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.
This is quite an interesting experiment: two versions of the same story with some different details and with the order of the material changed.
Both stories follow a first-person narrator as he warms himself beside a fire on a stormy night and thinks about the events of the day. He throws the head of the wife he killed on the fire, and it shoots fire at him, presumably killing him.
For me, the second version, “A Cozy Fire,” gets my interest more quickly and creates more curiosity and anticipation.
One key moment in both versions is the narrator having a drink: “I pour myself a drink, Balvenie 40-year-old single malt. A costly extravagance (about $8,000 a bottle), the scotch has sat on the shelf for years waiting for the right moment. I sip the whisky, savoring the aroma of ripe fruit, figs, and almond. Its soothing warmth calms me.” This passage tells us that, for the narrator, this is the “right moment” for this special treat. Something big has been accomplished. The narrator requires a bit of calming, but what comes through the most for me is that this is the pinnacle moment the narrator has been striving for. This creates an obvious question in readers’ minds: what did the narrator accomplish? That makes me want to keep reading to find the answer.
In the first version of the story, “Night Eyes,” this moment comes in paragraph 4 out of 10 total. In the second version of the story, this moment comes in paragraph 1. That means I’m not really drawn into story 1 until I reach the 40% mark, while in story 2 I’m drawn in at the start.
In story 1, once he has the drink, he smells rancid meat (revealing someone has been killed) and thinks of his wife, who is not present. It’s pretty clear almost immediately that he has killed her, so once I’m drawn in and form the question about what he accomplished, I get my answer right away. That doesn’t allow suspense to build.
In story 2, he has the drink at the start, then spends a couple paragraphs thinking about the nasty events of the day–which leaves me uncertain what those events were. A line of what might be thought or remembered dialogue is provided–” Not yet, my love. Rest with me a bit longer”–which I’m not quite certain how to interpret. Then we get a paragraph of description of the storm, and then another thought that makes it clear to me that he killed his wife. So there are 5 paragraphs (out of 17 total in this version) between the time I form the question of what he accomplished and the time I figure out the answer. That allows curiosity and suspense to grow.
After that, in story 1, suspense declines. The narrator thinks more about his wife, hinting at why he killed her, but as a reader, I really don’t care, since this piece is short and I haven’t had a chance to get to know the narrator or his wife. And then the head gets thrown on the fire.
In story 2, the thoughts, which are explained as the narrator’s imagining of his dead wife’s voice, continue, arguing with the narrator. This builds some conflict, which helps to sustain my interest, though nothing seems to be at stake, so there’s not much suspense. As they argue, we discover why the narrator killed his wife and get a hint that she’s not entirely dead, foreshadowing her shooting fire at him at the end.
In both versions, we’re not aware of any reason why her disembodied head should be able to shoot fire at him, so that seems to come out of the blue. While it’s surprising, a climax generally works best when it feels simultaneously surprising and inevitable. That means the climax feels right, that it feels like the only thing that could have happened, though we didn’t see it coming. I don’t feel that in either version. We get a little hint in story 2, which is better, but it comes only 4 paragraphs before the end, so it feels more like a last-minute explanation than foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is best done well before the event that’s being foreshadowed occurs. It often works well near the beginning of a story. That allows readers to register the information without figuring out what’s going to happen because they’re still getting oriented in the story.
Here are some additional thoughts about how story 2 might be strengthened.
Using the word “kindling” to refer to his wife’s body parts makes me feel like the story is cheating me. Since this is a story that invites readers to figure out what’s going on, readers will feel more satisfaction if they feel the game is being played fairly. Instead of giving us an incorrect piece of information by saying “a bag of kindling,” the narrator might just not give us the information and say, “my bag.” That will raise the question, “What’s in the bag?” and make readers more engaged.
I think the narrator’s attitude toward killing his wife could be clarified/strengthened. I really don’t know how he feels about his wife, so I don’t know how to feel about him, her, or what happens. The expensive drink makes me feel like he’s rewarding himself, and he’s savoring it, but then he needs to be calmed. I’m not sure if he wants to be calmed after excitement or he wants to be calmed after tragedy. Then he says the events were nasty but contained pleasures. The imagined voice of his wife makes me think he feels guilty, but I don’t feel guilt from him. He smiles at the smell of rancid meat, which I assume is her head and possibly other parts. He says he’ll miss her terribly, but I don’t feel that either. So there are a lot of mixed signals. I generally conclude that he’s kind of a standard bad guy who killed his wife and should pay the price for that. But that’s not terribly interesting. Instead of telling us he has two contradictory feelings, it could be stronger to show him having one feeling and then imply there is another feeling, unstated, beneath that.
Before I go into that, let’s consider the emotion the story is trying to generate at the end. I think the story wants to show the narrator getting his comeuppance and satisfy the readers’ sense of justice (with a bit of horror thrown in). If that’s the case, then we need to feel the narrator is deserving of this fate. He’s a murderer, so I guess he may deserve death, but I don’t really feel what a horrible person he is. Yes, chopping his wife up is horrible, but that’s not in the story. If the story is trying to show me a horrible guy deserving of being burned to death, then I think his attitude toward his wife and the situation that led to her murder might be adjusted to make us feel he’s a really awful person. Perhaps, instead of stumbling upon his work, they were working together, and she figured out the key, stealing the glory of discovery from him. In that case, returning to the issue of his feelings about her, perhaps he’s thinking that she was a wonderful “assistant,” and her enthusiasm was admirable, but her ideas would have taken his work in the wrong direction. He’s better able to carry the work forward. We could then sense, in the subtext, that he was threatened by her superiority and that’s what led him to kill her. Creating subtext can give us a sense that the narrator has layers to his character rather than that he’s saying contradictory things.
The idea that she was involved in his work might also provide a possible reason why her head is able to shoot fire at him.
Finally, I’d suggest that the narrator not explain that the words he’s hearing are his imagination of his wife’s voice. He might wonder if he’s imagining it, or think he must be imagining it, but if you leave a bit of uncertainty, that again will engage us by raising the question, “Is he imagining it or is it something else?”
Questions, when they’re clear and not overwhelming, can create reader engagement and suspense.
I enjoyed the challenge to compare the two versions. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust