Editor’s Structural Analysis of Abuse of Power

I think that authors typically have two blind spots regarding their work — either they think it’s the best thing ever written or they think it’s the worst. The danger in the first attitude is that they send it out before its ready and forever damage their reputation. The hazard of the second is that they keep striving for unobtainable perfection and never send it out at all.

I think I’m in a pretty good place. I’ve gotten pretty good feedback, and I’m ready to let my finished work stand. Why, then, did I decide to have my novelette — which was already published — looked at by an editor?

1. I won one of my fantasy football leagues. You’re probably saying, “Huh?” Seriously, I won a couple of hundred bucks and didn’t have any other immediate needs.
2. I want Abuse of Power to be an advertisement for my work, and, while I’m fairly happy with it, I want it to have a little more impact than it does now.
3. I think my writing is good. I want it to be great, and the single best way I can think of to improve is to get more feedback.

Tim, at Flourish Editing, did a structural review for me (check back tomorrow for a discussion of what the various types of reviews are and what you should choose), and here’s what I learned:

Overall, the piece is pretty good. Tim thinks it’s fast paced with plenty of emotion and, if Power of the Mages had been available, he said he would have been interested in buying it based on Abuse.

Characterization is a weak link in the story. Basically, I didn’t give much of an arc or dimension to any of the four main characters except Auggie, and his was probably weaker than it should have been. I seriously don’t think that this is a problem overall with my writing as much as it is me trying to keep the story tight given the format. I don’t think I’m going to change Benj’s arc at all in my edit, and I’ll only tweak Alaina’s a little.

Auggie’s arc needs to be stronger. Tim saw his transformation from adventurer to responsible adult as a minor sidenote rather than a major event. I need to strengthen this. Tim cautions me on this thought, however, in that I can’t make Auggie seem like a spoiled brat. I think I have fix for it; we’ll see.

I also made a huge mistake in portraying Emar as evil for the sake of being evil. I need to give him some depth. This is a typical problem with me; I tend to use the antagonist as a foil instead of developing them as characters. I need to do better!

Tim nailed one of my biggest weaknesses — distinct character voice. Truthfully, most of my characters sound like me talking. I’m going to do my best to learn to do better, but it’s going to be a long road for me. I’m hoping my readers don’t get too turned off as I work to improve.

He made some minor comments on plot which are easily fixable. I think it’s easy for any author to make tiny mistakes and sometimes it just takes an outsider view to spot them. These don’t worry me overmuch, but it’s helpful to have them pointed out.

Tim suggests that I can add some additional physical tension in places. I agree. It’s never a bad idea to increase tension, and I tend to focus much more on the dramatic over the physical.

Overall, I think the comments are well worth the slightly less than $100 that I paid. The full text of his analysis is posted below.

ABUSE OF POWER STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS

1. Overview

Executive Summary
You have a good story here. It’s well plotted, fast-paced, and engaging. There are a few minor issues here and there, but nothing that requires much effort to fix. Character is the weakest sector of the piece, as discussed below, but more in the sense of “it’d be nice if…” rather than “you have to fix…”. I enjoyed reading Abuse of Power, and if Power of the Mages had been available at the end of it, I’d have gone to pick it up.

Writing Style
For the most part, the writing style is very strong. You’re a good, efficient writer with a nice grasp of readability and an effective voice. There are some minor points where things get a little confused, or the viewpoint slips somewhat to permit a small authorial intrusion, but nothing serious. There are no chunks of exposition deadening pace, which is always a great sign. Auggie has a clean, crisp viewpoint which carries the story nicely, and you’ve got plenty of emotional movement in the text. It’s easy to slip into, and thoroughly enjoyable. The only area I can point to with any possible consistent weakness is in characterization, which is covered below. There isn’t much description, but then Auggie doesn’t really ever have time for it, so I consider that a positive sign rather than a criticism.

Setting
Magic-poor feudal fantasy is a popular place for stories to happen in. We don’t get to learn a huge amount about the world during Abuse of Power, but we discover everything we need to for the story to work, which is exactly the right amount. The information that is there makes sense, and hangs together effectively. There are some lovely touches that will help to hook reader curiosity, such as the tender’s moment of divine possession. Alaina’s magic will also serve in that regard, including the hints that she’s using power to calm an unwitting Auggie.

Characterization
The main characters are strong and engaging, which is very important. There isn’t a huge amount of character arc, but what there is feels well-handled. Auggie is forced to deal with his commitment issues and find peace; Alaina has to set aside some of her self-hatred. Benj doesn’t have any movement at all, but that’s fine for a character who’s there as a foil in a short story. As the antagonist, it’s fitting that Emar does not develop.
A slightly bigger issue is character depth. All four main characters are broadly one-dimensional. Auggie does have some occasional hints of privileged nobility running through his general knightly demeanor, but that’s it. You can get away with one-dimensional characters in a short story, but it wouldn’t take much to add in some sprinkles of deeper currents running through all four of the primaries, and you’d get deeper reader immersion (and pleasure) because of it. Of the four, Emar is the most cipher-like, and I recommend giving some thought to moving him from ‘Evil Because I’m Evil’ towards something just a little more sympathetic, and thus interesting. For example, ‘Desperately Trying To Prove Something’, ‘Totally Cynical Bounty Hunter’, or ‘More-Than-My-Job’s-Worth Bureaucrat.’
The other thing worth looking at is dialogue. The three protagonists all have very similar manners of speaking. That might be expected between Auggie and Benj, although they’d still most likely have some unique vocal aspects. It’s makes less sense for Alaina. Unless there’s some sort of setting-related consideration towards universal education cutting across class barriers, a baker’s daughter ought not sound like a Duke’s son. The piece would be stronger if you looked back over the dialogue and gave each person more of a flavor.

Plot & Tension
Plot and tension are strong throughout. Very little seems out of place — the only act I didn’t totally understand was Emar’s acceptance of the duel — and events flow reasonably naturally into each other. Tension is handled nicely for the most part. There are a few points where the protagonists get away with things that could have provided the opportunity for a moment or two of reader suspense, such as the snapped twig in the first scene, but the story never feels like it’s faltering. None of the scenes feel out of place, nor do they drag on past their welcome point.
There are a few possible issues of timing, particularly during the first night — the horseback swap, dawn coinciding with when they leave the fort — but nothing that can’t be easily fixed. All in all, it’s a well-told story.

Structure
The structure of this story fits fairly closely into romance patterns. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy rescues girl from crazed witchfinders, boy falls down cliff, boy engages in bloodthirsty duel as part of shotgun wedding, boy gets girl. Humor aside, the arcs in this piece are those of romance — changes in outlook, development of relationship, and so on. This is not a criticism. Some plot structures require more of a character arc on the part of the protagonist than others. Romantic stories tend not to have much arc, which fits with Abuse of Power. At the end of the story, Auggie is more or less the same chap he was at the start. He’s faced his fear of commitment, but that’s been mostly in the background anyway.
In terms of act breaks, the story is structured quite closely to the usual three-act set-up. We have the catcher’s appearance changing everything around 25% and Alaina’s rejection sets up a false failure echo around 50%. The break into Act 3 is slightly weaker, but we have the slow tender and the interrupted nuptials around that spot providing something of a moment of bleakness. The climactic confrontations, first with Emar and then with Alaina, fall in place nicely. There doesn’t appear to be any overt theme, but that’s not uncommon for a shorter piece.
The resolution is strong, and sets up your novel well. Ending with the tussle over Ashley’s name gives a great lead in to your sell-line.

2. Scene by Scene

1. Bandit Camp: Auggie and Benj scout a horse-thief camp in the dark.
This is well-paced, involving, and has some nice tension. One or two areas for possible improvement though. The way it’s currently written, Auggie’s breaking of the dry branch seems oddly deliberate for such a dangerous act. The moment of possible discovery that follows could definitely be played up for greater peril.
The initial conversation reveals basic character well, establishes Benj as a bit loose, Auggie as better-trained and more rigorous.
There is a little authorial intrusion and minor awkwardness in the writing – Benj’s transition to blending in is a bit too sudden; Auggie’s bitter reminiscence slows the vital initial pace a bit, and would be better on the (currently near-invisible) ride back.
The setting so far could be any low-tech; I initially thought of civil war US.

2. Colonel: The pair report the camp’s presence.
This builds on previous characterizations nicely. The Colonel’s behavior acts as an effective foil for strengthening our existing impressions. I think Auggie would have noticed the Colonel’s name though, whenever he was told it.

3. Tavern: Auggie meets Alaina, and gets her captured by mage catchers.
After the initial introductions, this is where protagonists’ characters get fully established. The three protags and the antag are all strong individuals, but are a little one-dimensional — Auggie is an officer, Benj is irresponsible, Alaina is annoyed, and Emar is nasty — and the three protags have broadly similar character voices. The moment where Auggie bullies Alaina into sitting is a start towards two-dimensionality, but a few more little moments scattered through the scene to add secondary dimensions — and some personal vocal uniqueness — would go a long way. This is particularly true of Emar, who will be more interesting if he doesn’t feel (and sound) like he’s acting simply because he’s evil-minded.
Setting is established firmly as fantastical for the first time, which makes sense in a setting where magic is utterly suppressed.
Pacing is fairly strong, writing is effective, and there’s plenty of emotional movement. Auggie’s reaction to Alaina does seems unusually strong given the brevity and awkwardness of their encounter; perhaps up the ‘love at first sight’ aspect a little to increase believability?

4. Rescue: Auggie and Benj snatch Alaina and make it to the fort.
There are some small moments of awkward writing, mostly at the start of the scene in the 3rd and 4th paras. It seems odd that the ambushed guard’s yelp doesn’t draw attention — or is it the wind muffling him? When Auggie slows to delay pursuit, there’s no sense that the fort is so near until Benj is riding into it, which is slightly jarring. Also, if the pursuit has closed from 100yds over ten miles to the point where a last 20-second sprint won’t be enough, transferring Alaina between horses seems nigh-on impossible. If they’re making a movie-stunt switch at full gallop, it ought to be talked through a lot more to establish how insanely difficult it is, and made as frightening as possible for the reader. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing immersion through implausibility.
Interesting character perspectives in here — role reversals between A and B, and Alaina’s reluctance to be rescued — provide nice interest. Plenty of emotional movement. There are several opportunities to increase tension during the scene however, and the storm doesn’t seem to attract Auggie’s notice as much as serious nasty weather ought to.

5. The Fort: Auggie and Alaina discuss the rescue.
Decent character interplay here, with some good hints to motivations. As in the tavern scene, some moments to add depth would strengthen things, and the characters could use greater voice differentiation. The Duke’s heir and a peasant girl generally wouldn’t be expected to use similar vernaculars.

6. Chase: The trio ditch immediate pursuit.
As the scene opens, we go from indeterminate night — but seemingly just a couple of hours since we were in the tavern — to dawn. The timing feels odd, given Benj just interrupted to say the Colonel was about to open the gates. The escape plan is very believable, which is nice.
I note that there are no missile weapons in evidence anywhere. Is that a setting thing, or does Emar feel restricted?

7. The Fall: Alaina reveals her powers.
A well-structured and decently paced scene. Establishes more of setting and character. Alaina’s history works effectively. There are a few spots that could use a little tightening, either for tone or minor clarity, after Auggie’s rescue — unwanted paragraph breaks during Alaina’s speech, abrupt emotional variability, etc. Overall though, a strong scene.

8. Ceremony: Auggie rounds up a shotgun wedding.
Nicely paced. The priest’s divine possession is a great touch, and opens a whole file of questions for readers to start obsessing over. The sparse description throughout is in accord with Auggie’s stress levels, but we ought to at least get the name of the village at the start of this scene or the end of the one before. Writing is crisp. Dialogue and character are effective throughout.
Nice use of the setting’s customs here, by the way. The marriage process is given exactly the right level of viewpoint attention that you’d expect given the twin requirements of extreme hurry and legal irreproachability.

9. Duel: Auggie and Emar fight it out.
A few issues here. I’m not sure why Emar agrees to the duel — he seems to hold all the cards, and there’s little sense that the setting makes a challenge like that unavoidable. Also, fifteen minutes is a hell of a long time for a duel to go on. Even allowing that Auggie has the stamina to swing a broadsword for that time, it’s (historically) very unlikely that both participants would be that perfectly balanced. This is particularly true given the very different weapons. It’s also unlikely that both men could avoid making a slip in that time. Finally, once Emar has lost, he leaves just a bit too abruptly. Even if he doesn’t say another word, which seems perfectly believable, I do think that Auggie would pay more attention to his departure. I also suspect Auggie would have enough blood-loss and fatigue at this point that he’d be pretty wiped out for the rest of the story.
It’s good seeing some of the other side of Auggie in this scene — bloodthirsty, reasonably careless of peasants’ fates, a touch arrogant. It makes him more human, and throws Alaina’s empathy into stronger relief. Possibly Benj could have a resigned/sarcastic last word before Auggie kicks the duel off? He doesn’t seem the type to miss a last retort.

10. Wedding: Alaina says yes.
Nice denouement. Her return of the rings is a good way to carry the tension through to the end, and fits perfectly with her established motivations and character. Benj is absent from the last scene, and might be expected to put in at least a minor irreverent appearance, but it’s not a big deal if you don’t want to shoe-horn him in.
The final line makes for a great lead in to your sell-line, and there’s plenty of stuff in there to establish hooks for Power of the Mages. Pacing is good, timing works, nothing seems out of place, and the writing is consistent.

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