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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
So many characters in fiction feel like characters rather than people. Many are characters we’ve seen hundreds of times before. Others may feel different but not real. For me, the strongest part of this novel excerpt is the character of Gail. While her martial arts skills and the suggestion that on her good days she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model make her feel familiar, those traits aren’t on display in this excerpt, so I can pretend they don’t exist. What is on display here is her personality–her natural outspokenness, her easy confidence, her no-nonsense manner, her quickness to stick up for the underdog. She feels real and appealing to me. I like her and want to spend time with her. I want to see what she does.
I would be very excited to read a novel with Gail as the protagonist. The other characters in the excerpt aren’t coming to life for me in the same way. They feel like characters, not people. Often, writers create supporting characters who are much stronger and more engaging than their main characters. Many times, this occurs because the author thinks about the internal life of the main characters, becoming deeply intertwined with them and relating to them without being able to see how the reader, who is meeting these characters for the first time, will perceive them. Authors usually think about supporting characters in a more external way–how they would look, act, interact, and come across to others. This means that authors tend to create supporting characters that a reader, meeting them for the first time, will find engaging. These are, of course, massive generalizations, but they help explain my experience in being drawn to Gail, having very little interest in Ann, and actually disliking Marty. An author may like or be fascinated by his characters, but that doesn’t mean the reader will feel the same.
For me, Ann is essentially “the girl,” the stereotype I’ve seen my entire life who holds no interest for me. The moment I read the description, her “baby doe eyes swimming with fear,” I know this is a character I don’t want to spend time with. The main traits stressed are how good looking she is, which doesn’t make me like her or Marty, who seems to care only about her appearance. I realize this is only an excerpt, and I’m sure that Ann will develop more as the novel continues, but if the excerpt doesn’t make me want to continue, then I’ll never find out. I need to see something about her in this scene that makes me interested in following her. She needs to be changed from a character to a person. Maybe she works out because she’s overweight and likes hanging out with the body builders. That could make her seem more of a real person.
Marty is another familiar character, the insecure young man afraid to talk to the pretty girl. Making him a writer only makes him more familiar, since many writers write about writers. The main trait that stands out about him is his tendency to make snap judgments about people based on their appearance. As soon as he sees someone, he notices their appearance and makes judgments about the person, often scathing judgments. There’s “a big guy with enormous flabby tits,” “a big man with a Fu Manchu straight out of a seventies porn flick . . . [a] genetic freak” and a man with a “folder, where he guessed the arrogant, brash, bumptious cocksucker kept his so-called prose.” While his judgment of Ann is positive, it is again based solely on her appearance. He doesn’t even listen to her poetry. This is not a character I’m interested in spending time with. Perhaps this is the starting point of a character arc that will show him learning to avoid judging people by their appearance and to get to know them first. But I see no sign that the excerpt is setting up such an arc. If that is the intent, then the author needs to signal that to readers, so we’ll keep reading. For example, Gail could call him on this negative trait, saying, “That girl you’re so hot about? She’s a selfish bitch who sleeps with a different guy every night and gave her handicapped kid up for adoption. That body builder you have contempt for? He has an MFA and just sold his first chapbook. You need to stop with the snap judgments and actually come out of your shell long enough to get to know someone.” This will cue the reader that the author is aware of his protagonist’s problem and the book will deal with him struggling with this problem. Another way to cue the reader would be to have one of Marty’s snap judgments be proven wrong. For example, the man with the folder could get up to the mic and read poetry that’s completely different from what Marty expected–and he could read it with a stutter, showing he’s not the cocky, assured person Marty thought. This would make me want to follow Marty through his journey.
The other issue I’d like to talk about in this critique is style. Stylistic weaknesses are another turnoff to readers–and especially editors. When an author doesn’t wield the tools of the language with skill, the reader can’t become immersed in it. Readers are constantly thrown out by confusing sentences or inappropriate word choices. This excerpt contains many spelling errors, grammatical errors, unnecessary words and phrases, and awkward sentences. I’d like to focus my discussion on the sixth paragraph of the excerpt, which I’ll paste here in its entirety, with the sentences numbered:
(1) Nestled in the center of the Empty Cup and surrounded on all sides by booths and tables, was a circular platform engulfed in smoky orange and yellow hues. (2) There were a pair of black stools and a microphone stand, and that was it. (3) The set up was as minimal. (4) For the artist collected here, everything came down to the words spoken, not the decorum. (5) Marty was certain if it was the other way around, nobody would ever set foot in the Empty Cup for fear of getting a disease. (6) It was vile place, but the coffee was cheap and the staff friendly.
My intention is just to give some specific examples to be helpful. My writing teachers always used to write “awk” all over my papers without explaining why my sentences were “awk,” which means I didn’t improve for a long time. In the first sentence, Nestled and surrounded are both words that describe the relationship between the stage and the rest of the coffee shop. You don’t need both. In addition, it’s unnecessary to say “surrounded on all sides.” The word surrounded means the items are on all sides. So this could be rewritten, “Surrounded by booths and tables, a circular platform stood in the center of the Empty Cup.” I don’t understand what “engulfed in smoky orange and yellow hues” means. I don’t know what is orange and yellow. The stage is already surrounded; I don’t think it also needs to be engulfed.
In the second sentence, the phrase “There were” is a weak phrase. The verb to be is a weak verb, since the action if describes is only being or existing (rather than running, jumping, screaming, barfing, or other more action-oriented verbs). The phrases there were or it was increase the weakness, because there and it are vague words. Starting a sentence with “There were” doesn’t tell us anything about the content of the sentence; starting a sentence with “A pair of black stools stood” gives us a strong sense of what the sentence is about and we have something to visualize. The final phrase “and that was it” doesn’t add anything.
The third sentence doesn’t make grammatical sense. Perhaps it’s intended to read “The set up was minimal,” but the previous sentence has already shown this, so it’s unnecessary.
The fourth sentence also isn’t grammatical. “Artist” should be “artists.” The word collected isn’t the right word. No one has collected them. One could say gathered instead.
The fifth sentence is quite jarring, because it doesn’t follow what’s been said. No germ sources have been described. If people did think the place was unhygienic, they wouldn’t be drinking the coffee. If people cared about the decorum over the poetry, then they’d go to somewhere classier. They wouldn’t fear getting disease. That seems like the author saying something for effect that he doesn’t really mean, and that undermines the reader’s trust in the author.
The sixth sentence requires “a” before “vile place,” but again, the excerpt hasn’t shown us the place is vile. The excerpt is telling us things that contradict what it has shown, so we’re left with contradictory ideas and little faith in the author. Every author needs to work hard to gain and maintain the trust of the reader, so the reader can believe and enjoy the story.
I hope that this provides some helpful guidance. I really enjoy the character of Gail.
—Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey