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1,084 Public Reviews Given
1,107 Total Reviews Given
Review Style
Unsentimental. I focus on the kinds of craft issues that will keep a writer from being taken seriously and prevent them from fully expressing their vision. For more information, see "Writing Hurts: Review Forum
I'm good at...
Analyzing the written word and determining where a piece is not accomplishing what it wants to accomplish.
Favorite Genres
Short stories and poetry are my forte. Novels, not so much. Usually I only need to read a chapter or two to determine if it's going to go off the rails. Sometimes I'll keep reading.
Least Favorite Genres
I'll read anything.
Favorite Item Types
Anything.
Least Favorite Item Types
Pieces from authors who have never considered that writing is a craft, who nonetheless think they're great simply because they have penned the words, and who take offense when I don't agree.
I will not review...
Useful things don't always occur to me with a given piece. If I don't think I can offer insight into how the writer might become better at the task, I won't say anything.
Public Reviews
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1
1
Review of Hidden Trail  
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (4.0)
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Your prose is solid and your descriptions of the events are well presented. I'm going to focus on the way you've structured your story, in particular, how you've opened it. Like the adage says, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Your first impression, (your first paragraph) has problem. It's not interesting. Well written, to be sure. But you've chosen a moment out of a series of events in which nothing much is going on.

A lot has gone on, which you get to in the second paragraph. But by then, you're into back story. If there's one cardinal rule I try to impress on writers, its this: Stories happen NOW!{/I] What happened earlier is not now, and your reader won't be fooled, no matter how important the events may have been. They have an instinctive sense of where the present moment is in your storyline, and they'll hang in there with you, and keep reading, but they're really just waiting for you to get back to the present moment so the story proper can continue.

It's often a good idea to not start at the beginning, but, rather, pick up the action in the middle of events that are a real attention grabber: a shoot out, a car chase, a pursuit by some unknown assailant. Then, once you have your readers' attention, fill them in on what got your characters to this moment. In your case, The beginning of your story has already happened, and recounting it in flashback deprives the reader of the immediacy that would have given the situation a sense of reality. So in this case, you might want to consider starting at the beginning. It's a great scene, by the way, Craig's missteps with the scout manual, the kind of scene that requires no explanation by the author. The events speak for themselves. After that scene, there's no doubt about who is who and what the essential conflict is. The narrative buffer you now place between those events and the reader is removed and your characters get the opportunity to take center stage and let the events unfold in real time.

This is a quibble. Overall, it's a good job and for the rest of the story you do precisely what I suggest: you stay out of the way and let your characters take charge and tell the story as it happens.

One other point: they explanatory text at the end is unneeded. In the introduction to my Writing Hurts Review Forum, I make the point that the worst possible defense of a story is "But that's what happened!" Truth is, you don't need to explain anything. It just gets in the way. Whatever connection the events have to your own life ends the minute you put it out in the public. There, your words do the job, or they don't. In your case, I'd say they do. Leave it at that.

2
2
Review of Beacon  
Review by edgework
Rated: 18+ | (3.5)
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You have some strong prose chops. You have a good sense of timing, without which the kind of action you're writing about falls flat and is unbelievable. Lots of good visual information, minimal abstractions and empty exposition. It's a good read.

So. Having dispensed with rookie blunders and unintentional howlers, you're ready for the next step. What you do with all this well crafted prose? Which means, telling a story. There are all manner of theses and dissertations regarding what makes a collection of prose sentences and paragraphs into a story, and they're all worth your time to absorb. But let's keep it simple. Your job, first and foremost, is to keep your reader turning the pages. At every step along the way, you need to prompt them to wonder, "Gosh, what's gonna happen next?" That's the holy grail for a writer. Get them wondering that, they'll stay your readers.

You've actually done a good job of that. At many points along the way, your reader will see characters in dire straits, and they'll wonder just that: what's going to happen next. You've set us up to cheer for your characters, to want to see them win. The fact that the odds seems stacked against them only heightens the anticipation. How are they going to get out of this?

Unfortunately, you take a cheap short-cut. They don't. After expending a good deal of energy making us want to see them win... well, they lose. It's difficult to discern any theme other than Life sucks and then you die. Perhaps this fits your personal cosmology, but you have to remember the debt you owe your readers. They've come to your story ready and willing for you to take them someplace, and they're willing to hang in there with you, assuming that you know what you're doing and that you won't waste their time. They might be forgiven at the end if they feel like you've been waiting off-stage, only to pop up taunting, "Ha, ha! Fooled you!" You might want to reconsider this as a writing strategy.

I think part of your problem is in the way you've imagined your characters. They don't actually do anything. Rather, things are done to them, while they passively wait for the next blow to fall. Waiting is what I'd say defines them. Even at the end, the potential rescue is something that just happens, with no active input on their part. Passive observers waiting for life to get around to screwing them up do not compelling characters make.

My theory on character construction is that from the start, they need to have engineered into them something that forces them to get off their butts and take an action, or make a decision. Anything that moves them from a static universe to a dynamic universe, one that their actions can have a direct role in influencing. You touch on this when you bring up Sam's impending wedding, but it doesn't last long enough for it to make an impression on us.

It seems to me that you've already missed the opportunity to craft a dynamic narrative. By the time we get to the action, the real story seems to have already come and gone. What caused the shipwreck? What put them in the water in the first place? More random events from an indifferent universe, or were there issues between the three of them that lead to their present circumstances? What they might be, I couldn't say. It's not my story. But as a reader, I'd certainly like to know how they got to where we find them.

Plots, and their oh-so-essential plot points, don't just happen, apart from characters. A character driven to seek some result, or to avoid something, is what will put them in motion as they encounter obstacles in their path. Those obstacles, and what they do about them, constitutes the story part of the narrative. Somewhere along the way. Your characters are going to need to figure out how to overcome the obstacle you've presented them with. Or, at the very least, put up a good fight, perhaps good enough to buy them enough time for the mysterious light to form into a rescue ship.

That's what will keep your reader turning the pages.
3
3
Review of Selfless  
Review by edgework
Rated: 13+ | (3.0)
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I read this all the way through, as I suspect anyone would. There are many red flags that a poorly written story will wave, any of which will convince a reader that it just isn't worth their time. You raise none of them.

The narrative voice is strong, but not intrusive; it doesn't aspire to near-character status. The dialogue is believable, never prompting the, "Aw, he wouldn't talk like that!" reaction. Nice imagery. And an intriguing set-up.

In short, all the ingredients to guarantee that most desired of responses from your reader: "Gosh, I wonder what's going to happen next." Get your reader to wonder that, they'll keep reading.

And yet, I think your readers will be disappointed at the end, as was I. I had the feeling that you'd been hiding off stage, watching me wade through the various elements, trying to make sense of things, and then at the end, you jumped out with a, "Ha ha! Fooled you!"

The ending is enigmatic, not a flaw in itself, but the reader needs to have been given enough clues for there to be viable options for how one should interpret it. Here, the ending just feels like you ran out of steam. Instead of resolving the issues you'd done a decent job of setting up, you just decided, "Oh, heck. Let's just kill him."

What an ending like this means is that all our efforts to follow along with you as you present this element or that, storing each offering in our memory banks to be brought back out as the story unfolds, turns out to have been wasted effort.

The dissatisfied wife; a marriage on the rocks; an old cathedral abandoned in the wilderness; the phone steadily losing power, possibly a metaphor for the relationship; the hippie-chick; her transformation into a wise muse... all left stranded as we realize none of it meant anything. You really don't want to do that to your readers.

In an earlier review of one of your stories, I observed that you had all the required elements in place; why not go ahead and turn them into a story? That's not the problem here. I think there is a story here, I just don't know what it is. Can you come up with an elevator pitch for it: give it to me in 25 words or less? If not, it's a good sign you're not completely certain yourself what it's about.

What does Herman want? We don't know, only that he seems to be at the affect of two different woman. He's ruthlessly passive, uncertain, and probably resentful because of it. Once he, and we, know what he wants, we'll have a fixed metric with which to chart his progress, and you'll have a narrative arc as he moves to his goal. Whether he attains it or not, you'll have something substantial with which to craft your ending.

Speaking of which, the visuals of the one you now have are truly compelling. But you haven't worked hard enough for it. Don't give up on Herman or your story. Your readers will love you for it.
4
4
Review of Oxen of the Sun  
Review by edgework
Rated: 18+ | (5.0)
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I apologize for taking so long getting to this piece. Not only has the world beyond intruded, again, I wanted to give this multiple readings before I talked about it. Interestingly, I find I haven't much to say, although I enthusiastically applaud your accomplishment.

This is a challenging piece, resting somewhere in that nether-region between prose and poetry. There's not a lot of story, at least in terms of plot. The only thing that actually happens (the accident) is dismissed early on as "rather blasé," although it's hard to understand that indictment, given the turmoil to which it has subjected the narrator. Mostly, it's about waiting, hoping that the injured partner will wake up, dreading the loss that seems inevitable.

It's almost entirely internal, which can be risky; here, the language is so rich and imagistic it never falls into boredom. It thwarts all expectations, and never offers the kind of narrative we might think we're looking for. But the only real requirement, when striking out on your own like this and making your own rules is that you remain consistent to them throughout. This you have done. Even the Sun's unexpected cameos make sense, in context.

I hope you'll consider submitting this. A publication like Fence would seem like a good fit.

Nicely done.
5
5
Review of New Dawn Fades  
Review by edgework
Rated: 13+ | (4.0)
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You know the old saying, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression?” With that in mind, let’s unpack your opening sentence. It’s a good example of some habits I’ve seen in your writing that you should at least be aware of.

First, and foremost, you need a period after morning. That’s a killer sentence just as it is and it’s a particularly strong opening. Even if what followed needed no further work, I’d still question why you’d want to clutter such an elegant opening with needless extra baggage.

But the real problem comes with the next element. You’re doing something that a lot of writers do, published or otherwise. I do it, even though I try to edit myself as I write. It seems to be a natural formulation as ideas come bubbling up from the depths. I’m talking about -ing verbs, which are a form of participle, in this case, casting.

If you want something to happen, it takes a verb. The trouble with your usage is the participle, which cannot be a verb without a helper. Otherwise it’s a modifier. They can lull you into a sense that things are happening, but it’s just the idea of action. Sometimes they are appropriate—the final two examples in this sentence, for example. But to be an appropriate modifier, it needs to inhabit the same linguistic space as the thing being modified. In this case that’s a hard sell, particulary when light wants very much to be the subject of its own sentence, one with cast as its verb. The reason I say your final two participle phrases are appropriate modifiers is that they clearly exist in the same space as cast. Rule of thumb: if an -ing verb really wants to convey activity in time or space, let it. Make it a real verb and craft a sentence around it. Suffice it to say that I found enough examples of this to make it worth mentioning. Sentences that rely on participial phrases have a particular cadence to them, apart from whatever content is being conveyed. Used too much, even when appropriate, they can begin to sound repetitious.

But we’re not done with this sentence. The way you’ve structured it is what I call a big tent sentence: Come on in! There’s room for everyone. Once you start lashing together dependent clause after dependent clause, the reader ends up having to work harder just to make sure they’ve got all the elements straight. You’re too good a writer not to be able to juggle all the elements and keep them in the air, but truth is, a judicious revision might even turn up a simpler third sentence from the one you now have. There are several instances where a more Hemingwayesque approach to brevity and minimalism might serve you better.

You’ve made some interesting stylistic choices which I don’t have a problem with, although I’ll point out that some readers might feel differently. An obvious one would be your tendency to alert us that a situation or condition exists while giving minimal information about it. Your main character's occupation, for example. Likewise, the process he took to get from a young man setting off for college to owning a forty-eight foot yacht. If this was a movie, you'd have given the audience a quick jump cut, rather than the appropriate fade out/fade in signifying time passing. But it's not a movie and prose allows for liberties that cinema, with its real-world authenticity, is incapable of.

A little more insight into the character of Sleater might also have been welcome. But, like I said, you tell us he's good at what he does while giving no hint what that might be. In general, there is a discomfiting lack of detail throughout, as though a pencil sketch yet to be embellished with color. Bu these are stylistic choices, and you've certainly earned the right to your choices, unconventional though they may be.

Your jarring time jumps ultimately come full circle and the opening sequence finds completion in the ending. Here, however, I do have a problem. I have a rule that I follow, with my own writing, it is to be hoped, but definitely with pieces that I review: Thou shalt not pull rabbits out of your hat. Rabbits are any variety of plot resolution for which no foundation has been laid. In the universe you've fashioned, there has been no suggestion of anything other-worldly, extra-dimensional, paranormal, or supernatural. This has been a world relentlessly anchored in the material world. Although the boat guide has been mysterious, he comes across as just a strange guy with a weird fashion sense. The only hint that something might be amiss is when his daughter reads from the brochure. But that's just another example of informing the reader that a situation exists without giving any context or detail. We're certainly not ready for The Twilight Zone.

And this brings us to the biggest problem with this particular rabbit. There has been no real story gathered about your main character, certainly no goal or quest for which your conclusion could be seen as a resolution. Given that there has been no arc for him as he faced decisions and took actions, his gaze into the abyss is presented as just one more thing. Gotta give this guy a story, something that will keep the reader wondering "What's gonna happen next?" An arc that will give meaning to the ending, and, by extension, to his life.
6
6
Review of The Girl  
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (3.0)
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You write well. By that, I mean your prose doesn’t get in the way of what you’re trying to say—you manage to keep your timeline straight; there’s a smooth narrative flow between what happens and when; you juggle a couple of backstories here without confusing the reader; and apart from the content your words are meant to convey, taken as objects of pure rhythm and music, they are pleasing with cadences that easily roll one to the next.

The idea here is subtle but effective: your main character, realizing that he’s passed up opportunities to say important things to people in his life when they would have been most meaningful, wishes not to repeat that mistake again. It’s a nice story. I just don’t think you’ve found the most effective way to tell it, and as Tolkien said of stories, “All is in the telling.”

There are a couple of structural problems from the perspective of the reader. Most troubling, you start over three separate times. In a short story, your reader will assume that what is first presented is the story they are about to embark on and they will be attuned to any and all information that will allow them to orient themselves in this universe of yours. Your opening satisfies this need, offering a nice set-up, the kind that engages your reader and prompts that most valuable of responses—“I wonder what’s gonna happen next.”

Alas, what happens next can be summed up in three words—two people talking. And that lasts only through the opening. After that, it’s a one man show. And that’s where the real problem begins for the reader. From their point of view, the original story for which they’ve made their preparations vanishes, and they have to gear up all over again for a new story. Understand, it doesn’t matter that your main character is telling the tale. It’s not the tale, the one you opened with, and your readers will be standing around glancing at their watches, wondering when you’ll bring things back.

Eventually you do, but not while this story is in progress. In fact, this part doesn’t quite qualify as a story, not even one within a story. It’s essentially an anecdote, a narrative told for it’s surface content (“Guess what happened to me today!”) Taken as a separate entity, this module offer no conflict, no need to make decisions, no actions required: your main character is simply a passive observer telling us about the life currents passing him by.

I realize that this tale is meant to serve as a stepping stone to your main character’s eventual motivation, but it’s a long way around to get there. And when getting there entails starting yet a third story, with no end in sight to your character’s monologue, I fear your reader will throw up their arms in despair and walk away.

For those that hang in there with you, the payoff is real, though, by this time, it might seem a bit slight. What will prove most problematic is that I fear your reader will be promoted to think, “Aw shucks! People don’t act this way.” At that point, they’ll stop wondering what’s going to happen next. Is there a remedy, given that you definitely have an arc of sorts, in that your main character has learned something from his experience?

Here’s some story theory to think about. A fully realized story tends to come with what I think of as an inner story, and an outer story. You’ve given us an inner story, one centered around your main character. But stories also need a protagonist, a motivating force against which the main character’s arc comes into some form of conflict. Often, main character and protagonist are embodied in the same character, in which case, the two conflicting arcs require a choice of some sort. Think Rick, in Cassblanca, where his inner arc concerns his love for Ilse, and the outer story involves the letters of transit. Both arcs proceed on a collision course, forcing him to make decisions and take actions, propelling the narrative into that oh-so-desired third act.

But those two roles can be embodied in different characters. I’d say that you have a protagonist who’s essentially missing-in-action. You’ve even identified her in your title. It is she about whom your present narrative orbits. She is your main character’s driving force. And yet, you’ve allowed her to contribute nothing more than to shed a tear.

I don’t know what her story might be; the possibilities are infinite, and it’s not my story. But if you can rethink your characters as dynamic forces able to effect change in their circumstances, instead of passively watching, I’d be willing to bet that a story would occur to you.
7
7
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (3.0)
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You spend your first paragraph assuring the reader that nothing is to be gained by reading further. Then in the second paragraph, you first undercut your first paragraph, and end by telling the reader that you don’t care if they read on or not.

Any readers who wade past this unorthodox marketing approach will find themselves confronted by some truly thought-provoking ideas, albeit smothered beneath self-conscious, self-referential asides in which you seem unwilling to take responsibility for your ideas and simply craft a genuine essay in which you advocate for a specific argument.

The tone you strike reminds me of the humor writings of P.J. O’Rourke, who never shied away from injecting himself in the midst of his narrative. The difference is that O’Rourke was actually funny. And, he used his humor to make a point. The “Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” resolution you settle for will fool no one.

Perhaps if you’d attached your abstract statements to examples taken from the real world, you might have found your way to making an actual argument. Instead, you end the proceedings with another bout of self-denigration, assuring the reader that you don’t care how they take it.

Come on, man. Take a stand. Dare to be wrong. Risk offending someone. You’re obviously a good writer. Get off the fence. All you get from that is a crease in your ass.
8
8
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (5.0)
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First the nuts and bolts stuff. I’m assuming you composed this piece on some word processing software, then copied and pasted it into the item text field. I’m sure that in its native environment, all formatting appeared as expected: paragraphs set apart either by a line space or an indent; text wrapping to margin settings; and hard returns only at the end of a paragraph. In such a piece of software, the settings do much of the work. You needn’t actually hit an extra return at the end of a paragraph, you don’t actually set tabs at the beginning of each paragraph, you simply tell the program how you want it to look and start typing.

Unfortunately, none of those settings are picked up when you copy and paste, which is why your story is such a bloody mess. Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s a large portion of the overall effect, and if it complicates the reader’s job, it needs to be tended to. WDC’s text field is a rudimentary text processor, so to make this readable you’re going to need to add the keystrokes to format your paragraphs and take out the myriad hard returns salted throughout that just get in the way of the prose.

And that’s a damned shame, because it’s strong, polished prose that’s worth reading. I found one, just one, mechanical error. This sentence contains a doozy:

As I did often, I was sat on the bench along the path into the cemetery,

When everything sounds this good, a blunder like that sticks out like a hairy wart. ‘Nuff said.

I always find something to complain about in my reviews, a suggested revision or a potential tweak to consider. I can’t here. Everything works, elegantly. It’s mostly a meditation on the kinds of issues that crop up when spending time in a cemetery. The main character visits various graves and contemplates the lives that ended there.

This is a text-book example of how a well-defined narrative arc needn’t be built on strong plot points. Not a whole lot actually happens in time and space. The transitions are conveyed through shifts in narrative tone, mood, and the main character’s deepening involvement with the baby’s grave.

I loved how the cemetery scenes were framed as memories, which allowed you to effortlessly shift the time frame into the present for the concluding passages. A story that has been shrouded in somber thoughts of death ends optimistically with a focus on life.

Nicely done.
9
9
Review of Forgiven  
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (4.0)
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You have a decent idea at the core of this story. You asked about your grammar. It's fine. Your prose has a solid feel to it, like you know what you're doing and where you're going, the kind of prose that lets a reader relax and trust you to take control. However, I think you are confusing the issue, and you'll confuse your readers in the process.

You have less than 300 words to get the job done. That means you can't afford any detours. Actually, in any short story, you can't afford detours. But here, they're deadly.

Keep in mind that readers approach a new story with an open mind and a blank slate as they wait for you to provide them with cues about what is going on. They will rightly assume that first elements are important. In fact, they'll assume that any elements you introduce are important, and they'll reserve a place in their memories for them, to be brought back out as the plot requires.

So here's what your readers will encounter as they start their journey into your universe. There's a pair of plaid slippers, apparently coming apart. There is also a plaid robe with a belt that drags on the floor. There are Arthur's bow legs. There's a daughter, Beverly, who wanted to put him into assisted living. And then, finally, there is mention of "Confession Day."

I will suggest to you that everything other than the reference to Confession Day is irrelevant, beside the point and confusing. None of it affects the story one bit. Get rid of all of it. You have to be clear about what the story is that you are trying to tell, and simply tell that story.

This story is interesting: there is a ritual of confession that Arthur finds important. How long this has been going on, we don't know. Why this particular ritual and the form it takes is never explained. There's nothing wrong with this. Backstory is highly overrated. Truth is, as long as there's something interesting going on it the present, you readers won't care about the backstory. You should know the backstory, of course; it's your story. But as long as your characters behave consistently with the rules of this universe of yours, your readers will absorb what they can from the present action and fashion their own sense of where everything originated.

It is the ritual of confession that is compelling here. It needs to be brought into the present. Right now, his wife simply refers to much of it in passing, denying us of the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing the unfolding in real time of Arthur's confessions. Let him confess each of them, one at a time: the arguments, the forgotten anniversaries, the wholly self-indulgent golf game. A few more wouldn't hurt.

His wife is a willing accomplice to this ritual. And then, she flips when Arthur reveals his affair. Somehow, a progression is called for. I won't suggest how to create this; as I said, this is your story and you're more than capable of crafting it. But if she becomes more and more irritated by Arthur's revelations, his final reveal will push her over the edge in a way that feels natural.

Reread what you have written, not as the writer, but as a member of the audience. Will your characters sound natural, as though they could be people you know in your own life, speaking with the cadences and rhythms of normal speech. Make sure your reader is never confused as to the present moment in your story. Move that moment along at a natural pace. You do this well, but it never hurts to examine what you've written as others will encounter it.

Nice work.

10
10
Review of Medusa  
Review by edgework
Rated: 13+ | (3.5)

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It’s a pleasure reading prose that knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. You have some good things here and your writing is strong and mature. From the start you give the reader a comforting sense that they’re in good hands.

The problem with such prose is that any problems that might exist aren’t going to be immediately apparent. One doesn’t have easy shots at their disposal, such as, “Many of your sentences seem to be missing verbs,” or “You forgot the story part.”

So I’ve read this a couple of times to make certain that I could articulate why it leaves me less than satisfied. I’ve determined that it all comes down to your protagonist—Nadia/Medusa.

Carter is clearly your main character; it is through his point of view that we gain access to the emotional/psychological aspects of the story. His narrative is well defined and makes sense.

Nadia, however, is the driving force behind all that happens. Carter’s defining action took place long before the story begins. After that, Nadia has presented him with a series of conditions to which he can only react.

This gives your structure a classic inner story/outer story duality, with the inner story driven by the main character and the outer story concerned with the protagonist’s arc.

There’s nothing incorrect in the way you’ve set up these dual arcs, but you’ve missed the opportunity they present for mounting tension and conflict. That’s what will spin your story into a third act. At some point the conflict between the inner and outer stories forces a reaction, a reveal, a redefining of parameters, that will charge your story through to its conclusion.

You’ve missed this moment of truth because from the outset, we pretty much see what’s coming. Truth is, when Carter felt the violent thud on the roof of his car, then discovered deep claw marks, I immediately thought winged creature with claws of doom, and from that point it was just a matter of matter of waiting to see how you would pull it off.

And, as I said, there’s nothing incorrect in how you did it. But think about how you would react when encountering an intrusion of the supernatural into your ownsecular reality. There’s a kind of template that governs the progression one would go through. Dismissal, to begin with. I must be imagining things. Rationalization next. I must need more sleep. There would be resistance as cognitive dissonance kicks in. Then anger. Leave me the f*** alone. There could be additional steps along the way, or different steps. But the point is, there needs to be an incremental coming to terms with the situation before that moment when the blood runs cold and the confrontation with truth cannot be denied.

While you’ve given Carter something of this progression, your reader needs the chance to go through the same steps. I’m not going to suggest how you might revise this—you’re certainly up to the task. But right now, the reader never gets that white-knuckle moment. When truth is revealed, we think, “Ok, I get it. Cool.” What you want us to slug us in the gut.

One thing you need to avoid is letting your narrator intrude to provide information not available to your main character, as you do when you describe the retreating winged creature that Carter fails to notice. You do this at another point too, and it confuses the focus. This is a third-person restricted POV, which means there is essentially no distinction between the narrative voice and what Carter experiences.

Don’t be in such a hurry to lay all your cards on the table. Make your reader work for it. In a story like this, your character’s destination is important. But what will make your story memorable is the journey they take to get there.
11
11
Review of The Stars  
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (3.0)

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My review might annoy you. It might even anger you. I sometimes have that effect. So, before things devolve to that unhappy state, let me say up front that you are an impressive writer. Your prose is strong and assured. It’s clean and highly readable. No rookie blunders nor unintended howlers. You introduce two characters at the outset that we immediately want to get to know and you waste no time providing them with motivation that would seem to be ready-made for whatever plot you might cook up. Further, you never strand the reader in an ambiguous time flow, leaving them to wonder, Did this happen before that? Or, when am I, anyway? Readers have an unwavering sense of where now is, and they are quick to tag deviations from it in the narrative.

So, given all that, it could reasonably be asked, “What’s your problem, man?” It can be distilled down to four words:

Ya got no story.

Don’t get me wrong: things happen, characters are in motion, and there is genuine emotional interaction between those characters. But it’s not a story. It’s just a series of unrelated events, sort of like real life. Allow me to explain.

In the opening passages you do something quite effective: you let us know that we are in an alternate universe without calling attention to the fact or beating us over the head with a wealth of detail. Thus, as various elements are brought forth that further clarify the nature of this universe, we’re prepared, and they too fit seamlessly into the narrative flow.

When the younger sister loses her first tooth, her brother’s reaction, and hers, makes it clear that this represents something of far greater importance than our own hide it under the pillow and wait for the tooth fairy ritual. In your story, the loss of a first tooth signifies some significant rite of passage. What is the significance? Ya got me. You don’t tell us. But that’s the thing with alternate universes. We don’t need to know everything. We don’t need to know anything in particular. What we need is to see characters behaving and interacting according to the laws of this universe. You need to know, of course, but we can get by on the flimsiest of hints, as long as they remain consistent. You do this well.

We now learn that this significant milestone warrants a visit to the old lady on the hill. Again, what old lady? What hill? And why is she there? We have no idea. But by this time, it’s enough for us to recognize that our young characters know, and that they are eager for the encounter.

So at this point, with a minimum of effort, and seemingly without breaking a sweat, you’ve caused your reader to think, I wonder what’s gonna happen next. If you can get them thinking that, they’ll keep reading to find out.

Readers always come to a new story with a full measure of good will, and they trust that wherever you’re going to take them, it will have been worth their time and effort. When the story begins as has this one, that investment of time and effort would seem that it will prove well rewarded. But readers are a fickle lot. The second they begin to sense that their faith was misplaced, you’ll lose them and won’t get them back. For you, that moment is triggered about the time the old lady launches into her “story.”

I’ve mentioned The Readers and how they can be a fickle lot. You need to keep them in mind always; they might bring good faith to the table, but they also bring expectations, mostly based on your own text. In your set-up, you’ve given them ample cause to view the children, probably the little sister, as the main character. Main characters are the POV character, our access point to the psychological and emotional dimensions of the story. It is the main character’s story that becomes the core of the larger narrative, and our interest will be focused on her progress through whatever plot points you devise as she moves towards her goal. I nominate the little sister for this role because it’s her tooth, she is the reason they set out to visit the old lady in the first place.

When this new character makes her appearance, we are neutral in our assessment of her. We’re willing to take the children’s’ word for it and wait to see what happens. What happens, however, for no apparent reason, is she suddenly hijacks the role of main character for herself. Readers don’t like that. You’ve made them comfortable with a certain set of assumptions, and now suddenly they’re forced to readjust to what is essentially a new story. Worse, she makes no effort to fulfill her usurped role. Instead, she outsources it to a myth from the dim mists of time, one that, on repeated readings, appears to have no relevance to any of the threads you’d begun weaving in your set-up.

You need to recognize: regardless of its content, the old lady’s story is not part of your story. That unfailing sense of where now is that I’ve ascribed to readers will be sounding warning klaxons as they puzzle over where the story you’d sold them disappeared to. They’ll be looking at their watches, impatiently waiting for this unwanted detour to eventually take them back to that real story. Sad to say, few will see it through to the end, and those that do will be unsatisfied.

Here’s the actual template for your story:

Two children visit an old lady in the hills as a result of an important event in the life of one of them > she spends a long time talking > they all cry.

This is what will register on your readers’ NOW meter. Note what’s missing from this structure, after the inciting incident: problem > decisions > actions > complications > third act > resolution.

For the record, I checked out A Weight Worth Bearing in your portfolio, to make sure I hadn’t reached conclusions prematurely. I found similar issues: wonderful prose, the kind of prose that assures a reader that they’re in good hands, along with a narrative which, while far more realized than this one, still misses on closing the deal. You owe it to yourself to do some homework on the dynamics of story structure. The quality of your writing would seem to demand it.
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Review of The Word Smith  
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (4.0)
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I have a couple of issues to get out of the way before moving on to your poem.

In your bio you say you have no writing experience. You also call yourself a hack. People tend to use "hack" in a pejorative sense, and it's not fair to the true hacks out there. A hack is someone who writes for a deadline and a paycheck. Hemingway was a hack. Likewise Fitzgerald. Shakespeare too, for that matter. Hacks are noble practitioners of the craft, and it's probable that the pressure of having to produce, on time, raises their output to levels they might not otherwise have achieved simply by indulging themselves in isolation.

As for writing experience, maybe, maybe not. Who can say where facility with words, particularly in their written form, comes from? While classes, and lessons can teach someone to turn out serviceable prose, some things can't be taught: you have it, or you don't. You do. So, there's that.

However, it would be a tragic waste of your natural gifts if you simply allowed yourself to keep turning out decent verse such as one finds in your portfolio, without making a serious effort to hone your craft, to bring it up to the level to which I assume you aspire.

You have a good instinct for rhyme, particularly what is loosely called slant rhyme—parings like path/art, mind/time, game/gain, criticism/vision (that one was particularly risky but you pulled it off). Scattered amongst the true rhymes, they provide a nice variation in the sound of the words.

Rhythmically, you should branch out. Everything in your portfolio is written in iambic tetrameter. It's done well, don't get me wrong, but the mind fogs over at the endless repetition: De Dah De Dah De Dah De De. To be fair, you cheat a few times, and get away with it.

Bound in verse, I free my mind

does not properly scan into four metrical feet, but the initial strong beat is sufficient to anchor the line.

What it is to be held true?

is less successful. The spondee at the end isn't enough to make up for the hole in the opening of the line.

If you truly are a novice at the craft of poetry, then perhaps you're not certain about terms like tetrameter, spondee, or metrical feet. It would serve you well to acquaint yourself with the intricacies of scansion, which really isn't all that intricate at all. It is nothing more than an after the fact method of understanding why good writing sounds good. "Poetic Feet and Meter, an essay by yours truly is a decent intro to the topic.

I say all this by way of suggesting that you acquaint yourself with more complex metrical forms. Iambic pentameter, the cadence of Shakespeare, remains the most natural structure in which English sentences can organize themselves. Rhymed or otherwise, nothing resonates quite so melodically. But lines with three feet, or six feet are also rich with potential, or, perhaps, alternating lines of three feet and four feet. The rules are yours to create. The only catch is, once you establish the rules for a particular poem, you need to stick to them.

This next part deals with stylistic choices and I freely acknowledge that my choices may not be yours. However, I note that there is a marked lack of sense data in your poem. Things happen, to be sure, but the language seems to be striving to come more into focus, and not succeeding. English is rich with vivid words that evoke virtually any experience you can imagine. The sharp rap of knuckles on a table top, the scratch of a pen tip over parchment, the click of heels receding down a hallway, a bleached winter landscape...

The problem with a lot of your lines: they don't contain experience so much as they tell us that an experience took place.

I lay in trust, to be no more
In words fall prey, thy criticism
Yet reveal an inward vision
What it is to be held true?


There's a lot of telling going on here, but very little that can actually be visualized, felt, or experienced. Look for a concise, crisp image to do the heavy lifting for you. Give your reader the experience, they'll provide the interpretation themselves, and come away rewarded.

Lastly, there's an adage that a poem should never be about what it's about. The beauty of poetry, as opposed to prose, is that it has no need to be logical. Poems are about explanations, or narrations, or arguments. Poems are about language, and the power of linguistic structures to accomplish effects denied prose. Two totally unrelated concepts, images or elements can become fused simply by positioning them together in a poem.

This is a poem I reference often. It's "The Fall of Rome, by W.H. Auden. Note, first of all, the complete lack of any abstract sentences. No instructions on how we're to interpret the proceedings, nothing but image after image, vividly presented. Note too, that the first four stanzas would appear to conform to the title—this is an empire in decay, rotting with corruption. Yet, see how the perspective widens in the final two stanzas, giving us a sense that all this is transitory, that beyond the borders of the flu-infected cities, the natural world continues as it always has, unaffected and unconcerned with the affairs of men.

Of course, nothing of this is actually spelled out. Themes are always banal when spoken aloud. A master like Auden would never resort to such. Instead, he simply makes his point anyway, through poetry.

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Review of Long Weekend  
Review by edgework
Rated: E
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Nice. You have good instincts.

Let me begin with something painfully obvious: poetry is different from prose. Maybe it's annoying to find such a seemingly banal comment presented in a serious critique; I do so because, while you are definitely thinking in terms of poems, you still have a bit of prose to purge from your writing.

Consider why we resort to prose: to explain, to describe, to narrate, to argue, and to organize hierarchies of importance, both temporal and psychological. All these features imply a subject that is served by the words. No finer medium exists for this task than English prose.

Poetry then, is all the other stuff. None of the elements we associate with poetry—rhythm, rhyme, assonance, consonance, enjambment, scansion, all the various forms—are concerned with subject. With poems, language is focus, first and last. No poem gains entry to the canon by virtue of its subject, or for espousing a particular political sentiment.

So my suggestion is to comb through your lines and be vigilant for any constructions that you suspect are serving the purposes of prose. I’m not about to rewrite this for you: for one thing, it’s not my poem; for another, you’re perfectly capable yourself. However, you might take a hard look at phrases like when I see you; You ask me for; I look at you; and I stand on the sidewalk; I will never get used to watching. No doubt a argument could be made for the inclusion of any of these phrases, or all of them. You should refrain from making that argument.

Behind the measured words and logical, step-by-step presentation, a poem like contains an experience, one that had a deep impact on you. What poetry can do that prose cannot, is to evoke that experience in all its raw emotion, its lack of logic, its sense data devoid of the interpretive sheen of conscious thought. It’s the difference between merely telling us about an experience, and placing us in the middle of it, making your experience ours as well.

Why I suggested a closer look at those phrases is that, for the most part, they’re redundant. We know this is your experience, that if a thing is thought, you are doing the thinking; if it is seen, you are doing the seeing. Every time you bring yourself into the text, you are resorting to the language of narration, making yourself the point, rather than letting the language of immediacy bring the experience itself to the front and placing a linguist buffer between the reader and the moment.

This poem weighs in at 126 words. As you said, it’s a short poem. But perhaps not short enough. I’m going to suggest bringing it in at 100 words. It will take more than simply eliminating this word or that. You’ll need to rethink your language and discover what you are actually trying to convey, line by line, and discover the most economical way to do it. Perhaps that means tossing a line altogether and finding an image that does the work for you, with fewer words.

One thing you might discover is you cannot tell us everything you now are trying to convey to us. You may need to abandon the narrative structure and instead leave negative space to give us room to interpret for ourselves. Then, if you want to get really ambitious, carve another 25 words from it. "But it won't make sense," you might protest. Perhaps not prose sense. But that's a good thing.

This feels like a strong first draft, where you allow yourself to identify the terrain you wish to cover, the issues implied, and the approach you will take. Now you need to refine it, and hone it into a sharp poem.
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Review of Exposure  
Review by edgework
Rated: 13+ | (4.5)
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This was not an easy piece to critique. But, I suspect you already know that. I have to assume that a piece like this doesn't come about by accident; therefore, there was intelligent design at work, and intention.

That's fine. When writing seems to operate according to an alien set of rules, the most important question is, regardless of what those rules might be, does it do so consistently. Is there internal cohesion in the writing? In other words, do you follow your own rules? I'd have to say yes, absolutely. I may have no idea what you are doing, but you do it throughout without wavering from your course. And, content aside, the prose is mature, polished and assured. Ok... maybe it sounds like it would be more at home coming from Edgar Allen Poe than the 21st century. But, aside from a couple of places where I might point out that good writing is not just about finding complex verbal constructions for simple ideas, you hold to your course and the prose style definitely contributes to the atmosphere of the entire piece. It could even be said to create it.

So, back to the aforementioned difficulty in assessing this piece. It makes little sense to point out that traditional categories like plot, character development, continuity of narrative and theme seem to have been overlooked here. In fact, I'd say the only thing that you've left on the page, in terms of a standard category to be evaluated, is conflict. Your main character is beset by conflicts at every turn. I remember reading an interview with John Ashbury; he stated that he was interested in reversing the role of subject and content. Instead of subject driving the words chosen, let it work the other way, where the words allow subject to rise out of them, like a bicycle riding downhill, where gravity turns the pedals for you.

Is that something of what you are trying here? A story that has had all the usual elements stripped from it? Maybe. There's no way of knowing, and any attempt to explain what is going on would seem to involve as much of a creative effort as went into the writing in the first place. I don't want to be doing your work for you. For one, it's your story, not mine. And two, as I disagree with virtually every stylistic choice you've made, I don't really want to have to work all the harder to explain what I've read. If you aren't interested enough in providing your reader with a map to dig beneath the surface, that's fine with me. I'll accept it at face value.

Perhaps it is a complex, post-modern screed where the intellectual underpinnings are crucial to an understanding of the text, but I suspect that what we really have here is an elaborate dream sequence. I hate dream sequences; they're nothing more than an elaborate cheat. Anything is allowed, and no requirement exists to connect them to anything else, not other elements in the dream or elements outside it in the real world. Mostly the seem like scales and arpeggios a pianist might work through to keep their fingers nimble. Technically proficient, but can you play Beethoven? Or can you Boogie Woogie?

Nonetheless, I suspect you could find a place for this in the market. Despite ringing no chimes within me, it's undeniably well-done, and I've always maintained that questions of style are none of my business, not when the writer demonstrates that they've earned the right to work in any style they choose. You have done this. I think you should submit it.
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Review by edgework
Rated: ASR | (4.5)
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Before I comment on your story, let me get some mechanical details out of the way. You write in a musical, almost poetic style that is appropriate for a children's book, but you need to let someone who knows what they're doing proof your manuscript. There are a few too many places that cease to fall under the "literary license" category and instead come out sounding just wrong.

Here's one that sounds like it may have just gotten mangled in a revision gone bad. The first sentence is fine, the second is not really a sentence but it still works stylistically. The last phrase is too odd to leave there.

"The fish, the coral, and even the oysters, all are bigger than me. More important than me." continued the shrimp-like little fellow his lamentations.

Here's a case of bad grammar.

His family, eaten by a whale, and he had done nothing. Couldn't do nothing!

You could say Couldn't do anything, but it's always stronger to wrap a negative in a positive statement: Could do nothing.

Bloopers like this stand out all the more sharply since there are so few of them. But even one is enough to make your readers wonder if you know what you're doing, which is a shame since, clearly, you do know what you're doing.

Now, to the story. At first glance it feels a little dark for a child audience. I mean, let's face it, the natural world is a brutal place and you prove it. Creatures die so others can live. Still, it's a lesson that must be learned, and you seem to have found a way to present it gently, without sugar-coating it overly much. In a children's literary universe that has room for "Everybody Farts," and "Everybody Poops," there certainly should be room for a tale like this.

You should look for an illustrator. The content is begging for an inspired visual touch. And children's books would seem to require it. I think you have a hot property here; polish it up, add illustrations and look for a publisher.
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Review of Love  
Review by edgework
Rated: E | (4.5)
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I don’t quite know what to make of this. On the one hand, your prose style is strong and mature, the kind of writing that invites the reader in to whatever world you have created, and assures them that you won’t waste their time. Given your age, this is all the more remarkable. You have a natural facility with the written word. I hope you put in the necessary study and work to develope to your full potential.

On the other hand, I’m Not quite sure what this is. It is certainly not a story, although part of what I would call your gift is the ability to simply talk, conversationally, and still create a narrative flow that drives your words. Still, there’s nothing of a story here. Nor is it properly an essay, given that you are advocating neither for nor against a particular idea. Nor is it journalism, in that there are no real events under discussion. The content is entirely subjective.

What it feels like is a journal entry, the kind of personal musings and reflections on this or that that have occupied writers since the advent of the written word. There is a time-honored place for such writing; not only does it provide access to the inner workings of the writer’s creative process, it’s also a way to work out issues, passages or other elements that can form the raw material of more complex projects.

You might even find a place for this in the market. It’s certainly worth the effort. You’d need to research the venues to which you submit, but it’s easy to imagine an editor reading this and thinking,”Just what I was looking for.”

Good luck.
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Review of The Sacrifice  
Review by edgework
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Rated: E | (3.5)
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You have a good idea working here, and for the first part of your story, you definitely do it justice. You write well and you've crafted an interesting POV character, one who holds our attention as she takes us through the events in her life.

Inexplicably, while you do such a fine job of crafting your scenes in the first two sections, starting with the third you abandon this narrative style in favor of one that allows you to cram much more information into your text, but with decidedly lower impact and interest.

In the first two sections, you bring your camera and microphone in close and allow us to experience the events as they unfold, giving us a "you are there" perspective. You craft the scenes in such a way that we naturally are compelled to utter those most desired of words coming from a reader: "Gosh, I wonder what's gonna happen next." Get your reader wondering that, they'll stay your reader and keep reading to find out.

Note what happens in the third scene:

Waking up every morning wasn’t any easier, but he was there. He was always there. He made sure I got out of bed in the mornings and was fortified with enough food to start the day. He accompanied me to all my classes before rushing off to his. He would always be waiting for me when my classes ended and we would walk home together. Most of my time everyday was spent together with him. He made sure I turned up for all of my appointments with my psychologist, ensuring that I was making progress. He made sure that I never neglected my studies, but also spent enough time relaxing and doing the things I love. He always made himself present whenever I had my ‘episodes’, talking to me soothingly and making sure I was okay before I continued my work.

Note the shift in perspective. Note how we no longer have any clear sense of the passage of time; it's all already happened and we're being given an after the fact summary. Note how often the word would appears. Note that nowhere in this paragraph are there any actual events taking place. Instead, we are given an overview of a class of events: Ezra waking Rianne and making sure she gets to her classes; taking her to her doctors appointments; how he always made himself available. As readers, we aren't particularly interested in things that would tend to happen, given a series of conditions being met (the conditional statements incorporating the would form of the verb). We want to see one event, one specific event, occurring in a specific time and place, where a specific thing happens.

You've already shown that you can do action and dialogue. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, especially if the fix does more harm than good. I can envision a whole series of scenes—none of them particularly long, but all focused on a single example of the elements you describe in passing: Ezra waking Dianne up and coaxing her to class on time; Ezra working with her to study for an exam; a scene showing Ezra in the process of "healing" her, cementing her broken pieces back together; a scene showing him filling Rianne's emptiness. Of course, none of these things would be identified outright. If we see an actual moment of healing take place, we'll be able to form the desired interpretation. And, through it all, moving in parallel, the steady deterioration of Ezra, noted by Rianne, but not fully grasped, until the scene where she walks into his apartment and finds him dead.

