Short Fiction Review: Apex Magazine Issue 121

Apex Magazine is back!

Apex went on what looked like permanent hiatus while editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with multiple surgeries for serious health issues (see his editorial in this month’s magazine). But he’s thankfully recovered, and after a successful Kickstarter, he’s re-assembled the Apex editing team, and resurrected the magazine!

Issue 121, then, is their first new issue in almost two years. It’s a double issue, as all of them will be from now on, released every two months. You can grab your own copy here

So let’s dive in! (no spoilers, I promise).

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakh

Jesus, this story.

Reading it is disorienting at first. There’s a good reason for that, for why the narrator’s voice seems jumbled and confused. But as I read, more and more pieces fell into place, until the very last scene broke my heart.

I wish I could write something this powerful. This moving. An inspiration, and a bar to shoot for.

Your Own Undoing, by P H Lee

Second person, represent!

I usually hate stories told in the second person. All those “You”s feel like commands, and I instinctually kick back against those, and out of the story.

Not so in this case. Lee’s story wove a meta fairy tale around me, a story that was itself an illustration of the conflict at its heart.

If it sounds too clever for its own good, don’t be put off. It’s not. It’s a fantastic story, first and foremost. It’s only afterward, when thinking about it, that its clever structure reveals its shape. Just amazing.

Love, That Hungry Thing, by Cassandra Khaw

This one….this one did feel too clever for its own good, for me.

Not in structure, but in the way it leans so far into the modern (well, post-2004) tendency to leave readers out on a limb. Being confused can work — see the first story, above — for a while, but I (being very careful here, as I know not everyone shares my tastes) tend to get very frustrated if there’s no payoff at the end.

And there’s no payoff in this story, for me. In fact, there’s very little action at all, or even dialog.

A lot of beautiful description, though. Evocative words and phrases that promise glittering insight into this future, but then never cohere into a stable image. Nothing falls into place. It’s an exquisitely described place, though.

Mr Death, by Alix E Harrow

My favorite of the bunch.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give anything away. Let me just say that this is what I wish the movie Soul had been. Read it. You won’t regret it.

The Niddah, by Elana Gomel

A short story about a global pandemic. Yes, really.

Grey Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Had an allergic reaction to this one. Something about another story that drops the reader into a confused space, with no explanation, and calls its main environment “The City.”

All I Want for Christmas, by Charles Payseur

Short, powerful flash piece. Made me shudder.

Post-Game: Apex Magazine’s 15-Minute Writing Workshop

Apex Magazine is back from hiatus! One of my favorite short fiction magazines for years, Apex has consistently had fantastic stories, as shown by the many (many) awardsthey’ve won or been nominated for over the years.

I’m reading through their first new issue now. I’ll post a full review later, but I can already tell they’ve retained the high bar for quality they’ve always had. The very first story, out of the gate, left me devastated, in a good way: just profoundly moving.

So when they announced they were doing a 15-minute online writing workshop with author Tim Waggoner, I leaped to sign up.

Sure, I had some skepticism. Most of the past workshops I’ve been to have been at least an hour, and even that felt short. How much could we cover in just fifteen minutes?

It turns out you can cover basically everything you need to cover, to dissect why a piece of short fiction isn’t working.

I sent in the first six pages of a horror story I have that I like, that I’ve edited multiple times, but that also keeps getting rejected. I assumed it was a problem with the story, but I was having trouble seeing it.

Tim had no such problems. In just fifteen minutes over voice chat, he went right to the heart of the problem with my story: the motivation for my protagonist is too impersonal. Then he broke down some issues with my style — too many short paragraphs, too much exposition up front — that I realized are habits I need to break, because other readers have mentioned them before for other pieces (different readers saw different issues. Tim saw them all).

I wasn’t all criticism, though. He also gave me techniques to use to prevent making these same mistakes again. Such as keeping a separate document open for exposition, writing it there and only there during the first draft, and then coming back and pulling from that doc while editing, inserting only what the reader has to know, and then only when they need to know it. Or combining the first few pages into a single paragraph, then breaking it up during a read-through, to end up with more natural-feeling paragraphs.

He was spot on, in everything he said. I already started re-drafting the story based on his feedback. Not only that, but I’m also editing a second story with his feedback in mind; when re-reading it after the workshop, several of those same problems leaped out at me.

Many thanks to Apex Magazine for organizing the workshop, and to Tim Waggoner for running it! I learned a lot in a short amount of time, and I’m very grateful.