The first red pen podcast was released on Monday 8th August 2011 and was the start of a series of episodes dedicated to reading a short story or self-contained novel extract (with synopsis) and then talking about it afterwards.
I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors writing which I really enjoy so I thought I’d create podcast episodes doing this, and will now be running future ones on the blog, initially with the already-recorded episodes at 5pm daily then every Sunday evening (UK times) from Sunday 16th December. I also have a new Feedback page for those seeking and offering feedback on works-in-progress or finished stories / poems / books.
Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments for the recording as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read the story, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!
Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them, then my suggestions for any improvement.
The story featured in this episode was kindly emailed to me by short story author and novelist JD Mader who lives in San Francisco, USA and the story was entitled ‘Green’ which can be found at http://www.jdmader.com/2011/03/green.html.
JD’s website is http://www.jdmader.com where you can read his stories and much more, and if you’d like to you can email him there too. He told me in his email to me that this story came from one of his writing workshops with his students where they decided to write about ‘Green’ – and he was trying to show them what could be accomplished in such a short story. I’d say it worked. He also added that rhythm is very important to him which I can understand as this piece has a really poetic feel.
He has been fortunate enough to encounter many giving and inspiring people in his life.
He hopes to repay the debt.
And to make enough money with his writing to buy a house.
His first novel Joe Café, second, The Biker, and collaboration ‘Bad Book’ (with Hise and Brooks) are available from Amazon.
If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.
So without further ado, the story then my feedback…
She felt the warmth of the rising sun crawl up her legs, but beneath her the grass was cool with dew. The contrast was pleasant, like jumping into a hot bath after playing in the snow. Her mind was calm, and she could see each blade of grass distinctly, green towers reaching toward the reddening sky. Each blade was the same height, the tops torn off by angry mower blades. Every so often a stalk stood proudly, knowing that it had escaped the fate of its comrades.
She could hear the distant call of birds. Their songs were lost in the thick air and became blips and screeches as they clawed their way through the morning haze. Her mind was simultaneously lost in the present and the past. She was lying in the grass. She was also standing on a stage. Her dance had just finished. The adults were clapping. She did not want to be a dancer. That did not seem to matter.
There were many things that did not matter. It hadn’t mattered when she told her mother that she wanted to be an astronaut. It hadn’t mattered when she then decided to forego college and travel the world. It hadn’t mattered when she was fifteen and she told Billy Abrams that she wanted him to stop. Funny how it all worked. Not funny funny, though.
There was a line of ants marching through the grass. She blew on them and they scattered, reforming their ranks like soldiers once the wind had passed.
The reflection of the sun expanded as it rose. It cast a pale green glow that seemed to coat her in peace and tranquility. Behind her, she could hear the moaning of the other passengers. An occasional scream. It was all very far away. She could smell the burning airplane, but somehow none of it was as important as the soft green grass and the tender warmth of the sun.
OK, so going from the beginning, JD is immediately setting the scene. In the first line we know the protagonist is female, we don’t know her name yet but it doesn’t matter. If we didn’t know that the sun was warm it could almost be sinister by the fact that it’s crawling up her leg which also implies its slowness.
It’s great having the contrast between the warmth of the sun and the cool dew as the second sentence then goes on to talk about and is almost childlike with its ‘jumping’ in the hot bath and ‘playing’ in the snow, although again we don’t know her age.
The next contrast is the timing – the grass being cool with dew implies it’s the morning although I first thought that the reddening sky was late evening (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_sky_at_morning) which then we learn from ‘morning haze’ of the time of day.
I love the image of ‘angry mower blades’ and each blade of grass being the same height, an almost military picture until we read that some have escaped almost mockingly. I love it when inanimate objects have life breathed into them.
Then we have sound: the calling of the birds, and the ono/mato/poe/ic ‘blip’ and ‘screech’ and again the imagery of the invisible song clawing through the thick haze.
Normally I’d advise losing lines that ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’: ‘She was lying in the grass’ is a classic tell but here there’s another contrast. In the real world she’s lying in the grass but in her imagination she’s 180o – standing on a stage. Again that’s a contrast as I’ve already pictured her alone and yet, unless she’s rehearsing, she’d be surrounded by people, and noise on the stage.
I also like the mixture of the sentences as the earlier ones are longer, slowing the pace, whereas now that something is happening (albeit in her head), they’re shorter, quickening the pace.
And negatives. I love negatives. It’s very easy to get carried away with what is there without including what isn’t there, although in a piece this short that may well not happen. And colours – the green grass and reddening sky. Again I’ve often read pieces of flash fiction with no colour in them and whilst we all know that grass is green mentioning it here, alongside the fact that it had recently been cut enhanced its richness, perhaps without the author being aware that it does (unless it’s just my interpretation).
It’s not until half-way through the story that we find out her age and she’s older than I pictured. But I love the fact that she’s not a girly girl. We don’t know what she’s wearing. Because the sun is crawling up her ‘legs’ it could be her skin as she’s wearing a dress or skirt or on top of her clothes if she’s wearing trousers but the fact that she didn’t want to be a dancer but an astronaut gives her an inner strength, as does her refusal to Billy Abrams. This is the only point in the story where I feel a geographical location comes in. To me it’s more of an American surname than English but then having a boy called John Smith would probably have the opposite effect. Again this is an observation rather than a criticism.
Talking of criticism, I’m not normally a fan of repetition but the middle ‘hadn’t mattered’ section really works because each one is an emphasis, one building on the other. The same goes for the use of ‘funny’ which I really liked.
I’m not sure whether JD realised this or not but he has a set of three ‘It hadn’t mattered’ (which are actually layered on the printed page like a poem). Sets of three work really well in fiction as it provides a natural rhythm, like a shopping list such as:
‘Staring at the table, Pete sighed at the items in front of him: pen, paper and old-fashioned ink.’
Whilst ‘pen and paper’ would have worked, adding in another item would have seemed… well, like a shopping list.
‘Staring at the table, Pete sighed at the items in front of him: pen, paper, old-fashioned ink and dictionary.’
The only movement in the story are animals; the birds and the ants and I love the way the ants and the blades of grass as soldier-like.
In the end we don’t know what the girl’s name is and it doesn’t matter (pardon the pun). Giving a character a name allows us to categorise her, sometimes even picture someone we know with that name and in this instance I’m glad we weren’t given it.
If there had to be a criticism, and only because I feel I have to find one, the sentence structure is very simple. Whilst this suits a piece like this, sometimes it’s nice to have less ‘She…’ and ‘The…’ or ‘There…’ sentence beginnings giving it an almost fairy tale quality which actually this piece could be, so I feel harsh suggesting this. A change could be… instead of: ‘The reflection of the sun expanded as it rose. It cast a pale green glow that seemed to coat her in peace and tranquility.’
JD could try: ‘As the sun rose, its reflection expanded casting a pale green glow that seemed to coat her in peace and tranquility.’
I wondered about the order of the ‘It hadn’t mattered…’ sentences. To me they would normally be chronological and whilst it doesn’t matter to the reader how old she would have been when she’d told her mother than she wanted to be an astronaut, she would have foregone college later than fifteen, but again this is just me wearing an editor’s head. And a picky one at that, as she could have been thinking backwards in which case it would all fit.
All that said, the impact of the ending is just so powerful that it obliterates her calmness and the beautiful nature going on around her. I certainly hadn’t expected it and I’m a huge fan of Roald Dahl so I should have guessed it would have been too good to be true!
This story contains so many key elements that a good story should include: the mix of sentence lengths, most of the five senses (we don’t have taste here), the colours and the contrasts between the sereneness of her immediate surroundings and those of the airplane.
There’s so much said in such a small word count (just 325 words) whilst leaving plenty to the reader’s imagination and it leaves us wondering what will happen next and whether she will go on to become an astronaut. Like all great stories we’ve met someone, albeit so briefly, that we’ve had empathy with the way it’s been told and for me certainly, she and her situation are as realistic as a newspaper article and again, this is a sign of a true storyteller.
Whilst I may not always be this positive about a story, it’s been great starting on a high. Thank you, JD.
If you’d like your work (novel extracts or short stories up to c.3,000 words) considered for appraisal here on the blog, do email me. I will also critique longer pieces for a fee, see here. I also review short stories (<3,000 words) on this blog’s Short Story Saturdays page and if you would like feedback on your full works-in-progress or finished books (for free) from a fellow writer and / or reader, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.
Note: I am English so will edit based on UK English rather than US English although correct US spellings / wordings will remain unaltered. You can email me at email@example.com.
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