Editor’s Choice Award November 2023, 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.

Dragon Ships: Chapter 4 by Ewan O’Doherty

The author’s note on this chapter asks a very good question. How much exposition is too much in fantasy? Does it make a difference what kind of fantasy it is? And, by implication, when can or should the action actually begin?

This novel, we’re told, is “cozy fantasy,” which I haven’t seen before. Cozy mysteries, yes. And there used to be a whole rant against “comfy-cozy medievalism,” once upon a rather long time ago. I might, from what I see here, call this epic fantasy, which paints itself on a large and detailed canvas.

I can see that we’re in an early chapter of a leisurely adventure, with lots of worldbuilding details, and pacing that inclines more toward the easygoing than the headlong. Although it’s chapter 4, it reads as an introductory chapter. It spends much of its time filling in backstory, exploring the setting, and introducing us to a sizable cast of characters.

I can’t tell from context what happened in the previous three chapters. The chapter seems fairly self-contained: everything we need to know seems to be present. It’s not immediately clear where the action is coming from, though we get a pretty good sense of where it’s going next.

There are some lovely bits. The prose is especially evocative when it touches on sensory detail, particularly the sense of touch. The description of the three treasures, for example, brings each one to life. I get the impression that these are essential details. We’ll see a lot more of these items as the adventure continues.

“Essential details” is a key phrase here. I have a great love of thorough worldbuilding. Give me a world that’s been thought through on all levels, from the great big overriding elements to the little things that give it its distinctive flavor. I can feel the scope of it; I know that if I have questions, the author will have answers. That’s a world that’s come alive in the author’s head. It makes its own reality.

When I’m writing, especially when I’m writing fantasy, I try to abide by Harry Turtledove’s maxim: “In any given scene, a writer will know five hundred details, but they’ll only show three. Those three contain all the rest.”

Those are the essential details. From them, the reader can extrapolate. The world builds itself.

Readers of epic fantasy can be quite happy with more than three details. They’re there for the journey, which can take quite a long time to arrive at the destination. But even epic fantasy needs to move forward. The author still has to ask, Are these details essential? Are they relevant to the scene and the characters, right here and right now? Should some of them appear earlier in the story? Can I save some of them for later?

If they are essential, and they do belong at this exact point in the narrative, are they repeating themselves? Do we need to be told the same thing three or more times in the paragraph or the scene? Can the prose be pared down, and descriptions pruned from several iterations of a fact or a description, to a single one at just the right spot?

One might ask similar questions about backstory. Do we need to know the whole story right here? Can we get the part of it that is relevant, and either pick up the rest by implication, or have a little bit of mystery to keep us reading until we find out the answer?

In this chapter in particular, the pacing is slow. The author’s note acknowledges this, and promises more action later. My question is, how much of what’s here absolutely needs to be here? Do we need the full account of Ariad’s wanderings on the night before she leaves? Is it essential that we know everything she does, every item she packs, and every person she speaks to?

We know she has hours to spend and people to see, but which of them is key to what happens in the rest of the novel? How much of the backstory is essential for clarity in this chapter, and how much can be set up earlier or left for later?

The multiple references to her choice not to be a warrior can be cut down to one or two, and the rest will resonate through the story. The scene with her mother is poignant and feels important, but it could be half or a third as long, with fewer repetitions and more focused, concentrated dialogue. I was a little surprised to be told she chose to be a chronicler; the only setup for it seems to be her reflection on how dull her friend Leuala’s choice of occupation is—a scrivener, she’s called, but a chronicler, in the context I know, does pretty much the same thing. I’d like to know how they differ.

A couple of technical points might help with the pacing. First, shorter paragraphs. Break them up. Start a new paragraph as subjects and themes change. It can make a surprisingly big difference to the flow of the narrative.

Another thing to watch is the habit of viewpoint tagging: words and phrases that remind us that we’re in Ariad’s head. Words like thoughtfelt, wonderedremembered. It’s clear who’s telling us the story; we see through her eyes and feel what she feels. Try removing all the tags and see what happens. Some may need to go back in, but many of them may not. It will be clear from context, and then we the readers will feel as if we’re experiencing events directly rather than through the filter of Ariad’s internal monologue.

There’s an intriguing story here (dragons! dragonriders! yes!). With judicious pruning and selection of details, it will move faster and get us to the really cool stuff (dragonriding!) more quickly, without sacrificing worldbuilding or character development.

Best of luck with the ms., and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 2023, 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.

Death By Flower by angela rose

It’s a challenge to write a complete story in a small number of words.  Writers of flash fiction have many strategies to do so.  They can keep the story small (only a few characters, one setting, one scene, over a short period of time), or they can use fixed forms (such as writing the story as an obituary, recipe, Amazon review, weather report), or they can use other strategies (such as skipping over most of the story and showing only a few key bits, recapitulating [summarizing] much of the story, using conventions readers know).  It’s this last category of techniques that “Death by Flower” uses to convey Karen’s story in such a compressed way.  We successfully follow Karen all the way from her normal life as a ten-year-old through the transformation of her parents into zombie-like creatures and the collapse of society to Karen’s own transformation.  That’s a lot to cover, but the piece successfully conveys all of this by skipping over large chunks of time and focusing on key moments, recapitulating much of the story, and using a pandemic leading to zombies, which are elements readers know that don’t require a lot of explanation or development.  We get a sense of the progression of the pandemic with a few details, such as the failure of the water supply and phone service, and Karen being left behind by the authorities.  The headings establishing the passage of time help to keep us oriented and provide a sense of events moving forward.  All of that works well to clearly convey what happened to Karen and her family, and to imply what happened to the world.

What follows below are some suggestions about how this prelude might be strengthened.

While I understand what happened to Karen, I don’t feel much emotion when reading her story.  One way to strengthen emotion would be to strengthen the viewpoint.  Right now, an omniscient narrator sometimes seems to be telling us the story; we seem to be in Karen’s head, overhearing her thoughts, at other times; and we seem to be somewhere in between at times. These shifts in viewpoint are accompanied by shifts in voice, which are distracting.  There’s a lot of movement between these three viewpoints/voices, so it’s hard to get settled in the story and feel involved.  This also makes it hard to get to know and care about Karen.

Here are some examples.  The story begins in a clear omniscient viewpoint:

>At 10 years old, Karen was a spry character, full of energy and creativity. <

We’re definitely not in Karen’s head here.  This is not how she would think of herself.  We’re in the head of someone with a more sophisticated vocabulary (spry) who is making a judgement about Karen.

In the second paragraph, the viewpoint is less clear:

>As she ventured around the large property that was her home in Arlington, Washington she found a truly unusual flower. With bright blue petals, the flower was magnificent to hold. It had an unusual lime-green tinge around the outside of the petals and its shape was reminiscent of a rose. She’d never found a flower with colors that were so vibrant and she knew immediately what she was going to do with it: a bookmark for Mother’s Day. <

Some word choices again indicate an older, sophisticated narrator (ventured, magnificent, tinge, reminiscent, vibrant).  Yet the last sentence, at least, seems like it’s trying to convey Karen’s reaction and decision.  An omniscient narrator can report what’s going on in any character’s head, so perhaps this is the narrator simply relaying to us what Karen is thinking.  But it feels like the author is trying to have the narrator step back, allowing us to experience what Karen is thinking more directly at this key moment in her life, which is another ability of the omniscient narrator.  Exactly what the intent is here is unclear to me.  The result is that I feel distant from Karen.

The third paragraph seems to more clearly put us in Karen’s head:

> Karen plucked the single, unusual flower from the earth and smiled. Her mother would love it. As she skipped around the property, on her way back inside, she imagined how happy and excited her mother would be to get a gift like this. <

The intent seems more clearly to put us in Karen’s head, hearing her thoughts, and the voice seems closer to ten-year-old Karen’s voice, yet it still seems a bit off, with word choices like “unusual” (instead of odd or weird or special) and “property” (instead of yard or garden). So the viewpoint is still a bit unclear and I don’t feel close to Karen.

An omniscient viewpoint is very flexible; the POV can go from an omniscient narrator telling the story to an omniscient narrator relaying the thoughts and feelings of a character to the omniscient narrator allowing us to hear the thoughts and feelings of the character directly.  But those shifts in narrative distance need to be minimized, so we don’t feel constantly jostled back and forth in viewpoint, and they need to be done gradually, so we don’t even notice the movement between these options.  And the voices of the narrator and the character need to be well developed and strong.

I think that third person omniscient is the best viewpoint for this prelude, since it allows a lot of information to be conveyed quickly and helps in moving quickly over unimportant times. My suggestion is to create a POV plan, so you can minimize the number of shifts.  For example, to start with the omniscient narrator and gradually move into Karen’s head, so we can experience with Karen the key moment of discovering the flower, and then stay in Karen’s head until the end of the scene.  After creating a plan, the next step would be to develop the voices of the omniscient narrator and of Karen.  You could list the traits of each voice (such as philosophy, opinions, mood/emotions, education, sentence length, sentence structure, syntax, colloquial language, dialect, diction, jargon, rhythm) and then try writing some text (not in the prelude) in each voice.  A good example of movement between an omniscient narrator and a young character’s head is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.  You can look at the scene in which Lucy returns to the wardrobe while the siblings are playing hide and seek, and then Edmund follows her into the wardrobe.  The viewpoint moves from the omniscient narrator describing what the siblings are doing, to the narrator relaying what Lucy (one of the siblings) is thinking and feeling, to allowing us to experience Lucy’s thoughts and feelings directly.  The viewpoint then moves out of Lucy and into Edmund (another sibling), and these moves are all done very gently and smoothly.

A related point is that I think Karen’s character could be a bit more developed.  She feels rather like a generic girl and younger than ten.  Thinking about her interests, fears, values, flaws/weaknesses, skills/strengths, goals, whom she loves most, whom she depends on most, the types of relationships she forms, friends, behaviors/tactics, emotional core, etc. can help develop her into a more specific and rich character.  To gauge what a ten-year-old might be interested in or what her voice might sound like, talking to some ten-year-olds or watching YouTube or TikTok videos with ten-year-olds could be helpful.

The prelude did a good job of conveying this critical part of Karen’s life in a compressed form, and I enjoyed reading it.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

 

Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Tangled Threads And Ancient Words, part One by Rodrigio Culagovski

I was drawn to this submission by its setting. It’s a nice departure from the usual alternate-history eras and locales, and it’s not a culture or a period about which I know a great deal. I’m pleased to see how rich and detailed this opening chapter is. It bodes well for the rest of the story.

I have a couple of questions and one larger observation about the submission.

First, the reaction to Amaru’s innovative use of the khipu: it seems as if she might have had some inkling of the reaction she would receive. It can still be a terrible shock and a complete about-face from the man she thinks of as a father, but wouldn’t there have been hints that he’s at least somewhat conservative? Why hasn’t he ever mentioned gods or sacred traditions? Wouldn’t those be an essential part of his instruction? And wouldn’t he have had an inkling in his turn that she’s been doing unorthodox things with the knots?

I’m also wondering why the Inka appear to know so little about the Moxos. Evidently she’s been sent into as distant an exile as possible; but haven’t other envoys been sent there? Wouldn’t she be given some sort of briefing? Or at least, on what appears to be a lengthy journey, given more instruction and preparation than seems to be the case? And if she isn’t given that, might she wonder why, and possibly be suspicious or even fearful of what she’s being taken to?

In general I think her infraction and her exile need more solid grounding in the story. Why is it such a big deal, and why is she given such a severe punishment? And why specifically the Moxos? It does appear that there are political machinations happening, and that Jarakai is up to a whole lot of somethings, which I hope will come clear as the story progresses.

And there’s the big question that I want to ask.

Are you sure this is a novella?

There is so much here. The opening sequence could be expanded, the basis for Chusi’s sudden reversal made clearer, and Amaru’s own knowledge and understanding given more room to grow.

The journey to Moxos teases some very interesting developments. There’s a whole romance there, just barely touched on. Even if it reemerges later, I think it needs more space than the draft gives it. Let us meet the lover, get a glimpse of how the affair develops, and take a little time with their parting. Then when Amaru arrives at her destination, she has two sorrows behind her: the sharp reversal of her relationship with Chusi, and the departure of her lover (and is that her first, or the latest of several, or…?).

As rich as the world is, and as much already happens in just the first chapter, I think this has the scope of a novel. The draft feels a little rushed; there’s a lot going on, and a lot that’s quickly summarized or briefly mentioned. If it’s opened up and given space to develop its characters and events, it will be even stronger than it already is.

Best of luck with it. I love the setting, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the story grows from this beginning.

— Judith Tarr

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Editor’s Choice Award October 2023, 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.

Prickly Rats by Kat Orman

This month, “Prickly Rats” got my attention with its ruined, eerie setting, subtle plot, and mirroring between animals, androids, people as living things who matter in a world that disagrees. It’s trying to do a lot of narrative work in a very short space—about 2,000 words—and so this month, I’d like to talk a bit about how we can build place and character efficiently at very short lengths, and knowing where to best use the page space.

The structure in “Prickly Rats” is already doing that work quite well: within a straightforward narrative style, it sets up space, place, and tone immediately with the boat’s disrepair and Shipwreck Cay’s barrenness. And, notably, just the sheer amount of trash scattered over this whole setting (it’s a very textural setting: full of floating and chewing and desalination). It’s a subtle but excellent visual clue as to the state of Demi’s Australia, and how she and Leo are being regarded: more discards. And it’s a great way to contrast her tenderness to the chickens and care to not step on seabird eggs—and clue us in that that’s meaningful.

As a narrative strategy for shorter pieces, this is smart: knowing which elements of craft we want readers putting their work into—plot and theme, here—and making sure the others are fairly clear and direct, so it’s harder to get sidetracked. There’s a sense of where to use one’s page space built into “Prickly Rats”: being straightforward with the elements that support the point, and giving readers more subtlety with the point, so we engage them more actively.

The end isn’t quite firing yet, however, and I think it’s because there are parts of that plot layer that are still a bit too subtle. However, I think there are ways to add the information “Prickly Rats” needs to work while keeping it compact.

Some narrative moments here do, I think, just need a little more air: The idea that Demi’s normal home is a cage slips right by very easily, considering everything else going on in that paragraph, and it might need a little more support in order to reinforce why she makes her choice, and why this ending should hit emotionally. It’s also pivotal to the metaphor being drawn between her, Leo, the discarded robots, and the animals, which flags it to me as something that shouldn’t just be slid by, and deserves more page space. As a litmus test: This detail is feeding the central theme, so it merits a bit more attention.

Likewise, some of the major plot points do come on a little suddenly: the idea that Leo’s being discarded because he knows something worth blackmail, and Demi’s decision to spare his life. If the blackmail angle is more than speculation on Demi’s part—and the ending implies it is—there might be value in ramping up to that a little, or building a bit of context around that idea to show that there’s cause to jump to that conclusion. I think there’s probably room around his introduction, in terms of what the androids are for, to establish what facts about the world would lead Demi down that road.

As for Demi’s decision to spare Leo: it’s a big moment, and the turning point of the entire piece. I think it’s another place where a little air, a little introspection could help spotlight that point. Again: It’s crucial, so it’s something that would have priority to spread out a little.

It is still somewhat unclear what happens at the end: Whether somehow the lightning in the sky implies that something Leo did wrecked the lighthouse, and Shipwreck Cay itself is sinking. It’s another place a few more words would be welcome, especially given the implication that they’re adrift, and no one is coming.

Of course, building out a little needs to be balanced by some strategies to round out “Prickly Rats” at the same length, and I think that tool can best be used in the supporting layers of craft—the ones that aren’t as crucial to understanding the story, but support its sense of realism.

There are ways I think you could round out this world even at the short length, and one of the most notable I missed was colour. There’s a lot of texture in the description of Shipwreck Cay, a lot of height and motion and utility, but not much colour until the second scene. I think it would take very little page space to pull this island into three dimensions with that kind of visual information: colour, the difference in the light off the sea and the boat and the fur of the rats, what Leo actually looks like.

Likewise, I think there’s space to get some physicality in Demi’s mentions of the heat—especially leading up to her heat exhaustion. It’s 50C, which is terrifically hot; what does that feel like in her body, rather than as an abstract? It’s small information, but information which, again, makes this story-world rounder and more real.

Likewise, her class background; is there a difference between dialects or regional words Leo and Demi use? It’s a subtle way to suggest Leo’s used to blackmail-worthy circles and that Demi is not, without adding words per se, just changing a few of the ones already in use.

I’ll note that these are substitutions because they’re not crucial details: they can take up less space because it’ll matter less if that specific piece of information is missed. But they’ll be picked up by readres in the texture of the story, and contribute to an overall feel of who these people are, and where this place is.

The author’s notes ask if this piece is convincing; I think it’s most of the way there. With a little more clarity on those points that need to breathe—crucial points, like plot and theme—and a few careful, considered layers added with substitution to make this world pop more strongly, there’s no reason it shouldn’t stand out on the page.

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 2023, 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.

All That Remains by Kell Shaw

I’m intrigued by this glimpse of a world, and I love the challenge the author’s note sets: to critique a short story that’s based on a novel. As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to try it.

The first thing I will note is that if the story is going to be submitted for publication, it needs careful proofreading and a close line edit. There are quite a few revision artifacts and some missing words and phrases. But that’s not a dealbreaker for critiquing the draft.

In terms of structure, I think the story might actually be condensed and tightened without confusing the reader. Yes, it could be shorter, and yes, it can still make sense.

The opening is nice and strong. The undead girl, the music on endless repeat, the protagonist doing his best to cope with the situation.

Tamlyn’s ruminations as he leaves Lukie pretty much duplicate his conversation with Cage. I think we can dispense with them in the earlier scene. That will leave room for us to see how and where he picks up the monster hunter and why (and how) it’s taking the form of a hookup rather than a more neutral form of meeting. That will take us to the motel, and the small contretemps at registration.

Do we need two motels? Can they be combined? We can still get the worldbuilding elements, the written languages and the history, but in a more compact form. Then the story can move on to the point of the exercise, which is Tamlyn’s attempt to get Lukie’s photo. That’s where it really matters whether Lukie is still the person he knew, and where we need to know about vestiges and about the price Tamlyn will pay if he becomes her guardian.

I would like to understand more clearly why this is happening now, if she’s been undead since high school, and Tamlyn is now middle-aged. Why not years ago? What’s happened in between? What brings Tamlyn and Lukie to this breaking point?

I’m guessing these questions are answered in the novel, but the story needs a bit more of the backstory in order to stand on its own. That will make it even clearer why he decides to go all in for her, and strengthen the emotional impact of both the opening and closing scenes.

Best of luck with the story, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 2023, 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.

Ratbag by Pierce Skinner

Two important ingredients of most successful horror stories (and many other kinds of stories) are anticipation and escalation.  If your story creates anticipation, that means readers are expecting, predicting, hoping or dreading some possible upcoming event.  Anticipation can be created in several ways; in the case of “Ratbag,” details and events suggest future possible events, which creates strong anticipation.  The three characters are introduced with a baseball bat, shovel, and ball peen hammer, among other things.  When “David knocks the hammer against the rock,” it’s chilling, and I know that these items are going to be used for something bad.  I’m anticipating with dread that some animals are going to be hurt.  Indeed, the rats in the bag are killed, but when the boys look into the bag, the rats are inexplicably unhurt.  At this point, my anticipation changes.  I’m now anticipating with excitement that the rats will get their revenge against the boys.  The boys, after trying many times to kill the rats, are ultimately lost, unable to return to their lives.

As the boys try again and again to kill the rats, the anticipation remains pretty much the same, but the methods of the boys grow more and more horrific, creating escalation.  A story can escalate in several ways.  “Ratbag” escalates primarily through intensifying the brutality of the boys.  That increases our horror and our desire to see the boys stopped.

While these two elements work well in “Ratbag” and keep me reading with a strong mix of both excitement (that the boys will be stopped) and horror (that the boys are getting worse and worse), I think there are other aspects of the story that could be strengthened.

It’s clear that the boys have killed rats before, so I don’t know why the rats on this day keep coming back to life.  And I don’t know why the boys are ultimately lost.  A story is generally stronger if it follows a causal chain, a chain of cause-and-effect relationships that link the events that make up the plot.  With a strong causal chain, every event has a cause and every event has an effect (a consequence).  And if a character changes over the course of the story, those changes also have causes and consequences.  In “Ratbag,” I don’t think we need an explicit cause for the rats’ survival (like a witch giving the rats superpowers), since that would involve introducing significant new elements to the story, but I think a cause can be suggested using the elements already in the story, which would give us a better sense of why the situation on this day is different than previous days.  I was quite intrigued by the humane rat traps built by Tugs’s father while high on illegal drugs.  Tugs says he “had to figure out these new traps,” and it wasn’t easy.  The new traps are something that’s different on this day, though on their own they aren’t enough to suggest a reason the rats are continually restored to their uninjured state.  If, in addition to that, something weird/unusual happened with Tugs’s father while he was making these traps, that might suggest the traps caught unusual rats.  For example, maybe Tugs’s father died while working on the traps, or was on some different drugs that may have killed him or caused a psychotic break or led him to rant about something that seems like it could tie into the rats or into punishment for wrongdoers.  Just a couple details could be sufficient.

The ending, in which “The boys are running in the dark but these are not the same woods they entered. They cannot find their way,” also seems lacking in cause.  The fantastic in the story has been limited to the rats until very near the end, when the landscape changes, and the reason for that is not clear.  This not only creates a weakness in the causal chain but also a lack of unity in the story, since new fantastic elements are revealed at the end that don’t seem tied to the rats.  The rats didn’t come from the woods.  I think the story would be more unified if either the connection between the rats and the landscape was made clear very early in the story, or if the rats remain the only fantastic element in the story.

The story seems to show the rats driving the boys to degenerate or devolve into an ever  more violent and vicious state as the story approaches the end, so an ending in which this reaches its full realization would give the story a strong causal chain and make it unified.

One stylistic element that distracted me was the number of sentences structured with a compound predicate and multiple coordinating conjunctions (and, in particular).  I’ll give a couple examples:

–David bounces on his heels and drops the hammer and pops open the soda.

–Tugs sighs and wipes sweat from his upper lip with his forearm and shrugs off the backpack and unzips it and pulls out a dirty glass stem and a ziploc bag of what might be drywall or rock salt but is neither.

–Tugs takes a rock from the ziploc bag and drops it into the end of the glass stem and thumbs it into place.

There are many sentences like this, and they draw attention to themselves (and away from the story) because this isn’t the usual way a compound predicate is written. Usually, there’s just a comma between the list in the predicate, and only one “and,” before the last item of the list.  For example,

–David bounces on his heels, drops the hammer, and pops open the soda.

While using “and” multiple times can make a sentence stand out, and that can be a way to draw attention to something, using it multiple times means the sentences don’t really stand out but instead distract.  My suggestion would be to rephrase most of these.

One other element I want to mention is David’s dialogue.  He seems to be from an upper-class family, yet near the beginning, it’s established that he tries to speak like his friends, who are from lower-class backgrounds.  Shortly after that, though, his dialogue changes to sound upper class.  That inconsistency weakens David’s character. Keeping his dialogue more consistent would make him more believable.

I felt some good anticipation and horror while reading the story, and definitely wanted to keep 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 2023, 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.

Murder On Marzanna (prologue + Chapter 1) by Adam G.I. Targill

Every so often with an Editor’s Choice I like to focus on what works in a submission, rather than on what needs work. I think we can learn as much from what’s done right as from what’s not quite there.

It’s challenge enough to write in one genre, and even more so to combine two—in this case, hard SF and murder mysteries. It takes a deft hand and a good grasp of both genres. I like what I’m seeing so far on both fronts.

The best part for me is that the mystery grows out of the science. You can’t have one without the other. The idea of 3-D printing space colonists is one of those things that’s both classic and right up to the minute. I’ve seen variations on it using clones, or data downloads into lab-grown bodies, and of course there’s the Star Trek-style transporter, but this does what science fiction loves to do: it illuminates the future through today’s cutting-edge technology.

That’s why, for me, the exposition works. It answers questions before I can ask them, and clarifies concepts without overwhelming my liberal-arts-major mind with technobabble. The plot keeps moving and the mystery keeps deepening, even while I’m being filled in on essential aspects of worldbuilding. The only quibble I might have is the analogy to a fax machine. That seems antiquated now. Would it even be a thing by the “now” of the novel

One thing that helps a lot is that hard science fiction, as a genre, runs on exposition. I expect it; it’s part of the way the genre works. The same applies to murder mysteries. They’re all about details and procedures. We expect explanations. We want them. That’s how the mystery gets solved—through the accumulation of details that add up to whodunit and why.

I love the balancing act that is Sophia back on Earth, Sophia who gets murdered, and Sophia who has been reprinted from a seven-month-old scan. They’re all the same person, and yet each has a slightly different set of experiences. The fact that the most recent copy on Marzanna is dead is the focus of the mystery—and that’s the beauty of the whole thing. Not only is the victim solving her own murder, the mystery resolves around a flaw in the system. It’s complicated without being confusing, which is what a good mystery needs.

I don’t think the characterization suffers to any great degree. There’s a fair amount of setup, yes, but it’s interesting and it’s essential to understanding what’s going on. The cast of characters is small enough to keep me from bogging down between the worldbuilding and the people inhabiting it. It’s further reduced here; we meet three of the personnel aside from Sophia, and can be sure we’ll meet the rest in later chapters.

For now, it’s enough to have Sophia’s viewpoint. We see that Johann likes to explain things, and I get the impression that Sophia, even when she isn’t just waking up from being reprinted, probably isn’t a science guy. Asha throws a spanner in the works; the relationship Sophia remembers isn’t the one Asha is in, or out of. That’s good friction to keep the wheels of story turning, and it grows out of the main science-fictional element, the technology that allows a character to come back from the dead. Then at the end we meet Junwei, and that’s our opening to the next chapter.

It works in terms of pacing. I want to know the things I’m being told. They build the world around me and give me clues as to how it works. Now I’ve got a handle on that, I’ll expect the characters to show me more of themselves. The mystery will deepen, too, I’m sure, as I learn more about what happened.

It’s a strong start, nicely and confidently written. I would definitely read on.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2023, 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.

Maskot: The Novel by David Schwartz, Chapter 1

This chapter works for me as the opening of a novel. The way the protagonist is introduced sets up expectations: we’re going to get John’s life history, starting from his childhood. We find out who he is, where he comes from, and what kind of world he lives in. By the end, we know why he’s been chosen and what he will be trained for—and we’re ready to discover how it plays out.

It’s done deftly, with plenty of detail, but no slackening of the pace. There’s plenty of exposition, but it’s all relevant to that point in the narrative. We’re told what we need to know in order to understand what’s going on.

Over and over again, when I’m editing or critiquing mss., I’ll ask, “Do we need to know this right here and now? Are we getting just the right amount of exposition, or has the story run into a speed bump?” The answer here is, Yes, we do, and yes we are, and the story is moving along as it should. It’s well done.

This has the feel of good old-fashioned alien-invasion science fiction. Andre Norton could have written something very like this, or Heinlein when he wrote for younger readers. It’s retro in a good way, for the most part.

The protagonist is still very young and his character is just starting to take shape, but he tells his story capably. The aliens are nicely weird, and they don’t read as humans-in-costume. Their language of light and gesture is very cool; I’ll look forward to seeing more of that as the story unfolds.

I have a couple of questions about the worldbuilding. One is quite small, just a quibble really, but it’s one of the things that dates the narrative as mid-twentieth-century. The world Oriental is not much in use any longer. It’s been replaced by less Western-colonial-centric terms, notably Asian.

The viewpoint the word implies, the assumption it seems to be based on, is white European. And yet in this world, would humans retain assumptions about race and skin-color discrimination? Would John know or care what an “Oriental” is? His Khin says he “looks like a Seminole,” which implies that he’s probably not white-presenting, either, despite his white-presenting name. (And if his mom is going for simple, what about Juan or Ali or Chen?)

It would seem logical that by this time, the only distinction is human versus alien. Humans come in a range of shapes, sizes, and skin tones, but what they would really notice is that they’re not Khin. For that matter, why would a Khin care what a human looks like? Is there an aesthetic element to the Game, a rule that the human game piece has to look a certain way in order to play a particular role?

