1. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    WF Short Story Club Selection for September

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by thirdwind, Sep 3, 2011.

    This month we'll be reading and discussing Most of Them Would Follow Wandering Fires by Amber Sparks. It can be found here.
     
  2. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    I like the language (trying to be positive), but overall I felt it was trying way too hard to be clever. In the end, when you strip away all the formatting and language that sounds like it's really saying a lot, at the core level what was left for me was pretty mediocre and mundane.

    I've read enough bad fantasy and played enough bad fantasy games that the general premise didn't seem fresh, though I can see how a more 'literary' crowd may think much of this setup quite novel. To me, at best, it felt like parody, but that was a stretch undermined by the fact it seemed to take itself so very seriously.

    The novelty of counting backwards wasn't really novel to me. And I bet I could read it from end to start, too! Woohoo, yippie, a writer was clever! But, unfortunately, I didn't find anything compelling enough that I'd bother reading it again, much less to prove the gimmick that's working is actually working.

    At the same time, I won't say to cut all the cutesty look-at-me-I'm-being-clever stuff, because it's too easy to simply blame that for what isn't working with a story. The truth is, I've seen plenty of other stories do things like this and work masterfully.

    For instance, in Kevin Wilson's collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth there's a story called "The Dead Sister Handbook: a Guide for Sensitive Boys" that is as it sounds, an odd collection of handbook entries, sometimes referencing other entries, sometimes referencing entries that don't seem to exist as some pages are missing entirely. It's completely odd, non-standard, but it works. It still manages to create understanding and empathy for a character (that doesn't even tangibly exist in the 'story'!). It still manages to tell a story. It still manages to be relevant and oddly in-the-moment and authentic and everything I want a story to be, despite the completely absurd formatting and premise.

    "Most of Them Would Follow Wandering Fires" didn't work for me, though. The seams of Frankenstein were just too visible. I 'got' the gimmick immediately, and by reading the second part I already figured it was telling the typical heroes quest, but backwards (woopy). It also didn't connect me at all to the human experience, and instead almost seemed more content talking about the typical Heroes Journey archetypes/cycle than just telling a story. Again, like it was trying to be really smart and clever, but if you have to subtly nod to yourself, then you suddenly don't seem either.

    I dunno, this is just all my first-reading response, and I'll read it again (if discussion occurs, if not, I probably won't). My first impression was that this reminded me a whole lot like undergrad manuscripts of which I've seen dozens similar to this, trying to be really smart, trying to be clever (not realizing it's a formatting gimmick that 9/10 other undergrads also thought was clever before ditching). Trying to do a lot of things instead of just doing them. And at no point was I at all connected to a story through any shred of human experience. It felt more like a really poetic and fancy way to discuss the presentation of a story instead of just having a story presented.

    And it may just be that I'm too much an insider, perhaps, that I've read too much and seemed too aware of what the story was trying to do. Perhaps average readers will simply find the story charming and enthralling. I admit it's hard for me to simply put on my reader-cap in place of my hyper-analytical writer cap, but at the same time I'm currently reading a freakin' Dragon Lance novel and able to just enjoy it for cheap thrills, so it's not like I'm unable to turn that side of my brain off completely. I think one distinction is even the bad Dragon Lance novel I'm reading is what it is, and doesn't try to be anything else, whereas this story felt like it was trying (and hard) to be something the entire time, and again, instead of just being it, the constant trying made me skeptical and it started unraveling at the seams at that point.

    So, the writer obviously has a lot of talent with language, but as a story it just didn't work for me and was way to self-consciously seeming to seek attention or something, like I could feel the writers chest puffing up the whole time and hear the writer whispering 'I wrote those words' over my shoulder, and little room was left for the character and story to simply exist as if genuine and real.
     
  3. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I didn't really like this either, for some of the same reasons, but I find it interesting that you keep returning to the idea of the story as the main failing point. For me, short fiction (I'm loath to call them all 'short stories' for this very reason) isn't necessarily the best form to develop narrative; it certainly can be done, but I think here more than in novels and longer fiction, there is scope for a less narrative-focused approach. That said, I don't think this really succeeds in that aspect either.

    As a more abstract piece, it had moments of near-greatness; sentences and fragments that were, to me, quite resonant, but as popsicledeath said, these weren't really connected to anything within the work and therefore didn't function in a narrative way, which seemed to be at odds with the insistent focus on the idea of the 'hero story'.

    To be honest I don't get the counting backwards thing at all; it seems to have been written fairly recently, so I can't imagine that the author thought she was being clever, which just leaves me confused as to why she'd use such a contrived, pointless device. The mix of 'fantasy' and contemporary/literary elements in a pretty unusual way provided a few interesting images, but ultimately I don't think it was enough to sustain the piece.

    So yeah, I agree that most of it was pretty disappointing, but where we may diverge is here:
    I don't feel like trying to do more than merely tell a story is necessarily a negative thing, but it needs to be done well (and I'm sure you can think of examples you've read where it has been), and it wasn't here.
     
  4. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Double post. Dumb.
     
  5. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    I agree, sort of. Short fiction (and I've been playing around with micro fiction a lot lately) doesn't always have to have a traditional plot-based narrative, but the more I study short fiction (micro fiction in particular) the more I realize there always has to be a story.

    Or maybe more accurately not a story, but story. A story can be interpreted as the series of plot points. Basically, what happens. Where maybe I should have been more clear that by having 'a story' I mean having 'story,' meaning having it all add up to something vaguely in the ball park of 'this is what the actions, events, motivations and perceptions of the character all add up to.'

    So to me, while I also agree with you that by either of our definitions it didn't really add up, it also didn't add up to my slightly deeper definition of having a story. It had some vague plot points, but those seemed to matter more to the writer and the presentation of language/style. And it had a few moments where I thought something deeper was at work, but they didn't really add up to anything either.

    In the end, I was left wondering what the point was. What's the story. What does it all mean. Do I care, and why should I, etc. And the answers were always no. I wasn't connected to the character, wasn't clear on plot points, wasn't clear on the purpose of those plot points, or how they mattered to the character, or how they should matter to me. To me, there wasn't a really coherent narrative, wasn't a story, and wasn't story, either.

    And I don't value narrative, plot-points very much. I love poetry and abstract stuff, but in studying I've found when they work, they still always have story, even if they aren't overtly telling one.

    Yeah. At times it felt like it was trying to have a point and connect to something deeper and greater... but in the end (after honestly trying to make connections) I could barely contrive any connections, much less find them solidly in the piece.

    It really did have language-based moments of brilliance, though. Which made me feel like a condescending jerkhole, because by the end I couldn't help think, man, some day this writer will put their talents to better use and really create something amazing.... and meanwhile, of course, it's a story published in a journal that's pretty awesome and I'm a jerk, I guess, because what have I done (nothing, btw, lol).

    I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing either to try to do more than just present a narrative. Hell, I do it all the time (and usually fail, and am thankfully not told 'you can't do that' but rather keep trying until it's not failing). I think the main sin for me here is that all the 'extra' stuff to just telling the story isn't working. I don't see how counting down (though interesting relevant to the recent thread about parts or chapters in short fiction, heh) does anything to help the story.

    Had it just been written out chronologically and without numbered parts, would I have ever thought, nah, this needs to be presented backward and with roman numerals? Nope. Had it just been more straightforward, still retaining style, but not nearly as vague or randomly slipping into second person, would I have thought, nah, this story needs different segments in a variety of different POV's, sometimes that seem completely, randomly vague. No, I wouldn't have ever thought it needed a section in second person, or a section that seemed little more than a DnD Manual summary of Wizards, etc.

    Great stories, even of abstract natures, to me feel perfect, like it had to be that way and the story couldn't have been created any other way without losing too much. This story felt like it was forced into being this way, and too much was lost in it being molded to this form.

    Though, I'm also not very set in my ways, so would love to hear what others thing. I recently re-read the story We Didn't by Stuart Dybek. The first time I read it I literally thought it was perhaps the worst story I'd ever read in a highly regarded anthology (Scribner's). Then, after re-reading it, I realized my real problem was it was two different stories in one, and while one of the stories wasn't great, the other story that was being told was one of the best.

    How we learn is to consider, then re-consider, so hopefully there are things for me to re-consider.
     
  6. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Difficult not to agree that some of it is delightfully written. The standing the conventional story on its head might be thought to elevate the everyday to a level of (climactic) heroism...that true heroism is enduring endless drudge not the quest etc etc . Quite how the numbering works in this regard is difficult to say, since it seems to undermine the point.

    Certainly, a theme of that sort is worth exploring but there is too much going on here. As has already been said, it is patchy and diffuse and lacks coherence.

    Much of the last section is very well done though and lifts the whole piece.
     
  7. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    I haven't read any of the other posts here yet, but I will, just want to throw out first impressions first before joining in the discussion. Hope that's okay.

    Counting backwards - was this supposed to be innovative? I don't think it was. Seemed irritating to me, as it was quite obvious (almost immediately) that she was going backwards so why feel the need to explain it to us vs. trusting us to be intelligent enough to put two and two together and actually get four?

    The story kind of saddens me, to be completely honest, as it had the potential to really go somewhere, to be truly beautiful, and yet I feel it was ruined by the author's apparent need to attempt to seem brilliant. A simpler story could have resonated much more clearly, and the use of cutesy devices has, in my opinion, ruined it.

    I felt absolutely no connection to the story, or the character, at all. The story ended up distracting me from everything it should have been making me feel and see. There were a couple of good sentences in it, that made me think 'yes, she'll pull it together now!', but I was quickly disabused of that notion. I had to actually force myself to keep reading and was relieved at the end - because I was done.

    Overall, it was a disappoinment to me, I'm sorry to say. I hate to be so blunt, but I really couldn't find much to like here. The ending, while pleasant enough, just wasn't enough to make up for the rest.

    EDIT: Okay, I've read the comments. As far as the story failing, for me, there was just so much useless filler. So many things that really had no point, or at least didn't seem to. They didn't move it forward (or backward, heh), things that didn't tell me anything I really needed or even wanted to know, and didn't even make me care about anything. I'm all for rambling, but I prefer it to be done well and to actually have some kind of point. And maybe the story didn't fail, perhaps she just failed the story, because I truly do feel there was one here and it just wasn't presented well.

    And maybe that makes me a jerk too, because I haven't done anything either, but irregardless of what brilliant publication it's in, this just didn't hit for me. Anywhere really. Not heart, head, stomach... didn't even make my little toe hurt.


    And I agree with you, Art, that heroism is, possibly, enduring endless drudge and that's a great point. But even that's not especially new, not overly brilliant. And do I think she made it clear if that was her point? Not especially, though I do believe that's where she was going. He could be the hero, suffering, providing, etc. OR read it backwards and he could be the hero, suffering, alone. Is that the real point? We all suffer? That life is compromise and choices and sometimes it really sucks. That we're terrified of turning into our parents, of standing still, of being stagnant. So terrified that it would be easier to bleed real blood, risk our whole (as opposed to half? hrm.) souls, than to risk our hearts?

    Or is it that sometimes love (or lust and big blue eyes, apparently) is enough to make you chance it, to keep you, tie you down. To make you become the things you said you never would? Or maybe that you just get lost in it and then realize, when it's too late to saddle up your... car, that you would rather have been running, bleeding for real, then to have this lonely existence with the burden of company?

    Or maybe it's that we all dream, while we sit at home with our significant others, about how our lives could have been different if only we'd been braver, if only we'd been smarter, if only we'd been able to see the future and taken that left turn, to the trees, instead of the right turn to the town. That we could have been amazing, brilliant, fierce. If only.

    I don't really know what she was trying to say, in the end, because it just wasn't clear. And to be honest I'm probably (almost definitely) stretching it into a realm that she hadn't even considered. Yet, if I were to judge her by her writing she would probably smile and nod, say 'yes, yes, that's exactly it. I'm so deep'. And I know nothing about her, and perhaps that's out of line, but all I have to judge her on is her writing and I'm not going to google her to make sure she's not the most brilliant thing since an egg slicer. Because if I didn't get it, I didn't get it. And if she left it murky, she left it murky.

    (and, I suppose you could say 'She made you think, so she did a great job', but really, this is just how my brain works and I do this with everything, so not really.)
     
  8. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Yeah, there's always the post-modern philosophy of writing not needing a point, that the point is made by the reader making it. Sure, great, but even most post-modern writers would agree that outlook was always a bit idealistic. The fanciful hope is that the each reader makes the story relevant by creating their own meanings, but the realistic truth is that each writer was still deliberately crafting prose that would lend itself to meaning being created out of it.

    For instance, I had the pleasure of attending a class where the poet Martin Corless-Smith came in and talked to us (and I'm sure nobody has heard of him despite being incredibly renown and successful, but that's just the nature of the biz). He's very post-modern despite hinting this is perhaps unfortunate. He concedes there's a balance, that it's not just a writer jots things down without a purpose and hopes a reader makes something profound out of it. That readers will read a poem and come up with 9 different readings of it, and he'll excitedly say yes, yes, yes, to each one, and then the 10th reader will claim it's simply something it's not, and he'll [secretly] be thinking how they're just an idiot for thinking what they got out of the poem was ever actually in it to be had.

    So, and I think I have a point, there is some merit in a piece of writing being a two-way process. The reader making meaning and the writer ensuring meaning can be made. The risk is being too direct in one's meaning, as that's usually flat and boring and can often feel as if the writer is trying to push one single agenda.

    There's also the risk in being too abstract to the point of being vague, which for me this story was. I didn't have much trust the writer was attempting to control or craft meaning, or even the potential for meaning, and instead too much of the story felt too random. And I don't mind if I read a story and am not sure precisely what I'm expected to think (in fact I hate that), but I do mind when I read a story and I don't know where to even begin thinking about it, when there aren't even any clues pushing me in a direction.

    And abstract stories aren't bad. There's the ever fine line between abstract and vague, between non-linear and random, etc. I've written stories where people said "I have no clue what I'm supposed to think about this, but felt this, considered that, wondered this, concluded that" and I realized my work was done well, even if they didn't know they were getting it.

    So perhaps there's something to get here in this story and I just don't know I got it? Perhaps the point really is that the message is all what the reader makes of it, and it's very post-modern in the sense that if I make nothing of it, then I still made something, so the piece was a success? Or maybe the point was just that it has interesting language, will be novel in subject matter to many, and may perhaps mean things to readers (who are perhaps not necessarily over-analyzing writers).

    On my second read, I plan to look for ways it worked, reasons justifying it's publication, areas where it's working well. It's easy to notice the negatives, but I've found much harder to process the good and figure how and why a piece did work. No piece gets published without someone somewhere thinking something was done right and done well.

    I find it's just as valuable as learning how to spot negatives in fiction as it is learning to spot the positives. And learning how to spot the positives and duplicating them (as with spotting and avoiding the negatives), gets much less attention and perhaps is far more important, right? And that's not a rhetorical question, I'm seriously asking it, as I'm not sure, just suspect it. The culture of writing is such that so many workshops and classes and writing groups and self-help books teach us how to spot the problems, but rarely how to spot, learn from and replicate the good, but I think that only trains people to write fiction that isn't bad, which doesn't necessarily mean it's good either. :p



    Correction: Perhaps it's important looking at how and why this story does work, considering it was in a respect publication AND apparently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

    Oh, and also, out of general respect, in general, we should try to engage the story, not the author. The author of course wrote the story, but I find it's a bit more palatable (particularly if someone knows the author) to almost treat the story like it wrote itself instead of trying to guess the motives and thought processes of the writer, especially since all we have to go on is the story itself, and what the story is telling us and what the story is trying to mean, etc. And not directed at anyone, I just noticed several times I deleted things where I was starting to question what the author was trying to accomplish, and rewording to what the story was trying to accomplish (as if the story has autonomy and wrote itself, which perhaps it did, and the author's name is just the stories pseudonym anyway).
     
  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I'm inclined to agree with what most of you have said. I have no problems with the writing itself. In fact, portions of it are really good. I feel like combining some of those lines could have made a pretty good poem.

    The narrative, however, didn't seem up to par with the writing. But that was just the impression I got on my first read. I'm going to read it again and see if I missed anything important. Obviously there was something the editor really liked about the story, so I'm hoping I can find a few reasons to like it myself.
     
  10. Eunoia
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    Eunoia Contributing Member Contributor

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    I found the story engaging. The way it was written, I don't know, I found it poetic which made me want to read on. I quite liked the way it was separated into different parts with the numbers (which I didn't really pay attention to) because of the structure of them and they were almost little stories in themselves.

    As for the story/narrative itself, I can't really remember any of it (due to my poor memory, not necessarily the story :p) so I'll have to reread it and comment on it later.
     
  11. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I recently reread it, and this time around I found that I didn't like it as much. I'm not sure what point the author was trying to make by having the story go backwards in time. In fact, I think this story may have worked better going forward in time.

    As I mentioned before, the writing itself is good, but it seems to lack purpose or direction. One of the things I look for in a short story is strong characterization, which I think this story lacked. This story sort of reminds me of a bunch of short vignettes strung together in an attempt to create a short story. Overall I appreciate the author's effort and writing, but the story didn't really have that much of an effect on me. Perhaps I'll look into some of her other stories and see how they compare to this one.
     

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