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Author Topic: A Reaper's Folly
Jennica Dotson
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This is the beginning of a fantasy short story I've written. The story is complete, at 3745 words. I'd love for volunteers to read the whole piece! Thanks for any and all critiques.


It was a place where one expected to stumble upon the portal to another dimension. Where, at any moment, the grass that grew thick might lash around your wrists and drag you beneath the earth to rot. Where the surrounding trees might tear up their roots and strangle you with wooden limbs, if the mood struck. A frightful stillness consumed the clearing, for the noises of the city did not reach it, and animals avoided the place as surely as humans. The very air seemed to hum its displeasure when travelers mistakenly wandered into its midst.

This indefinable sense of otherworld was enough to keep the city folk away. But the clearing’s greatest cause of eeriness was something more tangible: a stone sculpture of unknown origins.

[ November 05, 2014, 07:52 PM: Message edited by: Kathleen Dalton Woodbury ]

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This opening is mostly warmup writing, which means you're collecting thoughts on the page. Most of it is passive, so it keeps readers at a distance. And the descriptions are abstract, so it's hard to actually picture the scenery.

Warmup writing doesn't necessarily have to be cut, but usually it's a good idea to move it to later in the story if you're going to keep it. I have a feeling that the story starts near the bottom of page 2, if not page 3.

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Welcome to Hatrack, Jennica.

I like the voice and the mood you set with this opening. The surreal sculpture is for me a good hook. I want to know what it's about.

I had the sense we were zooming in from a view of the clearing to the sculpture, which was fine. But I was mildly impatient with the description of the stone sculpture, which seemed to me to withhold information - that it's a boat and a man - unnecessarily. If you just describe it, I can figure for myself that it's eerie, and I think the dramatic effect would be stronger.

One thing that I didn't like was the phrase "of unknown origins" which seemed in its modern vernacular to jar with the rest of the piece.

The early mention of a portal to another dimension also attracts me - but I like SF and this is fantasy, so might I be disappointed? I'm hoping that the boat and its occupant are indeed from another dimension - so please do email it to me for a read and a critique.

Hope this helps,

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A setting sketch, a vignette of a place. Of the several opening types, setting is one of the less often tried though no less potentially appealing for the form. This opening vignette has poetry features that recommend it. Several language features use rhetoric that builds an emotional sense of the setting. A folkloric aesthetic too, apropos of fantasy that's a delight.

Several language features don't work for me and blunt the emotional impact. Starting a sentence, parargraph, or composition with pronoun "it" is problematic. No antecedent subject. The use of "it" as a sentence subject is a syntax expletive use, nonsensical until later contextexture provides the pronoun's meaning. A word or two of each sentence likewise blunts emotional effect.

Overall, the start and setting's vignette aesthetics generally create a stasis state. Places do not ordinarilly change as rapidly as events or characters and emotional states, naturally. Stasis statements in particular create a static action sequence. Static, not passive, which for writing references passive voice.

Though a static setting description, the emotional impact of the place description's strength--works for me--stands out as a routine pending interruption: a "hook" feature among several that an opening best practice must have, in this case, a potential pendent change of emotional equilibrium. Describing the place statically implies a pendent change event to come from the setting's influence upon a character. That's the big three, setting--or milieu-- emphasis, and signals of an impending event to happen to a character or characters. Artful use of implocation from setting description.

If the setting description implied a nonstatic place, like time were shown as an influence upon the place, or the time milieu were more strongly implied, say, that the oldest generation tells of the place being a mystery to their oldest ancestors, and the place shows the weathering hand of time, the place would then have an anchor in time for readers. As the start is, the place has a timeless invulnerability to the passage of time's influences, as unchanged as it can be.

Setting: time, place, and situation features. The situation is more or less clearly and strongly developed. Only the hedged nature of a few word choices makes the situation ambiguous and vague, "might" twice, for example. "animals _avoided_ the place as _surely_ as humans" also. "seemed" too. Firmer word choice and description would remove ambiguity.

Like "it," "but" is also a problematic word. For prose, the word rarely is necessary, and blunts any poetic flow. Deletion of the word doesn't change the meaning of the sentence it starts. The word signals that the sentence contradicts the prior sentence. That type of signal defuses a potential surprise by signaling the contradiction before the contexture develops the contradiction. Worse, the word signals a language skill weakness. Syntax expletives and contradiction conjunctions can and do belong in dialogue or thought; they have far less value in narrator expression.

The main stregth for me of this start is the folksy mythology of the place. A folklore custom as common today as ever expresses the danger or sacredness of a place to keep strangers or natives away from a place for whatever reasons the folk have for keeping folk away from the place. A folklore feature useful for such practices is a touch of incredulity given among what is gossip, say a rumor of So-and-so, a specific individual or individuals who were harmed or nearly harmed, some way transformed by trespassing at such a place. Also, the event and the place are posed as objective observations though of dubious qualities. This line almost gets there "The tip of a boat rising up out of the earth, as though emerging from the pits of Hell, its occupant a gargantuan man who did not belong in so small a craft . . ." An odd juxtaposition that questions the relationship between the small boat and large man.

A stream-of-consciousness method of the fragment implies the narrator is more intimately involved than the at-times impersonal nature of the whole: use of sentence fragments that signal broken, off-the-cuff, on-the-fly thought. Subtle but effective writing. A stronger development of the narrator's identity would make the impersonalness more personal.

In balance, I'm conflicted. Several features stand out as effective and persuasive writing, though blunted by other features that detract from the artful effects. I want to read on, though I feel I might be disappointed if I did.

[ November 05, 2014, 12:19 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Jennica (cool name by the way): thanks for posting your fragment! Tis always great getting to read new submissions.

I think the setting is quite intriguing; a world I'd very much like to explore. The prose itself might benefit from some touching-up. I think it could be tighter while still achieving the same, if not an improved sense of mystery, fantasy and foreboding. Excellent atmosphere though.

The portal at the beginning threw me off a bit (as portals are wont to do). I had a certain expectation from the opening sentence and the story took a different direction from there on. It just didn't seem to belong with the rest. And why would we need to go to some other dimension when this very place is already so "otherworld"ly?

One thing I feel lacking is a sense of conflict; a necessary ingredient for any story. I noticed that some of the fragment has been cut off for not making it in the 13 lines. Reading comments I gather is something involving a boat-man statue. Not sure if this may have helped toward that end. My suggestion is to give the reader a better sense of the history of the place. Why ought we dread it? What happened here? Why should we be afraid? What are the stakes? So far all I can tell is we have a place where bad things MIGHT happen and no living being likes to go there. Now, if someone DOES actually go there, against their better judgement or for reasons yet to be revealed, then we've got a story.

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