August 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, 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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and guest editor Gemma Files. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Last Road Ch 1 + 2 Revised (C4C) by Helen Rena

The Last Road has several qualities important for a novel aimed at young adults:  an engaging, first person voice that sounds as if it comes from a teen; a protagonist concerned with issues of identity, belonging, loyalty, and friendship; and a romantic element.  The opening of Ch. 1 pulls me right in and makes me want to keep reading to find out what’s happening.  Ch. 1 and 2 both end with action and anticipation, creating suspenseful situations that pull me into the next chapter.  So these chapters have a lot of strengths.

I think there are several areas where the chapters could be improved, though.  I was confused by the references to what happened on the porch.  At first I thought this was something that happened on the porch of the house where Mara is in Ch. 1.  Later I decided I must be missing a prologue, so I looked in the older submissions and found a very short prologue in a previous version that seems to take place on the porch of Mara’s house.  For me, the prologue from Rumpelstiltskin’s point of view is not very effective.  I feel distant from the action and feel little emotion about the abduction of Mara’s sister.  It’s always difficult to offer advice on a novel without reading all of it, but I think there are two possible ways to handle this that would be stronger.  One would be to write the prologue from Mara’s POV.   We could better understand what this meant to her and how it affected her.  Was she traumatized?  Did she blame herself for what happened?  Was she happy because her sister got all the attention?  Was she confused and unsure what really happened?  Knowing what this meant to her would help us understand how she feels about the fantastic experiences she has in Ch. 1.  I find it hard to relate to Mara as she sees all these strange things in Ch. 1 and seems to take it in stride.  I would expect a much stronger reaction.  Whether that reaction would be terror that this force that stole her sister is back, or excitement at having her belief in the fantastic confirmed, or something else, would depend on how she reacted to that initial experience in the prologue.  Going through that prologue experience with her would help me to understand her in Ch. 1.

The other possible way to handle this material would be to cut the prologue.  Mara could have repressed this memory because of the trauma, and it might only come out later, as some experience with the fantastic awakens that memory and she realizes what really happened to her sister.  In this case, Mara would react to the fantastic much like many of us would, with disbelief and fear, which would be easier for the reader to relate to.

This leads to the next point I want to discuss, which is Mara’s character.  For me, these first two chapters don’t show me anything about Mara that distinguishes her from all the other YA protagonists out there.  She doesn’t seem a compelling or memorable character to me yet.  She’s basically a victim and seems helpless through most of this excerpt.  John Gardner famously said, “No fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals but a victim, subject to the will of others.”  I suspect the book will show Mara gaining some power, and perhaps you’re trying to establish a character arc where she starts with little power and ends with more.  But she can’t start with no power.  To show her “struggling for his or her own goals,” you first need to strengthen her goals.  Her initial goal seems like it should be to find Blake, but she seems to give up on that when she reaches the kitchen.  She thinks about leaving but doesn’t.  She resists Paige but not strongly, and she seems not to care about Blake.  So she has no clear goal she is struggling to achieve.  She decides Blake can save her.

For myself, I’m pretty worried about Blake.  It seems like he was pulled away on purpose, and Paige might be behind it.  I’m thinking they might have him locked in a room somewhere.  But Mara doesn’t seem to care.  Does Mara think Blake would just wander off and leave her?  If so, is she determined to hold onto him?  Or does this confirm that she should drop him and leave the party?  The fact that she has no clear goal leads to the rest of her character seeming unclear.  If she believes in him and their relationship, then I think she’d try to find him.  If that’s her goal, then she needs to struggle more strongly toward that goal.  That doesn’t mean she has to succeed; she can still fail.  But she has to try with all she has.  She spends too much time unable to speak or act.   Why not let her pull her arm free of Paige?  She would still go down in the basement in her search for Blake, and Paige could accompany her with a smile.  Even when Mara has a heavy alcohol bottle, she doesn’t hit Paige on the arm with it to free herself.  Why not?

Similarly, she is helpless when falling toward the car and gets saved by the unknown hand rather than herself.  This makes her seem the victim of other forces.  The only significant action she takes in these chapters is to pull Chelsea aside, and her motivation to do so seems to arise suddenly and without sufficient setup.  It’s unclear what her goal is after leaving the party except to get away, but that is easily accomplished, not requiring struggle.  Then she decides to eavesdrop on Paige and Chelsea for no clear reason.  When the protagonist has no clear goal, it usually feels as if the author is manipulating the character, making her do these things, and that’s how I feel through much of this.

Giving Mara clearer goals and allowing her to struggle to achieve them will make her character stronger and the plot stronger as well.  For example, if Mara’s goal is to find Blake, let her struggle to free herself from Paige and finally succeed, only to go in the basement and find Blake making out.  Then let her go and confront him.  Her goal could be to hurt him as much as he has hurt her, or her goal could be to try to understand what’s happened, or her goal might be to say something clever and recover a scrap of respect out of the situation.  Why is she with this guy who has a new girlfriend every week?  What did she think their relationship was?  What did he think it was?  Providing some sort of interaction between them will give us a better sense of her character as well as some good conflict.

When she sees Paige and Chelsea at the gas station, her goal could be to pull some trick on them to get revenge.  This would make her more active and tie better to what’s come before.  Then when the blue boy wants to hurt them, Mara can realize that she doesn’t want that.  She doesn’t want anyone to be physically hurt; she only wanted to pull a prank.  Then she can push Chelsea out of the way, not because Chelsea opened the door for her (which again makes Mara passive and makes her seem at the mercy of/a victim of others) but because she doesn’t want them to be injured.

This ties to my final point, which is about plot and the causal chain.  Right now, many things seem manipulated by the author, not arising out of a strong chain of cause and effect.  The kids separate Mara and Blake for no clear reason; Blake thinks he can make out in the basement without Mara finding out for no clear reason; Mara falls in front of the car for no clear reason; she is rescued for no clear reason; the snake and other fantastical creatures appear for no clear reason; Mara gains the power to see fairies for no clear reason; the blue boy wants to attack Chelsea for no clear reason.  While I suspect a couple of these points will later have their reasons revealed (I suspect the person in the brown cape may be Mara’s sister who saved her from the car), I think most of them don’t have reasons.  Even if they all have reasons, it’s not satisfying to the reader to leave all of them unknown.  One could be left unknown, as a mystery, such as who or what saved her from the car.  But we should have a sense about the others.  Did Blake arrange for his friends to free him from Mara?  Did Blake arrange for his friends to keep Mara out of the basement (and Mara overcame them)?  A small gesture from Blake, before the split occurs, might indicate that, as well as the behavior of those people who initially split them up.  He might even see the girl he ends up making out with as they enter and give her a signal.

These points really all tie together.  It’s about establishing who your characters are, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to try to achieve their goals. This helps link all the actions in a causal chain driven by character and action.

Strengthening these elements will make the chapters even more involving and suspenseful.  I hope this is helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos–editor, author, director of Odyssey

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