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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
The Way Of Lightning And Fire by J. S. Bradley
I’m doing something a bit different with this Editor’s Choice. After I selected it, the author reached out to let me know he had completely rewritten the piece. The revision is here.
That’s the one I’m going to focus on, and that’s the source of the quotations below, though my review (because of the way the system is set up) is tied to the original version.
The revision does one major structural thing I would have recommended if I’d only had the first version to work with: it replaces summary and synopsis (what the author in his note calls “narrative”) with a trio of dramatized scenes. This is a wise decision. It tightens the focus of the story and brings its events and characters to life.
I have questions about the ordering of the scenes in the revision: chronologically, they’re presented as 1 – 3 – 2. We experience the revelation of Milica’s fate along with Kresnik, then we circle back around to his final moments with her before he went away to become his competent and confident adult self. The last line seems meant to pierce us with its irony.
It does, to a degree, but I need more clarity as to what happens when, and why it’s being told in that particular order. Some connection, a segue from the one scene to the next—perhaps a line or phrase that shifts Kresnik from his adult self back to his childhood.
It might help also to have a bit at the beginning of the middle/adult scene which clarifies why he’s come back—something to suggest that there’s more going on in Kresnik’s mind and memory than we’re initially told. At that point in the story we don’t know about that night in the barn, but Kresnik does. If there’s a hint of it in the early part of the scene, we may not pick up on it when we encounter it, but it will resonate when we have the full context.
It’s certainly a powerful story, and the revised version twists the knife in multiple ways: Kresnik’s innocence in the beginning, his mature self facing the consequences of what happened on that terrible day, and the interaction with his sister that shapes and colors his reactions—and ours—to both. Because it’s so powerful, and because the story is so short, the prose needs to be finely tuned and highly polished. It wants to be; it tries for unusual effects and strong images. In both the original and the revised version, it’s not quite there.
One suggestion I would make would be to think about the prevalence of rhetorical questions. It’s part of Kresnik’s thought process, his internal monologue.
What in all of creation was going on?
How could she leave him now?
He’d never make it that far though. Would he? Was it stupid to leave? What if he regretted it? What if he stayed, and Milica was hurt? What if she was killed?
Is it really necessary for him to ask these questions? Does the rest of the narrative convey his thoughts and feelings clearly enough? If not, are there other, more varied, and perhaps more concise ways to do it?
(Sidebar: I’m not an advocate of the death penalty for inserting two spaces after a period or full stop, but it’s gone rather firmly out of fashion. One space is the general rule in this decadent age.)
I’d further suggest paying very close attention to the nuances of words and phrases, and making sure they mean exactly what they need to mean in context. Watch for awkward phrasing, and look out for echoes and repetitions, for slack constructions and tautologies. Every word, every phrase should earn its place in the text, and every one should be just the right one.
a scowl dug trenches along the corners of the Marm’s thin lips
is vivid and unusual, but a scowl happens in the upper part of the face, the forehead, the eyebrows, and to an extent the eyes. By the time it gets down to the lips it’s a grimace. The choice of words is not quite as precise as it might be, while at the same time the level of detail, the digging of trenches, slows down the movement of the story and focuses it on the image rather than on what’s happening in the scene.
The meanings of words tend to slip, and images get confused or confusing:
A heartbeat contracted within his ear canals
It’s the heart that contracts, rather than its beat, and the heart is located in the chest, not in the ears.
At the corners of her eyes the crevices carved deeper in
It’s not clear what “the crevices” are, or what carves them, or what they signify.
And in the same sentence,
the eyes of his classmates showing an assortment of positions on the spectrum between boredom and interest
mixes the metaphor of eyes, emotions, and positions; it might be simpler and stronger just to say something like, “His classmates’ eyes ran the spectrum from boredom to interest.” Fewer words, more precision. Less confusion of meaning and image.
Sometimes images could be toned down, as well.
The Marm’s mouth fell open and her eyelids shot up, exposing the full circles of her dusky irises. The tendons of her neck jutted outward like string beneath parchment.
There’s so much going on here, so many disparate actions, so many similes and metaphors, that the reader loses the thread of the narrative. Think about choosing one of these images, the one that most clearly conveys the emotional impact of the moment, and leaving the rest to implication. If it’s the right image, the reader will pick up the rest.
One last note: the characters SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS. The usual convention for that level of emphasis is the use of italics. Even those are best used sparingly and may not be needed at all.
In general, especially in a story that relies so heavily on figurative language and stylistic flourishes, it can be useful to apply the principle of Less is More. Let the choice of words and the structure of sentences provide the emphasis, assisted by judicious bits of stage business. The story is strong and the characters are memorable. With some work and attention, the prose will take care of the rest.