This is topic RE: Sinkhole, short story, suspense genre in forum Fragments and Feedback for Short Works at Hatrack River Writers Workshop.

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Posted by Challenge (Member # 11238) on :
Linnea Stuart had been feeling empty. Out of steam, out of reach, out of touch, out of love, out of sorts, and almost out of gas. She owed out-of-state graduate tuition, and money was running out. She had just turned thirty, and it seemed that time was running out. In rock-climbing terms, she was stuck in a chimney, her back pushing against the past, her hands and feet pressing against the future. One false move, and she might fall down the shaft, risking failure, even injury. If she stayed where she was, paralyzed in the chimney, her muscles would eventually give out, and she would fall anyway. Up was the only way out. She needed a change. So she traded her failing Mercury sedan for a mountain bike. She abandoned her futile infatuation over Byron for a comfortable friendship with Dale. And she moved from a crowded apartment four miles from the university
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
Well, you are starting with what I call the "scene-clock off" -- nothing is happening, time is not moving forward. I suspect Jay won't like that. Actually, neither do I, but you do a lot of nice stuff and talent, so I definitely keep reading. And that's probably more acceptable in a short work.

Out of, out of was nice. The rock-climbing metaphor was daring but I thought it worked.

Jay -- remember Jay? -- also has the idea that writers tend to write how they were taught and need to unlearn that. I am stuck with my own opinion, and you should write what you want, but . . . "had been feeling empty" is kind of working as a topic sentence. I think the start pops better without it?

And, exact same for "She needed a change" -- topic sentence, I think I like the punch of not having it. (And you need a new paragraph there, and that will be enough to show the change.

Does that make sense?
Posted by T. K. Bounds (Member # 11228) on :
I liked the serial use in the first sentence of the word 'out' to stress and show Linnea's predicament with compounding problems. Further use of the word got distracting for me because you used it to focus my attention previously. I think you could cut out most if not all instances of the word beyond the first sentence. Many other words could be eliminated and retain clarity.

You started the story in past tense. Is that your intention?
Posted by Jay Greenstein (Member # 10615) on :
Linnea Stuart had been feeling empty.
SO...someone I know nothing about: Not age, situation, education, location in time and space, outlook,etc., is feeling "empty" (whatever that may mean) for unknown reasons.

Why should I care? More to the point, what, about that, makes me want to read on?

My point, is that you, someone I don't know, are telling me something for which I have no context. And you're telling me effect—how she feels—before what caused it. Doesn't it make more sense to make the reader know what makes her feel that way, so they'll care?
Out of steam, out of reach, out of touch, out of love, out of sorts, and almost out of gas.
This, and the rest of the paragraph aren't story. They're a report by the narrator, embellished with things like "rock climbing terms" to try to make it sound interesting. But... Won't I know she has no romance in her life by the way the story progresses? Won't we know she has money problems when they effect what she does and says? Won't the actual story be a lot more interesting than a history lesson that must be studied before the actual story begins? Won't story be more fun to read than history?

What you're doing is what any verbal storyteller does: you, the storyteller, are setting the scene. That's necessary when telling it to an audience, because the only performer on stage is the narrator. And since you can't be the one shooting and the one being shot without looking silly, you talk about what happens, explaining it, and the significance of the events, to the audience.

In person that works, because your performance provides the emotional part of the story as you perform what I call the storyteller's-dance. You whisper and shout. You hesitate meaningfully to take a breath. You rush on breathlessly, and you wait for response—and adjust your performance according to the audience reaction. But that only works if the audience can hear you. They also need to see your performance—the expression changes, the gestures, and the body-language. But not a trace of that performance makes it to the page, so you cannot use the techniques of verbal storytelling on the page.

Your command of language is good. So it's not a matter of how well you're writing. It's that like so many hopeful writers you're using the techniques of one medium in a medium that does not reproduce them. It works for you, of course, because you can both hear and see your performance from the "inside." And knowing the story, and how to perform it, you automatically fill in any needed images and background. But...can the reader? They're stuck with what your words suggest to them, based on their background, which won't match yours.

See the problem? It's not about talent. It's not about the story, or how well you write. It's that in our schooldays we don't learn the professional skills of writing fiction for the page because all professions are learned after we master the Three R's—including the nonfiction writing skills employers require.

The solution? Simplicity itself: add a few of the skills the pros take for granted, to give your words wings. Get a better understanding of how scenes on the page differ from on screen and stage, and why. As my favorite Mark Twain quote says, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

We all leave our school days with lots of "just ain't so." And since we can't fix the problem that we don't see as one, never know what we're missing. But...

Since the day you began reading, you've pretty much read only professionally written and prepared fiction. So you expect those techniques to be used—as does everyone else. Given that, does it not make sense to spend a bit of time, and perhaps a few coins on your writer's education?

If it does, a great resource is the fiction writing section of the local library system. And while you're there, look for the names, Dwight Swain, Jack Bickham, Debra Dixon, or James Scott Bell on the cover. They're gold.

But whatever you do, don't give up. Hang in there, and keep on writing. It keeps us off the streets at night.
Posted by EmmaSohan (Member # 10917) on :
Jay, I don't understand your first complaint, that we don't know what's going on.

At the start of a book, we never know what's going on. Right? It's a giant bootstrapping. We also cannot yet care about any of the characters.

Obviously I'm arguing with you, but I also want to understand you if I'm missing something. What would count as a good start? (I wouldn't have even given her name: "She was out of steam, out of....")

Doesn't your advice lead to first describing the character? Or the setting, which we both agree there is usually no reason to care about. I think we both like "action" starts, but that never avoids this problem.

AND, mystery is pretty much a standard technique for keeping the reader reading. Why can't it be used (well) in the start, as the information gets filled in?
Posted by Challenge (Member # 11238) on :
Thank you for the comments, all. So I could just stop with the actual moment when Linnea really had been stuck in a rock-chimney and made it out, instead of saving that for a flashback. I like 13-line short story openers, for the same reason I like hymn lyrics and letters-to-the-editor, and maybe tweets. I think I'll just write first-pages for a while. Maybe next time I will start with the sinkhole. Hah!
Posted by Challenge (Member # 11238) on :
Thanks esp to Emma. The two sentences you would ax are the two I was going to delete to get my intro into 13 lines. The flow and rhythm of language is important to me though, even if some readers would care more about the pacing of plot and action of narrative.

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