Publication News

Great news from Peter Drang: “The ZNB anthology When Worlds Collide (a pro market) purchased Peter S. Drang’s story “The Darithian Life Cycle,” (Science fiction, 3,500 words) which was reviewed extensively on OWW. The publishers announced that out of over 800 submissions in the open call, only five were selected for publication (and another 9 were invited or commissioned stories).  Peter would like to thank everyone whose comments helped bring this strange story of blood knowledge to life!”

Editor’s Choice Award March 2021, 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.

Doll Parts by Andrea Horlick

While voice is always an important component of fiction, it becomes more prominent and more important when a story is told in first person point of view.  First person often creates the feeling that the narrator is speaking to us, telling us her story.  The voice of that narrator needs to feel distinctive, consistent, and authentic for the story to have power.  One of the strongest aspects of “Doll Parts” is the narrative voice.  The educated but informal diction, ironic tone, and conversational syntax work well to create the illusion that a person is speaking to us and to give us a sense of the first-person narrator’s personality.

The story also provides us with an interesting mystery that the narrator, an employee in a hospital’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, and her friend Drew try to solve:  who is staging doll murders, and is that person a danger to others?  The first and third scenes have nice scene endings, creating anticipation that propels me into the next scene.

I think the plot is the weakest element of the story, so I’ll spend most of this critique talking about that, and just mention a few other areas at the end.

The plot, for me, doesn’t provide strong escalation or a sense of intensifying conflict or rising stakes.  The opening situation, with the doll, is unusual and compelling.  But the doll murders that follow feel less unusual and less threatening.  The fact that the other employees don’t really seem to care reduces the stakes.  If they were upset, suspected this was a joke of Drew and the narrator’s, and reported them to HR or the administration, that could endanger their jobs and raise the stakes.  As is, the narrator and Drew only talk about the doll murders among themselves; they aren’t really doing anything that matters.  That makes it seem unmotivated when the doll “killer” starts to threaten them.  Why would he?  If the narrator and Drew were suspected of creating the doll tableaus and in danger of losing their jobs, and this led them to desperately investigate, perhaps breaking into the lockers of their colleagues or planting their own hidden cameras in various locations and capturing activity, then the “killer” would have more motivation to threaten them and perhaps to kill them.

Because I don’t really believe the doll killer would threaten them, and I don’t believe he’d hurt them, I don’t feel any strong emotion when the narrator discovers the dolls in the refrigerator.  Blood must be in plentiful supply in a hospital, so the fact that there’s blood in the refrigerator doesn’t make me think the killer has hurt anyone, and blood, in itself, doesn’t bother me.  So at that point my reactions to the story diverge strongly from the narrator’s.  Instead of feeling panic and fear as she does, I’m just mildly curious about who the doll killer is.  That means the ending of the story doesn’t work for me, because I don’t believe the doll killer would kill Drew (and the joke about blondes is the kind of metafictional horror joke that was done in the movie Scream and feels kind of old and out of place here, in a story that seems to be trying to be more than a joke story).

The plot is also not providing an effective mystery.  The only characters in the story are the narrator, Drew, and Brady, so as I work to solve the mystery, those are the only suspects I have.  When I learn that only the narrator and Drew ever see the doll murders, I form the theory that Drew is the killer, since it can’t be the narrator and Brady is barely mentioned.  It seems odd to me that the narrator never suspects Drew, and this is another way in which I emotionally separate from the narrator.  The narrator’s attempts to solve the mystery never seem serious.  She doesn’t seem to struggle very much, doesn’t seem very resourceful, and easily gives up.

When the mystery doesn’t seem to be progressing and the conflict doesn’t intensify, I start to think something else must be going on.  In the scene where the narrator looks in the minifridge, I form the theory that Drew is a figment of the narrator’s imagination.   They are increasingly referred to as “we” and seem to have only one pager, so I think you’re providing me clues that this is the case (and that Drew is the doll killer).

My suggestion would be to create a stronger rising threat to the narrator, to provide more motivation to the doll killer to be threatening, and to provide several suspects, so we can work along with the narrator to try to discover the guilty party.  Perhaps the narrator starts to create alternate tableaus with the dolls that upset the doll killer.  For example, when the first doll has her head cut off, perhaps the narrator attaches the head of a plush cat in its place.  If Barbie and Ken are slaughtered, perhaps the narrator rearranges them in a sexual situation.  This could show the narrator not taking the situation seriously at first and could reflect her ironic attitude.  This might motivate the doll killer to make his tableaus more personally threatening to the narrator.  For example, leaving one in her locker and another in her desk, and using dolls of the type she perhaps had as a child or action figures that reflect movies she has seen recently.  Bringing Brady more into the story, so he can be a suspect, would be good.  Also, having the narrator begin to suspect Drew would make this stronger.  That would allow more conflict between them.  Right now, Drew isn’t doing much besides offering the narrator someone to talk to and being a victim at the end.  Their disagreement about whether to go to the authorities or not fizzles because the narrator goes along with Drew.  There might also be a family member of a patient who is angry at how the patient was treated.

When making decisions about any plot revisions, it would be helpful to think about the dominant theme of the story.   What is the meaning behind the story?  I don’t think it’s the last sentence of the story.  I don’t think the story has a dominant theme yet, because all the elements aren’t working together to convey one.  Is it that not taking threats seriously can lead to disaster?  Is it that you need to reach out for help when you have the chance?  Is it that you don’t really know those you’re closest to?

The plot can also be strengthened by making sure each scene shows a change in a value of significance to the narrator.  For example, if the narrator cares about keeping her job, and in a scene she goes from having job security to losing job security, that would be a change to a value of significance to her.  Scenes 2, 4, and 6 currently don’t have a change to a value of significance, which means the situation is basically the same at the end of the scene as it was at the beginning, and the scene isn’t yet earning its place in the story.  Scene 4 end with “That Batman had to have been hung by an adult, an employee. And you really can’t pass that off as just excess creativity.”  This is the type of scene known as a “sequel,” in which the character reacts to what happened in the previous scene.  That’s fine, but the reaction should lead to some change.  In this case, the reaction is leading to a realization–that the doll killer is an adult–but it doesn’t create any clear change in a value of significance.  If the narrator came to some decision as a result of this realization, such as that she can narrow down the perpetrator more and discover who he is, then that would be a change in a value of significance.  She would go from not having a plan to uncover the doll killer to having a plan.

I’ll briefly mention two other areas.  I’d love to feel I’m delving more deeply into the characters of the narrator and Drew as the story continues.  Right now, my sense of them remains pretty superficial, and pretty much the same, throughout the story.  Also, some sentences are missing necessary commas, which causes me to misread them, which is distracting.

The narrative voice is a great strength of the story, though, and keeps me engaged and reading until the end.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

Editor’s Choice Award March 2021, 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 Horn, The Boat Of Heaven by Andrea Horlick

“The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” caught my attention this month with its playful, casual voice and its outsider’s view—one step removed—on a more standard genre story. It’s a fresh, fun way to tackle a staple plotline and make it much more human and lived-in. However, the ending falls into an abrupt punchline, and didn’t leave me feeling satisfied. So this month, I’d like to dive deeper into the idea of setup and payoff, or what the punchline ending does—and what we can do with it.

New angles on staple stories are always fun, and “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” deepens that concept by making its protagonists people who SFF frequently treats as side characters: set dressing, not that smart, not important. The opening paragraphs—Joe’s quick refutation of being underestimated because of his job and Cyn’s casual rattling off of “pareidolia”—demonstrates fast that they’re whole, they’re paying attention, and they matter.

It’s also apparent quickly that Joe and Cyn do love each other, even though they’re radically different people. They share absolutely no hobbies, Cyn’s disinterested in half the things he does, and there’s a surprising lot of tiptoeing and nudging each other into different reactions—of managing each other like wartime allies—but what keeps me from recoiling from the dynamic they’re living is the little clues in the other direction. The details Cyn notices about Joe speak a lot about long familiarity; the ways they both persistently take care of each other or make room for each other’s reactions and needs make their relationship credible to me as a reader. They’re both paying great attention to each other’s happiness in a way that’s oddly tender and makes me think yes, this woman would take that risk to keep her relationship working.

Those details also say a lot about both Cyn and Joe without saying it: that he restlessly picks up and drops hobby after hobby, that they have year-old leftovers in the fridge, that they drink too much, that they’re both stuck. Cyn’s pragmatism about little things (just eating the toast) keeps her from reading entirely as cynical—just someone with a really powerful bullshit detector. Those pieces of characterization and context are inserted very neatly into a plot that steadily moves forward without getting stuck, which makes the author’s concerns about length and pacing valid, I think, but less of a worry than they could be. Every scene’s progressing reasonably toward the conclusion, and I don’t feel as a reader that there are places “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” stalls. That complex, unselfconscious characterization is this story’s central strength, and makes what is a fairly simple, directional plot feel immersive and relevant.

Where I run into trouble as a reader with “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” is in the very last lines, as Cyn takes on the aspect of Inanna anyways—just a little late. The author’s notes ask if the story telegraphs its ending effectively, and while in retrospect the line back through events is pretty clear—I’d say it’s a working to set up that she’s actually transforming—it still reads as the kind of ending that falls into a punchline or a stereotypical Twilight Zone twist. For me, it doesn’t quite satisfy what’s been built up before it: the story deflates from a light but complex look at two people grappling with the supernatural into a gotcha or a joke.

As writers we’re generally advised to avoid punchline endings, but what I’d love to focus on is why: what the last lines are achieving or not achieving; why this ending goes or doesn’t with the story that came before it and how we can possibly reconcile the gaps between them.

A story is, on a certain level, an emotional transaction we have with readers: people come into it hoping to learn something, experience something, or most of all feel something. The action of an ending is very tightly tied to that question of what readers are in a story for, and what we’ve told them is most likely coming in how we’ve posed the question, set it up, and structured the story.

When stripped down to the basics, a punchline/surprise ending can be thought of as the author saying to readers: You thought it was this thing, but it isn’t. It’s fundamentally a destabilizing emotion, where the appeal is in going back to find the clues we missed—and “The Horn, the Boat of Heaven” is good at providing those clues!—but the trouble is, I think, in the fact that genre-wise, structure-wise, this piece hasn’t signaled to readers that it’s supposed to be a puzzle or mystery and that clues are something readers should look for.

Consider: If a story starts with a dead body in a locked room, readers know how to interact with that and what approach to bring to reading it—look for clues and details. But “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” starts with a mystery that’s downplayed as even being a mystery, focusing instead on the relationship between two complicated and really absorbing characters—so readers, having been told by that spotlight to think about the relationship, will be looking for a conclusion that’s about that relationship, that lives in the characterization.

I think in order to make the story and ending work with each other, the primary task will be figuring out exactly what “The Horn, The Boat of Heaven” actually wants to say for itself. What does it want to leave readers with? What emotion does it want to generate, and how is it setting up that reaction? Is it intended to be a puzzle to solve (in which case, clues that this is a mystery earlier will help readers get on the right track) or a more heartfelt relationship piece (in which case, what’s a more satisfying resolution that works in that space?)

Overall, I think once this piece is considered in terms of cause and effect, what’s being asked and answered, what’s being promised and delivered, it’ll click wonderfully. It’s cleanly written, just fun and just serious enough, and overall very kind—and almost ready to go.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award February 2021, 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.

Gladiator Superclásico, Chapter 1, part 1 by Adam Rossi

This chapter shows a vivid and far-ranging visual imagination. It’s a world of strong colors and striking imagery, and its worldbuilding is intriguing.

There’s plenty of story happening here. We get a sense of who Zé is and what he wants to do and be. We see some of his history; we start to understand what makes him tick. It’s a good beginning.

One thing I would have liked to see, and I’m sure will see as the ms. undergoes revision, is a more rounded depiction of Di, both in herself and as she relates to Zé. She matters a great deal to the protagonist and the story, but in this draft she’s somewhat lightly sketched in. The conflict between them is blocked in fairly solidly: she wants Zé to back off from his obsession with the Clásico, but he’s addicted, and it’s clear he’s not going to give it up.

What I’m not getting is a sense of connection between them. They live together, they walk through the city together, they exchange information and, at the end, have a fight, but she seems oddly distanced from Zé. Amid all the rich description, it’s hard to get a picture of her.

It seems that Zé doesn’t see her except as a reflection of himself. She calls him bello, but to him she’s kiddo—as if she were his kid sister rather than his lover. When we first meet them, she’s busy getting her morning going, and he’s nagging her for coffee. He doesn’t seem to have much respect for her, or to regard her as an independent person.

This pattern continues as the chapter goes on. They don’t interact so much as bounce off each other. One moment she’s remote, disengaged; the next, she’s smiling and bantering and offering sex. I’d like to see more of her inner life, how she thinks, what she feels apart from what Zé projects onto her.

He keeps emphasizing how small she is. The multiple references to her talent as a maker and inventor come across as patronizing. She’s tiny, but she’s smart. She’s little and cute, but she really is bright. She makes her own clothes. These details aren’t integral to the story; they don’t move the action forward, and Zé doesn’t treat her any better because of them. He seems to be trying to convince himself that she’s worthy of respect.

Does this bother her? Does she want to be seen as a fully adult human being, and treated accordingly? Or does she use his attitude toward her to manipulate him, to feed his ego and get him to do what she wants? What’s going on inside as she follows him to various places that are important to him? Are they important to her apart from him? What are her preoccupations, her wants and needs, her dreams—aside from the one fantasy of winning the lottery?

If this lack of mutual respect and this emotional disconnection is their dynamic, a bit more depth and detail would help make it clear. Let’s see more of her expressions and reactions, and a somewhat more complex range of feelings. Even if Zé is oblivious, she can reveal herself in her body language or her expressions. He might not see it, but the reader will.

None of this needs a lot of extra word count. Mostly it can be done with a line here or a change of phrasing there. The more depth and complexity Di gains, the more she’ll round out Zé as well. Then the conflict between them will be stronger, and move us more effectively into the next part of the narrative.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2021, 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.

Anai Second Part by Sara Carbone

There are some very nice things happening in this submission. I particularly like the concept of the pulse. It’s clear to me what it represents, and the imagery is vivid and evocative. I do wonder if the people she meets have this same gift, but that’s probably established elsewhere in the novel.

I am not a fan of dialogue in dialect unless it’s very carefully and deftly executed. Here, I’m not sure what the dialect wants to do. Is Anai “othering” the people she meets by giving us their words in nonstandard language? Is she judging them in some way? Reacting emotionally to their pronunciation? Hearing them as being of a different class or social status? It must be important in some way to the story, that people in this place speak like this. I’d like to have a clearer sense of its significance.

One thing I would suggest in revising the chapter would be to think about how narrative pacing works. Pacing at its simplest is the speed at which events happen, how they move through each scene, and how fast they get from one scene to the next. Sometimes it’s rapid—things happen one right after another, bam-bam-bam. Other times it’s more leisurely, as we take a break after a fast action scene, or pause to explore the world or examine the characters’ motivations. Good pacing balances the fast and slow, moves briskly when the story needs it, but also gives the reader time to relax and process.

The way a scene is written has a lot to do with how its pacing works. Fast action calls for active constructions—active verbs, and short and punchy sentences. Passive voice can be very effective when it’s used skillfully, but a little of it goes a long way. It slows down the action and removes the viewpoint character, and therefore the reader, from the direct experience of that action. They’re not acting; they’re being acted upon. In general, in fiction, active voice is the way to go.

It’s important when writing a scene to be clear about what that scene wants to do. How does it move the story forward? What is its purpose in the progression of the narrative? If the character is walking around apparently aimlessly, as Anai does in this chapter, what is her reason for doing it? What does she want to accomplish? Does she have a goal? She shows us something of herself in how she acts and reacts, but how does that lead us from the previous scene and into the next? What does she do and say here that will resonate later in the novel? Can she move more quickly, with more focus and visible purpose, from one place to the next?

Every scene should have a point. It doesn’t have to be stated in so many words, but it should be evident to the reader that what’s happening here is important to the story. Especially at the beginning, when we don’t know the characters yet and the story is just starting to take shape, every detail means something. We may not know exactly what, but if it’s there, it must be there for a reason.

If Anai is walking around the town, let us see why she’s going that particular direction. Maybe she’s hoping to see a particular person, or find a specific place or object. Maybe she’s looking for something nice to eat or something pretty or practical to wear. Or she might be checking the layout of the town, or looking for an escape route. Focus on one or two main details, and make her motivations clear. Let us feel that she’s acting with intention—even if that intention is simply to check out her surroundings and get to know some of the people there. That will help us move through the scene, and keep us turning the pages.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award February 2021, 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.

One Last Time by M.C.Perron

This story hooks me in the second paragraph and pulls me through to the end.  I enjoy the elderly protagonist, something I don’t see enough of.  Giving Katie her dog to interact with helps to keep the story from being too internal.  The story has a nice tight focus, with a single scene and single setting.  The mention of the vibrations getting closer creates some suspense, and the suspense builds when we learn the vet boarded up the doors and when we see the Changed Ones.

I think there are several ways in which the story could be strengthened and its impact increased.

First, the plot structure could be more effectively realized.  For this story, there are basically two types of structures possible.  One is to show an evolving situation.  The other is to reveal a situation.  The story is currently aiming to reveal a situation.  We see Katie and Gerard on the balcony and wonder what’s going on, and as the story progresses, the situation is revealed–Changed Ones, explosives, a sacrifice.  The problem is that the situation is revealed in the paragraph beginning “She had volunteered that night . . .”  and there are 16 paragraphs after that, during which there’s pretty much no suspense and no surprise.  Everything goes as planned.  So the ending has little impact.

In stories that reveal a situation, often the reveal comes very close to the end or right at the end.  A great example is “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke, in which the situation is revealed by the last word of the last sentence.  So one solution would be to rearrange the placement of information, leaving the fact that the house has been wired with explosives to the very end.  That would create more suspense up to the ending and more impact at the end.

In other stories that reveal a situation, the reveal comes earlier, but when it comes, the story flips to an evolving situation structure.  So another solution would be to keep the reveal where it is, but then after the reveal, the situation starts to change.  Things don’t go as planned.  Perhaps Gerard doesn’t die and jumps out of the chair and Katie has to go after him.  Perhaps the switch doesn’t set off the explosion, and when Katie pulls on the wire, the broken wire comes out from under the door.  Something like this would escalate the suspense up to the climax and create more impact at the end.

A related point is that I’m not really sure of the significance of Katie’s story.  It’s not clear to me whether she is truly making a sacrifice or if she’s just ready to die.  If she’s just read to die, I can understand that, but it doesn’t make her a hero.  It makes her someone who can help others out without inconveniencing herself.  In that case, you might want to bring out the fact that there is some price she’s paying for doing this.  For example, she might think that she’d much rather give herself a shot like Gerard and go peacefully to sleep than die in an explosion, ripped into pieces, or be thrown out of the balcony to the ground to die slowly as the Changed Ones eat her alive, etc. But she has to make sure the explosion goes off and stops the Changed Ones.  If it’s truly a sacrifice, then we should feel her desire to live (which she perhaps lied to her son about) and all she wishes she could still experience.  And if she’s giving up a life she’d rather hold onto, she should be getting something for it.  For example, perhaps her son and granddaughters would not be able to get on the boat without her doing this.  Because she volunteers, they are given space on the boat.

Circling back to the issue of whether the plot is revealing or evolving, we have a similar problem with Gerard’s subplot.  The fact that Katie is going to put him to sleep is revealed in paragraph 6, and then everything happens as planned.  (It bothers me that Katie doesn’t seem to check how the injection is affecting Gerard and never checks to make sure he died.) I don’t think the story is making the best use of Gerard possible.  Similar to the options with Katie, the information could be rearranged so we don’t learn that Dimitri is a vet or that he gave Katie a syringe until later.  Or the situation could evolve after you reveal it.  Gerard could jump up when the Changed Ones appear, causing Katie to drop the syringe and lose it through the floorboards.

I’ve been talking about the placement of information, and this applies on a smaller scale as well.  By the time I finish reading the first sentence, I’ve mentally put the rocking chair in the living room.  So it’s jarring when I find out later she’s on the balcony.  It would be better to establish that in the first or second paragraph.

I’m also jarred when I learn the ground is shaking in paragraph 16.  When the story mentions vibrations in paragraph 2, I think of those as sounds, because they are compared to humming, so the ground shaking seems like something new and different.  It would help to more clearly set the scene to describe the ground shaking earlier and how it vibrates up through the house to the balcony and the chair and into Katie and Gerard.

A few smaller points.  I inject my cat with insulin twice a day, and the description of the injection process doesn’t seem accurate to me.  The vet should have prepared the syringe so Katie doesn’t need to squirt any out, just inject.  After she does squirt a bunch out, she never measures how much she’s injecting into Gerard.  If she doesn’t inject enough, he won’t die.

There are a few awkward sentences.  One involves this simile:

>their mouths moving like that of a school of fish out of water, just much slower and less fish-like <

This is awkward for several reasons.  The simile is comparing a plural (their mouths) with a singular “that of a school.”  Also, the sentence is saying that the two things are similar and then it’s giving two differences, which is contradictory.  If these two things are similar, just let them be similar.  Something like this would be stronger:

> their mouths moving like they were fish out of water<

That’s a great, original detail that makes these Changed Ones different than most zombies, and now it comes across more clearly.

The other detail in that sentence,

> their skins ashen-grey no matter their ancestry. <

Doesn’t fit here.  It’s not something that would make Katie laugh, which is how the sentence began.  It feels like the author forcing a detail (one much less interesting than the gaping mouths) into the sentence.  This could either be cut or put into a separate sentence.

