Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Code of Dragons And Warriors Chapter One by Kit Davis

I am a complete sucker for dragon fantasies. I love them all—film, television, and of course, prose fiction (and poems, too). I Impressed as a teen on McCaffrey’s bonded human-dragon pairs, and I adore the dragons of Le Guin’s Earthsea.

The Author’s Note of this chapter asks us to be honest if we feel we’ve seen it all before. My honest response is, It doesn’t matter. If the author does it right, even the oldest trope can be new again—and the reader will love it both because it is a beloved trope, and because it’s well done.

There’s lots of potential here. The dragon’s viewpoint is a lovely touch, and the name Mezentius has a classic fantasy resonance. The setting is beautiful, too, and I very much like the sense of the numbers and varieties of dragons. I’m a big fan of Novik’s Temeraire books, and appreciate the echoes here.

In revision, I would suggest some rethinking and restructuring of the chapter. This draft focuses on Mezentius as he contemplates the gathering of dragons and fills in the backstory. He sits on his peak and reflects on the state of the world and the dragons’ role in it, until the messenger he’s sent out comes to report on the latest developments. Then the meeting begins, and the dragons discuss the situation and decide what to do about it.

I call this narrative technique “offstaging.” Characters think or talk about what’s happened in the past and what’s happening in the present, and discuss what to do in the future. It’s a kind of filter; it separates the reader from the action. The thing the reader has come for, the story itself, happens offstage.

There is a lot of backstory to present here, and a complex political and cultural and social setting which needs to be established as the novel begins. The reader has numerous questions, and the writer’s challenge is to answer them in ways that both get the story started and leave enough mystery to keep the reader turning the pages. What do we need to know and when do we need to know it? How much is enough for clarity, and how much is too much?

The same applies to events that happen before the novel opens. The usual rule of thumb is to begin as close to the end as we can, and fill in the rest through exposition and flashbacks. But again, how exactly do we do this while also keeping the plot moving and the reader engaged?

Mezentius’ viewpoint, here, serves as a device for conveying information. We get the story so far and the setting and background as he sees it. What we’re getting less of is actual, immediate, live and active story. Even the council, while it shows us some of the interactions among the different factions dragons, is primarily characters talking about events rather than living them.

While I like the framing device of Mezentius on the peak—it’s visually beautiful and offers a nice bit of insight into the world and the dragons—as a reader I would like to see more of what he’s pondering and everyone is talking about. Rather than being told what’s happening elsewhere, could we see some of it? A scene or two that lets us be right there, living it with the characters? Can we live through Canace’s death in a flashback as Mezentius experiences it, as a dramatized scene? If Renke’s own viewpoint adds too many to the novel as a whole, might he relate one significant example of everything he’s seen, as a scene with a beginning and a middle and an end, summing up all the rest in a short but powerful story-within-a-story? Can he tell us what happened in one place, what he did and how he felt and what other people did and felt around him?

Much of what the council plans to do might turn into scenes later in the novel. Let us know that they discussed the state of the world and made plans that will be executed as time goes on, but leave those to be revealed as they become relevant. What matters here is that they met, and we get to see why and get some sense both emotionally and factually of what they’re reacting to. Let us see and feel and experience the various chunks of exposition when we absolutely need to know them, when they can be a part of the story as it happens. Here, just give us a detail or two that tells us what’s most important, which, as I read it, is Canace’s death and the fact that some dragons are blaming it on humans.

If the chapter focuses on one major plot point, the reader has a clear sense of what the novel is about. Likewise, if the story is told in direct scenes rather than in exposition and conversation, it’s that much stronger and more memorable. The reader gets to be there with the characters, experiencing the story as it happens—whether in the story-present or as flashbacks from the past.

–Judith Tarr

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