Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Rosary by Robert Balentine

Two qualities that stand out for me in “Rosary” are the organization and the process details.  So many stories are confusing or unclear, or they simply don’t carry me from one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next.  This story provides some very clear cues so readers understand what each section is about and how it relates to previous and future sections.  For example, the story begins, “There were days when salsa making was a chore.”  This serves as a topic sentence, letting us know what the rest of the paragraph will discuss.  It also allows us to anticipate that later in the story, we’ll learn about days when salsa making wasn’t a chore.  And that’s exactly what happens.  This type of organization allows us to move effortlessly through the text and understand the relationship between the various parts.

Another strength that I enjoy is the detailed description of the process.   Often in stories, important processes are skimmed over because the author either doesn’t know how the process works or doesn’t care.  If the process isn’t important to the story, then we don’t need much (or any) detail.  But if it is important, as the salsa making is here, then putting us in the moment and providing vivid details that show us how the process works, gives us confidence in the author and brings us close to the character.  Learning a new process is also a pleasure readers enjoy, so including that in your story makes it more enjoyable.

For me, there are two main areas that I think could be improved.  First is the voice.  We’re in the third person limited viewpoint of Maria.  She’s from Colombia and speaks in Spanish a few times in the story.  But the narration, made up of her thoughts and descriptions of things, doesn’t use Spanish or sound influenced by Spanish at all.  For example, “Maria thought the hood was a fitting headstone above her mother’s salsa, possibly her greatest culinary achievement, which was saying something.”  My Spanish is from vague memories of my Argentinian father and from high school classes, so I’m no expert.  But the word “fitting” and the phrase “greatest culinary achievement” don’t feel like things that someone with English as a second language would be likely to use.  Also, when I ask for the Spanish term for headstone, Google provides, ” lápida mortuoria” or mortuary stone.  So it may be that someone from a Spanish-speaking background would think of a “mortuary stone” rather than a “headstone.”  And the phrase “which was saying something” is a colloquialism (a phrase used in informal language) that might be less likely for someone with English as a second language to use.  Again, I’m no expert, but as I read, the dialogue and the narration don’t feel like they’re coming from the same character.  Doing research by talking to/recording people with backgrounds similar to Maria, finding memoirs by people with similar backgrounds, or watching videos with such people could be very helpful in creating a strong, consistent voice for this character.

The second area I think could be improved is the plot.  For me, an experienced reader of horror, thrillers, and mystery, the plot is too familiar and lacks twists or surprises.  I enjoy the idea that Maria is putting poison into her salsa, but in a mild way.  I’m hoping for that to be the first step in a plot that goes on to twist and turn.  The story provides a series of clues that something is dangerous about the salsa, so when I learn that Maria is against guns and her customer is pro-gun, it’s easy to conclude that the salsa is poisoned.  It seems convenient (meaning manipulated by the author) that the person in charge of food for the NRA’s annual convention knows Maria and her salsa and hires her to make it for the meeting.  The last section of the story, from the time the man thanks Maria to the end, doesn’t really add anything for me, because it’s revealing things I already know.

I think there are two ways you can think about the plot weakness.  One is that there is no struggle, when a plot generally shows a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal.  Maria just has to make the salsa, something she’s done many times, and hand it to the man.  Putting in the poison doesn’t cause her any trouble.  Since this is just a little longer than a flash piece and thus may imply sections of the story that aren’t actually present, the struggle could potentially be implied.  But there is no implication that Maria had to struggle to befriend the man or get his business.  The man seems to think he’s Maria’s friend.  And there’s no sense that Maria had to struggle to get the NRA convention to come to her town.  So the story seems to be that the job to provide food to the NRA fell into Maria’s lap, and she made the poisoned salsa and handed it over.  No struggle.  So one way to address this plot weakness would be to add struggle.

Another way to think about the plot weakness is that Maria’s plan goes according to plan.  Whenever a protagonist has a plan, it should never go according to plan.  There could be unexpected roadblocks or unintended consequences.  I’m a big fan of unintended consequences.  They can have a huge impact on readers.  For example, the story reveals that the man was expecting 50 jars of salsa, and Maria, in her enthusiasm, has made 100.  Assuming 50 will be sufficient for the NRA meeting, what will be done with the other 50?  Might the man give some to his wife to feed to his family?  Might she give some to her friends?  And who is going to be at the NRA annual convention?  I took a quick look online and found this description of the NRA barbecue, an event likely to involve salsa:  “an evening full of friends, family, firearms, and fundraising.”  It sounds like children would be present.  I think this could be a powerful unintended consequence of Maria’s plan.  She imagines killing adults, but she ends up killing many children as well.  She might get a call from the man as people are dying, or she might see the report on television.  I think that could reveal a more complex truth and could provide a twist at the end that would carry strong emotion.

I hope this is helpful.  I enjoyed the focus, clarity, concision, and vivid details in the story.

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


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