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Marginal Notes

Editor's Clinic: Yonder is the Castle of my Father


Yes, I know, Tony Curtis never actually said the line. But does sum up one of the problems this morning’s editing is trying to address – language that is meant to create a mood of fantasy and wonder and instead simply comes across as formal and forced.

First, a caveat. This passage is taken from a ways into the story. I’m assuming that many of the questions that naturally come to mind – who and what the air-travelers are, how they arose so soon after a nuclear holocaust, how prophesies work in this world – are answered by what came before.

But even with that caveat in mind, we can pinpoint a mistake common to fantasy writers. Most fantasies take place in worlds based roughly on the middle ages, with swordfights and alchemy and yonders dotted with castles. In trying to create a language that fits that kind of world, many fantasy authors come up with an amalgam that is simply stiff. Contractions tend to disappear, for instance, answers nearly repeat the question (“Are you The One?” “I am not The One.”), and word order is reversed often for no reason apparent.

It is possible to write in a language that feels genuinely medieval, with a rhythm and emphasis different from what they are today. But in this case, the story is set within living memory of the present. Senior (a character’s name) was an adult when the bombs fell, and both books and some technology, which doesn’t seem radically different from modern technology, have survived. The language wouldn’t have had time to evolve much, so it makes sense to simply have the characters speak a colloquial, modern English.

Keeping the language colloquial also helps with a second problem – the author isn’t getting into Great’s head as well as she should. Great (the main character) is apparently going to give up being an air-traveler in order to help the people of Liberty. In order for readers to understand what that sacrifice means to her, they need to know more of what it feels like to be a traveler. They need to know, at a visceral level, what she’s losing.

A note from the author: “Air-travelers live above the clouds and their sole purpose is to protect and save mankind. Leader’s daughter, Great, has been sent to Earth on her first mission—to save a small village called Liberty. This scene is in the library, where she met Scholar, who showed her the history books of the town explaining what happened at The Finish. He now believes she is The One, who it was prophesied would come to save them from annihilation.”

 

 

Great glanced up at Scholar. His countenance was somber. He stared at her with an intensity that made her uncomfortable. [1]

[paragraph added] “When I was young,” he said, I heard stories about The One, an air-traveler who would someday restore our world. I thought it was just a myth, a comforting fairy tale, but now . . . I see. You’re The One, aren’t you?”

“No.” She sank back into her chair. “That’s not possible. It’s ridiculous.I cannot be The One.

He shook his head. “You fit all the signs, I’m are The One. I am sure of it. He stood up. “You need to meet with the council. Now you must lead us.

Great stayed in her seatwould not believe[2]. She was an air-traveler, not a human. To take that away from her was to take away who she was; what she was.

By right, only Leader’s bloodline could air-travel, could rise above gravity. Scholar was wrong. She had just achieved full status moments ago. and that sShe couldnot do that unless she had Leader’s blood pumping through her. She could save this village, as she had been commanded to do. But to restore this world would mean staying among them, losing who she was, what she was. [3]

She had to convince him. “Scholar, air-travelers donot mate with humans. I a‘m here to help, but not to become one of you. There is no mistake of who I am. We –” She gestured between them “– we are not the same.”

He frowned. “We’ll see.”

***

Scholar left to gather make arrangements for Great to meet with the rest of the villagers to meet with her. While she waitedMeanwhile, she sought found a clearing in the forest beyond the library and settled onto the leaf-covered ground at the foot of a tree, its girth three times larger than her own. So massive. So anchored to the ground.

[paragraph added] Unlike her.

She wrapped her arms around her legs, pressed her forehead to her knees, and closed her eyes. Presently, hHer toes grew warm., t Then the heat spread through her legs, rising until her whole body vibrated with energy. [4] [paragraph added] She did not open kept her eyes squeezed shut. She still wasn’t had not yet become comfortable with watching her solid body grow more and more transparent until there seemed to be nothing left. TBut this was the form of the air-traveler, her real self It ; alloweding her to glide from place to place unseen from below, without gravity pursuing dragging at her, without being observed from below.

She felt herself pulling free of the force that held the tree so captive. She opened her awareness and glided above the road winding northeast out of Liberty, the long-abandoned trail flanked on the right by forest and on the left by barren ground. The bombs Nuclear weapons had laid waste to much of the land, but left random sections of untouched where green growth clung desperately to life. what good soil remained.

[paragraph added] She came upon the mercenaries fifty maxims away. In just two days, Two rises of the sun. There would not be much time left before they would reached the village.[5] She drove her body up and punched through the plump white clouds, then stopped and looked down.

[paragraph added] Water droplets glimmered on the cloud’s surface like silver. She drifted along with the clouds, tasting the purity of the breeze, feeling the sunlight flow through her. She wanted to stay here forever, to be a creature of this clear, simple beauty. [6] B , but she had been given a mission; an imperative, to rescue those remaining in Liberty, and there was no time to waste.

She glided back to the forest and settled at the foot of the tree where she had glimmered. Though the process seemed slow to her, iIt was a matter of seconds before her body returned to full solidity.

[paragraph added] She studied the trees. The canopy that just moments ago had been a carpet far below her was now a roof that held her down. What had seemed far away from above now appeared to sweep the sky. Dizzy with the unaccustomed viewpoint, sShe dropped her eyes to watched the ground and studied the leaves, . Shades of brown, yellow and gold, drifting downward until a stray gust of wind swirled them away. they had turned loose of their life-giving source, perhaps choosing to find their own path, only to drift as slaves to the fanciful wind.

[italics removed] This is And that was the history of mankind. They turned away from sources of those who offer life only to be blown around by . Instead they enslave themselves to the whims of others.

[linespace added]

Scholar met her at the edge of the village.

“We’re gathered, Great, but we’re few. Come.”

She followed him into the library, where he led her to a door in the left wall she had not noticed before. It was finely cut into the stone, visible only if you looked very closely. upon close inspection. The door was massive, tall and wide. Great wondered hHow could any human could move its obvious weight.? Yet it opened easily once Scholar inserted his finger into an unnoticed chink in the mortar wall near the floor.

“This library is immense,” Great murmured as she studied the door swinging back.This library is immense. How is it a small town would have something this significant?”

“Senior says we were once the county seat. ,” Scholar explained. “[7]When technology did away with the need for physical books, we lobbied to be the state repository for one copy of every book still existing in Montana. It was a wise decision, since technology depends on resources we no longer have.”

He stepped back and motioned her inside.

It wasn’t a room at all, but a succession of stones carved into steps [8] leading down into darkness. The soaring walls resembled what may have been a turret, or a chimney. Fading sunlight warmed the stones.

[paragraph added] She hesitated for an ignoble moment, to her vexation, then boldly stepped forward started down into the depths. For a place named . Strange emotions warred within her. Liberty, it felt did not feel like imprisonment everywhere she turnedfreedom to her.

A light from an inset in the wall shone downward. An unnatural light. Great was surprised. “You have electricity?”

A little. One solar panel on the roof still functions and leads to a charger in this wall.”

“Where do these steps lead?”

“To a tunnel—to our meet place. The others are waiting.”

Six steps downbelow, a tunnel stretched before them. Thumb-sized holes cut into the ground above allowed light to filter in at odd angles and show the way. Great’s nose twitched at the foreign odor, damp and heavy. Sounds echoed through the passage, hushed, almost not there at all. She shivered and rubbed her arms.

And she was under the Great was both excited and terrified to be below ground. Not simply trapped on it, but trapped beneath it. Leader had not taught about such a possibility. Her breathing sped up, and she rubbed her arms against a chill that wasn’t all temperature. had changed from slow, languorous breaths to quick staccato ones. She glanced back often to ascertain Scholar’s closeness.

The tunnel widened into a domed, circular room large enough for thirty men humans to stand shoulder to shoulder in a straight line, and her breathing slowed a bit. [9]The earthen wall was cluttered with root tips testing the air, seeking a place to rest. Squared stones as high as her knees bordered the tamped-down dirt floor.

Four men and one woman were seated on stumps around an enormous, gnarled root ball whose top had been smoothly sheared off at table height. When Great stepped inside, the air grew quiet as they all turned to stare at her. One of the men had a disfigured face, one side normal, the other side like melted wax. His eye drooped and his mouth on that side turned down.

Scholar touched her elbow and guided moved her closer to the center of the room.

“This is the air-travelerwhom I spoke of—The One. She calls herself Great.”

A white-haired man, much older than the rest, stood.

“Welcome, Great. We are honored to meet with an air-traveler.” As he spoke, he turned toward the others and swept his arm in an long arc. Each person nodded as the man’s hand passed in front of him or her.

Scholar led her to a stump next to the elder one, who continued to speak.

“I am Nathan,” the elder said, “but please, call me Senior. Through the years we’ve found it simpler to be called by what we are rather than who we were. After Tthe Finish, I was the only adult who survivedstill lived. These others,and aAgain he swept his arm., were still children, though most of them were nearing their adolescencetime of life-change.”

Scholar stood behind Great. “If it hadn’t been for Senior, Liberty wouldn’t exist today.”

She heard the awe in his voice and noticed they all showed deference toward the man called Senior. No doubt they owed their lives to him.

Surely Leader saw something here of value here. Something of worth. It was not her place to question or doubt. For tThis she what was made for.

 

NOTES:

  1. 1. Don’t describe his emotion. Describe his actual face.
  2. 2. Her interior monologue shows her disbelief. Better to use a beat — her staying in her seat — to show her reaction.
  3. 3. It wasn’t clear that what Scholar expected something much larger than what she was prepared to give.
  4. 4. We need a bit more description of what she is doing and what it feels like. If this is what she needs to give up in order to be The One, readers need to feel what she’ll be missing.
  5. 5. First, her interior monologue doesn’t have to be in italics. Second, while I can buy that bodiless air travelers might have a different way of measuring distance, I couldn’t believe the word “days” was gone from the language.
  6. 6. This is where you can let your readers know what she’s giving up.
  7. 7. First, you don’t need unusual verbs of speech. Readers can see this is an explanation. Second, when you have only two characters speaking, you can dispense with the verbs of speech altogether.
  8. 8. I don’t know the background, so I don’t know if this is the first time she’s encountering steps. If not, then you don’t need the more detailed description. If so, then you should include a little more about these strange tiered platforms that lead you down into the bowels of the earth. Her fascination with steps can be a way to capture her view of the world.
  9. 9. Don’t forget to track her reactions.