Editor’s Choice Review December 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.

The Realm of the Comforters by Meg Sefton

The first two chapters of The Realm of the Comforters reveal a compelling premise: that the spirits of children who are murdered help welcome and comfort newly killed children into the afterlife. This is a strong, emotional premise, and it’s interesting to see how these spirits interact and try to overcome their trauma. The chapters have some moments where they express the situation of these characters in a strong way, such as “for the baby that has been loved will go away but the baby who has been killed by her parent’s hand will never be satisfied” and “a separate me, floating up above where I lay down under my daddy.”

The chapters also have some vivid description, such as Rachel’s eyes that look like “veined marbles of the most precious kind,” and the moon “full and complete as a cream pie Mama made on Sundays.”

So I think this novel has a lot of powerful material to build on. I think it’s appropriate for a YA audience because it seems like it will deal with finding one’s place in the world and amongst peers, and those are strong concerns of that age group.

I don’t think the material written here is actually the first two chapters of the novel. I think these are important notes on which to build the novel. There is no actual scene until the second-to-last page, when Gabriella starts to tell her story to the others. Before that point, we have a combination of exposition (background information) and recapitulation (summarized action), which basically means things are being explained to us, but we’re not in the moment with the character experiencing events. Much of the chapters are telling (Gabriella’s opinions and judgments) rather than showing (sensory details), so it’s hard for us to feel like we’re there, going through what Gabriella is going through.

It’s often said that the writer writes a story twice–the first time to herself, and the second time to others. For me, this feels like the author telling the story to herself, figuring out how this fascinating afterlife works, what the characters do in general, and how Gabriella feels about it. That’s a key step in the writing process. But after you explain all that to yourself, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to allow the reader to experience it.

For example, instead of explaining to us how babies in the afterlife behave and what the teen spirits do, you could show us a specific example. Perhaps a scene could start with Gabriella dying, and then she could see Rachel, and then they could hear a baby howl, and Rachel could rush off to help and Gabriella could follow, afraid to be left alone in this strange place. The encounter with the baby could be described moment by moment, and perhaps the scene could end when Gabriella calms the baby and feels like she actually helped someone for the first time.

Each scene should show a change of significance for the main character. She might make a friend or lose a friend. She might be helped or betrayed. She might gain self esteem or lose it. She might gain freedom or lose it. Thus far, the action doesn’t seem to be divided into chunks (scenes) in which something of significance changes. Instead, we seem to be fast-forwarding through lots of events that don’t seem to have any particular impact on her, until perhaps the graveyard scene at the end. Rushing through the events puts us at a distance from them, so we can’t really care and be engaged. I think Rachel is meant to be a close friend to Gabriella, but I don’t feel I know Rachel, and I don’t see their friendship building step by step from an initial uncertain encounter to growing trust to deep loyalty.

The other critical element we need to see in these scenes is the protagonist struggling to achieve a goal. Right now, Gabriella seems to fit in effortlessly and go along with what everyone else is doing. That doesn’t make for a strong protagonist. Does she perhaps feel different from the others at first, and have to work to make friends and fit in? Or does she think they’re great friends at first and later discover she’s not the same as them, she doesn’t really fit in? Does she want to go back and help her mother, and the others won’t let her? Gabriella needs a goal that she struggles to achieve (she can succeed or fail or do a little of both, but she needs to struggle intensely), and as each scene either moves her closer to her goal or takes her farther from it, that will be a change of significance for her.

Changing the text into scenes will require that you find other ways of providing exposition. Instead of having Gabriella simply explaining the world to the reader, you can reveal the world through the events that occur in scenes. The novel’s setup also provides one of the easiest ways to provide exposition: including a stranger to the world. Since Gabriella is new to the afterlife, she doesn’t know anything about it. She’s in exactly the same position as the reader. So the chapters can allow Gabriella and the reader to learn about the world together. Rather than having Gabriella learn about it and then explain it to the reader, the character and reader can experience things together, at the same time, which will make the bond between character and reader much stronger. I would be so much more involved reading about Gabriella following Rachel and finding this baby, and wondering what happened to the baby, and then realizing the baby was killed just as Gabriella realizes it. This can be a very powerful novel.

One final area I’d like to discuss is the style. I found myself often stumbling over sentences and having a difficult time parsing them. One reason is the lack of commas. There are rules about where commas belong, and those commas help cue the reader. They tell the reader how the different words and phrases relate to each other. Without those, I find myself often reading the sentence incorrectly and having to go back, which throws me out of the story. Other sentences contain more than one idea. A sentence should be a single idea. It can be a simple idea (a short sentence) or a complex idea (a long sentence with multiple parts), but it should be only one, unified, focused idea. This sentence, for example, has multiple ideas:

“I think we’re beautiful in our tattered clothing like soft worn shredded silk, our white faces illuminated by the moon, our bedraggled nails having grown out since death, clearing wild strands of hair aside so our view may be unobstructed though the tracking of the baby has less to do with “seeing” as we knew it when we were alive and more to do with a nocturnal sensation and this is why we are enfleshed: We are equipped, more than any other, to detect sources of pain that have been the result of unimaginable darkness, pain issuing from the breasts of babies murdered by the mothers and fathers who didn’t love them.”

The first idea is that Gabriella thinks they’re beautiful. This idea ends with “unobstructed.” The second idea is that they have a special sense that allows them to find the baby. This ends around the colon. The third idea is that this special sense detects the pain of murdered children. Putting all three ideas into one sentence weakens all of the ideas and makes it very difficult to follow.

I see a lot of promise here. Breaking the story into scenes and breaking the sentences into ideas should help this world and these characters to pull readers in and provide them with an emotional, unforgettable experience. I hope my comments are helpful.

—Jeanne Cavelos, editor, writer, director of Odyssey

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