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.
This is an interesting piece, with some intricate worldbuilding and a lot of careful thought about the setting, background, and characters. Reading it is an immersive experience. There’s so much detail, so much interwoven and interlaced descriptions, ideas, actions and thoughts.
What I’d like to talk about in the context of this Editor’s Choice is not so much the word-for-word, but a general concept that the author has clearly been thinking about, and has been working on. That is the idea of writing tight.
In terms of writing style, one size emphatically does not fit all. It’s not just about voice and word choice and process, but also about the needs of the individual work. A stripped-down, pared-to-the-bone style works for a thriller, for example, where the action is key and the rapid movement of the plot is what brings the reader in. A fantasy epic on the other hand, or a Dune or Exordium-style space opera, needs room to stretch out; takes time for lengthy passages of description and exposition; and explores the lives and surroundings of multiple characters.
This chapter leans distinctly in the latter direction, and in the prologue especially, the prose is a Celtic knotwork of repetition and recapitulation, piling up words and phrases to evoke a sense of complex and many-layered perception. This is the author’s style. But as with everything, there are ways to make that style, along with the author’s ideas, clearer and more accessible to readers.
I like to ask questions when I’m revising or when I’m suggesting revisions for others’ mss. With a ms. that could use some pruning, I look for answers to one or more of the following:
Has this information appeared before in the narrative? Does it need to be repeated here? If so, can I add something new to it, some aspect that wasn’t addressed before, that moves the story forward and further develops the characters or the setting?
Is this information essential for the understanding of the story at this particular point? Can I leave it out and still have the story make sense? Can I move it somewhere else in the narrative where it will be more effective? Does it need to be there at all?
Am I using too many words? Have I piled on the qualifiers? Can I pare them away without losing the meaning? Can my verbs be active and straightforward (walked instead of was walking, for example) and can my phrases be leaner, without extra padding? If I use two or more versions of the same concept, do I need all of them? Can I pick one and let the rest be implied by the context?
Am I repeating the same words over and over? Repetition of words and phrases can be very effective; politicians know this, as do motivational speakers. But as with most rhetorical effects, a little goes a long way. Can I keep it down to once a paragraph or once a page? Can I save it for when I really want the idea to pop? If I take it all out, has the story lost emphasis or vividness?
Am I trusting my reader enough? This question goes along with repetition of words and ideas, as well as infodumps, background information, and so on. Am I trusting my reader to understand what I’m saying? Am I including information that she can pick up through implication? Do I need to remind her of information she’s already seen, especially if she’s seen it more than once? She may need a reminder if it’s been a while, but if it’s important and it’s just happened, she probably just needs a quick pointer, or else she’ll remember it well enough that I can get right to my point without stopping to fill her in.
Have I chosen the right details? As I’m setting up the scene and portraying the character, am I providing too much information? Is it the right information? Have I emphasized minor aspects of the scene or setting or character but written around the major ones? Can I sharpen the focus and, again, trust the reader to get the details I’ve left out through the few I’m chosen to leave in?
Have I chosen the right scene? Have I written the events and interactions that are key to the movement of the story? Have I provided essential information, or is that information consigned to the background? Are characters talking about events that happened offstage rather than experiencing them onstage? Do we need the conversation, or will the scene itself tell the story with more immediacy and effectiveness?
Am I keeping my eye on the prize? If you’re a stylist (as I am), the immediate prize for a writing session is the cascade of words in front of you. What can get lost in the words is what readers in general come to genre for, which is story. The words may be my prize, but for most readers, they’re color and spackle at best and a distraction at worst. Readers want a story that moves forward, that contains believable characters, that satisfies the impulse that brought them to the genre in general and this story in particular. If I give them lots of detailed worldbuilding, they’ll sit for it better than readers of other genres, but eventually they want that beginning-middle-end, rampup-crisis-denouement thing.
For that, I have to be careful about the words-to-story ratio. As with meat to bun in a burger, there are different schools of thought as to which is optimal, but they all come back sooner or later to the nom in the middle. That nom is the story, the plot, the progression of scenes toward some form of conclusion.
That’s what writing tighter can help the story do. Pruning the undergrowth, keeping the best effects, letting them stand out from the rest. This helps build stronger pacing, which is what story-movement is. And that keeps the reader reading, which is the ultimate goal.