Editor’s Choice Award October 2019, Science Fiction

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.

A Child’s Crusade, Chapter 2, by Elizabeth Porco

I like the various concepts that appear and develop in this chapter. The nature and evolution of superpowers, the Zero-Crossing Arena, the family at the center of the story and the young protagonist who has to come to terms with both her cancer diagnosis and her new powers. These are all strong plot-drivers, with lots of potential for emotional arcs and conflict both physical and mental.

As I read this stage of the draft, I kept coming back to two basic elements of craft. One, the selection and development of scenes. Two, the art of transitions.

Real life has a way of just going on: the same things happen over and over, crises come and go, and there’s no distinct shape to any of it—except what our brains try to impose on it. What story does is impose order on the progression of events. It makes connections. It decides what’s important, and by extension, it minimizes or passes over everything else.

When a writer selects scenes, she’s establishing priorities in the story. She’s also practicing narrative economy. She keeps repetition to a minimum—if ideas or phrases or events repeat, they’re doing so for a reason. They’re telling the reader, Pay attention. This is important. When the same thing happens over and over, the author may refer briefly to this fact, then pick one scene that shows this thing happening, and preferably in some way that moves the story forward.

In this chapter, Alicia’s medical adventures are numerous and ongoing. Each one is a step along the way toward (everybody hopes) recovery. At the same time, she’s learning about her new powers and discovering how to control them. The hallucinations are a part of the process, as are her interactions with others: fellow patients, medical personnel, her family.

That’s all good, and it’s good story-stuff. What I think it needs at this stage is some stepping back and thinking about what the chapter wants to accomplish. Which elements are most important? Where does Alicia need to be at the beginning, and how will she have progressed (or regressed—character development can go either way) by the end of the chapter?

Once these questions are answered, I would suggest condensing the main ideas into two or three connected scenes. Alicia’s introduction to the cage, for example, then her experience inside it, and finally, the aftermath: one coherent scene that illustrates what has happened to her and how she is dealing with it. Thi s scene will lead toward the next chapter, and set up what’s going to happen there.

In the draft, a multiple things happen in the second half of the chapter. A lot goes on over an extended period. Characters both new and old and come and go.

There’s enough information here for multiple scenes and a number of chapters. Which of all these things is most important right after Alicia gets out of the cage? How do Alicia and the people around her handle it? How does it feed into the next important event in the story? What happens over and over, that can be condensed into a single reference or snippet of a scene? What contributes directly to the movement of the story, and what slows or halts that movement?

The guiding principle here is focus. Focus on what’s directly relevant to the story right here and now. What builds on what came before, and what leads clearly toward the next point in the plot.

Focus also on developing emotional arcs. Think about how various characters—and Alicia most of all—will feel about what’s happening. How do their emotions evolve? What progressions do they go through? Alicia’s father in particular will have a whole complex of feelings about Alicia’s cancer (worry, anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, love for her, and much more), and once she’s undergone treatment, those feelings will intensify and evolve. Now she has the same powers he has—how does he feel about that? Is he scared? Angry? Proud? What is going on in his head as he takes care of her?

One thing that may help with developing each scene, both within the scene and in moving from one to the next, is some work on transitions. In the draft, events tend to proceed at pretty much the same emotional temperature. We get time-stamps—the next two days, next, then, two hours later, after that. Characters come and go, in so many words. Someone comes in, someone is there, someone goes out.

The cumulative effect is almost static. Scenes run from one to the next without clear demarcation. Things happen in a steady sequence, with a fairly shallow rise and fall of narrative tension.

A very simple way to demarcate scenes and changes of viewpoint is to insert a line space whenever the scene or point of view shifts. That gives the reader a visual clue: Expect a change here.

Less simple but similarly helpful is to vary the ways in which time passes and characters move here and there. Instead of saying, each time, how many days or hours have passed, think about how to show the passing. Maybe there’s a clock on the wall, or somebody mentions that it’s been X number of days since they saw Alicia, or she stops to count the days or hours while she’s waiting for the next procedure. Maybe she’s losing track, or maybe she’s anxious for a certain amount of time to have passed.

Cutting back on the number of things that happen in the chapter, and rethinking the time frame for this chapter—making it shorter and more focused, or else moving more quickly from one key event to another—will help make the progression of time and events clearer, and make it easier to decide how to move from one event to another. It’s all about clarity, and about focusing on what’s most important to the story. Once that starts happening, the story should be easier for the reader to follow, and the characters will have more room to grow and change and evolve (or devolve—as I said earlier, events and people can regress as well as progress).

–Judith Tarr

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