Critique Group – The Comeback


Sorry, Timon. No sympathy here. Six sentences, maybe. 🙂

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The Comeback – by Beverly

The minute it was over, I knew I had made a mistake. One of my strobe lights had shorted out, and a shadow filled in the blank wall. The spot light that hung from the ceiling had dimmed, casting a translucent glow over the thin body curled up on the concrete floor of my studio. Dark blood seeped from an ear and trickled across a swollen face toward a gaping mouth: a study of shapes and shades.

A twisted coil of sisal rope adorned a long neck, its prickly fiber against the smooth pale skin: an example of contrasts.

There was no need to touch the stilled neck. The lack of a pulse was obvious.

Another time, this research might have led to my best work. Peer acceptance and professional acknowledgement for thinking outside the box had boosted my artistic standing in the community. Demand for my photographs had pushed me to enlarge my work space and challenged my intellect and creativity to produce new and curious works.

My usual subjects had been lifeless in their position, cold and spiritless inanimate objects of the city. Although my subjects had a purpose, they were static. My latest portfolio lacked life – a broken wheel that held up a cannibalized Toyota; steel scaffolding wrapped around a crumbling brick building; crushed beer cans ready for recycling.

The waiting list of buyers for my latest works hung over me like a smoldering blanket. Countless awards and praises from other professionals for my unique and thought-provoking compositions had established my position in the arena of outstanding photographers. My black and white images captured my signature style of multiple shapes and repeating patterns. But after two decades of filming New York City, I was out of inspiration.

Last month I had faced my annual December exhibition in SoHo and had nothing new to offer. Snippets of reviews in the NY Times suggested that I had grown stale, washed up and out of ideas. Rumors of an up-and-coming photographer circled the coffee houses and galleries.

“His work is fresh and airy,” they whispered. “From California, no doubt.”

My head ached with ideas that thrust me into thinking of possibilities outside my comfort zone. Having perfected techniques that placed me at the top of my game, I recognized my career was in jeopardy unless I came up with something contemporary and profound. I had to summon up the courage to take my work to the limit and shoot on the edge.

What if I photographed a living object at the brink of death? Could I capture an image as the soul attempted to flee the body?

I began to experiment.

Willing subjects were easy to round up among the local homeless community. An offer of a free meal and a bottle of cheap wine enticed both the young and old.   Countless times I failed to achieve my perfect shot, ending up with slobbering drunks who staggered out the door in panic.

I needed an organic subject on the verge of death, one who would willingly release his body and soul from a present existence – if only for a moment.   I found him on his knees, head lifted toward the heavens. In the rear pew of Saint Mary’s Church, this solitary figure beseeched God to forgive him.

Goosebumps traveled up my arms and my forehead dripped in sweat. I approached quietly, softly introducing myself.   I could hardly contain my excitement. I had found my subject.

We talked at great length about living and dying. The grim reaper and angel of death. A shining light leading to a narrow tunnel. The fine line between life and death. He had been a priest and told me how he suffered for the sins of his flesh. He craved for redemption and to save his soul.

In the silence of my studio, I whipped his cheeks with the tiny stylus for a vertical pattern of blood and flesh. He grimaced, but could not give me the smile I asked for. His hands fought the tightening of the rope, no longer comprehending he was only on the verge of a loss of consciousness. His trust vanished and his fear emerged.

I was looking for effect, not reality, as the camera shutter rapidly clicked. The image of a slow release of the breath with the invisible skirting of the spirit from the body would be the consummate work of my artistic calling. My reputation would soar while his soul would be unchained.

In an instant of realization, our eyes met. Somehow we both knew I had failed. His soul had already departed before we met.



Categories: Critique Group

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11 replies

  1. Beverly,
    Your prose is excellent, practically flawless, with great word choices and nice phrasing, so I won’t critique many details.

    A few story issues troubled me. You began in real time, then dropped into a lengthy back-story information dump that began with “Another time …” and continued through the remainder of this excerpt. That seems way too long to me.

    I prefer revealing tidbits of the back story as the front story progresses so that you don’t have to stop the front story at all.

    Second, I found the focal character to be disturbing, which I’m sure you intended. You did a great job making him or her disturbing, but this character is not someone I would want to read about as a focal character. I need to like the main character and cheer for him or her. As it stands, I wouldn’t read this story. Maybe others don’t mind a character like this, so it is a personal preference issue.

    A couple of details: “The minute it was over, I knew I had made a mistake.” What is “it”? I was begging for a noun instead of a pronoun. The session?

    I think spotlight is one word.

    You switched frequently between indirect (a or an) and direct articles (the) “a long neck” versus “the smooth pale skin.” I couldn’t detect a reason for those switches. Since they all refer to the same person, consistency is probably better.

    Next: “I whipped his cheeks with the tiny stylus for a vertical pattern of blood and flesh.”

    I don’t understand this sentence. What tiny stylus? You hadn’t mentioned it earlier. Whenever you use “the” for a noun, usually readers expect to have seen it earlier. There are exceptions, such as when the character is intimately familiar with the object. If that were true in this case, the character probably wouldn’t consider it to be tiny. Also, how can you whip someone’s cheeks with a stylus? What is a vertical pattern of blood and flesh, and how does the whipping achieve it? I suggest rewriting this sentence for clarity.

    Next: “He grimaced, but could not give me the smile I asked for.” When did the character ask for a smile?

    Next: “His hands fought the tightening of the rope” The rope? What rope? When did he get tied with a rope?

    Next: In an instant of realization, our eyes met. Somehow we both knew I had failed. His soul had already departed before we met.

    How could he know about the failure if he was already dead? How could his soul have departed before they met? This paragraph made no sense to me. If you are trying to portray your focal character as insane, he or she probably wouldn’t be this lucid about the facts.

    Overall, I found your prose to be outstanding. Keep up the good work.

  2. At the moment at least, I don’t think I have much to say in the way of critique, but you did a good job and I might be interested in reading the whole story when it’s done. What’s the story goin to be called?

  3. Wow, Beverly. Very dark, and very good. I agree with everything that Mr. Davis said, along with a note of my own. I am by no means a writer, so this is my response as a reader 🙂

    First, the fact that you pronounced the subject dead in the third paragraph makes the last paragraph less climactic. I’m curious what the suspense would be like if you waited until the end to reveal his death. You could still call it a failure at the beginning, along with your grisly descriptions, but omitting the two sentences beginning with “There was no need…” could add a new dimension of mystery.

    Second, I can see where it may be considered better to have a focal character that is likable, but you can count me in with the readers who don’t terribly mind him/her being dark and disturbing. After reading this, I was very interested in reading more. I wanted to find out what drove his darkness and what would drive him to the light.

    Overall, fantastic! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Your story is fascinating, but I think your transition between present and past/infodump is too abrupt and dwells overlong on backstory. I would suggest a greater blending of the two, comparing and contrasting past and present as your POV character examines his/her current photography subject. Compare the failure, the death, with the past survivors. Compare the technical flaws with past technologies working.

    It’s a very compelling piece. Villainous points of view often are.

  5. The first thought I had, Beverly, when I read the last sentence was “Woah”. That was “woah” inducing. I like the plot you’ve unfolded in just a few paragraphs and the intensity of the story. I’m really curious as to the rest of this story. I wish I could keep reading.

    The only thing I think might need fixing (unless you had it this way on purpose) was the fact that you had a storyline rolling and then the past came in and went for a really long time before going back to the original storyline. I suggest putting the past in front and then roll the past into the present.

    Also, in the first part of the present had the guy dead it seemed, then in the second present part, he seemed alive until it’s shown that he’s dead. I may have misunderstood it or read it wrong, though (that happens to me some times when the story’s awesome. I skip words or sentences. 🙂 ), but it was very confusing to me. I suggest making it a little more clear to the readers what’s happening.
    (I hope that paragraph made sense to you. Even I don’t understand it very well. 🙂 )

    That’s really all I had to critique. Your story is really good. I really like the plot and storyline. Keep on writing!

  6. Wow. That was pretty cool. It had a very creepy air, but that was done fairly well. Your writing is a bit jumpy, but overall I rather like it.

  7. I wish I could read more!!!!!!!

  8. Thank you for all of your comments. They are well received. The story was based on a prompt (The minute it was over, I knew it was a mistake). Do think I can move things around and weave the back story into the present. I tend to use that style often and probably should consider not using that technique with a short story. Point well taken. Sorry the main character is so creepy without much of a redeeming personality. Had this been written for a longer story or a book, I certainly needed a protagonist that was the “good” guy introduced early in the story. Also, understand the confusion about whether our poor subject – his accidental death and his soul. Overall, I welcome your comments and thank you for reading. Should I send the revision into you for another round of critique?

  9. This is very well written and beyond my ability to line edit so I will just make a few short comments about the passage as a whole.

    It has a great hook, right from the beginning. I don’t think you need the second sentence though. It doesn’t really bog down, but it doesn’t really serve anything either. I am not familiar enough with photography(As I would assume most aren’t) for the reference to really tell me anything. it delays the jab of the third sentence and the final knockdown blow of the final opening paragraph. By the time you get to ‘an example of contrasts’ I have realized this is a photographer. Quit dancing and give me the meat!

    ‘Another time, this research might have led to my best work’ Okay, take a breath. Have to find out what is going on. I understand. and then…another paragraph of back story. and then another. and then another. Wait, what about the body? what is going on? I get it, photographer seeking something new to stay on top. To be great. It isn’t until ‘I began to experiment’ that I am interested again. Okay, now we get back to it.

    Don’t get me wrong. it wasn’t a struggle to get through. It just seriously dulled the sharpness of your opening paragraph. I would break up the history summary and scatter it later on, provided this is a lengthy story s a whole. If it is short fiction…It might be fine. I don’t write short fiction as it is tricky and requires too much to be crammed into to short a space. If this is a work of more than 50,000 words, you can find a better place to tell the story of the character’s history later on. A paragraph or two is tolerable, but I am an impatient reader and you’ve hooked me with the first paragraph. I wan’t my gratification, not a biography.

    Now, one mention of structure-

    “I approached quietly, softly introducing myself. I could hardly contain my excitement. I had found my subject.”

    This reads a bit awkwardly and judging from everything before it, I know full well you can do better. It’s choppy and has back to back adverbs that trip me up as I am steaming along through your story. I would play around with this a little and see if you can hammer it out just a bit better.

    “In the silence of my studio, I whipped his cheeks with the tiny stylus for a vertical pattern of blood and flesh. He grimaced, but could not give me the smile I asked for. His hands fought the tightening of the rope, no longer comprehending he was only on the verge of a loss of consciousness. His trust vanished and his fear emerged.”

    Creepy! I love it. This is, in my opinion, your strongest paragraph and the most revealing of the main character.

    All that being said, my comments may sound harsh, but I can tell you are a skilled writer and can take it. These are things you need to know, ‘not which word’ to use ‘were or does this sentence flow right?’ I am great at line editing but this is the first story I’ve ready on here so far that actually made me throw the line edit away and dive into the flow and pace. Thank you for that!

    As a whole, a dark piece and one I like. You are a gifted writer with a firm grasp of what you are trying to accomplish.

    Well done.


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