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.
Part of my brief for these Editor’s Choices is to find a way to relate the piece I’ve selected to the more general audience. I usually try to balance specific comments with general observations. I also try to select early or opening chapters because there’s less background for me to try to fill in as I read, and in general I’ve found that an author’s habits are consistent throughout a ms.
This time I’ve chosen a later chapter of a very dense, chewy, science-fiction-y work, with a high percentage of unique vocabulary and a complex plot. The world intrigued me, and I was curious. I wanted to see how this author would tackle the challenge of portraying nonhuman characters in a completely alien setting.
It’s a big challenge. The characters have to be alien enough to be convincing, but not so much that they’re incomprehensible. There’s also the delicate balance between conveying alien concepts in alien words, and translating them into terms that humans can understand.
Coming in in midstream as I did, I had to do my best to pick up meaning from context. I couldn’t ask for definitions or explanations because the author had probably presented these in earlier chapters. By this point the reader will have acclimated to the vocabulary and be able to read without stopping to ask what a word or concept means.
I got the gist of it, and was able to follow the action and get a sense of who the characters were. One way the author made this possible was through the quick synopsis at the beginning—that’s a wise choice. And that led me to reflect on the art of the synopsis.
One of the hardest parts of the novel-writing business for many writers is that very thing. Pro submissions, whether to agents or editors, require a synopsis. There’s no getting around it. The person who’s reviewing the submission can judge the essentials of the writer’s craft from the sample chapters, but the synopsis tells her a great deal about the author’s grasp of the story.
A synopsis is more than a list of chapters or “this happens, then this and this.” It, as much as the query or the sample, is an indicator of the writer’s ability to keep the whole project in her head. It tells the reader what the writer thinks is important, and what she’s trying to do with the elements of her story.
To add to the fun and the challenge, agents and editors may request that this essential exercise be no more than a page long. Shorter if possible. While conveying all the essential elements of the work.
It’s like Cutthroat Kitchen for writers. “Here are all ingredients of your signature dish that takes days to make. Give it to us in six and a half minutes in an Easybake Oven with one hand tied behind your back.”
That’s what the synopsis at the start of this chapter has to do. It tells us what happened before, and what we need to know in order to understand what’s happening here. In a formal synopsis we’d get the rest of it as well, with enough of a tease of the ending that the publishing pro at whom it’s directed will know what kind of book it is and how it aims to achieve this. (Agents and editors prefer spoilers. They want to know exactly what they’re getting.)
The synopsis here needs clarity. The author has probably been so deep in the story for so long that it’s difficult to separate what’s evident in the text and what’s remained behind in the author’s head or in the previous iterations of the draft.
Outside of the actual characters mentioned in the chapters we’re reading—or for a submission packet, usually the first three chapters—there is no need to provide names. A plethora of alien names and terms can cause the reader to lose track of the story. A quick description will suffice: the aliens who are mentoring the planet, the various allies and adversaries and what they do, the physical and psychological processes that help move the plot.
With alien words, in short, a little goes a long way. Better a translation than a direct rendition. We don’t need to know the exact details of most plot elements—Sedeyre’s torture, for example; just that the torture happens. That’s the key, the thing that moves the story forward. The same applies to words and concepts. If the reader needs to know a term such as frenzaliz, she’ll pick it up in the sample, when it’s described and concisely explained.
The job of the synopsis is to convey the overall concept in clear, unambiguous terms. Basically we need to know the names of the main characters, the name of the planet, and maybe an alien term or two—though concise translations may be more effective. The goal is to present the general lines of the story in terms that are comprehensible to the first-time reader.
The clearer and less ambiguous the synopsis is, the more easily that reader can get a sense of what the novel is about. Then, in the sample, she can see how the author has opted to tell the story, and measure that against the larger picture of the synopsis.
It’s good practice to try this with the summary at the beginning of these chapters. The questions to ask are:
How can I convey my main ideas in clear, comprehensible terms?
Which alien words do I absolutely need to supply, and which ones can I present in translation?
Do I need to name every character, or can I just name those who appear in the chapters and briefly describe the rest?
For further challenge points, it might be useful to think about how to organize the synopsis so that it’s as clear as it can be. Would it be effective to start with the quick description of the situation the planet is in, with its galactic application and its mentors, then move to the events of the story proper? Would an equally quick description of the main characters be helpful before embarking on the plot summary?
In the summary as written, I’m a bit unclear as to whether the bullet points refer strictly to earlier chapters, or whether they’re meant to provide an overview of the whole. These are prior events, yes? And now we’re moving on to that the protagonist does next. Then of course, if this were a full synopsis, I would expect a complete, but very concise, summary of the plot as a whole. What the main characters want, how they work to get it, what reversals they undergo, and how they come out in the end. With as few names and alien words as possible, just enough to flavor the mix.
Writing synopses is a useful skill even beyond the requirements of the submission process. I find that when I put together a formal synopsis I can see gaps in the plot, catch inconsistencies, and get a clearer sense of what needs to be emphasized and what I can tone down or even cut out. It’s a good aid for revision, and great for concentrating the mind.
To sum up, and to get back to what’s really essential, namely this section of synopsis and the sample that follows: I’m intrigued, even with the profusion (and confusion) of alien names and concepts. It has some interesting ideas, and the worldbuilding is intricate and detailed. There are good bones here; lots of potential as it goes through the revision process.