Editor’s Choice Review October 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.

Spoons by Robert Tarrant

“Spoons” has a fresh, delightful premise. A ladle gathers spoons from around the world for their ascension, and they attack a few humans who know too much. The story has some great absurdist humor, as when the spoons start spelling out messages to the humans. Their messages made me laugh out loud. The story also provides some vivid and entertaining descriptions of the spoons in action. I enjoyed reading the story quite a bit, but I do think it could be made stronger.

For me, the story seems to be caught between two possibilities rather than fully realizing either one. Stories with prominent, original ideas (like spoons attacking) generally work best in one of two ways. One possibility is to simply focus the story on showing the idea and ending the story. That way, you highlight the story’s main strength. To move “Spoons” in this direction, the plot needs to be simplified. Instead of moving between two settings, it could take place in just one. Instead of having three characters, the story could have just two, or even one. Instead of six scenes, it could have one to three. For example, in a three-scene version, the first scene could show Avery, the main character, at home, trying to eat ice cream and being attacked by the spoon. He might trap the spoon. The second scene could show Avery discovering a bunch of spoons coming out of his drawers to free the imprisoned spoon, and they have a bigger battle. Avery could defeat them and think his problems are over. Then the huge flood of spoons arrive with the ladle. They tell him he knows too much and must be destroyed, and then they kill him, or he flees and gives up his house to them. This structure would focus on showing us the unusual, fun idea. Such stories are often pretty short. A flash piece or something up to 1800 words or so could work well.

The other possibility is to make the story about more than the idea. There are a number of ways to do this, but one common way involves developing the characters more and making readers really care about them. The current characters work to show the idea, but they don’t really make me believe in them or care. That would be fine if the story were shorter and more idea focused, but as it is, I find the story appealing to emotions I don’t have, as when we learn that Martha has been tormented by the spoons (and we should feel compassion for her) and when Harold is killed (and we should feel upset about that). Those moments fall flat for me, and I find myself wishing the story was more like possibility 1, showing me the cool spoon idea and then ending. But if I had gotten to know Harold better, if I had understood why he and his wife suffer this tragic lack of communication, then I could care about them. While I know some facts about Avery, I don’t feel I know him. He seems to become a rather standard protagonist once the action begins. This type of story would require two plot threads: one with Avery struggling toward some goal and one with Avery fighting the spoons. The first plot thread would allow us to get to know Avery more and to get to know any other characters. We would also need more connective elements to further develop the story, such as theme, symbolism, and resonance (all elements of subtext). To develop these, it may be helpful to ask some questions. For example, what makes Avery the best protagonist for this story? What does fighting spoons mean to him? How is his reaction to the spoons going to be more interesting than any other possible character’s reaction? Perhaps we would cut Avery from the story and make Harold the protagonist, so we can narrow our cast to two characters, Harold and his wife. He’s a bitter skeptic whose wife is falling into dementia. The woman he truly loved married someone else, so he married his second choice, Martha. She can’t help him at the hotel anymore and spends all day buying expensive items on the Internet that she doesn’t even remember buying. These meaningless purchases are sending them into bankruptcy. Harold has to search the house every night when he comes home for new items that have been delivered and return them. In this context, Harold’s discovery of a new set of spoons and a big expensive ladle carries more emotional weight. These items–and especially the spoons, the most expensive purchase Martha has made–embody his unhappy relationship. The spoons work both on the surface level of story as an expensive purchase for him to return. And they work on the level of subtext as a symbol of everything that is weighing him down and destroying his life. Then when the spoons come to life and attack him, the event is more emotional and more tied to his character. He must return them (the way he might wish to return his wife), but they won’t let him. The spoons might kill Harold and triumph, which would make the story a tragedy, with Harold overcome by this meaningless chaos of his wife’s purchases. Or perhaps Harold is about to be killed when Martha helps him, destroying the ladle, so they both survive–and Harold is stuck back where he began. Or Martha could help the spoons, and Harold could take the ladle and kill her, ending up a servant of the spoons.

Anyway, that’s just an example of how this second possibility might work. There are many ways to develop the story in that direction.

Either possibility could generate a compelling story. Moving it closer to the first possibility would allow your idea to shine out all the stronger; moving it closer to the second possibility could deepen readers’ engagement and emotions.

But the story has many strengths as it is; I don’t think I’ll soon forget it. I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

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