Editor’s Choice Review January 2018, 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.

Floral Aberration by Marion Engelkehttp

“Floral Aberration” caught my eye this month with its engaging pace, immersive worldbuilding, and a core mystery that made me want to read on to find out what this one odd detail was all about. However, its somewhat abrupt reveal, and the flurry of information that includes, meant that despite the excellent grounding in the first half of the piece, I left it feeling somewhat lost. So this month, I’d like to talk about the role consistency of characterization plays in the other elements of craft: notably, pacing and worldbuilding.

“Floral Aberration” establishes a strong rhythm to the prose early, and a world grounded in not just visuals but smells, textures, materials, temperature, and motion. The setting in “Floral Aberration” is established quickly, in a few strong strokes: I especially liked including Antonia’s physical reaction to the environment—her aching shoulders and running nose—as part of the initial scene-setting work. It’s a little too infrequent that I see characters reacting to their environments in reasonable physical ways, and Antonia’s sniffles and foggy glasses imbue both her and the piece with a concrete, grounded physicality.

It also sets a solid context for the meaningfulness of Antonia’s headache when she sees the wallpaper. There’s a lesson in this regarding how we couch our plot cues and clues: had Antonia’s headaches been her only physical reaction to the space, the clue would have stood out in an over-obvious way, and felt hackneyed. Given the physicality of her environment, it’s one more thing—and comes across much more subtly than it could.

“Floral Aberration” moves swiftly and interestingly until the question of the wallpaper comes into focus, and then the methods of information delivery to the readers and Antonia both—and the plot logic—start to falter. Antonia’s realization about the wallpaper—and the way Vidur just kind of gives over the truth once she’s heard it in his conversation with Utz—feel abrupt, as does Vidur’s explanation of the Travelers and Antonia’s choice to flee. There’s a question of proportionate weight in the gravity of the information Antonia learns versus how she learns it: magic portal-creating wallpaper being found out because of an overheard—and public!—conversation? Secret classes of portal-creating navigators informed on by infodump?

There’s a perception in story and in life—right or wrong—that the value of a revelation is directly linked to how much we have to work for it, and there’s an inherent issue, in “Floral Aberration”, where Antonia never really works for any of the information she receives. The only thing she makes effort toward, the test, she fails, and everything else is handed to her in ways that sometimes feel overly plot-convenient. I’d suggest considering ways for Antonia to get her information that are both less abrupt and a little more organic, and fit more tidily with her character goals—which leads into the question of characterization.

While my issues with the end of “Floral Aberration” are a matter of pacing—the setup for this revelation is given much more spotlighting, and much more page weight than the revelation itself—it’s also a question, I think, of consistency in Antonia’s character.

There are solid reasons given for Antonia wanting to escape her childhood home: she doesn’t like farm work, which seems later like a cover for getting away from her family and their expectations on her sexual identity. She does, however, want to drive trains, and where her choice at the end of the piece doesn’t fit, for me, is with her reaction to losing that particular dream. When Antonia’s chance to drive trains is taken away, she doesn’t push forward into something new, or related: she accepts a job at Vidur’s café, doing work she’s uninterested in and living in a space that actively upsets her. This is a person who has already worked hard to leave home and build a new life for herself, and has described this as her dream. When that resignation is shown, it’s indicative that a lot of her drive to escape has broken—but then it suddenly reasserts itself after Vidur’s offer, yet not in the way that takes her toward her dream. She is being offered the chance to work on trains at a yet higher level: why not take it? If her actual goal wasn’t trains, but escape, why did she ever stay at Vidur’s café?

It’s this inconsistency in her characterization: the switch-flipping of what she actually wanted, and her failure to consistently react from internal motives—that truly does damage to the end of “Floral Aberration” for me. I’d suggest that the first move, in a new draft, would be to ascertain clearly what Antonia wants and why she wants it, and have her actions and reactions stem entirely from those internal motives rather than the needs of the plot.

There are other small issues, but mostly nitpicks: Why would Vidur and Antonia appearing in a secure facility, during a sensitive operation, be cause for nothing more than annoyance? Surely someone in security would get involved. Why recruit for something so important in a way that’s so roundabout and sinister-looking in the first place, when all the other jobs in this organization are so rigorously standardized and streamlined that you can only take the test once?

It speaks to my faith in the narrative that I’m picking at these questions, and I think that once “Floral Aberration” is using a consistent set of desires and motives to propel its narrative, a lot of those nitpicks will matter less to me, or clear themselves up.

Best of luck with a new draft!

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

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