If you’ve ever exchanged your writing with someone to critique, chances you’ve gotten some pretty succinct replies along the lines of “I liked it!” or “It was okay…” It’s usually a little more difficult to get feedback on what could be changed (and to what effect) and what just didn’t work for them. On top of all that, getting a beta reader’s perspective on what works in your overall style and technique. Although it’s been almost a year since Chebk and I began writing together, despite many, many critiques and edits, we have never formally analyzed each other’s writing.
Before you scroll past: This is not an ego boost. (Sadly.) Eventually Chebk and I want to start looking at author’s techniques and styles and how beginner (or not beginner) writers can apply it to their own work. Before we get in too deep with that we thought we would start with ourselves. Sacrificial potatoes.
Thus, again, the prompt, via Sanjiv, is: Write a light horror-romance about a socially-anxious monk. You can read both pieces here. I will be referencing direct quotes from the text in the analysis if you don’t want to look at the link. But: You can also still submit your own flash fiction for the prompt here.
Mono no Aware by Chebk
Plot: One of the more difficult things in a writing group is merging what you know of the planning stages with the drafts and end product. In this case, I was privvy to Chebk’s plot planning from the beginning, focusing on the live mummification of a Buddhist monk. Reading it through as though I did not have that knowledge makes it slightly different though:
It opens with the narrator burying his lover — who we assume has passed away. Chebk then fills in both character’s backgrounds as monks, giving weight to their taboo relationship. The story ends with a slow death into what I already knew to be mummification, but what other readers may not have known what to make of without the picture attached in the initial prompt post. She writes that when the bell “rang no more, we would know that he was successful” — but in what?
Character & Narrative: What makes this short story particularly horrific is the set-up of the two main characters. With such limited space, their defining characteristic is their consuming love for each other, which makes you, as a reader, care about what happens to one or the other. The use of first person limited perspective (an “I” narrator whose narrative stays within their scope) gives the reader someone to relate to immediately and gives the ending added claustrophobia. Chebk uses both monks’ spirituality well, putting it at odds with their romance — desecration of the prayer room — as well as driving forward their personal arcs — their attempts at ascending to nirvana.
Structure: What I like most about Chebk’s structure is the change it makes halfway through: The ringing of the bells. Breaking up the progression of the time with bell tolls, it moves along the days without using up excess word count and draws out necessary tension to bring out the horror of the “calcification of water coating my skin and pulling my face into a rictus of what it used to be.” Like Poe’s “tell-tale heart,” it adds a rhythm to the text that builds to the end.
…Which is why it’s so ironic that Chebk’s structure is also my biggest problem with the text. I wasn’t sure if the narrative switched halfway through to the narrator’s buried lover mummifying or if the narrator himself was going through the mummification above ground. Added text to clarify this may have been necessary, or at least a clarification in the beginning if the monk’s lover passed away from trying to undertake the ritual first.
Technique: Chebk uses pacing well throughout, moving the piece along from a quick introduction to the main rising tension that forms the horror story. Small details work wonders to convey enough detail for the reader to fill in the rest: the narrator “felt the dirt under my fingernails as I dug them into my palm” and his sorrow is “deeper than any meditation could ever touch.” His lover is only described as “dirty and rebellious” and it makes their love story fall into place easily and without question. Details about the state of the monk’s anatomy as he slowly dies make the reader focus on the process and the pain.
What I took away from Chebk’s piece is playing with structure and knowing when to keep details sparse and when to use them to greater effect in focusing the reader and slowing the moment. It’s awesome what she did in 600 or so words. What did you think, readers? Have any questions on how to copy any of her techniques? Let us know if analyzing the styles and techniques of published authors is something you would be interested in, in the comments. 🙂