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.
I like the idea of this submission. It’s a nice riff on the fairy tale of the princess in the tower. Shifting it out into space and setting it in a high-tech future has the potential for some interesting and enjoyable storytelling.
The chapter as written needs some rethinking in order to work as a story. The author’s note describes it as an epistolary novel, but that is not actually what it is. An epistolary novel is an exchange of letters between two or more characters. If this were an epistolary novel, we would be reading letters written by the princess and presumably the king (or the king’s secretary), responding to each other and telling their respective stories in their own words.
The chapter presents as a proposal or detailed synopsis, a description of the story that the author wants to tell. The character exists at a remove. We’re not living the story with her; we’re being told the story by someone else.
The third-person narration could work if there were some clarification as to why the princess needs to tell her story in that way. What is she hoping to accomplish by filtering her experiences? How does the third person work in a way that first person can’t? Is she telling her story right now, or is she telling it in retrospect—as an older person looking back on what happened to her in the tower? Are her experiences too painful to tell directly? If so, we should have a hint of that, a suggestion that something is going to go wrong.
We should also be seeing more description of setting and background, and more telling of story. The diary should record dialogue and frame scenes, rather than presenting them in synopsis or summary. Even though the device of the diary presumes that we’re reading about events after the fact, we can (and should) still have some sense of direct and lived experience.
There’s another thing to think about, too. If the intended audience is young—and since the princess is eleven years old, by the rule of thumb for kids’ books, the readership would be a few years younger, say around seven or eight—if the storytelling is too indirect, young readers won’t stay with it. They’ll expect a diary to be told by the person who’s writing it, the “I” of first person. They’ll also want to know why they should want to read it. What is the story about? What does the protagonist want? What is she doing to get it? What factors are helping her, and what factors are getting in her way? What obstacles does she have to overcome in order to do what she needs to do?
I think young readers would also ask why she doesn’t have a friend, and if that’s the case, why she isn’t looking for one. She does try to turn the Blue Fairy into a kind of magical sidekick, but it seems strange that she’s so totally alone. Why can’t a robot be her friend? Enc is a possibility, but it needs to engage with her more, and have more of a personality. Or she needs to figure out how to make it develop one.
The princess reads young for eleven. An eleven-year-old is a late tween, within sight of her teens. She may already be having her period, and she may be starting to be interested in having a partner, though she probably won’t be thinking in sexual terms yet. Even if she isn’t interested, she probably will have some thoughts about it, even if they’re still the younger child’s “Eeeeuuuwww ick.”
It might help to read more widely in the middle-grade genre, to see how eleven-year-old characters are portrayed. How do they talk? What do they talk about? How do they feel about various things, especially school, parents, and peers?
Pay attention to the way the books are written, too. Voice is very important in writing for younger readers. By that I mean prose style, choice of words, the way the narrator describes the world and the people in it. The reader should be able to hear the character talking, especially in a diary. They should feel that they’re right there with the character, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling.
Study how published works in this genre tell their stories. How do they introduce their characters and settings? How do they set up the structure of the plot, and how do they move it forward from scene to scene?
Pacing is extremely important in writing for younger readers. Attention spans are shorter than older readers’. The progression of the plot should be clear and it should also be clear what the story is about, where the action comes from and where it’s headed.
In this chapter, I think shifting to first person would be a good first step. Then, opening up the synopsis into scenes with action and interaction. Write out dialogue. Give the king a voice; let him speak, and the princess will record what he said. Do the same for the mechanical inhabitants of the tower, and maybe think about giving them different ways of talking, different personalities and different voices.
Make sure we know there’s a direction to the plot. She’s in the tower, her father has shut her up there for Reasons. Maybe she could set about discovering what those reasons are. Can she start to become less submissive to her father’s wishes? Could she miss her past life more clearly? What about friends and family? Would she want to communicate with them? Would she understand why she can’t—for that matter, why can’t she? Why isn’t anyone else here with her? Why does she have to be alone? What danger is so great that no other human being can either be with her or know where she is?
There’s a lot to work with here. It begins by opening up the narrative and thinking through where it needs to go and how it needs to be told. Once that starts to happen, the story and its characters will start to come alive.
— Judith Tarr