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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » Malignancy

   
Author Topic: Malignancy
Brendan
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I am interested about the first impressions with this opening. Would you read on? Why? Why not?

______________________________________________________________

"I have cancer!"

"Woohoo. You lucky thing. Congratulations!" I replied. Rachel skipped through the kitchen, placed a report on the table and pointed at some gibberish near the top, all the while beaming at my response.

"Adeno Carcinoma," she said. "A real fast growing one. Pretty good for my first time. It should take only eight weeks."

"Where is it? Let me see it."

"No you may not!"

I was surprised at my twin sister's reaction.

"It's breast cancer. No brother of mine is going to see my breast." She paused, and locked me in a narrow glare. "And don't you dare even think about calling me lopsided!"

[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited August 15, 2007).]


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JeffBarton
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Erm ... Would I read on? - no. The reason is personal, but enough others share the reason that I'll point it out. I live with a survivor of breast cancer - the real kind.

I can understand the dark humor and twisted world where disease becomes a good thing to be congratulated. The problem happens when it hits too close to home - the real-world experience was too recent, too traumatic or leaves lingering effects. That's the cost - a few readers. Others may enjoy it quite a bit.


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mfreivald
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Yeah. What he said. Except I have three that didn't survive.

I was equally annoyed with the title of Fran Drescher's book Cancer Schmancer.

I read to the end of your first 13 simply out of the morbid curiosity to see if you had a punchline. If you don't give me the punchline on this **right away** (and a doggone good one), you've lost me. This is one of the few times I agree with those who are intolerant of mystery. Unless you immediately give me a real good reason to take these characters seriously, I'm nauseated and have no desire to go on.

It also comes off as gimicky, by the way. {Let's get their attention by playing the opposite game!} Something like that might work--but you need to be more subtle, I think.

There doesn't seem to be any other hook, either. The conflict is fleeting, and--other than the cancer and the brother and sister relationship--I hardly know anything about the characters or setting.

I would be interested in whatever your punchline is. In a way, I think you owe it to us now. What exactly are you trying to do here? Why are they glad they have cancer?

By the way--I'm not upset with you if it comes off that way. It annoyed me, but--hey--you tried something. No big deal.

Cheers,
Mark


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debhoag
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I'm curious to see a world (or a family) that has this kind of attitude. I'll read. It's novel, to say the least - if you can pull it off, what a writer!
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franc li
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Yes, I need to see why these people are unusual, not why they think they are normal quicker.
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annepin
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I havea to agree here, I wouldn't read on. There's no hook for me, and the concept of cancer as something to shoot for is a turn off, even if it's meant in irony or presented as black humor.

Besides that, I was left wondering, who talks like this? Are they 10-year-olds? But they are supposedly twins, and the voice of the pov character doesn't match the dialogue at all.

The only thing that caught me was the reference, at the very end, to a "forebrain", which made me think, are these people human? But alas, that single word would not be enough to keep me reading.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited August 14, 2007).]


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HauntedShirley
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I'd read on a little further,although I have a knee-jerk anger response when it comes to cancer-related material, including all the cancer industry crap that keep coming to my mailbox. Whew. Can you tell I'm just a little pissed at cancer?

Still, I'd encourage you to finish the story.


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mfreivald
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quote:
- if you can pull it off, what a writer!

I'm not sure I was clear--there is a slim chance you could turn this into something I would appreciate. My point is just that you have to show me I can expect something good out of this very quickly--or I'm just going to walk away annoyed.


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Brendan
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I want to thank you all for your honest opinions on this opening. I have refrained from answering until now, because I wanted to get as many initial responses as possible, and my dialog with any hatracker would only interfere with that.

This story is an enigma to me. It is an idea piece for which there is a rich tradition in science fiction. It is set in a world where, not only has cancer been conquered, it has been turned to help improve the lot of individuals and society, and therefore attitudes within this society are different to ours. The science behind it is fascinating – forming a real basis for the idea - but the story itself is speculative. But is the topic too hot for any editor to accept?

