June 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.

Code of Warriors and Dragons (Chapter 1) by Kit Davis

This looks like a solid setup for an interesting, character-driven epic fantasy, that I expect will focus on the relationship between human and dragon, apprentice and teacher, and make those relationships the narrative engine of the rest of the work. As opening chapters go, this one has some classic first-draft, trying-to-get-into-the-story-while-figuring-it-out markers that are useful to address.

There’s a truism about opening paragraphs in first drafts: most of them can be cut, or substantially trimmed. So, let’s look at your opening paragraphs:

 The booted feet marching down the corridor awakened Tristan long before the castle guard reached his chambers. His heart took up the beat of the precisioned cadence thudding towards him. He flung back his covers and rolled out of bed.

Tristan’s young squire reached the door just as a weighted knock landed on its heavy oak exterior. Wide-eyed, the boy looked at Tristan.

Tristan nodded, giving his squire permission to open the door. The boy used both hands to pull back the locking bolt and heaved the door open. Tristan jerked on tousers and a tunic.

There’s a lot of excessive verbiage here cluttering up the work you’re trying to do. Why is it important to start with disembodied booted feet? Why spend all these words describing Tristan’s heartbeat in tandem with booted feet? (Listen to a heartbeat and listen to the sound of someone walking briskly down a hallway: unless this castle guard is blithely skipping down the corridors, these are not similar cadences.) If you want to show that Tristan’s a light sleeper who lives in a castle and has a squire, you can do that more effectively in fewer words, like this:

 Tristan woke to the thud of a castle guard’s booted feet in the corridor. His squire was already up and moving towards the door; Tristan nodded at him to open it while he jerked on trousers and a tunic.

What’s missing from my digestion of your paragraphs is a sense of why Tristan would respond to the sound of a castle guard in the corridor as an indication of danger, but that’s something easily added in; maybe the outside guards never come inside unless something serious is happening. Maybe Tristan hears armour clanking down the hall instead of boots. Either way, you want to move through these mechanical details as quickly as possible  in order to get to the character stuff which I can tell is where this story’s heart will be.

What I see you doing, in the opening as well as throughout the body of this chapter, is trying to pack as much information as possible into every sentence in order to bring the reader into your world: you want to get the world-building info-dump stuff out of the way so that you can move on to the chewier, more satisfying character drama. This is a laudable goal, but you’ll get there a lot more effectively by curating the information you’re giving you’re reader.

It may be useful to ask, what does your reader need to know? Then let the answers guide the way that you write the chapter. I think your readers need to know the following:

  •  Tristan’s character, outlook, motivation
  • This is a Western Europe Medievalish world with dragon-riders
  • A dragon and rider have vanished
  • A dragon has chosen Tristan to be a rider

We don’t get a whole lot of who Tristan is and what he wants; we can see that he’s dutiful, prompt when summoned, and disbelieving of the fact that he’s been chosen to be a rider, but these facts would be more effective if you establish his age and desire to be a rider earlier on (assuming he does want to be a rider). I think you can sacrifice some of the speed and urgency of your opening in order to spend a little more time inside Tristan’s head to get a sense of his motivation.

Overall, I think slowing the speed of events while tightening up the language you use to narrate them will give you the space you need to carefully build up the fantasy world around the core of dragon/rider dynamic that I look forward to reading more about.

–Amal El-Mohtar

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