Editor’s Choice Award May 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.

Gravity Chapter 1 and 2, by Steph C. Smith

This submission is very long—ideally it would have been half the length—but the idea caught my eye and the protagonist’s voice in the first few paragraphs held it. I like the concept of a character who can manipulate gravity. It’s not the usual superpower, and it has interesting ramifications.

Two things stood out for me as I read.

1. Plotting and Structure

The opening is fairly brisk and dives right into the action, though the prose could be tighter. On that, see observation number 2. The second half stops the action for a lengthy session of expository dialogue, in which we get the backstory in detai, though a character who is developed enough to be interesting, but who seems to exist primarily to convey information the protagonist needs before she can move on. Another character shows up in the midst of this; her arrival seems rather random, and it doesn’t seem to tie in with the exposition.

Though the author’s note does not specify, I got the impression that the novel is a sequel and that this chapter is designed to fill in the new reader on the events of the previous volume. Whether or not that impression is accurate, the chapter puts the plot on hold while Jude is filled in on what’s happened since the last time she was conscious. There’s a lot of information, a lot of offstage action, and a lot of people and places and politics and events that the reader has to process before the story moves on.

Conveying the information in dialogue, with character quirks and bits of stage business—cooking, eating, exchanging introductions, stopping for the arrival and departure of a third party—is meant to frame the exposition in active and interesting ways. Dialogue is active, we’re taught in writing classes, and characters talking is a kind of action. It’s alive. It’s people interacting.

A character telling another character all the things that have happened over a period of months, even with the tellee asking questions and getting answers, is a technique I call “offstaging.” Action happens offstage. Characters talk about it onstage. It sets up a barrier between the reader and the action.

If this is a sequel and Jude (as well as the reader coming to the series for the first time) does need to know all of it before she can make the next set of choices that move the plot, there may be other ways to convey the information. In a world in which magic works, she might experience the flashbacks as visions—removing the filter of Abe’s narration. She might actively seek out the different sets of information through some form of scrying, library-trawling, googling. Abe might give her hints and clues which she has to decipher more gradually, which in turn will reduce the number of names and conflicts and events that the reader has to process at this early stage in the narrative.

If this is the first volume of a series, there’s at least a novel’s worth of backstory in Abe’s exposition. It might be conveyed through the narrative, revealed as each piece of information is directly relevant to Jude’s actions and interactions. Breaking up the exposition will help the story to move ahead more quickly, and give Jude more room to reveal her personality, her wants and needs, her history and trauma.

One thing that may help the pacing and give the narrative more room to move is my second observation:

2. Tightening the Prose

The narrative voice gets a good start on signaling Urban Fantasy and establishing Jude as the tough-gal protagonist with a nice turn of wit. The opening action is also a good start. There’s a lot of good potential in the initial setup.

One way to bring that potential even more to the fore is to trim and tuck the prose, make it sharper and clearer, and heighten the tension and suspense through the structure of the sentences. In general, action likes to progress in short, punchy bursts: brief sentences, relatively simple syntax. This doesn’t mean writing in a rapid chop and never slowing down for a longer or more leisurely section of narrative, but there are a few stylistic habits that might be worth rethinking.

“And” splices, for example, connecting separate actions. “But,” “so,” and “then” have the same effect. They weaken the force of the story by stringing actions together rather than letting each one hold its own space.

I swung it at his head, but he dodged, so I flung it instead at the mirror over the sink hard enough to shatter the glass.

Try breaking up the sentence. Remove the conjunctions. Let each action punch on its own—bam, bam, bam. Then at the end, which dribbles off a bit, keep the action going: I flung it at the mirror over the sink. The glass shattered.

Here too, rather than stringing clauses together, try them as separate sentences:

On my way to the door, I slammed my hip against the end of the bed and fell to my hands and knees. The impact made my stomach lurch and I bit my tongue to keep from gagging.

See how removing the and splices changes the way the actions come across. If you keep the first and, try breaking up the second sentence, so that the two separate physical responses take place separately.

Another way to heighten the force of a sentence, particularly in an action scene, is to use active constructions. Gerunds—words that end in ing—slow and soften the action. They dangle off the edge of a sentence, weakening its force. A series of gerunds can slow down the action, particularly in a series of sentences with the same structure.

I took another breath, shaking my head as if it might loosen that memory and let it slip away. I moved my hands to my head, taking some comfort in running my fingers through my hair. It was longer than I remembered, curling past my shoulders.

Breaking up the clauses, again, can make each piece of the action stronger, more assertive. Varying the sentence structure keeps the reader’s eye and mind engaged, providing a little bit of friction to move the story forward. Replacing gerunds with active verbs can further enhance the effect.

When I’m revising my own prose, one thing I watch out for is a tendency to repeat information. I might try several different ways to say the same thing, then in revision pick the one that works the best for the context.

The flip-flops were uncomfortable, and not quiet. The slap of plastic foam on the pavement grated on my already-fried nerves. No doubt anyone in a three-block radius could hear it and tail me, and running in these things was going to result in an instant face-plant, Faerie powers or not.

These three sentences might condense into one, focusing on the details that want to repeat: the noise and the discomfort of her stolen footwear. One clause for the noise, one for the awkwardness, and then an active bit rather than a potential passive: she tries to run in them, they flap noisily, she starts to stumble, she has to slow down and pull herself together.

Sometimes blocking out a scene for my own use means trying different ways to convey my character’s actions and reactions.

My stomach twisted and I caught myself against a building, the fire in my veins extinguished. I kept my gaze on the sidewalk to fight off the visions of the people I’d already broken. The startling ache behind my eyes meant I couldn’t let those memories come back in detail. I’d never been the type of girl who dissolved into tears on the street and this wasn’t the time to start.

Here I might choose one of these sentences to keep, the one that best sums up what she’s doing and feeling. The rest I’d move to my Outtakes file, to save for later.

In draft, too, it can be tempting to insert a full description of a new character, as a sort of note to self.

She took a few steps into the room. She moved like a dancer. She had flawless brown skin and short, curly hair that started light blue at the roots then faded into a more normal black as it reached her ears. A tiny diamond stud twinkled in one nostril.

In revision, I ask myself which particular detail is directly relevant at this particular point. That’s the one I keep. The rest, again, I put aside. It may come in handy later.

Even if it doesn’t, I’ve given myself a fuller picture of who she is and what she looks like. If I’ve chosen the right detail, the reader will pick up the rest.

Jude has a nice strong voice. Tighter prose and sharper focus, along with some rethinking of how to convey the backstory, will make that voice even clearer. Even in this draft I have some sympathy for her predicament, and I’m curious to see how she sets about getting out of it—or, considering the state of her luck, how she manages to dig herself in even deeper.

–Judith Tarr


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