The Crash (“We’ll have to crash,” the co-pilot said. “It’s our only hope.”)

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This is a kind of demo post – I submitted the opening of a story to the Writer’s Path website here: http://ryanlanz.com/2015/01/29/under-the-microscope-the-crash/

So, Ryan offered some really useful points and below I have posted the original, the version with Ryan’s critique and the re-write.

Having someone critique your work is SO useful!! If you are interested in a critique of one of your story openings, then consider submitting to the Writer’s Path.

For a long time I worked with Nike Sulway and Inga Simpson at Olvar Wood  – check them out too: http://www.olvarwood.com.au/

Critters is also really good…lots of work though.

Anyway, Ryan saw the story as a railroad story because I didn’t tell him it was a space story. Hence the picture of a train…He also, very sensibly, changed the title to “The Crash”. My title is: “We’ll have to crash,” the co-pilot said, “it’s our only hope.”  Which may be more evocative but is harder to fit on the front cover of any reasonably -sized book…

Under the Microscope: The Crash

Under the Microscope is the type of post where we dive into the first section of a story to dig out the nuts and bolts. The idea is to provide a learning experience based on the critiques and compliments for both the writer submitting the piece, as well as the reader.

I once read a study that evaluated how long the average book shopper reads a book before putting it down and considering another. This particular study said it’s less than 250 words, and a large portion of people only read the jackets. So, even if you have a riveting second chapter, there are many readers who will never get to it. The first 250-350 words are crucial, which is why this series focuses on it.

This is not meant to be taken as a traditional critique, and all comments are based on my personal opinion. The flavor of the critique is mainly through the lens of commercial/genre fiction. If you’d like to submit a story for a future episode, head to the UtM submission page.

You can find last week’s episode here.

 

Carla asks:

  • The style is deliberately sparse–I’m trying to capture the very simple approach to life that the Knurr have. Does that work, or is it just annoying? Would more description help?
  • I’m using the story to contrast two civilizations–ways of being that are in fact both high-tech (the Knurr high-tech is revealed later) but choose to live differently. All of them are descendents from the original crash survivors–so in this section, I want the reader to see the Knurr as they are perceived: odd and primitive. Are the two groups differentiated enough? Do they have different voices and speech rhythms? What else could I do to emphasize that without belittling the Knurr?
  • As an opening, is there enough of a hook? Would people want to keep reading?

Genre: Science Fiction

 

The Crash (original text):
From the vantage point of a slight hillock on the endless plain, the Knurr watched with interest as the dot on the horizon slowly resolved into two heavily laden strangers.

“I,” announced the stockier of the two, “am the Engineer McKos, of the Arcadia Rural Mechanical Passenger Transport Executive.”  Mindful of their obligation of hospitality towards the Living God in all creatures, the Knurr welcomed the Engineer McKos and his silent companion.

The strangers had no tent, sleeping outside in brightly colored skins and refusing all offers of shelter.  During the day, they trekked every which way across the endless plain, scaring the caribou and confusing the predatory dingoes with their repetitive ritual involving a chant of numbers and the hammering of white sticks into the ground.  After a full moonspan, they left, promising to return again soon.  The caribou settled.  The dingo hunted. The Knurr had no desire to see the pair again but respectfully left their little white sticks in the ground.

The children saw them first.

“The Engineer McKos is there.”  A flat statement along a pointing arm.  This time the engineer approached much more slowly and had many others with him.  As they moved forward, they left behind them a single line of smooth metal.  Curiosity finally got the better of the Knurr.

“What is it?”  they asked.

“It’s a railroad!”  announced McKos proudly.  “Your lives are changed!”  The Knurr showed polite interest and waited.

“Here!”  He showed them on a map.  The metal seemed to be a pathway for people to follow on a long journey from a place called Ark to another place called Walden.  The way McKos described it, there were people who wanted to continually rush between the two places.  The Knurr understood the desire to travel, to roam. Who better?

Still, it was hard to understand why someone would pitch a tent in Ark and leave it there while they travelled to Walden and back, a journey of many days walk.  Then the Engineer McKos told them people would do this every day.  The Knurr laughed politely.  McKos insisted.  The Knurr laughed uproariously.

 

The Crash (my thoughts in blue – actually in italics because blue doesn’t copy across and i dont’ know how to do that here…):
[From the vantage point of a slight [hillock I’m not necessarily advocating a change, but there are people who won’t know what this is.] on the endless plain, the Knurr watched with interest as the dot on the horizon slowly resolved into two heavily laden strangers. I’m usually partial to shorter, snappier first lines, but after reading this a few times, I like it. It’s clear in this first line that the Knurr are very curious about this arrival. It’s my opinion that a first line should do more than one thing at once.]

[“I,” announced the stockier of the two, “am the Engineer McKos, of the Arcadia Rural Mechanical Passenger Transport Executive.”  Before this, I would have liked to hear more about the curiosity of the Knurr, perhaps some murmuring between some of them to establish a character to latch onto, especially since the viewpoint is mainly from the Knurr right now.] [Mindful of their obligation of hospitality towards the Living God in all creatures, the Knurr welcomed the Engineer McKos and his silent companion. This sentence launches into a summary, which disappointed me, as I would have enjoyed hearing this exchange in “real time.” The Living God could easily be mentioned in the dialogue itself, if that concerns you.]

[The strangers had no tent, sleeping outside in brightly colored skins and refusing all offers of shelter.  During the day, they trekked every which way across the endless plain, scaring the caribou and confusing the predatory dingoes with their repetitive ritual involving a chant of numbers and the hammering of white sticks into the ground I recommend to reduce the participle phrases in this segment, as there are quite a few. A small thing, but I would have the confusion be on the Knurr people, rather than the dingoes. Also, it struck me that caribou are cold climate animals, and dingoes are warm climate animals (that is, unless in your fantastical world, the name “dingo” is given to heavy-coated animal, etc.). You might want to consider changing one of the two species.].  [After a full moonspan, they left, promising to return again soon.  The caribou settled.  The dingo hunted. The Knurr had no desire to see the pair again but respectfully left their little white sticks in the ground. This all skims over a lot of what I wanted to hear. What are the Knurr’s reactions to the strangers? Were some open-minded and yet others hostile? What did they guess the strangers were there for? By doing a summary, I think you leave a lot on the table, so to speak. I do like the visualization of the white sticks, though–definitely keep that.]

[The children saw them first. I like the short flavor of this sentence.]

“The Engineer McKos is there.”  A flat statement along a pointing arm.  This time the engineer approached much more slowly and had many others with him.  [As they moved forward, they left behind them a single line of smooth metal I could be wrong on this, but wouldn’t the surveying process involve more than one trip before laying down track? More trips could be fun to write, as you could layer in the conflict with each successive visit.].  Curiosity finally got the better of [the Knurr I recommend focusing on a named person for this to give the reader someone to focus on.].

“What is it?”  they asked.

[“It’s a railroad!”  Interesting.] announced McKos proudly.  “Your lives are changed!”  [The Knurr showed polite interest and waited. They all waited politely? Wouldn’t there be “that one guy” who is irate at the encroachment of their land? Maybe you’re waiting to display this later, but I find it odd that everyone has the same reaction.]

“Here!”  He showed them on a map.  The metal seemed to be a pathway for people to follow on a long journey from a place called Ark to another place called Walden.  [The way McKos described it, there were people who wanted to continually rush between the two places. I like how you phrased this. Just in the phrasing, it shows how foreign this is to them.]  The Knurr understood the desire to travel, to roam. Who better?

Still, it was hard to understand why someone would pitch a tent in Ark and leave it there while they travelled to [Walden and back, a journey of many days walk I know this is intended as an omniscient viewpoint (per the author), but the two cities sounded so foreign in the last paragraph and so familiar in this one. I would do one or the other.].  Then [the Even just having “the” in there adds more of that nice perspective.] Engineer McKos told them people would do this every day.  [The Knurr laughed politely This poignant reaction is my favorite part of this piece.].  McKos insisted.  The Knurr laughed uproariously.

