Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Poison Wind-Chapter 1 by J. Kyle Kelsey

I’m going to start this Editor’s Choice with a piece of somewhat wicked advice.

You’re in one of the best of all the writing stages: the Thinking Up All Kinds of Cool Stuff stage. It’s wonderful. It’s a blast. Whatever you come up with is great. It’s pure fun.

Don’t stop.

The time to revise is later. Just let the cool stuff flow. Don’t worry about rules or continuity or anything else. This is first draft. The only rule is to do whatever gets the words down on that page. You can worry about all the other stuff later.

Radical, right? But the actual worst thing you can do to a draft that’s humming along is try to apply your editorial brain. If you get stuck or if you really feel it’s stopped making sense, by all means regroup. Run a rules check. Do some rethinking, even rewriting.

But not until then.

Now that I hope I’ve made that clear, here are some thoughts and questions. Don’t act on them now unless they help move the draft forward. Put them aside, save them for the revision stage. Most likely the specific words I’m citing will have changed, but the general point should still apply.

The first thing to think about in revision is the structure of the story, the way the scenes follow one another, the pacing. Does the story move forward consistently? Do the slow parts come when we need a breather? Do the fast parts zoom along? Does every scene absolutely need to be there? Is there anything missing?

Obviously there’s no way to be sure of any of this with just a short chapter to go by, but these are the sorts of questions to ask when it’s time to revise. There are a couple of indicators in the opening chapter, some tricks of technique that may need rethinking. One is a tendency to say the same thing over and over in slightly different ways.

Repetition is a well-known rhetorical device, but like all such devices, a little goes a long way. This paragraph, for example.

It wasn’t a sacred day, or a fasting day, or even a bank holiday. It was a boring November day. He sat is in his dull flat in dreary East Ham. The weather wasn’t of note. Clouds covering everything in gray monotony, like Ajeet’s unwashed clothes blanketed the floor of their shared flat. It seemed like the right day. He remembered that from an American movie, “fire them on Friday”, something like that. He was dying to break the tedium. His crew wouldn’t activate for another two days. He could stream his shows, but it all seemed boring now. Nothing compared to fighting evil with his crew.

On the one hand, the repetition of day has a nice ring to it, kind of Dickensian. It sets a tone. On the other, as the paragraph lengthens, the effect starts to weaken. The progression of thoughts is a bit jumbled. Ideas pop in and then out and then back again.

That is fine in a first draft. Get it all down, get the chapter out the door. But in revision, it’s time to line up the ideas and images and get them moving clearly and coherently, in logical order. If ideas or images repeat, pick the one that works best in context. Save the others for another occasion.

Revision is the time to make sure all the words work the way they’re intended to. Sometimes when we’re writing in the white heat of first draft, we can get ourselves tangled up. We know what we mean, but readers may not.

This is particularly true in science fiction. Some terms are unique to the genre. Some are invented on the spot, or reinvented to fit the world of the story. A passage like this one

Didn’t hurt that they made a good living off scavenging bit wreckage after his crew would detonate data cores. In two days they would onramp a massive code injection.

makes sense to the characters, but especially at the very beginning, it may need some clarification for the reader. It doesn’t need to be a big chunk of exposition, but it might help to think about how to make these concepts clearer. A quick phrase to help clarify and/or explain. Or maybe opening up the sentences, adding a little more, letting the reader see what the terms mean.

Figurative language is a nice way to make a scene or an idea pop, but watch that, too. It needs to be straight on point; to be exactly right. Otherwise it can push the reader out of the moment.

The traditions of his parents and grandparents faith ran through their hearts as deep as ravines

is trying hard to convey the depth of his family’s faith, but ravines might not be quite the right word. As a reader in the US, I see a ravine as a kind of moderate slash in the landscape, deeper and larger than a gully but not quite as spectacular as a canyon. It’s not terribly impressive on a global scale, and I’m not sure about associating it with religious faith.

What other image might resonate here? Something a reader might recognize from a religious text? An image of a sacred place? What about tying it in with the anatomical and psychological aspects of the human heart?

Or, for that matter, just letting the idea shine through on its own. Similes and metaphors can enhance the story, but they can also get in the way. Sometimes it’s more effective to just state the idea plainly, without embellishment.

The question to ask here is, “Am I interrupting the flow? Did I just distract the reader? Did I bump her out of the story?”

This applies to the prose in general as well as to rhetorical flourishes. Make sure all the words are the right words. As Mark Twain famously said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

Here are a couple of examples of words or phrases that might bear some rethinking:

 “Alright. I’ll be there,” he acted in a hurry.

I’m not sure what “acted” means here. It’s not a “said” word. Is he pretending? Acting in the theatrical sense?

The music she liked was chaotic and atmospheric. A reflection of herself in his eyes.

The second sentence is a bit confusing. Is she reflecting herself? Is he seeing her reflected? What does it mean? Can you phrase it more clearly and concisely?

And finally, be particularly careful about pronouns. There’s a tendency to use “he” as a shorthand for the viewpoint character, which gets confusing when he’s interacting with another male character. The reader has to stop and disentangle the pronouns, and try to figure out which he is which. Sometimes it’s best to just name them. My personal rule is to signal a change with the character’s name (or more rarely, some other indicator—the character’s rank or relationship; but I try to be really sparing with that), then “he” is that character until I change the name. No name, no change.

Basically, in revision, look out for anything that makes the reader stop and go, “Whut?” The goal is to keep the story moving, and to keep the reader well and thoroughly engaged. If she does stop to notice what you’re doing, it should be brief and it should be carefully calibrated. Every word earns it keep, and every image is exactly the right one for that particular point in the story.

But again, in the first draft, don’t worry about any of this. Just write. And have fun. That’s what it’s all about.

–Judith Tarr

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