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2012 April 9 – cjhuitt – Vulcanization - S


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This is a stand-alone short story, a little under 5k words.

It definitely needs a content warning for sexual content. If you're not comfortable with reproductive processes and the body parts that accompany them, please don't read this story. (That should get everyone's attention, right?)

More seriously, I feel like it's missing something in the ending. If anyone has advice on either adding to/removing from the ending, to make it better, or adding to/removing from the beginning to better support the ending, I'd love to hear it.

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I think that the best thing about this story is that you’re working with strong, visceral themes throughout. Fire, plants, identity, sexual awakening, family, restriction, heritage. It's all powerful stuff.

I also think that those themes are what lead the ending to be so unsatisfying-- we simply don't get any real payoff, reconciliation, or closure to those themes. And by being so powerful, they require it.

Now you do a good job with the obvious explosive themes, aside from the end. Sex and fire really break through the narrative and it’s obvious that you’re most at home when doing those parts of the story. Or maybe you thought they were the most important to get right. Regardless, they’re quite good.

However, I think you skimp on some of the other themes-- plants, the mother, nature v. artificial constructs posing as nature-- and it results in strong themes with an unsatisfying conflict of themes.

Look at your set up of the home-life. It’s all generalities. We never get quite what Brenton’s mother goal was. I mean, it’s obvious he’s some sort of fire elemental and she’s some sort of plant one and she’s trying to raise him not to be a fire elemental. But we don’t get this connection this woman has with plants characterized while we have Brenton’s connection with fire so explicitly introduced. Without this other spiritual path that Brenton is incompatible with characterized beyond that mere incompatibility, when he turns from it, there’s no sense of loss-- even if that sense of loss wouldn’t be shared by the Brenton.

Also, especially since sex drives so much of the narrative, it seems strange that the plant themes are so thoroughly sexless. Once again, while to Brenton, flames and all sexuality seem to be one and the same, there should perhaps be some connection that we can intellectually see going on with the mother, but not with him.

Now I don’t know if the divide between plants and fire as viewed through a sexual lens is a masculine/feminine divide or a puritanical/sexual freedom divide. But I should have a better grasp on that by the end of the story than I do.

I also think you should do more with the inherent contradiction at work with the farm house in the middle of nature with all electric heating/cooking/light. Like maybe everything is made to look rustic-- a log cabin, a well, etc-- but then it’s fully automated. Because obviously fire would be a part of the sort of rustic experience that Clarise wants to emulate... which itself draws the question as to whether or not this separation serves to put Brenton more in touch with nature or entomb him into a facsimile that is more unnatural than anything else.

Two things I’d suggest to flesh out this side of things would be to have another child living with Brenton and Clarise-- one who is compatible with this plant philosophy.

I would also suggest having an in-scene exploration/failure/frustration for Brenton with this plant spirituality. You could establish a lot of these things very quickly if you just showed us Brenton failing rather than having him inform us of his failure.

I think that if you flesh out the other half of this spiritual/sexual divide, it will be more obvious to you, the writer, what the ending needs to be doing and what it isn’t doing in its present state.

Now, that brings us to voice. Brenton’s narration actually threw me out of the story on a few occasions and left me a bit dissatisfied. For one, we have a huge divide between where Brenton is in this story and where he is when narrating. However, we never really get a sense as to how he came to this state. Apparently he never wears pants, be he’s also familiar enough now with normal family structures and normal sex to be able to point out the inherent strangeness of his upbringing. We don’t really get where he is and as he’s gone off from the end, that gives even less resolution to the story. If we get the idea that he’s become some sort of terrible, consuming fire-rapist, that’s at least some sort of closure to the story. If he’s come to be at peace with himself and his nature and is looking back at how rapacious and unbalanced he was after being kept from it for so long, that’s another type of closure. While I didn’t like it when Brenton asserted himself into the narration, I think you need to do it more and better and really use it as a device to make this work.

I also think that the dialogue needs some work. It’s a bit wooden.

Also maybe give the mother a bit more character beyond stern, I would think. It’s hard to sympathize with her. Is she saving him from something beyond just his nature? Does Brenton’s survival in a world with these godlike being depend on him not being a threat to other fire gods/elementals? Give her some pathos. Otherwise she’s just a stern figure. You do depart from that a bit at the end, but because it isn’t set up that she has a nature beyond how Brenton sees her, it comes more as a character break than the end of a character arc.

I think there are some really nice pieces at work here, but I think you need to sew everything together so that the strong scenes fit better with the others.

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Yados, thank you for your comments. They were quite helpful in getting me to think about the story in a couple of slightly different ways, which should pay off in the near future when I rework this one again. I'm definitely saving them with my notes on things to look at.

The one thing I will mention is the pants, since your mention reminded me it was in there still. I had first put it in as a throw-away line (this one was free-written instead of outlined like many of my other stories), then apparently left it in. I should either be more clear or cut it, but basically he still goes out and dances (sans clothes) in fires, especially large wildfires.

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Truthfully, this story took a bit getting into.

The start is slow and Brenton wasn’t a very sympathetic character for what seemed to be a coming of age story. He’s apparently sheltered, but I just don’t care about his frustrations over failing with the plants or about the rest of his home life – which is sufficiently generic as to not matter at all. . Most of the beginning is Brenton telling us about his life and failures. The story would be stronger if we were shown instead of told.

It’s also not clear why his mother is being such a harridan about keeping Brenton sheltered from the world. Later it becomes clear she has her reasons, but at the start that gives us two characters I didn’t particularly care about

It’s not until Brenton got into fire that things started to work for me. Instead of a coming of age story it was like reading a super-villain origin story. I don’t know if that was your intent, but that’s what it seemed like. The magic became apparent and both Brenton and his mother started to come alive; him with the potential of a dangerous future and her with her desire to keep her son out of trouble. Trouble that’s all too real all of a sudden.

The fire imagery and his coming of age really meshed well together, once it became apparent there was magic involved. At first I was surprised, and not in a good way, when the fire didn’t burn his skin as a regular person’s should. Suddenly it was a fantasy story instead of, to all appearances, a tale about a normal world.

I liked seeing his mother’s affinity with the plants at the end, making them grow where she walks. It’s something I missed at the start. The fact that Brenton couldn’t duplicate her efforts would have showed the reader his failings right from the start. It would also be a lead in to him using fire magic and the existence of magic in this world.

The ending itself felt a bit lacklustre to me. I was expecting more after the forest fire, some sort of confrontation. Instead Brenton and his mother are almost amiable about the whole thing. He’s got the potential to be a big threat, he just wiped out a large area of nature on a whim, because he couldn’t control himself or refuse the voice of the fire. And she just let him go. Suddenly she’s kind, where before her character revolved around being as restrictive and stern as possible.

Prose wise the biggest things that bothered me are you telling instead of showing, especially at the beginning, and a tense shift for a couple of paragraphs. Most of the story is in past tense, but starting with the following sentence you shift to present tense for two paragraphs.

“Instead, the man comes out of the house and stops on the porch.”

This could be an interesting villain story, but to keep me reading (for the sake of reading, instead of critiquing) I’d need a couple things. First, start with more show instead of tell about Brenton’s failings ,life and the magic. Second, I also need to have a reason to care about Brenton, which right now I didn’t have (at least not at the start, where it’s really necessary to draw the reader in).

Slow start, telling instead of show and a character I don’t sympathise with are not a good story starter. When the story does get going I want to read on and find out in what spectacular fiery way Brenton is going to break free of his old life. As such, the ending needs some work to properly resolve this build up.

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Asmodemon, thanks for your critique as well.

To address one point that I had noticed prior to submitting, I had worried about the lack of obvious fantasy markers at the beginning of the story. Combined with some of Yados' (and your) observations, I have a few ideas about how to improve the beginning of the story, now that I can more clearly see some of the aspects that need improvement. (As an aside, it started from a writing prompt, which may explain -- but not excuse -- some of the beginning, until the story gets its legs.)

I also appreciate the observation about needing more confrontation at the end. You've put into words at least some of the dissatisfaction I was feeling myself, which will help.

I plan on letting this story simmer for a bit, but I'm certainly making notes from you guys to help on the next draft. (Don't let that stop anyone else from chiming in, however -- I can take at least some dogpiling.)

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Extremely well written. I'll keep this short, as the posts above pretty much touched on every aspect of the story.

Not sure I agree with others needing certain facets of connection. The mother's antithesis to the sexual connection Brenton has in the narrative; I think it was beautifully expressed in the sterile upbringing. Much of it is just fear for Brenton...but the way it sent her overboard in his reclusive restrictions, while still growing up loved in every way, highly educated, it's a nice play on literal opposties.

...I didn't want to train. I wanted the fire. Now.

He obvioulsy would have been a very different person if left to his own devices. Sterile, reclusive...playing off the innate freedom and deviousness of the stigma that comes with absolute sexual freedom. Loved it. Bravo. Rarely done well with something so cliche as the out of control fire mage.

And I would say that all responses to this 'wanting more' of the characters...the connection...the story...(myself included) I think that speaks for itself on the interest level you've managed to engender in such few words.

I will say this. Be careful when relying so heavily on imagery and beautiful metaphors to carry the narrative...because when you come across a euphemism like "plonker" in an otherwise wonderfully worded structure, it's jarring to say the least. Reminds me how much work it takes to write so metaphorically well. It makes me start relating things to a bad harlequin novel.

I know what you're saying with something missing in the end, there's just not enough tie in, not enough 'wholeness' to be a rounded out story. Rather...the story itself seems like a wonderful jumping off point, a solid start to what could be a very good short story. Or even novella...I'd read it. No quesiton from what I've seen. Yados and Asmo both give some great insight on key points that could be expanded...so I'll leave it at that.

Nicely done.

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