This is topic Theotokos in forum Fragments and Feedback for Short Works at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by AlanW (Member # 10506) on :
A fantasy short story currently at around 2600 words. I could always add more, but I'm putting it out there for thoughts. I appreciate all your comments!


She opened her eyes into white light. She blinked, trying to make sense of her surroundings. Eventually, she saw the light fixture above her and could begin to make out the room, white stone. A sterile room. A voice spoke, then, in the light.

"Everything was taken. You made it."

The voice was from the acolyte that had brought her here. To this room. He had laid her down on this table and watched her as she feel asleep. Then, he had overseen her care as... it was done. He had no emotion within him. No comfort. No solace. Just fact. Tears began to form in the corners of her eyes, blurring the blinding light shining above her. Blinking rapidly, she attempted to gain control of herself, her emotions. She knew this would happen, ever since they brought her here. It was

[ May 16, 2016, 05:53 PM: Message edited by: Kathleen Dalton Woodbury ]
Posted by wetwilly (Member # 1818) on :
I will put this out there: waking up in a white room is one of the red flag cliche openings that will get any story auto-rejected before the reader gets to paragraph 2.

If she knows what "it" is, you should definitely let the reader know. Withholding is cheating. She's your POV character, so if she knows and it's pertinent, then we should get to know.

For these reasons, I would not read on.
Posted by Denevius (Member # 9682) on :
Hey Alan, I mostly agree with Wetwilly. As in other pieces that have shown up on the site lately, this mostly feels like warmup writing before the actual story begins. At 2600 words, you should probably get to the point of the story as quickly as possible, as you really don't have a lot of space to work with.

The first question that you should answer as quickly as possible is what does either of the two current characters want. And what's standing in their way of getting it.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
A woman named Theotokos, Greek for the Virgin Mother Mary, a God in the Box, wakens, in an unfamiliar place, a White Room, disoriented, knows though doesn't express why what happened beforehand, sensorily explores the place, struggles to manage her unexpressed emotions, is unable to maneuver otherwise, is a Dischism of a writer's approach to a blank, white page, and an exploration of and pump prime to develop a narrative's meaning space as if the space is a portrait of discovery of the page space.

If the intent is to spoof as many possibles of the Turkey City Lexicon best advised-against features, the fragment is hilarious.

The grammar is above par, mostly polished. Some punctuation awkwardnesses and sentence fragment function misapprehensions.

I'm ambivalent whether I would read on; against, from the mass of method glitches mostly; for, though would appreciate if a single narrative could contain the gamut of such glitches and be a stellar example of them in one published narrative for a writers' example of what best practice not to do, what doesn't work. That would be amusing and informative enough, to me, for publication worthiness. Such a narrative would become notoriously famous.

Besides, every creative writer's growth process entails some many of these glitches early on on the Poet's Journey. Explorations of them develop a writer's skills and strengths; one, to overcome their temptations and challenges; and two, to learn to avoid and transcend them.

[ May 16, 2016, 05:18 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by AlanW (Member # 10506) on :
Awesome! Thanks guys for the feedback!

@wetwilly and Denevius: Quick question. I knew when I wrote this beginning it was going to get flagged as cliche with the white light and blah blah. However, the POV character is waking up out of surgery, so I was trying to go for that moment of disorientation for both her and the reader, letting it all settle in within the next few paragraphs. Do you guys have any suggestions for making that less cliche and still get the same feel?

@extrinsic: Yay for the Theotokos reference! I appreciate your challenge to overcome the glitches as I get my writing chops. Any ideas for further exploration?
Posted by Denevius (Member # 9682) on :
However, the POV character is waking up out of surgery, so I was trying to go for that moment of disorientation for both her and the reader, letting it all settle in within the next few paragraphs. Do you guys have any suggestions for making that less cliche and still get the same feel?
For me, of greater concern is that for a 2600 word story, waking up out of surgery most likely isn't necessary. What your character wants is.

For a story this short, you should probably begin with character motivation.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Perhaps a way forward is to explore why method glitches don't work and why they do when they do.

The opening wake-up scene, for example, might work if the tangible action is secondary to intangible action. The actual wake up then is the package, so to speak, of another intent and meaning that dramatically and fluently moves.

By way of example, weather description openings are of the same type as wake-up openings -- generally lackluster and discouraged because they entail little to no story movement. Yet changes in weather are a conventional foreshadowing feature that sets up preparation for events to come later. The notorious line from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford, 1830, "It was a dark and stormy night." much parodied and disparaged, is a lackluster weather report for some, for others, a piece of brilliant first-line writing.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

No story movement to speak of. Worth note the novel is largely remembered due to that first phrase's notoriety. The remainder above could be interpreted as foreshadowing, though has little, if any, content to signal such an intangible meaning. The novel as well is more or less superficial tangible content.

