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Bill,

Don't have time for a full crit (actually, I intended to just use the comments box, but once I get started... ) I'm blunt, but I think you should be able to handle it. Overall, great read, interesting story, clear writing, engaging... So big pats on the back- you are obviously a good storyteller. Now, to the painful parts... All comments are aimed at help, not ridicule (but I'm a bit irreverent about it- when I make a point, it is definitely pointy!), to puff up the writing quality a little. You have a few weaknesses I think that need to be addressed, one big one in particular.

That is, IF you are planning on getting published (if you just want to freely share, you can probably ignore these issues- but you really shouldn't in either case), I would suggest not posting your stories on your blog- publishers frown on this- why should they pay you for something you are giving away for free on the internet (somewhere that does not require logging in- restricted access like CC groups is okay)? Just FYI, in case you didn't know...

You can't sell first publication rights (ethically) since you've already self-published it on your public blog. Oops. Again, maybe it isn't an issue for you.

Interesting story, well written (but I read it over there several days ago. Funny, I went to your blog after your forum posts last week(link from your profile), but didn't notice the stories until Ralph opened his big yack (affectionate jibe toward the rascally rabbit) about your story, and I noticed somewhere you referenced the stories being there- so I pre-read). My biggest nit-pick plot-wise is how easily they acquire the poison. Is it magic, or is it alchemy? Of course, primitive society would still view it as dark/ evil magic, but alchemy is a richer word... Sorcery is another option. Magic just doesn't sound right to my ears in this story... It almost seems more paranormal/ horror- I think it might fit into what is being termed "Dark Fantasy" these days.

Questions-

Did you understand Dawen's power from the first scene? If so, was it too much?

Yes, I did. No, didn't think it was too much... The subsequent scene of her power was... powerful...

The girl in the road was clothed only in dirt. Her sunken eyes were open. Her tongue, caked with dust, pushed out of her mouth. Her limbs, though unbroken, lay twisted, and the bottoms of her small feet were scraped raw. Small rocks stuck between her toes. Dawen, kneeling next to her, noticed that the almost-transparent skin was covered with half-healed welts and shallow cuts. Those weren’t what killed her, Dawen thought; they were old wounds. Whatever stole her life had left behind no more than a frozen mask of fear and exhaustion; it hadn’t touched her, at least not in any place Dawen could see. She looked up at the bystanders who stood back to give the undertakers room to work. Their faces displayed curiosity rather than sadness. None of them seemed to recognize the girl any more than Dawen did.

Stray thoughts-

Your first two sentences are passive- Not a very strong technique for opening. Suggest tightening, combining-

The girl lay in the road, clothed only in dirt. Her sunken eyes stared, unblinking, unmoving like the dust-caked tongue pushed out from grey cracked lips. Her bony limbs lay twisted, one small foot jutting upward, the sole scraped raw and coated with dark blood, dirt, and pebbles.

Dawen, kneeling next to her...


I took out "unbroken", because how would Dawen know this? Limbs can look fine and still be broken... I also started a new paragraph with Dawen- should make the opening image stronger, and with her name starting the next paragraph, establishes our POV character clearly.

If you say "Dawen thought", the thoughts should be italicized (of course that means underlined in ms format). You are being a bit redundant here- you say "half-healed", which implies old wounds... but as worded, you could also take away that the shallow cuts are fresh (unclear), only the welts are old. If you cut "half-healed", it removes the redundancy, or just have Dawen think, "These can't have killed her, even if they were freshly inflicted." I'm not crazy about "almost-transparent"... how about "pale"? Or, how about "translucent"? Or just skip the skin here- it's the welts and cuts that Dawen would most strongly notice, and you want a strong, clear image- unless you want to show contrast- Dawen sympathizing, "So young, so frail (transluscent skin, spiderweb of veins showing through, etc.)", maybe comparing to her own age, etc.- establishes POV age in context; non-infodumpy. You could do this a little further in, though (maybe you do- don't clearly remember).

The last three sentences seem a bit fragmented-

She looked up at the bystanders who stood back to give the undertakers room to work. Their faces displayed curiosity rather than sadness. None of them seemed to recognize the girl any more than Dawen did.

I'm seeing her look up, and the bystanders backing up- but I think you meant they were standing at a distance. Awkward, and unclear... Also, "undertakers" is distanced from Dawen here- sounds like someone else coming in, not her. I'm thinking she just found the body, and is waiting for the undertakers to arrive. Maybe characterize it more...

She looked up at the ring of bystanders, searching their faces for recognition of the girl's identity. Dawen did not even find a trace of sadness there; only morbid curiosity. Even she, the undertaker's daughter, felt a deep sadness for this young stranger.

Characterizes her, the crowd, and the contrast... sort of the apathy of the population at large (symbolic).

Her father wrapped the cadaver in an old blanket. Dawen grabbed the lower half of the bundle to help him lift it, careful not to touch the corpse with her bare hands. She was always careful when they died violently. As she struggled with her end of the unwieldy burden, the blanket unraveled and a small arm swung free. Dawen’s hand shot out instinctively to catch it but pulled back just as quickly. It was too late. As she touched its skin, Dawen screamed and collapsed to the ground, shaking and sobbing. The undertaker set the body into a wooden casket and knelt next to his daughter, taking both her hands in one of his. His other hand gently wiped the hair from her face. She looked up at him. Her eyes were wide with shock.

Okay, you do a great job of introducing Dawen's ability here- subtle, but clear. But-

Dawen’s hand shot out instinctively to catch it but pulled back just as quickly. It was too late. As she touched its skin, Dawen screamed and collapsed to the ground, shaking and sobbing.

You have her pull back her hand, but then "as she touched..." Convoluted, and you upset the dramatic flow. "It was too late"- very common phrase, and doesn't really add anything- just show us what the simple touch does, and we KNOW it's too late, right? You're telling too much. So cut "...but pulled back just as quickly. It was too late." Actually, you can cut "As she touched its skin"- you've established the body as naked, the arm swinging free of the blanket, and Dawen instinctively catching it. Suggest:

Dawen’s hand shot out instinctively. As the cold grey flesh touched her palm, she screamed and collapsed to the ground, shaking and sobbing.

This also incorporates vivid tactile (cold) and visual (grey, or gray) details, and more specific (palm, not hand; flesh, not skin).

Would Dawen think "cadaver"? Love the word, but she's sympathizing- this is a girl, not a cadaver- unless you show her shirk back into her professional role somehow first... Maybe father says something- dialogue to snap her out of her trance, of sorts... she's just sitting there pondering, Dad would say "Time to go", or something... job to do, etc. OR, "Are you all right?", and she reacts with "I'm a big girl; I can do this" or "I've done this a hunded times; focus" (attitudes, character motivation- not suggested dialogue; probably internal dialogue for Dawen).

Okay, I've GOT to move on or I'll be here all day (I do go on... and on... )

This paragraph has a POV shift from Dawen to Father... MAJOR problem, one that will seriously fluster most editors. You need to rework into Dawen's perception... unless your intention is to head-dance. And no, dancing to death in the story does NOT make head-dancing apropos here- unless your goal is to make an editor head-dance to death... Quirky irony, though...

The undertaker set the body into a wooden casket and knelt next to his daughter, taking both her hands in one of his. His other hand gently wiped the hair from her face. She looked up at him. Her eyes were wide with shock.

Reworked: (new paragraph)

A calloused hand embraced her trembling hands. Another caressed her cheek, wiping the hair from her face. [something about the concern or anxiousness in his eyes, maybe. Signs of recovering from the shock- blurry/ infocused vision, banishing the frightening images, "bestill my beating heart" *gag* (the idea), etc.]

Anyway, use her senses- you can feel the presence of someone kneeling next to you, smell the dirt on his hands, or the perfume of the blanket on them (scented to mask the death odor- no mention of that lovely smell yet) You drift back and forth in the next several paragraphs between POV's. Next scene, same thing... If you have purposely chosen and omniscient POV, it's fine- but a great put-off to many editors nowadays, especially as an excuse to plop you into the slush pile. In my opinion (as ALL of these comments are), you are gaining nothing through head-dancing in this story, especially with Dawen as your main POV. Tell us the story through her perceptions. There's a reason editors prefer a limited POV- the story (and POV character) is much stronger and clear (captures the reader better; more connected to the POV), and there are all sorts of ways to inject stray POV information without violating the "rules". If Dawen can't see it, hear it, feel it, know it- it doesn't belong, unless she is deducing it from other character's dialogue, actions, etc. Or if she touches a dead body. Especially in a short, I highly recommend single POV, unless the POV isn't in the scene- but still pick the perception of only one character in that scene. If you don't care about getting published, it wouldn't matter as much- a reading audience is not as particular as an editor you have to woo.

Dawen didn’t notice them leaving.

AAARRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!! Have her look up from her musing, "Hmm, everyone is gone..." SHOW, don't tell. You also go from "Father" in the previous paragraph to "The undertaker" in this one... does Dawen perceive Father as The undertaker? Fine if it is narrative- but it should be separated (new paragraph) from Dawen's POV in that case- you enter her thoughts here, firmly in her POV. But really, she is observing her father's actions here- not the undertaker, and it isn't really narrative (as in, a disembodied narrator telling us what's going on- omniscient POV). If you are going to get into Dawen's head, you need to crawl ALL the way in, and stay there for the whole scene.

Next scene- should it be 'Taker since it is a shortened nickname? Might be less confusing, not seen as an additional character...

Did the subplots flow? In other words, was it believable that the Undertaker was not around because his son was involved in guerrilla warfare and they got busted?

Didn't think twice about that particular issue... subplots seemed to flow fine.

On characters... do you ”like” Dawen? Fossick? Are they personable? If you had to describe Taker, what words would you use? The reason I ask is that I'm trying to measure how much characterization this needs.

Dawen seems fine...

Fossick's impression was "rebel brother, hothead"... Only I've just realized- Pontis is the brother, and not the Red Guard... So, Fossick must be Jenna's boyfriend? Rereading, friend of Father. I guess I'm meshing Pontis and Fossick into one character- or making Fossick another older brother. Confuzzled... I know they're separate, but still... I didn't really place Jenna (didn't register), but now I'm wondering- sister? servant? Fossick's girlfriend? Too much doubt... Maybe plant a big 'ole wet one on her when he comes in... I'm not seeing, if she's just a servant, a polite cheek-kiss from Fossick... unless he does the same to Mom, and Dawen (customary). Jenna disappears after this scene- not even a mention when Dawen is told her parents have been taken and Pontis must be with the Rats. Either give her a fate (safe at Fossick's house- not at Dawen's house when they were taken, girlfriend would have reason to be there; taken as well; killed; danced-to-death; something) Or have Mom greet him and ditch the extraneous character (easiest, and probably best- she serves no purpose to the story). Or, make her younger, and she's the one in the closing scene, forced to work at that place (become a strumplet, since the family is captured), and she's the one who tastes the soup and dies... further connecting the strumplet issue personally with Dawen, and more horrible when she dies... "Dawen? Is that you?" "Jenna! What're you doing here?" Ramp it up, intertwine, put Jenna to good use...

Second scene you mess with perception (please don't mess with perception) You establish Fossick as a Red Guard, opening within his POV (smelling the food). Later, you switch into Dawen's head, then say:

“Your father tells me you got quite a shock today”, the Red Guard said, changing the subject. Jenna hovered over the table, scooping steaming vegetables onto each plate.

I'm not certain WHO'S POV we are in now... we were just in Dawen's. You imply we're back in Fossick's POV, "changing the subject", but that could also be perceived- or blatantly obvious, and then you don't have to say that phrase... then you mention Jenna, so maybe we're in HER POV? Is it Fossick watching her scoop, or Dawen?

“Mother’s curse,” Dawen laughed, looking up. “You never should have married an undertaker, Mom.” Her mother smiled, embarrassed. “I only touched the girl for a moment. I saw uniforms and torches, not much else. It was too…” She swallowed hard, then continued: “You know, when someone dies of old age, it’s the most peaceful feeling. But this…”

Okay, we weren't in Dawen's POV, because for some reason she was looking down... but she was JUST looking at her brother's FACE... ??? When/why did she look down? How could she see the scooping? Maybe "Dawen stared at her plate as Jenna scooped..."? (or Mom scooped)

I'd suggest adding a thought about the cauliflower resembling the girl's skin (or some other veggie comparison), building that it has really affected her- can't shake it- inner conflict. I'd also suggest characterizing the laugh- it is bittersweet, nervous- meant to shake off the image forming in her mind- defensive action, warding off the awful memory. I'm not sensing she would be outright laughing about it, find it funny... maybe after her line about marrying an undertaker, though- that would be a better place to laugh. I'm picturing her somber when stating, "Mother's curse." That would be motivation to look at Mom, maybe Mom looks apologetic (guilty for cursing daughter), and her face flushes -another POV semi-fault- Mother smiling, but somehow we know she's embarrassed- implies picking it from her head, what she's feeling. Flushing, reddened cheeks, etc.- is showing, not telling, and can fit any POV... should be Dawen's here. and after Dawen says her funny undertaker line, Mom's expression can lighten, laugh along.

“Now that’s funny,” she laughed, glad for the interruption. “Imagine a squeamish undertaker.” Mother smiled broadly at that one and joined her family at the table.

I'm wondering, is that Mom's paragraph, or Dawen's? Honestly, could be either. Maybe Mom could be talking here, since the last line is hovering closest to her POV anyway. Tells the reader that Mom is okay(recovered from the guilt/ sympathy pang), and also glad for the interruption (further breaking the tension)- because her daughter was hurting, and she full well knows what that touch is like... Mother can jab Husband, but wink/ smile at Dawen (reassurance to Dawen). These are character motivations(not all meant to include in the writing)- ideas for you to be able to clearly write it from a single and certain POV, and show the subtle subtext/ emotions.

Taker ('Taker?) was... Dad to Dawen, that's about it- certainly compassionate toward Dawen.

Honestly, did you think of the fact that none of the strumplets had names in the story? They are called ”nameless” early, and that is carried through purposely...

Well, it was fine, but I'd name one in the end as suggested- Jenna. Added level of symbolism- NONE of them were really nameless, and the identity was returned at the end (justice, vindication- not the word I'm trying to shake out of my head, but it refuses to come out!). Dawen and Jenna have given them a name... Of course, that spoils the contrast of the girl she tried to save to the ending condition- but you get the same contrast, and I think some added levels, by using Jenna... all the more stunning, realizing who this pitiful creature is...

Did the scene switches work?

Well, yes, except for the annoying POV switches. ONE per scene, maximum... and best if one for the entire story, really- you mostly keep to Dawen anyway.

Was the rape scene too much? Too little? This is my first such scene and I wanted it to be relevant but not a distraction. I also wanted it to bother Fossick and Pontis more than it bothered Dawen...she's a tough chick, but not a man with the wrong accoutrements.

Ths isn't the improved version with buttons- probably will help, but it reads fine as it is, now that I've got the entire context (I don't think I commented in the forum, just read). Fossick is familiar to her, not a strange man, so I feel better about that distinction. Also, I think it was discussed in the forum- Dawen would block it out; numb, etc.- and the men would fuss and fume and go nuts (protective).

Okay, one LAST bout of POV-related comments...

“Eat something first,” Fossick answered, tearing a chunk from a loaf of bread near the pitcher. She was hungry, too, now that her thirst was quenched. He handed it to her, trading the food for her cup, and sat back down. When she had eaten it, he gave the cup back to her. She noticed the bandages on her arm sticking out from under the loose sleeve of the shirt. It was Fossick’s shirt. She could see that he was wearing an identical one. It was the first time she had seen him without armor. It made him look small in the candlelight.

I think there should be a paragraph break after the first sentence- we switch from his dialogue to her perceptions- "Bread! God, I'm hungry, now that my throat isn't dry."

Style suggestion- shorten "It was Fossick's shirt." to "Fossick's shirt." You remove the passive, and although you are creating a fragment, it is a much stronger statement- good place to break (bend) a rule. Depending on how strong you want, it could be a separate paragraph (ton of bricks strong)- and follow with the paragraph exploring her thoughts concerning Fossick (seeing him with new eyes after this incident- defining moment). One note- this is repetitive, because she surmises it is Fossick's shirt in a paragraph above it- suggest she doesn't make that connection until here...

Another thought- she is wearing his shirt (some great thoughts there, by the way)- maybe with the revision, she can notice it has all the buttons? Symbolic again... I'll leave it to you how you want to work that in- forcing her to withdraw (reminder), sense of healing (I've got a new set of buttons), comfort (Fossick would never take my buttons, or how shiny and complete they are, etc.) You almost seem to be intimating a relationship might blossom here... unsure if that is intentional- depends on if making him small means she's seeing him as an equal, or just human- as in, not just a big uniform. Not sure how young she is supposed to be- Fossick is older than her older brother, who doesn't seem too mature... So I never actually thought it would turn into a relationship, but noting it for you to ponder- I did think it, even though it was dismissed. could be her first crush (one-sided), or showing that she isn't damaged for life (strong, hasn't been scarred to the point of never trusting a man)

“Your parents have been arrested,” he said. “I don’t know where Pontis is; he’s probably hiding with his Rats. I haven’t seen him since before I found you. The garrison raided your parents’ house, and I thought you had been taken as well, until...” He looked down at the legs which hung over the side of the bed. The shirt reached her thighs. Bandages covered cuts, but welts reddened the areas between them. “Soldiers?” he asked.

I'm pretty sure you are back in Fossick's POV here... you need to show him look at her legs (or stare, visibly wince, whatever- then (new paragraph), Dawen can absorb what he's looking at ("God, look at my legs!")- try to cover them up (defensive, shame, etc.), wonder what he is thinking, get a glimpse of the rape, hearing the whip of the belt, feeling the sting (ghost pain), and then, new paragraph, he asks, "Soldiers?"- BUT, who else would it have been? But we all ask stupid questions occasionally, and maybe he was trying to confirm?

So, overall, I'm impressed... Your story has sucked me into doing a whole crit in the end anyway, dammit! At least, my screwy approach to critting- more on style and substance, less on spelling and other trivial issues. I hope my comments help, not wound... I tend to dwell on the negatives (notes for improvement, not to make you feel crappy, inadequate, etc.- you are far from that) If anything is confusing, feel free to ask away.

Even if I'm not that thrilled about your politics. A Republican in a Libertarian suit, perhaps? Ah, but this crit is all about the writing, as it should be.

David

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