Today, I look at a story by Joesph Kaufman at Every Day Fiction. He’s
the main editor one of the editors* at EDF, and he gave me some great feedback for Fierce, just before EDF ran the piece. He has published several works at Ether Books in addition to the story reviewed here. To read this story, you’ll need the Ether Books app, available for Apple and Android devices. This was also my first experience with Ether Books – I found the app simple enough to use. I can’t recommend it as a replacement for Kindle or other readers, though – it just doesn’t have the same range of features. I do like how Ether Books focuses on short stories, even allowing authors to publish previously released work. I expect I’ll be taking advantage of this fact…
Anyway, the story is Big Words, and it’s a fun little sci-fi bit. It begins with an absurd non sequitur of aliens broadcasting their demand for lawnmowers across the radio stations of Earth. The reader is treated to two contrasting characters – a verbose, well-educated MC and a cantankerous small-town clerk with no patience for fancy talk – trying to take in this strange event. The MC’s love of fancy language is reflected both in the prose and the MC’s dialogue, giving the story a humourous flavor as a rational man tries to unravel irrational events.
Unfortunately, this love of fancy language leads to the one drawback I found in the story. The MC’s voice results in a couple of clunky lines, including a narrative line, After all, the intergalactic newcomers had only arrived yesterday … and a line of speech, It’s the year 2023, with visitors in orbit… On the first read-through, these lines struck me as sorts of As you know Bob, which can often yank the reader straight out of a story. I understood that the MC actually does talk like this (and some real life friends I’ve known do as well) – I suspect the author was aware of the infodump, but felt that it suited the MC’s character to leave it in the final draft. Even so, I couldn’t give the story a perfect score – this is the main reason I gave it a 4 /5 stars instead of perfect.
The reader is definitely rewarded for paying attention to the MC’s speech, however. His choice of words becomes the payoff to the setup, as the aliens, upon forcing the MC to calibrate their universal translator, end up speaking in his version of English. It really ties up the story very well, justifying the MC’s words and giving an enjoyable resolution to the story.
Another bit I really enjoyed was the aliens’ nonsensical speech when their translators didn’t quite work. Their lines read like Mad Libs, giving a wonderfully absurd flavor to the whole story. It’s pretty clear the author was enjoying his work on their lines!
What can writers learn?
This story uses foreshadowing well, with the title and the MC’s speech patterns telegraphing the payoff at the end. The MC’s language stays consistent through the narrative and the MC’s dialogue, showing how prose can be used to reinforce a trait of the story’s teller.
Had the aliens started talking normally at the end, the ending would’ve been too obvious – their translator was broken, now it’s fixed, ho hum. Instead, the story satisfies because it brings in the MC’s love of big words given at the story’s start. Writers analyzing this story should think of such ‘keys’ to their own stories – facts that can be ‘hidden in plain sight’ at the start that turn out to give meaning and satisfaction to the overall story.
*Edit – This slip-up was pointed out to me by the man himself!