Editor’s Choice Award September 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 Talisman Plant by Bronwyn Venter

was drawn to “The Talisman Plant” this month because of its charming but substantial quest, the nuanced turn it took to its subject matter, and the question in its author’s notes: “Curious to know if the vocab is too difficult for a middle grades/YA audience”. It’s a question which opened a large door, and this month, I’d like to explore how we cut through standard writing advice to find deliberate approaches in our work.

(Yup, this is the meta-Editor’s Choice: the advice about writing advice!)

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Vasi’s quest for a hedgehog—to find the raskovnik, to free his father—is terribly sweet, in a Victorian animal drawings kind of way, and then deepens considerably in a way that feels organic as this piece gets into the realities of fairy-tale logic slamming into political worlds. Overall, it’s got a really tidy marriage between that fairy-tale logic and some sophisticated concepts, being tackled in a way that reads fairly clean and uncomplicated.

I think the goal of creating appeal to both younger and adult readers is being met right now: there’s a way to read Vasi’s quest as straight-up adventure for a kid, and an intensely bittersweet last gasp of heartbreak for an adult.

Pacing is something I do want to draw your attention to. There’s a huge section—once Vasi finds out his friend is a fae and before he goes to do something about it—which can easily be condensed down to a few paragraphs or cut. Not much action is moving forward in that space or new information being learned; it’s rather ruminative, and every character introduced is secondary or disposable. I think there’s room to reduce it and keep the story overall on target.

But most of all: The author’s notes ask if the vocabulary here is accessible for a younger audience, which is a good question to ask. Stories that are ostensibly written for kids but have all the structural assumptions of adult readerly knowledge are definitely a thing we can produce as writers.

Here’s the thing, though: My instinct is no, it isn’t. If anything, based on contents, this piece would be middle-grade rather than YA—the concerns of YA are much more relational and identity-related (who am I as an adult, how do I fit into my world as I change?), much less cute or soft-focused, and much emotionally sharper, harder, or more complex. This is definitely not a YA piece in what it’s talking about and how.

But what advice do I give to help realign “The Talisman Plant” into middle-grade conventions? I quickly realized I don’t confidently know: middle-grade has always been a weak spot in my own toolbox, because I was one of those kids never really reading at the age bracket I was supposed to. I can’t backfill that experience or learn it later, because I’ll never be a kid again. I can just try to work the problem for you and admit that answer’s going to be flawed.

But: What I’d like to offer up is modeling the process I used today to try to work that problem for you—and with that, talk about how we can learn to evaluate what works and what we can do as writers in an industry that can frequently drown in ideas about what a book should look like. What approaches can we take to writing advice and applying it when we don’t have good context?

The real question here: What do we do next when we don’t know something about our readership?

Find what the standard advice emphasizes. Fortunately or unfortunately, writing advice is never more than a Google search away; the problem we have is sorting it for relevance and credibility. The standard advice for writing middle-grade is plain, simple, digestible language that focuses on action over theory of mind or description. Active verbs over passive verbs, simple sentence structures, and literalism over metaphor.

In this case, if “The Talisman Plant” wanted to take that approach, there might be a balance to be struck between words that give the slightly historical flavour of a fairytale (“surmised”, “countenance”) and kids’ vocabularies; “went for a piss” might be rougher than a kid that age is used to from fairytales. There’s also something to look at in the sheer amount of information this story keeps in subtext and its accessibility to young audiences; that standard advice emphasizes being direct with your information and not assuming that younger readers will get your inferences.

I’d also extend that to suggesting a little less explanation and more action, especially with the fae’s early actions; kids are, for better or worse, used to a world where adults do arbitrary things without justifying themselves, and they’re used to not understanding things yet.

That’s one approach we can take with “The Talisman Plant”; take that advice as written and use it rigorously to get the story it’s telling within the storytelling conventions that advice describes.

But—there’s probably better work we can do on that front. It would mean not following that advice blindly, but using it as an idea of where to start asking questions.

Find the holes in the standard advice—but intelligently, not reactively. However—we might think—kids read fairy tales, and have for a very long time. It’s worth asking who a standard piece of writing advice is for: American eight-year-olds? British twelve-year-olds? From what background (they might well know about the police brutality, but not what a florin is). Who is this advice thinking of as the normative reader? What ideas does it hold about them—and this is especially important when writing for kids, because adults have all kinds of odd ideas about how kids think and act. The major obstacle, I’ve noticed, in working with young readers is adult projection; adults treat the question of “how childhood is” in an extremely politically loaded way, and that can get between writers and our younger audiences.

Middle-grade is technically 8-12, which is a huge spectrum of life experience, vocabulary, and mindset. It’s a huge spectrum of cultural attitudes toward childhood, regional education systems, ideas about reading, class privilege, and experiences with English. It covers very young children with dyslexia, the kids who have been already reading into the adult section, and everything in between.

I think ultimately, to navigate our question in that stack of complexity, we have to do the usual thing writers do with stories and decide who we are talking to. And then sort out what advice is useful for that choice from what isn’t as we move forward.

There’s a way of thinking about the story, in this context, which asks:

What are we assuming a nine-year-old reader already knows about stories? Do they have the concept of a gamekeeper or bailiff? Do they know what faeries are? Are we assuming too much? Are we assuming too little?
What are we assuming a nine-year-old reader already knows about the world as it is right now? Do they have the concept of police brutality (where does this nine-year-old live? They might well have this one down; they might have been sheltered from it or it might not be part of their experience).
And then: how do we then rewrite this one to fit with what that archetypical reader we made up does know?

Draw on any experience we might have—or can acquire—to get deeper. A third approach—a complementary one!—is to just try to get more information. And that’s always a good one, no matter what we decide to do next.

In trying to tackle this, I thought about my own bookselling experience and how I used to get around the problem of recommending books to kids and parents when I’d never been a middle-grade reader: finding out what else that particular reader liked, and ditching all ideas of what kids as a unit like. The first time I had to review a middle-grade book, I asked friends who had young children how they read and what they enjoyed. Is there a way to get more information about your particular archetypical reader?

Asking a bookseller or librarian what’s currently popular in their store beyond the usual series—with that reader we’re thinking of!—can be a good strategy. Talking to parents of readers who are themselves readers—and can deconstruct a book that way—can really help. Reading a dozen middle-grade books in a row aimed at that reader (they’re quite short!) and finding what they have in common is another.

These are ways to focus down a little more strongly, because we can ask finer-grained questions: what makes an MG book successful commercially? What makes one successful in terms of awards? How are those different? What do MG books that are written to uphold an idea of what kids are like do, and what do the books that want to argue kids are different do differently? What makes a MG book successful now versus ten years ago (whole new generation of kids!).

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What I’m outlining here is probably the longest and most complex answer to “Does the language work?” that’s ever been thrown across the proverbial desktop, but what it’s getting into is the foundations of building our own knowledge. It’s learning our industry—and our craft—with our own ears and eyes and fingers.

Ultimately, the problem with writing advice (this advice included!) is it means relying on authority to solve our writing conundrums—and authority is not really a thing in the very personal, very individual universe of what stories people like, why they like them, how children are, what a person knows or wants to know, and whether we’re communicating well with someone else. Authority has to generalize when it answers that question, so authority always misses.

When we start to build our own processes for finding things out about writing and stories, we start to have the information we need to make our own choices. Yeah, we’re going to miss too; but we’re going to miss things as a result of the decisions we’ve made—deliberately setting certain things aside—instead of the information we didn’t have, the person we believed, what they missed, what we didn’t know enough to ask about. Setting certain things aside and choosing others: it’s how we build a style, a voice of our own, and an aesthetic for our lifetime of writing.

So I hope this long detour into how to build a meaningful process to answer that question—how’s the language look?—is a useful one. Not just for answering that simple question, but for all the things that it’s possible to learn about writing and publishing on the way to the answer, and how that knowledge can shape your approach to writing in future.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

A Voice From The Moon Chapters 1 & 2 by Samuel Finn

 I like the premise of this novel. The dying Earth is very topical, and the wise, older alien race that comes to save it is a favorite trope. The action-adventure aspect and the hard-science-fiction elements make a nice combination. Then, as the second chapter comes to end, we get the beginnings of a mystery. I am a sucker for a good mystery.

I’m a sucker for a good dog, too. Basing the Aya on dogs really makes the submission for me. Clius is a great character, and a great way to explore the human species through the eyes of an outsider.

When it’s time to either self-publish or submit the novel, I would suggest running it by a good, thorough line editor. The prose has a lot of repetitive phrasing, word echoes, and odd or awkward constructions, which might be smoothed out for greater clarity and faster pacing especially in the action scenes.

In the meantime, for this Editor’s Choice I’d like to focus on what for me is the most striking aspect of these chapters: the alien viewpoint. I actually like the slight awkwardness and stiffness of the prose in Clius’ scenes. They make a nice, subtle point that he is not human and he is not a native speaker of human languages. When the viewpoint shifts to Z, that line edit and that smoothing out will help to indicate the change of species as well.

I did wonder as I read, if the worldbuilding might go further than it does. The draft establishes Clius’ physical appearance and his ongoing attempts to understand human language and thinking. It also makes the point that he sees differently; he can see in infrared as well as in the human visual spectrum.

This strikes me as a very human way to construct an alien based on a dog. The one human sense that tends to be presented as superior to the canine is sight. The human eye can see a wider range of colors in the visible spectrum, and see more detail within those colors.

But if the alien is more doglike than human-like, might he not also have a dog’s range of senses? If you look at it that way, it’s not sight that distinguishes him from the human. It’s smell and, to a lesser degree, hearing.

A dog’s sense of smell is a truly amazing thing. I would love to see what would happen to Clius’ perception of the world around him if smell were his primary sense, with hearing and sight subordinate to that. Sight would still matter, but think about how the scene in the bar would seem to him, how he would identify different people of whatever species, what he would have to do not to get overwhelmed, and what details he would pick up about everyone, not just those present now but those who have come through previously.

And then in the training exercise, he would have a tremendous advantage, because he would know where everyone was and how long they had been there. Would that cause the all-human units to object to his presence? Or would he have to be blocked or suppressed in some way, so that the competition would be more fair? For that matter, other units might come up with ways to short-circuit his nose, hit him with a hellacious stink or, perhaps more evilly, with something pheromonal and severely distracting, like the scent of a female in estrus.

There are so many possibilities there. In terms of craft, too, the Clius scenes could be presented with emphasis on the senses that for him are primary. Then when we shift to a human viewpoint, we’ll get a different sensory emphasis. The reader can pick up on that as the scenes and viewpoints change, and get different perspectives on the same settings and characters.

One thing to keep in mind when doing this is that when Clius is telling the story, the perspective will be different than when a human is telling it. Think about what he takes for granted, and what he accepts as normal. These will not be the same things that a human would perceive. He won’t particularly notice that he sees heat signatures unless it’s pointed out to him, or unless it’s relevant in some way to what’s happening around him.

After all, do we stop to think about the range of colors we can see, all the different shades of blue or red or green, or do we just go ahead and accept that we see them? We may only think about it if we’re talking to someone who can’t see in those ranges, or if for some immediate and compelling reason we have to be able to discern subtle shades of color. Or maybe not so subtle—think about red-green color blindness and the reason why traffic lights are arranged in a specific order.

This isn’t something that needs a lot of exposition or explanation. It’s more of an underlying rationale for how different characters perceive their environment. It’s a set of choices: what words the character uses, which senses come into play first, and how they affect what he does and thinks and feels.

I just have one further question. It’s clear that gender parity is a thing in this universe. And yet there are no females in Clius’ unit. Is this deliberate? Is there a plot-based reason for it? If so, maybe that could be made a little clearer?

Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr

 

Publication News

Peter S. Drang wants us all to know about his latest sale. “Nature: Futures, a pro market, bought my story “Zeroing Out His Wavefunction” which was extensively reviewed here on OWW. A huge thank-you to everyone who helped me zero in on this hard science fiction story about quantum entanglement and human entanglements.”

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Revised: Bodies for Gods Chapter 1 by James Cooper

I did something for this Editor’s Choice that I’ve only done once before: I read the original version as well as the revision. I’m glad I did. It’s always interesting to see how a draft changes from one version to the next.

In this case, the goal was to be clearer about what is going on in the chapter, and to reduce confusion. I think the revision does this. It certainly pares down the prose and focuses on the characters and the action.

There are a few things that might help the chapter become even clearer and even more focused. One is quite basic. The revision is much less prone to passive voice and word echoes than the original, but I think another pass would be even more effective. Try the Kill Challenge: kill all the passives and the repetitive phrases, then see how it reads, and whether any of them needs to go back in.

I understand why the revision gave up on the attempt to convey different viewpoints within the same character. It’s a great idea but a serious challenge for both the writer and the reader. Better to go simple, stay in one viewpoint and let the story unfold through that pair of eyes.

The revision works hard at this, and maybe goes a little too far in the direction of making sure we know exactly whose point of view it is. There are frequent viewpoint tags; we get multiple repetitions of words and phrases that emphasize which version of Signy is telling the story, words like know, remember, watch. At one point we’re told in no uncertain terms that the Signy-viewpoint is the adult, and she’s in the time of the child:

If any looked her direction at all, it was as if she wasn’t there. Of course, she wasn’t. They looked right through her. Occasionally, they even walked through her.

I think it’s clear enough that she’s not physically there. One iteration of that is all the narrative needs; then it can move on to meet the child Signy.

TOnce it’s established that Signy is having an out-of-body experience, the tags become a distraction. It might help to run another Kill Challenge. After the first couple of tags, delete the rest and see if the narrative makes sense. Then just restore them where it’s absolutely necessary to clarify the meaning.

One more thing I think might help with clarity. I get from the context as well as the author’s note that viewpoint-Signy has had large portions of her memory eaten by the god that’s taking her over. There are references to what’s missing, and we’re told that she can’t remember who the people are that she sees. I’m still not absolutely clear on how the process works.

There’s another layer or two of worldbuilding to be done here, I think. I feel as if I’m wanting a bit more on how she knows what’s missing, and how she feels about it. Does she build new memories through these visions, or is that also taken from her? Can she form new memories and process them into longterm memory, or has she lost that capability? How aware can she be of what’s happening to her, and will that awareness erode as the damage progresses?

Those questions are probably answered in the novel as a whole. I just find myself wanting a little more at this opening chapter, a hint of what it all about, and a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Asha will give us some of that, but maybe there could be a little more here.

It’s an intriguing concept, for sure. The loss of Signy’s memory and self is both epic and tragic, and at the same time, it’s deeply personal. That comes through even in this short chapter.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Two Versions Of Flash Fiction Using Same Elements by Tim W. Burke

It’s interesting to see two different versions of the story right beside each other.  Exploring different options and seeing their impact on readers is a good way to learn how to improve your writing.

Both versions of the story are about April, who made a deal with the devil to live a hundred years and have unlimited wealth in exchange for–I think–her soul and the life of a baby.  The story takes place in the last few minutes of her life.  One good technique for writing flash is to focus the story solely on the climax and resolution, to keep the piece short, so both versions of the story are making use of this helpful technique.  For me, the second version is stronger in several ways.  It is clearer, and Nurse Schoen, who appears only in the second version, is a vivid and compelling character.  The second version also gives April a choice to make, which gives her some power and makes her a little more active as a protagonist.

For the remainder of this critique, I’m going to make suggestions that I think could strengthen either version.

For me, the story raises some very intriguing questions.  April apparently did a lot of good in the world in her hundred years.  The devil obviously thinks April’s soul is worth more than all the suffering she eliminated.  Is that because the devil doesn’t really want suffering in the world?  Or is that because the devil will restore all the suffering as soon as April is dead, undoing all that she did?  Or is it because the seeming good she has done is not really good?  Can good really arise from the murder of a baby?  These are compelling questions that I would love to see explored more in the story. (The last question carries echoes of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin.)

Instead, the story focuses on whether April thinks all the good she did is worth the price of her soul and of a baby that I think she killed to seal the pact.  But whether April thinks it is worth it or not has no effect on events.  That’s really a decision she made back when she formed the pact with the devil.  It seems like at that time she would have decided that having unlimited money and a hundred years would allow her to do so much good in the world that she wouldn’t mind sacrificing her soul and killing a baby.  At the end of her life, this is a done deal, so the question of whether she now thinks it worth it doesn’t really matter.  (And the one to judge is really the baby, not April.)  The questions that are more relevant at this point in her life are whether the good she did will last beyond her lifetime.  I think that’s a question many of us might ask.  Tying this question to the outcome of the story could be a way to strengthen the climax.

So let’s look more closely at the climax.  Generally, a strong climax will feel both surprising and inevitable.  In both versions, the devil is coming to claim her soul at her death.  In the first version, April has no power to change anything, so she’s simply waiting until the time comes at the end.  That makes April a passive protagonist and makes the climax feel inevitable but not surprising.

In the second version, April has the power to make a choice between letting the devil take her or becoming a vampire to avoid death and avoid the devil.  The revelation that the nurse is a vampire is surprising but doesn’t feel inevitable.  Becoming a vampire usually involves dying first and then being raised from the dead, so I would think the devil would be able to grab April’s soul when she dies.  Also, vampires are generally portrayed as not having souls, so in that case, it would seem that the devil would have gotten his price and April would have lost her soul.  And since vampires usually feed on people, it seems that April would be doing a lot of harm in the world as a vampire.  So her decision, in this case, seems to be to continue to have an existence on earth even though others will suffer because of her.  If this is going to be the choice April makes, these issues need to be raised and explored.  Was it easy to do good when she had time and money, but now that those have run out, she just wants to continue her existence and doesn’t care about doing good?

So neither climax has both of the desired qualities.  I think part of the problem is April’s memory loss, which leaves her unable to be an active protagonist and makes any decision seem random/uninformed.  If she had more of an understanding of what’s happening, I think that would allow the story to have more depth, April to be more active, and the climax to be stronger.  In that case, April might have spent the last year getting every medical expert to work on her case and find a way to stop the deterioration of her health.  She might also have gathered all the experts on the devil to see if they can get her out of her deal.  They might be making their last attempts as the story begins, injecting her with treatments or splashing her with holy water or whatever.  And at the same time her many assistants could be reporting on the success of various projects, and letting her know about new projects that need her help, and informing her that she’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, etc.  But none of the treatments help, and she dismisses everyone, but a strange nurse appears.  That nurse could offer her a deal.  The nurse could give her immortality and renewed health.  April could be alive to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  She could do whatever she wants, with no time limit.  April could question the nurse about how she can do this, how she can overcome the devil.  Can the nurse really get April out of her pact?  The nurse says yes.  Unfortunately, April will lose her soul, the nurse can’t save that, but the nurse can save April’s body and physical life.  April could ask what the nurse’s price is.  The nurse might say that doing this work is its own reward.  This gives April a difficult decision, which is a good element to have in a climax.  April could think about all the additional good she could do with more time, and how great it would be to receive the Nobel, and decide to agree to the nurse’s terms.  The nurse might then morph into the devil.  The devil takes April’s soul and restores her health.  April feels energized and powerful and excited.  She calls in all her assistants and gives them new orders, shutting down all her positive projects and using the money for a personal spending spree.  We could get the feeling she’s going to undo all the good she has done.

Anyway, something like this could make April more active and could be both surprising (because the nurse turns out to be the devil) and inevitable (because without a soul April would have no impetus to do good).

I’d like to cover a couple other areas briefly.  First, I had a hard time falling into the story because a number of the sentences are unfocused or awkward.  For example, “In April’s lustrous bedroom, the night nurse checked her smartwatch and shook her head. Yes, it was thirteen, April did count correctly, sharp-eared, over her beeping diagnostic bed and her video wall showing rows of healthy babies in a sparkling new maternity ward.”  The first sentence quoted seems at first to be about April’s bedroom, since it is describing the bedroom as “lustrous.”  But then it moves to another topic, describing the nurse’s actions.  Is the sentence about the bedroom or the nurse?  If it’s about the nurse, the word “lustrous” should not be there.  If it’s about the bedroom, then we should get specific, significant details about the bedroom and nothing about the nurse.

The second sentence quoted is a run-on sentence as well as being unfocused.  The first part of the sentence, up to “bed,” is about the clock striking thirteen.  The second part of the sentence describes the video wall and has nothing to do with the clock striking.  So is the sentence about the clock striking or is it about the video wall? These two things don’t belong in the same sentence. (Also, I think “April” is not the right character.  Isn’t it the nurse counting?)

A sentence is an idea; it can be a simple idea or a complex idea, but it should be only one idea, and it should be a focused idea.  This can be a helpful way to figure out what details belong in a particular sentence.

One final area I want to touch on is the point of view.  The POV seems to shift a lot in the story, sometimes in the nurse’s head, sometimes in April’s head, and sometimes giving us the narrator’s description of things.  Those shifts are jarring and make it difficult to get settled in the story.  I think the story would be stronger if told from April’s third person limited omniscient POV.

The story engaged me with some unusual questions.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

On The Shelves

A Desert Torn Asunder (Song of Shattered Sands Book 6) by Brad Beaulieu (DAW July 2021) 

The final book in The Song of the Shattered Sands series closes the epic fantasy saga in a desert setting, filled with rich worldbuilding and pulse-pounding action.

The plans of the desert gods are coming to fruition. Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, hopes to raise the buried elder god, Ashael, an event that would bring ruin to the desert.

Çeda and Emre sail for their ancestral home to bring the traitor, Hamid, to justice. To their horror, they discover that the desert tribes have united under Hamid’s banner. Their plan? A holy crusade to annihilate Sharakhai, a thing long sought by many in the tribes. In Sharakhai, meanwhile, the blood mage, Davud, examines the strange gateway between worlds, hoping to find a way to close it. And King Ihsan hunts for Meryam, but always finds himself two steps behind.

When Meryam raises Ashael, all know the end is near. Ashael means to journey to the land that was denied to him an age ago, no matter the cost to the desert. It now falls to Çeda and her unlikely assortment of allies to find a way to unite not only the desert tribes and the people of Sharakhai, but the city’s invaders as well. Even if they do, stopping Ashael will cost them dearly, perhaps more than all are willing to pay.

On The Shelves

Clock Star Rose Spine by Fran Wilde (Lanternfish Press, August 2021)

Award-winning fantasy author Fran Wilde returns to her roots in Clock Star Rose Spine, bringing together poems previously published in Uncanny Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and more, along with a selection of work never before published.

In this collection illuminated with whimsical fountain pen illustrations, Wilde explores family histories, feminism, visual art, disability, mythology, and of course the sea with tangible yearning and keen insight.

Grapevine/Market News

Pseudopod’s flash fiction contest is open. They want no greater than 500 word flash horror stories only. Submission period is August 10 – August 31st. Payment is 8 cents per word. Full details are here:
Cemetery Gates is looking for feminist  horror stories by women and femme-identifying individuals on the theme of “A Woman Built By Men.” Deadline is September 5th, They want stories 2,000 to 5,000 words long, and payment is 5 cents per word. Details are here.

Publication News

Anne Hansell wants everyone to know: “I would like to thank Mary Ogle for her critique that helped my story, “The Ueno Park Incident” get published. I already thanked another person for her feedback. Thank you very much for your help.”

Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Eerie Appendages, Part 1 of 2 by William Broom

“Eerie Appendages” caught my eye this month with its uncanny, shadowy science fiction narrative, a whip-smart set of thematic ideas, and a careful deliberation in its clues and word choices. It’s a piece alluding to about four subgenres in SFF, but integrating them all into a cohesive—and unsettling—whole that uses every inch of its material. So this month, I’d like to discuss another way to think about thematics, and what unifying our elements of craft through them can do for our work.

If “Eerie Appendages” has a major shining strength, it’s efficiency and a thorough commitment to its core question. Each of its elements does something to further at least two story goals; everything works together, without a moment wasted. And everything runs through the mental lens of the question it’s exploring: the Uncanny Valley, what precisely is wrong on this planet, what feels wrong, what we’re told is wrong but feels right, and the whole idea of false consciousness.

That commitment begins immediately: “Eerie Appendages” derives a lot of its narrative tension from establishing and exchanging threats, and it wastes no time in setting up the disjuncts that power that sense of dread. The first line—that Harwen “feels he must want for nothing”—immediately bounces off the grotesque implications of being “mostly” free from parasites, setting up that core question of something is wrong here, and building it through individual elements that each approach a compromised reality: mind-controlling aliens, pheromones, trans-dimensional space travel, an unacknowledged queer relationship, colonialism, dissociation, and the gap between the professional and personal.

Even though that’s a quite disparate collection of elements to put in one story—never mind one this short—that question of false consciousness refracts ruthlessly through each one of them and ties them together into a Mieville-esque colonial Age of Sail narrative that’s smart, creepy, and narratively riveting.

What’s doing the heavy work here is the thematic level. Themes!

There can be a tendency when we’re first building our storycraft to think about theme as an allegory or a message, but it can be more constructive to think of it as how these things are each like the other—and then arrange those elements of story so they’re all catching the same proverbial light and sending it in the directions we want readers to look.

“Eerie Appendages” is flat-out great at this job. Thematic implications lurk under the surface constantly—but are confident enough to not make themselves too explicit, trusting readers to put them together ourselves, as every piece of thematic information is also doing plot or atmospheric work.

The true bodies’ composition as mounds of flesh that don’t move or sense, only consume and discard from the same holes, is both a huge foundation for the grotesque atmosphere and visible as a comment. The way those bodies play off readers’ sense of the Uncanny Valley—while reversing that perspective to show Harwen feeling that same disgust for human bodies—is a looping resonance that’s bluntly brilliant work. It generates buckets of tension and conflict without ever having to explain a thing.

“Eerie Appendages” is also making absolutely the most of its pseudo-historical trappings. Harwen’s period costume, the “feverish air of a foreign land” on-planet, live animals imported from faraway colonies immediately evoke a genre of colonial literature that’s inherently fairly brutal and bodily—a genre of bought and sold bodies, flogged bodies, rigid hierarchies—and bring all that brutality into play for readers without saying a word. It’s a very interesting subgenre in which to set a piece that plays with the Uncanny Valley like this; a story about false selves eating real ones and whose bodies are identifiable-with—whose bodies are real. Both are obsessed with bodies in a way that feeds each other, nourishes each other, and makes the material richer by bringing in whole other frames of reference, smashing them together, and going look, these are the same.

Harwen’s dismissive colonialist attitudes toward the planet’s Indigenous people fits into the Age of Sail ambiance perfectly, and is well-counterbalanced by Viltrand’s more functional, cooperative relationship with them—Harwen’s natives versus Viltrand’s locals. There’s a puzzle piece in this too: how Harwen’s inability to identify with them robs him of the social narrative he’d need to withstand the trauma of having his sense of self shaken.

Harwen’s obviously a complex character, even though we’re seeing him filtered through the lens of a possession—one that has him declaring “He is a simple man” in ways that are, every single one, proved a lie afterward. Harwen and Viltrand’s half-obscured romance puts the lie to him being just a husband and father; his increasing inability to master the situation and ultimate salvation through interreliance on his crew complicates the ideas in captain. His moment of startling compassion before the water drags his consciousness under gives me a glimpse of how he got his captaincy, his love triangle, and his liminal identity: a blink of the true person before he’s snuffed out.

These are all fascinating ideas to cluster around the core of a planet where you can be parasitized into self-destruction by who you identify with. They are all visible puzzle pieces readers can put together when reading into how “Eerie Appendages” thinks one’s instincts can be co-opted by systems not in your best interests. And they all worked well for me, because all these elements move in the same direction: from a false, grotesque simplicity to a more honest complexity. None of them fight the others, merely inform each other. Those themes—that question of identifying, false consciousness, and risk—becomes a steady organizing principle through which a half-dozen ideas can be compared and explored, and “Eerie Appendages” grown from the rote horror of losing control to something textured, deliberate, emotional, existential, and ultimately really very tragic.

The author’s notes mentioned clarity as a challenge; while I find myself having to reframe my idea of where objective reality sits as I start “Eerie Appendages” and move through to Viltrand’s explanations, it’s not creating confusion. There are enough clues—Nicolas’s very human name versus that alien body, his protestations of simplicity—that I’m comfortable riding that wave, knowing the disjuncts have been pointed out to me as something to follow. And I’m personally all right with the physics of the Linear Sea being weird in a story about unstable realities; the point of the solid clouds on the first page is the crushing on the last one, so I don’t personally need to understand the mechanics behind them.

There aren’t a great many suggestions or notes in this critique, but on the whole, I think this is fabulously done: smart, subtle, horrifying, wildly imaginative, and absolutely making the most of itself. And I think it stands a strong chance of finding an excellent home.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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