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Short Story Update

March 13, 2010

I haven’t talked much about my current writing project, of late.  I’d put the short story aside for a while in hopes that I’d get one more critique on it before starting in on major revisions in earnest.  Well, late last week I got that critique in.  So, three total critiques (that is, two critiques plus my wife) isn’t many to go on, but I’ve noticed the emergence of a couple consistent themes. 

Both non-wife reviewers remarked heavily on the world the story takes place on, with generally positive comments in regards to that.  The first reviewer, a friend of mine, explained that he thought there was a lot of unexplored potential in the world I’d set up.  It seemed to me he liked the idea of it, but that I didn’t take it to as deep a level as he’d have liked.  The second reviewer commented that the world was his favorite part of the story, contrasting that with the action at in the final few pages of the story where I spring out all the plot twists.

Frankly, this sentiment was surprising to me.  I didn’t consider that the world I had created was exceptionally original.  It was really the result of a pretty simple formula.  All of my cool ideas, I thought, were in the plot twists I built around this fairly simple central premise.  In fact, I guess, that was my first reviewer’s point: he saw through to the simplicity of the formula, and felt that there was more unexplored depth in that formula than I was using in the story.  Combined with the second reviewer’s contention that the focus of the story ought to be shifted toward this, that suggests that maybe I do need to spend more time developing the world of the story.

But at almost 10,000 words, this piece is already past the length limit of most of the online markets, which effectively cuts them out of my market for this story.  That salability limitation has me a little worried.  I’d planned on the reviews and critiques helping me to cut out some 500 to 1,000 words.  But to follow the advice of my two reviewers, I’m likely going to have to add word count (even if I’m simultaneously taking out stuff that becomes redundant or duplicative).   It’s an interesting challenge.

My first reviewer also mentioned specific weaknesses in characterization and dialog, which I’d mentioned before.  Added to that are the second reviewer’s comments: that there is a minor plot hole that I need to patch, that some of the plot twists near the very end of the story seem a little tacked on and possibly extraneous, that they (the twists) get a little confusing to follow, that one major plot point remains unresolved at the end, and that it all (the conclusion) happens very fast after a fairly leisurely set-up.

So, that’s a bit to chew on.

I only have the two reviews, besides my wife’s comments, so I take them very seriously.  And I’ve been thinking hard about what the common themes are, and how I can address the problems mentioned by both.  For instance, I wonder if the second reviewer’s suggestion that the story focus more on its world is perhaps related to my first reviewer’s comment on the weak characterization.  If the main character of the story, through who’s eyes we interact with this world, doesn’t capture the reader’s interest or keep them emotionally invested, then the twists at the end, which are based on that character’s limited perception, will lack any emotional impact or story-telling value.  It’s also possible that the twists make a dull thud because they aren’t foreshadowed enough.  And considering the number of twists (there are four, by my count) it’s quite probable that I need to take more time to unravel them.  Still, it’s hard to know if I’m on the right track here.  Ultimately I guess I have to go with my gut in how to tell the best story I can.

So, here’s my plan on how I’m going to revise this story.

  1. Strengthen Characterization – I have to create some reason for the reader to become emotionally invested in the main character.  That’s a tall order.  One way to do that, which I’ve been reading about recently (particularly in Dave Farland’s “Daily Kick in the Pants”, incidentally, which you can sign up for on his site, if you’re interested) is to give the character internal conflicts and a duality.  My problem is my main character’s primary internal conflict is essentially resolved before the start of the story, as it’s part of the central premise of the story.   So, I have to give him a current conflict, something that drives him and makes him relatable.
  2. Improve the Foreshadowing – I’d worked hard to try to make sure that the plot twists at the end are logically consistent with the world and story I’d set up.  But it’s pretty clear I didn’t quite get the effect I was intending.  If I’d done my job right, the final twists would be less confusing and more emotionally resonant.  Part of the extra foreshadowing I will have to do will likely have to tie back to the stronger characterization.
  3. Flesh Out the World – The common theme from the two reviews really is that I need to spend more time fleshing out the world the story takes place in.  Suggestions from the first reviewer include more consideration of the ramifications of the central premise of the story. 
  4. Tighten up the Dialog – There are a few spots, in particular, where I realize the story would benefit from me reading the dialog aloud to myself, to hear what it sounds like.  I imagine that I should be able to hear where the speech rhythm is off, or where I word things in ways that most normal people wouldn’t, when speaking.
  5. Revisit the Final Act – Here’s where my challenge really lies.  The first reviewer liked the twists, but felt they lacked the emotional impact they could have had.  The second  reviewer disliked the twists, possibly because they had no emotional impact for him and were just too confusing, or possibly because he just didn’t like them, and was expecting a different sort of conclusion.  I personally kind of feel like the twists are pretty central to the main theme of the story, so I’m banking on the idea that the reason the second reviewer didn’t like them was the former, rather than the latter.  To make it a little less confusing, I’m going to have to give the final act a little more room to unwind itself, and give the main character a little more time to stop and think about “What It All Means©” before rushing like a freight train toward the final conclusion.
  6. Fill the Plot Hole – It’s a fairly minor plot hole, but it ought to be filled.  It revolves around why a character takes one action instead of another, perhaps more logical action at a certain point in the story.  There ought to be some reason why he doesn’t take the ostensibly more logical action.
  7. Resolve the Unresolved – I think it’s okay to leave a few loose threads in a story (or at least, it’s actually kind of important in a novel), but in a short story, to leave such a major thread unresolved is perhaps not a good idea.  Mainly, this thread went unresolved because I’d been indecisive as to what, precisely, actually happened.  I’m okay with ambiguity, but I was frankly nervous about resolving this thread because doing so, and deciding what happened on this particular thread, would entail a lot of extra work, potentially making the story longer.

 I have other options to consider as well.  If the world of this story is really as interesting as both reviewers suggest, it makes me wonder if it’s one that ought to be revisited.  If so, can I do only a tiny little bit of fleshing out here, then do more fleshing out in a follow-up story?  I hadn’t previously considered it because the story resolves with a certain amount of finality.  And no matter how interesting the world, I don’t know that I could return to it unless I had an equally compelling story to tell that happened to be set in it.  I guess it’s a matter of… we’ll just have to see.

I have my work cut out for me… Happy writing!

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