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.
When we think of “critique,” we tend to think in terms of finding the faults in a ms. and making suggestions as to how to fix them. That’s a good and worthy process, but I think it can be valuable to point to what’s right, too. We can learn from what’s done well, even if we’re the ones doing it. “Do more of this” is as valuable a suggestion as “This could work better if….”
The author of this chapter talks in their brief note about how they haven’t been working their writing much lately. I’d like to encourage them to continue, but not to stress about the schedule. Just keep on, and keep doing what they’re doing here.
Two things particularly impress me about the submission. It’s not an opening chapter, but it’s easy enough to see what’s happened just prior to it. One reason for that is the way in which the author balances exposition and explanation with action and reaction.
It’s a delicate balance in any work of fiction, to convey enough information to fill the reader in on what they need to know, but not so much that it bogs down the movement of the plot. It helps in this case that the novel is a murder mystery: the conventions of the genre allow a considerable amount of exposition, both in narrative and in dialogue. But even with this relative license-to-explain, the explanations are a pleasure. They’re well written, thorough without tipping over into tedium.
The settings and descriptions work equally well and for the same reasons. The imagery is clear and vivid. The choice and ordering of details makes the action richer and deepens the reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.
The other thing that strikes me is the mastery of dialogue. I often note in edits (my own as well as others’) that it’s easy to fall into a habit of what one of my editors used to call “floating heads.” Characters talk in empty space, without framing or stage business. Lines of dialogue zip past, but it’s hard to tell where or when it’s happening or what the characters are doing while they talk.
Here, there are fairly extensive passages of dialogue without frame or tags. But the speakers are distinct from one another, both in the way they speak and in what they say to each other. The framing before and after as well as the setup and winding down of the scene establishes who-what-when-where.
The result is a sense of rapid movement through the untagged bits, with flashes of personality and bits of new or expanded information flying past. The slowing down for framing and exposition serves as a respite, a breathing space, a chance to fill in details before the next burst of dialogue.
This ability to balance different modes of narrative makes for a very nice reading experience. The pacing is brisk when it needs to be, more relaxed in between. We learn a considerable amount of new information, without being overwhelmed by it. We also learn what kind of people the characters are, both Harris herself and the people we see through her eyes.
It’s well done. I encourage this author to keep on with their writing, on whatever schedule and at whatever speed works for them. The results are worth it.
— Judith Tarr