Editor’s Choice Award June 2021, Short Story

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.

To Assume A Pleasing Shape, Part 1, by Andrea Horlick

“To Assume a Pleasing Shape” caught my eye this month with its deft handling of emotional textures, accomplished prose, and organic-feeling world—and a mystery that keeps building as what looks like a poser artist boy turns ominous. But what works to generate tension for the adult end of the narrative slowly starts to swamp the plot itself. So this month, I’d like to talk about how to approach our work when what’s working on one level of craft in a story is hampering another.

At base, “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” is just a solid, engrossing read—absorbing enough that, even though it runs over 15,000 words, there are very few places that drag. It’s full of great little observational details: Belial’s smell as “moss and burnt things” and Michaela’s mascara in the dim light are specific, unique-feeling ones. Jules’s pervasive lust and grief infiltrate everything; the persistent intrusions of her desire and hesitancy are excellently paced. And Jules’s dry and slightly insecure commentary on Michaela’s art scene friends feels less mean-spirited than true to a mid-thirties struggling writer who’s maybe just too old for scene dynamics.

There’s also a lot of craft going into the sex scenes. Sex can be very challenging to write from a craft perspective—not just an accessibility one—as we walk the line between being too obscure, pandering to what we think readers expect, and embedding it into the overall plot and characterization in a way that feels integrated. “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” does a very strong job of balancing those priorities in some emotionally complex and in one case, violating sexual encounters in a way that feels like genuine arousal on Jules’s part but doesn’t bog the story’s motion down.

But it’s the texture of the sex scenes that, as it builds the sexual side of the narrative tension, deeply muddies the waters on what’s actually happening between Jules, Michaela, and Belial—and how the narrative assumes readers will feel about it.

Jules treats Michaela as an addiction, a nearly-resented vice—every encounter with her is “tinged with a thin wash of regret”; every early thing we see about Michaela makes Mim and Ann-Elizabeth’s concerns feel very valid. Jules has no ability to draw boundaries with Michaela, it makes her miserable, and that seems to be rooted absolutely in sex. There are repeated consent violations that seem to sexually satisfy but emotionally and almost spiritually hurt her.

It goes even farther with Belial: she’s frozen, paralyzed by sexual desire and fear, and he actively renames her to Mine. This is scary territory, but Jules’s reaction to it—weird wonder and a fear that’s deeply sexualized—doesn’t necessarily set off the alarms it should be and clearly point to a supernatural hold or possession, and that’s because of how she’s previously interacted with Michaela. Readers have seen this as in-character for her already; the red flag isn’t red enough, or the last one was a little too red for comparison.

That’s muddied farther by Jules herself. She’s a deeply complicated character: hungry, crushed under her own people-pleasing habits, and surprisingly insecure. As a protagonist in isolation from the context of the story, this works; she’s remarkably believable in her messiness. But especially with Belial’s shapeshifting—or Jules’s ability to see him in other bodies—added into the mix, her very subjective reading on events makes it tricky to tease out where the objectivity underlying “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” should be looked for.

There are hints that start to spread through in the second instalment: Belial knows who Jules is. But as Jules doesn’t seem to recognize what he’s talking about in any way, it’s hard for readers to use those hints; they become a dead end, not a plot thread building, and then they’re obliterated by the spiritual or hallucinated sexual assault that follows and blocked by Jules’s refusal to disclose. The counter-hints—Jules has a biological family, and is implied to be not supernatural herself—also undermine some of the potential directions. Readers get a lot of what she isn’t, but not what she is—so when it turns out to be the key to the ending, I’m left somewhat adrift.

Jules’s transformation into a winged creature (Belial with his wings, possessing her?) pays off the buildup on a certain—and very specific—level: it’s the emotional arc of an orgasm. And for what “To Assume a Pleasing Shape” is doing with sexual content, how it handles need and sublimation and self-denial, that does actually work. It’s the structure of a sexual fantasy, well-executed. But I’m concerned that most of the narrative threads in the piece—the torment of her relationship as Michaela’s half-unwilling muse, the reason Jules experiences attraction as voice-stealing and stifling, and the overlay of what happens narratively during that ending—don’t entirely resolve with it. This is erotic fiction; the erotic half resolves. The fiction part doesn’t yet, and that’s the part that I would suggest needs next draft’s focus.

Some of the core issue might be, I’d suggest, that Belial knows what Jules is—but I, as a reader, don’t. Belial lies; I as a reader don’t have enough external context to tell if his implication she’s more than human, or different, is a lie, and therefore what happened here. Jules’s early jealousy and conviction Michaela and Belial are gaslighting her plants the idea of instability, and can make the ending read as if it’s a Twilight Zone-esque “and then the protagonist loses her mind” (or more literally, “and then the devil”). When read on the plot level specifically, I find myself asking which of the implications here are the important ones, and which I should discard as part of the multiple unreliable perspectives in this piece.

I think it’s worth looking for a way the ending can retain that sexual structure—but also build in plot-level satisfaction, and I think an early key to that might be choosing to be more deliberate about where ambiguity’s placed in “To Assume a Pleasing Shape”. This piece seems to get its narrative energy from ambiguity—the action of almost every arc of conflict is that Jules is not sure what’s going on, and it could be terrible but it could be great. It’s a powerful tool, and I don’t want to suggest changing what’s working. But seeding ambiguity everywhere adds up to an insurmountable barrier when it comes time to resolve an ending—and it’s the everywhere that might be the key here. It might be a worthwhile strategy to not change the approach, but pare it back: consider if the sheer number of sources for ambiguity here are too much of one approach.

If it’s possible to be more strategic about what in Jules’s experience is ambiguous, where to site those conflicts (her relationship with Michaela or her art, her own background or who Belial is), I think it might be possible to both address the author’s-notes stresses about length and clear enough uncertainty to let the actual clues become visible again—and give readers a chance to catch what the story’s throwing without compromising its own subtlety.

I’d also suggest potentially trying to map this piece in terms of conflicts and resolutions. Her attraction to Belial resolves; her question as to Michaela’s loyalty resolves. But there are plot and thematic elements here that don’t—the big one I’d identify is Jules’s self-destructive relationship with lust and desire—and if there are ways to find resolutions for them along the road, that might create a sense of moving satisfaction that also limits the amount of work the ending’s asked to do.

Ultimately this is a question of balance: making this work as dark erotic fantasy and making it work as an underlying narrative, narrative beats breathing in and out, tension and release. It might take a bit of tinkering to get the balance right, but the fundamentals here are more than sound, and I think it’s well on its way to working.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

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