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.
The Totem by Kevin Zarem
This novel tackles a classic theme: the average guy who finds himself in seriously not-average situations. He doesn’t transform into a cockroach or (in the first chapter at least) zap off into a distant space empire, but his shifts in reality are if anything more disconcerting because they’re so small.
Stephan is very average. He’s of average age, in an average American town (Norman Rockwell version), living an average life. The precipitating event of the novel is one many readers can easily relate to: the death of a beloved pet (a dog of a popular breed, the Golden Retriever). The shift—via knock on the head (a classic that goes all the way back to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court)—becomes immediately evident when the dog’s fate changes from death to allergies.
Stephan’s world is lovingly constructed and meticulously described. His interactions are hyper-realistic, recording the throat-clearing and the filler dialogue as well as the bits of speech that move the story forward. When the shift comes, it’s quiet; understated. There’s no big blowup and no huge shift in the universe. Things have changed, but Stephan has to take inventory in order to reckon the extent of the change.
A concept this apparently simple is in fact very difficult. The closer a writer comes to the lived experience of his readers, the more exacting they are about the accuracy of the details. The narrative has to be spot on on multiple fronts: plot, pacing, characterization, dialogue, tone and emotion, as well as the setting and construction of the world.
It’s particularly important to regulate the emotional temperature of the chapter. By that I mean the choice of elements that go into the narrative, and the way in which they’re developed, as well as the level of feeling and the sense of payoff. How high are the stakes, and are they too much, too little, or just right?
In a novel like this, the key is deliberately low, and the effects are intentionally subtle. That asks a lot of the writer, because the prose has to be on point. The death of the dog needs just the right amount of pathos, just the right level of grief and loss—and no more, if no less. The characters’ reactions should be just right, and the world they live in has to walk a fine line between deliberate artifice and unintentional caricature.
I would suggest trimming the descriptions and reducing the number of times information is repeated, for clarity and to help the story move forward more smoothly. I would also recommend minimizing the amount of filler in the dialogue—greetings, small talk, people telling each other what they’re doing or about to do. I think you want the sense of a very well blocked out story with highly realistic elements, but I would prune it just a hair.
At the same time I would recommend toning down the emotions. Not so far that they disappear, but aim for a more subtle and nuanced sense of what Stephan and the people around him are feeling. Ask yourself if you’re laying things on a bit thick—particularly in the sequences about the dog. Are they going on too long? Do facts and images repeat themselves? Are the characters overstating the extent of the tragedy? Would it be more effective if it were less strongly stated?
The answer could be no, the story wants to be just a little over the top. But how far over should it go? The rule I like to follow is the one we used to apply in college: doing the bare minimum of work required to get the grades we wanted.
Take for example the reference to Norman Rockwell. It’s clear, but is it too clear? Does it lean too hard on the white-American-Fifties-mythic-normal of the town? Or is that exactly what you want to convey, with its ambiguities as well as its apparent simplicity?
These are the questions to ask throughout, in each scene, and with each character and action or reaction. You’ve set yourself the challenge of telling a fantastical story within the context of the purely American-normal and the consensually real. That makes it even more important to keep track of how you’re creating your effects.
Getting the emotional temperature exactly right takes practice, especially in a narrative with a high degree of difficulty. But it’s worth it, both for the lessons it teaches in craft, and the quality of the result. Or to put it more plainly, better writing, better storytelling, happier readers. Good things all around.
Best of luck, and happy revising!