Editor’s Choice Award August 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.

Two Versions Of Flash Fiction Using Same Elements by Tim W. Burke

It’s interesting to see two different versions of the story right beside each other.  Exploring different options and seeing their impact on readers is a good way to learn how to improve your writing.

Both versions of the story are about April, who made a deal with the devil to live a hundred years and have unlimited wealth in exchange for–I think–her soul and the life of a baby.  The story takes place in the last few minutes of her life.  One good technique for writing flash is to focus the story solely on the climax and resolution, to keep the piece short, so both versions of the story are making use of this helpful technique.  For me, the second version is stronger in several ways.  It is clearer, and Nurse Schoen, who appears only in the second version, is a vivid and compelling character.  The second version also gives April a choice to make, which gives her some power and makes her a little more active as a protagonist.

For the remainder of this critique, I’m going to make suggestions that I think could strengthen either version.

For me, the story raises some very intriguing questions.  April apparently did a lot of good in the world in her hundred years.  The devil obviously thinks April’s soul is worth more than all the suffering she eliminated.  Is that because the devil doesn’t really want suffering in the world?  Or is that because the devil will restore all the suffering as soon as April is dead, undoing all that she did?  Or is it because the seeming good she has done is not really good?  Can good really arise from the murder of a baby?  These are compelling questions that I would love to see explored more in the story. (The last question carries echoes of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin.)

Instead, the story focuses on whether April thinks all the good she did is worth the price of her soul and of a baby that I think she killed to seal the pact.  But whether April thinks it is worth it or not has no effect on events.  That’s really a decision she made back when she formed the pact with the devil.  It seems like at that time she would have decided that having unlimited money and a hundred years would allow her to do so much good in the world that she wouldn’t mind sacrificing her soul and killing a baby.  At the end of her life, this is a done deal, so the question of whether she now thinks it worth it doesn’t really matter.  (And the one to judge is really the baby, not April.)  The questions that are more relevant at this point in her life are whether the good she did will last beyond her lifetime.  I think that’s a question many of us might ask.  Tying this question to the outcome of the story could be a way to strengthen the climax.

So let’s look more closely at the climax.  Generally, a strong climax will feel both surprising and inevitable.  In both versions, the devil is coming to claim her soul at her death.  In the first version, April has no power to change anything, so she’s simply waiting until the time comes at the end.  That makes April a passive protagonist and makes the climax feel inevitable but not surprising.

In the second version, April has the power to make a choice between letting the devil take her or becoming a vampire to avoid death and avoid the devil.  The revelation that the nurse is a vampire is surprising but doesn’t feel inevitable.  Becoming a vampire usually involves dying first and then being raised from the dead, so I would think the devil would be able to grab April’s soul when she dies.  Also, vampires are generally portrayed as not having souls, so in that case, it would seem that the devil would have gotten his price and April would have lost her soul.  And since vampires usually feed on people, it seems that April would be doing a lot of harm in the world as a vampire.  So her decision, in this case, seems to be to continue to have an existence on earth even though others will suffer because of her.  If this is going to be the choice April makes, these issues need to be raised and explored.  Was it easy to do good when she had time and money, but now that those have run out, she just wants to continue her existence and doesn’t care about doing good?

So neither climax has both of the desired qualities.  I think part of the problem is April’s memory loss, which leaves her unable to be an active protagonist and makes any decision seem random/uninformed.  If she had more of an understanding of what’s happening, I think that would allow the story to have more depth, April to be more active, and the climax to be stronger.  In that case, April might have spent the last year getting every medical expert to work on her case and find a way to stop the deterioration of her health.  She might also have gathered all the experts on the devil to see if they can get her out of her deal.  They might be making their last attempts as the story begins, injecting her with treatments or splashing her with holy water or whatever.  And at the same time her many assistants could be reporting on the success of various projects, and letting her know about new projects that need her help, and informing her that she’s been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, etc.  But none of the treatments help, and she dismisses everyone, but a strange nurse appears.  That nurse could offer her a deal.  The nurse could give her immortality and renewed health.  April could be alive to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  She could do whatever she wants, with no time limit.  April could question the nurse about how she can do this, how she can overcome the devil.  Can the nurse really get April out of her pact?  The nurse says yes.  Unfortunately, April will lose her soul, the nurse can’t save that, but the nurse can save April’s body and physical life.  April could ask what the nurse’s price is.  The nurse might say that doing this work is its own reward.  This gives April a difficult decision, which is a good element to have in a climax.  April could think about all the additional good she could do with more time, and how great it would be to receive the Nobel, and decide to agree to the nurse’s terms.  The nurse might then morph into the devil.  The devil takes April’s soul and restores her health.  April feels energized and powerful and excited.  She calls in all her assistants and gives them new orders, shutting down all her positive projects and using the money for a personal spending spree.  We could get the feeling she’s going to undo all the good she has done.

Anyway, something like this could make April more active and could be both surprising (because the nurse turns out to be the devil) and inevitable (because without a soul April would have no impetus to do good).

I’d like to cover a couple other areas briefly.  First, I had a hard time falling into the story because a number of the sentences are unfocused or awkward.  For example, “In April’s lustrous bedroom, the night nurse checked her smartwatch and shook her head. Yes, it was thirteen, April did count correctly, sharp-eared, over her beeping diagnostic bed and her video wall showing rows of healthy babies in a sparkling new maternity ward.”  The first sentence quoted seems at first to be about April’s bedroom, since it is describing the bedroom as “lustrous.”  But then it moves to another topic, describing the nurse’s actions.  Is the sentence about the bedroom or the nurse?  If it’s about the nurse, the word “lustrous” should not be there.  If it’s about the bedroom, then we should get specific, significant details about the bedroom and nothing about the nurse.

The second sentence quoted is a run-on sentence as well as being unfocused.  The first part of the sentence, up to “bed,” is about the clock striking thirteen.  The second part of the sentence describes the video wall and has nothing to do with the clock striking.  So is the sentence about the clock striking or is it about the video wall? These two things don’t belong in the same sentence. (Also, I think “April” is not the right character.  Isn’t it the nurse counting?)

A sentence is an idea; it can be a simple idea or a complex idea, but it should be only one idea, and it should be a focused idea.  This can be a helpful way to figure out what details belong in a particular sentence.

One final area I want to touch on is the point of view.  The POV seems to shift a lot in the story, sometimes in the nurse’s head, sometimes in April’s head, and sometimes giving us the narrator’s description of things.  Those shifts are jarring and make it difficult to get settled in the story.  I think the story would be stronger if told from April’s third person limited omniscient POV.

The story engaged me with some unusual questions.  I hope my comments are helpful.

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

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