Editor’s Choice Review February 2018, 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.

One Last Ride by Bill Mc

The beginning of “One Last Ride” grounds me in a believable, real-world situation.  Joe’s uncle has had a heart attack, and Joe must pick him up and drive him home.  Vivid description and some nice characterization draw me in and make me care about the uncle smoking when he’s not supposed to and Joe’s plans to work on his ’69 Mustang with his daughter when she gets older.  I believe in the relationship between Joe and his uncle, and I’m interested to see how their relationship changes over the course of the story.

For me, the story struggles to make the transition between its real-world setup and its supernatural climax, a common problem in horror stories.  As a reader, I’m much more interested in the setup than in the story about the Trader, the weird birds, and trading lives.  There’s not a clear and compelling connection between these elements, so many of the details established in the setup don’t seem relevant to the climax, and the climax doesn’t seem to build on the characterization and emotion that’s been established.  While the setup feels rich and believable, the climax seems familiar and unemotional.

Before I offer some suggestions, I want to discuss another difficulty I had with the story, which was confusion.  I’m not sure what trading of lives is going on.  The examples about “choking the life out of your own spouse” or slaughtering “the neighbor’s cow” suggest that one needs to kill another to live.  It’s not clear to me that this is what happens in the story.  After my first reading, I looked back at the story and thought that the uncle had probably died with his initial heart attack (that sent him to the hospital) and offered Joe’s life in his place.  But then the uncle seems to die again while they are speeding down the road.  And why does the uncle suggest they speed?  It seems like he wants to kill them both.  Is it after the uncle’s second heart attack that he offers Joe’s life?  And does he need to kill Joe to live again?  Since the uncle is already revived before Joe dies, is there a time within which the uncle must kill Joe?  It’s not clear to me that the uncle runs Joe down, which I think is what needs to happen if the earlier description of the Trader is correct.  The car seemed to run him down on its own, because the uncle never gets into the driver’s seat.

The uncle says, “I traded my life for yours, but he tricked me.”  I don’t know when this happened or how.  Since the uncle is near death, why would the Trader take such a bad trade?  And in what way did he trick the uncle?  All of this seems overcomplicated, so it leaves me wondering about rules and details rather than feeling the horror of a character dying.

Then it seems like Joe trades his daughter’s life for his own, so he can live and his daughter will die.  I’m not sure if that’s what you intend, but that’s how it reads for me.  But Joe seems to have no emotional reaction to his decision.  And I don’t know why he makes the decision he does.  I thought he loved his daughter.  I feel pretty lost at the end.

Perhaps what you intend is that the uncle offers his life so Joe can live, and Joe offers his life so his daughter can live, but that’s not what the Trader seems to be about from the examples I quoted above, and that’s not how the story reads.  Once someone has had a heart attack or been run over by a car, he’s not in any position to offer his life for anyone.

So how can the setup and the climax be better connected and provide a satisfying, unified experience?  First, I think both Joe and the uncle need to be more active in pursuing their goals and to have some power to achieve their goals.  Right now, both characters seem powerless, so the premise of being able to trade one life for another seems meaningless.  If the Trader is tricking and controlling, then mere mortals have no choice.  The uncle says, “He controls us.”  If that is true, then writing a strong story about these characters is very difficult.  As it is, Joe starts with the goal to drive his uncle home.  He becomes afraid of his uncle once the uncle comes back to life after the crash, and his goal becomes to flee.  He unwisely flees down the road, so the car can easily run over him, and then makes his decision quickly and without thought or emotion.  I think to work well, the story needs a three-act structure.  For me, acts are defined by the protagonist’s goal, with a new act beginning when the protagonist forms a new goal.  Driving his uncle home is Act 1.  There’s not really a strong Act 2 or Act 3, because Act 1 takes up most of the story, and then Joe doesn’t have time to pursue any additional goal for an extended period of time.  He’s only fleeing for 2 paragraphs.  If there’s another goal of saving himself (or his daughter), it comes and goes very quickly with that decision.  Since the driving/normality takes up so much of the story, the fantastic/climax seems to come too quickly and not be well incorporated.  In a three-act story, generally speaking, Act 1 is usually about 25% of the piece, Act 2 is 60%, and Act 3 is 15%.  Of course a story can deviate from these rough estimates, but this can give an author a sense of how his acts compare to the average, and let him know where he might need to use various techniques to compensate for less standard structures.  If this is to be a three-act story, then either the section in which Joe’s goal is to drive his uncle home needs to be significantly shortened, or the story itself needs to be significantly lengthened.  I think some of both could be good.  What would the three acts be? There are many possibilities.  Here’s one.  In Act 1, Joe’s goal could be to drive his uncle home.  After a smoke break, the uncle convinces Joe to let him drive.  He crashes the car, killing Joe and gaining another lifetime for himself.  In Act 2, Joe’s goal (as a ghost) is to kill the uncle and get his life back.  Perhaps he’s able to possess the uncle’s wife, who we know has some mental illness.  Perhaps she’s in contact with the Trader and that’s why she’s believed to be mentally ill.  This would help tie an element from the opening into the latter part of the story.  Perhaps Joe is able to kill the uncle, but instead of this bringing him back, it brings back the aunt’s mind, so she is now a whole person.  And perhaps she’s super evil, in love with the Trader, and perhaps Joe’s wife and daughter come to visit the aunt to console her over the death of the uncle.  The aunt wants to kill one or both of them to extend her life, or to allow her to give the Trader human life so they can be together.  Joe’s goal is now to save his wife and/or daughter.  So that’s one way that this could be developed into a three-act structure and connect the elements of the setup more strongly to the elements in the climax.

One final area to consider is the causal chain of the plot.  The plot should progress like a row of dominoes falling over.  One thing causes the next, which causes the next.  This gives the reader the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, without interference from the author, and that the character’s actions have consequences.  This also allows the reader to anticipate what might happen and feel suspense over it.  Right now, the causal connections between events and actions are unclear, so the story isn’t able to build too much suspense.

The story has some nice description, setting, and characterization.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey

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