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 Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
Is the relationship between a singer and his audience symbiotic? And can that relationship survive when the singer is now only a ghost? This is the very interesting idea behind “Donnie.” I become very involved in the story with the explanation of this relationship and the science behind it. The idea feels fresh and different, and the relationship between ghost and audience poses a difficult challenge for the first-person protagonist. The plot has some nice escalation when the audience breaks into the stadium to be with Donnie.
I think there are several ways the story could be strengthened, mainly involving character and plot. The protagonist seems inconsistent to me, and I have a hard time understanding him and caring about him. Apparently, before the story began, he was so upset about the relationship between Donnie and his fans that he shot and killed Donnie, the one violent act of his life. This confuses me for several reasons. First, the protagonist seems to be a spellcaster of some kind, focused on magic. Why would he kill someone using a gun? More than that, the protagonist I see within the story seems not to care much about Donnie at all. When asked to stop Ghost Donnie from calling out to his followers from the stadium, the protagonist says it’s not his problem. He seems to have no desire to stop Ghost Donnie for half the story. If he was upset enough about the living Donnie to kill him, why isn’t he equally if not more upset about what Ghost Donnie is doing? I think he killed Donnie in the first place to free the fans trapped in this relationship with him. Doesn’t he care about the fans now?
If I imagine myself in the protagonist’s place, and I’d killed Donnie to stop this destructive relationship, then I’d be really angry at myself and upset that Donnie had come back as a ghost and was causing an even worse problem. I’d be begging for a chance to go to the stadium and destroy Ghost Donnie, especially if I knew spells that might banish a ghost. So I feel a major disconnect between the backstory and the present character.
I also find it difficult to care about the protagonist. One key reason we care about a character is that we see him struggling to achieve a goal. When he doesn’t have a clear goal for quite a while, that makes me not care about him. Once he does take on the goal of stopping Ghost Donnie, he doesn’t seem to struggle that much or to be terribly invested in the outcome. For me, he seems fairly detached. He seems to be most upset at the stadium owner for making money from concerts, which is not the focus of the conflict or the story. I also have a hard time making sense of this, because stadiums are built and events are held in response to demand, and as you explain, it’s human nature to form these sorts of relationships. Even without the stadium, Donnie could sing and others could become his fans. So the protagonist seems concerned about something that’s unrelated to the conflict and something that doesn’t concern me, which puts me at a distance from him.
The fact that the protagonist has no clear goal for the first half of the story has important repercussions on the plot. The protagonist’s goal drives the plot, and if the protagonist doesn’t have one, then the story tends to meander and lack focus. That’s what happens for the first half of the story, up until the protagonist says, “Get me a bag of rock salt and an internet connection.” If, instead, the protagonist is struggling from the opening of the story to be taken to the stadium so he can attempt to destroy Ghost Donnie, I would be much more involved in the story and would care more about the protagonist. He could have many obstacles to overcome–maybe the stadium has hired someone else to banish Ghost Donnie; maybe the prison officials won’t allow him to leave. Maybe he tries to destroy Donnie remotely and fails. Finally he convinces them, but maybe one of the guards who accompanies him is a fan of Donnie’s and very angry at what the protagonist did. That could provide more problems and conflict later.
Then as soon as the protagonist arrives at the stadium he can struggle to use his skills to banish Ghost Donnie. In addition to pursuing this goal sooner, he could also struggle more. When magic is used to solve a problem, the author runs the risk of making the solution seem convenient. That’s what happens here. I don’t know why the magic would succeed or fail at banishing Donnie; I don’t know what key requirements need to be satisfied or how this challenges the protagonist. Right now, he seems to try several things and then Donnie creates a vortex that ends up sucking him into oblivion. That seems pretty convenient. If I knew that the protagonist was struggling to create a vortex from the beginning to suck Donnie into oblivion, then I could feel satisfied when this happens at the end. Instead, it seems to come out of nowhere. So you could set up that the solution is a vortex. Then, in the midst of the protagonist’s struggle to create this, I think the plot also needs a turn when the protagonist takes a radically new approach to achieving this goal. This will create a third act to your two-act story, which will make the plot more surprising and emotional. He could try all of his techniques and fail. Then he could realize Donnie is too powerful for the protagonist to create the vortex. He needs Donnie himself to create the vortex. How? By letting the fans into the stadium, so Donnie will try to suck them in by creating a vortex. Then the protagonist could fight off the police and the owner to open the doors and let the fans in. And Donnie could create the vortex to suck in the fans and unintentionally destroy himself.
Another possibility for a third act would be for the fans to break in, break the circle, free Donnie, and Donnie could form a huge vortex to suck them in. Then the protagonist would really have to struggle to stop Donnie and save the fans.
Suspense is another aspect of the plot that could be strengthened, by establishing dangers in advance. For almost the entire story, I don’t know what’s at stake besides the stadium owner’s ability to book more events into this venue. If I knew early on that Donnie wanted to suck all the fans into him and take them all into the afterlife, that would be something I could feel suspense about. But I don’t know that danger exists until a few paragraphs before the end. Also, if I knew that breaking the circle would free Donnie, I could worry about that, particularly if there was some threat, such as a fan loose in the stadium, or a guard who loves Donnie. But I don’t know that’s a danger until Gardner has already blocked the threat from breaking the circle. Establishing threats earlier could make the story much more involving.
I hope my comments are helpful. You’ve set up a fascinating, fresh situation that illuminates the whole fan/celebrity dynamic in a new way.
Jeanne Cavelos–editor, author, director of Odyssey