Editor’s Choice Award June 2018, 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 Thaumechanical Man, Part 2, Chapter 12: Jail Break by Robert Rapplean

I had a lot of fun with this chapter. “Fun and adventury,” indeed. Although I came to it without having read what went before, thanks to the intro and the incorporation of key information into context, I had no trouble following the action or keeping the characters straight.

I particularly enjoyed the breaking of the “rule” about not throwing in characters who haven’t been there before and will probably never show up again—it’s a nice way to show the action from the outside, builds a bit of mystery and tension, and gives us a slice-of-life view of a random citizen. The intro’s reference to him—“It doesn’t matter who Jedia Shunk is”—has a lovely little side effect of capturing the tone of the chapter as a whole.

That tone is a good part of the fun: fast, casual, sharp and to the point, with a good dose of offhand wit. The characters are distinct and their gifts are as unusual as their personalities.

As I said, it’s fun. What I would suggest in revision is to pay really close attention to details of narrative, all the way down to the words and phrases. Wit calls for precision. In draft of course the priority is to get the words down on the page or screen, but to really make it work, you have to really make the words work. Every action and every description has to be clear, and the choice of words should be spot on.

For the most part the prose works, but it has a tendency to run over itself when the action is moving along quickly. There’s awkward phrasing—a hexagonal lantern-shaped street light, for example, or she had to peek from under the black cloth that she covered her face with when she went on surreptitious activities. These images need to be clearer, more concise, more focused on what they’re trying to mean. Tightening the phrasing will help, as will smoothing out the rough edges of the sentence structure.

Much the same applies to what’s going on here: Clempson removed a metal dome from the toolbox’s lid and pulled a paint pot and brush from the box. A black circle, about seven feet in diameter and four inches wide, took shape on the wall of the facility. It’s a bit ambiguous as to whether he’s painting the circle or whether it’s forming on its own. It might be clearer to say Clemson paints it–to make the action more active. Also, point of syntax: it’s looked in her direction.

Sometimes there’s a pronoun pileup, too: Exhibiting none of his earlier finesse, Morgs hammered left and right with blows that made his wrench ring and his hands hurt, giving him no opportunity to counter-attack. It’s not immediately clear which his belongs to which character, who’s hammering or who’s hurting or who can’t fight back. Paying closer to attention to who is who will help the reader keep the action straight, and make that action move more smoothly.

It’s important to keep track of the larger details as well—to be sure that what’s happening takes into account where all the characters are and what they see and hear. I kept wondering during the pre-break-in scenes, why the guards couldn’t hear the sounds Bat and Clempson are making to signal one another. On the one hand we are told that they’re trying not to make so much noise that they’re spotted, but wouldn’t all the scraping and clicking arouse suspicion? If not, why not? Do the guards have less acute senses than Bat and company?

I had the same question about the glowsticks Bat drops inside. What if someone sees them? Are they somehow only visible to our protagonists? What prevents them from betraying what’s going on?

Even with these quibbles and questions, I enjoyed the caper immensely. It’s a great start, and with some tweaking and tightening will be even more fun to read than it is in this draft.

—Judith Tarr

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