Editor’s Choice Award March 2019, 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.

Bait by Christopher Ivey

This story really draws me in by suggesting more than it explicitly states.  Implying or suggesting significant pieces of information is a key method of engaging readers.  This allows readers to be active participants in the story, and if done properly, it allows readers to enjoy the pleasure of figuring things out and tying them together.  The story does this several times in the opening paragraphs.

The first line, “Anton chose a knife not knowing the kind of meat it had once cut,” suggests many things:   that this story will be about cutting meat, that the type of meat being used may be mysterious or strange, that Anton will be using this knife for something important (which creates suspense), and that Anton is not knowledgeable about knives and butchering.  All of these things turn out to be true, which is good.  Sometimes authors imply or suggest things without realizing it, and those things send the reader down the wrong path, creating confusion and frustration.

Another example is in paragraph 7:  “Anton tried to imagine Father with a left arm.”  This implies that Anton’s father doesn’t have a left arm.  While that doesn’t require a lot of mental work on the part of readers, it avoids a common and serious problem:  having the point of view character think a fact he already knows.  Here’s the usual way an author might convey this same idea:  “Anton’s father had lost his left arm.”  But since we’re in Anton’s point of view, he’s not going to think this.  He’s not going to tell himself something he already knows.  I call this type of statement an “as you know, self.”  The way to avoid the “as you know, self,” is to have the POV character think a reaction or opinion about the fact, rather than just thinking the fact.  “Anton tried to imagine Father with a left arm” is Anton’s reaction to the fact.

One final example, and perhaps the strongest one, is in that same paragraph:  “Anton couldn’t picture [his father] in a place like this, with its clean surfaces and bright lights.  In filth and darkness:  that was where Father lived.”  This sentence not only suggests the setting, which hasn’t been previously described, it also implies a lot about Anton’s father and about Anton’s attitude toward his father.

While I really like the way the story engages me through this technique, I think the story could be improved in several ways.

The plot reveals several facts, but the revelations are not set up well, so they don’t carry the impact they might.  Scene 2 reveals that Mr. Sokolov has been making a living by selling the meat of supernatural creatures to high-paying customers.  This would work better if Scene 1 established that there was some mystery about the animals that Mr. Sokolov butchers, or about how Mr. Sokolov stays in business.  While there’s a little hint about the meat, as I mentioned above, it’s not enough to establish that this is a mystery.  The only meat described in Scene 1 is pork.  If there was another piece of meat that Anton couldn’t identify, or if Anton asked where the animals are held before butchering, that could establish the mystery.  If the mystery is established in Scene 1, then when the information is revealed in Scene 2, it will feel right, because it will answer the questions raised earlier.  Right now, it kind of comes out of the blue, and readers have to retroactively create a mystery that these new facts can explain.  Setting up the mystery would also reduce the need for Mr. Sokolov to explain the whole situation in Scene 2, which comes off as a villain monologuing his evil plan.  The less he can say and still reveal the truth, the better.  And if Anton has noticed this mystery earlier, he may be able to figure some of it out on his own, so we won’t need so much explanation from Mr. Sokolov.

Similarly, Scenes 2 and 3 seem to indicate that Anton’s father killed Anton’s mother.  But the story never established that there was any mystery about how Anton’s mother died.  So again, the information seems to come out of the blue, and it doesn’t feel right or inevitable because we had no idea that there was any question about how the mother died.  If that was set up earlier, so we had that question in our heads, then the answer would be much more satisfying .

Another area I’d like to discuss is the point of view.  Since we’re in Anton’s third person limited point of view, calling Mr. Sokolov “Mr. Sokolov” rather than “Gleb” definitely feels more appropriate.  Anton seems fairly young, so I think that is how Anton would think of him.  In other places, though, the POV seems to drift out of Anton’s head.  In some places, the voice seems to belong to someone much older, such as here:  “If Dr. Pankrat had any opinion on the matter, he didn’t express it.  He finished his work and left without further comment.”  This doesn’t sound like it’s coming from Anton.  It sounds sophisticated and adult.  In other places, the POV feels distant from Anton, as if an omniscient narrator is conveying what Anton is experiencing.  The description of Anton being hit on the head is one example:  “the pain in his skull imparted the awful truth.”  This seems both too sophisticated and too distant to be coming from Anton.  In other places, Anton’s emotions didn’t come through as powerfully as they might have.  For example, “Anton strained against the ropes that bound him to the chair.  No use.  Too tight.  Panic took hold of him” tells us Anton’s emotion through an emotional label (panic) rather than showing us Anton’s emotions.  I think Anton needs to struggle much more against the ropes before deciding that it won’t work.  Also, the struggling could be described more specifically.  Is he trying to break the ropes?  Slip out of the ropes?  Pull at the knot fastening the rope?  What kind of rope is it?  This struggle needs to be dilated (described in detail to expand and stretch out this short segment in time) to provide greater intensity.

A point related to POV is how direct thoughts are used in the story.  For me, the story has too many direct thoughts, and they’re often introduced abruptly, jarring me.  My suggestion would be to change most of the direct thoughts to indirect thoughts, so they flow better with the rest of the text.

The final area I’d like to cover is flow.  There are some places where the sentences don’t flow, and that makes me stumble in my reading and get thrown out of the story.  One basic principle of flow is to create expectations in one sentence that are satisfied by the next sentence.  These two sentences lack that flow:  “Most of these cryptic marks were unfamiliar, but there was one that Anton knew he had seen before.  Few of the symbols reminded Anton of other things.”  The first sentence clearly makes us expect the following sentence will discuss the one symbol that Anton had seen before.  Yet the next sentence doesn’t do that.  So the flow is disrupted.

Another example of disrupted flow is here:  “Anton did as he was told and stood watching his blood marinade the pork while Mr. Sokolov found gauze.  His pulse pounded in his temples.”  The first sentence leaves me with a focus on Mr. Sokolov, so I’m expecting the next sentence to involve Mr. Sokolov and the gauze.  Yet the next sentence shifts the focus back to Anton and takes us inside Anton.  That’s a jarring break in the flow.  Once you start looking at your sentences for flow, these issues aren’t hard to fix.  I wrote a blog post recently on this topic, “Uncovering the Mysteries of Narrative Flow in the Opening of Stephen King’s 11/22/63,” which you can find here:  http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html.

I was really drawn in by the story and enjoyed the originality of the situation.  I hope my comments are helpful.

Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

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