Thursday, September 7, 2006

Workshop: The proposal/Train of thought

Kim’s two efforts cover two different approaches to fiction. The first is a straightforward story, with twist; the second, a mood piece. Regular readers will know I don’t mind a mood piece myself but I think that for the reader’s sake, it must offer one of three things: insight, humour or music. Without one or other, all you have is writing, writing, writing. Does Kim show any insight in Train of thought? I dunno. It didn’t really grab me. I thought it was nicely imagined but I don’t know that it told me anything new. It wasn’t meant to be funny so the humour wasn’t there. So I’d have liked to feel more music. It’s not easy to make writing rhythmical – not so that it reads well at the same time – but it’s a goal well worth aiming at. Some techniques you can use are parallelism (structure sentences in the same way), assonance and interior rhyme, and, if you are careful, metre. I’m not a particularly good formal poet, but I have my own understanding of metre. If I can hum it, it’s metrical. So sometimes I’ll get the tune, and then strive to make the words fit. The correspondence does not have to be tight, because after all, we’re writing prose.

As for The proposal, I liked the twist. The payload was obvious, in my view, but the delivery was clever. I think the story was a bit too slight though. Kim could have taken it on and made something more out of it. How does Hicham take rejection, for instance?

I’m finding with more than one of these stories that the writer is setting up a decent story: creating characters or situations that can go places. But you have to deliver! Don’t be afraid to write the next thousand words. It’s hard work and you fear that you will trail off into useless, directionless blither, but it’s worth trying.


I know that Kim was concerned about her punctuation and detail, which are quite poor, so I’m going to mark them without too much comment.


The Proposal -

We sit, he and I, in the far back corner of the subway car.

“We are sitting…”

Why? Two main reasons. The first is that this is how you would *say* it if you were telling someone: “We were sitting in the train when…” In general, you won’t go far wrong in writing, unless you talk like an android, if you write it as you speak it. I don’t mean all full of hesitations and half-sentences; I mean use the natural fluency of your spoken language.

Writers should read their work out loud. If you do not do this, start doing it. If it doesn’t sound good, it’s not well written.


He led me here, through car after car until he found one that suited him, ushering me into the corner and sitting down catty-cornered from me so our knees are touching.



Let us imagine the touching of the knees. We can picture you from your description: “catty-cornered”.


It is late on a hot summer night on my fourth day in New York.



This is a nice touch and a nice clue.

I am visiting my cousin whom I have not seen since I was a child.

Award yourself a pedant point for “whom”.


My companion is a boy I met when I wandered into an Arabic grocery store. He waited on me, was impressed with my knowledge of Arabic and said I had


a

good accent. He offered to show me the city and we have spent every day together since.



I would rather have introduced him with less background, so we are not sure how well you know him. This gave away the twist.


I am sitting so I can look out the windows of the car

Comma.

Generally, you should use a comma before this “and” in American English. American readers are more concerned about the possible ambiguity than English ones.

and

I.

A bare “am” looks a bit odd.

am letting my gaze wander around the car when he takes my hand. Our fingers intertwine.

Comma.

His thumb over mine, caressing gentling.


Gently.

Actually, I would leave out the adverb. You generally caress gently, and would only mention it were it rough.

“I love you”, he says except with his accent it comes out “I luff you”.


Just write “I luff you”. We know he’s Arab so we get it from that.


I smile, more so at the pronunciation then


than

at the statement


comma. The “and” goes after “smile”, and the stuff beginning “more so” is a parenthesis, which needs a closing comma.

and squeeze his hand.

He is beautiful to me.


This implies he’s not actually beautiful, but you think he is.


His dark curly hair is cropped short and has large, expressive brown eyes lined with delicate long lashes.



Kim, do me a favour. Promise that no character of yours will ever, ever have “expressive” eyes again.

Everyone who reads this: promise it. It doesn’t actually mean a thing. All eyes are equally “expressive” and it’s only a question whether you do or don’t express anything with them. Not that the phrase actually means that or anything else. It’s void of meaning. It’s the sort of thing you read in books, nod and move on. It’s just filler.

We all do it though. But you can excise filler from your writing by critically reading it when you have finished writing. Interrogate adjectives and adverbs. Ask them what they’re doing. What do they add for the reader? How do they help our understanding of the character or the story?

Okay. So what else is wrong with this description? As I noted in Don’s piece, you need to try to make your descriptions active rather than say what things “are” or people “have”.

“His large, brown eyes stare at me from behind long, delicate lashes.” Hmmm, it’s a bit soft but you get the idea.

“He wears his dark, curly hair short…”
“His dark, curly hair frames a baby face untouched by the harshness of city life.”

Well, you see where I’m coming from even if I’m not setting the page alight.


His face is soft, like he has not lost his baby fat yet, even though he is 21. His lips are full and are now stuck out in a slight pout and he repeats, “I love you, Kim”.



I wouldn’t belabour the description. You could just say “He pouts and repeats: “

I don’t really know what to say in return so I smile, squeeze his hand


Comma. Strunk and White would have a conniption at you guys’ unwillingness to use the serial comma.

and mumble “Thank you.”

He gives me


my

hand a tug to get my full attention



Just stop at “tug”. We can work out why he’s doing it. Don’t spoonfeed the reader. Tell us only what we can’t figure out for ourselves.


“I mean it, I love you, I want to move to Iowa with you. I don’t want to lose you in a few days.”

I am flattered and blush. “What would you do in Iowa,” I ask.

“Marry you…will you marry me?”

I laugh. “Do you need a green card?” It was


Is. It doesn’t make sense to switch tense here.

cruel thing to say, but it was


is

the only thing I could


can

think of and I regret it as soon as it is out of my mouth.


But it’s very nicely observed, because it’s what most of us would say. Don’t underestimate the value of ringing true.


His eyes darken, glisten. He has tears standing. He drops my hand and reaches around and gets his wallet out. He opens it and throws a card in my lap. It is a green card.

“My father sponsored me. I don’t need anything from you. I love you. I want to be with you. I have never met anyone like you. Don’t you love me?”

“Hicham…” I say gently. He will not look at me. I reach out and touch his face. “Hicham, I like you a lot, but love? You don’t really know me, we don’t know each other.”

He looks at me; his face takes on the guise of a defiant child.


Hmmmm. Does it? Do you know what that would look like? If you can say what that looks like, that’s what you should have written! It’s much better to say what things look like than what they are like.

At the very least, say that “he scrunched his face up, defiant as a child in the wrong” or something.

He moves from his seat and kneels in front of me, taking both my hands in his and says, “I know you. I am not a child. I am a man and I know I love you. Marry me?”

I look into his eyes and ask, “What is my last name?”


I liked that! It was way obvious what the denouement would be but that was cute.


His face falls;


Period. Don’t join sentences that are not particularly connected with semicolons.

he drops my hands and moves back to his seat. He looks down the car and does not speak for the next few stops. The only sounds are the squawk of the conductor coming over on the loud speakers calling out the next stations and the clatter of the train moving.


I wouldn’t bother saying what the sounds were: we know what subway trains are like.


His cheeks turn blotchy and he rubs at his eyes with the backs of his hands.

I get up, move to the seat next him, taking his hand and leaning my head on his shoulder. “I am sorry, I did not mean to hurt your feelings, Hicham. Marriage, love, it


is

a lot, it is a lot for just a few days, don’t you think?”

He shrugs and kisses the top of my head. We sit in silence until the Astoria Blvd stop where we will step back out into the humid night. The train’s movement rocks us back and forth gently, easing the tension between us.




Take it on, Kim. Do more with it. I like it as a start but I think there’s more that can be done with this. I would have been tempted to have another scene on another train: Kim and Hicham, married with child. How did that happen? Etc.

Still, I will note that you met the unities pretty well. Did I say maximum of three characters? Or three? Anyway, a good effort.

Just the briefest of comments on this next one.


Train of Thought

Red blinking lights, the clang-clang of the warning bell lets the drivers know the crossing arm is coming down, a train is coming. It is music to his ears. He eases his foot off the gas peddle


Pedal. Peddle means to sell.

, allowing him to slow but not use his brake so he is not alerting the car behind him that he has no intention of gunning his car over the tracks. He wants to be here, he


is

meant to be here. The arm comes down in front of his car


period

, in his rearview mirror he can see the driver behind him, annoyed, hands hitting the steering wheel. He smiles to himself….relax buddy, he thinks.


I do like the air of contented slowing down and you do nicely capture the idea that it’s good to be stuck at the lights.


This is his time, between his life at work and his life at home. The only time he has to let his mind drift, to think of nothing and everything. He loves trains, has always loved trains. He likes to let his imagination take over, likes to wonder about the cars – what is in them, where they have been? What does that piece of graffiti mean? Was it put there by someone who rode in that very car, did they mark it so someone, somewhere would know they existed?

He wonders about this a lot. Likes to think about what it would be like to ride in one of those cars, the door open, feeling the air rush past is

his


face as he looked


looks

out at the world he was


is

passing by for a change instead of vice versa.


I dunno. Isn't the world passing him by for a change? As he sits? Instead of his driving past it?

At the crossing


I like a comma here.

he does not have to think about whether or not


Just whether. If you think you could replace “whether” with “if”, you don’t need “or not”.

he is going to meet the ever looming dead line


one word. I'm not sure about "ever" because I don't think deadlines often loom and then not loom.

, he does not have to think about paying bills or picking up the milk as the sticky note reminds him he needs to do from his briefcase.


Woah. That’s a bit confused. Say “as the note stuck on his briefcase reminds him to do”.

He just gets to breathe.


“He can just breathe.”

Car after car goes by....maybe he will call in sick tomorrow, go see a ball game….He won’t…but at the crossing he can think about it…..maybe he will buy a motorcycle. He used to have one…he loved the feeling of freedom it gave him….maybe he will do that…when he can afford it…what price freedom, he thinks, smiling to himself.



I’m actually liking this more now I go through it slowly. What I do like in a story – I’ll doubtless say it a dozen times in this workshop – is true-to-life-ness. This sounds real to me. Yeah, I will; no, I won’t. We think like that. We feel like that. It really strikes a chord.

If a story reaches out and drags you in, that makes you feel good. And if the reader feels good, they’re going to love your work.


As the last car goes by, his mind comes back into focus, he remembers he needs fish food…milk and fish food…milk and fish food….the crossing arm goes up, his foot eases back on to the gas….milk…fish food….motorcycle….. smile


Do try this again, Kim. Get a tune, something slow, soft and soulful, going in your head, and then write to fit. Don’t slow down until you’re finished. You’ll be surprised how little editing you need to do.



I repost both stories below. The copyright remains with the author, whose moral right to be identified as the author I affirm by attaching her name.




The Proposal -

We sit, he and I, in the far back corner of the subway car. He led me here, through car after car until he found one that suited him, ushering me into the corner and sitting down catty-cornered from me so our knees are touching.

It is late on a hot summer night on my fourth day in New York. I am visiting my cousin whom I have not seen since I was a child. My companion is a boy I met when I wandered into an Arabic grocery store. He waited on me, was impressed with my knowledge of Arabic and said I had good accent. He offered to show me the city and we have spent every day together since.

I am sitting so I can look out the windows of the car and am letting my gaze wander around the car when he takes my hand. Our fingers intertwine. His thumb over mine, caressing gentling. “I love you”, he says except with his accent it comes out “I luff you”. I smile, more so at the pronunciation then at the statement and squeeze his hand.

He is beautiful to me. His dark curly hair is cropped short and has large, expressive brown eyes lined with delicate long lashes. His face is soft, like he has not lost his baby fat yet, even though he is 21. His lips are full and are now stuck out in a slight pout and he repeats, “I love you, Kim”.

I don’t really know what to say in return so I smile, squeeze his hand and mumble “Thank you.”

He gives me hand a tug to get my full attention, “I mean it, I love you, I want to move to Iowa with you. I don’t want to lose you in a few days.”

I am flattered and blush. “What would you do in Iowa,” I ask.

“Marry you…will you marry me?”

I laugh. “Do you need a green card?” It was cruel thing to say, but it was the only thing I could think of and I regret it as soon as it is out of my mouth. His eyes darken, glisten. He has tears standing. He drops my hand and reaches around and gets his wallet out. He opens it and throws a card in my lap. It is a green card.

“My father sponsored me. I don’t need anything from you. I love you. I want to be with you. I have never met anyone like you. Don’t you love me?”

“Hicham…” I say gently. He will not look at me. I reach out and touch his face. “Hicham, I like you a lot, but love? You don’t really know me, we don’t know each other.”

He looks at me; his face takes on the guise of a defiant child. He moves from his seat and kneels in front of me, taking both my hands in his and says, “I know you. I am not a child. I am a man and I know I love you. Marry me?”

I look into his eyes and ask, “What is my last name?”

His face falls; he drops my hands and moves back to his seat. He looks down the car and does not speak for the next few stops. The only sounds are the squawk of the conductor coming over on the loud speakers calling out the next stations and the clatter of the train moving. His cheeks turn blotchy and he rubs at his eyes with the backs of his hands.

I get up, move to the seat next him, taking his hand and leaning my head on his shoulder. “I am sorry, I did not mean to hurt your feelings, Hicham. Marriage, love, it a lot, it is a lot for just a few days, don’t you think?”

He shrugs and kisses the top of my head. We sit in silence until the Astoria Blvd stop where we will step back out into the humid night. The train’s movement rocks us back and forth gently, easing the tension between us.


Kimberly Burnett 2007








Train of Thought

Red blinking lights, the clang-clang of the warning bell lets the drivers know the crossing arm is coming down, a train is coming. It is music to his ears. He eases his foot off the gas peddle, allowing him to slow but not use his brake so he is not alerting the car behind him that he has no intention of gunning his car over the tracks. He wants to be here, he meant to be here. The arm comes down in front of his car, in his rearview mirror he can see the driver behind him, annoyed, hands hitting the steering wheel. He smiles to himself….relax buddy, he thinks.

This is his time, between his life at work and his life at home. The only time he has to let his mind drift, to think of nothing and everything. He loves trains, has always loved trains. He likes to let his imagination take over, likes to wonder about the cars – what is in them, where they have been? What does that piece of graffiti mean? Was it put there by someone who rode in that very car, did they mark it so someone, somewhere would know they existed?

He wonders about this a lot. Likes to think about what it would be like to ride in one of those cars, the door open, feeling the air rush past is face as he looked out at the world he was passing by for a change instead of vice versa.

At the crossing he does not have to think about whether or not he is going to meet the ever looming dead line, he does not have to think about paying bills or picking up the milk as the sticky note reminds him he needs to do from his briefcase. He just gets to breathe.

Car after car goes by....maybe he will call in sick tomorrow, go see a ball game….He won’t…but at the crossing he can think about it…..maybe he will buy a motorcycle. He used to have one…he loved the feeling of freedom it gave him….maybe he will do that…when he can afford it…what price freedom, he thinks, smiling to himself.

As the last car goes by, his mind comes back into focus, he remembers he needs fish food…milk and fish food…milk and fish food….the crossing arm goes up, his foot eases back on to the gas….milk…fish food….motorcycle….. smile

Kimberly Burnett 2007

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