Editor’s Choice Award February 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.

Beyond The Rings Of Imagination Chapters 15-18 by Heidi Wainer

There’s plenty of action in these chapters, with rapid pacing and escalating stakes for the characters and their hardware. Since this is a middle section of a longer story, and characters develop through the story, we’re seeing just a part of the larger picture. Still, I have a few suggestions for the next round of revisions.

Shara’s internal monologue contains a lot of rhetorical questions. Both the monologue and the questions can be effective ways of conveying a character’s inner life, but as with other rhetorical devices, a little goes a long way. Think about other ways to convey the information, though character action and interaction, through dialogue, or through brief bits of description or exposition.

Really good villains are hard to do. It’s all too tempting to amp up the evil without balancing it with hints of lesser horribleness. Sometimes the nasty goes over the top, with sneering and smirking and various other forms of mustache-twirling. Toning it down can, paradoxically, actually make the evil stronger, the way listeners will tune out a lot of yelling, but if you lower your voice, they’re more inclined to pay attention.

Korva makes some strides in that direction. She’s not completely awful to Shara. She clearly loves her son and her husband. Working more on this will make her even more interesting and complex, especially if her words and actions are more varied and more subtle. Rather than growling and snarling, glaring and cursing, calling Shara’s mother a whore and Shara a dirt kisser, how can she convey her anger and contempt in quieter, less obvious ways? If she’s even more ambivalent, if she shows even more flashes of positive as well as negative emotions and character traits, she becomes all the more interesting, and we learn more about what motivates her and why she acts the way she does.

One way to do this, and in fact to heighten character development generally, is to work on layering actions and emotions. There’s a lot of what I call unsupported dialogue. Characters speak, but often we don’t see how they react physically to what’s said, or in Shara’s case, how they feel about it. If her feelings are hinted at, they may be rather one-dimensional, a shrug or a dismissal when a stronger response might be indicated.

The more nuanced a character’s actions and feelings are, the more interesting it tends to be. It doesn’t have to be excessively complicated: a layer or two more of reaction, thought, emotion, makes the story deeper. If a character acts or moves, how does she do that? What emotion does the action convey?

Can we see an extra dimension of that movement? If she runs, does she run gracefully? Clumsily? Does she worry about tripping or falling, or enjoy her own grace and athleticism? Is there one additional thing we can sense as it happens, the feel of her suit against her skin, a smell, a taste?

It shouldn’t be a lot of details—too many will overwhelm the story. Just one or two that are just right at that particular moment, that give us a broader picture of the character and the scene, that let us see a little deeper into the world and the people in it.

Varying how a character reacts helps, too. Count the number of times a character does a particular thing—Korva’s growl, for example. What other things can she do instead? What else can both show her bad temper and hint at the reasons for it?

Each of these elements is small in itself, but they really add up. They add depth to the story and extra dimension to the characters. They resonate through the rest of the story, too, and can even show the way to new angles on the plot and the people who live inside it.

–Judith Tarr

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