The 1500 Words Short Story Challenge — Critiques

This post is about the three writers (Perry, Gary, and me) providing critiques both for the stories of the other writers and their own submission.

If you haven’t read the stories, this won’t make much sense and since we only had ten votes, there are mighty few who will find this post of interest (if any).

I’ll start by saying none of us are professionals. Gary has a literary degree but what he provided is more along the line of notes than critique. Perry is still swimming in the pool of his glory, and I hold little expertise other than knowing what I like.

There’s another elephant in the room . . . we aren’t the readers who voted on the stories. We don’t know why they liked one story over the other. That’s who we should be asking, but even then, people reach opinions at a subconscious level and when asked, they retrofit reasons to justify their decisions.

Instead, you’ll get us, writers, saying why we like our story over the others. Oh, yeah, and throw something out about each other’s stories.

We’re perhaps the least qualified to offer suggestions because we all have a horse in the race and because we have very different styles of writing. Typically, writers solicit feedback from horseless writers. That way, the feedback we get is a bit less biased.

Ideally, I would prefer the input of strangers who aren’t writers and aren’t tasked with having to think about anything other than reading the story and letting me know if they liked it (that’s it; I don’t need to know why) or didn’t like it (this is where I’d like a bit more insight).

One of the disappointments of my Viable Paradise workshop was the feedback I got. I was looking much more for an assessment of my writing than what I got. Instead, most of the feedback was about details of the stories I wrote. I was somewhat assured my writing is “good” just by the fact I was accepted into the workshop.

All this is a long way to saying there are two aspects to someone liking a story: the story itself and the writing. There’s no magic ratio one can point to because one can easily find great writing of a crappy story and terrible writing of a good story . . . and both can succeed or fail on the whims of the readers.

I can’t speak for the other writers and we’ve agreed on no rebuttals but my criteria for enjoying something I read (or watch, or listen to, etc) is fairly clear-cut; I don’t want to be lied to, I want a complete story (beginning, middle, end), and I want to walk away from it fairly certain I didn’t waste the time I spent reading it. That’s what my critiques will entail; my analysis of both the story and the craft of telling it.

I’ll begin with Perry’s critiques since he holds top honors and — at the very least — that gives him the right to fire the first shots. I haven’t made any modifications to the text as received. If I add anything, I’ll enclose it in brackets {thus}. I’ve corrected a few spelling errors but all else is as written.

Perry’s critiques:

{Needwood?} Okay, Gary, let’s chat about your story. I know I’ve intimated that I’m hostile towards it, but that was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it to be funny, dark, light, and surprisingly insightful. First of all, I get the coyote thing. Coyotes are, according to The Indigenous First Peoples, mischievous tricksters. Something like a Loki character. So that part was cool with me.

Where I had a little problem was with the logic . . . mainly, the stuff at the end. Lemme write it like I read it, and you can tell me where I’m ignorant.

The teacher, Needwood, is teetering on madness (let’s blame it on PTSD). So, of course, he’s put in charge of students that are no longer teetering – they are full-blown Cretans and idiots and morons. I have to question the principal’s judgment on this one. And by the way, this setting sounds more like a mental institution than a public middle school.

So, here’s where it get a little “Inception” for me – you know, a dream within a dream shtick. The Indian chap smokes some dope and allows the kids to see the past – got it. They see what Mr. Needwood sees – a coyote copulating with office equipment. That begs the question, is the coyote a spirit animal, or for realz? Are the kids, with the aid of peyote, sharing Needwood’s delusion?

This is not a deal-breaker. It could be that the dope-smoke allows the kids to view both, reality and Needwood’s alternative reality. I’m good with that.

Here’s where you lose me. Why is Needwood considered so heroic that they name the school for him? He saved exactly no one. And wait – if indeed a few of the Cretans did survive, there is nothing to indicate that they could not have revealed the truth (that Needwood went on a rampage and framed their murdered classmate).

If anything, Needwood was an epic failure. First, he freakin’ brought his own firearm to class. Even in the ’50s that had to be a no-no. Second, he lost control of the weapon (in the legend of his heroism). Right? I mean, he framed the shooting on the jabbering idiot, posthumously. So that means he failed as a soldier and as an educator – in that, he was careless with his firearm.

There’s one more thing that haunts me. What did the Indian gain by relaying this story? Is it service to The Truth? Is it to show the hypocrisy of the White Man? Is it revenge for the Whities building the school on a burial ground? Is it a lesson to the kids about historical revisionism? All of those are plausible – but why not emphasize one? Give the story some moral gravitas.

Overall, I thought the story was a splendid romp into madness, mayhem, and mysticism. The word choices were spot on. The pace was perfect. The dual settings were nicely depicted. The characters popped off the page.

Well done, my good and faithful brother. Keep the copy comin’.

——————-

{Dreams} Emilio, my good man. As much as I try, I cannot find logical inconsistencies in this story (unlike the warlock story, which was fraught with them). I mean, you even went to the trouble to provide two Needwood Middle Schools, so that you could gracefully torch one. Clever.

I liked how you fragmented the story into chunks. However, I think if you’d had more time, you would have feathered one chunk into the next, providing a more gentle transition.

Personally, I love revenge stories. I especially love it when a pederasty pastor gets his comeuppance. Revenge sagas are usually so simple, so straight forward. Yours, however, was more complex, more layered and circuitous . . . ultimately providing the reader with the “Charlies Bronson” payoff. (Think: Death Wish)

My only quibble with the story is that the payoff did not fully pay off. (I know, coming from a guy that wrote a readers’-choice-ending piece just last month.) I would have loved to read how the protagonist (teacher/army guy) cut the pastor’s peter off and stuck it up his poopy-butthole, but, alas, you cheated me of the grisly gratification. I know – you typically avoid pedophile pastor penile amputations like the plague. Such is your right.

I understand that this is subjective. Your story holds up perfectly fine without my input.

Sure, the story could have used a little seasoning. Maybe a bit more bite, bit more spice. There was no humor and the emotions didn’t emote. It read like a procedural. This, this, this, then that. Even at the end, the 8th-grade teacher that is trusted to mentor cherished children, shows no remorse after gutting another human being. And, I might add, committing gratuitous arson. That begs the question: Who the hell is this guy? Why does he get the visitations from the dead kids? Wouldn’t it have been cool if his backstory included killing children in ‘Nam, and hence he was cursed with this “gift” to see dead kids?

Nothing really bolsters the idea that he should be so “good” at killing, or that he should be so sanguine about it. Sure, he had 3 years in the Army, but that only teaches you basic combat techniques – it doesn’t necessarily install a remorseless murderous mentality. We’d have to ask Gary, but I don’t think the standard Army G.I. is taught knife craft.

To eviscerate a fellow human being with a knife takes an especially sociopathic personality . . . not necessarily one that you’d equate to the nurturing qualities of a middle school teacher.

This is just me thinkin’ out loud. I could just as easily argue that it was the teacher’s super-duper-empathy for the kids that allowed him to something so unspeakable.

Wait, I just thought of another little quibble. The Baptist Pastor . . . seems odd (but not outrageous) that a pastor would not exploit the children of his church – the lambs from his own flock. That, instead, he would instead risk abducting children from a local school.

But, now that I’ve written it, I guess the two things could be reconciled by allowing that the kids attended both, the school and the church. Probably nothing here to squawk about . . . just thought I’d prove to you that I read it thoroughly.

As I said in the opening paragraph, your story is hermetically sealed. There are no true gaps or gaffs, no place for me to pry my dirty fingernails under and rip off the lid. It’s sound, it’s sober, and it’s safe . . . but maybe, just maybe, a bit staid.

————————–

{Messes} Lastly, I’ll critique my own POS. What I’ve got that you guys ain’t got, is a pinch of sentimentality. Emilio, given that your story is about a restless gang of ghosts of children, one would think it would reek of sentimentality. But it does not.

Gary, given that your story is about the massacre of society’ most vulnerable one would expect some pathos . . . however, no sentimentality. You almost made it look like the special needs kids deserved a bullet.

Here’s the hooty-hoot. I landed on this soft spot by way of a really shitty joke. When Louis C.K. was working on his comedy comeback last year (you may remember, he was canceled when it was disclosed he jacked-off in front of women) he made a joke about the school shootings in Florida. He said something like: Why do we have to listen to the kids yammer about gun control? Just because they were smart enough to push a fat kid in front of them, they’re suddenly experts?

Well, somebody in the club captured the inchoate joke on their phone and shopped it out to the world. Louis got canceled again and had to disappear.

Point is, I thought this jagged little joke was a hoot. I managed to soften the hard edges and give the characters some charm. I also managed to infuse some humor (i.e. crooked wieners).

So, that’s what I did right. What’s wrong with my story? For one, why does Morley have his father’s last name? Meadowlark never married Morley’s mother . . . as far as we know. And why would Morley work for the same school that lynched his father? That doesn’t pass the smell test.

And why doesn’t this dead kid, James Darling, ever move on? Apparently, the trio have danced this dance a dozen times . . . why doesn’t he write the damned story and move on? And why doesn’t this story takes place in the library, where the “mess” is? And why is Meadowlark connected to kid and his messes?

Also, my characters are cliché’. No way around it. But, I figured I’ve got a 1500-word ceiling, so it’s almost impossible to develop nuances.

As you can see, I’ve had some time on my hands to think about these stories. I’m in the office today, only to discover all my graphic software has expired, so I jumped on the critiques.

Truth is, I like all the stories. I do favor mine . . . as I’m certain you will favor yours. Understandable. Hope no one gets butt-hurt over my analyses. I just like writing about writing and sometimes I overdo it. And that, gentlemen, is my last criticism . . . let it fall on me.

End of Perry’s critiques.

Gary’s critiques were in the form of in-line comments inserted in the stories. While I retain his exact words, I’m forced to give them a bit of context. I’ll eventually train him to give proper write-ups, but for now, this is what we have. My words are in light blue.

Gary’s critiques:

{Messes} Before I critique, I wish to congratulate you on winning this competition. I agree with the masses, ’twas a really good story, worthy of gold. My only gripe is, must be nice to have a job where you can write stories all day long. It’s actually not a gripe, it’s envy.

The first comment relates to the school having a newspaper:
I’m embarrassed to admit that NMS students do not have the initiative required to publish a post-it note, much less a monthly newspaper.

Gary’s next comment relates to Morley using the word “defer”:
I feel this word is out of character, more Perry than Morely.

His next comment is a question followed by an observation:
Tell me, is Morley an Oliver-type twist on Jacob Marley from Christmas Carol? Also, janitors that I see daily are a transient tribe. Here today, gone tomorrow. Tough to swallow a generational situation, but I suppose it’s possible.

The next comment is in recognition to the first hint the boy and janitor have danced this dance before:
Nice foreshadowing, proves you had too much time {to} go back and add it in.

. . . followed by a quick correction/humorous statement regarding the playground:
Sorry, no monkey-bars, only wi-fi hotspots.

Gary next brings up a detail regarding the janitor and his lynched dad:
You make him sound old, but he was still siring young’ns when he got lynched. Is Morley the offspring of that sordid affair? Ahhh, that explains the eyes.

Next, a compliment about the unfolding of the story, specifically, the point that the kids had told his story before:
Nice slow reveal. Sometimes better than a TZ slap in the face.

Next up, a little zinger regarding the recycling of The Sixth Sense movie plot:
Yeah, a little bit M. Night Shamalamma ding dong here.

And another compliment for using an appropriate song:
You sure reached out to Google for this little jewel. Glad you did. “Let it Go” from Frozen wouldn’t have had the same effect.

After a quick “Nice” about a piece of dialogue, a comment acknowledging boy’s poor urinary marksmanship:
No NW creek, but urinal marksmanship is certainly a real problem.

And a social comment about what parents name their kids in reference to the shooter’s name:
What a nasty name, no wonder he went ballistic.

Two more compliments regarding the imagery of a trout on a string and acknowledgment of the effectiveness of the kid’s sacrifice:
Nice imagery.
very moving moment.

Gary ends with a compliment on the mastery of the story:
What can I say; in the words of David Alan Coe after his songwriting partner added lines about Momma, trains, prison, trucks and getting drunk, he said, “My friend had written the perfect country and western song.” This may not be the perfect short story, but it certainly has all the right words in all the right places. Love it.

——————-

{Needwood?} Alright, this is me on me. Not exactly a sexy way to portray this critique; maybe we should just call it ‘truthy’ time, the Colbert catchphrase that we all love. To be honest, I have re-read and actually like this story, a guilty pleasure for sure. It’s not your fault you didn’t “like” it.  It’s probably because I know the characters a bit more intimately than you. I will accept the bronze medal for my efforts, but I will proudly stand on the podium and raise my fist for riot, revolution, and recount. I don’t necessarily see my rendering a big winner, but I hate losing, especially to my afterbirth brother.

Gary explaining the introduction to Kaden:
You may not know, but I am an 8th grade teacher. This kid, Kaden, is real, except for the name. I heard his voice when I wrote this.

An explanation for the lethargic movements of the kids when asked to sit in a semicircle:
kids are so slow to react to anything new.

An explanation for the teacher’s hesitancy in dealing with Chief Winter Song:
established teacher’s uncomfortability with other cultures.

An explanation for the name of the tribe:
Didn’t get enough time to research tribes, but I like the name.

Explanatory comment:
Coyote is the trickster in many Indian cultures.

Explanatory comment about Kaden having a lighter:
A far fetch I know, but not entirely improbable. Let’s suspend unbelief for a few minutes.

Explanatory comment about Eisenhower’s photo on the wall:
shooting for the 1955 era

Explanatory comment about the Arizona setting:
I originally set this in Georgia, but Coyotes don’t naturally inhabit our region.

{Side note: coyotes are well-established in all states but Hawaii, plus Mexico and Canada}

Explanatory comment about a clump of dirt on the coyote:
I wanted to hint that it had dug itself up from a grave

Explanatory comment reinforcing what we’re reading:
Coyote was indeed a trickster in Indian lore

Explanatory comment about the coyote having sex with the pencil sharpener:
This was my graphic, most memorable scene. A plot device to move the story forward and a chance to grab your attention. Sorry if it was too porno-graphic for some. It actually occurred to me when one of my pervy 8th-grade boys, did a hip thrust as he sporadically sharpened a pencil in my real-world classroom. The whole story was basically written around this premise. Forgive me, but also pray this kid grows out of it.

Explanatory comment about Needwood’s behavior:
this was PTSD back when it was called battle fatigue or shell shock

Seemingly superfluous/unnecessary explanatory comment:
I’m sorry I couldn’t elaborate or have been a little more subtle here, my word limit was exhausted and I was way over my 140 characters limit for my twitter

Closing statement:
I know. It was a bit sloppy. A bit loose and unraveling here and there; don’t pull the threads. Probably too much going on for a short, short story. It’s hard to portray two different time-frame settings without confusing the reader. But I must say, without hesitation, that this astute group of readers are nonpariel, as Shakespeare might say. Although you missed this particular target, only by inches, I applaud you for dropping your ballot in the box. The hanging chads are still being analyzed but let’s move on to the next epic—a Christmas story…

——————-

{Dreams} Before I say anything potentially untoward, I should say that considering the time and subject constraints, I found this to be a very well-written, compelling, and nicely detailed story. I applaud your effort and agree that this is an excellent second-place story.

Gary comments on the overuse of dreams but in this case is tempered with a tie-in to reality:
Dreams are a bit cliche’ but I like how you justified the reality of this dream. MLK and I are actually fans of dreams as long as they don’t over-drive the story.

Drawing on personal experience, Gary points to a convenient but unrealistic plot point:
Curious, what subject do you ‘teach’ at NMS? I can tell you from experience that public school 8th graders can’t/won’t handle this type of project unless you teach a private school for eggheads.

And yet another factoid about class size and number of students:
You have at least five classes, perhaps 120 students.

More comments; one about the imagery of a missing kid and the other referencing the enlistment period and teaching programs.
-Milk carton kid.
-I fact-checked you and you passed. Only recently has the army offered two years initial enlistments. They are rare, but real.
-Troops-to-teacher program.

Another comment about the reality of modern education:
I hate to break it to you, but NMS and other middles schools don’t have recess or ‘playgrounds’ anymore. We have a football/soccer field where most students hate to go for PE.

And another reality check {this has apparently changed since I went to school}:
Again, a problem. Teachers aren’t allowed to leave the classroom for any reason while students are in session.

A compliment about inserting small details about the little girl:
I love this private peek into the girl’s personality.

And a stylistic nod to the passage about finding the girl:
I enjoyed this little line of tricky literature.

A timing issue:
I feel like the dream in the 1st paragraph is happening in {the} present time. But later you explain that dream recurred for six days and stopped on the seventh. How would you, in {the} present time (having the dream) know that it stopped on the seventh day?

{I can’t resist a quick response; Gary misunderstood the timing. Bad on him, but twice as bad on me for it not being clearer}

And, a final send-off:
Nice incorporation of multiple endings. Just wondering, is this a diary, an admission, a suicide note…? I liked it, very Gothic and ghosty with some tender moments. I love it when the bad guy is supposed to be a good guy and gets bloody justice.

End of Gary’s critiques

And, we come to my input . . . I feel as if I’m a bit harsher in my assessment of the stories but the point of the critique is to pass what is (hopefully) useful information to the writer. Or, I’m just a jerk.

Note: Both Perry and Gary saw my critiques before I published this post, but there are a couple of differences from what I originally wrote and the final version below. The internal editor in me wouldn’t stop working, I’m afraid.

Emilio’s Critiques:

Messes:

From the standpoint of written storytelling and narrative, I’ve no problem with this piece. I have a natural antipathy for written dialects, but that’s not a detractor per se.

I have some quibbles with the story presenting a physical connection between living and ghosts (the janitor and the kid and the janitor and his dad) and ghosts not realizing they are ghosts (The Sixth Sense) but can overlook the loose treatment of various tropes such as corporeal manifestations. Side note: I don’t explain how the photos came to light in my story, so I can’t complain too much.

I have a larger quibble with the revelation the scene is repeated every year, and right after that, the janitor suggests his dad would move on if the kid moved on. It’s presented as a resolution, a realization by the kid’s ghost, but it’s not an ending as there’s no indication that it won’t be repeated the following year just as it has for the past 13 years.

At best, they’re caught in an unending loop. Additionally, the kid is put up as the impetus for the older ghost still haunting the place, but there’s a large gap between the time of the lynching and the kid being shot (Morley’s age). What was the ghost doing in the meantime?

I think it would’ve been more effective as a single instance, although that would drive other details of the story.

Of course, these are all bothersome after-the-fact details; while reading, the writing carries you along in a smooth and comfortable trip . . . except for the looping thing.

The story has something neither of the other stories had: young love and the ultimate sacrifice to that love. The kid is a hero, stepping up to save a girl he loved and hadn’t even told of his feelings. A nobler sacrifice than people will ever know.

That, I think, transcends whatever flaws might be present, and I think it’s why it resonated with the readers who voted for it.

——————-

Needwood

This story required repeated readings. The setting and premise both gave me pause, and the psychedelic experience description made it difficult (for me) following the events. I’m going to sound negative, but this particular voice/style isn’t the type I prefer reading and hence my difficulty focusing on it.

I also couldn’t help thinking the story was more of an excuse for writing said psychedelic experiences than promoting the plot. The plot, as I understood it, tells the “true” story behind a misconstrued event where the murder of some students was blamed on one of the kids instead of the actual perpetrator and that the whole thing was orchestrated by the Coyote trickster in revenge for the White man stealing the land the Indian; land they admit they didn’t own in the first place.

Fine, but what gave me pause was this: why the trickster Coyote would take it out on a bunch of disadvantaged kids as revenge for what the White Man had done. It kind of makes him a bit of a dick.

And that’s the other thing. Per the history of the place, it’s not like the revenge is effective. In essence, a bunch of kids are killed and the guy is pushed to suicide as punishment for whatever transgressions the Tribe had suffered . . . but the end result is the man is made to be a hero and the kid as sad victims.

Not satisfactory revenge, if you ask me. Sure pulled one over on those White Men, didn’t we?

I also have to bring out this trite advice: kill your darlings.

The imagery of the coyote masturbating with the electric pencil sharpener is obviously dear to the writer, but — for me — it doesn’t advance the plot and adds nothing to the story or resolution of the plot. It’s just there for effect. It took me out of the narrative, and I couldn’t get back in, if you pardon the pun.

Here’s the thing; the visuals are vividly described and the story builds tension and carries the audience into the slow (or fast) unraveling of the Needwood’s mind. The pace and descriptions hit the beats and have the desired effect on the reader, but you’re asking a lot from the reader by adding all the extraneous stuff.

To my simple linear mind, the story could have been told without the Coyote and without the Indian, and just recounted as the actual events of a man finally losing it, and then jump ahead to the present and the misinterpretation of the scene by people who came upon it. The readers would then be privy to the truth and ponder on the irony of the killer being honored as a hero. And we could have been spared penis sharpening as a feature of the story. Again, it seemed the story was an excuse for that scene rather than the other way around.

The extraneous stuff masks what could have been a great and poignant story.

——————-

Dreams

I find it difficult critiquing my writing because — especially for short pieces — I make conscious decisions about the way the story is told and paced  . . . but I can’t deny that receiving so few votes jolted me (I’ve no problem with coming in second or even third; it’s the numbers that gave me pause). I thought this was a good story but maybe I looked at it from a different perspective than a reader. I should have looked at it from a reader’s point of view.

I also was trying for clever by incorporating all of the suggested endings in the story. That constrained my narrative and pushed certain aspects that are otherwise unneeded. Truthfully, I didn’t like any of the suggested final phrases so I decided to make using all of them a challenge.

But, to critique . . . how about a postmortem instead? Not what I did wrong, but why what I did landed with a thud.

First of all, all these stories have a dark side, predicated in part by the phrases suggested by the kids. I assume they were influenced by the proximity to Halloween. In turn, I was influenced by a recent news item about a Baptist Minister convicted of sexually attacking a number of kids (maybe they’re having a competition with Catholic Priests). He didn’t kill any of them, but I needed ghosts, hence the plot had the kids be killed. Perry’s and Gary’s stories both deal with school shootings, another sensitive and dark subject.

I think mine is a darker tale than the others because it’s more personal. {Maybe why it didn’t play well with readers.} It’s not a tale of unrequited love and personal sacrifice; it’s not a tale of misconstrued events; it’s a tale of purposeful dark deeds and the ultimate and summary justice for those deeds.

Although, there could be other reasons why it didn’t resonate with readers, one being the lack of dialogue.  I cranked that story out in just under two hours, and one of the tricks I use to speed things up when I’m writing to a word limit is to remove dialogue. Removing dialogue lets me give more details and tell more of the story, and to do that effectively, I make it first person.

Having it first person generates a stronger bond with the reader (my opinion), but it can backfire. Third-person gives some distance between the protagonist and the reader, especially in instances of disturbing or dark themes or when the protagonist does something the readers can’t identify with (stab someone).

And that could be the other reason it didn’t resonate with readers; I put them too close to the action, in the mind of a murderer, even if they’re meting out justice.
{By the way, the teacher could have been a woman, I never said. I removed that angle for expediency.}

In the past, one of the things I’ve gotten pushback on is the casualness with which justice with extreme prejudice is meted out. I suspect this was the case here, but I don’t know. What I wrote reflects my personal belief that once you give up your humanity, you should be put down like an animal. For reasons that escape me, that makes people uncomfortable. Go figure.

Finally, it sounds as if the sequence of dreams wasn’t clear.

The original dreams started when the teacher got there, ended a few years back, and restarted when the photos appeared. And that’s the problem with jumping back and forth in the timeline. You have to really read the piece . . . and do math. I made sure the years and time in between the jumping back and forth worked out, but I doubt anyone would sit with a pencil and check. I also think people skim a bit, and on a story packed within a word-limit constraint, it’s easy to miss a word here and there. Thus, making it a linear story would’ve flowed better.

I can accept and even understand the decision of the readers but I can’t help it; I like my story better because I like action stories and this plays to my desire for harsh justice and closure through decisive resolution. Maybe I should practice writing stories lacking closure and

End of Emilio’s Critiques.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.

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About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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4 Responses to The 1500 Words Short Story Challenge — Critiques

  1. I read Messes first and I enjoyed reading it. I liked the dialogue and the sixth-sense theme. I did not enjoy the other two even though they were both well-written.

    Like

  2. Interesting critiques on each other’s stories.
    Hawk photos are stunningly beautiful. It’s so cool to see the colors and patterns of the underside.
    (((HUGS))) :-)

    Like

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