Editor’s Choice Review May 2017, Fantasy

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 Hole In The Flame by J.L. Roberts

I am in love with the title of this story. It’s unique, it’s evocative, it’s directly relevant to the plot and the protagonist. It caught my eye right away and drew me in.

I really like a number of things about the story. The depiction of the fire as a happy sentient, and Cassie’s ability to see and share it. The concept of ghost/memories/apparitions as a form of time travel, and fire as the power source. The images of both the fire and the time past, which are vivid and evocative.

I do have some questions and confusions about the draft. Some will be resolved with a line edit and polish, breaking up paragraphs for greater clarity, and so on. Others may need expansion or clarification, or possibly rethinking.

Do I feel anything for Cassie? I see that she’s confident, that she has a plan, that she’s not afraid of the fire and in fact she’s pleased and excited about it. What I’m not getting is why.

It’s evident that fire for her is a friendly force, and that it’s a kind of time travel. Does she pass through into the past every time she’s called to a fire? Or has she been aiming for this result and achieving it by degrees, and finally she’s succeeded? I’d add the option of her not knowing what will happen if she follows Bobby’s apparition, but the impression I get is that she wants it and that’s why she’s here.

This leads me to a fundamental question. Why does she want to go back in time? What is she trying to accomplish? What does she expect will happen when she gets there? Is it death she’s aiming for? Or is she trying to change the past? How does Bobby’s voice enter into this, and what is the distinction between the voice she hears in the outside world and the one she’s hearing inside the fire? Is this some sort of revenge for past sins, evil force trying to devour her, old love wanting her back, past trying to get her to alter it and possibly bring Bobby (or Sam) back to life, or…?

You don’t have to spell out every single thing; you can be mysterious and allusive. Part of the appeal of the subgenre this story seems to fit into (on which more below) is that it doesn’t explain everything. It leaves some things to the reader’s imagination. It revolves around ambiguity. But it’s important to be just clear enough that the reader is sure the obscure bits are meant to be so.

I wondered as I read, how Cassie could get away with “accidentally” cutting off communications every time. Wouldn’t she be called on it? Would her fellow firefighters and her superiors detect a pattern? Has Edgar started to catch on, and that’s what the body language is about when he finds the communications device she’s dropped? When he comes back and tries to carry her out, is this something he’s done before, or that he’s been expecting to have to do? What are the undercurrents here?

It seems clear that he sees the apparition of Bobby. Is this a first? Has it happened before? Should Cassie be more worried about it than she is? Or is she so sure she’s leaving forever that it doesn’t matter?

I am a bear of little brain, and I did not quite get who Bobby is, or whether Sam is also Bobby, because Bobby disappears near the end and the hole in the flame becomes Sam. Are they both supposed to be there? Is Bobby the guide and Sam the one he’s leading her to? What would he do that? What does he want from her?

The line edit I mentioned above will help answer my questions, along a thorough proofread. In the draft, words tumble over each other, phrases and sentences repeat verbatim, and the effect is rather like the fire itself: exuberant, over the top, and headlong as it tumbles through the telling of the story. There’s great energy in it, at the expense of clarity; but that’s what revision is for. I’d definitely be in favor of keeping the energy and the enthusiasm, but layering in a clearer sense of who and what and why.

I had one further thought as I read and reread the story. It’s labeled Urban Fantasy, and this led me to reflect on genre markers, tropes and signals that tell a reader what to expect within the confines of the genre.

When I think of UF, I think of an urban setting, of course, and the supernatural or the fantastic underpinning a more or less contemporary setting. The popular trope of the kickass female hunter of supernatural beings, or the noir detective investigating odd or inexplicable crimes, isn’t all there is to it, but it’s an indicator of the voice and “feel” of urban fantasy.

The force of nature personified, its gleeful destructiveness, the appearance of ghosts or revenants from the past, the protagonist who is compelled to follow them even if it means her death—those all say horror or dark fantasy to me. If this were UF I’d look for Cassie to have some way of controlling or being controlled by supernatural beings—the fire, in this case. She’d either fight it or ally with it, for reasons that would become apparent in the course of the story.

Does it make a difference what label an author or publisher puts on a story? It does, I think: quite a lot in terms of marketing the final draft, but also in regard to what the reader expects.

Readers tend to like their labels; they know what they’re getting, they know how to react as the story unfolds, and they also know what kind of payoff they can reasonably expect to get. If the story presents a couple, for example, and the reader is told it’s a romance, she looks for the story to focus fairly tightly on an emotional arc (down as well as up) culminating in a happy ending. If it’s a space opera, on the other hand, the couple may or may not get together romantically, and their relationship won’t be the first priority; the heart of the story will be the adventure in space.

If the label isn’t quite right, the story can be very good or even brilliant but still draw reader criticism and editorial rejections. It’s like the cooking shows in which the judges will say, “You called this a semifreddo but it’s a very tasty, old-fashioned American ice cream. You promised us a particular thing, and you didn’t provide it. That’s why we had to chop you.”

Here, we have a pretty satisfyingly atmospheric dark fantasy with ghosts and a side of time travel. Our protagonist has a thing for fire, she can see her past in it, and she ends up giving herself to it. Relabeling the story may more clearly reflect what the story is about, and give it a better chance of reaching the audience that will most appreciate it.

–Judith Tarr

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