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 interesting setting of this story draws me in immediately. I actually enjoy imagining living with a cemetery in my backyard. The plot is nice and tight, with the ending set up in the first two paragraphs. The term updig makes me curious, so I want to keep reading to understand. The ending feels satisfying.
There are some elements, though, that could be strengthened to give the story more impact.
Some events feel rushed over or not clearly described, and this weakens both the story and the narrator. Part of the reason for this may be the desire to keep the story to flash length. But I’d love to feel more vividly in the moment with the first-person narrator. The narrator digs up the corpse of Elenore Heckerson, since she’s had no mourners visit her grave in years. He’s planning to dump her body in the lake and re-sell the plot, as taught by his deceased father: “No mourners, you get the lake.”
As he takes her body to the lake, he hears Elenore’s voice, but I don’t get any clear sense of how he’s hearing her. Does he actually hear a voice? Or is it more like a thought planted in his mind? Or does it feel like he’s just imagining what she might be thinking, if she could think? Has he heard other corpses speaking? Or is she the only one? He responds nonchalantly to her at first. Later, he thinks he’s going crazy, but that reaction belongs earlier. Why would he respond nonchalantly and later think he’s going crazy? I also don’t understand why he calls her “darling.” That doesn’t sound like the narrator’s voice. He seems concise and clipped in most of his thoughts. He’s an isolated man who has never been close to anyone except his parents. I don’t think the word darling would even be on his radar. I’d like to feel much more of an emotional reaction to this interaction; I think this could be very chilling or disturbing, or it could reveal some fascinating connection between the narrator and the dead. Right now, I don’t feel much except a bit of confusion. My belief in the narrator’s character is also undercut by his reaction.
The climax could profit from dilation, slowing the pace by describing events in great detail. Let’s look at this paragraph:
“The scratching becomes a pounding, boiling hot water splashes up and scalds my arms. I lean into the coffin, push hard–it slides. I lose my footing, try to catch myself–that jagged metal corner swipes me, sinks into my jeans. I wriggle and pull but it’s got me good.”
The narrator has previously noticed the bubbles in the water and compared them to boiling water, but he doesn’t know that the water is actually boiling. He should be startled when the water scalds him, have some reaction to the pain, and realize it is boiling. He might then panic, or frantically try to figure out why it’s boiling, or consider different actions he might take. He has very little reaction, just continuing his plan. In the third sentence, I don’t know why he loses his footing. Is he being clumsy? Is the barge wet? Are supernatural forces at work? How exactly does he try to catch himself? How does that lead to his jeans getting caught? Where are his jeans caught? By the ankle? By the thigh? On the belt loop? This needs to be more specific to allow me to experience it along with the narrator. Making it more specific will also better define the personality of the narrator.
One element that arises in the examples I just discussed is the causal chain. The causal chain isn’t as strong as it might be, so events sometimes feel manipulated by the author rather than arising out of a chain of cause and effect. If he’s never heard a voice from a corpse before, why does he hear Elenore’s voice? Why does the water boil as if the corpses that have previously been dumped are demanding justice? Why does he slip? At the end, we see that the narrator, whose mother died the previous month and has no one who cares for him, gets dragged into the lake, suffering the same fate as Elenore and others. While the main parts of this have been set up, other parts have not, and they feel kind of forced as we approach the climax. A dead body with no mourners gets the lake, but the narrator is not dead. He may have no mourners some day, but not this day. So the story hasn’t quite set up why he’s pulled into the lake now. The story seems to be drawing on other stories in which someone doing wrong gets his comeuppance. That’s a plot structure I enjoy. But usually the comeuppance is triggered by the character’s wrong actions growing worse and worse. In this case, the narrator is simply doing something he’s done many times before. The story is mixing a plot about a character caught in a rule that now works against him and a plot about a character getting his comeuppance. There’s nothing wrong with mixing plots; it can lead to something fresh. But the author needs to be clear about the story he’s telling. If he’s used this rule to cruelly abuse the corpses in the cemetery–then a mix of the two plots could make sense. If he’s using this rule only when he must to make enough to survive and keep up the cemetery, then the comeuppance plot isn’t appropriate. Right now, the story feels more like the latter, so the corpses rising up to demand justice don’t quite seem to fit.
I wonder if the narrator perhaps only did updigs with his father. After his father died, perhaps his mother convinced him to stop that practice, telling him he should respect and honor the dead and make a living some other way. Perhaps, because of that, he didn’t have much money for her healthcare when she got breast cancer. So she died. Now, driven by grief, he might feel fed up with respecting and honoring the dead. He might decide to do a bunch of updigs, sell a bunch of plots, and then take off with the money. Elenore might be the first. In that case, a plot that combines the rule working against him and the narrator receiving his comeuppance could be appropriate.
If the comeuppance plot does not belong in the story and it’s about a character who lives by a rule that turns against him, then I think the rule needs to align a little better with what happens to him–the word mourners doesn’t quite fit, since he’s not dead–and probably the narrator needs to be more of a sad sack, loser character.
Finally, all of these points tie to the character of the narrator, which I think could be better defined. He claims that living with a graveyard in his backyard has prevented him from making friends or finding a wife. I don’t think the graveyard is what’s stopping him from finding companionship. It might be a factor, but there must be other factors. What are they? Thinking out his character some more may help clarify the story, as discussed above.
My advice is that, as you explore these issues through revision, that you put the length of the story out of your mind. I don’t think this needs to be a long story, but it may need more like 1500 or 2000 words. A good goal is to allow the story to find its ideal length rather than trying to force it into a particular length.
I really enjoyed the setting and the tight plot. I hope this is helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust