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Author Topic: R.A.T.O.R. (1500 word short SF story)
Delgreco
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This story is complete at 1492 words. I wrote it last week and did a couple editing passes. Very likely that there are some punctuation errors as that is one of my weaknesses. Hopefully I figured out how to correctly measure the first thirteen lines.

Would you read on?


--

The shuttle approach alarm blared, Matthew jolted in surprise, sloshing fresh coffee into his lap. He set the cup down on the desk, grunting at the tendrils of steam rising from his legs. Mary would have to help him check them for burns later.

A wingmutt chattered at him from a nearby envirotank, wide eyes tugging at his emotions, imploring him to release it.

“You shouldn’t even be here.”

The wingmutt just stared at him, sending the same message.

“You wouldn’t survive outside the tank if I did.”

Another envirotank whirred into the room, suspended from the ceiling by an arm guiding the heavy cylinder into place beside the wingmutt’s.

“Space it Mary! I told you, no more specimens.”

---1st revision---

Rain drummed harder against the fuselage overhead. Matthew looked up from the soil composition data displayed on the lab monitor. It wasn’t really the rain that distracted him. He could never concentrate while Mary was off-shuttle. He was meant to be out there with her. His fingers habitually probed his useless quadriceps. As expected, his legs remained numb.

The shuttle hatch clanked distantly, Mary had returned. Matthew's relief proved short lived when, suspended from overhead by a waldo arm, an envirotank whirred into the lab.

“Space it, Mary! I told you no more specimens,” he steered his chair toward the new tank. A squat four-legged creature regarded him from within. Its blubbery lips parted, a tentacle-like appendage shot from between them and stuck to the glass.

---2nd revision---

A squat, four-leg creature regarded Matthew from within the newly arrived envirotank. Its blubbery lips parted. A tentacle-like appendage shot from between them and stuck to the glass.

Matthew jolted in his chair, “Space it, Mary! What did you find?”

“Isn’t he fantastic?” Mary bustled into the lab—still in her EVA suit, helmet removed. “You see the pics of the ruins I sent you?”

“I did. They’re about as useful as an amputated archaeologist,” he waggled what remained of his leg at her.

“Well…,” Mary smiled and pointed at the creature in the envirotank. “Good thing you’re also a biologist then.”

"Forgive my lack of enthusiasm for fauna, no matter how

[ January 11, 2017, 03:53 PM: Message edited by: Kathleen Dalton Woodbury ]

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extrinsic
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An individual works in some sort of control room.

The fragment's campy language emphasis suggests this short story is some sort of parody or farcical satire. Not clear that that is the intent.

Little to no clues what this is about really or on the surface. An alarm, a wingmutt, and Mary delivers a new specimen pose Mathew problems -- incomplete external complication matters. No clue what Matthew is about work-wise or wants. The alarm, wingmutt, Mary, and new specimen could be everyday routine problems and Matthew an excitable person. An event and character population explosion, to me.

The alarm trips and Matthew pays it no mind? That's an untimely detour, to me, and contrary to natural reaction expectations. If whatever unexpectedly approaches, shouldn't Matthew attempt to interpret it, immediately do something about it, despite all the distractions?

What does Matthew privately want (internal complication) and what is his mission (external complication)? Complication introductions are an essential start criteria for any narrative type. And conflict and tone. Tone's somewhat introduced: a somewhat campy narrator attitude. Conflict's identities are a polar opposition of stakes and possible outcomes forces, like disaster prevented and utter disaster transpires.

This is ambiguous in a less than artful way: "The shuttle approach alarm blared," Does the alarm sound about a shuttle's approach? Or about the shuttle Matthew is on alerts to another object's approach?

The syntax is confused in several sentences, largely dangled participles. Here: "He set the cup down on the desk, grunting at the tendrils of steam rising from his legs." Does the desk grunt at the steam rising? The dual participle clause works at the sentence's start, not at the end.

And wordy; the "of" preposition unnecessary. Illustration: //grunting at the steam tendrils rising from his legs.// The adverb case particle "at" is of dubious value, too. The use is an everyday speech idiom to mean directed to or due to. Ambiguous at best. Revised illustration: //He set the cup down on the desk. Steam tendrils rose from his legs. His grunts barked away the burns' pain.// Grammar illustration, not content imposition per se.

Same here, two participle dangles: "envirotank, _wide eyes tugging at his emotions,_ _imploring him to release it._

Same here, one dangle: "ceiling by an arm _guiding the heavy cylinder into place beside the wingmutt’s_."

And here: "stared at him, sending the same message."

Present participles modify a proximal noun; Matthew is the intended noun subject for several of the main clauses, not the desk, the envirotank first instance, nor the emotions. The wingmutt sends the same message, not "him," Matthew.

This is a past participle dangle, and a present participle dangle, and more confused syntax: "Another envirotank whirred into the room, _suspended from the ceiling_ by an arm _guiding the heavy cylinder into place beside the wingmutt’s_."

Illustration: //Suspended from the ceiling by a waldo arm, another envirotank whirred into the room. The arm guided the heavy cylinder into place beside the wingmutt’s.// "Ceiling" could also instead be a nautical-spaceship term, "overhead," to eliminate the gerund noun. Or an original term imaginatively invented. "Ceiling" is a dirtside civilians' label.

And at that latter sentence reading moment, a surplus of unnecessary present participles and gerund -ing word ring rhymes accumulates a nuisance factor. Simple past verbs are more affirmative and of more distinct and definite time expression, more dynamic, more vivid, more lively, more memorable, more dramatic than present participles' ongoing action representation. Here and now, just this past moment, simple past tense happened is prose's dynamic voice mainstay. Timely, judicious, artful exceptions notwithstood.

And "wide eyes" is vague imagery. What is a more vivid and lively description for such eyes as these appear? Doe eyes, sloe eyes, saucer eyes, Betty Davis eyes, Dakota Fanning eyes? Etc.?

The acronym title does little, if anything, to clarify what the story is about, or entice interest, too.

“Space it[,] Mary! I told you, no more specimens.” [Missed comma.]

The campy voice stands out most for me, a mite curious if that might soon express an attitude about -- well, I don't know what. That humor appeal does more for me than the rest, though shy of enough enticement to read on at this time, in a main part, due to grammar glitches that confuse my reading and comprehension ease and, in another main part, due to essential introduction criteria shortfalls: internal and external complication's want-problem contests, conflict's stakes-possible outcomes contests, and clarity of a tone's attitude toward a target.

[ December 16, 2016, 06:07 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathy_K
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Hi there! Okay, so this opening isn't working for me in its current state, especially since you said it's a short piece. My primary issue is that, after 13 lines, I don't have a clear sense of this character and I haven't gotten any real hint of what the story is about (thought I know it's set in space, in a shuttle). That's the biggest issue for me. Without that, I am not feeling hooked and am not feeling the pull to read me.

Other, less critical issues but things to think about: The first sentence. Sometimes run-on sentences are done intentionally for a reason, but this doesn't seem to be the case. So, a grammatical fix to consider...

There is an alarm that sounds, which I assume is meant to generate tension, but an alarm all by itself isn't enough. The reaction it generates is what will create tension. Other than being surprised, the MC's reaction is pretty calm. In fact, he appears more concerned with whether or not he burned himself than with the alarm, so the tension of the first sentence fizzles.

Which brings me to my next nit-picky issue. The coffee. First: is coffee the stimulate of preference in a high-tech future? Maybe, especially if you're going for a retro-campy style (I'm envisioning FireFly). However, would a pilot at an electronic control panel in a space shuttle (even with artificial gravity) be keeping coffee in an open container that can spill? That was difficult for me to believe.

I found myself asking, what the heck is a "wingmutt?" The description you gave didn't provide a clear enough image in my mind, so it had the effect of pulling me out of the story rather that immersing me more deeply in it. Wide eyes and an envirotank aren't enough for me to see, understand, or care about this creature that the MC begins talking to.

You write, "You shouldn't even be here," and you let that declaration hang without further explanation or elaboration. A super brief follow up statement might help the picture of this situation come into sharper focus. WHY shouldn't it be there? Is it a pet that the MC doesn't approve of? Is it contraband? Is it the hundredth specimen collected on a job where only fifty specimens were supposed to be collected?

If you gave more of a description of the wingmutt when you first mention it, you might be able to make clear that it wouldn't survive outside the tank, rendering the "You wouldn't survive..." comment unnecessary, because again I want to understand why, and I don't because I can't picture this creature at all, so that bit of dialogue currently is frustrating me more than sparking my curiosity.

I got the sense from the additional envirotank coming in that this is an industrial/work setting, but I'm not convinced of that. There's tension suggested between the MC and the Mary character with the final line of dialogue, but it's not very dramatic. Is that line delivered with mild irritation, a sigh of resignation, true anger?

Context. That's what is needed. Context in terms of physical setting, character emotion, motivation & intent, relationship w/ this Mary character, and the nature of that alarm that goes off (which I would assume is meant to be the inciting incident, but isn't hooking me the way I think you want it to.)

At someone else's suggestion, I wrote this feedback without reading what extrinsic wrote, so if I'm repeating his/her thoughts, I apologize. Thanks for sharing, though. I hope my feedback was useful for you.

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Grumpy old guy
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When I did my first read-through of this absolutely nothing concerned me. I didn't halt or pause to think, I didn't even wonder what was going on. The only thing I did notice about the story was the tone, light banter and a slightly cheeky cast, easy to read. The whole experience was like eating fairy-floss, sweet and sticky with no substance whatever – 90% empty air.

1500 words is not a lot of room in which to tell a story. If you are telling a tale it needs to be interesting, this is done by getting the reader involved, not by inventing a catchy opening like, “The shuttle approach alarm blared, . . .” The reader needs to know who the tale is about, where it takes place, and what the problem is (the reason for the story). None of these needs are met in this fragment.

For me, best practice dictates that for a short story the opening first few lines should reference what the looming dramatic complication is. Not directly, that would be a spoiler, but either through foreshadowing or subtle allusion. If this isn't possible, and it isn't always, the next focus for immediate development should be the main character – who is he and what he wants.

To close, in the main I also second extrinsic's and Kathy_K's observations. Hope this helps,

Phil.

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Disgruntled Peony
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Some of the grammar in this opening strikes me as awkward. The comma in the first sentence might do better as a period. 'And sloshed' or 'and grunted' might be better than 'sloshing'/'grunting' in the first and second sentences, as well.

Wingmutt is a piece of evocative slang, but a bit more description would paint a strong image in my mind.

The second line of dialogue confuses me. It doesn't quite seem like a proper response to that stare, nor a continuation of the previous statement.

Also, this sentence seems like a bit of a run-on:

quote:
Another envirotank whirred into the room, suspended from the ceiling by an arm guiding the heavy cylinder into place beside the wingmutt’s.
I find the overall entry intriguing. The hints of setting caught my attention, and I'm curious why the protagonist can't check himself for burns. I feel like this draft could use refinement, but I am interested enough that I would read on.
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Delgreco
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Thank you everyone for your feedback!

I had so many "of course" moments reading through your comments. It actually felt really good to have some of my work dissected. Much better than the "I like it" I get from those close to me. Which is not particularly useful.

The identification of my grammar issues is particularly enlightening.

Looking forward to using your feedback to create a stronger opening soon!

Thanks,
Del

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H Reinhold
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Sorry to be replying late-ish (again). I haven't read others' comments extensively, so may be replicating in part.

I like the opening, but I find it confusing. It feels like you're trying to do too many things at the same time. My attention is dragged from one thing to another without a clear reason why: Alarm! Burnt legs! Wingmutt! New specimen! But which of these is the thing that kicks off the story?

