Editor’s Choice Award October 2021, 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.

Distant Stars Chapters 1-3 by Stephan George

This submission has an intriguing idea: people space-traveling virtually or telepathically when they can’t do so physically. The execution needs some work and some rethinking of how story works. What is here is primarily a form of synopsis, what the author’s note is calling exposition. It is that, but it’s also a summary, and a form of notes on worldbuilding.

The rules of writing are like the Pirates’ Code. They’re really just…guidelines. However, when a writer is learning their craft, or working on developing it, it can be useful to accept the challenge of a set of rules. Synopsis and exposition, for example, can be effective if they’re done well, but as with most aspects of the craft, a little goes a long way.

Here I would present the challenge to avoid synopsis and exposition, to find other, more direct and immediate ways to tell the story. The reader should feel as if they are experiencing events with the characters. Let us see and hear and engage our emotions in what’s going on. When there’s a passage of exposition, think about how to turn it into the lived experience of a character. Let the character act and react. Show us how they feel, what they see, what the world is like for them.

Dialogue is a particularly good place to practice transforming synopsis into story. It’s often misunderstood as a means of conveying exposition, but what it really is is a combination of character development through engagement and interaction, and movement of the story forward both in what the characters tell each other, and how they tell it. There’s a further problem for the writer, in that really good fictional dialogue doesn’t resemble real-world dialogue at all.

In the real world, most of what we say is filler. It’s stock phrases and conversational white noise—hello, how are you, I’m fine, what do you think of the weather. It doesn’t contain much if any information. It’s like background music: it fills up the silence.

Fictional dialogue is a very different animal. A skilled writer can turn filler into art. But a writer who is learning the craft has to learn to write dialogue first without filler. Whatever the characters say to each other, along with the choice of venue for the conversation and the “stage business” of action and reaction that surrounds it and serves as a frame for it, has to be directly relevant to what’s going on with the story at that particular point. It has to show the personality of each speaker, and it has to move the story forward.

In this submission, for example, the encounter between Arax and Darium consists almost entirely of filler. In real life, yes, they would go through the formulae of greeting and conversational throat-clearing, but a novel is the good-parts version. It zeroes in on what’s immediately relevant to the story. It lets the reader assume that the filler happens without actually having to devote bandwidth to it.

The reader is a tough customer. Their time is limited and the world is full of stories. If the novel in hand does not get to the story quickly enough, or if it circles around the story without actually getting into it, the reader goes away.

The writer’s job is to keep the reader reading. To keep the pages turning. And that means giving the reader the good parts, the chewy bits, the things that move the story forward—and trusting the reader to fill in the things that aren’t relevant right then and there.

It’s a delicate balance between telling the reader enough to avoid confusion and therefore frustration, and not telling them so much that they get lost in minutiae. The writer has to develop the skill of choosing scenes that develop the story and the characters, and choosing the details within those scenes that best convey the information that the writer wants the reader to know.

The conversation between Arax and Darium is our first meeting with either of them. What we need to know here is something of their relationship to each other, both personal and professional. We also need to know why this conversation exists in the narrative. What purpose does it serve? How does it move the story forward? And the toughest question: Does it need to exist at this point in the novel? Does it need to exist at all? Or can the story begin with Arax’s arrival in the Transport Tower? Is there anything in the conversation that can’t be conveyed in a later and more compact scene?

The same applies to the conversations between Taia and Flavia. How much of what they say to each other is relevant to the story right then and there? Are there other things they could be talking about? Might the progression of the story be clearer if they said more about where they’re going and why, and what is going to happen there?

We do get a sense of the characters from their gossip, but we might also benefit from further layers of emotion in both Taia’s internal reactions and Flavia’s external ones. Can we get more of a sense of how they feel about each other, and about what’s happening today? Can we go deeper into Taia’s feelings?

It’s not a matter of adding word count so much as of making every word count. If we dispense with the filler, there’s lots of space for the good parts: thoughts, feelings, emotional and physical reactions. A skiller writer can convey a tremendous amount in a few words. A look, a gesture, a physical reaction. Maybe Taia’s head hurts or her hands are cold or she’s twitching inside; maybe she feels she has to be there, but she hates it. Maybe she wishes she had the courage to refuse, or to walk out. (Or is that not allowed? Is this event compulsory? Can she stay away, or can she leave?)

The more direct and immediate the story is, the more engaged the reader becomes. Then they’ll be drawn in, and they won’t want to leave until they turn the last page—and they’ll be sad that it’s over. Always leave them wanting more. That’s as solid a rule as you’ll find in the Pirates’ Code.

–Judith Tarr

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