Editor’s Choice Review September 2017, 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 Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Vamp, Part 2: The Years We Waste by David Busboom

Writers often talk about voice without really knowing what it is.  A weak or inappropriate voice in an otherwise strong story can destroy it.  A strong voice can make us love a mediocre story.  Voice is the personality of the character as revealed through his use of the language.  That means voice is the cumulative effect of many small decisions on the part of the author, which explains why it can be challenging to control.  While voice is important in all fiction, it is most important in stories told in first person.  In first person, the character is usually speaking directly to us, telling us his story.  In real life, some people make you want to sit down and listen to their stories, while others don’t.  In large part, this is due to their voice, their personality, the way they tell a story.  A narrator’s first-person voice needs to show readers that being a good storyteller is part of his personality.  The narrator needs to have interesting, fresh observations that allow readers to see events in a new and compelling way.  Those are the qualities that can pull readers in and keep them turning the pages, even when nothing earth-shattering is happening.

The first-person voice in Vamp draws me into part 2 without even having read part 1.  The voice feels believable and consistent (convincing me this is a real person talking to me), and it flows well–the narrator, Dave, is a good storyteller.  More than that, the language reveals to me that Dave is educated and reflective, and that he has a mix of influences ranging from popular culture to archaic lore.  These qualities make his observations, thoughts, descriptions, and reflections precise (which allows me to vividly experience them), interesting, and sometimes compelling.  That is a major strength of this novel excerpt.

An element in the excerpt that could be strengthened is the causal chain.  The causal chain is made up of the cause-and-effect relationships that link the events that make up the plot.  A simple way to create causality is to make sure actions or events are connected with “therefore” or “which leads to.”  This happens, therefore this happens, which leads to this happening.  If the cavalry shows up to save your heroes but no one called the cavalry, and we’ve never seen the cavalry before, we’ll feel like the author is manipulating the story.  Of course the author is manipulating the story, but readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own.  The causal chain is critical for this.  The causal chain not only helps the reader to believe in the story but is also critical to create suspense and surprise.  Suspense involves anticipating and worrying about what might happen, and we can’t do that if events are happening randomly, only if there are causal connections.  Surprise involves things happening other than the ones we anticipated.  That can’t happen unless we clearly anticipated one thing, and something different happened instead.

It’s easiest to create a strong causal chain when the story takes place over a short time period.  If Jane slaps Sarah and, five seconds later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s pretty easy to see the causal connection between these two slaps.  But if Jane slaps Sarah and, five years later, Sarah slaps Jane, it’s harder to believe these are connected.  The fact that Sarah is slapping Jane at that particular moment feels random.  Why wouldn’t Sarah have slapped Jane sooner?

Part 2 of Vamp occurs over an extended time period, which makes it difficult to create a strong causal chain.  In part 1, Dave has an awesome sexual experience with Lilith when he’s 16.  It’s so great, it haunts him for years to come.  So why is it that when he’s 20, he decides she’s evil and goes back to the house where they had sex to kill Lilith?  The cause (motivation) for this actions seems weak.  An owl crashing into his windshield prompts thoughts of Lilith and a dream, and that sends Dave on a big research project to learn all about Lilith and then to try to find and kill her.  The first break in the causal chain is the owl.  Why does this owl crash into his windshield?  Why on this day?  It seems manipulated by the author rather than arising out of a causal chain of events.  Then why, after all these years, does an owl prompt the dream?  And why does the dream prompt his decision?  Lilith asserts, in the dream, that Dave wants her more than his girlfriend.  But is that really a reason to embark on a huge research project about Lilith and to kill her?  I don’t think the intensity of their relationship/conflict has built to a point where he would be driven to kill her.  He seems to decide to kill her mainly because his research reveals Lilith is evil.  That seems a very abstract reason to kill someone, especially for Dave, who doesn’t seem to be a demon hunter.  This undercuts our belief in Dave and the plot.  It also seems like this research ought to reveal to him that Lilith isn’t someone who can be killed with a revolver, though this is the weapon Dave brings.

Several years later, Dave’s obsession with Lilith increases.  We’re told it happens because he’s engaged and his father dies, but neither of these causes seems sufficient to cause this effect.  He realizes that none of his sexual partners had matched Lilith.  I think he would know that while the sex is happening and not suddenly realize it years later.  When he’s suddenly obsessed with sex with Lilith and goes so far as to try to conjure her for sex, it’s not convincing.  The story needs a stronger causal chain.

One thing that would help is to condense the timeline so events happen closer together in time.  We also need the effects to be more in line with the causes, so we can believe Dave would do these things and we can believe his character arc over the novel.  If sex with Lilith is the best ever, then I think he’d go back to the house constantly hoping for more.  Perhaps he goes every week for a year, and then every month, and it’s always deserted.  Throughout this time he researches her, and perhaps he finds a number associated with Lilith in legend, and he thinks if he goes that number of times to the house, she will come.  Meanwhile, he falls in love with Elizabeth.  Now he has an internal conflict between his obsession with Lilith and his love for Elizabeth.  He still wants to go back to the house on his usual day of the month.  But perhaps Elizabeth wants to do something with him on that day and he lies and tells her he’s busy.  He can tell that she knows he’s lying, and he’s upset about losing her trust.  When he goes to the house, he’s now angry over Lilith’s hold on him and upset over how he’s treating Elizabeth.  He knows he must make a decision.  So he burns the house down.

But burning the house must have an effect.  Every event should have a cause, and every event should have an effect. So maybe he sets the house on fire, but as he does, he “gather[s] up paper scraps” to add to the flames, and he finds something that increases his obsession rather than putting it to rest.  He could find photos of her naked, or diagrams of a ceremony that might summon her, or an address where she might be.  Thus burning down the house would lead Dave to his next attempt to connect with Lilith.

With a stronger causal chain, Dave’s actions and other story events will be more believable, and we’ll feel more suspense and surprise as one thing leads to the next in ways that keep us on the edge of our seats.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed reading the excerpt with its strong voice and description.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey




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