Editor’s Choice Review April 2017, 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 Earthly Garden by Christi Nogle

“The Earthly Garden” caught my attention this month with its slow feeling of the uncanny and interestingly unconventional narrative. I did find myself tangled, though, in the amount of plot elements left to subtext—while finding other uses of that same tool deeply, deeply effective. So this month, I’d like to discuss the kind of vagueness that lets readers fill in the gaps versus the kind of vagueness that prevents them from doing so, and how to make sure we’re providing the variety that lets readers into the story.

“The Earthly Garden” sets a scene and web of relationships quickly and with real ease: a mother who accepts her kid despite not really noticing him in many ways, a child who’s stranger than we think. There are real beautiful details here that pull more than their weight in illuminating the characters—I especially liked the architectural plans for houses that break all the rules, and the throwaway line in Part 2 about how Jeremy does in fact like all the beers.

That’s paired with some smart structural instincts: “The Earthly Garden” takes its story about a living triptych and renders it in a literal triptych: three points of view, three sections, each daisy-chaining readers through the narrative. There’s a huge amount of resonance built up just with that narrative choice, and that resonance pays off when the triptych is actually revealed and symbols recognized from earlier in the story.

However, clarity is a core issue in “The Earthly Garden”—the one that I think needs the most attention if this piece is going to reach its full potential.

I don’t think it’s required of us, especially in a piece that’s supposed to have the air of awe and mystery, to completely nail down on the page precisely what has happened here. However, there are tangible ways in which readers frequently pick up on whether the plot action and thematics have been thought through in a story, and the major driver of that effect is consistency: even if the real narrative is obscured or not visible to readers, do all the characters—and the world of the story—act and react in a way that is consistent to that narrative? Or, to use an example: even if the road we’re walking on is invisible because it’s covered in snow, is everyone in the area walking along the same straight line?

I’m not certain everyone in “The Earthly Garden” is walking the same straight line—or if so, they’re walking it lightly enough that the footprints are difficult to pick up in the snow. Certain connections are implied very lightly, and aren’t quite making it to the page. For example, the connection between Stephan’s “I hear a drink makes me real entertaining” comment in Part 1 and the party when he gets the idea for the triptych and all his friends disappear feels somewhat half-emerged; it could be pointing in any of three or four directions, and which direction it points in matters for our understanding of the triptych and what happens to Audrey by the end.

Likewise, the same issue is arising with the goosebumps on Stephan’s forearm in Part 2 and what they prefigure, the undulation the Part 3 narrator looks away from and what that might mean for that character, that relationship, and the story itself, and even the question of whether Audrey is Stephan’s daughter. The hair being similar is a clue, but perhaps not enough of one, and we can’t pull the information from who the narrator of Part 3 might be. Stephan’s girlfriend is mentioned as a character off the page in Part 2, but we never meet here, never have a name or characteristics to recognize (or not!) in Part 3, never have a hint that there’s a child in the picture. It becomes a guessing game, which in the third act of a story presents more of an obstacle for readers than an intriguing mystery.

The image at the end—the coat, and the hair—is powerful, but it feels as if it cuts off somewhat abruptly; as if the pieces that would have made it fully meaningful haven’t quite come together or are too obscured to click. The ultimate consequence of the vague air of “The Earthly Garden” is that its final symbol is never quite set up; a moment that should be full of meaning isn’t quite meaningful, even though I can feel the ghost of the significance that should be there.

There’s another tangible consequence that may be emerging. I’m left unsure whether Stephan’s childhood behaviours are meant to evoke autism symptoms—specifically the echolalia and hair-rubbing, which I read as a stim—and if so, if they’re meant to be deliberately tied to Stephan’s overclocked brain, resulting genius, and loneliness.  If so, I’d be very careful about using that depiction—it’s a depiction with consequences, and clarity is especially important when depicting people in ways that could be harmful. There’s a lot of good reading out there about why the Magical Neurodiverse Person archetype is damaging to the very real, human people who are neurodiverse; I’d recommend starting with Ada Hoffmann’s Autistic Book Party reviews.

While the implication or absence of certain kinds of information can be a tool to pull readers into deeper engagement with a story—the puzzles we solve ourselves are always more compelling than the answers spelled out for us—it’s worth considering which aspects of a story we want to single out for use as puzzles. I’ve found it worthwhile to model a story as a person, standing on the edge of a cliff: which aspects of the story are the leg that’s on firm, clear ground, and which ones are the leg that’s over thin air? Without the leg on the ground—half the story clearly spelled out, regardless of which audience this is aimed at—it’s very easy for a piece to lose its balance.

My main suggestion, therefore, would be to do some serious thinking about the architecture of “The Earthly Garden”: what’s made clear to readers, and what’s obscured—and what goal clarifying or obscuring each piece of information serves. Depending on what the reveal of the piece is supposed to be, it’s plausible to create a road (snow-covered or not!) toward that reveal by clarifying the information that makes people wander off that road toward other theories of what the story is about and pointing the obscured clues in the story in the same direction, so that readers can follow them to the logical conclusion.

This is careful structural work, and will likely take time; I’d caution to not be discouraged if it takes a few drafts and tries to achieve the best effect.

Otherwise, on the prose level, I’d suggest looking at hedge words. There are a lot of sentences that are being diluted by the little markers of uncertainty: I suppose, like, sort of. While there’s a real use for these in demarcating the voice of a narrator who’s less certain, or more apologetic, about putting forward an opinion from a character who isn’t, they seemed to be showing up consistently throughout the piece and not as a voice tool. I’d suggest pruning those words back—or, more interestingly, making them a marker of one of those voices, and using them to distinguish one of the story’s three narrators.

“The Earthly Garden” has a lot going for it: an evocative and intriguing atmosphere, an unconventional narrative, a structure that mirrors its thematics and plot elements well, and prose that complements its quiet with observant and evocative turns of phrase. With a little more consideration, deliberation, and work on its specificity—ensuring that the uncertainties it creates are places for readers to connect with, rather than be unsure about—this piece can really shine.

Best of luck!

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

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