Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Girl Who Died In The Mud (Chapter 2 of Unnamed Novel) by Oliver Benedict Charles Townsend

This chapter has some wonderful things going on. The language and the imagery are so rich, the worldbuilding detailed and immersive. It’s the work of a writer in love with words, skilled in wielding them, and deeply invested in their world and characters.

Epic fantasy is a good choice of genres for a writer who loves to write rich, leisurely prose. There’s plenty of scope there, and plenty of room for a deep dive into the minutiae of the world.

However, even the epic needs a certain degree of forward movement from scene to scene. There is movement here, and we can see the key event of the chapter as it happens: Nerys’ departure from Daeron and arrival at the Four Queens.

We do not see the precipitating event, the reason why Nerys is alone and desperate and looking for sanctuary. Presumably it’s in the previous chapter, but the way the opening sequence is written, it reads like an introduction to a new character. We’re shown the god’s-eye view of Nerys in the storm, then we narrow down to her viewpoint, and are told how she lost her sleeves, an event that happened weeks before. If we had already met her, we would know this; we wouldn’t need the explanation. We’d be told that she’s really regretting her lost sleeves tonight, and we, as readers from the beginning, would know how and when she lost them. Then we could move on to the immediate problem to be solved.

If she is a character we know already, and we’ve seen her do whatever she did to end up in this predicament, then the chapter needs to be tied in more clearly to its predecessor. More sense of following on from an earlier set of information. A phrase or two that points us back to the previous chapter.

If we haven’t met her yet, the structure of the story may require some rethinking. Something important has happened, but we haven’t seen it. What we see here is a part of a larger whole, and the rest has happened offstage.

Either way, when my eye moves past the gorgeous prose to the bones of the scene, I’m looking for more cowbell. More clear and present reason for her to make the decision she makes. A stronger driving force, apart from rain and insufficient clothing—she’s been dealing with the latter for weeks. Is this the first bad storm since the brawl? Has she tried to find replacement clothes, a blanket, a discarded sheet, something? Why hasn’t she tried, or why hasn’t she succeeded? What makes it all happen right here, and specifically now?

Prose stylists (and I am one, and struggle with this every time, every story or novel) have a strong tropism toward words and imagery, and a weaker one toward plot and structure. What tends to happen is that the words weave in and through and around each other, and the images pile up and up, and the words and phrases will echo and re-echo, but the underlying framework of story may lose itself a bit. In this chapter, in all the wonderful imagery, not a lot actually happens. What does happen, as I noted, is missing some underpinnings, whether a reference to earlier scenes or the actual scenes themselves.

A particular stylistic habit contributes to this. In small doses it can be quite effective, but when it becomes the main driver of the prose, it becomes somewhat counterproductive. That habit, along with the ongoing, sometimes multiple repetitions of the same word or phrase, ends up stalling the movement of the plot.

Take note of how many negative constructions there are in the chapter. Time and again, rather than stating a thought or an action directly, the prose talks about what wouldn’t, what isn’t, what’s not. Try turning these constructions around and transforming them into positive and active; and try stating them once, rather than repeating and recasting and offering alternative images. See what happens when the prose is pared and tightened.

Some of it will probably want to go back to its previous form. And that’s a fine thing. It’s part of the richness of the style. But some of the changes may make for more focused and intense storytelling. The plot may move more quickly, and the characters’ motivations, the reasons for their actions and the consequences that follow, may come through more strongly.

Best of luck in any case, and do keep the love of words and the depth of the worldbuilding. That’s strong and beautiful. It just needs a little polish, and some pruning here and there.

–Judith Tarr

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