Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, 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, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Zjelhkar – Chapter 1 by Beth Lomnitzer

Let me begin with my Standard Disclaimer, which is that there is no wrong way to write a draft. Every writer has her own process, and that process is how she gets the words on the page. Once they’ve reached that point, that’s when we can start applying more standardized principles of editing and revision.

I believe writers should embrace their process. Whatever works, whatever gets those words down. Let it happen. Don’t worry about being right or wrong or anywhere in between.

I particularly enjoyed this opening chapter because it represents the polar opposite of my process, which is downright minimalist. Bare minimum of words required to get the ideas on the page. I always have to go back later and fill in—sometimes extensively. I’ll write fifty words, and in one epic instance, had to turn them into fifty thousand. Usually it’s more like five hundred or a thousand, but you get the idea.

Here we have a process that layers in words and images and concepts, often the same ones expressed slightly differently in each iteration, with exacting detail and an almost poetic heaping up of repetition. What actually happens is short and fairly simple, and the revision process will involve paring and pruning and trimming to bring out the bones of the story. Much of the wealth of words will go into reserve, either to be called on later, or to remain in the background. Choosing the exact right words or concepts will encompass those that have been pared away.

And that’s a fine thing. It’s the process. It’s like sculpture: finding the shape in the stone.

The question that first drew me to this submission was whether there is enough here to keep the reader engaged through a full-length novel. The bones of the story here are:

A storm is raging. Mazy runs toward a cave. She has apparently been here before, or (we find out a bit later) has heard about it—it’s not quite clear. The cave is flooding; she attempts to divert the water. After some difficulty, she succeeds. She then proceeds to reveal some of her past, and the fact that she has the power to psychically read any object she touches with her bare hands. Once she’s done so, she knows where to go next; she settles into wait out the night and the storm.

All of that is solid story-stuff. Big dramatic storm, refuge that requires a little work and danger to secure, flashback with hints of interesting past and potentially interesting future. That’s a reasonable start. As a reader, I’m curious about this family of survivors that appears to be all gone now except for Mazy, and I want to know how the world got this way, and whether her powers are unusual and where they come from and how she’ll use them—and will she find herself in jeopardy, or be worshipped as a god, or…?

When the draft is ready to get down to the word and sentence level, it will need pruning. In the opening paragraphs, note all the –ing words, and the repetitions—the same things described in slightly different ways, over and over. Choose one, the one that conveys the action or idea most clearly and cogently, and turn the –ing into an active construction, and the narrative will come into sharper focus and move more quickly.

Perhaps set a challenge in revision: to reduce each paragraph to three sentences, and to remove the finer details of what Mazy is doing, such as in the first paragraph, squinting through the rain, glancing over her shoulder, ducking and grabbing. Then once the bones of the narrative are visible, see what needs to go back in in order to make it clear what’s happening. Maybe some of it will. Maybe it’s clear as it is, and the reader can get the greater context from sketch on the page.

In the process of paring and trimming, think about which details are absolutely essential: that have to be there or the story doesn’t make sense. She’s crashing through the woods, which implies that she’s running; does she need to begin to run in the next sentence? Can all the crashing (note repeated word) and falling of trees and branches be condensed into a single, memorable image? For each repetition, pick the one that conveys most clearly what the reader should see and feel.

The same applies to the next paragraph, with repeated images of rain and wind. One each can contain them all, and that will move the narrative forward without losing the effect of the violent weather.

Especially in scenes with a lot of action and jeopardy, repetition slows everything down. The reader wants to race along with the character, pick up surroundings in quick impressions, and move rapidly toward a conclusion: in this case, the refuge of the cave. Short, active sentences, brief descriptions, a continual flow of new (rather than repeated) information, creates tension, and gives the reader the sense of urgency.

Revising-by-pruning can be tough at first; details are there because we believe they need to be there. But for the reader, very dense and repetitive prose can be confusing. I couldn’t manage to figure out whether she’d been in the cave before or had heard about it from—family? Someone? I wanted to be clearer on that point.

As for where to go from here, my best advice would be to finish the book first. Let the process be the process. I find that once we recognize our own particular way of getting the words down, and then embrace it, it’s much easier to cope with the revision stage. We know it’s coming, we know what the parameters are, but for now, as we write first draft, we do it the way we need to do it.

In the meantime, there is a story here, and a character who looks as if she can carry it. I’ll be interested to see how it turns out.

–Judith Tarr



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