Editor’s Choice Award April 2018, Horror

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.

Just Open The Door by David Eisman

One of the advantages of writing within a genre is that the author and readers share knowledge of a huge pool of works and their common elements.  This allows the author to introduce rich subtext into a story.  If I put the word “vampire” into my story, readers will think of Dracula, Salem’s Lot, Interview with the Vampire, Twilight, and others.  Readers will think of the rules that often govern vampires, the various ways vampires have been destroyed, and why one may or may not want to destroy a vampire.  The author, then, can minimize exposition (background information, explanations), because the reader already knows a lot.  The author can focus on how her vampires are different, and on showing us this particular vampire story.  This can be invaluable in a short story, when every word is precious, and it can add layers of meaning, emotion, and resonance to a story.

“Just Open the Door” takes advantage of this pool of knowledge horror readers share.  By the end of the third sentence, I feel I’m in a familiar situation, often near the climax of a horror story/movie/novel, in which the protagonist, Richie, is fleeing the evil and has come to a dead end.  Because the situation is familiar, I don’t think I’ve missed anything critical to my understanding of the story.  My recognition of this situation also creates immediate suspense and urgency and allows the author to move the story ahead with a minimum of exposition.  I’m immersed in the situation and worried about what’s on the other side of the door.  The exposition is limited to how Richie’s mother was killed, which becomes key to understanding this situation.

But the story does more than use this familiar situation as a short cut.  The author very cleverly uses our recognition of the situation, our assumption that we know what has happened and what’s on the other side of the door, to twist all these expectations on their heads.  What at first sounds like a monster on the other side of the door comes to sound like Richie’s mother.  Normally, in such a story, the monster would be pretending to be Richie’s mother, and there would be no suspense in the deception because we wouldn’t be fooled.  But now, because we’ve come into this situation late, because we don’t really know what happened before, whether Richie is hallucinating that a monster killed his mother due to some mental illness or whether a monster that really did kill his mother stands on the other side of the door, the situation creates a lot of suspense.  Maybe there is a monster on the other side of the door.  Or maybe it’s Richie’s mother.

This all works very nicely.  For me, though, the ending, in which Richie decides to open the door, hoping it’s his mother, doesn’t quite work.  Right now, whether Richie decides to open the door or not seems up to the author.  I don’t feel a strong reason why Richie resolves his internal conflict by deciding to open the door.  He’s been fleeing up until this point.  Why would he change?  Just hearing his mother’s voice doesn’t seem like a strong enough reason.  He has previously heard very scary voices that clearly were not his mother.  Why would he believe this voice?  He asks his mother what he should do, abdicating his power at the climax, which isn’t satisfying to the reader.

The downside of inserting us into a familiar situation is that the story depends on its twist to succeed.  And the ending is part of this twist.

There are several possible ways to make Richie’s decision feel both surprising and inevitable, which are the qualities you want to have in a climax.  For example, there might be some piece of evidence that the voice claims proves that Richie is hallucinating.  We might recognize that the evidence doesn’t necessarily prove that; it could also prove the monster is real.  But Richie might believe the evidence proves he’s hallucinating and open the door for that reason.  Another possibility would be to have Richie reason things out, now that he has a moment to think.  If it is his mother on the other side of the door, then he should open the door.  If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, then he lives in a world in which monsters can appear at any moment and kill loved ones, and he is so unfit to deal with this world that all he could do was run and let the monster kill his mother.  In such a world, he can’t survive.  So he might as well open the door.  That way, both possibilities lead to the same decision, so his decision isn’t random.  It’s the only possibility.

As I was writing that, I thought of another possibility.  He’s holding a shard of glass in his hand.  Maybe his thoughts run like this:  If it’s a monster on the other side of the door, he doesn’t want to go out there and be killed by it.  If it’s his mother on the other side of the door, then he’s so mentally unstable he could kill her, thinking she’s the monster, and he doesn’t want to do that.  So he decides to kill himself.

Anyway, those are several possible ways to make his decision at the end feel both surprising and inevitable, and to feel like he’s really making that decision, not leaving it to his mother or to the author.

Other areas I think could be improved are the style and description.  Some unclear or awkward sentences and some unclear details confused and distracted me at times.  For example, I’m kind of confused about what sort of structure he’s inside.  He’s in a warehouse; I would think he’s either in a room with solid walls and a solid door, or he’s in a crate.  But he seems to be in neither, with this rusted sheet metal.  I don’t know what sort of shelf might be in this structure.  At first I picture a piece of wood maybe 3′ x 1′ x 1″ that rests on some brackets fastened to the wall.  But then why is it so heavy?  And how is he moving it?  It’s unclear how this will stop anyone from entering, and I don’t know why he’d get so many splinters that he would bleed.

The glass on the floor seems to appear suddenly.  I think it should be crunching under his feet while he’s looking for something to barricade the door.  And the amount of light in the room seems to change depending on what’s being described.

I have a hard time imagining this voice:  “it’s tongue slithers through every vowel and its jaw pops on every consonant.”

Emotions are told rather than shown at times, which distances us from Richie.  For example, near the end of the story, “The rage and confusion boil inside of me.”  These emotional labels (rage and confusion) are telling us Richie’s emotions.  If they are shown instead, we’ll feel them more strongly.

The description that “Tears stream down my face like a waterfall” feels exaggerated.  I don’t believe the human body has the capability to cry that much, so I’m thrown out of the story here.  Similarly, the image that Richie holds his head in his hands and rocks “it back and forth” doesn’t seem like a natural action.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the story and trying to figure out what was on the other side of the door.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

 

Reviewer Honor Roll

The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer’s name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public “thank you” that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.

Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.

[March  2018] Honor Roll Nominees]

Reviewer: Buddy Lord
Submission: Abernethy 2 by Frances Snowder
Submitted by: Frances Snowder

Reviewer: JP Hollis
Submission: Into the Void by Ashley Leto
Submitted by: Ashley Leto

Reviewer: Claudia Casser
Submission: The One True Cross by Jack Jonnes
Submitted by: Jack Jonnes

Reviewer: Saidhbh Duncan
Submission: Princess of Fairies by Elizabeth Porco
Submitted by: Elizabeth Porco

Writing/Challenge Prompt

Consider this scenario.

Strange things have been happening in your little town; disappearances, illness and murders, food stores that vanish overnight. No one knows why or who, or how to stop it.

Your character becomes convinced that the animals in town–the dogs, the cats, the livestock–see things she can’t. What does your character do when all the animals leave?

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

 

 

Editor’s Choice Review April 2018, Short Story

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 Kaiju Man by J. L. Roberts

“The Kaiju Man” caught my eye this month with the utter surprise of how it blooms: a cleanly observed setup that just flowers into a transcendent, dreamlike, emotionally impactful piece of magical realism; an ending that’s utterly surprising, and yet completely organic—and yet not without room to improve. This month, I’d like to talk about how detail work can work both with and against us as writers, and the question of making a story its best self.

One of the major strengths of “The Kaiju Man” is a sense of observation that’s lyrical, fine-grained, and yet completely transparent and accessible. The paragraph with our protagonist driving out of Raleigh is beautifully textural—it describes not just landscape, but temperature, opinions (“the moisture and the heat haze combining to keep dirt on the ground where it belongs”) and change (“soon-to-come luxury housing developments starting in the mid-$200,000s”) in a very short space. None of these sentences are elaborate or baroque, but each sentence here is doing double duty: “the late morning light streaking out of the sky, pointing to this tree, that stretch of hillside” is gorgeous as a static image, and that sentence works even better because it makes the light kinetic—imbues motion into the narrative. I feel the effects of that work without actively noticing them, or being thrown out of the piece.

That’s a skill that needs to be balanced, however. As the kaiju approaches and the narrative fragments into more sensory impressions, though, the prose becomes much more visible, and I’m not sure it’s entirely a positive. I’d suggest pruning that section back somewhat: each of those details is beautifully rendered, but they stack up into something a little too overwhelming for me as a reader—something that blocks me from getting through to more story. Taking two or three sense impressions out of each part of that scene makes the other ones sharper and more meaningful, and the path a bit clearer for readers. That goes, likewise, for the scene with Hannah: the image of her framed against Layton’s iris is incredible, but it’s getting lost for me in the general denseness of metaphor that surrounds it.

Imagery isn’t just presentation, in a story: it’s the setting around it—in the jeweler’s sense. Imagery’s an art of contrasts. Setting something much more plain around an image, a moment, you want to spotlight makes it stand that much clearer, and can increase the impact immeasurably.

