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 are some interesting things happening in this opening chapter. We have a classic fantasy setup, the small, prosperous, isolated village in which our unusual hero happens to live. He is, in the tradition of fantasy heroes, an orphan and a foundling. And now, it appears, he’s about to learn what and who he really is. I’ll be interested to see how the evocative title manifests in the story.
When the ms. reaches the state of line and word edits, I would recommend a close reading and a thorough copyedit to make sure all the words mean what they want to mean. (Including one of my favorites: locating a frown around the jaw instead of the forehead. A frown used to mean a drawing together of the eyebrows, but in recent years it seems to have slipped downward to the mouth and chin. When Haley furrows her brow, that’s another and perfectly acceptable way of saying she’s frowning.) At this stage however, there are more general issues to think about, so I wouldn’t worry too much. Just keep it in mind for a later draft.
The first thing to think of here is whether the story has begun at the right point. By this I mean, is it opening as close to the end as it effectively can? Are the events of the chapter absolutely essential to the movement and development of the story and the characters? How is the pacing? Is it fast or slow? Are we getting to the point of this section of the story, or are we waiting for something to happen?
The key event here seems to be the arrival of strangers in town. At the end of the chapter, we see what appears to be one of them. He’s nicely sinister and mysterious, and the ending does a nice job of encouraging us to keep reading to find out what happens next.
Before he shows up, there’s quite a bit of introductory material. We meet Dryden, our viewpoint character. We learn what he does for a living, meet his boss and some of his family, and find out what Dryden’s position is in this world. Then we meet his girl crush, Haley, and one of Haley’s would-be suitors. Dryden and Haley show us some of the landscape, including the very dramatic seashore. Finally the sinisister stranger comes into the picture, and we can tell things are about to get complicated.
One suggestion I would make in revision is to think about what dialogue is and how it works in fiction. In real life, most of what we say to each other is what I call filler. Stock phrases, small talk, a kind of social shorthand that people use to keep in touch. For the most part it doesn’t convey much real information. When it does, it tends to spell out what we’re doing now or what we’ve done or what we’re planning to do.
In story terms, it’s a kind of null space. Story is what happens, as it happens. It can be told in flashback, as something that happened before the story’s present, and it can manifest as characters planning what they’re going to do in the future. But the main line of story is happening as if we, the reader, are living it.
The tricky part here is that if we wrote everything that happens, novels would be thousands of pages long, and there would be no way for the reader to tell which of the innumerable happenings were more important than the others. That’s why I like to think of a novel as the “good-parts version.” Stories condense everything that happens in the characters’ lives and focus on the parts that matter the most. They pare away the manifold details of daily life and focus on the ones that develop the characters and move the story from one main event to the next.
The same applies to dialogue. All the social lubricant, the standard phrases, hello-goodbye-how are you-what are you up to-where are you headed and so on and on, act as speed bumps for the story. The reader is looking for Stuff That Happens. Filler dialogue, dialogue without new or essential content, gets in the way of that Stuff.
When writing dialogue, the questions to ask are: Is this conversation conveying new information? Does it move the story forward? If it’s meant to develop character, does it define that character in a clear or memorable way? Does the reader (and the story) need this particular set of phrases, or can they be left to implication while we move on to the next bit of new information?
Or, to put it another way, Is this passage of dialogue absolutely essential for the movement of the plot and the understanding of the reader? Can I take it out without sacrificing plotting, characterization, or clarity? If my characters are conveying information, can that information be more effectively conveyed through a dramatized scene? Are my characters talking about something that happened offstage, and if so, would the story be more direct and immediate (and the pacing faster) if that event happened onstage?
Think too about what the characters are doing while they’re talking and interacting. Do their speech and movements have clear purpose in the story? If they need to be in a particular place at a particular time—as here, Dryden and Haley happen to be by the seashore when the dark stranger comes by—are they getting there quickly enough, or does it seem as if they’re wandering around aimlessly?
If the story requires that Dryden encounter the stranger at this particular point, does it make sense for that encounter to be apparently random? At first it seems as if he leaves work with a plan to scope out the strangers, but then he seems to make a random decision to stop by and see Haley, and then Haley decides they’re heading for the beach. He doesn’t seem to be acting with volition—or agency as we might say in writing class. Other characters are making his decisions for him, and deciding where he should go. Is this a plot element, in that Dryden is naturally passive and over time will be forced to be more active?
I would ask too if he would have any concerns about being hunted at this early stage. He knows he’s the only druin in town. Is this a dangerous thing to be? Or is he just concerned about casual racism? How complex is his situation, and how well aware of its full implications is he at this point? It doesn’t all have to be spelled out in this first chapter, but thinking it through might affect how Dryden thinks and feels, and how he reacts to the stranger.
It might also change the structure of the chapter. Do we need all of the introductory material, or might the opening be stronger if Dryden’s perambulations are shorter and his actions more focused? Maybe he asks to leave work so he can catch up with Haley and take her somewhere. Maybe he goes to town, and the stranger passes them on the way.
If he does go to the beach, what specific thing can he do there, or plan to do there, that makes it essential for him to be in that place and nowhere else? Or, if it’s Haley’s decision, what specific thing does she want to accomplish by going there? How can Dryden be more actively involved in the decision? Is he just following her because he wants to be with her, or does he have his own agenda?
The main thing to keep in mind is that whatever goes into the story is essential to the story. It develops character. It moves the story forward.
If Dryden is on the beach when the stranger shows up, how he gets there does matter, but we don’t necessarily need all of the different stops he made or the conversations he had on the way. Just the ones that are directly relevant to his being in that place at that time. We might not even need those, if there’s enough setup in the scene on the beach. If we know he got the time off work, and if we know Haley manipulated her father into letting her go with him, we may not have to see those things happening, just know that they did. Then the chapter begins with them on the beach, Dryden reacting to the ocean, and the stranger showing up. And that moves us on to the next section of the story.