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.
What makes us remember a horror story? There are many possibilities. It could be a twist ending, or a constant atmosphere of dread, or a particular character, or a relationship, or a decision, or a moment when we felt true fear. Or it could be an image the story forms in our brains. I felt a really memorable image etching itself into my brain several times in this story.
- She was free now, to worm herself into every crevice, to name unnamed caves, and to delve into lakes to feed on the bodies of fish born without eyes.
- Her mind counted days with enzyme-etched numbers across the walls, floors, and ceilings.
- She built little dolls from thick ropes of herself, like her father had once made from straw, only these moved.
- She felt the soft pudding inside Isabella’s head.
These are strong and fresh and disturbing. They make me very excited to imagine them. This image of Margaret forms a strong heart for the story.
I think other elements in the story could better maximize the power of this heart. The areas I want to discuss mainly fall into two areas: plot and style.
I don’t think the plot effectively builds to Margaret’s transformation or adds significance to Margaret’s transformation. Her goal at the start could be clearer, and the causal chain that leads to her transformation could be stronger. Right now, I get the sense that Margaret’s goal in going to the caves to lose her virginity, but it’s unclear how she plans to do this. It seems like couples go to the caves, so how would she find someone there? For example, perhaps Margaret is going to the cave to intercept Jean and Isabella and demand Jean leave Isabella alone and try to convince him to choose her instead. She could confront them and touch Jean’s face at a key moment, expecting to find him sympathetic but instead finding he’s laughing at her. This could so horrify her that she would run deeper into the caves and beat her hands against the walls and perhaps find a drop and jump to kill herself. This would allow her to be driving the action and to have one event cause the next (a causal chain), so it doesn’t feel like the author is manipulating the story. Right now, the rain, Margaret’s reaction to the rain, and her fall feel manipulated by the author.
Some trauma related to her hands–feeling Jean’s mocking expression–could better tie to her multiplicity of hands, to wanting to feel things to block out that earlier sensation. The more all these pieces work together, the more powerful they will be.
Another plot element that could be strengthened is the overall structure. For me, structure is defined by the protagonist’s goals. Right now, Margaret’s goal seems at first to lose her virginity in the caves. Once she’s injured, her goal is to survive. Once she dies, her goal is unclear, but perhaps to explore and enjoy her new abilities. I think her goals need to be clearer. The middle goal, to survive, doesn’t work very well because she has no power to struggle to achieve it, and her desire to survive doesn’t have any impact on the rest of the story (so it’s not part of a strong causal chain). If, instead, she kills herself (just one possibility), then we could go from her goal to get Jean (which ends with her giving up and killing herself); to her goal to feel many other things with her hands and enjoy her new existence, forgetting about Jean; to finding she’s still upset about Jean, confronting him, and killing him. This would again allow Margaret to be more strongly driving the story, create a clearer cause for that final confrontation, and create a clearer emotional arc for Margaret and the story.
One aspect of style that I think could be improved is the flow. I have a blog post about flow here: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2019/01/uncovering-mysteries-of-narrative-flow.html. It explains how a passage flows when one sentence makes us curious about a particular thing, and the next sentence discusses that very thing. I found myself confused and brought up short a number of times in the story when one sentence did not flow into the next. The first paragraph, for example, feels quite disjointed. The first sentence makes me want to know how far the cave actually is, but the second sentence has Margaret thinking she shouldn’t have gone alone. The second sentence makes me want to know why she thinks that (what dangers she perceives), but the third sentence describes her walking ahead in a competent, seemingly safe way. Improving the flow will allow readers to fall into the story and have a more immersive and vivid experience.
Another element that combines both plot and style is pacing. Key moments in a story should be slowed down (dilated) with intense description. Unimportant moments should be sped up with recapitulation. This is a key element in horror, trapping readers in important moments and making them feel those moments intensely. Many important moments in this story are rushed over, so they don’t carry the power they might. One example is the section between “A wet finger slithered around her foot” and “her hands tasting the wet tang of salt.” That should probably be about 4 times as long as it currently is.
I really enjoy some of the imagery in this story. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust