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.
Usually when I read an unfinished ms., I recommend that the author finish it before worrying about line edits. So much can change between the first draft and the final, and fixing lines and words can take up time that might be spent working on larger structural issues. It’s all too tempting to spin the wheels forever in the first few pages, and never quite make it past them.
That being said, when I made this Editor’s Choice selection I knew I’d be looking at the line-by-line. When we read a chapter at a time, that’s the most obvious thing we can address; the larger structure is harder to extrapolate. Therefore I’m going to issue my Standard Disclaimer: There is no wrong way to write a first draft, however you get the words down is just fine, and don’t worry about the finer points until you have the whole thing in front of you in whatever form it needs to take. What I say here is by way of “keep this in reserve for later” and “worry about it after you’ve completed the draft.”
I chose this submission for this month’s Fantasy Chapter Editor’s Choice because as much as it may need copyedits and polish, it’s got great bones. It presents a world both rich and strange, a set of characters I would be interested to hear more about, and the promise of a plot that will unfold through intriguing twists and turns. I want to know who the protagonist really is, what secret she’s hiding, and where the developments of this chapter will take each of the people we meet. I’m particularly taken with the rule of signs—that only the royal family can speak aloud. The signs themselves are vividly imagined; I can see them in my mind as they’re described.
All of these lovely elements will be even stronger with a solid copyedit and some careful proofreading. The draft shows signs of what will be with figurative language that occasionally sings: Voices, Ilph’s invisible companions, whispered in her mind — restless, paranoid, spiteful.
Sometimes it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here:
Back straight, chin raised, eyes piercing, Emperor Tigal floated over the Polis as though hovering.
Floating and hovering are more or less similes. Perhaps just say he’s hovering? Or floating?
Words get out of control here and there. She’d more likely clutch the neck of her robe than the neckline; black eyeliner is spelled kohl rather than coal. The surrogate he used in favor of giving her a name seems to mean something like “the sobriquet he used instead of a proper name.” I’m a bit confused by the saliva that turns into a viscous paste. Usually in that emotional state, my mouth dries out and I can’t generate any saliva at all. Or, as happens with Ilph, I’ll choke on bile. Here too, when ire marked his face, a sort of leashed frustration, the connotations aren’t quite on point. Ire is anger; it’s not particularly controlled or leashed, and it’s a different and stronger emotion than frustration.
Sometimes it’s useful in the final copyediting pass to take a sentence apart and make sure the different sections connect in the ways they’re meant to. In this passage
Long metal spikes stabbed through the woman’s arms, legs, hands, and shoulders to keep her suspended.
I had to read through a couple of times to connect the spikes and the suspension; it might have been clearer if the sentence had read something like, “The woman hung suspended from long metal spikes that stabbed through her arms, legs, hands, and shoulders.”
When she drove her mouth into an apathetic line, the concepts didn’t quite mesh for me. Apathy is limp, passive. Driving is a little too strong, and not exactly apposite. Perhaps a less vehemently active verb here—flattened, perhaps, or compressed.
I’m not sure about the visual of His forehead wrinkled, the lines coming to a head between his eyebrows. It’s very precise, and it repeats later, so seems to carry some significance, but whatever that is needs to be made clearer. Or just say he frowned? That seems to be what he’s doing. (There’s a tendency of late to misplace the frown to the mouth. It’s actually a forehead gesture, and the sentence quoted here describes it.)
I’m a little bemused by the repeated image of a character shifting weight between his feet. It reads as if he’s built like a bird with very short legs and a proportionally large body that essentially sits on top of his feet. Presuming that he has human proportions, is he shifting his weight from foot to foot, sort of bouncing back and forth?
In a fantasy as atmospheric as this one, with such strong emotional ebb and flow, it’s important to pay close attention to the nuances of words and phrases. Words should mean what they’re intended to mean, and the connections between them should be clear and cogent. It’s a good idea to pay attention to which words and phrases repeat, too.
Every writer has a tic, a tendency to come back over and over to particular words and phrases. The tic can vary from work to work, but there’s always something that keeps cropping up. In this chapter, it’s eyes acting independently of the people they belong to. Eyes trace, roam, trail, examine, jump. They’re lined with kohl, they’re full of menacing threat—a duplication that can be pruned to one of the synonyms, menace or threat. Rethinking some of these, finding other body parts to focus on, and shifting the agency from the eyes to the person who owns them, will sharpen the imagery and make the writing more active and vivid.
As I said above, these are all suggestions for the late phases of revision, when the novel is complete. In the draft stage, the priority is to get the words on the page, to sort out the characters and get the structure of the plot working well enough to move everything forward.
There’s plenty of time later to hone and polish the prose. For now, my best advice to just get it done. There’s a lot of good stuff here. And yes, I would read on.