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.
I have a soft spot for hardscrabble planetary SF, and I’m intrigued by the author’s note. The novel is finished and published, but it seems to be “lacking some shine.” It takes courage to revisit a published work and want to make it better.
As I read the opening chapters, I noted some prose habits that might be worth addressing. Fortunately the fixes are fairly straightforward. It’s mostly a matter of recognizing that these things are happening, and adding that extra layer of tightening and polish.
Conjunction splices. These are like comma splices in that they run separate clauses together, but they disguise themselves with the conjunctions and and but. For example:
Oppressive heat surrounded her and it felt as though she spent every day drenched in sweat. Almost immediately we also see That was the problem with deserts; too hot to breathe and sand that found its way into everything.
What this does is level out the emphases: everything has the same emotional temperature. We lose the distinction between characters and concepts, or between the abstract and the concrete. Consider this example:
He knelt in front of a sand-buggy and a streak of grease stained his right cheek.
Two different things are happening, but they’re lined up as if they were in the same category of action. The character kneeling and the grease staining carry equal weight.
I would suggest is breaking up sentences that are spliced with and and but. It can be as simple as getting rid of the conjunction and creating two sentences: He knelt in front of a sand-buggy. A streak of grease stained his right cheek. If the result starts to get choppy, clauses can connect with semicolons and colons, or you can even cut details that aren’t directly relevant.
I noted quite a bit of repetitive internal monologue. Nova spends most of these chapters inside her head, thinking, feeling, remembering, opining, debating. She goes over the same thoughts and reminiscences within single paragraphs but also through the larger narrative: thoughts about where she comes from, what she’s doing here, how gross her boss is and how she feels about Axel and how she needs to make rent. Paring away the repetitions and leaving one of them in just the right place will help with both the pacing and the prose.
The same applies to dialogue. In the scenes with Koba and Axel, the conversation cycles through the same ideas and arguments. They’ll say something once, then go over it again: Koba can’t do that, Koba is doing that, he has to pay her, she has to make rent, Koba can’t do that, he won’t pay her, he has to pay her, she has to make rent. Cutting the conversation by half or two-thirds, zeroing in on the key ideas and pruning the internal monologue when it repeats information we’ve already seen, will speed up the narrative.
It is true that, if used very sparingly, this kind of recursive dialogue can work. It has to be be spot on, playing continually and slightly varied riffs on the same idea, so that we get the full effect of the viewpoint character’s frustration while also feeling that the story is moving forward.
Within internal monologue and external dialogue, there is a tendency to insert digressions, mostly background and description, which repeat from scene to scene as well as within scenes. For example:
Nova stood just inside the door and fidgeted. The less time she wasted standing in Koba’s office the better; she needed to get back to her ship and search for more Bounty Hunter jobs. She had to get out there and start making a name for herself—she hadn’t left Tabryn with her very own space ship just so she could be a mechanic for the rest of her life. She wanted to travel, explore things. And one day, maybe, she’d be accepted into the legendary Bounty Hunter guild: The Jagged Maw. But right now that was a pipe-dream because you had to do something really special to get noticed by The Jagged Maw, and fixing broken-down spaceships wasn’t it.
She cleared her throat.
We’re in the middle of a tense scene. Nova is about to beard her boss in his den. The story stops for a chunk of backstory. Several sentences later, it starts again. In the meantime, the tension has snapped—and Nova has told the reader in so many words that the scene is a waste of time.
Readers are tough customers. They don’t cut a lot of slack, particularly at the beginning of a book. When they’re told the scene they’re about to read is not important (even if in fact it is), they may skip to the next scene. If they find themselves skimming too often, they’ll put the book aside and move on to something else.
To keep the reader reading, information should flow smoothly. It can slow down in between action scenes or scenes high in emotional tension, providing a breathing space and allowing room to fill in background and exposition. A tense scene needs to be tightly focused, moving along briskly from action to reaction, with crisp, concise dialogue and a nice snap at the beginning as well as the end.
Any details that appear here should be few, carefully chosen, and directly relevant to the scene. Active verbs and positive phrasing are key.
It’s particularly important to avoid negatives and demurrals: to say what something is rather than what it isn’t, to make it clear to the reader that this scene is worth her time, and to draw her along from line to line and paragraph to paragraph to paragraph without interrupting the flow with nonessential information. In short: to keep her turning the pages. If she stops, if she’s distracted, she may not be able to get back on track.
My personal checklist for details, especially at the beginning of a novel, goes like this:
Do we absolutely need to know this right here and now?
Can the reader make sense of the story without it?
Can this particular information wait for a later scene?
Does the reader need all of this information? What can I leave out? What particular detail or small handful of details can I provide that will allow the reader to pick up on the rest?
Have I already conveyed this information? Does the reader need to be reminded?
How concise can I be and still get my meaning across? How can I convey the most information with the fewest words?
Sometimes the story needs to relax into a leisurely unfolding of events and information. It’s part of the ebb and flow of the narrative. At the beginning, and in important conversations that set up and develop friction between characters, it’s generally more effective to keep the scene short, clear, and focused. When information is doled out sparingly, in carefully chosen increments, the reader keeps reading. She’s eager to find out more.
Best of luck, and kudos for offering up this novel for critique. There’s good stuff here. Once the prose is honed and polished, I do think it will shine.
— Judith Tarr