 

The style is deliberately sparse–I’m trying to capture the very simple approach to life that the Knurr have. Does that work, or is it just annoying? Would more description help?
Yes and no. This is very subjective, but for me, it wasn’t the lack of detailes that bothered me as much as the summarization. Both scenes of the engineer coming the first and second time sound pretty monumental to me, and my mind flew to other conflicts and angles you could have used. Essentially, what you wrote in 350 words, I would likely write in two or three chapters (with some other aspects added).  The best I can guess, a particular paragraph and a half spanned months of time.

You might be thinking that what you have next is so dramatic and important that there’s less need to delve into this scene more, but it feels like opportunity lost.

I get what you’re trying to do with the simplicity, and in places, it really works for me. Such as the polite laughter and the shock of leaving one’s tent to travel many days. That’s fantastic. I still think you can keep the simplistic style and not summarize so much. Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to change your writing style to give a unique view; it can also be accomplished by simply what the characters notice, focus on, and what they say. (See more on that in this post.)

But to answer your question more directly, I could use more detail, yes, especially since you have a good knack for viewing these “strange” people through their eyes. I suppose since I enjoyed that aspect, I simply wanted more, which is a good thing. : )

 

I’m using the story to contrast two civilizations–ways of being that are in fact both high-tech (the Knurr high-tech is revealed later) but choose to live differently. All of them are descendents from the original crash survivors–so in this section, I want the reader to see the Knurr as they are perceived: odd and primitive. Are the two groups differentiated enough? Do they have different voices and speech rhythms? What else could I do to emphasize that without belittling the Knurr?
I think you do a great job of making the two groups distinct. There wasn’t much dialogue from the Knurr to answer that part of the question, but just the way that you have the Knurr view the strangers is enough to tell the reader how vastly different the two peoples are.

It’s interesting how there is a science fiction twist to it, as it seems to me that you are closely modeling the railroad expansion into Native American territory in the United States. I’m not sure if that was your intention or not, but it’s something to note.

 

As an opening, is there enough of a hook? Would people want to keep reading?
As far as hooks go, I think you have a solid hook. In fiction, it is so much more about the characters’ reactions to the changes than the changes themselves, so the reaction of the Knurr is a great angle.

My humble advice, as mentioned above, would be to do more with these events. There is a lot more conflict equity to be had.

 

Be sure to stop by the Writer’s Toolbox for free, useful tools that no author should go without. Image courtesy of CucombreLibre via Flickr, Creative Commons.

 

The Re-Write – Ta-Da!

 

The Crash

From the vantage point of a slight rise on the endless plain, the Knurr watched with interest as the dot on the horizon slowly resolved into two heavily laden strangers. Mindful of their duty of hospitality towards the Lost and Wandering, a caribou was slaughtered so that by the time the strangers arrived there would be bubbling blood stew to offer them. As the strangers drew closer, the children twined through the gathering Knurr in an endless, over-excited dance to the rhythm of The Arrival Song.

“All Fall Down!” shrieked one of the children in Kevin’s face. He groaned. He had been up all night grinding incense with The Elders.

The Elders sat by the main cookfire smiling benignly. As it became clear the approaching strangers were men, the younger women joined in the children’s dance and some of the hunters moved to sit by The Elders, nonchalantly sharpening knives or mending spears. Kevin sat up and tried to look disinterested; The Elders were showing no interest but he could feel them watching him, watching them all and watching the strangers. Who finally arrived.

“I,” announced the stockier of the two, “am the Engineer McKoss, of the Arcadia Rural Mechanical Passenger Transport Executive.”  Everyone stopped moving. Mindful of their obligation of hospitality towards the Living God in all creatures, the Knurr welcomed the Engineer McKoss and his silent companion. As one, the Knurr placed their hands together in front of them and bowed, low and respectful. When they straightened up, the strangers had not moved. The Knurr were puzzled. The crowd murmured. Perhaps the painfully bright orange of their clothing blinded the Living God in them, so that their respect had not been seen? Perhaps, the strangers were ignorant, in which case they must be pitied? Perhaps the strangers did not see the Living God in the Knurr? That called for some profound thought as to why this might be so. The Knurr exchanged glances and waited for an Elder to speak. But The Elders were silent. All of them could feel Kevin, like a boiling pot, desperate to ask questions.

The Knurr made the Gesture of Hospitality towards the stewpot.

“We will camp here for a few days while we do our work,” said The Engineer McKoss.

