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.
Beneath The Canyons Chapter 1 by Kyra Halland
It takes a lot of guts to put up an already published series for critique. I salute this author, and applaud the decision. Respect; admiration.
“Six guns and sorcery,” as a subset of Weird West, is one of my favorite genres. I chose this chapter because the author’s note asked good, concise questions, and because what happens in Chapter 1 plays a major role in the reader’s reaction to the rest. If the opening does its job, she’ll keep reading. If not, she’ll move on to the next book in the pile.
That doesn’t mean the story has to start with a literal bang, or that the action has to be breakneck in order to keep the reader reading. The first chapter’s job is to lure the reader in and give her enough information to avoid confusion, but not so much that she can’t process it all. It’s always a balancing act—but because this is the reader’s first encounter with the story and the characters, it has to work a little bit harder to get the job done.
This opening is distinctly exposition-forward. There’s a lot of worldbuilding visible, a lot of backstory, a lot of description and scene-setting. It’s interesting stuff, and it’s clear the author has done her homework.
The down side is that each time the narrative stops for exposition, the story stops as well. There are large quantities of information to process before we’re invested in the plot or the characters. We get a bit of action, stop, have things explained to us, move on a little bit, stop again, get another explanation, and so on.
The pace picks up midway through, as Silas enters the town and observes the interactions of its inhabitants. Eventually he interacts with them himself, and then the story starts to pick up speed.
By that point however, the reader’s impression of Silas is that he’s rather remote and disengaged from the world around him. We know what he sees, and we know what he knows, in considerable detail, but he takes a while to participate in the events he’s recording. He’s an observer but not, initially, a protagonist, i.e., the character who moves the story forward.
What I would suggest, to tighten up the opening and position Silas more in the foreground of the action, would be to apply Turtledove’s Law. For every five hundred details, pick the two or three that best encapsulate the scene. Leave the rest to implication. Pare down the exposition, keep the narrative moving, show just enough background and setting to ground the reader in time and space.
This will ground Silas as well. With less exposition and backstory, his role becomes clearer: we have time to see what he’s doing there, how he’s using his magic and why, and what he has to do to keep from getting in trouble for it. This gives us a sense of his personality, who he is and what drives him. We still catch hints of where he comes from and get a good glimpse of his surroundings, but not so much that we lose track of the story that’s being told right here and now.
It can be really hard to let go of our lovely worldbuilding, but it’s all still there, and the astute reader will pick them up from context. Some of them may emerge later, as they’re relevant. If they don’t, it’s likely the story doesn’t need them. It’s got everything it needs to keep the reader informed, and to keep her turning pages.