Editor’s Choice Award December 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.

The Chained Prophets, Opening Chapter by Michael Kinn

There are a lot of good things happening in this opening chapter. It’s ambitious in its scope, and it stretches the boundaries of genre and craft in interesting ways. It portrays personal and family dynamics that contemporary readers can relate to, even while its central characters represent a rare and unusual spectrum of human experience.

I get the feeling that the author has thought carefully about these characters, and tried hard to imagine what it must be like to live in their heads and bodies. There’s a good deal of thinking through, in short: looking past the Cool Idea to the ramifications, its effect not only on the twins but on the world around them and the people they encounter in the course of the story.

The structure of the plot as it’s evident so far is solid enough, whatever may happen in later chapters. I’m fine with the shifts of viewpoint—for the most part it’s clear who’s thinking what and when, and I don’t find it confusing; in general I get why the shifts are necessary, and they generally serve a purpose in the narrative. Here I’d like to focus on an aspect of craft that’s usually addressed later in the process: the author’s use and choice of words.

In writing draft, writers often repeat the same information over and over, setting it down as it occurs to them or as it seems appropriate. That’s a perfectly valid way to write a draft, but in revision, the emphasis shifts from getting the words on the page to making the story clear and comprehensible to the reader.

At this point, the writer learns to ask what the reader needs to know and when she should know it. Is this information absolutely necessary right here and now? Am I providing enough information to satisfy the reader, but not so much that it overwhelms her or throws her out of the story? How much is enough, and how much is too much? If I repeat the same information in the same words, am I doing it intentionally, for effect, or have I lost track of what I said and how I said it? Can I eliminate the repetition, or find different ways to say what I need to say?

Many times it’s a trust issue. Trust the reader to get it the first time. She may need an occasional reminder, but probably not multiple times in the same scene. The way one twin feels the other’s scowl, for example, is a great detail and shows the care with which the author has imagined these characters. Because it’s so great however, and so evidently thought through, it only needs to be mentioned once in a while. It may be more effective to show other ways in which the twins share physical as well as emotional reactions.

In order to keep the reader reading, it’s important to keep the story moving. Repetition, along with blocks of exposition and backstory, acts as a series of speed bumps. Again, when revising, ask lots of questions. Do I want the story to pause here while I explain or expand? Have I earned the reader’s goodwill enough (especially at the beginning) to keep her reading while I fill in the background or explain why the characters are doing what they’re doing? Can I pare down my explanation to a few words that clarify what’s happening without stalling the action? Do I need the explanation at all here, or can I shift it to another part of the story? If I do that, will it work better, be clearer, engage the reader more, if I present it as a scene or a flashback? And if I do present it as a flashback, will the reader be able to shift in and out of the different timelines without losing track of each one?

I would suggest an experiment: going through the draft and cutting all repetitions of the same words and phrases or the same thoughts and actions, and then reading what’s left to see if any of these phrases need to go back in. If they do, might there be other ways to show what’s happening? Are there other words and phrases that would work as well while at the same time offering new insights into the story and the characters?

Check to make sure the words are the right words, as well. There are some odd usages here and there. For example:

We only need to avoid Terric from catching us unaware–Is avoid meant to be a synonym for prevent?

eager to fend up a surprise capture—The more usual phrase would be fend off.

He sensed Mher reach—More likely phrasing would be either He felt Mher reach or He sensed Mher reaching.

Once the prose matches the care and attention paid to the worldbuilding and the characters, the novel will be stronger, and the line of the story will be clearer and more compelling. It’s a good start, and it will be even better. Best of luck, and happy revising!

–Judith Tarr


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