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 10,000 Year Civil War by Christopher Halk
There’s a tremendous lot of story-stuff going on in this submission. It’s very ambitious, and it has some interesting bits of worldbuilding—the Shades and their colors in particular.
What drew me to select the chapter as an Editor’s Choice was the author’s note about viewpoint. Point of view is one of the most important elements of any work of fiction. Who is telling the story? How are they telling it? Where are they standing, what are they feeling, how are they reacting, how are they interacting with other characters?
Sometimes authors get tangled up in the received wisdom about viewpoint.
Only one point of view per paragraph/scene/chapter.
Never change point of view in a sentence/paragraph/scene.
“Head-hopping” is Bad, Do Not Do.
Always be clear about your viewpoint—tag frequently with words like thought, wondered, and the many variations of looked and saw.
The thing about the rules of writing is that they’re really the Pirates’ Code. Just…guidelines. They exist as guides for writers who are learning their craft. If you follow the rules, you stand a slightly better chance of writing clearly and avoiding confusion.
But—and this is a really big BUT—if you know and understand why the rules exist and what sorts of problems they’re intended to prevent, you can break them. You can have two different viewpoints in the same sentence, you can write an entire scene without ever once having your character look or think or wonder, you can challenge the reader to figure out what you really mean without spelling it out.
If you know what you’re doing. And if you have the skill and craft to pull it off.
And that’s why writing is hard.
The chapter we have here is struggling with the concept of point of view. Part of what’s going on is a tendency to lose focus from sentence to sentence. Paragraphs are packed full of narrative detail, chunks of exposition and large amounts of action crammed into a small space. The line of the story tends to get lost.
Breaking up the action will help, as will cutting way down on the repetition of words and phrases. Pick one key action per paragraph, and one key detail from the background, and see if that helps open up the narrative. It may also make it easier to figure out which character is most effectively positioned to tell that part of the story.
It doesn’t have to be one single character. There are valid narrative reasons to have several viewpoints—Alexander, his wife, the page. Even a demon, for extra points, though again, that requires careful attention to detail. Different “camera angles” provide different insights into what’s going on, and allow us to see different parts of the action.
I think one of the problems here is the tendency to fix on the “view” part of viewpoint. The word “look” is a frequent flier, as are a number of its synonyms, with the occasional variation of “thought” or “wondered.” Note how often these words appear, and think about whether it’s really important to the story, right there and then, for the characters to be doing this particular thing. How else can the reader get a sense of what’s going on? In what other ways can the viewpoint character show that he or she is the one who’s telling us the story?
Think about what he or she can see from where they’re standing. How do they feel about it? What particular words might they use, that tell us who they are and how they relate to the other characters? What other things can they do besides look or watch or see? Do we need to be told they’re doing this, or can we just see what they see?
For the time being I think the “one viewpoint per paragraph” rule might be worth following, to keep things simple. There’s a lot of work to do on focus, on cramming fewer events and details into each paragraph, and on writing action scenes with active words and phrases. Emotions need work as well—more direct experience and less passive voice; make sure to show how the character feels from the inside, rather than telling us that the emotion is felt. The arc of emotion should be smoother, with each action at the right level of intensity.
This is a good example of what tends to happen in the draft:
They screamed in agony, shake their heads in disbelief, and then acquiesce to extinction.
There’s the high note of the agonized scream, dropping steeply down to the headshake, then the passive polysyllables of acquiesce to extinction (with bonus slippage of verb tense). If each phrase has the same general level of diction, the whole becomes much stronger. Something like: “They screamed in agony, tossed their heads in disbelief, then yielded to death.” Not my finest attempt at prose, there, but notice how the words fit together. They’re all short, clear, straightforward, and they take their inspiration from the tone and diction of the opening phrase.
Once the prose is more tightly focused, it may be easier to see how viewpoint works. It’s not the explicit statement that does it—he looked, she watched, they saw—but the way it’s said. The angle from which the character sees each event. The words that show how the character feels about it.
Different words convey different emotions. “She danced” and “she capered” describe approximately the same movement, but the first conveys grace and joy whereas the second has more of a comical aspect. When a character is observing another character, how they relate to that character can tell us a lot: “Her beloved sprang through the gate with sword in hand” versus “the monster lurched into the courtyard with fangs bared.” We don’t need to be told “She looked at him” if it’s clear she’s our viewpoint; we just need to know what he does, as she sees it.
It’s all about trust: trusting one’s craft and trusting one’s reader. Learning how to use just the right words to convey just the right details. Keeping track of who a character is, how they think and feel, and what they can see (and hear and smell and taste) from where they’re standing (or sitting or lying). Living inside the character’s head, experiencing the story as they experience it, and then conveying that experience in a few carefully chosen, precisely appropriate words and phrases.
That’s what viewpoint is. Not just camera angle but the whole spectrum of emotion, action, perception, as experienced by a particular character.
It’s quite possible to shift from one character to another, and if the writer is skillful enough, that shift can be clear from the way the angle changes. A different choice of words, a new take on what’s happening. A sense that this is inevitable; that we have to change viewpoints in order get the most out of this particular part of the story.
In sum, and in general, I’d suggest trying to do more with less in this chapter. Pare down the action, focus on fewer details, and move away from passive voice to more active constructions. Removing the iterations of look will help, as will thinking in a more focused way about how the characters are perceiving what’s happening around and to them. That will make the story stronger and let the reader live it along with the characters.