Editor’s Choice Award March 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.

Chaos Is What You Make Of It by Tom Jackson

High fantasy, or epic fantasy as it’s also called, has its own rhythms and pacing, its own voice and style. Its scope is vast and its stakes as high as the world. Its plots can be quite leisurely in their unfolding, wandering off on byways of history and characterization, or taking time to set up every aspect of a development in the story. Readers expect this; they come to the genre to be immersed deeply and extensively in a fictional universe.

Even so, the rules of narrative economy continue to apply. As rich and detailed as the epic style can be, every word still has to count. It’s especially important to make sure that words and phrases mean exactly what the author wants them to mean. Figurative language and rhetorical devices should enhance the story and its characters, but not overwhelm them.

The first thing I’ll note is that the rewritten opening sequence doesn’t work for me. I have no problem with starting a novel in the middle of a dramatic episode, and filling in exposition and backstory in later scenes. The opening in this draft crams together two disparate elements: climbing a mountain and lecturing a pair of novices. Either one might serve on its own, but together they don’t quite mesh. There’s too much going on at once.

One solution would be to pick one of the two—the climb or the lecture—and make that the opening, but the story proper begins with the preparation for battle. The rule here, or guideline if you will, is to begin as close to the ending as you can while still getting the important parts of the story in. The stake-setting scene does that. The climbing scene seems less organic in its construction: it reads as an attempt to juice up the exposition by making it happen while the characters are Conscientiously Doing Stuff. The scaffolding is a little too clearly visible, whereas the stake-setting serves a clear purpose. It moves the story forward.

Structurally I think the original opening is more economical, more relevant, and also more vivid. The necessary backstory can be worked in later. What matters now is getting to the point of this introductory sequence: the monks and the race war, and the setup for the rest of the novel.

A crucial part of getting to the point is the prose itself, the way the story is written. I usually advise not worrying about that while the story is in draft. Get the big stuff working first—plotting, characters, setting, worldbuilding—and then focus on the word-by-word.

When that time comes, I suggest a concerted campaign of pruning and tightening of the prose, paying careful attention to the meanings of words and phrases. Sometimes I’m not sure what a line means: The art of manipulating body to will. What is this trying to say? And here: saliva feeling acrid in her mouth. Acrid is a taste rather than a sensation. What other, more precisely calibrated word would be appropriate here?

Watch for mixed metaphors, too, and figurative language that goes a bit (or more than a bit) overboard. This, for example: The shameful prayer rattled in her mind, a drum she could not silence. The image catches the reader up short, because while a drum can rattle, it’s more likely to be a thud or a roar or a hammer. When the reader stops like that, the story stops, and the reader’s engagement with it is interrupted. She loses the thread of the narrative.

Really effective figurative language keeps the reader inside the story, even if she may pause to admire the author’s cleverness with words. It’s better I think to dispense with the imagery rather than lose the reader’s attention. The experience should be as seamless as possible.

There are other ways as well to smooth out the prose, to make the story move more efficiently while keeping the sense of high style and cosmic stakes. I would suggest reducing or eliminating the italicized thought-balloons, the ongoing internal monologue. For the most part these interpolations explain what’s already explained by words or actions. Are any of them really necessary to move the story forward? Do they add anything significant to the character’s development?

The same applies on a larger scale to the frequent repetitions, the over-and-overing of descriptions and actions and reactions. Sometimes these repetitive phrases serve a rhetorical purpose, in a prayer or a rousing speech. But as with all rhetorical flourishes, a little goes a long way.

Frequent repetitions clog the pipes of the story. Once or twice may be vivid and memorable, but if the same devices appear over and over, they cancel each other out. My suggestion would be to eliminate all repetitions, even those in prayers and speeches–right down to the phrasing: breath catching in throat, heart pounding in chest; just let the breath catch, the heart pound. Then try restoring just one or two of the greater flourishes, the incantations or the speeches, where they’re most strong and effective. See if the story comes through more clearly, and the characters’ actions and motivations are clearer as well, now the stylistic undergrowth has been pruned away.

–Judith Tarr

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