Tuesday, April 15, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #46

Most Wonderful Author: Erin Copland @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Annie
Working Title: N/A

Zaima could hear a woman screaming from outside the door. She didn’t bother knocking, but limped into the little cottage and paused on the threshold. There was a scent of blood and stale sweat, and the feeble candlelight barely illuminated the main room, just enough to show a man sitting at a table.

“Good evening, Goodman Tanner.”

“Took you long enough.”

“I’m afraid my mule has a bad leg, so I had to—” A woman’s scream cut her off. “Well. I’m here now.”

Zaima moved to go into the back bedroom, but he blocked her way.

“What’s your hurry? It’s not like she’s gonna die.” He laughed at her silence, and Zaima gripped the head of her cane tightly when he grabbed her arm.

“I think you’re awfully pretty, for a cripple,” he said. “Of course, I’m kind hearted.”

Zaima gritted her teeth. “Of course. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll see to your wife.”

Tanner sneered at her before collapsing at the table again and taking a long pull from his mug. Zaima nodded and walked into the back room.

She tried not to wrinkle her nose at the stench that was stronger in this room, an odor of prolonged childbirth. She opened one of the windows, lingering.

“There. That’s a bit better.”

A candle cast flickering shadows on a woman lying in a bed, dripping with sweat, her hands gripping the sheets as she tried to hold back another howl.

“Let it out, Goodwife Tanner,” Zaima said.

Strong Points –

There’s a sort of sparseness of language that really works here. It’s very clean, it keeps things tense, and I love how the short dialogue and the short word choice keeps time with the brief sentences. There’s something very Hemingway-esque about it.

The dialogue is also very nice. There’s a voice to each of the characters here, even if we only get a little from them. The language used and the flow of the sentences give a very good sense of how each sentence is meant to be read, mood-wise. That’s pretty important, given how dialogue tags are used in the piece. They only show up when necessary. That’s something I like, as well, though I hope the rest of the dialogue reads as easily without tags.

My favorite, by far, though, is the tension! It’s an uneasy scene, and I’m a pretty big fan of how the language and the dialogue really comes together to form the mood for this sequence. That’s not easy!

Some Tips –

I think what this scene needs most is tweaking—nothing big and dramatic, but a couple little things that can really punch up the writing.

One of them is about setting. I’m not talking about world-building or anything like that. What I mean is that this piece has a lot to say about the characters, but not much to say about the places they live in or the objects they touch. It’s something that can happen when you get exhausted by reading page after page of long, flowery prose detailing the weather and a blade of grass and the exhaustive family history of the guy mowing the lawn. Nobody likes too much of that kind of stuff!

But this is sort of the opposite. There’s a cottage, and there’s a table, and there’s a chair, and there’s a bed. This is a set, and these are props. But here’s the thing—I want to see as much life in these things as I see in the characters. I don’t mean there should be breaks here where a character carefully surveys their environment for, like, fifteen minutes. I mean there’re a lot of things a woman like Zaima can notice about a place like the Tanner’s homestead. And there’re a lot of small things that can tell you about the kind of people the Tanners are.

I’d love a few details dropped here and there into the prose. Little things, like the state of the floor, or how well the furniture has been cared for. I’m getting the sense that this is a low-tech setting. Is the house well cared-for? What kind of house do the Tanners keep? Has that changed since the Goodwife has been with child? Goodman Tanner seems like he’s been drinking for some time. Does he look drunk? How does that manifest in his body language or his complexion?

There’s a few places where I feel the description that’s already in place could be pushed just a little more. I love the “odor of prolonged childbirth,” but I wish there was a bit more to tell me what that smelled like. Sweat? Sickness? Warmth? Cloying Stickiness? Birth is not a pretty picture, and Zaima would be familiar with it all.

You can craft a lot of good metaphors and symbols for your characters through the way they present themselves and their home environments, because they can impart so much in such a short span of time. Little details, plopped into the prose, would make the setting feel as real as the characters do.

My second thing is a bit more subjective, and it has to do with the pacing of this piece. Brevity is what keeps the tension high in this scene, but brevity can be a double-edged sword. While I really like what the sparseness of language does to the mood here, I feel like there’s a few points where it gets a little too sparse, and I end up confused.

Let’s take the first few sentences for an example.

Zaima could hear a woman screaming from outside the door. She didn’t bother knocking, but limped into the little cottage and paused on the threshold.

I like the first sentence, in theory. A mysterious scream is a cheap, super effective hook, but I feel like this might need to be refined a bit. As it reads, if I take the first sentence by itself, I’m not sure if Zaima’s inside, hearing the noise from outside, or vice-versa. Then, in the second sentence, I learn that she was outside, is now limping inside, but before actually going inside, she pauses on the threshold, which is a word usually reserved for the space right before moving inside.

It’s not that I think every action needs to be specifically described, nor that the reader needs to be led by the hand through a narrative. But little things like this, small things that make me unsure, make me need to re-read a sentence, can cause a break in my immersion.

In a situation like this, where the language is tight and the focal character isn’t wasting any time with lingering, lengthy descriptions, the writing has to hit the ground running in the first couple of sentences. If a reader has to pause and go back to re-read to make sure they’re understanding everything, the tension breaks and the effect is ruined.

This is a tricky scene, so everything has to be written just so, so that the reader never picks their head up, never leaves the tense situation that’s happening on the page. The selection presented here requires a lot more attention to detail than most. I’d say it’s about 75-80% of the way there, as it stands.

Would I Keep Reading?

Oh, heck yeah. Starting off a story with a difficult birth in the middle of the night may be a trope, but it’s my kind of trope. I like what little I’ve seen of Zaima so far, and personally speaking, characterization is what keeps me going in a story. I’m not sure I’d be going on past when the baby’s born, since a scene like that will make or break a midwife character for me, but I like where it’s going. With a little more tweaking, I’d be totally on board.

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