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April 28 - Kuiper - Holding up the North (L)


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For me, this suffered from a lack of the sort of details that could have brought it to life. On a character level, many of the characters don't even have names, and we don't get much idea of their personalities or what they care about. That gets in the way of caring about them, as does spending time with so many characters in such a short story. It never feels personal.


There was also a lack of detail in the setting. We know next to nothing about the nations, why they're at war or what's at stake. We don't even get a clear impression of what sort of setting this is. Are the armies equipped with swords and shields or rifles and camo gear? What does the pass look like? It makes it hard to picture what's going on.


There's an interesting event going on in this story, but without more setting and character the event loses its impact.

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I came to a similar conclusion as andyk on lack of character, but with a lot more words...

I wasn't as bothered by the lack of setting, except where you define the pass as strategically useless, but don't tell why.  I took the rest as sort of a commentary on useless war, which doesn't need a particular time or place.



The story has a slow start - I'm not immediately pulled in.  It's sort of confusing that you're talking about the eastern and western armies in the northern pass.  I thought there were three armies for a few pages.


pg 1 starts with passive thinking about war efforts and then the next page is an infodump on skirmishes.  The next few pages are mostly discussion of tactics.


The whole story is about a lack of action, which is intrinsically hard to make interesting.  Most of the characters are trying not to do anything, so nothing happens.  Maybe to make it more interesting, you could put in an element of tension: some reason why it's better to do nothing.

I assume there are spies on each side.  What are they doing to either progress or stall the war?


From what I gather, the western side dumped problem solders and the eastern side put useless aristocrats to guard the pass.  This makes sense for what happens when they fight, but it needs to be made the central theme of the story, and made more visible.


Then you say the pass is strategically useless.  This doesn't make a lot of sense to me.  The western side, by winning, now completely controls a pass into the enemy country.  at worst, they've gained land.  At best, they now have another usable entry point into the eastern lands, which can't be useless.  I guess in summary, I'm not convinced it's useless, without more explanation.


I was also confused who got killed in the end.  Was it the Captain of the western army battalion, or the officer with the idea to attack?  Either way I felt the ending was a little weak.  This story depended on character development for the reader to understand how the war was balanced and then upset.  Most of the writing was about the plot instead, with some unneeded focus on history of the war, and not enough attention given to the characterization.


Like andyk said, the characters fell a little flat, but those characters are the only reason the war goes from a stalemate to a (partial) victory for the western side.

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As usual, Mandamon hit the nail on the head. While there's enough here for a really interesting story, the execution leaves it floundering.


At first, I was quite intrigued as it seemed to match up with a quick story I've had rattling around as well as numerous similarities to World War One, but the info-dumping and general blandness meant I struggled to finish the piece. If I can go nearly twenty pages and count on one hand the number of names I encounter, something's wrong. And it's probably not my arithmetic.


I'd also like to take a digression on narrative style. Usually in contemporary SFF, POV narration is used--thoughts, feelings and reactions of the character rather than the narrator. While the omniscient third-person certainly works--and works well--it makes actually writing more difficult. You have to be more conscious of your syntax and structure, revealing exactly what details at what time. There's a lot more pressure for perfection. 


Finally, as a reader, I don't see a reason to care about this story. I don't have any characters to empathize with, no convoluted plot to unravel, no cause to turn the page. Sell me on this story and I'd be more than happy to read it, but as it stands...


As far as names go, it really depends on what kind of vibe you're going for. If you're leaning towards pre-New Weird or post-post-modern fantasy (e.g. A Song of Ice and Fire, Kingkiller Chronicles), I think "War in/of the North" could work well. But, as I said, it depends.

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Hey guys, thanks very much for your feedback.  After reading your comments, it appears that my execution did fall short in a number of places, and some of my intentions didn't come across very well.  To address this, I'd like to offer some explanation regarding my intents for the story.  None of this is intended as justification; merely explanation.
The ambiguity regarding the setting is intentional and by design.  The soldiers' weapons could be swords, or muskets, or automatic rifles.  They could be fighting on earth, on an alien world, or in an entirely different universe from our own.  Ultimately, it doesn't matter for the purposes of this story.
At its core, this is intended to be a story about two opposing cultures, how they react differently when presented with similar circumstances, and what the consequences of those actions were.  My intention was to convey a sense of comedic irony, sort of a la Catch-22.  This irony comes in several forms: the fact that the circumstances on both sides of the chasm evolve so differently (yet both sides assume that the other side's behavior is mirroring their own), the fact that the western soldiers that were isolated to the place where they would have the least impact actually end up having the most impact, and the fact that the victory of the "heroes" of the west is regarded with disdain rather than celebration.
The entire third act of the story which involves the engagement between the two armies is also intended to be somewhat comedic as well.  The effect I wanted to achieve was a comedy of errors in which two sides go to battle by accident.  (This is also why the battle scene was not particularly graphic—I didn't want to try to present a comical scenario along gruesome depictions of bloodshed.)
As stated before, this is a story about two opposing cultures.  Central to this is the manner in which the two sides are presented.  The scenes on the eastern side contain absolutely no dialog.  None of them have names.  For all we know, they may be speaking a different language than their western foes, or be an alien species that communicates entirely non-verbally.  (I don't expect the reader to entertain that as a possibility, but it is still within the realm of possibility.)  The scenes on the west side, meanwhile, are very dialog-centric.  (In fact, in the first draft of this story, I wrote in a very experimental style in which I excluded dialog tags entirely—each side was either 100% dialog or 0% dialog.  Some artifacts of this can be seen in the frequency with which Johnson addresses his captain as "sir" and also how often the privates address each other by name—this was originally my substitute for dialog tags, which I phased out because I felt that the stylized dialog took away more than it contributed.)
I did not model it as a story about human characters—even the western soldiers who have names are intended to be abstractions to some extent.  Williams, in the grand scheme of the story, is not actually a significant player.  The collective of bloodthirsty men on the western side do collectively constitute a significant player, and Williams is intended to serve as the "face" of this group.  By a similar token, the captain and lieutenant are caricatures of them men they preside over.  The lieutenant is competent with a low tolerance for incompetence and for that the bureaucracy has punished him.  The captain is bored and mischievous.  All of these elements combine to form a volatile powder keg that is ignited by a single cry.
So, with that out of the way, on to responses.  Specific points:


Then you say the pass is strategically useless.  This doesn't make a lot of sense to me.  The western side, by winning, now completely controls a pass into the enemy country.  at worst, they've gained land.  At best, they now have another usable entry point into the eastern lands, which can't be useless.  I guess in summary, I'm not convinced it's useless, without more explanation.

The uselessness of the pass is owed to its inaccessibility (alluded to in the early portions which discuss the difficulties faced by supply lines into the mountainous terrain, as well as the portion toward the end which highlights the disaster of placing your back to a narrow corridor.)  The central idea is that the pass is a bottleneck, but once you push past that bottleneck, what awaits you on the other side?  Another bottleneck.  And another after that, all part of a series of chokepoints in a terrain that is not at all conducive to travel.  I'd be willing to concede this point if I felt that it would add to the story, but I like the idea of the easterners giving up the fight solely due to misinformation rather than an actual strategic loss.


I was also confused who got killed in the end.  Was it the Captain of the western army battalion, or the officer with the idea to attack? 

It was the captain, who was the commanding officer in charge.  (I agree this should have been more explicit.)




More general responses:


I agree that the story is generally lacking in tension and has a definite blandness to it, especially in the no-dialog reports on events of the east; the first half of the story has an atrociously high infodump/action ratio.  I really struggled with the first few pages, because while "bored and stagnant" describes the circumstances of the players on the stage, it's also difficult to present in a compelling manner—this is only exacerbated by my choice to shy away from "humanizing" the characters.  Perhaps this was a mistake on my part to choose this approach, or perhaps there's a better way for me to capture interest.
One thing that I think may be an issue for this story is that the idea of abstracting things so that they could be happening any time at any place between any two nations is holding the story back in a big way.  In one of my earlier outlines, I considered modeling the story as a conflict between two different species on an alien world, and described the easterners as a race that communicated entirely non-verbally, explaining their lack of dialog and the inability of the two sides to communicate.  The original idea for this story was actually a mutation of an old piece of flash fiction I wrote in a fantasy setting with dragons; after typing it out I decided to remove the dragons and all references to archaic technology.
One of the main reasons I decided to go ahead with the abstracted, omniscient viewpoint version I submitted is that I wanted to experiment with different writing styles that I'm less experienced with.  It could very well be that the best version of this story is one that uses third-person limited narration in a science fiction (or fantasy) setting.  I think that many of the issues you've all noted with the story could to a large part be addressed in shifting to a third-person limited narrative, coloring the soldiers on both sides as more "human" characters with very specific motivations and character traits, and filling in the setting more by building it through action and blocking.  (All of the conversations essentially take place in empty white rooms in the current version of the story.)  There's a good chance I'll do this at some point, because I still like the core idea of this story and want to find some way to tell it effectively. What I'd like to consider right now is whether it's possible to tell an effective version of this story through omniscient viewpoint.
Considering Orson Scott Card's MICE quotient (which describes stories as being based on milieu, idea, characters, or event, suggesting that short stories focus on one), I think the most fundamental issue with my story is that it doesn't really focus on any of these--it's probably closest to being an "idea" story, but the way in which it presents the conflict doesn't really draw any compelling questions or investment from the audience.  I'm thinking perhaps it would be better to approach this as a milieu story--the standoff between the two sides is inherently part of the setting, and at the end of the story, that setting is effectively dismantled.
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I agree with what the others have said, there are some good things here ( which I’ll get to in a moment), but on the whole it is overshadowed by the execution.


Characters: The others have already said it, but there are no characters to speak of in this story. We get several disjointed perspectives on either side of the war, but don’t really follow anyone, nor do we see from their perspectives whether they lived through the event or died. None of them really matter to me as the reader.


Milieu: I get that this is more of a milieu or setting piece, but for me, to make that work there has to be a purpose to it. I don’t really get that until the end when one side finally wins the battle for the pass and even with that, what’s the point? What happens now?

All through the story I’m told that the front is meaningless, this part of the war is meaningless, the pass is worthless, etc. So what is the point of me reading about it then?


Talking heads: I have no idea what these people look like, there are no descriptions for any of the characters. When they talk to each other they just talk and don’t do anything.


Slow pace: The story reads very slowly. In the first scene we have a general who does nothing but lament the fact his drink didn’t arrive. In the second scene two characters, a captain and a tactician, engage in a conversation that is below the both of them and doesn’t do anything more but repeat what the general thought one scene before. And that’s about a quarter of the story. So, lots of exposition, but no likeable characters to ground any of that exposition.


Charge: The charge that gives one army the victory is anti-climactic and not unexpected. One army has killers (most of whom are at the front of the charge) and the other pampered nobles who want a cushy position. The fact that they’d break is not surprising.


Someone dies at the end: But who dies? I think it’s the captain, since he’s in charge. But by the description it might as well be the tactician, since he was sent there for speaking his mind and disobeying orders too.


Dichotomy: Now, I did like the dichotomy between the two armies. They both see this as a meaningless front, but one sees it as a way to punish soldiers and another as a post to promote soldiers or reward them.


Symmetry: This is a little hit and miss. On the one hand I like the symmetry between the two sides you’ve got going. Scenes for the western side have two characters in them, scenes for the eastern side only have one character in them. What I like less is that, because of this, there is no dialogue for characters on the eastern side. And that results in a lot of thought and exposition for the scenes with the eastern army.


Potential: There is potential here, in two armies in a state of deadlock over one pass. One side clearly has no intention of moving from their cosy position, but the other side is suffering. When the captain says the suicide rate is up you might make it worse – maybe the army is already decimated by suicide and he expects the force to break on its own any time soon. If he still wants glory and if he still believes he’s fighting to protect his nation, that gives him a good driving conflict and a clear deadline. Add a new tactician who isn’t broken yet…

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I struggled a bit with this piece, and reading the others’ comments now, I see that I wasn’t alone. Here are my comments, similar to others in places, but maybe there is something distinct in there.


The first paragraph didn’t grab my attention, and I felt that the first page read like a military report, perhaps intentionally, because of the east-west, north-south and the description of logistics. I didn’t find that approach particularly interesting. It’s fair enough if you want to establish that a posting to the northern front is lacking in risks and challenges, but there is a danger that the reader finds it as uninteresting as the general.


Things pretty much continue in that style. I can understand you not using names (although you do use Johnson, of course), presumably so as not to draw distinction between the sides or create allegiance in the reader’s mind, but I think the outcome is that the reader has to work harder to keep track of what is going on. Another danger is that you succeed in making both sides anonymous and, because of the blankness of the wider context, the reader stops caring about the outcome, which is what I found.


I realise that it’s a short piece, and I thought that you were trying to demonstrate the futility of the situation, which is what I took from it, but my overall impression was of a very wordy piece, lacking colour or much drama.


Like JP, I struggled to finish because of these issues.

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