The Storm in Her Smile has now been shared in its entirety here on the site, and people seem to be enjoying it. In the near future, I’ll do another edit pass, and then post the full story as a separate page under the Short Stories menu, like I did with my prior short, The Stars That Sing.
In the meantime, let’s talk about the story itself. What went well? What didn’t? And what ended up confusing the hell out of me?
Note: This post has spoilers, so if you haven’t already read the story, please click the link above first!
The story was far from perfect, but it wasn’t a complete disaster either. Here are five things I liked about it and the experience of sharing it…
A new voice…
We spend the entirety of The Storm in Her Smile in the head of the story’s protagonist, the Queen of Smiles. That made nailing her internal voice incredibly important. It.. was more daunting than it should have been. I’ve never written a first person female perspective before, and I found myself second-guessing every decision and word choice.
The Queen of Smiles being such an unusual character didn’t help. Rather, it sometimes helped, and it sometimes didn’t… and I was never quite sure which was which1.
And she… thought I was way off base.
Just kidding. She thought the Queen’s voice was great, and so far, people seem to agree. It’s a nice confidence boost for future experiments with voice.
A protagonist with history…
Having a strong voice doesn’t help much if the protagonist herself is boring. The plot of The Storm in Her Smile is very straight-forward, so the story relies heavily on the protagonist to keep readers invested.
The Queen of Smiles is, to put it bluntly, pretty weird. Her superpower remains largely unexplained by the end of the story. She has a part to play in See These Bones and its sequels and I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the mysteries of who she is in a short story which the main series’ readers might never read.
Keeping a character mysterious when you’re residing in that character’s head is a challenge, but I think it worked out well. The first person perspective definitely helped. The Queen knows more than the reader, but there’s no reason for her to fixate on those details. That makes the lack of exposition more palatable.
Several readers requested a follow-up story so they could learn more about the Queen of Smiles. I think that’s a good sign that she was intriguingly mysterious rather than annoyingly opaque.
As a new writer, I inevitably struggle with pacing. I’m currently rewriting my first book, Investigation, Mediation, Vindication, and a large reason for that is because its pacing is all wrong… weak at the start, saggy in the middle, and then psycho-fast through the climax.
I did a better job with this short. The story starts with a bang4, avoiding the slow builds some of my past stories have suffered through. There’s a lot of action and gore throughout the story, but I tried to keep those scenes distinct by interspersing brief moments of quiet and respite… the bed and breakfast… the time on the ocean floor… even the melancholy epilogue. Those pauses give the reader space to breathe. They also help keep the action scenes from blurring together into 11k words of white noise5.
Pacing is something I’ll continue to struggle with, but this story was a positive step forward.
What I’ve shared is an early draft. I can’t say it’s a first draft–my writing process has me constantly revising as I go–but it is a long way from the finished product.
I generally go through multiple editing stages. First, my alpha readers give their feedback on the initial, very rough, draft. I then clean it up enough to give it to my beta readers. Then, I incorporate the feedback from those readers into yet another draft. That’s basically phase 1.
For phase 2, I convert the doc to a format that my kindle can handle. Having to read the story on a different screen tends to expose issues that didn’t show up when I was writing/reviewing it on my computer. Maybe it’s that the width of the screen differs, so the lines break at different points. Maybe it’s just the font change or maybe my brain recognizes the kindle as a book and treats it differently. Whatever it is, I’m always surprised at the sheer amount of stuff I find and have to fix in this phase.
Posting my fiction via this blog has a similar effect. What starts as a simple cut and paste for each section of chapters often ends with me doing individual line edits as I find passages that don’t work which I somehow missed during the initial editing phases. What you all ended up reading was still an early draft, but it was much better than the doc file I was cutting and pasting from.
The ability to both solicit feedback and find issues on my own due to the change in media makes this experience incredibly valuable.
An unscripted ending…
When I first mapped out The Storm in Her Smile, there was no epilogue. The story was superficially modeled after old westerns6. A mysterious gunslinger rides into town, proves faster on the draw than his rival, and rides back out.
But once I started writing, I found myself fleshing out the backstory that brought our gunslinger to Mobile. Who hired her? Why did they hire her? I also started thinking about why the Queen of Smiles had taken the job. Money has its uses, but it’s not what motivates her.
Halfway through, I saw I had an opportunity to tie back into the main series. In fact, The Storm in Her Smile helped me clarify a key scene in one of See These Bones’ unwritten sequels7 The ending makes clear that the Queen is more than a gunslinger or mercenary. She’s a truthseeker, on a quest for answers. That quest will eventually bring her into contact with Damian, the protagonist of that other series.
The epilogue also gave us a chance to meet Emma, the woman who hired the Queen of Smiles. This was my favorite part of the entire story. The meeting between Emma and her hired gun is subdued and melancholy. There’s an acknowledgement that revenge has brought satisfaction but not peace.
It’s a quiet end to a bloody little story, and I really like it.
Now that I’ve spent a dozen paragraphs patting myself on the back, it’s time to come back down to earth. While I liked the story as a whole, it definitely had its share of problems. Here are five issues I have with the posted draft…
A lack of color…
If pacing is my Kryptonite, setting is a stake through my heart. And yes, I’m mixing metaphors. I suck at environment descriptions. I have a tendency to sketch out an area as minimally as possible. Part of it is laziness and part of it is that I’m still building the necessary vocabulary to describe buildings, furniture, and decor.
I think I conveyed a decent sense of the broken world. Mobile, on the other hand, is practically a blank page. That’s a problem, given that 95% of the story takes place there. I also struggled with the depiction of the Melendez brothers’ base; this former office building that is now partially underwater and leaning at an angle into the bay. In my initial draft, the final assault was extremely confusing to the reader, and even after multiple rounds of edits, I’m not satisfied with the end result.
I don’t want to be one of those writers who spends three pages detailing the line of a room’s drapes, but I need to improve at layering in descriptions to ground the action that is taking place.
Present tense is driving me crazy…8
Other than the voice itself, the biggest risk I took with this story was writing in present tense. I’ve never written in present tense, I’ve never really liked it, and my internal debate about using it continued through the entire writing experience.
Present tense does have its advantages. It puts the reader right into the heart of the story, there’s no need for a framing device, and it makes action scenes really pop.
That said, I just don’t like it. It feels artificial to me. The combination of first person perspective and present tense is surprisingly common, but it’s an odd mix. You have the protagonist describing the action as it happens… which is pretty weird when that same protagonist is effectively busy fighting for their life. It adds a layer of abstraction–‘let me tell you what I’m doing even as I do it’–that just feels klunky to me.
Overall, it was a fun experiment, and I’m glad I tried it, but I think I’ll avoid present tense in the future.
This is point A. This is point B. This is the line that connects them…
Any time you’re reviewing a story and the plot shows up as a negative, you should worry. Luckily, I don’t have serious problems with the story’s plot… I just think it’s too linear.
There aren’t any twists in the story. The Queen of Smiles shows up, she kills some people, she runs into a minir setback, and then she kills some more people. At only 11k words, there isn’t a lot of space for twists and turns, but I still think the story could benefit from them. The Stars That Sing wasn’t that much longer, and it still managed to incorporate two fairly large surprises.
Adding those twists without breaking the pacing… well, that’s a challenge of its own.
Pay No Attention to the Backstory Behind the Curtain…
The last problem I have with the story is one I also had with The Stars That Sing. I’m writing a short story set in an existing world. Some readers may be familiar with that world, but others will be experiencing it for the first time. I need to provide necessary information to the latter group without boring the former. In The Stars That Sing, I was able to introduce the reader to that world through William’s story of his childhood, but there’s no space for exposition in The Storm in Her Smile.
Even worse, this story features a character that was also introduced elsewhere. And it’s a character that has to remain mysterious, despite the fact that she’s our narrator.
Some of you are thinking ‘wait… didn’t you list the Queen of Smile’s mysteriousness as a positive?’ And yeah, I did. But I’m not sure if a brand new reader will be intrigued by the mystery that is the Queen of Smiles or just baffled by her. I don’t give much insight into who she is or what she is, and I’m not sure if the character stands adequately on her own for those readers who haven’t made it through See These Bones.9
Sorry if I go off script here and switch to an image from Anchorman instead of the titular Ugly from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Now that we’ve covered what I felt were the good and the bad points of the story, there ia one last thing that left me utterly confused…
I’m okay with the overall traffic I received when posting chapters for The Storm in Her Smile. What I don’t understand is the breakdown of page visits on a per-post basis.
The post that got the most traffic was Chapters 1-2. That’s not surprising… nor is the fact that only half of those initial readers made it to the conclusion. Literally anyone can check out my stories, and some of them are going to dislike the subject, the setting, the voice or just my writing. I was actually pleasantly surprised with the number of readers who made it to the end.
Which raises the question… who reads the beginning and ending of a story but not the content in between? Have I attracted a new breed of readers who just want to know that everything worked out and aren’t too concerned as to how? Is WordPress stealing my page visits and using them for its own nefarious purposes?
We may never know…
- Welcome to the glamorous life of a writer.
- Reason #345788 that she’s a saint.
- Reason #345789 that she’s a saint.
- A lot of bangs, really.
- I hope. Let me know if you disagree!
- Thus the theme of this blog post…
- This is the fun part of being a writer… when things magically fall into place almost on their own.
- See what I did there?
- Please let me know!
- Note: 100 people did not read chapters 1-2
- Note: 50 people did not read the conclusion