Editor’s Choice Award June 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.

Ylodch – Under A Darkened Sun Chapter 1, Revised, by J. Rokusson

This is an interesting submission, not only in itself but for what the author says about it in the author’s note. It’s not a first draft; it’s been revised with care and attention to prior critiques. There are things it’s explicitly trying to do, and questions for the readers of the earlier draft.

I like a good author’s note. It’s a great guide to the author’s intentions, and it gives this Resident Editor some directions to take in reading the submission. Here, I’m coming in as a cold reader. I haven’t seen the first draft. All I know is what I see here.

While it’s both fun and educational to compare drafts and discuss changes, if the work is going to be published, the only person who counts is the cold reader. The person who buys the book, who doesn’t know the characters or the story. If the author or the world are familiar, there may be preconceptions and expectations. But it’s still a new book, going off in new directions.

There are some intriguing things going on here. I love the imaginary unfriend—it’s a great concept, with lots of potential as the story unfolds. I get that there’s some portal fantasy going on here, and some sorcery, and for sure some swords. Or a sword. As far as I can tell, there may also be elements of impaired memory, either absent or tampered with in some way, so that what Azran knows or thinks he knows will shift from one moment to the next.

That’s an ambitious thing to do. It demands a great deal of the author’s craft, and expects a lot of the reader as well. It certainly can be done—I’m reminded somewhat of Gene Wolfe’s Latro in Soldier of the Mist and its sequel. But it’s not easy.

As the novel goes through further rounds of revision, I have a few thoughts.

First, I don’t mind a prologue, so put me on the Pro side of that argument. Labeling an introductory chapter a prologue can be useful in that it tells the reader that this is a separate section of the narrative. It generally takes place in the past, before the time of the main plot. It may address different issues, and it will set up essential backstory. The reader will expect a shift between the prologue and the first chapter, probably in time and possibly in setting or characters as well.

I get the idea of mystery. We don’t want to be told everything at once. We like to pick up just enough to keep us turning the pages, but not so much that it bogs everything down.

At the same time, we have to have enough clarity to understand what is happening in each individual scene. Mystery is good. Confusion, not so much. It’s a delicate balance.

In this draft, Azran is pursuing an agenda set for him by an unspecified they. He has orders (which seem to shift, as does his memory); he’s following them as closely as he’s able. Something happened yesterday—we get multiple references to this prior set of events.

What this ended up doing was make me wonder why the novel starts here. Why doesn’t it begin the day before? That’s when the precipitating events seem to have happened.

There must be a reason why it’s a mystery, but as the draft is written, it’s not clear what this reason is. The repetition of they and orders and yesterday needs more polish. Each reference should illuminate a little more, add a bit of new information to what we already know. There’s some of that in the draft, but it’s still more confusing than clear.

One thing that is getting in the way of clarity is the prose. The novel is still very much in the structural phase, still figuring out how best to construct its story and develop its characters; I would tend to suggest not getting too deep into a line edit at this stage. But a couple of stylistic changes might help make the story more comprehensible to the reader.

There’s some gorgeous imagery here, but there’s also a fair bit of awkward phrasing and “if one word is good, six is even better.”

The mountain looming above him: It’s clear what the mountain is doing. No need to explain.

With the gate materialised, his orders reclaimed a sense of impending realism: I’m not sure realism means what it wants to mean here. The passive constructions, the abstract concepts, move us away from the character and slow down the action.

A similar thing happens here: the earthy smell associated with underground caves became prevalent.

And here: High on her back, wings reached towards the ceiling, and her posture suggested she moved halfway from a crouch towards leaping into the air.

Think about how to tighten, shorten, transform from passive and abstract to active and concrete. Try to avoid suggested and seemed. Commit to it; make it definite. Think immediate and direct and active.

The tendency toward the passive and the prolix insulates the reader from the character, and filters away the sense of direct experience. We’re told the story from a remove, rather than living it with him. The words get in the way of the story, and the character’s emotions flatten out. It becomes harder for us to feel what he’s feeling—and when that happens, it’s also harder to keep turning the pages. We have to care, even if we dislike him. We have to want to know what happens next, and what he’s going to do about it.

Azran’s actions play into this as well. When he dropped his knapsack without seeming to care what happened to it, I wondered why he would do that. Is he under a spell? Why doesn’t he worry about losing his supplies? What makes him trust this strange place enough to dump his belongings? Not wanting the added discomfort seems like an odd and insufficient reason.

I’m not sure why he doesn’t know what he’s carrying, or why he hasn’t looked in the box or discovered the note. Wouldn’t he have made sure he’s properly prepared before he goes on the quest? If not, why is it essential that he only discover important information while he’s in the middle of his adventure? Again, it needs to be clearer (even if some mystery still remains) who has sent him here and why. Can we get a glimpse of them? A line or two flashing back to the giving of the orders? Something about how those orders, and the means of their being conveyed, may shift magically as he tries to carry them out?

It is clear that reality shifts as Azran moves through it. Some, he’s doing himself. The rest is being done to him, and apparently it’s part of the plot—presumably to be revealed as the novel goes on. But tighter, more focused prose and closer attention to the meanings of words will help readers as they try to follow what’s happening. Give them more clarity from line to line, and they’ll embrace the mystery. They’ll want to know what it all means, and where it’s going.

— Judith Tarr

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