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.
What Wizards Do by Elizabeth King
“What Wizards Do” caught my attention this month with its understated mix of classic fantasy tropes, teenaged restlessness, and a system opening its doors just briefly for a way out. There’s an ennui at its centre that feels very much like whiling away your life in a small town, punctuated by limited choices and some very real dread. However, there’s work to do here: it’s a piece full of ideas that doesn’t always begin or finish them. So this month, I’d like to talk about how we set up ideas or themes in our work, and what the life cycle of an idea is in a story.
“What Wizards Do” opens strong. Othai and Kerol’s predicament puts an instant, interesting twist on the trope of an isolated village sacrificing teenagers to the local dragon. It’s a fun—and powerful—contrast to meet them both in the middle of their utter failure to get Othai pregnant and potentially save her life; an opening that brings the universe of wizards, dragons, and bandits straight down to earth. And it’s a universe that feels fresh again when it’s seen through their restless, anxious eyes.
The opening scene quickly introduces Othai and Kerol’s village, the wizard, and their characters in clean strokes: Othai’s squeamish and shame-laced but pragmatic attempts to get pregnant to dodge the dragon, despite what reads like asexuality, and Kerol’s more passive, eager personality. Ernst’s perpetual awkwardness with his own semi-corrupt authority plays out well, and the village holds up as the kind of place that calls a wagon a palisade gate.
However, as the piece continues through a fascination with the wizard, a bandit attack, and some mutual sexual threat, aspects of “What Wizards Do” start to drop and flicker: feeling disjointed, diffuse, or unorganized. And universally, it’s in moments where ideas are raised but not connected to their later development—or where ideas are presented as payoff, as resolution, but were never initially raised.
For example: Kerol and Othai’s fascination with the wizard is persistent and visible on the page through their actions, but persistently comes across as a buried motivation. They both just happen to drift places; they just happen to feel funny in his presence—whether that’s by magic or recognizing another way to live. When “What Wizards Do” raises the question directly, the story waves it away as them not having anything better to do. But in the middle of a story that’s so thick with competing—and driving—motivations, it’s hard to believe, and feels hollow. The question of their motivations isn’t connected to the density of the motivations around them.
Likewise, Othai’s avoidance of the boys in her village becomes a little too coincidental. There’s an atmosphere of sexual threat that only kicks in for both Othai and Kerol when it’s mentioned by Ernst, as if it hadn’t existed before. If everyone who lives there is aware of the terms of the sacrifice, and the town’s full of horny teenaged boys, it would have already been before it’s mentioned. The atmosphere of the town before that conversation isn’t connected to the atmosphere afterward.
When the battle with the bandits does come, it is anti-climactic—for me as a reader as well as the characters, and unfortunately, putting it on the page doesn’t correct the readerly impression. There’s not much buildup to the event from the request for help to its start, and there aren’t many consequences after; it feels like something of an isolated incident, rather than a turning point in the story itself.
In a smaller way: I found myself unsure if the song Kerol mentions the wizard singing is something that’s been previously cut. Kerol’s calling back to an idea, expanding it to find out what it means, but the idea’s never been presented for readers, so the way he talks about it only evokes the feeling of having missed something.
The question of “the kind of thing a wizard would do” is signaled as important—enough to build into the title!—but it comes up once, and then disappears, not playing a part again.
I had noticed that other workshopper critiques on “What Wizards Do” mentioned confusion and vagueness, and some of that is, I think, down to these bits of information. It’s these linkages, connections, setups, and payoffs that are missing throughout “What Wizards Do”: the connective tissue, thoughtful development, and reminders of older ideas that make a story more than a collection of vignettes. And to correct that—and tie “What Wizards Do” together clearly—it’s important to think about how readers organize information.
While it’s not exactly mandatory, thinking in threes is a standard way to structure ideas, themes, and motifs: an introduction, some development (this is how this concept’s growing or changing because of what’s going on), and a conclusion or payoff. If an idea—that there’s a kind of thing wizards do, that there’s an external threat to the village—is important to the story, it’s worth making sure it at minimum goes through those three phases.
What we’re doing when we start with this basic structure is showing where the situation started (Othai is trying to get pregnant because she’s afraid of being fed to the dragon), how that situation changes because of the events of the story (meeting the wizard gives Othai and Kerol another idea about authority and power), and a conclusion (Othai and Kerol feel empowered to leave the village and join the wizards). It’s the basic, skeletal structure of how we show characters and situations changing.
With an already-written story where several elements are missing one of those steps, the approach has to go a little differently. A great way to diagnose where ideas aren’t starting or finishing is to make a scene-by-scene chart: what new ideas are introduced in each scene, what new ideas are paid off, what ideas are developed to where. It’s a way to map the gaps in that simple message of “it started like this, but it changed because of this, and now it’s like this.” Then we’re capable of finding ways to fill them. Asking “What can happen here—or how can this happen differently—to start, continue, or finish an idea?” can be a good guide for revising.
There’s a lot going on in this piece, a lot of it very interesting, tucked-away, rich, and tonal. I think with a little work and a few revisions—at least one to get those structural developments of ideas complete, and then one to manage the information it leaves you so it’s not too obvious, and not too subtle—it’s possible to arrange all the textured information, subtexts, worldbuilding, and personalities in “What Wizards Do” to make a really interesting, lush, touching story.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)