The May 1st story Hand in Clay by Jon Beight short-changes itself. Obviously it is very much like April's A Burial, but much shorter. Too much shorter. This story deserves more.
It would add a lot to know the physical details of Angelo's world. Does he live in the inner city, surrounded by tenements and concrete? Or perhaps a slum, with rickety wooden houses in need of paint and repair, fronted by weedy patches of neglected lawn? Or maybe he lives in an upscale suburban home?
Twice Angelo's imagination takes him over a "dark ocean." Why that particular image? Why not mountains? And at the end, he yearns for a beautiful green valley. Does the green glaze on the clay inspire this vision? Or is it something he has seen only in pictures?
Why do his parents fight? In A Burial, we know why Tanner's parents are at odds, but here there is no reason.
While Mr. Beight may not have been going for the length and depth of A Burial, he has presented us with a small plate of plain spaghetti, but denied us the sauce and the seasoning. An additional one or two hundred words would have enhanced the taste.
Staked Revenge by Nick Nafpliotis has the opposite problem and on a much bigger scale. The story here is too small for the amount he has written.
The first three paragraphs are okay. They could be shorter and more dynamic, but they establish the setting, the character, and the problem.
The vision of Kaliser hanging upside down reminded me at once of Luke Skywalker hanging upside down in the ice cave on Hoth and I wondered if some creature was going to show up with the intentions of eating him. I wasn't too far off.
The last part, starting with "His partner for this incursion..." is all right, too, except that he never details how Kaliser gets his feet free so he can attack Ward. Plus, I found it too convenient that Ward didn't notice Kaliser's efforts to free his feet and then turned around at just the right instant. But, again, that's not too bad and the ending is satisfactory.
The problem is, that leaves over nine hundred words of "not good at all." I'm a little surprised the editors accepted this story in its present form.
The author wants to tell us the backstory, and the how and the why. And he does. He tells us. I would guess every writer or potential writer has encountered the dictum: "show, don't tell." Unfortunately, Mr. Nafpliotis uses those nine hundred words to tell, not show.
Most of that information is unnecessary. We don't need to know the various forms of the irradiated creatures, since none of the action involves them. We don't need to know the number of years; we don't even need to know more than a quick summary of the why: homeless people, college students, and then some EPA scientists had been kidnapped and fed to the irradiated wildlife in the Outer Lands. The sentence explaining that the EPA were the only ones with protective suits (which seemed pretty far-fetched, but necessary to the plot) was about the only explanatory note needed regarding his situation. That nine hundred words of tell could have reduced to one hundred or maybe two hundred at the most.
Putting the information in some action would have been even better. Show us the problem. One device would have been to start the story with the film of people running from the four-legged tentacled whale-like creature. Have the camera zoom in on their faces, let us watch as the creature wins the race and devours a person or two. Then go to Kaliser waking up. This is a story about struggle. The backstory reduces the action movie to a documentary...and a dull documentary at that.
Dr. Temple's Eternal Cure by Erin Popelka reminded me of Simon and Garfunkle's Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine. Yes, I'm that old. The last half of the first verse goes,
We'll eliminate your pain, We can neutralize your brain.
You'll feel just fine, Now, Buy a big, bright, green, pleasure machine.
Stories told in present tense and second person are difficult to write well. The presentation is bound to be awkward, and this one is no exception. Presenting a question and then having to repeat the answer for the sake of the reader is just so forced. It can work for humor—Bob Newhart made a career in stand-up comedy with a prop telephone and answering his own questions—but is really not effective for anything serious. And having the availability of facial expression and tone helps a lot. Those things aren't available in a written story. The biggest flaw of this story (and it's not all that big) is that it is unclear if the author is trying for humor or serious commentary.
But, for a story with the built-in handicaps of form this one has, it's not bad.
I found I Got Up in Morning and I Got Myself a Beer by Christopher Horton to be disappointing. He does a pretty fair job associating memory with smell (Cat cum? Well, why not?), flashing back to a six-year-old scaring himself with worry. That part was good. This is literary fiction and presenting disagreeable, sad, and even disgusting images is as legitimate as presenting images that bring pleasure or uplift.
There are two things I object to. One, he tells us, "And then, of course, I moved in at night cuz that’s what my kind does." But what is his kind? Why does he have a new place to live? What happened at the old place? This is information not absolutely necessary, but he teases us with bits of information and then doesn't follow through. Better not to mention that he's "that kind."
But my biggest criticism is that his attempt to give his character picturesque speech is done half-way. He's totally inconsistent with the man's vernacular. For example, he writes that "Wintuh's comin'." But in the very next line it's "in the winter, it ain't that hot in the heat of the day."
Notice, too the "ain't." But in the first paragraph he uses "isn't." He is consistent with "cuz", and "kinda," but in the above example he uses "comin'." He doesn't chop the "g" off anywhere else. If the "Wintuh's comin'" is meant to be an imitation of an acquaintance's speech pattern, he should tell us that.
If he wants his character to speak with specific slang, then he should be consistent all the way through rather than just here and there. It subtracts from the believability of the character. He should read a few of Lee Allen Hill's stories to get a better idea of how to handle non-standard dialect.
I've been pretty critical of the stories so far, and it is time for Daffodil by Giulietta M. Spudich to take its whipping.
Except...I have nothing critical to write. It's a good story told well. Even the poetry is pretty good.
Cathy likes Tom mostly because he's good looking. But he wants someone that "gets" him and that is more important than being liked or even being polite. It works out well for everybody; there is no "bad guy or "good guy."
I just reminded myself of the song We Just Disagree by Jim Krueger, sung by Dave Mason:
So let's leave it alone 'cause we can't see eye to eye
There ain't no good guy, there ain't no bad guy
There's only you and me and we just disagree.
The images are done very well: "Natasha loomed over Tom as he signed copy after copy of ‘Shells in the Night”. Her long, dark hair swept down her thin, pale face. A crowd of vampire girls gathered nearby, dressed in black with made-up white faces and red lips." And later, "Natasha hung behind him like a purple shadow."
Cathy's appearance and personality is contrasted so well with just "In her fuzzy robe and pink slippers, she lay on their soft, cream-colored leather couch."
Tom and Cathy are clearly much too different to make each other happy, yet they do manage to touch each other in a good way. Very well done.
Dearly Departed by N.J. Crosskey started out with promise: "The river bounced moonlight like a babe upon its knee." What a wonderful simile! Unfortunately, the first one was the last one. That, however, is my only criticism. It is a clever story, told well.
It reminded me at once of stories written by another British author, H.H. Munro who also published under the pen name Saki. For any who aren't familiar with his stories, I recommend they sample a few, like "Laura" (the story that first popped into my mind as I read this one) and "The Storyteller." Most (if not all) of Saki's stories can be found here: http://americanliterature.com/author/hh-munro-saki/bio-books-stories
After reading a few I'm sure you'll see why Dearly Departed reminded me of those. N.J. Crosskey may have a bright future as a storyteller herself.
Faulty Bridge by Burt Baum starts out like Dearly Departed, with a good simile. Unlike the other story, though, there are more: "His drone is like a narcotic." And soon after, "Maurice springs to his feet again, like a jack-in-the-box gone berserk." Good stuff.
(Big sigh) This is another story about a marriage gone bad, like The Burial last month and Hand in Clay this month. At least here there is only one person angry, while the other is just disappointed. And, fortunately, in this marriage of convenience only there are no children to be neglected or saddened.
I used to play bridge—contract and duplicate—while I was in college. Maurice's attitude is a little over the top, but not that terribly different from inveterate bridge players I have known. They can be as viciously competitive as players of any athletic endeavors—maybe more, since they don't have the release of physical effort to vent their frustrations.
Continuing with this month's theme, I was reminded of Robert Heinlein's novel, Farnham's Freehold. By the third page the four main characters are playing contract bridge. During the game, though not the first hand, they must hurry into the fallout shelter because Russian nuclear weapons are on the way. But one of the characters calmly picks up the cards, preserving the four hands, and insists on continuing the game after they are all settled in the shelter. They were playing for money, and he was a lawyer, so I suppose his actions were understandable.
Positively or negatively, all these stories reminded me of scenes or stories from other sources. Curiously, none reminded me of anything I've written. I wonder if that's good or bad?
I’m looking at it. It’s right here, barely twelve tiny inches from my pointy proboscis, and I’m still not believing it.
“What’s here?” you ask.
Well, let me polish my cheaters while I tell you.
What has me flummoxed is another submission that’s never seen the inside of a spelling or grammar correction program. What’s with you guys? You take the time to write something original, compete with other writers for publication and a little money, and you don’t bother to check spelling and punctuation? Come on, folks! Have you no pride in your work? No self-respect? No shame?
You do realize the probability of whether or not your work is accepted for publication is directly proportional to the amount of effective effort you put into the mechanical aspects of your writing, don’t you? That literary slovenliness is a virtual guarantee of failure? Of course you don’t. Otherwise, you wouldn’t waste your time cluttering P&S’s inbox with first drafts!
You know the Holy Trinity: celery, onions and carrots with lots of butter … . (No, wait a minute. That’s French cooking.)
Ahem! … I mean the Holy Trinity of WRITING: spelling, punctuation and grammar. (Yes, that’s it.) There’s no excuse, in this age of autocorrect, to confuse a comma with a semi-colon, use “that” in place of “which” or misspell any of the six synonyms of the word you meant to use.
Now. If we can all agree to employ that little feature in our word processing programs, we can pay more attention to eliminating passive voice, bland verbs, clichés, and plots that just don’t work.
Thank you for your kind attention. You may return to your writing now.
If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve had the experience of stumbling across something you’ve created and put away. Maybe you were letting it rest and got distracted. Maybe you were tidying your desk because your mother-in-law was coming for a visit and she’d never understand the chaos that surrounds creativity. Maybe it just became buried and forgotten in the ambient desktop clutter. Whatever the reason, weeks, months, even years later, you’re cleaning out a drawer or going through a Matterhorn of memorabilia with an eye to reducing the risk of an avalanche … and there it is.
You stop and read because that’s what writers do.
“I can’t believe I wrote that!” plunges down from your stunned brain and shoots out your mouth like it’s riding The Fifty Foot Waterslide of Death. The only reason you know this piece is yours is because that’s irrefutably your handwriting.
Whether your exclamation sings with pride or mutters with embarrassment, you’ve crossed a line…broken a barrier. For that brief moment you’ve become an editor. You’ve evaluated a piece of writing and found it awesome, or awful.
But how awesome? How awful? Can it be improved—rescued, even?
That’s what an editor does. We evaluate work and make suggestions for improvement, where applicable. If you’ve ever received editorial suggestions, you’ll note that publication is contingent upon making those changes.
You always have the choice to stick to your guns. You may be able to make a good argument as to why “your way” is better. If maintaining the original form is critical to the integrity of your story/poem, by all means, point it out. Editors make mistakes. But, in most cases, we know what we’re talking about. Is refusing to make a minor change worth having your work rejected?
Mark Twain advised, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Good advice. But in practical terms, it’s not truth that sabotages most writing. It’s the author’s ego.
Here in the southeastern United States, spurred by spectacular spring blossoms and a too-long winter, we’ve been planting flower and vegetable seeds indoors since early April. Some have sprouted and developed their first true leaves. Others have died of too much or too little water. And, of course, there are those that never showed any signs of life and have been replaced by still other seeds in an effort to fill vacancies in our greening landscape.
My writing process is much the same as seed-sowing. I find it obnoxious when a writer walks around with a notebook or cell phone recording this description or that turn of phrase. It may work for them, but I think it’s like blowing one’s nose. It’s best done in private. Besides, I figure, if an idea’s good, I’ll remember it; if I forget, I’ll think of something better. Thus, I save recording activities for my writing sessions. Random ideas fill .doc files on my hard drive.
Some quickly develop into publishable work while others remain unfinished, awaiting additional inspiration. Still more stubbornly stare back from the near-empty screen, daring me to remember why I saved them in the first place.
The first group doesn’t hang around long. It has places to go and people to see. The second group needs revisiting, nurturing with additional thought or maybe a different approach. In this group, words or phrases become paragraphs or stanzas awaiting expansion and resolution. The final group meets the delete key. I’m ruthless here. If an idea truly doesn’t spark an additional something in short order, a fresh idea takes its place.
I revisit my files frequently. Not everything planted there matures at the same pace. Some originally promising thoughts turn toes-up despite (or because of) my concentrated efforts. Others combine into interesting hybrids requiring further encouragement. Still others undergo point mutations and develop in new, unexpected directions.
Eventually, my landscape fills in with interest and color. It satisfies my need to create beauty.
With a lot of luck and hard work, hopefully my “published” file does, too.
The thing I enjoy most about writing poetry is getting a response from readers.
Some, far more knowledgeable than I, make corrections to my form or suggest wording I never would have thought of. Their technical expertise makes me a better poet, and more, a better writer in general. (Yes, I know I ended a sentence with a preposition. So shoot me! - N.K.)
Other readers comment upon the content, the meaning, of my poems. This is a thrill for me—to discover what people take away from my words. Quite often, it’s not what I had in mind at all.
I try to write poems with layers of meaning. There must be a surface story or philosophy to satisfy literal readers, who can see a stream or a leaf as nothing but flowing water or vegetation. There is no deeper meaning for these folks, and they deserve a forthright story or commentary in return for their reading efforts. They keep my poems anchored in reality.
Beneath the surface, however, I manipulate words and symbols to tell the nuanced reader something of myself, my experience or philosophy. Often, to my surprise and delight, I find a panoply of interpretations proposed as my “deeper meaning”. Many of these have nothing to do with what was on my mind as I wrote. Are those interpretations wrong?
Sorry, English teachers. The true meaning of a poem isn’t in “the book”. It isn’t even what the poet had in mind during it’s creation. No, it’s in the heart of each reader.
True, I have something in mind when I choose a metaphor. But that body of symbols is very personal. They are based upon my experiences and interpretations. The same symbols mean something quite different to others because their experiences are different from mine. If I’ve done it right, my metaphors become a mirror for their understanding of life—not mine. I’ve made a connection, built a bridge. It matters not at all whether it’s a suspension bridge or a simple stone arch, as long as the reader and I can meet in the middle.
So what does a poem mean?
Whatever you want it to. (There's that pesky preposition again!- N.K.)
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.