Editor’s Choice Award July 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.

Take Off Your Shoes, Chapter 55 by Peter Mackay

Usually in selecting Editor’s Choices I try to go for opening scenes or chapters. That makes it a bit easier to understand what’s going on. Once in a while however I like to mix things up. Hence, this time, a final chapter.

From the author’s note I gather that the big picture is pretty well under control. Reviewers have weighed in on plot and characters and suggested useful changes. There seems to be somewhat less emphasis on the line by line, on the final polish.

I have a few thoughts on that. Polishing the prose will add that last bit of extra oomph, sharpen up the characters and heighten the emotional impact of the finale.

The first thing I would suggest is checking for “frequent fliers”—words and images that repeat throughout the chapter (and possibly through the rest of the novel. For example, note all the things that people do with their eyes, passing and sharing and exchanging looks and glances. Count the number of times characters nod or sigh, and how often they wave hands or arms. In what other ways can they express similar emotions or reactions?

Sometimes the phrasing is a bit odd, the words not quite as precise in their meaning as they might be:

She relaxed, tingling with relief.

She folded a hand against his cheek.

Martin’s head twitched.

Watch the idioms and the phrasing; be sure they’re on point. She glanced to would more likely be She glanced at, for example. Putting hands to her hips might read more smoothly as putting hands on her hips.

There’s a lot of stage business in general, a lot of actions surrounding passages of dialogue. Often it’s the same actions, characters doing the same things over and over, nodding, sighing, looking/glancing, smiling/grinning. Think about whether all of these actions are essential. Can some of them be dispensed with? Are they absolutely necessary? And if so, are they exactly the right actions?

Often too characters do two or three or more things in a row, piling action on action:

She took his hand in hers, kissed it, and gave him a hug. They held close and breathed in time with each other.

Unfar’ckt’s face tightened with a frown. He blinked, nodded, and looked at her.

In both of these passages, multiple emotionally fraught things happen. Putting them all together at once has the paradoxical effect of diminishing their effect. Try choosing the one that best conveys the feeling of the moment, and see if that actually heightens the emotion.

In short: paring and tightening the stage business, finding different ways for characters to act and react, and paying careful attention to choice of words and construction of idioms, will add that last bit of polish to the text, and make it that much stronger. Then the finale will pop even more than it does in this draft.

–Judith Tarr

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