Since the alarm is mentioned first, I'm primed to think it's going to be central, but seems to play no further role in these lines. If the alarm is routine, and doesn't require Matthew's immediate attention, why is he so shocked by it that he spills his coffee? Wouldn't he be used to such things? And if the alarm's not routine, why does he appear to ignore it? The reader needs at least some indication of what's going to important to the story as a whole, especially if the story's on the shorter side.

I like the incident with the coffee. I can instantly recognise that the main character's a regular human being with whom I can sympathise. I think you could use this little incident to reveal a lot about Matthew's character, and (as you do) also introduce the second character, Mary, at the same time--I'm also curious to know why Matthew might need help checking for burns. And who is she to him, that she's going to examine his upper thighs? Clearly they're familiar, but is it anything more? Or is she a medic of some kind? It might be nice, in fact, to hint a bit further at their relationship.

One of my main concerns with this opening is that there doesn't seem to be any necessary connection between the opening paragraph and the rest of the 13 lines. He's just burnt himself and his last thought was of Mary helping him. Why does he now suddenly turn all his attention to the wingmutt, something less important and less interesting than either his potential burns, or the alarm? From Matthew's conversation with the wingmutt, it's clear that this is not some highly-prized cargo, but a regular part of Matthew's life--almost like an extra in a film.

The choice of verb 'chattered' for the wingmutt also makes me think that the wingmutt's noise is not a response to Matthew but more of a random noise. To me, 'chatter' is something undirected, unprovoked, that happens in the background. It's almost background noise. (Also, it doesn't fit with my current mental image of a wingmutt, which tends towards a kind of bulldog with ? bat wings? Some more hints of description would be nice--I'd like to know more!)

I think you could probably show a bit more clearly how the coffee-spill and the wingmutt, at least, are related. Ideally the alarm as well. A couple of examples:

a) Matthew spills the coffee and the wingmutt (hearing his gasp of pain) whines sympathetically.
b) The shock of the alarm makes him spill the coffee and also makes the wingmutt afraid. The wingmutt then starts chattering at Matthew.

Something like this would help the transition. If the alarm really is important, the second example here would allow you to get back to it for a moment so that it's not completely lost in everything else that happens.

I would read on at least a little, to try to find out whether any of the interesting hints in the opening are developed. Happy to take a look at the whole piece if you'd like to email.

Hannah

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Delgreco
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1st revision attempt! Posting from my laptop, so the resolution is messing with my ease of determining 13 lines. But I think I figured it out. I'm also working on a different title, one more descriptive of the story.

--

Rain drummed harder against the fuselage overhead. Matthew looked up from the soil composition data displayed on the lab monitor. It wasn’t really the rain that distracted him. He could never concentrate while Mary was off-shuttle. He was meant to be out there with her. His fingers habitually probed his useless quadriceps. As expected, his legs remained numb.

The shuttle hatch clanked distantly, Mary had returned. Matthew's relief proved short lived when, suspended from overhead by a waldo arm, an envirotank whirred into the lab.

“Space it, Mary! I told you no more specimens,” he steered his chair toward the new tank. A squat four-legged creature regarded him from within. Its blubbery lips parted, a tentacle-like appendage shot from between them and stuck to the glass.

--

Thanks in advance everyone,
Del.

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Kathy_K
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Del, I found this revision MUCH more engaging and catchy. There's so much more context here. I feel like I know where this character is (sort of), what he's doing, and you've given a glimpse of conflict with his physical status and with Mary. I especially enjoyed the description of the new specimen at the end.

A couple of points:

"It wasn't really the rain that distracted him. He could never concentrate when Mary was off shuttle." I think this passage could be strengthened and made more impactful. It's a bit flat as written.

"His fingers probed his useless quadriceps. As expected, his legs remained numb." This struck me as heavy handed. What's the intent? Is Matthew newly paraplegic? If so, I think there's a better way for you to share that fact with your readers.

"The shuttle hatch clanked distantly, Mary had returned." Watch the grammar there. Either rewrite this sentence or split it into two separate sentences. There are a couple of other punctuation errors and a couple of run-on sentences elsewhere.

Really, though, I enjoyed this revision much more than the original. Nice job.

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extrinsic
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Stronger and clearer start. Thirteen lines exact. The campy tone I so much appreciated is absent from the revised version.

As is, Mary is Matthew's complication; his want for her return; a problem that she brings another specimen into the shuttle. Not much of a length-suited magnitude complication. And one that might be construed a sexism difficulty. Not that sexism is per se problematic, that such might accuse all of womankind for being a problem to men, Matthew in particular. A sex stereotype issue. If Matthew reflects about Mary as a specific individual, characterizes her as unique, that defuses the stereotype, only she is a problem for Matthew only.

Confused whether the lab is on the shuttle or at a ground facility or what.

A few grammar matters. "Rain drummed harder" harder compared to what? Comparative modifiers ask for a positive modifier for comparison. Harder than before? Harder than ever? Harder than expected? Harder than golf balls . . . ?

"It wasn’t really" Pronoun "It" there has no subject referent: antecedent, proximal, or subsequent, is a syntax expletive.

"The shuttle hatch clanked distantly, Mary had returned." Due to two comma-spliced independent clauses, instead of the comma separation, stronger separation is indicated: semicolon, colon, or dash. A dash suits the context and, more so, most general readers' sensibilities. //The shuttle hatch clanked distantly -- Mary had returned.// Note that the dash intensifies the second clause and as well, more strongly than the comma, implies the cause of the hatch's distant clank is Mary's return.

"relief proved short[-]lived" "Short-lived" conventionally takes a hyphen.

"lived when, suspended" The when takes a comma before it, too, is an objective case use of the conjunction case pronoun for a nonrestrictive dependent clause union to a main clause. Wordy, too, and unnecessary. //relief proved short-lived. Suspended from//

"A squat[,] four-legged" takes the comma, between separate modifiers. A matter of coordination, too, "squat" is a present tense verb adjective; "four-legged" is a past tense verb adjective. //A squat, four-leg//

"Its blubbery lips parted, a tentacle-like appendage shot from between them and stuck to the glass." Another comma-spliced, two independent clauses sentence. A period separation is indicated instead of the comma.

Clearer and stronger character development of the creature in the envirotank, artful.

I don't know that I would give the second version much more read-on latitude, due most to missed what is Matthew's main complication he wants to satisfy. Mary as complication, for me, isn't enough for a start of whatever length narrative.

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Disgruntled Peony
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This new opening's prose is much stronger, overall. The use of 'harder' in the first sentence strikes me as odd, and there are a few places where commas would work better as periods, but that's all easily fixable stuff.

I felt much more strongly grounded with the protagonist in this second version. There are hints of inner conflict and the opportunity for growth right in the opening (the paralysis, his frustration with it, and the potential forthcoming opportunity to learn how to better manage and/or come to better terms with his limitations). I would definitely read on. [Smile]

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Jay Greenstein
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quote:
It wasn’t really the rain that distracted him.
If not, and if the rain doesn't influence his action or the plot, why mention it?
quote:
He could never concentrate while Mary was off-shuttle. He was meant to be out there with her.
At this point we don't know where he is in time or space. We know nothing about him, or what's going on. Of more importance, we don't know who Mary is, what she is to him, or have context for why he can't do his job without her there.

Basically, you, the author, are talking about the story instead of making the reader live it by placing them into his viewpoint.

If we're in his viewpoint, something makes him look up. And since it does, if he's our avatar, we should know it, so we understand what happens next. Telling the reader he wasn't "meant" to be there without her is meaningful to you, because you know the background. Without that the reader has no context.

quote:
The shuttle hatch clanked distantly, Mary had returned.
Is this a thought, or an authorial insertion? It reads as an insertain, but since it's not true, it becomes a "Huh?" moment for the reader.

Looking at it as a whole, I think that, were you to place the reader into the protagonist's viewpoint, as against having the narrator explain the story, much of what I mentioned above would self correct.

This article, on the strongest method I know of for placing the reader into the scene, might help clarify: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php

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Grumpy old guy
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I read the article in the above link and, for me personally, I regard it as nothing more than a "paint by the numbers" recipe for creating melodrama.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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Randy Ingermanson, the above site's persona, is a devotee of Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham's causation methods. Those methods are prone to melodrama's solely plot device engines at the expense of unity of event, setting, and character development, as per L. Rust Hills' observations of same. Bickham, et al, have not yet appreciated tension's role per Freytag and unity of existents, etc., nor complication's antagonism forces per Aristotle and Freytag and others. And a conflated gross misunderstanding of "conflict."
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Grumpy old guy
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Your second 'draft' is a slight improvement; I have a sense of setting--a shuttle-craft. Apart from that, I'm left with a lot of questions; not as a reader but as a critic.

I am 'told' that it's raining outside: Is this important?
I am 'told' that Matthew can't concentrate when Mary is 'off shuttle': Is this important?
I am 'shown' that Matthew's legs don't work: Why, and is this important?
I am 'shown' that Matthew forbade Mary gathering any more specimens: Why, and is this important?

Just what is it in these opening lines that will effect what comes after? It's a simple question of cause and effect. Is it the rain, his lack of concentration, his paraplegia, or his demand that there be no added specimens? It should be at least one of these things, otherwise what's the point of telling me about it?

If this fragment is an attempt at characterisation, in my opinion there are better ways, and shorter, to accomplish that task.

One S/F issue of note: Given the current state of neuroscience in the area of spinal damage I would expect that Matthew would have access to any number of cybernetic devices or implants to keep him mobile. We already have such 'shunts' and bypasses. They don't work too well, no tripping the light fantastic, but they do have limited movement.

Phil.

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Jay Greenstein
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quote:
I read the article in the above link and, for me personally, I regard it as nothing more than a "paint by the numbers" recipe for creating melodrama.
You feel that telling the story in real-time, from within the viewpoint of the protagonist is “melodrama?” An odd view, given that not everyone writes in the literary genre. When Swain was teaching, his student list read like a who’s who of American fiction, and the man used to fill auditoriums when he went on tour. So ther are a lot of people who like and use his tricks. Does it make sense to dismiss it as inferior, simply because it's not your writing style?

That article is a condensation of a powerful and often used technique for involving the reader. Agreed, it’s more useful in active, real-time scenes, but that’s a pretty broad segment of the marketplace.

I think you’re losing sight of the fact that it’s how you use a given tool that matters. You can ignore any given tool. But can you use one you’re not aware exists?

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Grumpy old guy
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quote:
Originally posted by Jay Greenstein:
You feel that telling the story in real-time, from within the viewpoint of the protagonist is “melodrama?”

In a nutshell, and given what the author of the page has said and demonstrated by example, yes, it is a guide to creating amateurish melodrama in my opinion.

However, this is neither the thread nor the forum within which to conduct this particular discussion; it's for feedback on a writer's submission fragment. Perhaps starting a separate thread in the Open Discussions About Writing forum would be more appropriate. In such a place I will be more than happy to deconstruct and rebut your observations.

Phil.

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Jay Greenstein
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Given that you've dismissed the views of a major university as amateurish, and that your stated goal would be to rebut anything I said, that wouldn't be much of a discussion, I'm afraid.

Still, one doesn't learn from those who agree with them, so I would be interested in reading some of your writing, to better see the approach you favor. I couldn't find any online under your name, and Linkedin didn't list anyone with your name as a writer.

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Grumpy old guy
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Ever heard of a nom de guerre, Jay? I have several, all for different needs and purposes. And that's all I'll say in this thread concerning our divergent opinions.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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Swain and Bickham both taught writing at Oklahoma University during the same time; Swain, commercial fiction and film; Bickham, journalism. Swain's signal writing on writing text, Techniques of the Selling Writer; Film Scriptwriting, 1999, and Bickham's Scene & Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability, 1993, are alike in a narrow topic area, causality and its low fruit-mechanics, less so its aesthetics; and they could be seen as written by one entity that uses different labels for the same narrative features.

I have, of course, read both and found little new of substance different from a number of prior published works on similar topics. Different names do little for me. However, if I'd came across them before I did others, I might think highly of them. For a while, until I realized they are repetitive and derivative of others works', between themselves, too. The knowledge they impart is new to first time encounters, no doubt, and the larger part of their appeal. If only they'd introduced altogether new knowledge, as others have who have explicated causality after the seminal work by Aristotle twenty-five hundred years ago.

As to melodrama, that too is a topic much discussed across writing culture. The simplest definition of it is plot devices that solely are used to move plot. Bickham, Swain, et al, refuse that possibility or likelihood for a sole focus on plot movement derived from causality focus.

But, yeah, so what? Melodrama and film culture became fast friends soon after motion picture technology came along, and never looked back. L. Rust Hills says of commercial fiction, or "slick fiction" as it is also known, it is the fiction of the daydream, and John Gardner, Damon Knight, and others, and is the stuff of candyfloss. And fiction of the night dream is the more artful and of substance. The ephemeral nature of daydream is its strong point for commercial markets; one, it sells; two, it has a fast turnover rate.

Commercial markets thrive on fast turnover: produce, consume, repeat ad nauseam as soon as can be. How many dreary derivative repetitions, many that are dilutions, of Alfred Hitcock's The Birds can Hollywood produce? The better question is how long between releases. Annually, since the film's 1963 release. One animal, insect, microbe, vegetable, or mineral species or another to show an individual and nature gone awry plot-complication only theme can have a near infinite number of variations and is all too prone to melodrama.

Yeah, Hollywood loves melodrama; it makes a fortune. What Hollywood shrugs at is genuine drama, which entails sincere character movement, due to causality and antagonism -- and -- to transformative outcomes and overall story aesthetic movement.

[ December 30, 2016, 04:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Jay Greenstein
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quote:
Swain and Bickham both taught writing at Oklahoma University during the same time; Swain, commercial fiction and film; Bickham, journalism. Swain's signal writing on writing text, Techniques of the Selling Writer; Film Scriptwriting, 1999, and Bickham's Scene & Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability
Inaccurate data, I'm afraid. Swain also wrote a book on characterization. And he was a highly successful writer, under a variety of names.

Bickham did teach fiction. He directed the annual short course on professional writing from 1973 to 1990. He wrote a total of four books on writing, earned the title, Honored Professor, and authored dozens of novels in a variety of genres. Yet you dismiss them both without providing an alternative source of advice for our poster. You seem to denigrate commercial fiction, but the posted words are clearly commercial sci-fi. And Swain's book was highly recommended by Jerry Pournelle, a past president of the SFWA. Since this story is sci-fi...

Certainly, I'm not trying to start an argument, but since you have, in effect, told our OP that the people I referred to are worthless, your background would seem to be relevant to making such a pronouncement. Your bio says you're an editor. Is your publishing house experience in the genre of out OP's story? If not, what is your primary commercial fiction area?

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Grumpy old guy
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A comprehensive list of D.V. Swain's fiction publications can be found HERE.

Most of his published works were short stories written for pulp fiction magazines. If this is the pedigree of a 'Great Teacher', I think I'll stick with Aristotle, Freytag, Lubbock, and Egri.

Phil.

[ December 31, 2016, 05:33 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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Jay Greenstein
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The "pulp" in pulp fiction refers to the material used in the cheap paper used, not the quality of the work. At the time, the magazine racks were filled with such monthly magazines, many in every genre, so denigrating a highly successful short story writer because his work appeared in the fiction magazines of the era seems a bit of a stretch. Do you disqualify Lubbock because he never wrote fiction, but approached it from the viewpoint of a critic? By condemning Swain as a teacher, because of how you personally view his writings, you must. Hell, Lubbock would have dismissed sci-fi—OP's chosen genre—as beneath notice—as did every critic and academic of his era. So he's hardly someone to recommend to our OP as a teacher for that genre. His book is a fairly good cure for insomnia, though. [Wink]


And since you suggest alternatives to Swain, fair is fair, so:

Aristotle? Philosophy as a means of improving the flow of prose in a scene? Not something I'd suggest to a hopeful sci-fi writer. I've known too many philosophers.

Frytag's greatest contribution was his pyramid, which is pretty much mentioned in any course or book on writing. But that's it. His book on writing is pretty general, and doesn't really cover the nuts-and-bolts issues, so while it's useful I can't recommend it as a first book.

As for Egri, he's pretty good, but his book was originally titled, How to Write a Play, which says it all. Writing for the theater and the page are hugely different, because of the mandates of the different mediums. Stage, for example, caters to sight and sound, which are parallel mediums, while the printed word is serial.

What you don't seem to be taking into account is that in Dwight Swain's work (a continuation and refinement of those who preceded him at OU), as well as Jack Bickham's, you find the thrust of what you would be taught were you to go for a degree in professional writing at The University of Oklahoma, which has produced many fine, and successful writers.

Relevant to this fragment, it produced Jim Butcher, who says,"Everything I really needed to know about writing, I learned at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Professional Writing." And that, of course is where professors Swain and Bickham taught.

So while you may not like his book, as is your privilege, you've gone from stating an opinion, which is certainly your right, to condemning a men's "pedagree," while withholding your own. That seems not quite in the spirit of literary discussion.

In this case, providing the requested advice and analysis, suggesting helpful resources, and letting the author of the fragment choose what works for their writing, would seem more in the spirit of the fragment area. Introducing, "Your advice sucks," even as personal opinion, far too often leads to things like what appears to be happening here.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Jay Greenstein:
quote:
Swain and Bickham both taught writing at Oklahoma University during the same time; Swain, commercial fiction and film; Bickham, journalism. Swain's signal writing on writing text, Techniques of the Selling Writer; Film Scriptwriting, 1999, and Bickham's Scene & Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability
Inaccurate data, I'm afraid. Swain also wrote a book on characterization. And he was a highly successful writer, under a variety of names.

Bickham did teach fiction. He directed the annual short course on professional writing from 1973 to 1990. He wrote a total of four books on writing, earned the title, Honored Professor, and authored dozens of novels in a variety of genres. Yet you dismiss them both without providing an alternative source of advice for our poster. You seem to denigrate commercial fiction, but the posted words are clearly commercial sci-fi. And Swain's book was highly recommended by Jerry Pournelle, a past president of the SFWA. Since this story is sci-fi...

Certainly, I'm not trying to start an argument, but since you have, in effect, told our OP that the people I referred to are worthless, your background would seem to be relevant to making such a pronouncement. Your bio says you're an editor. Is your publishing house experience in the genre of out OP's story? If not, what is your primary commercial fiction area?

Complete bibliographies for Swain and Bickham can be looked up by anyone interested without making it into an imperative assignment. I cited the signal works as ample enough for a trail and for the point of contention.

Aristotle's Poetics, cited on Hatrack many times, is the seminal work on causation, includes the gist of most writing on writing, drama and narrative theory, including event, setting, character, antagonism, causation, and tension, and much more. Twenty-five hundred years old -- must be worthless because it's old!? Not to discredit numerous texts since about identical topics. Polygenesis spans time and space. Not unrealistic to suppose Swain and Bickham independently self-discovered causation. Many have across time and space, though responsible research and report would have revealed such other signal and seminal sources. A least rationale for which then is new and contributory knowledge development that advances extant knowledge. Much room for advancement remains across writing culture.

Several fallacious arguments will not hurt my feelings. One, the No Discussion fallacy, refuse discussion because such intellectual fiddle-faddle dismissal avoids reasoned discussion, also deflecting the discussion, demanding a greater proof burden to name one such tactic; others, Star Power, that celebrated celebrity is somehow correct because of stardom, never mind confirmation bias's presumptions, and no referral to support context; Defensiveness, the I'm right, you're wrong, and don't have to support or defend my and my consensus group's opinions an iota because I say they are right and will brook no dissent, except I will because I and mine are under the microscope of intense discussion scrutiny, though self-defend through emotional fallacy arguments, refusals, dismissals, deflections, and bias and a host of others.

Well, one in particular worth note, that the "original poster," or another peripheral party in general, like Swain, Bickham, et al, and their devotees, is somehow the actual sufferer of such a debate's nonsense opposition opinions when a defender feels such misdirection absolves their opinions from reasoned scrutiny, when the point of the opposition is that those individuals are, as I said above, useful to a limited degree, and so much more matters missed are on point too. Like causation's attendant antagonism and tension criteria. Not to mention a gross misunderstanding and overly narrow generalization of "conflict" from a wisdom of the crowd fallacy overgeneralization rather than the narrative theory perspective.

I have yet to locate a definition in Swain and them all for "conflict." Other than two personas clash is conflict and some vague representations of "internal conflict." For narrative theory, conflict is polar forces in opposition related to stakes and possible complication outcomes, like life and death.

The point raised, though, of substance, is that Swain and all are of some degree of usefulness, though limited to a narrow topic and incomplete about the topic. Naturally, usually, because no one text can encompass the whole of narrative theory knowledge, nor should one. That would contravene composition craft's content and organization focus and unity criteria. That Swain and them espouse strong claims with limited support matters little, due part to others have made similar claims and supported them intensely to the point of unequivocal proof, more so that a niche consensus has found them insightful. However, they are not the end-all be-all on a, or the, topic. They, in fact, are middling narrative theorists.

As to mine or anyone's pedigree, the matter of what Greeks labeled kleos, an appeal of less substance than pathos, logos, ethos, and kairos, though one that matters to stardom fan followers, its bandwagon effects, is res ipsa loquitor, the thing speaks for itself. Documents and such speak louder, as do all deeds, published word, too, as deed, speak louder than thoughts and a star's celebrity reputation. For me, Swain and them -- well, I appreciate their texts' accessibility is stronger than Aristotle's, and for an itinerant writer's struggle that Swain and them's take on causation is ample enough for a jump start on a clueless wander in the wild blind origin.

Aristotle, philosopher though he may most be known for generally, was also a great rhetorician and dramatic theorist. Actually, he blended the three, and more, in the Poetics and other discourses for their co-relevant dramatic expression criteria. Philosophy's arts and sciences, creative expression's arts and sciences, and rhetoric's resolve upon an identical social function; that is, moral persuasion, at least, through information, instruction, direction, caution, adjustment, correction, or castigation sharing for social behavior learning purposes.

Swain and them all altogether miss that essential criteria for narrative arts. Most they miss moral charge's dramatic function related to causation. Res ipsa loquitor, indeed. John Gardner doesn't miss, most noteworthy in his assertion that "All true suspense . . . is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice." Suspense's relation to causation is sublime though essential, through antagonism and tension. Nor do I unequivocally assent to all of Gardner, most differ about what constitutes "trash fiction," his label for Hills' comparable "slick fiction," otherwise knowable as artless melodrama, and with which pulp fiction is often associated. Artful melodrama entails at least one moral choice anguish contest, even if the moral choice is between an utter good hero and an utter evil villain.

Thus my point, who I or anyone is reputation- or pedigree-wise, matters least, if at all. What matters, at Hatrack anyway, are well-reasoned writing discussions that address writing topics for mutual benefit -- address the writing, not the writer (nor a poster or responder, avoid second person, especially the imperative and implied imperative case, like this principle's platitude does, c'est la vie de escritur), the fundamental writing workshop principle. We share writing topic opinions, sometimes discuss them, sometimes debate, sometimes disagree, respectfully and courteously, opinions nonetheless, no matter how firmly asserted.

Yet a topic is rarely finally settled; maybe a consensus arises, maybe not; we may agree once or twice a year, like that reader effect is a top-tier consideration, a recent unanimous Hatrack consensus. The underlain point of that consensus, though, is the "to each their own selections and decisions" paradigm, only that opinions shared are at least intended to gently, if not persuasively, inform selections and decisions. Naturally, all humans cannot agree all the time, writers as much as, if not more than, any other identity group. Thus address the writing, not the writer. Swain and all them? Their texts have strengths and shortfalls, as do all narrative theory texts.

Their persons? They're humans, not gods, whom the Greeks knew were fallible -- that's why the gods loom so large in Greek dramas and appreciably why less so loom in contemporary drama. The gods then were reflections of human virtues and vices, as celebrity idols now serve as roll models of same -- well, more often anymore the negative opposite vices than true virtues. Now we have a more direct and closer aesthetic distance entity upon whom to dramatically reflect: ourselves in our own broad idol self-panoplies.

[ December 31, 2016, 03:11 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Jay Greenstein
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quote:
Complete bibliographies for Swain and Bickham can be looked up by anyone interested without making it into an imperative assignment
You said, “Swain's signal writing on writing text, Techniques of the Selling Writer; Film Scriptwriting, 1999” But that’s untrue, and so misleading. Surely you, an editor, aren’t against editing statements that mislead?
quote:
Aristotle's Poetics, cited on Hatrack many times, is the seminal work on causation
Poetics talks primarily about theater and storytelling. We do neither. And it deals in large issues, which are irrelevant to thirteen lines of prose.
quote:
must be worthless because it's old!
No. It’s worthless because it’s irrelevant to the task at hand.
quote:
Several fallacious arguments will not hurt my feelings.
Why would your feelings, good or bad have relevancy? You were inaccurate, and I pointed that out. And again, I ask, what is your qualification for declaring what I say fallacious? You’re attacking me personally, and declaring what I say of no use, making it personal, in a thread where the goal is to help the OP improve the work. This is not literary discussion, nor is it helpful to the OP.
quote:
One, the No Discussion fallacy, refuse discussion because such intellectual fiddle-faddle dismissal avoids reasoned discussion, also deflecting the discussion, demanding a greater proof burden to name one such tactic; others, Star Power, that celebrated celebrity is somehow correct because of stardom, never mind confirmation bias's presumptions, and no referral to support context;
As an editor, I’d think you’d be overcome with the desire to hit that run-on sentence with a ten pound sledgehammer. [Wink]

But that aside, it’s meaningless. No one demanded “more proof.” And you’ve discussed nothing. And, your assertion, that the opinion of someone with unknown qualifications knowledge, and experience should be taken as equal to those within the profession with demonstrated skills and success, is irrelevant. Specifically, you’re demanding that the work of a man who is widely respected within the profession, be ignored by someone hoping to practice that profession, simply because you say it should, as-if-you-have-greater-knowledge-than-Swain. Perhaps you do. But until you can demonstrate that in some verifiable way, it’s opinion and should be presented that way.
quote:
I have yet to locate a definition in Swain and them all for "conflict."
Interesting, given that chapter four in the book is called, “Conflict and How to Build It.” Are you certain you actually read it?

In any case, he says:
quote:
To repeat: A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.
What are the functions of scene?

a. To provide interest.
b. To move your story forward.

How does a scene provide interest?

It pits your focal character against opposition. In so doing, it raises a question to intrigue your reader: Will this character win or won’t he?

Exhibit A: Round X of a prize fight. Will Our Boy knock out the villain—or vice versa?
How does a scene move your story forward?

It changes your character’s situation; and while change doesn’t always constitute progress, progress always involves change.

Again, consider the prize fight: A hero knocked out is in a far different situation than he was at the beginning of the round. Same if he knocks out the villain.

What unifies the scene, holds it together?

Time. You live through a scene, and there are no breaks in the flow of life. Once the bell rings, there’s no surcease for the fighter. Until the bell rings again, he has to stand and take his lumps—moment by moment, blow by blow.
Scene structure is as simple as a-b-c:

a. Goal.
b. Conflict.
c. Disaster.

So there it is, an entire chapter on conflict. Jack Bickham, in 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, says:
quote:
There are many kinds of fiction trouble, but the most effective kind is conflict.
You know what conflict is. It's active give-and-take, a struggle between story people
with opposing goals.

It is not, please note, bad luck or adversity. It isn't fate. It's a fight of some kind
between people with opposing goals.

Fate, bad luck or whatever you choose

In, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James Frey starts his section on it by quoting yet another author:
quote:
In The Craft of Fiction (1977), William C. Knott puts it this way:

"The most elaborate plot in the world is useless without the tension and excitement that conflict imports to it."

Conflict is the collision of characters' desires with resistance —from nature, from other characters, from the spirit world, from outer space, from another dimension, from within themselves, from anywhere. We see who the characters are by the way they respond to such resistance; conflict highlights and exposes them. Character, not action, is what interests readers most. It is character that makes action meaningful. Story is struggle. How a character struggles reveals who he is.

And that was pretty much what I found in every book I checked, though I only have fifty in my personal library. So obviously, you’ve been looking in the wrong place.

Given that definition of conflict/tension in writing is almost universal, it would appear that your editing experience isn’t within the fiction publishing industry. That’s certainly not meant as an insult. I’m no pro, myself, and don’t present myself as one. So I tend to follow the Holly Lysle’s advice, and both bow to, and recommend those who actually know, the ones who made, or are making a living in the industry:

“Michaelangelo did not have a college degree, nor did Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Edison didn't. Neither did Mark Twain (though he was granted honorary degrees in later life.) All of these people were professionals. None of them were experts. Get your education from professionals, and always avoid experts.”

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extrinsic
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No more responses to second person direct addresses to this writer from this writer.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Well, for a heated discussion, there have certainly been a lot of information shared.

Thank you all for that, at least.

And please remember, when you start throwing credentials around, things can get too heated.

Each of you are entitled to your own opinion, and no one can or should argue with your opinion. If you like this or that approach, and dislike that or this set of instructions, that's fine. But you don't try shooting down someone else's opinion if it disagrees with yours.

Please?

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Delgreco
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Thanks you for your comments everyone. My hope is that this second revision is a further step in the right direction. Let me know what you think. I edited my initial post to include all three versions of the opening thus far.

Thanks in advance for your feedback everyone! I have found all of it very helpful.

-- 2nd revision --

A squat, four-leg creature regarded Matthew from within the newly arrived envirotank. Its blubbery lips parted. A tentacle-like appendage shot from between them and stuck to the glass.

Matthew jolted in his chair, “Space it, Mary! What did you find?”

“Isn’t he fantastic?” Mary bustled into the lab—still in her EVA suit, helmet removed. “You see the pics of the ruins I sent you?”

“I did. They’re about as useful as an amputated archaeologist,” he waggled what remained of his leg at her.

“Well…,” Mary smiled and pointed at the creature in the envirotank. “Good thing you’re also a biologist then.”

"Forgive my lack of enthusiasm for fauna, no matter how

[ January 11, 2017, 03:53 PM: Message edited by: Kathleen Dalton Woodbury ]

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extrinsic
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Four possible motifs here are ripe for complication-conflict development: the creature specimen, Matthew's amputated leg, Mary, and the ancient ruins. Little to no development of their motivational agencies, though.

The creature slaps a "tentacle-like" appendage against the tank glass. That is a "just-like" smeerp. The appendage either is a tentacle or it is not.

If the creature matters to the action, the creature's agency is a more substantive consideration than a just-like. Like what is the creature's motivation as such that it thinks of itself as the center of the universe and Matthew as only a minor tidbit? Food? Likewise, how about what Matthew's motivation is as regards the creature? Excess baggage to be dispensed with with little fanfare?

Another either-or, either the creature matters to the action or it doesn't. It's a use-it-or-lose-it motif. If it matters and readers paying attention to it matters, due to its placement in the start and word count expended, then it should pay off now and later. If not, the admonition is to lose it, excise it. First, though, is whether it matters at the start, sets drama in movement to begin with, particularly whether it in any way moves Matthew's character toward transformation a distance commensurate with fifteen hundred words.

If the creature is in to develop some setting situation, like verisimilitude, it best practice could still have some agency at the now moment. What's its motivation and stakes? Even amoeba have motivation and stakes. Before shifting to another motif introduction, best practice to imply or directly express what the creature means in total at the moment to Matthew.

Preparation segment criteria here are ample; then away from it the narrative drifts to other subjects. That holds some less than artful suspension segment delay potential, though no satisfaction segment timely given or promised. Presumably, the creature tries to touch Matthew again, or Matthew knows its motivation and says something to the effect of want to eat me? or something to similar effect, a satisfaction segment's partial promise is set up for later full satisfaction -- or the payoff.

This too is Chekhov's Gun: if a motif is in a first act, it better matter by a third act, and its corollary, if a motif matters in a third act, it better be pre-positioned in an earlier act.

Likewise for the other motifs' agencies: motivation and stakes and matters at the moment, plus, preparation, suspension, and satisfaction sequencing.

Consider a look-see at David Smith's Being a Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction and Lewis Shiner and Bruce Sterling's Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops for the above and many more common "what doesn't work" for experienced and otherwise readers. I hit on a brace or so in the second revision.

Punctuation errors, dialogue format:

"'They’re about as useful as an amputated archaeologist,' he waggled what remained of his leg at her.

“'Well…,' Mary smiled and pointed at the creature in the envirotank. 'Good thing you’re also a biologist then.'”

Adjusted:

"'They’re about as useful as an amputated archaeologist[.]' He waggled what remained of his leg at her."

“'Well [--]' Mary smiled and pointed at the creature in the envirotank. '[-- g]ood thing you’re also a biologist then.'”

Or adjusted to less bumpy and less cluttered: //He waggled what remained of his leg at her. "They’re about as useful as an amputated archaeologist.”//

//Mary smiled and pointed at the creature in the envirotank. “Good thing you’re also a biologist then.”//

A standout strength of the second revision fragment, for me, is the dialogue touches upon three of several artful types: echo, question and answer, and non sequitur. Matthew and Mary converse in a somewhat natural dialogue. The non sequitur deflections of does-not-follow answers to direct questions is especially artful. They show (imply) character motives at odds between two or more characters. One other dialogue type worth consideration is squabble, not per se argument, can also be flirtation, coy, self-amused character wit and cleverness, irony, sarcasm, satire, and camp.

I am still wary of reading on. Inexperienced writer short-short fiction often entails some elaborate "ha! fooled you," reader outcome. No thank you. No clue otherwise from the fragment that is the design, though. On the other hand, a read through of the whole might, for me, give a clue as to what the story is really and truly about and intends. Starts' unrealized essentials are often obvious in outcome ends.

[ January 12, 2017, 02:58 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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For me, this latest revision is much improved. Of particular note is the return of the original tone of the piece--light banter. While I will leave grammatical issues within the fragment in the hands of extrinsic, there are still a number of issues I think need to be addressed.

Within the fragment there are four possible agencies for conflict: the creature, the ruins, Mary, and Matthew's lack of a leg. While I don't expect the focus to zero in on the single agency immediately, I think you should keep that in the forefront of your mind. I say single agency deliberately. To have multiple loci for conflict in such a short story (1500 words) will diminish any dramatic effect you might hope to create.

In Matthew's dialogue with Mary, he refers to himself as an “an amputated archaeologist”. For me, a more natural reference would be, “a one-legged archaeologist.” And on that issue, extrinsic has already mentioned your lack of specificity with regard to the creature's tongue. I would add that you need to specify which leg Matthew has lost for reader satisfaction effect.

Hope you find this useful.

Phil.

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