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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Short Story Analysis: Jaiden's Weaver

I often go through short stories that have been effective on me, analyzing their structure in depth and trying to figure out how they work. I'm especially likely to do this with stories I can get my hands on electronically, like Hugo nominees, because then I can copy and paste them into Open Office, triple space them, turn them into Windows Journal documents, and scribble all over them. I was doing this just today when I realized that my blog would be a good place to put my observations. This way I can find my analysis again later and possibly gain new insights or remember insights I've had but forgotten. (That certainly does happen to me. I'm so disappointed when I realize I've forgotten a hard-learned lesson and been banging my head against a wall, trying to reinvent the wheel.) (Blogs are a cliché-friendly zone, right?)

Anyway, today I followed a link on Mary Robinette Kowal's blog to her story "Jaiden's Weaver." I actually remember when Diamonds in the Sky came out, but even though I'm a fan of Kowal's, somehow I apparently managed not to read this story at the time. I think because it was an educational story anthology. That's dumb of me, I know, but what can I say?

"Jaiden's Weaver" is a sweet story with a determined young protagonist who is active in pursuing her own goals. If you're not turned off by young protagonists or sweet stories, then I encourage you to go give it a read whether you're interested in my ramblings or not. And then go read everything else by Kowal you can find, if you're a science fiction fan. You'll get to see what will surely be a long and successful writing career from near the beginning of its arc. You'll thank me later.

On the surface, this story seems to follow Algis Budrys's seven point story structure. (I used to have a link to an article by him on it bookmarked on my old computer, but not on this one, and Google is only leading me to other people's write-ups of his ideas. Which makes a pretty good argument either for storing my bookmarks off of my personal computer, or for throwing links up here like I've been doing.)

The character of Jaiden is pretty well-defined through the first person narrative. I find it extremely easy to identify with characters when they tell me what they're feeling and what they want. Her problems? Feeling trapped by the (admittedly beautiful) landscape in her steep valley home, and the tight finances of her family. Her goal is to get a spider teddy, which could solve both problems for her: she could explore the valley by riding the spider teddy, and the spider teddy's weavings could be sold for a profit.

We've got the typical three attempts to attain the goal. First Jaiden asks her parents to buy her a spider teddy egg, but they tell her they can't afford that. Then she drops hints in the hopes of receiving an egg for Christm Bottom Day, but, to her dismay, her parents merely buy her a toy spider teddy instead, and finances are again mentioned as a reason why Jaiden's goal is unattainable. Then, in true protagonist fashion, Jaiden takes matters into her own hands. Her third attempt is to raise the money to buy the egg herself, and in this she succeeds.

All this happens in just about 2500 words, and it doesn't feel at all skimpy. There's great world-building (a little too much on the rings for my taste, but then this is for an educational anthology), effective characterization (the parents are only painted in broad strokes, but something's gotta give when you're writing in such a short medium), and Jaiden's attempts to solve her problem are well-fleshed out. A perfect example of Budrys's structure.

Except . . .

Except that at this point, the story is just over half over. Once Jaiden gets her egg, we get to see her care for it, get to experience the hatching, and we live through an apparent disaster: the fact that her teddy spider is missing a leg. The story doesn't feel anticlimactic even though it keeps going after the initial goal is attained, because there are continuing complications: her parents' initial intent to put the deformed creature down, and Kali's consternation when she first tries and fails to weave normally.

Though the story works, I was at a bit of a loss to understand the mechanics of it, until I remembered something I read on Nancy Kress's blog some time back. (I want to attribute this advice to Arthur C. Clarke, but I have a tendency to attribute all sorts of writing advice to him, and it usually turns out to be apocryphal.) As Kress related it, a good short story should have two unrelated problems, or two situations, and the resolution of one should tie up the other as well. Looked at in that light, Jaiden's Weaver isn't over when Jaiden gets her spider teddy because the family's finances are still strapped--more so if they must now care for a large disabled pet. The story can't end, then, until Kali grows a bit and manages to prove the doubts about her ability to weave to be groundless. Since this takes time to happen, the other complications basically keep the story moving until that point.

At least, that's what I'm seeing. Now I need to go back and see how she accomplishes all that she des in so few words. Kowal is a master of this; her Hugo-winning "Evil Robot Monkey" isn't even a thousand words, IIRC. Clearly she's good at making every word carry as much meaning as possible, so she doesn't have to belabor points like I tend to. (I think this may be a place where my love of detail gets in my way. Attention to detail is a good thing, when it takes the form of a few Telling Details, but I need to get away from feeling like I need to flesh out an entire universe in each short story.)

One thing I'm noticing with a quick scan through is how short Kowal's paragraphs tend to be. In particular, they seem to get shorter as the story moves on, except at key moments--when the egg hatches, and when Kali learns to weave successfully. Those are the moments Kowal describes the most thoroughly, after the first few paragraphs.


Steve Axelrod said...

Interesting analysis. I can believe you're a teacher. And thanks for the comment on my blog; it gets kind of lonely over there! I also post on Open Salon ( -- it's all the same stuff, but with some pictures and comment trails an indications that some posts have been 'picked' by the Salon editors who 'curate' the site. If you want people to read your stuff it's a good spot. I had more comments on one post there than my own blog has gotten in the last three years ...

Joe Iriarte said...

Thanks for the tip. A lot of my posts are pretty self-absorbed, but the next time I've got something with more general interest, I might just give it a shot.