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.

Your Great Mother Across The Salt Sea by Kelsey Hutton

I was drawn to “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” by its storyteller’s cadence, its powerfully simple speculative element, and how much it’s able to say about human relationships, power, responsibility, and ethical assertion in clean, uncluttered lines. It’s a great example of doing the most with every word and how we can, as writers, convey a perspective without making ourselves and our work smaller.

The first spark for me with “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” is the idea: how soon the story presents it, and how it keeps its magic simple, precise, and deep. Miyohtwaw’s talent feels like the equivalent to describing something in one right detail instead of five iffy ones—one fantasy element with lots of thematic range instead of a complicated system—and that tidiness made this story’s focus clear, relevant, and powerful from the first lines. The potential of “clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be” is instant and intriguing—because who you need to be might be very different than how you think of power, or what you want, and that’s an idea and set of values that bring great range to a discussion of power. Structurally, this means space for the story’s narrative conflict and growth is created inside three lines, and without much fuss at all: as a reader, I know what the stakes and the potential are immediately, and that they’re going to be nuanced and interesting to me.

There are a lot of small, smart choices that come in to support that question of power and its handling as the piece unfolds. I especially appreciated how the narration shows terms like “queen” in phonetics: it seats the story absolutely in Miyohtwaw’s perspective without breaking the fourth wall for explaining, and what we explain, who we centre, when writing about non-white, non-Christian cultures (especially our own!) is definitely a question of power. The story’s narration is enacting the lesson/realization it’s talking about—about not giving away your own power—in the way it chooses its words, and I found that form-function resonance very effective.

Likewise, the ending, with Miyohtwaw conveying finally to Victoria in a visceral way her own perspective, is a mirror for some of the work the story itself is doing, and the way content and form run in parallel is again, really strong craft work.

The other really strong point in “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” is how it treats its situation with such thorough dignity. The slow deprivation of Miyohtwaw’s resources and work—until it’s her own clothes being demanded—is a crystal-clear allegory but not one that falls into melodrama, and the flickers of how Miyohtwaw has handled her own interrupted, disrupted relationships with parenting, priests, and relationship throw a really thoughtful parallel up, in terms of understanding the mess of 19th-century British colonial policy in a fully Cree perspective: a problem seated in relationships. It refocuses the crisis Miyohtwaw’s here to address as a larger, more dangerous echo of how Victoria handled her own mother, and treating these dynamics as people pinging off their cycles of abuse until they can grow feels astute, compassionate, and wholly invested in human dignity across the board, without obligating certain ideas of sympathy or forgiveness.

The history’s come through just fine for me as a reader (caveat: I’m familiar with Queen Victoria and something of the history of Canada’s treaties, so I might not be a totally representative reader on this).

The author’s asked specifically if there are logic jumps, and for me there was one significant skip of logic near the end: when Miyohtwaw reaches out to her relations’ power in her dress and it strangles Victoria. I didn’t find a turning point in this piece between “clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be” and the laces moving at her request; there’s a change in both how this magic works and what it’s for—magic for being seen switching to magic for doing violence—and the sudden jump in both worldbuilding and tone is jarring. A piece very much worked in dignity and relationship and cycles feels like it might have just stepped back into a cycle of getting things done through inflicting pain, and that feels like it’s pulling against everything Miyohtwaw has said and done before. Because the story has already drawn that parallel, pulled attention to Victoria’s abusive upbringing, her pattern of relationships and the cycle she’s running, what might have glossed as pushing back at power just reads to me like falling back into the script of hitting someone abused to get results because it’s the language both parties seem to understand. It put a decidedly sour tinge into my reading of this piece.

It had me pause, go back through the story again, and ask whether the conditions the story sets up in the beginning hold up, or were to be believed: if any of those incarnations of Queen Victoria was the person she in fact needed to be. That’s a powerful word, and one that can be used to great narrative effect. What Miyohtwaw’s own dress seems to show Victoria is what other people’s perspective is, what her impact is on others. The narrative definitely argues that she’s not being who she needs to be at all, and it reopens basic questions on how that power works.

From a fantasy worldbuilding perspective, I think this is mostly a telegraphing problem: what is the framework the story sets for how this works, and how does she work within it, and if she breaks it entirely, is that underlined as a break? If this power was always supposed to be wider and deeper, then it might be a question of building the bridge between how it’s described and what the story needs it to do. If it’s a breach of consistency—if the power itself drifted in the writing—it might be a question of rethinking how the ending happens.

But as it stands, that jump has an impact: I think it creates a risk of the end of “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” being read as a revenge story (less interesting) rather than something about slow work, and slow learning, and what power and relationships are and can be—which is what I got from it. Or of that ending forking somewhat into two very opposite readings, which could probably be resolved into an ending that keeps the rest of the piece’s balance of assertion, not weakness or violence.

There’s a ton of accomplished work in this piece, and while it’s a sticky issue to solve, this piece feels to me like it’s very close to ready. It’s deliberate, thoughtful, engrossing work, and I look forward to seeing it in print!

Best of luck!

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


On The Shelves

Machine (A White Space Novel) by Elizabeth Bear (Saga Press October 2020)

In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry. 

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee. But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

On The Shelves

Seven of Infinities by Alliette de Bodard (Subterranean October 2020) 

Vâumflex;n is a scholar from a poor background, eking out a living in the orbitals of the Scattered Pearls Belt as a tutor to a rich family, while hiding the illegal artificial mem-implant she manufactured as a student. Sunless Woods is a mindship—and not just any mindship, but a notorious thief and a master of disguise. She’s come to the Belt to retire, but is drawn to Vâumflex;n’s resolute integrity. When a mysterious corpse is found in the quarters of Vâumflex;n’s student, Vâumflex;n and Sunless Woods find themselves following a trail of greed and murder that will lead them from teahouses and ascetic havens to the wreck of a mindship—and to the devastating secrets they’ve kept from each other.

Publication News

Walter Williams has some great news to share: “I am Thrilled to announce that Dragonwell Publishing will be publishing my On the Reality, Mythology, and Fantasies of Unicorns in early 2021 in which I will reveal long lost secrets about both the real and mythological unicorn.”

Major congratulations, Walt!

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

Una Chapter 1 by Noelle C. Campbell

Although I can see where the writer’s craft is still finding its way here, stumbling a bit with words and meanings and general clarity, I quite like this chapter. It has a strong and appealing energy, and the characters and the world have a lot of potential. It needs work from the word and line level on up, but it has good bones.

My first question is why use Celtic words and names if they don’t have any relevance to the world of the story. Names are important. They have power. There is a tendency in fantasy to throw random names from Earth languages into secondary worlds, but if you have the chance to not do that, I think you should take it.

Either use the names in their proper context and let them resonate through the levels of your world, or have some fun. Make up your own. Give them a logic that fits each character and culture. Show us how the different cultures vary in their naming traditions, in the rhythm and sound of their languages.

There are some truly lovely bits of description, which I hope will come clearer as the novel moves through its drafts toward the final polish. I get a feel for the setting and the landscape, especially in Mael’s scenes, and there’s a nice glimpse of the Una’s dual heritage.

I might suggest rethinking her reflections on race. The word carries painful connotations right now. Maybe lean more toward a national or cultural identity? I’d be careful too of color racism—that’s a really loaded concept at this point in history. The two peoples might look different, and Una is clearly a mix of both, but I would walk softly when choosing words to describe her situation.

My favorite part of the chapter is definitely the unicorn. I have a personal affinity for white horselike animals with unusual intelligence—there are six of them in my barn. Mael’s mission to capture the unicorn and recapitulate his family’s ancient triumph in order to save the current generation is great story-stuff, and his sojourn in the unicorn’s mind takes it to the next level. But because of those six white horses, I have to make a few comments about Mael’s ride, both on his own horse and on the unicorn.

First of all, a horse’s flanks are way back, right in front of its hindlegs. In order to dig heels into them, a rider has to be sitting on top of its loin, a couple of feet behind where the saddle usually sits. If he is kicking the horse that hard (which if he’s any kind of rider he really shouldn’t, but all the movie cowboys do), he’s kicking it midway along the sides.

There’s another reason not to kick the flanks, too: the horse is extremely sensitive in that area. He’ll kick back, and his rider will go flying. Better to sit farther forward, where the horse is less reactive but still able and, if ridden right, willing to respond to the rider’s leg. The simplest solution here is to have him urge the horse forward with his legs, and if he gets anxious or desperate or the horse gets sticky, he may deliver a sharp kick.

He’s also not pulling the horse around when he’s pole-bending through trees. That knocks the horse off balance and can knock him down. Better to either neckrein (though that’s American Western and would bump a horse-knowledgeable person out of your fantasy) or shift his weight as the horse changes direction. Think about skateboarding or slalom skiing—using the weight and balance to manage the turns.

Similarly, when he’s on the unicorn without a bridle, pulling on its mane won’t do anything. The pull thing only works if the animal has reins a neck rope for the rider to pull on, so that he can force the unicorn’s head around or get his attention firmly enough to stop him. His best option in the circumstances is to try to shift the unicorn’s balance by sitting back fairly sharply, or maybe hope it will respond to his voice. Otherwise he’s going wherever the unicorn is going, and there’s nothing he can do about it, short of throwing himself off.

In fact when he jumps onto the unicorn in the first place, he really is reckless, because not only could the unicorn duck out from under or buck him off, it could turn around and gore him with its horn. He’s taking a literal leap of faith. It’s clear to a horse person that the unicorn lets him do it, which indicates that the unicorn has its own agenda–as the unicorn him/her/themself proves when he wakes up in their mind. I’ll look forward to finding out what that is.

This is a great start, and a pretty good draft. I think, with time and practice, it will polish up nicely.

–Judith Tarr


Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

The Answer Man, Chapter 12 by Scott Clements

Every once in a while I like to shake things up when doing an Editor’s Choice, and talk about what a submission has done right. I do have a couple of comment/suggestions in the usual vein, but mostly I want to point to the things in the chapter that work for me.

First the suggestions. In the line edit stage, it might be worthwhile to pay attention to the tendency to repeat the same word or phrase in successive sentences. They tend to come in groups of three. One or two incidences might indicate a deliberate device, but it’s frequent enough to make me ask if it’s more of an authorial habit. Notice for example the repetition of well at the very beginning, and later on, the reiteration of back. Maybe think of ways to vary the words and phrasing to avoid an echo effect.

The other thing I might question is the use of ellipses to indicate static and pauses in the AI sequences. I’m not sure they do what they want to do. Maybe let the jerkiness of the phrases and the disconnects within the sentences do their thing without additional signaling. The writing is good enough to hold up its own weight, I think.

But that’s pretty minor. In general this chapter does the job for me. The author’s note is clear about what’s going on in the novel as a whole, and provides a good lead-in to the chapter. I get what’s happening, and the shifts into and out of Darby’s own consciousness have a nice flow to them. The layers of escalating tension—Rejko on the mountain, Darby in the AI—play on one another to heighten the overall effect.

I like the chapter’s focus on a specific character and incident, combined with the sense of something much larger and more complicated, which will give Darby plenty to do as the novel goes on. It’s a good snapshot of the plot and the protagonist. The lead-in at the beginning and the cliffhanger at the end are solid chapter-craft.

Within the chapter, I particularly appreciate the vividness of description. There’s a strong sense of place, and a rich variety of sensory detail. It’s evocative. It takes me into the scene in direct and immediate ways. I can feel the wind. The terror of the thing, whatever it is, comes through clearly.

While I kicked a little at the use of ellipses in the AI sequences, I think the way they stop and start, the pauses and interruptions in the flow of thought, build tension well. That there’s more going on than this one incident seems clear. So is the fact that Darby is in some jeopardy as he tries to do his job. I can see that there are more revelations to come, and more mysteries, too.

This is good stuff. Well done.

— Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

The Other Side of Midnight (Dialect Ask) by Paul O’Neill

The opening quickly draws me in as Charlie and his friends are attacked by a pair of bullies.  The bullies seem to pose a serious threat, so as the conflict intensifies, the suspense rises.  And as Charlie’s friend, Gavin, deteriorates and begins to ramble about the “lightning lady,” my anticipation about where the novella is leading grows.  That works well.

Since this is the opening scene from a novella, I won’t talk about overall plot and character issues.  Instead, I’ll focus on style and viewpoint.

The dialogue uses quite a bit of phoneticization or eye dialect, words misspelled to reflect their pronunciation.  In this case, the characters seem to speak with a Scottish accent.  I recommend against using misspellings in most cases, for several reasons.  First, it’s a barrier for many readers.  As I’m reading the excerpt and come to some dialogue, I see a bunch of words (misspelled) that I don’t recognize, so I’m brought up short.  The flow of the story stops, I’m thrown out of the story, and my eyes jump ahead to see how much dialogue there is to decode.  I try to pick out a couple words I can understand to get the overall meaning of the dialogue, and then jump ahead to the end of the dialogue.  When it’s clear I didn’t understand the dialogue sufficiently, then I go back over it again and try harder to understand it.  At this point, I’ve completely lost the sense that events are unfolding and have separated from the story.  Then I have to try to get immersed again after the dialogue ends.  So it’s quite disruptive, and I don’t think it’s adding anything to the story.

Second, these sorts of misspellings generally suggest the speaker is speaking incorrectly and imply a negative judgment about the speaker.  No one actually speaks every word exactly as it is spelled.  But we usually spell the dialogue correctly, and the reader gets a sense of how the character speaks based on word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, and syntax.  I suggest using these elements rather than misspellings to indicate the accents of the characters.  Some of the dialogue already does this.  For example, taking some dialogue from the story and spelling it correctly, “Time to shut that big gob of yours, man,” “Or what, you nothing bastard?” and “Mike Tyson stuff there, likes.”  These all give me a clear sense of the characters’ accents.  The misspellings are unnecessary.  Strengthening these elements throughout would convey the dialect without the phoneticization.

There is an additional problem in that there’s a disconnect between the dialect and the narrative.  This relates to a weakness in the point of view, which I’ll talk about first.  While we are clearly receiving sensory input through Charlie, the POV rarely gives us a sense of Charlie’s thoughts or emotions.  The thoughts and emotions become a little more common after Charlie discovers the pencil in his hand, but I never really feel close to Charlie.  The long paragraph beginning, “Charlie had drawn every day” seems like a belated attempt to introduce us to the character and provide an explanation for his words after the fact.  I think the novella will be much stronger if the POV is more psychically close to Charlie.  As is, I feel somewhat distant from the characters and events, which means I don’t care about them as much as I might.

Drawing us psychically closer to Charlie isn’t just about giving us a stronger sense of Charlie’s thoughts and emotions.  It’s also about choosing sensory details that Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  When Charlie’s friend Gavin is hit by a brick, the details provided are a rivulet of blood on Gavin’s forehead and the reflection of rustling leaves in the blood’s surface.  For me, a rivulet isn’t enough blood to show a reflection of leaves, so I don’t get a clear image from that.  More important, though, is this reflection of leaves really what Charlie is focused on as he kneels beside his injured friend?  I would think he’d be frantically trying to figure out if his friend is okay–conscious, coherent–and trying to spot the bullies who threw the brick, to determine the level of threat.  In the next sentence, we get details about Charlie’s other friend–what the friend is doing, what he’s wearing, and how his shins look below his shorts.  Again, this doesn’t seem to be what Charlie would be focused on.

As I mentioned above, bringing us psychically close to Charlie is both about including sensory details Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  The descriptions, though, do not use word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, or syntax to give us a sense that Charlie is Scottish.  The narrative voice, to me, feels like American English, while the dialogue feels like Scottish English.  That increases my distance from Charlie.

I don’t know how important it is that these boys are Scottish and this story is set in Scotland.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the story thus far.  My suspicion is that this “lightning lady” is going to connect to some Scottish myth.  If it is important to the story, then my suggestion would be to cut most of the eye dialect, indicate the dialect through those other elements, and turn down the dial on it from 9 to 3.  Then I’d suggest increasing the sense of Charlie’s dialect in the narrative, turning the dial up from 0 to 3.

One other point I wanted to mention is that many times in the excerpt, the pronoun he is used to refer to Charlie, but it’s not clear that it refers to Charlie.  Since all the characters are male, you need to clearly put the focus on Charlie, by name, before replacing his name with he.

A more in-depth discussion of dialect is available in Odyssey Podcasts 127 and 128 by Nisi Shawl here:  https://odysseyworkshop.org/podcasts.html.

I enjoyed reading this excerpt, which left me excited about where the novella is heading.  I hope this is helpful.

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

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Everyone knows the story of the genie in the lamp, or some magic coin or creature that grants three wished. Part of that story is how the hero would outsmart the magic granting them their wish. Most of the time that effort fails.

So how would you outsmart the magic and have endless wishes granted? Now write a story about it.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).


Publication News

J, Rachel Kelly wrote with the most exciting news — her first sale!  “Hi! I’m writing to notify you that my short story, work-shopped on this site and in my library shelves, “Six minute Steep” has been published on the online journal The Big Whoopie Deal. This is my first publication and I’m supper excited to share this news.”

You can read her story here.