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.
There’s some good story-stuff here, and some interesting pointers to where it’s all going. I have a sense of the world, what level of technology it’s reached: armor and spears, but factories and pharmaceuticals. Or are the drugs made with magic? I’m sure the story will answer that as it unfolds. It seems to be a raffish sort of swords-and-sorcery underworld, with deep poverty and a good amount of brutality. I want to read more in order to get a wider picture of the world and its people.
In this Editor’s Choice I’d like to talk about language, but first, a disclaimer. There is no wrong way to write a draft. When a story is finding its way through the writer’s mind and screen, what matters most is not the specific words they use, but getting the story blocked out in whatever way works best for the writer’s process. The time to worry about finer points of language and line editing is much later. Build the framework first, get the walls and floor and ceiling in place, then concentrate on the decor and the colors.
When the revision gets to that point, I would suggest focusing closely on language and choice of words, especially figurative language. The language of the draft aims to be vivid and striking and memorable, with unusual metaphors and strong sensory and emotional images. When it succeeds, it gives us a clear and immediate sense of what it’s like to live in this world. We can feel and hear and smell and taste the action as it happens.
Right now, it’s a bit over the top. Images pile up and tumble over one another. The opening sentence pays homage to the great trope, “It was a dark and stormy night,” with striking imagery, but it loses control of itself toward the end:
The storm whipped the city with barbed nets of rain and wind, and occasionally lashes of lightning that shred the sky like the spine of a captured street rat.
Whips and nets don’t quite mesh, though there’s a raw power in the barbs. The rat’s spine seems to come out of nowhere after the image of lashing and shredding. How does a spine connect with whips and nets?
I think here, less is more. Pick a concept—whips, for example—and keep the imagery focused on that. Think about what would wrap up the image in the most effective way. It might be as simple as ending the sentence with lashed the sky, and saving the rat’s spine for another scene.
Another tendency in the draft is that words don’t quite mean what they want to mean. The rain moaned, for example: usually it’s the wind that does that. Think about what rain sounds like, what sounds it can make. Can it moan? What mechanism would make it possible? Think too about how a reader will react, whether the image will throw them out of the story while they try to figure out what it means or how it works.
Clarity of meaning is important to keep the reader in the story. In the same paragraph in which the rain moans, there’s this:
The smell of the vats was heavy, unpleasant, but comfortingly familiar. It kept people away without reason.
I’m not sure what “without reason” means. The vats smell bad, though Jay finds the stink comforting. How does that translate into keeping people away for no reason? People who don’t have the comfort of familiarity would have reason to avoid the area, because it’s unpleasant. The apparent contradiction made me stop reading, and I lost track of the story while I tried to figure it out. In revision, rethinking or rephrasing would make the meaning clearer and keep the story flowing onward without interruption.
Watch in general for contradictions and confusions. Even as Jay focuses on finding medicine for Kalp, right after he remembers the sight of the sick person and his desperate sister, he says, I had no family, no friends. What are Kalp and his sister, then? Why is he trying so hard and at such personal cost to save Kalp?
Be careful too about how characters react and interact. Think about the balance between action and reaction, provocation and response. For example when the guard materializes out of the storm, we feel the power and terror of his presence. But after he’s interrogated Jay, he shrugs and leaves. We’ve been set up for a conflict that dissipates before it really gets started.
Another line or two, a sharper conflict, maybe a scowl or a warning from the guard, might give the encounter a bit more weight while still letting Jay off. Maybe tone down or delete the garbage-hat, too. It’s a strong provocation, but the guard’s reaction is disproportionately mild. It promises but it doesn’t quite deliver.
At this stage of the draft, I would recommend focusing on the story and the characters, and making sure the overall structure is solid. Once that’s where it needs to be, then go word by word and line by line. That will bring it all together, and the story will be stronger