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.
The author’s introduction to this submission addresses a question every writer has to ask when writing a series. How do we provide enough information about previous volumes to bring the new reader up to speed, while at the same making sure we keep the interest of the reader who has been following the series through previous volumes? How much is just right, and how much is too much? Where do we draw the line?
Every book and every author is different, but there are a few basic guidelines that may help. As with every opening, whether it’s volume 1 or volume 20, it should draw the reader in, and keep them turning the pages. A little exposition helps orient them to the backstory, but it should be as concise as possible, and it should be directly relevant to what’s happening in the novel’s here-and-now.
Sometimes a prologue can be useful: a flashback that sums up what came before. Most times, it’s a good idea to plunge right in, and let the backstory fill in as it becomes applicable. Front-loading the backstory tends to backfire, because the longtime reader has already seen it, and the new reader is waiting for the story to start. If they really want or need to know what happened in the previous volumes, they’ll read or reread those.
Readers are busy people, and there are literally thousands of books calling for their attention. Once they’re invested in the book, they’ll settle in for a slower ride. But at the very beginning, the writer has to convince them to make that investment.
My question about this submission would be, Is this the best place for the book to start? In many ways it’s a transitional passage. Allison and Silver are coming back from a trip to Mali. Allision touches base with her old friends and colleagues at the dolphin research center, and informs them that she’s leaving Earth with Silver. There are blocks of exposition and backstory, filling in who these people are and summing up the story to date. The latter part of the submission sets up the plot of the novel, and points us toward what is going to happen next.
If the novel proper is going to take place in space and then on Silver’s homeworld, do we need this interval on Earth? Is it important to the story that we meet each of her colleagues, and that we know what they eat and where it came from? If it is essential for story reasons, would it make sense to convey the main ideas later on in the novel, when the specific characters and events are relevant to what’s happening at the time?
Allison’s relationship with Rob for example could develop in this novel through instantaneous communications at key points in the main plot. Allison might start to miss him fiercely and we’ll get a flashback to a cherished moment; or she’ll be so pissed off about the quarrel they had before she left that she’s still seething over it days later. That way, we get to see and feel it, but it happens as part of the story we’re in now.
What would happen if the novel began, say, as Silver’s ship begins the flyby of Mars? We’d get Allison’s feelings about it, and a few key details about who she is and how she got there. Maybe a glance at Silver, seeing him now in humanoid form and a flash of him as dolphin; then maybe a quick call to Earth to show her friends what she sees, and a quick exchange with Rob that gives us a taste of how they feel about each other. They might not be speaking because he’s so upset about her leaving; one of the others might try to intercede, which nearly scuttles the experience of the flyby. And then we see how that’s resolved, or not, as the story requires.
And then on to the next important event in this novel. Events in previous novels crop up as they’re relevant to what’s happening in this one. It’s not necessary to summarize previous volumes, especially at the beginning, before the new story gets started. Concentrate on the new story, and bring in the old one when and as it’s needed for clarification.
The usual guideline for any narrative is, “Start as close to the end as you can.” This is as true for a later volume in a series as it is for the first one. Think of dropping hints about what happened before, rather than going into detail. The reader should get the gist, so as not to be confused, but their interest now is in what’s happening at this point in the timeline. They’ll be looking forward to what happens next, rather than looking backward to what happened in previous volumes.
Best of luck with this novel and this series, and happy revising!
— Judith Tarr