Improving our 300 Word Stories -- READ FIRST POST!

Lex E. Darion

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I remember reading this one. IIRC it was on my short list. I really liked it. The telescope bit is a bit out of place as it's not referred to again but it didn't jar me out of the story or anything and wouldn't have commented on it if you hadn't asked. I might have taken out the first 'but I don't' in the penultimate line and maybe join those last two sentences, but other than that there's not much else to say.

Reading it now, with knowledge of the end, you do give hints that there isn't really a forest - the blackness, the light only hitting the first row etc, so I think it was cleverly written. For me though, when I'm reading the entries I pick ones that I 'get' on first, or second, reading and I probably don't give each story the time it deserves. Ones that are too subtle or I have to think about too much don't often get my vote because I haven't got the time to dedicate to them.

That being said, yours did make my short list and i did 'get' and liked it :)
 

SPoots

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I would like to hear some critiques of my October 300 word piece "Changeling" if anyone has any opinions on it.

Changeling

The rain had gone, leaving puddles on the pavement and a person in blue. It was a familiar blue, a blue faded, and stained with mud. They were wearing my coat. The one I was wearing. I stood up, leaving my toys on the path, and the person watched me. They had their hood up against the rain, and I could only see the tip of their nose. I tilted my head and they tilted theirs. I raised an arm and they did likewise.

“Why are you copying me?” I asked.

The person in my coat didn’t answer. They stood, as silent as a reflection. Off in the bushes, a bird ventured a shrill chirrup.

“Mary!” my mum called from somewhere in the garden. “Come on Mary, time to go inside.”

I opened my mouth to shout, but the person in front of me raised a hand. They touched my lips with a single finger and I saw a smile beneath their hood. “I’m over here, mum,” they said, in my voice.

The hood fell back and I stared into my eyes, my hair framing my face, a wicked smile upon my lips. My mum stepped out from behind a bush.

“There you are.” She scooped up the other me. “Let’s get you dry.”

She stepped past me. I tried to shout, but the words choked in my throat. Over her shoulder, the other me grinned. And then the two of them were gone, disappearing into the house.

“Do not worry about your mother.”

I turned and saw a woman, dressed in white and shining like the sun. She smiled and took my hand, her grip tight around my coat sleeve. “Come, I have a new home for you. Come and live beneath the hill.”
 

The Judge

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Alex, sorry, I missed this when it went up.

I thought it was a clever idea that the trees hide a wall, but for me that raised rather too many questions that went unanswered -- to my mind there wasn't enough backstory here which would make sense of them eg living in some kind of dome and/or holosuite or whatever it is. If there's a town, there must be roads in and out, bringing in supplies for all the shops, the materials to build the observatory and houses, taking away waste etc, so is the forest only on one side? If so, what's the point of a wall there? If not, and it surrounds the whole town, are the roads not used by the townsfolk? The two bits of backstory you do have -- his getting sunburn easily and the observatory being there -- don't actually go anywhere for plot purposes, so work against it to my mind. You mention he wants to go to the forest because of his skin problems, but that doesn't actually follow -- presumably they have overcast days when there is no sun, and there are nights so he can go out then without danger, and there's no need to explain why he wants to do something forbidden, as it's pretty much human nature.

As for the telescope, I initially thought you meant a hand-held one, which would be more than up to the job, so the "observatory" did throw me a bit, and then when I thought about it, I got confused. How did he gain access to it? Kitchen workers don't usually have the run of scientific buildings. And why have they got an observatory there? How does it fit in with the intentions of whoever built the wall? More importantly within the logic of the story, how could he have hoped to bring a huge observatory telescope down far enough to see the line of trees? And surely such a telescope couldn't possibly focus on something so close? Plus, observatories are usually built on high ground, so if other people are up there, how on earth have they not seen that the forest ends at the second row of trees? Actually, even someone doing work on the upper parts of a house should surely have noticed something.

There are other aspects where, for me, the logic behind the story is skewed. Poisoning porridge for one group over several months isn't going to pass unnoticed, surely, so someone would be investigating especially if these men have a vital job to do. If he's so keen to get to the forest, why doesn't he go there at night -- there's evidently no curfew if he's there before first light. I can grasp why there is a bog there, so anyone getting too close dies if those who build the wall want to keep it secret, but in that event why make the trees whisper to him? And have there been executions for getting near the forest? If so, how did those people avoid the bog? If not, why doesn't he try and escape the bog to tell people and make them change the whole system? In any event, if it's death one way or another, it's still preferable to put the evil time off, plus if someone does hear his screams then they might come close enough to see the wall, too, and that in itself might force something to happen in the town.

Sorry I couldn't be more enthusiastic, but to me, it seemed you'd had this one good idea, but instead of plotting it through and working out why and how etc, you've rather rushed it, leaving what to my mind are rather gaping plot holes.

By the way, it's "between the forest and me" not "I" and I think "thigh-high" should be two words, not one, and the same for "first-light".
 

The Judge

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SPoots, I'm not sure why you've asked for help when you got 8 votes and numerous mentions, as it looks to me that you did fine!

Anyhow, I liked your story, which is why I shortlisted it. My one main criticism is that to me the voice of the narrator isn't the voice of a child, certainly not one young and small enough to be scooped up and carried into the house by the mother, and if you hadn't written about the toys in that first para there's nothing there to indicate either of them are children/child-sized until the mother does that. eg to my mind a young child isn't going to refer to "a person in blue" but surely something like "a little girl wearing a blue coat" and not the impersonal "they" but "she". So with that and the "a familiar blue, a blue faded" (the clever reverse ordering of "blue faded" being particularly literary and unchild-like) I thought this was an adult talking, providing a moment's confusion when I got to "toys". Other major offenders in the non-child narrator stakes were "silent as a reflection" (which I really liked, but felt it was out of place) and "ventured a shrill chirrup" (even the noticing of the bird song seemed a little too adult to my mind), and to a lesser extent "single finger", "framing my face" and "choked in my throat". Voice to me is very important, and the schism between the adult narrator voice and the child being the narrator and speaking as a child in the dialogue pushed me out of the story a little too much.

That aside, I thought you handled the story well with the slow build-up and the reveal and ending, and I especially liked the not-child grinning and the elvish woman's dialogue which was wholly in character. Disregarding for a moment my quibble over its not being a child's vocabulary etc, I also very much liked your prose itself, and eg things like the rhythm of that "It was a familiar blue, a blue faded, and stained with mud."

I'm looking forward to seeing more of your 300s. Well done.
 

SPoots

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Thanks very much @The Judge! i was really happy with how well my story did, especially considering it was my first attempt at one of these challenges, but i am always hungry for feedback and criticism.

Thanks for noting on the voice, it's something I've been called up on before with other works so obviously that's something I need to work on in the future.
 

AlexH

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Thanks @Lex E. Darion - I can definitely remove that phrase. Repetition is something I should have added to that 'writing tics' thread - I like it, but often overdo it. I'm similar in that I tend to read stories twice, but judge on my first impression.

Thanks @The Judge - there's a lot there I didn't notice, that seems obvious now you've said. Some is easy to remedy e.g. only have one gardener. I think I try to fit too much into these 300-worders. This one wasn't rushed - I remember going over the limit and cutting it down quite a lot. I've just written what I think is my best, so I'll try and do something similar for the next challenge. And I'm keeping "between the forest and I". ;)

I haven't managed a 75-word entry yet, so perhaps practicing at those will help with my 300-worders.

@SPoots I liked the concept of this. The opening confused me; "They were wearing my coat. The one I was wearing." I thought it should be "The one I was wearing." To emphasise they weren't wearing it any more. It became clear near the end, but maybe it could be re-worded to avoid confusion? Or a detail could be picked out on the coat, like an identical dirt-mark.

I think the reason it didn't make my shortlist was the ending and child's adult-like voice, as The Judge pointed out. I think you could get away with the same voice, but make the child older e.g. a push-bike instead of toys, mum holds the hand instead of scoops the child up.

As for the ending, was there meant to be a sense of threat? A smile and "Come and live beneath the hill." was a bit of a damp-squib ending to me. So it was one I liked, but not quite on my shortlist for those two reasons.
 

SPoots

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Thanks @Lex E. Darion - I can definitely remove that phrase. Repetition is something I should have added to that 'writing tics' thread - I like it, but often overdo it. I'm similar in that I tend to read stories twice, but judge on my first impression.

Thanks @The Judge - there's a lot there I didn't notice, that seems obvious now you've said. Some is easy to remedy e.g. only have one gardener. I think I try to fit too much into these 300-worders. This one wasn't rushed - I remember going over the limit and cutting it down quite a lot. I've just written what I think is my best, so I'll try and do something similar for the next challenge. And I'm keeping "between the forest and I". ;)

@SPoots I liked the concept of this. The opening confused me; "They were wearing my coat. The one I was wearing." I thought it should be "The one I was wearing." To emphasise they weren't wearing it any more. It became clear near the end, but maybe it could be re-worded to avoid confusion? Or a detail could be picked out on the coat, like an identical dirt-mark.

I think the reason it didn't make my shortlist was the ending and child's adult-like voice, as The Judge pointed out. I think you could get away with the same voice, but make the child older e.g. a push-bike instead of toys, mum holds the hand instead of scoops the child up.

As for the ending, was there meant to be a sense of threat? A smile and "Come and live beneath the hill." was a bit of a damp-squib ending to me. So it was one I liked, but not quite on my shortlist for those two reasons.
Ah I can see what you mean about the ending. I cab see how that might cause some confusion.
 

SPoots

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Can I get some feedback on this January story?

Frozen Flowers


The flower grew alone in the centre of the glade, its leaves rimed with frost. Fog spread lazily around it, weaving between the trees and around Piotr’s feet. He tried to breathe life back into his fingers, his gaze never leaving the flower.

He could run and take it. That would mean leaving the safety of the trees. He could hear the woman weeping, just as he had throughout the forest. Wherever you went, there she was. But she hadn’t found him yet.

He glanced around the glade. The trees gathered like shadows, moonlight filtering through the fog, turning the whole world silver. Somewhere, beyond the forest, lay a summer day.

There was no help for it. He ran, sprinting out from the trees. His hand fumbled at his belt, reaching for his knife. He reached the flower, cut the stem in one smooth stroke and then ran on.

He stopped beneath a fallen trunk, heart racing in his chest. The weeping had fallen silent. His eyes opened wide, and he looked about, searching for any sign of...

“Piotr?”

Piotr felt a chill settle upon him. She was standing five feet away. Her dress sparkled with frost. Frozen tears ran from her eyes. And she was smiling.

“You came for me.” She reached out to him. “Please. I’m so cold.”

Piotr could do nothing. He stared at her, his fist tightening around the flower. “Please, sister, don’t do this,” he whispered. “The mages this can lift the curse. They can free you!”

But his sister didn’t hear him. She walked over and took Piotr in her arms, hugging him close. “Piotr, you came back for me. I knew you would.”

The breath froze in Piotr’s lungs. He tried to speak, but no words came.

Soon, the weeping began again.
 

The Judge

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Once again I enjoyed your prose, which is why the story appeared on my shortlist. I also liked aspects of the story itself -- his fear of his sister, his being frozen at her embrace -- but I'm afraid the plot as a whole rather escaped me. I like picking up clues and putting 2+2 together, but here there simply weren't enough clues for me, and I wasn't sure about too many things. The flower itself, for instance. You never say why he goes to the immense risk of cutting it. I rather assumed that it's the key to the curse being broken, but for something so pivotal, I do think that needed to be made clear. I also couldn't work out what the curse was -- to be cold, to be incapable of leaving the wood, to turn other people to ice? If the latter, why no ice-statues that he's had to stumble past? Why does she weep, and if it's because she turns people to ice, why doesn't she listen to his pleas instead of repeating her mistake?

I usually don't mind a slow start, but I think Jo is right that here you needed more urgency sooner, since he is desperate. And to my mind you needed to get in the backstory and his motives/thoughts so as to give coherence to what he's doing. It would only have taken a few words, and you had plenty of space for those, if you'd eliminated a bit of repetition and streamlined sentences.

So overall not a bad story by any means, but to my mind it needed a tad more work to have been in the real running for a vote.
 

TitaniumTi

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I liked your story and might have voted for it, in a different month. But the standard was very high this month and a few incongruities jarred:
The flower and its leaves; I expect a flower to have petals and a plant to have leaves.
Piotr stopped beneath a fallen trunk. I visualise a fallen trunk lying on the ground, so how could Piotr stand beneath it?
How could moonlight filter through the fog on a summer’s day?
I think you also missed a word (say?) in “The mages this can lift the curse.” I didn’t count the words, so I wasn’t sure whether the additional word would take you over the three-hundred.
 

mosaix

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I was reasonably happy with my story this month and very happy with the 5 votes. But it attracted few comments and short lists. Perhaps it wasn't fully understood?

The only thing I would change is that, on reread, the word 'vision' in the fourth paragraph wasn't quite in keeping with the character. Maybe 'sight' would have been better?

Anyway all comments welcome. :)

Sooner Than Later


I lie twixt a thousand acre sky and the soft grass of a sloping, summer meadow.

I’ve gone down to a musket ball in the shoulder. Ain’t nowt but a scratch. Nothing the surgeon can’t patch up anyways. Reckon I’ll rest a whiles.

Down the valley some, our field artillery gives fire and Reb guns reply in turn. Hope this goddamn tomfoolery will be over sooner than later and I can get back to the farm. Killing and burning ain’t for me. They told us Christmas.

A bee flies cross my vision and lands atop a cotton plant next my head. Reckon it’s cotton anyways. Not that I knows these things. Stranger to these parts. Just my guess. Bee sure is busy, moving around looking for stuff. Come to think, maybe not cotton after all. A breeze plucks at it and the bee moves on some place else.

I hear our guns open up again and our bugler sounding the advance. Colour Sergeant Hopkins gives a fierce roar that would put a cannon to shame. He’s aiming to put it to those sonofabitch yellowlegs for sure. Maybe time to go.

I gets up and sees Trooper Calhoun do the same, carbine in hand. I swear I seen him take a bayonet to the guts. Young drummer boy Jack Collins is up as well and I knows he’s taken a ball through the heart. There’s the rent in his tunic for all to see. And the blood.

I gives them a peculiar look. And here’s a strange thing, they both gives me peculiar looks as well.

Like I say, maybe time to go.
 
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The Judge

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I understood it! Well, mostly.

I thought it was very atmospheric, and was beautifully done with the dead rising at the end, with the twist of the narrator also being dead, which although isn't a wholly original idea did come over fresh here. I like the last line, but I have to say I was unsure if they were going to fight again, or going to the afterlife, so I'd have liked a bit more of a clue there. (As Calhoun carries his carbine I assume they're fighting, but if so, why hasn't anyone noticed the dead before -- or the dead on the other side?)

Anyhow, it was a very strong month, with lots of good stories which might have explained the lack of shortlistings for you. I was in almost the same boat with 4 votes but only 5 mentions, so that's what I'm putting it down to!

I didn't notice the vision/sight thing, so though you're probably right that the latter was more in keeping with his voice, I doubt it would have worried anyone else. NB though I liked the voice, I sometimes wonder if, when we Brits try and do an American-style accent in our writing, our US members find it unrealistic, though Teresa would presumably have noticed that, and I think she gave you a nod, so dunno on that score.

There were a couple of places where I'd have wanted a "But" or similar (eg "But I swear I seen him...") but they were minor issues. The title also grated a little for me, since I'd always say "Sooner rather than later" so it felt curtailed there and in the text, and was the written equivalent of nails scratching down a blackboard! However, although as I say it was atmospheric, what stopped me converting the story's appearance on my shortlist to an actual vote, apart from the ending's ambiguity, is that it felt a touch padded, especially with the para about the bee, and it was just a tad slow overall.

I liked it, though, and it deserved its votes. Well done.
 

CTRandall

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I thought it was well-written and you did a good job with dialect. That really helped set time, place and overall atmosphere. For me, it was a little predictable. I guessed what was coming before getting to the end. Seeing some of your other stories on the forums, I wouldn't say that's normally a problem for you.
 

mosaix

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TJ, Jo, CTR thanks for your responses.

I had just finished reading Days Without End by Sebastien Barry (thoroughly recommended) and his narrator's voice was still in my head when I wrote my entry.

I had great problems with the title. Which is unusual for me. In desperation I chose a phrase from the story, something I've not done before. It may well be that it was the title that gave away what was coming to CTR?

'Sooner than later' - I originally wrote the entry with the 'rather' included but it just didn't fit with the voice that I had in my head, so it had to go. And then the phrase then became the title which probably made it even worse for TJ. Sorry about the fingernails!

The 'buts' never occurred to me - again maybe the voice was at fault.

As for being a bit slow, that's just what I wanted. I originally had the second paragraph as the first (set the action early) but it was too 'urgent' and the first paragraph seemed to set the tone better - one of distance from what was going on around him, he's dead after all. Similarly with the 'bee' paragraph. As I said, I wanted distance, something trivial compared to the carnage.

It never occurred to me that there would be confusion about whether he continued fighting after death until it was mentioned by one of the reviewers. 'Time to go' was him accepting he was dead and the 'go' referred to his 'passing'.

Thanks again.
 

Peter V

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For me there was no ambiguity and I read 'Time to go' as acceptance, once the reality of his situation was understood.

As for the pacing, I thought it was fitting for the subject.

It wasn't perfect but then few are and as long as the tale resonates and there is nothing that jars with me, I am quite forgiving. When reading It, nothing immediately jumped out, so at that point it was on my list of considerations. If I cannot decide between two stories, I might become more analytical if looking for a reason to place one above another. It rarely comes to that in truth.

Mind you, looking at my mediocre performance this time around, I am far from the best to judge :notworthy:

Peter
 

Phyrebrat

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I can't anything about it as it was my votes, mosaix. I can tell you that I adored the tone and sense of occasion and place. It just stirred something so evocative. One of my favourite short stories is called Iverson's Pits (Dan Simmons) and there was something reminiscent about that here.

pH
 

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