Editor’s Choice Award November 2018, 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.

Dream Hunters (Working Title) Chapters 1 and 2 by Debra Sylver

I’m impressed with this submission not just because of all the thought that’s gone into the plotting and worldbuilding, but because of the dedication it takes to stay with one’s characters through four complete novels. That’s worthy of much respect.

An Editor’s Choice review is a little bit different from others in that it tries to look at issues of more general interest as well as those that are specific to the individual submission. Here I’d like to talk about the challenges of beginning the fourth novel in a series. On the one hand, many readers will presumably have read the first three books and be familiar with the characters and their stories. On the other, some will be picking up the series for the first time here. What’s an author to do?

It’s a balancing act. The author has to sum up previous events and reintroduce characters clearly enough that the new reader gets the picture while the longtime reader appreciates the reminder without feeling over-reminded. The pacing needs to be brisk especially at the beginning of a fantasy adventure, but not so brisk that the reader (both new and old) loses track of who’s who. On the other hand, if it’s too leisurely, the story will stall and the reader will wander off.

As a new reader, I very much appreciate the capsule synopses in the author’s note, though when I read the chapters I put those aside and tried to read as if I’d just picked up the book. With a published novel I’d have the cover copy to guide me, and that would be it.

I found that I wasn’t having a great deal of trouble keeping up with the characters. The action is clear enough at the beginning, and there’s plenty of clueing-in to the identities of characters who have appeared in previous volumes.

What I would suggest especially at the very start is a deep pruning of Caitlin’s internal monologue, paring away repetition and making choices as to where those repeated phrases and chunks of information would be most effective. For example the first chapter, and therefore the novel, starts with a line of dialogue, which is a tricky thing to do; it can be quite dramatic, but it also needs some quick framing in order for the reader to get the context. The framing here is lengthy and tends to repeat the same ideas in different ways (and sometimes in the same ways—the repetition of fault for example, and Caitlin’s ruminations on different realities, including the frequent reminders that nobody in this reality would believe the other reality exists). For the most part we’re inside Caitlin’s head, with brief intervals on the outside as Liam takes his martial-arts class.

For me as a reader, it feels as if this balance should be reversed. Less internal monologue, more external action. Less description, too, and less backstory. Just give us what we need to know right here and now. The rest will come up later as it’s relevant.

When I’m revising a draft in which I’ve put in everything I as the writer need to know in order to build my world and story, I ask myself what does the reader need to know now? Can I pick one or two essential details, and let those contain the rest? Do I need to describe the entire setting (or go into detail in describing a character) or just the elements that are important at this particular point? If I leave anything out, is it still clear what’s going on?

Another thing I would like to suggest is a bit of re-framing on the sentence level. I noticed as I read that Caitlin tends to think in a certain pattern, and it’s often in negatives. The structure is subject – verb – object – but:

He seemed to be a natural, but

Caitlin wouldn’t ask him directly, but

It was inevitable that she would meet them again, but

The cumulative effect is of ongoing negation of whatever the initial thought happens to be. We’re set up for one reaction, then told nope, not happening. It’s an interesting insight into Caitlin’s personality and thought processes, but it’s also a bit disorienting.

There are other forms of negativity as well, which add to the effect:

Not that it was dirty—in fact, the room was spotlessly clean

It didn’t escape her that

That didn’t really clear anything up.

wasn’t sure how

was never that excited

Note how in each case, instead of stating a fact straight up, we’re told what it’s not. It made me wonder as I read, how Caitlin would come across if all her negatives were switched to positives. Would she be a different person? Would that affect how she acts and reacts within the story? Would the story itself change?

It’s certainly an interesting story. I love Caitlin’s were-lion persona, and I like that she’s so invested in making the different realities safe for Liam—as well as giving him the tools to protect himself. It not only makes her a good sister/foster parent, it gives her more depth as a character.

–Judith Tarr

 

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