Editor’s Choice Award April 2021, 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.

Now I Must Sink, Chapter 1 by Shane Burkholder

Horror, more than other genres, explores the private lives we live inside ourselves–our private fears, odd thoughts, forbidden urges, strange perceptions, and more.  It can be disturbing and horrifying to experience things we can’t share with others, to realize that we are, in some sense, locked within ourselves with no escape.  And since everyone (I think) experiences this to some degree, it’s easy for readers to relate to a character going through this type of experience.  The Twilight Zone offered many episodes focused on characters experiencing things they can’t share with others (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “The Hitch-Hiker,” “The After Hours,” “Time Enough at Last,” and “Walking Distance” being a few).  Chapter 1 of Now I Must Sink explores this territory, focusing on the internal despair and fear of William, which hold him at a distance from his family and the world.

The chapter conveys William’s isolation well, and some of his strange perceptions and thoughts are compelling.  I feel I’m getting a glimpse inside a unique and compelling character whose thoughts are as strange as some of my own, which allows me to relate to William while at the same time feeling curious about him.  In paragraph 6, for example, William thinks about the morning routine of his family, which has become familiar and in some ways comforting.  He follows this with, ” It is not so bad to boil when the water is heated slowly,” referring to the urban legend that a frog, put in water that is slowly heated to boiling, will not jump out.  I think many of us mentally connect daily routines to death, since each day marks our progress toward death.  But most of us, I think, don’t think about ourselves as frogs boiling to death.  Juxtaposing a statement about comfort with one about boiling is pretty jarring and powerful, and the idea of boiling reveals William as a distinct, compelling character.

I think there are three main challenges associated with writing a chapter or story that focuses on this internal experience, and those are three areas in which this chapter could be strengthened.

First, since much of the piece focuses on the internal, and on internal thoughts and experiences that are strange and abstract, it can be a challenge to convey these thoughts and experiences clearly.  For me, William’s thoughts and experiences are sometimes unclear or vague.  For example, as William looks at a stack of ungraded tests from the class he teaches, his thoughts (as the man) are described this way:

“But the man does not see questions. None of the answers are right or wrong. Rather he sees only so many eggs uncracked. So many ledgers overflowing with black that they need not ever be balanced. But as with all journeys, these many have a horizon, and all the man can see is the terminus of youth awaiting every name written on every test. Out into the cold world. No different from when one is born.”

What I glean from this is that he sees his students as “eggs uncracked,” meaning they will be cracked when they become adults out in the world, when they reach “the terminus of youth” that awaits them all.  I enjoy that, and it ties to his previous thoughts of the frog and death, but much of the passage is obscure to me.

I don’t understand why he “does not see questions” or even what that means.  What does he see?  I also don’t understand how not seeing questions relates to answers not being right or wrong.  That seems a completely different issue, and the uncertainty it implies seems inconsistent with William’s certainty about death.  The idea of “ledgers overflowing with black” seems to describe youth, yet the idea that “they need not ever be balanced” again, for me, contradicts the idea of death.  They won’t always be overflowing with black.  The “cold world” uses imagery that works against the idea of boiling, and I don’t understand the significance of the final sentence.  So out of seven sentences, two of them are conveying clear ideas that I can connect to other parts of the story and character.  Perhaps other readers will understand more, but my suggestion would be to put a lot of effort into making these internal thoughts and experiences as clear as possible, making sure each word choice is exactly right and connects with other parts of the story so we can form a web of associations and meaning that helps us understand William and what he’s going through.

One way to start this procedure of clarifying would be to much reduce the use of sentence fragments in the story.  Fragments, when used in familiar situations, can be effective.  When coupled with abstractions and strange thoughts, fragments create confusion and obscure the point.  The chapter has many fragments, and most of them mark places where I found the content unclear or vague.  Another technique would be to search for vague words such as things and try to replace them with more specific words.

Another major challenge associated with writing a piece that focuses on internal experience is creating a very strong point of view.  Point of view is important for every story, but in this type of piece the POV is prominent and critical.  The POV needs to be controlled and consistent, and when shifts in POV are necessary, they generally need to be made gently and gradually, so readers are not distracted from what’s going on with the character.  This chapter is told through a third person omniscient point of view.  A narrator tells us what William is thinking.  But the psychic distance in the point of view is shifting constantly through the chapter, which creates needless distraction and confusion.

John Gardner created the classic example of different levels of psychic distance in his book The Art of Fiction.  You can find his example in this article:  https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/psychic-distance-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html.

Psychic distance is the mental distance between the narrator and the character whose head the narrator is in.  If you think of the narrator as a telepath, like Mr. Spock in Star Trek, reading the mind of the character and conveying that information to readers, psychic distance is a measure of how good a telepath the narrator is.  If he’s not very good, then he won’t know the name of the character.  In this case, the narrator refers to the character much of the time as “the man,” which means he is at a great psychic distance.  Yet at other times, he refers to the character as “William,” putting him at less of a distance, and at yet other times, he refers to the character as “he” or “him,” minimizing the psychic distance.  The pronoun puts us the closest to the character, a place where we are beyond names.

There are other elements that determine psychic distance, but for simplicity, I’m going to focus on how the narrator refers to the character.

Generally, if you’re going to change the psychic distance, it’s a good idea to start with the psychic distance being the largest it will ever be, to establish the big picture and the range in which the POV will operate.  Then you can zoom in on the character, and often authors will remain at a minimal psychic distance for the rest of the piece.  In this chapter, we start out using the pronoun, so psychic distance is at a minimum.  I actually think I’m reading a piece in third person limited omniscient because the narrator seems invisible.  Then in the 10th sentence, we jump from “he” to “the man.”  The narrator appears and the psychic distance swells in the middle of a paragraph.  This trips me up and distracts me.  It also jerks me away from the character.

The chapter jumps back and forth many times between “he” and “the man.”  This is a problem because these two terms lie near the extremes of psychic distance, so we’re zooming almost all the way out and almost all the way in over and over.  About two-thirds of the way through, the narrator seems to learn that the man’s name is “William,” and then we alternate between “William” and “he.”  That works better, because “William” just has a little more psychic distance than “he.”

I would suggest eliminating the term “the man” from the chapter, starting out with “William” and then moving closer with “he” as appropriate.

The final challenge I want to discuss in writing a piece that focuses on internal experience is the hardest:  tying the internal experience to external events in a compelling way.  While the internal experience can be fascinating, a work that focuses solely on the internal is rarely successful.  The internal and external need to interact with each other.  External events can evoke internal reactions.  Internal desires or delusions can motivate external actions.  If you think about internally focused stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, or the Twilight Zone episodes I mentioned above, they all have the private internal life of the main character tied to external events in a memorable and powerful way.  The first-person narrator in Poe’s story shows us how his internal life motivated him to kill a man.  In “The Hitch-Hiker,” Nan Adams keeps seeing the same hitch-hiker on her cross-country road trip, but no one else sees him or understands what she’s going through.  Ultimately, she realizes she is dead and he is death, waiting for her.

This chapter ends with William’s house disappearing in the fog, an external event that is promising but, for me, not enough to create a compelling bond with the external that makes me want to read the rest of the novel.  The chapter ends without giving me a clear sense of what’s happening.  I’m guessing maybe he’s been swept into another world, but that doesn’t seem to fit with the chapter I’ve read and seems fairly familiar.  Prior to this, the chapter hasn’t established a strong relationship between the internal and external.  Through most of the piece, William is sitting and thinking, and going outside to get the mail and thinking.  Starting a piece with a character thinking about his life is generally not a strong way to start, and that’s what’s happening here.  Little happens externally beyond that, except for his family following their morning routine, a mail truck driving away, and the mailbox squeaking open.  If the sound of the mailbox was conveyed in as vivid, disturbing, and compelling a way as the filmy “vulture-eye” of the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” or the hitchhiker in “The Hitch-Hiker,” that could help to create the start of this bond between the internal and external.  But as it is, I feel that William is overreacting to a simple squeak, and I become impatient reading a paragraph about that overreaction.  I don’t get excited or worried or intrigued by the connection between William and the mailbox.  I have a similar reaction to the mail truck.  The imagery of red brake lights looking like “eyes watching from a pit into hell” seems kind of cliched and familiar, not like they fit in the same chapter as some of William’s compelling thoughts.  Since I don’t know where the novel is going, it’s hard to offer a specific suggestion.  But I think the external needs to have more of a place in this chapter, and it needs to interact with William’s interesting focus on death in a believable way.

I enjoy getting a glimpse into William’s unique internal life.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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


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