The Knurr gestured again at the stewpot.

The two strangers walked a little way away, consulted hand-held technology and unloaded their backpacks onto the ground. It could not be denied: these men, The Engineer McKoss and The One Who Is Silent, had not understood the Gesture of Hospitality. They did not see the Living God.  The Elders retreated into their yurt. Children stayed close to the camp. Hunters sharpened knives. And spears. And long sticks.

The strangers had no tent, sleeping outside in brightly colored skins and refusing all offers of shelter.  During the day, they trekked every which way across the endless plain, scaring the caribou and confusing the predatory wild dogs with their repetitive ritual involving a chant of numbers and the hammering of white sticks into the ground. For two days The Elders remained in their yurt and The Knurr studiously ignored the strangers. Then The Elders summoned Kevin to them.

“Find out more.” They instructed.

Kevin, tall and black-robed, wandered out on to the Endless Plain. Seemingly aimless he sidled closer to the strangers, watching. McKoss walked away to examine one of the little white sticks. His silent companion spoke at last,

“You lot can’t stay out here forever. You’ll have to come into the city and live properly, sooner or later.”

Kevin contemplated a small yellow flower between his boots. It was deadly poison. He wondered if McKoss’s assistant knew that. Kevin turned and stalked back to where the Knurr sat in a circle around the cook fire.

“Well?” asked The Elders. Kevin squatted, respectfully close.

“They want us to live properly,” said Kevin and spat into the fire. The Elders regarded him with benevolent amusement, then looked around at the other Knurr.

“Kevin will speak with them. And only Kevin.”

Kevin rocked back on his heels and wrapped his hands over his head.

 

“What’s this for?” The lone Knurr was pointing at one of the stakes in the ground.

“It’s a measurement.”

“Of?”

“Distance.”

“They are in a line.”

“Yes, we are marking a straight line across the plain.”

“Do you not know how to walk?”

McKoss laughed. Kevin was not sure why, it was a sensible question, surely?

“There are others coming who will need the markers.”

Kevin stalked away, back to the cook fire and the yurts.

“Well?” said The Elders.

“They do not know how to walk. There are more of them coming who will follow the little sticks.”

“Many more?”

“I think so.”

“Good. There should be many here for The Teaching.”

 

“That grumpy one’s watching us again.”

“I know,” said McKoss. “Chill. It’ll be fine.”

“They’re pretty, those yellow flowers.”

“I wouldn’t. Not if you like living.”

The lone Knurr watched them. McKoss raised a hand. The Knurr bowed. McKoss wondered if it was possibly to bow sarcastically; the smile on the Knurr’s face as he straightened up confirmed that it was.
After a full moonspan, the strangers left, promising to return again soon.  The caribou settled.  The wild dogs hunted. The Knurr had no desire to see the pair again but respectfully left their little white sticks in the ground.

 

The children saw them first.

“The Engineer McKoss is there.”  A flat statement along a pointing arm.  This time the engineer approached much more slowly and had many others with him.  As they moved forward, they left behind them a single line of smooth metal Curiosity finally got the better of the Knurr. They woke Kevin up and sent him to talk to McKoss.

“What is it?”  asked Kevin.

“It’s a railroad!”  announced McKoss proudly.  “Your lives are changed!”  The Knurr clustered behind Kevin, showed polite interest and waited. The Elders had explained that there was to be A Teaching. Soon the Means of Teaching would be revealed. In the meantime, they would wait. McKoss took their silence for interest. “Here!”  He showed them on a map.  The metal seemed to be a pathway for people to follow on a long journey from a place called Ark to another place called Walden.  The way McKoss described it, there were people who wanted to continually rush between the two places. The Knurr understood the desire to travel, to roam. Who better? The Engineer McKoss explained that these places were many days walk apart. The Knurr were puzzled. It was hard to understand why someone would pitch a tent in this place called Ark and leave it there while they travelled to this place called Walden and back, a journey of many days walk. Then the Engineer McKoss told them people would do this every day. The Knurr laughed politely.  McKoss insisted.  The Knurr laughed uproariously.

“Why?”

And there, communication ended in a welter of alien concepts. Smiling, for they were a tolerant people, The Knurr went about their business and left McKoss to his.

 

 

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