Editor’s Choice Award October 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.

A Woman’s Place by Murder Boy

I enjoyed the clean writing in this piece, the carefully chosen details, and the objective viewpoint, which is critical to the success of a story like this.  Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” had a great appreciation for objective point of view and an unerring sense for when to use it.  A good story for third person objective POV is one in which something mysterious and very intriguing is happening, something that we can understand by the end of the story through careful observation of the external, and something bigger than the perspective of any one character could convey to us.  Since this story is not about any one character but instead about the revelation of what’s happening and what sort of society this is, third person objective POV is the best choice.  Third person objective can be very tricky to handle, and this story uses it very well.  We understand the three women even though we don’t enter their heads.

The story also does a good job of building suspense through the objective POV.  Since a lot of information is withheld in objective POV, we are forced to gather clues from the text and put them together to understand this mysterious and intriguing event.  That suspense keeps me reading eagerly until the end.

Another strength of the story is the way it reveals the world to us through brief pieces of information that are worked pretty naturally into the text.

For me, the main weakness of the story is the ending.  This is one of the most common weaknesses in stories.  Endings are hard.  In this case, as I realize the three women are in a competition and I see them clutching and kissing their children, I immediately conclude (by the third paragraph) that the two losers of the competition will have their children killed.  At the end of the story, the eliminated contestant does have her child killed, pretty much in the way I imagined.  A climax should feel both inevitable and surprising.  This one definitely feels inevitable, but it does not feel surprising.  The only surprise is that only one child is killed instead of two, and for me, that’s a disappointment.

What the story needs to provide at the climax is a surprise that also feels “right” or inevitable.  We didn’t see it coming, but once it comes, we realize this is the only possible ending the story could have.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom and throws the ring in.  Since this has been his goal all along, this climax would feel inevitable but not surprising.

Or we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom and starts to throw the ring in, but Sam snatches it away.  Since Sam has been dedicated to helping Frodo destroy the ring, this climax would feel surprising but not inevitable.

Or we might have this climax:  Frodo reaches the Crack of Doom, but instead of throwing the ring away, he claims it for his own.  Gollum, who has been stalking Frodo, bites off Frodo’s finger with the ring and falls in the crack.  Since we know Gollum’s desire for the ring, and we have seen the ring tempt one character after the next, Frodo claiming the ring and Gollum taking the ring make perfect sense.  Yet we’ve been focused on the question of whether Frodo would make it to the Crack of Doom or not.  We haven’t considered (at least I haven’t, and no one I know has) that Frodo will claim the ring for his own.  Once it happens, we realize this is what had to happen.  But until that point, we didn’t consider it.  That makes this climax (which Tolkien constructed) both Inevitable and surprising.

So you can consider various possibilities and see which one might feel inevitable and surprising.

Another way to find the right climax is to consider the story’s theme.  I wrote a blog post about this, which you can find here:  https://writerunboxed.com/2018/11/12/unifying-your-story-around-a-meaningful-theme/.  A major theme in The Lord of the Rings is “Power is inherently corrupting,” and you can see that played out in the climax.

In this story, women seemingly staged a revolution that failed and are now controlled by men.  The competition, which judges women by their cooking skills, seems designed to reinforce societal standards in which women are expected to be satisfied with cooking and cleaning and having children.  A possible theme might be, “Tyrannical societies maintain control through oppression and fear.”  The current climax shows this, though I don’t know whether the death of Mrs. Irons’s child will help the society control Mrs. Irons.  She could become an even more outspoken enemy of the state.  I wonder if, instead, the three children might be somewhat older, perhaps five or six.  And perhaps the losing contestant is tied down while her child stabs her to death.  This would eliminate an enemy, traumatize a child, perhaps into being an obedient citizen, and strike fear into every woman watching.  It would also provide the missing surprise.  By changing some details of the story, this climax might also feel inevitable.

Anyway, that’s one possibility.

I hope this is helpful.  The simplicity and efficiency of the story make it striking and memorable.

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


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