Editor’s Choice Award March 2021, 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.

Maggie And The Weretrees, Prologue and Chapter 1 by Elizabeth Underwood

I love the title of this submission. It has a sprightliness to it that I find appealing, and the idea of weretrees is intriguing. Most shapeshifter novels give us animal forms. Humans who shift into trees is an unusual variation.

This opening chapter sketches enough of the story to give me a sense of what it’s about and how it will develop. The structure of the world comes through: the existence of supernatural creatures and, of course, shifters, who apparently live in the human community without needing to hide what they are. There are still limits to human belief, but the different species for the most part knowingly coexist.

As for the chapter itself, first let me emphasize that there is no wrong way to write an early draft. Every author’s process is different. However the words get on the page, what matters is that they do.

Revision is where the author’s individual process adapts itself to the wider world. At this stage, for this particular chapter, I have a few suggestions.

The author’s note mentions visuals and descriptions. I would have liked the physical description and some of the background of Nikhila at the beginning of the chapter rather than the end. Who she is, where she comes from, that she’s quite young and small for a dragon, that her wings have been damaged and that her office is has room enough to fly—all these things could be sketched in a few lines soon after we meet her. That would let us see as well as hear her, and help us understand what Maggie and Oliver are seeing and hearing as they interact with her.

In this draft, there’s quite a bit of what I call “floating heads:” dialogue with little or no framing, just the words spoken. A little more stage business, more action and reaction, tone, expression, would fill out the conversations and give us, again, a clearer sense of who the characters are and what their personalities are like. How do their voices sound? What are characteristic gestures and expressions?

There’s a tendency to break up the speeches with chunks of exposition and backstory. These interpolations are useful to the author in the draft, as notes and synopsis, but the reader gets bumped out of the story, and often out of the conversation. We then have to go back and reread in order to follow the discussion.

Nikhila’s history, Maggie’s background, the details of the world and the characters, are interesting in themselves, but some questions to ask each time are:

Is this directly relevant to what’s happening right here and now?

Does it move the story forward, or does the story stop for the explanation or the exposition?

Is there a smoother or more seamless way to convey the information here?

Should it show up earlier, or can it be filled in later in the narrative?

In short: Where is the most effective place for these details to appear?

Once Oliver has met with Nikhila and Maggie, the action slows down. Maggie loses focus and purpose, and so as a result does the story. The narrative turns to synopsis and backstory, rather than to characters moving the story forward, interacting with each other in new and informative ways, and showing us more of who they are.

When Maggie calls the artifacts dealers, give us one or two examples that sum up the rest. Let us see and hear the interactions. She might fiddle with the tarot cards during one of these conversations, then after she’s hung up, draw the Death card. That would tighten and focus the scene and concentrate on the most relevant details: the lack of information, the significant card.

I would save the details about Eion for the scene in which Maggie goes to see him. Let their relationship and its background emerge there, as she and Eion interact. All we need to know in this chapter is that she and Eion have history, and that’s one of the reasons why Nikhila delegates the job to her.

Likewise, Nikhila’s history and her relationship with the Cast looks as if it will play a part in the larger story, but is it relevant here? Do we need it at that point in order to understand what is going on? Or can we wait for a later chapter, and keep our focus on Maggie and the weretrees?

As for the question of viewpoint, I don’t think we need Oliver’s point of view in this chapter. We get it in the prologue, which is where, as the author’s note observes, he’s the one suffering the pain. In the first chapter of the narrative proper, framing and grounding the dialogue will give us a clearer picture of how Oliver feels, without needing to shift viewpoint. We’ll see and hear it as Maggie does, bolstered by what we know of what happened that night in the grove. Maggie may not pick up everything that’s going on, but we will, because we’ve spent that time in Oliver’s head.

–Judith Tarr

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