Editor’s Choice Award January 2022, 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.

The Wilding Year by Jamie Boyd

I loved the rich, emotional atmosphere of “The Wilding Year”: a young single mother discovering how little she knows her own teenaged son—and both of them transforming. However, on the plot and thematic level, it’s a piece that has the potential to dig a lot deeper, think a lot harder, and go a lot farther. We’ve occasionally talked about the gap between subtext and allegory, and how to make our stories richer and less straight-line allegorical. But this month I’d like to discuss thinking about allegory as a tool—and how we, if we want to, we can use it.

“The Wilding Year” starts with a shapeshifting version of puberty—Erin’s sun Bryce turning into an animal for a year, as all teenagers do—but quickly broadens and refracts the metaphor: painting the wider struggles of growing up, competitive parenting, and lack of community support a little larger.

What works best is how intimately this piece talks about the conflicted emotional landscape that can be parenting growing kids. Erin’s mixture of love, fear, and shame at her son’s bodily—and then social—strangeness is an atmosphere in itself, as sensory and instinctive as her fuzzy memories of her own Wilding year. It’s notably her sense of abandonment in the situation that’s so visceral: struggling to interpret signals that she can’t verify as she desperately runs interference between Bryce and the rest of the world. It makes the eventual cooperative solution feel like legitimate relief, and when that’s tied to her and Ruth’s situations—grappling alone in the aftermath of family addictions—hints at an echo of something deeper.

That mix of emotions is bolstered by evocative language that comes in from the very first paragraphs (Bryce as “a blister about to pop”). The vividness of the description here is a huge asset for the piece, letting it come across as sincere while implying entire emotional histories. Bryce’s bat body is legitimately eerie and intimidating, and the brief meeting between Erin and Robert explains, in one line full of machismo, something of why she left him.

It also lets “The Wilding Year” signal something of an emotional turn. Its emotional landscape of motherhood, hypervigilance, and puberty is, for the first half, grounded in a suburbanness that pervades everything; its metaphors are about chlorinated pools, its heart-wrenching life events take place in chain restaurants. There’s a tangible shift when the everyday metaphors reverse: bookkeeping numbers turning animal, instead of animal fluids turning pedestrian. It’s a great, subtle way to build in a sense of emotional change.

However, not all of what’s been set up in “The Wilding Year” is paying off at present. When Bryce starts his turn back into a human body, Erin’s sudden showing of growth through—and out of—their former Miami Lakes life feels somewhat abrupt, running fast to an almost-pat conclusion. She resolves to give Bryce more space to spread his proverbial wings, but it leaves the ending feeling somewhat sketched in, rather than as fully developed as the rest of the piece.

I think for “The Wilding Year” this is mostly a pacing and structural problem: the weight of Erin’s struggle and bewilderment doesn’t have an equal weight of emergence and solution to balance it out. The problems opened (massive debt, a lack of support system, general sexual shame, an alienation between Erin and Bryce) haven’t entirely been addressed—and I don’t think they all have to be solved, but since they’ve been opened, probably should be acknowledged. The story instead narrows them down to an obsessive focus on Bryce’s relationship with Robert and how Erin’s fear has impacted parenting him. While the answer given there is satisfying for a one-question story, it feels a little emotionally inadequate to the stack of still-existing external-conflict issues on Erin’s plate. As a reader, I’m left with a handful of open threads.

Because we’re looking at questions of tension and satisfaction, it might be worthwhile to think about how allegory functions. Every genre story has a small element of puzzle-solving: we’re asking readers to figure out the lines and limits of how the speculative element fits into the world they know. In a largely allegorical story, the puzzle we’re designing is fairly simple: if the speculative element is X, and we know X = Y, what real-world experience or feeling is Y? How do we apply the story’s conclusion to the real-world problem it’s standing in for?

Over the life of these EC crits, we’ve talked a lot about tension and resolution: setting up a problem and solving it, or letting readers solve it, in a way that’s satisfying. For readers, there’s a certain resolution that’s going to be provided by solving the allegory itself: figuring out what equals Y. The question then becomes: How to build the story so solving the allegory doesn’t feel like Game Over on the whole story—and everything after that realization doesn’t feel like padding?

The allegories of “The Wilding Year” solve early; most of the metaphors it’s spinning with the Wilding year are accessible inside the first thousand words. It’s what makes the later extensions of the idea of teenagers as foreigners, as animals—notably the parody of free-range parenting—strike more than a little hollow. And while having temporary community care is a solution to Erin’s troubles, it’s also the most easily-reached and obvious one, a solution that’s not complicated by anything after it’s posed.

“The Wilding Year” seems to notices it solves a little too early, too, because it’s been structured to heap problems on top of its main concept—debt, estrangement, shame—to keep itself going, generate more of the tension that the allegory held and dropped. But because this is an allegory, there’s a point at which the concrete problems set up have detached from the action of the story. What’s happening on the page and what’s happening in the metaphor it stands for peel apart, and the metaphoric problem gets solved (parenting a teenager through a rough patch), but—the problems on the page still exist. As a reader, I’m being told this solves everything. Given the list of everything that was handed to me in the name of generating conflict—no, this does not solve everything at all, and the solution wouldn’t be half this simple.

What are Bryce’s feelings about his change of scene? Does everyone at the farm get along, and how does money play in (with Erin’s debts hanging over her head, with her job on the line already, with taking care of the house in Miami Lakes)? Did Erin have any friends or other attachments she’s abandoned to move out to the country? Do all the transformed teenagers get along?

These aren’t complications I’m asking to see addressed in text, like a checklist. But they’re holes that are supremely pokable in this particular pat solution; questions that are glossed over in the name of harmony. And they’re why I think “The Wilding Year” isn’t fundamentally developed as a story yet. There’s a gift and a disadvantage to having an ability to write polished, appealing prose: it can cover over deeper, more structural issues that are core to a story’s functioning.

At this point, I know this author can write rich, engaging prose. But as an editor and the person who lurks around, reading each and every OWW short story every month, this is the stage where I want to see someone stretch their own wings and challenge some limits.

So my suggestion for this piece is to open it up, chart both the plot as given on the page and the allegories it stands for, see what action resolves which branches of the conflict and where they have unbalanced—and then do some major restructuring until the piece balances again. What are the implications of going beyond temporary community support for this kind of parenting problem? What are the implications of how the problems Erin faces that are purely plot-based could impact the allegorical metaphor?

In short: What happens if “The Wilding Year” takes the allegory and commits?

It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s worth doing. Stop here and “The Wilding Year” will be clever, and probably saleable. Reach farther, think harder, rip open the floorboards, and address those questions of parenting, love-hatred, and lack of support more deeply, and it’ll be memorable.

Thanks for the read, and best of luck!

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

Leave a Reply