I was 17 when Rat died. We all knew he wouldn’t last long. I didn’t know it would be us that killed him. # Alex Ratkowsi earned his rodentian title for more than just his last name. He was the kind of kid who’d snitch on you for anything. On Rat’s first day at the compound, Johnny Fitz nicked an extra bowl of sim-fruit at lunch. Could’ve been a mile away by the time any of the doped-up orderlies noticed too, but Rat sang like a canary, demanding an extra bowl of fruit for himself. Johnny earned five lashes from a tesla cane for the offense. Rat, though unpunished by The Powers That Be, showed up for roll the next morning with a mysterious black eye and a couple of bruised ribs.
A tattletale sparks unwanted attention onto himself and onto errant co-denizens of some kind of futuristic juvenile detention facility.
The fragment's strengths for me include a language dialect suited to the first-person narrator's age range and situation, a conversational personal report of the dramatic situation, an ample magnitude complication-conflict development for the now moment of an opening, adequate event, setting, and character, and that the narrative is about a common present-day social circumstance that involves human vice and folly, some of which is due to the narrator's self-error.
The use of stream-of-consciousness artful grammar methods is also a crafty feature for its closing of narrative distance to up close and personal narrator report and private emotional attitude. That is artfully well done, due to not calling undue attention to itself, is natural and necessary to the narrative's private and public appeals.
Imposed institutional confinement is a broad field for satire, which this narrative is satire. Prison, military boot camp, work gulags, juvenile detention spas, schools even, secular or religious, even advanced degree universities, are ripe for satire due to their institutional corruption cultures and their coerced to variable degrees of attendance and performance expectations.
This narrative's start is also a Specimen shape, in Jerome Stern's shape criterion, Making Shapely Fiction, 1991: a narrator direct through first person or secondhand through third person accounts the dramatic nature of an observed persona's life-changing contest action. The specimen shape's strength is that it reveals as much, if not more, about the observer's nature as the specimen's. The fragment poses those possibilities, artfully inspired, to a degree.
The several setting aspects the fragment develops are through an indirect and artful method, included within action segments, event and character developments, too.
Curiously, many are the strengths across composition culture that are as well shortfalls and all but inextricable from each other, save for novel approaches inspired by hard study and not a little intuition and discovery, ergo, rewrites and revisions (re-visions).
Shortfalls, for me, of the fragment include that the opening paragraph maybe gives away the end, gives away the plot, so to speak, and it is a gimmicky "hook" method. Huh, death will ensue by the end, read on now that you're emotionally hooked by a life and death conflict and that end not in doubt from the get-go. The paragraph, however, does unequivocally insert the narrator as personally involved in the contest action to come. That feature alone supports the gimmickiness of the paragraph. I would only prefer Rat's outcome be left more or in total doubt. As is, presuming the outcome, for me, leaves little reason to read on to find out the end.
An example of a similar narrative though that casts doubt about the narrator's upfront demise, Larry Heinemann's an excerpted standalone short story of the same title from the novel Paco's Story, 1977.
That the setting, and event and character, details give a too vague impression of the events, time, place, situation, and personas, lack specificity development from those curiously concise "telling details" that in an economy of words encapsulate an in toto for a now moment the true natural nature and necessary personality and identity and emotional judgmental attitude of a dramatic topic. For example, "compound" implies many possibilities, along with a restricted feed hall serving of fruit, along with doped-up orderlies, along with a Tesla cane, while strong development, are vague details that do not clarify what type of detention facility this is about.
What, a medical, penal, educational, work, seminary compound, etc.? Instead, the details push and pull against each other. One small piece of perhaps personal close up sensory detail could serve for clarity's sake. "Compound," to me is a "telling detail" insertion point opportunity. Maybe only an added adjective, emotionally charged perhaps, would do enough for now. Maybe another noun, too, maybe an ironic or sarcastic label personal to the as yet unnamed narrator for whatever compound type this is would do for now and one that's not trite, not loony bin, nor hoosegow, or, what, cannon fodder factory.
Speaking of trite, "sang like a canary". Artless mixed metaphor, simile, actually, for one, and a tired saying, cliché, as the proverbial they say. A naive youth would at least distort the cliché out of proportion from misremembering the saying. The sang like a canary simile alludes to coal mine caged canaries used to detect poisonous gases. Alive and singing, safe atmosphere; dead, time to bolt like it's Armageddon. Dead canaries don't sing nor warn of pendent disaster or sound an alert of any kind. Threatened live canaries just go quiet and still and hidden. That's the artless context of the mixed simile, often anymore misapprehended as an idiom for a snitch.
