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I’ve been following the Short Story Club over at Torque Control, if not always taking part, and I’ve realised that one of the things that has bothered me is that three of the four stories so far have not been what I would call a well-made story. Let me try and explain by picking up just three paragraphs from the latest story, ‘The Rising Waters’ by Benjamin Crowell, published in two parts, here and here. This is not meant as an analysis of the story as a whole, just a reading of what he says in these paragraphs.

I’ll begin with the first paragraph:

It was Charlie’s last day of existence, so I was feeling that weird mixture of excitement and letdown that comes at the end of a project cycle. It was the feeling of being a wheel spinning off balance, and it needed a cigarette for punctuation.

The first thing you realise is that Charlie is not a person; the affect in this sentence is all wrong for that. So you start asking yourself what it might be. Except that you quickly learn that Charlie is an AI that manifests as a person, and our narrator has human feelings towards it. So in fact the affect is all wrong. There is not the sense of fellow feeling, of regret, of shame, that should go with the words, and indeed that later paragraphs in the story ask us to believe the narrator feels towards the AI. And then the second sentence, which does not seem to belong with the first, and which has two halves that look as if they are meant to relate to each other but in fact don’t. The cigarette for ‘punctuation’? Punctuation is so much the wrong word here that I cannot begin to imagine what the right word might be. And how is a cigarette meant to punctuate a spinning wheel? Stick it in the spokes? So the story failed me right from the start because I did not feel I was in the company of someone who was in control of their material on a sentence by sentence basis.

The the second paragraph, and remember, this comes immediately after the word ‘punctuation’:

Delta Elevator. Step into the cab, slide the accordion-cage door shut with a grunt—the door was designed for big, male miners. I felt the upward draft of cold air as the cab lurched into motion, and gratefully polluted it for the next four minutes.

And suddenly the use of language has changed totally. Someone who addresses us in whole sentences, with subordinate clauses, now addresses us in a staccato manner, a two-word sentence with no verb. This paragraph is crammed with information: we know that we are at a facility that is a long way underground, and that our narrator is not a big male miner (therefore probably a small woman). But this paragraph is so clearly inserted for the author to convey this information in as short and snappy a form as possible, that he hasn’t actually bothered to do this in the same manner as the narrator of the first paragraph wouyld have done.

One more thing: the mine, the cage lift; this is old technology now, and as mining is being reduced it is likely to disappear in the not too distant future. So one more piece of information this paragraph seems to convey to me is that the story is set in the present or the fairly near future. It was a total shock, therefore, to read a little later that we are in 2181. I just did not believe it. The problem is: I don’t think the author believes it either. A well crafted story gives you enough extraneous detail to convince you of the setting; this story gives us enough extraneous detail to deny the setting.

Finally, one more paragraph, the last one in the first part of the story:

The rest of her words were drowned out by a metallic screech from the direction of the hatch. I started, and Debbie saw that I did. There was a loud clang, and spilling through the hatch came—not Funmi, Gil, and Julia, but a bunch of scared kids with guns. It was strange, because I didn’t recognize them at first. These, I only gradually realized, were the same kids I’d seen in the gym when I was huffing and puffing on the treadmill. The grunts. Now they were a pack of teenagers who’d just had an H-bomb dropped on their heads, waving scary-looking firearms in what was to them an empty room.

The narrator didn’t recognise the intruders at first. I’m not surprised, neither did I, because we’ve not met them before. There has been no mention of a gym or a treadmill or kids or grunts; I know, because I went back and checked. It would have needed the insertion of probably no more than one sentence earlier in the story to justify this scene. I spotted several places where that sentence might have been inserted without the slightest bother. Without that set-up it reads like what it very probably is: an author just putting down whatever comes into his mind next, and then not taking the elementary step of going back over the story and making sure that the whole thing cohered. That is, to my mind, just poor craft.

There is an old adage that when you don’t know how your fiction develops next, have someone burst into the room with a gun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it executed so literally and so clumsily.

A well-crafted story is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. There are times when you can break free, do something different; but when that happens you have got to be sure you know what you are doing, and you have got to convince your readers that you know as well. I don’t believe that Crowell know what he is doing on the basic level of craft.

First published at LiveJournal, 13 September 2009.

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