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.
I always appreciate a good author’s note when I’m reviewing submissions for an Editor’s Choice. The note on this chapter is excellent. It sums up the story so far, and points readers toward the issues that the author particularly wants to address. It also gives me a sense of what’s been happening with the revision process.
I’d like to talk about one issue which, as I understand from the note, has drawn attention from earlier reviewers. I think I see, here and there, where the text has been revised with it in mind. Penn’s characterization, and especially her motivation for doing what she does, is crucial because she’s both the protagonist and (at least in this chapter) the sole viewpoint character.
The note does a pretty good job of describing what the author wants to accomplish here. Penn comes across in this draft as naive and rather innocent, not picking up on the clues that an alert reader might pick up—the skulls, the braids, the significance of Penn’s hair color. It seems clear that this is a riff on the Bluebeard story (with a strong set of references to Mad Max: Fury Road). Some of that may be denial, but mostly she seems focused on her personal reactions to Barton’s physical presence. She rationalizes those reactions, tells herself everything’s fine, and makes assumptions about what’s going on that aren’t borne out by what other characters say and do.
This level of cluelessness can be very effective, especially if it sets the character up for some hard truths later on in the story. One thing that might help achieve this end would be to rethink some of ways in which the narrative presents Penn.
I was struck as I read by how most of her actions and reactions are external. We see what she sees, we see what others do around and to her. We hear what she says and what people say to her. We get descriptions of the setting and the events of the story.
What we don’t get, except in a handful of places, is a sense of living in Penn’s skin. She sees, she hears, she moves and is moved around. But we’re missing the deeper aspects of being Penn, how it feels to live in her body, what it does to her to see and hear and experience these events.
In the scene in which Barton cuts her hair, we get a bit of what could be. She’s clearly upset, and she expresses it by asking silent rhetorical questions—a kind of internal monologue that dips below the surface and gives us a bit of insight into her emotional life. A little of this goes a long way, but it’s a start.
When Barton embraces her, a similar thing happens. She feels as well as acts and talks. There’s a little more depth, a broader range of emotions, and we see how the moment affects her physically. That pang in the gut is an example of what we should see more of in the chapter.
In revision, maybe take on a challenge: In each scene, add one more layer of thought, feeling, reaction and response. If someone speaks to Penn, what is their tone? How does that tone affect Penn? Does that change what she does or how she responds? If she’s acting or being acted upon, what’s going on underneath? What is it like from the inside?
Maybe even change things up a bit, and switch to first person—not necessarily as a permanent change, but as a way of seeing more deeply into Penn’s character. Imagine that it’s you in this situation. How would you feel? What would you do or say? If it’s totally the opposite of what Penn does, think about why. How are you different from each other? What makes you different? What drives Penn to want what she wants and to do what she does, versus how you would do it?
Much of characterization happens on the inside, in the character’s mind and heart. Once you’ve learned to wear a character’s skin, it becomes easier to figure out what she’s doing and why, and from there, to develop the arc of her emotions as well as her actions. Then she’ll come alive on the page.