Editor’s Choice Review July 2017, 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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Blood, Glass And Sugar- Chapters 1-3 by Lyndsay E Gilbert

I have a soft spot for high-school fantasy adventures, and an equally soft one for mss. that bubble gently on the back burner till it’s time to slide the cover off and see what’s cooking in there. Here we have both, which for me is a win. With bonus title-that-makes-me-look-twice. As a reader I’ll want to know what the title refers to, and why those particular things (blood, glass, sugar) are important to the story.

The author’s note mentions a wish to avoid “cliches.” What I’d like to do here is talk about something a bit different, which is tropes.

Tropes are the broader category of which cliches are a subset. Every genre has them. They’re elements that help to define the genre. If a reader sees a particular trope or combination thereof, she can be pretty sure of what she’s going to get in terms of plotting, characters, and story-stuff.

The challenge for the writer is to walk the line between elements a reader wants to see in the genre, and elements that the reader has seen too much of. The devil is in the details: the combination of characters and events that make up the story, how these characters and events are portrayed, and how it’s all written: the choice of words, the emotional arcs, the ways in which these unfold. There has to be some element of freshness in the tropes, a little bit of surprise—but not too much; past a certain point, conventions shift from bent to broken, and the reader feels as if the author is messing with her. The trick is to respect the conventions even while offering a new take on them.

Here we have the school, the dance, the hard-working and vulnerable young student, the Mean Girls, the tough girl, the popular boy, the cool stepmother, the old curiosity shop, the wicked old witch, the magic mirror, the shady bar, the even older and grottier shop, the gang of evil beings, the undertone of werepeople and vampire-type people and faery-type people…and that’s just the first three chapters. The signal these send is that this is a school story, this is fantasy, it’s probably urban fantasy, and it has distinct fairytale elements. We may also be seeing some vampires and werewolves, from hints in the descriptions of the characters (notably the queen of the Mean Girls).

The ms. could benefit from a line edit to catch the word- and phrase-level wibbles and bobbles, the repetitions, the over-and-overs, the words and phrases and bits of conversation, but the first question I would ask is, “How can I streamline my story?” By this I mean, are there too many things going on in these chapters? Can I pare them down and focus on just a few, and grow my story out of those?

If we tease out the different threads, we’ve got Evie and her problems at school, Evie and her friend, Evie and her stepmother, the two shops, the tattoo, the explosion and its consequences, and the mysterious bad guys. While it’s important to establish the character and setting at the start, again it’s a balance between too much and not enough. There’s a lot going on here, and it can be hard to follow.

How much of the school sequence do we absolutely need at the start? Do we need all the details of what Evie is doing, what her school assignments are exactly, and the multiple encounters with the Mean Girls? Can all of this be condensed into one, tight and focused scene, perhaps in the car park, with Louise to the rescue?

The key I think would be the destruction of her art portfolio—but all we may need of the opening scene is a mention of why she’s late at school, how she drew the raven, then she and Trix confront Bella and company. Perhaps Louise and Farez arrive in time to break it up, and off they all go? Or better yet just concentrate on Louise, and show Trix heading off to her own ride, without getting overly specific about the who and what.

The same applies to the shopping sequence. Could the two shops and the space between them be combined into one? If Louise is enchanted by the mirror, can Evie be lured into another part of the shop for a tattoo (perhaps moving the raven to this part of the story), then bad things start to happen, and she overhears the bad guys’ conversation?

All of this tightening does two things. It reduces confusion as the reader gets to know the characters and the setting, and sharpens the focus of the story in general. It also opens up room to work with the tropes that shape and define this particular story.

Some questions to ask in revision might be:

-How can the Mean Girls be particularly and uniquely mean? Apart from messing up Evie’s portfolio, what can they do to make her life miserable,without adding a lot to the word count? Is there some magical aspect that can be hinted at, to be made more obvious later? I kind of get a Cinderella vibe, though the mirror has a Snow White angle to it as well. If Cinderella is one of the root stories here, how about two Mean Girls, rather than a gang? Or two with speaking parts, the rest in background for now?

-What can the Tough Goth Friend do or be or say here that helps to advance the story in the direction you want it to go? What is unique about her personality and her role in the story? How does she contribute to the story—positively or negatively?

-Louise is likable and Evie likes her, and that’s a clear departure from the Wicked Stepmother trope. Can you think of other ways to bend the trope? Is she important to the story going forward? Will she continue to play a major role in Evie’s adventures? That would be different, and if it’s played right, it might even win over a dedicated YA reader who wants the focus to remain tightly on the young adult characters.

-Work on dialogue especially. There’s a lot of back and forth in this draft, which might be condensed and focused and pared down to short, pithy interchanges that both establish character and advance the story. The same applies the stage business around the dialogue: just a bit here and there, where it’s most apt or most striking. This will make the words that are said and the actions that are shown stand out more clearly and work harder to move the story forward.

It’s your novel, of course, and your decision as to where it goes and how it gets there. It’s an interesting start, and looks as if it could go off in some intriguing directions. With a leaner, more tightly focused beginning, the key elements of the story will be clearer to see and the lines of the plot easier to follow. Then there’s a bit more room to freshen up the tropes and play with the conventions of the genre.

–Judith Tarr

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