Editor’s Choice Award February 2020, 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 Book of Margoleth, Chapter 1 by Meredith Asher

I love the voice of this submission. There are some wonderful lines, including the opening lines. I expected the setting to be quite a bit farther south than it was, but that might just be me reading too much Southern Gothic. And of course, True Blood. Eventually I did catch on to the ambience of the North Woods.

The author’s note asks about dividing up the submission into two chapters. I don’t think there’s any firm rule for chapter length, and this one could work as a unit, beginning with a routine vampire slaying and ending with Margo’s flight. If it would work better for the novel overall for this section to be two chapters, I think I would start Chapter 2 with “It was about a mile and a half to Margo and Bernice’s house.” It seems like a good place to begin, and the action picks up quickly from there.

I have a couple of questions, and some comments on structure and craft.

First I wonder if Margo should be as casual about the stranger as she is in this draft. Considering her upbringing and what she does basically for a living, would she be more suspicious of this weird, giggling apparent human? Would she take him in as easily as she does here? Is it possible she would sense that something is off, and be more wary and less accepting?

I wonder too if she protests a bit too much about her lack of esoteric education. Are her reasons strong enough? Could they be more complicated, too? Maybe something to do with her past, or her mother’s past? Some strong, compelling motive for keeping her away from her grandmother’s arts? A curse, a threat that maybe manifests in the stranger?

In terms of plot structure, this section has a solid flow. Margo is out hunting, Margo meets the stranger, the stranger attacks, Bernice deals with him and sends Margo away. In execution however, most of the narrative consists of Margo’s internal monologue, with blocks of exposition and backstory. Even action sequences stop for a detour through a memory, or for an explanation or a bit of history. The story stops and starts, rather than moving along smoothly from one scene to the next.

Paring down the monologue, focusing on information that is directly relevant to the particular scene, will help focus the narrative. So will reducing repetition. Presenting a piece of information once, in just the right place, will resonate through the whole chapter and, with a reminder here and there, through the rest of the novel. The more direct the action is, the fewer filters there are between it and the reader, the more immediate the reader’s experience becomes. It’s the difference between being told about an event, and living through it.

Margo’s characterization in general has a certain flatness to it. She acts and is acted upon, but the action is nearly all on the surface. When the stranger attacks her and drags her around, her internal monologue goes silent. There’s action but no reaction; we see what happens to her, but we don’t know what’s happening underneath. We aren’t shown how it feels.

In revision I would suggest pruning monologue and exposition, and in its place, adding layers of emotion. Let us feel as well as see and hear. Take us under Margo’s skin. Show us what it’s like to be Margo—inside, where her deeper self lives. Then the great lines will really stand out, and Margo’s narrative voice will be even more delightful than it already is.

–Judith Tarr

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