Thinking about Stories at the Craft Crucible

Night Light at Apostle Islands
Photographers: Mark Weller, John Rummel, Ian Weller

I spend a lot of time reading and critiquing stories in progress, both in person and for the online writers’  groups that I’m involved with. I’ve blogged about how important this is, but what I’ve been missing out on (and didn’t even realize), was the pleasure of working with a finished and excellent story. 

Lucky for us Anaea Lay has started the Craft Crucible over on her blog. Every Wednesday she’s posting an exemplary story along with her critical breakdown. It isn’t about finding fault with great stories, it’s about finding out what makes them tick. There are a million different ways for a story to fail and almost as many ways for one to succeed. Sadly, no simple formulas for us writers. Turns out, looking at why and how a story succeeds is just as important as finding out why a broken or unfinished story fails. And the best part about the Craft Crucible is that you can play along too!

Below are some of my thoughts on the stories she’s covered so far. I’ve included links in for the stories, so you can read them first, because SPOILERS. Also, click on the Craft Crucible links to read Anaea’s insights!

Seriously: SPOILERS! 

And check out Pank while you’re at it!

Yesterday’s story was Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady by Robert Swartwood. Go on over and read it. It’s an excellent example of a flash story, and won’t take you more than a couple minutes to read. Then check out Anaea’s thoughts. Here’s a bit of my response:

“It’s well done all the way through, but what brings it to the next level for me, is Grady’s age and persistent innocence. His age and the title seem, at first, to be just a ploy to make the story more poignant, but by the end it projects Grady’s inevitable loss of innocence. Swartwood essentially wrote the first half of the story and invites the reader to become the storyteller, and imagine Grady growing older and coming to understand the terrible solution to the puzzle pieces that these objects in Jason’s jacket represent.”

Last Wednesday’s story was Consumer Testing by John Greenwood. This one appeared in Bourbon Penn. Here’s a snippet of my thoughts for that one. (SPOILERS, for real this time. Do go read this deliciously creepy story first!) Check out Anaea’s comments here.

“This story makes me think of J. G. Ballard with its main character who is unable to overcome a cascade of circumstances, and in its unflinching examination of the human dynamic of isolation and abandonment. The father has a pithy saying for every situation, but “Stick with what you know” and “keep yourself to yourself” are the cornerstones of what makes up the family’s philosophy. This is contrasted with his mother’s single opinion, “No good will come of it.” Which the narrator points out has “universal application.”

“No good” is where this story is headed. It’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a twist at the end that will result in rainbows and lollipops for the narrator. This is not a story of transformation. It does not illustrate a change in the main character. This story is like a proof. The narrator makes a claim in the beginning, and all the events in the story show his claim to be true. This is difficult  to pull off as a writer, and one of the reasons I like this story so much.

The first half of the story is about a recluse trying to get along in a perfectly normal, albeit uncaring world. Then the TV arrives and with it magic. The TV shifts the story onto another track. The TV comes to life and an “authorized representative of a subsidiary of the Mystery Shopping Consortium” appears with an offer that the narrator –though he wants to resist– somehow cannot refuse. It sounds suspiciously like a commercial but the narrator is clear that there is no electricity in the house.”

The inaugural story was Kij Johnson’s famous, or infamous, Spar. WARNING, this story is not for everyone. Some have called it “tentacle” porn, but that’s not really accurate, maybe cilia sex, single-celled-alien-organism smut? Let’s just say there is sexual content, but there’s also grass and flowers and Shakespeare. I really enjoyed looking at this story again and was rewarded for my close attention. 

Check out her other excellent stories!

“When I read Spar this time, I was struck by the fact that she called their ship a “lifeboat.” It seems oddly nautical for a science fiction story set in space. There are more nautical references. She mentions “The mariner’s code” –again, odd for a space story. There’s the line from which the title is taken: “A shipwrecked Norwegian sharing a spar with a monolingual Portuguese?”

A spar can be the mast of a ship (also what two people do when they go through the motions of hand to hand combat – similar to the kind of motions she and the alien are relentlessly going through as well). 

Johnson includes a couple lines of poetry, which I recognized as Shakespeare. At first I thought they might be taken from The Tempest. Thanks to the Internets it was easy to track down. They’re from 

Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

It’s clear that the entire poem informs Johnson’s story on many levels (more than I’m glossing here).

Looking at the sonnet, the only concrete images in it have to do with seafaring:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark (i.e. lighthouse)
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
And,
It is the star to every wandering bark (i.e. a small boat – something like a lifeboat…)

Here love is described as constant but also distant, untouchable. Like dead Gary or the idea of him or her last image of his body frozen in space.

The sonnet backs into its topic with a negative:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
And Johnson, begins by describing what the alien is not:
“The alien is not humanoid. It is not bipedal.”
The middle of the sonnet describes what love is (the pole star, a light house, unmoving and distant)

The final couplet is a strange negative statement, which is a little harder to parse. (Does it proclaim his love since the poem stands as proof that he did indeed write/love? Is it an admission that his feelings have changed and therefore are not constant and he is no longer in love? Is this a poem of illicit love to his male lover and the last couplet serves as a kind of plausible deniability?)

Regardless of how you read it, it’s the same negative positive negative binary pattern that’s all over Spar.”

Check out Anaea’s reading of this one here

If you’re trying to become a better writer consider “critiquing” the very best stories you can find. Come on over to the Craft Crucible and join the conversation!

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