The density of detail has a structural effect, too: the pacing of “The Kaiju Man” stalls somewhat near the middle, around Layton taking out the boat and the protagonist’s observation of the fish. A bit of pruning as the story starts to slow will keep the pace of reading measured, and make sure that pacing isn’t telling readers details are important (spend more time on this!) when they aren’t just yet.

The worldbuilding and characterization are well-sketched in details here, too. It’s quite refreshing to see a male character whose career slump isn’t a source of bitterness, but a choice he himself made. It’s clear how much the protagonist loves Hannah—how much taking her perspective changed his own attitude to life—and that love makes his push to change her name to an English one (although, I’m noting Hana is a Japanese name too!) a much more interestingly complex one. Everything in this piece is grounded in a certain kindness, and that does something silent and earthshaking to how it’s read.

That hinting system works with the world too: the coral that’s not there anymore, the poverty around Layton’s brightly-painted house, the time since Fukushima all combine to create a sense of a certain kind of worn-down near-future. Considering how few details are given, the picture I’ve got of this version of the world is surprisingly complete, and that’s skilled work.

There is one silence in the worldbuilding that feels more like an omission: what degree of racism goes down in this area. Layton’s obviously changed his name, and there was obviously pressure for the protagonist and Melissa to change Hannah’s name; there are rumours about Layton in town, but the normally polite protagonist brings them up as if this isn’t going to hurt him (“do you know what they call you in town?” is not a neutral question). Layton lives in an emotional and social ecology as much as he inhabits a geographic one; I’d suggest thinking about what that looks like, and letting it inflect this interaction a little more.

There are also some version control issues here—two different Japanese names for Hannah, which switch midstream, for example; two stories about why they changed her name; the protagonist taking notes either with his phone or in a notebook—and a recurring tense bobble between present and past, but those are issues easily sorted out.

The major question in “The Kaiju Man”, though, is the protagonist’s transformation and their swim up the coast. There’s a nearly dreamlike feel to the scenes after he goes into the water, and while they stretch a bit long for me, the payoff is magnificent. To answer the question posed in the author’s comments, the ending here is gorgeous—I can feel the structure, the bump in the narrative of how quiet and emotionally affecting it is, and it works on me—but I couldn’t tell you what has just happened, or why, and that lack of intellectual closure puts a dent in my emotional satisfaction. There is a clue in Layton having lost his family, in how he and Hannah both have changed names, how Hannah has been sent away from home (to boarding school) again, but I’m scrambling for those clues. I feel the faint echo of those connections, but couldn’t say for sure that they’re intentional. I can’t tell if this is a familial connection or just the bond of shared experience: being more and different inside than you are outside, in a stranger’s country.

I’ve noticed the existing critiques on this piece have identified the same issue and suggested solutions that change what kind of story this is. I’d gently differ with them. There’s an urge sometimes, when there isn’t enough information about what story this is, to try to make it into a story more recognizable to that particular reader, and it’s not necessarily the most productive urge. This story is quite thoroughly itself, and it’s very good at being itself; structurally—that as an ending—this is powerfully affecting as it is. Even in a somewhat messy draft, “The Kaiju Man” moves me. The question, I think, is making it communicate itself more clearly: bringing information that’s currently in the subtext of “The Kaiju Man” up a little higher, nearer the level of the text. How might we get more clues without breaking that narrative dream?

I’d suggest that that’s a productive goal for the next draft of “The Kaiju Man”: locating the story you’d like to tell with it, finding the clues that are already there to point readers along the way, and thinking about how they can be clarified, or a few more puzzle pieces dropped into the cracks of the narrative so that the trail is clearer. This might be a two- to three-draft process, and will probably involve some tinkering, but getting it down without disrupting the gorgeous, almost reverent atmosphere of that last scene is, I think, well worth it. Please don’t make “The Kaiju Man” anything different than what it is: just show us a little more light.

Thank you very much for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)

Editor’s Choice Award March 2018, Science Fiction

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.

Audit 1771: The Church Of The Thinking Hedonist CHAPTER 2 by Claudia Casser

When someone says, “If you’re uncomfortable with diverse viewpoints, you won’t want to read this,” I’m all over it. I read for pleasure and for relaxation, but I also read to stretch my mental muscles, and the way our genre has changed in the new millennium has really worked for me. It’s not always comfortable, but it is exhilarating.

This submission is right in my wheelhouse. One thing I try hard to do as a writer and reader is to constantly examine my assumptions. We all have them, and so many of them are so embedded in our world view that they’re invisible to us. When a work of fact or fiction calls them out and asks us to to take a good, hard look at them, we may be tempted to run veryveryfast in the opposite direction.

And that’s exactly what’s happening to Sarah in this chapter. She’s being tested, and so, as readers, are we.

It’s very easy when writing idea-based stories to slide over into preaching. It’s also very hard to write such stories with a light touch. Putting the two together is a serious high-wire act.

For me, it works. It stays on this side of my personal line for both idea-fiction and humor. I can see how it’s structured to set up Sarah and Therese as foils, and how Sarah has been set up by her adopted sect to confront her early conditioning and expand her ethical landscape. There’s a lot going on under the surface—and that takes skill.

To answer the author’s questions, I was not confused, but I did go back as instructed and check out the opening chapter. I had questions about the Flock, but just when I was about to make a note, Koo appeared and those questions were answered. Koo is a great character; I particularly like that the character is nonbinary, or rather hyperbinary.

My other question, about how and why the planet happens to be named Brunch, is not critical; I just happen, personally, to notice names, and I’m not sure this one works for me, again personally. I suppose it’s a play in Sunday brunch? It’s maybe a little too far in the direction of gonzo, in a story that otherwise balances its various elements with a deft touch. It seems to undercut the seriousness of the ethical underpinnings, while not quite managing to be on point for the humorous overlay.

But that’s a personal and idiosyncratic reaction. As a Very Serious Editor-Critter, I appreciate the brisk plotting and the distinctive voice. I might, if the writing were less skillful, wonder if setting an Amish woman turned agnostic in the middle of a cult of hedonists might be a bit over the top—but this variety of humor works because it is over the top. It’s making a point, and that point needs extreme examples.

Humor is hard. Props to this author for pulling it off—while also pulling off a potentially disastrous juxtaposition of ethical and moral systems.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2018, 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.

Unnamed Sequel – Madness And A Little Beast by A Sands

Nonlinear writers fascinate me. I’m totally the opposite—I must write scenes in sequence or I cannot live—but it’s really interesting to watch a narrative grow out of clusters of discrete scenes. It’s tough to workshop an unfinished ms. written nonlinearly because only the author really knows how everything fits together. Once it’s finished and the whole structure is visible, it’s much easier to see what’s working and what needs work.

What I like about this submission is that it spells out up front how the ms. is being written, who the characters are, and what’s going on in the author’s head. That makes it a lot easier to get down in there and see what’s going on. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how the Queen and her family are not human. What are they, exactly? How does what they are relate to being human, and why is it important that they learn human body language?

Even without that information, I was appropriately amused by Queen Aldrua’s Very Conscious Awareness of what she’s saying with her various body parts and positions—and her overall, wonderfully terrible attitude. That attitude makes the chapter for me.

The technical term for it of course is “voice.” The choice of words, the way the characters act an interact, the overall feel and sense of the story. The voice here captures Aldrua’s state of mind in a beautifully unambiguous way. She is at the end of her tether, she is bound and determined to find her daughter or else, and everyone around her has completely exhausted her patience.

That voice kept me reading. The one thing I might do in revision would be to pare and prune especially the dialogue, tone it down a bit and tighten the focus. There’s a lot of repetition, much of which can go away.

But that’s for the revision stage. A draft gets itself written in any way that works. Repeating the same information over and over serves to a degree as a mnemonic—it’s like oral poetry: Achilles is fast on his feet, and that’s how we remind ourselves of who he is. It also gets the information in wherever it fits. Then, when the whole thing is put together, most of the reiterations can go away, but a few will stay where they make the most difference.

As for rules and the breaking thereof, I’m a great proponent of the Pirates’ Code. No matter how sternly your freshman composition teacher may have insisted that There Are Rules Of Writing And You Must Not Break Them, the truth is that all of them are simply guidelines.

There are some that a writer is advised to follow if she wants to be published. Manuscript formatting. Submission guidelines (which are really rules—it’s not a good idea to ignore those). Different genres have different expectations, which can get a writer in trouble if she pushes the envelope too hard.

But for the most part, a rule exists because if a writer breaks it without knowing what the rule is for, the writer’s work probably won’t hold together as well as it might otherwise. I remember when “head-hopping” was a cardinal sin, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with shifting viewpoints within a scene. It only becomes a problem if the reader (and worse, the writer) can’t keep track.

The reader’s experience is what it’s all about. If she’s cruising along with one character, and then abruptly someone else is telling the story, it’s like a train going off the rails. She gets thrown out of her car, and if it happens often enough, she might just not stay around for the rest of the story.

But. If the writer knows what she’s doing, she can shift back and forth as much as she wants or the story needs her to, and the reader will travel along with her. That takes a degree of skill, and gaining that skill means knowing how to maintain a viewpoint as well as how to change it without leaving the reader hanging.

Or to put it more succinctly, If you know what you’re doing, you can do whatever you want to. Even repeat the same information over and over—because each time you do it, it reveals new layer of itself, or adds another degree of emphasis—or go way, way, way over the top with dialogue and banter, or mix up the timelines, or turn the narrative inside out. Whatever makes the story work.

Insofar as there are any secret handshakes for success in writing, this has to be one of them. A writer who is just learning how to do it will find it useful to learn the basic rules of her format and genre, learn why they are rules, and practice following them until she has them down. Then she can start messing around with them. Messing around is what makes a story interesting–but it has to be done with knowledge and skill, or it’s just a mess.

If there’s any rule I personally would promote, it’s that there is no wrong way to write a draft. Linear, nonlinear, outlining, pantsing, writing lengthy, detailed exploratory drafts or sketching the bare bones of a narrative—they’re all good. They all get there in the end.

And that’s the best part about this writing gig. Doesn’t matter how you get there, just as long as you do.

–Judith Tarr

Editor’s Choice Award March 2018, Horror

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.

They Didn’t Tell You by N. Howl

This story, told in second person, engages horror fans by comparing the familiar scenarios we encounter in fiction with the actual version encountered by this protagonist. I felt a joy of recognition with every reference to a familiar horror scenario. Contrasting these familiar elements with those the protagonist faces also makes the story feel more real, convincing, and intense.

Since the protagonist is defined mainly by the sensations experienced rather than particular character traits, the second person allows readers to put themselves in the place of the protagonist, adding to the impact of the story. The repetition of the words in the title helps to tie the story together.

My main suggestions involve strengthening these key elements through which the story works. First, the references to familiar horror scenarios. For me, references to playing “Hardy Boy or Nancy Drew,” entering “the house at the end of the lane,” investigating where teenagers died, imagining the killer as a “stylish vampire, ” “brilliant doctor,” or “vagrant covered in the grime and sweat of a year,” work very well. Other references don’t work as well. The idea of teens slashing “their bodies in a mass suicide” doesn’t sound like any horror story or movie I know. And I don’t understand what is meant by “a simple mystery by a simple cult.” If it’s suicide, then it’s not a mystery. The motive may be a mystery, but it’s not clear that’s what the protagonist is looking for. If he’s looking for a motive, why take fingerprints? If he’s looking for a killer, when did he figure out it wasn’t a suicide? The old diaries definitely seem like a familiar horror element, but finger prints are not usually a big element. I would expect things like a Ouija board, a mirror through which strange things appear, or the remnants of an insane asylum in the basement. I guess part of the issue is that some of the story is referring to familiar mystery story elements, and part refers to familiar horror story elements. For me, the horror story elements seemed dominant, so the mystery elements don’t seem to fit. I think the story needs to choose one or the other.

I like the idea that the protagonist has ignored “reality in favor of a pattern,” but what reality is being ignored and what pattern is being imposed on the situation? I think the pattern would be something that “they” had told the protagonist–for example, that the killer is in the house; that’s a very familiar horror scenario, so having the killer actually be in the house reinforces the cliché rather than contrasting with it. This could work if the protagonist expected the killer to be in the house, but the killer had actually left and only when walking by and seeing the protagonist’s light in the house did he decide to return to get some more victims. The protagonist might have let his guard down after searching through the house and not finding the killer, and that’s when he’s vulnerable to the killer.

The protagonist imagines “giving some long important speech about right and wrong,” yet this doesn’t feel like a familiar horror scenario. In my mind, if the protagonist gets a corner of the duct tape off, there are only two possibilities: scream your lungs out for help or find a phone and call 911 (and then the killer either cuts the cord or gets on the extension and says you’re goofing around).

The familiar horror scenario seems to disappear at the climax, when the protagonist tries for freedom. What always happens when the protagonist tries for freedom? I would expect that the protagonist would succeed. That seems missing from the story.

The second key element is what really happens to the protagonist, which contrasts with the familiar horror scenario. For me, finding nothing but random puddles of blood in the search of the house isn’t a strong contrast with what is expected. Finding some mundane items would be more of a contrast, such as posters of rappers wearing bling, colorful backpacks, expensive Nikes, cell phones, toaster ovens, and so on (I guess I’m imagining a frat house). The contrast of gentle versus forceful chloroform doesn’t seem worth talking about. I think the idea that the chloroform takes a long time to work, during which you’re squealing and snorting, is a more interesting contrast, along with the killer finally giving up and using the shovel.

The talk about “forced sleep” takes me out of the story and seems to be jumping back in time. This reduces the intensity of the situation and doesn’t create a strong contrast with what’s expected, so I would suggest cutting this paragraph.

I really like your contrast of the expected killer with the actual one, who seems like he “could have been your friend’s dad or uncle.” I think the story is at its best when you show the mundane nature of evil. The next paragraph undercuts this by talking about the killers eyes burning; that sounds like something I’d read in a horror story. His eyes should just look normal, to continue the description from the previous paragraph.

For me, the plot goes off track when the killer starts talking. The killer sounds crazy, or sounds like he’s being directed by some greater evil, or like he’s been twisted by bullying, all of which are familiar scenarios from horror stories. To continue the contrast with the familiar, the killer should say something else, maybe something like, “I just don’t like people.”

The feeling that the story has gone off track continues as the killer draws on the protagonist’s back with his knife and opens a door revealing some cosmic horror. While this isn’t a standard horror scenario, it feels fictional, not a strong contrast with the fictional. So for me, it doesn’t work as a contrast, providing the same joy the rest of the story provides, and it doesn’t work as horror, because I’m not reading the story that way and am not afraid. So my suggestion would be to make this more mundane. For example, maybe the killer is preparing to torture the protagonist, as expected, but then the door slams and the protagonist realizes help is coming, and the killer says, “Crap,” and kills the protagonist, because he has no time for more.

The final key element is the description, those sensory details that help put us into the body of the protagonist. I think some of those could be strengthened. For example, in para. 2, if the protagonist is trying to get a sense of where he is, I think he’s just woken up. In that case, his head would have been hanging down, and the burlap bag would not have been chafing his nose.

When the protagonist sees the killer, the killer has “a gut like a rock under a baggy T-shirt.” If the T-shirt is baggy, how is he seeing the rock? A rock is ragged; it doesn’t give me an image that looks like a gut.

The description of “the map of liquid fire” is nice, but before that, when “You feel the knife’s tip plunge in,” I can’t feel that. The filtering phrase “You feel” weakens the sentence and distances me from the protagonist. Filtering (establishing the means of perception) is really only necessary at the beginning of a story when the author needs to establish the point of view. Once that is set, filtering is rarely needed. When filtering is eliminated, the sentence can have a stronger verb. For example, “The knife’s tip plunges in.” The second part of the sentence “but it doesn’t penetrate fully,” is unclear. Doesn’t penetrate what? I’m sure it penetrates the skin, and the word plunge suggests it goes in some distance. Obviously it doesn’t go through the entire body, but I don’t think that needs to be said. Instead you could describe the sensation. I really want to feel whatever particular type of pain this causes.

I hope that gives you a sense of some areas where I think this can be strengthened. I was immediately pulled into the story and enjoyed reading it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos,editor, author, director of Odyssey

Writing Challenge/Prompt

Imagine a world where no one believes in miracles. There are no spontaneous cures, no finding someone lost when all hope is gone, no faith in anything but the concrete.

All that changes one morning, and miracles sprout as thick as dandelions in a meadow.

Put a character in the middle of that scenario and write a story.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).