When I first wrote it, I showed a few friends in order to get feedback. When one of them cried at the climax, I wondered if my characterization was sufficient to make this publishable. (She is a fairly empathic friend who had been through the situation before.) About that time, I learned about online critique groups like this one here. So I put it up for critique. Most were very positive about the story, offering a range of suggestions and improvements as such groups are inclined to do. Some explicitly said that the opening was what drew them in. So I then put it to a magazine that allows beginning writers to workshop their stories. The feedback was unanimously negative, and some stronger than any above. The major issue seemed to be the central idea. As one editor put it, get rid of the cancer and you have no story. (I thought that was the point of idea stories, so maybe I should just look Analog's way, which makes this a key criterion for inclusion, not a criterion for exclusion.) Another related issue was the use of cancer in the opening, which they found shocking.

I thought, welcome to the real world, and the story stayed on the bottom shelf for a while. Then my friend, who cried, asked me what I was doing with it. So I put it through another critique group, to see whether it was just an issue with a particular magazine. Once again, the feedback was very positive, some really loving it. They could see how some could dislike the opening, but it attracted others. This was a few weeks ago, and I just recently discovered this site, so I thought that second opinions might be useful. Given that the opening had caused such reaction, I deliberately didn't give much away in the author instructions, wanting an unbiased assessment. The results above have fed my quandary. Yes. No! Yes! NO! ????

On the writing, a couple of people have made some statements that I would like a bit of clarity. Even those that didn't like what was written, you have offered some good advice.

Mark (mfreivald). You suggested using a more subtle approach. How would you suggest I accomplish this while still being efficient in bringing the idea across?

You also said that the "punchline" should be forthcoming. I think this is a good point. I hope that between lines 14 to 22 the crux of the idea is expressed – cancer is only half the idea. I have had difficulty at times expressing the idea in a way that does not violate the foreknowledge of the twins. There are still too many "as you know, Bob" places in the story as it is.

You suggested that the setting was vacant in the opening. The setting has been an issue in a couple of critiques. Do you refer to the physical setting or to the greater world that surrounds the story? I don't spend all that much time on the physical setting, because it is set entirely in a very normal house, and therefore largely irrelevant. The world within which this is set, is important, but this is primarily conveyed by the attitudes of the people who live in it. Do you believe that it is always critical to the opening? If so, why? (This type of feedback should help other stories of mine.)

Franc Li. "Yes, I need to see why these people are unusual, not why they think they are normal quicker." Could you expand on this – I do not quite understand what you are getting at.

Anne (annepin). "Besides that, I was left wondering, who talks like this? Are they 10-year-olds?" They are around 15 to 16 years of age, and still go to school, so there are some juvenile traits in their voice.

"But they are supposedly twins, and the voice of the pov character doesn't match the dialogue at all." Could you show me why you say this is the case. This could have implications on all my other writing, and I hope I don't have a large blind spot.

On the word "forebrain", I have ummed and ahhed about this one. It is a moderately common term in my circles, along with the term "grey matter", to mean that part of the brain that thinks. However, if it is interpreted in the manner that you have, I may have to get rid of it. (Alas, to the detriment of your readership. )

Thanks once again for the feedback. If any have further feedback, on the opening or what I have talked about above, I would be most appreciative.

[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited August 15, 2007).]


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mfreivald
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quote:
Mark (mfreivald). You suggested using a more subtle approach. How would you suggest I accomplish this while still being efficient in bringing the idea across?

I don't know because I don't know anything about the idea other than getting cancer gets a "Yippee!" The only new information I have from your recent post is that cancer has been conquered and it's in the future. I'd have to know a bit more before I can give you an opinion about how to be more subtle. The alternative is to immediately give me a darn good reason why they should be so happy.

quote:
I hope that between lines 14 to 22 the crux of the idea is expressed – cancer is only half the idea.

Can you get the other half in sooner? What is the other half?

quote:
Do you refer to the physical setting or to the greater world that surrounds the story?

I don't have a specific idea, because I don't know what fits your idea. I just don't see much context, so I'm left floating with nothing. Just about anything would help. Something to indicate it's futuristic. Something to indicate who these people are. Something to indicate what these kids are involved in. Time; place; situation; problem; etc.

I don't really know, of course, but my hunch is that you are stuck on this sort of shock opening, but you have to be vague in order to do it. If it were me, I'd scratch that technique alltogether and get to the point.

ciao,
Mark


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Brendan
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quote:
I don't really know, of course, but my hunch is that you are stuck on this sort of shock opening, but you have to be vague in order to do it. If it were me, I'd scratch that technique alltogether and get to the point.

LOL. Yep, you've got me figured. To tell the truth, it shocked me that people would be shocked by it. I never intended it to shock, and none of the initial group mentioned that it might shock. But one man's meat is another man's poison, so I am trying to learn why it is poison to some. That is why I appreciate the detail that you and Jeff and Anne went in to.

Like you, I have been touched by the effects of cancer, and have lost at least three dear friends before the age of 40 to the disease. So it is not without empathy that I hear what you have said. That is, in part, why I believe that imagining a world that conquers it is so important.

[This message has been edited by Brendan (edited August 16, 2007).]


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oliverhouse
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It seems to me that opening came off as too... Flip, maybe? That might be why Mark said it felt like a shock opening. Even an opening with a shocking concept in it should come off as not being an attempt at a shock opening.

The first four words, "I have cancer!" and "woo-hoo!" (or whatever, I'm writing this on a mobile device and can't check) seemed more mocking than real. I have no particular aversion to the topic, but wouldn't have read on for that reason.

Why don't you tell us what the "punch line" is, and see if we can help you get to another approach? Even though you can only post 13 lines, you can tell us the idea that's expressed in 14-22.

You can also email me the story if you like (I'm on the road today, so a plain text email is best), and I'll see if I can think of a way to fit more of the important stuff onto the first manuscript page. It sounds like another set of eyes might help.

Regards,
Oliver


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mfreivald
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You can e-mail me with it, too, if you like.

I don't have an aversion to the topic--your presentation of it simply annoyed me, so I probably wouldn't read on. And one of the reasons it was annoying, as oliverhouse indicates, was that it doesn't come off as real within the empty context.

"Shock" is too strong of a word--but it is written in a "shock" style. It doesn't try to get attention with the meat of the idea--it tries to get attention by presenting itself in the most bizarre way possible. I think you can do much, much better, and possibly hook a lot more readers.

So--yeah--give us the second half of the idea, and we'll see if we can help you out.

ciao,
Mark

[This message has been edited by mfreivald (edited August 16, 2007).]


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Wolfe_boy
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I'm a tad late to the party here, so I'll try to stay short...

I too disagree with the flippancy in this first 13. Treating cancer in a light way is one thing. Likening it to ice cream is quite another.

Alright then... how do you go about showing to the reader that cancer is curable and has it's benefits? Well, to todays reader, treating it with a little more seriousness (you've got the scream for ice cream moment, and a boob joke, and we're still in the first 13). What if you had a small scene in a restaraunt, mom, dad, brother and sister. Mom and sister show up late, dad seems excited, and mom says she's got some great news... "The doctor said Rachel has her first carcinoma, very agressive." Dad gets very excited, hops up and hugs his daughter, orders a bottle of expensive wine. Tells the daughter about his first tumor, how he was nervous at first after having read stories about how millions of people used to die from cancer decades/centuries in the past, but it ended up being the best experience in his life, etc. Maybe twin brother is a little jealous because he hasn't gotten one yet, makes fun of Rachel for having such a little tumor for her first time out, and how he's going to have a much more significant one.

I think that, by taking this scene and wrapping it in the reassurance of parents and at the same time providing some background into the history of this cancer phenomenon you're developing, and losing the flippancy you originally started with, you'll likely turn away less readers and allow yourself to work in the background and history of your story without needing to resort to an info dump.

As it stands, I don't know that Id read any further... actually, I do know. I wouldn't, strictly based on tone.

Jayson Merryfield

[This message has been edited by Wolfe_boy (edited August 16, 2007).]


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annepin
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Yes, I think "flippant" pretty much nails it. The first 13 lines doesn't seem to set up the story you've described in your post.

To elaborate: The "woohoo" and skipping seems to suggest triumph of some kind. "Beaming at my response" implies to me that she's proud of having accomplished something. When she says, "Pretty good for my first time" it indicated some sort of competition to see who can get the best cancer the soonest. So all of these I read as flippant, and concluded that they were involved in some sort of game as to who can get cancer first.

I thought, also, that adenocarcinoma most commonly starts in the glandular tissue, so it was odd that he would ask to see it since it's likely to be internal, and he wouldn't be able to see anything. And if her breast is so affected as to make it misshapen, I would have to wonder why they didn't detect it before. And if cancer is such a good thing, and if they can cure it, in theory they should be able to stimulate it too, and that would make the whole opening not make sense to me. I don't need answers to these in the first 13, but I'd want them eventually i the story.

Okay, so, my comment about the discrepancy in age. I think mostly it was the skipping that got me. I don't know any 15 year olds that skip. Compare this to the almost staid, "I was surprised at my twin sister's reaction", which felt to me like a completely different voice because it's so understated, removed, and flat. Of course, it's hard to tell in the first 13 lines, but that was my initial impression.

About the forebrain... it looks like that line got deleted so i don't remember exactly what it said, but I think it said something like "filed it in my forebrain", and I guess I'd say, can you really think a thought in your forebrain vs. your hindbrain? and that's what made me think maybe they weren't human.

edited to add: okay, i was thinking about this last night and realized i'd assumed the cure to cancer was genetic, but it doesn't ahve to be, so i'll repeal my statement about being able to stimulate cancerous cells. and I guess the statement about the misshapen breast can refer to her breast in the future.

[This message has been edited by annepin (edited August 17, 2007).]


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Brendan
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Thanks for your help. It is food for thought.

A couple have asked about the idea behind the story. (I can see some irony here ) I'll give the science behind it.

1. Some cancers are thought to be adult stem cells gone wild. (Side - If this is so, why not concentrate more research into these types of stem cells than alternatives that have been bandied around? Not only will you "kill two birds with one stone" but it avoids some of the controversy surrounding the issue of stem cell research.)

2. Newts and some other amphibians have a different type of immune system. Instead of trying to quickly grow scar tissue across the a wound, like in mammals, the cells surrounding an injury revert to an embryonic form, form a mass around the site, and grow back whatever is required. This can be scarless skin or limbs or organs (if they can survive that long). Interestingly, amphibians do not get cancer - instead, they can get a disease that causes multiple limbs to form. (There was an interesting article on this in New Scientist some years ago.)

3. When an embryo attaches itself the walls of a uterus, it's cells invade the wall in a similar manner to cancer. These embryonic cells are stem cells. There is something, therefore, in the embryo, the uterus walls or an interaction between these two, that prevents the embryo continuing down the cancerous path.

This story considers an application of controlling these three points.


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mfreivald
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Okay, that's interesting. But what I really want to know is: Why *specifically* are these characters happy about getting cancer? That's the punchline I've been talking about. Care to share that?
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Brendan
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[quote]Why *specifically* are these characters happy about getting cancer? That's the punchline I've been talking about. Care to share that? [quote]

In the world of the story, getting your first cancer rates somewhere between graduating and getting pregnant. Practically it is an effective health insurance policy for later in life, which is best activated when young, so therefore legislated and adopted by the culture. Culturally, it has become more - a rite of passage into the adulthood, not one that everyone necessarily likes but one that is broadly accepted and considered good. It is accepting responsibility for your future health, not that everyone wants to accept responsibility in the mid to late teen years.


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TaleSpinner
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The title is 'Malignancy' and in the first sentence the word 'cancer' appears. They're both emotive words, suggesting evil and uncontrollable disease.

I don't think future scientists would use such words if they beat cancer and turned it into something useful. After all, we don't inject our children with weak small pox, we 'vaccinate' them. We invent new words for such things to distinguish the cure from the killer, and to avoid emotive reactions.

Further, if the cancer is a good thing, she'd surely be talking about the good things she ultimately expects, not the horror of becoming lopsided. And I find it really hard to believe that a 16 year old girl would welcome misshapen breasts, no matter what the promise for her future health.

So while I can undertand the concept of cancer controlled and used to 'improve the lot of individuals', and am willing to suspend disbelief despite being unable to imagine how that could be, the first 13 taken together with the title are for me not believable.

Since the first 13 create an atmosphere of youthful naivety regarding a condition which for us today is fearful, and the title implies evil, I would not read further because it seems to portend a horror story based on kids deliberately getting cancer.

Just my 2c,
Pat

[This message has been edited by TaleSpinner (edited August 18, 2007).]


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oliverhouse
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Brendan, it could be a perfectly fine story, but you're getting pretty consistent commentary (from here, anyway) that your opening seems too flippant. Consider eliminating the first two paragraphs, and taking any relevant data from them and putting it elsewhere. Here are your own words, rearranged:
quote:
My twin sister Rachel skipped through the kitchen, placed a report on the table and pointed at some gibberish near the top.

"Adeno Carcinoma," she said, beaming. "A real fast growing one. Pretty good for my first time. It should take only eight weeks."

"Where is it?" I said. "Let me see it."

"No you may not. It's breast cancer."



I wouldn't write it exactly that way myself, and maybe you wouldn't either, but I didn't want to rewrite heavily. The point is, if you just rein in the levity a little bit, I think you can have a workable intro that makes cancer sound like a good thing without going quite so over the top as to be a turnoff.

Regards,
Oliver

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited August 18, 2007).]


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mfreivald
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Okay, if I understand you correctly, getting cancer means that a person happily provides the needed matter to prevent an early death of a specific kind. I presume for it to be so central to a culture as to become a rite of passage, as it were, that cancer had become quite prevalent and devastating to the population, and this new way to cure it brought in a new salubrious age. It was such a -cough--cough- joy to get the first cells and have it removed and to go through the celebratory rituals involved, that even as the medical and health process became mundane, the customs around the event remained.

Is this right, so far? If it is, there seems to be a logical problem with it--maybe. To get the cure, to save you later in life, you have to get the cancer--which means you need cured *now*. But if they already have something that can cure you now, why do you need a different way to be cured later?

Be that as it may--I think the first 13 could use some help. As I said earlier--I would abandon this jolting beginning altogether. I don't think it is necessary or helpful to your story, although Oliver's ameliorative suggestion is helpful. Pat's point is well-taken, too.

If you really, really felt this was the way to start it, I would follow Oliver's advice, and I'd find a way to tip the reader off as to why she is happy without getting into an info dump. Maybe the brother is jealous because he hasn't had any, yet. So he brushes it off with, "Big deal. Celebrating First Cancer is for babies. It's a silly celebration for a long past cure..." Or something like that. (Maybe this is going to interfere with his birthday.)

However, if you "really, really" feel that this is the way to start it--ask the question: Is this little scene important to the story? I assume it's not. I would recommend exploring alternatives. You might start with some of the character conflict and get into the story and the situation with the conflict as the vehicle.

Good luck.
Mark


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annepin
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I'm going to try to meld this to the discussion you started on the other board. So, to address your concerns about characterization vs. audience expectations. Again, I think the question here is rather of presentation.

What it gets down to is the question, "what is this story about?" You stated in your explanation that this was an idea story. In that case, it seems you would have a great deal of latitude in how you want to start off. Right now, the story impresses me as a story about people being flippant about cancer. But based on your description, that's not what your story is about. So is there another way, while still being true to your characters, that you can nail down the heart of the story, or at least hint at more of its depth in the first 13? Otherwise, it seems the prevailing reaction is negative. Give us some context to understand this attitude; then you may engender sympathy and curiosity.

Many critique workshops and friends will read the whole story because they've agreed to; their original reaction to the first page is colored by the entire story, and therefore they respond positively. This seems encouraging to me--it means that the heart of your story strikes a positive core with people. The first 13 seems not to have the same effect, and since none of us are reading the rest of your story, the first 13 is all that we use to form our opinion. You might say, Okay, well if you read the rest of the story you'd understand..." Maybe that's true, but we haven't, and many editors may not get past the first 13 either unless they see a reason to. That's the beauty of the first 13. So the solution, again, is to put something in the first 13 that might convey the depth of your story, and not just the attitude of your characters. I think the concept of your story is an intriguing one. The set up needs a little reworking.


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kings_falcon
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quote:
In the world of the story, getting your first cancer rates somewhere between graduating and getting pregnant. Practically it is an effective health insurance policy for later in life, which is best activated when young, so therefore legislated and adopted by the culture. Culturally, it has become more - a rite of passage into the adulthood, not one that everyone necessarily likes but one that is broadly accepted and considered good. It is accepting responsibility for your future health, not that everyone wants to accept responsibility in the mid to late teen years.


Seems to me that you have to break out expectations right up front. We need to know in the first line that this is not present day earth. We need to know that the cancer is: (1) completely curable and (2) a key to saving her from a worse fate.

Otherwise, a lot of the audience who has first hand experience with cancer will drop off before line 14. Especially women since most of us have had "positive" mammagrams and even when the results are "benign" there is still the 3 odd weeks of waiting and wondering if you've been handed a death sentance.


MB - Have the brother experience a pang of jealousy. Or, if it's induced cancer - Rachel can say "The treatment worked, I have cancer. Adeno . . ."

Now, I know that her response isn't bizzare (for her world) and I'm probably hooked enough to read on. I know I'm not in Kansas anymore.


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ValleyPastor
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I recently re-read Octavia Butler's "Xenogenesis" series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago), in which there is a major subplot where the protagonist Lilith's cancer was a large reason for aliens saving, and transforming, the human race.

Because of this, I got immediately where those 13 lines were going.

The alien Oankali found her cancer "beautiful" and did many genetic marvels with it, along the lines of the science explained above. One learned to see the beauty and usefulness of the cancer from the Oankali perspective without it ever losing the horror it had for the humans. I was already open to a world in which cancer could be a "positive."

Had I not just read Butler, however, I probably would have reacted like most of the rest. Major events may be a time of great joy, but they usually bring the sobering touch of additional responsibility. Let the cancer be taken with at least the attitude of a real graduation or pregnancy.


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debhoag
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just to get things stirred up again, I found this on MSN this morning, right below the entertainment posts:

Kris Carr

No "stinking thinking" here. Kris Carr's "Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips" is a funny survival guide book. She calls her battle an adventure.


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Jon Ruyle
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Sorry to enter this discussion so late. I skipped at first because I was diagnosed with skin cancer four weeks ago, and didn't want to read anything that had anything to do with a malignancy. (The melanoma has since been removed and lab results showed no sign of spreading, so they say I'm fine. The chances of spreading were not great, and, while nothing compared to what other people have been through, it was still a very unpleasant experience.)

Anyhow, I agree with the readers who were put off by the tone. I think that rather than trying to hit the reader over the head with and irony hammer, you should try a more subtle approach. Maybe even something that doesn't immediately give away the fact that they *want* the cancer: "I just got the path report." "And?" "It's malignant." "Oh... and... how long?" "Only eight weeks." Maybe the reader only gradually realizes the truth. Just a suggestion.

Also, as an aside, I can't resist mentioning that Dawn (of Xenogenesis) is one of my favorite books and starts with one of my favorite first 13's.

Jon.



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TaleSpinner
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Now that I know you a little better Brendan, having read one of your stories and had one of mine critiqued by yourself, I see no reason to believe you can't (re)write this story.

'It is set in a world where, not only has cancer been conquered, it has been turned to help improve the lot of individuals and society, and therefore attitudes within this society are different to ours. The science behind it is fascinating – forming a real basis for the idea'

I don't think that the issue is its topic of cancer per se. The challenge is to get the audience to feel the attitude towards cancer in an imagined future that your characters are feeling, and that will be much harder if the first part of the story triggers the emotions we feel with today's understanding of it.

I'm minded of 'The Dark Light Years' by Brian Aldiss. I won't go into the details for fear of spoiling it for anyone who hasn't read it. Suffice to say, its topic is gross, but we don't find out until we have developed a strong sympathy for its characters. It's an amusing story as well by the way, thoroughly recommended to anyone who has not read it.

Somehow I think you need to engage us with the characters so that we accept and understand their attitudes when we eventually put it all together.

Hopefully encouraging,
Pat


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WouldBe
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Some latecomer's comments:

--the first 13 is artfully written. I like both kids and I like the dialog. If it is artfully written, then it can be artfully edited.

--Something artificial happens here if the author gives no clues outside the first 13. The reader of the finished story has more information than the critters here. Except for your subsequent postings, the critters here don't even know the genre of the story. If the reader has picked up a SF magazine, voila, it is a SF story; it is not a stretch then to imagine there will be a consistent world where those kids are not total whackos in a whacko family and that we can continue to like them. You could had said in the first posting, "this is a SF story." You might have gotten a somewhat different response. If you had said this was a chick lit story, you might have gotten stoned (if that were possible on a web site).

Anywho, it sounds like it is well-worth fixing.


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