Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Revelations Chapter 1 by Liam Soffe

I like the idea of this novel. I love the range and variety of aliens that share the universe. There’s so much potential here for developing characters and cultures, and building cooperation and conflict.

When the draft comes closer to final, I would suggest a thorough and careful copyedit. Make sure the words mean what they want to mean. Pay attention to the bits and bobs of spelling and grammar and syntax—dangling phrases, you’re for your and vice versa, punctuation and paragraphing and all those nitpicky essentials.

In the meantime, I was particularly struck by the author’s comment that the novel “needs more soul.” I take that to mean that it needs more depth and layering of emotions, and stronger character development. More sense overall of people being people, living and breathing and moving together and apart through a complex universe.

The draft makes a good start on these things. Focusing on Wiltar at first and then shifting to Yindi allows the reader to see events from two very different perspectives. I like that we start with a small person, literally and figuratively, before we shift to one of the senior officers.

I have questions about Wiltar. What species is he? Is he Ariol? I don’t know why I thought he might be human—maybe that’s my innate human bias showing. I wondered as I read, how and why he came onto the ship, and how he could have been there for as long as he has without receiving any apparent training or, despite his having been in multiple engagements in some capacity, being aware of the ritual with daggers and the prisoners. If he has no training, what is he doing in armor and apparently serving as part of a fighting unit? How has he achieved that status despite being extremely small, young, and uneducated?

His scenes are potentially quite powerful. In revision I might think about pruning the prose considerably. Note how often the same thing gets said two or more times:

He had survived! His first boarding and he had lived.

A child. It must be a child.

…these Traluians were scared and their eyes were alive with pink veins flashing across them and their flat noses opened and closed rapidly. They were panicking.

Repetition can be effective if used sparingly, but in general it makes for clearer, crisper prose to cut out the duplications. In the last example particularly, the first sentence does a great job of getting the point across. It’s clear they’re panicking. We don’t need the extra explanation.

Think too about shifting passive verb constructions to active. This is especially true in action scenes. Short, active sentences and paragraphs speed up the pacing and heighten the tension.

I would also suggest rethinking a couple of things about how characters present themselves to the reader. The first is what I call viewpoint tagging. These are all the little reminders that we are seeing the story through the eyes of a particular character. Words like thought and saw and heard and knew.

While it is important to establish the viewpoint, as with pretty much everything else about writing, a little goes a pretty fair distance. A character’s viewpoint can come through in more subtle ways: focusing on one character, showing how they move through the space, what they’re doing, how they see the world around them—not just by telling us they see it, but by giving us their camera angle so to speak. If we see clearly through a character’s eyes, we don’t need regular reminders. We’re right there, living in their head. We think the way they think, use their vocabulary, react to things and people the way they would.

One thing to watch here is a habit that writers tend to fall into, which is to present a character’s thoughts as a series of rhetorical questions.

Was that enough? If he froze or was killed and blocked the corridor would the fourteen crewmen in front of him be enough to storm a Traluvian battleship?

Was this an apprentice like Wiltar? Did the Trivs even have such a thing[?]

Some questions may make sense in context, but whole series of them slow down the story. There may be other, more active ways to get the information across, maybe through action and reaction, maybe through actual dialogue between characters. Or maybe just by making a simple declarative statement: If he froze or was killed, the rest of the unit would have to do the job without him; maybe this was an apprentice, if the Trivs had such a thing.

It might help the novel’s emotional affect to think about the way non-viewpoint characters appear in the narrative. There are a number of vivid personalities here already, notably Nux and Shint and Kesh, but there are quite a few generic characters as well. We’re missing a sense of Wiltar’s unit as a group of individuals.

He must know them well if he’s (presumably) trained with them, but we only see Nux as a distinct personality. While there’s no time or space to get to know every single person on the ship, we can catch a glimpse here than there—give us a name or a characteristic or a very brief description in place of “a crewman.” Even a word or a short phrase can bring the character alive without slowing down the action or adding to the word count.

I wonder if it might be worthwhile to recast the opening to show the unit waiting in ambush together rather than separately, or if their hiding in individual tiny spaces is essential to the battle plan, to put Wiltar together with a mentor or buddy of sorts. Nux seems like a possible candidate here. This would move the opening sequence out of Wiltar’s head, make it more active (and interactive) and less introspective. It might speed it up, too, if we pick up some or all of the exposition through some quick verbal and physical byplay between the veteran and the kid. Then along with tighter prose and more active action scenes, the whole chapter will pull us swiftly into Chapter Two.

–Judith Tarr

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