Editor’s Choice Award November 2023, Horror

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.

Impy by Steve Brady

One effective way of drawing readers into your story is with a series of questions and answers.  “Impy” does this very well.  The first sentence describes the protagonist being awakened by a guard at 4:30 AM.  This makes me wonder, “Why so early?” and “Why a guard?”  In the third sentence, “today is a special day” raises another question in my mind:  “Why is today special?”  These are not earth-shattering questions, but readers don’t need to have earth-shattering questions in their mind to keep reading.  A series of clear, small questions can create curiosity and anticipation that make readers continue to the next sentence.  Those questions are like a trail of breadcrumbs readers are popping in their mouths as they read.

The story also needs to provide answers.  Too many questions without any answers don’t allow readers to swallow those breadcrumbs, and they can get overwhelmed with questions, frustrated, and confused.  If you can both answer a previous question and raise a new question in a sentence, readers will be doubly engaged.  For me, this happened in the second paragraph of “Impy,” with the line, “You can have anything you want for breakfast today.” This reveals that the protagonist is scheduled for execution, and this is his last meal.  This answers two of my previous questions, “Why a guard?” and “Why is today special?”  And it raises two new questions, bigger ones:  “What crime did he commit?” and “Is he actually going to be executed or will he escape it in some way?”  The next paragraph answers the question about his crime; the question about his execution is one that raises suspense and dominates the rest of the story.

There are a few ways in which this technique can go wrong.  Questions can be unclear or too complicated, particularly at the beginning, for readers to understand.  Or questions may be too “in the weeds” for readers to care about them or their answers.  Too many questions may be piled up without answers.  Answers may be unclear or overly complicated.  Or, particularly with the bigger questions, the answers may not be satisfying.

I felt the first scene of this story worked very well, making me feel a lot of curiosity and suspense.  Another “big” question raised in that scene is “Did the protagonist, whose memory is unclear, really kill his son?” The most excitement I felt came when the story prompted the biggest question in the story.  The story is told in second person POV, but almost halfway through, we get this sentence–“You’ve thought you’d finally conquered me before, but I might embarrass you if you let your guard down”—and discover there is a secret “I” lurking in the story. “Who is this I?” I’m dying to know.

For me, the answer to this question is not satisfying, which makes the second scene not as strong as the first.  In the second scene, the protagonist, injected with an experimental drug for his execution, is caught in a dream world while his body is in a coma.  There, he meets the “I” of the story, Impy, who may be an imp, an elf, the devil, a demon, or a part of the protagonist.  The protagonist asks who Impy is, but there is no answer.  The protagonist asks why Impy made him kill his son, but there is no answer.  Impy hints that perhaps there’s some middle ground between “madness” and “haunting.”  While that’s an interesting idea, for me, it’s an idea that needs to be explored through an entire story, so I could see the interactions between the protagonist and Impy and try to figure out for myself whether Impy is a part of the protagonist’s mind or some external force.  As is, this idea is not raised until the end, and I don’t really get to know either the protagonist or Impy, so it’s impossible for me to form an opinion about what Impy is.  The biggest question is basically answered with a question, which is hard to make satisfying.

If the author is interested in exploring this question, then I think the story probably ought to take place earlier in the protagonist’s life, when he is sensing the presence and influence of Impy inside him.

If, instead, the author is interested in showing us the protagonist headed for execution and revealing the presence of Impy near the end, then I think the story needs to provide clear and compelling answers to the questions that have been raised. And in stories that have revelations near the end, it’s important to plant evidence earlier in the story that will support the answer.  For example, in a murder mystery, the murderer is usually revealed near the end, answering our question about who did it, but in addition to that, as we think back over the story, we find that this answer changes how we viewed previous events and provides a better understanding of those events.  I don’t think that’s happening yet.

There are a couple other things I want to briefly mention.  One is that the use of this experimental drug seems coincidental.  The fact that Impy is inside the protagonist has nothing to do with why he was chosen for the drug, so that feels manipulated by the author rather than arising from a strong causal chain of events.

The other thing is that the protagonist seems to know about Impy at the beginning of the second scene, yet in the first scene, there is no mention of Impy in the protagonist’s thoughts.  Whenever readers are getting a character’s thoughts and some important fact that character knows is withheld, that makes readers feel cheated.  I think that aspect of the story needs some more thought.

I enjoyed the first scene a lot and thought questions and answers were handled skillfully there.  I also think the second person POV with the hidden first person works well.  I hope my comments are helpful.  You might enjoy the novel THE PERFECT WIFE by J. P. Delaney.

— Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

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