Editor’s Choice Award January 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.

Specter by L.K. Pinaire

This story has many appealing ingredients:  the old mansion, the new residents, the tension of a newly forming family, the signs of ghosts, a mystery from the past.  I enjoy the way the story uses multiple senses to suggest the presence of the supernatural.  The strongest part of the story, for me, was when Darrelle was poking the yard fork into the ground around the cherry tree.  That generated good suspense and dread.

While I’m interested from the start to the end, I think the story could be strengthened in several ways.

As I mentioned, I feel suspense and dread as Darrelle searches for the baby’s grave, but for much of the rest of the story, I don’t feel a lot of emotion.  Ghost stories generally generate emotion by making us fearful or anxious about what the ghost might do and by involving us in the internal struggle of the protagonist facing the ghost.  After the first couple of interactions with the ghost, I’m not too afraid of what the ghost might do, since it doesn’t directly threaten anyone.  More important, for me, is that Darrelle doesn’t seem to have any significant internal struggle.  He approaches the problem pretty rationally and reasonably.  The story tries to suggest an internal struggle, telling us that he was “compelled” to learn more, and that part of him “wanted to believe” and “the rest of [him] didn’t,” but he behaves more or less like a detective searching for clues, and the ghost provides the clues, so he’s able to solve the mystery without too much physical or mental threat to himself.  I don’t feel he’s in danger of losing his sanity or his self, or in danger of turning against Donna or Terri, or in danger of being possessed by some evil presence, or in danger of hurting himself.  With a stronger sense of internal struggle or threat, along with a stronger sense of external struggle or threat, I think the story would be much more emotional and involving.  I’m not really sure what’s at stake right now.  Terri has a few scares but is okay; Darrelle’s relationship with Donna never seems in danger of breaking down; even their finances don’t seem in serious trouble.  That makes the story feel more like the adventure of an amateur sleuth than a horror story dealing with infanticide and sex slaves.  If this is intended to be a ghost story with the flavor of a mystery, that’s fine, but then the mystery needs to be more difficult to solve and require more struggle and cleverness on Darrelle’s part, and less help from the ghost.  In either case, I think Hastings needs to attack Darrelle and/or his family; he’s set up like the gun but his potential for the story is never realized.

Another area that I feel could be strengthened is the flow of the prose.  Flow involves establishing something in one sentence (or one phrase) that leads us to want to know the information in the next sentence (or phrase).  That pulls readers ahead.  For example, the second sentence of the story, “From outside, you’d never know how much work the century-old, riverside home needed,” makes me want to get a description of the outside of the house.  That’s what the sentence sets us up to receive next.  Instead, we jump to the narrator’s personal experience:  “I pulled up my jacket against a chilling breeze and unlocked the thick, weather-beaten door. I pushed it open.”  The shift to the narrator feeling chilly is jarring, and the rest of the sentence doesn’t provide more information about the chill and the breeze, which is, at that point, what I want to know next.  It shifts to the door.  It doesn’t make sense to me that someone would try to gain warmth at the moment he’s going inside; it seems too late at that point.  Such a detail might fit better when they are crossing the lawn.  Then it seems odd that the unlocking and pushing of the door are in two different sentences.  Those seem like two parts of one action and more appropriately put into a single sentence.  Once he pushes the door open, we get the next sentence, “It didn’t feel like June.”  This belongs back with the chilling breeze, not after he’s pushed the door open.  This might seem very picky, but arranging details so they provide exactly what the reader is curious to know at the moment the reader is curious to know it can be extremely powerful.  When people say they couldn’t put a story down, that’s often why they couldn’t.  (I have a blog post about flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.)

One other area I want to mention is description.  While the story provides some vivid details of the smell of the cherry blossoms and the fragments of wood, I have trouble visualizing the house itself, both the outside and the inside.  Their bedroom has “a bed and provisional furniture,” and Terri’s bedroom has “a bed, a dresser, and a nightstand.”  These are pretty vague descriptions that don’t add to my understanding of the house or the characters.  Is this furniture left from a previous owner?  Is it Darrelle’s old furniture before he moved in with Donna?  Is Terri’s furniture new?  If they spent too much on the house, or they’re short on funds, did they buy Terri’s furniture at a garage sale?  Are they sleeping on an air mattress?  I think the story could be much more specific in the details it provides, and those details could do much more to reveal the house, its history, and the characters.  After a day of work, Darrelle says his “back hurt.”  There are many ways in which ones back can hurt; I don’t feel what he’s feeling here.  Terri is repeatedly described as playing with her phone.  What, exactly, is she doing?  Playing Angry Birds?  Posting photos of the house on Instagram?  Texting with old friends she had to leave behind?  Leaving this vague not only keeps us very distant from Terri–she never comes to life for me–but it also belies Darrelle’s claims of concern over Terri’s welfare.  If he really cared about her, he’d take an interest in what she’s doing on her phone.  Since we’re in Darrelle’s point of view, the details in the story are the details that he notices, so they have the potential to reflect and reveal his character.  I’d love to see more specific details, and I’d love for all three of them to be more fully realized, so I can care and worry about them more.

I hope this is helpful.  I was interested throughout the story and glad to see the mystery solved at the end.

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

Grapevine/Market News

Deep Magic is open to subs again from now to sometime in March. Payment is pro-rate of 8 cents per word for stories of 1,000-7499 words. They will take longer stories, but pay is capped at 7,499 words maximum. They also buy reprints at 2 cents per word. Details are here.

Uncanny Magazine is opening to novella submissions April 1-April 30, 2021. They are looking for between 17,500-40,000 words. Full details to come here.

Editor’s Choice Award January 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.

Some Women Like To Hear The Cannon Balls/Akash And The Ship Of Ice by Kate Wooderson

I really liked the wild, frozen setting of “Some Women Like to Hear the Cannonballs”, and its small-but-consequential story: the polar quest for a dead King’s will, and the consequences it might bring down on the living. However, I was caught by the metaphors here: when they work, they really work, but they aren’t entirely tuned up in other places. So this month, I’d like to talk about resonances between our themes and our plot, how they work to tie a story together, and how to fix the ones that have come a little loose.

“Some Women Like to Hear the Cannonballs” is ultimately working as fun: an adventure story that balances its romance and its epic consequences without making either feel like they’re too big or too small. The title—even if the reference is gone!—is deeply fun, and I think better than the other ideas. It captures Akash’s sense of humour very well.

But most of all, from the beginning, this piece is deeply atmospheric in a way that clearly signals what’s coming, and what each place and element of story is for. The first paragraph’s description of fog—how it limits the space—creates an intimate opening that really strongly sets up the nature of the story to come. The mention of Akash’s compass roses, right after a comment about direction, builds a resonance around her as a navigator of physical but also emotional spaces. The Sceptre‘s blind figurehead tacks a feeling of abandoned melancholy onto the ship—and then the government it belonged to—and the description of its silence is deeply evocative.

All of those references work because they’re pairing externally-focused elements of story—things like description and plot—with internally-focused ones, thematics and characterization, and using one line to say something about both of them. As a reader, I’m feeling the sense of depth, because each line is lifting more than its surface weight.

However, the way Akash and Dell’s romance is set up breaks that pattern somewhat. The “Akash and Dell had spent the long voyage north circumnavigating friendship’s globe” set of metaphors felt to me, as a reader, somewhat forced compared to those more subtle resonances; it hops quickly from comparison to comparison without developing them as strongly. Most importantly, while it’s telling me about the internal question of the relationship, the information I’m getting as a reader—that this story takes place in the sea and on ships and in the ice—is information I already know. Those lines only work to pin the relationship to the nautical setting, and not tell me anything about that setting like the ones above, and so they feel less deep to me, less effective—only going one way.

It’s where “Some Women Like To Hear the Cannonballs” does this—overstates its case, or states it three different ways and less precisely, or builds metaphors that only go in one direction—that I’d focus on as places to shore up (pun not intended!). I’d suggest looking at each paragraph to see if the same thing’s being said in different ways and settle on what the author feels is the better one. For example, “Instead of the chests of gold coins she had hoped for, she saw only gilded gewgaws” and “She’d hoped for diamonds but found only ice” are functionally the same sentence, expressing the same emotion and doing the same work in terms of moving the plot forward. If one is cut, that paragraph will read sleeker, more directional, and more confident afterwards.

There are a few other bobbles there’s a chance to handle in a line-by-line revision: for example, a little more variance in word choice. There are a few runs of repetition in “Some Women Like to Hear the Cannonballs”; two sentences that end with “herself” in a row, or little batches of them starting with “she” that set up rhythms that aren’t being used deliberately. And it’s a space to resolve some small confusions: In Fortune’s introduction, it’s hard to tell if this is a sailor or the wider concept (favouring the bold!).

Aside from a line edit, I noticed the author’s mention of having developed character motivations and the romance from a prior draft, and think there could be room in the next draft to continue that work. As it stands right now Dell and Akash don’t quite have the tone of voice, the body language, the emotional connections of a friendship turning romantic. We’re told they’re friendly and involved, but I’m not seeing that come through their interactions just yet. Fortune is also never quite established as a character, and so his betrayal in the second half of the piece reads as very sudden to me, and slightly arbitrary.

There’s a good site to do that work, I think, in that early hint of threat to Akash’s captaincy (“For now“). Right now it isn’t ever really exposited on: did Akash have hints this was coming or not? But it’s an obvious place to develop the setup for that inevitable betrayal.

But overall, the bones of this story are well in place, and the technical work that I think could make it stronger is already being done in other parts of the piece. It’s just a matter of a tighter line-by-line revision, adding in some supports, and cutting some lines that aren’t necessarily needed, and I think this’ll be ready to go.

Best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Fantasy

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

The Broken Roots (Mahohma I) Chapter 1: The Siege of BRAY’ZAK’YENI by Joseph Ahn

There’s so much to love in this chapter. The depth and breadth of the worldbuilding. The well-drawn characters who play off each other in interesting ways. The prose that, with a few stumbles here and there, is remarkably strong and will be stronger with polish. And that twist in the end—lovely.

The overall structure makes sense to me, with the heir coming in person to confront his Empress with hard facts. I do however have questions about the details—and I mean this literally. There is so much backstory here, so much intricate politics, and so many names and places and events to keep track of. In many ways this feels like a chapter from the middle of the book rather than an opener.

At the beginning of a novel, the reader isn’t invested yet. They don’t know the characters or their world. In secondary-world fantasy especially, everything is strange. They have to be won over; they need reasons to learn the new vocabulary and history and culture.

For the author, it can be a challenge to introduce their world to someone who is completely new to it. Complex worldbuilders especially have to figure out how much information is enough, and how much is too much. Here, there’s a complicated backstory, and an epic tangle of politics both within and outside the empire. It all comes together in this meeting between Vyxlis and the Empress.

There’s a rule of thumb that Harry Turtledove often cites—and Harry knows all about complicated politics. “In every scene, the writer knows at least five hundred details about that scene, the world, the characters, the history. Their job is figure out which three of those details to pick, that will contain all the rest.”

That’s especially germane to an opening chapter. Later on the novel, characters can sit down and talk over the complicated stuff. The reader is invested by then, and has enough grounding in the world and its peoples to follow along with the discussion. At the beginning, it’s all new, and the writer hasn’t earned the reader’s patience—their goodwill, their willingness (and ability) to absorb a lot of details all at once.

The key elements of this chapter are Vixlis’ arrival at the siege, his meeting with the Empress, and the break point near the end when everything changes. The decision to make here is which three (or so) details of the backstory are absolutely essential for the reader’s comprehension, and which of the rest can either be implied in context or left for later scenes. The in-depth discussion of satyr dynastic politics might be concentrated into its simplest form: the chief/king/supreme ruler is dead and his heirs are fighting over who gets to rule. We don’t need all the names or the specifics right at this point. We just need the bare facts. The same goes for internal politics. As wonderful as the depth of detail is, it clogs the works here. One or two essential details, with as few names and terms as are strictly needed for clarity, will give the reader a sense of the issues and the stakes. The names and terms can come in later as they’re relevant.

Some of what’s discussed might be shown as a scene or flashback either here or in a later chapter—probably the latter, since there’s plenty going on this chapter without additional action. We get that there’s a siege, that it’s been going on for months, and that the bean-counters back home are trying to slam on the brakes. We also get that the satyrs are in a political mess of their own, and that might be turned to advantage if the Empress will just listen to her advisors.

In short: Big general details here, while the reader is still finding their footing in this world. More names and specifics later, as they become relevant to the progression of the story. The interaction between the prince and the Empress is what really matters in this chapter, and that shines through beautifully. The rest is pruning and paring and polish, and picking just the right set of details to bring it all together.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Horror

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

Black Charybdis by Barry Donnelly

The novum in this story, an old-school LP record that, when playing, erases any documents and their associated reality, is fascinating and creepy.  As soon as I realized what was happening, I was drawn into the story.  Martin, the protagonist, is easy to relate to.  We’ve all had failures we’d like to erase, so his actions feel believable, and the unintended consequences are all too believable.  The most exciting part of the story, for me, came when Martin heard the music when he wasn’t playing the record.  The idea that someone else was playing it escalated the stakes.  Then the revelation that the pianist had manifested in his house (or he’d been sucked into the record) escalated things much more.  That created a lovely build to the climax.

While I’m engaged from scene 2 on, I think the story could have significantly more impact if some elements were strengthened.

Throughout, I feel significant distance from Martin’s thoughts and emotions.  The story is ostensibly told from Martin’s third person limited omniscient point of view, but I often feel like I’m being told about Martin from an omniscient narrator.  For example, “A deep part of his brain stem began flooding his veins with an ancient alarm system causing his skin to prickle while his stomach sank.”  Martin can’t know this.  This is not his perception; this information is coming from an omniscient narrator.

Another cause of POV distance from Martin is filtering.  Filtering establishes the means of perception of some detail, using phrases like he saw, he watched, he heard, he smelled, he felt, he could see, he could taste, he remembered, he knew, he thought, etc.  Filtering puts the stress on how the detail is being perceived rather than on the detail itself, so it distances us from what’s happening, reducing the impact.  It also makes us picture the POV character seeing (or hearing or smelling or whatever) the detail, rather than putting us into the head of the POV character and experiencing the detail along with him.  Thus it causes distance from the POV character.  The main place where filtering is necessary is at the beginning of a story or the beginning of a new point of view, to establish the means of perception.  Once we know the POV, the filtering is unnecessary.  We know that if something is visually described, it’s because Martin sees it.  There’s lots of filtering throughout this story.  For example, “He knew there was something invisible eyeing him.”  This only gives me Martin’s conclusion.  It doesn’t allow me to experience what he’s experiencing and draw my own conclusion–it doesn’t allow me to feel a weird sensation and realize it’s something eyeing him.  That’s the very thing I’m reading this story for–the horror of that sort of revelation.

In other places, Martin’s reaction to events is missing, again making me feel distant from him.  For example, “Martin watched as the pure white notebook in his hands crumpled and vanished into dust as though it had been burned by invisible fire. He finally stopped the record when a book at the top of the pile turned bone white.  He was flipping through the pages of what used to be Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music when Vera walked through his door. Startled, Martin slapped the blank book down onto the pile just as it burst into dust.”  In this passage, Martin is watching all his musical compositions vanish (as he discovers the power of the LP), and his only reaction is to stop the record when another book starts to crumble.  We then seem to jump ahead in time to Martin flipping through another book and Vera arriving.  We’re told Martin is startled, but it seems like he’s only startled by Vera’s appearance.  I don’t feel his emotions or thoughts in response to his compositions disappearing or to the power of the LP.  This is one of a number of key moments in the story that need to be dilated.  That means the pace needs to be slowed by describing the moment in intense detail.  Choosing details that Martin would notice in this moment, details that reflect his emotions and thoughts, will help to make us feel close to him and to experience the moment in a heightened state.

Another cause of POV distance is giving details out of chronological order.  I quoted one example in the previous paragraph, when Martin “stopped the record when a book at the top of the pile turned bone white.”  Clearly, the book at the top of the pile turns white first, and this prompts Martin to stop the record.  But the sentence gives the information in the reverse order.  That requires us to stop at the end of the sentence and reorder the events, taking us out of the moment and away from Martin.  Here’s another example:  “Charybdis had grown so enormous and filled the room so quickly, her gradual drain back into the record felt far too long for Martin’s comfort.”  This sentence comes as the power of the entity in the LP is draining away.  We needed to know that the power had grown greater and expanded more quickly back when that happened earlier in the scene.  Learning it here requires we go back to the beginning of the scene and reimagine what happened.

Anyway, if you can bring your POV closer to Martin and allow us to more intensely experience what he’s going through, the story will have more impact.  A couple resources that touch on some of these issues are the essay “The Inner Voice” by Nancy Kress, which you can find in several Writers Digest books, including Writing Voice; and the book Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson.

Another area that could be strengthened is plot.  Each scene should show a change in a value of significance to Martin.  It’s not clear what has changed for Martin at the end of the first scene or the second scene.  I think the first scene could easily be reorganized to end with Martin deciding that he needs to fix his latest failure.  That would create momentum and expectation in us and propel us into the next scene.  Instead, the ending leaves us with Martin rejecting a possible action, leaving us with no expectations.  The second scene, rather than ending with Vera’s reaction, which doesn’t matter, could end with Martin perhaps deciding his erased musical compositions weren’t very good anyway, and it could be good to start over.  This would establish how he deals with perceived failures and create anticipation that he’s going to do the same with his latest failure.  Or he could resolve to write new and better music with confidence that he’s getting better all the time, contrasting with how he feels ten years later, after more failures.

As I discussed above, the climax has several strengths going for it.  I had guessed that the piano had two players when Martin heard what “couldn’t just be ten fingers.”  The fact that the other player turned out to be Martin was an exciting revelation.  But once he starts to play, I feel distant, as discussed above, and don’t understand what Martin is going through.  We are told that “The performance grew from the dialectical give and take into a full synthesis of two roaring passions, a song that only four hands could play.”  This is the omniscient POV at a time when I most want to be close to Martin.  I have no idea what Martin’s passion is.  Is this a passion for playing the piano?  I didn’t know he played.  Is this a passion borne of his loss of Vera?  Of his life?  Or finding the better life and the musical skill he always sought and lacked?  I want to be in his body, to feel his fingers on the keys, to be swept up in the rhythms and chords.  What is going on here?  Why is this the end of Martin’s character arc?  How has everything led to this?  I don’t know.  I really want to feel it, and I think this thread of the story needs to be more developed throughout and come to its culmination here.

I’ll briefly touch on a few other elements.  Missing commas, run-on sentences, tense shifts (and the failure to use the past perfect for events that happened earlier), some awkward sentences, and some lack of flow trip me up as I read.  (I have an article on flow here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.)

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

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

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Science Fiction

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

Mindblades Chapter 1 by Andrew Wang

The first thing that drew me to this chapter was the title. It’s got definite science-fictional resonance, and promises a story that’s both edgy and high-tech. Some of the concepts introduced here are very cool as well, especially Dust (which I’d like to see more of, as I’m sure there will be in subsequent chapters) and the Crystal.

The chapter needs some work, and some rethinking of its structure and choice of scenes. I have some questions about the worldbuilding, too.

First, the structure. The chapter begins with some scene-setting and some rather lovely description, then moves into a series of conversations with people Raedan meets. These conversations serve to convey exposition and backstory, and show Raeden interacting with persons who may or may not reappear later on in the novel. The fight at the end features a fair amount of verbal byplay as well as a sample of Raedan’s athletic and fighting skills.

The opening dialogue introduces Raedan and tells us who he is and some of his background. There’s not much actual story there; it’s mostly setup and exposition. I found myself wishing for something more active and concrete. Say the guy is watching a recording of Raedan’s latest game, and we get to see what he does more directly, and maybe the guy recognizes him and then there’s some back and forth about who he is and why he’s here. In the draft, there’s a fairly high ratio of exposition to action and experience. Shifting that balance might help make the opening more vivid and engaging.

Raedan’s interaction with the Chinese woman has more oomph and more overall cool factor. For one thing, it’s got Dust, and we learn some things about it and also about Raedan and the world he lives in.

The encounter with Denise however shares some of the same issues as the first conversation. It’s clear there are strong undercurrents, and Denise is very uncomfortable and seems to be hiding secrets. But Raedan either misses or disregards the signals she’s sending. He doesn’t ask her what’s going on, or seem curious about her reactions.

This may be an aspect of his character, that he’s oblivious or clueless. If so I think the narrative needs to convey more sense that it’s intentional. As it is, the emotional temperature is rather low, and that damping down of feeling carries through to the fight.

There’s a tendency in the fight scene to downplay both the feelings and the stakes. The action moves almost slowly. The fight comes across as low-key in spite of the subject matter. It needs more tension, more suspense, and overall, more oomph.

I’d suggest some rethinking and re-framing of the chapter, starting with the reasons why Raedan has come home, and why he goes to his old apartment. “The tenant left” is a start, but why go to that particular place? He ends up somewhere else anyway after the fight, without seeming terribly upset about being driven away. What compelling reason does he have to go to the old neighborhood? What does he want to accomplish there? Is he hoping to meet someone? To resolve old issues? To revisit his childhood, and if so, why?

I found myself wondering about his political status since he’s the son of a woman executed by the Crystal. Does that affect his own status at all? He seems to be in a position of great trust, with a great deal of privilege. How does that connect with what happened to his mother? Does he have any emotional issues with it, any past trauma? If not, has he been “cured” in some way, or has he found his own way through it? Is his flat affect a side effect of whatever he’s had to do, or had done to him, in order to deal with his past? If so, a quick line or allusion might help clarify that aspect of his character.

That leads to me to ask further questions about the worldbuilding. Is there a plot-connected reason why the date and time are so specific? A lot of space opera just sort of generally alludes to being in the future—a thousand years, ten thousand, or however long it happens to be. The worldbuilding itself carries the weight of time, as we’re shown the extent of human expansion into space, and given relevant details of its history.

Since this is specific down to the year, we have a clear sense of how much time has passed between now and this future. But we also may have questions about the way the future universe has evolved. How does it happen that people are still speaking English? Is that just on this planet or is it more universal? What language are Raedan and the guy on the ship speaking?

As I read, I wondered what happened to the internet. The Singularity didn’t happen? Or did the Crystal shut off human access to any kind of universal cybercommunications? How to people communicate at long distance in this universe? How does space travel work? What about communications between worlds?

Most of these questions are probably answered in later chapters, but I did wonder, specifically in this chapter, why Raedan doesn’t know what’s happened to the old neighborhood. Wouldn’t he check it out before he goes there, to make sure the transport route is still the same and to see what amenities still exist around the apartment? If he were checking it out in 2020 he’d do a web search and some online mapping. How does it work in the 37th century?

Ultimately I think the chapter could begin a couple of scenes later than it does. The arrival has some very nice description but the story takes a while to get going. If it’s clear why he goes to his old apartment, and if he has a strong and specific reason for doing so—maybe finding out something about his mother, or looking for something she left him, or…?—then the story would start with his arrival there. There’s still room to talk about this being a sort of Earth-alike, maybe in the landscape or a particular tree or flower or the color of the sky, and maybe the apartment, or the lobby, or the wall outside, has a mural that depicts the planet from space. He might talk about his career when he meets Denise, or give us a flashback to the game, or get a communication that shows us who he is and what he’s on (presumably) vacation from. Or is he on leave and this is a specific quest or mission related to his past?

The rule of thumb for opening chapters is that in general they should start as close to the end of the story as possible while still leaving room for the story to unfold. Characters’ actions and interactions should have purpose and well-established motivation. Later on it may be possible to slow down and ramble a bit, but at the beginning, before the characters have won the reader’s trust, it’s a good idea to keep the story moving in a clear and focused way. Then the reader is eager to keep reading, and the story pulls them forward all the way to the end.

–Judith Tarr

Publication News

Peter S. Drang sent a message for us all: “Flash Fiction Online (a pro market) purchased Peter S. Drang’s story “My Lakeside Graveyard,” which was reviewed extensively on OWW and was selected as an OWW Editor’s Choice. Peter would like to thank everyone whose comments helped bring this story (about death) to life!”

Editor’s Choice Award December 2020, Short Story

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

Six Plastic Bags by James Victor

I was caught by the powerful combination of pace and voice in “Six Plastic Bags”—and the skill it shows in balancing buckets of information to create an immersive, textural world. However, those strengths aren’t yet matched when it comes to the story’s plotting. This month, I’d like to talk about what we want from our readers, how to help them get there—and how to evaluate if we’re providing them a worthwhile interaction.

There’s a lot of skill in how the world of “Six Plastic Bags” is built. Indra’s world is the kind of grim, brutal setting that’s easy to lay on far too thick, but “Six Plastic Bags” handles its worldbuilding and information with a thoroughly deft hand. It’s full of fascinating little tidbits folded in organically enough to create texture without overwhelming—the sheer amount of worldbuilding information in the fourth paragraph, parceled out so it’s only the quick sprint through a night-long chase, is an incredible example of how to do verisimilitude with a light hand. Every detail is just important enough, and matters later. The details of Indra’s world (the tinted skin on “ski-slope nose”, the fish guts) are precise, unexpected, and visceral.

Indra also works very well as a protagonist: glib and halfway immoral (the “clever thing to say” line is deeply funny), but never crossing the line into outright awfulness. He’s quirky and a little crappy in true Neal Stephenson style, but still someone I’m able to cheer for, and his self-regulated, artificial lack of terror at the situation he lands in is a clever way to make the more horrific action of the story readable; it’s a wonderful balancer.

But while it’s very well-executed on that prose level, as above, plotting is a point where “Six Plastic Bags” could be worked on. When I step back to summarize the piece, the plot is very straightforward: Indra does something stupid in the first paragraphs—for no discernible reason, with no motivation—and in the end he is punished for it, or what the creepers thought it was for some reason (not discernible, no motivation), in the same exact way as the last guy who actually did that thing.

Unfortunately, when I step back yet farther and start to test the logic of this world, the entire story falls apart: the creepers had him in custody. Why not just kill him then? Why bother with another chase—the main action of the story?

I’d suggest there are two approaches to consider when taking a look at what’s not quite firing in the plot of “Six Plastic Bags”: character motivation and emotional arc.

Whenever a critiquer finds themselves asking “Okay, but why?” it’s a good diagnostic for a motivations problem. I think motivations are a source for some of the trouble here, and on a certain level the story is aware of that:

He had known that he would keep going until he’d passed all reasonable limits, brought down the wrath of the slum lords and for what? One night and seven shags? It doesn’t make sense, even to himself. Except of course that perhaps he wants some wrath.

Indra’s motivations don’t “make sense, even to himself”. The creepers’ motivations for disbelieving his multiple protests and insisting this was personal are opaque and arbitrary as well—and two parties with no real motivations make it very difficult to infuse a plot with weight, meaning, or stakes.

This is a question that runs through the entire piece, even into the endgame. Indra goes to the Lighthouse—but why? He risks Constant Rex, who is a risk for him—but why, and why is that a risk? That threat isn’t well-defined, and is truncated before it ever has a chance to develop into a meaningful plotline. The whys pile up, the narrative tension—the sense of progressing through a plot, answering questions to find new ones and raising the stakes—falls away, and then “Six Plastic Bags” abruptly stops.

I think one route to making this story work more effectively would be going back to the beginning building blocks of its plot to consider some of those questions about motivation and choice. Why our characters do things is fundamental to why they matter to us as readers, and why the action of a story is important, and not just actions—which brings me to the question of emotional arc.

When it’s boiled down, readers read stories to satisfy something: to feel whatever question is opened in the first paragraphs resolve in a way that makes it feel complete. There’s a reason the end of the story is called a resolution. That sense of completion is something we can play with as authors, but it’s always worthwhile to consider our plotting in terms of its effects. If readers pick up a story to feel something, plot is the engine by which we, as writers, create the feeling. What feeling are we creating, how, and why? And is that why a good reason?

So the second route I’d suggest is to ask what readers are meant to feel by the closing bars of “Six Plastic Bags”? Which plot points or pieces of information are the stepping-stones to get them there? And most importantly: Why do you want them to feel this way about this information?

Thinking about this piece’s plot in terms of what effect you want it to produce is a great diagnostic for finding why each component of action is there, and where they’re all taking readers together. But it’s also a useful tool for evaluating our own motives as authors, because when stripped down to the emotional movements, it’s easier to evaluate what we’re saying in terms of the emotional context of the time we’re in.

Ultimately, I think there’s a lot of skill in play here: more than enough to discover where “Six Plastic Bags” wants to take readers—and what effect it wants from their going there.

Best of luck!

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

Publication News

Kelsey Hutton wants everyone to know: “My short story “Cold Blessing,” workshopped here on OWW in 2017, will be published by PULP Literature in mid-2021. This is my first sale, and I so appreciate everyone’s encouragement and feedback.”