Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Phage Chapter 14 by Michael Keyton

I love genre-bending, I do confess. I am particularly fond of disaster stories and especially plague stories. (It’s the medievalist in me.) The combination of near-future science fiction and monster-at-the-windows horror is one of my favorites. All which is to say that this submission ticks quite a few of my boxes.

It also accomplishes something that doesn’t happen that often: it’s stayed with me. The setting, characters, and overall thrust of the plot are clear in my head. I even got to spend a happy half-hour listening to anharmonic music, partly to immerse myself in the soundtrack of the chapter and partly for the raw physical experience, that thrum through the bones. In short, the draft needs work, of course, but the framework is strong.

For this Editor’s choice I’d like to address a couple of issues.

1. “Floating Heads”

Here and there in the chapter, the dialogue gets going so fast that it leaves the rest of the narrative behind. Exchanges go on and on, snapping back and forth, with an occasional pointer to who’s speaking. Even with those pointers, the frame gets lost. We’re left with sets of fast lines floating in space.

It’s not a complicated fix. Doesn’t need a whole lot of said-words and throat-clearing and shifting around. Just a line once in a while to tether the conversation to the story.

It may help to break up some of the conversations. Make them shorter. Tighten and condense the rush of information. Let the characters (and the reader) stop for breath.

2. Viewpoint-tagging

My second observation is the opposite of the first. Floating Heads have too little going on. Viewpoint tags have too much. One expects the reader to fill in all the relevant context. The other is nudging constantly: I’m here, I’m here, did I mention I’m here?

By viewpoint tags I mean all those little reminders that the character is present. Words like thought, wondered, felt, looked, watched, saw, surveyed. Longer passages, too, stretching into internal monologue while the story waits for the character to stop thinking and the action to start again.

There must be a rule somewhere that “You Must Always Make Sure The Reader Knows Who Is Telling The Story.” That’s true, mostly, but first, trust yourself. And second, trust your reader.

Once you’ve established the POV of a scene, you won’t need to keep pointing to it unless there’s a shift to another POV. We know the character is thinking, seeing, feeling, without needing to be told in so many words. It’s implicit in the idea of a viewpoint character. Let the story happen without the filter. Just tell it direct, and we’ll know whose eyes we’re using at the time.

In revision, perhaps try an experiment: get rid of all the viewpoint tags. Then read what you have left, and see if it still makes sense. One or two tags might go back in for clarity, but most should turn out not to have been necessary.

Writing is a balancing act, always. A little more here, a little less there. As long as the story itself is solid—and as far as I can see from this chapter, it does seem to be—the rest should be fairly straightforward to fix.

Best of luck, and happy genre-bending!

–Judith Tarr

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