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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Books » Digby Collier Leaves Home

   
Author Topic: Digby Collier Leaves Home
MattLeo
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[UPDATE RHETORIC FREE REVISION 1 at BOTTOM]
I first pictured DIGBY COLLIER AND THE PIRATES OF MANDORAX as old-school,juvenile sci-fi. Something like the early Andre Norton SOLAR QUEEN series. The idea was for the protagonist to escape his life on a horribly overcrowded planet to have adventures in exotic space locales.

But show-not-tell critiques didn't accept the narrator's descriptions of Digby's home planet Veskilos as dirty, overcrowded and corrupt. I had to put the reader inside Digby's skin as he experienced these things. The resulting opening was more HUNGER GAMES than SOLAR QUEEN. Digby leads his friends friends on a treacherously narrow course between the corrupt cops and the neighborhood crime bosses, all the while fending off challenges from scheming rivals in his gang. At one point a cop even slaps him around.

It was an interesting exercise in how following modern taste in narrative distance leads to a certain dystopic atmosphere. But now I have Digby embroiled in Veskilosian street intrigue. Critique suggests I need to deal with the emotional impact of being removed from that situation, but I've already spent 6200 words on Veskilos, 10% of my target total word count.

So rather than do another 3000 word chapter dealing with Digby parting with his neighborhood and the people he knows, I've decided just to yank Digby out of that context and boil the emotional impact down to a single page in which a departing Digby watches his home planet shrink away. In fact I'm trying to concentrate the emotion into just half a page, or 13 lines: [FIRST DRAFT]

quote:
Veskilos appeared the size of a tangerine held at arm's length. Up close it was a world of asphalt and rust; of soot and concrete; of grubby, careworn mobs. But from out here, from a hundred thousand kilometers, the planet was a fat blue cat's eye marble sparkling on a black velvet table. Everyone Digby had ever known was on that marble. He missed his loyal friend Alex; and Omar, the friend who'd betrayed him. Right now he'd even settle for Detective Inspector Shilly.

But most of all he missed Triggo. Underhanded, unwashed Triggo, the kid who always needed food; who always needed protection; who never contributed anything to their friendship but need. But now that he didn't have the boy to take care of, Digby felt something he'd never felt before: he felt alone.

Now I never left the city I grew up in. I drifted away with each move. But I tried to imagine myself being twelve years old moving away and watching the skyline I grew up with slip away though the back window of the family station wagon. Does this seem right? Anybody here actually go through that experience as a kid? Was there a moment when it suddenly felt real? Or the things you didn't like about home start to feel UNreal? I should make it clear that most people on Digby's world want to leave, but this is the moment when Digby understands that leaving will cost him something.

One thing I'm not sure about is "grubby, careworn mobs." I originally had it as "grubby, careworn people," which is think works better but I'm trying to imply that the further away he gets, the more he focuses on the individuals who mattered to him. Also, to get the concentration I was looking for I threw the grammar book out the window and went for the rhetoric book instead. Does the result sound too artificial?

I'm close to having a complete rough draft of the first act, although at 19K words it is about 30% longer than I'd hoped.

[REVISION 1 -- LESS RHETORIC, MORE CONVERSATIONAL]
quote:
Digby knew Veskilos up close; it was dull gray. Standing on the planet's surface there'd be dirty concrete everywhere he looked. But from a hundred thousand kilometers Veskilos wasn't dull or gray at all. It was a sparkling ball of blue and white.

Veskilos was beautiful. If he told his friends that he'd never live it down, but it was true. But it didn't matter now. Word would be spreading: The Colliers ran off. And even though they'd have done the same thing themselves, everyone would agree if Digby's family wanted to run off it was no big loss. You didn't turn your back on people. You didn't act like you were above them. Hey, did you know you're just a speck on a big blue marble? How much more above yourself could you get?

In the back of his mind Digby had been telling himself he'd go back someday. But could never go back. He was an off-worlder now.



[ November 25, 2013, 06:03 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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I lived in a dozen different locales during my dependent years, attended as many different schools. I was twelve the first time I balked about moving, and moved three more times without a say in my destiny. I've been adrift all my adult life. Partly from nowhere to call home--except where the hearth of the moment is--more so from the alienation of fixed and settled social communities keeping me at arm's length or more. I'm comfortable being uncomfortable, the blessing of the curse of being a worldly cosmopolitan vagabond.

My separation anxieties when I left the place I lived when I first balked had little to do with the place. They were from beginning to establish a meaningful social peer community for a first time. Middle grade age school milieu is nonteen, double digit years when humans foster first forays into social independence and independent social identity formation. I was beginning to develop a social identity separate from the imposed family one when I was abruptly ripped from my budding community and set down in a new one that saw me as an unpredictable stranger.

My new peer cohort group didn't allow me in. The group of outsider misfits to which I was relegated was equally alienating and alienated cosmoplitan vagabonds as socially damaged as I. I am still this person, finding occasional and temporary cold comfort in the flitting vagaries of meeting ships passing through a vacuum dark void.
----
This opening reads to me like a backstory prologue, a stasis (ongoing to be statement expression) opening. Where before, the opening had a degree of proactive do features. This state of being expresses what happened--happen-process statement--to Digby as the current state of his being--stasis statement.

And it's summarized and explained in a lackluster narrator lecturing voice. Only naming Alex, Omar, and Shilly doesn't express what they personally mean to Digby. However, expressing what Triggo means to Digby does at least double duty, showing Digby's emotional state of mind and implying Digby shares Triggo's need for companionship. That item Digby misses already is in and of itself a strong and clear expression of Digby's emerging home sickness. The others are just a generic list.

"Mobs" implies crime syndicates. Mobs is more specific than "people" but suggests perhaps an unintended meaning. I see the intent more along the lines of rabble, though that again is narrator backstory voice. How might Digby name what he left? I feel this opening wants to establish the whole's narrative voice, but quickly developing close narrative distance with Digby. Middle grade audiences crave close association and identification with a like-aged protagonist. Might Digby's name for his home community populace be more of a neighborhood gang clique community's self-idenity and specifically named? Band or gang, herd, troupe, pride, animal social family groups, rogues, rangers, outlaws, etc.? Holoman's Scrapyard Monkey Gang?

A possible strength of this opening is it may set up a time transition from the now of the narrator's time of report into the now of Digby's unfolding drama. The third-person narrator is not an older Digby though, so that is contradicted. The narrator's relation to the action is remote. Establishing narrator identity is essential when the narrator is removed from the action and to degrees overtly reporting the action.

In terms of narrator identity, why does this narrator report this Digby's action? I'm thinking of a story type where a narrator is reporting previously unknown origins of a fictional celebrity known widely to his milieu after the fact of some great successes.

In the alternative to a strong narrator presence, the narrator's personal access to Digby's perceptions, conceptions, feelings, and expressions, and do-actions, would close narrative distance.

Otherwise, the narrator's standing and relation to the action is essential. Is the narrator overt or covert? If overt, and so far the narrator is generically overt, what commentary does the narrator express about Digby? Is it subjective interpretation, albeit subject to interpretation as well? Ironically objective but inferrably naive or unreliable, subjective, in other words. Is it objective to a degree, expressing generic truths generally held? Like moving is such sweet sorrow. Is it judgment, judging from a cultural code's value system? How cruel it is to rip a child from his home, for example?

Limited plot movement, Digby moves away from his natal home, few meaningful cues or implications of how this opening develops into or connects up to Digby's personal wants and problems wanting satisfaction caused by moving away from home.

Instead of backstory telling what has happened--happen-process statement--to Digby and why he is in the ongoing state of being he is for the moment--stasis statement--consider how Digby's actions repsonding to moving from home and filling the consequent emotional void--do-process statements--cause his upcoming problems. This backstory can be interleaved later on when it matters to Digby's do-actions and their outcomes.

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MattLeo
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extrinsic -- this is not the opening. This bit comes at the end of the third chapter, well after all these characters and their relationships with Digby have been shown at length.

The intent is to put a coda on his relationship to these characters, who will not appear in the story again (except has hallucinations), but do it in much less than 500 words. That word limit imposes certain restrictions, namely that I'm writing about an emotionally intense experience, but from a relatively long narrative distance which helps compress the passage. The reason I put this up is because it's something like an opening in that I'm attempting a discrete task in a very limited space. However the reader already knows the world and characters.

So what you have to do is imagine that all these characters you as a reader know, and that Digby is realizing for the first time what moving away means to him. In particular he's been dismissive about Triggo's dependency, but now Digby sees how important Triggo's depending on him made him feel.

I agree that there may be a "did we start in the right place" problem here; but I wanted Digby to come from a hard luck background, and readers didn't want to *hear* about that; they wanted close narrative demonstration of his hard luck.

[ November 25, 2013, 03:07 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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I suppose where we have a misccomunication about narrative distance is more a matter of voice and plot challenges that influence the parts and wholes.

Each of these Digby parcels to me have been overt, sophisticated adult narrator voice lecturing. For middle graders, a middle grade voice is favored so they can associate and identify with the events, characters, and settings. In terms of plot, I see some setup but little movement development as a matter of limited influential events. When does the story and plot begin? When Digby acts proactively, does something successully, unsuccessfully, or both about whatever events and characters and settings trouble him, be the troubles personal and internal or external in terms of villains or nemeses, or both internal and external.

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MattLeo
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I agree that narrative voice may be a serious issue. It's hard for me to judge because my own children while emotionally typical middle schoolers were reading at a college level when they entered sixth grade.

It's also possible that I actually have a YA story here. Digby is on his way to becoming a successful crook, only he finds himself taken out into space, where he becomes a spacefaring man instead. My chief model for this story is TREASURE ISLAND. Jim Hawkins is 13 years old, right in the no-mans-land between an MG and YA. Jim starts the story as an errand boy and finishes as an accomplished and respected adventurer.

As to the starting point, I usually agree that getting the protagonist into action is important. But it's not exactly true that the story starts hen the protagonist starts taking proactive action. The story actually starts where the protagonist is knocked out of his pre-story equilibrium.

It's more that the beginning of a story *ends* when a protagonist starts trying to take control of his destiny.

But this is useful to think about, because it gives me a guide to slimming down the first act.

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extrinsic
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A protagonist realizing that events have knocked the protagonist out of equilibrium is a beginning development. The realization is a proactive do event in addition to a happen event, a complusion of action and an action. The events themselves imply and readers infer beginning disequilibrium is in progress.

For me, thus far, I'm stuck in an oscillating limbo between a narrator telling a story about a child for sophisticated adult audiences--about the narrator as much as the protagonist--and an unfolding story stated to be about a child posed in a mid twentieth century juvenile science fiction aesthetic for middle graders--about the protagonist. Tenuously teetering between the two, I'm wanting the totter to tip in one or the other direction.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

For me, thus far, I'm stuck in an oscillating limbo between a narrator telling a story about a child for sophisticated adult audiences--about the narrator as much as the protagonist--and an unfolding story stated to be about a child posed in a mid twentieth century juvenile science fiction aesthetic for middle graders--about the protagonist. Tenuously teetering between the two, I'm wanting the totter to tip in one or the other direction.

Fair enough. The language itself is not too difficult for a middle grader in my opinion, but the *narrative voice* is packed with a rhetorical artifice that a middle grader wouldn't use himself.

I actually *do* try to borrow the focus character's voice in narration, but not unremittingly so. In close narration I stick close the focus character's dialog style, in distant narration I feel free to move toward a more distinct narrative personality. This piece is more distant because I'm trying to cover a lot of emotional ground; but I take it you find this sample too self-consciously artificial.

That gives me some direction for a revision: write the key piece in a more conversational register. I'll put on my thinking cap and see what comes out.

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Denevius
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I stopped reading the first version after the first line:
quote:
Veskilos appeared the size of a tangerine held at arm's length.
I found this description so hard to picture, and it just felt clunky.

The second version was more engaging, but the language can probably be made sharper. I would drop 'it was', as it slows the sentence flow. In fact, I'll risk a warning and rewrite those first sentences:

quote:
Digby knew the planet Veskilos up close; cities of dirty concrete stretching to the horizons. But from a thousand kilometers away, the dull gray faded to a sparkling ball of blue and white.
This line confused me at first:
quote:
If he told his friends that he'd never live it down, but it was true.
It took me the third reading of it to realize 'that' referred to his sentiment that Veskilos was beautiful. I like the dramatic tension established between Digby's family and the neighbors, but again, the words seems stilted. It reads too much like an explanation. Words like 'If' and 'but', and 'And' slow down the narrative.

There's a couple of key phrases that could be kept while cutting everything else to make the prose jump off the page.

'Veskilos was beautiful' is needed, but the passive way it's written kills it.

'The Colliers ran off' is another important phrase. 'if Digby's family wanted to run off, it was no big loss' is an important sentiment to help develop the view others have of the family.

Actually, I'm at a loss. Everything kind of seems there in these lines but the writing itself, which feels clunky.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
I stopped reading the first version after the first line:
quote:
Veskilos appeared the size of a tangerine held at arm's length.
I found this description so hard to picture, and it just felt clunky.
Yeah, but it's way better than "The planetary disk of Veskilos subtended 6.8 degrees", which is what you get when you take the arctangent of 12000 km / 100,000 km. [Smile]

The units of measure in this story are metric; since I suspect "The planet appeared the same size as a ball 7.8cm in diameter would from a distance of 65cm" is apt to be confusing, I avoid units where possible and use by analogy common objects. If the spacecraft were 172,000 km away from the planet, I could say "Veskilos appeared the size of a walnut held at arm's length," if that would be any clearer.

I use this extensively. Things are often "chest height' or "twice his height" or "about as long as his arm", rather than specific numeric measurements.

If you know a better way of doing this, I'm open to it.

By the way, feel free to rewrite the second version, so I can see what you'd consider less "clunky".

[ November 26, 2013, 12:04 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Denevius
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quote:
By the way, feel free to rewrite the second version, so I can see what you'd consider less "clunky".
To be honest, I agree with Extrinsic's point that the opening feels like a summary of events.

quote:
Veskilos was beautiful.
This is an example. When we look at something, we may sum it up in our mind as beautiful, but there's something about it that makes us think this, and if you showed this realization in your narrative's POV, we'd get that he feels it's beautiful without actually having to be told it.

To be honest, I can't think of the last object I thought of as beautiful. But I can remember the last female I saw where the word came to mind, and it was an appreciation of how she looked, and her mannerism at that moment, as I hadn't seen her in months, that the word just popped to mind: beautiful. Corny, perhaps, but in that instant, I was, to use a cliche', struck breathless.

You know, there's an excellent chance that the rest of your prologue/chapter does a better job of capturing the moment. Opening paragraphs tend to be loaded with information as writers try to create a world for readers. That's why the first page is often called warmup writing. And usually, it can be cut.

If I were to rewrite this further, I would start with the lines I wrote (keeping in mind that they may not sound appropriate for someone this age, so there's also that), and my next paragraph would feature the present Digby, I guess, staring from a ship as this planet he's called home grows smaller on whatever display he's viewing it from.

The problem with this, though, is that a conflict hasn't been introduced. And if the dramatic tension you're trying to get across right now is:

quote:
The Colliers ran off.
Then you're going to have to work this in without explicitly stating it. My suggestion last time, I believe, was starting the novel with Digby interacting with his friends. Start small, start in a moment. Instead of describing a planet, describe a street corner. Let the reader see this world Digby is about to leave from a micro level. And then pull back the POV to eventually capture this large thing Digby is saying goodbye too: a planet.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:

To be honest, I can't think of the last object I thought of as beautiful.

Really? Maybe it's just a personal quirk, but I see beauty all the time, practically every day. Right from where I sit I could certainly pick out at least six beautiful things.

I'm pretty sure that if I saw my home planet for the first time from 62,000 miles I'd consider it "beautiful". It's more than just photons on the retina. I'm not sure that sensation can be unpacked, except in term of even more exotic sensations; a thrill of awareness perhaps; a suspension of time. But I believe these are *associated* sensations, not constituent ones. I think "beauty" is one of the primary colors of subjective experience.

Consider the famous Earthrise photo. The thing that photo doesn't do is give you any sense of scale. Position your screen so that the Earth in that picture is a little bigger than the width of your thumb held at arm's length. That's how big the Earth looks from the moon. Now imagine that picture at 3x the scale, so that the planet takes 9x the area. That's what Digby experiences when seeing this. Is there a better word for this than "beauty"?

And my experience with these things tells me that a photo does no justice to being present at a point of vantage. No matter how many pictures you've seen of El Capitan, the Grand Canyon, or Niagra Falls, it can't prepare you for being present.

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Denevius
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Perhaps. But these lines:

quote:
It's more than just photons on the retina. I'm not sure that sensation can be unpacked, except in term of even more exotic sensations; a thrill of awareness perhaps; a suspension of time.
Do so much more to inform the reader of what the narrative POV perceives as beauty than:

quote:
Veskilos was beautiful.
In the former, I'm in the narrator's head. In the latter, I'm told something that's obviously subjective. You say you see beauty every day, but I don't. And so when you write '...is beautiful', I'm left not know what you're talking about.

But when you write, 'It's more than just photons on the retina...', now I'm getting an idea of what beauty is to you. And the reason why I'm reading in the first place is to escape into someone else's reality.

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