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, March 10, 2006

    A Game of Chess

    Right, have you all had a look at "A Game of Chess"? Good!

    The first thing you'll notice is that it's highly observational; the method by which information is conveyed to the reader is the watchful narrator, who is capable of noticing fine detail. The narrative voice in any piece of work tends to imply a personality. I know people go on about first- or third- person or omniscient/unreliable/limited POVs, but I think it's initially easier just to think of a person telling a story, and what sort of person that is.

    In this case, the narrator is an excellent psychologist and reader of body language with a flair for pithy imagery. He looks on at the events in the story from a detached perspective; see how Ian continually stresses the distance between the narrator and his subjects. He's in the corner by the noisy coffee machine (sound becomes another barrier to observation); he reminds us often that he is 'watching', 'seeing' or failing to see. Ian does not allow the narrator to become a part of the story, by having him remain aloof, and by not allowing him to comment directly.

    The narrator is hypersensitive. We get all five senses from him. He can see fine golden hairs from the other side of the room. The cadence of his observations is simple, deliberate. Characters arrive trailing sharp, declarative images - crisp white shirts, green velvet ribbons. As you see, they're handled well and often compounded of one or more sense-impressions, which conduces to a feeling of keenness and clarity in the writing.

    As I say, he's also able to read people. This can be a desirable trait in a narrator as it provides a bridge between two different kinds of narrator - the person like you or I, or the omniscient narrator. Ian's narrator tells us that the man and the woman are both trying to lose, which feels like he's jumped into their heads; but he's carefully set up that class of observation, for example when he sees the man's eyes 'slide along the diagonal', thinking about a bishop move. Not only close observation, but also analysis; a fitting person to comment on a chess problem, a conundrum he is trying to work out.

    And he speaks in pleasant images. I like the fresh scrubbed air and the insolently stretched legs. There's a writerliness about him too.

    Some part of the narrator is Ian, and the rest Ian has constructed out of his own craft to enable him to present this vignette. It is a small carefully-constructed piece of work, with a straightforward gambit and a tricksy endgame, and he's had to give us a voice who can sort it all out for the reader with equal care and brevity.

    The story's very schematic, isn't it? That's the second thing you notice. He's had to stylise and maybe diminish all the characters to have them fit their chess-game roles. The narrator's aware: "The scene is unreal. It is like watching a play, or being a voyeur." That's the choice Ian has made, and he's executed it well, but it maybe leaves the reader a little uninvolved.

    The weakest section is the section of dialogue in the middle, which veers uncomfortably from the abstract - "we have nothing more to learn from one another" - to the mundane - "All my stuff is packed in the car." The latter rings hollow in the context. I can't quite believe any of the dialogue, actually. The narrator's voice is so austere and controlled, and these people strike the wrong note. Maybe if the narrator were less detached, all participants could become a little more human; and the story, which shows promise and skill, would pack more of a punch. As it is, it feels like a successful exercise in writing, not a successful story.

    I don't know enough about the short story market to say whether anyone would publish this. There's room for improvement, but maybe this is one of those things that a writer gets a lot out of writing, but maybe recycles into a longer a better work a little down the line.

    Thanks for all your comments recently. One of the many things that is enjoyable about operating this site is when people start to debate and discuss things on the comment threads.
    Torgo, 3:45 pm

    13 Comments:

    Torgo said: “As it is, it feels like a successful exercise in writing, not a successful story.”

    Which is what I was trying to say when I commented that the story “Comes across as achingly aware of itself.”
    Anonymous Anthony P. Steerpike, at 6:25 pm  
    Sorry, I was having trouble publishing the blog and posted this crit twice. I'm deleting the dupe but on that post's comments thread "Rick Jones, really" said:

    Hi, this isn't Ian. However, he's having trouble posting so I'm giving it a shot for him. Here's what he said.

    Many thanks to all those who have commented on " A Game of Chess"- all grist to the mill.I wanted it to
    be stylised- I wanted to create an element of theatre.
    Torgo is spot on with the dialogue- but it had to be
    generic in such a short piece. It was a kind of
    experiment and I'm glad it's generated so much varied
    comment. Thanks again.

    That would be great. I'll go off again now ant tinker
    around and see if I can get myelf a voice.

    Many thanks

    Best wishes Ian Stuart.
    Blogger Torgo, at 12:19 am  
    I thought it was a nice piece of writing, but I'm not sure it was an actual short story. Normally, I'm of the mind to read more plot-oriented fiction and this might be warping my point of view. I thought the observations and descriptions were quite well drawn. I just would have liked a bit more plot. I think the paucity of plot wasn't helped by the distance set up by the narrative voice. Sentence by sentence, the distant narrator worked like a charm. It's just in the aggregate that I thought it was a bit offputting.

    So, in summation, not my normal type of read, but still enjoyable.
    Blogger Rick Jones, really, at 2:29 am  
    The story drew me in with it's apt and racy imagery.
    But I agree that the the middle section is weak. The dialogue should involve the reader intellectually, making him guess what the stakes are - instead it passes over him. Then, at the end, from nowhere, the point.
    ( The dialogue based Hemingway story "The Sea Change" makes an interesting contrast. Same subject matter - woman leaves man, in cafe, for lesbian relationship. )
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:49 pm  
    I think Ian has a great chanceat honing his flash fiction skills.

    I don't aspire to flash fiction, but here are two sites that my friends submit to regularly.

    Spinetingler Magazine

    Flashing In The Gutters
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 12:58 am  
    I really liked it. My big problem was the first line. Way too busy for what followed.

    As for the middle dialogue - I think it is fine - it just needs editting. Below is one suggested edit

    She sits back in her chair.

    “Coffee ?” she says.

    He nods as she pours the coffee into small white cups. He pours milk into his; she takes hers black. He reaches out to take her hand, but she moves it to her throat, fiddling with the scarf.

    “You have to be realistic, “ she says, without looking at him.
    Blogger Brady Westwater, at 6:50 am  
    After reading the story again, I'm discovering that I'm having a real problem with the dialogue. It doesn't sound remotely genuine -- doesn't sound like a conversation two people would realistically have. If you read the dialogue out loud, it comes across is inconsistent (formal wording in one line like, "We have nothing more to learn from each other," versus more informal, "All my stuff is packed in the car," coming from the same character). It seems, if nothing else, that the characters should sound like real people having a conversation in a cafe. And, to my "ears" at least, it kind of doesn't.
    Blogger Bunneh, at 12:43 pm  
    I'll have to read this again. The dialogue seemed right in place with the situation and characters. I did not the like the reference to the waiters as bullfighters. Seemed too trite for this piece. The story itself, flash fiction, vignette, call it what you will, reminded me of conversations I have overheard in cafes. Anthony P. Steerpike said the story seemed "achingly aware of itself" and I agree. But I think the situation and the characters demanded this sense of isolated Intensity. I enjoyed being a voyeur here.
    Joyce
    Anonymous Joyce Wakefield, at 5:08 pm  
    I wish I could have figured out how to access the story itself, but I have a comment on a line cited:

    "The scene is unreal. It is like watching a play, or being a voyeur."

    "Unreal" mediates a play, but not at all necessarily what a voyeur sees. Voyeur also seems a very obvious way to describe the narrator as he's seen in the critique, in a way that's not figurative at all. Thisd needs to be worked a little harder.
    Blogger Paul, at 10:35 am  
    Torgo,
    Please delete my submission An End to Longing from your list.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 3:22 pm  
    Ooooh, Stephen, did you sell it? I hope so. Do tell.

    Diana
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:47 pm  
    Thanks for the optimistic thought, Diana. After seven months of waiting for Torgo's review, I've had so many revisions and other reviews that anything more will be anticlimatic. Query letters are going out at the end of the month.

    I'll visit in a few months with an update.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 6:55 pm  
    Righto Stephen.
    Blogger Torgo, at 1:07 pm  

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