Two new submissions yesterday. Here’s my take on them.
“Excuse me; did your friend just go into the bathroom?”
“Yes,” he just stepped in,” Madeline said glancing at the man while fidgeting with the cup on the table. Her coffee was getting cold, so was her sandwich steak, and Bill had already been in the bathroom for fifteen minutes but it was none of some disheveled strangers business how long Bill had been pissing.
They turned their heads in the direction of a waitress who was fast approaching. The paneled walls of the old diner seemed to sag even more that evening. Headlights of a car parking flashed across the windows lighting up the silver cabinets and pots on the wall behind the counter for just an instant.
I’m not fond of opening a story with unattributed dialogue, but it can be effective at creating a sense of in media res. The tradeoff is that the technique leaves me hanging in limbo for that initial heartbeat, which is possibly the most important heartbeat of a story. Is the cost justified by the payoff? I don’t think it particularly helps this story, which suffers somewhat from a lack of clear motivation and character development. There are some nice physical details in the second, and especially the third, paragraphs. These help the scene to take on dimensionality. I wish these paragraphs were doing a bit more work, however. They don’t deepen Madeline in any significant way. The mystery of Bill is set up, which is an inciting incident, so that’s good, and I am interested in finding out what happened to him.
The dialogue typo in the second sentence does not endear me to the story, as it feels sloppy, as does the manner of description in which we see details only after being told about something. For example, Madeline glances at “the man” and we only learn later that he’s disheveled. That does not feel true to her experience. Same with glancing in the direction of a waitress who was fast approaching. This focuses on reaction first and stimulus second, which is an unnatural sequence that distances me from character. There’s a nice article on this topic here.
These are small points to be sure, but they make me suspicious rather than embracing of the story that follows. I did decline the story in the end, not because it’s bad–the core concept is strong–but because it spends too many words on surface matters and ends up reading long as a result. The connection to Parch is not played up as it could be, either.
Four sweating and scowling men rode up to the Arapaho Miracle Cure Wagon. As the Oklahoma dust settled around the horses feet, Professor Cornelius wondered if he should have put a few more miles between himself and Farmdale before stopping for the night. Over the years he had learned to leave a town before people had a chance to examine their snake oil purchase and experience buyer’s remorse, but his product wasn’t expensive and no one had ever came after him.
“That’s the fella, I heerd it rained in the last two towns he was in.” Stated one of the men as he tugged on his blue neck kerchief.
“If he can make rain, he ain’t leavin’ until he does it here.” Replied the lead man wearing a hat the same shade of brown as the dust covering it.
The first thing that struck me about this opening was the sloppy editing: horses rather than horses’, improper dialogue punctuation, wrong tense for past perfect of to come. These issues make me very suspicious of a story.
The second thing that struck me was the energy of the opening, the clean way it gets me into the relevant action and builds details of scene and dialogue while also advancing plot or character. This is what makes a story ring for me. The little stuff can be ironed out in revision, right?
True, but I will say that a manuscript filled with small mistakes tends to harsh my buzz over time. This story actually worked pretty well for me, and it ends nicely. There are some serious problems with the setup, however, and a couple of logical problems with plot developments (at least from my perspective). Consequently, I declined this version, but suggested some changes that could work out these issue in rewrite. I also sent the author a link to proper dialogue punctuation. There’s really no excuse for a writer not mastering that element of the craft. Some of the more subtle aspects of dialogue can be difficult, but it’s not all that hard to punctuate the basic stuff properly.
Feel free to chime in with things I missed here, or points with which you disagree. This is blog meant to be of use to all of us aspiring wordsmiths.