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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » "The Spite Demon" (short fantasy story)

   
Author Topic: "The Spite Demon" (short fantasy story)
Turbulent Flow
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With apologies for rushing into this without proper preparation, I feel the need nonetheless to move much faster on building a career in writing fiction. Content-mill work is seriously depressing. I'm not sure I can do it much longer without totally freaking out. Ergo, I'll do the best I can for now. Crunching down hard on the dozen or so books I've bought over the years on the art of writing fantasy and science fiction can wait for free evenings!

The following passages are from a developing story tentatively entitled "The Spite Demon". I'm considering using one of them as the opening. Does either passage work in that role? Any and all thoughts are welcome!

"Andrea let out a small shriek at the sight of the face in the shop window. It exuded a sly self-satisfaction that seemed to stain the window with sheer spitefulness. A distorted smirk spread across it, and Andrea realized with horror that the glass was reflecting her own expression. A passing shopper shied away from Andrea and hurried on, looking back once with undisguised fear."

"The pentagon sparked and fizzed as a small demon writhed its way out of the wavery hole in space. Andrea stepped back with a gasp as the imp fell to the attic floor. The stink of old vegetation filled the air, laced unpleasantly with a hint of dead animals. Scrambling to its feet, the unholy apparition stared up at Andrea with naked malice."

I'm not sure yet of the protocol for story fragments, and yes, I do know that the story should stand on its own without further explanation, but the 13-line limit provides such a cramped fitting room for a story idea. Perhaps a further thought or two would be illuminating. The story is meant to be a darkly amusing morality play on the perils of seeking social status through infernal means. Sure and begorra, that kind of story is as old as the hills, but I want to try it anyway. [Razz]

[ May 09, 2017, 07:18 AM: Message edited by: Turbulent Flow ]

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Kathy_K
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Yeah, I know how you feel. It is an amazingly short bit of text. However, the more time I've spent reading and analyzing other's 13 lines, and the more short story collections I've read (paying much closer attention to their opening 13 lines), the more I've come to realize that it really is an appropriate limit. I've found that I can generally tell whether a story is going to be interesting and a good read by the 13th line. Some folks are so incredibly skilled. They throw out those first lines, and I want to tip my head back and cry with jealousy. How? How can some people already be brilliant in just those first 13 lines?! So, with those amazing individuals in the back of my mind, I knuckle down and endeavour to become one of them.

You make content-mill work sound soulsuckingly awful. How did you originally fall into that abysmal--I'm deducing from your description--pit of an industry? I'm a teacher, so I have no idea what kind of writing jobs exist for people in the non-academic world.

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Kathy_K
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Of the two, I prefer the second version.

The Andrea version is written more passively. You use "it" twice, which immediately suggests to me the existence of a better, more powerful way for a sentence to be written (especially in these opening lines). Also, in the first version, there was something about the way you describe the character in the first line that makes me immediately see her as a mousey, weak, passive person. 1) She's out shopping (yawn, a woman out shopping is not an engaging scenario for me). 2) We first see this character being frightened by a reflection. Yes, in the very next sentence you clarify, but psychologically, the damage has already been done. Then, in the last line you show a passer-by shying away from her in fear, which is another negative moment. So, by the end of that first opening, you kind of trained a negative opinion of her into me.

The second opening, on the other hand, is also showing the character in a moment of getting scared by something, but she's in a much more interesting location--an attic. Already, my brain is noticing that and thinking that it's unusual and interesting. She's afraid of something legitimately and inarguably scary, a supernatural creature manifesting from a... pentagon? [Quick aside, I have no idea what you're trying to describe with that. Is it an amulet? A wax seal? A chalk drawing on the floorboards of the attic? I think you need to be clearer on that.] So, my brain doesn't register her fright as an overreaction, but rather as a totally normal (and therefore okay) thing. You did a much better job of engaging my senses in the second version, sense of smell in particular. That said, would Andrea smell rotting flesh and immediately recognize it as dead animals? I am willing to bet that most people, when assaulted with the powerful reek of rotting carcasses, would think, "Oh my God, what IS that?! It smells horrible!" but they wouldn't be able to tell you what (by name) it was that they were smelling. At this point, I don't know anything about this character other than that she is reacting pretty much the same way I would in this scenario, which immediately links me to her, psychologically, because I've already decided that she's realistic and believable. I didn't like "the unholy apparition" description of the demon. Unless you're writing something meant to be comedic or tongue-in-cheek, it strikes me as a clichéd description. Great way to end it, though. "Naked malice" is such a strong, emotionally charged phrase. Very engaging. As a reader, I am curious as to what is happening and want to read more to find out.

Okay, that's my dive down the rabbit hole for you. Hope I was coherent and that some of my feedback is useful for you. Cheers! [Smile]

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Jay Greenstein
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quote:
"Andrea let out a small shriek at the sight of the face in the shop window.
One of the sure-fire "tells" that a story will be told rather than presented is effect before cause. In this she shrieks before she sees anything. And that can only come from the author, because your protagonist always has cause come before effect.

In line with that, "let out a" can also only come from the author.

In short: you're telling when you could be showing the scene from her viewpoint.

Next: Why qualify the shriek as small? We can't hear it. And since we don't know what she saw, we can't quantify. Let her shriek. But...

Why tell the reader she saw "a face." Have you ever shrieked when you saw a face? In fact, she's losing it because of what she saw on that face and because what she;s seeing should be impossible.

I do have to ask how she could not know what kind of expression she was wearing. If the face in the window was hers, and yet not an actual reflection—which is an interesting idea—she might react to an unexpected face where she expects a reflection and then, with a start, realize that it's hers and react again. That's what she'd focus on.

So you're actually summing up the situation—another common "telling" mistake, because she, like us, lives in the moment she calls now, not overview. So every time you present an overview you're on stage explaining things and killing any momentum the scene might have developed. There are times when that's necessary, but this isn't one of them.
quote:
A passing shopper shied away from Andrea and hurried on, looking back once with undisguised fear.
Again, only you can see that. In her situation, which would you be watching and noting, the face reflecting or someone only in your peripheral vision?

The second piece is written in the same way. Each of the four sentences is declarative—the author presenting a fact. But as she views it, some magical being just appeared out of thin air, something we assume she believes impossible. It's not human or animal, but it's moving and seems dangerous. Would you be, a) sniffing the air to see what it smells like? b) frozen in terror? c) running for the door? d) weaving a protective spell?

You might be focused on b, c, d, and other things. But while the author is focused on the scene as a whole, including scent, her focus is on one thing at a time. And till she reacts to that she's not going to pay attention to anything else. It might take her a millisecond or a lot longer, but she has to, first, react instinctively, with a shriek, a jump pack, etc. Then she will take control and decide what has to be done, and finally do it, even if "it" is to relax and say, "Oh hi Zenba, you surprised me," or ignore it as unimportant.

Here's an article on one fairly powerful way to provide a strong character viewpoint. Done well, if the little demon tries to bite her the reader will flinch.

I sympathize with your situation, and you're probably going to hate me for this, but remember those books you don't want to read? Writing fiction is not at all like nonfiction writing. Nonfiction, the kind of writing we learned in our school days is meant to inform. And to do that efficiently, it's fact-based and author-centric. We tell the story.

But fiction's goal is to entertain, an emotional result. And that goal begins on the first page. The approach is character-centric and emotion based. It's not all the things going wrong that keeps the reader turning pages, it's their effect on the protagonist, that character's struggle to set things "right" and the uncertainty of their accomplishing that. In fact, readers feed on uncertainty. They're never happier than when something happens that makes them say, "Oh...my...god. What do we do now?" A reader who says that is one who will turn the page. And if you can do that page after page, you're going to sell everything you write. If you can do it on most pages, your still good. But if you don't do it till page three? "Thank you for your submission, but..."

Chew on that article I linked to till it makes sense. It's worth the effort. And of it seems like something worth pursuing, pick up the book it was based on.

Hang in there, and keep on writing.

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Grumpy old guy
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As you seem to be looking for ‘proof of concept’ advice, I will limit my observations to narrative structure.

The first fragment is written in in medias res; that is, the narrative begins in the middle of some type of action. There are a number of weaknesses inherent in an in medias res start. First and foremost is: the reader has no idea why the things that are happening are happening. For example:

Andrea sees an ugly and deformed face in a shop window. On closer inspection she realises it is her own reflection and shrieks. A passer-by reacts to ‘her’ in the street reinforcing the notion that the changes in her appearance are real and not simply her imagination.

As a reader, I want to know why she looks like that and why it comes as a surprise to her. Is it because of something she did, some choice she made? Or is it because someone else did this to her, and why did they do it? As things stand with the fragment, I am at a loss to understand what is happening and why. I am not a happy reader.

As a submissions editor, I will chuck the manuscript in the bin simply because I don’t expect an unpublished writer who begins in in medias res to ever answer those questions satisfactorily. I don’t have the time to waste trying to find out if you will or you won’t.

The second fragment begins the narrative at, or soon after the moment the character has begun their dramatic movement; in this case, summoning a demon. I would expect the reasons for summoning the demon would become clear as the narrative unfolds. My only issue here is that the dramatic inciting incident appears to have occurred before the narrative starts; the incident that caused Andrea to summon a demon in the first place seems to have been omitted.

As a reader, I might read on in the hope the reasons for what is going on become clearer -- but not for long.

As a submissions editor, I might um and err, but it will probably get binned. Time is short and there are lots of hopeful writing wannabes out there, waiting.

As the writer, you need to decide how you want to write. Do you want the James Bond opening where the only way forward after the block-buster opening (such as it is) is a reduction in excitement and tension, or do you want to build a story that rises to a climactic confrontation where all issues are resolved? Your choice.

Phil.

[ May 09, 2017, 06:21 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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extrinsic
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An individual observes a window reflection of a demonic face and realizes the view is of the self.

Or

An individual summons a demon imp.

The stronger part for me is the explanation Andrea wants social popularity and would resort to any means for it, even a demonic pact. Although a moral self-error and ripe for drama, a specific why Andrea is incited to want social popularity isn't given or implied. Duh-huh!? she isn't popular enough for her sensibilities. So what? Why should I care? Who, when, where; what, why, and how, especially why, is she incited beyond her everyday routine?

The conflict is patent; that is, acceptance or rejection. Andrea wants social acceptance that she doesn't have. Want is an antagonism that is at once in opposition to, congruent with, and simultaneous to problem antagonism, or motivation, also, complication, one of three foremost essentials for drama and dramatic movement.

Second, conflict, which is polar opposite forces in contention, the stakes and possible outcomes in diametric opposition, like acceptance and rejection. This fragment and its pendent narrative overall, though, might be more or at least also a conflict of salvation and damnation.

Third is emotional disequilibrium -- of a focal agonist and through whom readers' emotions are likewise disequilibriated. The two start versions entail a tickle of emotional disequilibrium. However, So what? Oh yeah? Huh? our host Orson Scott Card's three prime questions brung to a reading experience. Respectively: So what? Why should I care? How is my empathy or sympathy and curiosity engaged -- emotions? Oh yeah? Why should I believe this fiction is authentic? Does the start, and throughout, maintain my willing suspension of disbelief? Huh? What the everloving havoc and calumny happens here?

Motivation why is a crux of the dramatic lot, more than an agonist in isolation who sees the demonic self or summons an imp for an as yet ungiven reason why; external, usually, influences that motivate proactive efforts. That is why that Andrea wants social popularity is where this story begins -- not summarized or explained tell, shown why. Dramatic show is contentious events, at least, between personas, perhaps setting existents of time, place, and situation. Who upsets Andrea and motivates her to want a demonic pact for social popularity at the expense of her immortal soul?

Narratives with a focal agonist isolated from other personas are stuck-in-a-bathtub navel contemplations. Plus, the other or other agonists, too, must have their own motivations and stakes, complication and conflict, respectively, that clash with those of a focal agonist's.

Complication, conflict, and emotional disequlibrium are within reach for this narrative, though awkward and vague as yet on the page. I would not at this time read on as an engaged reader, due to those developments within the fragment do not yet work for me.

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Turbulent Flow
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Wow, so many terrific thoughts have stormed into this thread! I want to hug and squeeze these delicious thoughts until the semantic juices ooze out! Mua-hah-hah-hah!

Ahem. Sorry about that. I read way too many schlocky horror comics in my youth. They virtually defined the term "purple prose." -_-

I'll start with your insightful comments, Ms. Kathy_K. While I was stretching the words this way and that like so much taffy, the "it" bit did strike me as iffy. I wasn't sure how else to word those sentences, though. Let me think on this.

"Andrea uttered a small shriek. The face in the shop window exuded a sly self-satisfaction that seemed to stain the window with sheer spitefulness. A distorted smirk spread across it, and Andrea realized with horror that the glass was reflecting her own expression. [....]"

Well, the slightly revised version of the extended passage did drop one "it." I'll let the problem roll around in my mind until a beefier answer sluggishly emerges from the muck of my subconscious. Perhaps the solution is nothing more than reflexively pouncing on any instances of the word "it" with either a painfully hefty thesaurus or a razor-sharp X-Acto knife. ^_^

Wait! An idea occurs. What about the following version? Is it better? Are you bothered by the exact phrase "the face" appearing twice in a row?

"The face in the shop window exuded a sly self-satisfaction that seemed to stain the window with sheer spitefulness. A distorted smirk spread across the face, and a horrified shriek escaped from Andrea as she realized that the glass was reflecting her own expression. [....]"

Moving on to the topic of characterizing the story's central figure, you're totally right. I'd been so wrapped up in making the words flow into a compelling hook that I missed the elephant in the room. Making a grotesque goblin out of poor Andrea right off the bat is almost certain to repel readers. If she's essentially a good person who took a wrong turn somewhere, then what happened before the fateful moment with the shop window? If she's an unlovable person who is nonetheless horrified at this latest lurch into the depths of depravity, then what's the backstory? Why did good or bad Andrea decide to dabble with infernal forces? The opening hook should avoid the consequences in favor of the who, the where, the what, or the why. It is to be hoped that last sentence made sense. I might be babbling.

Furthermore, I really must remember to avoid inadvertently introducing a "mousey, weak, passive person" into any story unless he or she has a genuine role to play as a supporting character. Even if your first impression arose from what now appears to be an out-of-place passage that undoubtedly should be shoved into a later stage of the story, you've made an excellent point! Central characters should all be strong-willed individuals with a tale to be told. ^^;

Finally, the implied shopping scenario seemed the most plausible excuse for unexpectedly spotting a terrifying distortion of the sort of milder expression that that one might wear in public. You raise an interesting point. Perhaps Andrea is momentarily in the bathroom of a corporate building after savaging naive businesspeople with a one-sided deal. Perhaps she has a strange moment during which she doesn't quite comprehend that she's gazing into at a mirror. Where else might one find reflective glass in public places? I had been thinking of a school-aged protagonist, but Andrea could be an adult with a career.

Now for the alternative scene. I'll admit to liking that one better myself even if it's such a hackneyed concept. Mystical pentagon -- check. Naive fool who doesn't understand the peril of arousing unholy forces -- check. One can almost hear the groans. "Oh, no, not another demonic summoning story." That's why I had been thinking of the first opening instead. Still, the bee in my bonnet refuses to leave until I write a demonic summoning story and write it well enough to sell. It needn't be the very first story to meet with minor commercial success, but it's in the hopper. [Wink]

I think you're right about "the unholy apparition" being too clichéd. My content-mill writing background compels a constant search for novel ways to express the same concept. Using the same descriptive term twice makes me itch. Your points about the fuzziness of the pentagon and the possibly improbable identification of a rank odor are also well taken. Let's see if a few changes can improve the background.

"The chalked lines on the attic floor sparked and fizzed as a small demon writhed its way out of a wavery hole in space within the invisible walls of the pentagon. Andrea gasped and stepped back as the apparition hit the floor with a thump. The stink of old vegetation filled the air, laced unpleasantly with a hint of something long dead. Scrambling to its feet, the imp stared up at Andrea with naked malice."

I'm still not completely satisfied with the updated wording, but it may do as a foundation for further contemplation. I want in any case to carefully study this thread while thoroughly absorbing the contents of at least two of the aforementioned books on writing fantasy and science fiction. This will take a great deal of time and energy. Writing well isn't for wimps!

I originally fell into writing for the content mills as a quick way to earn cash. Without intending to bore anyone with my personal problems, multiple health issues make it difficult to obtain mainstream employment. I can write anywhere when not tired. I still want to write for non-fiction clients but not at the low-paid content mills. This means marketing myself, which is a different world. I've been studying that world over the past few years. Writing fiction for money would be even better, but honing the art takes time and effort. Now is the time to start the journey!

BTW, I know exactly what you mean about unusually talented writers. I ran across a story once at an obscure website. It was badly spelt, and it had serious grammatical errors. It needed extensive editing. It was also brilliant. The words hummed with life. I stared at the screen with envy. How the heck does one write like that? Do these rare people drink Coca-Cola? Do they secretly visit a hidden Spring of Talent for refreshing draughts of pure ability? O_O

Now, it's time to scribble out many words for a few dollars to pay bills and buy food. I'm looking forward to returning to this thread later to properly answer messieurs Jay Greenstein, Grumpy Old Guy, and extrinsic. Their comments drip with useful ideas!

[ May 09, 2017, 11:46 AM: Message edited by: Turbulent Flow ]

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Disgruntled Peony
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quote:
Originally posted by Turbulent Flow:
"Andrea let out a small shriek at the sight of the face in the shop window. It exuded a sly self-satisfaction that seemed to stain the window with sheer spitefulness. A distorted smirk spread across it, and Andrea realized with horror that the glass was reflecting her own expression. A passing shopper shied away from Andrea and hurried on, looking back once with undisguised fear."

The information in this fragment seems awkwardly organized. Describing what the reflected face looks like before you describe Andrea's reaction would make it easier to empathize with her as a reader, because then you have a chance to react similarly (or at least understand what she's reacting to). This doesn't seem like the opening of a story to me so much as a paragraph from mid-way into the tale.

quote:
Originally posted by Turbulent Flow:
"The pentagon sparked and fizzed as a small demon writhed its way out of the wavery hole in space. Andrea stepped back with a gasp as the imp fell to the attic floor. The stink of old vegetation filled the air, laced unpleasantly with a hint of dead animals. Scrambling to its feet, the unholy apparition stared up at Andrea with naked malice."

This reads like an in media res opening, and does a better job of showing action rather than telling. Unlike the other fragment, which I find weirdly off-putting, this one engages my attention enough as a reader that I would continue (at least for a bit). There's a lot more that I'm curious about with this potential opening: Why the demon has been summoned, whether or not it was Andrea who summoned it, and what sort of conversation she and the imp are doubtless about to have, for example.

quote:
Originally posted by Turbulent Flow:
I'm not sure yet of the protocol for story fragments, and yes, I do know that the story should stand on its own without further explanation, but the 13-line limit provides such a cramped fitting room for a story idea.

We usually just post the first 13 lines of our story. If you paste the beginning of your story into the New Topic or Full Reply Form, you can get a better feel for what you're aiming for: 13 lines before any double-spacing for paragraphs (which I generally skip when posting lines for simplicity's sake). If the scroll bar triggers, you've got too many lines. It's perfectly fine to cut a sentence off mid-way through if that's what you have to do in order to keep you line count properly formatted. Courier New 12pt font generally fits a similar pattern in Microsoft Word/Open Office, for me.

The 13-line limit is imposed in order to protect the writer from getting hit with copyright/licensing problems further down the line. (Most short story magazines, for example, won't accept a story that's been posted in full elsewhere because of the way their licenses work.) It essentially provides a sample of the story and shows us, as readers, what the editor will see when they first read the story. First impressions with a story are important, so it's important for the first 13 lines of a story to be strong and well-crafted.

It does feel restrictive at first, speaking from personal experience, but over time I've noticed that the problems the people here at Hatrack point out in my opening lines frequently repeat themselves throughout the story as a whole. It may not feel as satisfying as getting an entire story critiqued, but it is certainly a good way to gather useful information. Besides, you can always mention that you're open to the idea of sharing the story in full with people via e-mail should they be interested in reading the full tale. Not everyone will take up such an offer, but some people do from time to time.

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