Editor’s Choice Award November 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.

Scared of Girls by Liz Tuckwell

I’m drawn in by the unusual situation revealed in the opening scene, with the six teen girls sitting on Martin’s garden wall.  Martin’s fear of young girls is also interesting.  These two elements set up compelling questions–What do the girls want?  What is the cause of Martin’s fear?–that drive me to keep reading until the end, when the answers are revealed.  That works very nicely.

Some other elements of the story could be strengthened.

The story lacks a strong causal chain.  A causal chain establishes the connections between events–one thing causes the next, which causes the next, and so on.  A causal chain is important because it answers the “why” questions that give a story meaning.  It also gives readers the illusion that events are unfolding on their own rather than being manipulated by the author, which is critical if readers are to “believe” the story.  And it makes readers more involved in a story, because if one thing is causing the next, readers can try to guess what will happen and feel suspense or excitement over that.

“Scared of Girls” has few causal connections, which makes it hard for us to feel much meaning or impact.  The initial situation doesn’t seem connected to previous causal events.  I don’t know why the girls started sitting on his wall.  I don’t know why teen girls frighten Martin.  Once the story starts moving forward, each scene doesn’t have an effect on the next scene.  The first scene only establishes the status quo and doesn’t have any effect on later scenes.  The second scene is a dream, and a recurring one at that, so it has no impact on future scenes (this is the reason it’s usually not a good idea to have dreams in stories; they seldom have an effect on the rest of the story and are usually a vehicle for revealing information or foreshadowing events, which is the case here).  The third scene involves Martin talking to his neighbors about the girls.  This conversation influences Martin to call the police, which is a causal connection, though it seems strange that Martin never considered this himself.  Martin’s call to the police, though, has no effect on the rest of the story.  It’s a dead end.  The next scene shows the girls pressing up against the window, something they’ve never done before.  What caused them to do this?  I don’t know.  So a major escalation in the situation has occurred with no cause.  This ought to cause Martin to call the police again, because the policeman implied they would take action if the girls trespassed.  But that never happens.  Instead, the girls pressing at the window causes Martin to open the door to tell them to go away.  So there is a causal connection between the girls pressing at the window and Martin opening the door.  But then he closes the door and somehow the door opens and the girls enter.  I don’t know why the door opens.  If the girls have had the power to open it all along, why didn’t they do this when they first learned about Martin rather than spending days sitting on his wall?  This is another escalation without a cause.  Then Martin transforms into a unicorn.  Why does that happen now, when it seemingly has never happened before?  If it’s the nearness of the girls, then I think he was nearer to them when they were pressed against the window.  Are the girls making him transform?  Is he somehow now allowing his own true nature to emerge?  Whatever causes this could make the story more interesting and meaningful.  Right now, it’s just a blank.  Why do the girls kill Martin?  While the twist of Martin’s transformation is surprising, which is fun, I don’t feel much sympathy for Martin, since he never had a chance, or much horror over the girls.  I enjoy the ending as a surprising twist, but that’s about it.  I’d like more.  I’d like some significance or meaning to Martin’s death and to the girls’ nature.  Creating a stronger causal chain would help that happen.

I hope that didn’t seem too harsh.  I just wanted to explain it step by step.  This is a fairly common writing problem, and it can be easy to fix and add a lot of excitement to a story.  There are many possible solutions; here’s one possibility.  Let’s start by looking at a key issue.  Why is Martin afraid of teen girls?  I imagine he gets some feeling when he looks at them or thinks about them.  The story uses bird metaphors to convey Martin’s sense that these girls are a threat.  Those metaphors show me that he fears them.  But it doesn’t show me why he fears them or why he thinks he fears them.  For me, when you talk about him staying inside except during school hours, I immediately start to wonder if he’s a pedophile.  So perhaps Martin fears that he is a pedophile because teen girls give him this strange feeling in his body.  That would explain why he doesn’t want to go outside to talk to them.

Then we could look at the question of why the girls started sitting on his wall.  Perhaps a few days ago Martin was late getting home from somewhere, and when he passed by the school, it had already let out.  One girl might have followed him home and sat on the wall.  Then others may have joined over the intervening days.  Why was he late getting home from somewhere?  Perhaps he was at a restaurant meeting a computer date, part of his attempt to find an adult girlfriend who might “cure” him of his feelings about teen girls.  This would show him struggling to solve what he thinks is his problem.  Perhaps he felt no attraction to the date, the date left, and he sat in the restaurant, depressed, until he realized the late hour.

As the number of girls increases, he struggles to figure out how to get rid of them.  He considers calling the police but decides against that because of his mother’s advice (and because he fears the police will sense he’s a pedophile).  That could explain why he goes to his neighbors.  Right now, I don’t know the purpose of Martin’s visit to his neighbors.  He seems to have no clear goal.  If he has a goal to get them upset about the girls and get them to take action, then he might lie and say he saw them going into the neighbors’ garden, looking in their windows, etc., and he might try to get them to drive the girls off or call the police.  This could work even better if he snuck into their garden earlier and ripped up some flowers or broke a window so he could blame it on the girls.  The neighbors, though, have a video doorbell and check the records when Martin is there.  They discover Martin is guilty and call the police on Martin.  This is an example of how escalation can be connected to the causal chain.  In this scene, as Martin goes to the neighbors’ house, readers expect the outcome will be either a “yes” or “no.”  Either the neighbors will say “yes” and agree to help, or the neighbors will say “no.”  Right now, they say no, which means Martin is back where he started and this scene has changed nothing.  Instead, you usually want a “yes, but” or a “no, moreover.”  In a “yes, but,” the protagonist gets what he wants but there are strings attached or some other unexpected development that makes the situation worse.  For example, “yes, Martin, we’ll talk to the girls and tell them to leave, but you have to do that with us.”  Or, “no, Martin, we won’t talk to the girls; moreover, we’re going to turn you in to the police for vandalism.”  The situation escalates and there will be a strong causal connection between this scene and the next.

This type of solution would also strengthen a couple other areas of the story.  Right now, Martin doesn’t seem to be trying strongly enough to solve his problem.  And he doesn’t seem to have a chance of success, so there’s not a lot of suspense over who will triumph.  If he tried harder and had some bit of success along the way, readers would feel more uncertain about the outcome and would feel worse when Martin fails.

I won’t go through the rest of the causal chain, except for Martin’s transformation.  I think the story could have much more emotional impact if we knew the cause of that.  Continuing my example, Martin might panic when he comes face to face with one of the girls in his kitchen.  The feeling of attraction might become overwhelming.  He might think this is why his mother told him to keep to himself; she knew he was sick.  His life has been miserable trying to fight his nature.  He’s tried and tried to avoid the girls and been unable to.  If his fate is to be a pedophile, then maybe he just needs to accept that he’s a horrible person and hope someone stops him soon.  So he decides to give in to it.  In this example, then, Martin causes the transformation, and it’s the culmination of (the effect of) all his failed attempts to get rid of the girls.

If we’ve seen Martin trying everything possible to avoid this situation, we might feel some compassion for him here, even as we’re upset at his decision.  And then, to Martin’s and our surprise, giving in to this attraction doesn’t mean approaching the girl for sex; it means turning into a unicorn.  Once Martin gets past the shock, he could feel huge relief that he’s not a pedophile.  That he has a pure love for these girls and doesn’t have to be afraid of himself anymore and doesn’t have to be alone.  Then they can kill him.

I hope this shows how to strengthen the causal chain, incorporate escalation into the causal chain, make the protagonist try harder to achieve his goals, and have a chance of success.  When you do those things, readers will believe more in the story, will be more involved in events, and will experience more emotion and draw more meaning from your story.

I really enjoyed the unusual situation and the unusual outcome.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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



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