Saturday, 22 February 2020

Camponotus Vampiricus

A little something, snuck out under the radar on Valentine's Day, so I didn't even notice it.  Like an ant in the sugar bowl... 

Sunday, 2 February 2020

The Watcher needs a rewrite

"This was a good piece.  Given more room and budget I’d have bought it."

I woke up to this response to a story submission this weekend.  I get feedback along these lines quite often, a sense that my stories are falling just short of the transom.  I'm sure editors will say that they get many, many more stories that tick all the boxes than they have pages, webspace or dollars to accommodate.  

So I've decided to try to absorb and actively apply some of the lessons of writing out there in an effort to give my stories just that little bit heft in order to achieve escape velocity.  Not just to keep on keeping on, but not to keep on making the same mistakes over and over.  Trouble is, I'm a mule-headed student who often thinks they know best...

I haven't the faintest who T Gene Davis is, but he's posted some excellent lessons on the art of the speculative short story which, he claims, will put you ahead of 99% of the competition:

Meanwhile, Eschler Editing offers three rookie errors: lack of a hook (essentially, the brilliant opening piece above); low stakes; and an abrupt ending

So, I have decided to keep these credos front and centre in the writing of my latest piece.

Cutting out passives

I don't think I have too much of an issue here: I naturally gravitate towards 'the cat sat on the mat' rather than 'the mat was being sat on by the cat'.  In this story I do have a quandary over "There is a moment of resolution in her face" ("Her face resolved itself after a moment"?) before deciding the whole sentence in which appears can go.

T Gene suggests searching for 'had' and cutting out what's happened in the past.  Again, I think I'm generally adept at avoiding 'I had been born in Frankfurt thirty-seven years before', etc., and laying a trail of allusion in its place, although I have a niggle with this one in that sometimes you can give context in a line whereas spelling it out may stop the mystery tour for longer than you want.

I'm probably breaking the rules, but I kept in "Vanessa has printed off a reply to the email, the email I asked her to send.  She was reluctant and, I must confess, I feel I somewhat bullied her into it.  But her face is bright with the news."  Should I have shown John bullying Vanessa into composing the message, searching for who to send it to, pressing 'send'?  I think those paragraphs would derail the tale more.  

Know your characters
This is one I don't think I'm always that great at.  I have no repeating characters; every story starts with a fresh team.  I'd be awful at crime fiction.  I tend to know my characters as much as you would a new colleague after a day's work - the bare biographical facts, plus joining the dots between various statements and actions.  My technique is as much to surprise myself with plausible inconsistencies in how they act and react, another facet on display each time.  It feigns complexity and nuance.  

In this story, one character is an enigma, and the story is about her enigmatic status.  Is she an alien?  Is she even real?  Time does not apply to her as it does to us.  Suggestions are made of a criminal, even slightly perverted past for the other.  I don't know the details.  I'm not sure I want to know.

Brilliant title
It's called 'The Watcher'.  Hmmm.  Well, the digestive biscuit is doing just fine, thanks.  And I won't give you the opening sentences, but I think they're reasonably hooky.

Low stakes
Again, I'm not sure I score well against this, or even want to score well.  It seems a very... American requirement.  British life is more about quiet desperation, and it certainly shows in my fiction.  In this tale, John, whose story it is (actually, I'd put that ahead of any of T Gene's points - know whose story it is) is seeking clarity, understanding.  That is what is at stake for him.  Not everything has to be about saving humanity.

Abrupt ending
Again, I have form.  I've already commented on this blog that my stories, even to me, feel like act ones.  My good friend Richard Earl, a Big Finish Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes actor, said of The Root Canals of Mars that it read like page one of a Netflix pitch.  That email, that John persuades Vanessa to send, resolves the story.  There's less than 400 words of a 2500 word story after John decides that will settle matters.  Too short, too abrupt...

Actually... I have a sudden sense of clarity.  The ending is all wrong.  John, across a prison table, is shown the response from a Princeton professor confirming that his hypothesis is correct.  John is proved right, but he has limited agency: he's in prison for no vital reason, his hands metaphorically tied.  Others make the final connection for him.  I'm having flashbacks to Philip Roth's Operation Shylock and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, and what made me so furious about them.  In the first Roth gets out of writing an act three by claiming the CIA (or somebody, I forget) has made him redact it (!).  In the latter, subsidiary characters resolve the story off-screen.  I've made the same error - I need John to man up and solve the mystery himself.

The Watcher needs a rewrite: an act three with more agency for the main character and more to play for.  This is the mistake that I keep on making.  And to think this would have otherwise gone off to Clarkesworld tomorrow...

I think this may count as a blog posting with a story arc.