Sneaking into their old home was risky. They avoided the street with its eyes of sewers and windows. Kathy crawled behind Jason beneath the brambles that roofed the gulley separating the forest from their yard. Here a stream once flowed cool and fragrant with blossom boats of honeysuckle and magnolia, but it was merely a rank trickle over sucking mud now, smelling of rot and rusting slag. Stagnant pools glistened with rainbow sheens of oil like dead fish scales. Kathy had caught tadpoles here to delight Ian not so long ago. He’d totter on doughboy legs, stamp his feet, and laugh when water splashed between his toes.
Pain scored Kathy’s cheek and she stifled a curse. Inch long thorns clawed at her eyes and snagged her jacket. The old coat had seen better days. So had she. ----------------------- The Witch's Curse (14K), is my October tale, the first of three novelettes I hope to complete first drafts before the end of the year. One per month. This one is a post-apocalyptic Appalachian psychological-horror-fantasy tale.
I've previously written about the transformational power of love (Erev Tov). For this tale, I wanted to consider the transformational power of fear.
Hmm, not into post-apocalyptic Appalachian psychological-horror-fantasy tales but I did read the first 13 lines last night.
Nice start, The "Here a stream" sentence is way too long I think. Good descriptive phrases though. Keep them if yo do break up the sentence.
Might make the two sentences about Ian more tighter. Not sure if you really need to but it seems like shorter the better.
Other than these criticisms I believe you will draw the reader in with what you have. It's the type that reaches out and grabs someone. Or pretty close to that anyway.
I said I wasn't into that type of book but I know of one anthology that wants Appalachian stories and another that wants Post-apocalyptic stories. If they are both still open.
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I agree with LDWriter2 that the description of the stream is overly long. Perhaps:
A stream once flowed, cool and fragrant, with blossom boats of honeysuckle and magnolia. Now it was merely a rank trickle over sucking mud, smelling of rot and rusting slag. Stagnant pools glistened with rainbow sheens of oil like dead fish scales.
Denevius, Thank you very much. You should have received the story yesterday morning.
L.D. and Phil, Thank you, and a fine suggestion, Phil. I tend to have a very cinematic vision of my stories, what Beneath Ceaseless Skies Publisher and Editor in Chief Scott Andrews describes, in my most recent rejection, as an "(enjoyable) vividness and sense of detail".
I do struggle in paring this down to the essential elements for every scene--in terms of the physical as well as emotional setting I wish to establish. In this case, splitting the sentence as you suggest I believes preserves both, and the passage retains the nervous reverie of its female protagonist.
L.D., Another challenge for me is coalescing into one sentence what type of tale this is. While I envision the setting as Appalachia (possibly West Virginia or North Carolina), the word "Appalachia" never appears in the tale.
While my female protagonist undergoes a psychological transformation in response to the external and personal terrors and fears she faces, the grimms (monsters) are quite real: witch, lich, redcap, and wolfman. [note: I wanted to include a hodag, another great beastie of north american folklore, but couldn't justify it. Her encounter with the redcap was sufficient for her transformational journey.]
And "yes", if you have suggestions for any anthology that might be interested in such a tale as this, please inform me. The story's length and being cross-genre (and even >gasp< literary) precludes it from any magazine publisher I am aware of.
Again, thank you all for giving the story or these opening 13 a perusal and sharing your very constructive comments.
Come and sit by the fire. Here, I'll make room. Let us listen to the wisdom of the old fathers and mothers. The strength may have left their limbs, but their words are steel and undefeatable: "Be wary of preconceptions."
I abhor labels. People have always asked me: "What are you? Democrat? Republican? Where are you from? Where'd you go to school? What do you want to be? What do you do for a living? What's your religion?" They have sought to fit me in their preconceived cubby holes--to label me instead of getting to know me. I've been guilty of this myself, and always to my detriment. For example,when I was young, I chided my best friend for wasting his time reading a book labelled "A Modern Fairy Tale." The book was The Hobbit. I therefore did not discover its wonders and the door it opened for me to fantasy literature until two years later.
Labeling encourages lazy thinking, mistakes, and lost opportunities. I've done my best to avoid this ever since and I've thus enjoyed new wonders and experiences (and friends) as they've presented themselves.
Yet people, myself included, have preferences and only so much time to indulge ourselves. I can appreciate why as a species we cater to our likes, and why in the writing business we have labelled genres for stories. We're happy (and comfortable) with what we've enjoyed before, but tend to shy away from "apples" if the first one we bit into contained half a worm.
All of which is my rambling way (after 7 days working straight and still in a "horrible" weekend of call) to suggest I likely should not have used the descriptive "horror" for this tale because of how the word has such strong associations for many people.
Yet all stories have their monsters to be overcome. This has always been true (read Joseph Cambell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces).
Perhaps my striving to avoid labels makes it so difficult for me to write for any specific genre, ot target my stories for a particular market. And another reason why they do not sell.
I just write.
Perhaps I should simply characterize The Witch's Curse as "a story of personal transformation"...
I was confused by the opening line, because the "their" and "they" are pretty ambiguous. My first thought, with the title to guide me, was that these as-yet-unknown characters were sneaking into someone else's old house--even the stereotypical "haunted/witch's" spooky house at the end of the street, as featured in so many youth stories. Which assumption may have spoiled the thoughtful eeriness of the rest of the scene. And the structure of "Here a stream once flowed . . ." also took an extra moment to parse, because you describe it so fully how it *used* to be, before I fully grasp the "used to" part . . . perhaps because it's the first description you have, so I'm not yet aware of what we're contrasting it against (until the second half of the sentence)--makes it temporarily hard to picture.
Beyond that, as always, your prose is very rhythmic and lyrical, which certainly has a nice feel. Though I would agree with the comments so far that breaking up some of the sentences--even if only with more commas or something--might clarify what's going on. In your first 13 of Erev Tov, the unusually long and flowing sentences really worked for the piece, IMO--because it had a more storyteller-around-the-fire, narrative feel. This one looks like it's starting with a more focused, character-centric p.o.v., so it perhaps wants slightly more straightforward prose. Put a tight-focus lens on your cinematic style.
Though I am certainly quite curious why they need to sneak up on this house . . . which I now understand (I think) to be their own?
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Dr. Bob, I have apiece of advice that is worth exactly what you are paying for it: Write what's in your heart and don't worry about genre. Once it's finished, only consider what genre it might be applicable to when you're trying to get it published.
As for labels, we all label people the instant we see them; that's how con-men make a living. They present themselves in a way that labels them as trustworthy. It's a subconscious and instant assesment. Experience tells us that we should re-evaluate what we think of people after a time, but all of us make those snap judgements about the idiot down the hall.
As for horror, it's all in the mind. I've seen horrendous things, but I didn't find them horrifying. An occupational hazzard that gives rise to gallows humour.
One thing to consider as far as markets go: Most magazines have a lead time that can be as long as a year, though probably more like 4-6 months (and publishers take even longer unless it's a celebrity or News-of-the-Day kind of book).
If you write a horror story for a Halloween publication (or a Christmas story or any other kind of holiday story), you need to submit it at least six months before the holiday if it is to have any chance of being considered.
Which means, you can write it when you are in that particular "holiday mood" and work on it a bit, then send it in for next year.
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I wrote a couple of "Jewish Christmas" stories long long ago with this understanding. One was semi-autobiographical based on a childhood experience with a close Christian friend, and the other a mythical fantasy incorporating a relgious-based history (e.g. Masada) and Christian legends (e.g. the Wandering Jew). The latter I recall was entitled He Who Waits, and had a twist ending I was proud of. I should dig them out some day and give them another look.
The Witch's Curse's only connection to "Halloween", however, is that the story takes place in autumn, coincidentally contains a few monsters often associated with the holiday, and that the story was completed in October.
Respectfully, Dr. Bob
P.S. Comments and suggestions regarding the above "13" remain very welcome, and the entire story is available for review by anyone generous to offer a critique. Or would like one in trade.
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Funny Kathleen mentions that. A quote from the Stupefying Stories Facebook Page made on 10/6:
quote: "Folks, this is *not* the time to be submitting Halloween-themed stories to us. The time to be doing that was six months ago. Of the stories in the books we've released or are releasing this month, the most recently submitted one was received in August, and we managed to squeeze that one in at the last minute only by an astonishing display of our long unused cat-juggling skills.
Think lead time, folks. If your story has a strong seasonal element to it, submit it at least three months in advance of the applicable season, and six months is better. For example, now would be the right time to be submitting Christmas-themed stories --
IF WE WERE PLANNING TO DO ANOTHER CHRISTMAS-THEMED ISSUE, WHICH WE MOST DEFINITELY ARE *NOT*!
I've sworn off doing those. Never again. I really can't stand to read one more "ironic take on the commercialization of the holiday," and what in the nine billion names of God possess people to think that "Santa Claus: Serial Killer" is a story worth writing, or even anything remotely close to an original idea? Sheesh..."
I began writing a baseball themed ghost story (yeah, yeah, I know) in September to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. Obviously bad timing, I didn't even finish it, though I'll plan to finish it for opening day, 2013.
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Dr. Bob, I didn't offer earlier because I was uncertain about my critiquing load. But I've gotten most of it out of that way now, so if you'd like my take on The Witch's Curse, flick it my way. I usually critique in MS Word with 'Track Changes' turned on. But, if you'd prefer some other method, just ask and I'll try and accomodate.
I actually really liked the poetic style of the first paragraph. The only bumps that I encountered were about age and the fear element.
In terms of age, I'm not sure how old Kathy is--at first, what with Kathy sneaking into the backyard stream of her old house with another person (whom I presumed was a friend for some reason), I imagined that she and Jason were children. Then, when I read about her catching tadpoles for a toddler I thought maybe she's somebody's mother? I'm just not sure if she's a child or an adult.
The fear element also kind of goes back to the age element for me. If she's a kid getting into a mishap, I don't have any reason to think that Kathy is more than just annoyed or having a bad day. Of course, if she's an adult putting herself through great personal discomfort to conceal herself as she tries to sneak into a house that isn't hers, then there's probably some much higher stakes. Either way, maybe try and make it clearer who we're dealing with so that we have a little more context for her pain/discomfort. Just some thoughts from a newbie--take them for what they're worth.
Sorry, Phil. I mistakingly sent it to Liz (sorry, Liz). I've resent it.
P.S. (To anyone interested in kindly offering a critique): This is not a children's tale. If any reference to sex, blood, etc. is offensive to you, then this story is not for you.
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Well, most of my feedback is about issues of style for which there are no absolutely correct answers; there's always more than one way of accomplishing a given goal.
Let met start by conjecturing what one of your aims is here: create a brooding atmosphere, heavy with decay (stagnant, rank trickle, dead fish) and the menace of hurt (clawed at her eyes). This is a delicate operation, and you've made some interesting choices here, for example amplifying the sense of ebbing life by juxtaposing the stream's dismal state with its more vibrant past self.
One thing I've noted about the "Dr. Bob style", at least straight from the tap of inspiration, is that it's thick with figurative language. At times it borders on circumlocution. This is neither good nor bad, it just is; we all have these native stylistic quirks, but they're like vibrato in a singer -- just the thing at the right moment, but a bit too much if it's on all the time. Making the best use of our voice requires knowing when to keep its quirks on a leash and know when to let them run free.
Right in the second sentence we get our first characteristic Dr. Bob flourish:
quote: They avoided the street with its eyes of sewers and windows.
This brings us right to one of those debatable stylistic questions, which is the use of figurative language in story openings. My opinion is that it's risky, especially in such a delicate operation as instilling unconscious foreboding. You want the reader drawn into the scene on a visceral level, not an intellectual one, so you don't want him puzzling over a metaphor (or in this case, technically speaking, an instance of metonymy). So a metaphor, if you use it, must *instantly* put *exactly* the image you want into the reader's imagination. You don't want effort or time to interfere with drawing the reader in.
This stopped me cold: how exactly do we connect "sewer" with "eye"? Being familiar with Stephen King's "It" might help, but I think the decoding process works against what you're trying to accomplish here. You might consider leaving sewer references for later ("window" == "eye" is fairly self-evident), or you might describe the POV character's concern in a more sensory-oriented language.
I'm not saying never use figurative language in an opening, but if you are trying to sneak into the reader's reptilian brain to flip some switches you want the reader's critical faculties idle. Any metaphor you use has to be practically unnoticeable, to enter the reader's consciousness so unobtrusively that he doesn't notice there was any rhetoric happening.
Another thing I'd consider is maybe tweaking the order of the comparison of the stream in it's summer state to its current state. I've labeled the summertime state as "A" and the autumnal state "B":
quote:Here a stream once flowed cool and fragrant with blossom boats of honeysuckle and magnolia A, but it was merely a rank trickle over sucking mud now, smelling of rot and rusting slag. Stagnant pools glistened with rainbow sheens of oil like dead fish scales B. Kathy had caught tadpoles here to delight Ian not so long ago. He’d totter on doughboy legs, stamp his feet, and laugh when water splashed between his toesA.
So the reader's attention is drawn this way: ABA, which makes sense in a comapare-and-contrast way, but I think it might be worth trying it this way to see how it comes out: BAA. This is just speculation, but I think the atmospherics might work just a tiny bit better if you finish fixing the death and decay imagery in the reader's imagination then turn to the contrasting past.
Here's another thing that stood out for me:
quote:Inch long thorns clawed at her eyes and snagged her jacket.
This touches on both kinds of issues I've identified above. It's a piece of figurative language, and it causes the reader to retract an image that's been inserted into his imagination. When I reached the "and" in this sentence, the picture I had was of the thorns actually scratching her eyes, not merely threatening. This of course was my misreading, but I wonder if there might not be a way of describing what actually happened in a more direct-sensory way rather than a metaphorical way. Again, this is a "worth a thought" kind of suggestion; it may be that "clawed at her eyes" is simply the best way to get the visceral "ick" reaction you're going for. In any case once I got the imagery straightened out in my mind, the artifice that produced it stood out more than it should have, distracting from the effect.
Finally, the title: "The Witch's Curse". To my ears it has a bit of a middle-grade reader ring to it. You might want to reconsider this when you've completed the story.
These are all issues of writing style, for which there are no correct answers. Overall it's a pretty good opening, but it's worth considering whether a tiny bit more impact can be squeezed out of it.
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Thank you, Matt. Your analysis and insight are, as always, appreciated.
I've come to accept that I do have a "style", particularly with my fable-like tales. And "style", I find, is far more likely to create strong divisions between readers than any other element in story creation--a visceral dislike versus admiring appreciation versus those who shrug and say "eh" or "okay".
A simple literal prose (comparable in Jewish exigesis to P'shat ) to convey character and conflict has a much broader appeal, I agree. For tales like this one, however, I enjoyed going deeper, choosing words and images to convey what I see underlies the human condition and conflict in the story (Remez, Drash, and--often unconsciously--Sod). It is risky and, perhaps, I'm not up for the task, though Erev Tov is being received well.
I recognize such writing is not for everyone, particularly genre lovers, though I've enjoyed seeing more non-genre writers bringing their voices to sf and fantasy (e.g. Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, and David Mitchell whose Cloud Atlas comes to movie theaters this week).
The Witch's Curse, is my dipping into what Tolkien called "the Cauldron of Story" (Tree & Leaf, HM, 1989, pp.30ff.), reconsidernig old motifs and plots from ancient folklore and skewering preconceptions.
The title summarizes the plot and theme, as I believe any good title should. And, for those willing to give it a moment's reflection at the completion of the story, they will recognize (and hopefully enjoy) the play on words that speak not to the curse by the witch but the curse, and more importantly sacrifices and responsibilities, in being one.
Just a public note of thanks for the detailed helpful critique you provided.
Respectfully, Dr. Bob
Thanks Dr. Bob! Your story was a great read, and since your critique of my own piece was so helpful I just wanted to return the favor. Hopefully I didn't go overboard
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