Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Thursday, August 25, 2005
Now, that might be difficult. It's newspaper column length, really, and you seem to have to be a nationally-syndicated columnist to rate a collection of these pieces.
I won't post it here, as it's short enough that it'd be meaningless to excerpt bits, and I don't want to publish the whole thing. But it does rather hop around, discussing Margie's grandchild's fantasy that he has a family of five living in his ear, and his first scurrilous lie. There are asides about the explosion in child safety warning labels and equipment and about how children learn to tell truth from fiction. It rather rambles. It would be difficult to get a newspaper to print this piece, let alone to get a publisher to buy a book of similar pieces.
I think it'd be best to try a more focused column out on local newspapers.
That's what Kim tried with her piece on substitute teaching, but they told her they only work with their regular journalists. I think the trouble might be that it isn't quite funny or interesting enough. Essentially, Kim tells us how she got her teaching license, how she is booked, and how the bureaucracy works when she gets to the school. What is rather passed over is the actual experience of teaching.
That's partly the point: the teaching is apparently limited to setting work and supervising the pupils. But an essay which is essentially about the sort of annoying administrative paperwork that most of us face every day is not going to particularly amuse or divert the readers of the paper.
It's not badly written, but it needs something more to make an editor's ears prick up.
Patty and Jamie
That was the summer I lost everything. Passport, car keys, wallet, birth certificate, watch, sunglasses. One by one, as the weeks passed, I surrendered the trinkets of my adult identity, dropping them out of my life like a mermaid stripping the artifacts of her terrestrial visit, preparing for her return to the sea.
The driver's license was the hardest . There's not a lot you can do without a license. I had to drive just over the speed limit at all times, because I couldn't risk getting hauled off to jail (do they actually arrest you for driving without a license, and if so, why haven't we citizens risen up in protest?). I thought about applying for a new one, but as the weeks passed and the old, lost one silently expired in some thief's drawer or perhaps under one of my own couch cushions, the task began to seem impossibly complicated. I called the town where I'd been born to request a birth certificate. "Just send us a check for $5 and a copy of a photo i.d.," said the clerk on the phone, a kindly sounding sort, no doubt the mother of two school-aged kids, a boy and a girl. "Thank you," I said brightly, and hung up the phone.
Oh, I managed, all right. I had no bank card, of course, but there was a teller who would cash a check without i.d.. Better yet, she worked at the drive-thru, so I never had to risk rejection in front of the other customers, women, mostly, with bulging purses full of clipped coupons and tickets and photos of Campbell’s soup type children. Keys and emery boards and business cards from the plumber and the electrician and the man who'd refinished the hardwood floors. Mints and cell phones and antibacterial hand gel. These women had whole worlds at their fingertips, portable universes, and they didn’t even know it.
That was the summer that Jamie went away. I still don’t know who is to blame, and I don't know what I'll do when I find out.
The narrator is Patty, and her son Jamie goes away because she is falsely accused of abuse. He's taken into foster care. In her job, Patty "translates buzzwords and corporate jargon into real language, fending off attempts by her colleagues to foist terms like 'bucketing' (bizspeak for categorizing) and 'evolve impactful action points' onto the public." So it's appropriate that in her quest to win back her son, she has to learn to speak the language of the social services and game the system that way. There's a mystery involved, too, as to who in her life had made the false complaint.
It sounds like a pretty interesting idea, with the main theme being Patty's need to interpret the world around her in ways that make sense. There's much scope for satire there, and with tight plotting it could be a satisfying story of a woman using her skill with words to reorder her life.
As to the extract: it's a bit confusing. I love some of the writing here. The portable universes - great image. I like the way Patty sees the world, assigning properties to the people around her, the kids, the emery boards, the mints. It's a good technique for characterising a first-person narrator - getting the way they observe things across to the reader. However, I couldn't quite follow some of the threads here.
The first paragraph seems to imply that Patty is intentionally divesting herself of 'the trinkets of her adult identity'; that they are no longer important to her. But then it seems she's trying to get them back. Then, I don't get the driver's license bit (why does she have to drive just over the limit? Mind you, I can't drive, so what do I know.) The drive-thru scene is great, as discussed.
Then suddenly it jumps across to Jamie. I like the way it's been set up - the trivial problems in juxtaposition with the main crisis of the book. The trouble is that, because Jane's done it in the three slightly confusing paragraphs, it doesn't have the impact it might do. I'd suggest rewriting them to make it more focused. Change the mermaid image, perhaps. It's nice, but it implies a voluntary process. The slightly poetic feel of the mermaid image should stay, though.
Then Jane could use the second paragraph to narrate a few of the losses - driver's license, wallet, birth cert, maybe. A more prosaic feel here, maybe a touch of comedy, which she can get away with after the first para. We should by now know that she's had a string of mishaps and setbacks that she is trying to manage.
The third paragraph should stay. Those mishaps, which seemed like annoyances, now appear to be serious problems. A touch of character for Patty, and good writing. Then we're all set up for the fourth paragraph's emotional punch.
If this voice can be sustained and there's a compelling and witty story to be told, it's looking good to me.
whatnots. If not, don't abuse me too heartily on the blog for making the
Pitiful fool! No, I'm joking of course. I don't have much of an insight into the poetry publishing industry, and I'm wary of publishing anything in its entirety here on the blog, so I'll steer clear of poems in general. Sorry.
More in a bit.
Monday, August 22, 2005
Funny and not so funny
The site is still knackered in various significant ways, after my massive hubris in fiddling with some browser settings and declaring it fixed. In doing so I have in fact probably re-broken it in a subtle and cunning manner that would be the envy of malicious hackers everywhere. So I may have to look at getting a new template or a new web address somewhere. My brother, who is to IT what Michael Bay is to bad movies, is on the case.
LunchtimeAnother awkward, self-conscious narrator. She finds herself eavesdropping on the girls' conversation, which is all about Jenny's new boyfriend:
Be casual, I told myself. I clenched my lunch-box as I meandered towards the four girls who sat on the carpet, their legs folded underneath themselves. Jenny and Liz leant against the walls, with Maggie and Sharon facing them. Pockets of students dotted the walls but there was plenty of space around these four. I agonized over how close to sit beside them. Be brave. I plumped myself down with my shoulder almost touching Jenny's but at the last minute pulled away, leaving a foot between us. I tucked my skirt under my legs keeping my head down, silently berating myself for my cowardice.
Jenny always had a queue of guys interested in her. I remembered her kissing Patrick Branagan at the last school disco. They had been wrapped around each other, swaying to the music of Moon River. I had felt sick. But I couldn't stop watching her, trying to share the experience, imagining his warm tongue in my mouth, his lips sucking mine, the tips of his fingers resting on the top of my arse. Dirty bastard. Imagining it was as close as I'd come to having Patrick kiss me. Or any boy. Who wants the fat ugly nerd when they could have Jenny Ryan?The girls discuss whether Jenny should have sex with her boyfriend, while the narrator listens uncomfortably, waiting for an opportunity to contribute to the conversation. But...
"You should let him sweat for a few days," said Sharon. Sharon always sounded sure of whatever she said.
"Let's get some air before class," said Sharon, standing up. The others got up and followed her out. I looked down at my sandwich, I still hadn't taken a bite. Red spots marked where my fingers had broken though the bread to the jam below. I wiped my fingers on the bread and dropped it back in the box. It now repelled me. I wished I could treat all food with such distaste.Shades of 'Weightless' again. And it ends up in a similar, inconclusive place:
Did it mean anything that they had had an intimate conversation in front of me? Was it their way of tormenting me? Or their way of inviting me to be friends? I sighed.Good for her, but is this a story?
I had sat beside them today, maybe tomorrow I'll speak to them.
I don't think it is; I don’t think 'Weightless' is, either. It's a character sketch. Stranger says: "I'm not sure if the characters in the story have a longer story to tell - or even if I'd let them." Well, it needs some sort of shape to it, because right now there's just the narrator's feeling of social awkwardness, and some other characters who don't seem to exist for any reason other than to throw that feeling into relief.
I think about going to the Y.M.C.A. and swimming laps, lots of laps; at least enough laps to reduce the size of my ass and thighs and flappy underarms. The idea to exercise came to birth on a day I sat down on my couch. I'd brought my laptop from the office, prepared to do a bit of work and as I set it on my lap, the keyboard was gobbled up by the overlap of my gut. The day was filled with a stunning uneasiness of the inevitability that I would surely have to lose a grave amount of weight.
I visualized driving there, which is always of little consequence: jeans, T-shirt, a button-down, long sleeve shirt, sweater, black military boots, a jacket, a big jacket, a baseball hat, a raspberry jelly filled donut, a cup of hot coffee with cream and three sugars, and a lit cigarette. I steer the car along the well known path to the gym with my knees, maneuvering coffee, donut and cigarette from hand to hand while I negotiate the shifter. As I park the car and turn off the engine, I lean back against the head rest, closing my eyes. A sense of fear fills my lungs as I inhale the last puff of my cigarette and flick it out the window. Today, I believe, is about as good a day as any to start.
This is going to be a story that's pretty much a stream of consciousness. Detailed, immediate description is a big part of it. It's not quite down at the level of a Nicholson Baker piece, but that?s the way Jess is going.
I'm seeing too many modifiers and the odd unhappy phrase. For example, "a stunning uneasiness of the inevitability that I would surely have to lose a grave amount of weight" is wordy and unclear (can uneasiness be stunning, and what does "uneasiness of inevitability" mean? "A sense of fear fills my lungs" is another odd image that doesn't quite work.
This sort of thing is scattered all the way through. I quite like the image of the narrator's little duffel bag bobbing along obediently behind her, but then you get this: "I am weary, weary of the looks I will encounter... soon enough, I will begin the fretful journey back downstairs to the swimming pool." The melodrama of this sort of language may be intentional, but it seems to sit uneasily with the overall tone of the piece, which describes in minute detail the ordeal of being hypersensitive about one's appearance in a very public place.
Once I get downstairs, I open the squeaky metal green door to the pool area. Maybe someone will be sitting on the bleachers, maybe not, but the lifeguard will be there, watching as I make my way down the long stretch of beige tiled flooring. I can feel my heart beating as if I'm already there. I don't want to swim without the warmth and safety of the blanket I have covering my body. I'll be exposed for the person I really am; fat. I walk down the aisle, pretending not to care, counting the number of people in the pool. Every lane is taken which means I'll have to swim in a lane with someone. I mutter offensive words inside my head but convince myself I am worth the effort. I'll feel better about myself. I will. I know it, especially in a few months when my weight loss is noticeable and everyone is telling me how wonderful I look; and asking, however did you do it? It's so nice to see you! I think no one ever says that to me now, and for a second, I consider bypassing the entire pool concept because I don't want all of these people I've just imagined telling me how great I look. I'll take revenge and never lose weight. That'll show them! It's not about those people, I think, switching gears, or the people I'll meet when I'm thinner or who will like me because I have a nice body. It's about me, the way I will feel, and how much happier and healthier I will be. Yes, I nod, agreeing with myself.
I take another step, closing in on the moment when I will have to discard the comforter and lower myself into the pool. Each step is agony. As I pass her, I smile at a lady sitting on the bleachers watching everyone swim with such ease, back and forth, back and forth, and urgently survey the pool to see if there is someone, anyone, bigger than me. Not today. I know that I will offer a great amount of comfort to someone. Ha! Look at her. Phew! I don't feel so bad. Yes, someone will say to herself, I am doing something right here. Maybe it's a poor projection on my part, another step, but I don't think so. People are always comparing themselves to others to feel better about their bodies, better about their lives. I'm one of those people, and I'm obese. I really hate the word obese.
I am afraid to be seen. I have the best bathing suit one could buy, and a horribly plump body. My thighs ooze out of the leg holes, my arms have stretch marks and dimples and flap with each swishing movement they make, and my boobs- I don't even want to think about those droopy things. The only parts of my body that I like are my hair, my eyes and eyebrows... and my calves. That's it. Those are the parts of me that I like. Everything else is covered with fat.
So it's rather a mournful read. We're being asked to watch a woman hating her body, and asking us not to judge her so harshly as she judges herself:
I used to run 5k's until I had knee surgery, four knee surgeries. Why do people make fat judgments without asking questions? There are circumstances to which I can not be held accountable.
It's a believable attitude. The problem is, there's nothing else in here besides a dramatization of that attitude. The narrator enjoys her swim - "I really do feel weightless. Nice! I think" - but she still feels self-conscious, and when she has run back to get changed,
I get dressed as quickly as possible. I don't want to be seen. I hope someday I will see myself for who I am, not just my weight. Someday, I think I will. I study the gangly, long-limbed women as they smile uncomfortably at each other. They act the way I used to act, their eyes saying to one another, if I ever get that big, shoot me.
Good for her. But is it a story?
Saturday, August 20, 2005
I will try to sort it out but in the meantime why not get Firefox yourself? It is free for personal use and vastly superior to IE in every department.
OKAY: this is how to fix it if you're using IE. Click on the 'View' menu and select 'Encoding'. Now uncheck 'Auto-select' and look down the drop-down list until you see 'Unicode UTF-8'. Select that, refresh the browser, and it should all be displaying correctly. If not, let me know.
If anyone knows where my little Edit Post and Email Post icons have gone, though... I never should have started messing with the template...
Friday, August 19, 2005
What happens when you nearly succeed as a dancer, only to have your dreams dashed after an accident? When Kate meets horror film director, Joachim, an unusual bond is forged. His career is in tatters, the love of his life has left him, and his drug use is spiralling out of control. Kate is haunted by her failure as a professional dancer and must find refuge in Joachim's idealisation of his voluptuous ex to accept herself. She is prepared to endure a torturous emotional journey with him, imagining this as a rite of passage to the dark arts. But Joachim's desires may have murderous intent, his aims more treacherous than even Kate could have dared imagine...
Written in minutely drawn attention to detail, this raw and original portrait champions the unrealised dreams in all of us that refuse to die. At last here is an erotic novel that dispenses traditional notions of a virgin/whore dichotomy, assumptions about dancing folk and people who like to wear black. A frank testimony, full of wonderment for experiences supremely felt and a place where all the songs of Courtney Love finally make sense.
If this is what is being sent out to agents and publishers, the book is going to struggle. Marcelle included it into the email I got, so it might just be for my benefit, but I suspect it isn't. So let's go through it in detail. If I got it wrong, Marcelle, sorry! Skip down a screen or two.
The first paragraph, which is setting out the plot, has some problems. It starts with a question that few people will have asked themselves. Is that what the novel is really going to be about, or is it going to be about what happens to one specific ex-dancer? Marcelle could as easily just start with Kate. I then don't understand what it means to say that she has to find refuge in an idealisation of a voluptuous ex, and I feel rather apprehensive at the thought of a torturous emotional journey. The dark arts suddenly pop up (I had no idea that the supernatural might be making an appearance) and it then goes into psychological thriller mode with the murderous intent and treacherous aims.
In short, it's rather confusing. I'd like to have a better sense of the story here. If the story sounds interesting and original, the reader's much more likely to want to read the rest of it.
The second paragraph is... bad. I wonder how many query letters are like this. I don't see the query letter in all its glory - agents, rather than publishers, see those more routinely - and barely read cover letters. But this is bad blurb writing and will only serve to get the mickey taken out of Marcelle in the reading room.
Blurbs are hard to write. Publishing companies pay people good salaries to do nothing but boil the marketing message of a book down into a snappy, irresistible little block of text. I can't do it. Most authors can't do it well, in my experience. It's a specialised skill. So, beware: the harder you try to make your book sound fabulous, the closer you will get to making it sound ridiculous.
Up close: things are written 'with' minute attention to detail; attention to detail will rarely be 'minutely drawn', unless you are writing about Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime scene; 'a portrait that champions unrealised dreams in all of us that refuse to die' is a too-complex bit of hyperbole; 'at last' is even more hyperbole; 'dispenses' ought to be 'dispenses with'; I can't think of any 'traditional notions of a virgin/whore dichotomy' or assumptions about dancers that urgently need dispensing with; 'dancing folk' is hokey; 'frank testimony' makes me think this is going to be a memoir, whereas the first paragraph made me expect the occult or a thriller; 'full of wonderment for experiences supremely felt' is hilariously over-the-top; and I do not wish to visit a place where the songs of Courtney Love suddenly make sense.
Given all that, what's the book like? Marcelle will be lucky to have many people request to see it on the basis of this synopsis.
Here's the first chapter.
At fifteen, time seemed different. I simply wanted to be a gymnast. Back then, I had no fears of not making it, the world, and I with it, was relentless. Often I had the feeling I was rushing towards something, like a train cramming itself fiercely into the blackened gape of a tunnel. People didn't know what to make of me. I walked around school with a fixated face, energy I could not channel bristling from me in all directions. Above all the talk of underage sex, short skirts and cigarettes, I had an aim. It is easy, so easy to be obsessive when you have no friends.
My day would start early in the prehistoric calm of dawn, still a magical place, where even late starters with well developed hips and budding breasts can turn themselves into Nadia Comaneci. Usually it was cold. The grass damp. I'd start out in layer upon layer of lycra-tracksuit-leotard ensembles (warmth protects muscles) and move through my warm-up routine, somnolent, like a sleepwalker. Then, as the sun began to dry my father's lawn, I began the jerking tumble-runs as best as I could in the limited space: roundoff, flic, flic, straight back somi. The first pass was the worst, every joint threatened to stall, not to bend or spring back, a state I call 'bone creaky'. Whoosh. Breathe. Four turbulent seconds and then your whole frame seems to relax into place. With one snap, you are a gymnast a performer with the right to do what you are doing. You gulp for breath. The neighbours can look if they want to.
Dirt, mud, gravel and blades of grass get meshed into your hands. Mud splashes up, sometimes into your eyes. You don't care. You have to wear the same dirty tracksuits for several days anyway. It's not worth dressing up clean to get dirty. My Dad is a keen gardener and his lush green lawn is surviving majestically, despite a daily onslaught of my fumbled tumbling routines pushed in hard by bare feet. You can see the shapes of my exercises ground into the lawn, which end with trampled mud dips where I drop the final somi.
The whole garden has been occupied by me, Dad's flower life has to content itself with the space I can't use: the edges around the borders. An old rusty square telegraph pole held in place by huge nail wedges serves as a floor beam. I hate putting my hands down on it for too long, the metal feels lethal like it's come from a seawreck. That's why I'm so fast on it. Fear is the key. If I can cope with this, on a real beam it will be oh so easy. Between two silver birch trees Dad has secured a heavy metal pole, a makeshift bar, so that I can practise upswings and beats. Again it's the wrong shape (too wide) and is too heavy, repeated use has bruised my pelvic area so much I am left with permanent yellow roughened skin around the bikini line. While other girls at school are having sex, my thighs have toughened, the skin steeling itself against the onslaught of puberty.
But then, I'm not allowed to have sex, have boyfriends, go out. After the last party when my Dad had to pick me up when I had collapsed drunk on the floor, surrounded by boys, normal life was over. It was the start of the summer holidays, the year of the Olympics 1984. And I was grounded for like, forever.
Er, where's Kate the dancer and Joachim? Marcelle says the book takes place over ten years, but... anyway. The prose is a mixture of the good - "Four turbulent seconds and then your whole frame seems to relax into place. With one snap, you are a gymnast" - the bad - "I'd start out in layer upon layer of lycra-tracksuit-leotard ensembles (warmth protects muscles) and move through my warm-up routine, somnolent, like a sleepwalker." - and the ugly - "I am left with permanent yellow roughened skin around the bikini line." Ewww! Sometimes Marcelle's backflips come off, and sometimes they end in a bit of an unsightly tumble. So, there's a good deal still to be done at this level.
I also feel a little bit uneasy about this as the beginning for an erotic novel, although it's hard to tell - even with the synopsis - where this is going.
At the end of chapter one, where are we? Does this novel begin in the right place? Marcelle might need to have a good look at the way it's structured, too.
That's me, lying on the bed, stuck like a pig over the fire and taking in nutrients like breathing because I don't have a choice either way. If sanitizer is life then I can smell it as it passes my nostrils and nourishes my atrophied muscles the best it can. White is the only color that gives the illusion of cleanliness and I know I'm in trouble when my eyelids get the strength to open and I see that everything in the room is covered with it. The last white I remember seeing before I fell was a woman’s teeth and the marshmallow white of her eyes. For some reason I think she was smiling when it happened but I can’t for the life of me remember her name.
There's a tube down my throat, a needle in my arm, and I follow the white clip on my pointer finger to a cord that is connected to a machine on my left. It beeps a rhythm I remember from a very long time ago. I’m guessing this is the machine that tells the doctors I still have a pulse. My hand twitches and the clip falls to the floor faster than the machine flat lines. I hear a laugh in the room and am startled when I realize it’s my own. My life is a dream that the doctors say I’ll never see. My eyes close as the nurses run in to save my life.
Jason might be trying a bit too hard here. Some of the effects he's going for aren't coming off. A person lying in a hospital bed does not in any way look like a pig stuck over a fire, for instance, and so already the reader has the sense that they are not in safe hands.
There are some awkward sentence constructions here that add to that impression: "If sanitizer is life then I can smell it as it passes my nostrils and nourishes my atrophied muscles the best it can." What is the object of 'smell' here - 'sanitizer'? 'life'? Can sanitizer or life nourish muscles? I think what Jason wants to say is that breathing air is nourishing the atrophied muscles, and that the smell of sanitizer is the only impression his protagonist has of this process. Whatever he's saying, it's muddled.
Or this: "White is the only color that gives the illusion of cleanliness and I know I'm in trouble when my eyelids get the strength to open and I see that everything in the room is covered with it." What's everything in the room covered with - white, the illusion of cleanliness or trouble? It's supposed to be the colour white, but the object of the verb is right at the other end of the sentence and so it's difficult to make out.
It would be better to ditch things like "My life is a dream that the doctors say I'll never see" and just concentrate on clear description of where we are and what the protagonist is thinking, feeling and observing. Make some of those troublesome sentences into two sentences, provided there are two things that need saying. Smooth the whole thing out.
I've picked on the bad bits. It's not all bad. There are as many OK sentences as iffy ones. The thing is, readers, agents and editors will spot the iffy ones instantly and think that it's not worth the effort to keep reading. Rewrite, think hard about every word, and don't give people an excuse to think that.
The Boy Who Was A Football
There once was a boy who really loved football. He watched every match he could on the television. He went to every home match with his father. He went down to the park every Sunday morning, come rain or shine, to watch the local football games.
But this boy didn’t have dreams about being a goal-scorer. He didn’t want to be a striker or a defender or the goalie or even the referee. He wanted to be the football.
He practised crunching himself into a small ball and rolling around the lounge or the garden. He tried bouncing around his bedroom. Once he even broke his wrist when he fell off his cupboard while trying to bounce.
Ouch! And this in a 4+ picture book text. We're in weird territory here, people.
Obviously this child's insanity is a problem for his parents and his teacher, but the teacher has an idea:
“Today”, he said, “we are going to do something special. We are going to have a big football match. I am going to divide the class into two and you,” he said, looking at the boy, “are going to be the football.” The boy’s eyes lit up and he could hardly stop himself from jumping in the air with delight.
The class split into two and the boy walked to the middle of the pitch, rolled himself into a ball and waited for the game to start. The P.E. teacher blew his whistle and the game began. He was kicked from one side of the pitch to the other. Even the smallest child in his class got a chance to kick the boy who was a football.
He's kicked savagely off the pitch by his classmates and the PE teacher picks him up for a throw-in:
“NOOOO!” shouted the boy who was a football. “I don’t want to be a football any more”. The P.E. teacher lowered the boy and said “Are you sure?” “Yes” said the boy who was a football. “I don’t want to be a football ever again.”
And the teacher looked at his mother and his mother looked at the teacher and they both smiled.
I must say, it's a refreshing change to see a children's book as unashamedly violent and nasty as this. Usually when the child has a bizarre notion like this he's shunned and then saves the day and we all learn a valuable lesson about tolerance. Here he has his delusion leathered out of him by his peers and with the tacit approval of his mother. (Billy Elliot would only have been five minutes long set in this kid's school.)
This is not going to sell. What with the broken wrists and the ceaseless kicking of a defenceless child, it's certainly too violent to be a picture book, and does not have a message that most publishers will want to get behind.
If you had ten or so more tales as dark and dysfunctional as this, you might be able to bind them up with a Lemony Snicket cover look, some Edward Goreyesque art, and sell the book to 9+. That might be something.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
So, I now have more than 25 things awaiting critique. I credit the Statue. I'm going to try to do one a day, so reckon three weeks now from submitting things and hopefully I'll do better than that.
I suppose if I keep getting things at the rate of four or five a day, I'll have to think about a week's submissions moratorium, but it's not too bad right now.
I hope this is a useful experiment for everybody who's reading this. It is certainly proving to be useful for me. It's making me think very hard about how to respond to people who I would normally be able to blow off with a form rejection note, and that can't be a bad thing. If it were to make a few authors think more carefully and in a more informed way about how editors are going to respond to their work, that would be excellent.
A Weekend Jaunt
Samantha has sent in a short story called "A Weekend Jaunt". It begins with the reading of Henry Fromm's will. He leaves little, and his relatives are annoyed. Among them are Celia Ferguson, Henry's niece, and her mother Janice, who "was viewed as one of the most beautiful (and most vicious) women in town. Celia took after her mother in a number of respects. Unfortunately for Celia, attractiveness was not one of them."
They turn their anger and frustration on Charlie Haverly, the lawyer ("Nickel Creek's hotshot young attorney".)
“You can’t mean that is all there is.” Janice traced a finger along his jaw line. “I know the old coot was hiding something up in that big house of his.”
Charlie cast a lingering glance at Janice, deciding the best course of action. He brought his face so near Janice’s she could taste the avocadoes Charlie had for a snack earlier. He drew in a breath and...
Charlie snickered, turned and walked back to the podium.
So Charlie leaves, and strolls off down Alhambra Way:
Charlie walked past rows of ramshackle old mansions and makeshift apartment buildings. At one time, Nickel Creek was a hotbed of tycoons and opportunists, but since the oil market went bust, it had become a haven for criminals and squatters.
In the distance, Charlie could see a young girl standing at the fence in front of Henry’s old house. A slow grin crept across his face as he approached her. The girl, wearing a fuchsia sarong and cut-off white tank top, heard Charlie approach. Charlie stood next to her at the fence and looked at the house with her.
Could this be the same young girl who had quietly slipped away from the reading of the will? No one had paid her any notice. "Henry was notorious for collecting an array of odd characters. Surely this girl was no exception."
Now read on:
“I like that one. Easier on the eye.”
“Yes. I had a feeling you would approve.” The young girl glanced at Charlie for a moment before returning her gaze to the house.
“That place needs a paint job in the worst way.” The girl opened the gate and began to walk up the path to the door.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“Because Henry is dead, remember? If someone sees you go into the house, they will call the cops or something.”
The young girl gave Charlie an irritated look and walked back to the gate.
“Well, it is my house. Technically.”
“Do they know that?”
The girl sat down on the curb, took a drink from her water bottle and offered a drink to Charlie. He took the bottle and drained it.
“Why did you have to go and pick someplace so hot?”
“Are you seriously complaining about the heat?”
Charlie sat next to the girl on the curb.
“Are you saying I have no right?”
The young girl glanced at Charlie and burst out laughing.
“Well, if you think about where you live most of the time, I would say no, you don’t have a right to complain.”
Charlie looked at the girl and smirked.
They sat quietly for a few moments. Across the street, two small children were taking turns kicking a dead bird. The girl would watch the children for a while, look at Charlie as though she wanted to say something, stop herself and glance back at the children. Charlie broke the silence.
“You know we have to get back to work.”
“Now that Henry is dead …”
“I know.” The girl stood up, dusting herself off. “I’m just getting used to this one though.”
“I don’t know why you got another one. The timing for the return was perfect. You know how attached you get.”
“I can go first, if you need a minute.”
“No, you’re right. We should do it together. The weekend just went so fast.”
Charlie stood, looking around. The girl stared at the children who were still kicking the bird and paying no attention to Charlie and the girl.
“Ready?” Charlie was watching the girl bemused.
“Yeah. Sileo!” The children froze in place. The girl looked around her and everywhere all activity had ceased movement.
“I’ve always loved that trick.” Charlie looked at the children for a second.
“I thought you were in a hurry. Did mean old Janice scare you?” Laughing, the girl looked down at her apparel, swiped her hand across the air and suddenly was dressed in a simple white gown.
“Very funny. Do you want to or is it my turn?”
“I’ll do it.”
“Thanks for suggesting this. It was fun.” The girl looked at Charlie for a long time.
“Yes, almost like the old days. Before you decided to become a jerk.” The girl gave Charlie a big grin and reached her hand to him. Charlie took her hands in his.
“Sir?” Charlie searched for the words.
“Yes?” The girl gazed at Charlie expectantly.
“I am doing okay, aren’t I?” Charlie appeared unsure of himself.
“Of course you are.” The girl replied. “What fun is good without evil? Next time, though, you have to be the old guy and I get to be the cool dude. Deal?”
With that, the girl gave a quick nod of her head, sending the two of them skyward. When they reached the clouds, there were two distinct explosions. One black. One white.
Now, what's going on there?
As near as I can get: the girl and Charlie are an angel and a demon (a fallen angel) respectively. Every now and again they meet on Earth, where they have a little fun messing with the heads of mortals. Perhaps one is performing good deeds and the other evil deeds, but it's rather blurry.
I have to say, if that's the idea - they're just playing pranks on people - I really quite like it. Well plotted, it could be a strong, funny story. The difficulty with this treatment of the idea is that it's a gimmick ending with a very hard-to-make out plot leading up to it. I do not get the business with Henry's house and his relatives at all. Perhaps I am being very dense and some time tomorrow I will suddenly kick myself, but it doesn't make sense to me even having read it through once.
I bought M John Harrison's last book of short stories, and they're so elliptical and jewel-like you can barely grasp the mood he's going for, let alone the details of What Is Supposed To Be Going On. Nevertheless, they are still effective because he's a brilliant stylist. You come out of one of his stories, or - less extreme - one of Kelly Link's, and you have a powerful sense that you've seen the shape of something unsettling. (I couldn't say for sure that there is a real knowable plot behind every single Harrison story. Sometimes I suspect him of using his technical skill to Cloud Men's Minds like the Shadow.)
The writing here is very uneven. To begin with, there are things like: "At the sound of the door slamming, Charlie, shaking his head, turned towards the rest of assemblage." There are a few sentences like that, interrupting themselves to tell you something different: "During the gathering, attended by those who knew Henry the best (and most likely loathed him the most), no one paid any notice to the young girl standing quietly in the corner." These are the sorts of things that you can usually iron out by reading the story out loud. Imagine you're doing the audiobook. Anything you have trouble saying, or saying well, needs to be rewritten. It's particularly hard to say things with lots of parentheses.
It gets better towards the end, with more dialogue. The narrative voice wavers between pretty good - "They sat quietly for a few moments. Across the street, two small children were taking turns kicking a dead bird. The girl would watch the children for a while, look at Charlie as though she wanted to say something, stop herself and glance back at the children" - and pretty awful - "The girl stared at the children who were still kicking the bird and paying no attention to Charlie and the girl."
So: it needs lots of attention at sentence level. That work has to be put in before Samantha tries to sell it. Compounding that, the plot needs looking at, and I can't really help there, because good short stories are tiny delicate mechanisms. You need to be the one who put it together originally to fix them when they're broken. Until it's ticking, it's not going to sell.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
The Time Pool
Jason Edwards leaned on Lady Lee’s aft rail, gazing into the motor yacht’s bubbling wake. The warm Caribbean breeze ruffled his auburn hair, his eyelids drooped and his thoughts drifted back to England. If his schoolmates could see him now, they’d be green with envy.
A high-pitched whine snapped him back to the present.
The long fishing rod in the handrail socket whipped over in a trembling arc. An unseen marauder had snatched the distant bait and was tearing the line off the reel.
Jason flung his Coke can aside. “Strike!”
He dashed to the railing and heaved the bucking rod out of its socket. Gripping it tightly, he edged himself into the fixed chair and manoeuvred the butt of the rod into the swivel hold. The reduced growl of the engines told him Dad had spotted the strike from the bridge. “You got it in securely, son?”
“Yes, I’m okay,” shouted Jason, feet braced on the hinged plate. The reel ratchet clicked furiously. Jason’s breaths came in short gasps as he hung on to the rod and tried to locate his quarry.
The flip-flop of running sandals announced company.
From the corner of one eye he glimpsed his twin sister Michelle’s cut-off jeans. “Undo my watch for me! Don’t scratch it. And keep out of the way!”
She flicked her long hair back. “Oh, pardon me for living. I’m not your slave, you know.” She removed his watch, anyway. “It’s one o’clock, near enough. I’ll time you.”
Some distance astern, a metre and a half of angry silver and blue blasted through the surface. The hooked fish stood on its tail in a frenzied lashing of spume and
Michelle pointed. “Look! I see it.”
“Wow! A kingfish!”
She punched the air. “It’s a beauty. Can I hold the rod?”
“No. You’d lose it.”
The kingfish sprinted for freedom, the line screaming off the reel.
“The bucket!” yelled Jason. Cool the reel!”
“Yes, master.” Michelle ipped the nearby pail over the humming reel.
Sprayed water spattered Jason’s sunglasses. “I can't see! Wipe my specs.”
She smudged them, giggling.
Sweat ran down Jason’s back as his white-knuckled hands kept a firm hold on the rod. The ratchet fell silent but the kingfish maintained a steady pull. Jason took a deep breath. Now for the tough part. Haul the rod upright. Then lower, winding as fast as possible. Over and over. The rod grew heavier and heavier. His tongue sandpapered his lips. “Find my Coke. Pour some down me - my mouth preferably.”
“I can hardly miss. It’s big enough”
“Oh ha, flipping ha.”
With another arm-wrenching sprint, the fish reclaimed all the line so preciously reeled in. Jason groaned. Back to hauling and winding.
Michelle clutched her forehead. “Don’t lose him!”
The commotion brought Mum rushing out from the cabin, camera ready. “Get closer to Jason, Michelle. I’ll get you both in.”
“Keep going, son!” called Dad. “You’ve got him.”
Got him? Jason grimaced. Why didn’t someone tell the fish?
The majestic kingfish fought on, but eventually exhausted, it surrendered. Vanquished, it lay on the deck, an accusing glint in its dying eye. A touch of sadness mingled with Jason’s feeling of triumph as he knelt and admired the beautiful markings and elegance of the streamlined silver and blue body.
“Took you thirty minutes,” said Michelle. “It’s a whopper. My turn next.”
Dad had cut the engines and climbed down from the bridge. “Sure, next one’s yours but we’ll let that one go. Only need one for the freezer. Beautiful creatures, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” Jason rubbed his cramped muscles. “What do you think it weighs? Fifty?”
“Kilos? No. Pounds? Maybe. Congratulations, son. You beat me – I was in my teens before I landed my first fifty-pounder.” Dad shivered. “Where’d that wind come from?”
Jason had felt it too. Then it was gone. A dark strip lined the horizon. Probably only a change in water depth, he thought, turning back to help Dad stow the fish in the side locker.
Suddenly a shadow swept over Lady Lee.
A cold wind rippled Jason’s T-shirt. Goosebumps prickled his arms. He looked up. An umbrella of dense clouds roiled and swirled towards the motor yacht from all sides. Pea-size raindrops stung him on the head and shoulders.
“Pa! We got trouble.”
“What the…?” Dad slammed the fish locker shut. “Get in the cabin! Quick!”
The clouds closed in at speed, blotting out the sun. A howling wind engulfed Lady Lee. Heaving waves sent her rolling from side to side.
Jason clung to the handrail. Straining to see through the now blinding rods of torrential rain, he struggled towards the cabin door.
Ahead of him, Michelle held it open. He could barely see her frightened, rain-streaked face. “Come on, Jason!”
He inched towards her outstretched hand. Then a hard shove in the back sent him flying into her. They stumbled into the cabin.
Behind them, Dad forced the cabin door shut and rammed the bolt home.
“What’s happening, Ron?” Mum shrilled, clinging to the table.
Dad didn’t stop. He vaulted the table and rushed up to the wheel. “Hang on, Jean. Kids, check the portholes!”
Michelle secured the two within reach, then huddled close to her mum.
Jason checked the other portholes. A wild roll flung him against the bulkhead. The cabin lights flickered and died. He clung to the nearest stanchion and flipped the light switch. Nothing. Lady Lee rolled again. Angry, white-crested waves tossed her back. Loose ornaments and paperbacks flew off the shelves.
Jason prayed the engines would start; if Lady Lee could face round into the wind they stood a chance. A sickening lurch hurled him against the cabin door. His elbows hurt. He needed something soft. He tossed seat cushions to Michelle. “Haul the blankets and stuff out. Use it as padding. Your head. The table, whatever.”
A sizzling flash of lightning lit up the cabin. Close on its heels, a deafening thunderclap attempted to shake Lady Lee apart. Jason shot a scared glance at a porthole. Visibility zero. He braced himself. Two pillows and a cushion kept the table edge at bay.
Vibrations under his feet filled him with fear that Lady Lee was breaking up. Then he realized Dad must have got the engines started. His spirits soared at the surge of two hundred horsepower. That should get Lady Lee round. His cold fingers
gripped the table edge. “Please, Lady, please.”
Above the fury of the storm and the roar of the engines powering up, he heard Dad’s yell. “Come on, Lady! Turn! Come on!”
Lady Lee rolled way over. She lurched back. Then, an anguished cry from the bridge. “No! Please. No-o-o!”
The engine vibrations stopped.
A cold hand pinched Jason’s heart. Why had the engines stopped?
Dad punched the red distress button and faced into the cabin. The pale emergency lighting showed the anguish on his face. “Power’s gone. Wheel’s locked. She won’t move!”
Jason’s knuckles turned white. Dad couldn’t be serious. No power or steering put Lady Lee – and them – at the mercy of the storm.
The shrieking wind drowned his dad’s voice. “Hold on! We’ll have to ride it out until…”
To a succession of lightning flashes and peals of thunder, the storm intensified. Relentless rain hammered the cabin roof, demanding it be granted admittance.
Jason buried his head in the pillows. He jammed his feet against the table legs. A stomach-churning forward pitch accompanied Lady Lee’s next roll. She swung upright. Then rolled the other way. To Jason’s horror the roll refused to correct itself. He heard the frantic shouts of his dad, mum and Michelle, and then the shelving and cupboard contents showered down on him.
With a groan of agony, Lady Lee flipped over. Jason’s world turned upside down. And blackness charged out of the mayhem.
Good stuff here from W.M. His prose is generally fine. There are bits here and there where an editor would want to get in with the blue pencil: "The flip-flop of running sandals announced company... From the corner of one eye he glimpsed his twin sister Michelle’s cut-off jeans" - could he not just glimpse his twin sister Michelle? Or the 'suddenly' at the start of the storm, or the rain asking to be granted admittance. Little things that don't quite work. But in the main it's fine. The storm scene, with its short punchy sentences, is well done.
There's not a lot wrong here, without getting to the level of line editing, which I'm not going to do. For all that, it doesn't have the sort of really special style that would make me sit up and take notice purely in terms of technical skill. The really important thing, then, is story, and that would be what determines its chances of publication.
I've read the synopsis, in which the twins find themselves transported to a magical kingdom, and are involved in the search for a wizard who can help them get home (shades of Oz) and in the rescue of a kidnapped princess. Finally the wizard, the twins, and their friends are caught up in some sort of cosmic battle with an otherworldly monster.
There are some good character ideas - I like the idea of the wizard's secretary, bespectacled, bun-haired Miss Quilldipper, who is small enough to fit inside a pocket. It all seems to be quite traditional and gentle, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but which might make it a tougher sell to cynical, gimlet-eyed editors (thank you, by the way, WM, for not having written a trilogy. They're such a dismal prospect, in the main.)
If this crossed my desk, I'd give it four or five chapters in which to be thrilling and original, I think. A solid effort which (like a few sent to me so far) would need to be read into further.
A slightly better look?
Why not go and Ask Unca Mike? I'll be back tomorrow with some more of your writing.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Poor Tom's a-cold
Tom huddled under the eaves, hands tucked close to his body for warmth, water dripping coldly off the thatch onto his elbows and bare feet. It'd be night soon, and they'd be calling him again, trying to draw him from the chalked circle that kept him from walking into their jaws. If they could find him, that circle'd do naught to keep them out, they'd pluck him from it and suck him like a marrowbone. He'd seen what was left from that.
Damn you to hell, damn you, you said you'd teach me, seven year safe you promised me and bare five of it gone. Devil take thee.
The devil had, too, but his master walked abroad by night still, and he'd have Tom if Tom stepped wrong.
Damn you, you might have let me go free from the bond.
Death cancels all debts, men said, but he felt the blood-bond yet, and his master would all his blood this time.
He must finish this before dark, and make himself safe elsewhere. The door was barred, he knew, so he glanced quickly at the window above him, the shutters open for what poor light was left in the day, and went straight up the wall to it, his calloused fingers and toes digging into the scabby plaster, clinging to the lath where it showed, hooking over the timbers, with a charm muttered under his breath to keep him from falling. He'd tumbled through the window onto the floor within before seeing that he'd reached it.
O let this not be where he waits for me.
He scarce knew whom he prayed to; Our Lord never having taken much interest in Tom that he could prove, and the Devil taking more interest than he'd ever sought. Quickly, quickly, night was coming on, he could feel it, more than he felt the scraped shins and elbows from the climb and the bruises from the wooden floor, or even the hunger that griped his belly. It was another's hunger that drove him, not his own. He rolled to his feet and looked about the room, that had once been his own and a refuge. His clothes he'd abandoned, the cup and platter, but the spoon he'd taken for the silver of it.
He stepped as light as he could into the next room, where the ladder led up to the attic, fighting a sure seeing that his master waited there for him, smiling and gaping his mouth wide and wider that Tom might step inside, no more running and hiding, no more.
There was no one, for it was day yet. The grey light seeped through the glass mullions above the shutters, these closed and barred, not warped out of true as Tom's had been, so the bar had never fit snug.
Up the ladder he went now, his belly quaking, and if he'd had aught within he'd have spewed it up as he lifted the trapdoor and rose into the close dark below the thatch. O let him not be here or let his sleep be so deep he never knows I've come here. Could they walk by day? Could they rise by day an it were dark enow where they lay? Would he even lie here, where he might be sought by those who knew or guessed his nature?
All was silent and still, but that proved naught. He waited hanging on the rungs, ready to let himself fall if clawed hands caught at him, knowing even that unhindered fall would be too slow. His eyes found light spreading from the opening he stood in, and no great casket or tun was here, no shrouded shape that kept the small light out. He breathed once more and scuttled into the low room, able without thought to snatch up the books and bound packets that his master had sent him for so many times. By times he felt the pricking in his fingers that warned of wards and tracings, and those he let lie, that his master not send to find them and find him thereby. The others he stowed in his slop breeches.
Here take I my rights, for my two years thou cozened of me. Here take I arms against thee, for my life. Quickly quickly, an thou'd stay quick thyself, Tom.
He would to take more, for his anger and hurt, but his life and breath weighed greater, so he dropped through the trapdoor and slid down the ladder, his feet striking the wooden floor with a hard slap. Glancing round the room below, he marked that the light was weaker, paused a moment before the door, as if his hunters could after all be heard by their breath did they wait for him in his former chamber, then gathered himself and flung into it.
Dare he take his jack? It was murdering cold and wet without, but if it were spelled--. He ran his fingers over it and felt no tracing, then reckless threw the jack on and seized his shoes and hosen as well, stuffing them in his shirt, and was out the window again, careless now of his grip on the rotting plaster and lath.
Out from that treacherous shelter and splashing through the foul puddles on the street, muttering a see-naught charm as he ran, though that held only for mortal eyes. Better not to forget those, natheless. A 'Ware Thief shouted by one who'd seen a ragged dirty boy come out a window with his shirt stuffed heavy of what was never his own, that would have him held after dark here, or hidden up where he wouldn't choose, trapped where they'd smell his blood and find him.
Tears ran down his face with the rain, both unheeded. Now was he in worse case than five years gone, when he'd no master and no roof, but neither had he been blood-bound to one who'd have him for meat. How far need he go to be safe? How long would they seek him? What recourse could he find?
Batgirl says: "I’d like to know whether it makes for a strong beginning, whether the character is someone the reader can care about, whether the period language is too confusing, and that sort of thing. I'm gathering opinions as to whether this looks like something that could become a stand-alone story. It started off as backstory for a secondary character in another novel, and for a while was the prologue of that novel, but the beta-readers recommended cutting it."
I like this very much indeed. It certainly makes for a strong beginning. There’s a compelling horribleness to the prospect of Tom being sucked dry like a marrowbone, and it drives forward at a fair old clip. I particularly like the fact that the salient features of the world and of Tom’s situation are dropped in unobtrusively but effectively. It’s a good place to start the story.
Can the reader care about Tom? Sure, why not? From this bit, he’s a poor kid trying to escape from a ravening hellbeast. There’s not a lot more to the character here, but it’s probably not the place for that sort of thing.
The period language: it’s my favourite thing about this. It gives the extract real flavour. One of the nicest things to see in a manuscript is a distinctive voice; so many things you read have the same competent, plodding voice, but this is something strange and interesting and skilful. Kids will find it hard, if this is YA, but at least it isn’t patronising them.
That said, Batgirl might have to compromise now and again over stuff like “Could they rise by day an it were dark enow where they lay?”, which is lovely, but tough for anyone. With a bit of careful recasting the flavour can be preserved without scaring off the reader (or indeed a publisher).
Coupla line-edit-type things for what it’s worth. “Damn you, you might have let me go free from the bond” – not great as a one-line para. “and his master would all his blood this time.” – archaic use of would particularly difficult. “so he glanced quickly at the window above him” – ‘glanced’ seems an odd choice. “He'd tumbled through the window onto the floor within before seeing that he'd reached it.” – tense? “His clothes he'd abandoned, the cup and platter, but the spoon he'd taken for the silver of it.” – didn't understand this the first time I read it, needs to be clearer. “The grey light seeped through the glass mullions above the shutters, these closed and barred, not warped out of true as Tom's had been, so the bar had never fit snug.” – sort of a run-on sentence. “as if his hunters could after all be heard by their breath did they wait for him in his former chamber” – this clause makes it too long a sentence. Could put this ominous bit somewhere else.
Overall: very promising.
The City of Seasons
The City of Seasons
Part One -- Summer
The City of Seasons lay like a splendid blot upon the landscape of Thacar. It looked beautiful, from afar (and many claimed the same up close), yet it reminded all Thacarites that their beloved country was in decay. For the city was all that remained of the glorious past, and some wanted it buried forever.
Can I just break in here? Mistri calls this the mini-prologue, and says she’s not sure if she will include it or not. Mistri, please don’t! It does nothing besides vaguely allude to some of the conflicts of the book you’re about to read, and contains the phrase ‘splendid blot on the landscape’, which is just horrid. I don’t think she will use it; Mistri said she partly included it because it amused her I was getting so much prologue-d material. I’m quite surprised myself, because they rarely add anything. This reads like something cooked up for the back cover.
Anyway, on to…
They were calling me a fraud? I looked up at the clerk behind the Academy's front desk, but couldn't begin to express my confusion. I stared at him blankly.
“We're sorry Miss Ardent, but we simply cannot accept your application at this time. Not until you supply us with the proper documentation.”
“But I've already given it to you. My application to the scholars, my maja-essay, and my birth information.”
He shook his head. “Not quite.” He pulled something out from under a towering stack of work. Yellowed and torn around the edges, it could only be my birth papers. He pointed at the first few lines of writing. “See here. The registrars in this quarter have never phrased this segment of the birth document in this way. Also, this word is misspelled: very sloppy. Finally, we cannot trace the name of this registrar to anyone in this city.”
What he was saying began to sink in. I'd dreamed of joining Summer's Scholar Academy since the earliest days I remembered.
“Maybe,” I said, my voice strained, “maybe they used a registrar from outside of the city.”
He snorted, and his disapproval came at me in waves. “We at the City of Seasons do not look Outside for skilled workers. There is no need.”
“What does this mean?” Holding the birth document up to my eyes, my hands shook so much I could barely read the lettering. I put it down on the desk again and willed my eyes to keep any tears at bay.
“It means your birth document is a fake. We cannot include fraudulent material in any application to the Academy, and consequently, your application will have to be delayed until you can provide verifiable documentation.”
He stood still and folded his arms. What was I to do now?
“Miss Ardent,” he started.
“Espe, my name is Espe,” I said.
“Espe. I have to see other potential students now.”
I grabbed my fake document and turned around, legs trembling with both anger and sadness all the while. I stumbled towards the door and headed out into the blistering heat.
It was a long walk from the one side of the quarter to the other, but I didn't have the coin to hail a cart to take me home and in any case, carts rarely moved far from the city centre. I winced at the smell lingering on the hot air. Much of the city stank during my most favourite of seasons. Despite being an overwhelmingly prosperous community (so my father always said), the Council of Firsts and Seconds had never figured out quite how to staunch the all-pervading and usually indescribable stench.
I strode towards home, wrapped up in my own thoughts. I barely noticed the parents telling their children to be quiet, or the lovers who walked so close together they might as well be one. Instead, I saw my dreams dying, and didn't understand why. Perhaps the Academy clerk had made a mistake. But that was unlikely, especially after everything he had pointed out to me.
In the district where my parents lived the pathways were dry, dusty and empty; my hair stuck to my head and sweat trickled down the back of my neck. As much as I enjoyed the warmer weather, summer had its downsides, not that I'd ever admit them to anyone from Spring, Autumn or Winter. Of course, if I got into the Scholar Academy, I'd get to learn more about its upsides. More about the magic a season could hold.
It sounds arrogant perhaps, but I really did love Summer above all the other quarters. Winter had its towers, Spring its gardens and Autumn its festivals, but Summer was mine and nothing else mattered. I couldn't help but smile whenever I was in my home quarter, even at my lowest. And the opportunity to learn advanced Summer maja had been my only goal for the longest of times.
I'd had a basic magical grounding throughout my early schooling, of course, but I wanted to specialise in academic maja, and I could only do that at the Scholar's Academy. I couldn't bear the thought of not being able to go. Even having to defer for a year would near kill me.
Why did I have a forged birth document? It didn't make any kind of sense. My parents lived a fairly mundane life. Nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened to them, as far as I knew. Did they know about this? I shook my head. Something was very definitely wrong here, and that scared me.
I stopped when I reached home. There was movement through the windows: my parents had guests. A moment later, someone exited the house. As the figure came into focus, I recognised Maura, my godmother and relaxed a little. We'd never been close, but she'd known my parents for almost forever. She didn't see me until she came onto the pathway, and jerked roughly before giving a weak smile.
“It is a pleasure to see you,” she said.
“And you,” I replied.
She shrugged slightly and started to walk past me. “Goodbye, dear.”
I didn't say goodbye back.
So what’s going to happen? Luckily I have a synopsis. Here’s the City of Seasons, a city-cum-magical university divided into four specialist areas. I can’t quite tell from the synopsis if there are complicated Jack-Vanceish differences of custom and temperament between them. (The synopsis was dashed off by Mistri for my benefit – thanks Mistri – so no criticism is intended of her synopsising skills.) The King of the surrounding area wants to destroy the City, as it represents a threat, and so has formed a long-range plan; he’ll plant a child in each quarter, enhancing their magical powers by ancient and forbidden ‘birth magic’, and manipulate them into destroying it from within at adulthood.
The kids (now teens, I’m guessing) discover each other and then find themselves threatened by the King, who now sees them as a threat (not sure why), and then they band together with the King’s army to save the City from raiders, after which the King’s changed his mind again and wants two of the children to set up a second magical school.
The plot needs to be stronger and clearer. At a couple of points the survival of the protagonists is just down to the whim of the King – and he does seem a whimsical fellow. It’s a fifteen-odd-year plan he’s put into effect, and that would have to be shown to be the only possible course of action open to him. When he gets to the end of it he changes his mind twice. There also appears to be a lack of action.
The latter won’t be too much of a problem for Mistri if she is really giving us a great sense of place, full of colour and detail. If I can namecheck Jack Vance for the third time today, look at how he creates a fantasy world in Lyonesse or The Eyes of the Overworld, or look at Gene Wolfe in The Shadow of the Torturer showing us his marvellous cities. Astonishing travelogues can take a fantasy novel a long way. I can’t tell from this excerpt if it’s going to be a strength of the book, but it would be criminal to waste a fertile idea like a City of Seasons.
Mistri has maybe missed opportunities here and there, going by this excerpt. She needs to make us feel the amazing City all around us. What sort of place is it? What sort of people inhabit it, and what are their idiosyncrasies? What’s the clerk’s office like here?
You’re right at the start of a novel and you want to get a sense of place. It’s a fantasy, so Mistri can go hog-wild with it if she wants to. But here there are only a few images. There’s a stack of papers, a cart, a smell (‘staunch the stench’, incidentally, is an unhappy phrase), some allusions to gardens and towers and festivals. Let’s see some more cool stuff.
Where would a clerk be plying his trade? In a little dusty candle-lit office full of papers? Well, kind of predictable, and we could see that any day in our real lives, no need to have it in fantasy fiction too. Why not have them in a grand sort of Gothic cathedral, seated on carved thrones. The clerk’s dry and by-the-book, anything but outlandish, so let’s set up some contrast to heighten that characterisation. Have them draped in weird robes or wearing a strange hat. You only need one image to do the job here. Maybe sunlight through stained glass windows makes a patchwork quilt of his bald scalp. Whatever the setting, it just needs something to make it vivid.
What are the mannerisms of the people in the story? Mistri could try acting out the clerk’s lines, improvising a bit, trying to get something – a gesture, a look – that adds some flavour to the scene. Or, what does the narrator see when she first steps out onto the street? Is it some sort of boringly generic middle-ages fantasy city, or are we going to see towers so tall there’s snow on the top of them, a huge statue covered in flowers on the sunny side and casting permanent shadow on the street below, a monorail powered by magic beans, I dunno. It doesn’t have to be massive or even really dwelt on; even a throwaway image is better than nothing. The best kind thwarts genre expectations – I expect that there are no guns in the world of this novel, hence maybe the city watch carry matched duelling pistols. Or maybe they have electricity, but not the wheel. It’s a fantasy! Have extraordinary kinds of fun!
That’s what the prose is crying out for – vivid imagination, the spice and sunshine and cloth of gold that will make each paragraph come to life. Not endless descriptive chunks, of course, but detail woven into the story so that it is a part of it. It’ll keep the interest of the reader for much longer than this version.
As it is, I'd pass on this. It's an exotic and abstract idea for a setting, which is the story's strongest suit, and Mistri is underplaying it.
Monday, August 15, 2005
I've got a few things queued up. Mistri, yours is first; W.M.'s "Time Pool" will follow almost immediately; Batgirl and Zolah next; and I've got something else from Julie Worth too.
There will be no more posting tonight seeing as England failed to win the Third Test and I have spent most of this evening in a pub with a Russian.
At Dafydd’s signal, Jack, at the engineer’s console, finished the power-up as Molly reconnected to the ships’ interface. She adjusted the headset, pulling the exterior monitors to eye level before she reattached the finger sensors. This trip had allowed Molly to put the final touches on her bio-integrated piloting system. Once she was hooked in, she was able to control the ship as if she were the ship. She had cut out reaction time and allowed pilot to monitor all vital ships’ systems simultaneously. Molly was planning to sell the system to a USRMC contractor, and Dafydd’s share for giving her free hand with his ship, was an even half.
Dafydd watched the comm screen carefully as Molly prepared for the jump.
“Initialize the jump field and ready... five... four... three... two...”
“Jump engaged... emerging into home space at coordinates... what the hell...”
“Yow!” Jack exclaimed as a sudden wave of turbulence hit their vessel and tumbled it end over end. Molly regained control stabilizing the vessel just kilometers from their emergence point. Dafydd looked at the view screen just as the planetary base of Mabigon exploded into fiery debris. Then the ships’ warning klaxons began to wail. He looked at his systems monitor just long enough to determine the ship was not damaged, then started to rise just as the shockwave from Mabigon slammed the ship. He tumbled over the console, heard a snap, then felt a stab of pain in his left hand.
“Broken,” he thought as he pulled himself up. He closed his eyes momentarily and was able to focus his mental facilities enough to will the pain away. It was a technique that his father had taught him and was one of the disciplines practiced by Avalon natives. He looked about the cockpit and determined that he was the only one with an injury.
“What in the hell is going on out there?” He bellowed above the noise.
“Sir, the fleet is under attack, sir!” Jack shouted in reply.
“That’s ridiculous, there weren’t any open hostilities in the Pelouze sector when we left,” Dafydd said,” as a matter of fact, there weren’t any hostilities brewing in any of the settled sectors. Do you know if they were scheduled for exercises upon return?”
“No, sir!” Ned Taylor announced, and then added, ”Dafydd, those ships don’t match any known design. Those ships aren’t human.”
A third shockwave hit the vessel followed quickly by a fourth. The ship rolled again before stabilizing. Only Molly was able to remain at her station.
“What the hell is going on here?” Dafydd yelled.
“The alien ships are taking apart the fleet, and from a quick scan of the wreckage, not one of the convoy ships is still intact,” observed Molly.
“Life Pods spotted, sir,” piped in a youthful, heavily accented voice,” but there’s a large alien ship that seems to be rounding them up as fast as the ships are destroyed.”
Dafydd turned and nodded to his newest and only earthborn crew member.
“Keep scanning, Jason. Put a tractor on any pod you can without attracting attention. Remember we only have defensive weapons.”
“Yessir!” Jason replied and returned his full attention to the scans.
Dafydd turned his attention to the controls in time to observe a huge alien ship heading toward them. The approach was so close that the spacial wave caused the small ship to rock in its wake. He half turned and shouted to Molly who was again struggling with the stabilizer controls.
“Roll with the shock waves and merge with the debris field to make them think we’re dead. We’ll try to locate any survivors and then we’ll sneak away while they’re occupied,” Dafydd said.
He looked around and saw the expressions on the crew’s faces.
“We’re science-branch and we would have heard if a new contact had been made. These... aliens... have come out of nowhere, it’s obvious that they’re not friendly. We aren’t military, we can’t defend ourselves against that, we’re just not equipped. Hell, even the military has been scaling back on weaponry in favor of long range exploratory facilities.
Aside from trying to find some survivors, we’re getting out of here before those aliens decide that we’re interesting. It’s our duty to report this, don’t you think?” Dafydd looked around at the crew, then continued, ”I seriously doubt USRMC has any idea of what’s happening out here so we better get closer to the center of the United Space Regions, and find some big guns to send back and sort this out.”
Dafydd collapsed in his seat and reached in the panel under the arm rest for a med kit. What he found instead was an extra cache of rations. He patted the box fondly, grateful that he hadn’t let greed completely over come common sense. For once it was likely that food was going to prove more valuable than maltonite. He grimaced, partly from the pain that was beginning to edge back into his consciousness and partly from turning down the impulse laser that could have accompanied the maltonite.
A weapon like that would come in handy if the alien ships decided that they were more than debris. He quickly suppressed the thought. A battle class weapon might actually attract the attention of the attacking vessels. He wondered if he should dump the maltonite, but no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the ship was his by another shock wave which knocked Dafydd from his seat and he hit the deck with his broken wrist. Molly had abandoned her attempts to stabilize the ship and the Shamrock rolled like a lifeless vessel.
A wave of nausea hit Dafydd as he tried to sit up. Motes swam before his eyes and he tried another mental exercise to banish the pain long enough to get to the sick bay. The break wouldn’t heal itself, although he knew tricks to speed up the process once it was properly treated and set. He pulled himself up smiling to himself ruefully. If the ‘Natural Humans’ or even the Deacons from Redemption knew the extent that many abilities had been developed by the people they derisively called ‘Elves’, it would make them more paranoid than they already were.
Karen’s also sent her synopsis in so I can see where this is going next.
I love SF. That said, I don’t think this is a particularly excellent example of the genre. The prose is a bit loose (the clunky first line, trying to pack too much in to a sentence, is a good example) but mostly it doesn’t seem to have the big idea that distinguishes the best SF from the run-of –the-mill.
Essentially, a dimensional breach lets an alien invasion force into human space, and the aggressive bad guys start to take over planets. They appear to be stripping them systematically of their natural resources; the synopsis mentions water, which seems odd as water is one of the most abundant compounds in the galaxy (and pretty simple to get hold of if you have interstellar travel.) These days I’d expect the bad guys to be processing the planets into computronium or something.
The crew of intrepid little starship the Shamrock is caught up in the initial invasion and the rest of the book is spent as they evade the aliens, find their way back to friendly territory, and then go on a mission to save a science team. The book ends with the aliens undefeated (there’s a trilogy in the works) and the humans beginning to train pilots to use the prototype ship technology alluded to in this excerpt.
Karen’s synopsis is pretty long and dense, and despite that doesn’t contain much that will excite a jaded editor. The whole thing feels rather dated; the crew being hurled about, seatbeltless, in the excerpt, is something that Star Trek watchers have been chuckling about for years, and you might have caught the flavour of the Millennium Falcon at Alderaan in it too. It’s the Trek feel that predominates here. Is Daffyd’s seat with the handy little cupboard in it Captain Kirk’s?
When I see something like this
If the ‘Natural Humans’ or even the Deacons from Redemption knew the extent that many abilities had been developed by the people they derisively called ‘Elves’, it would make them more paranoid than they already were.
I worry that the ostensibly pejorative term might be a way to smuggle Legolas in to an SF novel, apologetically. (Even if not, it’s a naked bit of exposition.)
Nothing dates so quickly as the future. Karen’s bad guys are a symbiotic/parasitic dual species that reminds me strongly of Jack Vance’s The Brave Free Men, from back in 1973 – and you’d never call Vance the most cutting-edge of authors. (One of my favourites, nevertheless.)
Neither the prose nor, I’m afraid, the story, look likely to create the sense of wonder that SF buffs will be looking for. If it’s thrillingly told, there might be a niche for it.
A last note: Source’s Code is 106,000 words long. That could well be twice as long as is warranted.