Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Thaw Of Neptune, 06 Dulmer by Joseph Bixby

There’s some good, solid hard-SF stuff going on in this chapter. Plenty of action, too, and some interesting characters.

For this Editor’s Choice I would like to talk more generally than specifically, about a couple of authorial habits that stood out for me as I read the chapter. I find it fascinating that these habits tend to come in clusters. It’s as if everybody who’s writing and publishing decides to do the same things at the same time. Recently I’ve noticed two tendencies in published works that I’ve read as a reader, and in mss. that I’ve read as editor.

1. Italicized internal monologue

This has been cropping up a lot lately. Characters narrate their own story. They react to what’s happening, register opinions, make plans. They do this regularly. Sometimes it’s every paragraph or two. Paragraph, commentary, paragraph.

I’m not sure where this started. It’s been around for a long time, but I’ve noticed an uptick in the past year or two. It seems to be a way of asserting the viewpoint and registering the character’s thoughts and feelings. Maybe it’s meant to punch up the neutral narrative with a layer of personal observation. Rather than straight exposition, we get the character’s perspective.

I do wonder though, how much it adds to the story. Does it enhance the reader’s experience, or does it distract from the flow of the action? Does the commentary clarify the narrative, or can the narrative stand on its own? What does it want to accomplish? How does the story change with it as opposed to without it?

If the answer is that the story needs that commentary at that particular point, then the story needs it. If it’s a distraction, or if it doesn’t add anything that isn’t already there, then it can go away. It’s up to the author to decide what works for the story they want to tell.

2. “Floating Heads” dialogue

Confession: I’m prone to this when writing draft. Characters go back and forth in rapid exchanges without much or indeed any stage business or framing. When I’m taking dictation as I often am, it all makes sense to me, but when the editor gets their eyes on it, the reaction can all too often be, “Whut?”

One of my editors calls this form of dialogue “floating heads.” Lots of talk, no backup. In small doses it can really work. It’s fast, it’s lean, it moves things right along.

Longer passages are a harder sell for the reader. If they have to stop and go back and figure out who is speaking, that’s a distraction from the story. Even if the speakers are clearly labeled (and this chapter for the most part they are), the story may need a little bit more. A gesture, a facial expression. A brief visual to let the reader see what’s going on, where the conversation is taking place, how the speakers look, act, sound. What are they adding to the bare words of the script? How are they fleshing it out?

It doesn’t have to be a lot of exposition or description. If there’s too much stage business, that’s distracting, too. But a line here, a phrase there, can make an amazing amount of difference. It’s just a matter of figuring out where it will have the best effect.

— Judith Tarr

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