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.
As I read this submission, I found myself pondering the nature of story—how it evolves from concept or idea, and how it differs from summary or synopsis. I reflected too on how the title of a story affects the reader’s reaction to the story itself. The title drew me in, and it created certain expectations, which as a reader I hoped would be fulfilled.
The submission opens with an intriguing setup: a petitioner approaching a god whose face must not be seen because the sight of it will blind him. He wants two things, relief from the drought that besets his farm, and the rescue of his daughter from an undesirable suitor. The god grants his wish on one condition. He must give the god the first thing that greets him on his arrival home. He assumes that will be his old dog. Of course it’s not the dog who comes out, but his daughter, and he is forced to surrender her to the god for ten years. Not only does that save her from her suitor; the god further punishes the young man by causing him to be blinded for those ten years, until he sees her married to someone else.
This is one of the classic plots, with an interesting twist in the nature of the god. In this draft, it proceeds in a linear fashion, from the petition to the twist. It then turns into a summary of what happens after the daughter goes into the temple, concluding with the elderly farmer’s realization that the god orchestrated it all. He’ll send a fruit basket, he thinks, to thank the god for treating him so well.
There’s a story here—in fact, there are a number of stories. The first one rises from the emphasis in the opening scene on the fact that the god’s face must not be seen. It reads like a setup for a story in which we ultimately either see the god’s face, or we reach a better understanding of why that face must be hidden. Either Kinjiro the farmer wonders about this to the point that he can’t keep himself from trying to find out, or his daughter, who comes a priestess, devotes her tenure to discovering the truth. Or the suitor, Josh, is blinded after seeing that face, and is probably also prevented from telling anyone else what he sees—but he knows, and that knowledge changes him forever.
One thing that makes story is change. Characters change as their circumstances change. Does Kinjiro simply accept what happens, or does it alter the way he sees the world? Does he resent losing his daughter for so long, or does he make up his mind to be grateful to the god for granting him prosperity and saving her from a bad marriage? What progression of emotions does he undergo as he reaches this conclusion?
Likewise, would blindness change Josh? Would it make him bitter and hungry for revenge? Or would it make him a better person, even make him worthy of Rosemarie? That would be a twist in itself: the god promises that she’ll be married to a different person, but that different person is Josh.
Another thing story does is answer questions. It may not necessarily solve a mystery—sometimes the mystery is the best part—but it may give the reader more clues as to what’s going on. Kinjiro eventually figures out what the god is up to, but the story might be stronger if we had clearer indications throughout that there are deeper motivations than Kinjiro at first understands.
We might also learn why the god singles him out. Why not someone else? Are there other gods in this world, a pantheon? Do they have quotas for good and bad gifts to their mortal charges? Is there something special about this particular family, or about Josh? What happens if these gifts are not given? What consequences will there be for the people or the town or the god himself?
That’s where story is. In questions. In change. In friction between characters. A very short story like this one will be tightly focused. It may pick one set of answers and concentrate on one set of changes, but it will delve, however concisely, into the reasons for these answers and these changes.
It will also, most likely, keep to a fairly tight timeline. If it wants to talk about the future, it may do so by presenting the heart of the story as a flashback. We may get a frame story; Kinjiro at the end of his life, prosperous and happy, reflects on how he got there, and then shows us how it began. That would include his fear and uncertainty, the shock of losing his daughter, and both the pathos and the satisfaction of seeing what happens to Josh. Then the end would be his realization that the god meant this all along, with perhaps an additional revelation, the reason for it all, something that he or his daughter or her children has done, that would never have happened without the god’s intervention.
That might be something above and beyond simple prosperity. Some great good thing that helps the whole town. Maybe Josh would become a tyrannical ruler, but blindness stops him and reforms him. Maybe the drought would cause a famine that destroys the town.
None of this needs to add a great deal of word count. It’s more a matter of focus. Of deciding which questions to ask, and seeing how the answers affect the characters. How do they react? How do they change? How do those changes affect the world around them?
Story lives in the twists and turns of the characters’ lives, not only in what is done to them by others (including gods) but in the decisions they make, and the reasons for those decisions. Story, like life, is seldom smooth or easy. Nothing is ever really simple or straightforward. It’s messy; and that’s what makes it interesting.
— Judith Tarr