Before I get started, I want to make a request/invitation. This is my tenth stories review and the comments have been disappointingly meager. I urge everyone out there, readers and especially the authors, to comment on my comments.
Ordinarily it is a good idea for an author to decline comment on reviews, especially negative ones from critics. But I'm not a critic, I'm a reviewer. The difference? A critic will beat you to death and enjoy it. A reviewer will beat you into a temporary coma and sincerely regret it afterwards.
As N.K. Wagner noted in a recent interview with Duotrope, Page and Spine tries to foster emerging writers. These reviews are a part of that. Every time (at least I hope it's every time) I offer a criticism, I supply or imply a remedy, much like I do in my review of Baptism below.
So please, feel free to offer me feedback. I can use it as much as anyone. Tell me if I hit the mark and my observations were helpful, or if you think I'm full of Shiitake mushrooms. And now, awaaaay we go...
I like the title of Benjamin Thomas's story, We All Fall Down. After reading the story, the title inspires the mental picture of chess pieces falling down, but also people doing likewise.
A fallen chess piece cannot rise by itself, and so very often people also need a hand to rise again. Is Rob offering his help to Carl with the big problem? Is he going to try to convince him, through the metaphor of chess, that he should not give up? Or is he simply going to teach his brother to play better and go out "on top?"
My college creative writing teacher would have dubbed this a vignette rather than a real story. But I like it anyway.
Although it seems there will be a second game, both Carl and the chess game were the first inspiration for the title to this month's review.
I was not impressed with Enduring the Waking World by Brenda Gornick. The writing itself was fine, but I found the story to be unoriginal. It combines a very old theme—a child living in the fantasy world of books—with a dreary stereotypical lower-class family life of fighting and uncaring parents. There was one good touch—sort of a subjective bonus. How many assumed that the broken glass was from a bottle of booze?
Please Feed Me, Mon Cherie by Sarah Etgen-Baker was ...interesting. I hated this story! It made me feel stupid and I seldom need any help with that.
Who or what is the narrator? It/she/he wants to be fed. Fed what? More clothes? Attention? Or is this a little closet of horrors, where visitors disappear without a trace? No, I don't really think that, but the repeated mandate to "Feed me" did remind me of The Little Shop of Horrors.
The first time through I thought perhaps the narrator was her reflection on a mirror on the inside of the closet door. Or perhaps just her imagination speaking to herself. But then Mlle Amelie addresses the narrator as "monsieur" after twice calling him(?) "mon ami." And then the narrator gives us, "Plus the metallic embellishments tell me that you’re unique, and I’ll be the talk of the town for sure!” So, the narrator will be seen by the town?
The issue is further confused when the genteel commentary and use of French honorifics is suddenly discarded for modern American street lingo: “I know this is gonna sound harsh, but it’s just an old dress, right? Keep the memories, not the clothes.”
I'm so confused.
Sarah, please comment and tell me who or what is speaking to us. Perhaps the editors will give you a spot in The Reading Lamp for you to explain it in detail to everyone...unless I'm the only one who didn't get it. Or perhaps it's a ladies' thing?
But it seems to me that the mademoiselle is the only real person in this story, and at the end she is clearly done (at least temporarily) with the entity that has been speaking to itself for our benefit.
Drinking Rooms by Kevin Richard White is the one story that does not support the review title. You can't win 'em all.
I've almost been there. In college we had a group that would hit the bars regularly, and we'd have fun. We'd drink and sing and tell stories, but we were never the expansive boisterous and loud group that White portrays. And I was the only wannabe writer in the group, so I guess I wasn't really there. Not exactly. But I can certainly relate to the mood of this band of brothers.
There are sixteen paragraphs in this work, and six of them start with "We drank." I got the theme. Then the conclusion deflects the attention from the drinking to the author's narration and the dreams, but his memories—nostalgic memories—are about the drinking. And the love. If he doesn't mention it, we probably won't realize it. But he loved those times and that band of brothers he drank with. That is why the nostalgia.
Like We All Fall Down, this is not technically a story. There is no plot, no problem to solve, no character development, not even a specific setting. It is a scrap of memoir; as such, it works.
As I was writing this I was reminded of the lyrics from the 1968 Mary Hopkins recording, "Those Were the Days," and so I looked up all the lyrics. I have to wonder if this fictional(?) journey into nostalgia was inspired by that song. This whole piece could be viewed as a prosaic interpretation of those lyrics. That's not a criticism. But those of you that have never heard that song, you should check out the lyrics, and the tune. Then a quick look-up on Wikipedia will reveal the interesting history of that recording.
Possessed of a Fierce Violence by Alexis A. Hunter is a story about a lady with some serious issues. But not so much as the men she encounters.
This is a story that really pushed the title of this review to the forefront. She is one, and they are done.
It says in the brief biographical note that Ms Hunter likes writing dark fiction. This is an excellent example. It is dark in all its details.
This is a well-written story. I do have one quibble. The second encounter is only barely believable. She breaks his hand by slamming her thighs together? Maybe, if she catches the hand just right between the medial condyles of the femur (the knobby bones on the insides of the knees). But then she is able to dislocate or break his fingers without him doing anything? Doesn't he have another hand? I'm sorry; I'm totally against a man committing violence on a woman, but in a situation of self-defense, I would think a man would punch her in the head.
On the other hand, the last episode is done very well. I can just see the tip of the ball point pen stabbing into his throat, leaving tell-tale marks of blue ink next to the wounds, and the same for the wounds on his hands. What young man would expect such an attack from an old woman?
The Baptism by M.J. Cleghorn doesn't really support the review title, but it doesn't necessarily contradict it either.
Big Ed is one and Oscar is one, and at the end one of them is finished, as is a tradition of fifty years.
There is little to criticize here, but I did find two little things, one with the writing and one with the story. The writing first: "The fleet had not returned and the fishermen’s wives began to gather at Zenia's— big Ed’s wife— house."
This is really awkward wording. It would be much smoother to use two sentences for this information. One possibility: "...the fishermen's wives began to gather at Zenia's house. Zenia was Big Ed's wife and her house was the preferred gathering place at times like this."
As far as the story is concerned, Big Ed has been living and experiencing weather there for over forty years. It seems barely credible that the wind and slippery conditions would surprise him. Falling and breaking his leg is an important story part, but the surprise factor is not only unnecessary, it subtracts from the genuineness of the story.
The broken leg shows the stoic stubbornness of Big Ed and, by connection, the entire village population. His devotion to his friend, Oscar, is that important, and no one even considers trying to dissuade him from taking the baby to the baptism where Oscar, at least in spirit, can still fulfill his role as godfather.
A Misfortune of Obtuse Defiance by Soren James is a story of Forrest Gump with bad luck instead of good.
As Forrest said, "Being a idiot is no box of chocolates." That's from the book. And Forrest wasn't a runner, either. He was a big hulking man—more like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men." Despite that, much of the movie was true to the book in tone and attitude if not in detail.
This story represents what might have happened to Forrest under less fortunate circumstances. The people that possess average or above average intelligence can get along pretty well in society. They tend to gravitate to their level of competence and do all right. Those having acutely sub-normal intelligence are usually provided for by the state. Little is expected of them, professional educators and administrators do their best to find places for them where they can fit in and be productive.
But that in-between group, like Forrest Gump, like the narrator here, they tend to be expected to do more and better than they actually can, and then inspire criticism and anger from others because those other "normal" people can't or won't understand that the person simply does not understand.
The author has done an excellent job with the first person narration here. It allows us to see and sympathize with the thoughts and feelings of the nameless storyteller. That's a nice touch too. There are opportunities in the story for him to reveal his name, but he doesn't do that. This poor slow unfortunate doesn't really need a name. What would he do with one? So for the reader he is simply this stupid man of indeterminate age that is prone to accidents because of his failure to understand.
That previous paragraph was written before I examined, for the third time, that last sentence. Then, my perception changed.
This is a perfect example of how a single comma can alter the meaning of a sentence...and perhaps an entire story. That last sentence reads: "So stupid people give me money to go away."
Now, consider if it was written like this: "So stupid, people give me money to go away."
The second option actually fits the rest of the story. He continues to bemoan his stupidity. But that's not what the author wrote! He wrote it with no comma, meaning clearly that the people that give him money to go away are stupid. Suddenly he regards others as stupid, which undermines the sincerity of his self-evaluation.
Were the deaths of his brother and father really accidents? Or is this story more like the testimony in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart?" Is the witness self-deluded, or is he trying to deceive us?
Or perhaps the lack of a comma at a critical place means nothing at all, and it means what it means to each reader, depending on their own perceptions.
So, with the exception of Drinking Rooms, all these October stories feature a person (or entity) that is very much alone, at least for a while, and an air of finality.
Maybe that thought is a little spooky...perfect for the month of Halloween.
What is funny about being in traffic where the speed limit signs mock you because you are sitting stock still? Well, surprisingly even here, or especially here, you might see evidence of someone who has a funny bone. I had to laugh when I saw the guy in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane with a skeleton as his passenger. What did he say when the police pulled him over?
"Hello, Officer meet my wife Anna Rexia. Her brother is Napoleon Boney Part. You know every family has a skeleton in the closet except mine because she is with me. We feel that a skeleton needs to get out occasionally."
My son-in-law is a police officer and the other day he pulled a woman over. The name on the license was Abcde. He asked if she could pronounce that for him. It's Ab-said-ee. What did her parents name her sister? Lmnop? She probably has a brother Qrstu. I do not really know why this seems weird when my best friend's name is Dee. I know a lady at church called Bea. We all know someone called A.J. or B.J or C.J. Maybe it's the larger grouping of letters I am struggling with. My husband has a photo of a tomb stone that reads, 'One of the Five F's.' Every boy was named F and another letter. I think the parents needed to make a greater ef-fort don't you?
Should we try harder with naming our children? I heard about the couple who tried for fifteen years to have a kid. Finally they had a beautiful little girl who they named Ophelia. It is a lovely name but their surname was Bottom. Put that together.
And I know a dear lady whose name was Ima but she married a Mr. Pig. I know a Robin Hood and a Leaf Green. Yes, it's funny but the child has to wear it.
My mother liked fancy names. Her dad was Shirley Archibald Clarence. I had an uncle Napoleon Ralph. And my brother Edward, my father Edward and my grandfather Edward had dilemmas at the mailbox because they all lived at the same address. My other brother was named for the doctor who delivered him. I am not sure my brother loved Dr. Lambert. I was thinking about that tradition but my doctor was Lanagasunderum Ganapathy.
My husband liked hippy names like Sky, Storm, Summer, Spring. Brooke was the only natural phenomenon I could agree on. However I now have the scream-it-fifteen-times-as-if-you-are-at-the-ballfield rule. After screaming "Brooke, Brooke, Brooke" as she ran to make a home run in softball, I leapt up and exclaimed, "Yes, I laid an egg!"
My son is expecting a baby boy any day. He loves the name Ralph. Scream it, son. Scream it fifteen times and let a wiser person prevail. He has a girl's name picked out too. It's Amanda Lynn. “Aw,” you might say. “What is wrong with that?” Nothing unless your surname is Harp.
If real names are this problematic how much better should we creatives be in choosing names for our characters? Must they reflect the nature of our people? Could Anna Rexic be extremely obese to change it up? Is Napoleon B. Part tall and angular but always with one hand in his shirt? Should Abcde, our friend Ab-said-dee have the last name Letterman and be an appalling speller? Or should their names describe them exactly?
Would I have read The Hobbit if Bilbo had been called a Fred? I don't think I would have picked up a book called The Freds. What if Snow White was just Beige? Take care writers out there, because our characters’ names matter.
Having recently splurged rather more than I should have on purchasing a tablet (the electronic, not the medical kind) I tinkered with the thing, trying to determine what use I could best make of this gadget for our times. I played a few games, loaded up various apps, smirked at my own cleverness at making text and photos change their orientation, even logged in to a writing site and tried, not terribly successfully, to write reviews on it.
Eventually I tried it as an e-reader. The first free 'book' I came across was Charles Dickens' 'David Copperfield.' Remembering that my only previous encounter with this classic novel was in comic-book format many years ago, I downloaded it and plunged in. Almost immediately I was swept away by the power of Dickens' words, the unforgettable characters, the vivid description of people, places and events and the interweaving story lines as well as the remarkable humour that pervades the book.
As I read, I couldn't help marvelling at the skill of the author in using what I shall term 'the naïve narrator.' The story is told through the eyes of David Copperfield himself. Although he is a mostly perceptive and honest chronicler of what he observes, his youth, his rather simple nature and his lack of experience of the world, means that he frequently fails to appreciate the subtleties and complexities of the events unfolding around him.
One simple example will suffice for now. As a young boy, David sometimes travels on the cart of the bluff carrier, Barkis. In conversation, Barkis enquires about the cooking skills of the servant, Peggotty and asks David to relay the message, 'Barkis is willing.' Although David gladly carries out this go-between errand, he doesn't realise the man's true intentions and is mystified by the cryptic nature of the message.
The true value of this narrative technique is that it provides a steady stream of dramatic irony. The reader, especially one skilled at reading between the lines, understands motives and feelings much more clearly than the youthful narrator. This enhances both the drama and the humour of many situations such as when a 'helpful' waiter manages to scoff vast quantities of David's food and unwittingly earn him a reputation as a gargantuan eater.
As I read on and appreciated more and more Dickens' skill in using the naive narrator, my mind turned to another novel published just over 100 years later which employs the same method. Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is narrated by the young 'Scout' Finch, who tells a tale of life in small-town Alabama in the 1930s, involving bigotry and racial division.
Like David, Scout faithfully recounts what she sees and hears, often without full understanding of the context, most spectacularly when she blunders into a tense stand-off between her father and a lynch mob. Fortunately the mob is brought back to sanity by her innocent questions.
David Copperfield's own lack of awareness has a more serious consequence, leaving the more knowing reader aghast. The dunderhead only goes and marries the wrong girl! Apparently blind to the virtues of the patient and sensible Agnes, whom he regards as his best friend, David weds the flighty and impractical Dora.
Meanwhile, back in Maycomb, Scout's innocence highlights the lockstep racial prejudice of a small town jury and illuminates the life lesson that courage means more than physical prowess on a football field. Above all, she, like the reader, discovers the novel's central truth. There is value in kindness and respect and that even the fringe-dwellers of society are capable of upholding those values.
There are vast differences between the 19th Century novel and the 20th century one. Dickens revels in his own circumlocution, piling on the humour and the irony in confident, florid strokes, often pointing up the excesses and silliness of the class-based society of his time. Lee paints more from life, with a gentler humour that focuses on southern small-town doings. Scout is more an observer, mostly providing sideline commentary on unfolding events over a period of three years, while David is more directly involved in the intricate machinations of the plot and the story covers his life from before birth to adulthood. Yet each is skilfully used by the respective author to draw out important messages.
We, as authors, can learn much from these classic novels in terms of character creation, plot management and style. Perhaps most of all, we can appreciate the delicate art of using the naive narrator.
I can't count the number of times I have been encouraged to 'engage the reader.' It's one of those cultured pearls of wisdom that's passed around Writing Groups so often it has lost all relevant meaning . . . worn so shiny it's actually become dull. So let's churn up the waters, huh?
I don't want to engage my reader, or date my reader, or woo my reader's mother, either.
I write to play with my reader. That's right. Cat and mouse. I want to lead my reader on a breathless chase. I want to tag my readers 'It' on the first page, then dart and dance around just beyond arm's reach. I want to taunt and tantalize . . . while always staying one step ahead. You can engage your readers if you want to, but I'd rather enrage them. Tease them. With cunning maneuvers. Sharp turns. Unexpected diversions. We're the writers, right? We set the terms of engagement.
And I want my readers to know they're being toyed with. I want to keep them alert and wary . . . even uncomfortable. Most of all, I don't want them falling asleep. Not on my watch. A book on a nightstand has all the literary value of a coaster on a coffee table. Try arguing with that!
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the use of unnecessary or arcane plot gymnastics, or cheap parlor tricks, or page after page of nail-bitten cliff hangers. No. I'm just talking about staying on your toes, writers. Yeah. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Be fleet, Ali. Be nimble, Jack. Be quick. And don't be afraid to jump over a candlestick, either. Veer. Juke. Jive. Use all your skills to tease your readers into flipping them flippin' pages. We're not in the snooze business, are we? When we do it right, we're in the sleep deprivation business. And if you get lazy, even for an instant, your reader will get sleepy. So lift that bale. Turn that phrase. Force them peepers to stay propped open. If you must 'engage' your readers, engage them in a fevered chase to find out what happens next, and in what unexpected way you're going to phrase it. Be the fox, and the hounds will chase.
People, we writers are the anti-HBO. We represent the cranial-multiplex. The problem is, we write words that don't move--so we damned well better write moving words. Ah, you're getting it now. Moving. You have to keep things moving. And not just your plot. Not just your pace, either. You need to move your readers. Make them chase you across the pages. Sometimes that means you have to let them get close. Tantalizingly close. Throw the dogs a bone, eh? Convince them they've got you treed. Then pull a nifty switch, and leave them baying at the moon. They'll hate you for it. But they'll give you credit, too. And they won't give up. They can't give up. They're invested now. It's personal now. Leave a clear trail. Because they've earned it. And they will follow you.
Okay, by now you know I'm just playing with semantics. You've figured out I've just used different words for 'engage your reader'. You're pretty slick, aren't you? But I got you to chase me, right?
Remember those wondrous questions your high school English teacher wrote on the blackboard? Who? Where? How? Why? When?
For at least one semester, I allowed those questions to dominate my essays, and then without ever realizing the impact of a single punctuation mark, the questions began to ooze into my everyday world. And then for a while, they came back to me like a boomerang when I walked into the world of fiction.
The basic rules don’t change when we create a fantasy. I got caught up in creating a mood and setting, so much so that my writing received reviews that waxed on about my lyrical sentences, comparing it to poetic expression. I was a success right? I moved readers—didn’t I? Wrong.
Without a plot, a beginning, middle and ending, it doesn’t matter how witty or charming my characters were. I had nothing to say, and offered absolutely no entertainment value to readers.
The components of a story encompass the essential questions. In order to capture one’s quarry, a writer needs to bait his hook, create something very early to attract the fish and get him interested. Once the reader begins to pay attention, a writer needs to make her feel safe. Introducing descriptive language to flush out the scene, the character and the plot make up the middle of a story.
Ah, the essential plot. During the ambling walk a writer traipses through during the middle of the story, he must heighten the reader’s tension, add drama to the crisis if it was introduced at the beginning, or clarify the reason the story was written in the first place.
Without crisis, a writer’s output is just a vignette or a scene. And finally, a writer’s obligation to complete the story is to allow the reader a reaction to her invested time. It does not need to be a happy ending, although good-news stories do far better in the marketplace, but a resolution must take place in order to complete the silent contract between writer and reader.
The juggling act of drawing all the components into a story is an innate talent with some writers, but even those on a learning curve need to be aware of reader expectations. As writers, we have an addictive quality to our craft, but we can’t survive without readers, and that requires earning their respect by giving them what they need and want.
Writer Jenny Harp is a New Zealander grandmother who lives in the United States with her husband and loves God, life and family.