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.
It’s an interesting experience to jump into a story in progress for critique. There are obviously disadvantages, since one doesn’t know what’s been previously established. But there are also advantages, since the nature of this section can stand out more clearly by looking at it separately.
I haven’t read the other parts of this story, but I was quickly drawn into this part with the sense of change, with the narrator having to adopt a new wardrobe; and the sense of conflict between the narrator and her husband. The excerpt has several strengths. The world, with the Time Devoured and the Righteous Era, is quite intriguing. I can feel the narrator’s concern about Cillian, which makes me feel tense about what he might do. There are some moments when the story conveys well what the narrator is going through, such as, “It was less than a week ago but it feels like an age has passed. Like I am a silly mortal girl who stepped into a faerie ring for but a moment, only to stumble back out and find a thousand years has come and gone.” The story conveys the strong bonds between the narrator, the mother, and Cloda well. The mother comes across as a compelling character here: “She smiles wanly, but some mischief sparks in her eyes. ‘I was no lady, nobody of any consequence at all before I met your father. I know how to survive in rags as well as I do in ballgowns.'” Sorcha also intrigues me. Many things remain uncertain and mysterious, which makes me want to keep reading to find the answers. The story also has some evocative description, such as, ” I picture Father’s face, his wry smile and sharp features, his kind eyes alight with love and pride.”
One area that could be strengthened is the scene structure. Each scene should show a change to a value of significance for the protagonist. While things change in the three scenes included in this part, I don’t feel a strong change to a value of significance. Such changes give us a feeling of the story moving ahead, provide a reason for the scene to be included in the story, and get us excited about what has been gained or lost.
In the first scene, the narrator seems to already know she must wear new clothes and get rid of her old ones, so that’s not a change. She plans to send the clothes to her sister, and instead Cillian burns them, so that is a change. But what value of significance to the narrator changes? It’s not clear. One possibility is that the narrator starts out feeling that her past will survive in some sense with her clothes going to her sister, and she ends the scene feeling that her past is being wiped out with the burning of her clothes. I get some hints of this, but it isn’t conveyed strongly. To do so, we need to clearly understand at the beginning of the scene that the clothes represent her past, and by sending them to Cloda, the narrator feels her past is being preserved. Right now, the first indication that the clothes carry strong memories is given after Cillian starts throwing the clothes into the fire: “But all I can think of is how each outfit carries memories, both good and bad, memories of Father, memories of my life before now.” That is too late. And it is telling us of the connection between clothing and memories without showing us the connection. What is shown is this: “I busy my hands folding an emerald gown with sumptuous silk skirts.” This makes it sound like the narrator has never seen this gown before. It is “an” emerald gown, not “the emerald gown I wore to the spring dance when I was fourteen.” It is not “the emerald gown with the golden clover Cloda embroidered on the bodice for me.” We aren’t seeing memories attached to the clothing before it is burned. So the burning of the clothing doesn’t carry a strong impact or seem to show a change in a value of significance. We need to feel that embroidered clover (or whatever) and all the sewing sessions she had with her mother and Cloda burning, and we need to feel her memory of the dance burning, etc.
This issue is connected to another one, which is the protagonist struggling to achieve a goal. A story generally shows a protagonist struggling to achieve a goal, and in the process she’s changed. In this context, each scene generally shows the protagonist either moving closer to achieving the goal or moving farther away from achieving the goal (or both, such as progress with a new complication). These often comprise the changes to the values of significance.
Throughout this excerpt, the narrator’s goal is unclear to me. The narrator feels passive and reactive rather than active. Rather than struggling to achieve a passionately desired goal, the narrator reacts to the various things that happen to her. That means I don’t know what values have significance for her, and that means I don’t know what would comprise a change to a value of significance. Returning to the first scene, if I knew that her goal was to pack up her old clothes and get them sent on their way to Cloda before Cillian found out, and I saw all her efforts going toward that goal, then it would clearly be a change to a value of significance when Cillian interrupts the process and burns the clothes. So giving the narrator a clear goal (or a series of goals) she is actively struggling to achieve in the story would strengthen the story and each scene and make these changes of significance clear and strong.
The second scene feels especially scattered, with the narrator reacting to many different things but having no goal she is struggling to achieve. One possibility could be that the narrator has seen ghosts at church before and her goal is to behave as Cillian would approve (not act weird when she sees the ghosts she know will show up) because if she acts weird, Cillian will say she’s ill and prevent her from attending the rest of the funeral activities, where she wants to remember her father and bond with her mother and Cloda. This would allow the narrator to continue to have the goal of honoring and preserving the past, as in the previous scene. In this case, the ghosts would need to show up sooner and be more difficult to ignore (perhaps they would hover around her father and torment her father’s ghost), so the narrator would have to struggle to achieve her goal. She might succeed at achieving her goal with the complication that she realizes the ghosts are after her father, or that the ghosts are after her, or that her vision of the past world is growing. In that case, the change in the value of significance would be that she goes from thinking she can ignore the ghosts to realizing the ghosts are more powerful and threatening than she knew.
In the third scene, the narrator again seems reactive and without a consistent goal. She might start the scene with the goal of having a good time, but that seems forgotten when the various monsters show up. And it seems inconsistent with her previous desire to not provoke Cillian. So I have a hard time understanding why she does what she does, and I don’t know why the monsters show up when they do, seemingly become more numerous, and then she either goes back in time or sees events from the past. Things seem to happen for no reason, and I don’t know what the narrator is trying to achieve. If she was trying to behave in a way Cillian would approve of but also have a chance to talk to her mother and Cloda, that could provide both external and internal conflict, and behaving well could become very difficult when the monsters show up. I’d love to see her going through that struggle rather than seeming to forget her situation and screaming and running outside. She could still fail to maintain self-control, if you want her to fail, but seeing her trying would make me understand her and like her more.
One other area I wanted to discuss briefly is that the exposition often feels like the narrator is thinking information to herself that she already knows (what I call an “as you know, self”). For example, the narrator thinks, “In the Time Devoured the dead were mostly buried. Remains were exhumed when our new world was built. A world dedicated to clean living and faith. For thousands of years gravestones were erected, places to go to remember a loved one, to lay down flowers and keepsakes.” The narrator knows this; there is no reason she would think it or explain it to herself. In first person past tense, writers can often get away with this because it can feel like the narrator is speaking to a reader throughout the story. But first person present tense generally gives us the feeling that we’re going through events with the narrator, not being told of the events by the narrator. In that case, it’s usually better to include necessary exposition by having the narrator think about her opinion on the information rather than simply thinking the information. For example, the narrator might think, “The fact that the dead in the Time Devoured were buried disgusted me.” The story actually offers something like this immediately after the sentences I quoted above: “I feel drawn to this idea but in truth I cannot bear the thought of lowering Father into the ground, allowing him to rot away. For me our way is preferable.” Phrasing exposition in this way makes it feel more like a real thought the character would have.
I enjoy the world and feel growing tension over the situation. The unanswered questions make me want to keep reading to find out the answers. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust