Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan


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Post April 18, 2005, 12:05:18 PM

Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

This story reminded me of a Star Trek episode. A tactical battle in space, with the usual smattering of jargon and naval terminology. A captain struggling to earn the respect of his crew. Explosions, implosions, and torpedoes galore! <br><br>The story is pretty much an extended battle sequence. Those are difficult to write. I give Mr. Cowan credit, he kept me interested until the end. He inserted just enough characterization for me to empathize with the characters. He also has a straightforward writing style which keeps the reader's focus on the action.<br><br>In terms of critiques, I think there should have been a bit more description. There were also too many occurrences of narrative explanation. For example:<br>
Stone brought up the cruiser's schematic on the targeting software. "Manual control" didn't mean physically handling the missiles; but each one had to be loaded, targeted, and launched by individual command. Programming a wide spread was virtually impossible in a combat situation, even if the Veil had more than two operational missile bays to work with. All they needed was one direct hit, but one shot was likely all the Veil would get.
<br>Sometimes narrative explanations are unavoidable, but they really bog the story down. I recommend disguising them with dialogue or just glossing over the details (let the reader connect the dots).<br><br>However, I think the biggest concern is that the story isn’t very original. Adding a twist or two would help distinguish it from similar stories. If I was an editor, why would I publish this? I’ve seen this story in other incarnations too many times. How about making the captain female? It would add another dimension in the relationship with Nita Byrd and go against the stereotypical male-in-charge that predominates the genre.<br><br>Not a bad story. I know some others will state it needs a LOT more description.<br><br>
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Post April 18, 2005, 01:50:47 PM

Re: Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

Jaimie<br><br>In JMC's defense, I didn't find the 'infodumps' particularly intrusive. The one you quoted was making the point that the Veil was trying to finish the fight when she was crippled in terms of firepower and targeting capabilities; the crew were taking stock of what they had available, and the news was not good.<br><br>Your desire for more description (I presume you are waiting for Nate K. to ask what the carpeting smelled like) seems to clash with your objection to infodumps; while quick injections of 'sensory' info might help to establish the 'you are there' immediacy of things, they might also detract from the straight-ahead momentum that made the story fun to read.<br><br>As for originality -- well, all the Star Trek series borrowed heavily from each other and from older stories (sf and otherwise); Shakespeare's plots and characters were often retreads; Star Wars combined Flash Gordon, Kurosawa movies, and Arthurian legend. There may be 'more things in heaven and earth', but it has often been noted that there are very few original ideas / plots / stories. I thought JMC had done a bang-up job of writing a classic space opera (which is what I think he meant to do), so -- <br><br>Robert M.
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Post April 18, 2005, 03:50:52 PM

Re: Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

Jaimie

In JMC's defense, I didn't find the 'infodumps' particularly intrusive. The one you quoted was making the point that the Veil was trying to finish the fight when she was crippled in terms of firepower and targeting capabilities; the crew were taking stock of what they had available, and the news was not good.

Your desire for more description (I presume you are waiting for Nate K. to ask what the carpeting smelled like) seems to clash with your objection to infodumps...
<br><br>That was one example. I wouldn't have had an issue with them if this was the only instance. Also, I don't have issues with "infodumps", per se. If you note, I didn't use the term "infodump" because my issue isn't with the information, but how it's presented. I was taught a long time ago that if you're going to throw a lot of information at a reader (often inevitable in fantasy or sci-fi), do it a manner that minimizes its impact on the flow of the story. One technique to do that is to incorporate the information as part of conversation. Dialogue is a great tool. Even a character mumbling or thinking to himself is better than reverting to narrative.<br><br>And I still have to ask the question: If I was an editor, what would make me choose this particular story over others? Even with the examples listed above, I could name a hundred things about each one that made it seem unique at their conception, even though they borrow heavily on established mythos. Star Trek, for example, had a racially diversified crew (that's a big deal in the 60's). Star Wars was the first "block buster", for better or worse, with a lot of cool special effects.<br><br>BTW, I did like the story, critiques notwithstanding.<br>
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Post April 18, 2005, 11:14:23 PM

Re: Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

This story had strong fundamental elements: action and internal/external conflict. But I think I agree with Jaimie's general assessment. Not much new happening here despite a strong execution.<br><br>Couple of things bothered me:<br><br>Stone performed well and came across as sympathetic and his doubts and emotions struck me as real (admittedly I know nothing about commanding a ship and crew; hell, some here think I barely have command of English), but I saw no clear indication as to why he and not Byrd was given the ship.<br><br>The enemy battle cruiser was not presented as so menacing that we had one of those classic face offs a la Sink the Bismarck and others. In fact, this cruiser is described as lesser than its counterparts by virtue of damage that it took. <br><br>The politics of the conflict were glossed a bit too much for my taste. I would've liked to see that aspect fleshed out a bit.<br><br>That said, I think the action was well-done and I liked the hero despite sparse characterization (I would've liked to learn more about Byrd).<br><br>Dan E.<br>
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Post April 25, 2005, 10:31:26 PM

Re: Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

So what did the carpeting smell like? :D<br><br>Using sensory input to make the world around you concrete is a good thing. As I recall, it certainly helped Robert's story about the little child frozen by the shadows when he used them (that was November, I think). <br><br>I think the most "real" thing in the story to me was the jingle stuck in the Skipper's head (auditory input, even if remembered). It reminded me of the doorbell chime on (I believe it was ST Voyager). It was the same as the opening notes of I Dream of Jeannie, and I would think of that show every time I heard it. We've all had tunes stuck in our heads, and it helped me relate.<br><br>The ships & the crews... I would have liked to more detail about how all of them looked. Star Wars taught us all of the weakness of the exhaust port on the side of the ship, but I wanted to know if this was bigger target than Tatooine's "womp rats" that Luke used to bullseye at 500 yards. If it was a tiny opening, it could have added to the tension by knowing what a hard target it would be to hit.<br><br>On character development, I thought Commander Stone was believable enough as an inexperienced officer in the rough for the first time. It reminded me not so much as a Star trek episode as the OCS part of Starship Troopers. He made mistakes, and did his best to cope. You learn; you fight on.<br><br>I didn't get a good handle on Byrd and what she wanted. Maybe it was to find out why Stone was a better choice, or she just didn't like the change in style from her last commander. In either case, her motives appeared conflicted, and I never caught why. I felt shouting out the course change before Stone could should have landed her in hot water. There is only one captain on a ship in battle, unless you want bad things to happen.<br><br>The plot, I thought, was muddled. If they were going to engage the raiders anyway, why offer a chance to withdraw? Were they on one side, or peacekeepers? Why turn so soon to attack the raiders? No matter what her speed, the cruiser would still have been near enough to engage them after the battle started. <br><br>Not many captains leave their bridge in the middle of a battle. After all, a captain is in charge because he, or she, or it, is the most experienced officer. A few Klingons opened up on the Enterprise when Scotty was in charge and Kirk was down on the planet, but I can't think of a time James T. stayed out of it when he wasn't strapped down to a medical bed. The proof is in the results, I guess. They won, or at least lived to fight another day.<br><br>I would have liked to see more about why he was eager to fight again at the end. He didn't like the death of Kelsey, and wanted to know when he could see the bodies. He sounded like he didn't like death. If it was just the urge to command, I would have liked to see a distinction made.<br><br>Nate
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Post May 09, 2005, 09:06:35 PM

Re: Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

Your feedback to my story, “Sacred Spear” has been terrific. In thanks, I wanted to share my own thoughts on the story and how it developed.<br><br>I write a lot about leadership and management issues at my day job, and I wanted to explore what happens to a relatively inexperienced leader who makes a mistake and has to live with it. My model for the story was David Weber, whose early Honor Harrington novels I've enjoyed a lot. I realized I would need to work on a much smaller scale to make a short story work, so I scaled down things like the size of the ship and crew to level I could manage more easily.<br><br>My principle goal was to show Stone’s response to his error and explore his attempt to deal with failure and overcome his fears. For that reason I didn’t go into very much detail about the background of the conflict with the Apellians, and similarly didn’t delve very far into the rest of the characters—Nita Byrd in particular. Originally I planned to have Stone actually relinquish command of the Veil to Byrd, demoting himself to the weapons deck, but that quickly seemed out of character in a military setting. I decided that I did need for him to be present on the weapons deck for the climactic scene, so I gave him weapons deck experience in the past to account for it. I also thought that in a crisis it might make sense for him to be somewhere he could contribute, rather than watching everything from the bridge, especially when he has a capable officer in Byrd. The short final scene, ending with “Suddenly he couldn’t wait” came up unexpectedly as I looked for a satisfying way to conclude the story, and I realized I wanted to show that Stone had changed and grown into the leader’s role as a result of his experiences.<br><br>It’s certainly not a perfect story, but the final result did turn out to be the story I wanted to write, and I’m happy with it. Your comments suggest it holds up reasonably well despite various problems, and I appreciate the time you've taken to help me improve my work.<br><br>Cheers,<br><br>John

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Post May 15, 2005, 12:17:31 AM

Re: Sacred Spear by John M. Cowan

So the story may have been filled with cliches. So the hackneyed plot may have been used over and over again. So what? It was a rollicking good story and it held my interest all the way through.<br><br>So it may have been wanting for a little more description. IMO, the lack of description was more than made up for in the abundance of rockem-sockem action. For that matter, more description may have bogged the story down. To me, the pace was about right for a starship dog-fight in space.<br><br>Jaimie asks why he should buy this story if he were an editor. In today’s SF market, there are a great many editors who would agree with Jaimie: It was a hackneyed, worn out plot. Never mind that it was a really good story that lots of readers would gobble up. There are many editors today that would pass up a great story because of a cliched plot, and publish a boring,or worse, a goofy story because it has a fresh, “cutting edge” plot.<br><br>Super-duper story. Enjoyed it. <br><br>Donald<br><br><br>
A really good story can compensate for less-than-brilliant writing, but brilliant writing will not save a bad story.

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