just on the corridors and didn’t mention the chambers.  Then the last sentence could introduce the chambers and the birds in the chambers.  We would be moving from corridors to chambers to what’s in the chambers, which is a stronger spatial organization.

I really enjoyed the unusual, creepy setting, the images of God, and the narrative voice.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award April 2022, Short Story

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

The Howl Of Shadows by Xander Wade

I was caught by the emotional twists and turns of “The Howl of Shadows”: how it takes a familiar grimdark idea—power at great cost—and shifts the emotional landscape beneath it in unexpected but logical ways. But there are aspects of “The Howl of Shadows” that are playing very strongly to shortcuts and tropes, and the combination of those two approaches pulls the story in two different directions. So this month, I’d like to talk about tropes, but in a different way: how examining when we use them can take our worlds from sketches to full living colour.

“The Howl of Shadows” establishes the emotional situation quickly: Percy’s affection, Ravenel’s justifications for murdering him, the sinister presence of a third figure in the village who’s abused them both, and Ravenel’s self-identification with the neglected shadows under the doors. But instead of a straightforward jump to seizing power for revenge—with Ravenel ready for more complicity and sacrifice—she’s instead asked instead to commit that revenge, and the story turns into a heartbreaking piece about self-awareness and motivation.

The story keeps playing against type as it goes: both Ravi’s only half-requited love for Aaryn and the revelation that the grimoire’s come to her through her mother—and how that’s the source of her rift with the townspeople—add a lot of texture to the emotional fabric of her journey. By Ravenel’s escape from the dungeon, I’ve caught on as a reader what the final task really is, and how Ravenel’s lack of self-awareness is going to be the key to unraveling “The Howl of Shadows”—but there’s still one more turn that makes me go back and rethink the whole story again.

The piece is also laced with great textural details: crabgrass and clover under Ravenel’s feet, the fly on her cheek like a feather, the coagulated light. There’s a great talent for the sense of touch in “The Howl of Shadows”, and it brings those moments to life.

There are other aspects of the piece, though that could be polished up to match, or rethought in ways to make them support the strengths “The Howl of Shadows” has.

My first major suggestion is to do with pacing: “The Howl of Shadows” is long for its plot, and I think there’s some room to compress and thoughtfully pace some scenes to make sure it spotlights what’s important. There’s a certain amount of duplication in what kind of scenes it has—two love scenes that end in stabbings; two or three fight scenes that end with Ravenel winning—and because readers have seen that structure before, the next time feels slower, less engaging. I think some thought about how to use those ideas—and which parts of them are most important—could pick up the story’s pace.

The second is a bit more internal consistency. Ravenel’s an operator, but she’s missing a certain emotional component—and her ways of thinking aren’t always connecting to each other. Her resentment at being neglected and forgotten doesn’t entirely connect up with the slightly overblown disdain she switches to for the villagers. Her grievances—dull, petty, sleepwalking, the very school shooter-style sheep—don’t quite hook into her father’s disgust for her (an active emotion, even though she disputes that) or resentment of Mathis for stealing from and beating her. She’s not meant to be a self-aware protagonist—it’s something of a plot point—but the connections between her attitudes, how they shift around things, and why aren’t quite visible on the page as of yet, and it’s a space that could really strengthen the story.

Finally, though, there’s the question of tropes and how they’re used—and how by doing the unexpected, “The Howl of Shadows” is throwing light on the places where it absolutely does the expected.

“The Howl of Shadows” is carrying a lot of anti-hero and grimdark tropes: Ravenel’s black hair reflecting a sinister personality; a standard-issue stable; a quasi-medieval setting with blacksmiths, wagons, and ogres; video game-like special effects from the shadows and grimoire; a very literal light versus the dark that culminates in a Star Wars-esque question of being consumed by hate. They’re familiar visuals and ideas, and more importantly, they’re familiar shortcuts. The combination of these shortcuts—older ones, ones that were being pushed back upon in the 1970s—and the innovating “The Howl of Shadows” is trying to do with Ravenel’s emotional life, in short, gives readers a mixed message. And I think one of the major ways to make this piece shine would be to clear that message up.

There’s a lot of static around handling established tropes and archetypes, and I think a productive way to think about them is how, not if. We are going to, as storytellers, use shortcuts sometimes. We can’t go everywhere the long way and have a story come in at a functioning length, or be even remotely interesting. But where we choose to take those shortcuts, what we only sketch in, is a choice we’re making as writers, and I think the approach that can work here is thinking about how those shortcuts get used. Right now, everything that’s not to do with Ravenel’s emotional life is shown in shortcut. How do we balance that out?

This is not necessarily about writing different characterization, or a different story; it’s about asking ourselves how we can take what’s already there—the tragic antihero character Ravenel is, the semi-rural, quasi-medieval time and place—and make it not a shortcut, because we’ve made it go deeper.

Once those shortcuts are identified, I’d suggest taking a look at each one and asking why it’s there. There will definitely be a bunch that are holding information so the important work of the emotional arc can happen. But for the ones where there’s no real reason—or there’s just no real reason Ravenel has black hair, no real reason it’s a standard fantasy stable—what kind of worldbuilding, information, or nuance can “The Howl of Shadows” use that opportunity to bring into play? (Ravenel’s hair being black but short and ragged, because she’s cutting it herself, because she’s neglected; the stable being for camels, or lizards, or a machine shop for automata, or small-bred elephants, or even a specific breed of horse that Matthis specializes in.) How can you use the gap that standard shortcut leaves to make this world richer, more interesting, and deepen readers’ understanding of it? How much information and fun can that gap hold?

I’d suggest even taking this to the level of each line. Lines like “a smile played upon her lips” when talking about someone thinking about cruelty—they’re the expected words, the words that have been used by other stories a hundred times. But it tells us what the outline of the action we want should look like, and it’s worth asking: is there a finer-grained way to describe that kind of vicious smile? Perhaps one that plays to the author’s strengths: a really great sense of touch and texture? We can have the same action, the same cruel smile, but when it’s described as feeling her dehydrated lips crack as they move into that smile, it becomes alive.

Most objections to the idea of tropes aren’t about the events; they’re about the sketched-in quality. By deepening some of those ideas strategically—viewing them differently, making them specific or vibrant—”The Howl of Shadows” can come alive and match its emotional rollercoaster.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Sorcery In Hewith by Richard Dillio

I agree with the author’s note that a full-on epistolary novel has to be superlatively well in order to work. But in any novel, as it grows and develops its plot, there’s room for various modes of narration. Changing the way the story is told can give the reader a different perspective on what’s happening. The pacing can shift, speed up or slow down as needed. Characters show new or different sides of themselves.

In the case of a letter, we not only get the point of view of the person who writes it; we also get a sense of their relationship with the recipient. They’ll adapt their language and slant their story in particular ways. Some of those will be evident in the letter, and others will come clear in what happens before and after it.

There are some lovely things happening in this example. The narrator shows his biases freely as he describes these simple, foolish people who have put themselves through so much horror out of fear of an angry ghost. It takes a brash outsider and a spate of mockery to save them. The final paragraph has a wry and all too topical wit that made me snort as I read it.

It’s not clear to me how the letter is relevant to the rest of the novel, but that’s not its job. The scenes that lead up to it would presumably answer that question. What it’s doing for this reader is showing the shape of a world.

Here I learn something about the geography of this part of it. I’m shown the nature of its gods and some of its mortal inhabitants. It’s evident that people come in to this world from others, and that it seems to be a regular thing, of no great concern to the travelers who come and (maybe) go.

Since this is effectively a short story, I would suggest that it be revised as if it were one, with close attention paid to the prose. That primarily means making sure every word is used appropriately and means what the author intends it to mean. It also means taking a hard look at sentence structure. Smooth out awkward constructions and make sure the meaning of each phrase and sentence is clear.

The shorter the story, the more important it is to choose each individual word with care. It’s even more important here. The letter is written in high court style, and the character who writes it is showing us what as well as who he is. If he is misusing words or phrases because he’s prone to malapropisms, that should be made clear. Otherwise, the author needs to reconsider some of the world choices.

Here for example:

I… pray you find not this volume overbearing. 

I’m not sure exactly what he’s trying to say. By “volume” does he mean this letter? And is “overbearing” meant to be a synonym for “overweening” or “overstepping”?

Or here:

menacing them outside their jambs

Does “jambs” refer to their doors? Is there a particular reason to use this somewhat odd part for the whole?

And here:

I observed Aegulf laugh into this howling abandon

“Observed” seems to be an attempt at high-styling the simple “saw”, and the ghost is howling with abandon, but the word here doesn’t quite fit its context. It might be more effective to simplify it: “Aegulf laughed amid the howling,” or something similar. High style still, but more clarity.

Be particularly careful with the meanings of words.

In thaumaturges who toiled…to molest one of Ceald, “molest” isn’t quite the right word. It’s not sexual molestation that they seem to be doing. It’s more torture or torment, or compulsion with a strong undertone of non-consent.

The husband who wanders into the woods and vanishes is a tragic figure. He’s described as doing so solemnly, which carries the implication of formality, dignity, seriousness, sincerity. It doesn’t convey the intensity of his feelings, the depth of grief that drives him to apparent suicide.

Many had perished from hunger for as we would learn later, they had consisted thus for several months. 

The dictionary meaning of “consisted” is “composed or made up of.” The word that’s needed here is perhaps “existed.”

Watch too for awkward phrasing.

Your humble servant this author, having since been acquainted with Aegulf that very morning might be tightened and clarified into “Your humble servant having met Aegulf that very morning.”

High style doesn’t necessarily mean extra words or expanded phrases. It can be concise. Sometimes it can open up a little more, for a smoother narrative flow:

He is not handsome, but presents a general warmth that is attractive could be smoothed into something like, “He is not handsome, but projects a warmth of spirit that renders him more than usually attractive.”

And sometimes it can shift from passive phrasing to active:

In your desire for comfort and safety you gave up the one thing that might save you from this horror, for there was only to tolerate some screeching for a time, the final phrase might be revised into something like “for all you had to do was suffer through an interval of harmless screeching.”

This is a nice snippet, quite revealing of the people in it and the world they live in. With smoother phrasing and more precise choice of words, it will work even better.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2022, Cross Genre

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.

Adeline Harris Investigates: A Parcel Of Death, Chapter 3 by Kate Tyte

When we think of “critique,” we tend to think in terms of finding the faults in a ms. and making suggestions as to how to fix them. That’s a good and worthy process, but I think it can be valuable to point to what’s right, too. We can learn from what’s done well, even if we’re the ones doing it. “Do more of this” is as valuable a suggestion as “This could work better if….”

The author of this chapter talks in their brief note about how they haven’t been working their writing much lately. I’d like to encourage them to continue, but not to stress about the schedule. Just keep on, and keep doing what they’re doing here.

Two things particularly impress me about the submission. It’s not an opening chapter, but it’s easy enough to see what’s happened just prior to it. One reason for that is the way in which the author balances exposition and explanation with action and reaction.

It’s a delicate balance in any work of fiction, to convey enough information to fill the reader in on what they need to know, but not so much that it bogs down the movement of the plot. It helps in this case that the novel is a murder mystery: the conventions of the genre allow a considerable amount of exposition, both in narrative and in dialogue. But even with this relative license-to-explain, the explanations are a pleasure. They’re well written, thorough without tipping over into tedium.

The settings and descriptions work equally well and for the same reasons. The imagery is clear and vivid. The choice and ordering of details makes the action richer and deepens the reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.

The other thing that strikes me is the mastery of dialogue. I often note in edits (my own as well as others’) that it’s easy to fall into a habit of what one of my editors used to call “floating heads.” Characters talk in empty space, without framing or stage business. Lines of dialogue zip past, but it’s hard to tell where or when it’s happening or what the characters are doing while they talk.

Here, there are fairly extensive passages of dialogue without frame or tags. But the speakers are distinct from one another, both in the way they speak and in what they say to each other. The framing before and after as well as the setup and winding down of the scene establishes who-what-when-where.

The result is a sense of rapid movement through the untagged bits, with flashes of personality and bits of new or expanded information flying past. The slowing down for framing and exposition serves as a respite, a breathing space, a chance to fill in details before the next burst of dialogue.

This ability to balance different modes of narrative makes for a very nice reading experience. The pacing is brisk when it needs to be, more relaxed in between. We learn a considerable amount of new information, without being overwhelmed by it. We also learn what kind of people the characters are, both Harris herself and the people we see through her eyes.

It’s well done. I encourage this author to keep on with their writing, on whatever schedule and at whatever speed works for them. The results are worth it.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 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 Werewolf Argument by Kevin J. Miller

Different elements can stand out in different stories.  For me, in “The Werewolf Argument,” it’s the protagonist’s solution to the problem that stands out the most.  But before I discuss that, let me talk about the problem, since without that, the protagonist couldn’t provide the solution.

The problem the protagonist faces is quite interesting.  Werewolves become trendy and acceptable in society.  This offers a good opportunity to satirize popular culture and human nature.  It also allows an exploration of how public opinion might be changed and the price that needs to be paid to do that.

The solution/climax involves the protagonist putting into motion a plan to turn a hundred war orphans into werewolves.  This creates societal outrage that leads to people turning against werewolves, which is the protagonist’s goal. For me, this solution is pretty striking and horrific, and because of that, I found it the strongest part of the story.

But it doesn’t seem to be incorporated into the story as well as it might.  Often, it can be helpful to think about a story, when writing it, in terms of the climax.  What needs to be set up for the climax to feel surprising and inevitable, to be meaningful, emotional, and satisfying?

One of the key things that needs to be set up is the protagonist’s motivation to–in my mind–ruin the lives of one hundred children.  For me, the protagonist, Dario, doesn’t have sufficient motivation to do this.  His brother, Arlo, is killed right before he takes this key action.  But we never have a scene of Arlo and Dario together; we don’t have a strong sense of how Dario feels about Arlo.  Before Arlo’s death, Dario is mainly a passive observer.  It feels like Dario drifts through the story, providing a lot of exposition (background information) rather than struggling to achieve a goal, until the inciting incident happens late in the story, with Arlo dying.  That gives Dario the goal to stop the werewolf craze, and he then takes an easy action and fulfills his goal.  The story would be stronger if the inciting incident came closer to the beginning, and most of the story involved Dario struggling in various ways to stop the werewolf craze.

For example, perhaps Arlo is a photographer who works with his journalist brother, Dario.  The story could start with the two of them in the courtroom as all charges are dropped against Derick, the werewolf who starts the craze.  Dario and Arlo might try to follow Derick, to document his behavior, and that could lead to Derick killing Arlo.  A scenario like this would allow Dario to be struggling to achieve a goal (to expose Derick’s violent acts) from the start; it would allow readers to meet and care about Arlo; and it would allow the story to show the close relationship between Dario and Arlo, so we would feel more compassion for Dario and feel his motivation to stop the werewolves.  As soon as Arlo is killed (perhaps a quarter of the way through the story), Dario could form the goal to get justice for Arlo.  He could try getting more evidence against Derick, but now Derick is protected by the police, who send Dario away.  Maybe one of the policemen has become a werewolf.  Maybe Dario’s boss has become a werewolf.  Dario could go on talk shows with the evidence he’s gathered, including Arlo’s photographs/video, and the guest beside him on the couch could be a werewolf, and another guest (a fellow journalist, for reasons I’ll reveal in the next paragraph) could be a wannabe werewolf who is turned into a werewolf on the show.  This would allow you to show more directly the werewolf craze and why people find werewolves appealing. Finally, Dario could realize this won’t be enough to stop Derick; he needs to turn everyone against werewolves.

The colonel, the war, and the orphans seem like a lot of elements to introduce to create the climax.  I think something simpler could be done using the elements already in the story.  Perhaps Dario’s boss has wanted him to cover the opening of an innovative summer camp for children.  Dario might keep postponing this throughout the story, focused on stopping the werewolves.  At the climax, he realizes what he needs to do and asks the fellow journalist who was turned into a werewolf on the talk show to take on the summer camp job for him.  Or he could make his boss do the job.  This would allow Dario to be more directly involved in the climax; he could go and document from a distance the horror of the children being transformed and bring that footage to the talk show.

Anyway, that would be one possible way to build toward the climax in a more powerful way, and to make the climax potentially more emotional and meaningful.

I’ll just briefly mention a couple other points.  I think the story needs to better establish exactly what werewolves do and why Dario thinks they are horrible.  Normally, werewolves kill indiscriminately, and that’s one of the things that makes them so bad and what makes people not want to be werewolves.  The werewolves in this story, though, seem as if they are choosing to kill criminals, which makes them vigilantes more than werewolves.  It’s hard to believe that people would want to make themselves into super-vigilantes, or that super-vigilantes would be popular.  At this current moment in history, anyway, people seem to be more inclined to show compassion toward criminals than to want them killed by vigilantes.  So we need to see the appeal, which might be possible if Dario goes on a talk show.  The 1971 movie Escape from the Planet of the Apes provides a good example of this sort of situation.

Another area I think could be strengthened involves the legal system as shown in the story.  I don’t believe the judge would do what the story describes him doing; that doesn’t seem consistent with our legal system.  Some research, or consulting an attorney or judge, could be helpful.

I think the problem posed by the story and Dario’s solution for it are inventive and striking.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Publication News

Rodrigo Culagovski wants to tell us all: “Hi! My story, “Liz’s Tea House”, was accepted in the pro-market Future Science Fiction Digest. It was very productively reviewed on the OWW. This is something I’ve wanted all my life and you’ve all helped me achieve it. Thanks so much.”