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 Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Liz Bourke. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
I’ve seen a bit of writing advice floating around social media lately, attributed to Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Chekhov never actually wrote that. It’s a paraphrase of longer, more specific advice that Chekhov wrote in a letter to his brother, who also wanted to be a writer:
“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
(For all the details and citations on the history of both quotations, if that sort of thing appeals to you, I enthusiastically recommend Quote Investigator, which is the source I used to track down these words: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/)
Honestly, this advice, in either its original or summary format, should be even more famous than Chekhov’s Gun.
Because it’s that much more important.
This is one of the simplest, most effective skills a writer can develop to improve their writing. Chekhov’s advice applies to every setting, not just nature.
A reader comes to a book like an eager kid in a swimsuit arriving at the pool.
The writer who uses too many mediating words, who relies on clichés and familiar images, who creates the experience at one remove from the reader, leaves that kid standing on the edge of the pool waiting for the lifeguard to blow the whistle.
The writer who practices and learns how to choose the right details bounces the kid off the diving board with a joyful whoop and cannonballs them into the icy water of the story.
That’s why we call it immersion.
And readers like to be immersed in their stories.
All of that is by way of introduction to this month’s Editor’s Choice submission, Chapter 1 of Subliminal Shrapnel by Boz Flamigan.
This chapter caught my eye because in spots it’s very close to being that kind of immersive. With a few small refinements, I believe the writer can make this a more compelling chapter. None of these are big changes, but are a series of small changes that I think could have a transformative effect.
Let’s look at the first sentence:
Velvet knelt, shivering on winter-chilled kitchen tiles, arms buried up to her elbows in potting soil.
If the writing makes the readers shiver, that’s more powerful than telling us that Velvet is shivering. I would suggest some small tweaks:
Velvet knelt, her bare knees on winter-chilled kitchen tiles and her arms elbow-deep in cold, damp potting soil.
Don’t pay too much attention to the exact words in my example – you can probably do better. But notice the effect. We’re not looking at Velvet shivering or seeing her arms buried any more. We’re experiencing it, just like she does.
The second sentence and the rest of the first paragraph wants us to know what woke Velvet and got her out of bed:
The nightmare that had chased her from bed rose again in a disjointed image: She hesitates before a door, breath caught on the dream-certainty that two men wait behind it. The door shouldn’t be blue, not that vivid, cheerful blue. The wrongness of the color makes her eyes ache. When she’s finally forced to draw a raspy breath, the chalky, solvent smell of new paint makes her cough. Her head smacks the cement steps, as if the cough propelled her through the door, and they drag her to the bottom.
The nightmare is great, full of vivid, visceral details. But the transition could be too. You ever notice that if tell yourself not to think about a clown with an axe, you immediately visualize a clown with an axe? The same principle works for characters.
She refused to think about the nightmare.
She hesitates before a door, breath caught on the dream-certainty that two men wait behind it. The door shouldn’t be blue, not that vivid, cheerful blue. The wrongness of the color makes her eyes ache. When she’s finally forced to draw a raspy breath, the chalky, solvent smell of new paint makes her cough. Her head smacks the cement steps, as if the cough propelled her through the door, and they drag her to the bottom.
It puts us right there in the scene. We can feel Velvet’s agency and also the power of things beyond her control. The writer doesn’t have to tell us that a disjointed image rose if they make the image rise for us.
Skim down a few paragraphs:
Fortunately, the grumble of the approaching metro train wouldn’t wake her loftmates. Nor would the bluish light from cars flickering into the loft’s windows. The train skimmed into view, a quarter floor down, half a broad avenue away. Exhausted workers slumped against handholds, bundled in coats in the barely heated cars.
Notice how vivid and immediate the last two sentences are. A couple small tweaks makes the whole paragraph just as strong:
The metro train rumbled as it approached. Bluish light from cars flickered through the loft’s windows. Her roommates kept sleeping as the train skimmed into view, a quarter floor down, half a broad avenue away. Exhausted workers slumped against handholds, bundled in coats in the barely heated cars.
In fact, so much of this chapter has that mix of telling detail with, well, just telling. There’s a place for telling – for summary – but there are also missed opportunities to keep us immersed in the experience of the scene. Like here:
Velvet plunked the tea bag in the mug. Relishing the heat radiating from the ceramic to her palms, despite it being too hot for comfort. She sipped and burnt her tongue.
The first and third sentences drop us right into Velvet’s experience. But the one in the middle pulls us out, and gives it to us second hand, when an easy edit could fix that. Or here is another key moment in the chapter, a turning point:
The nightmare cut through her nostalgia, like vulture beaks rending her physical world, as if reality had no more solidity than dream. Through the rents, the nightmare rushed at her. Two uniformed men grabbed handfuls of leather to hold her down. She’d worn that jacket in her nightmare, and with a whimper, knew she’d never wear it again.
She ripped the jacket off and hurled it across the room.
That first paragraph would be more effective if we experienced the PTSD flashback happen, triggered by a sensory memory like scent, if we heard the whimper, felt the frantic attempt to get out of the jacket, and then saw it hurled across the room.
This chapter is all about Velvet’s internal memories and struggle. There’s no external conflict, no external action, no external big idea, driving this chapter. It’s a risk starting a book this way. The only thing that we have to grab us and pull us into the story is the immediacy of Velvet’s experience. There are a lot of great details here already – the cactus, the train, the leather coat. Make the rest of the details vivid and tactile, invoking all the senses. Put us into the experience as it happens and we’ll keep reading.
Good luck with this chapter and the rest of the book.
Editor, FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION