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.
Chapter One, Thy Gods Awaken, Part One: Witch Queen by Tony Valiulis
I very much appreciate the inclusion of the synopsis with this chapter. It lets me see how the chapter fits into the whole, and how the author envisions that whole. Synopses are Not easy; kudos for attempting it, and extra chocolate for including it.
It’s a good synopsis, too. Says what it needs to, rounds up the main events, introduces the characters and sets up their relationships to one another. Well done.
The chapter is an interesting segue from it, with quite a different overall voice and tone. There’s a lot of emotionally laden language, lots of strong active words and deliberately hard-hitting imagery: Kayla snaps awake, she’s drenched with sweat, she’s stabbed with needles of panic. She’s nauseated, we’re told more than once, and given the reasons for it: nightmares and terrifying visions. Her mouth melts, her lips curl, her heart screams.
I’m a big fan of active writing, but I’m also a fan of Just Enough To Get The Job Done. Writing is a constant balancing act between not conveying quite enough, and stating the case VERY VERY STRONGLY.
Here I think that dialing it back a few notches would retain Kayla’s vivid perception of the world, but allow the narrative to move along more smoothly. If we’re constantly bombarded with powerful images, we become inured to them; then when something really needs to stand out, there’s nowhere to go. All the big! Bold! IMAGERY! is taken.
There’s good stuff here. I like the riff on the ancient and dishonorable mirror-description trope: we’re teased with it, then it becomes a plot driver all on its own, showing us the blond (note spelling; it’s a French word, and there’s no feminine –e when describing a male) dream boy. If Kayla’s narrative up to this is toned down, there’s more room for her to react strongly here.
I’d also note how often Kayla’s thoughts take on a life of their own—in one case, explicitly so. They drift, they float. She jerks and pushes them. They’re personified, as if they exist apart from her.
This can happen when we try to focus tightly on a viewpoint: we filter it. We remind the reader that she’s reading a narrative about a fictional character, and here’s the character, this is where we’re standing, this is our camera angle. Rather than experiencing events directly, the reader is pushed back a step.
Often if we remove that filter, we find that we’ve not only pared down the word count, we’ve brought the story closer to the reader. Kayla is in a state of confusion, that comes across clearly. If her thoughts are jumping all over the place, the reader can follow her; can feel them as she feels them, without needing to be told that she’s our eye on this world.
The same applies to the repeated details: her nausea, her feelings about the villagers, her reactions to the boy, her reflections on what’s about to happen today. A little more subtlety, a lowering of the emotional temperature, a general calming down, can actually be more effective in conveying the strength of her feelings. It’s good old Less Is More.
This might also help with the general comments about portraying a female character. I like very much that so much of this world is female—that there’s so clear an effort to counteract the tendency of many writers to create worlds with a Strong Female Character, but everyone else is default-male. This is good. I applaud.
But because Kayla is so emotionally over the top, she runs into the problem of the Emotional Female. It’s not intentional, I don’t think, but it’s a trope and a tradition, and the strength of her reactions would tend to trigger it.
What I might suggest is an exercise I’ve tried a few times myself: genderbending a few chapters. Write her as male and see if anything changes. Do his reactions come across differently? Does he feel things in a different way? Do you as author feel differently about him? Can you translate this back to the original Kayla?
Women are really just people, but our culture treats them as Other. Writing them as people (i.e. male) can sometimes shake the assumptions loose. It may be worth a try, at least to see if Kayla is coming across as intended.
Best of luck with this ms.! It has lots of potential.