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.
I was drawn to “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero” this month by its non-traditional perspective on quest stories, the rather gentle point about heroism and change, and the light sense of fun it brought to all that. It’s got the bones of a very successful cozy fantasy story, but there are still places where this draft can improve and solidify. This month, I’d like to talk about ways we can let readers move with our characters and make the experience of a story feel more satisfying.
Taking an alternate side of the classic Hero’s Journey situation isn’t a new way to generate a story, but as a wider strategy, it’s a good one. Aside from this story: especially when we’re working with ideas that are essentially formulas—and quests, heroic journeys, and folktales are formulas we use to say things about the world—it’s a very good idea to think of every character in them as a whole person with a subjective experience. Rejigged fairy tales do that as their centrepiece; writing them can be a great way to practice that wholeness and bring it into every piece we write.
And “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero” opens strong in terms of characters with whole personalities: with a stalemate between Maida and the House that implies a great deal about what the House does, doesn’t do, and is for. It’s working off a template of a world that’s familiar to a lot of fantasy readers, and doing something fun with it; leveraging those ideas well.
I’m also personally fond of fantasy stories that look at the sheer amount of work that sustains a fantasy world (yes, there is laundry!) but I also like the instant Ghibli-esque characterization of the House. It comes across like a cat or a stubborn toddler, which I think really works: something with a mind and definite opinions, but missing the language to communicate them. The first word we have about the House is “sulking” and the first metaphor Maida’s small cousins, and that makes a huge impression.
That said, I do have two major suggestions, both to do with deepening the situation “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero” already creates. It’s started some ideas: What I’m suggesting is taking this draft and spending the next draft or two exploring, setting, and finishing what’s been started.
The first is sense of place (and this is something that came up in this author’s last Editor’s Choice!). The House itself is a place—and I think that would be more vivid, believable, and impactful if attention went, on the next draft, to deepening that sense of place. There’s discussion early on about the House’s usual hiding places when it’s in a mood: a false roof panel, a grotto at the back of the cellar. But we never see or taste or smell any more about those spaces; they’re ideas, rather than concrete places, so they vaguely float in readers’ awareness but don’t give us a stronger sense of the House as place and character.
Likewise, we get a somewhat timeless and vague sense of where the House is situated: a little pocket universe somewhere near Bremen, in a pre-industrial era. While that’s along the lines of fairytales, a few concretizing details would bring this world into colour—and because it’s a folktale world, you can choose the concretizing details.
There are already some good sites for adding grounding into “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero”. When Maida is “really listen[ing]” to the creaks of the house, its state as a building, that’s a perfect time to let readers join in on that activity and really listen: give us a share in that awareness of it as space. What kind of sensory details does she notice? What is the House in terms of smell, colour, organization, height, roominess, structure, permeability? Which of these are usual, which of them new? What does she associate with those details? It’s tailor-made, as a plot development, to let readers in too.
(There’s a broader principle in here: When our characters do certain kinds of actions and the readers can follow along—perceiving something, feeling something—it’s satisfying for us. There are a lot of technical, neurological reasons for why that makes us feel closer to other human beings, and it doesn’t work differently for characters or stories. (If you’re curious, look up mirroring.) But the short version is: opportunities to meld together what the reader’s experiencing and what the protagonist’s experiencing are always good ones. There’s a great opportunity to do this with the House as a space in “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero”, and I think it would really anchor this piece.)
The second suggestion is to pick up on the way the House is being written as capricious, intelligent, almost childlike, and lean into that idea: how it communicates, what it cares about, and why. What goes on between Maida and the House is a full-on relationship—but it’s not entirely being written like one yet.
There are relationships throughout “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero” that aren’t yet being picked up on and developed: with the messenger bird, with the tomcat, with Guion (it hints a few times that Maida low-key thinks he’s irresponsible, and that might actually be her problem with boundaries, and that’s an interesting thing to explore! What’s that about?). Because this is a story fundamentally about relationships changing—Maida’s with the House not being what it used to be; her relationship with herself not being what it was; Hans’s relationship with the House beginning—I think it’s important, again, for “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero” to do what it’s talking about: look at relationships.
I think there’s a great deal of depth and poignancy to be gained here if the story spends more of its space thinking about—for Maida, for Guion, for Hans—what their relationships with the intelligent House actually look like. How they’re different; how they treat it and each other differently, and what those approaches bring them, or don’t. And what those relationships say about their relationships with themselves—which, considering this is about Maida’s self-image changing, we never quite hear enough about. A problem’s getting solved here that’s never been stated: Maida is becoming a hero. But why is that important to her, and where did she start, and where did she get stuck? Why is this the answer?
There are spaces, likewise, to develop this idea: the little hints about Maida’s cousins, her leaving home. There’s room in her emotional reactions to certain incidents to think about why she feels that way. But it’s work that I think would make this piece make more emotional sense.
I think looking at the sense of place, and looking at the relationships between all these people and magical entities would solve one of the structural problems in “Doesn’t Look Like a Hero”: a slightly dragging pace in the middle. There are a few too many problems being repeated—the House not doing what it’s supposed to, little acts of sabotage which Maida never really moves forward with an answer on—and substituting the repetition of the problem (House misbehaves, Maida doesn’t really cope) with more emphasis on the relationships and spaces can take the same amount of plot and make it feel like it’s moving forward more effectively.
All in all this is pretty structural work, but I think (like the House!) the bones are absolutely there. It’s a question of thinking differently about the draft you’ve got, and finding the places those new perspectives can fit.
Thanks for the read, and best of luck!
— Leah Bobet author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)