Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

Tripartite Chapter 1 (Revised) by Taliyah St. James

This is a good opening chapter. It starts off peacefully, defining who Kayla is and what she does. Then the pace picks up; we find ourselves in the middle of unfolding action. We can see what’s happening and to whom, and we catch a glimpse of how the plot will proceed from here. The pacing overall is quick, and the end of the chapter pulls us straight into the next.

Structurally, so far, we’re on solid ground. The prose has some work to do.

The first thing I would point to is an issue with characterization as well as style and diction. Kayla’s emotions tend to ramp up to 11, and to do so in repetitive sequences.

She wanted to talk to someone, but she hadn’t made any friends in Philly, no one who she could really talk to, no one she could tell about the hallucinations, no one who would laugh with her about the man outside Dr. Richards’ office, not even someone whom she could tell about Dr. Richards.

This kind of repetition-for-emphasis can be quite effective, but a little goes a long way. Especially when it’s combined with the ongoing internal monologue about her loneliness and her strange visual malfunction, it presses the issue just a little too hard, a little too long.

The same applies to her estrangement from her family. We’re told about it several times, in much the same words each time, with the same structure of estranged/wishes she weren’t/wants to get back in touch/can’t bring herself to.

In each case, judicious pruning and tightening will actually make the emotional arc stronger. Find just the right place for each bit of information, and let it resonate through the rest. If it needs to be brought up again, do so briefly and use different words; develop it a little more, add a touch of new information, so that we move forward even while we’re reminded of what we were told before.

A large part of the art of revision is the ability to position each nugget of information in just the right place. Put it there and it changes and enhances the whole novel. This applies to characterization, plot developments, emotional arcs—all the way down to the placement of words and phrases.

For example we’re told she’s in Philadelphia rather late in the chapter, so that for a moment I thought she lived somewhere else and had just arrived in the city. Then the context told me the novel is set in Philadelphia. If I’d had the information at the beginning, I wouldn’t have had that moment of confusion.

There’s another form of confusion that’s actually an attempt to clarify. Particularly when two characters of the same gender are interacting, rather than get tangled up in the pronouns, the narrative offers synonyms: Marla/the coordinator/the woman, her mom/the elder woman. The problem is that every time we get a new synonym, we have to stop and wonder if we’re being introduced to a new character. As a reader I prefer simple repetition of the character’s name or epithet (her mom, for example)—like said, it’s basically neutral, and it helps me keep track of who’s doing what.

While we’re looking at the use of words and the structure of sentences, I’d also like to suggest paying careful attention to the meanings of specific words, and to the ways they fit together. Sometimes when we’re trying for unusual images or combinations of words, we don’t quite hit the mark. Figurative language needs to be straight on point.

The man with the shadows on his face is almost there, but shadows has a different connotation than the shadowy nubs it’s meant to refer to. Face and forehead are two different kinds of facial space, and shadows have their own heft of meaning apart from the vestigial horns Kayla sees. A simple fix (I do like simple) is to change face to forehead. Or change it to the man with the shadowy horns or a similar variation on the theme.

Tears threatened Kayla’s eyelids is a little bit inside out. The context seems to be that tears are threatening to spill over, but the strong active construction actually shifts the meaning from “she’s almost ready to cry” to “tears from elsewhere assault her eyelids (but not necessarily her eyes),” or even “something is threatening to tear or shred her eyelids.”

A frown that dimpled his cheeks is hard to visualize. A frown is the drawing together of the eyebrows. Lately it’s shifted to, or been expanded to include, the mouth. (I’m old school. I say Nope. But English is a living language, and living things change.) I’m not sure how the cheeks fit into it, and dimples usually appear when a person is smiling. I’d like a clearer sense here of what the character is doing.

think it’s good to push the envelope with style and imagery, but sometimes we (and I include myself in this, for sure) find ourselves in a different word-universe than the one we intended.Then we have to pull back, regroup, and usually simplify.

There’s lots of potential here, and I love the way the chapter ends with a bang and a swoop—on to chapter two! Best of luck, and happy revising.

—Judith Tarr

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