Editor’s Choice Award November 2023, 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.

Dragon Ships: Chapter 4 by Ewan O’Doherty

The author’s note on this chapter asks a very good question. How much exposition is too much in fantasy? Does it make a difference what kind of fantasy it is? And, by implication, when can or should the action actually begin?

This novel, we’re told, is “cozy fantasy,” which I haven’t seen before. Cozy mysteries, yes. And there used to be a whole rant against “comfy-cozy medievalism,” once upon a rather long time ago. I might, from what I see here, call this epic fantasy, which paints itself on a large and detailed canvas.

I can see that we’re in an early chapter of a leisurely adventure, with lots of worldbuilding details, and pacing that inclines more toward the easygoing than the headlong. Although it’s chapter 4, it reads as an introductory chapter. It spends much of its time filling in backstory, exploring the setting, and introducing us to a sizable cast of characters.

I can’t tell from context what happened in the previous three chapters. The chapter seems fairly self-contained: everything we need to know seems to be present. It’s not immediately clear where the action is coming from, though we get a pretty good sense of where it’s going next.

There are some lovely bits. The prose is especially evocative when it touches on sensory detail, particularly the sense of touch. The description of the three treasures, for example, brings each one to life. I get the impression that these are essential details. We’ll see a lot more of these items as the adventure continues.

“Essential details” is a key phrase here. I have a great love of thorough worldbuilding. Give me a world that’s been thought through on all levels, from the great big overriding elements to the little things that give it its distinctive flavor. I can feel the scope of it; I know that if I have questions, the author will have answers. That’s a world that’s come alive in the author’s head. It makes its own reality.

When I’m writing, especially when I’m writing fantasy, I try to abide by Harry Turtledove’s maxim: “In any given scene, a writer will know five hundred details, but they’ll only show three. Those three contain all the rest.”

Those are the essential details. From them, the reader can extrapolate. The world builds itself.

Readers of epic fantasy can be quite happy with more than three details. They’re there for the journey, which can take quite a long time to arrive at the destination. But even epic fantasy needs to move forward. The author still has to ask, Are these details essential? Are they relevant to the scene and the characters, right here and right now? Should some of them appear earlier in the story? Can I save some of them for later?

If they are essential, and they do belong at this exact point in the narrative, are they repeating themselves? Do we need to be told the same thing three or more times in the paragraph or the scene? Can the prose be pared down, and descriptions pruned from several iterations of a fact or a description, to a single one at just the right spot?

One might ask similar questions about backstory. Do we need to know the whole story right here? Can we get the part of it that is relevant, and either pick up the rest by implication, or have a little bit of mystery to keep us reading until we find out the answer?

In this chapter in particular, the pacing is slow. The author’s note acknowledges this, and promises more action later. My question is, how much of what’s here absolutely needs to be here? Do we need the full account of Ariad’s wanderings on the night before she leaves? Is it essential that we know everything she does, every item she packs, and every person she speaks to?

We know she has hours to spend and people to see, but which of them is key to what happens in the rest of the novel? How much of the backstory is essential for clarity in this chapter, and how much can be set up earlier or left for later?

The multiple references to her choice not to be a warrior can be cut down to one or two, and the rest will resonate through the story. The scene with her mother is poignant and feels important, but it could be half or a third as long, with fewer repetitions and more focused, concentrated dialogue. I was a little surprised to be told she chose to be a chronicler; the only setup for it seems to be her reflection on how dull her friend Leuala’s choice of occupation is—a scrivener, she’s called, but a chronicler, in the context I know, does pretty much the same thing. I’d like to know how they differ.

A couple of technical points might help with the pacing. First, shorter paragraphs. Break them up. Start a new paragraph as subjects and themes change. It can make a surprisingly big difference to the flow of the narrative.

Another thing to watch is the habit of viewpoint tagging: words and phrases that remind us that we’re in Ariad’s head. Words like thoughtfelt, wonderedremembered. It’s clear who’s telling us the story; we see through her eyes and feel what she feels. Try removing all the tags and see what happens. Some may need to go back in, but many of them may not. It will be clear from context, and then we the readers will feel as if we’re experiencing events directly rather than through the filter of Ariad’s internal monologue.

There’s an intriguing story here (dragons! dragonriders! yes!). With judicious pruning and selection of details, it will move faster and get us to the really cool stuff (dragonriding!) more quickly, without sacrificing worldbuilding or character development.

Best of luck with the ms., and happy revising!

— Judith Tarr


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