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.
I’m joining this party very late, but when I started to read at Ch. 23, I was drawn in by the concrete details and the sense that the protagonist, Mike, was setting off on an adventure. This novel has an interesting feel, mixing elements of adventure, thriller, mystery, romance, and horror. My favorite part of this excerpt is the last page, in which Mike tells ex-fiancée Holly that she’s “a catch” and suggests several potential boyfriends for her. That dialogue feels very real, like two people with their shared history connecting in a new way, a way that’s not often shown in fiction. I would be excited to read more scenes with such unconventional but very human relationships and situations.
I did read the synopsis at the front of the Ch. 21-22 submission, which gave me a general idea of what’s happened so far, though I’m sure I’m missing some things. I’d like to focus my comments on two aspects of these chapters that perhaps can be strengthened in other chapters as well.
In each scene, some value of significance should change for the main character of that scene. For example, the character might go from freedom to captivity, from distrust to trust, from satisfaction to dissatisfaction, and so on. This change usually occurs because the main character is struggling to achieve a goal, and this action leads to the change. The change also needs to move the story ahead.
In Ch. 23, Mike’s goal is unclear. He wants to explore some caverns, but I don’t know what he’s hoping to find. Is he hoping to solve the mystery of the ghosts? Is he searching for Eugenia? This far into the novel, the protagonist shouldn’t just be exploring. He should be caught up in the plot, pursuing an urgent goal and struggling against obstacles to that goal. Since his goal is unclear, the significance of what happens is unclear. For example, if he believes the caverns are protected from ghosts and goes down there to get away from them, then encountering them would be very upsetting to him and would show he has failed to achieve his goal. If he at first ran from them, then saw the ghost Isabella and the encounter convinced him to solve the mystery of the ghosts, then a value of significance would change in the scene. Mike would go from avoiding his fear to facing and trying to understand his fear.
Right now, the scene ends with Mike deciding to get to the bottom of the ghost mystery, but it’s unclear how he felt about the ghost mystery before this. I think he was already working to solve it. It’s hard to imagine someone who has encountered ghosts going down into spooky underground caverns and not expecting to encounter them. So there’s no clear change. It’s also unclear how his encounters with the unseen women ghosts, the murder victim ghost, and Isabella affect him. The chapter seems overcrowded with ghosts, as if the author is forcing them in so they can all be explained later. I think a simpler, clearer encounter with one or two ghosts would be more effective and could show us a clearer change for Mike. The scene ending, with his determination to solve the mystery, could be a strong end, if the beginning of the chapter shows him wanting to avoid anything to do with ghosts and refusing to investigate.
In Ch. 24, Mike’s goal is clearer. He wants to get rid of Holly, who has shown up unexpectedly. At the end of the chapter, he succeeds. So he goes from unhappiness at her presence to happiness at her departure. That’s a change of significance. The problem is that this change doesn’t move the story ahead. The chapter creates a problem and then solves it. Things are basically the same as they were at the end of Ch. 23. Ch. 24 could be removed and nothing would be changed. So it’s usually weak when a plot introduces a problem and then solves the problem, unless that problem has some effect that extends beyond its solution. For example, Holly breaks his telescope, which he critically needs in the next chapter but now doesn’t have. Or Holly goes into the cavern and angers a ghost, and then Mike has to deal with the consequences in a future chapter. Or the coffee shop guy tells Miriam that Mike has another girlfriend, and this causes Miriam to cancel their date.
The other element I’d like to discuss is how emotions are conveyed. I think these chapters would be most effective if the reader shared Mike’s feelings. It’s often hard to do that when emotions are told to the reader through emotional labels like “happy,” “sad,” “excited,” “upset,” and so on. This is in part because people don’t usually label their emotions; they just feel them. Also, a person seldom feels one emotion and no others. Usually there is a mix of emotions, so a single labeling word seems overly simplistic. The words “excitement” and “exciting” are used three times in the first two paragraphs. This doesn’t make me feel or share Mike’s emotions.
In other places, the chapters use action or thoughts to convey emotion, such as in the fourth paragraph when Mike jumps when something lands on his head, knocks it off, shudders, and thinks, “It wasn’t as if he was scared of cockroaches, or spiders, or giant beetles, but down here everything felt so much bigger.” His actions show me he’s startled and grossed out, but then the thought seems too distant and explanatory, not what he’d really be thinking in the moment. He doesn’t need to tell himself that he’s not afraid of cockroaches. He knows that. This is what I call an “as you know, self,” and it makes the character hard to believe in. I would find it more likely that he might think, “Shit. Were giant cockroaches breeding down here?”
Sometimes Mike’s reactions and thoughts seem to come too soon, so I can’t experience things along with him, and share his reactions and emotions. For example, consider the following paragraph:
The woman ran through him. He shuddered as the image of a man standing in front of him appeared. The man held a knife and moved it around in a lunging motion. He was laughing, and he stepped forward and slashed at him. But it wasn’t Mike, it was the young ghost woman. She cried out, and Mike grabbed his stomach. His stomach burned, and he fell to his knees. He stared up at the man, to the tattoo of a Griffin on the upper arm.
In the second sentence, Mike shudders before the image of the man is revealed to the reader. So I can’t shudder along with Mike. Instead, I’m thinking, “Why is he shuddering?” I’m at a great emotional distance from Mike. If the information in the sentence is flipped, so that we see the man first, as Mike does, and then react, we can shudder along with Mike: “A man appeared in front of him, and he shuddered.” In the fourth sentence, the man slashes at Mike. Mike’s immediate reaction is to think, “But it wasn’t Mike, it was the young ghost woman.” But I don’t believe this is Mike’s immediate reaction. I think he first feels the burn, then grabs his stomach and falls to his knees, and then realizes the man was attacking the ghost woman. I think this is another example of the excerpt being too explanatory, rushing to explain what’s happening, when instead we should be experiencing this as Mike is–being confused and only belatedly understanding. That would increase our bond with Mike.
I hope this is helpful. The novel has some exciting and engaging elements.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey