Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, Fantasy

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.

Beckoning Of The Gate by Benjamin Ryan

The first question I have here is, this is a short story, yes? Or at least a shorter work, below novel length. I’m curious to know what the intended length is, because that will help determine a particular direction of revision.

When I started reading, I got the sense of epic right away: word choice, sentence structure, and overall voice and pacing speak to the genre of epic fantasy. We used to call it high fantasy, in part because it was written in the high style. It’s grand, it’s serious, it evokes a sense of wonder and awe.

That’s the prologue. The first chapter drops down a couple of levels of style with its title, which seems perhaps ironic, and its setting, evidently a more modern (if not contemporary) era and an academic setting. The purpose, it seems, is to convey exposition in the form of a lesson in a classroom. And then we shift to Santha, who may perhaps be the, or a, protagonist; through her we get a view of the world beyond the classroom, which has a sort of general fantasy, perhaps at most nineteenth-century, feel—definitely not the age of motorized vehicles and modernist architecture.

In an epic fantasy novel, the pacing might work. It’s leisurely, it takes time to explore and explain. The prologue sets up a situation full of danger and jeopardy, whereas the first chapter is mainly about introducing key characters and establishing the framework of the world. At this speed, we have quite a way to go through plots and reversals to a conclusion.

I might, as others apparently have noted, want to see less exposition at the beginning; when a story is frontloaded like this, it can be hard for a reader these days to keep reading. Readers are all in such a hurry. They’ve lost the habit of settling in for a nice, long, relaxing excursion through the byways of a world.

If this is a shorter work, even a novella, the prose will need pruning. The frequent repetitions, the recursions, the classroom discussion going over and over the same essential information, may keep some of their scope and expanse, but most of it will have to serve the needs of the form. And in shorter fiction, every word has to count. There’s not much room to maneuver.

I see the potential here. The prologue presents an intriguing situation, between the hunter and the prey. The first chapter hints at interesting character interactions and possible conflicts, as well as questions to be answered about the situation in the prologue. I’m curious to know how the prologue will resonate through the story proper, and I want to see what Santha is up to and why she’s talking and acting in these particular ways. And will the students and their teacher have a role to play later? If so, what?

The fact I’m asking questions is a good thing. The goal of keeping the reader reading is well within reach. With quicker pacing and meticulous pruning of the words, there will be plenty of space for developing plot and characters, even within the constraints of the shorter form.

One thing I would recommend is paying close attention to the meanings of words and phrases. The epic style can be lay on the sweep and the scope, but the stylist has to take care that the words don’t fly off the rails. It’s a balancing act between high grandeur and the reader blinking and going, “What?”

Elaborate and intricate prose can demand quite a bit of the reader—it’s not mean to be skimmed; it has to be read word for word. It also has to be clear and cogent, and every word must mean exactly what the author intends it to mean. It’s important to have a strong command of the language, so that when words and phrases take on unusual configurations, it’s evident to the reader that the author meant to do that.

The prose here, in short, needs work. Paring and pruning for concision, but also rethinking and recasting for clarity. I pulled a few phrases from the prologue to illustrate.

tightly-bundled hush: Not sure how a hush can be bundled. “Bundled” tends to mean rolled up tight, tied up in a bundle, or possibly in modern use, included in a package of some sort (usually virtual—book bundle, software bundle). What other word would work here, and come closer to the intended meaning?

tall pines and sentinels overshadowing a small troop of cottages, and later, pines and sentinels: What do you mean by “sentinels”? A sentinel is a watchman, one who stands guard. The pines might serve as sentinels in some way, but the phrasing seems to indicate that there’s a second variety of tree. What would that be?

wisps of warm air exerted from recent and vigorous exercise: You can say the air exerted itself, but air can’t be exerted from or by anything. The word that might work here is “exuded,” as in exuded by, but that’s not quite right, either; the connotation is more of sweating or producing moisture rather than vapor. “Wisps” contributes to the confusion, because it usually refers to a visible phenomenon, like a wisp of fog. Perhaps “emitted”?

The heaping up of words here adds to the length of the story without adding clarity. What’s needed is a phrase referring to panting from vigorous exercise.

bound headlong at the fleeing figure in hopes of ambush and forcing panic: I had to unpack this one to find the sense. The correct form of the verb is “bounded.” “Headlong” isn’t necessary; the sense of strong forward movement is included in the verb. The second half of the phrase is actually a bit too compressed. He hopes to ambush the fugitive, and he’s trying to make her panic. I’d open that up to make it clearer.

There are a number of odd uses of prepositions. Compelled him on is almost there, but “compelled him onward” would be just a bit more apt. Closed the ground to his quarry would perhaps more accurately be “closed in on his quarry,” and cold buried itself into her palm (as with her face pressed “into” a tree trunk earlier) is just a hair off true. “Into” has an almost thrusting movement to it in this context, with a sense of being forcibly inserted within, and especially with regard to the face and the tree, is a bit too strong. In both cases, “in” would be the way to go.

And finally, her face shot upwards is a striking image, but what it conveys is that her face flew off her skull and shot into the sky. I believe the meaning is milder—she looked up sharply, or her head was flung back, or…? The phrase tries to be vivid, but results in confusion as to what exactly it means.

It’s very important when writing the epic style, to be firmly in control, even while giving the impression of verbal exuberance. It’s very much a case of a little going a long way, and being extremely careful of what exactly that little is—words, phrases, coinages and alterations of the usual ways of framing ideas. It’s a virtuoso performance, and when done well, it can be exhilarating to read–while also being clear about what is happening and where it’s all going.

–Judith Tarr

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