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.
Some People Smell Roses by Anne Wrightwell
Many writers think the purpose of description is to help the reader imagine the events. While that is certainly one purpose, description has many other purposes and potentials. “Some People Smell Roses” uses descriptive details as emotional timebombs. Two details in particular, a “noisy, blond toddler playing planes, zooming around” and a black leather jacket the protagonist’s boyfriend is wearing. These help the reader imagine the events at the moment when they’re first introduced. And though the reader doesn’t realize it, the timebombs have been planted. When the protagonist, who knows the plane they are all about to board will crash, fails to stop the flight or save anyone beside herself, these details return with new power: “Sometimes, I just dream about his black leather jacket lazily drifting down towards the sea. Sometimes, I see the blond toddler with his arms outstretched flying through the air, laughing.” That’s very nice.
Some other areas of the story could be strengthened. A descriptive detail that is weak is the “horrible scent of death.” This doesn’t fulfill that first purpose of description, allowing the reader to imagine the smell. We are told that the smell is “horrible,” “disgusting,” “overwhelming.” Those are all judgments, or telling, rather than sensory details, or showing. Is it a meaty smell? Does it smell like a mix of urine and chocolate? The author’s job here is to provide vivid sensory details that lead the reader to conclude that the smell is horrible, rather than shortcutting the process and just saying it’s horrible.
Another area that could be strengthened is the plot. Once the protagonist smells the smell and knows the plane is going to crash, she tries to warn her boyfriend, but he refuses to delay his trip along with her. She considers warning others but fears she’ll be branded a hoaxer, a terrorist, or crazy. So she does nothing.
I find it believable that she would fear warning others, but I think she has other options she’s not exploring. And the story isn’t as engaging and suspenseful as it might be when the protagonist doesn’t actively struggle to achieve her goal. In the current version, the smell is so bad it makes her vomit. So she could, for example, get on the plane, where the smell would be even more concentrated, and vomit there. The plane would then have to be delayed. If she vomited on carpet and other hard-to-clean items, they’d probably have to take everyone off the plane and take it out of service for a few hours for cleaning. Then she would have succeeded at saving everyone. (The plane might crash later with new passengers on board, but at least she’d have tried.) Maybe she tries this but the nice flight attendant cleverly catches the vomit in a sick bag so there is no mess and only the protagonist is taken off.
Maybe she attempts to execute this plan, but the smell is so bad on the jetway that she vomits there, and the flight attendants take her off, and the plane can still take off as scheduled.
Or the protagonist could look for a phone so she could call in a bomb threat to the plane (without incriminating herself by using her cell phone) to stop it from taking off, but either not find a phone or not reach the right person fast enough.
These could create a more engaging and suspenseful plot, but I’m not sure they fit your goal. From the ending, the story seems to about missed opportunities and guilt. If that is what it’s about, then I think you need to characterize the protagonist throughout as someone who misses opportunities. Perhaps she’s slow to come up with ideas. Maybe she’s fearful, or selfish, or had a crazy aunt who would warn people about death and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Maybe she’s terrified of dying, and that’s why she can smell death, and she fears that if she warns someone, she’ll die instead. Maybe she just panics in a crisis and can’t think clearly. I think she could be characterized more strongly, so we understand why her destiny is to have this power and not use it to save anyone. You have great opportunities for characterization in the exposition about the two previous incidents where she smelled death. Right now, those incidents are used mainly to establish her power. But, like description, they could do more. They could show some key component to her character that makes her the one person who could stop death but probably never will.
The final paragraph, in which the protagonist wonders if she was meant to save the passengers, and that’s the only reason she was given the ability to sense impending death, is interesting, but it doesn’t make sense to me unless she has now lost the power. If she has lost the power–which she could confirm in a hospital–then that would imply it was tied to the airplane. But if she still has the power, then she now knows enough to try using it to save people. There’s no reason the airplane is her last chance to do good, so the ending doesn’t quite make sense.
I think the plot could use a little more of a twist still. When I read this, I thought of the movie Final Destination, which involves someone who knows a plane is going to crash and tries to convince people not to get on board. To distinguish this story more from that, I think you could take it one more step. If the protagonist is someone who panics in a crisis and can’t think out all the possible courses of action until later, then the plot could unfold much as it does now, except at the end, she could think of all the possible actions she could have taken and didn’t think of in time. That could be really haunting, even moreso if she has lost the power. And it would be easy to relate to. I think all of us have thought of some great thing to say or do in a situation 24 hours too late, and only wished we could go back and do it. It’s just that for us, lives aren’t at stake.
Finally, I’ll just mention that the story is missing some required commas, which makes me stumble over sentences, and is wordy in some places.
The story kept me interested all the way through, and those descriptive details at the end carried a lot of power. I hope this is helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey