Editor’s Choice Award April 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 Pistoleer Chapter 2 by Shawn Farien

Overall I like this chapter very much. It has a solid feel in terms of characterization and plotting, and the pacing moves along nicely. It keeps my interest as I read, and makes me want to read on to the next chapter.

I would recommend a thorough and careful copyedit and line edit in the final stages of the revision, with an eye toward clarity. Make sure the text says what it wants to mean, and that the meaning is clear. For this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about two more general things. One has to do with craft. The other is a more or less personal observation, but it might be worth pondering for this and future projects.

One thing we’re taught when we’re writing dialogue is to make sure the dialogue is properly framed and set. Long passages of pure back-and-forth can be quite effective if the voices are distinct and the flow of the conversation clear. Mostly however, what characters do around what they say, that is, the stage business, can greatly enhance the dialogue.

As with everything else about the writer’s craft, it’s all about balance. Too little stage business and the dialogue can come across as “floating heads:” characters drifting in space, speaking without physical or emotional context. On the other hand, too much can seem overly busy, and distract from what the characters are saying and feeling.

I get some of that sense here. There’s a tendency toward overspecificity, to detail exactly what a character is doing, right down to how many bites she takes from her sandwich, and when and where she takes each one. The fact that she is eating, and how she eats, is important to the plot, as is Liam’s observation of it and his thoughts about what it means. After the first repetition or two or three, the sandwich starts to take over, and the conversation recedes into the background.

It’s a matter of balance. Of providing just enough detail to convey the mood and tone and range of information that the author wants to convey, but no more—if no less. In draft, it can all go in, and repeat as often as it needs to. In revision, the pruning shears come out. Time to pare away the excess and leave what’s essential. Tighten the prose, trim the wordiness, and reduce repetition to a few indispensable bits.

My other comment is more a personal one, but it’s also related to changes in how writers write and readers read in this age of diversity and representation. I notice that the world of the chapter is exclusively male, except for a single female. That female is a victim and a rescuee. Everyone else around her is either attacker or rescuer, and they’re all male.

Is this intentional? Will the gender balance right itself later on the novel, with more female (or nonbinary) characters who function as, well, just people? I ask because often writers fall into accepted cultural patterns, and one persistent pattern is that every major character in a work of fiction (either written or filmed) is male except for one token female. The ratio generally is the one here: three males to one female.

If there’s intent and purpose in it, and the rest of the novel will unfold the how and why, that’s great. I’ll look forward to seeing it. But if not, maybe it’s worth some thinking and possible rethinking. Does every speaking character but one have to be male? Does the victim have to be female? What would happen if this were shaken up, if there were an equal balance of genders, a straight one for one—and even perhaps, here or in a future novel, more than the usual two?

It can be a bit uncomfortable to play with assumptions in this way, but it can make for a stronger story, with a broader range of characters. At the very least, it paints a more accurate picture of the actual population. And it gives female characters more to do and say and be.

–Judith Tarr

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