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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » Just South of Evil (Possible title)

   
Author Topic: Just South of Evil (Possible title)
wetwilly
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Superhero sf, about 5,000 words. Feedback on first 13 appreciated. Readers for whole thing desired. Will gladly exchange crits.

Rashon was just starting to break a sweat when Brother Thomas came into the gym and shouted his name. He looked pissed. “I've been looking everywhere for you, you miserable orphan,” he said.

Rashon finished off his sparring bot with a downward chop to its head with his katana. He wiped the sweat off his face and neck with a towel before answering. “Sorry, Brother Thomas. I just wanted to get an extra workout in. ”

Brother Thomas chomped down on his cigar and scratched his scalp with his dirty fingernails. “You think you're special?” he asked around the stogie.

Rashon clenched his jaw and kept his mouth shut. Picking a fight with the brothers and sisters running the orphanage never turned out well. “No, sir,” he said.

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Brooke18
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Already, I personally like Rashon. I love the whole katana-sparring-thing.

Also, I have a certain dislike for Brother Thomas. By including the cigar and dirty fingernails, it gives him an air of impurity. It seems like the orphanage is run by a church-like community--hence the brothers and sisters?

Is that about right?

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Denevius
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There's a couple of familiar tropes here. The abused orphan, the cigar chomping loudmouth, the "ordinary kid" being asked if he's special (and probably turning out to be just that).

A common suggestion to clean up dialog is to read it out loud to yourself. How does, "...you miserable orphan" sound to your ear? Does it seem like something someone would say?

I can't think of the last person I saw smoking a cigar, beyond movie characters. Who walks around with a cigar in their mouth?

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wetwilly
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The line is actually "you miserable f---ing orphan," which I think flows better, but I cleaned it up for the forum. I do see where you're coming from, though.
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extrinsic
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The language suggests a campy irony, with caricature stereotype characters. Keith Laumer, Harry Harrison, and David Drake write this way.

However, if that's the intent the language lays kind of flat from not quite enough signal that it is so. Or alternatively, that that is not the intent.

Similarly, Rashon is posed as protagonist and Brother Thomas as villain or nemesis, yet neither is especially likeable or unlikeable for me. Rashon finished off a training bot. Thomas speaks harshly. The event of importance here is Thomas asserts his authority over Rashon. Very little empathy develops for me. I don't know if Rashon needs to be disciplined, castigated, corrected, or controlled. Maybe Thomas does his duty. Maybe Rashon is unruly. A simple noble gesture would start that empathy or sympathy quotient setup. Kindness to the machine, for example. I can't think much of Rashon's character from his I think intended biased portrait of Thomas as a cigar smoker who scratches his head with dirty fingernails, kind of too neutral to set either apart from the other.

"Rashon was just starting to break a sweat when Brother Thomas came into the gym and shouted his name." Note "was just starting to break a sweat" is three different tenses, past "was," present participle "starting," and infinitive "to break." That's a bit time-significance confused for an opening sentence. Add in the time significance of conjuction word "when" linking past tense "Brother Thomas came into the gym and shouted his name," more confusing time significance for an introductory sentence. That's a bit too rushed, cluttered, and confused for me. Consider unpacking the sentence by verbs as individual main ideas.

A pivotal event is easily a best practice for openings, one that sets up emotional disequilbrium. For example, the intent I gather here is to show Brother Thomas as a harsh master. If both Rashon and Thomas are each harsh in their ways, Rashon doesn't stand apart much.

This fragment to me is mostly pleasantries between two people of different stations. Greeting pleasantries, though harsh on one hand and defensive on the other hand, don't make for potent emotional disequilibrium events, which develop characterization and perhaps setting, all the while exciting reader interest.

I don't see a dramatic complication setup very strong, a hint that Rashon and Thomas will clash and contend, neither per se with a personal want, only a slight problem from this contention being a routine Rashon and Thomas perpetuate. Maybe their relationship is about to flair up, maybe Rashon will be tasked to do Thomas's bidding on some other complication event. Regardless, a strong emotional disequilbrium event for Rashon in the moment I think is underdeveloped.

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wetwilly
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Thanks for your thoughts! I appreciate your time and expertise, all of you.

Extrinsic, might I ask a follow-up question? I do not mean it in the spirit of defensiveness or argument, but I'm not following you on one of your points. Could you please clarify?

You say, "the language suggests a campy irony," and also, "the language lays kind of flat from not quite enough signal that it is so." I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean. How am I not signaling the campiness of the story (which is indeed my intent) if you did understand it to be intended as campy?

Again, I'm not trying to insult or argue, I just honestly don't get where you're coming from here.

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Denevius
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Perhaps the campiness seems unintentional because there's not a clear understanding of how it would *serve* the story.

Let's say you're trying to write "bad writing" on purpose. How would that enrich the reader's experience? Do you not want the reader to take the story seriously? Do you want it to be comical? If so, I'm not sure where the humor is.

Do you want this to be a caricature of the superhero genre? Well, that'd be groovy, except you'd have to take it up several notches. Instead of just having Brother Thomas chewing on a cigar in a John Jameson type of manner, have him slobbering on the cigar, drooling incessantly while not being coherent when he tries to speak. Instead of having Rashon practicing with his katana in an empty room, have him accidentally severing the limbs of teammates.

Just write things that take the world of the superhero to rational extremes. Who in real life talks around a cigar? Well, no one. And if you do try and talk around a cigar, you can only imagine the difficulties in communication this would cause. Because obviously, if you're talking with a cigar in your mouth, what's most important to you *isn't* to be understood.

