Editor’s Choice Award January 2020, 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.

RAI by Alex Taylor

This chapter has some interesting things going on. It sets up a classic conflict between artificial and human intelligence (with further conflicts among the humans), and lets us see how the AI’s thought processes work. The computer language operates through analogies to human experience, which adds a layer of accessibility for the human reader.

I’d like to talk about two things in this Editor’s Choice.

1. Whom are you writing for?

Every written work has an intended audience. It may be written for the writer’s own taste and level of knowledge—as a sort of private note-to-self, with no accommodation made for others. Or it may be written for a particular set of readers—defined either broadly or narrowly depending on what the writer wants her work to accomplish.

Since this is a novel and has been submitted to this workshop for critique, I can assume it’s written for a genre-savvy audience. It’s not labeled for younger readers; it aims, then, at the adult reader of science fiction. I am picking up those signals in subject matter, setting and characters, and arc of the plot as far as the chapter lets us see.

The chapter presumes a reader who is computer-literate, who can pick up on finer points of coding and language, and who has a fairly sophisticated understanding of how programming and programmers operate. That’s a fine thing for a hard science fiction novel. But the chapter as is could use a little polish, and some pruning of the opening section.

The long passage of coding gibberish does establish the utter chaos that overwhelms Rai. Even for the educated reader, however, that’s a lot of data-barf. Just as with real barf, a little goes a long way. A line or two, with a concise indication that this is a somewhat lengthy process, would make the point quite as effectively and rather more mercifully for the reader’s eyes.

“A little goes a long way” is a useful maxim in general. Unconventional narrative techniques and unusual rhetorical and contextual tricks are great fun, but the writer has to walk the line between too much and not enough.

The educated reader will sit still longer for abstruse and arcane lore, but it never hurts to think about the less educated reader, too. This reader comes to the story for plot and characters and setting—all those good things—but will skim over the arcana. A big wall of it may bounce him out altogether. If there’s just enough to keep the knowledgeable reader engaged, but not so much that the more casual reader gives up and leaves, there’s your sweet spot.

2. Framing and Blocking of Scenes

The opening sequence is fairly clear about what is happening and to whom. Once the chapter moves on the human characters, however, it becomes harder to follow. Part of that may be the formatting: one of the simplest ways to signal a change of setting, viewpoint, or timeline is a plain old line space.

Within these different scenes, however, there’s a tendency to skip connections. Characters seem to strobe from place to place and from timeline to timeline. Conversations pop up without a clear sense of where or when they happen. Events are described somewhat nonlinearly; it’s difficult to tell if a scene is happening sequentially, if it’s a flashback, or if the narrative has jumped ahead.

I would recommend taking some time to block out each scene. Figure out when it happens and where it’s set, and make sure it’s clear where everybody is. If characters are moving around, check to be sure you’ve let the reader see them move.

It is perfectly acceptable to jump from scene to scene without obvious transitions—“they walked here,” “two hours later,” “meanwhile, back at the bot farm”—but the scene should establish who-what-where-when with enough clarity that the reader doesn’t have to stop and hunt for a context. When pulling in information from the past or foreshadowing the future, give it a little space to breathe. Let it stand out slightly. Slow down a bit, let us see the change of time or place. Frame the scene with a line or a phrase, so that we get a sense of where we are and when, and how that time and place emerge out of the last scene and move the story forward into the next.

Yes, this works with flashbacks and braided timelines, too. It’s a matter of making sure each section of the story is clearly delineated. We should be able to follow it wherever it goes, and still keep track of the larger dimensions of the plot.

–Judith Tarr

Leave a Reply