Editor’s Choice Review August 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.

Time Is The Fire Chapter 1 by Dylan McFadyen

Here’s a chapter of nice, chewy, detailed science fiction with a space opera vibe and some solid prose. A lot of thought has gone into the background and the worldbuilding, but the characters haven’t been shortchanged. They’re setting up for what should be an interesting mix of interactions and interrelationships.

I don’t get a sense of a murder mystery here so much as a classic, almost Clarkean interstellar conundrum: Who is the mysterious corpse and what is he to the humans in their starship? Less a question of whodunit and more whatisit.

One thing that might help is a clearer pointer in the first chapter to the murder or the murderee—a shift of focus that puts the murder more in the foreground. I also wondered why the chapter has date and location but the prologue doesn’t. Adding the tags would help the reader get the sense of how prologue and chapter relate to one another, even if the relationship isn’t clear for a while.

I find myself wondering if the prologue happens before or after the first chapter. Is the character dead already when the narrative proper begins, or is this the story of how he died? Just a hint would give me a direction to follow as I read.

In terms of of style and execution of the chapter, I had a couple of observations.

1. Worldbuilding to the fore. The profusion of detail tells me how carefully the world has been built, but past a certain point I found it distracting. Is it essential for me as the reader to know exactly how and with which finger Aean backscrolls, and exactly what the mechanism is for doing so?

I did the same thing with my phone just now, minus the hook-in to my cerebral cortex, but I wasn’t thinking about it while I did it. I just did it. Sometimes I do wonder what the exact mechanism is, but when I do that, it’s a thing in itself. It’s not something I’m thinking about while I’m doing research or carrying on a conversation.

There’s a place and a time for reflections on process. When they’re directly relevant to what’s happening in the story—say he uses the usual finger and gets a completely different result, and this causes Issues related to the plot—then as readers we need to know what the process is. But if the story is going somewhere else, then the process isn’t in our need-to-know. It bumps the plot off its rails.

In revision, maybe ask what the reader needs to know. What absolutely can’t be left out? Then layer in a few additional details for enrichment, in places where there’s a pause or a breathing space, or where they’ll sharpen the focus of a character or a scene. With the finger bit, for example, if Aean has a tendency toward hyper-focus, and he zeroes in on what he’s doing, then has to pull back in order to carry on his conversation—that’s character development. Even better if his momentary distraction leads to a revelation later, or a plot-moving event that originates in the movement of a finger.

2. Offstaging. This is my term for key action in a narrative that happens offstage, while the narrative consists of characters talking about the action either before or after it happens. When it’s used sparingly it can be really effective, because you get perspective on what happened or is about to happen. But for the most part, offstaging moves the reader away from the direct experience of the story. Especially when it happens early on, when we’re getting a lot of exposition, the story loses impulsion. It slows and stalls, and we’re separated from it by a filter of people we haven’t yet come to know, and action we can’t participate in.

Here I’d have liked to see some of the situations we’re told about. Maybe direct narration, maybe a concise flashback. Maybe the characters are getting a news feed or an alert, something that gives us a more visceral emotional punch.

While it’s amusing to see Aean in his bathrobe, does it need to take up as much word count as it does? Would the story be stronger if we’re closer to the action? If instead of Singh’s report on the Kyran fleet, what if we get to see it firsthand—or if it’s important to maintain distance from the action, Aean gets to see the raw footage of the Kyran fleet in motion? How much of the details of his orders do we need at this precise point? Can some of them be revealed as the story advances?

In a first chapter especially, the reader needs to be wooed and allured and tempted. She wants to get to know the characters, and she also wants to feel as if she’s a part of the action. That doesn’t mean every story has to start with screaming and explosions. Not at all. But the sooner the reader gets up close to what’s happening, the more likely she is to be caught up in it. And then she’ll stay to find out what happens next.

–Judith Tarr

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