Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Balaam’s Donkey- Chapter One by Mike Jackson

There are some interesting ideas here, in a frame of biting satire. It’s rather timely and could be quite incisive. The robot/golem in particular has all sorts of dramatic and satirical potential.

I have a couple of suggestions for making the text more easily readable and for bringing out the ideas and characters in ways that will make them both clearer and stronger. The first is a fairly simple formatting rule (in the sense that every rule is there to be bent or broken, as long as you know what you’re doing—but first, try it the “right” way and see how it works).

One paragraph per speaker. Every time someone talks, give him his own paragraph. That way, it’s easier to follow the back and forth of the conversation, and the shorter paragraphs make the story overall easier to read. I like to keep bits of stage business together with the bits of dialogue as well, so that each character gets a paragraph to talk, act and react, and so on.

Try it; see how it works. As it becomes more familiar, it then becomes easier to know when to bend the rule.

Humor is hard. It’s much harder to write humor than straight narrative, because every word counts, and the timing and the language have to be spot on. The humor here has almost a middle-grade feel, but the subject matter is more Adults Only. I wonder if it might help to ponder the difference between humor and satire. Satire can be much sharper-edged; humor makes you laugh, but satire can make you wince.

If this novel is meant to lean toward satire, it needs some very careful editing and revising. The broadly sexist jokes and the robot’s frequent verbal misfires could hit even harder with tight and focused editing and meticulous choice of words and phrases.

A clearer sense of the religious aspect would help, too. This draft focuses more on the humor; the satire comes through less distinctly. It’s not meant to be a sermon, that’s clear in the text as well as in the author’s note, but I think we need to see more of the religious side of the story in this opening chapter.

One thing that will help with this, and generally make the novel read more smoothly, is better organization of sentences and paragraphs. Keeping the exposition to a minimum and focusing on characters’ actions and interactions can be a challenge in science fiction because the world at the outset is unfamiliar. On the one hand, the story wants (needs) to move quickly enough to draw the reader in and keep her reading, but on the other, she has to get a clear enough picture of what the world is like that she doesn’t bounce off all the strange words and concepts.

The writing has to be really, really focused in order to make both of these things happen at once. I often make the point that first draft can be whatever it needs to be—its job is simply to get the story blocked out for the author’s benefit. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it may not even make sense to anyone other than the author. And that’s OK.

The revision stage is where the author takes his very personal process and turns it into a working draft—one that makes sense to a reader who hasn’t lived in this world or known these characters. In this case, the order in which details are presented is as important as the number and choice of these details.

Here’s a fairly typical paragraph. It’s also the opening paragraph, which means that it’s the reader’s first introduction to the novel:

Rob woke with a start. Eyes wide open, sucking in the air with enormous wheezes. His fellow passengers stared at him in embarrassment.  The woman in the seat opposite leaned in with mock concern. “Mister, you need to get that looked at! You really do!” He had woken from the same dream he had had most nights for as long as he could remember. It wasn’t some undiagnosed apnea that woke him, it was the weight of despair, the fear combined with panic and hopelessness that always brought him round. As he focused on his surroundings Rob smiled apologetically as a synthetic voice broke the silence.

The opening sentence is a classic. It may be part of the humor or satire, because it’s been used so often in so many different works. It certainly sets the tone, and is relevant to what happens next.

First we get a picture of what he’s doing, then we’re introduced to “his fellow passengers,” so he’s on some form of transport (a good quick bit of scene-setting), and the transport apparently has seats in rows. We meet a fellow passenger, and she speaks to him, but mockingly–people aren’t nice here, we deduce.

And then suddenly we’re back in the viewpoint character’s head, he’s had a recurring dream, and his state of mind is wretched. And then he focuses, and is apologetic, and there’s an announcement.

There’s a lot going on here, and the order of events is a bit chaotic. He wakes, people react, he reacts. It might be easier to follow if he wakes, we’re told about the dream, then the woman speaks, then the announcement goes off.

This kind of narrative chaos can work if it’s consistent and if the writer is deft with timing and choice of words. It’s not a terrible opening paragraph, if a little mixed up—but then so is Rob.

The rest of the chapter shows a consistent tendency to mix up ideas, actions, and exposition. It’s hard for the reader to follow, and it reads as if the author is jotting down ideas as they occur to him. Nothing wrong with that in first draft, but in revision, it’s important to make sure ideas and actions follow in logical or consistent sequence. Here for example:

The journey from home had taken fifty six days. Many had travelled with Rob from Canada. Toronto YYZ was by far the biggest embarkation point for travellers from Earth to the Solar System. There had been a short stop off on Mars and then three full weeks of weightlessness. Passengers paid premium rates to travel in ships with gravity generators and Rob’s employers did not see gravity as worth the expense.  Rob had not been sick but he had not enjoyed the experience. He had tried to be social but his unusual sleeping habits made it hard to make friends.

We start off with the length of the journey, jump to “many” who apparently are passengers, then there’s a bit about Toronto and Mars, followed by a jump to ships with gravity generators and how it’s expensive and Rob’s employers won’t pay for it, so he didn’t feel very good and he wasn’t successful socially, and then we learn he has trouble sleeping. There is a narrative sequence, but there’s a lot going on in a lot of different directions.

One way to fix this particular paragraph would be to reorganize it a bit, and break it up. Start off in Toronto—something to the effect that most of the passengers traveling with Rob began the fifty-six-day journey in Toronto with a stopover on Mars, followed by three weeks of weightlessness. New paragraph about gravity generators and how Rob doesn’t get any, and he hasn’t been able to be social between the weightlessness and the strange sleeping habits. Then back to the present and Mikael, with a quick tag to let us know where and when we are. The reference to Rob’s problem works for that.

The trick is to focus on one detail at a time, and make sure the chronology is clear. Start at the beginning, filling in details like the length of the journey after you’ve established where it all starts, and when you introduce a new idea, start a new paragraph. That little bit of formatting-fu can make a huge difference to the flow of the story.

–Judith Tarr

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