Thursday, October 4, 2007

Workshop: the window

I rate Father Luke highly, as regular readers of this blog will know. He's an observational writer, rather like Bukowski, although I think his work is deeper and more serious than Bukowski's. He's neat and efficient at his best.

I don't think "The window" is his best, and I'll try to discuss why.

She watched dust specks playing with the light
coming in around the panel between her and the window.


When you've read to the end, this will make sense, but I found it difficult first time around to visualise. I do like the conceit of dust specks playing with light though, although it's nothing like new.

In general, I prefer Luke's writing when he avoids adornment. When he tries, I think he falls down.

Floating.

She took a deep breath, and she let it out.



You would have to render this "She breathed in deeply, then let the breath out" or similar, because taking a deep breath involves letting it out.

But you understand what he meant, you could cavil. Yes, I did. But although writing is primarily about conveying a message, writing fiction is an art. You don't just focus on communicating, as you might with an email or a handbill, say, you also concern yourself with how you create the message. Above all, in my view, writing is improved by pulling in the slack. Bad writers write too much. They allow their writing to sag with redundancy.

Can more florid writing not be good? Yes, it can, but you should bear in mind that florid does not necessarily mean wasteful! You can create ornate, beautiful writing that still does not waste a word.

In writing as taut as Luke's, this small sin becomes a huge one. He cannot write the least bit loosely, because the angularity of his prose is wrecked by it.

The bare skin on her
shoulders rose and fell with her breath.


This sentence, I'm sorry to say, needs to be taken out and shot. First of all, your skin is not on your shoulders. It composes your shoulders. We do not think about shoulders as being the bones and muscle, and the skin as overlaying it. Rather, we think of the whole as an ensemble. So the "skin of her shoulders" is correct. Second, and much more importantly, the skin does not rise and fall, the whole shoulder does. Luke can say that (although I'd struggle to read any meaning into that, except that he is letting us know that the shoulders are bare), but he must then say something else about the skin. He could talk about the cold here, I suppose.

But if he does, he is passing up an opportunity to say something about the woman. Luke, notice something about her shoulder. When the panel rises, what would you notice about her shoulders, if you could see them? Would you see a mole? A tattoo? A scar? Completely unblemished skin? You can say something about the woman by what you allow to be seen. Here, you've allowed nothing. Your woman is entirely a cypher. That's a mistake, because you allow us no way to care for her, and I think that's essential to your story.

She smelled the dust, and
something sweet, like candy, and also sex.


Hm. I don't like "something sweet, like candy" because it is the most obvious sweet thing you could have come up with, and besides, does not have a readily identifiable smell. Had you said "She smelled the dust, and honey, and also..." that might have worked. "Licorice" would have been excellent, because it is evocative.

Don't just say "sex" either. It's a cliche that it has a particular smell, so twist it by saying "quick sex" or "angry sex" or "sex in a stolen moment" or whatever, so that the reader is asking "how does that smell then?" and has to do some work. You don't want to overdo that sort of thing -- making the reader work too much is a mistake and being overclever is annoying too -- but you have to aim for evocative.

She was sitting in the small, dark room on the floor with her legs
tucked under her, and to the left. Her bare right arm rested at the
elbow on a red pattern vinyl, and chromed metal chair.

She looked at her toes, and she wiggled them once to have something to do.


I'd make her convinced bits of dust had fallen on her arm, and have her brush them off. The implication is clear for the reader, and some will look back and see that you cleverly hinted at the resolution.

Her nipples caught the cold in the room, and they stood erect in the
darkness. She closed her eyes, and tilted her head back. Her black
hair shifted across her bare shoulders.


The cold catches the nipples, not the other way round. Because it is dark, and the nipples can't be seen, you should describe what she feels, not what there would be to see if you turned the light on.

Don't mention that her shoulders are bare again. We already know that.

There was a little tray by the window. A piece of paper money slid
into the tray.


I'd have mentioned the tray earlier.

How can she see the money, by the way?

She stood up, exposing her nakedness to the panel. And the panel slid
up, exposing the window. The light disappeared the floating dust.


The light made the dust disappear. "Disappear" is not generally a transitive verb.

She smiled.

You have five minutes, she said.


So it's a nice enough twist, if you go in for that kind of thing, so what's not to like?

Well, besides the lapses in English that I've pointed out, there is a lack of tone. In some stories, this serves Luke well, but in those stories, he is himself the protagonist. Those stories say, look at what the world is doing to me. And in them, he allows the narrator to feel. We know how the world is striking him because he has tone, he is engaged. Here, the woman is entirely a cypher. She has no feeling about what is happening, except to be bored, and she consists of nothing. I felt very "yeah whatever" about the whole thing. The lack of engagement left the story flat.

How could you fix that? In various ways. You might use a play of symbols to achieve some dynamics in the story. There's a famous parallel set of symbols in Madame Bovary. On the up, she sees, I think, butterflies in a field, white and beautiful; on the down, she burns letters and their ashes make black butterflies.

This is why I suggest the dust falling on her. It speaks about her situation. I'll leave it to you to work out what it says. It also allows the writer to resolve the story with another related symbol. The panel shifts and blows away the dust. Ta-da!

Another way would be to engage us more directly by reflecting the woman's mood, or giving her more "life". She could think about something briefly, wonder something, have something with her that we can read as symbolic of something. We could say more about her hair: badly cut, damp, greying, whatever. We could say that her skin has tiny bruises from the chair; her eyes are moist; her bad tooth is bothering her. I suppose my problem is that this is an observational piece but Luke hasn't observed anything. Allowing himself to see just a little more would enrich this story.

B-b-but you said you liked him better without adornment, I hear you cry. Yes, I do, but spot the difference here: seeing more and writing it neatly, and seeing the same and overwriting it. I'm asking for more substance, not more writing of the same substance.

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 his name.


the window

She watched dust specks playing with the light
coming in around the panel between her and the window.

Floating.

She took a deep breath, and she let it out. The bare skin on her
shoulders rose and fell with her breath. She smelled the dust, and
something sweet, like candy, and also sex.

She was sitting in the small, dark room on the floor with her legs
tucked under her, and to the left. Her bare right arm rested at the
elbow on a red pattern vinyl, and chromed metal chair.

She looked at her toes, and she wiggled them once to have something to do.

Her nipples caught the cold in the room, and they stood erect in the
darkness. She closed her eyes, and tilted her head back. Her black
hair shifted across her bare shoulders.

There was a little tray by the window. A piece of paper money slid
into the tray.

She stood up, exposing her nakedness to the panel. And the panel slid
up, exposing the window. The light disappeared the floating dust.

She smiled.

You have five minutes, she said.

Father Luke 2007

3 Comments:

Anonymous Father Luke said...

When I want honesty I come hoe to
you, Dude. Thanks for taking the time
to read this.

I like your suggestions, because you
peeked around the walls I was hiding
behind to ask me if I wouldn't rather
come out and present my best stuff?

I would. I'd like to rewrite this
with a fresh take on it, and re-submit it.

Gimm'e a bit?

Thanks again,
Dr Zen.

- -
Okay,
Father Luke

October 4, 2007 at 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Father Luke said...

home.

I come home to you.

Sheesh. I'm so funny when I spell with a keyboard balanced on my knees.

Haw ha, etc.

- -
okay,
Father Luke

October 4, 2007 at 10:35 AM  
Anonymous Father Luke said...

Re-write sent.

Thank you again, Sir, for a
challenging assignment, and a keen
critique.

- -
Okay,
Father Luke

October 4, 2007 at 12:08 PM  

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