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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
First of all, a standard disclaimer:
There is no wrong way to write a draft, especially a first draft. However the words need to get from your mind to the page, that’s how they have to do it. The time to worry about everything else comes later in the process.
When you’re concentrating on getting the words down, pretty much anything goes. There’s no pressing need to worry about what exactly those words are until it’s time for the final polish. At that point however, it pays to understand your own process, whether you draft in quick sketches and fill in later, or put in all the things and then pare and prune until the outlines of the story are perfectly clear.
Here I think there’s a tendency toward the latter process, but also a desire to be totally clear on the level of words and sentences, to spell out in detail exactly what’s going on and why. As I read, I got a sense that the author wants very much for me to understand what each word and sentence means. There’s a bit of playfulness, too, and an occasional fillip of metaphor or lovingly crafted simile.
The chapter has a nice straightforward story line. Even without reading the earlier chapters or the summary the author has provided, I can mostly tell who’s who. I don’t wonder about what’s happening at any given point, and at the end I can see where the plot is going.
That same impulse toward clarity extends to the prose. Words and actions and concepts are modified and modified again with additional details. For example:
- Catey nodded in reply…
- Gianna only nodded gloomily in reply.
- Catey dictated a reply to her that wetted the house mistress’s eyes as she wrote it onto a parchment with an ink quill.
- Everyone was puzzled but they didn’t argue with the inspector, and followed Mistress Gianna as she led them to a room upstairs.
While it’s a laudable thing to try for minimal ambiguity in one’s prose, past a certain point the prose risks becoming redundant. The same general ideas repeat, sometimes in multiple forms, as if the author doesn’t quite trust the reader to get what she’s trying to say.
In the first two examples, Catey and Giana are responding affirmatively to comments made by other characters. We don’t need to be told in so many words that they’re responding (or replying—this word is an author favorite). Just the nod is enough. It tells the reader all she needs to know.
In the third example, we have an interesting combination of too much and not quite enough. “Dictated” implies that Catey is speaking and Gianna is writing the words down. The detail of the parchment establishes a bit of worldbuilding—we’re in a society that uses cured animal skin rather than paper, and the presence of a quill reinforces the sense of a preindustrial past. But ink seems redundant. I think most fantasy readers would know that when a person writes with a quill, the person is using ink. No need to specify; the author can trust the reader to pick up the implication.
There’s another layer here, too. Is it essential to the plot in this particular instance for the reader to know what writing materials Gianna is using? Does it move the story forward at this exact point? Can we get all the information we need, right here and now, if we’re simply told Gianna is writing what Catey dictates?
At the same time, the rest of the sentence made me stop and squint and try to figure out exactly what the author is trying to do. “Wetted” isn’t quite the word for Gianna’s emotional (and physical) reaction. I feel as if I need a different term, and maybe more than one word, in order to get a proper sense of what’s happening to her.
The final example combines concise writing in the first half and redundancy in the second. What we most need to know is that she leads everybody upstairs. It’s not essential to the story, right at this point, to know into what kind of space she leads them. “She led them upstairs” gets the job done and lets us keep our focus on what’s happening downstairs.
In writing, clarity and focus are not necessarily the same thing. A writer can keep adding details to clarify what she’s talking about, but focused writing zeroes in on a much smaller number of essential details. These are the details that can’t be left out, that the reader must have in order to understand what’s happening. Everything else is gravy–nice to have, enhances the flavor, but a little goes a long way.
Choosing just the right word helps, too. Sometimes we want to shake things up, try a different way of saying what we’re trying to say, enjoy a bit of figurative language. That can work well, but as always, we have to be sure the word really means what we want it to mean. We also have to make sure that when we pause to develop an image, that development serves a purpose. The image has a reason to be there: it advances the story, develops the character, enhances the setting.
It’s all about telling the story in the clearest and strongest and most effective way possible. Vivid and believable characters, well-crafted dialogue, fully realized world and setting, all begin with the choice of words. Both the words we do use, and the ones that, as we prune and polish, we choose to leave out.
I call that “Narrative Economy.” Every word has a role to play, and each one earns its keep.