Editor’s Choice Award January 2022, 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.

Gold To Black by Ella Scott

Before I begin, I want to be clear about one thing. There is no such thing as a bad first (or early) draft. Nor is there any wrong way to write it. However the words get on the page, that’s the right way for the individual writer. Or to put it more concisely: Just get the words down. Worry about the rest later.

When “later” is is equally individual. Some writers work best if they write a section (a page, a scene, a chapter) and then go back and revise it. Others will write the whole thing, often multiple times from different directions, before it’s time to cut and prune and shape the story.

This submission has the feel, for me, of an early draft. It’s still finding its balance. The author’s note with the pitch tells me what the writer wants to do. The idea is clear to me, and gives me a hint of how the story will evolve.

It’s a strong idea. It turns a favorite trope on its head, and expands the reader’s perception by showing us not only how the central character sees the world, but also how others see her. This adds depth to the concept, and rounds it out in potentially interesting ways.

Since the expressed intention is to write for publication, there are a few things that may need to be done on the way to the final draft. The prose in this draft is strangely compelling. The rhythms, the word choices, the organization of sentences, are unusual and often nonstandard.

Because they are so unusual, the writer will have to balance their natural style and the needs or demands of the broader market. Most readers in my experience want a seamless connection between themselves and the story. They don’t want the words to get in the way.

Readers who embrace more complex writing will enjoy the challenge of less transparent prose. Writing for such readers can be a joy, but in some ways they’re much more demanding than the “just the story, please” readers. They ask the writer to be fully aware of every detail: every word, every phrase, every nuance of structure and syntax and punctuation. Non-standard words and usages have to read as intentional. If a word is used in a way that may seem “wrong” to the hypothetical high-school English teacher, the writer should be aware of that, and even more challenging, to make it clear to the reader that they know what they’re doing.

That means making sure all the words are the right words for the style and the story. Just to take one example from the very beginning, is sauntered what Elias really did at that moment? Would he move like that, with that emotional implication? If he would, how can the passage clarify the discrepancy between the word and the apparent context?

That’s the sort of question to ask at the line-edit stage, for every word and every line. The writer should make clear to the reader that they meant to do that. They know what words usually mean, and they’re making a conscious choice to depart from that meaning.

Another thing to think about in revision is the order of ideas. That’s how I read the author’s question about proving better descriptions for a reader. If “descriptions” means setting, character, action, exposition—all the elements that move a story forward—then one of the first priorities is to make sure these elements proceed in an internally consistent fashion.

The timeline does not need to be strictly linear. Characters’ thoughts and perceptions can weave in and out as the scene develops. They will see what they want or need to see, in the order in which they need to see it. They might see the mountains above the plain, and only see the elephant charging toward them after that, if their mind is on the place they’re traveling to rather than the place they’re in at the moment.

But again, as with using words in unusual ways, the apparent failure to see what’s immediately present instead of what’s distant and less relevant, has to read as if it’s meant to be that way. What this usually means, in order of ideas as well as in word choice, is that the writer will demonstrate their ability to do things the usual way, and do it so well that when they depart from the usual, the reader knows it’s a deliberate choice. Most of the narrative will proceed in a more or less linear fashion. Characters will tell their story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. If the story gets convoluted, or events happen out of chronological order, the reader will see the reasoning behind it: the rationale for turning events or exposition or descriptions inside out.

In this submission, section 4 particularly might be untangled for the purposes of revision. Set up the chronological order of what Elias does. Trace his movements in a linear fashion, from arrival to sleep. Then work in the exposition where it is most directly relevant.

The location of Arrone for example might be relevant at the beginning, to establish the where of the scene and then place Elias in it. At that point, establish who he is, what he’s there for, and why he’s the first to arrive. In the process, the reader will learn what the Coven is and how they dress, which leads logically to the description of Elias’ marks of rank and position. Once the reader has that information, they can move with Elias through the city, see what he sees as he sees it, and at the end, settle with him into his room.

That’s just one way to set up the scene. It’s perhaps the most conventional way, but since it’s so early on in the narrative, it can help the reader to appreciate that the writer knows what they’re doing. That they can follow traditional rules of narrative, even if they go on later to turn those rules inside out. A writer can do pretty much anything at all once they’ve won the reader’s trust—but first they have to win it.

In short: The idea is strong and the characters and the world have considerable potential. The rest is knowing when to follow rules and how to bend or break them.

— Judith Tarr


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