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.
This story hooks me in the second paragraph and pulls me through to the end. I enjoy the elderly protagonist, something I don’t see enough of. Giving Katie her dog to interact with helps to keep the story from being too internal. The story has a nice tight focus, with a single scene and single setting. The mention of the vibrations getting closer creates some suspense, and the suspense builds when we learn the vet boarded up the doors and when we see the Changed Ones.
I think there are several ways in which the story could be strengthened and its impact increased.
First, the plot structure could be more effectively realized. For this story, there are basically two types of structures possible. One is to show an evolving situation. The other is to reveal a situation. The story is currently aiming to reveal a situation. We see Katie and Gerard on the balcony and wonder what’s going on, and as the story progresses, the situation is revealed–Changed Ones, explosives, a sacrifice. The problem is that the situation is revealed in the paragraph beginning “She had volunteered that night . . .” and there are 16 paragraphs after that, during which there’s pretty much no suspense and no surprise. Everything goes as planned. So the ending has little impact.
In stories that reveal a situation, often the reveal comes very close to the end or right at the end. A great example is “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke, in which the situation is revealed by the last word of the last sentence. So one solution would be to rearrange the placement of information, leaving the fact that the house has been wired with explosives to the very end. That would create more suspense up to the ending and more impact at the end.
In other stories that reveal a situation, the reveal comes earlier, but when it comes, the story flips to an evolving situation structure. So another solution would be to keep the reveal where it is, but then after the reveal, the situation starts to change. Things don’t go as planned. Perhaps Gerard doesn’t die and jumps out of the chair and Katie has to go after him. Perhaps the switch doesn’t set off the explosion, and when Katie pulls on the wire, the broken wire comes out from under the door. Something like this would escalate the suspense up to the climax and create more impact at the end.
A related point is that I’m not really sure of the significance of Katie’s story. It’s not clear to me whether she is truly making a sacrifice or if she’s just ready to die. If she’s just read to die, I can understand that, but it doesn’t make her a hero. It makes her someone who can help others out without inconveniencing herself. In that case, you might want to bring out the fact that there is some price she’s paying for doing this. For example, she might think that she’d much rather give herself a shot like Gerard and go peacefully to sleep than die in an explosion, ripped into pieces, or be thrown out of the balcony to the ground to die slowly as the Changed Ones eat her alive, etc. But she has to make sure the explosion goes off and stops the Changed Ones. If it’s truly a sacrifice, then we should feel her desire to live (which she perhaps lied to her son about) and all she wishes she could still experience. And if she’s giving up a life she’d rather hold onto, she should be getting something for it. For example, perhaps her son and granddaughters would not be able to get on the boat without her doing this. Because she volunteers, they are given space on the boat.
Circling back to the issue of whether the plot is revealing or evolving, we have a similar problem with Gerard’s subplot. The fact that Katie is going to put him to sleep is revealed in paragraph 6, and then everything happens as planned. (It bothers me that Katie doesn’t seem to check how the injection is affecting Gerard and never checks to make sure he died.) I don’t think the story is making the best use of Gerard possible. Similar to the options with Katie, the information could be rearranged so we don’t learn that Dimitri is a vet or that he gave Katie a syringe until later. Or the situation could evolve after you reveal it. Gerard could jump up when the Changed Ones appear, causing Katie to drop the syringe and lose it through the floorboards.
I’ve been talking about the placement of information, and this applies on a smaller scale as well. By the time I finish reading the first sentence, I’ve mentally put the rocking chair in the living room. So it’s jarring when I find out later she’s on the balcony. It would be better to establish that in the first or second paragraph.
I’m also jarred when I learn the ground is shaking in paragraph 16. When the story mentions vibrations in paragraph 2, I think of those as sounds, because they are compared to humming, so the ground shaking seems like something new and different. It would help to more clearly set the scene to describe the ground shaking earlier and how it vibrates up through the house to the balcony and the chair and into Katie and Gerard.
A few smaller points. I inject my cat with insulin twice a day, and the description of the injection process doesn’t seem accurate to me. The vet should have prepared the syringe so Katie doesn’t need to squirt any out, just inject. After she does squirt a bunch out, she never measures how much she’s injecting into Gerard. If she doesn’t inject enough, he won’t die.
There are a few awkward sentences. One involves this simile:
>their mouths moving like that of a school of fish out of water, just much slower and less fish-like <
This is awkward for several reasons. The simile is comparing a plural (their mouths) with a singular “that of a school.” Also, the sentence is saying that the two things are similar and then it’s giving two differences, which is contradictory. If these two things are similar, just let them be similar. Something like this would be stronger:
> their mouths moving like they were fish out of water<
That’s a great, original detail that makes these Changed Ones different than most zombies, and now it comes across more clearly.
The other detail in that sentence,
> their skins ashen-grey no matter their ancestry. <
Doesn’t fit here. It’s not something that would make Katie laugh, which is how the sentence began. It feels like the author forcing a detail (one much less interesting than the gaping mouths) into the sentence. This could either be cut or put into a separate sentence.
Finally, I’m sad to say I was unfamiliar with the Rainbow Bridge and had to look it up to figure out what it meant. This hampers the impact of the ending. My suggestion would be to either set up the Rainbow Bridge early in the story, so we know what it is and what it means to Katie when it shows up at the end, or to cut it and use another image that arises more naturally from the story itself. If the balcony is a place where she and Gerard have spent a lot of time, reuniting with him on the balcony in the rocking chair with the blanket might be a hope she has at the end.
I hope this is helpful. I enjoyed reading the story.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust