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Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


Crits for Week #585: Hellmark Classics
There was surprisingly little horror, sometimes even attempted, in this horror week. Generic advice: double check your introduction to see if it really is needed. Think about how to tap into the emotions and inner life of your characters, especially if one is the narrator. There was also substantial disagreement between the judges, so also remember this is one person’s take on the story and how to make it better.

Beezus - The Gift That Takes:
This story is from the perspective of a demon, and casts its acts of terror and cruelty as presents and acts of love. It’s casual with the horror, and one can easily paint the picture of what the woman (and he friends) are going through from the demon’s words. However, the omniscience and calm removed perspective of the demon also prevent tension and prevents the terror the other characters must be feeling from being palpable. The conceit of the story is quickly established, and quite clear, though this unfortunately leads to the story being predicable as well. The demon narrator is established as something of a narcissistic abuser (if analogized to a human), with a bit of monkey-paw-curling-action for all the perceived sins of the other characters. I think to hit harder, we need to care more about the woman/victim/summoner, and understand more about her. We know of her being harangued across the city and across the years, but not much else about her. For us to sympathize with her, or feel stronger horror, the reader should be able to relate to them more closely, which means painting a deeper picture of who she is. Alternatively, maybe you don’t want us to feel sympathy for the victims, since their lives are too rich, their minds too sinful. In which case, again, we need a deeper understanding of their sins that must be punished, with a focus on our main character.

The Cut of Your Jib - Toe the Line:

I’m not quite sure what this story is about, and I’m not sure the story knows either. The story starts with the language of high fashion; Cailin is established as a rich influencer who likes shoes. Then, we get a mysterious shopkeeper encounter, where Cailin loses hours of time and is distraught by being imprisoned in the shop and the shopkeeper knowing her name, but then very quickly chills out because: shoes. She then sees a door to a workshop that is also her room, and accepts what appears to be an offer to purchase the shoes, but the cost is that she has to learn how to make them herself. Then, we have a scene of Cailin (missed who was pregnant the first time through, might be clarified) Madison announcing she’s pregnant and a shoe-joke at the end. Post-discussion notes: Thranguy read this as the sister intending to use the baby to make the perfect shoes. If this is the case, idiot readers like me need more hints about the nature of this dark bargain, because I did not pick up on that at all. Continue reading with that in mind.

Laying out the story like that, perhaps you can see the inconsistency: First it’s fashion, then it’s spooky, then it’s humor. The first scene is at least connected; I don’t understand why the last scene exists at all, except for the baby-name joke. That joke comes at the expense of a coherent ending. Is her sister important? Her husband? It doesn’t seem so. What purpose, emotion, or message you want readers to leave with at the end of this story is unclear to me.

The story also suffers from badly needing an editing pass. There are changes in tense and interjections of second person that are not revisited, for example, “Embrace your insecurities, but use them to become a queen.” feels out of place to me. Advice to Cailin directed toward the reader abruptly ceases altogether. Another one is “Curiosity was compelling, and she aimed the canister….” Legally Blonde should be italicized as a title. That line also comes with an opinionated narrator, but then the narrator feels more generic later. Sub-basement should use a dash, not an equals sign. “Molyd” is not spelled like that. The sentence that starts with “When Callum offered a shoe…” has a dialogue punctuation error. Callum is referred to as “he,” but then later “They must have expected such a response….”
What direction you decide to take the story depends on what you want to achieve. I personally think the story of Cailin’s journey from a wealthy fashion influencer to a master craftswoman sounds the most interesting, and is currently the most represented possibility in the story. The voice needs to become consistent, and Cailin’s character better explored. Humor is fine, and might easily accompany a story about high shoe fashion, but currently the ending doesn’t fit the tone or story set by the beginning or the middle.

Albatrossy_Rodent - Plump Little Goose:

This does well in slamming down a bunch of creepy poo poo on the table. It mostly uses a strong voice to deploy a theme of consumption (glutton, lapping, suckling, hungry, ravenous), which it maintains throughout. The conceit of the story is that one twin ate the other in the uterus, and the second twin’s ghost (though that ghost seems to have a smaller body living inside the other) lives inside her, mad because all she gets are scraps of her twin’s life. The ghost then migrates to the unborn baby of the twin, with the story implying that this baby will soon devour the mother (eaten from the inside-out) and take her place as Twin Prime, with the other becoming the ghost in turn. The story is about primal greed, not intentional torment. There’s not really a lesson, or morale one can take, there doesn’t even seem to be a decision any character consciously makes (being too young when the event happened for the first twin, or underdeveloped mentally because they’re a ghost for the second), it’s just about body-horror and babies being gluttons. It certainly achieves the horror effect, something few stories managed this week, and does so well. Perhaps the theme of gluttony can be explored to be more intentional as the twin develops, or more can be done with the primal aspect of humanity. There does feel to me to be a lack of agency with the characters of the story, and I think that bothers me, though I can’t quite put a finger on what else feels missing. Maybe if the ending and swap has more to do with the sins of the first twin. However, if it’s intention is merely to be creepy, it succeeds on that merit.

derp - now and then

I have to critique both of these stories in reference to each other, since while they seem to be about different versions of two characters, they’re still the same characters and some similar themes pop up.

The protagonist has what I interpret to be some form of amnesia. They experience things mostly in the present, and have trouble with the past. The driving conflict of the story is a letter they (I don’t know if the gender of the narrator is established, but also don’t know that it’s relevant) finds: Should they open it, even though it’s going to be painful? The letter is linked to Simone, and their relationship to her. This story is mostly caught up in the details and moment of this event, and the story has a strong voice that accompanies this. One does get a sense of the torment of the narrator, and the mysteriousness of the contents are intriguing for the reader. Throughout this story, and the next one, the narrator describes Simone as a friend, but doing things that are clearly more about amor then amigos. Here, that theme is more subtle; in the next one it is not. The sense I got was that opening the letter reminds Nicky that they like Simone, and, like their drawings, they don’t feel perfect enough to actual say out loud. It seems at the end they have been too scared to say how they feel out of fear of being rejected, but are going to do it. The plot of the story, then, is about the anticipation of that moment, though the story also is concerned about its prose lending the character voice and a theme of past vs. present that I can’t quite untangle. I think this version of the story is too subtle, and doesn’t spend enough time with its themes; most of the story is in anticipation of them.

A tangent than anything: The line “he past scares me, almost as much as the future. My past and future stay behind walls of fog…” is then followed up by “I saw a light shining through the fog” and for a moment, I thought the clearing of the fog might show the narrator both the past and the future in a momentary glimpse, which I thought was a real neat premise. For another story, alas.

A final note: This story seems to have nothing to do with the prompt of the week, but I think you already know that. Which leads us to…

derp - loved:

Round 2! Despite your protestations, this story might actually be considered some form of horror because of the existential crisis the narrator faces. Well, that also might be stretching it. Here, the narrator does face a crisis, one much more rooted I think in powerful, overwhelming emotions, with tones of dread and self-hatred and, of course, that critical need humans have to be touched and loved.
Here, the story implies less amnesia and more that the narrator just doesn’t want to think about the past. Again, the story repeats the idea of objects reminding one of memories that would otherwise be inaccessible. For me, it’s enjoyable to remember, for them, obviously not, which tells us of how they feel about their past.

The narrator is, I would impolitely term, a coward, and this has an outsized effect on their miserable present. The refusal to open a Christmas card (which almost puts this story on prompt!), or to communicate with their friend (just friends lol!) makes me dislike them for personal reasons.

This then leads to Simone and Nicky communicating, and both plunging into crisis. The strong voice here is nice, but does interfere somewhat with clarity. The gist I get is this: Simone is in love with Nicky, but while Nicky doesn’t love Simone back, they do enjoy being doted on and loved. Nicky is profoundly self-deceptive in ignoring obvious signs of this love for years, and their decision to classify more-than-friends-things as friendship is ridiculous, even to them. Perhaps once upon a time I would have said this was unrealistic, but alas, it is not: People are indeed ridiculous. Nicky decides to maintain the status quo, even if they half-hate themselves, which relieves Simone, who seems unable to fall out of love with them (which is also Nicky’s fault, as they keep going along with this). Here, we get that existential crisis: What is love? What is the best path forward in life? What will be lost, from the decisions we make, or refuse to make? A strength of the story is that I can see the narrator grappling with this, and I think it is clear how emotionally distraught both characters are. Other stories this week might take note on how to have actual emotions happen in a story. It also seems that sexuality (gay vs. straight) is at play here, with Nicky not sharing Simone’s, though again I may have missed it but I don’t think Nicky is gendered and I’ve seen that name go both ways.

This is the stronger story, in my opinion, though there’s voice tricks in the first one you might bring here. Nicky repeats things three times in the first story, but it’s the second story where Simone says “Three times make it true.” There’s also this theme of the past being a fog, on accident in the first story, seemingly on purpose in the second, which doesn’t seem fully explored.

Chernobyl Princess - Christmas Lights:

This is a classic example of a story that needs to have the front end chopped off. Obviously, you need a bit of setup, but I found myself profoundly bored up until we got to “Nothing sustains…, ” and that perked me up. Most of the setup you currently have can be condensed or moved; there’s a lot of things that don’t line up with the core of the story, which I see as: themes of color, color’s relationship with joy, the relationships among Andy, Lauren, and Andy’s dad, and the color-soul-sucking ritual.

As with some other stories so far, the death (presumably) of Lauren doesn’t hit very hard because she’s not particularly emotional about it either. We hear Andy is nice, but don’t see it. We see the colors being messed with, but don’t really understand it until the end, and then it’s just—well, sometimes your boyfriend’s dad needs to steal your color-soul to replenish his lifeforce. It just happens! I guess somehow this is related to Andy wearing a thick scarf all the time, but presumably at some point Lauren saw him not wearing it, and anyways, the story doesn’t clarify the scarf thing. With the extra words from the condensed intro, I would delve more into the theme of color connecting to how Lauren feels about her situation, and deeper into who she is and who Andy is so what happens at the end has a sort of internal logic to it as a result of who they are and how they clash.

Chili - Lord A Leapin':

The strongest moment in this story is what I’ll term the jump-scare moment when Harvey suddenly has his name called out in the bathroom in a nightmare-logic event. The normalcy of his task helps set this up, though the introduction is slow and plodding, and I don’t see how all the information about the Angel Tree has anything to do with the scary part of the story (white portals and escaped child-versions and lost time). It seems like it should be because you mention the legend in Howler, but nothing about the legend. His alarm going off is confusing too, because I don’t know what you mean by “It was supposed to signal the end of his break.” A great deal of time (relative to the story size) is spent on various asides, actions like slowly unlocking the door and traveling through the rec center, and I’m not sure what purpose they have in the story. Trim the fat. Once you get the white portal, basically everything Harvey does seems compelled, and I don’t get much of a sense that he’s particularly scared (for example, he apparently blacks out for a half-hour after being tackled by a kid and doesn’t seem perturbed by this? Or if he doesn’t remember it, isn’t bothered by the lost time?). And the stakes are: The present for the tree doesn’t get fulfilled? Not a strong start, and not a strong ending; I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from the ending, or what the story is really about.

rivetz - The Well:

This story has a variety of issues. Probably, it needs to focus on one of the two components it introduces: Growth through bad things happening to you (English class, being thrown down a well), or the narrator’s rejected love of Jonah, though a longer version could certainly find room for both. First, some nitpicks: There’s some clarity issues with the prose: the sentence that starts with “It was really a second…” is unclear about which reunion was a disaster with both the presence of the second and the result of the first meeting being muddled together. Are the titans of division III the same three that hate Hatfield? Because then Jonah is added, giving us a fourth. Many of the people in the reunion, and the narrator’s superior status to them, seems like unneeded fluff.

Now let’s tackle the theme. The story starts with a garden metaphor. I would not start the story here. The story should start with us learning this is Hatfield’s celebration of life, and how the narrator feels about the teacher’s passing (given he has all his poetry), and the garden metaphor where the narrator explicitly tells us he has not grown as a person can be intertwined there. The metaphor can also be strengthened; at the end, the narrator wants to see if Jonah will ‘grow’ like Hatfield presumably did, but doesn’t have the visceral details of vines and thorns and soil; those can be added, and the way the narrator relates people to plants can also be used to tell us more about him and his weird-rear end brain. The narrator is extremely boring and unlikeable. One reason is that, despite being involved in very emotional events (such as kidnapping and reading 3 books of poetry), he experiences basically no emotions the entire time. He’s just edgy and annoying, and lines like "Why are you even still reading?" might in advisably remind the reader they can just hit da bricks, which they may well do. The narrator even lampshades that he has not grown earlier in the story (though he also later mentions the well taught him some sort of lesson, so one or the other needs to be explored). If this is the critical theme, then the narrator needs to explicitly refuse to grow, like he did back in high school, or embrace growing, maybe through hardship or trauma since he seems to think that’s how that works, which I would make the climactic moment of the story. Currently, anything like that feels absent to me.

Next, the plot. I'm having trouble suspending my disbelief about the abduction, and the result. Even a dumb high schooler with blackmail over him is probably not going to help him abduct and torture an English teacher he likes without even knowing why. Also a spindly old dude with a broken arm is not getting out of a 20 ft well under his own power via rope, and a day at the bottom in freezing temperatures (plus more in the freezing mountains) would likely be lethal. Next section is "I dragged him up there and dumped him in..." using pronouns so we don't know who. This isn't heightening tension, this is just annoying. It obviously isn’t Hatfield. The cruelty seems inexplicable, which could be a theme, but then it would need to feel more intentional. This plot doesn’t really elicit horror so much as bafflement. Again, part of this may be who you chose to focus on. Honestly, Hatfield’s story is probably more interesting than the current narrator’s; he experiences actual terror. Like the demon story this week, placing the narration with the entity who has power diminishes the emotions we feel, compounded by the narrator not being particularly expressive. Horror is most often rooted in powerlessness, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have more of the narrator’s inner life, even if his exterior is stoically smoking a cigarette.

Post-discussion notes: I should mention of all the stories, this actually told a horror story, which was a rare sight indeed this week. It does have a coherent theme (growth) and a consistent voice as well.

rohan - a bloody affair:

This is another story where I’m wondering: What is it about? First, let’s tackle the low hanging fruit:

At first I thought the first entry was a letter, but it’s later revealed to be a diary. This is confusing. The letters themselves have no sign-off! This is a missed opportunity to develop characters and their relationships, though, the fact that it doesn’t actually matter (we’ll get to that in a bit) is its own problem.

Given the huge time jump and no intros, the first mystery I saw in the story was "who wrote the letters" which was a red herring for half the entries. However, baffling your reader into incapacity is not going to keep them interested in the story. A nitpick: How do we have Blood for Britain back home (implying a British narrator) who then has a psychiatrist friend stationed (implying part of the service) in France in 1941? D-day is 3 years later, bucko. Alright, Betty is the nurse and writer for the 2016 hospitalized grandad, who also must be pushing 94, so I guess the conclusion implies she's a vampire or something? This isn't a particularly horrifying revelation. I don’t really care about grandpa either. Is he in danger? I dunno, I don’t think vampires need blood only from their regiment; she ought to be able to pilfer it from the bags there. Also, the grandpa, Charles, and family aren’t established as characters in any meaningful way, so I don’t care about them. I don’t experience horror from Ted’s thing either. Actually it's sort of impressive to have no horror in a ww2 diary written from the perspective of a nurse.

So… yeah. What is this about? What’s the takeaway? If it’s the revelation that a blood-related supernatural entity is threatening grandpa, this needs to be maybe from the perspective of a grandkid as they figure out things. Or it could be Betty’s perspective, but then we need to have her feelings and experiences be more visceral, or the focus of the story, and then we also need to maybe get a more concrete ending. How does she feel about becoming a vampire, after seeing Ted’s reaction? So the story isn’t without possibility, it just needs drastic revisions to work.


Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


Crits for Week #586
First, some Generic Advice:
1. Check to make sure you actually need your introduction.
2. Check to see if your introduction actually introduces the story you want to tell, and that the reader has enough information to know what the hell is going on.
3. A competition should have stakes. Why does it matter who wins? It can be the character’s reputation, or their future, or vengeance on a competitor—anything! But they should be there. Which is also related to the next one:
4. Characters. Make us get to know them. Who are they? What are they like? What can we relate to in their lives? What do they look like? And critically: What motivates them? Why do they need to, this week, win?
There’s a reason the sports underdog story always starts with us learning what a hot mess all the players of the team are. The stakes mean nothing if we don’t want to root for the team.
In that theme, I’ve broken down the critiques this week into sections so you can see how your introduction relates to your conclusion and the competition in relation to the story.
As another note, rivetz’s prompt brought to mind a type of person, often seen in stories, and just as often seen in the real world, someone who is zealous about winning, about being the best, and will do anything to get there. Interestingly, none of the stories had a protagonist like that at all.

beep-beep car is go - 240 hours of LeMans:

Introduction vs. Conclusion: The title, if one knows what LeMans is, which I didn’t, might mislead the reader into thinking this is a car race. You mention “pilots” but it’s not clear what vehicle is being raced until midway through paragraph 5. Prior to that, terms like “apron” and “racers” continue telling your reader this is cars. There’s no reason to hide that this is spaceship racing. Your introduction tells us nothing about the character, nothing about why they are there, and nothing about what this competition means to them. The introduction also starts us in a moment that doesn’t seem important. Look at how long you spend on them all lined up waiting for the starter pistol, compared to an actual exciting thing happening (near miss of debris): it’s a ratio of 7 paragraphs to 2. Huge parts of your intro could be cut or condensed, or livened up with something that makes us care about the narrator. The conclusion is… well, it’s not much of an ending. Nothing is won or resolved. The character seems happy being in third, which is not in the spirit of the week. The story seemed to promise us an endurance race, but this only is the start of one, so I’m going to say the ending is weak.

Overall: One of the biggest weaknesses here is your main character. Who are they? What do they look like? Why are they there? What are the stakes? They are a pretty apathetic racer. For something as big as “space ships racing to the Moon and back,” it’s a bit boring to have a narrator saying “it would be nice to win” and “I was third!” If you establish them with a motivation of, “I just want to come back in one piece,” that does fine, and then there’s tension from the things that could kill them, but the narrator is a blank slate. There’s only two lines of dialogue in the whole story, which can work, but it’s a missed opportunity to establish characters and how they feel or make us feel more in the action.

Next, there’s moment in the story that feel strange. They’ve never practiced running in a suit, even though they sometimes start competitions like this? This is big league stuff. Space ships! To the Moon! Endless people lined up to pilot because, well, hell, it’s racing spaceships! And he hasn’t practiced the starts? Then there’s the part where he has engines on full ignition but the clamps holding it down. First, this doesn’t pass the physics sniff test for me; rocket engines will win every time. Next, why? This isn’t like revving a car engine or burning rubber—the race has already started.

Competition: Your story was indeed a competition. You have an underdog protagonist, which is a classic. However, there are few moments where the competition itself is in focus. That is to say, you have procedural actions occurring, like a long description of checking all the systems and starting the engines, but only two spots where there’s any sort of decision made by the character that influences the outcome: One, that they spend time doing the safety check (boring) and two, that they accelerate to pass debris. The latter is the only possibly exciting moment in the story, and it passes quickly. The fact that the race result is unknown is a big letdown. The type of racing itself is also boring. It’s about 3 days there, 7 days back as you no-doubt looked up. Most of that time is… drifting. As you point out. No acceleration, gotta conserve fuel. The racers just chill for most of the time. How boring! I have trouble suspending my disbelief for that. And, as I already mentioned, we don’t know why he wants to win, and worse, he doesn’t seem to care all that much about winning.

Kuiperdolin - The greatest tosser in all Europe…:

Introduction vs. Conclusion: Your introduction is extremely clear, and both tells us the competition and the character very quickly. Nice work. The conclusion does as it promises, though in an unexpected way, and ends with the character growth of Benedikt. My two quibbles: One is that I feel the story needs to be situated in the early modern era more quickly. The other is with having the title with ellipses (also the capitalization is improper for a title) and then the first line ending it. Don’t like that. Diminishes the strength of the pun for me.

Overall: One strength of the story is that it keeps a consistent voice throughout, with one exception. At the very end, we have the narrator interjecting with an “I”, and I think if you’re going to do that, the narrator needs to be a character, or we need some sort of connection to Benedikt. As it is, this is a rather rote biography of our champion tosser. Some ways to strengthen it might be to discuss more of Benedikt’s attitude, the cultural importance of the events, or perhaps the legend vs. the man. You mention his romance with H*** (weird choice there, I’m assuming there’s a historical reason, like they used to do that?), but there’s little focus there. The story drifts along like a raft on a lazy river, which isn’t bad, but isn’t thrilling either. You have neat historical references, though when you mention things like that he’s a knight, and “ancestors’ valiance in the Crusades,” I thought this was going to be medieval, but really, it’s early modern, so 500-700 years after the Crusades. I’m not going to say no one kept track of that, but illiterate poor knight family? Maybe not. You also have the lion being delivered by chariot, and I don’t think anyone in the 1700s was still using those. Carriage, maybe. Other details, like Electors and names and the letters between people that might marry without meeting all have a good historical feel to them, and help sell the story as real-feeling. Since the lion is important, and something about its symbolism and fate changes Benedikt, you might have the narrator spend more time speculating about what the lion meant to him and why after all this time it changed him.

Competition: The competition is an odd one, but I totally buy medieval early modern Europeans doing that. I didn’t look it up, it just feels like the sort of ridiculous sport you might see in the Holy Roman Empire, and the glee of villagers beating a fox that just got tossed got a laugh out of me. You go with a protagonist who is a natural. I like protagonists who are Good At A Thing, but as a note, this leads to a tensionless narrative. There’s no time where we worry Benedikt might lose, or that he’s not the best. There’s also few stakes to the competitions. It’s less a story about a sport, and more a story about a person’s life and how they changed, which doesn’t quite fit the theme of the week, even if that’s a good idea usually. Overall, I’m not sure what the story is trying to do, and the narrative keeps a cautious distance from Benedikt. Why was this legendary tosser important enough the narrator thought he should tell us about him?

Chernobyl Princess - Flare and the Silicon Spire:

Overall: The other sections cover the race and the intro/conclusion. Here, I wonder why Flare is a character. Don’t get me wrong, symbiotic relations with vehicles and soul-sharing with your car or truck is neat, but what purpose does it serve in this story? What does Flare mean to AJ and vice versa? It doesn’t even seem to tie into the race much. Flare can’t seem to drive itself (we first see AJ leaning against his tire to rest), though he can… move? Maybe? Or maybe it’s Flare driving and AJ just tagging along? It’s not clear. There’s some other clarity issues, like "Gabby watched them all fade into the distance" where I thought she was watching AJ/Flare go at first. This all points to a problem with character development in the story. AJ makes one decision: To invite Gabby along, which shows he’s nice. There’s very little else about him—see Intro vs Conclusion for advice on this.

Competition: This is, mostly, a very boring race, and since the characters have no clue what place they’re in, neither do I. So it’s not very tense. It gets even slower with rest breaks, slowly salvaging wrecks (implying the competition is well ahead of them, so why are they still going slow?), and slow raft construction. After hours of raft making, they start again—but how are they going to catch up? Implied is Flare is fast, but this isn’t actually shown to us. By the way, why do they pull right next to the person they think has guns and explosives? Anyways, it’s only this last moment that there’s any excitement, but it’s quickly cut short. All the coin flips favor AJ: Gabby builds a raft for him, and the gun is empty. What decisions does AJ make that helps him win? What emotions does he feel as they approach the finish? There’s a lot missing here.

Introduction vs. Conclusion: This clearly tells us there’s a race and the main characters, and the goal of the race. However, the nature and rules of the race aren’t totally clear, though one can infer them from later when bridges are getting blown up. But why make us guess? It also doesn’t tell us is anything about these racers. Why are AJ and Flare risking their lives for this city? What do they dream of? What were their lives like? Who are they leaving behind? What do they look like? The conclusion is left open. Not entirely sure why, but it works okay here. Even then, we don’t get a good sense of Flare and how fast it is compared to the competition. To leave the ending where it is, I feel you need to do more of telling the reader more about Flare vs the other trucks. Only at the end do you say “The guns and the explosions made AJ assume that they were adults” which is the first time in the story that I consider that AJ might be a kid. Going back to the introduction, while you establish some crucial information quickly, is this the best place to start it? Do we need to see them having nothing happen in the desert? Why the bridge section? What does that add to the race? You also have “No truck had returned after three days.” which seems like it’s you throwing down Chekhov’s Dead Truck on the table, but this detail ends up being totally irrelevant. You have the aside about AJ’s Dad losing his truck, and therefore part of himself, which is conceptually revisited with Gabby. Then the theme is dropped, and makes no appearance in the conclusion. What I assumed might happen at the end is AJ wins, but at the price of losing Flare, which would be a brutal story, but perhaps better. Or maybe he comes back after four days because of the strength of their bond. Either way, there’s a mismatch among the details of the story and its structure.

The Cut of Your Jib - Nuclear Subs:

Overall: The best part of this story is the jokes that go with the nuclear sub theme. What are your orders, tater tot torpedoes—good stuff. A note: by my count this goes over the word count, even with the bonus words. Not by a lot, but I also see a ton of stuff that could be cut; see the “Intro vs conclusion” section. Stuff like “sportsball” and “insert sport here” has me cringing. We also have "yadda yadda"s but also "Now in that month there were a gang of seniors...", and someone who measures cows in how many hands tall they are, which doesn’t feel like a modern teen or a consistent voice. Next, we have some okay characterization. I can picture Richard as the classic too-old-to-be-working-in-fast-food-but-there-he-is guy. Mike is the classic greasy high school nerd. Beyond that, there’s not much depth. Speaking of no-depth, we have the bullying. This reads to me as paint-by-numbers bullying, with it fitting every trope of bullying so tightly we’re talking tolerances of 0.01mm. That is to say, I’ve seen this exact story before so many times it bores me to tears. Does Mike try anything? No. Do the two grown adults who are in the store with him do anything? No. Instead, it just plays out the same old stereotypical way. I’ve even seen the secret laxative a million times. Mike can also charge Dick with assault, which makes it more baffling that the next move is… poisoning him with radioactive heavy metal!? Also, no one from the FDA is investigating this place for hundreds of diarrhea incidents?

Competition: This wasn’t much of a competition story. There’s not much focused on the game of it, they work more like a team than vying for victory. It’s certainly not the focus of the story, and while it’s a creative way to have a contest, it doesn’t feel like Mike wants to win, and it doesn’t feel like it fits the spirit of the week to me.

Introduction vs. Conclusion: This is another story where it feels like a big chunk of the introduction could be cut. What is this story about? It’s not about a competition, as I’ve discussed. More, it’s about a nerd getting revenge on a bully, as we can clearly see in the second half of the story. It takes about 300 words until the bully is even mentioned, and 735 words until the competition surfaces. At first, I thought they were genuinely in a submarine, because the manager’s name is listed as a Lieutenant Commander. If, perhaps, you described the engine room as LC John did—as a toaster oven while he talks about the reactor, or whatever—then it might not be so unclear. It’s not actually clarified until paragraph 6. After that, I don’t know what to expect; I don’t know what the story is promising, and it’s not until much later that is clarified. I think there’s plenty of room to condense the start and still characterize the protagonists and setting. I also think you can get to the setting way faster.

Thranguy - The Race of the Century:

Introduction vs. Conclusion: The story quickly lets the reader know Streak is a superhero/metahuman, and lays down the characters (though almost too fast. It promises a race, but what it doesn’t explain is the stakes.) We can intuit that it’s the past from vice-president Nixon, but the fact that this is a USA vs. USSR Cold War chest-puffing event could be clarified to make the race more meaningful (it’s not mentioned until the end). However, this introduction is somewhat deceptive, because it seems to me the real story is about The Streak character, and staying in the closet in a world still hostile to LGBTQ people. Mentions of The War are red herrings; little time is spent reflecting on this. It’s less a competition and more a character portrait. The conclusion does cover both the race and the identity.

Overall: Here, we have a story about a superhero, set in alternate history Earth. The story seems unfocused though. Streak muses about the Korean War, his failed superhero career. Jessica is mentioned several times, but it takes me a bit to work out I guess he’s married to her? More can be done not just to introduce the character, but how the protagonist feels about them and their relationship. But the story is so focused on the background of this character, it has little time for the race itself—but we get a dragon attack anyways. I’m inclined to think this story doesn’t have room for a dragon attack; it’s trying to cover too many other themes, and combat isn’t one of them. As it is, the fact that you drop that they all have a healing factor immediately defuses any tension we might feel when Stribog gets grabbed. It seems to me the story should focus on Streak’s relationship with Lenny and Jessica, and how he deals with it. You have a gap before ‘"I am not," says Stribog. After a few seconds. "You know. As you are."’ Presumably, Streak asks Stribog if he's gay and he says no, but one half of the conversation is missing, which seems silly, because it's not like the narrator is hiding this; we already saw his relationship with Lenny. It’s a clarity issue to no benefit, or a typo.

Competition: As I’ve mentioned, it’s technically a competition, but so much is about Streak’s backstory I don’t feel any excitement or stakes here. To make it more about the competition, we should see more of him training. You drop a line like “when I’m not running, I’m crouched at the starting line” but that’s one of the few lines that discusses his life as a runner. If it’s about him running, if it’s really about the race, it feels like we need more things setting up the stakes, his reputation, the politicians who are pressuring him—something. The story could fit both the race and the LGBTQ theme in a longer version, but if it’s going to be 1400 words, I think it needs to pick a direction.

rohan - Luck of the Draught:

Introduction vs. Conclusion: Holy poo poo a character feeling emotions? Already in the top half this week. The introduction is a little confusing until we learn that she’s a witch (paragraph 3), and then while the exact nature of the competition is a bit unclear, we know it’s about that. Does the conclusion deliver? Yes. However, it doesn’t really cover the “accidentally killed a judge” which might have happened last time? I think the story ran out of room to cover that bit.

Overall: The heart of this story is the competition itself, which is shockingly rare this week. We clearly get that Claire is nervous, and we also get something about “…before everything went terribly wrong” and then “… and then died of bloodloss from fifty-two papercuts” which apparently was… Hax? The undead warlock? However, what actually happened seems unclear, and since the intro says Claire never slept before a competition and Hax is still ambling around on stage, she may just get nervous. Either way, this theme needs to be explored, or dropped. The rest is mostly about the competition, so…

Competition: The format of the competition confused me. I thought she was out of time, but it was just stage one. The format isn’t critical, but some time could be spent setting up the event. When she knocks over the feathers, can she not just pick them up? Spilled liquid is one thing, but this is just feathers. The creative ending is nice, but the competition runs into one critical missing thing: What are the stakes?

I have no idea why Claire would keep going after watching a judge exsanguinating by playing cards. It makes her so nervous that she can’t sleep. So why does she keep going? What’s her goal? Why is winning important? The reader can only guess. But the story lacking a purpose or impact on the character is big. The competition has the nice feel of the pressure, getting in the zone, and enough details to be interesting, but the story needs some polish to be complete.

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


Chili posted:

I don't care if you gave me the win. I will NOT STAND for any questioning of game integrity. WE POSTED OUR CONVERSATION DOC GOD DAMMIT

Brawl me.

The Cut of Your Jib posted:

Then it's time to SIT DOWN, son. Challenge accepted.

The Cut of Your Chili Brawl: ....Honestly?

With the argument about integrity, the story topics are obvious. Chili, your story is about a liar, thief, and con-artist. A smooth-talker who can't help but lie about everything, pretending to be an honest man (or woman, or any gender), in the midst of honest men (or women, or any gender). In that character's dialogue, they can only tell the truth once, so make it count. (Leaving it up to you to decide what 'once' means.)

Jib, your story is about a character who's trying to be honest in the midst of a sea of thieves. They're the only one around with any kind of integrity or honor--everyone else thinks nothing of embracing the dog-eat-dog world of brutal manipulation and covetous deception. Your honest character may not tell any lies at all.

In both of your stories, a bird figures prominently. Why? Because I'm a capricious man, and I want to see some feathers fly.

You have 1500 words. This is due December 21 by midnight pacific time unless that would be really inconvenient in which case tell me and I'll just change it to whatever.

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


Week 593 - The Crits That Keep On Giving

chili - The Ballad of Croaky Bugchuck:
The story begins with a premise that seems like the story will be about obtaining the blup ball, but that’s easily obtained. Then, there seems a disconnect between the narrator and his family, but that isn’t explored either. Instead, the blub ball breaks into a duet (not a ballad, imo). The singing balls come out of nowhere. Despite the story saying “The promised magic from the commercial had faded,” promised magic is not actually referenced in the opening. If you’re relying on me to know any of the toys and pop culture of the 90s—sorry, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as a kid, so if you want me to know something, it has to be in the story. The idea that the ball has prepared a long, moral-packed song and runs out of time is amusing, but whatever humor the piece attempts largely doesn’t land for me. This fits the prompt, in that it clearly fulfills a wish of sorts and the character has no regrets, but overall, the story doesn’t land that well for me.

Carl Killer Miller - Ride:
This story does not fit the prompt, which says “I want you to have fun… no guilt. Just an extremely good time….” There’s a gift. I don’t think the narrator has fun. Setting that aside, how does the story perform on its own merits? Well, the idea isn’t bad—it’s about a down-on-his-luck robber who shoots his friend, maybe on accident, and then is afraid to know if he killed him or not. It’s about him coming to terms with the consequences of his actions. The story starts with a mundane premise, but quickly has a bunch of inexplicable magic: A car that appears, and the corpse talking. The story explains nothing about this; the ‘corpse talking’ could just be Gus’s brain making up the conversation, but he clearly is driving a physical car. Another problem is the clarity of the story. While the intro puts us right in the action with the fatal shot, what the hell is going on and where it is and who is even present is unclear for quite some time. For a long time, the reader has no context. At first I thought Oliver was Ham’s real name, but that’s not the case. Then I thought it was an actual accident where Gus was twirling a gun, as hallucinatory Ham describes, only that’s not the case either. Only when you get to the paragraph that begins with “’Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘Two pals squabblin…’ do I actual know what went down, and that’s far too late in the story. The story ends with the revelation Ham is actually dead, but it seems the story should continue with how Gus feels about this and what he does next; I don’t know what the extended corpse-conversation does, and I don’t know why Oliver is a character. I think there’s potential in this story, but it needs some revisions to shine.

beep-beep car is go - Don't worry about it.:
Interesting choice to have a period in the title; I don’t know that it’s needed. A great deal of the story is explaining the time machine, where it came from, and how you definitely don’t need to know how time travel works or about paradoxes. I don’t know that it’s the interesting part. There’s a lot of Joe, but narrator Joe is our main Joe, and we don’t really learn much about his thoughts about all this, how he feels, and what he plans to do (except hold a party at some point). You can spend some time on the look and feel of the time machine, but the setup is about half the story and can easily have a lot cut. This fits the prompt in that it’s a gift to have fun with, and Joe is going to have fun in the future, but present Joe doesn’t actually get to that part, so the story feels a bit purposeless and incomplete in the end.

kaom - One Week Getaway:
This fits the prompt well: The main character gets a neat gift and clearly has fun with it. This piece attempts humor, but it falls flat for me. (Humor is hard.) There’s a bit too much of explaining jokes—that you need so many parentheticals means the humor is probably too niche. Maybe it would work in a local magazine. My nitpick is that some of the science doesn’t work here: radar doesn’t detect submarines or ice anomalies, and you would probably not be shooting lava out of a submarine because lava is liquid rock. (Yes, I know there's an underwater volcano base, but you establish suspension of disbelief through internal consistency, and if you have lava tubes they you clearly know how lava works.) The story has a beginning, middle, and ending, but so much of the piece hinges on humor that when the humor doesn’t land, the story falls flat too. There’s also a lot more room with the word-count to play. Would the story be better served with actual dialogue and scenes, rather than just explaining? Maybe the emotions and joy of the character would come across better if we were present with them as they joyously watch Batman grapple across their fortress to confront them. Humor is especially difficult to get across in writing, I think, so I don’t have much advice other than ‘read Dave Barry columns or the Onion and see what they do.’

Albatrossy_Rodent - The best story, just an obvious win candidate right here, you're welcome:
I dislike the title, because it’s clearly a Thunderdome-only thing and I like to judge stories by how they stand on their own. This story does clearly fit the prompt. The first three paragraphs feel like they ramble on too long. Cutting into those and condensing that gives you more room to play with the part of the story that has more potential, which is someone using the master sword in a video game invasion of their city. Like the previous story, this one struggles with humor too, largely, because a lot of the jokes are so played out. Virgin nerds and fedoras? Seen it a million times, you need something new or fresh. A frustrated Miyamoto explaining how battling octorocks in a forest was not a metaphor is much funnier, and on a revision, I would focus on that style of humor. “Whoops I didn’t pay attention to how libraries actually work” is also a fine joke, and might be enhanced by bringing us into the scene as the protagonist yells over his cell phone that yeah he’s not stupid but just explain how the Dewey Decimal System works one more time just for clarity’s sake. The character growing a bit by realizing that his date just wasn’t going to work out is fine, and shows awareness of the subject matter being parodied. The premise is fine, the plot fine, this just feels like it needs some revisions to bring out and really land the comedy, which is on the cusp of being fine.

The Cut of Your Jib - Sides of the Same:
Gonna level with you: This is probably the most confusing thunderdome story I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some real doozies. At the core, the story is such a mess of dense references and constantly shifting images (and confounding ones at that) that it’s impossible to follow. Scenes rapidly shift with no transition or warning. I think the story is trying to convey a mood, but that mood, the characters, the setting, and any semblance of a plot, is utterly lost in confusion.

To go into more detail, I feel like I’m getting machine-gunned-down by a barrage of references that are so tightly packed together it risks forming a singularity. Sentences like “Meadow Springs is an oasis primed on the route that becomes 66. Forty-niners funnel through. Cobblestone streets, the general store becomes a coast-to-coast trading post.” are trying to convey the transformation of a town (Las Vegas? San Francisco? Is it on Route 66, or is it on the coast?) but in such tiny and inconsistent fragments that there's no image or scene to hold on to, and it clashes with the setting previously described (poker table). Is there a plot? We have One-Eyed Jack, who robbed banks in California, facing off against a locomotive king, only then we have a man wandering the streets with a “pistol careening across the purple horizon.” Is the pistol careening? The imagery, devoid of any sort of transition, clashes constantly with previously established imagery. Then you have a second story that I first think involves a camera spying on a totally dysfunctional couple because the story transitions to a totally different story with no warning. Only at the end do we get even a hint of what’s going on (an actor/producer, pitching films he’s going to star in), but it’s far too late for that to clarify anything. Add poor grammar that attempts to establish voice (“string a banks in Callyforny…”) and it just gives me a headache. Was there any reason to hide that this was a film pitch? Why is that a twist at the end?

derp - several wishes:
This hits the prompt well, as it is clearly a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and the narrator has a blast with it. The stream-of-consciousness / voice helps convey this. In each wish, we get a quick portrait of the character’s feelings, the excitement, and quick paintings of images. It also is absolute bait for authors especially, tapping into wishes that are certainly held in common by many readers. I also like how there’s even a little arc, where the character goes from a traveler to a reader to a writer to not even needing to write. In that sense, the first wish seems more disconnected from the others, and is also far more brutal than the others, so in one sense, feels out of place in the rest of the story. If justice was also a theme in the subsequent sections, it might fit better. Overall, felt solid.

curlingiron - Dragon Kin:
A lotta FUCKIN IDIOTS this week are no doubt staring at their computer screens in a stupid torpor as their moronic decision not to include a PET DRAGON in their story comes crashing down on them like the Justice Hammer in derp’s story.

This story was fun and sweet and absolutely deserves the win. I get a good sense of the anticipation of the couple as they await their dragon, shown through their over-preparedness, texts, and with the narrator telling stories to the dragon egg. I am also perfectly happy to just let the story dish out Cool Dragon Facts[tm], like their sex-flexibility, beautiful eggs, and how you take care of one in a heat-resistant sling. The love and affection just bursts out of the ending two paragraphs especially, and made me smile. Looking forward to the novelization.

Thranguy - Engineered Away:
This has some fun world building, and mostly hits the prompt. I don’t get a good sense of the protagonist having a rocking time or whatever, but it’s a fun premise and I’m always down for a Time War. This does need an editing pass; typos like “cold War” and “Assasinatiob” stand out. I am down to enjoy just exploring the world rules of this time machine, but there’s so much building of the premise that it precludes the story from having any depth to the narrator or clear imagery to hold on to. I sort of get a sense of this future the narrator is fighting for, but not in any depth. In this word count, the story is too broad. To work with this word count, it needs to narrow its focus. Alternatively, it needs more room to breathe. Given I like the premise, the world, and the hopeful ending, you have a solid core you’re working with, but to really shine, this needs some revisions.

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


The Cut of You’re Chili Brawl: Jubment and Croits

Jib - Perfect Precision and Permitted Tolerances

This piece has some good descriptions, but also some clarity problems. First, lets address the clarity problems. You seem to like to start your shorts in the middle of the action. This can be an effective hook, but it backfires if the scene is devoid of context or requires too much of the rest of the story to make sense. Your first scene suffers from too little information for it to make sense. I understand Merritt is under threat of execution, but why is she under threat from her dad who she didn’t even know was alive? That isn’t the kind of question that makes me want to keep reading, by the way. I love a good mystery to draw me into the story, but “what the heck is going on?” is not that. Another thing that impacts clarity is the overabundance of metaphors. Like a chicken strutting around laying eggs, the metaphors are plopped down everywhere and make a mess as the reader blunders into these white landmines. Next, despite having a third person that is clearly not limited (Dad’s inner thought of “never again” about kneeling mixes with the focus that is usually on Merritt), we don’t get a clear understanding of who the characters are and their motivations. Dad, random-rear end blacksmith, has cracked the political formula and is plotting glorious revolution. Why? How? Making fancy mechanical constructs is a part of this, but how did he get involved in politics? Why is he brazenly defying the empress (whose ideology must be deep rooted in the society if Merritt is faithful to them)? Why is Merritt more loyal to the empress than her Dad? There is no moment that reflects on this or it is discussed. The story is far too focused on the clever clockwork creations of both of them, and misses giving these characters any depth. Merritt has a relationship with Michael, but this is touched on so briefly I don’t understand anything about it, nor about who Michael is as a person. Why is finding jewels a death sentence for Michael, but not Merritt, who admits her sin? (The ‘they’re sexist’ doesn’t quite work for me when the highest power is an empress.) Why does Michael later hold a knife threatening to kill Merritt, who he seemed to have loved? (By the way, when Michael is dragged off to die, the reader doesn’t worry because we already know he’s fine and ends up in the throne room, so the intro is defusing any tension from that scene.) Why does Dad not have an army of automatons protecting him, rather than one unreliable guy who either he or the empress tortured because ?????. She willingly assassinates the empress, then runs, and no one stops her? This joins a number of stories I have read where assassinating an emperor/ess is quite easily done. Then she also kills her own dad (who wants to kill her, even though she helped him with her devices and even assassinated the empress because ??) because she’d rather do that then let him rule because ??? and now Michael is okay with this, and in fact, Merritt is so unconcerned with the outcome she tells Michael he gets to decide what happens next. Michael, whose politics and character we know nothing about. Therefore, we have an unfocused story, but also a confusing story, and at the heart of that confusion is not understanding the characters.

The central core of the story seems to me to be about a daughter and dad disagreeing about politics. The story, then, should start at the beginning of this schism, and either the characters through dialogue or the omniscient narrator (Dune style? ) should explain why. Given the length of the story, this might be done in two main scenes, but three at most. The clockwork creations can, as they have started doing, act as symbolic representations of the characters, but there is no time for a slow progression of Merritt’s talents at this length. The second section has a more clear progression, and dialogue that illuminates the plot. I would start the story there, rather than in the throne room, if you cannot find a better starting point. Most importantly, the characters need characterization. Motivations. Important events that changed them. Arguments. Feelings. Over and over, I found myself wondering: Why? And the story has no answer. It needs one.

Despite me whining about the metaphors, the language is the greatest strength of the story. I like “flagstone polished by the centuries’ drag of ermine trains” for example, it just needs to be given room to breathe, not placed between hobnails echoing and before a knife is whetted on a skinny throat while braids catch stained glass dapples. The individual image is nice: Stain glass dappling Merritt is nice. Smashed together with so many other descriptions, the reader is overwhelmed (which is compounded by the confusion of the scene in general as mentioned earlier). Her dad using her as a crutch and cudgel is nice, but that needs to be properly brought out in the story. Finally, you also have symbolic development, with Merritt being the spider (as she makes spiders), and her father bombs and vague weapons–more can be done to make their inventions representative of their character. I can see the ambition of this story–I think I see her dad secretly selling out Micahel so dad has leverage over daughter to continue his vague plan, which leads to the schism later (though this still doesn’t help us fully understand the end)–but it needs a lot of work to actually land.

Finally, while this story probably technically adheres to the prompt, thematically, I didn’t feel it. The only deceptive character I heard about was her dad, and I didn’t get the sense that this girl willing to make mechanical spies and music-box bombs was honest of character.

Now, for your arbitrary numerical score, the part you should really focus on: 3.5/10

Chili - Burn N' Turn

This story certainly gets one part of the prompt right: it is indeed a liar amidst honest men. A strength of the story is that it takes one moment and is able to delve into it, including the tension and thoughts of a character there. Poker is a good choice of game, because there’s inherent tension in the reveal of who won, and the story builds this up nicely. Billy is clearly a scoundrel. Most of the story focuses on this, delving deep into his methods of deception and contingencies. Like a Dune character, we get to see his inside thoughts, which reveals his nature. Some work is done to establish the others as honest, with lines like “Doctors Without Borders Larry?” Some lines are nice, like “taking stacks of chips off of flounders”

The story can certainly be improved. One wonders–are we supposed to feel sympathy, pity, or contempt for Billy? I land towards contempt, because while he says ‘I just earned rent’, the pots he’s taking in are much bigger than rent, and six figures yearly means he’s perfectly well off. If the story is attempting to win sympathy for a parasite, it fails. If it’s just an exploration of that type, it does fine. More could be done to delve into the other characters at the table. The protagonist clearly knows his quarry, and more time could be spent on who they are and how they think (and what the protagonist feels about that), rather than the detailed poker strategy. Obviously, if you have a reader who doesn’t like poker, this story is absolutely dead. I also don’t know how it comes across to someone not already familiar with poker, though it seems to me to do a decent job setting up even an ignorant reader with what they need to know. Still, so much exposition on the game comes at a cost of other possible developments. More could also be done to give sentences double-duty: developing the plot / strategy while also solidifying the narrator’s voice or themes or build another character.

The story could also be taken in a different direction. I liked the development of Billy so caught up on folding the next hand he sabotaged himself. What if the moment got to him, and he just got caught up in the emotions of the moment, with no plan at all, even to the point where he was the one praying for the right card on the river? Would that change how he thinks about his marks? Might he change as well? Another way to develop it would be for Billy to actually have to put his contingencies into play, while tension and suspicion at the table builds. What if he had needed to deploy those cards, and maybe Frank raised an eyebrow, and said, ‘wait, didn’t I have that king?’ to himself. What if Billy had to really pull out all the stops of slight of hand and smooth talking? As it is, the story defuses its own tension because Billy is never truly threatened by change or by losing it all (and either one could work). The story has everything reverting to the status quo. (It claims he learns a lesson, but I doubt ‘play your pocket aces if you got ‘em’ is a new lesson to our expert poker player).

Obviously, an editing pass is needed too. Cards stuck to his sweaty wrests, a few places where commas ought to be, and a few other typos popped out as I read.

There’s also one critical part of the prompt I don’t see: Where is your bird? Where is your damned bird!??

This story certainly doesn’t reach its full potential, but it mostly gets the prompt and I get more of a sense of character and tension than from its competitor.

And now, for your arbitrary numbers: 4.5/10


So if the crits didn’t make it clear, here’s the last card on the river, or tiny mechanical assassin-bird, if that’s your thing: Chili wins. Chili’s story had more characterized characters, a clearer story, and more tension. Jib’s story had some nicer language, and perhaps more potential, but didn’t quite hit the mark. However, metaphorical bonus points to the gracious Jib, who could have simply taken the victory by default but allowed Chili to turn in a late yarn.

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