Sunday, September 24, 2006

Workshop: A slight delay

Those who remember Paula from newsgroups know that in among the jabber, she is capable of flashes of astute and perceptive writing. Her parodies were well received for good reason: she has a sharp eye for the foibles of her contemporaries and her lampoons were generally on target. Paula’s chosen genre is romance, which is a real pity, because her fluent and clever style is too much for such a pedestrian genre. She’s definitely capable of writing a funny comedy, the sort of study of drawing room manners that used to be the mainstay of British writing perhaps (I don’t read anything like enough to be able to think of a modern American exemplar – perhaps Sour Grapes can help me out). Her blog writing is the same, although the desire to not soar keeps her chained to mundanity. Paula seems to have a fear of stretching herself and excelling. She seems to much prefer being queen of the kaffeeklatsch to the more serious work of noticing and remarking.

In my view, A slight delay is a beautifully observed piece. You feel Paula has looked at these people at some point and understood them. Her theme of powerlessness is well presented: we are all familiar with authority that makes seemingly senseless demands that it doesn’t feel an obligation to explain (and how appropriate this theme is right now). And Lisa is the perfect “little man” (sorry but he’s nearly always a man in the tradition of this type of story), struggling to swim in a tide of bullshit. She is wonderfully defiant. This is where Paula excels: quickly and deftly building a character. I definitely found myself rooting for her.

In places, the writing is a bit loose. It’s tempting to lean on stock phrases to help the reader along but it’s a temptation that should be ignored, and sometimes tauter is better. I’ll try to show a couple of places where I felt that was true.




A Slight Delay

Something shifted and she glanced up from her book.

“Something shifted” sounds a smidgen odd. I’d just start with “She glanced up from her book.” The question the reader asks is “what has made her do that?” so we don’t need to have answered it already.

The train had
stopped, though they were miles from the next station.

I prefer “although” for euphony here. But “though” is okay.

The blonde
seated across

“from her” is needed her. “Seated” is not always comfortable for “sitting” and I’d try to avoid it, because it implies she was seated there by someone else, as in “At the restaurant, the maitre d’ seated me by the window.” Better to say simply “The blonde opposite” anyway.

stared ahead vacantly as she fiddled with a music pod in
her lap.

I don’t think “music pod” is a thing. It’s an “MP3 player” or an “iPod”.

Here’s an example of a place where tighter would be better. I’d write “The blonde opposite fiddled with her iPod, expressionless” or similar. Allow the description to suggest the vacancy, rather than say she did something vacantly. Or …iPod, her face blank. Something like that.

A wire dangled down the side of her face.

As they do. Cut this sentence. It won’t be missed at all.


Lisa pulled her
phone from her purse to check the time and a guard was immediately by
her side.

In American writing particularly you must put a comma before “and”. Even I would because here you create something that doubtless has a Greek name that I don’t know, similar to a zeugma. (“I caught the train and a heavy cold” is a zeugma: the word “caught” has to be used in two senses for the two things conjoined. “He married in haste and a tuxedo” is another. You get the idea. Fowler called these “unequal yokefellows”. Here the sentence says that she pulled the phone from her purse to check the time and to check a guard… Simply, “and” misdirects the reader and this misdirection is easily fixed by placing a comma before “and”.) Some would use a semicolon. Not me. I don’t like them enough.

"Please turn off your phones." He said it loudly--for everyone's
benefit, Lisa assumed.

Okay. That’s just tolerable. I’m not sure that we’d know why he said it loudly unless she assumed it for us but it’s close to stating the obvious.

The blonde began to frown.


I think you either frown or you don’t and then you are frowning. If you say “the blonde frowned”, it sort of implies that she frowned and then stopped frowning, but it can’t be helped; one just doesn’t usually say “began to frown”. You could begin a frown and then stop before you were frowning.

"Excuse me?" Lisa strained to look up at his face. He wore sunglasses
even though dusk had fallen and the windows made a weak patchwork of
lavender light. Trees swayed in the distance, shrugging their bare
arms against the chill.

Okay. Nice try but do you shrug your arms against the chill or do you hug them around yourself?


"Why can't I use my phone? We were delayed
last week and I--"

"We ask that all electronics be shut off temporarily." The guard
stepped back a few feet and Lisa couldn't see him without twisting in
her seat.

The blonde took out her earpiece and dropped it on her lap.

"In her lap".

"What's going on?"

"I have no idea." Lisa slid her phone back into its pocket without
shutting it off. It would ring silently anyway, if at all. Would Jim
call if she were late?

"If she was late".

Use “if she were” for those times that she cannot conceivably be late and “if she was” for possible states that have not yet arrived. So “If I was to call you at six, would that be okay?” and “If I were to call you, I’d give you a piece of my mind” (but I won’t ever call you).

Probably not. He would simply assume she had
stood him up; he had already expressed little confidence in an
Internet date. The guard's footsteps receded.

I think in most trains that I use you would not hear his footsteps on account of the carpeting or because the floor just isn't made of a very "noisy" material.

"But I have to pick up my kid. Hey!" the blonde shouted at the guard.
"How long are we going to be stuck here?"

His footsteps approached. "We'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible, ma'am. We apologize for any inconvenience."

The blonde leaned toward Lisa. "What does that mean? Do you think
there's been a, you know, an attack?"

"Maybe," Lisa said. "It could be anything. They won't tell us. They
never do anymore.

Two words.

But this is the first time they said no
electronics."

“they’ve said” is natural. Try saying it out loud.

"Shit. My babysitter charges a dollar a minute if I come after six."

I really like how Paula has made us see these characters. There might have been a terrorist attack, or some other catastrophe, or whatever, but this girl’s mind turns to the financial implications (and not whether her child is safe and so on).

Lisa wondered how many passengers were on the train. Not many, she
figured. Next stop was the end of the line. Had there been an attack
nearby? Was an insidious cloud of gas

I don’t think gas can ever not be “insidious” in this sense.

And why does she wonder how many passengers are on the train? This doesn't seem to go anywhere.

on its way right now to choke
them, or worse? This would be a good time--she had totally fucked up
the third quarter reports. Lisa allowed herself a wry smile.

“allow yourself a wry smile” is a horrid cliché. Smiles should never be wry. Could you describe a wry smile? I couldn’t. I just know what the writer is expressing when they say that. I don’t even know that there actually is a face that corresponds to the description.

Tonight
wouldn't necessarily be a bad night to die.

Love it.


"And I don't even know what I'm going to do at Christmas," whined the
blonde. "She insists on taking two weeks off. Who does that? I can't
bring him to work with me. God."

Love this too.


Making a sympathetic noise

Not sure about this, although it does convey that she isn’t actually sympathetic.

, Lisa tried to figure out where the guard
was. She stood, crouching slightly so her head wouldn't be visible
over the seats.

She would look weird doing that, unless the seats were very high.

He was nowhere to be seen. She stood fully

“straightened up” gives the same idea a bit less awkwardly.

, grabbed
her purse, and stepped to the aisle.

“into the aisle”

As she walked to one end of the
car,

“the end of the car”. “The end” is obviously “one end” and is idiomatic.

she spied the guard's back in the next car

lose “car”.

I don't really like "spied" because it's a bit, erm, jolly, but I suppose it's okay.

, apparently talking to
seated passengers.

Just say “talking”. We understand that that’s what’s apparent to Lisa rather than necessarily the case, because we have Lisa’s POV.

Lisa abruptly turned and strode to the opposite
end.


“the other end of the carriage”.

Only the two women were in this car.


What two women? Do you mean Lisa and the blonde? I’d just cut this. Make it clear earlier in the piece that they are the only people in the car. "The blonde opposite, her only company in the car..." maybe.

Lisa pulled out her phone
and found Jim's number in the address book.

"They've blacked out the news and put on a dance marathon," he told
her. "I'm watching it at the bar."

"I'm thinking just to sneak out the door and get off," she whispered.
"I think we're near the mall.

I’m not sure why she thinks that.

I can walk over to Twelfth and get a
taxi."

Do you not say “take a cab” rather than “get a taxi”? I do and I’d find it odd to hear anything different because it’s the idiom.

I love though that he has more or less confirmed that something is going on (although not necessarily connected with her train) and she is still more worried about her date than anything else.

"That's crazy, Lisa. It's dark out. You can't walk across a field.
Don't worry about being late. We can skip the movie and-- "

"I'm not worried about our date," she hissed. "I just want to get the
hell off this train!"

Neatly expressing that they aren’t going to get along too well.


"I thought you were sensible."

LOL! It’s exactly what the dork would say, and you know she’s not going to like it.

Jim's voice held a note of reproach.

Yes, we know. The words reproached her. Avoid telling what you’ve just shown.

"In all these weeks we've chatted I never considered you a drama
queen. Just stay put and everything will be okay."

"How can you possibly know that?" Lisa ended the call before he could
answer.

I’ll bet she did. “Drama queen” is not what you call someone you want to have a nice date with.

Really, she didn't know why she had thought she liked him in
the first place.

The door opposite slid open and Lisa quickly tucked the phone in

“into”

her
coat pocket. She turned and pretended she had been gazing out the
window. Perhaps she should stay put. Be a good cooperative little
citizen.

You need more commas in there.

After all, she wasn't one of the Bad People, so there was
nothing to fear. Not from the guards anyway.

"You forgot your book."

Lisa turned to see the blonde holding her novel. "Thanks."

"What's it about? I never heard of it."

"A prison break, of sorts." Lisa smiled, taking the book.
"Metaphorically speaking. It's mostly about a divorce."

"Oh," the blonde said, nodding enthusiastically. "I'm divorced. What a
nightmare that was. But I got full custody and he has to pay, so it
all worked out."

"Great," Lisa murmured.

LOL. I can hear that! This exchange was so nicely observed that I smiled inside. This is exactly what a writer should do. You don’t need to make your characters do weird and wonderful things. You need to make them do what you have noticed people do.

The guard slipped through the door and strode toward their end of the
car.

Too much “striding” going on. Have him shuffle or creep or just walk, something that says what kind of guy he is, maybe. If he slouched, we’d form an idea. It’s just a case of using the word, making it work a bit.

"Please take a seat, folks. We'll be here a while longer." He had
taken off his shades and his eyes were dead coals.

Another cliché. Next time you see eyes that you think are like dead coals, think of another way to say it. Note it and use it when you’re tempted to go for “dead coals”.

Why don’t I like it? Eyes are all too often described as things that can be on fire, that smoulder, that burn, and so on. Avoid overworked metaphors and find fresh ones.

The women sat down next to the door.

Okay. I had to think a bit to work out that the blonde hadn’t just handed the book from her seat. So go back and say that she turned to see that the blonde had come over to hand her her book.

Lisa felt her phone slide out of
her pocket and heard it clunk on the floor.

"How much longer?" the blonde demanded. "What's happening?"

"We apologize for the inconvenience," the guard intoned methodically.

I don’t think you have to say “methodically” because if he “intones” it, I have the right impression.

"There's been a slight delay and we'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible. Excuse me, please." He punched in a code, shoved open the
rear door, and walked into the next car.

"What an asshole," the blonde said. "You'd think he could tell us something."

"They're not allowed." Lisa stuck her foot in the door the guard just
vacated, preventing it from closing completely.

He didn’t “vacate” the door, because “vacate” means “empty” and by extension “leave”. Just say “left through” instead. And you need to say “had just left through”. Prior actions require the past perfect.

"Still." The blonde pouted and turned to the window.

Lisa likewise stared at the black square. The trees were still out
there, somewhere.

No comma needed there.

Could she walk across a field in the dark, wearing
heels? The guard was gone from view now, swallowed up by the next car.
Rain began

“began to fall”. Or better “Rain began to plop solidly on…” You don’t need “down”. Rain doesn’t plop up.

, plopping solidly down on the train's roof like fat worms
splattering down from a dirty heaven.

You actually need to write “on the train’s roof, the drops like fat worms…” I know it seems neater to say that the rain is like fat worms but it doesn’t really work. You could say “in fat worms…” if you want a trimmer sentence. Metaphors do not demand “like” if they are clear enough. We know the rain is not really made of worms. Compare “her smile a red river in her face” with “her smile like a red river in her face”. The former is wonderfully trim but has nothing that is needed left out.

“Splattering”, by the way, is what raindrops do when they land, not how they fall. You cannot “splatter down”. Why not say “, spattering solidly on the train’s roof, fat worms plopped down from a dirty heaven”?

Note that I changed your “-ing” word to a “-ed” word. Why? Because you are not comparing the “plopping” thing with the “spattering” thing, but with a thing that has also plopped, having “spattered”.

"One, two, three…"

Perhaps I would have liked a slightly stronger resolution though. I think that in common with others, you went for short and sweet where more would have been a bit sweeter. I dunno though. I don’t feel as strongly about it here as I did with some others.


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


A Slight Delay

Something shifted and she glanced up from her book. The train had
stopped, though they were miles from the next station. The blonde
seated across stared ahead vacantly as she fiddled with a music pod in
her lap. A wire dangled down the side of her face. Lisa pulled her
phone from her purse to check the time and a guard was immediately by
her side.

"Please turn off your phones." He said it loudly--for everyone's
benefit, Lisa assumed. The blonde began to frown.

"Excuse me?" Lisa strained to look up at his face. He wore sunglasses
even though dusk had fallen and the windows made a weak patchwork of
lavender light. Trees swayed in the distance, shrugging their bare
arms against the chill. "Why can't I use my phone? We were delayed
last week and I--"

"We ask that all electronics be shut off temporarily." The guard
stepped back a few feet and Lisa couldn't see him without twisting in
her seat.

The blonde took out her earpiece and dropped it on her lap. "What's going on?"

"I have no idea." Lisa slid her phone back into its pocket without
shutting it off. It would ring silently anyway, if at all. Would Jim
call if she were late? Probably not. He would simply assume she had
stood him up; he had already expressed little confidence in an
Internet date. The guard's footsteps receded.

"But I have to pick up my kid. Hey!" the blonde shouted at the guard.
"How long are we going to be stuck here?"

His footsteps approached. "We'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible, ma'am. We apologize for any inconvenience."

The blonde leaned toward Lisa. "What does that mean? Do you think
there's been a, you know, an attack?"

"Maybe," Lisa said. "It could be anything. They won't tell us. They
never do anymore. But this is the first time they said no
electronics."

"Shit. My babysitter charges a dollar a minute if I come after six."

Lisa wondered how many passengers were on the train. Not many, she
figured. Next stop was the end of the line. Had there been an attack
nearby? Was an insidious cloud of gas on its way right now to choke
them, or worse? This would be a good time--she had totally fucked up
the third quarter reports. Lisa allowed herself a wry smile. Tonight
wouldn't necessarily be a bad night to die.

"And I don't even know what I'm going to do at Christmas," whined the
blonde. "She insists on taking two weeks off. Who does that? I can't
bring him to work with me. God."

Making a sympathetic noise, Lisa tried to figure out where the guard
was. She stood, crouching slightly so her head wouldn't be visible
over the seats. He was nowhere to be seen. She stood fully, grabbed
her purse, and stepped to the aisle. As she walked to one end of the
car, she spied the guard's back in the next car, apparently talking to
seated passengers. Lisa abruptly turned and strode to the opposite
end. Only the two women were in this car. Lisa pulled out her phone
and found Jim's number in the address book.

"They've blacked out the news and put on a dance marathon," he told
her. "I'm watching it at the bar."

"I'm thinking just to sneak out the door and get off," she whispered.
"I think we're near the mall. I can walk over to Twelfth and get a
taxi."

"That's crazy, Lisa. It's dark out. You can't walk across a field.
Don't worry about being late. We can skip the movie and-- "

"I'm not worried about our date," she hissed. "I just want to get the
hell off this train!"

"I thought you were sensible." Jim's voice held a note of reproach.
"In all these weeks we've chatted I never considered you a drama
queen. Just stay put and everything will be okay."

"How can you possibly know that?" Lisa ended the call before he could
answer. Really, she didn't know why she had thought she liked him in
the first place.

The door opposite slid open and Lisa quickly tucked the phone in her
coat pocket. She turned and pretended she had been gazing out the
window. Perhaps she should stay put. Be a good cooperative little
citizen. After all, she wasn't one of the Bad People, so there was
nothing to fear. Not from the guards anyway.

"You forgot your book."

Lisa turned to see the blonde holding her novel. "Thanks."

"What's it about? I never heard of it."

"A prison break, of sorts." Lisa smiled, taking the book.
"Metaphorically speaking. It's mostly about a divorce."

"Oh," the blonde said, nodding enthusiastically. "I'm divorced. What a
nightmare that was. But I got full custody and he has to pay, so it
all worked out."

"Great," Lisa murmured.

The guard slipped through the door and strode toward their end of the
car. "Please take a seat, folks. We'll be here a while longer." He had
taken off his shades and his eyes were dead coals.

The women sat down next to the door. Lisa felt her phone slide out of
her pocket and heard it clunk on the floor.

"How much longer?" the blonde demanded. "What's happening?"

"We apologize for the inconvenience," the guard intoned methodically.
"There's been a slight delay and we'll be back on schedule as soon as
possible. Excuse me, please." He punched in a code, shoved open the
rear door, and walked into the next car.

"What an asshole," the blonde said. "You'd think he could tell us something."

"They're not allowed." Lisa stuck her foot in the door the guard just
vacated, preventing it from closing completely.

"Still." The blonde pouted and turned to the window.

Lisa likewise stared at the black square. The trees were still out
there, somewhere. Could she walk across a field in the dark, wearing
heels? The guard was gone from view now, swallowed up by the next car.
Rain began, plopping solidly down on the train's roof like fat worms
splattering down from a dirty heaven.

"One, two, three…"

Paula Light 2006

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