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.
Writing a novel is hard, and in many ways the beginning is the hardest. The author has to set up the action, block out the setting, and introduce the characters. She also has to send the right genre signals to the reader. If those don’t hit the proper notes, the reader will leave.
Novels that fall between two or more genres face additional challenges. What works for one may not work for the other, and readers who come in with one set of expectations may not be happy to be presented with a different one. The author has to do her best to win them over, and to keep them reading.
When I made this Editor’s Choice selection, I accepted the author’s invitation to get in touch directly. I’m glad I did, because I was able to see several versions of this opening chapter. The submission we have here is the result of more than one round of workshopping, and it’s an intriguing combination of genres: urban fantasy with epic elements.
That is indeed a challenge. Urban fantasy tends to be fast-paced and contemporary, with a sharp, often snarky voice. Epic by contrast is big, scopey, relatively leisurely, and in general quite serious, though there may be moments of comic relief.
Readers who read the earlier drafts of this novel had questions about the genre signals. It wasn’t hitting enough urban fantasy notes, and the setting wasn’t well enough grounded for the genre.
This is the original opening:
For nine years, nine months and nine days, I went to bed and dreamt of Gabriel dying. A fitting punishment for the role I played in the death of my sodalis.
Nine years, nine months and nine days. A perfect cycle, according to mage traditions. After Gabriel died, I had walked away from magic, but its laws still bound me.
After nine years, nine months and nine days, I fell asleep, and I did not dream.
Quite different from the version on the site now, much sparer and less explicit about where and when. In its place we have a quick, witty line of dialogue, a careful structure of setting and backstory, and a scene that balances dream-logic, lush description, and sharply contemporary conversation.
There’s no question that this writer can write. The particular combination of elements—modern fantasy and Classical myth and legend, with special bonus Venice (one of my favorite cities in the world)—predisposes me to love it, and in both what it is and what it promises to deliver, I really rather do.
Since I am wearing my editor hat, and since I have also fought in the cross-genre wars, I have some thoughts about the submission as it appears on this site. There is another, later version, and I believe it works better while also being explicitly urban fantasy, but for this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about two versions we have here. One works better for me than the other, even though it’s not strictly following the “rules” of its primary genre.
The revised chapter is a sort of intermediary draft, what I might call Author’s Notes to Self. Exposition to the fore, with a number of experiments in voice—literally in the aunt’s lively aphorism and the child/Fortuna’s acerbic observations, but also in both the richness of description and the flatness of the expository passages. Overall it falls more on the side of synopsis than dramatized narrative, with everything spelled out up front, and no ambiguity about who the protagonist is or where she comes from.
That’s a perfectly acceptable way to write a draft. It answers the readers’ questions. It makes it clear the genre is urban fantasy. It pulls in the Classical underpinnings of this magic-rich world, and sets up who and what the narrator is.
It also prevents the story from starting. There’s a lot of information to process, a lot of background to absorb, before the reader has a chance to get to know the characters. Emotionally it’s rather dry and analytical. There’s wonderful story-stuff here, but it’s told in an almost academic voice.
I personally prefer the original opening, with its mysteries and ambiguities. It tells me just enough to keep me reading, and is well enough written that even so early, I find myself trusting the author to answer my questions. It’s powerful and poignant, and it has the strength of an incantation.
If I were to choose between them, I’d pick the earlier draft. The intermediate draft, emotionally and stylistically, is very nearly its diametrical opposite. The earlier version is not signaling urban fantasy, no, but there’s time to do that in the next scene or chapter. I would be happy with these lines as a prologue or a prelude, and then a shift to the main thrust of the story, with less exposition and more revelation through character action and interaction.
Mixing genres is a balancing act. Between the two versions we can see here, I could see starting with the near-poetry of the dream, then shifting to the bright light of the contemporary world. That might even become a narrative technique, shifting from one to the other, keeping a rhythm that defines the novel. Dream life, waking life. Past life, contemporary life. The distinction is already present in Ada’s estrangement from her family, and in her involuntary servitude to Fortuna. Two worlds, two lives, two narrative voices.
Whatever the author decides to do, I’d like to add one last rather contrarian observation, which is that the rules of writing—including the rules of genre signaling—are never actually set in stone. Certain conventions do apply, but if the author knows them well, understands them deeply, and makes a conscious decision to bend or break them, she may be able to get away with it. Yes, if an agent or publisher says Do Not Do This, you’re wise to follow instructions. But in general? Go with your author’s instinct. Do what works for your story.
This is especially true for work that crosses genres. Sometimes you can combine the rules and conventions, or you can find a workable compromise. Other times, you may have to make your own. If you do it well enough, and win over enough readers, you may find that you’ve created a new subgenre.
After all, what we think of now as urban fantasy grew out of other subgenres before it, accreted rules and conventions and became an established genre. Before it was its own thing, authors who wrote that way were “doing it wrong,” too—until others followed their example, and their way became the right way.