Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

Downbound by Victoria Gregg

Description can drown readers in unnecessary, distracting details, or it can immerse readers in the key details that build the story.  “Downbound” provides some vivid, significant details that help make its setting and premise come to life, that build atmosphere, and that convey emotion. The story really pulls me in with the first description of the interior of the old, abandoned caboose:  “The walls were paneled in rich, dark wood, shining glossy in the glow of flickering lamps that dangled from the ceiling.  Dark red couches of crushed velvet lined the sides of the caboose, on top of thick rugs that overlapped one another.”  What the girl sees is surprising and fascinating.  On another visit to the caboose, the girl sees men inside playing cards and talking, and one detail helps us to feel the supernatural nature of the situation:  “Their words were muddled like she was hearing them from underwater.”  The description keeps me involved all the way to the story’s end.  I also really enjoy the premise and the setting.

For me, the protagonist and the plot aren’t as strong as these other elements.  It’s hard for me to understand or relate to the protagonist, the girl.  The opening seems to be showing us two contradictory things about the girl.  First, she has absorbed many things about the caboose and the train it was once part of.  Second, she has never had a desire to look inside the caboose.  It’s hard to believe she would absorb and remember all of this information and notice all of these details without having any interest in the subject matter.  So the girl doesn’t quite seem like a real person to me.

Her sudden interest in the caboose doesn’t have a clear cause, either natural or supernatural; it seems caused by the author wanting her to be interested.  The same seems true when she wants to return two more times.  I don’t understand her motivation for returning.  She is frightened by what she sees in her first visit and frightened by the second visit.  It doesn’t make sense to me that she would want to return.  We know the girl is poor and neglected; if we saw her threadbare dress and her tangled, greasy hair and felt the girl longing for the thick furs, long evening dresses, and shiny curls of the women she sees in the caboose, then I would understand why she wants to return.

Or if she is afraid of what she sees, perhaps there’s another reason she returns.  For example, after her first visit, perhaps she discovers that she has lost something of value–something she made for her mother, or homework for school–and realizes she dropped it when she fled from the caboose.  So then she needs to return.  Or she realizes that an object she saw inside the caboose could be worth a lot of money and could solve her mother’s financial problems.  It’s important, for almost all stories, that the character actions and plot events follow a causal chain, where one thing causes the next, like a row of dominoes falling over.  Without a causal chain, the story can feel manipulated by the author.  And while all stories are manipulated by the author, readers need the illusion that events are unfolding on their own.

Right now, I don’t feel a strong causal chain, so the girl’s actions and the plot in general feel manipulated.

If the story is trying to show that supernatural forces are compelling the girl to go to the caboose, those forces need to be conveyed more vividly.  For example, perhaps the girl sees some glittery object hanging in the window of the caboose that she’s never seen before.  She might want to make a necklace out of it, so she’d go to the caboose, and we’d understand she’s being lured by some supernatural force.

Another element that could strengthen the protagonist and plot is a goal.  In most stories, the protagonist needs to be struggling to achieve a goal, and the protagonist needs to have some power to achieve that goal.  If she doesn’t have a goal, then her actions seem dictated by other forces.  This, too, can make the story feel manipulated.  More than that, we seldom form a strong emotional bond with a protagonist who isn’t working toward a goal.  We relate much more strongly to a character struggling to achieve a goal, because we all have goals and struggle to achieve them.  If the protagonist has no power to achieve the goal (she doesn’t need to have a lot of power, but she needs to have some), then she’s a victim, and again seems manipulated, and we have difficulty caring and relating to her.  If the character has a goal and power to achieve it but there is no struggle, then the story has no suspense and we don’t feel strong emotion toward the character.

In the story, the girl has no goal except to keep returning to the caboose, which I don’t believe.  She has power to achieve her goal, which is good, but she has no struggle in achieving that goal.  It’s easy for her to go.  So the story has little suspense.  It seems she’ll keep going back until something bad happens to her, and indeed that’s the plot.

I think the plot could be pushed much further.  If her goal is something more difficult, and something that enriches her character, then we will believe it more, relate to her more, and feel more suspense.  The story seems to imply the mother has an abusive boyfriend or spouse.  If so, maybe the girl wants to get some object that seems valuable from the caboose and convince her mother to buy a car and leave town.  This would be a difficult goal for the girl to achieve, but one she would have some power to attempt.  This goal would also allow/require the girl to do more than look into the caboose.  She could gain the object and struggle to convince her mother to leave town.  The boyfriend could pose a threat to the girl and take the object away.  The girl could struggle to get it back, anger the boyfriend and cause him to beat the mother.  The girl might lie and tell the boyfriend that there are more valuable objects in the caboose to get him away from the mother.  The girl might take the boyfriend to the caboose . . .  and the story would reach its exciting climax.

This is just one possibility, but it’s one where the protagonist and plot are following a causal chain, the situation is changing more, the girl is struggling more toward her goal, and the stakes are rising.  Something like this, with the strong description, setting and premise currently in the story, could make this more suspenseful and more emotional.

I hope this is helpful.  I think the story has some strong elements to build on.  The description, setting, and premise really kept me involved.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey


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