Thursday, January 25, 2007

Workshop: Untitled

I don’t know much about efflux, except that he’s an intelligent sometimes commenter on my blog, so I was able to approach his work fresh, without preconceptions. Alongside his entry, he sent me a couple of other pieces of work, which were interesting (but I won’t go into them here).

I thought efflux made a brave stab at the assignment, for which I thank him for trying, and I commend him for achieving a nice mood piece. It had its failings – mainly technical faults that are easily remedied but importantly I felt that he missed the opportunity to create a good character. I could really feel the edginess and tension (and it hit home because I’ve been standing in these shoes so many times!) but I didn’t know the character. It would make a difficult tradeoff not to lard the piece with too much “interior monologue” (particularly given the constraint of not referring to the past over much) but a bit more flavour would have been good here.

Two major technical points, which efflux must remedy, and others should note. First, it’s essential to keep a tight grip on tense. If in doubt, use the simple past throughout. You’ll rarely be wrong. Mixing past and present will nearly always be wrong, as it was on every occasion here. Second, one should prefer “more xly” to “xer” when one is using a comparative adverb. For instance, “hotter” means “more hot”, not “more hotly”, so that “The sun shined hotter” is a solecism. We say it, that’s true, but we should avoid writing it. I’ll note the instances in the text and give the correct version.

The crowd behind him surged forward

Can a crowd surge any other way but forwards? Can it surge backwards or sideways? I think the word “surge” includes the idea of “forwards” (or “upwards”) and can be written without it. YMMV.

as the 233 Express pulled into the station. To stopping before such a mob, brakes shrieked in objection.

Oh dear. It is already a sin to write your sentences the wrong way round, as I’ve noted before, but the sense of this sentence is lost because “to” is so far separated from the “objection” it should accompany. Placing an element out of position in a sentence emphasises it. It’s called topicalisation, and it’s an important device in English. There is a difference in emphasis, for instance between “I like ice-cream” and “Ice-cream, I like”. But there is no good reason for topicalising what is objected to here, bar a desire to get fancy, and that is never really good reason for anything in writing. Even were the sentence fixed though, the problem would remain that it doesn’t make much sense for the brakes to object to stopping just because there is a mob. I don’t understand the idea.

I also have an unreasoning hatred of “such”, probably born out of its overuse in the things I edit, which tend to be jargon-heavy. “Such a” often means “this” or even “the”. Always check to see whether you could use one of those for preference.

The crowd was hot and tired and absolutely unwilling to wait--they would rush the train before it stopped.

It’s okay to use the plural with “crowd” if you are considering it as a bunch of individuals, but it is absolutely not okay to use it with the singular and plural both in the same sentence. If the crowd was unwilling to wait, it would rush the train.

I also think “the moment it stopped” would work better. The crowd might surge but it won’t rush the train while it’s still moving. It might feel as though it will. Perhaps it would be better to phrase it that way.

He panicked. He edged his toes up to the yellow caution line stretching the length of the platform

Just say “the yellow line”. We all know that it stretches the length of the platform. Don’t overdescribe.

in anticipation of boarding. He was directly pushed absolutely over the boundary. He didn’t bother to try planting himself firmly in position--to push against a crowd was useless, the only outcome was

would be. “was” means that he actually did spill over the edge, but you mean he would if he did push back.

his spilling over the edge and onto the tracks. Instead, he eased himself over to a looser pocket at his left, still at the front of the crowd, without so much forward pressure. He looked left and right. Behind. It didn’t look as if

I prefer “as though” here. Use “as if” generally for impossibilities and “as though” for this kind of comparison.

he would be pulled backwards


If you use “surge forward”, you should use “pulled backward”. I assume you’re American, so you should prefer no “s” on these words.
--those nearby seemed now more interested in the train than him.

“than in him”. “than him” is colloquial for “than he was”, and is slightly ambiguous. Repeating the preposition removes the ambiguity entirely.

He figured his position safe.

It may be that I don’t like “figured” because I’m English, but I prefer “reckoned” in this kind of construction. “Figured” has the connotation “worked out” for me, and couldn’t be used for the sort of ready guess we are meaning here.

This was a commuter line at the start of a long holiday weekend, but it is

Was. There’s no reason to change tense here. The only time you would use a construction like this would be the case in which you are writing in the present tense and look back. I understand why you were tempted to do it: you feel that the thing you are describing is timeless. You are right but you use the main tense to express this. In an ordinary piece of fiction, that’s the simple past.

like this every day. Just today, in a small degree, he felt it keener.

“more keenly”. “keener” is a solecism here. You would write “he felt keener” if you meant he was more enthusiastic, but you mean that he felt it more sharply. Here’s a test to help you work out which form to use. Does the word in question describe the subject of the sentence or the action the subject does?

He felt keener. “Keener” describes him. He is more enthusiastic. It does not describe the manner of his feeling, or anything like that.
He felt more keenly. “more keenly” describes the action he does.

He was safe because the crowd was too busy guessing the exact moment the train would stop. To this, he also now turned his attention. He hoped futilely--if still all-the-more desperately, as if sheer eagerness might make it likely--that he would not end up caught yet again alongside the car, with either entrance stopped far to the side.

“futilely” does not seem right here. “Futile” basically means “without result” (in a concrete sense) but hoping rarely has a result in any case. I think you may have wanted “forlornly”.

Which leads me to one of my favourite etymologies. A “forlorn hope” is of course a pointless, sad hope. “Forlorn” means “sad, abandoned” in English. But a “forlorn hope” is derived from the Dutch for a small advance guard that is sent forwards before the main body of the army: “the lost troop” (because in the days of musketry, the first guys forward generally were mown down; those following were able to close with cold steel before the enemy could reload).

I don’t see any reason to hyphenate “all the more”. Hyphens are the devil’s business. Eschew them where possible and the angels will love you for it. Again, prefer “as though” because you are not expressing an impossibility.

As a matter of fact, a person who is used to catching the same train night after night will well know whether he will be next to a door when the train stops. They always stop in the same place after all.

If this were to happen,

“was to happen”. This is a clear conditional, not a counterfactual, and demands “was”.

his being at the front of the crowd wouldn’t matter.

I can forgive nearly every sin for a correctly possessed gerund. Top marks!

He wouldn’t have any luck squeezing along the car with the idea that he could come at the door sideways, wedging himself in front of whoever was about to enter. Yes, some people manage do to this.

Whoops! First, write “managed”. Again, even if you want to give the idea of habitual managing, you should use the past tense. Obviously, you have your to and do mixed up.


He knew this. He saw them, too.

No comma. You would not write "he saw them, quickly".

But he never had quite managed--he found his manners prevented him.

You could use a semicolon in place of that dash.

Not entirely, of course. He would move. Forward even. It’s just the distance was always the smallest bit further than he could reach.

First, use “it was”. Again, this should not be a present tense.

Many pedants would like “farther” here. Indulge them. Use “farther” when you are talking unambiguously about real distance; “further” when you are talking about metaphorical distance.

A door stopped in front of him.

“The train had stopped, a door in front of him.”
“The train stopped with a door in front of him.”
“The train stopped and a door was in front of him.”
The key idea is that the train stops, not the door.

A passenger stepped off the train and was lost to the crowd.

In the crowd. To be lost to someone or something means that they have or it has lost you, not that it has swallowed you up.

An elbow jabbed him--a flabby body squeezed by.

Prefer semicolons to dashes if you will not write two sentences here.

He boarded second

Who cares?


, and was pushed deep, deep into the interior of the car. They all pushed and pushed further still.

“still further” is both euphonous and more common. Again you might prefer "farther" anyway.

The seats were full when the train had arrived.

I don’t like this. The pluperfect seems a bit clumsy. Just write “The seats were all taken”.

There would be more than four times as many riding out.

Erm. Where the hell are you getting the train from? I’ve boarded the train at some busy stations, and maybe the crowd has doubled, but four times as many? Only when it was fairly sparsely populated to start with. Too much exaggeration in my view.

A few windows not yet flung open were opened. It heated up the thicker it crowded

First, do not write “thicker”. This should be “more thickly”. And “it” didn’t “crowd”. “it was crowded” is correct.

, all the same. Increasing pressure at a constant volume. Or some other such law.

All one sentence. Maybe consider a verb.

All he knew is

Was. Consider this. You meet Marcel. You know when you meet him he is French. He’s still French today, that won’t change. But what you write is “I knew when I met Marcel that he was French”.

it was damn hot.

Use “damned” in writing.

And crowded. He could not reach the handholds. When the train lurched forward, he found he didn’t need to. The crowd held him upright.
He thought it wasn’t too bad. There were those who were worse.

“worse off”

There were those, he thought, who were among the last on the train

“onto the train”. The last on the train is the last to get off, which is the wrong idea here.

, those who had to step off every stop to let through others who wanted out. It is better not to be one of those. It is better to be swallowed here, in the belly, as it were, than one of those. He pondered what they would be, if he were in the belly. They are they regurgitated.

Be careful to read your work back. If you often leave typos, get into the habit of reading it aloud.

The continually regurgitated. The never quite absorbed. The rancid, half-digested.

I quite liked these ideas.

He decided they were the most disgusting. Yet, he would prefer to be among them, than one needing to ask to be let out.

This sentence requires no commas at all.

He shook all this from his head and panted at the air in exhaustion.

You don’t “pant at the air”. You might “pant at a scantily clad woman”, but air is what you pant, not something you pant at. “He shook all this from his head, panting with exhaustion” is a natural way to express this.

What was the very worst

Just write “worst”. The very worst is the worst. There's none more worst than the worst.

about such crowding, even worse than the not breathing, is

was.

that he had no idea where to put his hands. No matter where he put them, he found they were on someone.
Slowly, he became aware of a buzzing in his ear. Slower still

More slowly still.

, he recognized it was speech.

“he recognized it as speech” would have been better. Or “he recognized that it was speech”. Be careful about eliding “that”, because the sentence you end up with may not be entirely readable. Err on the side of including it if you’re not sure.

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.

Untitled
The crowd behind him surged forward as the 233 Express pulled into the station. To stopping before such a mob, brakes shrieked in objection. The crowd was hot and tired and absolutely unwilling to wait--they would rush the train before it stopped. He panicked. He edged his toes up to the yellow caution line stretching the length of the platform in anticipation of boarding. He was directly pushed absolutely over the boundary. He didn’t bother to try planting himself firmly in position--to push against a crowd was useless, the only outcome was his spilling over the edge and onto the tracks. Instead, he eased himself over to a looser pocket at his left, still at the front of the crowd, without so much forward pressure. He looked left and right. Behind. It didn’t look as if he would be pulled backwards--those nearby seemed now more interested in the train than him. He figured his position safe.
This was a commuter line at the start of a long holiday weekend, but it is like this every day. Just today, in a small degree, he felt it keener.
He was safe because the crowd was too busy guessing the exact moment the train would stop. To this, he also now turned his attention. He hoped futilely--if still all-the-more desperately, as if sheer eagerness might make it likely--that he would not end up caught yet again alongside the car, with either entrance stopped far to the side. If this were to happen, his being at the front of the crowd wouldn’t matter. He wouldn’t have any luck squeezing along the car with the idea that he could come at the door sideways, wedging himself in front of whoever was about to enter. Yes, some people manage do to this. He knew this. He saw them, too. But he never had quite managed--he found his manners prevented him. Not entirely, of course. He would move. Forward even. It’s just the distance was always the smallest bit further than he could reach.
A door stopped in front of him. A passenger stepped off the train and was lost to the crowd. An elbow jabbed him--a flabby body squeezed by. He boarded second, and was pushed deep, deep into the interior of the car. They all pushed and pushed further still. The seats were full when the train had arrived. There would be more than four times as many riding out. A few windows not yet flung open were opened. It heated up the thicker it crowded, all the same. Increasing pressure at a constant volume. Or some other such law. All he knew is it was damn hot. And crowded. He could not reach the handholds. When the train lurched forward, he found he didn’t need to. The crowd held him upright.
He thought it wasn’t too bad. There were those who were worse. There were those, he thought, who were among the last on the train, those who had to step off every stop to let through others who wanted out. It is better not to be one of those. It is better to be swallowed here, in the belly, as it were, than one of those. He pondered what they would be, if he were in the belly. They are they regurgitated. The continually regurgitated. The never quite absorbed. The rancid, half-digested. He decided they were the most disgusting. Yet, he would prefer to be among them, than one needing to ask to be let out. He shook all this from his head and panted at the air in exhaustion. What was the very worst about such crowding, even worse than the not breathing, is that he had no idea where to put his hands. No matter where he put them, he found they were on someone.
Slowly, he became aware of a buzzing in his ear. Slower still, he recognized it was speech.

efflux 2006

3 Comments:

Anonymous Alan Hope said...

"Which leads me to one of my favourite etymologies. A “forlorn hope” is of course a pointless, sad hope. “Forlorn” means “sad, abandoned” in English. But a “forlorn hope” is derived from the Dutch for a small advance guard that is sent forwards before the main body of the army: “the lost troop” (because in the days of musketry, the first guys forward generally were mown down; those following were able to close with cold steel before the enemy could reload)."

I take it we have "verloren" = lost and then hoop = hope, although it also means "pile" while has a macabre ring of truth given your explanation.

January 26, 2007 at 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Dr Zen said...

Yes, "forlorn hope" is from "verloren hoop", by folk etymology (IOW, the English word "forlorn", which doesn't mean the same as "verloren" was used for it). Apparently "hoop" can also mean "troop" in this sense.

January 26, 2007 at 9:47 AM  
Anonymous efflux said...

Thank you so much, Dr. Zen, for lending your sharp eye. You've touched on several issues that I have had questions about, but never had been able to resolve what was needed. There's a lot for me to digest here and I am sure I will revisit your critique often.

I'm not quite experiencing the same despair with my writing as a whole that I did that made me leave the story unfinished. I honestly, was quite disgusted with the way I was futzing around with the crowd, his trying to get on the train, etc., to where all I could think was, "Who the fuck cares?" Enough so to overlook all the other details that were probably more damaging.

At any rate, I was trying to create what turned out to be a overly complicated reflection of the character's social interaction that just... I don't know, is trivial? Maybe had I continued so that we see the character interact more directly (which was about to be forced upon him), it would have helped, but it still seems like too much to ask a reader to get through.

One thing that I found incredibly difficult was that I was drawn to place this in Russia where I just spent a bit over a year, but I was afraid that I could not accurately represent it (and so, tried to move it to something more "familiar"). This led to a bit of awkwardness, I think, with the detail of the insane crowding one experience on mass transit there.

There are a lot of mistakes in my writing. I hope to be able to get past them.

January 27, 2007 at 11:50 AM  

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