Short Fiction – The First 200 Words


I know that most of the time we talk about novel-related matters here on Magical Words, but today (and through the weekend) I want to spend some time talking about short stories. Specifically, I’d like to talk about your short stories…

The first 200 words of any short story are often all that get read when submitted to magazines, because you can tell a lot about the writing, the writer, and the story itself in that span. So what I’m offering today is to review the first 200 words of up to 20 short stories this weekend. Post it in the comments section below, and I’ll get to all them as quickly as I can.

So that we’re clear, I’m going to post my comments about your short story (and it has to be a short story, no novels opening (the correct way to open novels and short stories is not the same and they can’t be judged by the same criteria)) in a direct fashion. I don’t intend to mock anyone or be brutal, but I need to be honest or this exercise is a waste of everyone’s time. If I can get to more, I will, but I can only promise to to do the first 20.

So who’s game for a little audience-participation?


87 comments to Short Fiction – The First 200 Words

  • MaCrae

    Ooooh! Me me me! Pick me! Although I have to ask, what are the no-noes for opening a short story? I’m in a very important computer class (hee hee) and can’t go sneaking though other posts to see. I haven’t got an opening yet or much else for that matter, I’m working on characters and such and knowing how to open the story would be fantabulous.

  • Well, I need as much help as I can get when it comes to short stories, so here goes:

    If one could trudge across the Atlantic, that’s how I might have described my progress back from London, where the streets were cool, the men were well-dressed, and when they weren’t, they at least had the decency to give a polite, “morning!” before darting nakedly down an alleyway in search of a Lycanthrope Emergency Box. The muggy North Carolina summer seemed to suck out not only my energy, but every ounce of expectation I’d had for a good break between semesters.

    A buffalo-sized man in little more than a greasy apron and an orange hunting cap shunted me out of line in Target. I watched in horror as his gray-sprouted backside rippled away from me and noticed that he was also wearing pristine timberlands with the price tags still attached.

    He slammed a tent-sized pair of sweatpants in front of the clerk. Her thin ponytail quivered as she scanned the barcode.


    “Y’all think I walk around like this for fun?” he barked. “You happen to look up last night, hun? This is what my tax-dollars pay for!”

    “The town is really growing up!” my mom said, taking my attention away from the train-wreck of Lycanthrope-Human relations occurring a few feet away. She gestured out the window. “We have a Starbucks now.”

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well you *know* we all love audience participation. Here’s the opening to a short story I started a while ago, but still need to finish (if that’s ok):

    Kneeling among the roses, she glanced down to see a drop of blood beading on her finger.
    Her hands and forearms were covered in shallow cuts and scratches from trying to weed out the roses, but those were just angry welts that would soon fade. The cut on her finger was much deeper, drawing blood freely.
    As she stared at the drop of blood, mesmerized, it swelled and suddenly ran down her finger; dripped to the ground, leaving a snaking red trail across her palm. As the blood hit the dirt by her foot, bare for the feel of warm earth, she flinched and started to her feet. Finger in her mouth, she hurried to the house to find a bandage.
    Clumps of tangled weeds lay forgotten, strewn about the grass under the roses, and a drop of blood soaked into the soft earth.

    A storm was coming. The sky had turned yellow like pent up energy and seedpods, collected from the old honey locusts along the road and strung above the porch, rattled thinly in the sudden gusting of the wind. The air smelled sharp.

  • MaCrae – Watch and learn what you can from the others, then. This exercise requires actual writing and not sketches and plans. Sorry. I can work with a story that hasn’t been completed yet (ala Hepseba), but there has to be something to work with.

  • Mikaela

    All right. Here is the opening for a short story I wrote awhile ago, it needs another round of edits though. This starts the story about how Josies life turns upside down.

    The sound of a chair hitting the floor made me turn around.
    “ Tommy, what-”, I began. The rest of the words died on my tongue when I saw the Gryphon in the middle of the kitchen. Its golden brown head barely reached the top of the table. The beak gleamed gold in the lamplight.

    It’s just a fledgling. A cold shiver crept down my spine. Gryphon’s were known for their protective instinct.
    So where is the Parent? I looked around.
    My heart froze, when I saw the chair lying on the floor. The chair where my 10 year old brother had sat.
    Mum will kill me.My hands trembled as I picked up the remains of the crayons. All of them had gouges in them.
    As if his hands had turned into claws.
    I turned around, and looked at the fledgling.

    “ Tommy?” The whisper echoed in the silent kitchen.
    The fledgling chirped, and nodded.
    Oh crap.
    May he would turn into a human, before mum returned from work.
    Yeah, and maybe we would win the lottery too.
    I pushed away the thoughts, and focused on the present.

  • Okay, I’ll play!

    Arric found her in the garden near the cliffs, kneeling as she worked. “A warm spring we’ve had,” he remarked.

    Kaera shrugged, startled by his sudden approach. “Perhaps.” She turned her trowel steadily, ignoring him though he hovered behind her.

    “Should be a long summer.”

    “I suppose.” She dug faster, stabbing at the earth. The soil gave way freely, crumbling into moist clumps at each stroke.

    Arric continued, too oblivious to her irritation, or too accustomed to it. “Narkin says we’re doomed. His magic has told him so.”

    Kaera went rigid at the jibe. She spiked the trowel into the ground and peered up at him. Arric stood facing the sun; his wavy brown hair and gray eyes glowed in the light. He was a sometime friend, just three years older than her own seventeen, but at times like this she wished he was as aloof toward her as the rest of the village. “There is no magic,” she told him firmly.

    “But Narkin—”

    “He pretends. You know it as well as I.”

    “That may be, but he’s right. When that star hits Takara, our world will die.”

    “We’ll die when the Taiyo comes, otherwise,” she snapped. “I hardly see a difference.”

    Arric shook his head. “We could fight the Taiyo. It’s the star we can’t stop.”

  • Lauren – Your opening is an interesting mix of confusion and intrigue. I think “If one could trudge across the Atlantic, that’s how I might have described my progress back from London…” means that your narrator has just returned from London, but I found it confusing and had to read it more than once to come to than conclusion. Openings need to be crystal clear, but slush readers aren’t going to take the time to figure things out; they’re just going to reject anything that doesn’t make sense and move on to the next one.

    On the plus-side, you’ve created a really intriguing blend of everyday normalcy and werewolf madness, and that is clear. And it’s not ‘told;’ it’s very deftly shown through details.

    The other thing I’d ask you to address is that I don’t yet have a sense of what is driving your narrator. What does she want? That needs to be established strong and clear very early on in short stories, and I don’t any hint of that yet, beyond “a good break between semesters.” That’s not enough. I doubt it’s the main thing, but you need to get to the main thing ASAP. What does she want? You’re going to hear me say that A LOT, I’m sure, in the next day or three.

    You’ve created an intriguing setting for a story (a world were lycanthropy is a common problem that borders on mere nuisance its so common), but you need a specific situation/problem that impacts and drives your character specifically.

  • Hep – You show a good attention to individual details here, but the first thing that jumps out at me is that they don’t really match up all that well, which keeps me from trusting the story. You start out with a drop of blood beading on your character’s finger, but then say that she had lots of cuts and scrapes from weeding the roses, but then say that this one was “much deeper, drawing blood freely.” If it’s deeper and drawing blood freely, you wouldn’t have a “bead” of blood. It also seems to me that she stands there contemplating it before she suddenly hurries to the house. Again, these are two details that feel incongruous to me.

    The most interesting detail (to me anyway) is that this character lives in a world where roses are something that is weeded out. I’d be very curious to know what she was leaving behind that she considered important.

    Overall the raw material is here for someting interesting, but you need to 1)make sure all the details fit together, and 2)get to the meat of the tale a bit quicker.

  • Mikaela – The problem is laid out clearly and directly–10 yr old brother is missing, and there’s a gryphon there in his place. No issues there. The biggest problem I had with this opening is the opposite problem I had with the first two I commented on. With the first two, there needed to be greater clarity about what the central issue of the story was going to be, and the strength of each piece was in the quality of the prose. With your opening, I would tell you that you need to go back and add some more variety to your sentence structure choices. Almost all of your sentences are simple sentence, and while Hemmingway made a career for himself writing like that, it’s not one I can recommend today. Your opening reads like the same thing over and over again and the tone/voice quickly gets monotonous. You only have two compound sentences, and sadly, even then one of them (commas) is misused. This sentence here: “My heart froze, when I saw the chair lying on the floor” doesn’t need a comma after the word “froze.”

    On your next round of edits, work some variety into the structure of your sentences. The foundation of a good story is definitely there; you just need to work on polishing up your rpose.

  • I need to run into town for a few hours for some meetings, but I’ll be back late this afternoon to pick up where we left off, as well as answer any questions anyone might have about the first three rounds of feedback.

  • Razziecat

    Edmund, thank you for this. Here’s the opening of a story that’s still giving me fits.

    Becoming a gargoyle was easy. Escaping the magus was not.
    I never thought my own magic would betray me. The spell was meant to beguile Uziel’s daughter, sulky Tourmaline with her grass-green eyes. I was fifteen, brash and besotted. Magic was a game, Tourmaline the prize, I the axis on which the world spun.
    It began with a stone chipped out of the garden wall, a piece of white marble no bigger than my thumbnail. This was my key, my link to the earth-magic. In the warmth of my palm, flesh to stone, it came to life, flowing over skin, hair, shirt and trousers, a translucent shell of creamy white. Eyes and nose were shielded with a wet plaster of rose petals. When the spell settled, I peeled off the petals, my hands still supple in their cool sheath of stone.
    Crouching in the moonlit temple garden among the pale statues, I shaped a mask of illusion, of wide splayed mouth and protruding eyes. This was more difficult, flesh to air, but worth the effort. The smooth waters of a lily pool showed me my face, grotesque and grimacing.
    Tourmaline came as she had promised. I slipped the spell enough for her to see my true face, to let my dark eyes and seductive smile work their usual charm. I kissed her and whispered something inane about red-berry lips, and the world went mad.

  • Razziecat

    Ooops, sorry, not sure what happened there, but the spacing before each paragraph didn’t appear in my post.

  • Deb S

    The heart of god teetered on the mountain ledge. I held my breath, like my panting from twenty feet above might actually blow our prize over the edge. Gravel rain fell hissing into the ravine, but the heart held.

    Jackal frowned at Sparrow, who clung to the mountainside halfway to the heart. I’d often wished he’d study me the way he did her, but with his face a-streak with the blood of dead outlanders and Trial-kin alike he wasn’t so pretty.

    I inched nearer the edge. Nothing dislodged, but it was the lower ledge, and the crumbling rock-face twixt here and there turned my dirt and blood palms to sweaty rue. “Sparrow, come back.”

    “No.” Jackal blew her a kiss. “You can do it.”

    She nodded, and climbed spider-like down the rock-face. Only spiders didn’t tremble with exhaustion. Stone fractured. Sparrow gasped, hung one-handed and grabbed the heart. A dust cloud erupted.


    She coughed through the grit and stowed our prize twixt her breasts. “Safe.”

    An echo—spears on stone—said otherwise. Sparrow climbed, a dust-gray mote spiraling upward, but shale crumbled time and again. Spears drummed closer.

    “Throw it,” said Jackal.

    “Screw the heart. Screw Trial.” I dropped to my stomach and reached down.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for the feedback, and I think you’re definitely right. I was too focused on the feel and structure of the writing when I started this and not nearly enough on clarity. Getting to the central issue more quickly is a tricky puzzle for this piece. Definitely good food for thought though, and maybe the solution will give me the oomph to finish the draft. Thanks again.

  • This is from a completed, but unedited short story I call “The Red Key”.


    Shit. He’s fumbled the drop. I bit my lip to keep from saying it aloud. The slick coldness of the key brushed my fingers only briefly as gravity pulled it to the polished tiles. North Terminal Train Station was crowded and loud but I could have sworn I heard the clink as the key settled to the shining floor. I glanced unobtrusively around to see if anyone was watching before bending at the knees to retrieve the bit of metal. The only pair of eyes on me belonged to a baby, maybe eight months old, who blinked sleepily at me over his mother’s left shoulder. My drop guy – the amateur – had already moved away into the crowd.
    The key itself was metal and fire engine red. Not exactly inconspicuous, I thought sourly to myself as I slipped it into the left pocket of my jeans and flicked my gray eyes in another casual glance around. No one was watching, even the baby’s attention had been captured by a brightly colored plastic toy in his mother’s hand. So I strolled slowly toward the far end of the terminal and the narrow hall that led to the bank of lockers that would hold my prize.

  • ^What she said. 🙂 It makes sense to treat the first 200 words sort of like the first five pages of a novel. That actually gives me some ideas to work from…and lets me know that I probably shouldn’t actually start the story here.

  • Brewhaha

    Here is the opening to a short I’m working on and hoping to submit to an anthologhy soon:

    Ana woke slowly, head throbbing, mouth tasting of molasses. Even though she was awake her body was slow to respond, it reminded her of waking from a surgery. Belabored, she finally forced her eyes open. It took a moment to get her bearings, to understand that she was tied to a chair, and that she wasn’t able to move her arms or legs.
    She was alone in an unfamiliar room. The only source of light was from the moon peering through the window behind her. From the mold-work around the ceiling, the cracking of the plaster walls and the thickness of the oak door it was apparent the home was at least a hundred years old. Besides the chair, the room was empty, except for the clothes. Along the entire perimeter of the room were stacks of folded clothing. Each stack held a complete outfit, each told a story of who they once belonged to. Some were trendy, some wore worn, some were expensive while others were trashy. Although the styles were different they all had one thing in common, they all belonged to females. Ana spotted her clothes neatly arranged by the door. Her creased jeans, black blouse, pink bra and panties were topped with her Tiva sandals. She was suddenly aware of how naked, how vulnerable, she was.

  • Cookie74

    Thanks for doing this. Here’s mine:

    I was sitting at the corner coffee shop, drinking my morning latte, when my body decided to rebel against my soul. I felt a sudden tingling sensation in my feet that crept up my legs and eventually engulfed my entire frame. My hands started to shake uncontrollably, and the latte spilled out all over my jeans, causing me to shriek and jump up. Though, oddly enough, when I jumped up, my body stood still, rooted to the chair. I turned around and looked down at my body wondering what the hell was happening. My body stared back up at me with a grimace. I quickly sat down to try and force my soul back into my body, and that’s when it got violent.
    My body stood up and thrust the chair over backward with me still in it. I went sprawling. At least I thought I did, but I felt nothing as I skidded along the floor. My body grabbed a pot of hot coffee from a nearby waitress and hurled it at me. I instinctively braced myself for the impact but felt nothing as the coffee passed right through me. Before I could recover from the shock of having my own body attack me, he had turned on his heels and bolted out the door. I was so dumbfounded that I couldn’t react.

  • sagablessed

    I have a short story I am working on, but am not sure how I would be able to post it here with only 200 words in time (I work 12 hours a day 6 days a week, so most of my free time is for my WIP). I have barely enough time to read MW before I am out the door. No, not having a pity party, people. ;P
    I hope you might do this again, or another of our facilitators will do so.

  • Alone in the shadows, I sit upon my throne in my sacred cave. I pray to myself, but I do not answer. Pythia, goddess of dark places, hear me. Lady of the moon, hear me. Protectress of wombs, hear me. Goddess of mysteries, answer my prayers.
    All day long, petitioners come. They enter with downcast eyes. They present their requests as I sit behind the veil of sacred smoke that wreathes from the ground. My priest gives them my answers.
    But at night I sit on my throne, breathing the smoke of insight and I ask the questions of myself. Who else might I ask? Who will interpret the goddess to the goddess? Even my priest cannot explain these mysteries to me.
    My festival cakes are soaked in honey, coated in sesame. They are sacred to me, eaten only on my highest festival day. They are Harvest Moons, but my soldiers call them Pythia’s tits. Sweeter than any other woman. Once you have tasted me you will never be satisfied with another. That is as it should be.

    [This is from a flash piece that has been rejected a few times. I’d love to get specific feedback so I can revise better, so be as blunt as you like.]

  • charitybradford

    I’d love to find out what I’m doing wrong, so rip away. This is from a short story I’m working on called “Fallen Angels”.

    The alien ship entered earth’s atmosphere Tuesday morning at dawn. It made three trips around the globe before drifting towards the United States. It sailed across the sky, elegant with its sweeping curves and pulsing lights. People reported hearing music—a sad melody that filled them with longing.

    By lunch time the ship drifted to a stop above a city in New Mexico, and the US Army moved into place. The missiles flew as soon as the music started. It wasn’t much of a fight. The poor little ship didn’t have much by way of gun power. It shot off a few rounds of laser fire, and managed to take out a tank or two before crashing.

    “Briggs, get your team out there.” The Captain barked at the man standing in front of him. “Nothing comes off that ship alive, but we want the ship salvaged.”

    “Sir, yes Sir!” Nathan Briggs turned and stepped out of the tent before scowling as he wiped the spittle from his chin. They should have tried to make contact.

    He squared his shoulders and reminded himself it wasn’t his decision to make, but something stunk about this whole operation. Two men waited for him two tents down

  • Julia

    Thanks for doing this, Edmund!

    Five Colors of Sky

    Her yahrzeit made him careless. Before he knew it, his face was pressed against the stone. His knees scuffed the ground, where a woman and man and two little girls had run so long ago. He tried to break it off—nothing good ever came from getting drawn into the world. But different footsteps stole his privacy. A hand lay on his shoulder, startlingly tangible.

    “Are you alright?” The Hebrew words were soft.

    He closed his eyes. Once you were seen, you had to allow Him the story. It was the oldest rule, the only one there was. “I’m fine,” he whispered. But he had been remembering her, so the picture he presented was not entierely convincing.

    The hand didn’t move. After a moment, he lifted his head from the stone. The man was watching him. His skin was the color of walnut, buffed by wind and heat. “Come inside,” he said. “Let get you something to drink.”

    “I can’t.” It was hard to form the words. He was recalling the way she’d cried out, for the daughter whose husband had rebuffed their warning. Kindness had undone her.

    “You can’t just sit there, looking like a ghost.” A hand clasped his and helped him up. A different moment, and he might have fought. But he was past that part of the memory. “What’s your name?”

    “Please don’t ask.”

    “Fine,” the man said. “I’m Eitan.”

    Eitan was beautiful, in that careless way some men had. He worked the land that abutted her pillar, tending the olive trees that someone had planted there generations before.

  • rebnatan

    They were never supposed to need to use their combat training. Almost never. And now Constable Gerald Jones, on his very first assignment as a policeman, might have to get violent. He glanced over at Ida, standing by the window, taking in everything from a few paces away. She would back him up, he hoped, that he had tried to keep things peaceful.
    “Let’s go over this again. Explain to me why you’re so upset.” Gerald used his most soothing, psychologist tone.
    “He fucked my wife!”
    “Yes, we all understand that. What we don’t understand is why you’re so upset.”
    “She’s my wife.”
    Ida stood dispassionately to the side, arms folded over her chest, recording.
    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. You know the Codes. He needed your wife. She had the ability to fulfill his needs.”
    The man as getting angrier by the second. Angie, his voluptuous wife, stood off to the side of their common room, shuffling her feet and biting her nails as she leaned against the wall. Gerald tried to avoid ogling her too much; he was also developing a need. The man should have married someone uglier if he didn’t like sharing.
    “She didn’t want to have sex with him.”
    The Constable looked over at her.
    “Honey, I agreed.”

  • I think I’m still in the first 20. If not, no worries. 🙂 If I had to guess, I’d say that what my MC is going for isn’t clear enough in the first 200.

    Viola whipped her cane up and stabbed at the elevator call button, smacking three, four, five times after it lit up, just because. Damn that man for all his security, all the calling up to see if he was “available.” Of course he was available for her. She shoved a strand of iron-grey hair back behind her ear. She’s have tapped her foot, too, if the arthritis in her knee wasn’t acting up, but naturally, it had to rain today.
    The elevator binged, the doors whooshed open, and men and women in business attire rolled out, flowing around her like high tides around an ancient rock. Not a wrinkle among them.
    A few glanced her way and failed to mask their surprise at such an out of place figure. She thought about smacking the one who held the doors for her, but said “thank you,” instead.
    “You’re welcome,” the young man said, his voice louder and slower than normal conversation. “Do you need help finding something?”
    “I’m old,” she snapped. “Not deaf and stupid.” She caned the hand that held the doors and stepped into the car.

  • Ken

    Here’s my first 200:

    Mick DeVries checked his helmet seals for the third time, took a deep breath, and then jumped out into the vacuum of space. A current of fear coursed through him–it always did–as his momentum carried him away from the ship and towards the asteroid floating nearby.
    It was a small rock, barely a hundred meters in diameter, but it had all of the qualities that Mick preferred when he went looking for a mining location. It was too far out of the way for other independent miners to bother with and it was too small for a commercial mining operation to turn a profit on.
    “Evenin’ love,” Mick said as he drifted closer to the asteroid. “Do us a favor and be solid would you?”
    Mick touched down, his knees creaking painfully as they countered his inertia. “There now,” he said. “That wasn’t so bad was it?”
    Mick straightened with a sigh–these landings were getting harder and harder–and looked at his ship floating above the asteroid. His gaze swept across a patch of hull where the word “Solitude” had been carefully painted, the letters now dented and scraped, and settled on the remains of his mining laser.

  • Ken

    Oh, since I didn’t mention it earlier, thanks for doing this Edmund 🙂

  • Jamie

    I don’t know if it’s too late to participate, but this is a great exercise and in case it’s not my two cents, or 200 words, are below.

    “Well, at least the scenery is pretty,” Eric said with forced cheer as they passed through dense trees bursting with red, orange and yellow leaves. Tall hills loomed on each side of the road, their sandstone hearts exposed to make way for 87 North. A put-upon sigh was the only response from Sara in the passenger seat. Only dating a few weeks and already she’d given up on talking to him. A record, really.
    “I suppose that’s part of why we decided to rent a cabin up here,” Gretchen said evenly.
    Hurrah, back-up! Eric thought. She might be his best friend’s sister, but Gretchen always looked out for Eric.
    “Assuming we don’t die of starvation before we find it,” she continued.
    Okay, so almost always. Lovely. At least Lyle hadn’t chimed in. Too deeply buried in Watchmen to care, most likely. Though, come to think of it, Lyle probably wouldn’t have been concerned regardless. He rarely bothered with strong emotions like that.
    Eric envied that about his best friend. Unlike Lyle, Eric worried often, almost perpetually. Especially with graduation looming. His forthcoming BS in Comparative Literature offered little comfort. Not even with three minors.

  • I got great feedback from Ed a couple years back in a workshop with Allen Wold that focused on the first 200 words or so. It might be fun to try again.


    I always wanted to operate the Big Digger — six legs, four scoops, two drills, and a climate controlled cockpit — but I never wanted to get it that way. The Big Girl was Xavier’s bot. But Xavier was dead and I was the only other miner on the asteroid qualified to run her. So now she was mine.

    “Oy, Mitch!” called Kilpatrick, the site foreman. “Got a question or three before you take the Big Girl out the first time.”

    I bounced toward his office, fighting to keep my strides short in the low g. Long strides always looked happy; if I looked happy, people might think I had something to do with Xavier’s death. Sure, the Big Digger operator brought home a bigger share of the profits, but not enough to kill someone over. Especially not my best friend.

    Kilpatrick gestured to the empty seat in the center of his office. Behind the seat stood two men in business suits, making them the only two people on the asteroid not wearing Kevlar coveralls. “These gentlemens are from corporate,” Kilpatrick said. He might have believed that, but I didn’t. Ironically, Belt Mining had no corporate presence in the belt.

  • liornessa

    Do I dare? Em…sure. *holds breath


    Jeras clung to the castle wall and prayed to the four gods of Teled to keep him from falling hundreds of feet to his death. Spider webs magicked to his hands and feet had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now— Jeras glanced down at the trees below, branches poking up among fiery leaves like stakes piercing out of the fires of hell. He swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut. Pressing his cheek against the cold stone, he tried to calm himself. It wasn’t likely that he’d fall among the trees. No, he’d probably fall on that pretty carpet of fallen leaves littering the moat. What was under those leaves he really didn’t care to think about at the moment.
    Slowly, he opened one eye. The yards to Balgar’s tower must have stretched out and multiplied since he first eyed it from the safety of the guest room he and Prince Christopher resided in. If there had been another way into the old wizard’s tower, Jeras would have taken it. But King William of Tairn had stationed guards at all of the entrances leading to it, and there had been several wards to discourage trespassing besides.


    Thanks, Edmund, for this opportunity even if mine comes in past the cut-off point.

  • jiah

    This sounds like the perfect opportunity to de-lurk. I always keep missing the earlier ones by a couple of days. Thanks so much! Here’s the beginning of a story I wrote some time ago. Hope I’m still in the running for comments!

    The Shrine was in a clearing in the heart of the forest. It was the time of worship, but the altar was bare and no chants resounded in the air. Outside the shrine, a girl sat on the floor, threading garlands with the poise of a princess. She cast a coy look over her shoulder as she heard a footstep. Then her smile faded and she tossed her head.
    “Oh, it’s you!”
    The boy looked down at her with an expression of distaste. He knew very well that she had expected it to be a certain warrior who used to visit her. He asked, “Aren’t you worried about her?”
    “Her?” she laughed scornfully. “Why should I be? She can look after herself.”
    The boy muttered, “She’s a woman and alone, and the forest isn’t too safe.”
    “Then you go and rescue her!” the maiden snapped. Her eyes twinkled maliciously, “That’s what you’d love to do, isn’t it? Rescue your precious Priestess? Go ahead. Your enemies would run away in terror at the sight of that face, thinking you a devil of the forest.”
    She had touched a nerve. He swung his disfigured visage away from her to hide the drop that rose up in his eyes. He slunk back into the Shrine. Her malicious laughter followed him.

  • Thanks for this, Edmund! Here’s mine (even if I don’t make the 20-cut):

    A woman half-led, half-pulled a shivering child up the lane from the village. Althan watched them approach. Few came to visit her and Nettie unless there was need, and this visitor came at an odd and early hour, dawn only freshly born and the mists of the morning not yet burned clear of the fields.
    “We’ve guests coming,” she said to Nettie.
    As they drew closer, Althan noted the child’s – the boy’s – pale face and how his shoulders shook as he coughed. Wrapped in an old blanket, she could not judge his size, but that he was sorely ill was plain. The child walked with an awkward gait as if the woman’s insistent hands were the only things that moved him.
    “Injury or illness?” Nettie shifted in her chair.
    Althan left the window and resettled the blanket around the blind, crippled woman’s knees. “Illness,” Althan answered. “A young boy.” She brushed a strand of graying hair from Nettie’s face and gave her the memories of the woman’s and boy’s approach.
    A scratching sounded at the door.
    “Please, come in,” Althan invited. “Netahnsa will see you.”
    The woman paused, peering into the dimly lit interior. The boy waited listlessly at her side.

  • Isaac

    Here goes:

    In the clearing where the whole village was gathered, amidst torchlight and moonlight, beneath the jagged shadows of evergreens, a woman appeared out of nothing. They were expecting her, and they all bowed to the ground in deference to the power of the Watchers.
    Kaja crouched in the woods, just outside the glow of the torches. He tried in vain to steady his breath. The shamasal were murmuring prayers to the woman, but all he could hear was his own staccato breathing and the pounding of his pulse. He closed his eyes and exhaled as slowly as he could.
    When he opened his eyes, two old women from the village were slowly walking toward the woman who had appeared out of nothing. Between them, each of the crones held the hand of a small child, a boy of five. The boy was wearing a breech-cloth and nothing else. On his high forehead was a red mark of paint, now dull and flaked. The boy’s head hung low as he walked.
    The woman, the messenger of the Watchers, bowed to the two old women. They bowed in return, and walked back amongst the gathered villagers. While all of this was happening, Kaja was staring at the messenger. Her clothing was strange, though that made sense if she was truly who they all believed she was.

  • tielserrath

    Probably also too late, but what the heck:

    ‘Speak, then,’ he said.
    Coruell stared. Then gathering her wits, she straightened. ‘What would fir wish me to say?’
    There was a price for disobedience, and she’d been fortunate to escape with her life. From now on, she would be whatever was demanded.
    ‘It says here that you can cook to a high standard, manage a garden, salt and preserve food, purchase wisely, stitch clothing, clean and keep in good repair all household items.’ The green eyes flicked to the fluttering paper and back to her face. ‘I can’t understand why anyone would wish to part with such a paragon.’
    ‘There are many reasons for selling a slave, fir.’
    There was something in his face that looked like amusement, but she had no idea what he found funny.
    ‘Indeed. Are you not going to tell me that you are honest and loyal? It seems to be expected.’
    ‘I would, if I thought I would be believed.’
    His eyebrows shot up, but before he could speak, she hurried on. ‘A slave will say anything in the hope of attracting a good master. If I thought you believed them,’ she flicked a finger in the direction of the overcrowded cages, ‘I might hope you would believe me. But I am not so unwise, fir.’

  • Bit late to the party and if you can’t get to it, that’s fine. I’ve been focusing on the novels lately and kind of dropped trying to push the short works for a while as they’ve been rejected by many of the email sub mags I thought they were right for and I don’t have the extra cash at the moment to send to the hard copy sub only mags. Still, if the first 200 words might be killing me, I’d love the review and suggestions on one of my favorites.

    She was close. She knew it. Close wasn’t good enough. Things were getting worse by the day and if she didn’t figure out how to open the Key—it had to be a key!—the world was going to die.

    She stared at the steel orb on the table, her brow creased in thought. There were thin lines in the sides, suggesting that it opened somehow, but so far, it resisted every attempt, magical or otherwise. Some of the best Mages in the capitol had used every means at their disposal to no avail, but she couldn’t fault them. With even the magic dying out, it was hard enough just to keep the domes in place to protect from the terrible Wild Storms that swept across the land.

    Taera brought the rounded cup, hanging from her neck by a leather strap, to her mouth and breathed deep. Even the breathing masks the Mages created in the early days when the air began to go bad were only working some of the time now and the air was dangerously thin at this point.

  • Laura – This is spot on. You have the conflict between the impending war and the impending disaster; obviously these plots points will come up against each other at some point, with Keara caught in the middle. At least, that’s my expectation based on this opening. I don’t know yet exactly how the main character fits into all this, but as long as you make it clear pretty soon in the story what her role will be, I’d be 100% hooked and eager to read more. The only nit I’ll pick is indeed a minor one. It’s with your first sentence: “Arric found her in the garden near the cliffs, kneeling as she worked.” A reader expects (rightly or wrongly, it’s the standard expectation) that the first character they meet will be the main character of the story. I’d rewrite it thus: “Keara knelt in her garden near the cliffs, hard at work when Arric found her.”

    Other than that, I wouldn’t change a word.

  • Razzie – A lot of good, individual details, but there are two basic problems here. First, you have what feel to me like a series of great openings strung together, which is actually not good. A great opening is intriguing, it raises the reader’s curiosity, but too much (like too much of anything) doesn’t work to your advantage. “Becoming a gargoyle was easy. Escaping the magus was not.” Intriguing opening. This would also be an intriguing: “I never thought my own magic would betray me. The spell was meant to beguile Uziel’s daughter, sulky Tourmaline with her grass-green eyes. I was fifteen, brash and besotted. Magic was a game, Tourmaline the prize, I the axis on which the world spun.” This could also be an interesting opening all by itself: “It began with a stone chipped out of the garden wall, a piece of white marble no bigger than my thumbnail. This was my key, my link to the earth-magic.” But all strung together it’s too much.

    Second, similar but opposite to one of Mikaela’s problems is that you repeat the same sentence structure too often. Compound sentence after compound sentence–in the entire piece you posted, you only have three or four simple sentences, and all the rest are compound sentences. In fact, there is a wide variety of KINDS of compound sentence and you essentially use the same one over and over. Mix it up more and it will provide a lot more interest (and a lot less monotony) to the voice of the piece.

  • Deb — I just need some clarity here, there’s so much going on so fast that it’s hard to follow. Furious action is good, but it also has to be crystal clear–and that’s actually a trickier thing to pull off than most people realize. Slow down, pace yourself, and fill in some of the holes in the narrative. Are they on their way up or down? What is THE HEART? (It’s one thing to open with an intriguing line like “The heart of god teetered on the mountain ledge” but continuing to refer to “the heart” without ever telling us what it really is turns intriguing into annoying pretty quickly.

    Let me offer an aside here: There are some who make the argument that when you are deep in a character’s point of view, you should never have them think about something that they would not naturally think about, otherwise it very quickly turns into the dreaded as-you-know-Bob (As you know, Bob, in the middle of the Ternovian period, the locals worshiped a volcano they considered a god, and when it erupted, they considered the glassy material that formed in the intense heat to be little pieces of the god’s heart…). But the truth is that as much as it is indeed vital to avoid the as-you-know-Bob moments, it is equally vital to make sure the reader knows everything they need to know. There is a art to imparting knowledge in a subtle way and it needs to be cultivated. because my stance on the never-have-a-character-think-anything-they-already-know argument is this: How else are you going to get the necessary info to your reader? It’s not that it can’t be done; it just has to be done right/well.

    Back to Deb’s opening…

    “Gravel rain fell hissing into the ravine…” “She nodded, and climbed spider-like down the rock-face. Only spiders didn’t tremble with exhaustion.” These are both examples of why you have to be particularly careful with metaphors when writing science fiction or fantasy. I THINK gravel was falling like rain, but it might have just been raining particularly hard, or even sleeting (though I very much doubt the later). I THINK she’s saying that Sparrow was NOT a spider, therefore she WAS trembling. The problem is that this obviously IS fantasy, so I can’t be 100% sure. Because maybe she is a spider-like being of some sort, and maybe the gravel is falling and it sounds like rain. But in SF and fantasy, it’s ALMOST always better to stick with similes (indirect comparisons using the words ‘like’ or ‘as’). And combining this with several other elements of the writing/story that are not crystal clear, I have a piece here that while I’m sure it is clear in the author’s mind what’s going on here, it’s not clear to me, the reader. And that is the kiss of death. Action is actually very difficult to write well, and this opening is a perfect example of all the little things (and they are all little, there’s nothing major wrong here) that can go wrong. It’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.

  • Lauren – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting the story where you did (not that I have a lot to base that on); you just need to make sure everything in your opening is both clear and vital.

  • Hep – Glad the feedback was helpful.

  • Kiara – Overall very good. Smooth prose, clear details, all presented in a natural progression. There is a sense of curiosity here, but not intrigue and not really urgency either. This comes from a lack of knowing what the stakes are, and partly from the fact that the scenario you’ve painted here is one we’ve seen a few million times. Nothing inherently wrong with that (familiar scene); you just need to go someplace new and interesting from here, and you need to do so quickly.

    On the subject of stakes, I still don’t really know what’s going on–and I think you could fix that pretty quickly and easily by telling us right up front what’s in the locker and why it’s important. Maybe you do that in the very next paragraph, I don’t know, but be careful not to fall into the trap of mistaking the difference between withholding information and true mystery. If you tell your readers that the locker holds a purple leprechaun and then a little later tell us that the leprechaun is actually the narrator’s little sister with a curse on her, etc etc, and dole out info little by little, you have a progressive mystery that will make for an interesting story. But if you spend the entire story talking about ‘the locker’ and ‘the red key’ etc etc and nothing else, you will be artificially withholding information, which is not interesting, it’s annoying. I have no way of knowing which one it is (which is fine), but make sure you deliver the former and not the latter.

    Also, (minor detail) I would strongly recommend breaking up this large, single paragraph into several smaller ones. It’s too long as it is.

  • Brewhaha – Quite similar to Kiara’s opening in that there is curiosity here, but there’s so much that the reader doesn’t know, and a pretty familiar situation. We’e all seen/read/heard about too many kidnappings for that scenario by itself to really captivate us. How is this one different from all the ones we’ve seen before?

    Additionally, there are assumptions the reader might make about what the stakes are, but we don’t truly KNOW. In this case it’s because there’s so much that the character doesn’t and can’t possibly know, but this might actually be a case where telling the story in third person instead of first would be a better choice. That would give you an much easier way to impart the necessary information, which would bring a much greater sense of suspense. I’m sure I sound like a broken record at this point, but more information will always bring MORE suspense, and in this case telling this story in first person prevents that from happening.

    On a much smaller note, I think the character realizing she’s naked only after she sees the pile of clothing feels false to me. I think most people have more than enough body awareness to sense their own nakedness, and our society generally conditions that into as as being VERY important. It’s one of the first things a person would notice, not the last.

  • Cookie — You’ve got good, basic prose. Given that you are describing something so extraordinary, it would benefit you to look at tweaking your word choices up a bit to something less generic. It all feels so matter-of-fact in tone, and describing a person’s soul leaving their body with nothing more than “a tingling sensation” and “the latte spilled out all over my jeans, causing me to shriek and jump up”–it just all sounds so pedestrian. Spice it up, dress it up, jazz it up. This is an extraordinary moment. Don’t paint your prose purple, but this story requires better, stronger, much more specific descriptions.

  • Sarah — “I pray to myself, but I do not answer.” This is one of the most unique lines I’ve heard in quite a long time and I would strongly suggest opening your story with it. Take the information from the current first sentence and work it into the second paragraph; leave the rest of the first paragraph alone. VERY interesting.

    The second section is where you lose me. It’s time for the story to move, to go someplace, but you give us this: “### My festival cakes are soaked in honey, coated in sesame. They are sacred to me, eaten only on my highest festival day. They are Harvest Moons, but my soldiers call them Pythia’s tits. Sweeter than any other woman. Once you have tasted me you will never be satisfied with another. That is as it should be.” More mood/atmosphere is not what we need now; we need motion and events with consequences. Dive into the action, tell us what she wants, what she needs, and what she’s going to do about those wants and needs.

    Love the first few lines. Now DO something with it. Make it matter.

  • Razziecat

    Edmund, thank you! You’ve been able to pin down what was bugging me about this story, but I was too close to see it. Also the compound sentences – I know. It’s something I struggle with, but I am working on it. Back to the keyboard! 🙂

  • Charity — Similar to several others, you’ve repeated the same basic sentence structure often enough that it gives the piece a monotonous tone. You also begin far to many of your sentences with the word “It.” Sounds like a trivial thing, I know, but you’d be surprised how much something like that will contribute to a monotone voice.

    Also, you don’t introduce us to your main character, Nathan (I’m assuming Nathan is the main character since he’s the only one you actually give a name to) until the fifth paragraph. You want to introduce us to him sooner unless you are purposely setting a mood or tone or setting with your writing (which you haven’t done, you’ve just given us a lot of really generic lines about the ship’s arrival (I KNOW you can do better than “sweeping curves and pulsing lights”).

    I don’t/won’t make a habit of rewriting people’s work here, but this one calls to me. I’d try it this way: “When the alien ship entered earth’s atmosphere, people reported hearing music—a sad melody that filled them with longing.” That’s a first line that would get my attention. Whether that’s the right first line for the story you want to tell, only you can say, but since you mentioned the music again in a later paragraph, I feel safe in assuming that it’s important and therefor merits being mentioned right away.

  • Best of luck with the next draft, Razziecat.

  • Julia,

    Another case, unfortunately, of too little clarity. Why do we not know Eitan’s name for eight paragraphs? All that floundering around the reader is doing trying to figure out who he or she is reading about is not curiosity-inducing; it’s irritating. I don’t say that to be unkind, but there’s no other way to describe it. He, he, his, he, his, his, he he his his aaaaaaaaargh! HE WHO?

    This sounds like a truly rich, well thought out world. Don’t hide your light under the proverbial basket; let it shine! Shine it into all the darkest and (inevitably) most interesting corners, where the good stuff is trying to hide!

  • charitybradford

    Thanks Edmund for taking the time to help us out. Now I have some direction when I sit down to work on this again. Have a great weekend.

  • Rebnatan — Overall, VERY good. You’ve created a scenario here that will certainly make some people uncomfortable–and I love fiction that makes people squirm. Challenge their expectations and don’t let them get comfortable.

    The only thing that I would say needs work is the first paragraph. I would actually suggest jettisoning the current one and writing something entirely new that focuses on the main character and the kind of person he is. The possibility of violence is common and mundane; the power of a society where communism is taking to this insane degree is what you need to focus on. I would definitely read more of this if it came across my desk at IGMS.

  • Pea Emily — A real study in contrast between this piece and the previous one. This is a very common looking scenario–an old lady getting on an elevator–but the quality of the prose and the attention to detail is SO high that I would keep reading anyway, even though I have no idea what the old lady wants (you were right about that, when you said you didn’t think you got to it in the opening) or where this piece is going.

    This is the perfect place to mention that of the three basic components of story-telling–interesting situation, interesting character(s), high-quality prose–if you can really NAIL one of those three (as Emily (prose) and Rebnatan (scenario) have done, you’ll get a lot more leeway on the others. Do the other two even halfway decently while you nail the third and you’re writing publishable quality fiction. Obviously the more things you do well, the better, but I’d say nailing one and doing the other two reasonably well and you’re ahead of 99% of the competition.

    Of course, you have to sustain that for the length of the entire story, but so far so very good for these last two pieces.

  • Isaac

    I posted the beginning of a short story on the 10th, but the post still says “awaiting moderation.” I don’t know if that’s because I’m a new forum user, or something else. Anyway, I’m enjoying reading other people’s first-200-words and the advice is enlightening.

  • Edmund> Thanks! The piece has gotten bounced from several places (including IGMS) and so now, with a little tweaking, I know it isn’t the beginning that’s killing it. I can easily get what she wants (the guy she’s going to see is trying to buy a piece of property–the last grave site on planet earth–from her, and she doesn’t want to sell it) in the first paragraph with a few words.

    And really, really, really thanks for the compliment on my prose. I’m about to finish up edits on a novel (a stage I’ve been at for about four months) to send it out, and now I think I’ll be less tense about sending it out. At least my prose is pretty good. 🙂

  • I think that tweak will go a long way toward getting you where you want to be, Emily. Good luck with it, and with the novel, too.

  • Ken — A solid scenario backed by solid prose, but in this case two solids doesn’t overcome the fact that I have no idea what you main character wants. What’s important to him? Get that info into your opening and I think you’ll be good to go. Like I said, the rest is really solid; you’re very close to the whole enchilada.

  • Jamie — Your prose flows and the picture you paint is clear and easy to follow. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’ve got a car load of characters yacking and not much else happening. This feels like a literary piece; if it’s SF or fantasy, we still haven’t seen the elements that define it as such. If it is SF or fantasy, you need to work that into your opening, along with a sense of purpose. I have NO idea what this story is supposed to be about. Your writing is solid and you define your characters well; no go do something with the that has immediate impact and meaning.

  • Scott — I know that you know what you’re doing because I’ve seen enough of your writing (and know from our conversations that you’ve attended some serious workshops), so it’s no surprise to me that you’ve got such an effective story opening. Fluid prose, clearly defined SF setting, a man’s best friend is dead and it looks like he’s about to end up a suspect in the death. All the elements are there.

    The only minor nit I’d pick is that your transition in the first paragraph from “the Big Digger” to “the Big Girl” was initially confusing. A simple of tweak in the opening sentence to “I always wanted to operate one of the Big Diggers…” will make it clear that transition right up. Otherwise, I’d say that as with Rebnatan, Emily, and Laura, the only question that remains (for me, anyway) is if you can maintain this quality for the full length of the story.

  • Thanks Ed! Yeah, I had a feeling the Big Digger/Big Girl might be a little jarring. Your suggested fix is a lot more elegant than the changes I was thinking about.

    This is a great service you’re providing. I love seeing all the comments; they are hugely beneficial.

  • Julia

    Thank you, Ed. The critique is very helpful — largely because it confirms my fear that the piece won’t work as I’ve currently framed it. I’ll think about how to take some of what is working and give it a different incarnation.

  • rebnatan

    Thank you, sir. It’s from the fourth short-story prequel to my novel Quantum Cannibals. I would definitely like to get it across your desk at IGMS, as you suggest.

  • Scott, Julia, and Rebnatan — Thank you all. Glad the feedback was helpful.

    To the handful of new folks/lurkers whose posts were awaiting moderation — I will add your posts to the 20 I said I’d read; I won’t penalize you for my overlooking them. The story openings just all came in so fast and furious it got a little hard to keep up with (not uncommon in my line of work; you’d think I’d be used to it by now).

  • No prob, and thanks! They did come in quick. I was so slow on getting mine up, I think when I started getting it ready it was going to post just under Emily, but checking now, I think 8 more came in before I could get it up there and hit Post Comment. Heh! Durn distractions. 🙂

  • Deb S

    Thanks, Edmund. I cheated a bit in that my piece wasn’t from a traditional short but from a micro-flash with a strict word count. Still, your advice was both applicable and helpful. Thanks again for sharing your time and expertise.

  • Hey, all
    Edmund is in jury duty today, and will get back to all of you as soon as he can. Keep writing!

  • Ditto what Davide said! You guys are really getting some great advice here!

  • Thanks, Edmund! I’ll definitely keep that in mind.

  • Cookie74


    I appreciate the feedback. That’s the first time I’ve shown my writing to anyone for critique. After re-reading my excerpt, I have to say that you’re absolutely right. The writing is rather pedestrian. Thanks again.

  • tielserrath

    Many thanks. I’ve been a recent lurker; I read your posts through google reader so don’t always see all the comments. This was an interesting excercise because stripping it to the first 200 words and reading it in isolation really makes the deficiencies stand out. In my original starting place the whole lot was description. As the writer you forget what it feels like to read the opening to your own story cold. You know what’s coming, so you already have the drive to continue reading.

  • tielserrath

    …aaand I can’t spell exercise.

  • Boy, I thought I was going to be able to do these while I was in the waiting room, but the courthouse’s network kept giving me an “Access Denied” message. Then when I finally thought I had found a back door, I actually got called out for jury selection. It was actually an interesting process to watch (my first time being called out), but anytime I miss one day, it always seems to take me three days to get caught up.

    Please forgive me for forgoing on the small talk and diving right back into the story openings. I can only afford to give this one more day, so I’ll have to do what I can today and assume you all can figure things out from there. We certainly have hit all the major themes already; at this point it’s just variations of those themes.

  • Liornessa — Overall I’d say this is pretty good. I’d prefer a slight shift in the balance: you give us a lot of info–so much so that it verges on the info-dump. The individual pieces are all good, but you need to decide what’s MOST important and then dole the rest out as you go along. The thing that I need more of is a sense of what’s important to the character. You’ve placed him in a precarious position, but that’s only going to hold my interest for but so long. Open this character up to us and show us why he’s taking such risks and we’ll all be a lot more invested in the outcome. As I said, overall it’s good. It just needs some tweaking.

  • Jiah — Welcome in from the coldness of lurkdom. I hope I’m not hitting you too hard, but you’ve got a number of basic flaws going on here in this opening, some of which I’ve covered already. Not saying you should know better, just that some of this is going to sound familiar if you’ve been reading the other feedback.

    First, you’ve got that repetitive sentence structure going here that I’ve talked about numerous time before, so I’d suggest more variety. Second, you’ve got that whole ‘he’ and ‘she’ thing going like one of the previous pieces, where we never got the character’s name. Give me names to attach to the these people, otherwise they’re just nebulous constructs, not people. And lastly, you’ve got a bit of the dreaded L-Y thing going here, along with not enough ‘said’: in other words, too many adverbs and adjectives. “…she laughed scornfully.” “The boy muttered…” “…the maiden snapped.” “Her eyes twinkled maliciously…”

    Address those three items throughout your manuscript and I think you’ll find that alone is enough to take the piece to the next level. You’ll still have some work to do afterward, but it’s the place to start.

  • Lynn — Very good prose, which is a major step in the right direction. My complaint is that I know nothing really about the character or where the story is going. The prose is strong enough that if this were an IGMS sub I might give it another 100 to 200 words to see if something tangible develops, but not much more than that. Other than that, I don’t really have much else to offer you by way of feedback.

  • Isaac — Overall I’d say this is pretty good. The first two paragraphs are fine the way they are; my (minor) complaints come in the third. In the second sentence, you write “…each of the crones held the hand of a small child…” which at first reading sounds like they’re holding a severed hand. Just make sure everything is crystal clear. Also, the third paragraph spends a lot of it’s words describing the scene, which is unusual enough to hold my attention for a little while, but I’m still looking for those nuggets that tell me why all of this matters. Why is it important? I have no idea, and you have about one or two more paragraphs at the most to make me care before I put it down and move on to the next one. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: What does Kaja want? Why is he here at this ceremony? At the moment I have a minor mystery, but no direction. Can you give me just a hint of that direction in the first 200 words?

  • Tielserrath — Another solid entry. I’m not sure exactly what you character wants in the big picture beyond possibly a good new home/slave-master, but that’s enough for now. And you’ve hinted very well at past events, as well as created wonderful tension between the two characters who on the stage at the moment. I definitely want to see where this is going; you’ve got a very efficient piece of work here, in the best possible sense.

  • Daniel — Tell us Taera’s name in the first paragraph; there’s no reason not to. (You knew (by now) that I was going to say that, didn’t you?)

    The world is going to die? No one can say you haven’t set the stakes high enough. And Taera is going to save it. So we know what she’s after. (I hope you have something small and personal for her to do as well; believe it or not, just saving the world by itself is SO grand and noble that it’s a little hard for reader’s to relate to.)

    Really, my suggestions to you have to do with small points related to clarity and flow. Clean up the little stuff and you’ll be in really good shape:

    “She stared at the steel orb on the table, her brow creased in thought. There were thin lines in the sides, suggesting that it opened somehow…” The way these two sentences are put together (literally and figuratively), it’s easy to read it as if the ‘thin lines in the sides’ were in here brow, not the orb. Tweak the first sentence of that paragraph to read: “Her brow was creased in thought as she stared at the steel orb on the table” and you’re 100% clear.

    Much later, you wrote, “Taera brought the rounded cup, hanging from her neck by a leather strap, to her mouth and breathed deep. Even the breathing masks the Mages created in the early days when the air began to go bad were only working some of the time now and the air was dangerously thin at this point.” My first thought was that she was bringing an actual cup (for drinking or something) to her mouth, when what you really mean is “Taera brought the cup-shaped mask…”

    These are all minor points, but there are just enough of them to be a problem. If the reader has to stop too often to figure out what’s going on or clarify the action in their mind or re-set their understanding/expectations, the reading becomes a chore, not a pleasure. And that’s all it takes to get bounced.


  • Okay, that’s all for me on this subject. If you posted and I didn’t get to you, my apologies; the turnout of volunteers was wonderful and I had hoped to get to them all, even if more than 20 were posted. But I hadn’t counted on losing all of Monday like I did and I have a lot of other things I also need to go get caught up on.

    It’s no small thing to share your work with a group of strangers and I commend everyone who had the simple courage to do so. There wasn’t a single piece posted that didn’t have a lot going for it, but that’s kind of the point of this exercise. “A lot going for it” is not uncommon. You need to do all the little things that step your work up into that more rarefied company of “nailed it.” Hopefully this exercise will help you understand a little better what it takes to get there, as well as what the thought process is of someone who reads story submissions all the time and has to make the unpleasant decisions to reject 95% of them.

    Good luck, and thanks again to everyone who participated.

  • Crystal. I really had issues with the sentence about the mask, but no matter what I tried, it wouldn’t clear up. That helped. And yeah, there’s a smaller thing she wants, but with you mentioning it, it made me think more on it and I think I need to go in and make her secondary desire clearer, because it’s one of those things she never realized she wanted, due to the fact that she’s so absorbed in the main point, kinda fanatical, really.

    Thank you, thank you! Definitely helps!

    I’d sent this to IGMS (tried to write it for it, actually), but it was rejected (it’s sci-fi…sort of a technology far surpassing your own being like magic). So it’s good to get some help on it and see the issues that might get it rejected by other places too, and it has been. 😉

  • Glad it helped, Daniel. I didn’t see the story when it came in to IGMS, but 90% of the subs have to go through assistant editors before it hits my desk.

    Good luck with it.

  • And with a less than solid beginning, I understand. 😉 I’m sure it’ll find a venue some day, even if it’s after I’ve sold a kajillion novels and someone asks me for an anthology. 😀

  • Thanks, Edmund! I was a little concerned with this one’s beginning being a bit vague. It is actually a follow-on based on the two main characters from my first story sale (lo, some 15 years ago!) and I didn’t want to overburden the start with info-dumpisms. I hoped the hint at foreshadowing (Nettie blind and crippled, Althan able to pass her memories with a touch) would be enough to snag interest. Funny, too – the 200 word cut off is just before the paragraph where Althan ‘sees’ that the boy has no soul, which is where the story really takes off. Guess I’ll have to finish this puppy and see if I can sneak it past your first-readers at IGMS! 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for all your work and comments. And I now have a full draft of my story! It’s still a draft in need of revision, and I still have a lot to learn about revising for the short form, but yay! a draft! And drat, now it needs a title.

  • jiah

    Thanks a lot, Edmund. I haven’t been lurking long, and unlike the other people here, I also haven’t much experience of showing my work to others. Even though I’ve been scribbling for a while, I have written very few completed stories, and haven’t even started planning a novel. So your feedback is extremely helpful. And please don’t worry about hitting me hard. The decision to de-lurk itself was an acknowledgement that I need to wrap up my ego and throw it in the dustbin! Better my ego in my own dustbin than all my attempts to write ending up in somebody else’s dustbin! 😀

  • jiah

    Um, also, on the subject of names, I wrote this entire story without names. I just wrote “the Priestess”, “the boy”, “the novice”, “the Emperor”, etc. Since there weren’t many characters, it wasn’t too difficult to write, but now I guess I need to go back and seriously reconsider it!

  • tielserrath

    Many thanks, Edmund. Now I must actually finish the thing.

  • Lyn — I understand and agree with the logic on not wanting to start with an info dump. At the same time, you have to aim for a balance. When you write short stories that are connected to a novel or another short story, you can’t assume anyone has read the other material; each piece has to be entirely self-supporting.

    Hep — Titles…? *sigh* That’s a whole other post.

    Jiah — “Better my ego in my own dustbin than all my attempts to write ending up in somebody else’s dustbin!” Words to live by. Everybody print that out and stick up on a wall near your favorite writing place.

    Tielserrath — No time like the present. Get cracking!

  • Isaac

    Thanks for the critique! I’ll try to speed things up. The things you were wondering about come into focus in the next 200 words, so I can try to trim the fat or re-arrange to get there faster.

  • Don’t rush it, Isaac, just make sure it’s in there.