Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, Science Fiction

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.

Time Is The Fire, Chapter One V3 by Dylan McFadyen

Late in 2017 there was a bit of a run on authors taking down their chapters after I had pulled them for the Editor’s Choice but before I was able to post my crit. (Protip: Don’t Do That.) In the midst of this, one author asked me to look at a revision of the chapter I had reviewed in August. Normally we try to look at all-new-to-us chapters, but under the circumstances, with the author’s permission, I decided to give it a go.

This will not be a regular thing, but I thought it might be an interesting exercise. And so it turned out to be.

Both my EC and the original chapter have cycled off the site, but I remarked on the extreme precision and sometimes distracting detail of the worldbuilding, and the tendency for characters to talk about important events rather than experiencing them in the narrative—a technique I call “offstaging,” as in, important things that should occur onstage happen offstage instead.

The new version keeps most of the previous version. There’s a little less over-precision in the opening, somewhat fewer micro-details. We don’t usually stop to explain to ourselves what happens to the hardware and the software when we swipe a touchscreen, or to consciously analyze which fingers we use and how, unless it’s relevant to our interests. The same tends to apply to characters in fiction. We do get a little bit still enough to orient ourselves to this universe, but not so much that we’re distracted from the movement of the story. The revision moves more quickly as a result, and allows us to focus on the characters and their interactions.

The biggest change is a rewrite of a scene that, in the previous version, took place offstage. I am in favor of this. Exposition and offstaging are not always Awful Things Do Not Ever Do, but they work best in small doses. Mostly as a reader I want to be there in the moment, rather than hear about it at second or third hand.

So here instead of the Admiral telling the Captain about the big invasion force, we get to see it. There’s a bit of over-specificity again, a tendency to over-describe, but that’s easily enough pruned in the next revision. I’m much happier to have this new scene, to see through the viewpoint character’s own eyes, to feel his emotions as he realizes what’s happening.

There’s one more thing however that revision needs, and that’s smoothing over the edges. By this I mean that once the writer has tipped in the new scene, it changes the scenes around it, and particularly those immediately after. Deeper layers of emotion mean stronger or more complex reactions, and in many cases, changed reactions as well.

After Captain Aean has seen for himself what the fleet is up against, with the powerful emotions that this has evoked, he’s likely to carry some of those emotions through the discussion with the Admiral and into his conversations with his crew. Will he still make his “mirthless joke,” and if so, will he do it in the same way? Will his crew pick up the residue of his shock and horror? Will he try to hide it? If so, will he succeed or fail?

A strong scene like the new one will resonate. Those resonances carry on through the rest of the story, and affect scenes and actions later—not only those that follow directly, but later ones as well.

Emotions take time to process fully. When they’re amped up as they are here, it’s quite likely they’ll affect the character’s decisions throughout the rest of the novel. He might repress them and find them cropping up later, with important consequences for his conduct in the story, or he might release them in a rush and have to do damage control when he most needs to keep it together; he might say something he shouldn’t to someone who shouldn’t know, or not share with someone who really needs to know.

The possibilities are pretty much endless. So are the ramifications for the story. Here, it’s not a sharp turn or a strong alteration in the plot, but it adds depth to what’s already here. It makes the story stronger. The next step is to make sure the scene fits securely into the emotional landscape. A line here, a word there, may be all that’s needed to keep the ripples expanding outward.

–Judith Tarr

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