Writing Club #2 Submissions
It's nearly spring (in one hemisphere) and time to share our first longer pieces! Whether or not you've been inspired by this month's theme of liminality, I hope you've found this transitional time a pithy precipice.
Please post your efforts below, with an introduction and/or questions for your readers.
Here are the guidelines, again. I applaud everyone who submits for taking part in something new.
You interleaved humorous/flavorful language (e.g., "Jiminy-Christian", "perhaps not much more than one-Prince tall") throughout, and balanced that very well with the dialogue, the descriptions, and the insight.
You were able to pretty concisely talk about the main ideas (optimism/your skepticism/"law of attraction") in a way that didn't cut out the nuance. It felt accessible in a way that I've never been able to pull off, having had a lifetime of opportunity with a similar member of my family. What could have come across as judgmental didn't due to the even-handed treatment.
Some parts I liked were:
...ending it with "for her, everything was magic" rides that line of ambiguity you keep throughout. That cynical (read: correct) perspective of yours that calls out the survivorship bias of people peddling things like the "law of attraction" or prosperity theology is tempered by your own self-criticism. Your sister makes remarkable things happen. Her optimism works magic--whether that's on her mood, or in discovering opportunities you think aren't worth exploring-- and she met a fellow practitioner in Mr. Polyanna.
I like the inclusion of your other sister. If I were going to recommend you revisiting any area to restructure or expand on I might point to that section. You set up yourself as the foil to your sister, similar to the relationship between the condescending/pragmatic assistants and Mr. Dianna. The inclusion of your younger sister seems like it's trying to fill the role of some middle point, and I think you could flesh out the use-and-abuse-of-optimism here, if you wanted.
The ending really hits you. It makes a lot of choices you made at the start make sense, and really drives home your criticism of the post-hoc measuring of the "law of attraction". Your sister's relative lack of success with her ""Visualization"" contrasts with Prince and Mr. Dianna to make the entire practice feel petty and trivial, more down to chance and support structure than anything real.
At the same time it keeps that pseudo-mystical feel you have throughout. Your sister came up with the same number? Maybe the angels have issues understanding chronology in addition to sardonicism..? It captures well what it feels like for a skeptic to witness someone who lives an entirely different sort of life, stumbling through barriers with an improbable consistency that is hard for the skeptic to understand.
As I mentioned earlier, my mom is similar to your sister. I grew up in a house with homeopathy, reflexology, magnet pillows, and co-op groups with women who subscribed to reiki energy healing whose mechanism worked fine as long as you remained subscribed to the email newsletters. Astrology readings were bought at a time she was at risk of losing her home.
I moved back to my hometown a few years ago partly to take care of her as she became disabled. One CAM practitioner she saw for her problems recommended she eat a restrictive diet that consists of only 3 ingredients that she chews exactly 40 times per bite.
Shortly after moving back my mom pushed my visiting brother and I to help her put together a yard-sale. The location had little traffic and the things being sold weren't particularly valuable. The result was a relative's ankle was broken in a drain and we sold barely enough to cover what she had spent on putting it together, including $3 worth of hotdogs that I awkwardly grilled on a Foreman grill on an extension cord.
Later the extent of her disability and insolvency came out, and some of her strange and abrasive behavior made sense. She convinced herself a yardsale could fix things. She somewhat estranged family in her insistence to have Christmas at her house because she was scared it would be the last time she would have it.
Before moving back I had a housemate who studied drug addiction whose favourite book was "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts", which takes a sympathetic view to addicts and advocates harm-reduction policies. It mentions an alcoholic woman whose grandfather used to hold her down and spit on her. In Gabor Mate's drugs are often coping mechanisms. They're flawed, but they might be supporting a person in a way you have to understand if you want to put forth an alternative.
My mom is a smart woman. She pays attention to others, she's willing to challenge authority and call things out that other social convention asks you sweep under the rug. Sometimes that's great (e.g., checking in on an elderly woman whose been seen with bruises) and sometimes it manifests in extremely flawed and stubborn thinking.
I'm writing a bit too much, but the tl;dr is that I appreciated your work for trying to understand and appreciate your sister while not shying away from criticizing the ugly "Just-world" implications of The Secret.
Honestly I don't have any complaints. There are some parts that could be rewritten to be easier to read (per @Grzmot) but that might take away from the style of it. You could include more on what a healthy use of optimism is, but that might clutter it and would probably require changing an ending that I already really like.
A bit of a side issue, but I've been a bit reluctant to participate in any creative/writing things because I don't have any background. I dipped out of writing in 6th grade after a teacher strongly criticized a sweet girl who wrote a story about a smile traveling around the world, and distantly witnessing that girl's downward spiral through the rest of her school career.
I've been around writers enough to know that there are many things that I'm missing beyond the art of compliment-sandwich-criticism. You're obviously a skilled writer, and you seem to have at least enough background to give you an idea of how to structure a writing club.
So my issue is that I don't know how to contribute (via feedback or submission) in a way that actually adds value to writers. I don't have any intuitions on what feedback writers want.
I also have some neck/shoulder issues that are a constant distraction and limit my computer time, and a variety of other life obligations that make it hard to hit submission deadlines or give timely feedback. I've been writing something on the theme of liminality/castoreum (thought you were being literal) but I'm not sure when I'll be able to finish it, or if I should submit it. I'm fine following along as a lurker.
Fuck that teacher.
As for you, your background doesn't matter. You can start writing any time, it's the art form with the lowest barrier of entry, and the way you have analyzed this piece shows that you care more tham some other people, so trying to apply that knowledge to your own writing would be a good start. I don't have a background either, I started writing smut as a teenager and graduated through the various stages by meeting people who were better than me who saw my potential and were willing to critique and edit my work. I still wouldn't call it good, the piece I wrote for this club is kind of a mess, probably because I went in writing without a clear goal in mind.
But that doesn't matter if you're just starting out. Just start and work on the feedback everyone provides.
The themes are only suggestions. You don't have to follow them at all. Submitting on one week doesn't mean you have to commit to the next date too. While you should try giving a critique for at least one piece when you submit, it doesn't mean you have to do it immediately. The pieces here are longer so critique might take longer and that's ok.
Castoreum is full of musical potential. Let's claim it before Lin-Manuel Miranda gets his hands on a medieval bestiary.
I'm not known for theatrical chuckles, but at this part, some deliciously hammy laughter rocked the station wagon. My sense for how a writing group should operate comes from intuition and third-hand reports. And let me tell you what I said to my wife at the time I posted the piece: "The best feedback I could hope for would reassure me that I had been fair—funny, but fair." Even though my sister has lent her unconditional support for this essay (without reading it), I am afraid of caricaturing her inadvertently. Your reading delivered what I hoped for, makes me feel more confident that I have struck the right tone. I can now look at placing it somewhere besides Skeptical Inquirer. Maybe we should put more stock in our intuitions.
I'll reflect on the role of my younger sister. In some ways she's the more interesting character, since her faith in the power to manipulate a mild life-force through the gentle movement of her palms masks a permanently seething resentment for everyone on the planet. Including the Reiki volcano could ratchet up the fun. I think I cut her involvement short because I saw she wasn't going to provide the kind of middle way you saw me attempting. She keeps trying to rope the other sister into a joint venture, so maybe I'll soon have additional material.
Oof. I feel that. Throughout my life I have been close to a lot of the sort of behavior you describe. It seems to seek me out. It must have had a deep impact on you. Have you ever found yourself moved to confront obvious cons of a supernatural persuasion? I tend to mentally style myself an anthropologist when I enter their spaces (by which I mean psychic fairs, alternative medical practices, etc.). But I can't always keep from intervening. Once, I attended a book talk given by a pet communicator. You send her a photo of your dog and $80-$400 in order to hear that Rocco loves you beyond life itself, but he won't stop urinating in your slippers as long as it helps him to process his anxiety over UPS trucks. Maybe people get something out of this. It just tweaks a spring inside me when hucksters ventriloquize the voiceless and defenseless. I confess I went just to put an uncomfortable question: "How do you proceed when the animal tells you they are being abused by their owner?"
Bruising silence. Then, "I have to be very careful in that situation."
"Yes, but what do you do?" Then I felt terrible for being a spoilsport. It's all fun and games until a state agency visits your door on the advice of a woman in a cowl-neck sweater with access to the unheard cries of pet Polaroids. Yet, on the other hand, how could she not, in her position as the only witness, do everything in her power to stop abuse? To my great surprise, she stated that this has happened more than once. Nothing more came of this line of inquiry. She would only darkly repeat her statement about being careful.
Anyway, thank you for the insightful, meaningful response. I look forward to reading your next contribution, whatever stage it's in. Maybe if a future theme were "ghosts" I would have the opportunity to hear more from you on this theme. I would relish that.
This reminds me of a house my parents were thinking of buying some time ago that came with a free church. Looked the part, too: venerable, with beautiful stonework and cloaked in ivy. A couple floors, lots of space, honestly in really nice condition overall. Great price—but rather out of the way, and I don't think Prince ever performed there. Still, if I had that much money lying around, I'm sure I'd have half a mind to buy it myself.
You've written an excellent story. I'm enchanted, and can hardly believe that the words on the page exist in such a sequence. I'm honestly not even sure what to say except that you have a supernatural gift. Are you sure this is nonfiction? Its creation was not ordained by a higher power? This is the kind of tale I would hear from the coolest person I know, which she heard from the coolest person she knew (who operates, by extension, at an exponentially, divinely situated level of cool), while sitting on a sandy beach towel in the company of a golden retriever named Jasper shortly after taking some [REDACTED], my expression fixed in a position of utter amazement and disbelief—but the latter affection extending so far beyond the realm of possibility that it has undergone an integer overflow back to a heretofore unknown and immutable form of understanding equivalent to that of Moses on Mount Sinai. That is to say, in what outrageous universe do I live where such events are physically possible? Does this account not prove the existence of the Almighty? Not only for its coincidences-beyond-coincidence, but the celestial humor with which you describe the aura of our friend Mr. Diana and the church as a whole, and the relaxed tone you employ to lay out your sentences in general.
I'm not drunk, I swear, just surprised by the simultaneous neatness and vibrancy of the text. Your characterizations of person, action, and object are creative and amusing. Perhaps I'm just in a particularly buoyant mood, but there's something about the pairing of what is a rather mundane abstract premise—pseudo-commercial property acquisition—and the absurd spirituality of the whole endeavor (and all those involved) that brings me immense joy. Great work, truly. I'm going to share this with my parents; maybe they'll end up with that house with a church attached after all!
Your comment itself reads like you have a supernatural gift for language!
What can I say? You have great taste.
I think your piece is a great entry and it was interesting to read. It balanced out that unbelievable situation with comedy and made you want to read on to find out how it all ends. Remind of the movie Burn After Reading a little bit, where the central premise leads to multiple dead people, tons of money wasted and absolutely nothing happening in the end.
However I have to say that after the meeting with Mr. Diana ended, you lost me. The text was already jumpy and surreal and up to that point in a good way, but I kind of just lost the thread? Maybe it's because I don't live in the US, I don't really know anything about Prince except that he was a pretty famous musician, but I wasn't able to follow along. Also, you have some really long sentences in there, two which stood out to me where:
stood out to me as sentences that I just had to read multiple times to get their meaning. Maybe it's English isn't my first language though.
What I did like about your writing is that you dangled this line of describing things and moving the plot forward very well, which is something I feel like I'm not very good at, because I feel obligated to describe every action of a character so it makes sense instead of giving my readers more independence in their thinking and letting them infer what happens.
All in all, I did enjoy it.
Many thanks for the feedback! Prince. What a truly unique spirit. His fame stems from his musicianship—a self-taught master of dozens of instruments, he wrote, performed, and produced tens of thousands of songs while demonstrating a monster talent for guitar. But he would also destroy you on the basketball court before serving you heaps of pancakes and scorn in full stage dress. Due to these and more aspects of the exceptional, he is a figure about whom you could believe just about story.
I'd be interested in hearing any initial and/or latent impressions of this piece you might have: how it made you feel, anything it reminded you of, and where exactly you think the liminality in it resides, or any other comments you're moved to make. I had a specific interpretation in mind while writing, but I'd be curious about how it's actually understood by others.
I rarely share my written work because it tends to be esoteric and incredibly personal, and this is no exception. I'm posting it here because I feel it could be applied rather uniquely to anyone with whom it resonates, if indeed it does at all. You're also welcome to criticize any part of it, including the themes, structure, tone, and style. I promise I won't be offended, though I won't necessarily have a reply at hand.
They spiraled outward before my eyes, which were closed. They were geometric, recursive, constantly mutating and yet staying true to themselves in their peculiar way. They were elegant, dancelike, luminescent, their movements refined and energetic. With each spin my attention refocused and my delight grew; I had never seen such things! I admired the form they held as they modulated ring-like across every possible axis, each oddity patiently taking its turn in the sequence. I could think of nothing else. Oh! What beauty! Freedom! How had I lived in their absence? Miserably—I am sure of it.
Suddenly my vision was obscured, no longer perturbed by these dances, and I started in confusion. My lovelies, my stars, my hearts-of-desire! I gazed ahead, searching for a point of reference. What was there to see? No shapes in such an abysm—none except my own, which I had immediately become aware of. Carelessly, I glanced inward and particulated. Oh, no, this would not do. Now I am hardly a shape at all. I thought briefly: of thinking, of stepping out, my only option. With a jerking sort of motion, rather crooked, I decided to draw an outline. This would help me place myself.
I focused and remembered what it was I constituted: a series of wispy, crisscrossing lines, not very organized but with a coordinate density I could appreciate. The lines flattened in disuniformity as I clarified my image, distinctive layers of brush strokes marking my edges. I saw that they had settled in a way that looked almost three-dimensional. Ah. Yes, that’s it. An orb, or two orbs, seemed to look at me. They were nestled in a sub-shape. I could not turn away from them. I drew closer. They drew me closer as well. I came so near as to reflect my vision outward, no longer looking at this shape but through it, in reverse-fashion, almost as though I had mirrored myself.
Faint traces of color found themselves in the corners of my new sight lines, but I saw mostly gray, abyssal remnants. Then, with a great heaving motion, these inside-adjacencies unveiled themselves to their surroundings. A rush of dream-energy intensified within me, but it was nighttime no longer, and I was greeted with a sea of slow-brewing emotion. It was all the same as before, all appreciable in its singing-dancing-bouncing modality, but more fresh than I could have known in its righteousness of rendering.
I was unsure if the sea I looked upon had come to me the same way I had come to it, but that hardly mattered. I could see its waves churning up and down in foam-tipped crests, a disconcerted sort of idling for something so vast. I could see how they crashed down upon my form, though I was not washed away, only a little startled. Beside the waves I saw sparks of individualized motion casting out in what had to be arbitrary directions, though they did so with a confidence that suggested otherwise. They reminded me of my old friends, back from when I was spiraling in stasis not so very long ago. As I leaned forward, waves and waves of deep-seated presence crashed upon my self-render, now a five-fold array of structure in an ocean too big for me to possibly understand. I had been jump-started by the waters of my reckoning. Now, I looked toward the sea—the real sea—like never before, and spoke these words:
"What rough beast slouches towards the cabana for some tacos al pastor?"
Thank you for this puzzle! I feel I should pay you the compliment of describing my initial impressions. Maybe I can return with more feedback once the key is in hand. More to come!
Right. Each read-through I convince myself of a different interpretation. First, I took it for a creation narrative: perception seems to depend on creative, perhaps divine, effort; you got your abysm from which forms are differentiating; you got your face moving upon the waters—as classic Genesis as it gets without an appearance by Peter Gabriel. From this perspective, the mirror image makes sense as the divine reflected in creation. But the emotions of the piece vacillate between joy and sublime awe. Unless this "I" is bifurcated between creator and creation, the loss of sight and bewilderment undermine this reading.
Alright. So the speaker is a pair of eyes themselves, orbs in self-regard—no, a developing baby in utero about to make its first moves to the exit, waters breaking—no, an atom—no, an artist's self-portrait—no, a swimmer emerging from under water. As you can see, I'm working at the puzzle, but having difficulty telling denotation from metaphor. Much hinges on that. It changes the game totally if "brush strokes" are really the markings left by a paintbrush, and if the speech previewed and curtailed by the final colon is meant to be literal.
I can say with certainty that you're engaging the theme of liminality. It's on the verge of intelligibility! (Rather, I am nearly able to make it out. As I say, I'm sure the failure is mine.) One really wants to fill in the empty speech bubble at the end with a triumphant phrase that announces the solution. So, I think, why not give it to an artist at the seaside contemplating the rebirth of perception, which inevitably (personally speaking) inspires hunger for some tacos? Blink.
Stray thought: I'm convinced that only indecision over whether to spell it with an "a" or two "e's" kept you from titling this "Extansee."
From a structural, tonal and stylistic perspective your writing is good! But as you said, the text is very personal to you and if it is not going to resonate with the reader and unfortunately it didn't with me. If you write mood pieces like that you sort of just have to accept that, like I did in the last writing club, and it didn't resonate with everyone either, because the piece relied on you having lived a similar experience to invoke those emotions.
So here's my submission, only 2 days late because I didn't get it finished on the deadline (sorry guys, fucking university and work got in the way D: )
So originally I had the theme quite well in mind, and although I think my world fits it in general, I don't think it came out quite well in the piece. I also had to shorten so I could get it done at all on time, I think that's pretty noticeable in the end. I do hope it piques your curiosity though.
Sorry bout the onedrive link, but I don't have anything better to share it on.
Is the quest sufficiently interesting to carry the story?
Is the world at all interesting?
What can you tell me about the world, do you have any ideas about how things look that aren't explicitly told to you?
Also @etiolation I will get to writing come critiques, but right now I need sleep. I hope that's fine.
As the canal waves suggest an ocean, so too I get the sense that Sofia’s walk is just one thin track in a vastly deeper world you are developing. The world puts me in mind of a Studio Ghibli production, especially in tone, and I expect that by the time it’s fully sketched something will stir gently in every corner of it. I think that your concern to make sure the quest justifies the ticket to Ostia is the right one to prioritize. I’ll share a few questions I had, as well as some principles to which I think it would help to return. I hope this either helps your story feel more engaging or demonstrates that I have a selfish streak and really like clarifying the mechanics of storytelling for my own sake.
A storyteller is a bastard, always holding out on you. From a memorized deck he deals one lean card at a time to expand an arrangement before you. You may play along in order to observe a gambler, but you are watching an architect. Only when you step back from the table can you take in the whole house of cards and appreciate the placement of each in their time and place. I am suggesting, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, that a storyteller should know when to hold ‘em, and furthermore, that detail adds up to nothing except as it relates to structure. The face of a card won’t tell you its value until you see where it is placed. If you find yourself pilling up too many cards of details, I would ask, what are you setting them against? Because I don’t think you can ever have too many, if their intersection with the plot is strong.
To start with the toughest and most basic task, how might you make Sofia’s quest more involving? The effect you are seeking is the transferring of Sofia’s shock to the reader, so that both arrive at the realization at the same time and yet with a feeling of inevitability. I would examine the structure at its most pared down, then see if I could make each additional detail enhance that outline. So, reading at the “archetypal” level, you have a young woman who finds a mysterious object/being and decides to seek out its owner. She encounters a guide/gatekeeper who offers direction and foreshadowing. That leads her to a witch figure, who politely supplies the identity of the owner. The thing is returned. The end.
To give Sofia’s quest momentum, ask where this mission to return a rat fits in the context of her life. What is her schedule? What are her responsibilities? Her values and weaknesses? Why her? The best answer will give the character a conflict to resolve. She’s someone who’s terrified of rats, but needs to solve a mystery (e.g., the disappearances of several local scholars) and this animal gives indications that it holds the key. Or maybe she’s about to sit for exams in biology (context), but she’s always gotten by in classes by faking and guessing (weakness). Spending all day returning this rat may prevent her from finally studying as she has promised herself she would—but on the other hand, her calling (value) is to help animals, so it’s hard leave this one to the mercy of the city rat-catchers. Giving her this conflict to solve not only drives the action forward, but it also distracts her and the reader from the signposts you are planting toward the real resolution (the shock).
So, returning to the card metaphor, too many cards seem to lie on their own, without supporting others. Leon appears, then falls off the map. The barman regards the wall to no purpose. Relying on the narrator’s description, Nonna Maria serves Sofia the single most momentous meal since Eve ate an apple, yet the only consequence of it is that Sofia feels full. Then, at the point in the story when we should be in the most uncertainty about how things will resolve, we detour into a drug deal to demonstrate the rat is somehow special, but that’s all forgotten when he gets dropped at home.
I think you could retain everything you have as long as you place the cards nearer together. Maybe Leon pops up throughout the day, functioning as a reminder that she’s neglecting her work. Maybe Nonna Maria is putting Sofia through a different test (tying closer to the book-learning vs. real life experience theme I suggested), to she if she’s ready to learn the arcane way of transformation via magic pies. Maybe the professor (again closer to the conflict theme) offers her a valuable crash course in rat anatomy at the cost of sacrificing this animal. In summary, make the center a conflict for Sofia, then place each successive detail as near as possible to that center. Maybe this strategy can be of use when thinking about description and plotting.
I admire the thought you’ve packed into this short piece. I hope you continue and that you find satisfaction in the stories you’ve crafted the city to home. Thank you so much for sharing this work and your self-reflection. You have a clear view of what could be strengthened, which is a sure sign that there’s good work in you for the undertaking.
Thank you very much for your feedback!
I agree with all your criticisms, and they stem from the fact that I did very little prep work and was trying to kind of find the story while writing it, which you can probably only do if you are way, way better than I am.
I think your suggestions for improvement are all great, and may inspire me to submit the same work, revised, at TWC #3 if people cared enough. I ran out of time and patience here and I think more careful planning would achieve this. Your pointers are great ideas, but I don't feel like magic fits into this world, at least in the arcane form.
I do like your idea about Sofia neglecting her studies though. The implications are in the text I think and maybe that's why you wrote it down (or maybe I am thinking to highly of myself here) and I think they could be made explicit and elaborated, this would allow me to add a sense of urgency that would distract people from the reveal at the end.
I will definitely set my future stories in Ostia. I like the feeling of the world, and the fact that it reminded you of Studio Ghibli movies (not my intention, but a great honour nonetheless, I love that studio and Hayayo Miazaki's work) shows that I'm doing at least someting right. And you're right, I do have some darker secrets in mind, but they are painted in very broad strokes only right now. What have I mind is a city-state looking for its history while at the same time being unique in its pursuit of freedom and democracy in Ozeania perhaps exactly because they lack the history that the other archipelagos have. This sort of clashes with the nonchalantness that many Ostians have because of their privileged status in the world. I think it's an interesting mix and good place to write stories in. I just need to practice making the smaller scope more interesting to ferry the grander questions about the world (sort of like Harry Potter, I adore that style of world-building, but I'd like to do it with more structure instead of making everything up as I go along).
Thank you again for your feedback. It's immensely valuable.
Glad to see your submission. I think we'll all take our time with the critiques, aiming for delivery within the next week.