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Author Topic: Short Story Discussion Group - Week 3
genevive42
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Since Phobos is currently unavailable I'll pick up the torch and give it a run. I hope that's okay with everybody.

The idea of reading a flash piece from "Flash Fiction Online" has been presented. So this week let's take a look at:

"Brass Canaries" by Gwendolyn Clare

Here's the link: http://www.flashfictiononline.com/index.html

Here's the first thirteen:

quote:
We perch next to the glass, where window shoppers can press their flushed faces against the panes and ooh and aah at us. It is shopping season. We know because they cover their hands in cloth, and the sky falls white and fluffy around their feet.

They hurry by in twos and threes, carrying bags and boxes clutched close to their bodies. Sometimes a large one leads a line of smaller ones, like our Maker the year he built ducklings. The smaller ones linger by our window and stare.

We also know it is shopping season because some of us are sold. Maker takes one of us from the window perch, carries it to the


Does this opening have a good hook?
Does it make you want to continue reading?
What about this opening draws you in, if anything?
How do you feel about the pov?


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LlessurNire
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Good choice of story genevive!

I really liked this story when I first read it. I am more open to stories with unconventional POV's and style when I read these flash stories, because I know they're short and I'm curious to see what the author is doing.

I liked the hook (I think you are missing a little of the first 13, when I copied and pasted into word, I got a few more lines in Courier with 12 font)

I immediately recognized I was reading from the POV of the brass canaries because of the title, and the comment about 'Maker'.

I wanted to read on to see what the author is going to do with the brass canaries and if they are going to be sold or not, and what that would mean...


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genevive42
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I really like the perspective in this opening. The descriptions are naive yet observant. I especially liked this line:

quote:
and the sky falls white and fluffy around their feet.

It really got me into the narrator's head quickly. I found the pov interesting. I wondered if it was a collective speaking or an individual speaking for the group.

This opening definitely drew me in.


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extrinsic
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Good job picking up the facilitator baton, genevive42. I'll comment on the opening in a bit. I've got a few hundred pages of copyediting workload to catch up on first. Corruption and personal injury and medical malpractice on today's real-world tableau.

When we get around to discussing the main story, might I suggest we discuss the story's premises, what the term premise means to us, as per Ms. Dalton-Woodbury's suggestion in arriki's topic, "The confusing problem of premise(s) in stories." I believe "Brass Canaries" is a sensible story for considering its premise(s).


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genevive42
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I'll be happy to include premise as a topic in the discussion questions.
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extrinsic
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Narrative point of view, the structural attributes, first person plural, the conspiratorial autobiographical we for close interior engagement right in the meaning space thoughts of the brass canaries. Present tense, the action is happening now. Psychic access shared by the birds as a collective we.

Psychic motility in and out of thoughts in smooth transitions through depiction of the shoppers in the landscape right outside the glass into explanation of how the birds know it's shopping season. Followed by more depiction and more explanation that fills out the scenery.

Matter-of-fact tone, but unbiased reporting balanced by subjective interpretation from being a questionable viewpoint of nonhuman beings. Register neutral, peer to peer. The voice in terms of mood feels naive and innocent.

Brass automatons presented as canaries started me off in engagement. Shiny metal thinking beings with limited awareness depicting their milieu, but in an event emphasized quality with a religious undertone idea. Character, idea, milieu, and event introduced in the opening, I guess, that gentled me into the story through the cuteness of songbirds, nice way to appeal through sympathy with the story in sentimentality.

Shopping season event, patently Christmas, timely choice for a story right about now. Idea, a suggested religiously significant meaning from the Maker's metaphoric parallels. Milieu, a novelty gift shop's display window of a mechanical bird toy maker. Quaint at the same time as hinting at dark tidings from the birds being sold.

No great bang up opening, as an introduction it sets the stage in a sentimental light. The title engaged me right off, that and a suggestion of an openminded nonhuman viewpoint on a human condition will be examined.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 16, 2009).]


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genevive42
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Is everyone Christmas shopping or did I forget to take a shower?
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extrinsic
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I like the story. It fits in my comfort zone. It might not with others. Flash has a different set of writing principles than longer shorts as well as the same basic principles. Novels too have different principles as well as the same basic ones.

Flash's brevity all but requires even more overlapping intense synergy than short stories. Things that novels can take their leisurely time with, flash can't. Basic dramatic structural and aesthetic attributes of flash differs markedly, one viewpoint character, one theme, one premise, one conflict often solely internal or external, one complication, one setting, a small scale in the sweep of time and place, though some flash afficionados like grand sweeps of time and place for the challenge that presents. And all of it in tight unity and sufficient magnitude for the scope of a story.

With a limit on word count, flash often has to eliminate the numbers of rising and falling action scenes' setbacks and letdowns, and incorporate the three crises, inciting crisis, tragic crisis, and resolving crisis into introduction, climax, and resolution scenes. More compact storytelling, simpler structure yet remain subtle and complicated.

I've studied and practiced flash for insight into writing tighter short story scenes. I guess, in one way of looking at flash, it's like writing a chapter for a novel, or a scene for a short story yet still be self-contained and complete.

But more anon when discussion on the whole story opens up.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 16, 2009).]


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genevive42
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Okay, here are some discussion questions to get the old discussion ball rolling. Some of them are related to the parallel discussion on premise.


What is the premise of the story?

What is the theme of the story?

What is the moral or deeper meaning of the story?

Where do these first three things overlap?

At what point in the story did the plot climax?

Did the author make you believe in this world?

Was there a clear conflict in this story?

Usually we expect the MC to do something to resolve the conflict but that couldn't happen here. How does the helpless MC effect the story?

What about this story worked for you? What didn't?



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extrinsic
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My studies focus on voice of late. The voice of "Brass Canaries" is one I'm testing for its sentimental mood. The canaries seem to me shy and naively innocent, which, of course, is custom fit to the story, its premises, its theme, and, wow, its unexpected, profound but well-set up resolution.

I visualize the birds shying away when the woman enters the toymaker's shop, although there's no mention of that movement. It's the naive voice of the story that calls my creative vision into play from my life experiences. Canaries are shy like emotionally well-adjusted little children are shy of strangers. It's the ones who aren't shy that worry me.

I've come of late to realize that a well-crafted story is mechanically intact, complete in every detail, unified in every detail and benchmark of structure, but without a soul it might as well be an encyclopedia reference for all the interest it holds. A soulful, spirited story has a voice that fits and invests the story. This story has soul in perfusion, oddly metafictive in the way its soul relates to the concept of investing soul in a story, in a mechanism. Metal clockwork toy mechanisms invested with heart and mind and soul.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 16, 2009).]


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ScardeyDog
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On the first 13 only (sorry I'm late to the party)

I like it, I felt drawn in. I think it was because of the interesting POV. The prose is clean and makes no mistakes, but if this was in any other POV it would probably be boring.


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Teraen
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Sorry to be the odd one out, but I didn't like it.

The voice and POV were all written well, and it had an interesting premise. But I didn't like how it was executed. From the final line (we were built to die -- how did they know that? Cause one lady seems uncertain?) to the whole premise (wait, sentient birds? Is this some magical Maker or is it just a POV of a toy, like Toy Story?) The whole concept seems as though it could have worked, but the author dropped the ball on describing the things that would make me enjoy it fully.

Perhaps that is beyond the scope of flash fiction, but I felt cheated as a reader...


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extrinsic
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Addressing premise lightly, I looked to a syllogism that states the argument of the story, but front to back starting with the conclusion (as stated in the tersely cogent, pithy maxim at the story's bitter ending) and ending with the major premise. "We are made to die;" we delicate beings are short-lived; we delightful clockwork toys are made delicate. By implication through subtext and in the resonance power of conspiratorial "we", the we is us humans.

A climax occurs at the end of the story when all salient factors are known in the revelation that "We are made to die." No great outcome most in doubt climax, not much in the way of forces most in opposition kind of climax. A revelation climax in the resolving crisis, with an inciting crisis and tragic crisis merged into one scene. The first turn starts with sold means you go away and don't come back, raising a suspense question of what happens to sold birds.

A fable form for its personification of clockwork toys, edgy mortality theme, and pithy maxim. I'm reminded of Pinnochio, of course, and other toymakers from fable and fairytale stories who imbue their creations with sentience, intentionally or incidentally. I felt a special affinity for the mockingbirds. I've been awoken by them singing the blues outside my bedroom window. They answer back when I whistle at them. They try to top my harmonica riffs and rills, displaying their mastery of song.

Religious undertones: Maker capitalized, implying God, he, motifs of mortality contrasted with spiritual season made shopping season, the symbolisms of Christmas' evergreen wreaths (not stated but implied) and supernatural associations with eternal life.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 17, 2009).]


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genevive42
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Terean, I understand your frustration with the story. I chose it because I thought that of the current issue of "Flash Fiction Online" it was one of the stories that had more depth. I found several of the stories to have a simple 'aha' ending and not as much content to discuss. With this story I felt there was a fair amount going on before we get to the 'aha' ending to make it interesting.

But you mentioned that "the author dropped the ball on describing the things that would make me enjoy it fully." May I ask what you felt it was missing? If it weren't flash, what would you like to have seen in this story?

I will admit that the ending was probably my least favorite part of this story. I think that in a story that had a tone of sweet subtlety the ending was the sudden banging of a hammer. For me, the tone of the ending didn't fit the rest of the story. It was over explained. I think I would like the idea to have been told/shown in a way that left me to draw my own conclusions as to its philosophical meaning.

But I did like the story overall.


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genevive42
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I know there's been a big discussion on premise in another posting. I'm going to tackle it with my understanding related to this story. I don't know how my definitions will jive with everyone else's but these are my thoughts.

For me the premise is the 'what if' that spurred the story. So for "Brass Canaries" it would be, 'What if the little mechanical birds in the store window had more sentience than we realize?' or 'If the little mechanical birds were sentient, what form would that sentience take?'

I'll be honest, I'm not sure where to separate theme and moral. extrinsic brought up the parallels of the canaries and the frailty of human existence. With the last line I thought of soldiers going to war. They are sent out, knowing by themselves and the generals that many of them will not survive.

I also found the idea that all of the birds were built with a purpose to be quite strong. At first I read it to mean that the author was implying that people/birds of a certain group have a certain limited role and that type of idea always makes me bristle. But then I looked again and she specifically used the word 'purpose'. This is a more philiosophical idea. It is not limiting but it recognizes that we all end up playing a role in society according to our abilities and weaknesses.

So I might state the theme as, 'we all have a purpose in life' and the moral to be that 'life is fragile'. Or do you think I have those reversed?

I'd loved to hear any and all thoughts.


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oliverhouse
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Interesting discussion. The ending was the most controversial part among our staff, too, and the author and I tried a variety of changes to see what would work. We couldn't come up with anything better, but I still really like the story even as it is.

The ending has a funny resonance for me. Dying obviously isn't the canaries' purpose. It's pretty clear from the Maker's discussion with the woman that he doesn't want them to die. But given the way the universe works, including rules the Maker creates for himself (he has them in a shop rather than in a museum, he allows people to buy them), they will die, at least sometimes.

But to the brass canaries, it may feel like they were born to die. (Real canaries, if sentient, might feel the same way. Their purpose isn't to die, but they sometimes die in the pursuit of their purpose (which is to protect human miners), and if you're a canary in a coal mine, wouldn't it feel like you were put there to die?)

So maybe the canaries are wrong. Maybe they completely misunderstand their Maker. The canaries think the Maker's too nice to tell them that they were made to die; but what if they aren't made to die, and it just looks like it to them from their naive point of view?

[Edited to fix markup.]

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited December 18, 2009).]


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extrinsic
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A magical transcendence occurs when a writer offers a story to the public. The writer's purposes behind writing the story are exposed to differing interpretations. Interpretations might closely agree with the writer's purposes or take off on unintended tangents or fall anywhere on a range in between or entirely outside all expectations.

Schools of literary thought disagree on how to approach any given story. One school will tend toward one interpretation of a story's meanings, themes, morals, messages, premises, inherent conflicts, subtended subtext, etc. Another school might parallel or be totally unrecognizable to other schools. That's what's to me magical about any story after a first reading for its intitial impression, the riddles and puzzles they present for unraveling. There is no right or wrong answers, just what resonates with an audience that drives the audience's interpretations, even an audience of one. From analyzing a story for its subtler aspects, a story is instilled with further vitality. Odd that, take it apart, test to destruction, and a well-crafted story becomes more alive. Not like toys, though. Take them apart and they might not go back together.

If I were tasked to categorize "Brass Canaries" in a literary school, I'd suggest Realism with a touch of Romanticism and a hint of Moralism. Realism for the message in the pithy maxim and objective if naive reporting up until the abrupt ending turn to a subjective harsh reality of mortality, Romanticism for the fable-like naive quest for understanding purpose and depiction of people as personified canaries. Moralism for the messages imparted by the juxtaposition of the woman's purpose, the Maker's purpose, and roles the birds play in serving those purposes.

In another perspective, I see possible interpretations in other schools of thought. Decontstructionists for their preference for self-contained meaning. We're created, we live, we die. A moment comes in our lives when we are confronted with our mortality.

Historicists look to the historical metatextual meaning of a story against the backdrop of a story's depicted era, the era it's published in, and the era it's read in, as well as the literary opus that spawned it and the follow-up it spawns. Patently to me, "Brass Canaries" draws from the fable canon. It's brand spanking new though, so there's not much chance it's entered the downstream flow yet. In one subtle area, "Brass Canaries" expresses a historical perspective on the Christmas holiday as a materialistic displacement of a spiritual holy day.

Marxismists might see the role of the birds as the proletariat at the beck and call of overlords with antisocialistic tendencies.

Feminismists might see the roles represented by the woman and the Maker and the birds as perpetuation of patriarchal dominance in society.

New Criticismists follow somewhat a bit of Deconstructionists, Formalists and Structualists, and Moralists and Historicists with traditional religious leanings. Here we might see a religious message about life and death and eternal salvation or a moral message along the lines of the Golden Rule, do unto others.

What meaning, what premise of whatever flavor any given reader takes from a story depends entirely on her or his approach and perspective and personal contexts.

I'm still working out the motifs of the assorted sounds' similarities. Ooh ahh, whoosh-whoosh, bee-you bee-you, cawing alert of the vigilant grackle, the owl's low hoot of warning, chittering of the canaries amongst themselves, etc. Lots of signalling going on there with an undertone of warning. Precious.

Canaries in a coal mine, the motif of giving fragile pets to children on holidays (a shudder from the visceral impact of that one). "My most life-like yet. . . their health suffers from the slightest neglect. Very sensitive birds." And canaries in a coal mine to give warning that there's something wrong. Give a fragile pet to a child and observe how they interact. A dead canary is a sure sign the child isn't ready for the responsibilities of a pet or is emotionally disturbed. The woman's unstated but implied purposes?

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 18, 2009).]


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genevive42
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Welcome to the discussion oliverhouse.

Do you know if the author is aware of our discussion? It might be interesting to have her weigh in with her thoughts. As extrinsic has stated, as soon as something is put out to the public it takes on new life and meaning. It also follows that each reader brings a part of themselves to the story. It would be great to have a more complete picture that included the author's intent.


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extrinsic
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I endorse genevive42's proposal. Author comments, questions, and answers make a valuable contribution to a dynamic writing workshop discussion. I'm particularly thrilled to hear from a publisher's team member about the insider experience of the story. Thanks, oliverhouse.

In the same light, genevive42's prompt questions are insightfully persuasive for dynamic discussion, as are Phobos' in Weeks 1 & 2.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 18, 2009).]


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genevive42
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Phobos, are you back to civilization yet?

If not, does anyone else want to run this for a week or should I continue?

Would anyone like to suggest a story for next week?

Please post your thoughts.


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Teraen
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I was thinking that in deference to OSC, snd due to the time of year, we could read one of his christmas stories for the next week...

http://www.hatrack.com/osc/stories/homeless-in-hell.shtml


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extrinsic
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I support Teraen's recommendation for several personal reasons, and in agreement with Teraen's, but mostly because my first impression is it's a conflict resolution type of story. It would be a refreshing change of pace.

For an article on story types, Damon Knight's "Plot" from Creating Short Fiction, © 1987, 1997.
http://web.archive.org/web/20020124104145/www.efn.org/~dknight/plot

The Knight Plot article is one of the sources that corrected my assumption there was only one definition of plot. The article used to be hosted by The Rose and Thorn e-zine, but they've since passed on to new pastures. I'm glad to see it's been archived for continuing access.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited December 19, 2009).]


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genevive42
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Good idea Teraen. If Phobos doesn't return this week do you want to run this one?
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Phobos
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Sorry all for my absence. My little nature trip ended up being a full scale jungle adventure. I even had to carry my guide seventeen kilometers down Mount Tongariro. Yeah, that's right MY guide. He slipped over a loose ledge and shattered his hip. but any way it was certainly the adventure of a life time and he was damned cute. Definately not a trip I will ever forget.

Thanks all for continuing without me. Genevive42, you are welcome to proceed if you would like. I can pick it back up next week or we can elect a new moderator.

I have to go read the story now and get caught up


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Phobos
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I thought that this was a great story as far as flash goes. Good enough to overlook what I felt to be a very urealistic viewpoint. That is to say I found tha POV at times very naive, which I felt added character and a degree of believability to the story, but at other times far too educated to be the same character or voice. For some reason "She gave a stern glance" Really struck me as near fatal in regards to POV.
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genevive42
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Phobos, that sounds like an insane adventure! Glad you made it back safe. Are you going to be staying in touch with that cute guide?

Anyway, I'm happy to let you take the reins back. OSC's Christmas story has been suggested for this week and for all of the reasons stated above I think it's a good idea and a great story.

But if you ever need me to fill in, just let me know.


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Phobos
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Tearan, would you be so kind then? I am nearly a week behind schedule and I have to get ready to head back to the states.
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Teraen
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already done... though I dated it rather than call it week 4. Seems more official to me that way...
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