I think the problem with the introduction, if it's supposed to be campy, is that the prose is taking itself too seriously. I don't get a sense of a "wink and nod" from the writer, like we're all in on the joke together. This setup seems dead serious to me.

Anyway, I know this question was for Extrinsic, but this is my take on it.

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extrinsic
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General rhetoric principles that signal "campy irony," irony generally, are overstatement, hyperbole, which is further exaggerated overstatement, understatement--dry, deadpan wit--satire, sarcasm, lampoon, parody, and to a lesser extent, though sublime, ironic allusion, simile, and metaphor. Comic irony, irony of several sorts, really, verbal irony, situational irony, dramatic irony, courtly irony, all relate to varying degrees of and approaches to "campy irony."

Signaling "campy irony" hints are in the fragment as is but flat, like Denevius notes and on point with that response, is Thomas speaking around the stogie, a W.C. Fields' gag. Fields, though, spoke deadpan, understated verbal irony that expressed a coded message. Similarly, Will Rogers used understatement for his comic political gags. Both were dead serious, which made their bits even more funny, that took absurdities seriously. That was their code for humor and hilarity: ironic seriousness. Their irony had at least another layer, too, serious topics seriously taken to absurd lengths. Keith Laumer, Harry Harrison, David Drake, Douglas Adams, too, use that same approach: understatement.

However, the dead seriousness of this fragment doesn't for me have a code that it is meant to be ironic, only a setup hint from the stogie. Understatement can backfire, though understatement is easier on readers' sensibilities and more delightful when they get the joke, generally. Overstatement too, can backfire, though less risky. Understatement's strength generally, is it doesn't call undue attention to the cleverness, and humor, of the irony, or the joke.

Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction discusses an old joke and irony that illustrates joke setup and delivery, about the man upstairs taking off his shoes to go to bed. He routinely lets them fall and thump on the floor one at a time. The downstairs neighbor complained about the noise disturbing his sleep. This night, upstairs man remembers the complaints, after letting the first shoe thump, sets down the second shoe quietly. After a long wait, downstairs man cries, for Christ's sake, drop the other shoe. That's a situational irony. The setup signals a pending punchline. If no punchline, the setup falls flat. This also illustrates cause and effect's situational and extended role in plot.

The campy irony situation between Rashon and Thomas could be signaled by one more exaggerated though understated effect hint. The "straight man" setup is in the stogie, Rashon's take on it. Rashon's attitude toward the stogie and through that Rashon's attitude toward Thomas, what Rashon finds laughable about Thomas, could be something like the stogie stuffed into Thomas' (dog butt) face looked like a dachshund's stubbed tail wagged the dog. Simile on its surface, there, but also metaphor and allusion, and a strong campy irony signal for its absurdity. Also, that's a visual sensation description stimuli that heightens the reality imitation and is a built-in reaction of Rashon's to the stimuli. Packs a lot of accessible meaning into a few words, characterizes Rashon and Thomas from Rashon's viewpoint, and accomplishes the campy irony signal in an economy of words.

Please don't feel that asking for elaboration is defensive or argumentive. Never is. In person or online writing workshoppers asking clarification questions about responses, about point of interest questions for a narrative's areas on point strengthen and clarify the results and understanding of creative principles. Asking for clarification, elaboration, and so on, have persuasive appeals for the benefits of all. Thank you, seriously, for asking.

[ May 06, 2014, 02:07 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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wetwilly
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Thanks, guys. I'll spend some time mulling over what You've said. I may be a little overly cautious about offending. I just don't want to start a fight, and I've seen enough break out over silly stuff around here. Especially since I was pointing out a perceived inconsistency in your crit, I wanted to be clear I wasn't responding defensively.
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extrinsic
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Another area for campy irony in the fragment to conisder:

"Rashon clenched his jaw and kept his mouth shut. Picking a fight with the brothers and sisters running the orphanage never turned out well. “No, sir,” he said."

Litotes is an exotic though common form of irony. Affirmation of the positive opposite of an under- or overstated negation statement. Anti-litotes does the opposite, signals that a positive statement actually means the opposite of its literal meaning. For example:

//Rashon's jaw set in its everyday millstones grind, his mouth clenched shut--backtalking the brothers and sisters running the orphanage always turned out so very well. “Oh no, sir, not me special,” he said.//

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Kent_A_Jones
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In SF this is the tinker story. Little character with a thing (ability, power, idea, mechanism) is an underdog until proving herself/himself, passes through conflict and succeeds. The formula varies. It is a major story line for all of SF.

I'm guessing we learn why Rashon is an orphan, how special he is with the katana, and that he will, indeed, pick a fight with the brothers and sisters at the orphanage. A cigar chomping brother is an interesting image as is a church run orphanage that has robotic fencing opponents.

Are these ideas enough for a slush reader to pass the story up the line? Does the conflict involve Rashon being an orphan or is this fact incidental? Will the plot include either breaking free of or defeating elements within the orphanage? Can the robot be exchanged for a human opponent? What is changing/transitioning for Rashon?

The way I understand the rationale for providing 13 lines of opening copy is that this amount of prose must absolutely hook a prospective buyer. These few lines are the fancy box you take to a party and place on your host's coffee table. Maybe the postage on the box is from China. Maybe it's addressed to someone famous. Maybe it's heavy. Maybe it rattles, maybe it doesn't. These 13 lines are the package that teases the reader into demanding to know what's next. It is the beginning of one of Scheherazade's tales.

I think you have some good prose, here. I would read further.

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Bent Tree
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This was really engaging. Style is both fresh and familiar. I'll give it a go if you need a reader.
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Mark
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I like that the main character has a bit of attitude but still shows respect to his elders. It makes for a more believable character.

Mark

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