Editor’s Choice Award March 2020, Short Story

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.

Night Harrowing by Catherine Hansen

“Night Harrowing” caught my attention this month with the cadence of its prose, its visual imagination, and deeply poignant ending: that you can’t enter heaven without someone in your arms. However, there are a few aspects of the current draft which, as the author asked, I think might help move it from positive rejection letters to finding a home: thinking about specificity, concreteness, and what questions readers might be asking. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to bring out the most interesting version of a story: specific details, novelty, handling attention, and what the story itself reacts to.

There’s a strong sense of rhythm that kicks in right away in “Night Harrowing”, wry and tired and humble, and I was drawn to its single-mother protagonist and the small flares of beautiful language she sprinkles here and there: “breaking hard soil for new planting” and the gorgeous, grim idea of a “colossal, pitch-black voice”. However, the understructure beneath it isn’t, for me, firing on all cylinders, and I think there are a few reasons for that—all of which boil down to what “Night Harrowing” treats as interesting, and how it reacts to its own content.

“Night Harrowing” starts with a slightly apologetic relationship to its own sense of being interesting. While there are great uses out there for a framing story, or a scene that’s almost a teaser for the rest of the piece, there are definite downsides: they can rob impact from the piece in the first scene by telling readers there’s an interesting bit coming—the harrowing of hell—but not yet. Everything we put in a story shapes reader expectations, and “interesting but not yet” is no exception; everything I read filters through that lens of a harrowing is coming, and that will be interesting. Everything until that harrowing? Not yet—which is likely not the desired effect.

Once we do get into the main story, there’s a feeling of clinical distance from the protagonist that robs the urgency and vibrancy of “Night Harrowing”. The unnamed narrator has a tendency to speak in generalities and not specific details, and that generality leaches colour and life from what she’s telling us.

There’s a sense of the interesting that could be shored up just by bringing that sense of specifics back into the narrative: she was home with her three-year-old daughter—what is the child’s name? She’d surely think of her own child by their name. On a weekday, a national holiday—which one? That detail would give us time, place, seasonality: what country “Night Harrowing” takes place in, at what time of year; it would establish temperature without ever having to ask. Suddenly, we would have a sense of place.

Which long-postponed tasks is she dealing with? That detail would give us, without asking, something of the shape of this person’s life and what pressures she’s under. Which toys is her kid playing with? That detail would tell us something about the personality her child has, what money this family has or doesn’t, what year it is.

There’s a wealth of information that can be fitted into “Night Harrowing” without adding any words, just swapping generalities for specifics, and turning a setup that’s currently abstract into one that’s concrete and real: our protagonist not a single mother, but this single mother, this person with a real story and real life who, for a short time, can be cared about.

In principle, what’s happening there would be working with how human—and therefore, reader!—brains work: giving us novelty and connection. We’re wired to find novelty interesting, and empathize with other people; when there are enough specific details to flesh a character into a lived life, readers can empathize; when something new to us happens, we’re attracted to the novelty—and those things are tools in keeping readers invested in a story. In short, making it interesting.

That leads into the other major question I’d suggest looking into with “Night Harrowing”: the plot logic itself, and how the story handles novelty. As it stands in the current draft, it’s somewhat abrupt: the supernatural rushes upon the protagonist “suddenly”, she loses her body and experiences a major and earthshaking detachment—but nothing in how the story’s told changes. When she loses her ability to go back to her earthly body it’s just as sudden, just as unexplained—and she’s just as incurious about it. The form of the story and how little she asks about these occurrences give readers the cue to not pay attention to this startling change; that it is routine, not important to the story as a whole, that readers should move on.

That incuriousness—the ways “Night Harrowing” itself is telling readers that its most major narrative turns aren’t actually important, so don’t ask about them—puts a significant damper on its ability to draw readers closer through their sense of novelty. Readers can take strong cues about how to feel about a story from the story itself. When the story itself is downplaying its most change-driving events, the space where there’s room to evoke the most readerly emotion, it’s undermining its own ability to work.

There’s a lot to like in “Night Harrowing” but, at present—and acknowledging the author’s note that says it knows well what it wants to be—it’s communicating to this reader as still very much in the idea phase, not yet sunk roots. The author’s notes communicate an overall sense that “Night Harrowing” already knows what’s interesting about itself—that it’s a settled question. What I think might be missing here is communicating that cohesively: as it stands, there are a few different messages going out on that point—the ones we’ve gone through above—and I think, having decided already what’s interesting in this story, if that could be conveyed with more unity, that would be a strong start for a revision.

But I’d like to make a suggestion: before looking at all the intermediate work, details and plot logic and so on, all the things which would make each element more interesting—what if the story just started with the most interesting part? Is there a wider, deeper, more curious story that happens when “Night Harrowing” doesn’t have to start with a teaser for the interesting bit, because the interesting bit is front and centre, and there’s no need for an apology that readers have to wait for it?

I think that, for an SFF readership, there’s significantly more work to be done in here than expected, but that it’s worthwhile work, and wish you the best of luck with it.

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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