Wednesday, May 28, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #51

Most Wonderful Author: M. Halter @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Katie
Working Title: N/A

Pain drove Shannon to her knees.  One hand pressed to the grit of the floor, the other clapped against bruised ribs, fingers inspecting the rungs woven through her left lung where, deep within, the impeller of a pneumatic pump struggled to turn.  Don’t cough…don’t—   Stars swarmed her vision before she was through, and a nudging at the shutters again slammed the morning into focus.  She grabbed the black-headed spear and unlatched the window, piebald head of a stallion barreling through, nostrils flared, ears thrust forward.  Her soft laugh was a small victory.

“Ready, Atticus?”

They sighed as one, leaning against each other in wan light before he danced away and she followed, pulling low the brim of her shabby felt hat.  By nightfall, their fields lay far behind them.

Shannon scouted ahead, watching for black ground beneath lengthening shadow, gritting her teeth at the whine of axle motors pulling iron wheels through deep ruts of a dry summer.  She led Atticus from the road and into a copse on good soil, unhitching him to examine the catheter plugs dotting his body.  Unbuckled leather boots fell away from his sloughing flesh, exposing the bioelectric prosthetics replacing everything below his rear hocks.

“They’ll graft new skin on your legs when we get there,” she rocked back on her heels, sighing, “but until then you need the boots.” 

Strong Points –
We’re going on an adventure!  There is a lot of action happening right away in this story, which should help to pull readers in and keep them engaged.  A couple of questions spring to mind:  Where are they going?  Why are they semi-robotic?  What happened to Shannon and/or her horse?  There is an element of mystery that made me curious about the path of the story.  Also, the use of machinery in conjunction with a rustic feel in the setting makes a sort of steampunk vibe, which is an interesting take!  I got the feeling that an adventure was underway and I was dropped right before the thick of it, which is exciting to experience!  I feel bad for the horse, even though he seems to be doing okay.

I also really liked the word choice!  Saying “their fields lay far behind them” as opposed to “they covered a long distance” creates a more effective tone, implying that they have abandoned the familiarity of their home rather than just traveling aimlessly.  This connotation is what helps create a bit of dramatic tension and makes me wonder where we’re going!  Another bit that I liked was the description of the horse (“piebald head of a stallion barreling through, nostrils flared, ears thrust forward”), because these descriptive words lend to the feeling of impending action  I don’t know a whole lot about horses, but his apparent enthusiasm told through his body language feels like he is poised, he’s ready to go, and he’s excited to embark on Shannon’s quest.

Some Tips –
I think one of the most important parts of setting a scene is the pacing.  This passage starts out with “Pain drove Shannon to her knees,” something dramatic and troubling and mysterious, so I became concerned and found myself reading quickly from sentence to sentence.  A tension blossoms in the shortness of sentence fragments:

  • the pain strikes
  • her hand braces her body
  • she touches her mechanical parts to try and figure out what’s wrong
  • she almost blacks out

This quick succession of actions creates intensity.  But then the emergence of her horse interrupts the scene and this feeling of urgency dissipates; having a “nudging at the window” slows down the narrative because it is a much more mild word compared to the “clap” she gives her ribs or the “slammed” feeling her mind gets in reaction to the horse’s appearance.

As a whole, I think the transitions need to be looked over.  The initial setting seems to be in a building, perhaps in the morning, which is perfectly fine on its own, but there is no easing into the next bit where Shannon and Atticus are apparently outside.  This can just be a tiny note, like, “She met him beside the window,” or, “She climbed through the window and landed at his side.”

Then, I would consider the space they cover on their travel:  is it an easy, familiar ride?  Are they nervous to be far from home?  There is a lot of great implied emotion right before they take off on their quest (the pain bringing her to her knees, the fidgeting with her robotic parts, the laugh she gives when Atticus appears):  more small notes like this in the new surroundings that suggest the nature of the ride itself would really help to build up the feeling (i.e. how the characters are reacting to their situation), which can oftentimes be more effectual than describing the physical scene.

Fixing up the transitions from scene to scene will help to create a better, smoother overall flow to the story so reading along is easy and natural-feeling.

Another idea I had was this:  I think a great way to really understand how a paragraph or passage flows is to read it aloud.  I would try this to find instances of accidental rhyming, such as “fingers inspecting the rungs woven through her left lung”, or to pinpoint missing words, such as within the following: “She … unlatched the window, piebald head of a stallion barreling through.”  This way, hearing the words can help find quirks that reading them silently can’t.

Would I Keep Reading?
I think if you tweak what you’ve got, you could really have something here!  I like the idea of combining futuristic technologies with more rustic elements, and I think you could definitely root some emotional and political feelings in biotechnology that could definitely spark some interesting discussions.  I want to know about Shannon and Atticus’ respective history and future, and what their journey holds for them!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #50

Most Wonderful Author: Nidoran @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: Thief

Kaslen always thought herself to be a very good thief. The guards who caught her stealing, however, did not.

She sat on a  wooden bench in a dank prison cell so old that moss grew between the stones that made up the floor and walls. The cell had a single window, only a foot tall and twice as wide with iron bars added to obstruct both the view and any chance at escape.

She’d only been there a few hours (not even long enough to get a meal of stale bread and murky water), and her sentence wasn’t a long one.  For the crime of stealing a single apple from a stall in the market, her punishment was to be imprisoned for one night or lose a hand. Being an intelligent thief in addition to a very good thief, Kaslen chose the former.

Despite the guards thinking that she was one of the worst thieves they’d ever had the pleasure of putting in prison, Kaslen had the delight in knowing that everything had gone according to plan. So long as everyone suspected the contrary, Kaslen would always rest easy knowing that she was indeed a very good thief.

Kaslen’s sentence was so short the guards didn’t make her change into prison rags, as was typical. Instead, they took her boots, socks, and worn leather vest full of empty pockets (she left her valuables with someone she thought was trustworthy) so all she had left was her sleeveless undershirt and leggings.

Strong Points –
The strongest thing that resonated most with me was Kaslen’s voice. She comes through in every single sentence, and she sets the tone and the mood pretty darn effortlessly. Everything in the passage was an easy read, easy to follow, and Kaslen’s voice is a big part of that. Seriously, voice is such a pivotal component in fiction, especially for teen and kid fiction, so to be able to manage a good balance of it is A+.

And, on a similar note, I love the overall tone of what I’m about to get into. There’s this twisted seriousness that doubles back on itself and actually reads contrarily. An example is this line: “her punishment was to be imprisoned for one night or lose a hand. Being an intelligent thief in addition to a very good thief, Kaslen chose the former.” It’s the type of subtle humor that I really enjoy, and it keeps the tone almost airy.

Some Tips –
The writing itself is pretty solid, so the stuff I’m going to talk about is more conceptual – stuff to consider beyond prose. Story stuff. Yeah. So, let’s start with the biggest thing.

The intro is primarily setup, not the story. In this case, we get to hear a lot about the stuff that happened before the story begins. Kaslen was caught stealing something, Kaslen was put in a cell, Kaslen’s sentence was decided to be short, Kaslen had a trustworthy person hold her important things – but little about Kaslen now, in the moment, when the story actually begins.

Setup often answers questions before they’re asked, or gives answers before the answers are actually needed. The result, in this case, is a very slow start. Sometimes stories can get away with this, especially Middle Grade or the 200k word epic fantasy or space opera.

(What a weird duality. But also keep in mind that there’s always exceptions.)

But what we have to decide is how absolutely necessary it is to explain these things right now, delaying the start of the actual story. Is it possible that, maybe, the story started too late? If we need to give so much background information, should the story actually start sooner? Should the reader be shown these events rather than told?

Or, is the story very much starting at the right place, and these moments of setup should be dropped in as needed, rather than all in the beginning?

Or it could be that the story is just fine as it is. In the end, it’s a creative choice, and that’s all incredibly subjective. The opening as it is reminds me of “Throne of Glass” by Sarah J Maas, if I remember correctly (it’s been a whiiile), where the opening started right with the main character in the action of being dragged to face judgment after being arrested. I loved that, I did, and while the long and frequent jumps into story setup bugged the heck out of me, I continued on anyway.

So, ultimately, it’s a creative call for the writer to make based on what their story, which they know best, needs.

The few other issues I had were much smaller. First, let’s talk about the opening lines.

I could see why the two first sentences are there, since it comes around again in the third paragraph (though, to be honest, I missed the connection initially – it might have been because I had a short interruption while reading, but I can’t be sure), but to me the opening lines feel again like setup. A delay in the actual start of the story to make a superfluous point that the story later on might elaborate upon through showing instead of telling.

On top of that, the opening line is reiterated several types throughout the intro, and while this might have been by design, it felt a bit redundant to me. On one hand, it felt like Kaslen was trying really hard to convince herself she’s actually a good thief, while in fact may very well not be, but on the other hand, it felt like a lot of echoes for only the first page.

Finally, and this is just the fashion history nerd in me – I sort of mentally placed the story as a medieval fantasy (because of the cell and the laws of the world), but the description of the clothes threw me for a loop, what since the terminology is very modern as opposed to medieval.

So, the two contradicting elements weren’t agreeing with me. This might be cleared up if I was to read on, or it might actually be an inconsistency. I don’t know yet.

But, a good thing to always keep in mind is that credible fantasy worlds have a foundation on real history. Things came about for particular reasons, whether with technology or trade or travel. Fashion is equal parts available resources, trends, laws, religion, and so on.

So, when I see a medieval-type cell but modern clothing such as leggings and socks, I’m not sure what to expect.

(And, because I took a class on the evolution of western fashion, I’m going to be one of those snubs who notices little inconsistencies.)

Would I Keep Reading?
Despite the slow start and the things I said about all the setup, I actually would. I’m intrigued by the question of Kaslen in jail for stealing an apple, because it all seemed planned?? And I want to know why?? I mean, she says she’s a good thief, but then lets herself get caught for stealing an apple??? Mysteries.

♥ x 2,714 (Don't ask why.)