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.
It’s a challenge to write a complete story in a small number of words. Writers of flash fiction have many strategies to do so. They can keep the story small (only a few characters, one setting, one scene, over a short period of time), or they can use fixed forms (such as writing the story as an obituary, recipe, Amazon review, weather report), or they can use other strategies (such as skipping over most of the story and showing only a few key bits, recapitulating [summarizing] much of the story, using conventions readers know). It’s this last category of techniques that “Death by Flower” uses to convey Karen’s story in such a compressed way. We successfully follow Karen all the way from her normal life as a ten-year-old through the transformation of her parents into zombie-like creatures and the collapse of society to Karen’s own transformation. That’s a lot to cover, but the piece successfully conveys all of this by skipping over large chunks of time and focusing on key moments, recapitulating much of the story, and using a pandemic leading to zombies, which are elements readers know that don’t require a lot of explanation or development. We get a sense of the progression of the pandemic with a few details, such as the failure of the water supply and phone service, and Karen being left behind by the authorities. The headings establishing the passage of time help to keep us oriented and provide a sense of events moving forward. All of that works well to clearly convey what happened to Karen and her family, and to imply what happened to the world.
What follows below are some suggestions about how this prelude might be strengthened.
While I understand what happened to Karen, I don’t feel much emotion when reading her story. One way to strengthen emotion would be to strengthen the viewpoint. Right now, an omniscient narrator sometimes seems to be telling us the story; we seem to be in Karen’s head, overhearing her thoughts, at other times; and we seem to be somewhere in between at times. These shifts in viewpoint are accompanied by shifts in voice, which are distracting. There’s a lot of movement between these three viewpoints/voices, so it’s hard to get settled in the story and feel involved. This also makes it hard to get to know and care about Karen.
Here are some examples. The story begins in a clear omniscient viewpoint:
>At 10 years old, Karen was a spry character, full of energy and creativity. <
We’re definitely not in Karen’s head here. This is not how she would think of herself. We’re in the head of someone with a more sophisticated vocabulary (spry) who is making a judgement about Karen.
In the second paragraph, the viewpoint is less clear:
>As she ventured around the large property that was her home in Arlington, Washington she found a truly unusual flower. With bright blue petals, the flower was magnificent to hold. It had an unusual lime-green tinge around the outside of the petals and its shape was reminiscent of a rose. She’d never found a flower with colors that were so vibrant and she knew immediately what she was going to do with it: a bookmark for Mother’s Day. <
Some word choices again indicate an older, sophisticated narrator (ventured, magnificent, tinge, reminiscent, vibrant). Yet the last sentence, at least, seems like it’s trying to convey Karen’s reaction and decision. An omniscient narrator can report what’s going on in any character’s head, so perhaps this is the narrator simply relaying to us what Karen is thinking. But it feels like the author is trying to have the narrator step back, allowing us to experience what Karen is thinking more directly at this key moment in her life, which is another ability of the omniscient narrator. Exactly what the intent is here is unclear to me. The result is that I feel distant from Karen.
The third paragraph seems to more clearly put us in Karen’s head:
> Karen plucked the single, unusual flower from the earth and smiled. Her mother would love it. As she skipped around the property, on her way back inside, she imagined how happy and excited her mother would be to get a gift like this. <
The intent seems more clearly to put us in Karen’s head, hearing her thoughts, and the voice seems closer to ten-year-old Karen’s voice, yet it still seems a bit off, with word choices like “unusual” (instead of odd or weird or special) and “property” (instead of yard or garden). So the viewpoint is still a bit unclear and I don’t feel close to Karen.
An omniscient viewpoint is very flexible; the POV can go from an omniscient narrator telling the story to an omniscient narrator relaying the thoughts and feelings of a character to the omniscient narrator allowing us to hear the thoughts and feelings of the character directly. But those shifts in narrative distance need to be minimized, so we don’t feel constantly jostled back and forth in viewpoint, and they need to be done gradually, so we don’t even notice the movement between these options. And the voices of the narrator and the character need to be well developed and strong.
I think that third person omniscient is the best viewpoint for this prelude, since it allows a lot of information to be conveyed quickly and helps in moving quickly over unimportant times. My suggestion is to create a POV plan, so you can minimize the number of shifts. For example, to start with the omniscient narrator and gradually move into Karen’s head, so we can experience with Karen the key moment of discovering the flower, and then stay in Karen’s head until the end of the scene. After creating a plan, the next step would be to develop the voices of the omniscient narrator and of Karen. You could list the traits of each voice (such as philosophy, opinions, mood/emotions, education, sentence length, sentence structure, syntax, colloquial language, dialect, diction, jargon, rhythm) and then try writing some text (not in the prelude) in each voice. A good example of movement between an omniscient narrator and a young character’s head is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. You can look at the scene in which Lucy returns to the wardrobe while the siblings are playing hide and seek, and then Edmund follows her into the wardrobe. The viewpoint moves from the omniscient narrator describing what the siblings are doing, to the narrator relaying what Lucy (one of the siblings) is thinking and feeling, to allowing us to experience Lucy’s thoughts and feelings directly. The viewpoint then moves out of Lucy and into Edmund (another sibling), and these moves are all done very gently and smoothly.
A related point is that I think Karen’s character could be a bit more developed. She feels rather like a generic girl and younger than ten. Thinking about her interests, fears, values, flaws/weaknesses, skills/strengths, goals, whom she loves most, whom she depends on most, the types of relationships she forms, friends, behaviors/tactics, emotional core, etc. can help develop her into a more specific and rich character. To gauge what a ten-year-old might be interested in or what her voice might sound like, talking to some ten-year-olds or watching YouTube or TikTok videos with ten-year-olds could be helpful.
The prelude did a good job of conveying this critical part of Karen’s life in a compressed form, and I enjoyed reading it. I hope my comments are helpful.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust