May 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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 Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Spellbreaker, Chapter 3 by Carolyn Mitchell

This looks like a promising fantasy procedural that could benefit from a good deal of sentence-level work in future drafts as well as a slower, more considered approach to its world-building.

First, to the author’s question:

I’m wondering if this chapter reads slow because it’s almost entirely my protagonist’s reactions to her investigation. 

The chapter does read a little slowly, but not because of your protagonist’s reactions – it’s because of the kind of sentence-level repetition that happens as a matter of course while we’re working ideas out on the page. Some of it is at the level of concepts – “visual image” towards the end of the chapter, for instance – but most of it is redundant diction that can be easily caught by reading it out loud.

Take this paragraph, for example – the word “door” occurs in literally every sentence:

Slowly, she walked over until she stood directly in front of the glimmering door. Knee-high ferns nestled up against the door on the other side with the rough bark of a tree partially obscuring the view. Looking through the door into the verdant forest beyond it, she could see vibrant colors of a spell pattern dancing in the air.  The translucent circle she could see on Daryl’s land must be an echo of the power used to cast the spell on the other side of the door.

Now consider the very next paragraph, but with “amulet”:

She thought back to the comments of Sheriff Cruz. This was no high school practice session. One of Daryl’s high end mage clients must be using this doorway. Daryl was renowned for his amulets, but he was also adamant about his privacy.  Her boss in Dallas had called Daryl when they found a box full of amulets on the Strickland case.  Daryl was incredibly helpful in deciphering the amulets, but only after her boss promised him he wouldn’t be revealed as a source for their investigation.  He was going to be pissed when he found out a mage was casting on his land without permission.

In both cases, the paragraphs’ main idea revolves around the repeated word – but the word is so distracting in its repetition that it overshadows the information the paragraph’s trying to convey. This happens throughout the chapter. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be fixed with pronouns alone; the paragraphs need to be restructured at the idea level and the chapter at the world-building level.

It’s possible that some world-building stakes have been established in the first two chapters, but I still had questions for this one: it didn’t make sense to me that mages would be allowed to police themselves unless they also had a hand in day-to-day policing. Is there a special mage-focused task-force made up of mages? If they are the top of a law-enforcement pyramid where magic’s concerned, that’s one thing – they can be corrupt, they can have factions, etc. But having a group of people that operate outside the law without exercising any control over the law confuses me. Why wouldn’t regular law enforcement want to curtail their power or their actions, if they’re the most powerful people around? Consider how common that question is in current pop culture where superheroes are concerned, for instance – it’ll definitely be on your readers’ minds.

In a situation like this, where your protagonist is working on conveying information about how the world works, it might be helpful to have the exposition delivered through conversation, allowing someone to ask the questions the reader has, or at least anticipate them with more information. It wouldn’t even have to change the action too much; a partner who stays on one side of the door while Charlene goes through, and to whom Charlene returns. “Where’s your badge?” this person might ask, just after Charlene’s explained how important it is that they get away from there before the mages get through…

But while that’s one possible solution, I don’t think it’s necessary; you can certainly keep Charlene solo in the scene. What you’d need to do, though, is approach the scene from a bird’s eye view: what do you want each paragraph to convey? What do you want the overall chapter to do? Referring to the two paragraphs excerpted above, I might take the following idea for each:

Paragraph 1: Charlene takes stock of the door and learns something from it.

 Paragraph 2: The kind of person Daryl is suggests he isn’t responsible for this door. 

In both cases, you’d then want the paragraph to convey this information as clearly and succinctly as possible in order to get to the threatening part of the scene.

That, by the way, is very well done! Once Charlene saw the mages I was very invested in what was happening. The chase, the escape, and the realization of how much more trouble she’s in when she thought she was safe are all engaging and effective. It’s the getting there that needs some re-tooling.

–Amal El-Mohtar

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