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Reading Excuses - 200302 - LizBusby - Foxes and Fires - 2923 words


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I've been working on this short story sporadically for a few weeks. The theme of the story changed radically from what I intended when I started. I'd love to know what you think of the ultimate resolution, and whether it works with the foreshadowing of the story. Also tell me whether your interest is sustained even though the story is largely about waiting. 

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I had a couple issues starting, but really enjoyed the story as a whole. I love short stories that give you a whole world in one sitting!

A couple quick notes;

Deathless seems to be a formal title, maybe it should be capitalized?

P's visual perspective is a bit confusing to start. He is looking East but sees the car to the West. He's at the foot of the hotel but can see the horizon and the rooftops of the village. 

I understand from later in the story that the 'reversed sunset' glowing in the East is the fire, but at first read this sounded like it might just be an odd Sunrise.

 Since they got a title mention, I was expecting the foxes to be more involved in the plot or theme. They might have been a metaphor I just missed though.

It was a pleasure reading your story!

Thanks for sharing 

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1 hour ago, lizbusby said:

Yes, I should add that the title is more of a placeholder. I just stuck together the two images that started the story. I am open to new title ideas. Maybe just "Deathless"? 

That would be good.

Fire is also used in many areas to fertilize land so that new young plants can grow. Fields intentionally burned each season to make way for the next generation of crops. Since fire is a strong image in your story and the old ruling class is planning on handing down their power, you might play to something along those lines also.

Or the word 'torch' refers both to literally setting something on fire and figuratively a legacy or authority (ie:passing the torch) 

Just brainstorming, feel free to disregard :-)

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Long critique incoming!

Well, I see what you mean about waiting.
This fell flat for me, because I wasn't really sure what was going on until the last page. Before that is basically all worldbuilding and buildup. I didn't even know what the "reverse sunrise" was until about halfway through.
For something like this, where it's expounding on an "Idea" concept (from Mary Robinette's MICE quotient), it's important to know what the Idea is. Instead, this is introduced more as a Milieu (setting) or Character story. But these characters don't really matter. It could be anyone stating "immortal people don't want to be immortal any more." The characters literally do nothing. The setting with the forest and the city is cool, but talking about it so much made me start to pick it apart.
I think it's a good concept, but I'm not sure how to really bring that out.

Some ideas, if you want them. Otherwise disregard.
-You could make this a Character story instead, learning about the Deathless, unsuited to this task, but accepting that immortality doesn't work. He has to make a decision whether to save the forest. The decision doesn't really matter, but we learn about his character by what he does.
-You could make this an Event story, where the moss/immortals are dying, and something even worse will happen to humanity. Then we have a real consequence for the actions here.
-Right now as an Idea story, there's no impact to the decision. Humanity has existed for a long time without immortal people. They don't seem to be particularly useful, considering this guy was basically high for 100 years. What does it matter if they're gone?
*end prescription*

Notes while reading.
pg 1: "this reversed sunset casting its shadows all the wrong ways across the tiled roofs of the small village."
--It's a bit long and wordy, especially for the second sentence. Also, I'm not sure why it's "reversed." if it's happening at midnight, then is it just an early sunrise?

pg 2: "splitting the difference"
--I was confused what this was until I got to the end of the sentence. I didn't know what he was splitting between. Also, if he's forgotten all the rituals, how does he know either is correct?

pg 2: "What had it been called? The chill? The cold, that was it."
--or maybe a certain virus that sounds like a beer? ;-)

pg 2: I'm not sure why the speech suddenly transitions into using "one." It's only in some sentences, and it sounds odd when the man obviously isn't interested in ritual and formality.

pg 3: "he glanced one last time at that orange sky"
--I'm not sure what the sky signifies. If it was commonplace, he wouldn't be looking at it, but if it's unusual, then why is no one saying, "hey, that sky sure is weird, isn't it?"

pg 4: Okay, I guess using "one" is standard. It still seems stilted.

pg 5: "But sir, we do see it every day. This fire, it’s been raging for so long, the animals have begun to flee"
--Ah. So the sunset is not actually a sunset. Took me way too long to get that.
--Also, would lots of foxes run together? I have no idea, but it may be worth a little research.

pg 6: "The cause didn’t matter, really. The fact was that the moss could grow only here. "
--I mean...it does though. With enough study someone's bound to find what causes it. Unless it's magical in some way and literally has no physical cause.

pg 6: "Without regular access to the forest"
--So I assume there are troops of armed guards all around the city? There would have to be, to keep someone from just taking it over and declaring themself the new ruler of immortality. So why are there not enough people/resources to put out a fire?

pg 6: "It was the only thing that had prevented nuclear war over control of the forest"
--*casts suspicious eye on this based on the current state of world affairs.*

pg 7: There are only three more pages. Is something actually going to happen?

pg 7: "before their coverage had been quashed"
--This tells me the government might not be as impartial and benevolent as stated...

pg 7: "But he explained the fire-fighting measures being taken to the best of his understanding, though he was really trained more in spiritual matters than in science."
--Which also begs the question: why this guy? They have a woman who literally stopped giant forest fires already working on it. Why is this guy here?

pg 8: "the 6 men and women"
--write out numbers less than 100

pg 8: "All this stretched on for mile after mile"
--so the forest is already gone? Sounds like the moss is toast.

pg 9: "Why do you think they sent me?"
--glad this is finally addressed.

pg 10: "grown to soft," -> "grown too soft,"

pg 10: hmmm...so all the immortal people got sick of things and stopped being immortal. That actually seems pretty likely. Although I can't imagine this place would have lasted that long to get to this point in the first place.

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Hi Liz,

The beginning of this story created a strong sense of wonder and curiosity for me, which are my top prerequisites for sci-fi and fantasy. On the way, my interest grew when I got to the part where the Deathless was eating breakfast and the foxes were running outside. By the end, I was satisfied that the main idea was indeed interesting and had potential to create a good payoff. 

However, it broke my suspension of disbelief in several ways:

- climax/mystery resolution. This was the biggest hurdle. Instead of letting the forest burn, the Deathless could've simply stopped smoking the moss. What he said (that they decided to let the forest go so that humanity stops relying on them) doesn't make sense because they could've decided to start aging at any time. No one forces them to smoke the stuff.

- the utopia: The Deathless are presented as a utopian meritocracy, which is incompatible with the very nature of humanity. We're all a mixture of good and corruption. One has to wonder how long would it take for the first scientist to let his wife stay in the room with him. How long until they'd change the very law so as to enshrine their own interest. If these people are inhumanly incorruptible (for the sake of argument, say the smoke changes them, even though this doesn't come across from the story), how long would it take them to realize that deciding to let others die is supremely immoral? It took me minutes. That includes animals and plant life. For a utopian society they're not doing a good job, leaving foxes suffer. (Psychopathy/sociopathy are not good explanations either; it would indeed result in lack of empathy but would give them a strong desire to rule forever.)

- utopia (b): so we have a super smart elite watching out for the interests of humanity but apparently don't care to educate people. The POV character doesn't know about an epidemic from 300 years ago. Don't they have internet? With a super smart elite, technology would advance like crazy. Disease isn't forgotten just because it's eradicated. We eradicated plague but still have the cure for it. We also remember smallpox well.

- Planet of Hats: Not all people think alike so how did all the Deathless agree to commit suicide by forest burning at the same time? How come not even one of these smart people realized they could just stop smoking?

- meaning of life (Planet of Hats b): Not all people think alike and so at least some would be fine with living eternally, or at least a lot longer than 300 years. Our loved ones die every day, not only from old age but from cancer, heart disease, suicide, and yet we live on. We find meaning in life not only by living through others but by doing interesting things, dedicating our lives to charity/volunteering/good causes, doing research etc. and apparently smart people find meaning in life easier because they keep themselves entertained, at least as long as they're healthy and not bankrupt. Plus, even if all their wives and husbands died, surely they had children and grandchildren and they'd have been interested in maintaining a living connection with those children, which would prevent them from getting lonely. For example, Anne Rice wrote a 6,000 yo vampire, Aunt Maharet, whose origin was the ancient Egypt and who dropped in regularly to protect her family, care for them, shower them in gifts and other material advantages, and love them - whenever she wasn't busy doing cool vampire stuff. Life has meaning beyond the death of our loved ones or we wouldn't be able to live knowing one day we'll lose them anyway. Life has meaning even beyond our own death. Besides, smart people would likely not allow themselves to be put in history as the cretins who let the forest burn.

- eternal all-consuming love: Only a very few lucky people love their spouses with intensity until the end of their lives. As you advance in age, you realize they may die long before you and you'll have to live your hardest years on your own. It's a chance many of us take knowingly. On the other hand, humans are adaptable enough to get over the deaths of loved ones, especially when modern marriages break apart more often than not. In this scenario, at least a few scientists would hook up with each other. Maybe some of them weren't even married to begin with. Maybe others weren't interested in marriage, or even relationships. Takes all sorts to make a world.

- nukes: why would they have used nukes and risk to contaminate the forest, and also provoke nuclear winter? The thing with nukes is that they're only scary as long as no one uses them; after that, the other side has nothing left to lose. Modern military strategists know that and that's why no one used nukes ever again after the big booboo in Japan. Besides, this isn't the sort of conflict for which you use tactical nukes. It's the sort of conflict in which you use ground troops because you need to be able to not only take, but also hold the ground. You go in with ground troops, establish perimeter, and then build the mightiest antimissile shield the world has ever seen.- the non-research researchers: with a scientist elite, it's impossible the forest wasn't researched to death to find the mortality cure. Being a scientist isn't a profession, is a way of life dominated by curiosity. It itches and it burns and it doesn't let you sleep. You don't have a choice, you must find out what the deal is, and 300 years is plenty of time for that. At the very least you take samples and cultivate them in secret before you burn the forest (but you do it with years in advance to make sure you can grow them elsewhere and the magic still works).

All this being said, the story is very interesting. My suggestions are:

- either you do worldbuilding until these questions are addressed and change the outcome to whatever fits the world logic;

- or accept that this was a dystopia disguised as utopia and think who'd have the interest to keep it that way, burn the forest at the end, and why. Make that the villain.

- meaning of life: it's possible that the theme of the story, which is meaning of life for immortal humans, needs a novel-length exploration.

Either of these will ensure a satisfying climax and resolution. 

Minor sidenotes:

- when I read "Pablo noticed that his face looked slightly green", it made me think the Deathless was a zombie, impression which persisted for a while, especially in light of the past epidemic;

- when I read about the forest fires, I almost dared hope it's Australia or something. Then again, everything happens in North America.

Edited by Lightbearer
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Hey Liz,

Glad to be reading another of your subs after the last one, which I did enjoy.

(page 1)

- I like the title! It's intriguing, has a whiff of rural adventure about it.

- "saw the deathless approaching the Villa" - Ha, capitalisation. My favourite subject. I tripped over deathless. Maybe it's just me, but I think the issue with using an adjective as a name/title is that part of the brain is waiting for the noun to drop. Mine certainly was here. Could deathless be capitalised to make its status 100% clear? Then... Why is villa capitalised? It's just a house, surely? Is it the only Villa in the village? I just don't see the rationale for capitalising villa when deathless seems to be the key word in this opening sentence.

- "roofs of the small village" - I feel like 'small' is redundant. Villages are what they are, and I don't think adding small bring anything extra to the description, just the word count. Unless it's a hamlet, of course.

- "only hotel in town" - Wait, now it's a town? I know North Americans tend to use this to mean 'urban area',  but when something has just been described as a small village, this phrase fights against my quite tenuous initial impression of the place.

- "towards the town" - Okay, this is definitely redefining the small village as a town, surely.

(Sorry, I'm in super line-by-line mode this evening.)

- Where is the foot of the hotel?

- "the golden seal on the door of his car as it closed itself" - To me, this sounds like there's something missing, like the seal is on ly visible when the door is closing. Something off.

(page 2)

- "Finally, splitting the difference," - I think another common is needed, otherwise it sounds like it's taken him a long time to figure out how to split the difference. Also, what is he trying (or deciding) to split the difference between?

- "a hand almost extended" - I'd say partly extended, because 'extended' is not easily defined. When does extension reach its limit? For a handshake, I guess it would depend on relative height and distance between the individuals.

- "He walked toward the door" - He can only yank it open once he gets to the door, so I feel like 'to the door' would be more accurate.

- "much to the confounding of the cloakroom attendant" - over elaborate, I think, and therefore become grammatically 'muddy'. I'm not at all a fan of verbs as nouns.

Have I apologies for the persnickety recently? I'm enjoying the opening and keen to see what emerges in the the way of threat and stakes, but these sorts of details always stick out for me like a fistful of sore thumbs.

- "P noticed that his face looked slightly green" - When we're in P's POV (which I think we are?) I don't think there any need to say 'P noticed' because that's self-evident.

- "more than 300 years ago" - personal preference, but I think it caries some logical weight. I think numerals work okay in SF, but in fantasy and it's various branches (which I think is where we are), numerals 'clang' for me, and look out of place. Also, I found it stranger that P was only thinking about the guy's names now, when he's been hanging around waiting for the chap for some time. Surely, if you're waiting for someone for twenty minutes (say), you'd logically recall the name of the person you were waiting to meet, long before the moment that he actually arrives? In my profession capacity, I go to loads of meetings. Okay, not the same thing, but I would never go to a meeting without knowing the names of the people I'm meeting. Apart from being rude, knowledge is power, as the popular aphorism goes.

- "for some major plague" - are there minor plagues?

- "And so what accommodations does one have here(2)?” the man said as he took off (1) at a brisk pace down the hall" - Peculiar. (1) Why ask a question then not wait to hear the answer? Also, (2) this chap's grammar is not great. Now, in dialogue, that's fine, but he's been set up--I feel--as a scientist and groundbreaking thinker (cured the common cold!!), so I feel his grammar would be good. His name suggests that English would be his first language.

- "P had to nearly run to keep up" - I received good writing advice from a natty little podcast called Death By a 1,000 Cuts to use clear and unequivocal language. Another excellent nugget was "Don't write what characters are not doing." If he's not running, then I would avoid using the word. He can hurry, or hustle, or rush, without running.

- "the council thought one might want first" - ??? What? I'm pretty sure this is not the correct usage of 'one' in this form. It's used, I believe, by someone referring to what a nonspecific person might do, or think, in a given situation. But, P is most definitely referring to the new arrival here, so I don't think this form works. Having said that, P is free to use whatever 'bad' grammar he likes in dialogue, but I feel it's kind of distracting.

- "one has travelled a long way" - is he going to do this the whole way through the story? I'll be totally honest, I would put a book down that carried this all the way through.

(page 3)

Okay, I'll stop mentioning line-by-line stuff, and just say that I think there is quite a bit of tidying up required to ease the flow / enable immersion in the story. I guess it's an early edit? I'll say no more and concentrate on story matters.

- "Certainly, the morning will provide a more objective view" - Why would it? Confused.

- "Amazing that one can still get carsick" - Closer, but I think still no. This is just from a straight goggle, without reverting to W1k1, as I usually would. Both P and the D have use the pronoun to refer specially to the speaker, but on no occasion as representing people in general, very much always presenting himself.

  1. 3. used to refer to the speaker, or any person, as representing people in general.

    "one must admire him for his willingness"

- "It’s really too bad that the forest can’t be relocated to somewhere more convenient" - Okay, this guy is an arse. I don't like him. That's okay, but the real problem is that I feel nothing for P. I've been given no reason to invest any emotional attachment to P. He reads like an NPC, but he seems to be the main character. After two pages, I want to be gripped by the teasing, mysterious challenge before the characters, but I have no idea what that is. In the absence of plot, the characters being engaging could carry me through the first two pages, but really, I've got very little to engage with. I'm sorry to be so negative, but I expect more from this after reading your first sub, which I enjoyed a good deal. I think these first two pages (and the characters) need to do a lot more work to engage the reader.

- "given that tourist permits had been much reduced in the last century" - Nobody, but nobody, has a tourism strategy that spans centuries.

(page 4)

- "the usual flawless blue of fall in the holy city" - it was a small village, then a town, now it's the holy city? I'm beginning to think I'm the one who's missing something here.

- "I never had time for breakfast" - I think this is the first time he's referred to himself (correctly, IMO) as 'I'.

(page 5)

- "A fox, running in the open in broad daylight" - This comes WAY too late in the story, I think. I feel that I'm already disengaged due to not embracing either of the characters on screen so that, when something interesting and plateful happens, it's too late.

- "sea of animals" ... "we do see it every day" - This makes no sense to me. If the forest is on fire, surely the animals would continuously, not wait till the morning commute to flee for 2 minutes then wait until tomorrow before another fleeing slot came around. I feel that I must be reading this wrong, but it feels kind of weird, cartoonish almost.

- "This fire, it’s been raging for so long, the animals have begun to flee" - Wouldn't the animals being to flee in the early days, as soon as the fire reached wherever they were? And the number of foxes, it sounded like there were hundreds of them! I don't believe foxes lie in such dense numbers that that would be a likely scenario.

- "all the time in the world, but the forest did not" - I have soooooo many questions that I need to be answered. Is anyone fighting the fire? is the fire encroaching on the settlement (village / town city / holy city)? is it only foxes that are fleeing? What about all the other animals? Confused.

- "As one born in the sacred city, caring for the city and the visitors, and especially visiting deathless, was his job" - Not sure I understand why this makes it P's job.

- "No one could leave, it wasn’t allowed" - Eh? Why? What?

(page 6)

- "the moss they guarded" - I think this needs to be mentioned much earlier in the story. It seems pretty fundamental to the reason for everything that's going on (with the humans at least).

- This page is pretty much all exposition, and sits in a big clump here, past the halfway mark of the story. I really think we need to know the constraints that the story is operating in much closer to the beginning. Also, I think there is two much exposition of detail here for a short story of this length. This reads more like novel-length (or novella anyway) levels of world-building, IMO. 

- "loved being a guardian" - Here's his motivation, but it's way down on page 6, needs to be on page 1, IMO.

(page 7)

- "patrols of the wall" - There's a wall? Around the forest?

- "master plan" - one word.

- "drawn up by SF" - I suggest don't mention names of people who are not in the story, they're not relevant.

(page 8)

- "never asked about the 6 men" - small numbers would be words.

- "finally reached the top of the ancient stone tower" - I don't believe it was said where they were going, so this disoriented me.

- "northern wall to the eastern wall on the other" - other what?

- If there is a wall around the forest, how to the animals (foxes) get out? Is the town always inside the wall? How do they control saboteurs getting into the town?

- Miles of miles of trees have already burned, by the sound of it, so where did the animals come from that ran through the town yesterday?

- "pushed down by a bulldozer" - this is a kind of limp phrase, not very evocative of the violent destruction of the forest, at least in the simile.

- "if you had just come last night" - with the best will in the world, I don't think there is any way so much forest could be destroyed in such a short time. As far, further, than the eye can see? If the D had come last night, it could have made no earthly difference to this level of destruction, surely?

- "that could be done today" - 'can'

(page 9)

- "SF**" - ??

- "but all of them more or less failed to capture his horror" - grammar / kind of cluttered. I think: 'but none of them captured his horror'.

- "wrinkled with sunspots" - These are different things, surely?

(page 10)

- "I didn’t feel it in here" - where?

- "Our elevatedness kept us apart" - elevation, surely!

- "too much sense of self-preservation for that"

- "had sat in down" - typo, him.

- The ending is very sudden. Not especially keen on the last line, which is very downbeat, and the last speech is rather preachy, I thought.


I've got to say that nothing really grabbed me in this story. It felt quite routine, stranger-in-town, kind of fare, and the characters I thought were rather one-note. I felt like I went from one confusion to another: the size of the settlement that kept changing; the consistent incorrect use of the pronoun 'one'; the illogical and almost comical behaviour of the animals (foxes specifically, and only foxes, nothing else). 

I've tagged all my issues above, and I won't recap them here, but there were a lot of issues with the story for me, I'm afraid. A lot of the logistical details about animal fleeing, rate of burn and clearance, etc. did not make sense. Did you do any research into forest fires spread and such like? I know a little about it, my wife coming from BC in Canada, and my son-in-law Montana. I've watched my wife track fires in the past (mother-in-law still lives in Creston), and I found that aspect--which seems central to buy-in of the reader--unconvincing.

I thought there were some quite significant structural issues. We only learn what the story is about after the halfway mark which, for a short, I think is a massive issue. We need set up and stakes in the first earliest pages in order to be invested in what is happening. I never really felt that investment.

Sorry not to be more positive. A good rewrite or two would fix a lot of the issues that I had, but as a theme or a message, I think the story needs to work a fair bit harder to hit the right notes to have weight as a commentary on the perils of immortality.

Thanks for sharing! I hope this is of some use.

Edited by Robinski
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Made it here eventually!

As I go

I think this piece really wandered. I'd have liked more worldbuilding and foreshadowing in the beginning, to lead to this end. Also I think there are some large plot holes, like the moss being burned en mass and that somehow not affecting anyone. More specific comments are below but I think going back through and tightening, putting the through line in at the beginning, and maybe considering a plot twist with the burned forest moss would make this a very strong piece.

As I go

- pg 1: isn't a reverse sunset a sunrise?

- pg 2: got rid of the common cold! Nice!

- pg 3: this is a short story, and I don't know what the through line is yet. In a story this short it should be apparent from the first page, generally. While I'm moderately intrigued by the world and the concept of deathless people, I don't yet know what our MC wants or why he cares. This makes it hard to get buy-in

- pg 4: position within the church? There's a church? Did I miss this earlier? What church?

- pg 5: he works for a church but also is basically the host for the city? This last paragraph on pg 5 dumps so much information I can't seem to sift it. No one can leave the town including the deathless, but didn't this one just show up? Where did this one come from?

- pg 6: 'wisdom of the plan' repeated in the first and second sentence of the first paragraph

- pg 6: wait, now moss is a plot point? Why didn't we get moss descriptions in the first page? Wouldn't the deathless be super interested in moss then? Also what color is this moss?

- pg 6: that moss can only grow in this one place stretches my suspension of disbelief. That's not how moss works. I'd need more backstory and worldbuilding before being able to buy this

- pg 6: again confused. What made the thieves stop coming for the moss? How do they protect the forest? And if the forest is burning isn't like.... the whole town not aging now? Forest fires generate a TON of smoke

- pg 6: The MC is now also a forest guardian. He is busy!

- pg 8: I giggled at 'sacred forest service'

- pg 8: if the forest is on fire, there is no way anyone can see for miles. If a forest is burning near your town, its raining ash and the air is grey and thick

- pg 10: I really want the twist to be that since the whole town had to inhale this moss smoke in mass quantity, now THEY ALL LIVE FOREVER BWAHAHAHA

- the end didn't really have the punch I'd hoped. Did the deathless at least set the fires? Could our dude have had char on his fingers that the MC saw? That would have been nice foreshadowing!



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I think I agree with @Mandamon. This story feels like it's being pulled in two directions for me. One way is a character-driven narrow-focus vignette about two characters dealing with a fire and how their high- and low-class backgrounds affect how they view it, as shown through their interactions with each other; and the other is a high-concept intellectual piece in a more Enlightenment/parable-style about how immortality robs you of your humanity and thinking for yourself is better than stagnant peace. 
For the character-driven part, I'm expecting a payoff from the setup that will affect the characters as individuals, and I feel like the story misses the mark there. The resolution doesn't feel individualized; as Mandamon says, they could be any two people from their social strata having these conversations, so I'm left wondering why I was following these two in particular and feeling a bit disappointed by the end.
For the parable part, I'd expect there to be more talk about the ideas involved and less focus on the framework around it, less worldbuilding, even. If the ideas are the point, then I feel like I want to really understand them both, and as a parable, have one come out as superior to the other. Whether I agree with which side of the argument "wins" is immaterial, I just believe that in a framework such as this one side does end up winning (or, more difficult, both sides are shown to be equal and the "winning" idea is a statement about the choosing of one or the other, but I don't really think a statement on choice is what's going on here). Here, the ideas seem to be weighed down by the character-driven parts and so only show through in bits and pieces, and no resolution for the ideas ever happens, so I'm also left feeling disappointed by the end on this front as well.
I don't feel like the two parts are working together with each other in this piece. It's entirely possible to blend character-driven plot with high-concept parable-like discussion of ideas, possible, if difficult. Octavia Butler and Carol Ermshwiller are two fantasty/sci-fi authors who I feel like manage this hybridization well. Their works also have very well-defined stances on the philosophical ideas they're engaging with that permeate the entire work and come to a definitive conclusion within the text. Mary Gentle's and Eve Forward's works also do this, but with a heavier leaning into the character side than the other two (the ending of Gentle's Ancient Light notwithstanding lol). Gentle's and Forward's ideas tend to be less complex and their statements a little less prominently developed, in order to accommodate more robust characters.  
I think there is a very interesting world here and some interesting discussions on the idea of stagnant peace and individual creativity, but right now the parts are working against each other instead of with each other. 
As I go:

 The POV character, P, seems to be thinking about everything except the things that he's worried about, and recalling what feels like encyclopedia articles on everyday things that he then discusses in depth. I'm a little confused as to his purpose here. 

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The world and concept is was really interesting. I loved the idea of a moss that could make people immortal and how having a select group who didn't age would affect society. Your story explores fascinating question, but it didn't quite sustain my interest. The concept is important, but characters are what really draw me and engage me.  I felt like I never got to know the POV character very well. I didn't learn much about him. He didn't do much. He didn't seem to learn much for changed. He seemed like he was more or less a device to deliver information about the world and to give the deathless a chance to tell his story and share his message. The deathless was a little more developed than the POV character, but he still felt rather distant and removed from the narrative. There wasn't quite enough for me to engage with him either. 

I think if you could find a way to delve more into the characters, to let reader get to know them better, to have them interact in more meaningful ways and really teach each other something as opposed to having one tell something to the other, then this could be a really cool story! 

As I read:

P. 1

"P stared absently into this reversed sunset casting its shadows all the wrong ways across the tiled roofs of the small village." I love this line, but I can't picture it. There wasn't enough detail in the description that came before it.

"In the west, the black limousine slowly climbed its way back and forth across the hills towards the town, hopefully bringing salvation." Can he actually see this? Or is he picturing it? I'm not quite oriented enough to the surroundings to be picture what he is seeing. 

Also, after reading the opening lines, I was thinking the orange glow was the deathless and the limo was going to save him from it, but in reality, the glow was a fire and the deathless was supposed to stop the fire. Definitely consider reworking the opening somehow. 

p. 6

"In the first century, many had tried to steal the moss they guarded; some had succeeded." The mention of moss seemed to come out of nowhere. I think a concise mention of the moss' link to the deathless and the forest a little sooner could help. Maybe dole a little bit out of this out ahead of time so you don't have as much to say here. This whole section changed my perception of the fire and what was at stake, but it wasn't necessarily in a good way. I had settled into one expectation and didn't like it changing at this moment. 

At the end of this segment,the exposition was loosing my interest. In general, I don't tend mind big chunks of exposition like this, but I didn't like this one. I think it's because there isn't enough character development yet. Also because of what I mentioned about it changing the stakes. I'd like to know the importance of this forest as soon as I know it's burning. 

p. 7

The next scene has more backstory exposition too soon. 

"The brush management was currently in a cycle of build-up according to the sacred forest’s master plan drawn up by S F, the ecologist who had been elevated for ending the cycle of wildfires that had plagued North America’s west coast." This was where it clicked that the deathless was being so slow with everything because he wanted the forest to burn. In hind sight, it made his previous behavior make sense. 

p. 9

"When I would inhale the smoke from the moss each day, my wife had to leave the room" Would people be getting a dose of the moss from the forest fire? How will that affect them? The POV character mentions the smoke but never really thinks about how it might be affecting him.

S F has a different first time on this page than she did on page 7. 

p. 10

"The man’s silhouette was black against the gray sky. Smoke swirled into the air from the forest that continued to burn just over the horizon. “And now it is finished.” The end felt a little abrupt. The purpose and message has been revealed, but was done so without much character growth or development, and I think that lack is what made the end feel abrupt. 

I had a lot to critique, so I do want to reiterate that I love the concept and premise. Most of the overall structure works too. With more character development and eventually more editing, I  think this will be a really cool story! 






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Thank you to everyone for your comments. Yes, this was a very rough first draft, so you are all completely right in pointing out that more thinking about the world-building is needed. I basically wanted to outsource it to readers to figure out what would stand out. @Lightbearer thank you for your exhaustive list. You are exactly right in thinking that this utopia could be a distopia. The original ending I was considering was that the Deathless really didn't think the fire was a big deal, was a total bureaucratic jerk who only cared about enjoying immortality, and then would be devastated when he finally saw that it really was hopeless. But that ending just didn't end up working, probably because I ended up liking the deathless so much.

Also, the setting was supposed to be more of a Spanish colonial feel, but now that I think about it, I never really got any architectural details into it. Better correct.

Definitely will be capitalizing Deathless in future drafts. Thanks for multiple people for flagging that. And I'm sad that the opening image was so confusing to everyone, but looking back on it, it's totally understandable. I'll have to work on clarifying what is happening.

@Robinski You caught me. I kind of just made up the world as I went, so I need to go back and revise for consistency on what the town is like. And do some more research on forest fires. I did have one question for you. I was trying to use the "one" in dialogue as a sort of "royal we." My thought was they have developed the idea that it's rude to refer to the Deathless with regular pronouns, or really refer to them at all, so they use "one" to avoid that. I then tried to have this formality break down at points when the Deathless is thinking more humanely or having emotions. I wanted to show some of the specialist training that P has in handling the Deathless, and show how they think of the Deathless as gods, not just humans who are really smart. Obviously that did not work for you. Suggestions, given this goal?

@kais thanks for flagging the mass smoking of the moss and the idea of the Deathless starting the fire. Those will probably make their way into the next draft.

@industrialistDragon and @Mandamon: Really appreciate your framing of the story in terms of MICE quotient. You both helped me get a clearer vision of what my brain was trying to do here and that will make the next draft change a lot. Thank you!

@shatteredsmooth Thanks for your thoughts on character. I feel like character is definitely my weakness. I think the revision of the story will bring the reveal of the Deathless's motives up to earlier in the story so they can talk more about the impact it would have. Would that help? I'm envisioning P pleading for the lifestyle and peace he loves and the Deathless pointing out the stagnation and need for change. Another question: I tried to provide some characterization of P during the exposition sections by showing that his belief in what he was taught growing up is cracking at this first encounter with a real Deathless, that he is questioning whether what he does with his life and the restrictions he lives under are worth it. Was that too subtle, or just not enough to give him character?

Edited by lizbusby
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3 hours ago, lizbusby said:

Would that help? I'm envisioning P pleading for the lifestyle and peace he loves and the Deathless pointing out the stagnation and need for change.

It would definitely help. He would have more agency, and it would reveal more about him. I think knowing some little details about P would help a lot, more of his habits, maybe. A little bit of where he lives. Consider adding a scene between him leaving the Deathless for the night and when he goes back in the morning. It doesn't have to be long, but maybe it could show us what he worries about loosing. What is at stake for him if the Deathless are no longer deathless?


3 hours ago, lizbusby said:

Another question: I tried to provide some characterization of P during the exposition sections by showing that his belief in what he was taught growing up is cracking at this first encounter with a real Deathless, that he is questioning whether what he does with his life and the restrictions he lives under are worth it. Was that too subtle, or just not enough to give him character?

Maybe the problem was because a lot of the character building happened during the exposition scenes, his character got buried under all the new information being delivered. It may have something to do with the way I read and process information, but on my first read through, the exposition seemed louder to me than the character details, so what I took away from it was exposition, not character. So that alone wasn't quite enough. 




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I'm a little late on critiquing, but maybe one more point of view will help. I did not read any of the other critiques, so I came in unbiased.

Thoughts as I Read:

Pg. 1 - first paragraph - My brain is instantly curious on what the deathless are...zombies, perhaps? Vampires? Demons? I had to reread "reverse sunset" multiple times because my brain kept going "doesn't she mean sunrise?" since you wrote that it was occurring in the east, and that is where the sun normally rises from. Limo brings salvation. I like this.

Pg. 1 - second paragraph - Deathless look like normal humans, but are immortal. Our savior? Holy city...hmmm...the Villa. Are we on Earth, or a modern fantasy land? Alternative Earth? Future Earth?

Pg. 2 - second paragraph - Deathless makes me laugh. Poor. Mr. P.

Pg. 2 -third paragraph - Old Asian subcontinent. Cold no longer exists. Alright, we're at least 300 years in the future. (I went back after I finished and found out that our deathless does exist:  "Throughout his career, Robinson has been responsible for the production of a broad variety of vaccines for both humans and animals.") Did you mean for that?

Pg. 5 - Aw, fox! No, wait...lots of foxes. Ominous feeling dispels the happiness and curiosity I was feeling towards our deathless. By the end of this page, I am horrified that the deathless does nothing while the fire burns. That hits close to home for me, living in California. Emotional gut punch, followed by fury. Deathless is no longer on my good side.

Pg. 6 - Moss is a nice twist on the Fountain of Youth. I like this. It is realistic enough to easily be believed, yet vague enough not to be picked apart by scientific readers.

Pg. 8 - Hard hitter for me. I could picture this way too clearly with the memories I have. Something I'd like to mention, out of personal experience: ash and smoke. Even when the fire was more than twenty miles from my house, there was so much smoke that it leaked under the door of my apartment. You couldn't breathe. There was ash covering the floor of WinCo and the entire sky was this mix of bruise blue-purple and red for days. You couldn't see to the end of the block. Your eyes itch, your lungs ache, and you begin to believe maybe blue skies were just a dream. It's like the very air itself is dead, everything seems so quiet

Pg. 9 - first paragraph - Sally?

Pg. 10 - fourth paragraph - "You have grown to soft."

Overall Thoughts:

I feel melancholy writing this. The fire touched me personally, which I count as a success from a writing point-of-view. Hurts from a personal point-of-view. The theme of death was simple but well-written, and felt like the gods saying "I think I'll take a nap now, you're on your own." Poor Mr. P.. I wonder what will happen to him next. I would have loved to know his reaction.  

Beautiful, simple, but hit me right in the heart. I'm curious to see what you could write if you do decide to do Writers of the Future. 



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On 09/03/2020 at 6:17 PM, lizbusby said:

I did have one question for you. I was trying to use the "one" in dialogue as a sort of "royal we." My thought was they have developed the idea that it's rude to refer to the Deathless with regular pronouns, or really refer to them at all, so they use "one" to avoid that.

I like the idea, I guess using a word that already has a specific application that is similar, but not the same, as their modified usage might be the nub of my issue. I wonder if there is another word, that is either further away from original application, or maybe even closer to the original application. Suggestions:

'thou' - maybe a bit 'on the nose', although you did say they consider the D to be gods, and it might stand out quite well when the rest of the dialogue around it less formal, e.g. "Perhaps I could show thou to thy room, and we could speak after thou have breakfasted.";

modify 'one' - so, like "Perhaps I could show holy one to holy one's room, and we could speak after holy one has breakfasted." - although that is quite unwieldy;

a new word - but similar in brevity, and even spelling, e.g. "Perhaps I could show ont to ont's room, and we could speak after ont has breakfasted."

use an 'alien' word - one that doesn't fit in English, bit maybe fits in a world context, e.g. Spanish for 'you' is 'tú' "Perhaps I could show tú to tú's room, and we could speak after tú have breakfasted."

Just some random ideas. I hope something here helps in some way!

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On 09/03/2020 at 6:17 PM, lizbusby said:

I feel like character is definitely my weakness

I really think character needs to be branded on the first page, in the first couple of lines, a snapshot of it, and flag, a tell-tale that sets reader expectation from the earliest point. A breadcrumb, that gives the reader enough character to want to follow to the next breadcrumb as the character expands into the story (or the story expands into the character, or both, I guess.)

Edited by Robinski
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