Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Friday, August 05, 2005

    Is this worth going on with?

    Welcome to CP, our first contestant! Let's give her a big round of applause.

    Here's what looks like the start of a fantasy story, and CP is wondering if it's worth going on with. It's pretty long; I'd generally prefer slightly shorter than this, but what the hell.

    I am three years older than my stepmother Amna. The traveling ballad-singers don't mention the lack of real healing skill in our society—when a woman dies in childbirth in a story, it's always for purely poetic, never physical reasons. My mother died of a fever five days after bringing me, blue and underweight, into a frigid December world. My father, seer to the local lord though he was, could do nothing beyond what the neighborhood midwives had already attempted.

    A wet-nurse had already been engaged, so feeding and caring for the now pink and skinny but cheerful infant that I was did not pose an immediate problem. However, as I grew, providing for my care became more of a challenge, as Papa's fortunes waned with his employer's. Serfdom is a primary source of income for the landed upper classes, and though we were not severely affected by the plague which wiped out whole villages in other regions, a famine produced by low crop yields during several successive years caused a drop in the laboring population.

    Within a few years, our district had wasted from fat prosperity to thin subsistence, and clearly something drastic had to be done. My father's solution was marriage—a purely business arrangement. The noble Papa attended was likewise inclined to matrimony, for the same financial reason. Lord Calb soon contracted, by means of couriers, negotiators, exchanging portraits and promises of a large dowry, to marry a noblewoman from a nearby principality. They were to be wed once the snow-melt-filled rivers between his land and her father’s were safe to ford.

    Papa’s reasons for desiring a second wife were not merely mercenary. I was already almost eighteen, without matrimonial prospects of my own, having no title and no exceptionally pretty face. Papa needed money for himself and for me, another woman to care for the home when I was absent, temporarily or permanently, and a renewed possibility of begetting a son to inherit what entailed property he had been awarded in thanks for his otherwise unremunerated spiritual services. Lord Calb’s coffers being empty, he offered Papa land and the peasants on it, which, I once heard my father remark, were considerably less portable than a stout case of gold pieces.

    The merchant class, whom our local working-class guild-members envy, makes its money by bringing goods from the distant East and far south of us. Naturally, some of the people who once lived in those hot climates have migrated northward over the centuries and settled among us. Because they speak different dialects, and worship differently from us, this group has been the object of hate and fear in many places, sometimes, though rarely, even here. In response, our king has established laws protecting them from harm, and offering nobility and riches to those who convert to our faith. In fact, Amna, my lovely stepmother, is the daughter of such a new noble.

    My father had to call in many favors owed him over the years by various members of the aristocracy in order to be able to marry Amna. Her father was not eager to part with one of his well-dowried daughters to an unknown seer. But, having heard of my father's great learning, not only in the sciences, but in the arts--that papa even owned two books, vellum-bound--and that he had had me, a girl, instructed in reading and writing (though he could not have known that papa did this in order to speed my way to becoming the head of a religious house, not out of a special urge to see a woman become literate), the careful nobleman blessed the betrothal, and Amna joined our household as its new mistress. She was barely fifteen.

    Marna was born ten months later. I assisted at the birth, as I had been doing at the bedsides of rich and poor for some eight years, though I admit that at the age of nine, I wasn't a great deal of material assistance. As a child, my main jobs were to keep hot water ready at all times, to wash out bloody rags, and to try to keep from getting sick at the sight and sound of the whole messy, noisy spectacle. I have become more useful as I've gotten older. Amna stayed in bed to mend for almost two weeks, all the time insisting on nursing the baby herself, which the wet-nurse grimaced at, but endured. Since the nurse was also contracted to another family in the neighborhood, she was not inconvenienced too much.

    While Amna was immobile, but for short trips to the pail in the corner which one of the peasant men would dump daily, I acted as her maid, plumping her pillows and helping her to put on a fresh blouse for whenever my father came to call. We talked a lot. Actually, she talked and I listened.

    She spoke about the city where she had been born, a metropolis besieged by heat, a place almost unimaginable to me in the middle of our cold climate. She remembered tall stone buildings, great shadowy halls where the merchants would assemble to trade goods and news from their travels. And she recalled the curious quarters of the city: In one district there were twisted alleys into which hypochondriacs emerged at night, coalescing in groups to howl their miseries to passersby, begging hopelessly for cures for their imagined ills. In the green light of the streetlamps, their faces loomed as unnaturally pink orbs with black mouths and eyes, making them even more frightening. At dawn, the ragged bands scattered, and beggars occupied the spots where mental malady ruled at dusk. In another area, the god-makers sculpted images out of tempered glass, and apprentices carried them to the priests to be invested with divine power, which would leave them cool and clean in the most miserable weather. Amna had lived in the flower district, where greenhouses grew roses and the fodder for the animals which supplied milk and meat. She said she missed seeing the god-rainbows most of all.

    “What are those?” I wanted to know.

    “The gods sit in windows—they catch the light and cool it, and scatter rainbows indoors.”

    “Why did your family leave?” I asked.

    Amna shifted unhappily. “Our gods broke. My parents came home from the greenhouses one evening and all four of them were lying face down in the street, broken in half. They were hot and covered with dust. This hadn’t happened to anyone before. That night, we left. Mother demanded we go to a place where no one would shame us. But we knew that we shouldn’t go beyond the edge of the trading league—we would need some living. So we came here—it’s the farthest outpost.”



    There are two problems with the prose style here, and a wider structural one that suggests it might be the best thing to toss 99% of this extract and rewrite it. That said, let's look at the actual writing before we get in too deep.

    We have here a mutant strain of "As You Know, Bob." The one we all know and love has the author dumping exposition on the reader, disguised as a conversation between two characters who both know the information already. When you have a real, natural conversation, there's a set of expectations on both sides; usually that the content is going to be relevant, interesting or practical. "As You Know" conversations fail because of this.

    CP's narrator is addressing the reader. It's 1st person, so it's easy to identify that side of the conversation. What CP hasn't done too well is to identify who the reader is. Exactly what kind of information requires laying out in detail? What can remain unsaid? What can we assume Bob the Reader already knows?

    Take this, for example:

    Serfdom is a primary source of income for the landed upper classes, and though we were not severely affected by the plague which wiped out whole villages in other regions, a famine produced by low crop yields during several successive years caused a drop in the laboring population.

    Unless Bob the Reader is the narrator's economics professor, this is not interesting. Or, again:

    Since the nurse was also contracted to another family in the neighborhood, she was not inconvenienced too much.

    Why would Bob be interested in the possibility that the nurse is inconvenienced? Nobody is interested in that.

    So: who is the narrator talking to, and why? When CP knows that, she'll know what is relevant, what is interesting, what is natural for that narrative voice to be saying.

    The second stylistic problem here is that sentences are often tripping over themselves in their haste to pack in information.

    Lord Calb soon contracted, by means of couriers, negotiators, exchanging portraits and promises of a large dowry, to marry a noblewoman from a nearby principality.

    I read 'couriers, negotiators' and expect that the next item on the list is going to be another plural noun. Then I'm tripped up by 'exchanging portraits', because I have read it as 'portraits that are exchanging' instead of 'the exchange of portraits'. Once I've got over that, I find myself thinking that 'exchanging' also modifies 'promises...', which it probably isn't supposed to. By the time I've sorted that out, I've forgotten what the verb was in the first place. So, in telling us four things at once, CP is making it hard to read. Or here:

    Papa needed money for himself and for me, another woman to care for the home when I was absent, temporarily or permanently, and a renewed possibility of begetting a son to inherit what entailed property he had been awarded in thanks for his otherwise unremunerated spiritual services
    .
    CP's telling us about eight different things in this long, troublesome sentence. If this is going to be interesting information, significant to the story, she can afford to unpack it a bit; to give those ten-dollar words a bit of breathing space. Ditto for the sentence beginning: But, having heard of my father's great learning... Ten bits of information there.

    Here's the big structural thing: is this the start of the story? What's the story about? I can't tell from this. It seems like CP is not quite sure of what is going to happen, and has decided to start from birth and hang around until something interesting happens. Which, eventually, it does:

    “Our gods broke. My parents came home from the greenhouses one evening and all four of them were lying face down in the street, broken in half. They were hot and covered with dust."

    There's a genuine bit of strangeness and romance there, but we had to wait awhile to get to it. Actually, Amna's story is the most interesting thing so far. Imagine the difference if the story began:

    Our gods broke. My parents came home from the greenhouses one evening and all four of them were lying face down in the street, broken in half. They were hot and covered with dust.

    Draws you in, doesn't it? Although "I am three years older than my stepmother Amna" is not a bad first sentence, CP then gets bogged down with the narrator. It might be better to jump right in where this extract ends. (The Last Outpost! A good place for adventures to happen. Anything can happen on the borders. Let's get that to the front.)

    There are other nice touches in Amna's story. The hypochondriacs are a spooky idea, but CP probably needs to treat them more elliptically. She could get away with:

    She recalled the curious quarters of the city: the twisted alleys into which the hypochondriacs emerged at night, howling.

    Or something. The more information, detail, and metaphor she adds, the less effective it becomes; 'Mental malady rules at dusk' is failed-ominous. It sounds like it could be a TV wrestling special: tonight on Channel 62, Mental Malady takes on the Pink Orb!

    CP needs to resist the temptation to be tell us everything twice, decide what's important enough to tell us, and tell us once, in the most effective and economical way. (Sorry if I'm repeating myself...!)

    CP asks whether it's worth going on with. Well - yes, if there's a good story waiting to be told, then thought and care and polish and practice will bring it to the surface eventually. This is already better than the average slush-pile manuscript. However, to stand a chance of publication, you need something better than the average published manuscript. If CP sent this out as it is and tried to sell it, it'd be rejected. That's the bad news.

    Unless you do go on with things, even the fairly unpromising things, you'll never get anything finished; and often it's only when the story's all there that you start to see how to improve the way it's told.
    Torgo, 1:24 pm

    4 Comments:

    ok, I noticed from reading this long post that the contrast between text and backgroud isn't as defined as it may need to be for longer entries.

    My eyes were hurting by the end.

    Don't get me wrong, I like the new template, just maybe changing the text to black would make it easier on the eyes.

    I was also going to present some of my takes on this piece, but I don't know if you would like that or not. So until I read otherwise I'll hold off.

    Applause to CP for bravery.
    Blogger Phoenix, at 7:52 pm  
    Yep, looking for a non-horrible template. Sorry. Might go through a few. Please feel free to comment.
    Blogger Torgo, at 7:57 pm  
    you could just look at the code once you find one you like and tweak it.

    So my take on the piece was thus:

    1. The million dollar words run together. Also the sentences can get excruciatingly long. Break it up a little and it will flow better.

    2. Multiple,unrelated, subjects in single paragraphs. Hard to know what is actually trying to be said in that paragraph. Example: what do raising a child and serfdom have in common?

    Those are the things that struck me the most. Good Luck with this CP.
    Blogger Phoenix, at 8:14 pm  
    I read an interesting article on it I would like to share with you...
    Anonymous Alonzo Pearcey, at 7:47 pm  

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