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All the King’s Editors—Ray Rhamey

Ray’s post today is part of the “All the King’s Editors” series in which WU contributors will edit manuscript pages submitted by members of the larger WU community and discuss the proposed changes. This educational format is intended to generate useful comments on what changes work, which may not work as well, and in either case, why.

The posts will appear on WU ~twice monthly. Each participating editor will have a unique approach, and speak only for him or herself. If you’re interested in submitting a sample for consideration, click HERE for instructions.

Ray’s regularly scheduled March Flog a Pro post will be this Sunday, the 18th.

* * * * *

As an avid science fiction reader for most of my reading life, and as an author of science fiction and fantasy, it was fun to help a writer with this sci-fi narrative. There’s some wonderful imagining going on here, and a truly unique world being created.

However, this writer has had the work out on submission and reports this reaction:

Agents have noted difficulty in connecting with the MC/story. I wonder if this is not helped by some narrative choices I’ve made; the first sentence is in omni, and over the course of the first couple of pages I try to transition to close third.

Because the editing and comments that follow chop up the narrative in a way that makes it unreadable, here is the submission untouched to give you a sense of what we’re dealing with. This is how the story opens:

* * *

I. Individuals of a society are not born equal.

II. If individuals are not equal, then to treat them with equality is to inflict on them an injustice.

III. If imposing equality on individuals is unjust, then any society founded on the principles of equality must be an unjust society.

IV. Therefore, a just society must be an unequal society.

— from ‘The Pillars of Law’

#

On the island of Fallen Bells where no birds ever land, Nefrál drifted through the boiling rain along a barren stretch of beach.

Most Calaani spent rainrise standing together in companionable silence. Nefrál preferred to walk alone, often backwards, to watch her footprints fill with water. She hunted for white seashells, but found only blue—and contemplated whether there would be a beach of any kind when she went to her exile, in less than a year’s time.

The downpour limned every flawed feature: hands too large for elegance, shoulders too narrow for strength, and skin the colour of wet sand. She had neither the pearlescent eyes nor cerulean complexion for which the Calaani were known, bearing instead all the hallmarks of an anomaly. Sometimes her appearance still bothered her, but on the whole Nefrál had found it easier to change her feelings than her skin.

When rainrise finished, Nefrál wrung out her tattered clothes, gave her damp hair a shake, and ran with clumsy feet to the drudges’ shelter where she lived, having no place among her own kind. The metallic dome sat halfway between shore and cliff-side, windowless and brightly painted in uneven shades of red. The drudges spilled out of the shelter to attend their daily jobs, now that the rain—so deadly to them—had cleared off.

Nefrál stepped between the rush of grey-clad figures to look for Mythala, who she found by following the sound of arguing.

Three other drudges, umber-skinned in contrast to Mythala’s dark-green hues, arraigned in a semi circle. One of them shouted a stream of words. The heated discussion stopped as Nefrál approached; angry eyes dropped earthwards, and they slunk off. Anomaly or not, Nefrál was still Calaani. Sort of.

“Problem?” She glanced at the retreating figures.

“Na.” Mythala’s own glower dissipated into a crooked grin. Her scarlet crest of feathers flattened, resting against dark hair. “Just Learim and his louts, pickin’ a row with me. Like ever. Y’ scared ’em off.”

“I won’t always be here,” Nefrál said. Her exile was something she thought about a lot these days. “Learim will be, though. For at least as long as you.”

“Well, y’ here right now, and he’s not,” Mythala said, with her usual practicality. “Where we off to, anyways?”

Nefrál didn’t have anywhere to go, and exploration had lost its allure with age and familiarity on an island so small. But she and Mythala went anyway, veering off from the shelter to clamber along the northern shoreline, amidst the lichen and seagrass which grew rife.

Midway round the eastern side, the curving line of the coast became ragged, jutting forth at odd angles. When the tide was high, there was no beach at all, only the ocean breaking against sheer cliffs. The tide was rising now. Mythala stood on the thin scrap of shore to keep her feet dry, gazing south, while Nefrál hunted for starfish and crabs among the shallow waves.

A Calaani youth ran round the curve of jutting cliff, who Nefrál knew vaguely by sight. Amur was alone and bare to the waist, a sheen of sweat on dark blue skin, and a multitude of dark braids tied back from his face.

Nefrál didn’t see him in time, and he didn’t see her at all.

They collided hard. Amur fell into the brine; she fell against the cliff-face, knocking her head. A spot of darkness grew in her vision and then—

* * *

Okay, let’s dig in.

I think the author has identified the root of the problem. I’ll comment on that after getting some editing out of the way. For me, there are clarity and pacing issues that need to be dealt with. I’m aiming at tightening the narrative into a more clear, smoother flow. And at creating ways to increase a connection with the protagonist.

I’ve highlighted areas of concern with yellow and used red to show insertions. The rest of the mark-up is self-explanatory.

I. Individuals of a society are not born equal.

II. If individuals are not equal, then to treat them with equality is to inflict on them an injustice.>

III. If imposing equality on individuals is unjust, then any society founded on the principles of equality must be an unjust society.

Therefore, a just society must be an unequal society.

— from ‘The Pillars of Law’

This kind of information may have to do with themes, but it isn’t story. As a reader, I usually skip this kind of material because I know it’s not the story. And you’re using up seven lines of narrative on the first page with information that isn’t what I’m here for. I would delete this, find another way to include it later.

#

On the island of Fallen Bells where no birds ever land, Nefrál drifted through the boiling rain along a barren stretch of beach.

Most Calaani spent rainrise standing together in companionable silence. Nefrál preferred to walk alone, often backwards, to watch her footprints fill with water.  She hunted for white seashells, but found only blueShe contemplated whether there would be a beach of any kind when she went to her exile, in less than a year’s time. Her walking backwards is a nice little tidbit of character worth keeping, but hunting for shells doesn’t move the story, so it goes.

A larger issue here is what does she feel about her coming exile. She’s just thinking about it? Why not include a hint of emotion here: Is she afraid of it? Looking forward to it? Could it be both anticipation of gaining freedom and fear of facing the unknown or a known danger? What are the stakes/dangers she knows are associated with being exiled? I think I would be feeling fear, and if she does, I can connect with that.

Thoughtstarter: Writer, forgive me for injecting things here that may not exist in your story, they’re just meant as “how-to” notions.

Dread infected her thoughts as she contemplated whether there would be a beach of any kind when she went to her exile in less than a year’s time. It warred with a nervous excitement whenever she thought of it as escaping.

The downpour limned every flawed feature: hands too large for elegance, shoulders too narrow for strength, and skin the colour of wet sand. She had neither the pearlescent eyes nor cerulean complexion for which the Calaani were known, bearing instead all the hallmarks of an anomaly. Sometimes her appearance still bothered her, but on the whole Nefrál had found it easier to change her feelings than her skin.

Save this descriptive material for later, it doesn’t affect story now. It’s also far outside of a close third pov, in which a character would not be thinking of such things. I think it’s this narrative distance that’s interfering with connecting with the character. To do that, I feel you need to immerse the reader into a character’s experiences. We need to feel her.

When rainrise finished, Nefrál wrung out her tattered clothes, gave her damp hair a shake, and ran  with clumsy feet to the drudges’ shelter where she lived, having no place among her own kind. The metallic dome sat halfway between shore and cliff-side, windowless and brightly painted in uneven shades of red. Now that the rain so deadly to the drudges had cleared off, the drudges they spilled out of the shelter to attend to their daily jobs, now that the rain—so deadly to them—had cleared off.

The reference to clumsy feet also distances the reader from the character’s experience. It occurs to me that she is already exiled. Can this be a part of her earlier thinking? I rearranged the clauses in the last sentence to lead the reader from cause to effect instead of explaining the effect after the fact: it’s the ending of the rain that causes them to come out.

Nefrál stepped between the rush of grey-clad figures to look for Mythala, who she found by following the sound of arguing.

Why would she believe that following the sound of arguing would lead her to Mythala and no one else? Is Mythala usually embroiled in arguments? Can you give a hint of what Mythala means to her? Is she her one friend among the drudges? If so, why not include that?

Thoughtstarter: Nefrál stepped between the rush of grey-clad figures, hoping to find Mythala. This gives an emotional coloring that simply looking can’t.

Three other drudges, umber-skinned in contrast to Mythala’s dark-green hues, arraignedaligned in a semicircle semi circle. One of them shouted a stream of words. The heated discussion stopped as Nefrál approached; angry eyes dropped earthwards, and they slunk off. Anomaly or not, Nefrál was still Calaani. Sort of.

Regarding “umber” as a descriptive word—it’s not an everyday kind of word, and I had to step out of the story for a moment to sorta come up with what that color is—some kind of brown—but it was still a little vague. I think it would give the reader a clearer visual with more descriptive language, such as reddish-brown. RE “arraigned:” I suspect you meant “aligned” rather than “arraigned,” which refers to a court action or an appeal. RE semi circle: My dictionary says semicircle is one word. RE: “discussion:” One person shouting a stream of words does not a discussion make. Also, why not include the words so we’ll have an idea of what’s going on? Or delete the reference to a discussion. RE how the drudges react to her: How does she feel about the dropped eyes and slinking off? Good, glad that they show the respect due a Calaani, even a sort-of one? Or does this create a feeling of isolation? RE angry eyes dropping earthward: eyes don’t do that, but gazes can. I know what you mean, but it still isn’t good practice to describe eyes as falling out of faces.

Thoughtstarter: here’s a suggestion for condensing and clarifying her search for and finding of Mythala:

Nefrál stepped between the rush of grey-clad figures, hoping to find Mythala. She discovered her facing a semicircle of drudges, her dark green skin contrasting with their reddish-brown hue. One of the drudges, Learim, spewed a stream of words at her. He shut down when Nefrál approached. They dropped their angry gazes earthwards, and they slunk off. Anomaly or not, Nefrál was still Calaani. Sort of.

“Problem?” She glanced at the retreating figures.

“Na.” Mythala’s own glower dissipated into a crooked grin that sparked a smile in Nefrál. Her Mythala’s scarlet crest of feathers flattened, resting against dark hair. “Just Learim and his louts,  pickin’ a row with me. Like ever. Y’ scared ’em off.”

Added the smile to show the character feeling something, reacting to what’s happening. A row about what? What does it have to do with the story? If nothing, then it shouldn’t be here. If it’s not a problem, why include it? I assume you included this to show drudge attitudes about Calaani, and it does that, but there’s no reason to leave the conflict ambiguous. Learim could have been condemning Mythala for associating with Nefrál, which would further describe Nefrál’s difference and the relationship with Mythala.

Thoughtstarter: “Just Learim and his louts pickin’ a row with me ‘bout bein’ your friend.

Nefrál’s smile dimmed. “I won’t always be here.”,” Nefrál said. Her exile was something she thought about a lot these days. “Learim will be, though. For at least as long as you.”

Used the smile again to show emotion. Again, how does she feel about being exiled? Does she anticipate trouble ahead? For example: Her exile cost her more and more hours of sleep these days.

“Well, y’ here right now, and he’s not,” Mythala said, with her usual practicality. “Where we off to, anyways?”

Nefrál didn’t have anywhere to go, and exploration had lost its allure with age and familiarity on an island so small. But she and Mythala went anyway, veering off from the shelter to clamber along the northern shoreline, amidst the lichen and seagrass which grew rife.  

This paragraph didn’t do a lot to move the story, and there’s just a little bit of characterization and it lacks her feelings about not having anywhere to go. You can jump cut to the next paragraph to keep the pace moving along.

Midway round the eastern side, the curving line of the coast became ragged, jutting forth at odd angles. When the tide was high, there was no beach at all, only the ocean breaking against sheer cliffs. The tide was rising now. Mythala stood on the thin scrap of shore to keep her feet dry, gazing south, while Nefrál hunted for starfish and crabs among the shallow waves.

Wouldn’t you hunt for starfish and crabs in tide pools at low tide? That’s what happens here when we go over to the Oregon coast. When the tide is in, they’re pretty much inaccessible, when it’s out they’re easy to see and catch.

A Calaani youth Nefrál knew vaguely by sight ran round the curve of jutting cliff, who Nefrál knew vaguely by sight. Amur was alone and bare to the waist, a sheen of sweat on his dark blue skin, and a multitude of dark braids tied back from his face.

Echo of “round” from previous paragraph, look for another word, perhaps simply “around.” Cerulean is, I’m told by my dictionary, sky blue, not dark blue.

Nefrál didn’t see him in time, and he didn’t see her at all.  Just stick with the action that matters, and what matters is that they run into each other. It doesn’t matter whether or not they saw each other. In close third pov she can’t know if he saw her or not.

They collided hard. Amur fell into the brine; she fell against the cliff-face, knocking her head. A spot of darkness grew in her vision and then—

Wouldn’t “collided hard” be more effective and active with more specific language such as “slammed into/crashed into each other”? There’s repetition of “fell,” maybe use something like toppled in one case to avoid the echo?

With boiling “rainrise” and exotic humanoids, exile, and more, the narrative promises a lot of fun ahead. I think the connection issue is largely due to never getting a sense of what the protagonist feels about things. We see her with a friend, thinking about being exiled, encountering hostile drudges, and more, but she’s emotion- and reaction-free. If the character isn’t emotionally involved with what’s happening to her, it’s difficult to create empathy or connection in a reader.

I think this work shows a lot of promise, and encourage the writer to climb inside the dark yellow/brown skin of the protagonist and translate her experiences into action, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings that can help a reader be the character. The author should feel free to contact me if there are any questions to pursue.

What about Flog a Pro? This post has taken the place of this month’s regular Flog a Pro feature, but for those who enjoy it, I’ll be posting a new pro flogging this coming Sunday, the 18th. I hope you’ll stop by.

For what it’s worth.

Ray

About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of four novels and one writing craft book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling. He’s also an editor of book-length fiction and designs book covers and interiors for Indie authors and small presses. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for writers and publishers. Learn more about Ray’s books at rayrhamey.com.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.