Editor’s Choice Review November 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.

OSSUARY by Laura Hewitt

“Ossuary” caught my attention this month with the poetry of its images, its strong and cohesive voice, and the sheer power of Sharon’s emotional predicament, rendered without judgment, spilling off the page. It’s a powerful if unfinished-feeling piece, and this month I’d like to talk about how to craft strong imagery and what narrative satisfaction means.

The author describes “Ossuary” as “pretty larval”, but nonetheless, there’s a lot of beautiful work being done here, notably with Sharon’s narrative voice and the strength of the visual-emotional imagination on display. The sheer vividness of the images she remembers is drop-dead impressive: they’re poetic, recited in almost ritual language, just idiosyncratic enough to be real, and suffused with this incredible yearning. There are a few components which make those images work: a fine eye for detail (sometimes literally), the choice of images that are familiar but not archetypical (good hair!), sensory mixing (a posture that mutters, images that slap against your consciousness like waves) and the strength of emotional association.

The eye for detail is the most obvious part of the mix that makes the story’s imagery work, but how those images are set is also a major factor: the contrast with the simplicity and exasperation of Sharon’s voice provides the kinds of tonal peaks and valleys that make every paragraph feel cohesive, but unique. The dips into stark simplicity—”Here are the things she knows that she wishes her children would stand still long enough to hear:”—make the vivid imagery feel brighter and taller by contrast, and provide a breath to readers between those vivid images.

It’s in that contrast, between the images of Sharon’s past and her now, that I really feel Sharon’s loneliness—not just at being the only person who remembers the old world, but the horrible feeling of being the only adult. That’s a powerful and nuanced emotional place to start a narrator, and she comes across as this beautiful mix of frustration and care, grief and practicality. She’s a gorgeous character, written gorgeously.

As it stands, I think there could be some small adjustments to the mnemonic devices. While I like how they seep into Sharon’s narrative language, here and there—”They drone, they groan, but they intone” shows she’s way too used to constructing rhymes and acronyms to hold not enough information—there might be a few too many of them. The readers don’t know what problems and processes they refer to—they’re largely symbols without referents that show up in the story—and so there’s not quite enough weight to that information to make it meaningful.

The mnemonics that work, at least for me as a reader, are the ones that have some rooting information attached to them: that this is for getting a trapped partner out of a Circle, for example. I’d suggest paring back that sheer quantity of mnemonics and focusing on a few less, which are better and more substantially rooted: I think that’ll communicate the nature of this world more strongly, in this case, than the casual, unexplained-detail approach to worldbuilding.

But the major issue with “Ossuary” is in its sense of conflict and narrative motion. In short, this reads like the beginning of a longer work. The conflict is set up—Sharon is dying, her children don’t quite understand, and with that lack of time, she can only pass down survival, and not the world they’ve lost—but not yet developed, and not yet resolved, so I feel left somewhat hanging. But then what happens, and how does this play out? I’m left asking. This is less a request for a novel than a request for a stronger sense of arc and narrative satisfaction: many issues are raised in “Ossuary”, and if the story clearly and emphatically resolves one, even if it does so very softly, I’ll know as a reader which was important, and which was the core, and derive satisfaction from that.

What the author wants to do with this is a choice only for the author, of course—and the author’s notes indicate this is meant to be a snapshot—but I think there are some potential ways to make this satisfying, whether it’s by following through on those set-up conflicts or bringing the conflicts intended, however quiet they may be, more to the surface.

The choice the author’s note mentions Sharon as facing, about her own death, didn’t come across to me in the text. It’s a potential functional conflict to bring out—one which can maybe bring in a stronger sense of resolution—but it’s barely alluded to in the HALT sentence. It’s not mentioned again, as a question, a problem, or a choice, and Sharon’s whole character is so much about safety and survival, in the times we see her, that it’s hard on that information to imply she’s contemplating suicide. This is the woman who’s decided it’s better to scold her child now than have him suffer later; she’s not about the sparing of short-term pain.

Again, if that’s a conflict the author wishes to go after in a new draft, I’d suggest this is going to need some building out—about two more beats, so the question is evident, the choice is evident, and then Sharon’s choice is evident, even subtly.

Either way, I’d suggest there’s no reason to flinch at building out a little more, whatever direction that takes. The great thing about our craft as writers is that if a new draft doesn’t work the way we wanted, the old draft still exists, and it’s perfectly possible to go back to that old version and take another run at things until they work how we’d like them to. Three drafts, or five: If it gets “Ossuary” to the point where it’s landing just right, that’s work well worth it.

Congratulations on some beautiful prose-work, and best of luck!

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

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