NanoWrimo Review: Small town Secrets, the demise of Sara
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As I have decided to be more involved in the Hive ecosystem, I am looking for all sorts of things to write about. I missed reading and stumbled upon the #HiveNano22 challenge. I have always dreamed about writing fiction in my youth. Eventually, I realized I was too much of a slacker to write a novel. I also tend to not stay on course on a long-term project. Instead of not finishing my book like usual in November, my short-term attention span would be better used in reviewing the work of capable writers on Hive.
I intend to review multiple entries as I am sure every author would love feedback on their writing. Then, I will pick what I think is my best entry for the NanoWrimo Review Contest. It's been a while since I read fictions and stories. I really like this contest and figure I should review more than one anyway.
For a relatively short piece at 1,844 words by PeakD's count, I am more than amazed by the writing of grindan -- so much so that I immediately did a background check on her to find out she's been writing for a while and even set up a commission on Hive just recently. Color me no surprise that she was a veteran writer who was capable of many things, as I could see it in her words, all 1,844 of them. However, nothing is perfect, and I do have some problems with the story structure. Oh, the structure was perfectly fine, but I think it is lacking in something. Before I go with all the goods of this story, let's start with --
The Bad: Nancy Is Too Good
If this were a fantasy story and Nancy were an elf rogue, I would have no major nitpick with this story at all. However, as this was presented as a story that happened in real life, I expected more realism to it, especially given the gloomy vibe I am getting from the writing itself. As such, I find Nancy getting away with no consequences at all to be too unrealistic. It takes away from the story for me, but that could just be my personal opinion.
In a fantasy setting, I would have no problem with Nancy at all. I could totally see an elf rogue being good at the few things she did in this story. As a typical engineer that had to become an exotic dancer to pay for her tuition fee (so she's not rich and is unlikely to be trained in many skills), I cannot get myself to buy that she can track two sheriffs flawlessly and then escape her crime with ease afterward.
She was given no obstacle or challenge to achieve what she accomplished. She just happened to be there to hear the secret. The sheriffs didn't spot him. She set everything on fire. She escaped the scene and had a long walk home -- no car to escape or anything, just take a walk home like a badass.
I understand that not everything has to be 100% logical in a fictional story. Sometimes you just have to make ease with logic to create a better story. For this one though, there are simply too many questions that tickle the logical side of my brain:
- She only get her old wagon out from her garage after eavesdropping the meeting. How was she able to trace and follow the sheriffs to the meeting place? I believe these sheriffs have rides, and I don't expect someone can trail them just by walking.
- How is she this good with stealth and eavesdropping? Logically, no one would be talking about secrets without being aware of their surrounding. This line was even in the story itself: It was vital that no one ever saw the two of them together. And yet, they didn't seem to be very careful about not getting tracked. This too: Nancy watches from a distance. These men must be talking about their secrets very loud for her to hear them perfectly. Sheriffs are well-trained officials, and I expect them to have a much stronger awareness of their surroundings. Even a paragraph about Nancy trailing the drunk sheriff would be sufficient for me, like at least I can believe the sheriff could be tracked easily.
This is arguably the only major flaw I have with this story. It's just one thing, but it's big enough that it affects my liking of the story. I think story structure is a vital part of a fictional story. The writing can strengthen a simple story, but the story itself is what makes a fiction great.
What I Would Do
Firstly, I want to point out that I respect whatever decision and direction the writers want to go with their creations. I am just saying what I would personally do.
Make Nancy Less Perfect -- Have The Sheriffs Spot Her
I totally understand that we need to keep this story short, so I wouldn't expect a lot of explanation on how Nancy does this and that. Instead, I would just have the sheriffs spot her. This immediately gives her some vulnerability, that she isn't good at everything, and it adds tension to the story.
There are two ways to do it. Firstly, we can do it in third person view. We read about the sheriffs getting panicked by the sudden sound and trying to look for whatever is making it. Or we can do it from Nancy's POV with some writing of her internal feeling at that moment. She was certainly angry, upset, and perhaps also stressed. Yet, she had to keep calm and not make any sound to survive. Like, she had to hold her mouth to quietly sob and etc. and hope that the sheriffs didn't spot her.
This is an old trope but very useful in this situation. Maybe the sheriffs eventually found something, but it was just an animal - a deer, a rabbit, whatever the writers wanted - that ran away from the nearby bush. The sheriffs thought they were just overly sensitive after they did something terrible and they let it go. Even better, the animal could be like the help from Sara's spirit, who is indeed there by Nancy's side at that point in the original story.
Side topic: this spirit is also a thing that gives me a fantasy vibe. Hence I initially suggested that this story would make perfect sense if it were a fantasy piece.
This saving grace from the spirit also further showed that Nancy isn't that good. She was just saved by Sara's spirit. In my opinion, this makes the character more grounded and realistic.
A Gritty Ending
Another thing I would consider doing is to give the story a bitter ending. I mean, Sara did just pull off some pyromaniac act without a lot of planning. She just did it impulsively and with some help from a mythical spirit. I totally expected her to be caught and put in jail for her crime.
Or even worst, to be shot dead right then, right there by the sheriffs -- with the same shotgun that put Sara away. For a small town like this, sometimes there's simply no justice. The sheriffs could probably go away with a lot of things as long as they are smart with it. It's kind of like that in Hot Fuzz (2007), in which the words "small town" reminded me of.
[SPOILER ALERT] In that movie, the crime-free small town was actually run by a secret council made up of some of the long-term citizens. They would kill and hide anyone deemed troublesome, then sweep them off as accidents.[END SPOILER ALERT]
This ending not only had "small town" all over it, but it's also partially realistic. Sometimes, the bad guys simply go unpunished in real life -- and that's just life. We got cold cases on all sorts of crimes all over the world.
Also, this further amplifies this line:
Finally pulling herself away from the last favor she could ever do for her friend,
With how good Nancy is in the story itself, I totally don't believe this would be the last favor she could do for her friend. I could easily see her finding a way to get an alibi from the sheriff and put the man in jail. Or even pull out some tropes from female revenge movies and get the job done herself. This was how great Nancy felt for me in the story, like she could do no wrong, and it made the ending less aligned with my own imagination.
Those are the two suggestions I would personally make with the story. I can totally understand if the writer doesn't want the story to be this heavy and down on the ending. I am just more of a "gloomy to the end" kind of guy myself.
Small Nitpick: A Bit Hard to Follow
I don't see this as a flaw, but I do find the story a bit hard to follow as a non-native speaker. I have no idea how to fix it or how to pinpoint the issue clearly. It's just that I sometimes have to re-read a paragraph twice or even go back once in a while to get the complete picture of the story. This is not something I feel when I read most of the published fiction out there. I think they just know how to write the story in a way that it can be read with ease by anyone with basic English, and it's a skill of its own. I will probably need to read more of grindan's work to know if this is just a one-off instance or something that just comes with her style. I am just pointing out to cover all the points.
The Good: Atmospheric Writing
Now that we are done with all the bads, let's talk about all the goods. First off, I am amazed at how easily I can picture the whole world through grindan's words. I am not talking about just the scenes only, but she is capable of painting the whole world with relative ease. I can already imagine the entire town and set myself in a specific mood of the story just a few paragraphs in.
This is much harder to do with words than through any other media. In video games or TV shows, we can easily see the whole world with our eyes. With music, we can easily imagine a lot of things, whether it's from the lyrics or the likes of ambient music. With words though, simple writing can only tell us what was written; in grindan's case, she could just write about a forest, and my mind would already be painting the town nearby, the sky's colors, and perhaps the people too.
I am also amazed at how little words she needed to use to do so. For instance,
Sherriff Macabee didn't like city folk. They came out in droves every summer to cause trouble, leaving their garbage all over the woods. This one though, she could stay here as long as she likes he thought, eyeing the pair of legs that walked into the general store.
Less than 50 words and she already told us a lot of things about her world. I wish I had this going for me, so I don't have to write this long of a review just to get my point across. 😂 By this point, I had already surpassed her word count, and this is just a review for God's sake.
The Good: Beginning That Reel the Readers In
This is arguably more important than ever nowadays due to people's decreased attention span. It used to be more of a TV show rule, where they need people to not change the channel in 5 seconds. I agree that people tend to be more patient when reading than watching something, but it never hurts to start strong.
This short story certainly has a strong start, making me want to stick with it and find out what happened. We only find out about the reason as to why Kyle shot Sara in the latter part of the story, which is smart pacing to keep us there until the part where we won't give up on reading it all.
The Neutral: I Am Not Sure if I Hate Kyle
With how the ending is written, and Nancy is painted as the ultimate good girl, I think I am supposed to hate Kyle for being the bad guy who shot his wife dead. Yet, reading all the background detail about him and Sara somehow leaves me unhinged on which side I should be on when it comes to Kyle. Is he a bad guy but not truly bad? I like this take because it's the more realistic take that nailed my preference. Just like in real life, the vast majority of people aren't all bad. But then, this dude did just shoot his wife dead. It was also strongly implied that he never loved her. Yet, there's also this part:
The horse loved her far more than he ever had, he thought regretfully. He just never did have it in him to do right by her. For ten years he carried the weight of the woman around his waist, everywhere he went. A burden that never asked to be picked up.
It was Kyle, who had approached her daddy. Promising to take care of his little girl in his request for her hand, he might've even meant it. Who's to say now. He'd at least kept her fed and warm, right until the moment he put her in the ground, to shovel dirt over her blonde curls.
He had been drunk since he lay his wife to rest four days ago. Slugging shots as soon as he got home, to ease the pain he felt as he scrubbed her blood from his hands. He had never loved Sara, but that didn't mean he didn't care for her. She had been by his side in every way that she could be, without any encouragement or appreciation from him for doing so.
Like goshdarn it Kyle, how about you just be even more of a dirtbag so I could just outright hate you? He's still a bad guy but not a heartless, cold-blooded murderer. I could probably hate him more easily without all the background details. I really like the background portion of this story, but it does make me having a hard time with this.
Overall, I think this is a well-written story and the writing itself is the strongest part of it. The dreary vibe is consistent throughout the whole story. I like how grindan writes out the little details like the Coca-Cola and everything. What it lacks is a more satisfying story structure and perhaps a little bit of trouble for the protagonist.
I give it a strong 8/10. A great first piece to start my Hive reading journey.