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.
Nonlinear writers fascinate me. I’m totally the opposite—I must write scenes in sequence or I cannot live—but it’s really interesting to watch a narrative grow out of clusters of discrete scenes. It’s tough to workshop an unfinished ms. written nonlinearly because only the author really knows how everything fits together. Once it’s finished and the whole structure is visible, it’s much easier to see what’s working and what needs work.
What I like about this submission is that it spells out up front how the ms. is being written, who the characters are, and what’s going on in the author’s head. That makes it a lot easier to get down in there and see what’s going on. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how the Queen and her family are not human. What are they, exactly? How does what they are relate to being human, and why is it important that they learn human body language?
Even without that information, I was appropriately amused by Queen Aldrua’s Very Conscious Awareness of what she’s saying with her various body parts and positions—and her overall, wonderfully terrible attitude. That attitude makes the chapter for me.
The technical term for it of course is “voice.” The choice of words, the way the characters act an interact, the overall feel and sense of the story. The voice here captures Aldrua’s state of mind in a beautifully unambiguous way. She is at the end of her tether, she is bound and determined to find her daughter or else, and everyone around her has completely exhausted her patience.
That voice kept me reading. The one thing I might do in revision would be to pare and prune especially the dialogue, tone it down a bit and tighten the focus. There’s a lot of repetition, much of which can go away.
But that’s for the revision stage. A draft gets itself written in any way that works. Repeating the same information over and over serves to a degree as a mnemonic—it’s like oral poetry: Achilles is fast on his feet, and that’s how we remind ourselves of who he is. It also gets the information in wherever it fits. Then, when the whole thing is put together, most of the reiterations can go away, but a few will stay where they make the most difference.
As for rules and the breaking thereof, I’m a great proponent of the Pirates’ Code. No matter how sternly your freshman composition teacher may have insisted that There Are Rules Of Writing And You Must Not Break Them, the truth is that all of them are simply guidelines.
There are some that a writer is advised to follow if she wants to be published. Manuscript formatting. Submission guidelines (which are really rules—it’s not a good idea to ignore those). Different genres have different expectations, which can get a writer in trouble if she pushes the envelope too hard.
But for the most part, a rule exists because if a writer breaks it without knowing what the rule is for, the writer’s work probably won’t hold together as well as it might otherwise. I remember when “head-hopping” was a cardinal sin, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with shifting viewpoints within a scene. It only becomes a problem if the reader (and worse, the writer) can’t keep track.
The reader’s experience is what it’s all about. If she’s cruising along with one character, and then abruptly someone else is telling the story, it’s like a train going off the rails. She gets thrown out of her car, and if it happens often enough, she might just not stay around for the rest of the story.
But. If the writer knows what she’s doing, she can shift back and forth as much as she wants or the story needs her to, and the reader will travel along with her. That takes a degree of skill, and gaining that skill means knowing how to maintain a viewpoint as well as how to change it without leaving the reader hanging.
Or to put it more succinctly, If you know what you’re doing, you can do whatever you want to. Even repeat the same information over and over—because each time you do it, it reveals new layer of itself, or adds another degree of emphasis—or go way, way, way over the top with dialogue and banter, or mix up the timelines, or turn the narrative inside out. Whatever makes the story work.
Insofar as there are any secret handshakes for success in writing, this has to be one of them. A writer who is just learning how to do it will find it useful to learn the basic rules of her format and genre, learn why they are rules, and practice following them until she has them down. Then she can start messing around with them. Messing around is what makes a story interesting–but it has to be done with knowledge and skill, or it’s just a mess.
If there’s any rule I personally would promote, it’s that there is no wrong way to write a draft. Linear, nonlinear, outlining, pantsing, writing lengthy, detailed exploratory drafts or sketching the bare bones of a narrative—they’re all good. They all get there in the end.
And that’s the best part about this writing gig. Doesn’t matter how you get there, just as long as you do.