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.
Novels can so often get stuck in the morass of the middle with scenes that don’t move the story ahead; or scenes that make an episodic side trip; or scenes that churn with conflict, struggle, and action but are ultimately meaningless to the story. When you’re deep into the novel, it can be hard to avoid these pitfalls and find the right path forward. While I haven’t read all the previous excerpts of A Cure for the Witching and so can’t comment on the big picture issues, it is clear to me that the two scenes that comprise Part 6 accomplish several things that scenes in the middle should: they each show a change to a value of significance to Etain, show that events have an effect on Etain’s character arc, and build the conflict toward a crisis point.
The first scene turns on the value of proper behavior. Proper behavior seems to be something Etain tries to outwardly maintain (hiding her improper behavior internally). Yet at the end of the scene, she agrees to behave improperly in an obvious, external way, reading with Cloda and the others. That is a change to a value important to Etain. She is taking a risk, rejecting the accusation that she’s a hypocrite, and supporting Cloda. This is also a change to her character and seems to be moving her character arc from passive, internal resistance to active, external resistance, which will increase conflict and likely lead to a crisis.
The second scene turns on the value of control. Etain begins the scene in control of her emotions and her words. Since she seems to have been hiding her improper behavior from others, control must be very important to her. But when she sees Kate locked in a cage, about to be taken away, she loses control, grabbing Kate’s dress and speaking hysterically. At dinner, she tries to swallow her feelings and her words but fails. She confronts her husband with his hypocrisy, smashes bottles, and barricades herself in her room. She goes from having control to losing control, a clear change to a value that matters to Etain. This takes her character arc another step forward. After taking a risk in a safe setting in the previous scene, she is now taking a much bigger risk in a dangerous setting. She’s rejected her own hypocrisy and is now attacking her husband’s. She definitely seems to have taken the next step in her journey from passive, internal resistance to active, external resistance, and we seem headed toward a crisis.
These changes indicate the story is not stuck in the doldrums, with scenes that don’t move the story ahead. These scenes also don’t seem to be episodic side trips; a scene is episodic when you can remove it from the story and it wouldn’t really matter (like an episode of an old TV show, like the original Star Trek. You don’t need to have episode 2 to get the characters from episode 1 to episode 3; they aren’t connected and don’t build on each other). And these scenes don’t appear to contain churn, which provides conflict and struggle that is ultimately meaningless to the story. It seems central to the story that women are oppressed and Etain comes to fight against that, and that’s what we see in these scenes.
Are these the best scenes to show these changes for this novel? I can’t answer that without having read the rest, but these scenes are definitely accomplishing much that they should.
One area that could use improvement is subjective description. The excerpt has some vivid description, but it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from Etain, whose POV we are in. It feels fairly objective. Subjective description allows us to experience the world through the unique perspective of the POV character. Because of that, it not only describes, it reveals character, provides a compelling perspective, and gives readers a more emotional experience.
If, at the beginning of the excerpt, Etain is truly someone who values proper behavior, then I would think she would be uncomfortable going through this castle filled with improper items and would see those items through a disapproving lens. In that case, a “splendour of silk hangings” might instead be “expensive silk hanging from the walls in a wasteful display serving no useful purpose whatsoever.” Or if Etain found the improper items tempting, she might describe the hangings as “lustrous, sensual silk draped to invite stroking and indulgence.” If she inwardly longs for the beauty of the silk but knows it is forbidden, she might see the hangings as
I think she has a deep appreciation for the beauty of the castle yet fears the consequences of being in that place. But that’s not really coming through in the description yet. I feel appreciation in “a splendour of silk hangings,” but not the fear. And I don’t feel either appreciation or fear in most of the other details. “Somewhat bawdy stories carved in frescoes” doesn’t convey appreciation or disapproval, fear or excitement. “There are statues of many armed men and women raised on pedestals” also doesn’t convey those qualities for me; it feels like objective description.
I’m very interested in the “dark corridor, lit by swinging lanterns at wide intervals.” Is she frightened by the swinging lanterns? Excited? In her mind, is darkness where sinners hide? Or is darkness a source of reassurance and safety, a place where her transgressions are hidden? We could be so much closer to Etain if we were experiencing things as she did. Because we don’t, her issue with women reading seems to come out of nowhere. She sees many objects that are forbidden or at least disapproved of, and seems to have little reaction to that. Then she sees women reading, another forbidden thing, and has a big reaction. Allowing us to more intensely experience things as she does can help set that up better.
In the second scene, the description of Connor being “invisible” is a good example of successful subjective POV. A subjective description of Cillian here could be striking and illuminating.
The description of Kate, for me, is weakened by providing first the vision of Kate as she appears to others, and then the vision of Kate as Etain perceives her. I think this would come across much more strongly if Etain simply described Kate as Etain perceives her, as a “small, sweat-drenched girl . . . trembling uncontrollably.” That would create a clearer, more vivid image.
I hope my comments are helpful. These scenes create some strong anticipation about what’s to come. I wish you every success with the novel.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust