Editor’s Choice Award September 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.

The Other Side of Midnight (Dialect Ask) by Paul O’Neill

The opening quickly draws me in as Charlie and his friends are attacked by a pair of bullies.  The bullies seem to pose a serious threat, so as the conflict intensifies, the suspense rises.  And as Charlie’s friend, Gavin, deteriorates and begins to ramble about the “lightning lady,” my anticipation about where the novella is leading grows.  That works well.

Since this is the opening scene from a novella, I won’t talk about overall plot and character issues.  Instead, I’ll focus on style and viewpoint.

The dialogue uses quite a bit of phoneticization or eye dialect, words misspelled to reflect their pronunciation.  In this case, the characters seem to speak with a Scottish accent.  I recommend against using misspellings in most cases, for several reasons.  First, it’s a barrier for many readers.  As I’m reading the excerpt and come to some dialogue, I see a bunch of words (misspelled) that I don’t recognize, so I’m brought up short.  The flow of the story stops, I’m thrown out of the story, and my eyes jump ahead to see how much dialogue there is to decode.  I try to pick out a couple words I can understand to get the overall meaning of the dialogue, and then jump ahead to the end of the dialogue.  When it’s clear I didn’t understand the dialogue sufficiently, then I go back over it again and try harder to understand it.  At this point, I’ve completely lost the sense that events are unfolding and have separated from the story.  Then I have to try to get immersed again after the dialogue ends.  So it’s quite disruptive, and I don’t think it’s adding anything to the story.

Second, these sorts of misspellings generally suggest the speaker is speaking incorrectly and imply a negative judgment about the speaker.  No one actually speaks every word exactly as it is spelled.  But we usually spell the dialogue correctly, and the reader gets a sense of how the character speaks based on word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, and syntax.  I suggest using these elements rather than misspellings to indicate the accents of the characters.  Some of the dialogue already does this.  For example, taking some dialogue from the story and spelling it correctly, “Time to shut that big gob of yours, man,” “Or what, you nothing bastard?” and “Mike Tyson stuff there, likes.”  These all give me a clear sense of the characters’ accents.  The misspellings are unnecessary.  Strengthening these elements throughout would convey the dialect without the phoneticization.

There is an additional problem in that there’s a disconnect between the dialect and the narrative.  This relates to a weakness in the point of view, which I’ll talk about first.  While we are clearly receiving sensory input through Charlie, the POV rarely gives us a sense of Charlie’s thoughts or emotions.  The thoughts and emotions become a little more common after Charlie discovers the pencil in his hand, but I never really feel close to Charlie.  The long paragraph beginning, “Charlie had drawn every day” seems like a belated attempt to introduce us to the character and provide an explanation for his words after the fact.  I think the novella will be much stronger if the POV is more psychically close to Charlie.  As is, I feel somewhat distant from the characters and events, which means I don’t care about them as much as I might.

Drawing us psychically closer to Charlie isn’t just about giving us a stronger sense of Charlie’s thoughts and emotions.  It’s also about choosing sensory details that Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  When Charlie’s friend Gavin is hit by a brick, the details provided are a rivulet of blood on Gavin’s forehead and the reflection of rustling leaves in the blood’s surface.  For me, a rivulet isn’t enough blood to show a reflection of leaves, so I don’t get a clear image from that.  More important, though, is this reflection of leaves really what Charlie is focused on as he kneels beside his injured friend?  I would think he’d be frantically trying to figure out if his friend is okay–conscious, coherent–and trying to spot the bullies who threw the brick, to determine the level of threat.  In the next sentence, we get details about Charlie’s other friend–what the friend is doing, what he’s wearing, and how his shins look below his shorts.  Again, this doesn’t seem to be what Charlie would be focused on.

As I mentioned above, bringing us psychically close to Charlie is both about including sensory details Charlie would notice and describing them in the way he would think about them.  The descriptions, though, do not use word choices, word omission, colloquialisms, or syntax to give us a sense that Charlie is Scottish.  The narrative voice, to me, feels like American English, while the dialogue feels like Scottish English.  That increases my distance from Charlie.

I don’t know how important it is that these boys are Scottish and this story is set in Scotland.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the story thus far.  My suspicion is that this “lightning lady” is going to connect to some Scottish myth.  If it is important to the story, then my suggestion would be to cut most of the eye dialect, indicate the dialect through those other elements, and turn down the dial on it from 9 to 3.  Then I’d suggest increasing the sense of Charlie’s dialect in the narrative, turning the dial up from 0 to 3.

One other point I wanted to mention is that many times in the excerpt, the pronoun he is used to refer to Charlie, but it’s not clear that it refers to Charlie.  Since all the characters are male, you need to clearly put the focus on Charlie, by name, before replacing his name with he.

A more in-depth discussion of dialect is available in Odyssey Podcasts 127 and 128 by Nisi Shawl here:  https://odysseyworkshop.org/podcasts.html.

I enjoyed reading this excerpt, which left me excited about where the novella is heading.  I hope this is helpful.

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

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