Thursday, August 31, 2006

Workshop: Intercontinental

I’m not sure about this. Overall, I thought boots tried a bit too hard. He is trying to force a lot of ideas into a rather narrow vessel. Saying less but saying it more strongly may have been better. It’s an interesting contrast with Father Luke’s piece, in which typically the Father has a focus on one theme and makes a deep but not broad statement.

I didn’t much like the in-jokes either. Rather forced.

But boots is not a bad writer and this is not a horrible effort. I think perhaps he struggles a little bit for fluency: in his newsgroup posts and his bloggetry, it’s often clear that he has something in mind but struggles to express it just so. I think that boots would benefit from a more directed approach to his writing: one, work out what you’re going to say; two, work out the method of saying it. I have a vague recollection of being taught to write school essays by making a list of points. This is not a bad way of writing fiction, as it happens, if you struggle to corral your thoughts. You can do an AtoBtoC of how your story will go and what it will say at each point. If the AtoBtoC doesn’t work, the story won’t either.

In commenting, try not to quibble with minor points of issue. Try to add something, rather than to see my review as an Aunt Sally to knock down. Bear this in mind: you might not use serial commas, or think that glint and squint jingle too much, but I am not saying that this is what you should do in every instance at every time; merely suggesting how I think it could be improved. And anyway, I daresay I understand American English better than you do. About half my time is spent editing it. That’s not to say you should not point out when I’m wrong; just try not to make that your focus: obviously, I get things wrong, but there is not a contest to prove it.


Intercontinental

Death has been healthy and prosperous lately.

This is a terrible introduction. What does it even mean? Reading on, I realise that you could have done better with “Death has been doing good business lately.” It’s the idea you were aiming at, I think.

My mother passed away 5
years ago, at about the time the war ended and Mr. Booth put down the
President.

This is okay. The reader is wondering why you’re blithering on about death but it’s okay. We realise you’re setting the scene and you have found a relatively neat way to identify the period. Don’t write “at about”. Just “about” is fine. “Mr. Booth” is too cutesy. He’d be just about universally known as “Mr. Wilkes Booth”. “put down” is awkward here, because it would mean “floored” of a person. Yes, Lincoln was floored, but Wilkes Booth actually killed him. We do say “put down” of a dog, but it has connotations of sympathy that are lacking in an assassination.

My father is old and sick, little time can remain to him.

This is neatly put.

No sooner did I return home from being educated than I received word
that Grandmother was gone.


I suppose “from being educated” is okay. It implies that you spent your entire education away from home and puts you in a certain class. However, it more strongly suggests that you are in a vacation from boarding school than that you have graduated from university, which I suspect is your meaning. Just say “from university” or “from college” or whatever.

Yes, Death has been a busy fellow.

On the trip east it had seemed appropriate to dress in a fine suit.
When one as wealthy as Grandmother leaves the Earth, many others of
equivalent station gather around to distract themselves from the fact
of their own mortality by expressing sorrow at the corpse's passing
while they wonder what they will inherit.


Nice. Quite Dickensian.

Grandmother made fools of
them all, I was the only one to inherit, the only one with no care for
the wealth but great sorrow at the departure of such a good woman.


Okay. You’ve created your character fairly neatly, but you have to do something with him. I don’t think you did in this story.

Leaving the East for what I hoped would be the last time


Why though? It’s frustrating that you give no reason here or later for this.

I discarded
the fine suit as a thing of no value beyond that of any other hair
shirt, and carried with me only one small leather bag.


I didn’t like this. A fine suit is nothing like a hair shirt and you are not wearing it for anything like the reason one would wear a hair shirt. You are trying to be too clever. Rein yourself in and you have the beginnings of a good story.

In any case, your character has no reason to be penitent, nor does he ever acquire one. He ought to. Don’t drop the notion in and then pass it by.

The lawyers
would count the money that Grandmother left to me, and they would
parcel it out when I needed it, if I needed it; for the moment my only
need was peace, a thing always hard gained and never parcelled out by
lawyers.


No, don’t like it. You’ve squandered the early feel with this. Wills have “executors”, who count money. While they may well be lawyers, this reads oddly because it implies that the executors needed to pass the estate on to lawyers to count money. Why? It all seems too convoluted, too involved.

And you’ve really already drawn your character and need to do something with him. Overdefining a character is a mistake. The reader starts to feel stifled.


At Kansas City it was necessary to change trains for the final leg of
my journey.


Okay, but I’d write “I had to change trains at KC for the final leg…”

It was good to be off the train for at least a few
moments, it gave my buttocks a break from the constant pounding as the
train's wheels moved across thousands of uneven joints in the track.

Changing trains is rarely done in a few moments. The comma needs to be a semicolon or a full point, because you have run on.


I recalled watching them build the railroad when I was a boy, peering
over hilltops to watch the coolies lay track under close supervision.
When it was hot sometimes one of the coolies would die from some
combination of dehydration, heat prostration, and sheer overwork. His
fellows would be allowed to bury him as long as they were quick about
it, but they had to make up the time lost, and all had to work harder
to make up for the fallen one so that the rails could continue toward
completion on schedule.


Okay. I like the contrast of Eastern affluence with Western striving. Do “coolies” bury their dead though? I have the feeling they might burn them. And "peering over hilltops" is weird. Say "peering from hilltops" maybe.

There were fewer cars on the train west

All your trains are “west”, no? Reading on, I understand that you are contrasting the journey west with the one east, but if you are changing trains, you have more than one train each way!

and by the time I entered,
only one seat remained. I sat across from two men of indeterminate
age, both wearing black suits, one wearing a derby and the other
wearing a tophat.

I think you missed the opportunity to define them by saying they wore “cheap black suits” or mentioning a material. The hats don’t really say anything, although a topper is a bit weird, even for the 1870s.

I sat


Sat down. “Sat” means the same as “was sitting”, which is not what you mean here.

they glanced over, then resumed their
animated conversation.


“an animated conversation” is better because it is the first time we have encountered it.

I spent my time looking out the window as the
world passed by, but in such a confined space their words floated
through my thoughts.

Make the comma a semicolon. Just do it.

As the track joints below us noisily battered our behinds

No. You’ve done that. It doesn’t improve for the repetition.

through the
hard seats, and the country outside slowly became more familiar, a
picture of the two men and their lives effortlessly assembled itself
in my mind. We three were all dressed for our destinations, they for
the city, and myself for the land beyond the end of the tracks.

Hmmm. Not sure about that. You didn’t say what you were wearing, as it happens. And people on the frontier, at least in the films I’ve watched, often wear suits, black and otherwise.

Our
clothing categorized us;

Colon.

their suits made them competitors for the
favors of city life, and my rougher clothing made me an outsider,
unworthy of their attention, yet free to observe them because of our
proximity.

Yes, okay. But you should have earlier described your clothing a little. Perhaps if you had said that you switched your black suit for a pair of denims and a check shirt or some other thing like that…

It seemed that Derby was a gambler, one of a familiar breed who sought
easy wealth on a path of risk;

Period.

Tophat was a magician of sorts, able to
walk a coin across his knuckles and make it disappear. I wondered at
both, what was piecing itself together of their lives seemed strange
to me indeed.


That sentence adds nothing. I don’t really understand it.

From here, your story, not too badly constructed, doesn’t go anywhere. I felt a bit cheated. I wanted there to be some interaction. You’ve created your character but you don’t allow anything to happen to him! Except to be an observer. And what you observe is not sufficient to be worth the ride.

They spoke of many things. They spoke of politics, and of women, and
of wealth and how to gain it. They spoke of lesser men, and men of
lesser breeding, as they would speak of servants or cattle. They
seemed to have dreams that were remarkably similar, and included an
expansive home in which they would pursue their leisure to the
admiration of all.

Yes, okay. But what is he saying? What is he noticing? You’re not to the point here. You have already shown us a character who looks down his nose at wealth. You just seem to be trowelling it on. But nothing happens to your character. No reward, no loss. The story begs for one or other. He should play cards with the gambler and the magician and they should cheat him. Something like that. Do you see? There is no payoff. It’s all background, all fuzzy. Get to the point of it. And I have to note that the contrast between Eastern wealth and Western striving is destroyed by having Westerners who want the easy dollar!

On the train east I had been fortunate enough to
share a car with a very interesting man named Nikola, a man of thought
and some understanding who had been seeking a place to carry out
experiments with lightning.

No. The timeframe is wrong for Tesla, who would have been too young at this time. Be careful when you do this kind of thing that you have placed your characters correctly in time. I didn’t check that your dates work for building the railway west from Kansas City, but they seem right. Make sure they are because some readers will know.

Compared to him, Derby and Tophat seemed
common graspers of trinkets.

Compared “with” him. Distinguish between “compared to” and “compared with”. You compare like with like. If I compare this year’s figures with last year’s, they are two things of the same kind that I compare. If I compare you to a toad, I am holding you up to a toad to say something about you. Compare unlike to unlike. I hope that’s not too confusing because if you taste-tested apples and pears, you would say “I compared the apples with the pears”, but if you thought the apple tasted like a pear you would say “I compare this apple to a pear”. Do you see? In the former, I compare qualities of things that are in some way alike; in the latter, I compare the things one to the other.

A good way to decide which to use is to consider whether you are saying something is like something else or whether you are saying something is different from something else. When you compare figures, you are saying they are different and you are comparing them to see the difference; when you compare me to a toad, you are saying I am like a toad. Note that Shakespeare, when he said "shall I compare thee to a summer's day" was not suggesting that he should take you and a summer's day and see how you compare, but was asking whether you are like a summer's day at all.

A sudden jolt from an unusually uneven joint in the tracks woke me
from my thoughts to the present. Soon I would be home with my own,
where I had a place in a very different world. I sighed, looking out
at the clustered thunderheads above, thinking that I have

Had. You are in the past tense here.

much to
learn, just as Derby and Tophat and Nikola have much to learn. One
day Death will find each of us, busy fellow that he is. Until then
the Great Spirit will continue to teach us all.

And so it ended with a whimper, not a bang. My advice, I hope you’ll take it, is to go back and rebuild the story. Think about where it could go once you’ve set the scene. Make something happen. It would have been quite cool had you made Tesla your main character, and contrasted his striving with that of the gambler/magician.

On the plus side, you more or less stuck to the assignment. Thanks for trying it. I think it was a decent effort. I reproduce it in full below so that others can read it without being interrupted by me.

The copyright in this story belongs to its author, whose right to be identified as the author I respect by affixing his name, and the story is posted here with the author’s permission, their rights reserved.



Intercontinental

Death has been healthy and prosperous lately. My mother passed away 5
years ago, at about the time the war ended and Mr. Booth put down the
President. My father is old and sick, little time can remain to him.
No sooner did I return home from being educated than I received word
that Grandmother was gone. Yes, Death has been a busy fellow.

On the trip east it had seemed appropriate to dress in a fine suit.
When one as wealthy as Grandmother leaves the Earth, many others of
equivalent station gather around to distract themselves from the fact
of their own mortality by expressing sorrow at the corpse's passing
while they wonder what they will inherit. Grandmother made fools of
them all, I was the only one to inherit, the only one with no care for
the wealth but great sorrow at the departure of such a good woman.

Leaving the East for what I hoped would be the last time, I discarded
the fine suit as a thing of no value beyond that of any other hair
shirt, and carried with me only one small leather bag. The lawyers
would count the money that Grandmother left to me, and they would
parcel it out when I needed it, if I needed it; for the moment my only
need was peace, a thing always hard gained and never parcelled out by
lawyers.

At Kansas City it was necessary to change trains for the final leg of
my journey. It was good to be off the train for at least a few
moments, it gave my buttocks a break from the constant pounding as the
train's wheels moved across thousands of uneven joints in the track.
I recalled watching them build the railroad when I was a boy, peering
over hilltops to watch the coolies lay track under close supervision.
When it was hot sometimes one of the coolies would die from some
combination of dehydration, heat prostration, and sheer overwork. His
fellows would be allowed to bury him as long as they were quick about
it, but they had to make up the time lost, and all had to work harder
to make up for the fallen one so that the rails could continue toward
completion on schedule.

There were fewer cars on the train west, and by the time I entered,
only one seat remained. I sat across from two men of indeterminate
age, both wearing black suits, one wearing a derby and the other
wearing a tophat. As I sat, they glanced over, then resumed their
animated conversation. I spent my time looking out the window as the
world passed by, but in such a confined space their words floated
through my thoughts.

As the track joints below us noisily battered our behinds through the
hard seats, and the country outside slowly became more familiar, a
picture of the two men and their lives effortlessly assembled itself
in my mind. We three were all dressed for our destinations, they for
the city, and myself for the land beyond the end of the tracks. Our
clothing categorized us; their suits made them competitors for the
favors of city life, and my rougher clothing made me an outsider,
unworthy of their attention, yet free to observe them because of our
proximity.

It seemed that Derby was a gambler, one of a familiar breed who sought
easy wealth on a path of risk; Tophat was a magician of sorts, able to
walk a coin across his knuckles and make it disappear. I wondered at
both, what was piecing itself together of their lives seemed strange
to me indeed.

They spoke of many things. They spoke of politics, and of women, and
of wealth and how to gain it. They spoke of lesser men, and men of
lesser breeding, as they would speak of servants or cattle. They
seemed to have dreams that were remarkably similar, and included an
expansive home in which they would pursue their leisure to the
admiration of all. On the train east I had been fortunate enough to
share a car with a very interesting man named Nikola, a man of thought
and some understanding who had been seeking a place to carry out
experiments with lightning. Compared to him, Derby and Tophat seemed
common graspers of trinkets.

A sudden jolt from an unusually uneven joint in the tracks woke me
from my thoughts to the present. Soon I would be home with my own,
where I had a place in a very different world. I sighed, looking out
at the clustered thunderheads above, thinking that I have much to
learn, just as Derby and Tophat and Nikola have much to learn. One
day Death will find each of us, busy fellow that he is. Until then
the Great Spirit will continue to teach us all.

boots 2007

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