April 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Horror

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 Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Blood Line, Ch. 1-2

by Michael Keyton

Coming in to the second book of a trilogy is always a challenge.  It’s clear that the first book has established a rich, magical world co-existing with our own, and that Elizabeth and Elsie have already been through a lot.  These opening chapters have some vivid, unusual descriptions of magic, such as the description of Jack’s vision–“Figures moved, stick-like and flat”–the blood going into Elsie’s mouth even though she closed it, and the silverfish burrowing for information.  The magic also seems to have some interesting rules, such as the difficulty of it working over water.  The fact that Emma can rummage through Elsie’s mind while she’s knocked out and gain information from Elsie against her will is disturbing.

Judging just based on these chapters and not on anything in the first book of the trilogy, I think the opening of this second book could be improved in several ways.  As a reader, I’m not finding myself grabbed by any of the characters so far.  They seem to be kind of standard, familiar characters so far.  If I knew and loved them from Book 1, I might feel differently.  But with this as my introduction to the characters, I’m not pulled in.  The main issue, I think, is that both Elizabeth and Elsie are reactive rather than active characters.  Elizabeth seems to have no strong goal in this opening scene.  Wanting to see if her flowers are at the funeral doesn’t seem like a strong goal.  If Gwyneth would disapprove of the ceremony, then why would Elizabeth care if her flowers were there or not?  Since Gwyneth wouldn’t care about the flowers, it seems like Elizabeth wants the flowers to be there to thumb her nose at the other mourners.  Yet the other mourners don’t seem to notice, and she hides herself, so her actions have no consequence and she seems to have achieved nothing.  So her actions seem unimportant.  I would like her much more if she had a clear goal she had to struggle to try to achieve.   She would be more active and her actions would have consequences (she’d either achieve her goal or not).   For example, she might want a pin that she gave to Gwyneth as a keepsake, so she might approach a family member at the funeral to ask for it.  Or maybe she wants to slip something into the coffin for Gwyneth to remember her by.  Then she could struggle to achieve that, and I could get involved, and she could succeed or fail.  Right now, I’m just watching a girl watch a funeral, and that’s all pretty passive.  The only thing of consequence that happens is Elsie being kidnapped, and that is unrelated to Elizabeth’s actions.  So both Elizabeth and Elsie are victims, and Elizabeth simply reacts to the kidnapping rather than driving the actions.  This makes me feel that the author is manipulating events rather than that the character is driving the story.

In Elizabeth’s second scene, Grey seems to be in charge and Elizabeth is simply doing what he tells her.  She doesn’t seem to have any ideas about what to do on her own, and there’s no conflict between her and Grey.  Elizabeth might have her own goal, somewhat different from Grey’s, or she might have a different method she thinks they should use to find Elsie, so she’s not passive and reactive but is instead fighting for what she wants.  For example, perhaps Elizabeth tries to book a ship on her phone in case they miss the one with Elsie in it, and Grey could argue that’s not a good idea for whatever reason.  I’m not sure why this particular scene is included in the book at all, since it doesn’t show them missing the boat, which would be the exciting part, and the part that shows something of significance changing for Elizabeth and Grey.  As it is, that scene merely provides information; it doesn’t show a change of significance for Elizabeth.  Each scene in a story or novel should show something of significance changing for the main character of that scene.  This scene, if you shifted it to showing them arriving at the Port Authority and finding the ship already gone, would show Elizabeth going from having hope to losing hope.

Similarly, Elsie is mainly reactive.  She is reacting first to Emma and then to Emma and Jack.  I don’t feel her having any goal of her own that she’s struggling to achieve.  She doesn’t try to attend the funeral despite Elizabeth telling her to stay in the car.  She doesn’t try to escape.  She doesn’t try to avoid the needle or to focus her mind on some other memory.  She’s mainly a victim reacting to what others do.  I like it when she swivels her mind to try to hide the information Emma wants, but for me, that’s not enough to make Elsie a compelling, dynamic character.  Because of that, I can’t really care about her and can’t get pulled into the novel.

Another area in which I think these chapters can be improved is point of view.  The chapters seem to be trying for a third-person, limited-omniscient viewpoint, but they often drift out of the viewpoint character’s head.  In Chapter 1, we’re in Elizabeth’s POV.   We learn that smiling is “the last thing she wanted to do,” which is fine and establishes we’re in her head.  Yet in the next paragraph, we’re told “Elsie was younger than her,” which is not something Elizabeth would think.  Elizabeth already knows this.  This is what I call an “As you know, self,” when the POV character thinks something to herself that she already knows.  People don’t really think like this, so it undermines both POV and character when an author does this.  I understand the author is trying to get information to the reader, but instead of having the character think  the fact, the character should have some reaction to the fact.  For example, Elizabeth could think, “With her hair in braids, she looked even younger than thirteen.”

Another POV problem occurs two sentences later, with “Both sisters had inherited their mother’s raven black hair.”  Elizabeth wouldn’t think of herself and Elsie as “both sisters.”  This is the voice of an omniscient narrator commenting on both of them.  To stay in Elizabeth’s head, this would need to be rephrased;  for example, “Elsie had the same raven black hair Elizabeth did.”  This, and the following descriptions of their eyes raise another POV issue.  Would Elizabeth, at this moment, be noticing their hair color and eye color?  We’re actually told that no, she wouldn’t–“Elizabeth barely registered them”–in which case those details shouldn’t be given in her POV.  For a characters POV to be strong, it’s really important to limit description to those details the POV character would notice–most likely because they concern her and relate to a goal she’s trying to achieve.  Further, these details need to be described in the way that the POV character would think of them.  So if Elizabeth’s goal is to slip something into the casket for Gwyneth to remember her by, she’s going to be noticing who is near the casket and whether she has a chance to slip past them.  She’s not going to be noticing other things.  Strengthening the POV in this way will also strengthen the character and allow us to feel the character’s goal more intensely.

A final area I’d like to discuss is the characters’ emotions.  For readers to feel what the characters are feeling, emotions generally need to be shown and not told.  Any word that labels an emotion (helpless, unease, fear, bothered, horror are some I see in the chapter) is telling the reader that emotion rather than showing it.  One way to show emotions is through the character’s internal lifesigns, such as a pounding heart or a catch of the breath.  These things should be used sparingly, and it’s good to try to find fresh ways to say them, since they’ve been used a lot by authors.  Other ways of showing emotions are through actions, dialogue, reactions from other characters, objects/setting/appearance, thoughts, viewpoint, style, symbols, and similes/metaphors.  Since I discussed POV above, let me go into that a little more.  Using some of the techniques I discussed above to keep the POV close to the viewpoint character can help convey the character’s emotions.  If the viewpoint is close to the POV character, everything she thinks and sees will be colored by her emotions (rose-colored glasses).  She will notice details that reinforce her worldview and emotional state. For example, if you have a character who loves a city, she will notice all the great things about it and describe things in a positive way, and that will reveal her emotions.  If you have a character who hates the city, she will notice the bad things about it, and describe things in a negative way, revealing her negative feelings.  Everything the viewpoint character notices can help to reveal her emotional state through how she describes it.  Developing this more could make the story more intense and involving, and make the reader feel closer to the characters as well.

You’ve set up a very interesting magical world that carries many dangers for your protagonists.  I hope my comments are helpful.

Jeanne Cavelos–editor, author, director of Odyssey




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