My Fifty: #36 – #21

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I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I am taking a look at the middle of the pack.

It’s Nice. No More, No Less)

There are always things I can find to improve in my stories, even in my best ones. But this next section is the first batch where I feel there are not any flaws on a fundamental level. I think that they are perfectly fine as they are…and that is all. They’re not life-changing, but they are fine.

36. The Wolf in the Room. Doctors and scientists in a secret facility try to solve the mystery of a man slowly transforming into a wolf.
I enjoyed this unique take on the werewolf. Obviously it has been inspired by other works, such as The Fly, and even Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The application of this body-swapping logic to werewolves is, to my knowledge, original, and I think it does a good job of raising the questions that I wanted it to.

35. In Stars and Stones. The world’s leading astronomers and archaeologists are both discovering the same end-of-the-world event through two very different lenses.
This one was written from a very removed perspective. The voice is similar to a narrator in a documentary, or a news reporter. There are no named characters, no moments of dialogue, but rather a series of escalating events described until a picture of inescapable Armageddon is made clear. It was a fun exercise, and one that presented some refreshing new experiences.

34. The Favored Son. An abbey in a fantasy world is suddenly overrun by a mysterious invasion.
My most recent piece, and one that I frankly struggled with quite a great deal. Right in the middle I followed a tangent that I hadn’t considered before, and found myself making up the story as I went. In the end I felt it came together much better than expected, and I found a few nuggets along the way that I’m glad to have discovered.

33. Three Variations on a Theme. Three different allegories, each centered on the same idea of condemnation and loss.
This was a more free-form, experimental piece. The visuals in it still haunt me, and I believe the separate sections each fit together thematically. My main purpose here was to see how many ways I could express the same idea, which made for an excellent writing exercise, but may result in a redundant reading experience.

32. Revenger of Blood. A Jewish man’s father was a victim of manslaughter, and he struggles with the right course of action to take against the killer.
I like the ideas of this story, I like its slow burn, and I like the resolution that it comes to. But I do take issue with the dialogue of its characters. I was trying to capture that old, biblical style of speaking. And while it is near enough you know what I am going far, it is also far enough from the mark that it feels a bit awkward. If I took the time, this piece could be polished into something really special.

Worth a Look)

There are many elements that I personally value in the previous stories, but if a friend asked me where to start reading my blog, I would not point them to any of the above. I would tell them to start looking from here.

31. Network Down. A man is hunted by a band of murderers in a highly digitized future.
This was a great example of having a single, simple idea (what if anything manufactured in our society could be interfaced with and digitally purchased), and then running with it for as long as possible. And even with so many ideas packed into such a small package, the piece still finds time to build a compelling arc for its main character.

30. Imposed Will. A man is incarcerated in a Victorian-era prison, where a mysterious figure invites him into a world of magic.
I had a lot of fun going down this rabbit hole, revealing one surprise after another. As one of my earlier pieces, I’m sure it could do with some polishing, but the core of it is still quite good. I remember that as soon as I finished the story I came up with several ideas for how I might continue the tale into a more complete novel. Perhaps one day I will get to.

29. Phillip the Mouse. A series of children’s stories, each following the adventures of a small, anthropomorphic mouse.
These stories are very dear to me, given that they are drawn directly from the bedtime stories I tell to my son. They are at times very fun, at others very sentimental, and in both halves very sincere. This is one that I might very well expand into a more complete collection of short stories at some point.

28. The Death of Simon Bowie. An old man’s memories come alive, and mix with one another during his final moments of life.
I set myself quite the task with this one, trying to recreate a mind that is fading, firing random neurons in quick succession, losing its grip of reality, and no longer able to tell the difference between fact and imagination. As the author, I can understand it just fine, but I would imagine for most readers it is very easy to get lost in. And in this case, I’m not so sure that that’s a bad thing!

27. The Changed Dog. Two parents try to change out the old family dog, hoping that their son won’t notice the switch.
Perhaps one of the most grim stories I have written. There were a lot of powerful emotions behind this piece, including those of loss and deception. I have no question that a good deal of what inspired this piece was my son was dealing with the loss of two family pets in quick succession, and me fighting down a temptation to distract him from the hard facts of life that he needed to make his peace with.

26. Sculpting Light. A series of surreal images and loosely associated ideas are presented in a stream.
This is probably the most experimental piece that I’ve ever done. It has no characters and no dialogue, but it does have an arc: that of associated ideas building towards a central idea. And I found it a very refreshing thing to write. It’s just plain different, and allowed me to work on writing muscles that I didn’t even know I had. It’s something that I would definitely like to explore again.

25. Tico the Jester. A small girl plays with her toys, who are powerless to help as she approaches a traumatic experience.
So this was a bit of an interesting approach. I wrote a story where the main character and her arc are not explored in the actual text. The toys in this story just don’t understand anything outside of their small, childish world, and I keep the action limited to their naïve perspective. I think it made for a very intriguing take, with plenty of subtext and room for interpretation.

24. The Last Grasshopper. A grasshopper is the last of his generation, observing the onset of winter, and the end of an era.
Where I live there are a great many grasshoppers, and they only survive a single season, leaving their eggs buried in the ground to hatch the next spring. I don’t remember when, but one day I realized that there must be a grasshopper each year that was the last grasshopper of its generation. That idea gripped me very tightly, and I knew I had to write a story to convey all the emotions that came with it. I feel like they all came out here rather well.

23. Cursed. A father lays wounded and dying. In his final moments he tries to convince his morally weak son to not seek vengeance for what has happened.
This is a very charged piece, with several competing emotions surging forward in equal measure. The son is filled with hate for those that have killed his father, and the father with fear for losing his son’s soul. There is no outwitting an opponent in this duel, no making an argument to convince another, and no test of physical strength. It is only a duel between intense love and intense hate, where only one can prevail in the end.

22. The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath. A king discusses with his counselors the best way to execute vengeance on a district that has betrayed him.
All the time in stories we follow the protagonist as discover, in horror, the evil plot of the main villain. The best of these plots are ingenious in their cruelty, a perfectly dark work of art. With this story I wanted to examine the formation of one of these plans from the villain’s perspective. I wanted to show how he would wrestle to come up with a plan that was not only evil, but unforgettably so.

21. Power Suit Racing. A young man in a futuristic society joins a dangerous racing league to escape the pangs of love.
I just had a lot of fun with this one. The world it takes place in was different from any setting I had experimented with before, and it was nice to explore one aspect of it and then another. I thought that this exploration naturally and seamlessly integrated with a compelling arc, too, which intersection is where the most satisfying story experiences are found.

That’s all I have room for today, come on Monday as we’ll make our way towards my most favorite stories!

Update on My Novel: Month 11

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MARCH STATS

Days Writing: 18
New Words: 5244
New Chapters: 1.75

Total Word-count: 38,857
Total Chapters: 10.75

After getting no novel work done in February it felt very refreshing to dive back into it with March. I had intended to write for 22 days of the month, and only ended up with 18, but overall I would say it was a successful return to form.

Based on my estimates I am now one-third of the way through the draft and I very much feel the sense of being in the middle of my work. During the first chapters I was able to feel my work adding up with each day’s efforts, and I anticipate that towards the end I’ll be able to feel the conclusion looming nearer and nearer. But when you sail from one shore to another, there is inevitably that time in between where you perceive little change at all. You might have moved to a different part of open the ocean, but it still just feels like the same, old open ocean.

That’s why writing my story has to be about the journey, and not just the destination. Each chapter needs to be compelling to write for its own sake, no matter where it leaves me in the overall project. Not only will that make for a better writing experience, but a better reading one as well.

For April I hope to write for 22 days again, we’ll see how that turns out. If I do, I would expect to land about halfway through the twelfth chapter. Come back on May 1st to hear if I managed that or not.

An Honest Critique

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On Thursday I posted the second half of my story Harold and Caroline, and then promptly admitted that I had some problems with it. To be clear, there are things about it that I liked, and there were new things I learned from the experience. Also it’s true that most stories have some degree of disappointment for their author, its just that this one was more than usual for me.

The thing is, I think Harold and Caroline could have been better. It wasn’t flawed clear through to its core. In hindsight I have found specific things that if I had done differently I would have been more satisfied with the work. Let’s take a look at those.

No Sideplots)

The main problem with the story is that it establishes its central conflict with the very first scene: Harold and Caroline do not get along, but it never evolves on that idea until the very end. Basically it is a series of disconnected sequences that only serve to express that same initial tension over and over until the final scene brings a moment of reconciliation. Because of the lack of development or escalation in the body of the story, I felt that conclusion felt particularly limp. Sure, Harold is donating his kidney to Caroline’s son, but I just don’t care very much.

Which was quite a letdown for me, because I was quite excited at the initial idea for this story. Basically I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be interesting if two office workers hated each other, but were anonymously doing one another a great service? On the surface that sounded great, it had shades of both Shop Around the Corner and The Gift of the Magi, each of which are wonderfully satisfying tales in their own right.

But after seizing on that premise, I simple couldn’t find the right narrative thrust to carry us from the initiating scene to the surprise conclusion. Every story needs some form of a forward momentum to carry the reader from one end to the other, but I couldn’t figure it out for this one. Harold and Caroline has a beginning and an ending, but absolutely no middle.

I previously mentioned the film Shop Around the Corner. It was remade more recently as You’ve Got Mail, and both versions are quite good. In each interpretation we have a man and a woman who are writing to each other under assumed names. These two also happen to be interacting in real life on a daily basis. While through their written correspondence they are falling in love with each other, their face-to-face relationship is filled only with revulsion. Of course they eventually find out one another’s true identity, feel the whiplash from that, and then resolve their conflicting feelings for each other.

Why that story maintains interest from start to finish, though, is because their real-life interaction is based off of a store that is of mutual interest, one that is tottering on the edge of collapse. The store is made up of a colorful cast of characters, which provide a constant stream of drama for the two protagonists to get enmeshed with. Each side-plot is amusing in its own right, but also provides a new backdrop for the dueling lovers to continuously mount the stakes against one another.

In Harold and Caroline there isn’t a single one of these side-plots for the reader to get lost in. I started to develop something about Caroline’s friends putting together a fundraiser for her, but then I drop that thread almost immediately. It could have been a Trojan Horse that had its own satisfying arc, while smuggling in opportunities for Caroline and Harold to spar on the side.

The Duel)

But that brings up to another problem in my story: Caroline simply won’t spar. Going back to the example of Shop Around the Corner/You’ve Got Mail, both protagonists in that story are hotheaded, full of pride, and dish out their insults rapid-fire. It makes them endlessly entertaining to watch from start to finish. The secret to a successful give-and-take is that it needs to go both ways. Each character needs to be able to take the criticism and return a volley of their own.

Consider how in real life we tend to be drawn to those that exude the strongest personalities. We like to follow individuals who are confident, regardless of whether they are right or not. Drama, therefore, most commonly springs up when two strong personalities are unwilling to yield to one another. The two alphas fight for dominance, and their peers watch with rapt attention to see the outcome.

Whether a story features a battle of wits, a popularity contest, or a tense shootout, this sort of tension will only be sustained if both sides feel evenly matched. The reader must believe that either side might pull ahead. Sadly this wasn’t the case at all with Harold and Caroline.

In my story the male protagonist was pretty sharp-tongued while the woman was a mouse. Their interactions don’t really go anywhere because she never stands up for herself. The criticism only ever flows in one direction. It isn’t a battle of alphas, it’s a leader picking on the runt. As I thought of the beginning and the ending of the story this character-type made the most sense for Caroline, but once again it left me nowhere to go during the middle.

Easier to Critique Than Write)

As I paused to reflect on Harold and Caroline these two flaws were the ones that stood out to me the most. Either would be sufficient to doom the story on its own, let alone when combined together. But if I’m able to pick out these flaws, why did they ever manage to get in the story in the first place?

I think there’s an important lesson here: that it is always easier to critique a story than to write one. It is easier to say that the story needs to have more sideplots than to actually craft intelligent and meaningful arcs. I can say “Caroline should be a stronger character” in only six words, actually giving her a distinct and powerful personality takes many more.

Really, though, it is a blessing that we have powers of analysis stronger than our power of creativity. It means we will always know the path to improvement, the next steps necessary to elevate our work. I might not have written Harold and Caroline very well, but I do know what I need to write the next story better.

And speaking of next stories I’ve decided that I’m going to a do-over. My original idea was to write a story where a character despises another, but then comes to see him in a fairer light. Later this week I will post my new interpretation of that theme. In will be an all-new character with an all-new setting, but it is going to borrow heavily from the lessons we’ve discussed here today. Hopefully it will be a lot more successful as a result! Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.