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)

Publication News

Ethan Sabatella wrote with great news: I wanted to reach out to let you know that an anthology featuring a story I wrote and had critiqued in the OWW has just been published today. “Samhain Sorceries” anthology from DMR Books is now available in eBook and paperback.

My story featured in this anthology, entitled “The Tomb of Tigernmas”, is a tale of revenge, ruin, and horror in a single night. A bitter chieftain invokes the power of a dying god to unleash an army of the un-dead upon his foe. In the midst of it, two young warriors must survive the night and undo his foul spell. This and the other stories within are perfect to ease your way into the Halloween season.”

Congratulations, Ethan!

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.

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Library Of The Mind by Jamie Boyd

I like the concept of this story. It’s an intriguing direction for psychotherapy to take. I’m particularly moved by the fact that the librarian suffers from dementia: that she’s both therapist and patient.

I have some questions about the patient’s motivations. While the librarian does explain (or seems to) why he’s had his memory wiped, I’m not sure I’m convinced. She lets him think that he’s a therapist in training, but it doesn’t quite make sense for him to have asked to enter the therapy as a blank slate. What would be the advantage of total ignorance? Wouldn’t he want to retain some basics, to hang his therapy on?

Of course the twist is that he’s not a therapist, he’s a patient, and he’s being trained to treat himself. I wonder if there might be just a little more ambiguity in the beginning, a little more questioning on his part—if he’s a trained therapist, why doesn’t he let himself access those skills? Might he start to suspect that something’s off? He does say that he doesn’t feel like a doctor, but I think there could be some more layers to that feeling, some sense that the librarian might be misleading him.

It doesn’t need to be more than a line or two, but I think it would help make his earlier scenes more believable. Then when the twist comes, there’s more of an OH! That makes sense. And then it all falls into place.

The other thing that might bear thinking about is the way the narrative develops. The librarian has a lot of what I call “exposidialogue.” That’s dialogue as exposition. Lecture mode. She tells him what to see and do, and to an extent, what to think.

While he is there to be trained, and she is there as an instructor, I wonder if she might be more indirect in her methods. Set him up in a scene, present the situation, but rather than spelling it out, let him figure it out for himself. Ask rather than tell. Guide him toward his own conclusions.

She does more of this toward the end, but initially she’s almost mechanical in her speech and mannerisms. The prose even points toward it, describing how she prattled on. Could she prattle less and guide more? Or, if he’s perceiving her speech as prattle but it’s actually serving an instructional purpose, maybe he could come to this realization a bit more clearly as the story progresses.

The one last thing I would suggest in the final round of revision is careful attention to the choice of words and constructions. A couple of phrases made me pause:

she said, tsking her mouth into a sympathetic shape.

tsk is a tongue sound, not a mouth shape. It’s not sympathetic; it’s a way of indicating he’s on the wrong track.

A dimple of approval flashing briefly on her face

Again, not sure the words mean what they want to mean. Dimples tend to be more about humor than approval, and the visual of flashing seems to point more toward some aspect of light than an indentation in the skin.

I didn’t think the ending was overly obvious, by the way. The way the plot was moving, it was inevitable. But that’s what I tend to want out of an ending.

To me this draft reads as if it’s working its way toward completion. Mostly it seems to need more layers and more polish, and some rethinking as to how the story is told, especially when it comes to dialogue.

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Wonderful news from Rodrigo Culagovski: “Just wanted to let you know I sold “You Don’t Have to Watch This Part” to the Dark Matter Presents: Monstrous Futures anthology.

The story was reviewed in the workshop by Kathleen Morrish, Steve Brady, Albert Chu, Ethan Sabatella, and Lyri Ahnam. It’s my third pro sale since joining the workshop less than a year ago and there’s no way that would have happened without the feedback, criticism, and encouragement I’ve gotten from the people here.”
Huge congratulations, Rodrigo!