Editor’s Choice Award August 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 Three Faces Of Holly, Chapter 2 by Anne Wrightwell

There’s a lot of intriguing stuff going on in this submission. Lots of mystery, lots of details that alert the protagonist to the fact that she’s not in her original reality. She spends much of her time telling us what’s different, and letting us know how she feels about it.

It’s clear the author has thought carefully about the worldbuilding, and paid attention to the little things. Some of them (like the oyster card) do repeat, but that’s easy to fix in revision. Work in other details to vary the effect, but to get the same message across: that this isn’t the world she expected to wake up in.

One thing I kept coming back to as I read was the ways in which the viewpoint keeps itself at center stage. Voice is really important in first-person narrative; Holly has a lot to say, and she makes sure to remind the reader that she’s there to say it.

While it’s a good thing to be unambiguous about who’s talking, it can also get in the way of the story. Frequent viewpoint-tagging is like that person in class who keeps jumping up and yelling, “Hey! Hey! Look at me! Pay attention to me!”

Words like sawfeltrealizednoticed, serve as filters between the reader and the story. They create the impression that they don’t trust either the reader’s perceptions or their own ability to make it clear who’s telling the story. This becomes particularly noticeable when the narrative adds qualifiers like seemed and sounded to the words and actions of characters who are not the narrator.

In revision, try removing all of these filter-words and see if the story still makes sense. Often it turns out that most or even all of them don’t need to be there.

The same applies to conversational-filler phrases (of course, for example, or now in the sense of Now, this was embarrassing) and parenthetical bits (I said brightly (or as brightly as I could manage with a hangover), for example). There’s a fine line between the cool-character voice and the trying-too-hard voice. Again, cutting them all can clarify where they’re superfluous, and where they can most effectively be added back in.

The techniques of internal monologue are another case of a little goes a long way. Rhetorical questions—I had to keep moving but which way to go? or What was happening?—may seem to the writer to show the character thinking actively about what to do, but what they actually do is stop the narrative while the character spins her mental wheels. Try removing the question and just show the character taking action, even if it’s indecisive: walking in one direction, then reversing, to show that she doesn’t know where to go. See if that’s more effective, more vivid and immediate.

Saying the same thing over and over, or saying it in different ways in consecutive sentences or throughout a paragraph, can have a similar effect. Here’s an example:

It would have been so easy to slump back in my seat and doze but I had to be vigilant to make sure that I got off at the right stop. I really couldn’t face getting off at the wrong stop and having to retrace my steps, the way I felt.

Note the passive phrases—would have beenhad to be—and the repetition of stop, and the viewpoint tag at the end. These rhetorical bits put a wall of words between the reader and what’s happening. Changing to more active phrasing and removing the repetitions and the tag makes for tighter prose and a more immediate experience. Something like this:

I didn’t dare slump back in my seat and doze, in case I got off at the wrong stop and had to retrace my steps.

See what I did there? Same concepts, same key words, but shorter and pointier. Story moves forward, and we’re clear on how she feels about it.

Paring and pruning like this throughout will make the line of the narrative more distinct, bring out the most important details, and sharpen Holly’s voice and perspective. Less, as they say, is more. Just the right choice of words, just the right selection of actions and reactions, will make the story and the character pop, and bring out both Holly’s natural sassy wit and her mounting confusion.

–Judith Tarr


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