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.
I was caught by the emotional twists and turns of “The Howl of Shadows”: how it takes a familiar grimdark idea—power at great cost—and shifts the emotional landscape beneath it in unexpected but logical ways. But there are aspects of “The Howl of Shadows” that are playing very strongly to shortcuts and tropes, and the combination of those two approaches pulls the story in two different directions. So this month, I’d like to talk about tropes, but in a different way: how examining when we use them can take our worlds from sketches to full living colour.
“The Howl of Shadows” establishes the emotional situation quickly: Percy’s affection, Ravenel’s justifications for murdering him, the sinister presence of a third figure in the village who’s abused them both, and Ravenel’s self-identification with the neglected shadows under the doors. But instead of a straightforward jump to seizing power for revenge—with Ravenel ready for more complicity and sacrifice—she’s instead asked instead to commit that revenge, and the story turns into a heartbreaking piece about self-awareness and motivation.
The story keeps playing against type as it goes: both Ravi’s only half-requited love for Aaryn and the revelation that the grimoire’s come to her through her mother—and how that’s the source of her rift with the townspeople—add a lot of texture to the emotional fabric of her journey. By Ravenel’s escape from the dungeon, I’ve caught on as a reader what the final task really is, and how Ravenel’s lack of self-awareness is going to be the key to unraveling “The Howl of Shadows”—but there’s still one more turn that makes me go back and rethink the whole story again.
The piece is also laced with great textural details: crabgrass and clover under Ravenel’s feet, the fly on her cheek like a feather, the coagulated light. There’s a great talent for the sense of touch in “The Howl of Shadows”, and it brings those moments to life.
There are other aspects of the piece, though that could be polished up to match, or rethought in ways to make them support the strengths “The Howl of Shadows” has.
My first major suggestion is to do with pacing: “The Howl of Shadows” is long for its plot, and I think there’s some room to compress and thoughtfully pace some scenes to make sure it spotlights what’s important. There’s a certain amount of duplication in what kind of scenes it has—two love scenes that end in stabbings; two or three fight scenes that end with Ravenel winning—and because readers have seen that structure before, the next time feels slower, less engaging. I think some thought about how to use those ideas—and which parts of them are most important—could pick up the story’s pace.
The second is a bit more internal consistency. Ravenel’s an operator, but she’s missing a certain emotional component—and her ways of thinking aren’t always connecting to each other. Her resentment at being neglected and forgotten doesn’t entirely connect up with the slightly overblown disdain she switches to for the villagers. Her grievances—dull, petty, sleepwalking, the very school shooter-style sheep—don’t quite hook into her father’s disgust for her (an active emotion, even though she disputes that) or resentment of Mathis for stealing from and beating her. She’s not meant to be a self-aware protagonist—it’s something of a plot point—but the connections between her attitudes, how they shift around things, and why aren’t quite visible on the page as of yet, and it’s a space that could really strengthen the story.
Finally, though, there’s the question of tropes and how they’re used—and how by doing the unexpected, “The Howl of Shadows” is throwing light on the places where it absolutely does the expected.
“The Howl of Shadows” is carrying a lot of anti-hero and grimdark tropes: Ravenel’s black hair reflecting a sinister personality; a standard-issue stable; a quasi-medieval setting with blacksmiths, wagons, and ogres; video game-like special effects from the shadows and grimoire; a very literal light versus the dark that culminates in a Star Wars-esque question of being consumed by hate. They’re familiar visuals and ideas, and more importantly, they’re familiar shortcuts. The combination of these shortcuts—older ones, ones that were being pushed back upon in the 1970s—and the innovating “The Howl of Shadows” is trying to do with Ravenel’s emotional life, in short, gives readers a mixed message. And I think one of the major ways to make this piece shine would be to clear that message up.
There’s a lot of static around handling established tropes and archetypes, and I think a productive way to think about them is how, not if. We are going to, as storytellers, use shortcuts sometimes. We can’t go everywhere the long way and have a story come in at a functioning length, or be even remotely interesting. But where we choose to take those shortcuts, what we only sketch in, is a choice we’re making as writers, and I think the approach that can work here is thinking about how those shortcuts get used. Right now, everything that’s not to do with Ravenel’s emotional life is shown in shortcut. How do we balance that out?
This is not necessarily about writing different characterization, or a different story; it’s about asking ourselves how we can take what’s already there—the tragic antihero character Ravenel is, the semi-rural, quasi-medieval time and place—and make it not a shortcut, because we’ve made it go deeper.
Once those shortcuts are identified, I’d suggest taking a look at each one and asking why it’s there. There will definitely be a bunch that are holding information so the important work of the emotional arc can happen. But for the ones where there’s no real reason—or there’s just no real reason Ravenel has black hair, no real reason it’s a standard fantasy stable—what kind of worldbuilding, information, or nuance can “The Howl of Shadows” use that opportunity to bring into play? (Ravenel’s hair being black but short and ragged, because she’s cutting it herself, because she’s neglected; the stable being for camels, or lizards, or a machine shop for automata, or small-bred elephants, or even a specific breed of horse that Matthis specializes in.) How can you use the gap that standard shortcut leaves to make this world richer, more interesting, and deepen readers’ understanding of it? How much information and fun can that gap hold?
I’d suggest even taking this to the level of each line. Lines like “a smile played upon her lips” when talking about someone thinking about cruelty—they’re the expected words, the words that have been used by other stories a hundred times. But it tells us what the outline of the action we want should look like, and it’s worth asking: is there a finer-grained way to describe that kind of vicious smile? Perhaps one that plays to the author’s strengths: a really great sense of touch and texture? We can have the same action, the same cruel smile, but when it’s described as feeling her dehydrated lips crack as they move into that smile, it becomes alive.
Most objections to the idea of tropes aren’t about the events; they’re about the sketched-in quality. By deepening some of those ideas strategically—viewing them differently, making them specific or vibrant—”The Howl of Shadows” can come alive and match its emotional rollercoaster.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)