Editor’s Choice Award July 2020, Horror

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.

Black Fire, Chapter 3 by Michael Keyton

First, one of my standard disclaimers. Line edits and word-by-word critiques are the last thing a writer should worry about, after all the other elements of the work are in place and it’s time to apply the final polish. Fix the big things first. Then, at the end, make sure all the words are in the right place and doing what they’re intended to do.

With that in mind, I have thoughts about the prose of this submission. Style and word choice are crucial in the horror genre; they create the mood and establish the ambience. This chapter has some lovely things going on in that department, but there’s still a bit of work to be done.

First of all, clarity. Every word and every sentence should be clear as to its meaning and intent. A reference can be obscure or a passage mysterious—sometimes the story needs that. But word for word and line for line, the reader should be able to parse the meaning. If they have to go back repeatedly and reread a passage, and still can’t quite get what the author is trying to say, they’ll lose their trust in the author’s ability to guide them through the story.

Here for example:

They looked at her in turn, and she recognised Perun . . . Dazhbog . . . Stribog, Hors and what she had been came back to her, and her mind finally broke.

The sentence starts with her recognizing a series of individuals, then swerves off in a different direction. The structure of the sentence points toward her recognizing what she had been, but what she had been is actually a different clause, a new train of thought: she’s remembering what she was, probably as a result of recognizing the four persons.

The prose does this fairly often. A sentence starts on one track and then switches to another. Generally the solution is as simple as adding a comma to mark off the separate clauses, or breaking up the clauses into separate sentences. Here, I’d say end the sentence with Hors and start a new one with What she had been.

Stringing together disconnected clauses with and weakens the effect of each clause, as well as confuses the meaning. Think carefully about what is going on in the sentence and the paragraph, and make sure the different parts of the sentence flow coherently from one to the next. Keep track of the whole as well as the parts.

Keep an eye on individual words, too. Make sure each word means exactly what it needs to mean in that particular context. This sentence starts off rather nicely:

And then they were there, subtle and eel-like, sinewy ribbons on fast moving currents, herding and directing, keeping her tight.

The image of the ribbons is vivid, but the final half-dozen words wander off the metaphorical track, until the last word pulls it up short. It’s not quite clear what tight wants to mean. Confinement? Tension? Tight in the street-talk sense, or in the literal sense, or the emotional one, or…?

Watch the emotional temperature, too. Make sure the word or phrase matches the intensity of the moment.

The sobbing started and wouldn’t be stopped.

The emotion here is strong, but the verbs are passive. The result is a sense of disconnection from the feelings that caused the outpouring of grief. It might be more effective to shift to active voice: The sobbing started and wouldn’t stop.

And then the response is perhaps too understated:

He sounded concerned.

Is concern enough? Is it strong enough, or specific enough? Does it convey all that it needs to convey?

Thinking through each word and phrase, the structure of each sentence, the effect of each image and rhetorical flourish, can seem like a lot of work. But with practice it becomes easier. It’s all about clarity, about focus, about making sure the different pieces of the prose fit together into a strong and coherent whole.

–Judith Tarr

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