It's the old showing vs. telling dichtomy. It's taken as settled wisdom that showing is better than telling. This is not true. Telling is important. It's how you ride a subway uptown without making all the local stops that your reader cares nothing about. It's how you turn summer to autumn without describing each leaf changing color. Telling is great for conveying background information without resorting to a kludgy flashback. Telling is how you establish context. But showing is what you do when the scene counts, when the characters need to be center stage, working through the events right in front of the reader. You are telling far too much, and the effect is a narrative buffer between the reader and the events that you want to pack an emotional punch. If those events remain hidden behind bland summaries, and time is compressed into single conditional statements, you will be cheating your story, and, worse, cheating your reader. They might not notice it. But you will, when they don't come back to see what else you've written.
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Review of The Antlion  
Review by edgework
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Rated: 18+ | (3.5)
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I'm going to suggest a radical experiment for you, as a rewriting exercise. But before I do so, let me state at the outset that I think you are a powerful writer, and this is a strong piece of writing.

Here's my challenge: right now, this piece weighs in at a hefty 644 words. I'm going to suggest that you rewrite it, but keep the word count to... let's say, 200; 100 if you're really ambitious; 50 if you want maximum effect for minimum interference.

What you will immediately discover in such an exercise is that you will have to devise a far more economical language to get your points across. You will also discover which points are truly important and which are mere description. You will also discover that you will no longer be able to narrate your content to us in a way that explains everything. Instead, you will have to extract images and moments of experience that capture the essence of what you want to convey. At times this will feel like you are leaving things out. At times, you will feel that a reader might no longer fully understand what you are trying to say. What you may end up with is a poem that, rather than attempting to explain an experience for us, with it's necessary separation between written word and reader, instead captures that experience in the moment, evoking it for us, making your experience ours as well.

I've said you are a powerful writer. However, this is not a powerful poem. Note, by way of example, the following paragraph:

The antlion larva is a predatory insect that lives, among other places, in the Sahara Desert. The antlion larva burrows into the sand and creates a hollow cone around itself. Then ants, racing across the blazing sand, tumble into the cone. Maybe they don't see it in the path, or maybe they do see but their momentum drags them on. They try to climb the angled walls as the sand slips away beneath them. The open jaws of the antlion wait at the vertex of its trap. And the ant scurries with all six legs trying to find purchase. Trying to escape the pit before the desert sun burns it alive, or it fall(s) to the monster below.

What we have here is your first stanza, stripped of it's lines and their line breaks, turned back into normal sentences. I would suggest that there is no difference in either the sound or sense between either version. This tells me that you haven't really taken advantage of the one single most crucial difference between poetry and prose: the line. Nothing like it exists in prose. If a poem can lose it's lines without losing anything else in its presentation, they were never valid lines in the first place, and what you actually have is prose. Well written prose. But prose, nonetheless.

Prose is what you use to make comparisons, narrate a sequence of events, argue or rebut a particular position, describe things, or establish hierarchies of importance either spatially, temporally or psychologically. There is, perhaps, no finger medium that English prose for such endeavors, with its myriad linguistic streams that have been absorbed over the centuries. In prose, subject is the point, and the words, well-written though they may be, exist to serve that subject and to convey it as cleanly and clearly as possible.

Poetry, then, is all the other stuff that language can do. None of the elements we commonly associate with poetry—meter, rhyme, lines, stanzas, poetic forms, figures of speech—is specifically concerned with subject at all. The first priority of any poem is language itself. No poem earns a place in the canon because it's subject espoused a particular point of view or narrated a compelling sequence of events. Poems that endure do so because their language is adventurous, takes unexpected detours, falls into wormholes of meaning, places unfamiliar elements in juxtaposition thereby linking them, or wanders effortless through time and space in ways that prose, with its inherently logical foundations, is able to accomplish awkwardly, if at all.

In its present form, your poem's subject is clearly it's purpose, and you do a good job of coming at it from multiple directions. The extended metaphor of the antlion is truly inspired. Resist the urge to tell us everything. In fact, resist the urge to tell us anything. Instead of the language of narration, explore the language of experience. Give us the bare essentials and choose them for maximum effect. Better that you leave some negative space for the reader to move into and apply their own experience, making the poem something personal for them.

There are plenty of images here for you to exploit: you staring silently at the wall for three hours; the mistaken notion that not crying is better than crying; you as an ant, small, segmented, flighty, wondering if she could kill herself without her husband knowing.

The kinds of lines to edit out:

This is about the way I'm am an ant,

I scramble against the unstable walls my depression has buil(t).

If only I could grasp onto something,
Hold onto anything.
If only I weren't as hollow as this pit of sand.

I am a woman researching overdose at four in the afternoon on a Saturday. (This is an excellent image. Strip away the descriptive context and put us in the moment of your contemplation).


The trouble with such lines is we are all too conscious of the presence of a narrator placing themselves between us and the experience. This is a poem that demands immediacy, allowing the experience to unfold directly around us, without the narrative buffer.

I realize that the modifications I am suggesting would result in an entirely different piece. Personally, I think the content and the imagery that you are working with could result in a powerful poem that hits hard and fast and leaves a strong impression. Such poems tend to get published.
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19
Review by edgework
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Rated: E | (3.0)
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This is a clever piece and well written. Unfortunately it starts with a high-concept premise and never really jumps off from there.

We get the situation quickly enough, and from that point on, it's essentially more of the same, until the final, inevitable conclusion, which offers no surprises.

You've anthropomorphized Johnny's pistol, an extreme course of action in the best of times. A possible justification might be to offer us a perspective that conventional historical accounts missed, even an alternative history. You haven't done this. So the question must be asked, "Why bother?" I don't mean to be caustic, but that's always the crucial question a writer must ask.

For example, by creating a specific character out of what would ordinarily be an inert object, you now are tasked with creating all the necessary elements that accompany any character. Goals, aspirations, conflicts, disappointments, betrayals... These are the things that make us want to know more about a character. Couldn't you find a way to provide this character with some of them? Surly he didn't expect to be used for so ignoble a deed. Perhaps he saw himself on the hip of a famous lawman, or participating in a major battle. You've given him a totally accepting response to the use to which he is ultimately put. That rings false.

Imagine, instead, that you told the tale from the POV of the man tasked with guarding the President's private box. That would offer us a familiar tale with a totally unique perspective. However he reacted, it wouldn't be to casually accept the outcome as just one of those things. Likewise, your character needs to have some kind of moral response.

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Review of Lioness  
Review by edgework
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Rated: 13+ | (3.0)
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A synopsis of this plot would suggest a classic gangster tale, told through the eyes of an innocent bystander. Two mobs at perpetual war with each other, each with tentacles reaching far enough into the life of the city they struggle to control that everyone seems to get tangled up in the intrigue. Our main character's father has been taken hostage by one faction. In desperation, he seek out the assistance of the opposing crime lord in an effort to get his father back.

Unfortunately, I think you're going to need to do more homework to tighten up your narrative technique. It's not always clear what's happening; your sense of time and your pacing are confusing. You seem to have some jump cuts from one scene to the next without actually alerting the reader that a transition has taken place. Likewise your dialogue; it's not always clear who's speaking to whom.

Keep in mind, a good story isn't just about things that happen. For sure, lots of things happen here. It's about things that happen to specific characters and what they do in response. A story will stand or fall, not on its plot mechanics, but on the small details of your characters' personalities, how they interact, how much your readers will be willing to allow themselves to be drawn into the universe you've created. If they stumble, not once, not twice, but several times, and are forced to think, "That's not how he'd react," they won't stick with you.
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Review of Bedtime mantra  
Review by edgework
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Rated: E | (3.0)
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In the intro line to this poem you state: New to poetry. Trying out a descending word count thing.

So let's talk a bit about poetry, and, in particular, the role played by specific poetic forms, including the "descending word count thing."

I have a few questions for you. Who's your favorite poet? What publications featuring contemporary poetry do you read on a regular basis? Do you find yourself drawn more to the line of poetry descending from Robert Frost, or from Wallace Stevens (the yin and yang of modern American poetry)? Do you know what a dactyl is?

Trust me, I'm not trying to be a jerk here or put you on the spot, but if, as I suspect, you find yourself hard-pressed to come up with answers to these questions, congratulations: you're in the distinct majority of the population. The market for poetry has always been slim, and it's slimmer today than ever.

I don't disparage your subject, by the way. Self-expression is certainly a valid purpose for committing words to paper, whether poetry or prose, and often such expressions serve a valuable function for the writer. But once you put your writing out in the public domain, whatever personal connection to the words vanishes. At that point, it's just another poem among millions, and the hard truth is, at this point you're competing with Shakespeare. You don't get a free pass because you're sincere, no extra points for good intent. Poetry, like prose, like music composition, like grandmaster chess, is both craft and art, and unless you've made an attempt to master the first, and nurture the second, you're just playing Chopstix. I play a mean version of Chopstix myself, but I certainly wouldn't try to take it to Carnegie Hall.

A teacher from whom I learned much once observed that while many people are enamored with the idea of being a poet, not many of them actually like poetry. I'll leave it to you to determine to what extent this pertains to you, but in the meantime, check out Fence magazine (selected samples of each issue are available online}, DMQReview.com (every issue is available online), Strongverse.com (tons of content available). These three will offer you the full spectrum of contemporary poetry that, for whatever reason, some editor considered worthy of publication, ranging from Post Modern obscurity to real world traditionalism.

Read Frost, and Stevens. Try out William Carlos Williams (not my own favorite, but worthy of note). Give Charles Bukowski a tumble and John Ashbury as well. None of these poets sounds like the next, but what they all share is the realization that of all the aspects of a poem, subject is the least important. Poems are, first and foremost, about language, and, in particular, what language is capable of when it's cut loose from the cause-and-effect logic of prose.

If you want to talk about something, explain something, argue something, or describe something, English prose, with the myriad linguistic traditions that it's absorbed, is your go-to bet. Nothing beats it. Consider: Everything in prose—sentences, paragraphs, verb tenses, all the parts of speech—is designed to serve the needs of elements outside the words themselves. Subject and topic are the reason for prose to exist.

Poetry, then, is all the other stuff. The elements of poetry—rhyme, meter, assonance, alliteration, scansion, to say nothing of the seemingly infinite variety of forms available—have little or nothing to do with subject. It's all about the surface of the language itself, the words, how they play against each other, how they offer pathways outside of logical progression to attain their result. No poem attains a place in the permanent canon simply because it espouses a correct political position, or offers a confessional glimpse of the poet's psyche. Poems that endure do so first and last because of the language.

I have no intention of attacking your poem because it's not on par with Ashbury. Neither are any of mine. And I will acknowledge you for employing an artificial structure that you manage to make invisible. That's always the point, not that one adheres to a particular rhyme scheme, or structural form, but that you find words that work in a natural reading, so that one thinks that these are the words that would have been chosen anyway, and, Wow, look at that. Each line has one less word than the previous. As for the content, I think that if you expose yourself to a wide variety of poetry, you will find that the nature of your content, your images, your rhythms—your language—will naturally evolve. This is a good thing, and worth the effort.
22
22
Review by edgework
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Rated: E | (3.0)
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You say your "work is rough and amateur, but as of now, so am I," so let's start with that and talk about what that looks like, and what might be done about it.

A great place to start would be grammar and syntax. No matter if your prose sounds good (and, for the most part, it does), if you don't know the difference between too, and to, no one will take you seriously. Twice you use advance, which is usually a verb (Advance to the bridge and secure it.), sometimes a noun, (The army's advance stalled at the river.), but when used as you use it, it's an adjective and takes this form: advanced technology, or across our advanced civilization, both examples from your text. Understand, if your intent is to be taken seriously as a writer, that means at some point getting some harried, underpaid and understaffed editor to take you seriously, and those three instances in a work as short as this will probably smother the deal in the cradle. Here's the kicker: you can learn this stuff out of a book, so get one and start catching up. Struck and White's The Elements of Style is a good place to start.

It's hard to know what you're going for with this piece. It feels like an intro to a longer magazine article, perhaps a "See Beautiful Michigan," type of publication, though you haven't really staked out your territory yet in terms of topic. It starts off seeming to be a rant about your boss, complete with gratuitous snide political and economic digs about "too much oil money," and cars that are "simply fast toys and waste fuel." But that stream is discarded as quickly as it appears, replaced by a more general lament about the sad state of affairs in Detroit, which is a promising direction, although for the sake of the rest of the 49 states, you might want to explain the reference to "the country's mitten," a bit. I had no idea what you were talking about. Thank Google for taking up the slack.

Not until the fourth and last paragraph do you actually get down to cases and offer the type of material that will cause a reader to sit up and take notice, the reason being that at this point, something actually happens. The preceding has been opinion (largely unsupported) and information. The problem with such material is that it has no timeline. It exists in an ambiguous realm where there is no forward movement, just timeless rumination. And so, you deny your reader the one thing that will guarantee they will remain your reader: the need to wonder, "Gosh, what's gonna happen next?" Until the fourth paragraph, there is no next.

Understand, I'm not complaining about your political and/or social perspectives. Think what you want, it's a free country. But if you want to interest someone besides yourself in your ideas, you need to structure them in such a way that you actually argue your point. A blanket assumption that everyone who reads your prose shares your world view completely, so that you can salt your work with shortcut hits about this or that topic and everyone will know what you mean and cheer you on, is, well... a shortcut. And a cheat. Respect your reader more than that. And yourself. If your opinions are worth arguing, then go ahead and argue them.

Decide what your point is, and then structure every sentence and paragraph in the support of that point. Move your fourth paragraph to the beginning. We won't know what's going on, not at first, but that's the trick with narrative action: it compels further reading. Once you establish yourself in a dynamic situation, you will then have solid structure from which to drape your thoughts and opinions, assuming they all feed into your main theme. Yes, even calling your boss an "idiot," could have a proper place in a fully realized narrative arc. That is precisely what is lacking now.
23
23
Review by edgework
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Rated: 13+ | (3.0)
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There's a good bit of imagination evident in this piece regarding the environment, the politics and the problems faced by, well... everyone. But, for all that, you haven't come up with a story. What you have is a situation that you've gone to great lengths to explain, complete with an historical timeline plotting the sequence of events that has led mankind to its present state. Tolkien, you may remember, provided us with something similar in the Appendices at the end of Volume III of Lord of the Rings, a timeline of the 3,000 year history of Middle Earth. This did much to explain some of the relationships and circumstances that we had already encountered, but I might point out that the history, laid out is it was, simply clarified elements that had already been dramatically portrayed in the previous three volumes. While it was a nice addition, it didn't alter the fact that what had held our attention was not back story, but the actual story. Precisely what you have yet to come up with.

You come close at one point, flirting with an actual conflict for Nathan. You know about conflict, I'm sure. That's what forces a character to confront the truth of their situation, make decisions and take actions in an attempt to restore balance to their universe. When St. Jude presents Nathan with his assignment, Nathan realizes that he cannot do what has been asked of him. This, and only this, constitutes the kernel of a story that might well have grown into an actual narrative arc. Unfortunately you bypassed all the decisions-leading-to-actions stuff (you know, the story part), and made a quantum leap to the solution, which succeeds brilliantly. And so, your arc, such as it is, consists of Problem identified > Solution Achieved > Success > End.

All the rest, the history, the explanation of current politics, the scene in the senate chamber, is pretty much busy work, none of which will prompt your reader to reach that most desired of conditions, when he muses to himself "Gosh, I wonder what's gonna happen next." There really is no next, just information. Here's the thing about such material: if you have a crackling story in the present, your reader won't worry too much about the backstory. If your characters are believably portrayed behaving according the parameters of whatever universe you've constructed for them, much will be intuited in the course of the story's unfolding. On the other hand, if you haven't provided a story in the present, all the backstory in the world won't serve as a satisfying stand-in.

What might that as yet untold story consist of? Ya got me. It's not my story. But somehow, you're going to have to create an imbalance in the status quo of Nathan's existence, something that forces him to actually do something, something that confronts the serious obstacle to his continued pleasant existence. Whether this imbalance represents something he seeks to attain, or something which he tries to avoid, it will get him off his butt and make him work. And as he struggles to deal with his situation, your reader will want to keep reading to find out what happens... wait for it... next. Engineer enough of those moments into your narrative, and before you know it, you'll have an actual plot. Upon such a framework, all the peripheral information will find a natural structure from which to make itself known. But it's the story itself that will keep the reader reading.
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24
Review of Lost at Sea  
Review by edgework
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Rated: E | (3.0)
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There's good news and bad news regarding this story. On the plus side, you have a clear facility with the written word. Also, you have a definite story in mind and you've provided all the elements you need to craft a first-rate narrative. But there is much work to do, both in terms of narrative technique, and story structure.

Regarding the first issue, let me emphasize that you should never underestimate the majestic power of the simple declarative sentence in active voice. Subject > verb > object. Elements in action, affecting other elements. It's a template unsurpassed for saying what you mean, in a way that your reader will understand. In too many instances you are drastically over-thinking your words, reaching for images and metaphors that you think will make you sound "writerly," but which simply call attention to themselves, and not in ways that you want, as you sacrifice clarity for excess verbiage.

Look at your opening paragraph:

Glistening ocean water carried on for miles in front of him; reflecting the sunlight which had left its mark on Eliot far too many times. The water receded from the shore, over and over again it went. Rising, then falling. Eliot stood with his hands in his pockets, looking at a view he had become saturated with. The water didn’t have the same magic it had when he was younger. Its once pure enchantment had dissipated over the years, and Eliot couldn’t reclaim that faded wonder.

There's a nice kind of gauzy, hazy mood in the rhythm of your words, and that works well enough, but your content is far too imprecise. Note that ocean water is redundant. Unless otherwise specified, oceans conjours up images of water by default. Then you mention the sunlight which had left its mark on Eliot far too many times. What does that mean, exactly? The most immediate image it suggests is someone who fell asleep on a sunny day and spends the next two weeks with skin peeling off his face. Then we see Eliot, standing with his hands in his pockets, looking at a view he had become saturated with. Again, what does that even mean? Okay, we get the idea, but we have to do a little too much work to get there and the end result still misses the mark.

I usually don't like to offer rewrites of the words I review, but in this case, I think an example of what I'm talking about will make my point.

Eliot stood on the shore, hands in pockets, lost in the endlessly repeating cycle of the waves. Rushing forward, flowing back, over and over, the rhythms had once seemed magical, evidence of an enchanted realm, unseen but certainly real. Now, it was just movement and sound; the wonder was gone.

I make no claim that the preceding is particularly good, or that you should adopt it as your own. It does, however, incorporate the elements in your original, in a way that focuses the intent more clearly. Plus, we get a clear picture of Eliot at the outset, always desirable.

Paragraph two shows Eliot continuing his stroll down the beach.

He continued his stroll along the sand as per usual every Saturday morning. Saturday mornings and an empty beach during the summer were never one and the same. Crowds of people were scattered every which way. Some talking, others fast asleep with their buttocks pointed straight up for the sun to shine down its wisdom.

Here we have, again, too many words, and too much over-thinking of your images. You start by letting us know in the first sentence that Eliot is walking the beach on a Saturday morning, his usual routine. Good enough. In the third sentence you describe crowds scattering in all directions, also good, particularly since it contrasts nicely with the image of Eliot's isolation in the opening paragraph. But look at that second sentence. Not only do you add nothing from the first sentence, you make an awkward attempt to convey information that you repeat and clarify, to much better effect, in the third sentence. You need to revisit this paragraph and read the first three sentences, the read them with the middle sentence omitted, and continue to do so until you see why you should never have written that second sentence. About the last sentence, dealing with people's buttocks and the sun's wisdom, the less said the better, other than to point out that any images using the sun, the moon, or stars (or buttocks too, for that matter) are risky at best. Ninety-seven years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald opened a minor short story like this:

The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light.

If you can improve on that language, go ahead and bring in the sun. Otherwise, search for your images in less worked territory. As for buttocks, I don't believe Fitzgerald ever incorporated them, at least not so literally. Probably best to follow his lead.

In the fourth paragraph, you open with this sentence:

Eliot’s feet carried him towards the rocky jetty that protruded up in an incongruous pattern.

One must ask, did Eliot go along passively, or did he resist as he was being carried?

Beware ascribing volitional attributes to items that are either inert or lacking in any form of consciousness. Every once in a while you might find a stomach growling from hunger, but the truth is, Eliot's feet didn't do anything that Eliot didn't tell them to do. Which is to say, Eliot crossed the sand... You can trust your reader to intuit that his feet performed as expected.

I'm going out of my way here, not to embarrass you, but because you also have this sentence in your opening passages:

Off in the distance were two boats weaving their own pathways along the water; their sails sometimes brushing past the sun’s light. They looked lost for a short second, but one followed the other. Where were they going? Eliot thought to himself. Nowhere too important. Where am I going? Nowhere too important.

This is nice, effective, and powerful in the way that it fuses a concrete image to Eliot's abstract musings, letting the elements in the text create the effect without you stepping in and telling the reader what to think. Best of all, it's simple, clean, and comfortable telling us no more than what is there without striving for awkward decorative language that brings the whole thing crashing down.

Alas, you follow with this sentence:

Words then floated into his conscious thought.

If what you mean is Eliot heard a voice off to the side, just say that. Good writing isn't about finding complicated ways of restating simple ideas.

That's all I'm going to say about narrative technique. It really can't be taught, but it definitely can be learned. You need to go back and reread all the writers you're already reading, not as a consumer but as a student, and keep reading until you begin to see why none of them would have used the passages that I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

On to story structure. I said at the outset that you have a definite story in mind here, and the set up is a good one: two lonely, despondent men, probably close to suicide, cross paths by random chance and in so doing, break each other's chain of decisions that seems headed for certain disaster. As set ups go, this has a lot of potential. Set ups, however, are not stories. They are the fertile ground in which the seeds of a story might take root, develop and thrive.

One of the most important requirements of a well-formed story is that Stories Happen Now. Your reader will be searching for that moving point of present time, focusing on that to reveal the unfolding narrative. Anything that happened in the past might be important, of course, but it's far more important to you, the author, than it is to any of your readers. It doesn't matter how dramatic or tension-filled the past might have been, there's no narrative in the past. The problem here is that you are spending far more time and effort on the events that have brought Eliot to this point in his life, than you are on whatever story is is that you want to tell about him in the present. It doesn't matter how great Eliot's loss was in the past, in the present, what you offer your readers is nothing more or less than two guys talking. Then one guy does a lot of thinking. Then they both talk some more.

Here's the truth about back story: if you give your readers a compelling story in the present—that is, characters forced to make decisions, take actions and deal with the consequences as they attempt to restore balance in their lives—they're not going to care all that much about back story. You need to care, of course. But what's essential is that you give your characters words and deeds that are consistent with their back story. In that way, much can be intuited without ever delving into the cludgy vehicle of a flashback. On the other hand, if you don't give your readers a compelling story in the present, they're still not going to care about the back story. They'll read through it all, but they're going to be checking their watches, wondering when the action is going to kick off in the present.

The challenge for you is to give Eliot something more than a situation. Figure out what problem faces him, right now, that he must solve. It doesn't have to be earth shattering or gut-wrenching. Perhaps he has a special stone he sits on every Saturday when he comes here to contemplate the sea, and this morning a stranger is occupying his place. It is through such seemingly small problems that large emotional issues can effortlessly be revealed. If you give Eliot a problem, force him to make a decision and take an action, and then cope with the implications and consequences, you'll not only tell us much about who he is and where he's come from, you'll keep your reader wanting to know how things are going to turn out. And then, they'll keep reading.
25
25
Review by edgework
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Rated: E | (3.5)
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I like what you're doing here, but I can't tell if it's too long, or too short.

Either it's a short story, in which case, you're going to have to determine the single narrative arc that captures the most impact, and leave the rest in the background. If a story is well formed, with characters engaged in activities that readers find compelling, you can leave a lot of the back story on the cutting room floor. They don't really need to know it all. You do, of course. You have to know everything about your characters' universe. But if they behave in a way that is consistent with the parameters of that universe, much can be intuited without you having to take the reader by the hand and spoon feed them all the supporting details.

It would be a simple thing to let your readers know that this is not a true historical setting, although it might well be a kind of universe-next-door, one that seems like ours, but isn't, without going into great detail about the origins of the people. It would be easy to convey the danger that surrounds the lake, and the taboo nature of your couple's developing relationship. Choose the details that count. Deal with the others through brief exposition, or let them go. Leaving empty spaces in your narrative can offer the reader room to sort of climb inside and apply their own interpretations.

On the other hand, you have a fairly broad scope to your narrative, one that your brief novella structure scarcely begins to encompass. You seem to be in a hurry, when what is called for is a steady, incremental revelation of your characters' evolution. For instance, this passage,

Jacob told not a soul about the ice-maid, not even his own mother. He decided that it was wise to keep such supernatural encounters to oneself, for even mentioning his interaction with a mystical creature was enough to dispatch a war party. Besides, he was never close to his mother, Alda. Even so, Jacob possessed a great quantity of willpower for a boy of ten and six winters. He now took great detours to the lake, on every water-journey. He often told Alda that he would be fishing as well, from a different lake, to delay the time of his expected return. He would often sit with the ice-maid, and converse about various things. He would tell her about his life, and she would tell him about the lake. Sometimes, they would sing together, letting the strange song of a mermaid and a boy float across the frozen lake and soar through the wintry air.

You've cheated your reader out of at least two chapters, possibly more, of necessary development in that brief paragraph. Notice these red flags:

He would often sit... He would tell her about his life and she would tell him about the lake. Sometimes they would sing together...

There are no actual events here. Note the number of times you use the word would. These are conditional statements, as in, If these conditions are met, then these types of activities would tend to result.

Stories are not about a class of activities. They are about specific activities, not things that would happen, but things that do happen. In sequence. One thing after another, each one resulting from decisions leading to actions, which cause further decisions and more actions, for as long as you can continue spinning out plot points.

You mention that Jacob had a great deal of will power. Much better to show him in action demonstrating his willfulness than for you to simply tell us about it. You need to get out of the way, stop helping your characters out and just let them get on with the business of showing us their story. Of course, this will mean a lot more text, but it will also be much more compelling.

So, too long, or too short? That's up to you. Either way, you have a solid core from which to begin your revisions, and a nice bit of imagination to help you along.
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