Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

West Of California, Chapter 8 by Steve Brady

This is an intriguing chapter. With the help of the synopsis, it comes through pretty well for a cold read; there’s enough background information to get a sense of who the characters are and what the larger story is about.

The narrative voice is distinctive, with a wry sense of humor. As I read, I can actually hear a couple of my college friends talking in that same tone, telling a long, rambling tale in between hits of controlled substances. It very much has that vibe.

What I’d like to suggest in the next round of revisions is further work on the structure of the story. There is so much going on, so many things happening over so many years. Much of it we do need to know in order to understand what’s happening in the story-present, and there is a clear attempt to break up the passages of summary and synopsis with bits of dialogue and character interaction.

That’s a good start. As a reader I’d like more air in the story-room—by which I mean, slowing down for the dramatized scenes, giving them more space, with less synopsis in between. Do we need the blow-by-blow of Laura and Andy’s life and travels, or can we move faster from major event to major event? Can the dramatized scenes fold in more backstory as characters talk and interact, and dispense with at least some of the summaries?

One way to write backstory like this is to tell it in a series of flashbacks with characters acting and interacting. For example in the Tucson sequence, rather than summarizing what Laura did and with whom over those years, the story might be told in a handful of scenes. The seeds of those scenes are already there: Laura’s meeting with Brad in the midst of her empty life of smoking and painting, and how and when she introduces him to Andy; a vignette of Brad caring for Andy while Laura takes the leap into signing up for courses, in which we see how they all feel about it, and maybe we get to feel Laura’s sense of freedom with maybe a stab of guilt; the rave and the party (which might be combined for further narrative economy); the day Laura finds out Brad is leaving.

The last scene is partly written, but it needs more. More emotional complications. More resistance from Brad. More friction—because friction is how things move in this universe, including stories.

Transitions between scenes don’t need to be written out as such (“Two years went this way,” for example). It’s quite acceptable to jump from scene to scene with a bit that establishes where and when it stands in relation to the last one—Brad might say to Laura, “I’ve been spinning my wheels for two years. I’m bored. I want out. I’m going to New York.” And then Laura reacts, and maybe Andy does something in reaction to that. Maybe there’s an argument. When it’s over, Brad has been backed into a corner—and how does he feel about that? Trapped? Pissed? Resigned? A combination of all three? And then on to the next important event, which in this case would be a scene set in New York.

None of these scenes needs to be long or elaborate. The word count may not be a whole lot more than is already there in the summary. It’s the difference between passive voice and active, between a story summed up from a distance and one that’s happening right in front of the reader.

Exposition definitely has its place, and so does synopsis, but what brings a story to life is characters acting, moving, talking, living–sometimes in messy ways, with complicated feelings. Then the reader gets to experience that life with them.

–Judith Tarr

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