Likewise, wake-up openings, some few succeed, because their tangible content signals strong and clear intangible intent and content and propel story movement; that is, use figurative language of whatever type. Foreshadowing, for example, is metaphor and symbolism and symbolism's kin imagery -- visual sensory written-word portraits of concrete, tangible artifacts and motifs that symbolize intangible, abstract meanings, like emotional charge and moral charge.

Readers do, after all, wake up in a narrative's opening scene milieu as much as writers do, right? The challenge there is the method is well-worn anymore, ergo, needs an intense, lively, and vivid foreground drop to overcome preconceived reader, not least of which screening reader, resistance to that method.

One method often resorted to is imply the wake up as a background to action already in motion, like start later in time than the first moment of consciousness, from zero point one to sixty-five in an instant, the first few words.

Another or also, consider what else a wake up might represent? Birth and resurrection are too easy and too trite metaphors, and too ephemerally vague. A wake up postsurgery could represent the start of a new life identity, say unexpected virgin motherhood after a hysterectomy. Story movement, though, is crucial, for an opening in particular: plot, emotional, moral, and dramatic movement. Emotional movement is the least challenging to portray, strongly appeals, and that dynamically moves the others.

From what's given thus far, the movement could start after Theotokos wakes, recovers her faculties, and knows she's been operated on and why and fears the surgery did and didn't take, wants and doesn't want the surgery to have been successful. Then the stakes come into play for tension's suspension and anticipation development that holds in doubt the outcome of the moment; what, successful or unsuccessful surgery?

The unnamed person who says "You made it." defuses that potential conflict's stakes' tension development before it even starts to build. If tension is left unrelieved for a timely span, reader curiosity builds anticipation for a satisfaction from what is known before that sets up the doubt of outcome. That's the art of tension.

The actual wake up then is secondary to the surgery's personal and intimate conflict and complication. Conflict: stakes' forces in diametric opposition, success and failure, life and death, riches and rags, for examples. Complication: motivated and proactive want and problem satisfaction.

Another thought to consider is that science fiction and fantasy rarely if ever use figurative language in a one-to-one correspondence between tangible and intangible meanings. For example, a metaphoric description of a burning shrub to represent godly wisdom or wrath, common to scriptural conventions, will be interpreted as only a burning shrub, unless perhaps too burdensome and, ergo, boring a development of that artifact's metaphoric context is expressed.

The flaming shrub could speak, though, be an inevitable, lively, vivid surprise, and succeed metaphorically and dramatically, especially if the shrub emotionally clashes with the viewpoint agonist's will, and stakes, and motivations.

[ May 18, 2016, 01:23 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
The moment you invoke a 'waking-up' scene you call down upon your shoulders the wrath of the gods of Hatrack. This despite the fact that waking-up openings are still published from time to time in one form or another. The reason for this opprobrium is that the cliché is usually very badly carried off--as is the case in this instance, in my opinion. [Smile]

A bright light, a white room, and a confused character--done to death oh so many times. And, just to pile cliché on top of cliché: the foreshadowing of portentous revelations to come.

You have just spent one twentieth of your self-imposed word-count telling me nothing. I am ignorant of anything about the character, the setting, the milieu, the dramatic problem, or the looming conflict. It is I who is stuck in a 'white room' and confused, not the character.

Posted by AlanW (Member # 10506) on :
Okay guys, I've reworked the beginning to keep in essence but improve the actual scenario. Points well taken on not giving enough info and "clearing my writing throat" on it. So, if you can, would you read this intro? Let me know if it piques your interest enough to read the rest of the manuscript?


As she opened her eyes into white light, she instinctively reached for her belly, her womb. Her hands were restrained, but that did not stop her from seeing her once swollen body as flat as her youth. Tears collected in her eyes. It was done. They had taken her Son.

"Everything was taken. You made it."

The voice was from the acolyte that had brought her here. To this sterile birthing room. He had laid her down on this table and watched her as she feel asleep. Then, he had overseen her care as... it was done. The removal. The extraction. He had no emotion within him. No comfort. No solace. Just fact. The tears collecting in her eyes blurred the light above her and began trickling down to her temples. She could not move to wipe them

[ May 19, 2016, 07:24 PM: Message edited by: Kathleen Dalton Woodbury ]
Posted by M.D. Nelson (Member # 10503) on :
Hello AlanW! Thank you for commenting on my 13 lines, by the way [Smile]

I too would avoid the "waking up" opening in general... I've very often turned away from stories on that alone, simply because its so overused.

It's just something I see so often that it doesn't have any meaning or affect on me as a reader. It's like drinking water when it could be Thai tea.

But anyway, the others have explained well enough I think!

So this critique is in regards to the rewrite:

I honestly think that the first paragraph can be removed. If you start it with:

"Everything was taken. You Made it."

That's already a pretty powerful hook for me. I would read beyond the first line.

The following paragraph provides further information and makes me more intrigued. It already suggests the fact that she's had a child removed, that she's in great pain. I would want to read more to find out why she's in pain, what was done to her.

The first paragraph sort of steals that mystery from me. And I don't think you would lose anything in removing it. You'll be able to move further along and explain more about the characters situation in the few words you have left.
Posted by wetwilly (Member # 1818) on :
I'll offer a conflicting opinion. I like the first paragraph in the rewrite. It gives me an immediate hook: why did they take her baby?

I would read on. This opening hooks me. Much improved, in my opinion.

The waking up in a white room is reduced from the entire opening to half of the first sentence, and by the end of that first sentence, I've got conflict, motivation, and intimations of character and setting. I don't give a damn about a confused stranger in a boring white room, but I sure care about a pregnant woman getting her baby stolen out of her womb.

One nit: "as flat as her youth" doesn't make sense to me. Her youth was flat?

I like this opening, and would be happy to read the whole thing if you're looking for readers.
Posted by Denevius (Member # 9682) on :
The rewrite still feels like warmup writing to me. We never get an idea of how the POV feels about anything. We get some sensory information, like the light and the restraints, but what are her thoughts on the situation?

What does she want?

For a 2600 word story, you should probably make sure the prose is as tight as possible.
Posted by Grumpy old guy (Member # 9922) on :
Take Two:

The story opens with an unnamed female character in crisis; or is she? Se wakes to find herself bound and her unborn child untimely ripped from her womb, to use evocative and emotional language. Is she terrified, angry, wallowing in despair or in an unremitting sense of loss, or is it religious ecstasy? We just don't know. The opening is devoid of pretty much any emotional content. A woman has just had her child taken from her and she reacts how? With not a whimper of complaint, let alone outrage or satisfaction at having given a new 'voice' to the world.

For that very reason I would not read on. I also have a question: Why is the viewpoint character left unnamed?

Posted by AlanW (Member # 10506) on :
Yay for improvement! I appreciate your comments! This is the first "writing group" that I have been a part of, so I'm loving it, even though, as Grumpy put it, I called down the gods of Hatrack upon me.

@M.D. - I like that idea of getting rid of the entire first paragraph. I'm leaving it for now, but I'm not attached to it.

@wetwilly - I'm glad I converted you! I'll send it to you presently. Feel free to rip it up to shreds. As I was rereading it tonight, I already know some places that I started telling rather than showing, so I'm going to be working on that.

@Denevius - I'm working on how to get to her motivation faster and trim the excess. I'm not sold that this story needs to stay at 2600. I might need to beef it up, but then again I might not. Not sold on it either way.

@Grumpy - Beef up the emotion. Check. Also, she is left unnamed for a pertinent story reason. Spoilers: because of the type of pregnancy she has, she is reduced to a title rather than a name. Though, now that I type that, that conflict needs to be beefed up in it as well. Thank you for the direction!
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The second version entails a different emotional attitude from the first. The first is a vague unease from confusion about the circumstances in which Theotokos awakes; the second is a more specific unease about prior known events. In general, for me, the second version is clearer from a greater specificity of the circumstances. Though not stronger in terms of natural emotional attitude toward the circumstances.

Plus, the language is an awkward mix of everyday conversational idiom and a vaguely emotionally charged attitude.

In all, the fragment for me uses a surplus of words that delay story movement and that, if omitted, could be replaced with stronger and clearer meaning. Lively, vivid, fluent prose moves along at an intense though seemingly leisurely pace. This second start still, to me, reads rushed, forced, and awkward.
Posted by Disgruntled Peony (Member # 10416) on :
The second version of this opening is far more clear with regards to conflict and story arc than the first. There is still room for improvement, but the second version grabbed my attention strongly enough that I'd be willing to read on.

It does occur to me that you could very easily dodge the 'wake-up' feel and still accomplish the after-surgery feel at this point by changing 'As she opened her eyes into white light ...' to something more like 'The post-surgery lights glared down upon her as ...'.

In the first paragraph, it might read more smoothly if you said 'as flat as it had been in her youth' instead of 'as flat as her youth'.

There's a typo in the last paragraph -- 'feel' instead of 'fell'. The ellipses in the last paragraph also feel awkwardly placed; that sentence would likely read better if they were removed.

Overall, I enjoyed the second opening and would continue reading in order to see what was going on.
Posted by dmsimone (Member # 10502) on :
Katniss, Lessa (Dragonriders of Pern), Robert Langdon (The Davinci Code), and Wenda (World Without End), all start their journey’s by waking up the first scene they are introduced. Here are the first sentences of each of these novels:

Dragonriders - Lessa woke, cold.

Hunger Games - When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

Davinci Code – Robert Landgon awoke slowly.

World Without End – Wenda was eight years old, but she was not afraid of the dark.

The last, IMO, is the best of the bunch of them. So, the infamous wake-up scene can be done, and these are just a few examples I pulled off my book shelf. Are they overused? Yes. Perhaps someone should try to start a story by having their character fall asleep?

I read your re-write, and avoided perusing the other’s feedback to make sure I wasn’t influenced by them.

The first sentence sounded passive to me. I would suggest removing “as she opened her eyes into white light” and just start the sentence with “She reached for her belly, her womb.” I thought the second sentence was a little awkward, but I understood the point you were trying to make.

You’ve got a typo in the 10th sentence, should be “fell” asleep instead of “feel” asleep.

I think the sentences that the acolyte had no emotion, no comfort, no solace are all telling comments. Instead perhaps you can state how he had on head phones and was typing notes busily in his laptop, or maybe he was skyping with a friend and talking about their plans for the weekend, or he was laughing at MASH reruns on his computer, etc. Since you spent time talking about the acolyte's ambivalence, I am believing it is important somehow.

The fact that the acolyte had no emotion indicates to me that the “she” character was full of emotion. Why would the acolyte be so distanced? It seems like a normal occurrence in this universe/society, so why would the main character care so deeply? If it was a society in which this is an expected practice, then she should be happy it was over, right? Maybe she would be honored that she was chosen for this rite of passage and muse that her friends would be jealous of the successful procedure. Or, was she in pain? Is the procedure conducted without anesthetic?

It might even be more powerful if you removed the first paragraph entirely.

To me it sounds like an abortion by a religious fanatic. I say “religious” because that is what “acolyte” implies. But that is also contrary to mainstream society between those who are religious and those who are doctors.

I think I would continue reading if you removed that first paragraph.

Thanks for sharing!
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Originally posted by dmsimone:
The first sentence sounded passive to me.

Please consider the import of "passive" in the context of grammar and writing. "Passive" entails a distinct meaning for writers and writing; that is, passive voice, as opposed to active voice.

Not meant as a criticism of a criticism, rather that, of very few writing concepts, the matter of grammatical voice is especially a challenge for writers and benefits from review of grammatical voice principles. "Passive" can confuse understanding when a clause or sentence is actually active voice.

Discussions at length here at Hatrack, facilitated and influenced by Ms. Dalton Woodbury, derived terms she proposed for when active voice seems or is flat expression: "static voice," as opposed to "dynamic voice."

Passive voice is where a sentence's subject doer of a predicate's action is in sentence object position or left out altogether because the doer is unknown or unimportant. Passive voice is especially common in impersonal composition as a means to avoid personal and, therefore, subjective expression when objective expression is indicated, formal composition, for example.

Passive voice object phrases usually begin with a preposition and the main verb is intransitive, requires an object. The verb also usually takes an auxiliary verb of a to be or to have or to get state-of-being verb case. "State of being," in a state of stasis; ergo, static, thus passive voice. Examples below.

Active voice places the actual doer of a predicate's action in sentence subject position -- the opposite syntax of passive voice.

Static voice uses verbs that are stasis state-of-being expressions, usually emotionless, and often of nonspecific detail and nondefinite time span. Either passive or active voice can be static voice.

Dynamic voice uses robust process (a to do action) verbs that, along with other context as indicated, are of specific contexts, definite time spans, and of an emotional charge. Passive voice is never dynamic voice; active voice might or might not be dynamic voice.

Though a given grammatical voice might or might not suit a use, dynamic voice for prose best practice receives and expresses emphasis, while also that passive, flat though active, and static voices as well have timely, judicious uses. Passive can fuse with static, active with static, and active with dynamic voice, too. For example, passive voice might be necessary to keep in touch with a focal character's viewpoint and perceptions. Grammatical voice variety is a spice of prose, like spice is to life.


Passive voice;
Kenneth got given his diploma by the writing teacher. ("Got" state-of-being auxiliary verb. "Given" state-of-being main verb. Preposition of the object "by." "the writing teacher" subject of the predicate in sentence object position.)

Kenneth got handed his diploma on schedule. (predicate doer left out altogether; "on" adverb particle of the predicate compliment "schedule." Not a true object phrase.)

Daltan was beat to the finish line. (Doer left out and implied.)

Alice has gotten an automatic admission enrollment from the arts academy.

I am being bothered by bullies.

You are taken advantage of by them.

Active voice;
The writing teacher gave Kenneth his diploma.
Kenneth received his diploma on schedule.
Another contestant beat Daltan to the finish line.
The arts academy awarded Alice an automatic admission enrollment.
Bullies are bothering me.
They take advantage of you.

Each of the above passive voice and active voice examples is static voice.

Dynamic voice (entails personal emotional charge, negative or positive attitude toward a focal topic, and specific details and definite time span, even if summary and explanation tell);
The donkey-hole writing teacher shoved Kenneth's diploma at him.
Kenneth grabbed his pesky high school diploma -- on his schedule for winter college entrance.
A cheater outpaced slow-wit Daltan to the final dash finish line.
Joliette Academy for the Arts accepted talentless Alice for a too-easy fall semester enrollment.
Lunkheads bully me onto the deathbed of one thousand cuts.
Your wicked kin and such at the family pool party took selfish advantage of your generous graces this Memorial Day.

[ May 26, 2016, 04:41 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]
Posted by walexander (Member # 9151) on :

Different staging or POV.
Explore till it flows,
Attack it from multiple perspectives,
find the one voice to tell the story,


your second attempt is much better.

[ May 27, 2016, 04:39 AM: Message edited by: walexander ]
Posted by dmsimone (Member # 10502) on :
Extrinsic - the examples you provided help A TON and are far clearer than descriptions of the various sentence constructs. Thanks.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
The decades I spent not bothering about grammatical voice -- I relied on intuition instead. Sometimes comments about my compositions raised the passive voice consideration, sometimes erroneously, sometimes accurately.

Curious, though, that the erroneous comments -- about my and others' compositions, I didn't know they were wrong at the time -- compelled me to learn grammatical voice principle nuances.

That took years of effort, because I relied more on examples of passive and active voices than on the principles. The examples didn't stay with me for long. The principles gradually sunk in. I still spent a long time learning the finer grammatical voice gradients because they tripped me up. And longer still to unlearn and overcome stern prescriptions against any passive voice use. Longer yet to learn when passive voice is a best artful option and instead of prescriptions against draws compliments -- or at least contentious and firm approval of and disapproval against. Disapprovers, I feel, could be caught by the stern prescriptions against upon which unenligthened grammar teachers insist. Nonetheless, prescriptions against compel reconsideration of every passive or static voice use.

All told, I spent a decade learning grammatical voice principle nuances and other grammar and composition craft nuances for the same period. I'm not especially dense, rather that the nuances of language principles fascinate me, partly that the many overlap and cause frequent sidetracks, and I won't let a language aspect pursuit go unsatisfied.

Thus why I have now as easy a grasp and facility with enumerating grammatical voice principles as with drafting examples and identifying their either artless or artful uses, or somewhere in between. And other grammatical voice principle applications.

By the way, the static and dynamic voice principles enumerated above are a product of Hatrack discussions -- nowhere else yet. The time will come. They are not even mentioned, let alone detailed, in any grammar handbook or style manual. This is new knowledge founded at Hatrack. Exquisite.
Posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (Member # 59) on :
Just as with any other writing tool, passive voice has its uses. (In reference to another topic on this forum, sometimes telling is what you need to do, and showing is the wrong choice.)

Passive voice is quite effective when you don't want to name the actor (as in "Mistakes were made" for example), or when the identity of the actor is not important (as in "the rat was placed in the maze" for example).

Passive voice is also useful when you want the initial focus to be on the recipient of the action (as in "Chad was hit by a bus while riding his bike to work" for example).

So it's important to understand what passive voice is, what it does, and how best to use it, and when to avoid it.

And not to confuse it with static voice (the use of "was" and other "to be" verbs).
Posted by dmsimone (Member # 10502) on :
AlanW - found another 'wake up' example in my collection, and it is brilliant:

“The man who had had the room before, after having slept the sleep of the just for hours on end, oblivious to the worries and unrest of the recent early morning, awoke when the day was well advanced and the sounds of the city completely invaded the air of the half-opened room.”

Kudos to whomever can correctly guess the source.
Posted by extrinsic (Member # 8019) on :
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "Dialogue with the Mirror."
Posted by dmsimone (Member # 10502) on :
YES! Simply, a superb author.

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