The Dead of Winter (flash fiction)

Image by Elisabeth Lescaudron from Pixabay

The results are in for the finals of the NYC Midnight 250-word Microfiction contest. While I didn’t place, I am absolutely thrilled – thrilled!! – to have been part of this experience. Here’s my round three story, followed by the judges feedback, in it’s entirety, links to my rounds one and two stories, and some thoughts on the contest.

THE DEAD OF WINTER
by Joanne Brokaw

Rachel lay awake listening to scurrying behind the aging farmhouse walls, the sound of nesting mingling with the bitter wind howling across the plains, destroying everything in its path. She sensed tiny life drawing nigh, and it brought her comfort.

“I’ll get the poison from the barn,” William said when he heard the scratching.

“Please don’t. I can’t sleep and it keeps me company.”

“I’ve warned you, wife. The delicate of heart have no place here.”

“Then I’ll catch it and release it into the forest before the first snow.”

“Poison, winter freeze. What do I care. It’ll soon be dead either way.”

Rachel crafted a small wicker basket for a trap, baited it with cheese, and quickly captured a pregnant little mouse. William sneered when he saw the animal cupped gently in his young wife’s small hands, then offered to wring its neck.

“It deserves a chance!” Rachel cried, tucking the mouse into her apron pocket before flying out the door and into the darkness. An icy wind tore at her skin. She ran to the edge of the forest, collapsing to her knees before an inconspicuous cross marking the grave of the sickly infant recently dispatched by her husband. As the mouse escaped her pocket and scampered towards shelter in the nearby underbrush, Rachel felt a heavy hand upon her shoulder.

“There’s no room for weakness on the prairie, wife,” William said, then bashed her skull in with a rock.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

THE JUDGES FEEDBACK
(Each judge is identified by a number. They offer both positive feedback and constructive criticism. I’m sharing it all because I found it wildly helpful, and you might, too.)

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY

{2035}  I thought that Rachel’s determination to give the mouse a chance, partnered with her baby’s grave, was a potent way to show us how Rachel clung to her humanity in the midst of abuse.

{2021}  I like the concept of this story–Rachel is alone though married and unable to sleep and weak–in the eyes of her husband.
One of the most effective aspects of microfiction is that often, the last sentence is surprising.
The surprise, jarring nature of such a sentence can make the entire story more impactful.
“There’s no room for weakness on the prairie, wife,” William said, then bashed her skull in with a rock. This is a surprise!
Two good ways to begin a story are to either begin at the beginning… A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… or, begin in the middle… Her body washed up on shore, not even bloated yet. Beginning at the beginning usually shows the hero in their ordinary world, in their ordinary life from which they want to escape, and follows a logical progression into the story world. Beginning in the middle usually finds the hero knee-deep in conflict—often not their own, but definitely not wanted—the hero was reading on a deserted beach when the body washed up—and it’s his ex, who took his house and bank account. This story begins in the middle, with the body already washed up on shore, the sickly infant has already been dispatched, and the husband has business to attend to. Well executed.
You make effective use of dialogue. Good job!

{2044}  The mood and structure of this story are incredible.

{1970}  It is worth mentioning here that the character of William in “The Dead of Winter” is particularly well developed. As I read, it was easy to grasp the irritable and fatalistic nature of the man, but what was surprising at the end was just how evil and cruel he is. I did not expect that. I also enjoyed the sensory nature of you writing. I felt the cold, heard the rustling, and felt for Rachel. Thanks for the story, it has depth.

{1788}  The author created a somber tone that suited Rachel’s internal strife, focusing on her long-suffering. When she states that the noise “keeps her company”, it’s a resonant statement that gives the revelation of the deceased infant even greater meaning.
Rachel’s construction of the trap illustrated her grief in a profound manner. She sets her whole heart on it, and despite the grisly ending, it’s somewhat comforting to know she helped save a life.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

{2035}  Although we have limited space to work with, I think a little more nuance from William’s character would make him a more compelling villain. Giving him one moment of humanity (even in the form of neutrality or showing him enjoying something simple) would highlight his darkness, in my opinion. I think to make room for it, you could take out William’s line about how the mouse will “soon be dead either way.”

{2021}  The opening sentence is arguably the most important line in any story, second most in microfiction. The purpose is to draw the reader into the story immediately and encourage them to read more. It’s also important, especially in short fiction, to introduce the main character. You have a good first sentence, it’s just currently two sentences, and a little awkward.

Rachel lay awake listening to scurrying behind the aging farmhouse walls, and sensed tiny life drawing nigh, and it brought her comfort.

As an opening hook, this line is effective because it intros the pov character and expresses something of their emotion in the moment. It’s the emotion with which a reader can empathize that pulls the reader into the story. If you want to keep the other info from the first sentence, keep it in a second sentence… The sound of nesting mingled with the bitter wind howling across the plains, destroying everything in its path.
You’re an excellent writer and I’m impressed with this effort. Keep writing!

{2044}  The sudden extreme violence is out of place. It would be preferable to find another way to let the reader know that the man and woman are married other than the husband calling her wife.

{1970}  What could use a bit of work? This is hard to say, as you have checked so boxes that a reader of this genre looks for. I will say that it borders (only borders) on gratuitous when it comes to baiting the reader’s sense of empathy. It’s almost (almost!) too much when Rachel collapses at the baby’s grave…and her husband dispatched the body there? Or did he ‘dispatch’ the baby’s breath? Not clear on this. All this said, great tale, just keep in mind not to push the heartstrings over the edge into ‘eye roll’ territory. You’re not there on this one, so thanks!

{1788}  William’s final act would be more organic if the author emphasized his anger and frustration in the second full paragraph. Readers can feel Rachel’s loneliness based on the stark imagery and her reaction to the scratching animal. Think about attempting the same thing with William, suggesting he’s reached his breaking point with one telling gesture or image. He could squeeze her arm while she’s holding the mouse or throw the basket into the fire after Rachel clutches the mouse. It’s worth providing more build-up before he’s crushing her head with a rock and ending their relationship entirely.
“The Dead of Winter” is a haunting and effective narrative. Once the author adds more build-up before William’s last act, it will be even more successful.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

MY THOUGHTS

I don’t actually write fiction, beyond drafts I spew out during free writing warm ups. This contest was the first time I took any idea from prompt to finished(ish) product.

The contest works like this: On a specified Friday at 11:50 PM ET, entrants receive a specific prompt and 24 hours to write and submit their story. The contest started back in November with 5,400 participants in round one, which was whittled away to 1,200 for round two. I made it through both of those rounds for the final, which included 150 finalists. The top 10 received cash prizes, and there were some  honorable mentions. While I didn’t place, I still feel like a winner:

1. At the very least I had the pressure to finish something in the fiction genre – and I did it! Nothing feels as sweet as starting and finishing something – and I didn’t have to commit months to plotting and constructing to do it. The very heavy weight of a 24 hour deadline hung over my head, I worked my ass of for 20ish hours, and then moved on with my life.

2. The judges’ feedback from each round was exceptionally helpful in giving me guidance as I crafted my next entry. After round one,  for example, the judges all mentioned my lack of use of dialogue. That makes comments like this from round three judges – “You make effective use of dialogue. Good job! ” all the more sweet.

3. The judges’ feedback was specific and highly motivating. In the “what needs work” section, Judge 2021 ended with “You’re an excellent writer and I’m impressed with this effort. Keep writing!” That was worth as much as a cash prize.

4. I have three flash fiction pieces that, with a wee bit of tweaking, can be submitted for publication. Well, maybe not, since I’ve posted them here on my blog. But that’s OK. The goal of participating was simply to participate. I’ve been afraid of writing fiction. Not any more.

The NYC Midnight contests include longer writing contests and a screenplay contest. Check it out here.

My Round One story, “The Pleas of the Leaves”.

My Round Two story, “A Whispered Agitation”.

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