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.
A Piece Of The Quiet by RJ McCarthy
One of the most powerful methods of drawing readers into a story is to raise compelling questions. They may be big questions or small ones, as long as they are questions that compel readers to keep reading to find the answers. “A Piece of the Quiet” successfully drew me in and made me want to keep reading with intriguing details that raised compelling questions in my mind.
In this story of a mother and son going on vacation, the first compelling question was raised in the third paragraph, when the mother, who is the first-person narrator, thought, “somehow that made me feel like a better person than I really am.” The story is telling me that the mother is not a good person, which makes me very intrigued. How bad is she? What has she done/what is she going to do that is bad? Compelling questions that make me want to keep reading.
In the next paragraph, the mother and son arrive at the cabin in a clearing in the woods. The mountains “make it look like a giant painting propped up in the background.” This tells me there is something false about the surroundings. What is the true nature of this place? Why is it disguised? Is it a threat? More compelling questions.
A circle of trees surrounds the clearing: “It felt more like a circle of hiding places.” Who or what is hiding?
For me, these thoughts and descriptions that raise questions are the strongest aspect of the story. They drew me in and made me want to read to the end of the story.
Here are some thoughts about how the story might be strengthened.
For me, the answers to the questions don’t provide as much pleasure as the questions themselves. The questions drive me through the story, but the answers leave me somewhat disappointed by the end. The answer to what bad things the mother has done is not fully clear to me. From that opening clause I quoted above, I was expecting the mother to be much stranger and more unreliable than she was. In retrospect, I guess she was feeling bad about not being able to afford a better vacation, or perhaps about fleeing from the creature in the woods instead of fighting for her child, though this is never stated. So this seems like an example of the reader interpreting a statement differently than the author intended, in a way that sets up strong expectations, and then leads to reader disappointment when those expectations aren’t fulfilled.
The other details I quoted above seem to raise questions/expectations the author wants to raise. Those questions are answered: a mysterious creature/force hides in the woods. It is a threat, seemingly killing and absorbing or mimicking the dog and the son, and then tormenting the mother by planting the voices of the dog and the son into her mind.
For me, the answers to the questions and the way those answers are revealed feel kind of familiar. The dog vanishing first; a pale hand with long, bony fingers; the son going after the dog and vanishing; and the mother/survivor being haunted by the evil creature in the woods and the loss of her child—these are elements I’ve encountered before.
Does that mean that no stories can be written with an evil creature in the woods? No. Most stories have some familiar elements in them. The world is full of stories retold and retold. To provide satisfying answers to the questions raised, the author needs to make these familiar elements feel different and fresh. Perhaps the elements are shown through an unusual viewpoint; for example, the story might be told from the dog’s viewpoint. The dog might run into the woods to retrieve the ball to save the boy from the evil the dog detects. The dog might then struggle, after being absorbed by the creature, to stop the creature from absorbing the boy. Once the dog and boy are together inside the creature, the dog might be very happy to be with the boy, and the boy might want to be with his mother, so they might urge the creature to absorb the mother. This leads the creature to pound on the door, but the mother resists, not understanding she has the chance to be with her boy.
Perhaps the creature in the woods is different than what we might expect. Since the mother seems afraid of the woods, perhaps the trees themselves are evil and close in on the cabin until they crush it. Perhaps the mother has been to this cabin before; it’s where she killed and buried the boy’s father. And the boy’s father has turned into this creature, who is reaching out to claim his son.
The characters might be unusual, or the setting (e.g., “woods” on another planet), or the voice/style in which the story is written, or the plot (the mother could absorb the creature in the woods).
The earlier part of the story feels more fresh and different to me (the mountains like a painting, the mother fearing the woods, the mother missing the brick walls of the city and feeling like she’s looking at a wall that’s missing a painting—this painting imagery might be tied together in some way). It could be helpful to think more about those details and see if they might develop through the story in a way that brings that freshness to the later elements.
One other area I want to mention is pacing. Pacing is more important in horror than in any other genre. To build suspense and fear, the pace needs to be slowed down, or dilated, to intensify those sections and trap readers in those moments. The story tells us about time slowing down (e.g., “It felt like an hour passed in the two seconds it took for our dog to jump out of the tangle of branches with the ball in his mouth”) but doesn’t show us time slowing down. To help readers experience this dilation, the moment needs to be described in great detail, so the amount of time it takes readers to read about the events will be longer than the actual time the events took. That’s how you create the feeling of slow motion or a moment being stretched out, or even frozen.
Here’s an example from “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin, in which the main character, Kress, goes down into his basement to kill an alien creature called a maw, gets scared, and runs back up. Martin’s description of this takes significantly longer to read than mine:
“He had to go down into the wine cellar and use the ax on the maw.
“Resolute, he started down. He got within sight of the door, and stopped.
“It was not a door any more. The walls had been eaten away, so that the hole was twice the size it had been, and round. A pit, that was all. There was no sign that there had ever been a door nailed shut over that black abyss.
“A ghastly, choking, fetid odor seemed to come from below.
“And the walls were wet and bloody and covered with patches of white fungus.
“And worse, it was breathing.
“Kress stood across the room and felt the warm wind wash over him as it exhaled, and he tried not to choke, and when the wind reversed direction, he fled.”
I enjoyed reading your story and remained engaged throughout. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust