Editor’s Choice Award June 2019, Science Fiction

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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Dark Horizon Chapter One by Taylor Preston

This opening chapter sends good, solid space-opera signals: the spaceship on the wrong side of the law, the daring raid, the bits of background both technical and political. There’s one female protagonist in an otherwise all-male crew, but other women characters may show up later to even out the gender balance.

A couple of things might help make this a stronger, punchier opening, and they’re both related to the portrayal of the protagonist. The first is the handling of viewpoint, and the second is the art of writing active prose.

When we’re introduced to Zara, we get frequent reminders that she’s our viewpoint character. She stares, wonders, extends her faculties, knows, thinks; her pulse quickens, she’s on edge, she has trouble concentrating, and so on through the chapter. A favorite word crops up here—nervous; it will recur at intervals, and apply to other characters as well as Zara. (We all have a favorite word; when we revise, one of the first things we do is run a global search to see how many times we’ve used it.)

Viewpoint is important in this chapter. One of Zara’s jobs is to monitor other characters when they’re off the ship. She has to juggle multiple sets of sensory input, while also flying the ship and watching out for enemy action.

It’s a challenge for the author as well as the character to keep all of these balls in the air at once. In addition to frequent viewpoint-tagging, we get examples of Zara’s struggles with the level of multitasking she has to do. It’s a big job with a lot of responsibilities.

In revision it might be worth rethinking some of this. First, can some of these jobs be assigned to other members of the crew, or can some of them be done by the ship itself? If the ship is being flown by an AI, that gives Zara more mental room to monitor the mission on the Calypso. (And if the ship doesn’t have an AI or autopilot, that’s an important piece of worldbuilding; we’ll need a hint here as to why.)

Also think about Zara’s competence—her qualifications for the job. Is she performing in accordance with her pay grade? Are her struggles with multiple data inputs appropriate for someone who presumably was hired to do this particular thing?

Note how often she’s taken by surprise during the mission (surprise is another favorite word). If she’s being asked to do a job she’s not trained sufficiently to do, that’s a plot point, as well as a danger to the rest of the crew. Will this be an issue later in the novel? Has she padded her resume, or claimed qualifications she doesn’t have? If so, it might help to clarify this here.

If not, then again it’s rethinking time. What should Zara know if she is qualified to do this job? How should she handle the various responsibilities? If she struggles, what strong, plot-related reason can she have for not being able to do her job?

Zara’s struggles with her job are somewhat similar to the author’s struggles with establishing viewpoint. The frequency of viewpoint tags, especially in the opening paragraphs, not only reminds the reader that Zara is the protagonist, but also injects the author into the narrative. “You know what I mean? You get it? You sure?”

I’d suggest reducing the number of tags. Trust the reader to know who is telling the story. Provide at most one viewpoint word per paragraph, and let the rest happen without the filter of Zara’s senses. They’re still there in the background, but they only need to come to the fore when it’s particularly important to know that she’s doing the thinking and feeling.

In action-adventure fiction, the more immediate the reader’s experience, the more compelling it tends to be. The reader wants to feel as if she’s living the adventure with the characters. If she catches sight of the author behind the curtain, she may lose that feeling, and be thrown out of the story.

Strong, clear, active prose is particularly important in action scenes. Tight writing is key. No excess wordage. Whatever is there has to be there.

When we met Alex and Karl, for example, we get a description of each man. The scene is tense; they’re about to head off on a dangerous mission. But the narrative stops for a pair of visual snapshots. Do we need those particular details in that particular place? What one detail might sum up each character—a contrast, perhaps, between the way each one moves or talks or acts toward Zara? If that detail is relevant right then, it’s memorable. It sets us up for how the two crewmen will handle the mission, and it also helps establish how Zara perceives each of them.

During the mission, sharper, more concise writing will help build tension and enhance the suspense. For example, does Zara need to tell the men what they already know about the timing? Can a brief line of narrative replace the dialogue? Something like: They only had X minutes to get in and out before the AI caught on.

Likewise, do we need Zara’s extended description of what each man is feeling, with its repetitions of nervous and surprise and its passive verb constructions? Can each be condensed into a short sentence, one about how different Alex is inside than she thought, and the other about how accurately she’s always read Karl? It might even be possible to combine the two into one rapid and effective sentence.

Short, strong, active—keep those words in mind during revision. Think too about how much exposition and backstory the scene needs, and whether that, too, might be tightened and condensed and focused. What do we absolutely need to know right here and now in order to understand what’s going on, and what can wait until later in the narrative? Is there one specific detail that contains all the others, and can that be conveyed clearly and simply, with an active verb and minimal repetition of words? That’s the one to keep. The reader will pick up on the rest.

–Judith Tarr

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