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.
“My Friend Jules” caught my attention this month with its playful, rhythmic narrative voice and unconventional narrative conflict: an invisible friend’s desperate attempts to help a little boy get well, despite the eventual, brutal cost to himself. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek creativity here, unfortunately counterbalanced by small issues that add up to muddy the emotional tone of the piece. So this month, I’d like to look at how smaller systemic issues in a piece can feed into bigger ones, or show themselves down to the very last line of a story, and how tackling the smaller pervasive problems with a story can often solve the larger ones.
“My Friend Jules” has a lot of great craft on its side. There’s a strong sense of irony and great imagery—”bent like a soggy pretzel” is entirely original, evocative, and got a laugh—and the balance of energy between the protagonist in Jules, where one thrives as the other fades, feels narratively right. Watching the protagonist’s vocabulary fade in the narrative, while knowing it feeds what he wants for Jules, is a gorgeous, painful effect.
However, the same voice tricks tends to be leaned on a little heavily: Both the mic check scene and the scripted one between Jules and his mother are relying hard on flowery and bombastic language, and since they’re both scenes meant to communicate fairly small things, it makes the language feel, to me, out of proportion. As former workshopper (and NYT bestseller!) Rae Carson has very rightly pointed out, if everything goes up to eleven, eleven is actually three—or, in other words, it’s not volume but contrast that matters when we’re crafting prose effects. I’d suggest finding places where it’s plausible to turn the protagonist’s operatic language down—rest spots, valleys—as a way of making the voice work signify both more important parts of the story and ensuring it doesn’t wear readers out, but complements their reading.
The major issue I found with “My Friend Jules” is that its ending doesn’t quite land in a way that’s emotionally satisfying for me as a reader, and I think that’s down to the still-ambiguous nature of the narrator.
There are a few roads “My Friend Jules” marks out for readers to walk down, a few assumptions to make: imaginary friend, the ghost of Mike (calling Jules’s parents “mom and dad” does hint in that direction; the “ask him about the brother” and talking about Mike together hints away), the ghost of some other kid entirely. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule against leaving a protagonist ambiguous, given the kind of emotional closure “My Friend Jules” is going for and how it centers Jules’s grief for his brother, I think it’s perhaps a better call here to close some of those roads, to ensure that readers can pick up the author’s idea of what the narrator is.
The work I’d suggest here is subtle: enough little clues dropped to let readers still enjoy putting together the puzzle of the narrator, and enough restraint in giving out information to keep the question of who the narrator from becoming the central point of the story.
The other question I’d suggest tackling is a structural understanding of some of this story’s why: Why does the doctor suddenly hear the protagonist after all the time spent not hearing him?
The crux of “My Friend Jules” is turning on something arbitrary, and while we’re not always required to show our work to readers in full, I’d suggest that it’s important to know why major plot events occur and demonstrate our own understanding of them. Consider the clues we leave our readers about why something happens, despite not putting that reason on the page, as fibers in a fabric: it’s tangible to readers when those fibers—those reasons—all run in the same direction. The reasons in “My Friend Jules” aren’t running to a common goal yet, aren’t giving the strong sense of a reason behind the doctor’s turnaround, and so that plot point feels mildly arbitrary to me; as if it only happens to get the story moving.
Both those issues are contributing, I think, to the way the ending feels slightly unsatisfying to me: not something that concludes the story but just kind of stops. Jules’s promise to tell his friend about the world outside, about something bigger, should feel deeply emotionally resonant, but because the protagonist’s nature—and therefore limitations, and therefore sources of conflict—hasn’t been cleanly established, it’s hard to know what the story wants me to feel about that promise. Because I can’t be sure why the protagonist broke those limitations in communicating with the doctor, I can’t evaluate well the stakes of this situation and how much he’s invested in Jules’s well-being, and so it’s hard for me to put the right emotional weight on the protagonist letting, finally, Jules go.
There’s a lot to love in “My Friend Jules”: a unique conflict, a playful and urgent voice, a really interesting take on the invisible friend trope. With some focusing, clarifying, and deliberation in the details — in the how and why — I think this piece can untangle its more big-picture issues and, in its next draft, really shine.
Best of luck!
–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance of Ashes (2015)