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ncthornock
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This is a fantasy novelette, about 12,000 words. It has been rejected a time or four. I've just done a major rewrite and am getting ready to send it off again. Would anybody mind reading through it and giving an opinion?


Sarah jogged up the wooden steps and into the workshop. Justin looked up as she came in, nodded and went back to straining the herbs out of a decoction. Making sure I wasn’t somebody who needed help, the girl thought, setting a satchel on the long wooden counter.
Light and air came in through the windows. She inhaled the scent of wood, mint, and drying herbs. Medicines and salves sat on the shelves.
Justin poured the liquid into a flask and stoppered it. “Thank you,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had left that behind until it was too late to go back for it. I would have been mighty hungry.”
Sarah slid the satchel toward him. "We found it on the kitchen table."

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Grumpy old guy
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I find this opening unfocused, and that's why it doesn't work for me.

I know, I keep rabbiting on about setting and context and, in this opening, you are hinting at setting at least. The problem for me however is the use of third person omniscient POV in this particular instance.

We start in Sarah's POV as she jogs up the stairs, then we appear to be in Justin's POV as he pours the liquid and then we seem to snap back into Sarah's POV again. However, I could be wrong in this appreciation of POV because I find all the markers for a transition from one POV to another but the subsequent narrative leaves the issue remaining unclear. Hence my comment about the opening feeling unfocused for me.

In my opinion, the opening of a narrative should be firmly and unequivocally held in a single characters POV (even in third person, omniscient and even if that character is a disembodied narrator) for as long as is practicable, or at least until some minor crisis mandates a switch.

Just my $000.02 worth.

Added later:

This is not a critique of your opening in particular; rather, it is an observation of story beginnings in general. The narrative of a story is a conversation between narrator (author) and reader; it is most definitely not a conversation between friends or like-minded associates. As such, the beginning of every story must have a purpose. The scene, the setting, the characters and the dialogue must all contribute to creating a specific and significant moment with the narrative structure of the story (The Plot).

So, what’s the purpose of this opening, what must it convey to the uninitiated reader? Is it to introduce character, and if so, which one, the boy or the girl? Regardless of which it is, what is it about their character, if this is what you want to introduce, that you do want the reader to know, and why? Or perhaps it is milieu you wish to introduce, or perhaps the dramatic complication (although I’d consider this too early to introduce that)? The point is: What is the purpose of this scene and what does it have to tell the reader?

To accomplish the purpose of any scene it is necessary to keep every element of the scene, including POV, focused on the goal of the scene.

Just some added gratuitous advice from a grumpy old guy whose had a long day at work.


Phil.

[ September 15, 2014, 06:49 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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besimirch
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Hi ncthornock,

To me this read a little stilted. This happened and then that happened...I think you can trust your readers to fill in the blanks a little--you don't have to be so literal.

Take that opening paragraph:
quote:
Sarah jogged up the wooden steps and into the workshop. Justin looked up as she came in, nodded and went back to straining the herbs out of a decoction. Making sure I wasn’t somebody who needed help, the girl thought, setting a satchel on the long wooden counter.
Could be condensed to something along the lines of "Justin looked up and nodded as Sarah came in and set the satchel on the counter." I think you need to trust the reader more and that will help you create a more natural style that isn't quite so stop start.

If you're interested in a crit swap, I have a sci-fi horror thing that'll need critting at the weekend (should be about 5-7000 words) the opening to it will be up shortly here, called Between the Worlds. You can get this to me asap and I'll send that over when it's ready.

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extrinsic
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Hatrack's Thirteen Lines principle troubles a few writers, getting inside its length limitations anyway. In that, at least, this opening is ahead of average, on target for line count. Thirteen lines isn't much word count to work with. Its primary function--screening readers may read at least that much of a start before a summary rejection.

I didn't get past the second word, the first word already problematic for me. The second sentence sealed the fate for me.

Using a character's name for character introductions is a form of summary tell that leaves the character underdeveloped. Portraying the character in physical though nondramatic action--jogged--is static action. Likewise, Justin loooked up, nodded, went back to work, static action, summary and explanation tell.

The start has several events, settings, and two characters, those are basic essentials for prose, for drama. What's missing for me are emotional appeals; namely, pathos' empathy and sympathy and curiosity appeals. If a character reacts emotionally to stimuli, readers react emotionally to stimuli. If a character is curious about events, settings, other characters, readers are curious.

The one most necessary feature of a prose opening, and throughout a narrative, is disturbance of emotional equilibrium, central agonist character's emotional disequlibrium. This opening is solely pleasantries, no emotional contexture, maybe a mite of bland interest Sarah has for the herbal apothecary shop? Sarah arrives. Hello, Sarah, Hello, Justin, By the way, Justin, here's your satchel, Thank you, Sarah, My meal's in there.

By default of first introduction, Sarah is the focal agonist, the viewpoint character of the scene. Yet she does not act dramatically. Drama is a meld of antagonism and causation--agonistic events that cause emotional agonies. Tension is reader effect emotional response to emotional contexture: emotional reaction to what, why, how, who, when, where. Sarah is emotionally neutral. Justin is emotionally neutral. Reader is emotionally unstimulated. A story and its plot begin dramatic movement when emotional equilbrium moves toward upset. From neutral, stable emotion to another emotional state, be that state joy, delight, awe, wonder, anger, fear, pity, sadness, curiosity, etc.

Sarah might have a touch of wonder and curiosity at the herablist Justin's shop, though she just notes the "praxis" features of the shop and Justin without reacting emotionally to them, "reflexively." Praxis features are those which a person does consciously, volitionally, intentionally. Reflex features are the more or less autonomous, nonconscious, nonvolitional, unintentional reflections of a character emotionally reacting to stimuli. Neither Sarah nor Justin react emotionally to any stimuli, maybe Justin does a mite react to Sarah delivers his forgotten satchel.

Emotional effect reactions to antagonal, causal stimuli are crucial, without which a narrative is lackluster, no matter how well-crafted the sequence of events, the settings, the characters. Again, this start has events, settings, and characters, no antagonism or causality emotional contexture, though, for the events, settings, or characters. No tension--readers' emotional stimulation and engagement effect.

This syntax: person's name, sentence subject; static verb, action performed, predicate; upon sentence object, is a simple sentence. The first two sentences are that syntax, though emotionally lackluster due to no emotional contexture.

Also, the second sentence contains a correlation conjunction used as a coordination conjunction, "as." That's clumsy slang; while or when are warranted. The conjunction clause is grammatically and rhetorically problematic itself. Sarah already "jogged" into the shop. She already "came in." The clause plays back to her entry, instead of moving the action forward. The movement stalls, backs up mid action, though no dramatic action--no emotional contexture.

The third sentence is attribution tagged, direct thought, with a dependent action clause added at the end. None of the three clauses contain emotional contexture. Use of tagged, direct thought signals an omniscient narrator with psychic access to thoughts. Either the narrator must express emotional attitude commentary during thought or, more artful, the narrator reports character emotional attitude thought reflection, perhaps through use of stream-of-consciousness methods. Neither is here.

A simple and straightforward stream-of-concsiousness method for that thought would elide the second clause subject "I." Recast though as stream of consciousness. The present participle verb "making sure," its sentence subject is elided, for example.

That raises another grammar issue. Participle verbs are nondefinite, describe ongoing actions that are ill-defined, infinite, and in this case, a tense inconsistency. Note that "straining," "making," and "setting" are present participles in close sequence, set up an -ing ring rhyme, a cummulative assonance nuisance in prose.

The main tense established by "jogged," "looked," and "went" verbs is simple past, the ideal and most definite, objective, progressive tense for prose. Though simple past tense is a past tense, it is the tense of an immediate present moment just this past moment passed. In other words, now, here, this situation just took place and is complete and definite.

The rest of the fragment is simple past tense, save one past perfect verb in dialogue, "had left," and one present participle used as a gerund adjective, "drying herbs." Both could be recast more dynamically. Omit "had," substitute fresh for "drying," for examples.

"Decoction" is problematic diction on three fronts; one, the term is overly sophisticated too soon for a narrative, nor suitable at the moment--not without showing how and why Sarah knows the technical-jargon term. If she knows the word, she knows what Justin does, what exactly he makes and its telling details.

Two, a decoction is an extraction of wanted compounds hard boiled from substances. Herbs' essences are delicate and cannot withstand boiling temperatures, nor prolonged heat. An example of a decoction solution, though--hard-boiled acorns yields bitter oxalate salts, the gall of the acorn meat, useful for tanning hides; the tannins easily come out in cold or warm water.

Perhaps Justin makes a simple herb tea, perhaps a tonic, potion, elixir, extract, remedy, cure, tincture, simple, or, plainly, preparation. However, each of those is problematic too. Tonic, extract, tincture, for example, are alcohol preparations. Potion has magic inplications. Elixir is a syrup preparation. Remedy and cure are medicines. A simple is too simple without added contexture, perhaps untimely at the moment to develop. Preparation is likewise too sophisticated and generic.

Three--this is overall--what Justin does is underdeveloped, why a decoction, or whatever. What kind of herb shop is this? An apothecary? Probably. A stronger and clearer, simpler explicit term than "decoction" would develop the scene more dynamically.

The type of wood Sarah smells is unclear, nonspecific. Each wood type has a distinctive aroma: evergreens' bitter resin, oaks' mustiness, birches and maples' sweetness, beeches and other nut trees nuttiness, fruit trees' fruitiness, exotic woods' exoticness. Walnut smells like chocolate. Sapele smells like coffee. Paduak smells like buttered popcorn. Etc. This is a missed opportunity to develop the setting and characters through use of specific, "telling details."

This paragraph uses both action and tagged dialogue attribution. The "he said" tag is redundant.

"Justin poured the liquid into a flask and stoppered it. 'Thank you,' he said. 'I didn’t realize I had left that behind until it was too late to go back for it. I would have been mighty hungry.'"

However, again, a pleasantry exchange lacking emotional contexture overall. The overall action event is only dialogue. I'd expect Justin would move toward the satchel, naturally, a dramatic-action event with potential dramatic opportunity.

Overall, static action, static voice, some other conjunction issues, no antagonism, sequential events though noncausal, no emotional contexture, lackluster appeals.

"Missing," the title is also a present participle. Generally, rigorously avoid participles in titles is a best practice. The title signals a missing person!? Or object? Otherwise, meaningless. The fragment offers no clues.

The composition is mostly proper grammar; one of the easiest reasons to reject a narrative is sloppy grammar. The formatting of dialogue, and sentence and paragraph structure is above average and consistent with conventional grammar. The easy causes for rejection are, thankfully, absent. Some writing strengths in use of indirect discourse, shortcomings too: craft matters.

My projections lead me to believe the milieu is somewhat contemporary, not especially fantastical--herb shop for apothecary purposes. Introduction of a fanatastical feature within short order, thirteen lines, is a reader and publisher expectation for fantasy.

For me, the stongest feature of the fragment is the last paragraph, for its use of an action sentence attribution for the next sentence's dialogue. The somewhat direct and short sentence clauses overall move reading momentum along somewhat strongly, too. Overall, fewer than average style, craft, and voice shortcomings; the conventional shortcoming for struggling writers of lackluster appeal about average, though, again, save the overall shortcoming of missed emotional contexture.

[ September 15, 2014, 05:02 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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ncthornock
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I see lots of problems, now that you mention it. Very helpful. Thanks.

besimirch, I would rather not read horror. Do you have any other stories going?

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besimirch
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Sure. Would sci-fi mystery do? 8700 words.
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ncthornock
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That will work just fine. I'll tweak this a bit and send it along.
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ncthornock
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Which of these titles work better?

"Between a cliff and a hard place"

"The cliff and the hard place"

Also, if I change the title, do I need to start a new topic?

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extrinsic
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You don't need to start a new topic to change the title nor if you post a revision. Just add them to the original post, marked as such.

Neither proposed title makes much difference to me. They both reinvent the idiom between a rock and a hard place. None of the three titles so far hints at the meaning of the novelette. Strong titles express what a narrative expresses about a human condition and begin story development. In that regard, "The Cliff and a Hard Place" title, though generic, is stronger than "Missing." I don't know enough about the novelette's expressed human condition to suggest a strong title. I'd expect an opening thirteen lines to at least cue up a hint in that regard.

Also, the "rock and a hard place" idiom parallels the "irresistible force meets the immovable object" idiom, if that offers insight. Specificity, though, is artful. Say, The River of the World Meets the World Stone. The Primus Mage and the Apprentice Philospher. The Avid Suitor and the Solitaire Love Interest. And so on, whatever, about the human condition on point.

[ September 17, 2014, 06:20 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcrabtree
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"Sarah jogged up the wooden steps and into the workshop."

-I think you either run up stairs, or walk. Not a lot of in between. Confusing image for me.

"Justin looked up as she came in, nodded and went back to straining the herbs out of a decoction."

-Sounds fine

"[Making sure I wasn’t somebody who needed help, the girl thought,] setting a satchel on the long wooden counter."

-Bracketed section seems unnecessary. I think the reader has deduced as much already. Stick with describing the action and acknowledging the satchel which appears to be of importance.

"Light and air came in through the windows. She inhaled the scent of wood, mint, and drying herbs. Medicines and salves sat on the shelves."

- Light and air come through all windows (assuming they're open). This also confused me because it is not clear if the smells are coming through the window, or if the smells are already in the room and are being carried by the breeze.

"Justin poured the liquid into a flask and stoppered it. “Thank you,” he said. “I didn’t realize I had left that behind until it was too late to go back for it. I would have been mighty hungry.”

-Sounds fine

Sarah slid the satchel toward him. "We found it on the kitchen table."

-Also fine

In general, I think the scene does a decent job of establishing 2 characters, a setting, and some sort of conflict or resolution of one by introducing the missing bag. If you just remove some of the unnecessary bits and change up some of the wording (I agree with the previous poster, starting the 2 first sentences with 2 character names didn't really work for me) you'll have a fine opening in my opinion. Also just something for thought, and totally personal preference here, it's a fantasy so why not pick some names with will grab the attention of a reader. Sarah and Justin just seem "meh".

I'd be willing to read the piece if you email it over.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If you edit your first post (the one that started the topic), using the little pencil icon, you should be able to change the title of the topic to indicate a different story title.
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