Editor’s Choice Award July 2019, 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 and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Snake Head by C.K. Attner

“Snake Head” drew me in this month with its examination of violence and what makes strength in an eerie, evocative, brutal little world. It draws a swift, sympathetic picture through implication, but doesn’t quite resolve in the final paragraphs—and the author’s notes aren’t sure about where to take the story next. So this month, I’d like to discuss building our capacity to figure out why a piece isn’t quite landing right: one way to diagnose which direction to move with a draft where it’s unclear what isn’t working.

The standout feature of “Snake Head” is definitely the atmosphere: Huey’s narrative arc isn’t precisely a new one, but the tiny universe he’s trying to escape drips and molders and curls around the edges, bolstered by the persistent use of physical, bodily metaphors: water that “smells like armpit”, the sun biting down. The snakeskin peeling like sunburn is palpable in my fingertips. “Muscles cocked” is just up to the line of potentially overdone, but in context, it really works: a body like a weapon. The effect is that the entire seaside world of “Snake Head” feels like a human body: humid and vulnerable, breakable down to parts, a site for hurt.

That reinforces the slow accretion of details and incidents that build up to the choice Huey makes—and fails. There’s a sense in which the quiet of this story both underscores and balances out, at the same time, its brutality. Taken together, Able’s winced-away-from sexual coercion, Uncle Pete’s violent wolverine stories, and parents who keep having children just because slaves are too much trouble—because slaves fight back—paint a horrifying picture. But the way that information is dripped out even over a rather short piece, the emotional quiet with which Huey conveys it, help keep that brutality from being a full-on slap into readers’ faces (or at least, it did for this reader).

There’s a concern in the author’s notes about present tense, but for me, that choice also works well. Tense and person choices are fundamentally, when we break them down, about whether the basic effects and associations readers have with that tense work with or against the kind of story we’re trying to tell. One of the big pluses of present tense can be a sense of immediacy and vividness; “Snake Head” capitalizes on that feeling with its imagery, its slightly shocky emotional tone, and centering around a question of ethical choice—what will Huey do in this moment? That means the present tense is working with the other elements of the story, not against them: what it brings to the table resonates with, backs up, and strengthens what other aspects of craft are trying to create.

The key here is how these elements reinforce each other: the metaphor set in agreement with the emotional tone and thematics, the narrative style in agreement with the core question about ethics and kindness and power, the tense agreeing with the tone. All those points of craft, every choice that was made about them, are pulling as a team toward specific goals.

Where “Snake Head” isn’t firing on all cylinders yet, I think—and this is the diagnostic!—is where elements aren’t pulling with that team, or are pulling away from it, diverting focus.

There’s a small confusion as to the supernatural element—or lack thereof—in “Snake Head”: if there’s a power in Fayt’s gaze or if he’s functionally just the first basically kind person Hugh’s ever met, and Hugh’s desperation to know why all the violence of his family doesn’t seem to touch this man is less about the supernatural than emotional strength and different systems of power. I think it’s not precisely a weakness to have that slightly unclear, but it’s enough of a small confusion to help create a split in the story’s focus.

That split grows into an open question of what “Snake Head” is centred on: whether it’s the idea of the snake head—something that can still poison even dead, a relic of violence, violence’s reach—or the image of the gaze, of the idea of being seen, the eye. Those ideas aren’t exactly in competition, but they’re the elements that I think aren’t yet working in tandem in the ways the present tense does with the imagery and thematics. They fork instead, and as I reader, I’m not sure which one is the one to put weight on, to make the central image in my head.

That’s why the last lines fall flat for me. It ends on the eye, but I’m not sure “Snake Head” was built on the eye. I’m told, as a reader, this was the way to go, which makes me wonder if the early symbol—prompted by the title!—was the wrong thing to centre.

I think it’s thoroughly repairable, and probably without too much rewriting: the only thing that needs doing is to find a way to make the central image of “Snake Head” pull together with all the other elements of craft—unify it, and unify the story with it. It’s possible to not choose one or the other, but both, here: there’s already the ghost of a link between the snake heads—”lizard eyes”—and the silver-gold eyes of the Geemoh people, and that might work too, because it finds a way to get both those elements back on the team.

But largely this is a question of decision-making: sifting through what the early draft has to find what the finished draft wants to say, and how. It’s the diagnostic process—asking people for eyes, yes, but also charting which bundles of ideas go in the same direction—that can help identify that message, and the ways to get it out that are already building themselves within the story.

Best of luck with the piece!

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *