Detailed reviews will now be weekly!

Just putting in this quick little post so I’m not away from this place too long!

Unless any of the staff at Every Day Fiction, or anyone kind enough to review my work requests a review (such requests are always welcome, by the way), I will be doing a detailed review of one piece of flash fiction found during my weekly reading. I won’t necessarily choose the best one I find, but one which I strongly feel has something to teach beginning writers.

I do consider all requests sent through my feedback form. My personal criteria for review:

  1. The story should be less than or around 2000 words.
  2. It should be free to read on the internet or on a free mobile app.
  3. I will consider stories posted on personal blogs, provided that there are clear signs of spell-checking & proofreading.

That’s all I can think of, but I may come back to this list again if I need to.

Time for me to get back to my reading, and of course, my writing!

Reviewing my Publishers – ‘Big Words’ by Joseph Kaufman

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!

Reviewing my Publishers! – ‘Bad Smile’ by J.C. Towler

Hey, am I allowed to do this?

J.C. Towler is one of the nice folks at Every Day Fiction who approved of Fierce. As a small thanks, and at the risk of looking like a brown nose, I’m going to look at his flash fiction piece, Bad Smile. This one even has a video of a reading by the author. Now this was posted way back in 2010, but as Towler is also one of the editors at EDF, it was hardly surprising that I couldn’t find more samples of his short works. He he has works published in anthologies such as Your Darkest Dreamspell, and Monstrous: 20 Tales of Giant Creature Terror.

Okay, so let’s look at this old piece and its comment thread and see what a beginner can learn from it.

This is a dialogue-only story, relying on the characters to say where they are and what’s going on. This is a bit of a gamble in writing – while a writer can dodge the need for any scene description, the dialogue has to paint the scene AND seem natural. Balancing exposition and natural speaking is a tough act, but Bad Smile does it well. A short, funny line “Honey, he is not going to eat you. Please stop kicking my seat while I’m backing up” illustrates how characters can describe a scene without breaking … well, character! The reader knows exactly what’s going on and can instantly imagine this argument between mother and child.

The one criticism in the comment thread that I agree with is in regards to the ending. The dialogue went on just a tad too long after “Please, no!” – I can see the author having a bit of dilemma about where to end this piece. It’s an issue that trips up many authors, I imagine, especially when the piece is as bold as this. It’s really a small quibble though – the piece works very well overall, and stands out as an example of both good creepy terror and dialogue-focused writing.

What can my writing get from this?

I have yet to try an all-dialogue work, so this piece shows me some good uses of dialogue to draw from. It also has a nice use of foreshadowing – when Mommy warns that she’s going to count, readers might dismiss it the first time, but it ends up being key to the story. This gives a nice twist, and not an expected one. An odious ending would have Mr. Winter eating Rebecca, Jessica, or both. An obvious ending would have Jessica turn on Mr. Winter, maybe as a monster herself. The twist works because the reader thinks Rebecca’s just an exasperated mommy. Readers can use this idea to think of unexpected sources for twists in their own stories.

Reviewing My Commentors – ‘No Animals Were Harmed …’ by Suzanne Conboy-Hill

This next reviewer of Fierce turned out to be another very prolific author. I tracked down a recent story by her, and found No Animals Were Harmed …, by Suzanne Conboy-Hill, published on EDF on November 21, 2013. She has a lot of published work – see her own list here, at her blog.

I’m in the minority with this one – I liked this story. I gave it a 4 / 5.

I found it fast-paced, with a nice WTF is going on vibe that slowly pays off as both the reader and the MC figure out as the story unfolds. I think the attempt to to make the reader share Neela’s confusion paid off very well. The style of writing is simple and direct, and makes great use of dialogue to show the story unfold. Nothing feels unnecessary – I found it fun to read through. Neela’s reactions made me imagine Kara Thrace playing her – perhaps Conboy-Hill is a Galactica fan?

I wanted to know more about the IsFac, the scavengers who found Neela, and how they found her. I think the story could have spent a few more words fleshing out the beings who captured Neela, just to help readers understand what she’s up against. While I loved Neela’s witty feedback, to have her continue even as dehydration does her in was very unrealistic and somewhat distracting. I did love that she went out hoping for the best for Jace and their daughter.

How this story can improve my writing:

This story shows an excellent way to paint a scene with dialogue, without resorting to dry descriptions of scenery. I also appreciate the simplicity and pace of the prose. The reader is taken from setup to execution (literally) without excess information. The story has an immediate hook, and keeps curiosity going as the horror of Neela’s situation is revealed. Writers can note how quickly Neela is placed into her situation, and how the story’s momentum avoids clunky exposition.

Reviewing my Commentors – Stöberhund by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Welcome to the first review of work by people kind enough to comment on my story. As a beginning author with a small number of readers, I’m able to connect with readers and look at their works – It’s one of the few things I’m going to enjoy about starting out!

First up, Stöberhund by Sarah Crysl Akhtar, published on EDF on November 13, 2013. She’s been published on Flash Fiction Online and several times at EDF.

This story was clearly written with the intent of capturing a fairytale or mythical atmosphere. Unfortunately, the language seems forced at many points, and makes the story difficult to follow. A good example is near the start, with the line “I was green with retching and sick to be caught this way now my man was dead.” I took this to mean that her sickness from getting handled roughly is another insult to the injury of her baby’s father’s death. It’s an awkward, forced connection in my mind, and distracts from the story at hand.

I followed the narrative well on the second and third reads, and a reply by the author in the comments helped clear a few things up. The Main Character made a deal to give up her baby, and now it’s time to pay up. The final line reveals that the father of this child must be a son of the King. As far as I can tell, the reader learns of the King (he sleeps around a lot, has many bastards), but nothing about the King’s Son except that he’s dead. A little information about how or why they met would have helped.

Rather than a traditional conclusion, this story ends with the drama between the cheated Queen and the pregnant peasant. It leaves the reader wondering, which can be good, but it also feels like a longer story was chopped up to meet word count.

My take:

I can appreciate the moment of drama as the payoff  – a hard choice, left unresolved, can be as satisfying as a definite conclusion. In this case, though, the difficulty in understanding the piece takes away a lot of the punch. I think the prose would work well in a longer story, where the reader would have more time to “get into” the world and the language. I’d love to see more work written in similar language, but simplified just a bit so that the overall story is more clear.

What my writing can get from this:

The story shows how choices in prose define the overall character of a story, but also shows that getting too complicated with language can be off-putting to some readers.

Critical Consensus of ‘Fierce’ – Good concept, but tension falls flat

I finally popped in to the comments for FierceI admit, I was terrified of what I might see.

I’m happy to say I survived with most of my ego intact!

The story has rated an average of 3.5 out of 5 stars. I’m okay with this. This was one of my very first concepts as I read through various guides to flash fiction, and one of the first ideas I got to work in less than 1000 words. I think the guides written by Holy Lisle over at howtothinksideways.com were the most helpful in getting me from concept to completion, so I’ll throw in this little plug for the “How to Write Flash Fiction that Doesn’t Suck” lessons available there.

Okay, so, the question is – why only 3.5 / 5?

Well, the comments I’ve got so far give me a pretty good idea. Readers spoke of a tension promised at the beginning of the story that petered out with each line. The story had a girl with a baseball bat and a monster crumpled before her. Any real monster would jump right back up and have at her, or at least do a bit more than fall apart after (as far as the reader knows) one slug from a little girl. Instead, the monster is a weak thing that doesn’t actually do all that much in the story.

It’s fair criticism – tension should build, not die out. The monster has to provide a clear obstacle for Valerie and her father to overcome, and I can see why readers felt that the promise was never paid in full.

My defense – I had hoped the father-daughter relationship would shine as the true star of the story. It’s really about daddy helping his little girl realize her inner bravery. I think many readers felt that the focus on that dynamic left the monster as little more than scene dressing.

I am very glad, though, that reviewers saw the concept as a good one. Positive aspects that were pointed out included the idea of fear as the monster’s food, the way daddy helps Valerie understand her bravery, and the overall potential of the story for future revisits and rewrites.

Not bad for a first publication. I feel much better now that I’ve read the comments!

My only regret for this whole experience – the state of this blog when Fierce was in the spotlight. I had a chance to make a good impression on visitors, but I ran with too many poor choices in content.

Anyway, I’ll be visiting each of the folks generous enough to leave comments on EDF. Over the next few days, I’ll feature their blogs and try to find the most flattering samples of their work!

 

Welcome v2.0

I’m taking this blog back to my original concept – that of reviewing published flash fiction and figuring out why it works & how it could be improved.

I still want to share and respond to prompts I find on the internet. I had this idea of constantly revisiting the work I produce from such prompts, and talking about what revisions could make it better. This would be in keeping with the theme of review & critique, and looking at how a writer can improve by doing it regularly.

I took down pages that talked about my “muse”. I don’t get to talk like I’m an artist or something. I need a lot more practice, and a lot more published work before I get to talk like that. And even then, I shouldn’t.

I’ll keep the painting on my side widget though – I still kind of like it. I want to get a real artist to draw me a stylized take on it that changes the lyrical poet to a modern fiction writer, with his muse watching over him. If you’re a graphic designer or artist who can do that, drop me a private line with your price.

The contest idea for feedback was dumb. Not happening. It’s bad of me to announce that and then backpedal, but it’d be even worse to keep it up as a testament to my dumbness. I’ll look for the blogs & works of people who commented on Fierce, and I’ll write up some features based on what I find. I’m still doing the “Thank you” page for everyone who commented, and I will include acknowledgements in the eBook.

Links to the eBook are gone for now. I’ll put it up again when there’s some decent content on this blog and more people who appreciate this site.

I’m keeping the stuff I wrote for the prompts earlier. Yes, even Snow Day, Old Geezer’s Word, the “poetry”, and other not-so-good stuff. These works will come up for revision, and I will talk about changes I make to them. That way, we might just get something useful out of them.