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.
I’m intrigued by the concept here: both science fiction and horror. This opening sequence says “hard SF” to me, with its mission-control setting and its focus on the sound coming out of space. But I do keep in mind the gothic-horror roots of the Alien franchise, not to mention the beloved trope, It Came From Outer Space. There’s a definite trend toward horror toward the end, as the sound overwhelms the characters and their setting.
The author’s note asks about pacing. That’s an important element of any story, regardless of genre. Here, with action that builds up to a crescendo of fear and dread, the pacing would tend to be rapid and escalating.
There are a few tricks of craft that can help to focus the narrative and, as a result, sharpen the reader’s sense of what’s going on.
1. Frame the scene clearly and coherently.
Make sure the setting is clearly defined and the characters move consistently within it. For example I’m not entirely sure whether David and the party are in the same room, or if he’s in mission control and the party is happening remotely via screen or hologram. I’m also not clear about why the sommelier is giving the speech. There’s some explanation about the Nobel laureate avoiding doing it, but I’m not getting the logic of having a wine steward take over the job. Would it make more sense if he were a hired master of ceremonies, someone who does this kind of thing for a living?
2. Short, concise, focused paragraphs
It’s amazing how much difference it can make to keep the paragraphs short and keep each one focused on a particular action or viewpoint. Try breaking up the paragraphs, keeping them to three sentences or so. See how that changes the way the narrative moves.
Trim the repetition, too, and notice how often words and phrases echo in consecutive or adjacent sentences. See what happens if these echoes go away, either by choosing different words or phrases, or by deleting the repetitions altogether.
3. Active voice
Like short paragraphs and concise sentences, active voice makes a significant difference to the pacing. Try shifting all the verbs to active, and getting rid of multi-word verb constructions. Though I have no personal problem with the word was, or the verb to be in general, try eliminating it as much as possible, and make sure every verb has a subject. Then see what needs to go back in. The same applies to gerunds—words ending in –ing—and clauses that connect with while and as. Break them up, make each one its own, short, active unit. And again, see what that does to the speed of the narrative.
The more focused the narrative is, the more coherent it tends to be. One way to do this is to be specific. Instead of generic people acting or reacting, focus on one or two. Let us see what these particular people do and see and say. We’ll still get the sense that we’re in a room full of people, but we’ll experience the action more directly and immediately.
5. Exposition: To Be or Not to Be?
Science fiction loves its exposition, and part of worldbuilding is making sure the reader knows what’s going on and where and how. The trick is to know when to stop and explain, and when to keep things moving. Fast pacing means minimal exposition. Chunks of explanation act like speed bumps. The questions to ask are: Is this information absolutely necessary here? Does the reader need to know it right here and now in order to understand what is going on? If the answer is yes, how much information do they need at this point? How much is directly relevant to what’s happening? Can I wait to fill in the rest later, or leave it to the reader’s imagination?
This applies to both narrative exposition and dialogue. Dialogue especially is tricky because it may seem more active and direct and immediate to have a character Explain Things. It’s still exposition, and the story is still on pause. It may actually work better to toss in a line or two of exposition and then move on. The key here as elsewhere is to keep it short and keep it relevant. That helps to keep the story moving. And movement, of course, is what pacing is.