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.
When I get to the millipede in the third paragraph, and Ahren throws it away and it seems to come back, I’m hooked. That creates a good mystery–is there something supernatural about the millipedes?–and makes me want to keep reading. The story also has some nice description of the millipedes. I can see them vividly, and that helps to make the situation feel immediate and real. The strange behavior of the millipedes (and centipedes) exists within a fairly normal-seeming context, with the characters and their interactions feeling pretty believable. That helps the bugs to stand out and makes the Ahren’s situation easy to relate to. These elements work well to keep me engaged until the end.
That said, once I get to the ending, I’m very disappointed. By raising the question of whether the bugs are supernatural or not, the story promises me some sort of answer or resolution to this mystery. Yet no answer is provided.
Instead, the story introduces, right before the end, the discovery of a new lethal centipede species. Rather than resolving a mystery about millipedes, the story provides information about centipedes. Rather than resolving the question of the supernatural, the story introduces a scientific discovery. The story is kind of pulling a bait and switch on us, promising one thing and providing another. This leaves the story feeling unfocused and the ending feeling unsatisfying.
In addition to shifting its focus, the ending also lacks a strong causal chain. The bugs seem to behave in a fairly consistent way through most of the story, and then all of a sudden at the end they attack in a swarm. Why? Without a why, or even the hint of a why, the bugs seem to attack at the end because the author made them. That’s not satisfying either. The reader needs the illusion that events are unfolding on their own, through a chain of cause and effect. Otherwise, it’s impossible to believe in the story. Without a why, it’s also hard to make any meaning out of the story.
My suggestion would be to decide what you want to promise readers, and then try to fulfill that promise (in an unexpected way, so readers are surprised but also satisfied). If the story is promising an answer to the question of possibly supernatural millipedes, then provide that. And if the situation is going to get much worse (which is exciting), then there needs to be a cause for that. A why.
So why is Ahren plagued by these bugs, and why does the problem get worse? Does Ahren himself do something to create and worsen the problem? Or does Boyana or Willard create this problem for some ulterior motive? Or does the house hold some secret that causes the problem?
Ahren is attracted to Boyana, despite being engaged to Florrie. I think the story could develop this more to answer some of these questions. Perhaps Florrie insists on coming for his birthday, and Ahren gets frustrated trying to get rid of all the millipedes before she arrives. She comes, and we could feel a lot of suspense as we anticipate an appearance by the millipedes. But they don’t come. When Florrie takes a bath in the new bathtub Ahren has put in, a millipede crawls onto her. She gets upset and tells Ahren she won’t come back until he’s gotten rid of all of them and replaced the bathtub. Ahren gets more angry. As he’s pulling out the bathtub, he finds dampness and more millipedes below. He decides he’s sick of doing everything Florrie wants; he’s going to put in a Bulgarian-style shower, and if she doesn’t like it, maybe he’ll end up with Boyana instead. He tells Florrie everything is fixed but he won’t send any photos; it’s a surprise. He stops cleaning up the millipedes.
As this plot heads to some horrific climax (I’m hoping Ahren ends up taking a millipede shower), I think you can see that it has a stronger causal chain. Ahren starts the story catering to Florrie’s desires, and as she’s not satisfied with his efforts, he becomes frustrated and starts to do unwise things, which have the unintended consequence of worsening the millipede problem. Unintended consequences are one great way of escalating a situation.
One might see the millipedes, in this sort of scenario, as symbols of his discontent with his life, and as the relationship problems grow, the millipedes become more numerous.
This story has some really nice elements. If the promise better aligns with what is delivered, and the causal chain is strengthened, it will be quite involving and powerful. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust