Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

The Unknown Ones, Chapter 1 by Peter Kelly

I love historical fantasy. Historical fantasy is my jam. Add Celts, and pointers toward Roman Britain—you’ve got me with some of my favorite things.

This chapter has a lot of potential. I can see a story taking shape. It hasn’t really gone anywhere yet, but it is moving. This may be a long book, as historical novels can turn out to be, but that’s fine, as long as the story stays in motion and the characters and their actions and reactions keep the reader turning the pages.

My main advice to a first-time writer would be to keep writing, and not worry about doing it “right.” Just get the story down and the characters blocked out. Let the words come in the way they want to come. Worry about revision after the draft is finished, when it will be time to go back and tidy up and sort out the various threads of the story.

That being said, since I’m here to offer a more general set of pointers as well as to address the chapter at hand, here are a few things I noticed as I read. I would say don’t worry about making the fixes now, and don’t let that worry get in the way of finishing the draft. Finishing is the most important thing. Just take what I say here and file it for the revision phase.

First, viewpoint. There’s no doubt about who is telling the story. We’re reminded in every sentence. We’re told Calgacus thinks, feels, suspects, knows, understands, ponders, and so on. I call these “viewpoint tags,” and while it can be helpful to sprinkle in a few to keep the reader apprised of the camera angle, a little (as with so much else in writing) goes a long way. Most of the tags don’t need to be there; the choice of words, the nature of the reactions, the feelings and opinions and biases that come through the narrative, will tell the reader all she needs to know about who Calgacus is and how he feels about what he’s seeing.

Another layer of viewpoint is a bigger one, and that’s whether this is the right character to tell this part of the story. All the important things that happen here are happening to someone else. Calgacus is pretty strictly an observer, and in that respect he’s less a protagonist than a plot device. He describes the ceremony and its participants, and delivers exposition about who the people are and what they’re doing and why.

This is particularly noticeable when he Explains Things to Bricriu, on the pretext that Bricriu is too much of a jock to have paid attention in history class. While the reader may need or want to know these things, having Calgacus explain them to his older brother shows just a little too much of the scaffolding underneath the structure of the story. We want to feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing it with the characters. We end up wondering if Bricriu really has paid this little attention to one of the key elements of his religion, and if he has been that oblivious for so many years, whether he’d really bother to sit still when his brother starts godsplaining. Or would he just blow on past and leave Calgacus expounding to the air? And finally, would Bricriu really know that little about something that is so very important to his own future, let alone that of his tribe?

There’s also the question of why Calgacus isn’t the one who’s becoming a man this year. While I love the details and the exposition, as a reader I’m wondering when Calgacus will start protagging. Why is he the observer, and Bricriu the one who actually acts? If he has to be left out of the manhood ceremony for reasons that move the plot through to its eventual conclusion, what can he do here to show more of his active side? Is there something, some plot-piece, that he can be in charge of, that lets us see how he’ll be acting as he goes on?

Explaining and expositing don’t count. It should be something he does, some action he takes, or something he says that precipitates action—to which he then has to react.

Second, dialogue. The characters “quip” and joke around, and it seems they’re trying for some kid-level realism and comic relief in among the descriptions and the explanations. The problem with this in the draft is that the joking doesn’t move the story forward, and it clashes emotionally and stylistically with the ritual around it. I rather like Bricriu’s potty mouth, but the joshing and bickering slows down the narrative and keeps us from being able to really feel the power of what’s happening around it.

In revision, ask whether most of it really needs to be there. Some does help character, and we get a picture of an expanding cast of major and minor players, which is good. But again, a little goes a long way.

Third, names and naming. I’m a little confused about this, because some names are standard Celtic, such as Bricriu, but then there’s the Romanized Calgacus of the Epidii, and then there’s Martyn, whose name comes from another tradition altogether. Names have power, and in historical fantasy, that can be literal. Names make the magic. If the names aren’t consistent, and there isn’t a clear reason for that inconsistency, they undermine the worldbuilding.

Now mind you, I can give you a perfectly solid historical reason to have a character named Tiffany in your Viking historical, but that reason has to be clear and up front. If I’m writing in the viewpoint of a tweenaged boy in Britain, unless that boy is Roman or part Roman, he’s not going to give himself a Roman name. (Is he part Roman? Ione has a Greek flavor.) He’ll call himself something Celtic, and he’ll call his tribe by its Celtic name. Likewise his brother Martyn—what would the Celtic form of that be?

I would work on the names as carefully as the rest of the details, many of which, as lovely as they are, somewhat front-load the narrative here; I’d cut them about about 75% and save them to be woven in later where they’ll be more directly relevant. The depth of the research is clear to see. Let the names show it, too.

Best of luck with this. It’s a very good start. I’ll be interested to see how it progresses.

–Judith Tarr

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