Finally, I’m sad to say I was unfamiliar with the Rainbow Bridge and had to look it up to figure out what it meant.  This hampers the impact of the ending.  My suggestion would be to either set up the Rainbow Bridge early in the story, so we know what it is and what it means to Katie when it shows up at the end, or to cut it and use another image that arises more naturally from the story itself.  If the balcony is a place where she and Gerard have spent a lot of time, reuniting with him on the balcony in the rocking chair with the blanket might be a hope she has at the end.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the story.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award February 2021, 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.

Broken People by Chad Rueffert

“Broken People” delighted me this month with its gentle practicality and how it uses a genre staple to dive deeper into the nuances of human interaction—creating one of the rare stories dealing with plague that’s felt to me like it eased this year’s pandemic instead of deepening the stress of it. It’s not a full trope inversion, but a compassionate one grounded in its insight into self-destructive tendencies, magical thinking, survivor’s guilt, and how people process them all. So this month, I’d like to discuss what we’re doing when we deliberately innovate story tropes: how we can build those inversions into every layer of our work while still producing a story structure readers recognize.

Despite its length, “Broken People” is a smooth, engrossing read all the way through. It introduces its worldbuilding organically—enough classic second-world fantasy to let readers fill in the blanks, and enough unique-to-this-setting specifics to stay interesting—and delivers a fairytale structure in inventive ways that don’t call attention to themselves, but just make the entire piece feel considered, thoughtful, and fresh (“a son already placing his feet in my footsteps” was a favourite example of how it takes a familiar sentiment and makes it new).

The man’s problem—immunity to suicide—is legitimately startling, but quickly grounded in an understanding we as readers get to build for ourselves: this isn’t magic, just the impact of a person who can do things for others selflessly that he can’t imagine doing for himself, who has no idea that this is why people keep saving his life. While the witch’s plan to help him is easy to predict once it gets going, the pleasure of watching it—and them—unfold is enough to keep me riveted.

There’s a balance in those elements that’s important to point out. It’s by working both with and against reader assumptions that “Broken People” lets readers know what kind of story it is—a witch’s-bargain fairytale—and that it’s not going to do the same work as other pieces in that subgenre. By focusing on a balance between little familiarities and little innovations, the story keeps a feeling of being confident and comfortable in a kind of fantasy world and still gets the delight of something new.

There’s a great example of how this balancing act works in the opening sentence, which does a great deal of work in a very short space. It establishes that fairytale tone by starting with sun, moon and sea (familiar!); creates a progression almost like a film camera focuses down to its subject, narrowing the world of the story from the biggest scope—the sky—to the witch in her home (a familiar, filmlike opening shot!); sets up the kinetic and slightly unexpected metaphor set of the story (unfamiliar and new!); and establishes thematics by having the witch’s first action be one of hope and light (unfamiliar in this tropeset!). The casual, conversational storyteller’s voice gives readers a clue that this story isn’t going to be an emotionally brutal one. In short, as a reader, I have two familiar structural things to stand on—a set of fairytale imagery and a structure—and two elements that feel a little different, metaphor and theme. And I’m primed for exactly what I’m getting.

That’s the fine technical work, but when we pull back, what makes “Broken People” work is that it’s rethought not the elements of a witch’s-bargain story, but fundamentally changed is the emotions around the tropes. There’s a keen emotional intelligence that pervades the entire story and both of its central characters, despite their inability to see and address the ways they themselves are stuck.

I think the nature of tropes and archetypes can make it simple to assume that the same story shapes will always lean toward the same emotions—that X always equals Y—and it’s when we decouple that assumption, as writers, that we open up a ton of opportunity to say new and interesting things about how people handle situations, emotions, and ideas–but new things on the same topic as the last ones.

With “Broken People”, if we ask What is this about? on the plot level, the answer’s the same: man and witch make deal, it doesn’t go how he expected. When we ask, though, what is this about? on the thematic/emotional level, it’s a story about two pragmatic people who have both been caregivers and neglected themselves absolutely for it finding a way to click together in a cycle that lifts them both up. Nobody is angry, just hurting and cynical because of it, and that can be enough to motivate an entire story; nobody is particularly magical, just a community relying on each other to repay good deeds and kindnesses, and that can be enough to make a blessing.

“Broken People” does a great job at understanding the emotions readers will expect out of this story shape, analyzing where they don’t have to be the same, and bringing in new emotions that crucially have a relationship to the expected ones. It’s working with readerly assumptions in finding better ways to handle this situation or a different story to tell, and that’s what makes it delightful: the continuity between familiar expectation and new approach.

Either frustratingly or happily for the author: I have no particular notes on improvement. I think this is ready for editors.

Best of luck!

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