So I gave myself an exercise (eating my own dogfood)…

You see a lot, doctor. But can you point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don’t you – why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you’re afraid to…
– Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs

 
If you’ve read Writers’ Groups – Introduction, Writers’ Groups – Critiques and Butchers, Bakers and Candlestick Makers then you know I’m on a quest.

To find a critique group that does critiques as I do them.

Jennifer, my editor (whom I mention in About Joseph) has told me many times I’m on a fool’s quest, my time would be better spent going to writers’ conferences/conventions where I’m more likely to meet a few like-minded individuals.

I yield to Jennifer the Wise.

And meanwhile…
While I’m waiting for that to happen and based on my workshopping experiences over the past few months, I gave myself an exercise: Critique one of my own pieces as if it were someone else’s piece.

Critiquing my own work seemed like a good and valid exercise for me. I reread/edit my work several times and, in retrospect, never with the same filters in place that I use when I read/edit other people’s work.

I chose one of my flash pieces, Sanctuary because it was (literally) on top of a pile of stuff on my desk.

So I had at it and share the exercise with you in the hopes that you, like me, will profit from it.

The Critique
The actual story is in regular text. My comments/suggestions/edits are in red, explanations/responses are in blue. Here we go:

[[There is a planet on the scanners.: Great opening line. You know immediately that this is a science-fiction/speculative fiction piece. You’re either there or not, accept the story frame or not. If not, stop reading because you’re not going to like it. If yes, strap yourself in, it’s going to be a fun ride.]] [[It is large and round and red. The sun is yellow and warming, and the planet is in the sun’s life zone. The gravity is slightly stronger than Earth’s. The air is a bit richer, and there is abundant water under the surface.: This is excellent in two aspects; 1) I can see everything, feel and taste everything. Excellent sensory detail. All that’s missing is some kind of sound but the lack of auditory information makes me think of some kind of solitude. 2) It feels tired, as if the narrator is exhausted or close to. “It is…The sun is… the planet is…” all environmental details and stated with a DUH-duh, DUH-duh rhythm. Plodding. If that’s your intention, EXCELLENT! If not, fix it!]]

[[The red coloring comes from two things. The surface of the planet is covered with red vegetation and their spores are everywhere.: Excellent, keep the details coming, although I think we’re close enough now that no more are necessary, unless you’re about to invalidate the setting/scene somehow.]] The ground is also red, although not with spores but [[with clay and slate like so faraway Connecticut.: Okay, now we know the narrator is from Earth, probably from the US, definitely has had experience in Connecticut (possibly farming? Knows about the soil constituency). Also “so faraway” – again, that feeling of exhaustion, of wanting release. Not just “Connecticut” but “so faraway Connecticut”, a memory, long ago, on the verge of being forgotten?]]

[[The dog beside me raises his massive head and growls.: He’s not alone? Who else is with him on this ship?]] [[I scratch behind his ears and his hind legs start thumping the cabin floor.: Nice detail that anybody familiar with dogs will know and understand.]] [[I make him thump in time to songs I sing, switching legs as I go from chorus to lead and back.: Okay, he’s familiar with the dog, the dog with him and they’re on good terms with each other. Got it.]]

[[“We’ll go down, see if this is the one.”: Again, subtle hint of tiredness, exhaustion. Whatever’s going on (and we’re only 144 words in!) is something they’re prepared/preparing for, probably/possibly something they’ve done many times before? They’re doing something, part of the crew, not passengers. Again, who else is on the ship? What is their role?]]

[[His ears go up slightly. I wonder how many of the words he understands.: All that’s missing is the dog cocking his head, trying to understand]] [[I’ll add something along those lines in a rewrite.]]

[[“Take the dog,” my wife said.: Excellent, more detail about the narrator and a relationship he had/has.]] [[The cabin has room for me and one more.: So it’s just him and the dog?]] [[The taste of her lips is still on mine. The smell of her hair is here before me. I can delight in her touch and feel her sun-warmed and reddened skin.: Okay, he’s alone with the dog, his wife isn’t with him but he remembers her. In some ways this feels like a husband being told to take his dog for a ride but I know/sense there’s more. And again we’re having that DUH-duh, DUH-duh rhythm. You’re moving towards something, growing the story towards something but I don’t know/am not sure what it is.]]

[[The dog growls and I scratch. His legs thump. I sing.: We’re getting a repetitive line. A theme? Is this the chorus?]]

[[This is the third planet my scanners have shown.: In how long a time frame? Today? Since he started traveling?]] [[I’ll add something to clarify this in a rewrite.]] [[The first too cold, the second too hot; the third just right?: Nice touch of whimsy. The question mark at the end adds another hint of exhaustion, of seeking without reward.]]

[[Landing is hard. There isn’t much fuel left.: Again exhaustion. Does this guy ever find rest?]] [[Forty-seven years in the ship.: Ditto. Also, the dog is how old? What kind of dog is it? Or is this subtle foreshadowing?]] [[I was twenty-three when I left. : Tritto the exhaustion theme.]]

[[“Take the dog,” my wife said.: Okay, we have a second echo/repetitive line. I don’t think this is by accident. If correct, these are going to intersect before the end of the story as you’re building two separate choruses and they’ll either harmonize or clash at the crescendo. Not sure which. If incorrect, get rid of one or the other, or figure out how to use both.]]

[[I check the gauges and say, “This place will have to do. We don’t have enough fuel to take off again.”: Exhaustion]] [[The dog growls. I scratch.: We’re tightening the chorus. Because…?]]

[[There are mountains in the distance, behind a clough of trees beyond the field where we land.: “distance” and “beyond”. Not “here”. Not only exhaustion, now straining. A last gasp? Of or for something that can’t/won’t be obtained?]] [[The dog goes ahead, sniffing.: Nice anchoring to common experience.]] [[He is a big dog. Black and furry, about two-twenty-five on earth. Perhaps closer to two-fifty here. He adjusts well.: That’s a big dog. Are you sure about this? Or is this more foreshadowing?]] [[I’m glad my wife took that decision away.: There’s so much emotion in that statement. Relief, definitely. Melancholy? I don’t know what’s coming and I know it’ll be good. ]]

[[He stops and sits, silhouetted by the trees, mountains, and sky,: Good visual.]] [[and memory’s shutters click as if a slide has dropped into a stereocam.: Nice metaphor.]] [[The trees shift slightly, righting their angles between earth and sky, and a home — my home — slips down from the stars and comes to rest against the mountains and sky.: This is confusing. I think he’s remembering this, correct? If yes, make the fact that it’s a memory more obvious. I’m not sure if his home is actually coming down out of the sky and landing or he’s having a memory.]] [[I’ll fix in a rewrite.]]

[[I cock my head left, my eyes wide with wonder, and scratch behind my ear.: If this is the echo then we need the dog to cock its head earlier in the story.]] [[I’ll fix in a rewrite.]] [[My leg thumps. The dog sings.: Okay, these two lines are the echo, one of the repetitive lines in the chorus. Is the change re what the man does and what the dog does from earlier lines because of…? The memory shutter thing? Then make it more obvious. If not, lose it.]] [[fix in rewrite.]] [[My wife comes out on the porch, her gasmask hiding her features, hiding her brilliant gold hair, as she checks the house for leaks against the burnt, reddened sky.: “gasmask”, “leaks”, “burnt, reddened sky”. I’m at the point of saying “F?ck you!” because I know this is heading somewhere and I don’t know where and it’s freaking me out (in a good way).]] “They’ve chosen you,” [[I hear over the radiophone,: They’re close enough to see and recognize each other but they’re talking over a radiophone? SO MANY CLUES WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH THIS? I’m exhausted with anticipation just reading this!]] and I wave acknowledgement. [[Her voice is sad and so is my wave. I’m happy to go, but it is not what I would have chosen.: Again with the exhaustion?!?!?!? Thank god this is only 900 words. I wouldn’t be able to stand this emotion level for something longer.]]

The dog comes closer, [[his big eyes lighting.: Okay, this isn’t a dog dog (a real dog), right?]]

[[“We’ll have children there,”: I had to check to see if this line/idea/concept shows up earlier in the piece because it feels like another chorus line.]] [[my wife says. We’re inside our home, safe from the sun, safe from the air, safe from the things which float on the sea and land.: Really? Or imagined? Remembered? Clarify. Is this a dream sequence? Some kind of hallucination/dementia? This needs to be clarified and I’m at a loss what to suggest because whatever you do, it’s got to be so-o-o freakin’ subtle…]] [[fix in rewrite.]] [[Our masks are off and we make love: Nice.]] , [[knowing nothing will come, twisted seeds finding no purchase on desert soil.: Nice.]]

[[“When you get to a suitable world,” they tell me, “you’ll have a memory, a signal. An implant will trigger the reaction. You won’t be able to resist it. When the signal occurs, it will already have begun.”: Okay, this is the reveal. The BIG reveal because you’ve been laying hints/foreshadowing/laying down little reveals all along. Great. Excellent. It’s all coming together. It might help everything that comes before if, when he has that “shutter” moment earlier, he knows it’s the signal. He doesn’t have to tell us everything about it, but he does have to know what it is and what it means (more foreshadowing?).]] [[I’ll fix in the rewrite.]]

I nod. I agree.

[[“Take the dog,” my wife said.: Beautiful echo.]]

[[He scratches. We thump. We sing.: Okay, I’m getting it, the echos are getting ready to intersect. Beautiful.]]

He stops before me, [[facing where the house might be.: Clarify that he’s imagining/remember/hallucinating this.]] [[fix in rewrite.]] [[The flanges on his sides open. His back shifts and parts slightly, along his spine, as a saddle forms.: HAH! He’s not a real dog! HAH!]] [[I’m glad my wife made the decision.: I KNEW THIS WAS ANOTHER ECHO! HA HA NEENER NEENER NEENER!]] I could not do this if they had fashioned the [[regenerator: Accelerating towards the ending and I’m loving it.]] after her. I mount the dog as if he were a horse. From the saddle and flanges I feel sweet needles enter my legs, pierce my femurals, enter my buttocks, lift my groin. [[“We’ll have children there.”: ECHO ECHO ECHO I’m wondering if readers will be panting at this point. I’m exhausted as if I’m finishing a race.]]

His legs go deep into the red, clean earth. A ground where things grow. A sky where stars shine. An earth where water brings life. [[My wife is before me. I feel her lips on mine, taste her tongue, smell her hair.: Okay, this is another echoed line and I know you want to keep that imagination/hallucination concept going. This is going to be tough because I feel this line needs a bit more clarification. How about “I see my wife…”? But that might mean he’s more aware and you want him already kind of gone, right? Tough one and your call (and not an easy one, me thinks).]] [[Something I’ll consider during the rewrite.]]

[[The dog is shaking, thumping, but I have no hands with which to scratch.: Okay, forget what I just wrote. Maybe. I don’t know. He has no hands left to scratch. Somehow signify that he’s already dissolving (if that’s what’s happening?).]] [[Something I’ll consider during a rewrite.]] [[Inside his computers, inside his organic cells, are the matrices for all those we left behind. All those who here are soon to be.: Oh, wow. F?ck me sideways. Forget what I wrote above. No, don’t. No, do. Don’t. I think this is a story that the reader is either going to get or not and there’s not much you can do to help them. All the clues are here and they’re in perfect order. I’m really not sure what to suggest and I desperately want to see this again should it go through a rewrite.]]

[[“We can have children there.”: ECHO ECHO ECHO! Tell me you did this intentionally. I want to have your children.]]

[[My body provides the map. “We can store the matrices and we can store the genetic codes, even correct the errors environmental pollutants have made. What we can’t store is the raw material. We don’t know how that might survive.”: All this needs is a “They told me…” before the statement. That would clarify this greatly. Me thinks.]]

[[My body dissolves as the dog’s computers tear me apart to see how sequences are made, his legs go deep into the earth to find the organics necessary to synthesize.: Oh, wow.]] [[This earth the materials of man, his computers the equations for a race, my body the templates of our salvation on a world with a warming sun, a sky still high, and waters you drink and do not breathe; a sanctuary from our own disgrace.: Poetry, man, poetry.]]

[[My wife reaches for me. “We’ll have children there,” but there’s nothing left to hold.: Oh, f?ck you! Sideways and six ways from Sunday. “We’ll have children there” is the intersection of the choruses. Oh, you evil prick bastard. Beautiful. Crazy Beautiful and Nicely Done!]]

-end-

[[I could tell you that this is brilliant and you already know that. Incredible writing, incredible imagery, this almost reads like a tone poem rather than a flash fiction piece.
There are some truly minor nits as noted. Unfortunately, those truly minor nits are going to make or break a piece this short.
I don’t want to see this get any longer through rewrites. Much of its power comes from its tightness, its brevity (it really is a palm of the hand story. Good work and congrats on that. Nicely done!) but I do think one more pass focusing on the truly few, truly minor nits is necessary.
And can I see it again when you’re done? I may have caught my breath by then.

This changes everything
That was one of most refreshing, enlightening and rewarding exercises I’ve ever given myself. I suggest it to others. Separate yourself from your work and analyze your work as if it’s a stranger’s. Most of you probably already do this. It’s something new for me and I’m going to go wild with it, a “drunk with power” kind of thing.

Example: I’ve read Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories about five times this year. Last night I started Xolotl again and, as I opened the book, I wondered if this new found superpower would make things different. My internal editor often kicks in when the writing, editing, storytelling, storycrafting, … is below par, substandard, sucks, … but what if I were to use this new found skill intentionally on something I recognize is good but (as yet) don’t understand what makes it good?

I reread the first paragraph and realized Cortazar gave you everything you needed to enjoy/understand/appreciate the story:
[[There was a time: We’re going to descend into the mythic]] when [[I thought a great deal: This story is going to take place in the narrator’s head]] about the [[axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes: and be about feeling out of place, trapped, not being part of society]] and [[stayed for hours watching them, observing: Ditto the narrator’s head]] [[their immobility, their faint movements: The story will be of subtleties.]] [[Now I am an axolotl.: The subtleties will deal with personal transformation.]]

It may not seem like much to you and it opens new worlds of understanding to me. Do I think people need to do this in order to enjoy what they’re reading?

Hell No!

But as someone practicing their craft, wanting to improve, learning from recognized masters? Priceless.

I am a man without mother or father.
I have become my own mother and father.

 
(amusing notes:

  • I’ve been asked to do an audio version of the rewrite. Just shows to go ya, I guess…
  • One of my first readers told me he had to read it twice to figure it out and when he did, he was blown away by it. I offered that the need for a second read bothered me. He said it wasn’t for lack of storytelling, it was because there’s so much in the 900 words he wanted to be sure he got it. It still bothers me and I’m open to suggestions for removing that “second read need”.
    This same first reader asked if Sanctuary was the prologue to something else, the intro to a novel perhaps. I’ve been with this story for so long that it never occurred to me. Now I have the after-story running through my head.
  • I started editing several weeks after I did the critique. It was hard, vexsome and pissed me off.
    But it was worth it.

)

The Boy in the Giant – Artwork by LadySparrowhawk

I’m blessed to have Casey Wilkinson, aka Lady Sparrowhawk, a gifted artist as a friend. She provided the artwork for this story (which also appears on my Patreon feed.

Enjoy!

Once upon a time, when a small, magical child lived in a magical woods, a horrible thing happened. Someone left the child outside in the cold, rainy, wet damp of dawn. It doesn’t matter if this happened once or a thousand times. When you are a child, even once is enough.

It so happened, as the child grew into a boy, that others came by who were blind to the child and the boy and splattered mud as they passed. The mud covered the growing boy, its coldness reminding him of being abandoned in the cold, damp dawn.

The child grew into a clever boy. He kept his eyes open and watched the flowers spreading their petals to let in the morning sun, spiders spinning delicate webs stronger than the strongest steel, and squirrels and ants busying themselves gathering winter’s harvest.

Over time the boy fell in love with the world around him and decided that no matter what happened to him, he could learn from it. Quickly the boy’s wisdom grew as he watched and studied and quietly observed until he became quieter and wiser than most in the Woods.

But while he grew, there was a mud caked child inside, a child the wise boy knew nothing of, crying in the cold, damp dawn. The boy lived with the ache of the child inside so long it became like a cloak which no one else could see and which was more real to the growing boy than anything else in his world. The boy sat and watched the mud that caked around him as others splashed and noticed it hardened as it dried. The child gave the boy an idea.

“What would happen if I took some mud and fashioned a cloak around myself?” As the mud hardened he could make the cloak stronger and harder. Eventually the cloak would keep out the cold and the rain and protect the boy and child from pain.

The boy grew into a man who grew on the cleverness of the boy. The cloak became more and more a wall, growing thicker and more impenetrable over the years, eventually giving the man the look and feel of a giant. The man learned to move the giant-like cloak without harm. Sometimes the man would do things that cracked the shell. Then the small child within, remembering the damp and cold, would find more mud to reinforce his prison.

For that is what the giantish wall, the cloak which looked like a giant, truly was. It protected the man who was once a boy and would always be a child, but few could see the child hidden deep within.

And occasionally, every so often and in the quietest of times, the frightened child would peer out from the giant’s eyes in wonder at the Woods.

One day the child did this and saw a small white bird perched on a tree. The giant sat and watched the small white bird. “How beautiful,” thought the child and boy and man. “To be so delicate and as graceful.” Just as he thought these things, the bird looked at him and beat its wings until dust clouds rose from the ground. Then it took to the air and began flying directly at the giant.

The child was worried the bird would be crushed when it struck the giant face. The man tried to move away but wasn’t fast enough. The little bird flew directly towards him and, just as the boy thought it would die, it crashed through the hard face the man wore.

It flew down, faster and faster, down the caverns and darkness inside the giant, past the fears and sorrows the man had gathered over the years, past the rills and rents others had given the giant not knowing of the boy, deeper and deeper down to where the magical child lay.

“Do you want walls around you forever?” the small white bird asked.

The small white bird spread its wings. It gathered the light coming in high above through the giant face and began to spin. It stayed in one spot, hovering over the child, huddled and frightened beneath the light as it shined and dripped from the little bird’s wings. The light splashed the walls of the child’s giantish prison. The child looked at the light and realized it was a fire of joy and sorrow which splattered the walls around him. The walls steamed and cracked and began to chip away.

The little bird burst into flame and grew in size as the fire of joy and sorrow boiled the prison walls. The flames lit up the child, boy, and man. At the heart of the flames, in the core of the fires, was a great Eagle, an Eagle with the magical child’s face, spinning as did the little bird before it.

The man, more frightened than ever before, stayed huddled underneath the flames. The boy, more curious than afraid, watched the flames melt away the giantish walls. It was the child, remembering the cold, damp dawn, who felt the warmth of the Eagle’s fire and stood up underneath, straight and tall, straighter and taller than he ever had before. As he breathed, the fires of joy and sorrow rushed through him, doing to him what they had been done to the walls around him.

The child grew. In odd and strange ways, he grew.

The magical child got taller and stronger. The boy stood up and the child felt himself move into the young boy’s body. Next stood the man, and the magical child in the boy walked into the man as well. For the first time, the child knew who he was and felt both the boy and the man with him.

“How can a child grow thus?” He thought it must be the Eagle, spinning and churning, pulling his body and making it grow.

The Eagle flew higher and faster, a blazing tornado pulling the child up through the layers of the giant. On the outside the giantish shell grew hot and red and began to crack and splinter. Just as the Eagle flew through the opening the giantish form exploded.

The child looked around him. Pieces and fragments of the walls he’d made lay all around him, some smoking, most scattered and turning to dust. The Eagle was still before him. “Look around you, small one.”

The child did but it seemed he still looked through giant’s eyes. “What have you done to me?”

“Nothing, little one. All you see around you, you have done yourself.”

“How could I? All that I created to protect myself is destroyed, but I still see through giant’s eyes.”

“But now they are your eyes. Your eyes are now seeing your truth. Only those who are truly free can see their own truth. When you see who you are, you see all others as they are. Your freedom is your truth. It is knowing your truth that sets you free.

“There is no cloak, no wall, no giant other than the giant you are.”

The child looked at his arms and legs. He was indeed a giant, far more a giant than the mud caked walls and cloak he’d always thought to be.

“All the wounds you protected yourself from, all the pains you buried deep within those walls, share now. Share them with me and others in and out of the Woods. It is time, awake, you have a song to sing.” The Eagle flew up into the sky.

The child felt wings of fire grow from his back, and, spreading them skyward, followed.