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 opening chapter of There’s Someone in the House shows a major reversal, starting out with a husband, Michael Stillwater, eagerly arriving home from a business trip to see his wife, and ending with–I think–the husband, possessed by some entity–killing his wife. The smooth flow and building suspense keep me reading to the end of the chapter.
The chapter also has some nice writing that draws me in. The ends of the first two paragraphs–“It bored him” and “A bit of an enigma, called in for specialized jobs”–provide intriguing hints that Michael is not the standard protagonist. Once he gets home, some of the descriptions help to evoke fear. I particularly like “Her voice was a rush of leaves,” which I can actually hear, and the paragraph in which Michael hears a soft hello, “Deceptively quiet and menacing, heard like you ‘hear’ the words someone mouths from across a crowded room.” That is very evocative.
So the chapter has a lot going for it. I found after reading it, though, that I didn’t have any urge to continue. Pulling readers through and leaving them satisfied can work well for a short story. But a novel chapter, especially a first chapter, needs to leave readers eager to turn the page. I think there are several elements in the chapter that could be revised to help make that happen. Of course, it’s difficult to know exactly what to suggest without knowing where the novel is headed, but I’ll try to cover various possibilities.
One reason I don’t feel a strong need to continue reading is that I’m not attached to Michael, and I’m not terribly upset about his wife’s death. If I really cared about Michael or I really cared about Ellen and couldn’t walk away without a better understanding of her death, then I’d want to keep reading. But I barely know either of them. The first two paragraphs tell me some interesting things about Michael’s work life, but they don’t show Michael. It’s exposition, what is often called “driving to the story,” or in other cases “walking to the story,” “flying to the story,” or “riding to the story.” This means that the story starts with the character on the way to a place, and that place is where the true story will begin. As he travels, the character thinks about his life, filling the reader in on various facts. This is generally not a strong way to open a story or chapter. These paragraphs do get me interested in Michael’s work, but they don’t allow me to get attached to Michael, because I don’t see him in action. And once he arrives home, all of that information seems irrelevant. He becomes what seems to me a much more standard protagonist. He doesn’t act in any way that seems connected to his life as a contract lawyer to the stars. If his profession is going to be important later in the novel–and I suspect it is because it’s included here–then the novel could open with a scene of Michael doing his job, creating suspense over this false celebrity meltdown or some other issue, and making us care about Michael (either in a positive or negative way) by seeing how he operates in this milieu. This could help set up some plot elements that will become important in later chapters and create suspense that will make us want to keep reading after Chapter 1. It can also make us care more about Michael, so when he’s possessed, we’ll be upset. Ellen could even call several times during the meeting, but Michael can’t take the calls, so there can be conflict between the two parts of Michael’s life. Or maybe it appears that Ellen is calling, but when he checks the voicemail, he hears only a weird whisper he can’t understand, and when he calls her back, she says she never called. (And once he gets home, he can be getting calls regarding his job while he’s searching for the intruder. Job’s like Michael’s generally don’t limit themselves to work hours and can easily be all-consuming.)
For me, starting a horror novel with a character being killed feels quite familiar and gives me the sense that the author doesn’t have faith in his ability to get my attention without killing someone. But the writing in this chapter indicates to me that the author could definitely pull me into a novel with a scene in which no one dies. So why not establish Michael and get readers attached to him, and show his relationship with Ellen, so we can care about her too.
Another reason I don’t finish the chapter eager to turn the page is that the plot feels self-contained. It provides the reversal I mentioned above, and then ends with Michael discovering what has happened. I’m thinking that Michael is going to be arrested for his wife’s murder and go to jail for life. That doesn’t leave me a lot of reason to keep reading. I’m not terribly curious about who possessed Michael–I’m imagining it’s some dead, disgruntled celebrity client. But I don’t really care. I’ve read lots of possession stories, so for me, that’s the least interesting aspect of the chapter. I was more interested when there was a mysterious shadowy presence in the house that whispered to them. But if the chapter ended in an unexpected way that shed new light on either the characters or the possession plot, I could be excited to continue. If I had some intriguing suspicion, such that his wife made this happen so she could get revenge on Michael for cheating on her, I would want to keep reading to see if my theory was accurate. Or if Michael had an unusual reaction to events, such as he buried his wife in the backyard, or jumped in the car and headed out of the country, or called an enemy over to the house to frame him for the murder, or the experience gave him an idea how to solve the celebrity problem he was working on earlier, I would be eager to turn the page to follow his character and see how that played out. Or if there was some clue or strange element discovered at the end, such as his wife’s body parts were arranged to spell out a message, or some old (and lost) item of Michael’s was left beside the body, then I would want to keep reading to learn what that meant.
Thinking about plot on a larger scale, if Michael is the protagonist of the novel, the end of the chapter feels like the end of Act 1. I feel that he’ll change his goal in the next chapter (which will start a new act) to figuring out who possessed him and getting revenge on that person. But Act 1 (in a three-act novel) usually involves the first 25% or so of a novel, so things are feeling a bit out of balance. The novel feels like it’s rushing through important Act 1 elements. Having Act 1 build suspense through about a quarter of the way through the novel allows the crisis that ends Act 1 to have more power. The other possibility I see is that Michael is not the protagonist and this chapter is playing the role of a prologue–establishing an evil that will go after the protagonist. I don’t think that’s where this is going, but if it is, that’s an overused structure in horror that I wouldn’t recommend. I think it would still be better to develop Michael over several scenes/chapters so we care more when he’s faced with a possible intruder, possession, and murder.
I enjoyed many elements in this chapter. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey