Editor’s Choice Award April 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.

Disingenious by Michael Eric Snyder

The action in this chapter moves along briskly. It’s clear what’s happening, and the line of the plot is straightforward, even with the flashback to the conversation with Sincerity. As a reader I have a solid picture of the protagonist—what he looks like, how he thinks, as well as who he is.

That’s all good work, and bodes well for the structure of the novel as a whole. It starts off with a literal bang and moves on from there.

What I would like to do for this Editor’s Choice is talk about the prose. I tend to advise authors not to worry about the word-by-word or the line-by-line while they’re still putting up the scaffolding of the plot. The important thing is to get the scenes blocked out and the characters moving within them.

How they do that is entirely up to the author’s individual process. Every writer has their own way of getting into the project. Some sketch sparingly and fill in later. Others throw it all in, try different ways of saying things, pile on the details as they come, then when it’s time to revise, go in with the pruning shears and cut away the undergrowth to show the structure of the story.

That’s what I see happening here. It’s a classic example of “kitchen-sink” drafting. There’s nothing wrong with it at all—as I like to say, “There is no wrong way to write a draft.” When it comes time for the line edits however, I have a few suggestions.

1. Overspecificity

One characteristic of kitchen-sink drafting is that the author puts everything in. They’re blocking out the scene in all aspects and from all angles. That means, for example, specifying what each hand is doing when a character moves. In his left hand he carried…, and in his right hand he carried… The question to ask in revision is, Does the reader need to know these exact details at this exact point? Is it impossible to understand what’s going on unless we know these particular facts? Are these facts relevant right here and now, or do they actually distract the reader from what’s happening? How much detail is just right, and how much is too much?

2. Word and phrase echoes

Another aspect of this type of process is a tendency to repeat the same words and phrases, as we can see in the excerpt above. Repetition is an effective rhetorical device, but it’s one of those things that needs a deft hand and sparing application. A little, in short, goes a long way.

In revision, see what happens when you trim down the repetitive phrases. Cut all but a few, and vary as many of the others as possible. Find different ways to say what needs to be said.

3. Wordiness

When writing draft, the goal is to get the words on the page. Sometimes that takes a bit of maneuvering, of talking around the subject until the meaning takes the shape the author is aiming for. Revision can tighten up the phrasing and make the meaning clearer. Here for example:

And most of all, he had Sincerity’s word that it was impossible for him to fail, no matter the trembling gun, no matter his aching back, no matter biting insects or sneeze-inducing pollen. Even if a mosquito were to take a whack at his neck at just the moment he fired, Sincerity would say that it’s all part of the plan. Baked in, like setting a watch 15 minutes ahead of an appointment he’d never be late for. She’d say there was no way he could ruin his moment to save the world. Every variable, calculated out to the nanosecond, was baked in good as a chocolate chip cookie.

There are some interesting images here, but these five sentences all say the same thing in five slightly different ways. Try condensing this passage into a single sentence. Think about the one or two details that are absolutely necessary here, that convey all the rest, and let those carry the narrative forward.

4. Transitions, flashbacks, and the passage of time

Movement within and between scenes can get challenging at times. When we’re telling each other stories, we often gravitate toward set phrases. And then, and so, or as we see in this chapter, that was when.

Here as elsewhere, variety is the spice of narrative, and the author’s job is to find different ways to say the same thing. It’s important to be clear that time is passing. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, sometimes the best way to do it is not to do it at all. Just move straight from one timeline to the next.

Flashbacks are a different kind of challenge. On the one hand, we need to make sure the reader is clear that the timeline has shifted. On the other, we don’t want to overstate the case.

Hence the use of the pluperfect to distinguish regular narrative past tense (she said) from the more distant past of the flashback (she had said). I tend to go minimalist here. Establish that this part of the scene is a flashback, but then shift to regular past tense. One “had” and then just go on with “said.” That does mean a clear transition back to the regular narrative, some phrase or construction that establishes the shift, but I think it’s less intrusive than a series of verbs marked off with “had.”

5. Viewpoint tagging

This happens a lot in draft. The author frequently reminds the reader (who at that point is basically themself) that THERE IS VIEWPOINT HERE, by the use of reminder words: thought, wondered, saw, and a favorite here, realized. There is often a fair amount of rhetorical questioning, too, as the author blocks the scene through the character’s internal monologue.

When it’s time to revise, it’s time to prune the excess, and think about whether and how often the reader will need to be reminded that they’re experiencing the story through the eyes and mind of a particular character. If the author does it right, they’ll only need to tag once or twice, then trust the reader to stay with the character until the scene or the viewpoint changes. It’s all about trust: the author trusting themself to tell the story clearly and effectively, then trusting the reader to follow where the author leads.

–Judith Tarr

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