This was the very first submission we received, so we’ll start with that.
The Immortality Problem
The problem is that you never wake up anywhere nice. This time it’s inside a dumpster. Last time someone tipped you into an open septic tank. You hardly ever wake up somewhere warm and safe. You never thought you’d feel nostalgic for a shallow grave, but you do.
It makes you miss the days when people laid their dead out on a bed. You got to wake up comfortable sometimes. The best this century has to offer is a refrigerated drawer in a county morgue where escape is easy at least. The staff are always on the lookout for people disturbing the corpses, not the corpses disturbing themselves.
You crawl out of the dumpster, glad at least that it contained dry trash for the most part. You’re still going to get some weird looks on the way home, but at least you won’t smell.
When you check your pockets you are unsurprised to find your wallet gone. Of course it’s gone. You were just mugged and shot by (you think) accident. The kid looked nearly as frightened as you were.
The cellphone is gone too, but you still have your keys. They were in an inner pocket and harder to locate in a hurried search. Home is only a block away. You don’t have a car, but you think it would be nice to not have to break into your own apartment… unless, of course, someone hasn’t already done it for you.
Broken glass in the stairwell door greets you as you approach. There are no lights on, but your id was in your wallet. It would have been easy for the kid to find your home. You live on the second floor and he doesn’t know to press the door into the frame after he closes it until he hears the lock click so the door is now ajar.
Your cat is on top of the bookshelves making a noise like a hovering UFO, but otherwise unharmed. You can chart the kid’s priorities by the wreckage he’s left behind. The kitchen cabinets are standing open and there’s a light on in your bathroom. You can hear him in here rattling pill bottles. Food first then salable goods. Medications will sell faster than electronics and are harder to trace. You don’t have anything recreational like Valium though so he might yet go for the entertainment center.
He hasn’t found the gun safe. It’s set into the wall behind your false closet and you have to pull on the doorframe to get to it. You don’t take a gun, but instead the taser. You take up a place by the bathroom where door will hide you when he opens it. He doesn’t see you until it’s too late and by the time he realizes something is wrong he’s down twitching on the carpet. You use some zip ties from under the sink to contain him and retrieve your wallet from his jacket. The cash is missing, but you find it folded into his shoe.
As soon as he opens his eyes, it’s clear he knows you. You still have blood all down your front. Why wouldn’t he recognize you? You stuff a sock into his mouth when he opens it to scream. You wish you had less practice doing that.
This reads like a literary sketch, a kind of trial run, when you sketch things out, trying to zero in on a good voice for the character. From the writing standpoint, this is well written. It has a flow and a nicely transparent style that lets you sink into the narrative. From a story-telling perspective this falls short. First, it has been done before in a much more dramatic fashion.
It’s an old concept and it’s difficult to breathe new life into it.
Second, the protagonist himself.
The ambiguous gender is a gimmick. Steven King once said, “Kill your darlings.” This is a darling, a device that the writer likes but that doesn’t really serve the story. This has absolutely nothing to do with the writer’s proficiency. I just did the same thing with Magic Stars, where the entire first scene was written in such a way that Derek’s name wasn’t said until the very end. I was hung up on the element of surprise. Unfortunately it resulted in the confusing narrative of “he jumped” and “he stabbed” with no clarity of which he I was talking about. His name is in the synopsis and he is on the cover. As Gordon and Deanna pointed out, the surprise is kind of blown from the start. It’s an easy hole to fall into.
The bigger issue here is that the protagonist is very blase about things that are happening. Yep, got thrown in the dumpster. Yep, got shot. Just another night. The author is demonstrating that this is routine.
Routine of itself isn’t bad. The story must start with a change. There is a status quo, then something happens to upset it, and the story begins. Greeks are besieging Troy, Chryses enters their camp and tries to ransom his daughter – routine. He is refused – change in the status quo. An Alderanian diplomatic vessel travels through space – routine and is attacked – change. So the author’s instinct here is good. Assuming something really earth shattering happens with the guy in the bathroom that will fundamentally change this routine, this isn’t the wrong place to start.
The problem with this particular routine is that it’s boring. Because the concept is old, the immortality alone isn’t enough of a shocker to pull reader along into the story. The character isn’t mad, or excited, or upset, so the reader is not engaged. The character trudges to his apartment, the reader does also. The rest of the narrative also supports this routine kind of feeling – the sharp, vivid details are missing. We don’t see what the protagonist sees and we don’t get to experience it with him or her. We don’t know what season it is, what city it is, what time period, what planet. It’s a generic immortal human being walking to their generic apartment through a generic city. The problem with the lack of detail is two fold. The readers have nothing to intrigue them and keep reading, but more importantly, the kind of details the character notices tell us what kind of a person he or she are. If no details are mentioned, the character falls flat.
IT WAS ABOUT ELEVEN O’CLOCK in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
You got this guy’s number, right? Two paragraphs. If you are going to focus the narrative tightly on the character, he or she need to have a remarkable voice. What do they notice about the world? How do they react to it? What do they think? What amuses them, what infuriates them, what makes them sad?
In conclusion, I know it feels like I tore this to shreds. I spent so much time on this because I believe you are a good writer. The writing itself isn’t the issue. Don’t worry about the writing. It’s not the matter of how you write, you’re past this stage. It’s what you write. You need to reach. Open yourself up and dump your weirdness on the page. Don’t be afraid to take risks.
Be you. You’ve got this. Be specific, be you, choose stronger verbs. Dream a little bigger and in full color.
The individual line by line break down is below.
WARNING: to submit your writing for a public critique is overwhelming.
This is why I must ask you to REFRAIN from picking the narrative apart line by line. Please feel free to discuss your general reaction to the story, how it made you feel, if you were engaged or not and why, but all comments that try to nitpick sentence level issues, misspellings, odd word construction, etc will be moderated. From experience, that kind of collective critique leaves you feeling henpecked and kills your will to write. We don’t want that.TheImmortalityProblem-RScott-1