Editor’s Choice Award July 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 Art Of Surviving Dragons Chapter 1 by Jamie Perault

I have a weakness for breezy, sassy voices in epic fantasy. They’re a little paradoxical and quite a bit iconoclastic, and they have to be absolutely on point in order to work. But when they do, they’re a rollicking delight.

This chapter has potential. It’s got the wry, dry tone, and it has some nice plot and character twists. The style is distinctive; the protagonist defines himself clearly in the way he speaks and thinks.

This guy is a storyteller. I can see him kicked back in the tavern, telling his tale at his own pace and in his own time. His rhythms are spoken rhythms. He’s addressing an audience. He editorializes as if he’s answering questions or responding to listeners’ expressions or body language.

That’s some nice craft, and I think it can be even nicer with a round or two of revision. There’s a fine line between the storyteller telling his story at leisure, and the guy who takes forever to get to the point. On the one hand we can appreciate the layering of action and information. On the other, too many layers can keep the story from moving. It does need to move, especially in action sequences.

First I would suggest paring down the repetitions. They’re meant for effect; the ongoing double and treble and sometimes quadruple echo of words and phrases can create a rolling rhythm that enhances the story. But rhetorical devices like this are like spices or seasoning. A little goes a long way.

One repetition here and there can wake the reader or listener up and make them pay closer attention. Constant repetitions have the opposite effect. After a while they turn into a sort of white noise. The trick is to figure out just how much echo effect is enough, and prune the rest.

Pay attention too to the pacing of the action scenes. Watch for wordiness and digressions. Keep a close eye on what the characters are doing, and be careful of interrupting a heated fight or a desperate flight with passages of explanation or exposition. Fast action needs fast prose. Shorter sentences, fewer words. Tighter focus.

One thing that might tighten and strengthen the prose in general is to notice how many negative constructions show up throughout. Note how often the narrator uses didn’t and wasn’t, and how often he undercuts himself by saying he’s not sure or he doesn’t know. He’ll describe something, and then walk it back:

If I didn’t know he was a mad, murdering monster, I would have been tempted to sketch a picture. Not that I could actually draw all that well, but

Or he’ll set up an image and develop it it and redevelop it and develop it some more:

In that moment it sounded… young. Not child-young, but lazy apprentice young, someone still growing, whose body didn’t understand why work needed to be done instead of sleep. Perhaps that was why my next strike missed. Was I thrown off balance by that unexpected voice, pulling up just a little short instead of following through?

He’s in the midst of a fight for his or the dragon’s life, and he stops to develop a metaphor, in part by telling us what it’s not. Then he takes time for a rhetorical question. Meanwhile the action is on hold and the audience is waiting for the next blow to fall. This can work nicely in small doses, but if it happens frequently through the narrative, it keeps the story from moving forward. In a tavern, that means the rotten tomatoes will start to fly.

Luckily this is written rather than spoken prose, and there’s plenty of time to revise before it meets its audience. Keeping it focused, keeping it tight, and reining in the rhetoric will make a strong story and its intriguingly quirky characters even stronger. I certainly want to know more about the dragon who happens to be a werehuman, and the dragon hunter with the distinctly checkered past.

–Judith Tarr

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