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.
This horror/mystery story has a well-drawn historical setting. With vivid, convincing details and a strong period voice, we’re immersed in the world of San Francisco, 1923. The opening draws me in with its close description of the most recent victim of the killer. For me, the heart of the story and the most appealing part of it is the relationship between Inspector Falcone and his daughter, Alessandra. The relationship feels real and warm.
I think some of the other elements could be strengthened, particularly the plot and character arcs. The plot has several weaknesses. Each scene should show a change to a value of significance for the main character of that scene. That’s how a writer can check to see if the scene is actually moving the story ahead and earning its place. For example, in the third scene, Alessandra goes from wanting her father’s permission to attend the ball to getting her father’s permission to attend the ball. This is a major change to something that Alessandra values.
The second scene, in contrary, shows no such change. Alessandra seems excited about the invitation from the beginning of the scene and remains excited about it at the end. The scene mainly serves to provide exposition (background information) as Alessandra thinks about the Conte who sent the invitation, about her life, about her status, and about her chances of getting a dance with the Conte. This is a common weakness in the work of developing writers–the scene in which nothing of significance changes that serves mainly to establish the status quo, often through a lot of exposition, in which the character, alone, thinks about her life.
The first scene has a similar problem. Most of the scene involves exposition, as Falcone, primarily alone, thinks about the facts of the case. A little something of significance changes in the scene, since Falcone gets a description from the Italian, but it doesn’t seem very important to Falcone. So these scenes are not serving the story as well as they might.
Once the father and daughter get together and start to interact, the scenes become stronger. My advice is to consider putting the father and daughter together from the beginning. This would allow more room in the story to develop their characters and relationship, and it would allow much of the exposition to be revealed through the actions and dialogue of the characters rather than through a lot of thought. One big challenge for writers is finding ways to externalize the internal. The first two scenes need to become more external, to have less exposition and more forward action, and to have something stronger of significance changing. These can all work together.
Before I go into some specific suggestions, let me briefly discuss the character arcs, the other area I said could be improved. Falcone and Alessandra don’t really seem to change over the course of the story, and thus their relationship doesn’t change. Alessandra seems to solve the case out of desperation and a moment of insight, not because she has changed as a person at all, so the solution seems kind of manipulated by the author, who puts a lot of clues in front of Alessandra and then makes her put them together. I don’t feel a strong reason why she puts them together or is able to do so. The ending, which should feel both surprising and inevitable, does not feel inevitable. I could just as easily imagine the Conte gets the better of her before she can use her mirror on him. Similarly, Alessandra’s transformation into a basilisk at the end does not feel inevitable. It feels like the author wanted to throw in a twist. The climax and denouement would work better if Alessandra had characteristics and a character arc that made this outcome seem more inevitable.
Now I’ll return to discussing the opening two scenes while keeping possible character arcs in mind. Perhaps Falcone drops his daughter off at school every morning. But this morning, he must stop to examine the latest victim of the killer. So Alessandra is with him as the story opens. He could ask her to stay in the carriage, but she could come out and examine the corpse, using her medical knowledge to provide some insight. Since she doesn’t know all the facts of the other murders, she could question her father, and he could answer, and that way, the reader could receive the exposition, but it would be revealed in a more lively, external way through this conversation. You could also mix conflict into the scene. Perhaps Alessandra resents her father making this stop before dropping her off. Maybe she has a test or something important at school and feels he doesn’t value her education. Maybe her mother always felt she took second place to his work. Falcone might ask her to come out of the carriage and look at the wound on the throat and give her opinion. Once she sees the dead woman and the wound, she gets involved, and we see how similar father and daughter are at heart. This could also set up a character arc of Alessandra overcoming her resentment of her father and becoming more concerned about people other than herself (as her father is), and a relationship arc as the father and daughter become closer over the course of the story.
Alessandra might still resent her father and his work at the end of the first scene. When he insisted on staying and questioning people, this caused her to miss her event at school entirely. But perhaps Alessandra contributed some new piece of information the father didn’t know–something about hemlock or strychnine–and the father now realizes the value of having someone with medical knowledge at his side during the investigation. This would be a change to something that the father values. He was stuck working this case alone; now he sees perhaps a way that he can have a breakthrough working with his daughter.
Perhaps when Alessandra returns from school that night, she has found out some more about the chemical that might have been used by the killer, and now she might want to get more involved. She could suggest the party as a way for them to investigate together. At the party, she might detect something in her drink and try to get the drink out of the party to test it, but the Conte stops her. There are many possibilities, but through something like this you could show Alessandra changing and coming closer to the solution of the mystery, rather than having it all hit her at once.
I don’t know if having her transform into a basilisk is the right ending. She seems to simply be a victim there, not a protagonist pursuing a goal that led to an unforeseen consequence. It’s not clear to me why this is her inevitable destiny. The answer to whether that’s the right ending will come once her character arc is more developed.
Developing the characters and their relationship more will give readers something else to pay attention to rather than just the mystery, and readers may become more engaged with and concerned about the characters. If we see the father and daughter growing closer through this investigation, then it could be particularly tragic to see the daughter transforming at the end.
I find the setting and voice very strong and enjoy the interaction of the father and daughter. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey