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, Amal El-Mohtar, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.
This story stood out immediately with its fun, light tone, which is unusual in horror. The protagonist’s desire to get back in shape is easy to relate to, and the method she chooses creates interesting and unusual problems. Scarlet’s voice is strong and distinctive. I was engaged throughout the story and wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen.
That said, I wasn’t very emotionally involved in the story, and when I finished, I didn’t feel satisfied with the plot. I think these two problems are related, and they arise out of mixed signals about what kind of story this is.
For part of my reading, I feel this is a comeuppance story, in which an evil or foolish person ends up getting the comeuppance she deserves. I wasn’t more emotionally involved in the story because Janet is hard to care about. I begin the story feeling sympathetic toward Janet, who just wants to get in shape again. But when she encounters the woman selling nanotechnology that will solve her problem, she seems so foolish, it’s hard to care about her. I’m not more emotionally involved in the story because I’m getting mixed signals–that I should care about her part of the time and that she’s a fool deserving of punishment part of the time. Why not have Janet ask key questions, such as what the possible side effects are, whether the procedure can be reversed, what exactly is guaranteed, and how this “personality overlay” will affect her own personality? She doesn’t even ask how much weight or body fat she’ll lose. This undermines her character, so I can’t really believe in her as a person. Why not have her read the five-page contract, since so much money is involved, and ask questions about some of the language? The salesperson also seems unconvincing. If she’s good at her job, she would have smoother ways to convince a potential customer than “you can sign it without reading.” The interaction between these two makes me think the story wants to be a comeuppance story. The scene seems to present Janet as a fool, which seems to set up an ending that punishes the fool. But Janet is rescued at the end, and it’s unclear what brain damage she has suffered, so this doesn’t seem like a comeuppance story. She’s not receiving her just punishment for her stupidity. She seems to have gotten through it, and we’re left with a humorous tone at the end with her fat still there. One possible solution would be to change the end, so she gets her just desserts, and to modify her character in the rest of the story so that she comes across as someone who does deserve some punishment. We will then be emotionally involved because we’ll be eager to see her get her punishment. A possible just punishment might be for her husband to prefer Scarlet to Janet and be unhappy when Janet regains control at the end.
As I mentioned, other parts of the story send me a different signal, that this is the story of a character who tries for something she shouldn’t, learns better, and barely escapes back to where she began (such as The Wizard of Oz). The sympathy I feel with Janet at the beginning and as Scarlet takes over her body make me think this is the kind of story I’m reading. If this is the story you want to write, then Janet needs to be someone worthy of overcoming her mistake, someone who learns from her troubles, and someone who plays a key role in escaping them. In that case, she needs to be trying harder every step of the way, and to not be so foolish (or if she is foolish, to learn better and use what she learns–such as about reading fine print–to overcome her problems), and to realize that shortcuts to fitness are not a good idea. A key to showing this type of character, who learns through struggle, is having her struggle to achieve her goals. Janet struggles very little in this story, and when she does struggle, it has no effect. Janet’s first goal is to be fit again. A store offering a nanotechnology solution conveniently appears in the mall. What if, instead, Janet tried many solutions–diets, exercises, hypnotism. These could all be recapitulated (summarized), but we’d at least see her trying and failing. We could see her lack of discipline and determination (or whatever prevents her from succeeding on her own). Finally, in her Internet searches, she uncovers this nanotechnology treatment. It could have great reviews and exciting before and after videos, so she wouldn’t be so stupid to give it a try. She may have to struggle to get the money, by taking out a loan or stealing it. Then you could show Janet working to get in shape after the treatment. We don’t really see her struggling to do this in the current story. Tennis might help her at first, and as she grows stronger, she might realize that she could have done this on her own if she’s had the discipline and determination. Then Scarlet starts to take over, and Janet realizes her mistake in depending on this other personality to help her rather than in working harder herself. Now Janet struggles to regain control, but finds herself powerless to stop Scarlet’s activities. After much struggle, she realizes she can control her own body, but only when Scarlet is having an orgasm. She must come up with a clever way of leaving some sign to alert her husband (or the dog) during those few seconds. Having her husband save her without Janet doing anything is not a satisfying resolution. Perhaps Janet puts the credit card receipt for the procedure under her husband’s pillow, or texts his phone with a link to the nanotech website. This would allow her to play a critical role in her own fate.
With either type of story, the suggestion that Janet is, in essence, being raped, doesn’t seem to fit with the plot or tone. You may want to rethink that section.
I hope this helps to clarify some of the decisions that need to be made to bring this story to the next level.
I really enjoyed the tone and the inventive nature of the technology. I hope this is helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey