My first prose post to an online critique forum! I hope I did my 13 lines correctly!
This story is science fiction and finished at 4550 words. I keep nitpicking at my stories and I think it's high-time I just throw them out and get feedback.
I'd love any thoughts about the first 13 lines, but if anyone is interested in taking a look at the whole story, I'd very much appreciate it.
Thanks so much!
It had yellow eyes, the thing in the cage.
I shifted my shoulder bag as I looked into the pyloglass construction they’d put her in. A box, two other walls of painted white metal, with a bed of sheets settled in a corner near the back. The floor had grates in it so she could eliminate wherever she wanted, and the refuse would either fall through or could be easily washed away. Whoever sat in the lab room could see her at every hour of every day.
She looked very like a wolf, though I knew she wasn’t. Her legs were too long, her ears too large, though her coat was grey and brown like the watercolor wash of natural wolves. She had white fur underneath, but days spent in the cage and a bad diet had turned it yellow and matted.
A visitor encounters a caged beast, werewolf-like.
Close to thirteen lines, the lines' real estate runs out at "matted."
The fragment entails a visitation and specimen shape. See Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction for more detail about shape types. In any case, this fragment hits the general aspects of those types, shy only one; that is, how the situation complicates the first-person narrator and viewpoint agonist's life at this immediate now moment. The complication is somewhat implied, though: encounter with a yellow-eyed, sentient beast.
Whatever the main complication is, is unclear to me from the fragment, nor can I project one. I believe a strong and clear main or bridge complication introduction is essential for a thirteen-lines fragment.
Overall, the first-person narrator portrait of a specimen type rises to the challenges of characterization, characterizes the specimen observed and as well the observer. That essential is often a first-person shortfall for narrative. The narrator focus on the cage, conditions of the cage, and conditions of the beast, characterize the narrator as concerned about the beast's treatment and state of being.
The fragment portrays some milieu-setting detail, though confined to the immediate cage environs. A small detail of the larger milieu-setting could enhance reader anchor in place. Where does this take place? Just a wild blue sky example, a strip mall vet clinic?
The fragment transitions somewhat awkwardly between narration and received sensory reflection. The former is more or less tell's summary and explanation that is less appealing than the latter's reality imitation show.
The first line's unconventional syntax is more show than tell, show from the stream-of-consciousness aspect of the syntax expletive "it" in sentence subject position. The sentence's real subject then is expressed in object position as an appositive phrase.
Consider if a dash instead of the comma might stronger and clearer express the emotional charge the sentence's unconventional syntax signals. Maybe a stronger description, too, that modifies either "yellow" or "thing," or both, could amplify and clarify the emotional charge. //It had [feral] yellow eyes [--] the [beast] thing in the cage.// (Prose's adjectives and adverbs and similar syntactic phrases' function is emotionally charged commentary.)
The above and below double slash bracketed texts are for demonstration purposes only, not as prescriptive imperatives.
This becomes overly mediated narrator expression from calling undue attention to the artificial construct of a narrator and writer overlay of the dramatic action: "I shifted my shoulder bag as I looked . . ." The consideration is the perpendicular pronoun "I" narrator is a third observer space that intervenes between the viewpoint observer's received reflections and the observed's external presentation.
For example, adjustment of a shoulder bag is an autonomous action, not usually consciously thought. Likewise, to look.
Use of "as" for a coordination conjunction is a common everyday conservation idiom anymore, though used for simultaneous action connections that rarely are simultaneous or, in any case, prose's best practice is sequential actions and separated clauses or sentences instead.
This is a sentence fragment that has little or no function beyond setting summary tell: "A box, two other walls of painted white metal, with a bed of sheets settled in a corner near the back." Sentence fragments' strength is, again, emotional charge commentary, of an interjection-like aspect. Unconventional grammar is the basis for stream-of-consciousness expression, and of an emotional function. Sentence fragments fit those functions. Sentence fragments are best practice brief, too, fewer than, say, ten or so one or two syllable words, or maybe one or two three syllable words.
"She looked very like a wolf, _though_ I knew she wasn’t." Connective words used in formal composition, other than and, for prose, force connections. Connections are best practice left to readers' interpretation, in part, because natural connections are implied by syntax and, in part, they untimely forewarn and, in part, they are unnecessary and create less than ideally artful sentence fusions. They spoil surprise. //She looked very like a wolf. I knew she wasn’t.//
This pronoun use has a subject antecedent issue: "diet had turned _it_" The cage? The fur? The beast?
Another forced connection: "ears too large, _though_" Best practice would maybe use punctuation instead of "though." The art of the dash? See Noah Lukeman A Dash of Style for more punctuation arts detail. // -- her fur coat was the earth tone wash of natural wolves.// Again, surprise preservation through, in this case, punctuation to signal contrastive connections. In that use, "though" is a contrastive conjunction; the dash signals interruption or redirection of a train of thought.
"She had white fur underneath, but days spent" Perhaps the "had" is clunky, due to meaning "possessed," instead of past perfect tense, confusing, vague, anyway, in both regards. Likewise, another contrastive conjunction connection word: "but." This clearer recast illustrates -- tests -- for interpretation purposes: //She had [had] white fur underneath, but days spent//
Another "had" in short succession following the former one confuses time passage and sequence. This moment, that past moment, that further past moment? Which moment? Consider recasting the sentence for emotional strength and immediate now time, place, and situation detail clarity. //White fur showed through the thing's yellowed and matted overcoat. Days confined to a dank cage and bad diet would ruin any animal's mood.//
The narrator of the fragment is so far only a bystander curious and concerned about the beast's treatment, selfless and noble enough that I trust the narrator, though not personally complicated enough I share curiosity about or concern for the beast or the narrator. I feel no emotion one way or the other. Some menace, trepidation, fear and pity emotion, projected by the beast and reflected by the narrator would for me enhance the fragment.
The quantity above by no means intends condemnation of the fragment, The fragment's quality for me about equals some works for me to doesn't work for me.
I'm ambivalent about whether I would read further at this time.
This opening caught my attention. I'm personally curious about why that thing that looks like a wolf but isn't is in that cage.
The narrative voice struck me as interesting, and I don't have any serious critiques grammar-wise. There was one sentence that struck me as a bit run-on--the one that talks about waste elimination. I should also specify that the word 'eliminate' wasn't one I was familiar with when used in that standalone manner. That did briefly pull me out of the narrative (although I subsequently decided it was probably a common term used in this person's line of work after reading the rest of the paragraph).
I'm willing to read the whole story, if you'd like to e-mail it to me.
My interest dissipated with the first line.
I have a strong feeling that the story starts a little later. What often happens with first drafts is that the writer engages in warmup writing. Basically the clearing of one's throat before speaking.
This opening feels like that. Where the story probably begins is where we first feel an investment in one of the characters introduced in the narrative, either that of the thing in the cage or the individual observing it.
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@ extrinsic: My gosh, thank you so much for such a thorough analysis! It's going to take me a bit to get through what you've written, but I sincerely appreciate your words, and I will definitely take them into consideration on my next draft!
@ Disgruntled Peony: Thank you for your words! And I'd love to send it to you if you are interested; thank you so very much for offering! I will get it together later tonight, as I have a few short minutes before I have to be somewhere at the moment. But thank you again!
@ wetwilly: Ah, thank you so much, I am incredibly glad that you're interested! Like I mentioned with Disgruntled Peony, I will prepare it later tonight!
@ Denevius: Haha, I had a feeling the first line might be off-putting, but I kept nit-picking it, and felt it best to just throw it out and see if it works! Thanks so much for your thoughts on it, I appreciate it.
@ walexander: Haha, I was a bit surprised (but in a good way!) But like you said, there's so much good stuff, and I really appreciate such a thoughtful analysis!
And thank you for your read/words! I really appreciate it, and I'm really nervous/excited to finally be sharing my work in a place so dedicated to helping people improve their writing!
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As a personal disclaimer, I dislike first person POV narratives. Now, on with the critique.
The biggest hurdle any writer faces is to get the reader's attention; this is especially important in the short story form. One way is the exclamation: “Look, they're coming through the walls!” Another way is the path you have chosen. My problem is that both are 'cheap' literary tricks most readers will recognise immediately and so approach the story to follow with trepidation.
We then transition from 'surprise' opening sentence (paragraph) to the mundane description of a cage by the viewpoint character. Why? Finally, we get a description of the creature in the cage. None of which works for me.
Where are we, who is the viewpoint character, and why is she there? These are the questions I as a reader want answered at the start. For me, the 'trick' is to catch my attention with that.
I would have liked for you to start with “The thing in the cage had yellow eyes,” instead of the reverse. Or explain what the thing was actually doing instead of describing its appearance.
The description of the cage threw me off a little bit and could use some clarification. Where exactly were the “two other walls?” Instead of saying the “The floor had grates in it…” I would recommend “The grated floor allowed her to…” Then I wondered why it was important to describe the cage at all.
You call the thing a “her” - how did you know it was a “her”?
I feel like the description of how her waste would be eliminated wasn’t the best use of the critical 13-line real estate segment. Is it important later? It would be so much more powerful if you didn’t describe the thing’s physical characteristics (which you did in both the opening line and second paragraph) or the architecture of the cage, and instead described the state of the thing itself. Was it whimpering in pain? Was it drugged and asleep? Did it prowl back and forth behind thick bars? Then you can provide the narrator’s reaction…he/she felt sorry for it, he/she was relieved it was drugged because then it couldn’t cause him/her harm, he/she felt exposed and wished they had some kind of weapon.
Having worked in a lab setting most of my life…I suggest not to call it a “lab room.” Just go with “laboratory.” And since I am a sciency kind of gal I would read a little further...
I would be happy to read the entire work if you wouldn't mind reading something of my own. Please feel free to send it via email.
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@ Grumpy old Guy: Thank you so much for your thoughts!
I was mildly aware that the hook was a trick, something that's carried down with me from my grueling college paper-writing days, but having it pointed out makes it look like a sore-thumb now. I'm definitely in the market for a better way to write opening lines, as I seem to have trouble with openings in general.
The viewpoint character is a recent graduate of a zoology program, however this is the far future and she majored in earth fauna. Which, on Jupiter, is like majoring in cheese-making. She's on a satellite ship, and she was hired by a mega corporation to try and figure out why their "pet" seems to be getting sick.
None of which is really mentioned in the first lines, I notice! However, I don't feel like this info is really interesting until later, after you see what the viewpoint character is like in personality... Hmm. Just thinking out loud, I'll play around with it some more!
@ dmsimone: Thank you very much for your words! I certainly need to tune up the writing in the intro, that much I know now, haha.
The viewpoint character is a zoologist on a space-ship. I described the cage because I feel a zoologist would first take in the conditions of the cage, but I know also that the animal in the cage would command the most attention. Being an English major with only a healthy diet of animal documentaries to go on, I am not a zoologist so perhaps I should research it a bit more!
I wanted to imply that the viewpoint character already knew why she was looking at the animal, and already knew a bit about the creature's situation. Does this come off at all, or does it just provide further distraction?
As for why I described the cage first... I suppose, trying to think how an animal expert would think, I felt looking at the animal's situation and appearance would be first priority. But many people have pointed out that describing the cage isn't a good idea, so I should probably look into other ways to describe the creature's situation!
And I would very much appreciate your viewpoint on the lab situation! I've never stepped foot in a lab, so I would love your thoughts on how to make the laboratory setting more realistic!
And I would love to swap stories with you! I'll e-mail it over to you, if that's okay. You can reply with your story!
Thank you very much for your thoughts!
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Hello! I personally liked the first line, but I like things that are worded in a different way. After reading some of your explanations, I have to say I did not get the space station vibe or the vibe that the narrator knew what she was looking at. I wonder if you could increase some technical language or imagery to help get that across? Have the narrator maybe making mental notes in a more clinical tone and add in sympathy for the creature?
I would continue to read it.
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@ AlanW: Thank you! I'm definitely going to rewrite the opening lines to try and get this across some more. Just have to get through the morass of the work week!
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