Editor’s Choice Award March 2020, 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.

Helping You Be Your Best Self by Emily Scharff

The underlying idea, that a possessing entity can be a better Maya than Maya herself can be, is engaging and thought provoking.  The story does a good job at the start of showing Maya’s depressed nature, her dependence on Roger, and her motivation to “skip” parts of her life.  Her discovery that those important to her prefer the “possessed” Maya to the real one carries some good impact.  I think ending with Roger is the right way to end, since that relationship seems to be the most important one to Maya.  The message that the entity conveys at the end, “A happier you for a happier world,” conveys the situation Maya faces very clearly.

I’ll discuss the editorial feedback this revision is intended to address last.  First, I want to share my thoughts about the story.  If they aren’t useful for this story, perhaps they can help you with future pieces.

I think the story could be strengthened by increasing its unity, making all the elements work together.  Right now, the story seems to have several elements that don’t seem incorporated as well as they might be.  For example, Kevin seems very important in the opening scene, when we learn that he seemingly molested Maya, and she chooses to “skip” over her mother’s party because she doesn’t want to face him again.  Yet Kevin is barely mentioned in the story after that, as if he was just an excuse the author used to make Maya click on the app.  She later sees photos of the party, but there’s no mention of Kevin.

Because the problem of how she’ll deal with Kevin seems like the biggest problem in the opening, I’m most interested in finding out what happened with Kevin in the second scene, and I feel like something’s missing at the end when the situation with Kevin isn’t tied into the climax and conclusion.  I don’t think we actually need to meet Kevin in the story.  I think that dropping a hint or two into the story about what happened could be effective.  For example, when Maya is in school, I think you can raise the issue of Kevin more strongly.  I was fairly confused about her interaction with the teacher and why she got so upset.  What if the teacher hands back a test on which Maya did very poorly, and the teacher comments, “I thought you were getting tutoring three times a week.  Maybe your parents should ask for their money back.”  I think that could send Maya running from the room and could carry some pretty horrific implications, if she’s been seeing Kevin three times a week for a month.  The story might also describe a photo with Maya and Kevin in it, so we could get a hint of what the relationship is between Kevin and the possessed Maya.  Does she now dominate him?  As is, Maya mainly seems worried she’ll have to see him again, which is the same problem she had at the beginning.  That means this plotline is “stuck” in that situation and is not developing it.  Try to take it the next step.

It would also help to have two interactions with the mother rather than just one; that would help tie the mother into the story better.  If we could see her interacting with Maya in the first scene, we could get a sense of how the mother feels about Maya.  This could be brief, just the mother leaning into Maya’s bedroom during her texted conversation with Roger to say a line or two and then leave.  The mother might express her dissatisfaction that Maya isn’t wearing the lipstick the mother left for her, or something like that.

Another element that could be better incorporated into the story is what Maya thinks about her relationship with Roger.  At the end, she’s surprised at the feeling that Roger remained her friend out of pity and that she has been a burden to him.  So what does she think about their relationship at the beginning?   She thinks they’re friends, but I don’t get much more than that.  Does she think they both help each other, when in reality it’s always Roger helping her?  Does she think he really enjoys helping her?  The ending will have more impact if we know how different the reality is from her perception.  That’s not clear now.

The other area I think could be strengthened is Maya’s behavior.  For me, the believability of Maya’s character was undermined several times because I didn’t believe she would do what the story showed me.  The initial message she sees on her phone, “Want to skip through your day?” creates in my mind the image of a child skipping along.  It doesn’t make me think about skipping over unpleasant events.  So when Maya is immediately interested in the message, and immediately seems to read it as offering her the power to skip over events, I don’t believe that and don’t believe in her as a person.  It makes me feel as if the author knows what she means and is conveying that knowledge to the character, while the reader is left out.  If the message said something like, “Want to skip over parts of your day?” then I’d understand it as Maya does.  Or it could address the issue differently and tie better to the later messages; for example, “Are you unhappy?” or “Is your world an unhappy place?” or “Want to cope better with your life and be a happier you?”  A message like this could also add more unity to the entity’s messages through the story and to the decision that Maya must make in the story.

When she thinks, near the end of the first scene, that the advertised service would allow her to skip the party, that seems forced by the author, not something Maya would really think for two reasons.  First, because the ad doesn’t clearly claim that, as discussed above.  Second, because I don’t believe she would buy such a crazy claim, even if it was made clearly.  Maybe, if the claim is made clearly, she could think the service being offered is some sort of meditation or technique to cope with upsetting events.

I have a similar problem in the second scene, when she jumps from thinking she was in an accident to believing she was possessed.  To me, it seems like she’d have a step between these where she might question her sanity and might wonder whether she has Dissociative Identity Disorder.  She could check her texts in the second scene rather than the third scene, before the message from the entity.  I’m not sure why the entity deleted her texts with Roger.  It seems like she just told Roger that should stay apart.  And I think the entity would know that she’d talk to Roger and find out what the entity told him.  Anyway, it could be interesting for her to look for texts with Roger and not find any in the last month, but then see she’s been texting Kevin.  Or texting other people she doesn’t know.  Or texting a popular girl at school.  That would help me to accept that she believes she’s been possessed after the entity’s message.

Those are the main points I wanted to cover.  The revision request talked about making the ending more ambiguous.  While I can’t comment on the “more” part, because I haven’t read the previous version, I think the story’s end is ambiguous, and I feel generally satisfied by it.  The request also asked for more of an exploration of the entity’s motivation.  I think the messages from the entity could be strengthened some and made more unified, as discussed above, and I think that could more strongly suggest/imply the entity’s motivation.  I don’t need more than that.  Finally, the request asked for more time to resolve the friendship.  I discussed the Maya/Roger relationship above; I think you could strengthen the relationship arc by making some changes in those areas.

I enjoyed reading the story.  You succeed at accomplishing a lot in a short piece.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

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