"The Powers that Be" as well borders on the trite. Is there no other fresh, inventive, as well misremembered and skewed saying that would suit the context and texture? "The lairds that are God, Mamma, and Satan in one mighty power," for example. Emotionally charged and sarcastically ironic apropos of a youthful mind-set.
"orderlies noticed[,] too, but" A punctuation principle advises commas or other punctuation bracket a medial clause or sentence adverb, like "too," if the adverb or other modifier or modifier phrase modifies a full syntax unit.
I'm usually averse to informal contradiction conjunction "but"; however, the narrator and setting's youthful context and texture support it in this use, and this instance narrowly fits contradiction conjunctions' general function and purpose.
Polish surnames contain consonants stray to English speakers, Z's, C's, and N's, often silent. Ratkowski seems unnatural to me, and too easily distorted into the "Rat" nickname. Ratczknawski, Rats-gnaw-ski, for example. -skis generally are nicknamed Skibeau. Of course, the nickname and its surname derivation are easily understood as metonymy and more about the social-moral irony attribute than about name authenticity. Plus, hard to read and comprehend names bog readers down. I'm ambivalent about the surname.
Rodentian is curiously apropos of a fraternal detention culture lingo.
Having been many times a casualty and witness to informal social adjustment rituals, like blanket parties in which a wrongfully presumed offender was soap-bars-in-socks beaten in a bunk asleep at night. That and many of my similar encounters involved a trivial excuse of a leadership type of punishing the group for an as well trivial individual error. The leader made the troupe run an extra ten miles, for example, because an individual slacked off on keeping double-time cadence. No matter to the troupe at all that the leader intended the extra miles anyway and didn't understand the training and powerplay dynamics at issue. That is the kind of doubt feature I feel could add depth to this opening, that Rat as scapegoat and his beating imply such a powerplay between leadership and the compound's detainee complement.
By the way, the soap bars in socks is done so that assailants don't bruise their knuckles and give away their participation to investigators. Rubber hoses, boondocks in pillowcases, knotted rope ends, and shaving cream and deodorant containers in wet towels are other adjustment strategies for plausible deniability. The targets are also restrained in their bunks by holding the blanket tight so the target can't fight back. Consequently, they beat the target about the torso, never the head, which shows on inspection that an altercation transpired, that bruises, if visible, are hidden beneath clothes.
The title "Rat" for me is incomplete. I don't know, maybe warrants more content, futuristic maybe, akin perhaps to Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat cycle. Tesla cane is one potential possibility from the fragment. Skewed, though. Rat of Nine Tails!? The "nine" and "tail" features come from the maritime flogging whip applied to adjust trivial-error miscreants. A reversal of the title and action could then pose those who harass Rat for his unintended tattletales as the real nine-tails rats, a gang of nine. That would be a different outcome than the one the opening paragraph telegraphs.
I might could read on, due to mostly realized start criteria met. More exquisite "telling detail" specificity and the outcome left in doubt until the bittersweet end would ensure I read on.
quote:Originally posted by IINCEPTIONII: I was 17 when Rat died. We all knew he wouldn’t last long. I didn’t know it would be us that killed him. # Alex Ratkowsi earned his rodentian title for more than just his last name. He was the kind of kid who’d snitch on you for anything. On Rat’s first day at the compound, Johnny Fitz nicked an extra bowl of sim-fruit at lunch. Could’ve been a mile away by the time any of the doped-up orderlies noticed too, but Rat sang like a canary, demanding an extra bowl of fruit for himself. Johnny earned five lashes from a tesla cane for the offense. Rat, though unpunished by The Powers That Be, showed up for roll the next morning with a mysterious black eye and a couple of bruised ribs.
The first paragraph, before the hash, might be unnecessary. What grabbed my attention was the first sentence after the hashmark. It still subtly hints that Alex holds the titular nickname, 'Rat,' but doesn't state it outright, which gives the reader more personal satisfaction for making the connection.
'He was the kind of kids who would snitch on you for anything' is a telling statement, and seems unnecessary to me since you move on to showing his nature as a snitch starting with the very next sentence.
Those are the only things I personally feel could be improved on with the fragment. The rest of it flowed easily for me and held my attention. I'd read on.
A character recounts past events in another time and place. Recent or distant past? The opening fragment before the asterisk sort of gives the prize away: Rat is killed by the narrator and his cohorts because he is a snitch.
I find the narrative distance in this fragment to be longer than I would like (a personal choice). Most contemporary narratives are in the 'now', more or less. That being said, I find the style of your 'voice' reassuring and an easy thing to read--a bankable commodity.
All-in-all, I am uncertain about this opening. I find the character's recounting of the tale too ambivalent: He did commit murder, did he not? Of course, there could be valid reasons for such ambivalence: He is an unreliable narrator, or he may be a reliable one who has a form of PTSD or another dissociative condition.
On the plus side, you provide just enough information for us to recognise that this event takes part in some future milieu and within the confines of some type of detention facility. This was artfully done, to my mind. The biggest failing, in my opinion, apart from the narrator's emotional state, is the appellation 'Rat' for poor, little, Alex Ratkowsi. The term rat, along with snitch, grass, stoolie, fink, sneak, etc. seems a bit archaic. Perhaps you could come up with a contemporary, in-camp-name in the local vernacular.
Thank you all for your valuable feedback. It appears that by unanimous vote, the first paragraph is a weak spot, and on reading your evaluations, I would have to agree. Why give away the ending and spoil the surprise?
Further, I appreciate the comments regarding both trite and archaic language, weaknesses I would not have seen without your input (though that's the goal in sharing a fragment in a forum now, isn't it?). It's refreshing to receive constructive criticisms from others who have a genuine interest in the craft, and for that I thank you.
A goal. Another is workshop benefits that accrue to critiquers.
Located another Larry Heinemann short story that as well foreshadows the death of a focal character, a specimen shape, too. Online free access. "The Fragging," 1997, first published in The Atlantic, doc format, 6,600 words.
The title first foreshadows the outcome yet leaves that in doubt. The first line partially as well further foreshadows the outcome and fills in a few "telling details" for the title's curiosity arousal and initial partial curiosity satisfaction, similar to the first paragraph of the "Rat" fragment above. "Second Lieutenant Lionel Calhoun McQuade was a Citadel punk, and that's probably what killed him."
"The Fragging's" first line works for me because it only partially expresses what the outcome might be, what and how (by the title) stated unequivocally, to whom, and some of why, implies when and where, Vietnam and that war, of course, where the term "fragging" and all that that entails arose, a word suited to the story milieu's language. [Of greatest note, though, is the phrase "Citadel punk," the Citadel is Clemson University, South Carolina's ROTC military academy program, "punk" is an emotionally charged, subjective expression that converts an otherwise objective straight-up tell into show. Anyway] All six W questions touched on by the end of the first line. [Plus, the word "punk" is strongly charged and signals a personal, subjective position. One word sets the tone (emotional-moral attitude) for the narrative point of view for the whole piece. Admirably, thus, complication-conflict and tone established by the end of the first line, too.] Wow! that's powerful craft.
The story, a satire about a narrow area of war's vice and folly, details more context and texture and the fallout (sic) of the fragging, left in doubt until relevant and necessary. Context and texture: context's who, when, where; texture's what, why, how -- the six W composition questions taught in grammar school to timely and judiciously develop crafty answers for in a composition, that are tools for the fiction artist's craft mastery, artfully delayed full satisfaction, for one.
I'm new to critiquing, and I feel that others have done most of the heavy lifting already. To add to what has already been stated... Consider ditching the hashtag between the first and second paragraph. It was visually jarring when I read it. I could have fallen into the story faster without it. Yes, the first paragraph is a spoiler of sorts, but (for me at least) that doesn't spoil the story. Why? Because I don't think the story is about Rat. It's going to be about the narrator, and that first line clearly promises a character arc, a change, a realization, etc. I enjoyed the voice of the narrator. It read authentic. You've got simulated fruit and tesla-canes (I'm envisioning a variation on the taser/cattle prod), but then you reference Rat singing like "a canary." Would someone living in a world with simulated foods and electricity whips use that analogy? Maybe not. Something to think about. The last sentence was the weakest one for me. The black eye, okay, but unless it was the narrator who caused the injuries, how would (he?) have knowledge of the bruised ribs? More positives than negatives with this opening, though. Yes, I am curious. Yes I would want to read more.
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The hash tag is a typesetter and proofreader mark that means space, word space, actually, insert one. The Standard Manuscript Format also uses the space mark to indicate a line deliberately left empty to signal to a typesetter an intended section break of lesser pause strength than one marked with type art to signal a stronger break, like a stylized vine similar to the tilde, like ~~~, often three of a kind of whatever. Next in break strength is a section subtitle, mark, §, or numeral. Next in strength, a chapter break with its label numeral or title or both.
Typesetters and SMF submitters know the space mark will be removed before publication; the other break marks are intended to print though may be replaced with a standard house style mark or kept as is, Latin stet, typesetter and proofreader vernacular for "let it stand." Not to be confused with healthcare provider "stat" for do it immediately if not sooner.
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