Editor’s Choice Award January 2019, 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.

Postcards, Act 1, Part 5 by Liz Coleman

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in this submission, and some interesting and engaging characters. I like the fact it’s an f/f romance, with the tension of the current lover versus the late and lamented one who may not turn out to be dead after all—but who may not be alive, either.

A couple of things strike me as I read through the chapter. They rise from a similar source, and addressing them will help with the pacing and the overall structure of the narrative.

The first is the tropism toward internal monologue. Very tight viewpoint is particularly prone to it—first person or, as here, third person limited. We’re living the story inside the main character’s head, and experiencing events as she experiences them. She spends a fair amount of time thinking about what she’s doing, what she plans to do, what her options are. She’ll ask herself rhetorical questions:

Suzy Lou was a bright and shiny distraction into the dangerous unknown. But a distraction from what? What did she have? Making medicine for sea elephants, maybe?

A little of this can be lively and engaging, but it can slow the movement of the story to a halt while the character talks to herself, particularly if she’s asking herself rhetorical questions. It might be more effective to turn some of the internal discussion into dialogue, to develop some friction that moves the plot forward.

But there’s a pitfall in dialogue, too. Dialogue has a lot of jobs to do, including develop character and conflict, convey information, and advance the narrative. For the most part it needs to be tightly focused. It has to say enough for clarity, but not so much that it drags down the pacing. It should explain, but not overexplain. It’s a balancing act.

The dialogue in this section wants to do several things. It’s developing the relationship between Loretta and Suzy Lou. It’s rounding out backstory and pointing toward the next portion of the narrative. It conveys important information and introduces a twist or two.

What it tends to do in this draft is explain and summarize rather than dramatize. It’s dialogue as synopsis. Here for example:

“Maybe she’s alive, maybe she’s dead, but I need to know. And while I don’t want to hurt you, I do want to help you, and I think you’d rather have an adventure and be loved than hide from pain. I want to keep being around you. I want to face danger with you. You say the Misties can marry a human and become a world-crosser, well, I want to marry you and do that for our people. Isn’t a little pain worth something bigger?”

There’s a whole lot of story-stuff here. Opening it up, giving it air, exploring the different themes and conflicts, will make the story stronger and give the characters and their interactions more depth. If Hazel is alive, how can Loretta contemplate a new marriage? What does Loretta feel about loving two people at once, especially since she’s been mourning one of them for dead? How does this new knowledge affect her on a multitude of levels?

Meanwhile Loretta is telling Suzy Lou what Suzy Lou wants—not pausing to let Suzy Lou speak or act for herself. The marriage proposal comes on all at once, without buildup. It’s just suddenly there, and Suzy Lou is like, well, huh. OK. Sure. Party! (Which is an interesting insight into her psychology and presumably that of the Misties in general.)

Watch for these draft-habits when making notes for revision, especially the tendency for a character to tell another character what she’s feeling and thinking. Let that character say it or, better yet, show it. Let them interact. That’s where the story is, and where character development happens.

Tension and suspense grow there, too, as do emotional arcs. Dialogue is a part of them, but it needs to be more truly interactive, with more back and forth. Let characters speak and feel and react for themselves. Let emotions build and decisions develop. Instead of having Lorretta or Alice tell us what’s going to happen, let us see it happen.

It doesn’t need to be lengthy or complicated. Just a line here and there will often do it. Shift focus from explanation to drama, from character telling to scene showing.

The same applies to backstory. Think about how to weave it throughout the narrative, and how to hint and tease here. Give us what we need to know in this particular moment, but it’s all right to leave some ambiguity, to let us discover new information more gradually. A little mystery can keep the reader reading, and build anticipation as she picks up clues along the way.

In short: Slow down a little bit. Open up the explanations into (concisely) dramatized scenes. Give the characters room to react as well as act and talk, but at the same time, pare and prune the internal monologue. Let the dialogue really earn its keep. Then your story will flow more smoothly and your characters will have a chance to shine.

–Judith Tarr

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