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.
The opening paragraph of this story draws me in with Mark’s claim that he may be the serial killer juxtaposed with his pleading look. The claim seems so odd, and then seems even more odd when he’s pleading. So I’m very intrigued and intellectually engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on. That’s quite effective.
The description in the story is another strength. A couple descriptions that work well are “He’s grown a mustache of sweat and his head moves with birdlike twitches” and “My friend’s lingering sweat and breath would coat my face, like putting on another’s life.” That’s quite vivid and evocative.
The setting also generates a lot of interest in me during the early part of the story, but as the story goes on and the setting isn’t developed, I become disappointed. If movement is restricted and that makes things more difficult for the killer, we need some sense of that. If people are getting ill, we need to see that. Are they wearing masks? Washing their hands? There’s ash raining down from fires. How does that affect the characters and story? There are street battles and protests, but we only hear about them and never see them, and they have no effect on the story. We’re told several times that the world is falling apart, but we don’t see it and it really doesn’t seem to matter. Serial killers kill whether times are good or bad. The setting should serve the story, and that doesn’t seem to be happening yet. The setting is establishing many potential obstacles for both the narrator and the killer (who happen to be the same person), but we don’t see those obstacles having any effect on the plot.
Part of the reason for this is that the story really doesn’t show any character struggling against obstacles to achieve a goal. We might think that the narrator, Jake, is trying to solve the murders, but we don’t see him struggling to do so. Once we get close to the end, we might realize Jake was working to get Mark interested in the Quarantine Killer, but we didn’t seem him struggling against obstacles to do so. And Sherry and Jake’s plan to kill Mark doesn’t seem to involve any struggle.
Since a story usually follows a character struggling to achieve a goal and possibly changing in the process, the story is missing the momentum, anticipation, and suspense that would usually be generated by this struggle. An evolving struggle also helps to create a change to a value of significance in each scene. To earn its place in the story, a scene generally needs to show something that the character values changing in a significant way. For example, the character could go from freedom to imprisonment, from trust to distrust, from poverty to wealth, from ignorance to knowledge, and so on. If Jake realizes Mark killed the victim who was cut in half in the scene where he studies the body, that would be the first scene that shows a change of significance in the story, as far as I can tell. So while I start the story with a lot of interest, my interest fades as I keep reading and nothing of significance seems to change and nothing seems to be at stake. Only at the end do I feel something is at stake–Mark’s life. But he doesn’t seem to have a chance, so I don’t feel much suspense over it.
Before I make any suggestions, let me talk about one more element. The story withholds a lot of information from us that the narrator, Jake, knows. For some reason, writers seem drawn to write stories in which they withhold information that the point of view character knows. Readers, on the other hand, tend to get quite upset when they realize the viewpoint character has known things all along that haven’t been revealed to them. For myself, I sense that the viewpoint character is withholding a lot, and I suspect he may be the killer, and I feel cheated when that is revealed. This also makes Jake kind of a cipher through most of the story. I don’t feel I know who he is, what he wants, or what struggles he’s going through. In much of the story, he seems to be drifting along and conveying information to us. There are a few suggestions that he has dissociative identity disorder, but that’s not really developed. I think he’s just withholding the fact that he and Sherry are the killers, and then he reveals it for no particular reason near the end of the story.
Stories do sometimes reveal a key piece of information around the climax, but usually that piece of information is unknown to the viewpoint character until that point.
I see two possible ways to deal with these issues. One would be to use a third person objective point of view for the story. Objective POV limits the story to concrete sensory details. The story can’t enter any character’s head or provide any judgments or conclusions that an omniscient narrator might provide. In addition to this change, Jake could struggle more, seemingly wanting to solve the murders, but in actuality putting on an act. It would be helpful if he had a partner or a forensics expert to interact with, since he doesn’t need to pretend to be trying to solve the murders unless someone else is around. Inspector Cho’s role could be expanded for that purpose. If Cho thinks something is off with Jake, that could make Jake struggle more, and Cho could be an obstacle. We could also see some obstacles in the setting (or the setting could be simplified/changed) making it harder for Jake to try to solve the murders.
Another possibility that I think might work better would be to make Mark the main character. For me, Mark’s story is much more interesting, fresh, and unexpected than Jake’s story. I’d love to be in Mark’s viewpoint (either third person limited omniscient or first person) as he’s struggling to hold onto mental stability in these very stressful times, becoming obsessed with the serial killer, and growing more and more concerned that Jake may be the killer. He might follow Jake in his struggle to satisfy his obsession with the serial killer, perhaps thinking he can stop Jake from killing and save him. Instead, he might follow Jake into a building and see Jake talk to someone, but Jake doesn’t kill him and goes home. But the next day, that person is dead and Jake tells Mark the police suspect him. So now Mark thinks Jake isn’t the killer but is worried Jake will take the blame. He searches the streets for the killer but ends up being drawn to kill someone (allegedly to prove Jake couldn’t be the killer, but we can feel how much Mark wants to kill). After the body cut in half is found and declared the most ingenious act of the killer’s, Mark goes to Jake’s to turn himself in. Jake and Sherry can then reveal and truth and kill Mark. This would allow the story to follow a protagonist who is struggling to achieve goals and who, in his point of view, doesn’t have to withhold anything he knows. And that would allow us to get to know mark much more strongly. I think it would also make the story more emotional and horrific.
I hope this is helpful. The story has a number of intriguing elements, and I really enjoy the description.
–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust