Turin Turambar

Reading Excuses -12/9/19 - Turin Turambar - When Cats Intercede - 869

15 posts in this topic

Hey everyone, 

 
I know this isn't fantasy - but it's for a writing contest in which the parameters dictate it be flash fiction and fantasy was clearly the wrong choice here. It has to be written to specific character faults and how they overcome that fault.
 
Sorry about the rambling bit. It needed context. 
 
Tear it apart, please.  
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You say this isn't fantasy, which leaves me a little confused at the end. Is the MC making the cat talk by throwing their voice? Or is this magical realism and you aren't considering it fantasy?

In terms of characters overcoming faults, I'm not sure this succeeds. First, it means you're saying a character not speaking is a fault, unless you're referring to the MC being unwilling to stand up for themself. I would argue the first is a description, and calling it a fault is derogatory. Being unwilling to stand up for yourself could, however, be considered a fault.

But, only the non-vocal part is addressed, though by circumventing the character's inability to talk. Again, not overcoming it. The second fault is not overcome because the character once again runs away and does not address the underlying problem with the thugs.


pg 2: "“-” The boys aren’t looking at me anymore."
--is this a typo, or a quote of someone not saying anything?

pg 2: "The two boys look at each other, neither one willing to speak for a moment."
--I don't understand what's so fascinating about the cat. Why did the boys look away from the target they want to beat up?

pg 4: "Sometimes, words need to be unleashed. But a cat could do it for me."
--Soooo...is the MC a ventriloquist, but doesn't talk? Or is this magical realism? I'm not completely sure.

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Hi,

Newbie here!

I didn't see many mistakes.

Page one: 'stride my gaze up' perhaps 'slide' or 'pull' instead? 

I liked the reveile of the ventriloquist at the end.

I don't see a character arc either, it would be pretty hard to fit one in three + pages though.

The only apparent fault your character has is a dismal outlook and the lack of speech. If your mc is a ventriloquist they aren't actually mute but are perhaps afraid to speak as themselves? This could use some clarification.

There doesnt seem to be a real change in their outlook by the end. Momentary joy can be felt by someone who is still depressed.

Overall I enjoyed your flash fiction, thanks for sharing.

Edited by Sarah B
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Hi there,

There were 2 ways to interpret the ending:

- either it's fantasy (which I know it's not because you said in the mail) and there's a speaking magic cat

- or it's not, and then we have a bully story where the MC is overcoming his fear of bullies by channeling his inner ventriloquist. This is supported by the foreshadowing in the opening with the name of the practice book. (sadly I only noticed it the second time I read the story, which makes it good foreshadowing, but not strong foreshadowing)

The true interpretation needs to be clearer because the name detail is hard to keep in mind by the end since everything that's in the story is new information. Maybe it would help keeping the memory fresh if you put the sentence with the book's name alone in a paragraph, like saying 'hey brain, hold onto this.'

Otherwise:

- the prose flows well

- the story is engaging

- there's real frustration and conflict building when the bullies show up; nice naming them by their characteristics A and D

- there could be more character development personality-wise and through sensory cues for MC; perhaps emphasize physical fear cues when meeting bullies

- if the MC has an illness, that's a limitation/weakness and not a fault; a classical example of the fault would be bullying/cruelty, which is the bullies' fault

- the uncertainty regarding what's happening (magic/no magic) suggests a lack of clarity.

You mentioned the contest imposed specific character faults - it would help knowing what faults they are in order to opine how could the story be strengthened. Perhaps keeping a closer 3rd POV and feeding more of MC's inner thoughts would be a solution to more clearly send across motivation (why MC is afraid of speaking, why he freezes) and why would ventriloquy be the solution for him.

Edited by Lightbearer
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Hello and welcome! 

I love flash fiction. :) But, flash fiction can be difficult because the space is so constricted. Flash fiction makes you consider every word, how every phrase is put together, because there's simply no room to sprawl, even a little bit. I feel like every part of a flash fiction story should point towards the goal of the story. 

Here, I can't really figure out what the goal of the story is, and thus, how the rest of the story points towards the goal. Like @Mandamon said, I am unclear what the "fault" at play is.

To my mind, having a physical disability (such as an inability to speak) is no fault or flaw to be overcome, it is part of who the character is. Just like my asthma isn't some failing or fault on my part, but simply the way my body works. When i want to do an activity that aggravates my my asthma, I take appropriate steps to allow me to do that activity. That's not overcoming anything, that's just doing what I have to do to exist in my body. Likewise, here, to me, it doesn't appear to me that the inability to speak is any kind of fault, at least as how I understand the word.

Anyway, the protagonist's ability to speak would not have saved them from the bullies in this situation; the bullies appeared to me to want to pick on somebody and the protagonist just happened to be the easiest target in range. That would still be the case if they could talk from the beginning, so I am confused as to what fault is being overcome. 

The bullies I don't think count as a "fault" of the protagonist's either, for similar reasons. Being picked on by bullies is no failing of the bullies' victim. If anything it is a failing of the bully to control their impulses. From my reading of the text, however, I don't believe the bullies are the protagonists in this case, and in any event, they don't overcome their "fault." 

Being afraid of speaking (in public or otherwise) is something that I feel like could be considered a fault, and using a surrogate to get around that fear would be overcoming it, however, I'm not sure that is really happening here. The protagonist doesn't seem particularly frightened to me (of speaking, that is. They are afraid of the bullies, clearly), and doesn't seem to feel anything related to the ability to speak through a surrogate (they feel triumph over the bullies, but that to me isn't so much related to their newfound ability as it is on their tricking their attackers).  

I think, maybe, the issue is that the idea of a "fault" is something that is internal to a character, and what the protagonist faces and overcomes here are all threats that are external to them. The bullies, the inability to speak, they're framed as external obstacles for the protagonist to triumph over, but I feel like the idea of a "fault" is something requiring an internal struggle and tension, where success might not be as clear-cut and easily-discernible-from-the-outside as escaping a dangerous situation, but more to do with internal revelations about the character themselves. 

 

As I go:

"failing. Poorly" -- if something is failing poorly, does that mean it's succeeding? 

I also stumbled on the "magical realism or not" aspects of the talking cat. 

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Love the opening line.

“‘-‘ The boys aren’t looking at me” – not quite sure what’s happening here. Is this dialogue? A sound? Is it indicating that the character is trying to speak but can’t?

“The animals midnight sheen” should be “animal’s”

Overall, I enjoyed the line-by-line writing in here. I didn’t always feel the sense of urgency from the narrating character that I would expect.

I also wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the ending – whether it was an actual magical intercession by the cat or the character throwing is voice. Partially I think I was thrown by the original description of the MC’s aggressors as “gorillas,” which I wasn't sure how literally I should take (I read the story itself a couple days after reading your introduction noting it wasn't fantasy) and the way the MC keeps looking to the cat for help. (This is another area where increasing the sense of urgency might help; I was fairly sure early on that the MC wasn’t actually expecting the cat to intercede, but if we see more of the character’s desperation that might drive it home a little more.) There’s also the description of the cat apparently reacting to what’s going on: the “pleasurable purr” description in particular, in this context, seems to give it an agency that it probably doesn’t actually have. You could probably replace this with some more disaffected/bored cat behaviour that is more plausible for readers, but doesn’t spoil the illusion that the characters are experiencing of a cat talking to them.

I’ll echo the comments of the others that I’m not sure what the fault(s) at play is, and I’d be interested to hear what you’re actually working with to help give more specific suggestions.

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The good news is that I’m interested. The bad news is that I’m not sure what I’m interested in. I enjoy the prose you use here, I’m always in favor of a first person narrative with a running commentary like such on the side. But that’s a double-edged sword when it comes to fantasy and sci-fi. I remember reading Orson Scott Card talking about this – using metaphors in fantasy without clear guidelines make it such that the reader won’t be able to tell.

Case in point, I’m kind of not sure what this story is about. Presumably, the protagonist can’t speak, so I don’t know how he got the cat to speak, unless magic, but you said there wasn’t magic. So now I think that it’s just he has problems talking to people, but there’s no indication of this in the story. And if there is magic, my brain goes wild, and I think the two thugs might actually be gorillas, and the main character is a mutant. I like the tone, but I just don't get what the story is about.

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It's always great to see new voices here on RE, so I am excited to read your piece.

Full disclosure, I read no flash really, other than the very occasional piece submitted here (maybe once a year?). Also, I am not a cat person. I admire the concept of cats, I tend to enjoy encountering cats, when I'm not chasing them out of my garden--my space is not their space, although, actually it is, I'm just not ready to accept it yet. So, on neutral ground then.

Anyway, enough prattling from me.

page 1

- First paragraph: I don't know what protagonist is clutching. Is it a novel, a VHS, a DVD?

- I like the mood so far, I like the tone. There is some angst here, some internal conflict, and/or conflict with the environment, which is good.

- Second paragraph: Setting is a little blurred, but I'm led to picture a classical urban alley (fire-escapes, garbage, etc.), which I can do just fine, however driveway throws me off because, where I come from (Glasgow, Scotland, UK), that's a generally suburban thing leading to a house of a cul-de-sac (for example), which does not seem to fit here.

- The two gorillas in plaid toss me out of the story on my behind. I'm suddenly in a period piece, Suddenly, I'm in an episode of The Rockford Files, or Columbo, or similar. I had a handle, but now it's gone.

- Some of the word choices could be cleaner, more precise, I think. More affecting, more surprising. It seems to me there are several instances of easy/first option, or low-hanging fruit, in Writing Excuses terminology.

- Not an example of that, but a contradiction: the goons are trying to be discreet, but they're failing... okay, fine. But they are not failing 'poorly', they are failing very successfully. 'poorly' does not attach to their discretion, but (incorrectly) to their failure.

- Paragraph three: 'mini earthquake' - meh. This is what I mean about word choice. To me, this is verging on cliché.

- Also, the wording could be tighter, for me, in places. I imagine for flash it's all about editing, editing, editing until there is nothing spare at all. I think this has a way to go in that respect. E.g.: "They’d be able to beat me in any footrace." > I would lose a footrace. OR They'd beat me in a footrace.

- Paragraph four: I'm not clear on what protagonist can take; a beating?

- Paragraph five: Why, if they are in an alley with no one else around (as is clearly the case), are the goons being all oblique? There's no point in them feigning casualness, they have clear been 'made'.

- "I stride my gaze up..." - Is this a typo? Sorry, but it's a horrible phrase, IMO. It doesn't parse at all. What does that even look like?

- Also, 'stalked'. This comes back to tone and setting, and word choice. Stalking, I think, has very specific connotations in terms of a modern idiom (a lone pest, stalking a probably vulnerable individual), or a classical sense (a hunter stalking prey, typically in the bush, with a rifle, bow, etc.). I don't think, personally, that it works in a context where the stalker has a numerical, and physical, advantage.

- Paragraph six: this is not you, it's me, but I don't think I'm wrong!! "My backpack is torn off of me" - I know this is a standard American English construction, but I think it sounds horrible, because 'of' performs no function in this form other than cluttering up the phrase, tripping up the flow of the language and generally making the sentence sound clumsy. Sorry, but I feel kind of strongly about this. I apologise, but can anyone honestly tell me that 'My backpack is torn off me' is not more succinct, elegant, impactful? I know I'm being dogmatic, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. I remain convinced that you do not find this form in 'properly edited' books.

- Paragraph eight: Why is second not called Beta? It just seemed that you set that up. it feels untidy to me. And, I'm confused about what's going on. They're behaving like bullies rather than gangsters. I feel I've misinterpreted the intention with 'plaid'. To me, it refers to a gangster's suit, but I'm thinking now that it could be a punk thing.

page 2

- Paragraph three: 'cause is an abbreviation, and should have a apostrophe to mark the missing letters, even at the start of a sentence. Maybe it should be 'Cause, but still. Also, the goon's logic is ridiculous, even for a dumb--s. You wouldn't know to look at someone because you can't talk? For me, it's a stereotype that goons a dumb. Goons and bullies are dumb 95% of the time; it's a very tired trope, and it lowers the threat level from malevolent to snicker.

- Paragraph four: Where is the cat? I've got not sense of context. Also, calm as holding a box? These things are unrelated. The box could have a snake in it. It's a odd phrase.

- "My arm twists uncomfortably." - Very passive. Beta is twisting his arm, saying that is much more direct, brings the threat of further violence and pain. Also, 'uncomfortable'? Really? The threat of discomfort was palpable... I really don't thing discomfort is high enough stakes here.

- Paragraph five: What is "-"? I don't know what that is. Also, 'boys'. This is the first indication that the goons are not adults, which I was assuming. I think we need more context right up front, as I've gone off down the wrong track in terms of the story's context.

- Paragraph six: where is the cat, where it is? No context.

- "animals midnight sheen" - missing apostrophe.

- 'three stooges' - The three stooges are a collective, this is two vs. one. The phrase does not fit very well, IMO. Also maybe a bit weak. I'd like to feel the cat's complete indifference to the situation, which I think was the tone intended?

- Paragraph seven: "neither one willing to speak for a moment" - plenty of redundancy here.

- 'Revelling' implies joy: this is not a joyful situation. A misleading word, IMO.

- "My arms nearly wrench themselves from their sockets" - Odd to picture Beta holding both of protagonist's arms.

- feet (plural) pounding pavement like a hammer (singular), is not a tidy or elegant metaphor. Also, pounding like hammer and anvil is a massive cliché.

- Maine Street? LOL, love that! (Also, extra period at the end.)

- Paragraph eight: "...to shout his clichéd “Get him,” - Err, I think you need to be cautious about throwing the word cliché around. It's rather the pot calling the kettle black. Also, it comes right back to that 'Villains are stupid, uneducated, predictable' trope which is really boring. The reader just laughs at the villains: it undermines the threat of the situation, IMO.

page 3 

- Paragraph one: "They bridge the gap halfway before I passed the cat." - This is difficult to parse. I know what it means, but it's not clear, doesn't flow well. Also, wrong tense for 'passed'.

- "I glance in despair back at the cat" - I'm a firm believer in not splitting the infinitive. I think it sounds awful in most circumstances. Yes, I do it occasionally, but there's a time and a place. This form sounds really awkward, IMO. I'd go... 'I glance back at the cat (one action, components kept together) in despair.' The other advantage of this form is that is puts your most important word at the end of the sentence, which is a valuable and highly effective technique for punching up the impact of sentences.

- Oh, and if the goons have only bridges the gap alway, how can they get a hold of protagonist? Is there any disadvantage in just having them bridge the whole gap before he gets past the cat?

- Paragraph two: "Deputy" - this is different label applied to 'Second', which especially in a short piece, it seems to me, just makes it a tiny nit harder for the reader to remember who is being referred to.

- How does he know that cat is watching their backs? I'm confused.

- Paragraph five: "It will probably bruise" - and there goes so more of my sympathy for protagonist. Bruise? Really? That's pretty precious, and it brings home to me in this moment that I don't really get much sense of fear from protagonist. Sure, they're not enjoying the encounter, but I don't get much sense of dread, of the potential direness of the consequences. The stakes seem low. 

- Paragraph eight: "pleasurable purr" - this means 'pleasing'. The implication to me is that the cat finds its own purr pleasing, which doesn't seem like the right sense for this situation.

page 4 

- Paragraph one: 'I cannot hold it' - what is 'it'? Unclear.

- "serve as my disappearance is discovered" - serve how? Serve what? This is not clear, IMO.

- Paragraph two: the last line left me confused. I took me two or three re-readings before I remembered that protagonist was mute. That did not seem to play a great part in the story, I think maybe since it would be plausible that a different protagonist in the same situation might just be rendered mute (temporarily) through fear.

conclusion

I like the idea, but I want more from it. I want more stakes, more passion, more emotion. The villains are weak/predictable, IMO, and that undermines the stakes. If they were clever, wily, cruel; if they had a clear motivation, that would go a long way to raising the stakes of the story.

The cat does not seem to behave like a cat in the beginning, I thought. Also, there's no blocking around the cat, little description, no real sense (I thought) that it appears to be a normal cat in the first place. I think this undercuts the moment when it begins to speak. If it meowed, rubbed up against protagonist's legs or something hyper familiar, that would ground me at the start, and therefore I think its speaking (and I would like protagonist to see its mouth move, to really drive home that this voice is not only in protagonist's mind) would have much more impact. Another thing: the title really tends to give away what's going to happen, to the point where it reduces the impact of the critical moment, the reveal.

How is this not fantasy? I would say it's 'a fantasy' in the sense that there is a strong element of the fantastic. We're met all swords and sorcery around here, you know! ;) 

Anyway, it's hard to judge style in such a short piece, but there is plenty that I enjoyed about this. I like protagonist's voice (what there is space for in three pages), I like the idea, I just wanted more depth, more impact, more surprise.

I hope these comments ts are useful Sorry they are so late :) 

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On 09/12/2019 at 2:18 PM, Mandamon said:

Soooo...is the MC a ventriloquist, but doesn't talk?

On 09/12/2019 at 4:23 PM, Sarah B said:

I liked the reveile of the ventriloquist at the end.

On 09/12/2019 at 8:18 PM, Lightbearer said:

or it's not, and then we have a bully story where the MC is overcoming his fear of bullies by channeling his inner ventriloquist.

It did not enter my head for a single second that protagonist was a ventriloquist. If you say someone is mute in such a very definite way, I will believe you totally. So, I',m in the magical cat club when it comes to interpretation of the story.

On 10/12/2019 at 3:51 PM, Silk said:

I didn’t always feel the sense of urgency from the narrating character that I would expect.

Same. I come back to what I was saying about stakes, but equally sense of fear. 

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No problem! I want to answer everyone eventually just to clear up what I was thinking. It's all very helpful feedback.

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Ok, people are usually done critiquing by now? If you haven't posted yet, then ignore this post.

Sort of in order of people:

On 12/9/2019 at 9:18 AM, Mandamon said:

You say this isn't fantasy, which leaves me a little confused at the end. Is the MC making the cat talk by throwing their voice? Or is this magical realism and you aren't considering it fantasy?

Ventriloquism. About half of you have figured it out. It is foreshadowed (the book he's holding is a book on ventriloquism) rather poorly, as it requires whoever to either know about the book or look it up. 

On 12/9/2019 at 9:18 AM, Mandamon said:

pg 2: "The two boys look at each other, neither one willing to speak for a moment."
--I don't understand what's so fascinating about the cat. Why did the boys look away from the target they want to beat up?

The Bullies are superstitious, which is why the were so fascinated by the cat. 

On 12/9/2019 at 7:54 PM, industrialistDragon said:

Anyway, the protagonist's ability to speak would not have saved them from the bullies in this situation; the bullies appeared to me to want to pick on somebody and the protagonist just happened to be the easiest target in range. That would still be the case if they could talk from the beginning, so I am confused as to what fault is being overcome. 

He's selectively mute. The fact that he's willing to talk (albeit through a cat) is an improvement. Also, I don't think that speaking then, even if he could make himself do so, wouldn't do anything. The Bullies were too intent on harassing MC. At that point, he needed something that would keep the two of them occupied long enough to escape.

On 12/9/2019 at 3:18 PM, Lightbearer said:

The true interpretation needs to be clearer because the name detail is hard to keep in mind by the end since everything that's in the story is new information. Maybe it would help keeping the memory fresh if you put the sentence with the book's name alone in a paragraph, like saying 'hey brain, hold onto this.'

I chose the name of the story after; It's called "When Cat's Intercede" because I couldn't think of anything better.

Thank you to everyone who pointed the lack of an emotional response, I definitely need to fix that. 

7 hours ago, Robinski said:

- Paragraph eight: Why is second not called Beta? It just seemed that you set that up. it feels untidy to me.

The reason the second is called Deputy and not Beta is because the first wasn't named Alpha because MC was counting them in greek. When he called him Alpha, it was because MC saw him as the "Alpha male" of that pack.

7 hours ago, Robinski said:

- Paragraph five: What is "-"? I don't know what that is. Also, 'boys'. This is the first indication that the goons are not adults, which I was assuming.

Lastly, the two bullies are in (about) eighth grade. 

Thanks again to everyone who critiqued this. 

 

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Just now, Turin Turambar said:

I chose the name of the story after; It's called "When Cat's Intercede" because I couldn't think of anything better.

To clarify, my suggestion was different. The foreshadowing of ventriloquism is well placed and well made, but probably not strong enough. I refer to "I Can See Your Lips Moving". The moment I saw the name, I could tell what the book is about - so that was clear, at least to me, but I only caught the name on the second read. My suggestion was to move the name of the book out of the dense first paragraph, where it gets lost. Maybe you could have the MC drop the book when the bullies attack to have its name closer to the reveal and make it a punchier point. It would also help to have the name of the book in a short sentence on its own in a paragraph to make it easier to see.

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Overall

I think this does in fact, qualify as fantasy, since it has a talking cat. It's just more urban than sword and sorcery or high fantasy. What are the word count limits? This seems long for flash fiction, and a little too wandery. I think it would need to be cut and honed to really get that flash fiction feel.

I'm also confused as to how it meets the requirements of the writing contest. What is the main character's fault? That they are walking alone between buildings? Being mute isn't a fault--a fault is something that you could fix if you worked on it. Our MC here can't fix being mute any more than a blind person could fix being blind. I think our MC needs a more readily identifiable fault for this to work for the writing contest.

As below, I'm also confused by the ending. It didn't have any punch and I'm left wondering what the arc of the story was. I think part of this is that there is no real wonder over the talking cat. I'd like to see more reactions, more description of the voice of the cat and what that does to the bullies and the MC.

The beginning of the piece was very nice and engaging! I think you've got a great start here. The middle and the end just need some tightening.

2 hours ago, Turin Turambar said:

Ventriloquism. About half of you have figured it out. It is foreshadowed (the book he's holding is a book on ventriloquism) rather poorly, as it requires whoever to either know about the book or look it up. 

So... what is the fault he has to overcome? Being socially awkward? Also I never would have guessed ventriloquism. It was stated so clearly that he was mute. That might have to be backed off or foreshadowed better.

 

As I go

- I had to read the first sentence three times before I realized the 'they' is the apartment buildings

- pg 1: wait, actual gorillas? Or large people?

- pg 3: when the cat started talking I was very confused. I think some description of what the cat sounds like would be really useful. Give us some hint it is the cat and not some human who has stumbled upon the scene

- I don't understand the arc of this story. The ending leaves me feeling... like I've either missed something or there are some unkempt promises.

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10 minutes ago, kais said:

What are the word count limits? This seems long for flash fiction, and a little too wandery.

The word count requirement was 750-1k words. 

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I'll say that I read the talking cat as being literal. I did end up reading the thing you told me not to read (whoops), which clears up some things but leaves me with more questions in other areas.

The two parts about this piece I thought were strong were the concept and how the descriptions fed into the atmosphere. A mute (or just quiet?) kid being picked on and finding a way to weasel out of the situation is a setup that gets us into the action right away without requiring a lot of setup and instantly allowing us to sympathize with them, which is vital in a flash fiction piece. I really appreciated how the descriptions of grime helped me feel what it was like to be that person in the alley. Those elements make up a strong foundation.

I agree with some of the constructive criticism from other people (not sure what the arc is, or how it fits the prompt of someone overcoming a weakness), and I won't belabor those points. I will say that I'm not sure what's going on here needs to be as confusing as it is for some of us. The foreshadowing you mentioned could definitely be one element, but for me the larger point is that we should know directly what this character is doing if they're speaking to us in first person. Even if they think about it in an unorthodox way, there's room for the language to give us clues (such as saying, "I make the cat say..."). As a general rule, it's okay for the meaning of a story to be ambiguous at times, but we the details about what's physically happening should be clear and straightforward (though all rules in writing have exceptions, of course). 

I also wanted to comment on the beginning, which a lot of people praised. I do like the prose, but I think it could do more work by setting up the major ideas of the story. Right now, the first paragraph sets the scene and foreshadows what will happen on a plot level. I think a first paragraph of a flash fiction piece in particular should set up the major ideas and let us track the themes/motifs of the story to create a coherent sense of structure. The ventriloquism is important on a plot level, but the real point of meaning here appears to be the narrator's connection to the stray cat. Setting up this dynamic between the narrator and cats while creating immediate conflict will get us invested in the story and tell us how to read it; key foreshadowing and scene-setting details can wait until after we're hooked. 

Best of luck in the writing contest! :) 

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