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, Amal El-Mohtar, and guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
I really enjoyed finding a chapter with a core friendship between women, especially seeing the potential there for that friendship to interact with plot in meaningful ways. What I’d like to see more of in this chapter is a shift in narration style to allow the characters and worldbuilding room to grow.
I spend so much time telling my students to be skeptical of listicle-style writing advice – “write what you know,” “show, don’t tell,” etc – that I’m often startled to encounter instances where those uncomplicated instructions apply. Shifting this piece’s narration style from telling to showing would go a long way towards improving it; in addition to helping the reader inhabit Eerika’s head, it could ground and enrich some of the worldbuilding details which presently feel like placeholders.
“Show, don’t tell” is usually tedious advice because it assumes that there can only be one true style of narration: spare, cinematic, seamless camera-work favoured over wordy thought-streams and scene-establishing. This is of course nonsense, and like any writing advice it should be treated as a tool among many in a writer’s toolbox, each better suited to a particular job. Maybe you want to have a wordy observing narrator, like Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events; maybe you want to play an interesting stylistic prose game like in Gormenghast; maybe you’re writing a story in a folkloric mode, with “it is said” and “once upon a time,”; maybe your narrator’s first-person and has a garrulous voice. There’s definitely a place for telling.
But that said, sometimes telling’s a hammer when what you want is a scalpel. Here’s an example of “telling” done poorly:
Susan was worried. She knew that if the bus didn’t arrive soon she’d be late for her interview,
and then she wouldn’t get the job which she needed very badly.
Here’s an example of conveying that same information via “showing”:
Susan stood at the bus stop, shifting her weight from foot to foot, reading and re-reading the timetable. After several minutes she pulled out her phone to call a cab – then sighed, and put the phone back in her pocket. She bit her lip and stared down the empty road without blinking until tears stung the corners of her eyes.
The second paragraph is doing a lot more work to evoke feelings of worry and anxiety in the reader. It invites the reader to empathise with what Susan’s experiencing without directly relating the details of her situation. Most people have experienced being worried, but there are a lot of flavours and textures of worry, so the explicit description is, ironically, vague and unspecific. On the other hand, most people have also experienced waiting for a bus that won’t turn up, and that’s much more likely to evoke the specific feelings of irritation, helplessness, worry, cost/benefit analyses and sunk-cost fallacies you want a reader to experience – much more than just saying “Susan was worried.”
With that in mind, let’s look at the three first paragraphs of your story and how they can be retooled with “showing” in mind.
Death and birth are two things that shouldn’t coincide, but on the day Eerika’s father died, she was elected as Fair Maiden, the one to lead the witches in Anima, the act of creation. She stood in line with seven other females, all wearing red, the color of spilled blood and running life. Today was a day of duality, of cycles.
“I nominate Eerika Born,” a girl called, raising her hand.
Dunstan, head Guardian, eyed the girl, hand clutching his carved staff tighter. His gaze swept past her, onto the other voters in the crowd. Eerika didn’t like it, not one bit. It wasn’t that she wanted power, and she secretly hoped that there would be an uproar of rejection, but she hated that everyone treated Chumani unfairly, as if her opinion didn’t matter just because she wasn’t called into Anicula like everyone else.
Here’s the information we’ve been given:
- Eerika’s father died
- Eerika’s been elected as Fair Maiden
- Fair Maidens lead the witches in Anima
- Anima is the act of creation
- Eerika does not want to be Fair Maiden
- Chumani’s looked down on
- Eerika and Chumani are friends
- They live in a place called Anicula
This is a pretty good balance of information for an opening chapter – but rather a lot of information to receive in the first three paragraphs. Shifting your style to show rather than tell that information would allow it to spread out and be conveyed more slowly and thoroughly through character actions and feelings over the course of the whole.
Here are a few different ways I can see this opening changed:
On the day Eerika’s father died, she stood in line with seven young women waiting to hear who would be elected Fair Maiden, the one to lead the witches in Anima, the act of creation.
On the day Eerika’s father died, she was elected as Fair Maiden.
She didn’t want to be. Her palms sweated as she stood in line with seven other females, all wearing red, the color of spilled blood and running life.
You’d still need to reconcile the tense shift of “she was elected” with then witnessing the process of her being elected immediately afterwards, but there are many possible ways of doing that. Either way, I think beginning with “on the day Eerika’s father died” is much more striking than a musing about life and death that has no immediate emotional bearing on the characters. Perhaps Eerika can muse on that later on; perhaps she can see a pattern to embrace or condemn. But at the opening, we the readers should be grabbed by the fact that our protagonist has lost her father and has to endure an important ritual while grieving, rather than ponder a philosophical statement about death and birth.
(Also, death and birth frequently coincide, and there’s no “birth” in this chapter, unless you’re counting the election, which isn’t an intuitive leap to make – Eerika isn’t “born” Fair Maiden. So it’s even more muddling to begin with that line.)
Where worldbuilding is concerned, I’m left with several questions that Benjamin prompts.
- Why should should the fact that Jia ‘came in speaking tongues’ be unusual if everyone comes through the Veil from different places? Is there a language native to Anicula?
- Why is Benjamin nursing a 17-year-old grudge? How has admitting Chumani into their town affected him?
- If people can’t get through the Veil unless they’re “special,” why does it matter whether or not they were “called”?
Also, while I take your disclaimer about the loose European medievalism of the setting, you do still need to carefully consider what elements of that setting you’re sharing: I was thrown out of the story as soon as Eerika remembered that Jia is from “China,” since that’s a term more in use from the 16th century on, and depending on where in modern-day China Jia is from, she probably wouldn’t have introduced herself as “from China”.
To sum up: what you’ve got here is a good, strong relationship between two key characters, and at present the relationship’s full of promise; grounding these characters in their actions, motivations, and a more carefully curated setting will really help that relationship shine and develop.