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.
This submission has a lot of good things going on. The variety of aliens, the thought that’s gone into depicting their physiology and psychology as well as the human protagonist’s interactions with them, the acknowledgment that they all speak different languages and there’s no easy out via a universal translator. At the same time they find common ground through human cultural references, notably poker and sex workers.
I might ask whether alien species would necessarily be binary, or whether they would be inclined to buy and sell their reproductive rituals and if so whether it would be the females who were sold, but since this is a single chapter of a much longer work, it’s possible that question has been answered elsewhere. Here I’ll focus on the prose and the execution, on the way the chapter reads, and what I think might help it read more smoothly and clearly.
Often when we’re writing a draft, we get focused on what’s right in front of us, word by word and sentence by sentence. Human memory being what it is, especially if we’re writing in fits and spurts around our daily lives, we forget what we just said, even while we retain an overall idea of what we’re trying to say. It’s pretty common for a draft to pop up with word and phrase echoes—verbatim or near-verbatim repetitions within a sentence or two. This is a good example:
Ashee frowned and looked across the table. “Are we playing cards or talking?”
I dealt the next hand and looked around the table.
The word looked is a frequent flyer in this chapter. Characters do a lot of looking. When it comes time for the final polish, it might be worthwhile to think about varying not just the word but the action itself. What other things can characters do as they interact with each other and their surroundings?
Watch for odd images and visualizations that make the reader stop and back up:
The diminutive Dweller’s long scraggly hair hid his dark skin, pronounced forehead, bulging frogeyes, and high cheekbones.
That’s a lot of territory for scraggly hair to cover. Wouldn’t his skin color be visible elsewhere than his face? Can he see through his hair? Is it really important for us to know the exact details of his features, since they supposedly aren’t visible?
A little bit later,
Ashee pursed his lips under his bulbous eyes, like someone suppressing a grin.
Are his lips directly below his eyes? No nose or other facial features between them?
There’s some awkward phrasing, too, that could be smoothed and clarified in revision.
Facing forward, he turned his eyes back like a frog and might have been looking at the ceiling behind him.
It took me a minute to parse the sentence and figure out what he’s doing. Breaking up the clauses and separating the different actions into their own sentence-space might make the meaning clearer.
Here’s another sentence that made me stop and reread:
A sly smile worked its way from his tiny lips, forcing the corners upward.
I’m not quite sure about the logistics of the smile. It almost seems to exist independently of his lips—like the stet, which is a fascinating concept.
It is rather awkwardly described as his other half, the opaque, apparition-like portion of him, and the name has some odd resonances for editors and proofreaders, since it’s the word we use to refuse an editor’s change. It means “let it stand.” Is that intentional?
In any case that’s not the only action or reaction that seems to have independent existence:
He gave me a matter-of-fact expression
as if a facial expression were a solid object that could be given by one person to another. In the context of the stet it almost makes sense.
The habit of stating what a thing is, comma, then defining it makes for somewhat uneven, choppy reading.
Tiem stood and raised his grippers, the ones that were his equivalents of hands
might read more smoothly if it were tightened into something like raised his hand-like grippers.
Overall, the pacing of the chapter could be quicker. The poker game as a way of sharing a human cultural phenomenon and bonding with the disparate members of the crew is a good idea. With tightening and focus, smoothing and clarifying the prose, it could become a great one.
One thing to look for in revision is the way characters repeat the same actions and reactions in between chunks of exposition, often in the form of dialogue. Character asks a leading question, other character Explains Stuff.
Some spoken explanations can work well, but even a little too much can turn a conversation into a lecture. When that happens, the plot stalls. Shorter, more concise explanations and even a quick line or two of straight narrative containing the details that the reader needs to know at this particular point, can help get the story moving again, and moving along more briskly, too.
Another reliable plot-mover is variety. While a poker game does consist of a lot of repeated activity, in revision it can be useful to pick out different details in each repetition. That way the reader gets a more rounded, varied view of what’s going on. Think of it as changing the camera angle within the scene, showing different sides of the action.
There’s a lot of potential here, and some good ideas and worldbuilding. Best of luck, and happy revising!