I’d like to know, too, whether the rigid gender roles are part of the Khin’s Game, and whether they become less rigid over the course of the novel. Even if it’s the Game, wouldn’t there be nods to female fighters in human history—Viking shieldmaidens, Amazons, the Agojie of Dahomey?

Another question I had as I read had to do with the Khin’s language. It’s unusual in slave societies for the slaveholders to speak the language of the enslaved people. It’s much more common for slaves to be forced to speak the slaveholders’ language.

Humans of course aren’t physically capable of speaking by means of light and color, but would they be expected to understand a rudimentary form of it? Basic vocabulary, names and ranks, and of course commands? Gestures and sign language might be useful as well. Not to mention, the humans might have a secret language, a means of communicating that’s not shared with or made known to the Khin.

I like that this chapter makes me ask questions like this. There’s plenty of room for a novel here, lots of scope in the world and the characters. I’ll be interested to see where it goes, and how it develops.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 2023, Horror

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

The Love Of A Mother by Daniel A. J.

One ability all short story writers need is to tell a story in a small number of words. “The Love of a Mother” achieves a lot in 279 words. We get a sense of the setting, descriptions of six characters, an understanding of the situation, and we see the main character make a major decision. That’s a lot. The piece has some vivid sensory details and raises questions in readers’ mind regarding the characters’ situation and what they are urging the mother to do, and those questions create suspense and engagement.

One area I think could be strengthened is the point of view. The POV is unclear to me now, which leaves me unable to settle into the story and experience it from a specific perspective. The first sentence, with the phrase “His mother,” implies that I’m in “his” point of view, which means the POV of the dead boy. I don’t think that’s what’s intended because the rest of the story is not from the dead boy’s POV. The second sentence shifts to calling the mother “her,” making me feel I’m in her third person limited omniscient POV. In the second paragraph, “Tears squeezed past her eyelids, flowed down her dirty, grunge-caked cheeks” shows me things the mother can’t see, so now I think I’m in a third person omniscient POV, hearing from the omniscient narrator. In the fourth paragraph, “Each breath she took filled her exhausted lungs with the warm, shit-and-piss-soaked air” puts me back in her body with her. After that, I think we stay in the mother’s POV until the last paragraph, when the “Dark blood ran down her chin and neck, vanishing into the cleft between her breasts.” That puts me outside of her, in an omniscient viewpoint looking at her. The story seems to end in that omniscient perspective, describing her “hysterical state of satisfaction and guilt,” which seems the way a rather dispassionate observer would describe it, not the way she would experience it. Staying in one consistent viewpoint throughout would allow us to experience the story more strongly, without being jarred or confused by POV shifts. And the story could be presented in a more unified way, from a striking, involving perspective speaking in a strong voice.

The voice right now feels inconsistent. Some word choices feel sophisticated and a bit old fashioned, like miniscule, bosom, and moribund. Other words feel somewhat crude and more contemporary, like grunge-caked, shit-and-piss-soaked, and deadbeat. This leaves me without a clear sense of the voice or the world in which these characters exist.

The other element I’d like to discuss is characterization. It’s not clear why the man and the woman are urging the mother to eat her child. If they are all starving, which is how I interpret the story, then the others should be eager to grab the dead child and eat it. I think they’d actually discourage the mother from eating the child and offer to bury the boy or take him to reduce her temptation. If they’re in some situation in which the mother, for some reason, needs to eat her son to avoid being killed by some unseen jailers, and the others want her to survive for some reason, I think that needs to be clarified.

I think the characterization could also be strengthened with some research. I believe the characters in the story are suffering from starvation. If so, their condition and situation could be described incorporating some realistic details. Research can strengthen most fiction, no matter the genre, since it can provide fascinating details the author would most likely never think of. I’m no expert on starvation, but I believe that people who are deep into starvation—deep enough that they’d become cannibals—would have swollen bellies, not sunken ones. And I think they would not be strong enough to growl or bellow, and the mother would not be able to hold her son up by the ankle.

I think a more consistent point of view and some stronger characterizations could help maximize the impact of this piece. I hope my comments are helpful. I appreciate all that this story did in such a few words.

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