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.
Description can serve many purposes, but three of the most important are to convey significant sensory details so readers can experience what’s happening; to reflect the point of view character (what that character notices, cares about, and how the character thinks about the world); and to create an atmosphere, an emotional tone, that enhances the story. I’m very intrigued by the opening of this novel, with Lennie wanting to publicize her bookshop by faking a Blair Witch-type story, and I’m excited by my expectation that some real horror will occur. The characters, with their agenda of creating something phony, seem like they could add a fresh perspective on the situation, and the setting, an isolated village inaccessible by car, seems very promising.
This section has a fair amount of description, and I think it could do more to build interest and make the excerpt more rewarding. I think most of the description is currently focused on the first purpose I listed—to convey significant sensory details so readers can experience what’s happening. I don’t get much of a sense of the description reflecting the POV character or creating an atmosphere that enhances the story. It may be that I’m missing some things since I haven’t read part 2 of Chapter 1; I’m just reacting to what’s in this section. For example, the main description of the isolated town is this: “a few Victorian cottages meandered in grey or off-white stonework.” I get an image from this, but I don’t feel Lennie’s character. One thing that should usually affect the viewpoint character’s description of things is her goal. If she wants to create a Blair Witch-type story set in this place, is she disappointed that the village is so ordinary? Is she thinking how, at night, with some shaky cam, those houses could look scary? How does the village compare to her expectations? I think they’ve come a long way; does it live up to what she expected? Is it different from what she expected? Was she hoping for some dead trees, a church with a big cross, a strange statue in the town square, or a pub with a lot of dead animal heads on the wall? Establishing her expectations and then contrasting those with the reality would bring more emotion into the scene, whether it’s disappointment, excitement, uncertainty, or whatever. It would also allow us to feel her struggling to achieve her goal. If the place seems mundane and disappointing, how is she thinking about spooking it up? Does she want to use a fish-eye lens on the tea room employees? I’m not sure why she isn’t talking to them about being in her movie, getting them to sign waivers. The descriptions of the tea room, the people in it, and their actions seem pretty much divorced from her goal. She thinks about her “vagabonding days,” which don’t seem related to her goal, and about “corny Westerns.” She’s self-conscious about her disheveled state and remembers her father’s disapproval. She thinks about her boyfriend looking smart and the woman’s “handsome” face. These things seem disconnected to me, not conveying a focused impression of Lennie and what’s important to her at this moment. The main conclusion I draw from these is that Lennie is preoccupied with appearance.
I also don’t feel much atmosphere arising from the description. The cottages “meandering” feels relaxed to me. The tea room gives me mixed impressions. At first it seems dilapidated. The lampshade seems fancy. The people in the tea room seem strange, yet not in any specific, focused way. There’s the patchwork dress girl, the handsome woman and a man, and the woman in a wheelchair. They seem unwelcoming at first, but that sense fades. Lennie doesn’t seem concerned about their desire for her to leave; she settles down and doesn’t seem to be planning to leave soon. If they persisted in being unwelcoming, for example standing over them while they drank their water, and Lennie reacted to that by feeling uncomfortable, or angry, or determined, that could create a stronger atmosphere. Or if they were all incessantly chipper, or all felt threatening, or gave some common impression that worked with the physical setting, those details could all generate a strong atmosphere. They might even all seem normal, along with the tea room, which could be frustrating to Lennie, who is hoping for something that will work in her movie.
Because this section has a lot of description, and the description doesn’t seem to be doing all it might, it feels like the story is focused on setting up elements that will later become significant (that Bill is going to return [from the dead?], that Martin was afraid), but is not conveying enough of significance now. That makes me feel like this section is a placeholder, and you haven’t quite figured out all you can do here. Novel scenes often have this problem; placeholder scenes—in which you know you need something there, but you’re not quite sure what you need–can be good to look for and deal with in revision, once you’ve reached the end and have a better sense of the big picture.
Similarly, I think the description of the video footage could more strongly reflect Lennie’s point of view and create an atmosphere.
The excerpt leaves me interested in why the tea room people are reacting to Nadine in this way, what Martin saw, whether Bill is going to return from the dead—and, of course, what happened to the vanished schoolmaster. All that makes me want to keep reading. I hope my comments are helpful. Wishing you success with the novel!
Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust