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.
There are some great things going on in this submission. The setup is classic space opera, with political intrigue mixed up with family drama, and the events of the chapter are nice and dramatic.
In this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about the art (and craft) of conveying emotion. This is one of the key elements of characterization. It’s also highly relevant to the development of tension and suspense.
Raquel’s situation is fundamentally tense, from her ethnic identity through her conflicts in the workplace to the overt drama of the crash. There’s quite a bit of suspense: when we meet her, she’s late to work, and she’s further delayed by the encounter with the old woman, which provides insight into Raquel’s personal history as well as the broader political landscape—and offers us a Chekovian gun-on-the-mantlepiece in the form of the contraband sheath. Then the events of the crash unfold, beginning with the truncated distress call.
This is all excellent drama, and sets up a whole range of plot-material for the rest of the novel. In this draft however, the prose hasn’t quite caught up. It serves as a kind of scaffolding, framing the scenes and setting the characters in place, with blocks of exposition and backstory.
There are some indications of what the story can be with further revision. The crash has flashes of strong drama, and the characters’ distress comes through, as does a degree of the tension between Raquel and her brother. The story moves. It pulls the reader forward from page to page and into the next chapter.
To help deepen the drama and heighten the tension, I would suggest paring the exposition down as ruthlessly as possible. Rather than listing the contents of the medical kit, for example, focus on what’s directly relevant at that moment. The fact of the kit’s existence implies the rest; what the reader needs to know, right there and then, is what Raquel pulls out of it to do what she can for the Minister. It’s all she can find, it’s the best she can manage. There’s the tension, and the suspense is the worry that it might not be enough to save the Minister’s life.
Look out, too, for the order in which details appear. Think about what a character will logically see and when. Watch for slippage: the old woman describes herself as a Tawa early on in her encounter with Raquel, but Raquel seems to take this in as new information considerably later on. One simple way to heighten the drama here would be to delete the earlier reference and to depict the woman as being of ambiguous origin, that the Raquel doesn’t recognize what she is immediately. Then when she reveals herself, it’s more of a shock to Raquel, and the reader feels it along with her.
On a larger scale, I would suggest ongoing rounds of what I call “Thinking Things Through.” The explosion on the ship is a good example. Characters are talking and acting through and after it, but the physical consequences of the explosion are very lightly sketched. Think in detail about what happens to an aircraft when part of it blows off. Make sure the characters are feeling it—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. The sheer terror and the deadly urgency of trying not to get sucked out into the void.
Even small details: How hard will it be to open the hatch to the cockpit with the cabin depressurized? How many passengers besides the Captain will have been ejected, and who may barely be able to hang on? Once the survivors are in the cockpit/bridge, what does it take to get the hatch secured? These details don’t need to be numerous—too many will slow down the action—but a handful, carefully chosen, will draw a clear and powerful picture of what has happened.
The emotional affect of the chapter in general is a quick sketch now, building the world and blocking out the characters. In the next phase, think about coloring in layers of feeling. Let the characters express how they feel. When they act, let those actions convey emotion, suggest urgency, add complications. Find different ways to express “frequent-flier” words and concepts: look, eye, stare, glance, for example. Watch for emotionally distant words and constructions: clauses strung together with and (which flatten tension and weaken the impact of each separate clause), passive-negatives (she did not get a chance to respond), passive verbs, reactions that step away from expressing feelings (such as considered).
Make sure characters’ responses are appropriate to the scene and the characters. When Raquel and Diego have their private conversation, does her grin and Diego’s smile fit the context? Is it too lighthearted for the situation? Is there a way to make it fit—a further layering of emotion, a detail that shows the reader why they might respond this way in this circumstance?
And finally, in constructing each scene, make sure the pacing fits the emotional intensity of the scene. Raquel is late for work in the opening scene, but her encounter with the old woman seems leisurely, without a strong sense of urgency. Paring down the exposition will help, but also think about shortening the scene itself. Keep in mind that Raquel is in a hurry, she doesn’t have time for this, she’s trying to get away but the old woman won’t let her go. Then when she sees the sheath, she’s caught in spite of herself. She has to find out where it came from. But she shouldn’t forget she’s late and will have to pay for it when she finally gets to work.
It’s all about keeping it brief, keeping the focus, and choosing the right words—while also being constantly aware of the the full ramifications of each action and reaction. Thinking it through, and saying it in just the right way.
Best of luck with the novel, and happy revising!