Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

The Mark by Forrest Brazeal

I was impressed, this month, with the slow rush of atmosphere “The Mark” creates: a quiet simplicity that deepens into a gripping emotional choice, while avoiding the didactic. It’s a perfect example of the small engagements and sufficient narrative payoff Former Resident Editor—and editor of F&SF—C.C. Finlay described last month as essential elements of a slow-build story, and it uses multiple levels of craft to make that payoff work. So this month, I’d like to talk about reinforcing a character’s arc with our craft choices.

“The Mark” uses imagery well to foreshadow its core personalities. Joel’s boots “[making] imprints in the hard-baked ground” telegraph, exactly, his intent. Selah, suffering under the sun because her hat’s designed not to protect her, but to comply with Biblical readings and other people’s eyes, is summed up almost exactly in the first paragraph. Where Selah lands at the end is summed up just as perfectly in the last paragraph, with the shed skins of her ground cherries falling “unheeded” to the bus floor as she sheds the husk of her old life.

While there’s some room to trim in the first lines—a few too many images make for a visual tangle—they set the emotional scene appropriately in smart, small ways: the sun “assaults” the vegetable stand; does that with “mindless” intensity in a story that’ll prove to be about assault, and about the choice against obeying mindlessly. The tie between the small choices made here, on the line level, and how the story develops set thematic benchmarks for the rest of the piece to develop.

And from there, “The Mark” quickly starts to develop and complicate its characters. Joel’s constant boundary pushes and control attempts are recognizable to readers, even if Selah doesn’t catch the red flags: He telegraphs classic abuser grooming behaviour, which creates tension in scenes which would otherwise feel quite quiet, but his desire for bigger things feels sincere. Mrs. Miller’s iron rule complexifies into something more nuanced—she’s obviously working through some trauma about the outside world—and then dives right over the cliff into horror as that trauma makes her take a knife to her own daughter.

The characterization here is what makes “The Mark” work for me, and it’s particularly strong in the secondary characters. No one in “The Mark” has Selah’s best interests at heart; yet regardless, everyone in “The Mark” gifts her something precious that she needs. In a sense, Joel is right: Getting out of her comfort zone means she can do amazing things, and she can get good work in Richmond, and it’s the money he paid her that she uses to flee. In a sense, her mother is right: Mrs. Miller describes to the letter what Joel wants to do to Selah, and that arms her against what she overhears Joel say. It’s learning to metabolize those gifts as tools she can use in her own choices, and on her own terms, that makes for a powerful and relatable arc of growth.

This is where the metaphor of writing a character arc chorally comes in: Think about the difference between a single voice singing a line of melody and layered voices supporting that same line. There’s a resonance and impact to a multiple-voiced song, and that’s something we can achieve as prose writers when we line up all our elements of craft to mirror with our protagonist’s arc.

On the prose level, “The Mark” starts with largely short, simple declarative sentences, and moves to a more lyrical voice as it goes. Sentences get physically longer; punctuation becomes more complex. Dialogue is tagged more often. The physical form of the story gets more nuanced, more complicated, and bigger just as Selah’s world—and worldview—do.

The word choice shifts alongside it: in the first scene, where the outside world—passing cars—is an assaultive force, “each throwing its fine spray of dust and gravel against the faded wooden sign on the front of the vegetable stand.” By the end, the shadowy hills are sweeping past, and she “danced away the pain in the long grass behind the house”—this is bigger, more haunting, more joy-infused language.

On the worldbuilding level, Selah moves from very small and isolated spaces to progressively bigger, more populated ones—and the tone of those spaces changes. The first four scenes at the vegetable stand establish a small space, and then motion outward to the mall in Charlottesville—and ultimately, out to Richmond. That progression is another voice bolstering the movement from Selah’s small internal world of rules, black-and-white morality, and compliance to bigger and more nuanced choices.

I won’t go through each element of craft, but there’s a direction to the way they line up to resonate with Selah’s journey—and that’s what makes “The Mark” largely effective for me. Instead of Selah’s arc standing alone, in an inert setting of worldbuilding, prose, and style, the other elements of craft support it—they all move from stark and simple to complex—and create the feeling of momentum despite the narrative action being quite small and simple.

There are some characterization points I would suggest considering more closely: to a young woman who was raised to fear sexual violence, and who was just betrayed by a man she thought cared about her, wearing skimpier clothes outside her own room for the first time would likely not be “strangely exhilarating”. I’d recommend reading accounts of women who grew up wearing burqa being forced to go without them overnight, after national bans, for a primary-source perspective.

Selah’s disowning of her religion also seems abrupt. There’s a lot of territory between a first, tentative rebellion and “Well, maybe I’m not Anabaptist either,” especially for a girl who has few social ties outside her home, does love her family, and has even a basic understanding of her own mother. She has a lot at stake right now—an entire life, her whole social support network, safe housing—and I’d suggest considering how large a risk that statement holds for her.

I’d also suggest rethinking Joel’s appearance. There’s a trope being played to there—”short, pudgy, prematurely balding, with dirt-blond strands of hair growing long over the spot.” I’d ask why it seems important to connote badness through that specific physical description, and why it’s important that Joel not be good-looking, acceptably masculine, conventionally physically attractive. Like all the other decisions in “The Mark,” this one has a subtext—one rooted in certain social insecurities and shorthands about Good Men and Bad Men. It’s a subtext worth thinking about, especially in a story whose entire arc involves realizing that people—and things—are not as they look.

Overall, however, this is strongly rendered and lands its ending perfectly, a complex squiggle of freedom and fear and unease. Best of luck with it, and I look forward to seeing it in print!

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

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