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.
An important quality of successful fiction is that it evokes in readers a feeling of confidence and faith in the author. This affects the entire reading process. For example, if readers have confidence in the author, then moments when information is withheld become intriguing mysteries for them to solve. If readers don’t have confidence in the author, then moments when information is withheld become sources of confusion and frustration, with no expectation that an exciting mystery will be revealed later in the story (whether it is or not).
How can a writer make readers feel confident that they are in good hands? That confidence is usually a cumulative effect arising out of every choice the author makes–every sentence, word, and punctuation mark. In this case, the author gains my confidence through a strong, consistent narrative voice, vivid descriptions, a unique and intriguing setting with a creepy atmosphere, original elements, and knowledge of both birds and Christianity, which play prominent parts in this story.
That last item, knowledge of the elements in the story, can be tricky. Some writers don’t like to do research and so end up making up their own facts, which is a sure way to disappoint readers who know more about that topic than the author. Other writers do far more research than necessary and often feel the need to include all that information, when it doesn’t contribute to the story. This story seems a pretty good example to me of avoiding those two extremes and including close to the right amount of information. I think the story could be strengthened with perhaps 20% more details about the birds (the right details, of course, not just any details), so I could experience them more vividly, understand their situations more clearly, and feel the expertise of the narrator more strongly. And perhaps 10% more details on the religious parts of the story. For example, the dove beats itself to death against the top of a cave, trying to escape. When it dies–after the narrator has observed nothing dying in this place–I think we need a bigger reaction from the narrator. I think, with his background studying birds, he would check to see whether the dove was truly dead and what had killed it. We could get some details about the dove at that point and also some thoughts on whether the dove’s spirit had moved onto a better place as a reward for its persistence, or a worse place as a punishment for its rebellion. Or whether it had simply been moved to another chamber in the caves.
Raising the question more clearly–why did the dove die when nothing else in the cave dies–would help to establish that this is a mystery for readers to explore. The problem is that there is no answer to this mystery, as far as I could see. Does he think the dove’s death is a sign from God, since doves commonly serve as symbols for the holy spirit? Or does he think that only the sin of suicide will provoke God sufficiently to take action? He may never know, and we may never know, but without some hint at an explanation, this plot development seems forced into the story by the author to get the narrator to do what the author wants.
Another area that I think could be strengthened is the narrator/protagonist. While the voice is strong, the narrator’s actions sometimes don’t feel believable or aren’t as strongly developed as they might be. Once I get about halfway through the story, I find it very difficult to believe that the narrator killed and partially ate a bird, multiple times, when not even hungry. Part of the reason for this difficulty is that the story provides us with several possible motivations: “boredom, or misery, or–an effort to provoke a response.” I don’t believe boredom or misery would lead him to eat a bird. I can believe that, after realizing the caves are endless, there is no way out, and he will not die from starvation or illness, that he might be desperate enough to try to kill himself. And being cowardly and wanting to avoid eternity in a crippled state, he might first try killing a bird–which might seem a mercy, considering how they are living. If the bird dies, then he would try killing himself. But the bird doesn’t die, so he gives up on that plan until he sees the dove. At that point, he might theorize that being murdered doesn’t get you out but committing suicide does.
One way to show him reaching this point of desperation would be to describe him trying to find a way out, an end to the corridors. We’re told he’s walked a lot, but that doesn’t seem enough. How does he know he’s not walking in circles? How does he know they stretch on forever? Does he, perhaps, mark the entry to each chamber and mark each branching of the corridors to keep track of where he’s been? And when he thinks he’s finally explored all the chambers, finds another corridor that leads into many more, and that’s why he thinks it’s endless?
I also don’t believe that the narrator doesn’t try to free any birds from their cages until the end of the story. Why wouldn’t this be his first reaction? I love cats, and when I imagine myself in this world with a bunch of cats, I would definitely try to free them. Perhaps he tries and fails because the nails and wire are so strong. Perhaps he hurts his finger badly freeing one bird (the dove?) and realizes, with the infinite number of cages, it’s an impossible task, so he gives up. Having him free the dove would create a stronger causal chain. Because he frees the dove, it now tries to escape the cave, and because it tries to escape the cave, it reveals to the narrator how he can escape. Also, showing the horrible consequences of him freeing one bird would make his decision at the end to free the thousands more powerful and emotional. This story provides both intellectual and emotional pleasure to readers, but the intellectual aspect becomes more prominent once he starts to build his ladder to commit suicide, and that remains the case through the end of the story. It would be nice to increase the emotion in that section.
One final point I want to mention is that sometimes a piece of description comes too late. Here’s an example: “The corridors and chambers stretch on forever, mile after mile of grey-brown stone. I have walked until my feet blistered, but never found any end to them. In every corridor and chamber there are birds being tortured.” As I read, I picture empty corridors and chambers. So when I get to the last sentence, it contradicts the image I’ve already formed in my head, and it’s difficult to re-imagine the setting with birds in it. This would work better if the initial focus was just on the corridors and didn’t mention the chambers. Then the last sentence could introduce the chambers and the birds in the chambers. We would be moving from corridors to chambers to what’s in the chambers, which is a stronger spatial organization.
I really enjoyed the unusual, creepy setting, the images of God, and the narrative voice. I hope my comments are helpful.
Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust