Editor’s Choice Review October 2016, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Sea,The Land, And The Sky–Chapter Renna 1 by Jon Obermark

This one drew my attention because of the author’s cry for help. Sometimes we hit a wall in revision, and we just don’t know what to do. Workshopping can do a great deal to push through the wall, but it can also create a confusion of conflicting advice, which is what’s happened here.

So now of course I’m offering input that might make matters worse.

Or not. I hope not.

The first thing I’d like to say is something that we all know, or should know, but we tend to lose when we’re at the hair-tearing stage: It’s your book. You get to decide what works and what doesn’t. Editors and betas can advise and suggest, but the ultimate arbiter is you. Your book, your choices. Your right to take the advice or ignore it.

So, what feels right to you? What comes closest to your idea of what your book should be? Which solutions seem most workable, and which make you go Oh Hell No? That’s where you’ll find your way through.

With that in mind, I’m going to comment on what I see here. My comments are my own, individual, based on my experience and yes, personal taste. If they’re useful, that’s great. If not, as I said, it’s your book.

The bones of the story are intriguing, and there’s great potential for the characters and situations. The twists and turns promise some interesting plotting as the story goes on.

I’m not sure if the various critiques caused the large infodumps in an attempt to answer everybody’s questions or concerns, or if they were there originally. Either way, I think the extensive backstory and the worldbuilding, while valuable as notes and synopsis, get in the way of the story in this specific scene.

It actually feels to me as if the story wants to begin earlier—heresy, I know, according to the doctrine of “begin as close to the end as possible,” but what’s happening here needs so much bolstering and explanation that it doesn’t stand on its own the way an opening sequence needs to do. How to fix? That’s the author’s call.

Begin earlier? Commit the further heresy of a prologue? That’s one option.

Another would be to let the scene carry its own weight, then work in the “tell” by way of additional scenes, either flashbacks or scenes in story-present that convey the necessary information. There is enough action here, and enough of a twist, to carry the reader forward. I think the situation is affecting enough to create sympathy.

Questions to ask would be:

What does the reader need to know here? What’s the bare minimum of information required to make the scene make sense, without front-loading it with exposition and synopsis? Do we need to know every detail—which hand Renna uses to get her drink (step by step) from the cooler, the nature of text and language, Renna’s diagnosis and its ramifications, her childhood history, Ten’s history, and so on?

On the one hand the reader does need to know why she should care about this character, but on the other, a full history up front can be overwhelming. There’s a balance between them, a sweet spot that an author needs to find.

One of my favorite rules of thumb comes from Harry Turtledove: “The author needs to know 500 details. The trick is to find the three that are most important, that encapsulate or imply all the rest.” We don’t have to be rigid about the number three, of course, but it’s a useful figure. It shows the rough proportion of worldbuilding and background to what’s actually on the page. And it encourages the writer to think in terms of the key detail, the one that implies the rest.

In this scene, if we strip away the backstory and the exposition, we have a set of clear actions that move the story forward, leading to the emotionally affecting twist. For me, that was effective, because we’ve seen Renna doing what she does (and struggling with apparent amnesia), then comes the revelation: she’s dead, and Ten is in some way channeling or dissociating.

For me at least, knowing they’re life partners covers the backstory about the events and motivations surrounding their marriage. Other details (her pregnancy, the family, the tour) aren’t relevant here but may be relevant later—they’d go in my “worlduilding/flashbacks” file, for use down the line.

The fact Renna is non-neurotypical is topical and adds interest, but the infodump, especially at this early point in the narrative, gets in the way of the story’s movement. Is there a way to show without telling? Can she demonstrate, concisely, how she processes the world differently from the non-Alienated?

Best case in terms of writing craft would be for her to react to something she’s doing in a way that, say, Ten would not, and for her to catch herself or stop and think, wait, would he do this? Should I be doing it his way? Is my way more efficient? Or pretty much anything else that may help to illustrate what, in this draft, you’re filling in with exposition.

When I get stuck on a revision, cutting back to the bare bones often helps, then layering in emotion and key details. So does walking away from the scene and writing something else. Or even realizing that the scene isn’t the opening I was looking for. It might belong further down in the storyline, or it can actually be cut in favor of another scene that conveys the important information through another’s character or situation.

The timeout method can be really useful for easing frustration and giving me fresh eyes when I come back later. I might have a new idea as to how to make the scene work, or I’ve found another scene that does the job. I might also change the viewpoint or the emphasis—though here, I think the key to it all is already there in Ten’s channeling of Renna.

That’s powerful. It feels like good, solid story-stuff, and nice forward plotting. The devil, as so often, is in the details. I hope I’ve offered some paths through the confusion, if only in the order of, “No, not that way! This is how it needs to be!” Friction in editing, as in plotting and in physics, is how things move, after all.

–Judith Tarr

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