Editor’s Choice Review September 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 Radioactive Four–Chapter 1 by N. Howl

This is an interesting beginning, very intense, and packed with strong sensory details. The protagonist whose memory is broken, whose experience of the world comes in fragments, has quite a lot of potential to grow and discover herself as the novel progresses.

The logistics of the scenes are somewhat of a work in progress. As I read, I wondered how the scientist and Banton could be unaware of Alia’s dome shattering, and how she managed to escape so easily, even though she was captured in fairly short order. There seems to be lack of security there, that doesn’t match the hints of what’s going on and the importance of Alia to the—whatever it is. A little more clarity might help, and perhaps some rethinking of the setup.

What may also help in the revision phase is to recalibrate the emotional volume of this chapter. There’s a visible effort to create vivid images and evoke strong feelings. It’s a worthy ambition, and there are some memorable moments. But, as with so much else in the art and craft of writing, a little can go quite a long way.

Emotion, like physical action, needs its quiet phases as well as its moments of high intensity. It’s the ebb and flow that draws the story along: now more subtle, now dialed up to 11. Fictional characters, like real-life humans, need time to relax and regroup in among the high drama.

In this chapter, the volume is consistently turned all the way up. From the very beginning, Alia’s teeth chatter, her mind rattles, electricity bolts, pain erupts—crescendo after crescendo. Everything stabs, jolts, shakes, writhes, convulses, explodes.

We are so often exhorted to make our prose vivid and memorable, to choose strong words over weak or neutral ones. That’s good advice for the most part. Prose that’s emotionally flat is prose that isn’t doing its job. Characters can’t round themselves out, scenes never quite come alive.

But it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction, too. Writing, like life, is a balancing act. We can turn the volume down at intervals and tone down the word choices, go for the neutral, give ourselves and our readers a break from the constant percussion.

It’s like a pause in a storm. The interlude of quiet focuses the mind and brings the stronger parts into higher relief. Then when the wind and thunder come back, they’re that much more powerful.

If every other word is a Big! Loud! STRONG! word, they cancel each other out. Image piled on image over the course of a chapter or a novel can have a numbing effect. And if the images themselves tumble over the top–“Images stabbed Alia’s mind, searing from nose to brain like an inhale of water,” “the man’s eyes rolled back and he slumped like slime down glass,” “Alia bolted up, her brain rattling inside her heavy head”—we’re pummeled with metaphors, till they start to blur into one another.

It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but the strongest prose is carefully measured and balanced with neutral words and phrases. When the volume does go up, it hits all the harder for the lower volume around it. One good, vivid image stays in the mind, and the emotion that image evokes resonates through the whole scene.

What I would suggest in revision would be to pare ruthlessly in the first pass. Keep one strong image per paragraph, or be even more sparing with them. See how far the prose can be trimmed and the volume turned down without falling flat. Focus on what’s essential, what must be there. Allow downbeats and pauses. Let the words (and the characters) breathe. The action will still move at a rapid clip and the emotions will still punch hard when they need to.

And if some of what came out needs to go (judiciously) back in, that’s good, too. As I said: it’s all about balance.

–Judith Tarr


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