Editor’s Choice Award April 2018, Fantasy

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.

Requesting A Hero Chapter 2 by Cara Averna

This submission hits two of my sweet spots: my Classical education and my long-standing love for characters caught out of time. There’s great potential here, between the idea of a Classical hero getting his mojo back, and the potential for contrast and conflict with the modern world and the woman who represents it. And a bonus: restaurant wars, another of my favorite things.

Usually I focus on worldbuilding and larger plot issues when I’m reading a draft, but as I read this chapter, I kept coming back to issues of language and narrative voice. As important as it is for the plot and the worldbuilding to hold together, in this particular genre—urban fantasy, give or take—voice is really important. It’s the tone and style that makes the story work. The author needs a firm command of her craft, and a clear sense of how words work and how to fit them together.

It’s particularly challenging with two viewpoint characters who are so different in so many ways. Claire is a modern woman, with modern vocabulary and attitudes. Argos is her complete opposite: an ancient hero whose native language is Greek, and who is completely alien to Claire’s world and time. Their portions of the narrative should read very differently, right down to the choices of words and the way the sentences are constructed.

One thing I might suggest would be to eliminate contractions when Argos is telling the story. He speaks without them, but his narration is full of them. This one fairly simple fix will give the his narrative a more old-fashioned feel, but if it’s done well, it won’t seem stiff or stilted—just a little more dignified and stately than Claire’s easier modern style.

Word choice is important, too. Argos is unlikely to think he “wasn’t a fan of” something—that’s a contemporary term. Words like “jerked” and “grabbed” and “bossed around” are more modern as well, and the verbing of the noun in “access the collection of gold” fits oddly with some of the more archaic phrasing of the section: the reference to gold rather than money or cash, for example, and the mention of a “hearth to rest in.”

The latter points to another issue as well. Not long ago I came across a quotation attributed to Mark Twain, to the effect that a writer should undertake to choose the right word and not its second cousin. The right word is really important in a narrative of opposites like this one, and it’s crucial to make sure that a word means what it’s trying to mean in its context.

“Hearth” here reads if it’s a synonym for some kind of ancient dwelling, but its actual meaning is basically a fireplace. He’s looking for a fireplace to sleep in? Wouldn’t he burn? It is true that “hearth and home” can be taken to mean the house as a whole, but the hearth itself is the structure around which the home is built, the place where the fire burns—of which Hestia happens to have been the goddess. Is that what Argos is really thinking when he uses the word? If so, that might be made a little clearer.

Other words and phrases strike a little off true as well. “Smile dropping” is a rather unusual way of referring to the change of expression from smile to its opposite. Eyes can drop, but a smile is more likely to die or fade. Similarly, when Argos speaks of being well, Claire judges that to be “a loose word,” but the idiom isn’t quite on point. An analogy can be loose, or a connection, or even a reference, but not a word. And then there’s the scowl that “pulled at her lips”—a scowl is an expression of the eyebrows and forehead; when it’s the lips it’s more likely to be a sneer or a twist of anger or scorn. In recent years, the frown seems to have moved downward from the forehead to the mouth, but with so many other second-cousin constructions in the draft, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution.

It’s a good idea to pay attention to the meaning of individual words—to be sure the word means what it wants to mean in a particular context. Argos refers to Claire several times as a “nymph,” but in his world, that word would have a specific meaning. A nymph is a minor divinity, a spirit of an element or a place: a sea nymph, a water nymph, a wood nymph. It’s clear he knows she’s mortal, and while the first time might be read as a sort of metaphor, he does it often enough that it seems as if the word is trying to be an archaic synonym for “girl” or “young woman.” But that, in Greek, would actually be “koure” or (as in the case of a friend of mine whose mother was a Greek scholar), “Kori.”

Another puzzlement for me was the reference to “the rheumatic tone of the Greek accent.” I’m not sure what “rheumatic” wants to mean; when it’s at home, it refers to arthritic inflammation or rheumatism. A rheum in the archaic sense is a stuffy cold, with mucus. So a Greek speaker sounds as if he hab a code id his node?

Watch out for word connections, too. Loose, hard things rattle; bones can rattle, or teeth, but muscles are denser and softer. Abilities however are not soft; muscles can be, and a body in general, but the more abstract concept calls for a different word. Weakened, maybe. Eroded. Diminished.

I’m not quite sure what kind of rush would cause a heart to pound—a rush of emotion? A rush of excitement or mirth or…? And when it does, it won’t pound against his chest; that implies it’s outside his ribcage. More likely it pounds inside his chest, or against his ribs (which are likewise inside).

A few other notes as I read:

Watch repetitions; when I’m editing my own work I highlight them, and then either cut or replace. Green eyes, for example. Staring. Pinning with a stare. The phrase “not to mention.” The storm brewing in several different iterations (but I do like the way her reference to it segues into his viewpoint, and his more metaphorical view of what the term means). Rain. Dock.

The grip on the wheel, multiplied—and would she really be grateful if, after she’s screwed up by ignoring his advice, he asserts his superiority over her and rubs it in for good measure? Sure enough, in the next sentence or two she’s angry with him, which feels more true to her personality and the situation.

I’ll be interested to see how this story evolves through the drafts. The idea is intriguing and the characters have potential. Once the words are under control, the narrative will read much more smoothly, and the contrast between the characters will be stronger and clearer.

–Judith Tarr

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