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theredpen
August 25th, 2004, 10:52 PM
Okay, this is my first story excerpt submission online. If I made any mistakes or step on toes thusly lemme know in a nice way. The story you can tear to shreds if you like, just don't swipe it. Since I skipped the beginning obviously it interrupts the flow a little, sorry.
This is toward the middle of a 5,600 word story I have to cut back to under 5,000. I intend to submit it somewhere very soon, as it is finished except for fine-tooth grammar grooming and cutting back. (it is not paragraph indented yet) -It is about a sixties (years old)something 'woman' who is either crazy or is seeing what are essentially fairies or plant spirits running in and around her apartment complex.
Enjoy?
-theredpen
-------------------------------
In the first years of her solitude, Vera began to witness strange things. She had frequently awakened at odd hours with bouts of insomnia, and would wander about the apartment trying to get back to sleep. Sometimes she would stand at the windows and stare out at the night.
Across the street from her bedroom window, there existed the small remnant of an ancient almond orchard, about the size of a single lot, hemmed in heavily at the edges with billowing seedlings of acacias. One summer, when the full moon illuminated the small field, she began to see soft colored lights floating around in the long grass under the trees.
She spoke to the doctor on the phone about her medication, but he wanted her to come in for a visit, so she shut up and didn’t mention it again. The hallucinations continued, but only in the summer. A few years after that, she began also to see the strange children, or, began to see them for what they were.
They look much like the other children, even dressing like them. They might be of any apparent race. Their clothes changed slightly over time, although they day after day always wore the same colors or some variation of them, -monochromatic children.
She dressed in her walking clothes and looked out the windows, judging if the time was exactly right to emerge for her evening walk. She took a different route every day.
When she determined that it was close enough to nightfall to be technically an ‘evening’ walk; Vera opened the door, listened for a moment, and then went out into the courtyard. She turned and locked the door, then crossed the small space to inspect the grapefruit quickly, -just a glance, then proceeded out the archway that led into a wide paved alley. The alley was long and lined with the windowless sides of one-story places like hers, there were a few terrace gates onto it but otherwise it was stark and featureless. The air was cooling off but still too warm for what she was wearing. Her insecurity often drove her to bundle up in spite of whatever weather happened to be going on.
Her apartment was at the southeastern edge of the Shangri-la Garden Apartments, - a huge sprawling development built in the early ‘50’s. Originally designed as a sort of Hollywood vision; with a well maintained but rather confused landscaping plan, suggesting old romantic movies of the era: date palms, bamboo, pampas grass, lily of the Nile, and bird of paradise predominated. Many of the original imports from exotic climes were perfect for L.A. but could hardly be expected to survive the Sacramento winters. Eventually, as the more tender specimens died out, and the management hired fewer and less interested gardeners, and the complex slowly changed into a lower income, family type place, only the largest and the toughest plants remained. What were left of the gardens were only confused remnants of the designer’s lavish concept.
There was a dead pigeon sprawled near the storm drain. She was used to that; there were ever so many of them thanks to the date palms that loomed like swishy towers throughout the complex. On stormy winter days, rarely, she would sneak out and stand between the buildings; in places such as here where she knew there were no windows overlooking; and watched, while the wild winds gripped the palms and tossed their huge fronds like seaweed in a boiling tidepool.
There were many garden corners left within the complex that were still interesting to visit; the original designers had put in little features that caught one by surprise; cement fountains and fishponds for example, all dry now of course.
The evening was far too hot. She considered taking off her coat, but changed her mind. Ahead was a place she didn’t like, and she decided to get past it first, -a narrow side alley that was once a garden feature. It had been a rather fussy and contrived Japanese-themed garden complete with a little cement moon bridge, painted bright red, now flaking and weathered, over a dry watercourse of stones, surrounded by knee high weeds. Against the back wall a tall clump of yellow bamboo still grew, and with it lived the Bamboo girl.
Vera passed the gateway and looked sideways into the garden briefly. There she was, a slight little Asian girl, about seven maybe, wearing a simple sundress of yellow ochre and green. She stared at Vera without smiling as she walked by, from her usual place, standing in the middle of the empty, aqua blue waterless pond. Vera was pretty sure the bamboo girl was lonely, since she never ventured far from her bamboo. She was one of the few odd ones that gave Vera the creeps.
Vera disliked going that way except in the dead of winter, when the child was nowhere about. She reached the end of the alley and paused to remove her coat, tossing it over her arm.
Blackbirds were calling, mixed with the scattered cooing of hundreds of pigeons. She walked slowly along her chosen route, down a narrow parking lot, past a laundry room, and over a green lawn crisscrossed with sidewalk-like pathways. This area led to the center of the complex, where the buildings were taller and the tenants tended to be younger.
She passed a large planting bed overrun with mature and unkempt pampas grass, the ground below was scattered with children’s toys. Giggling and squealing came from behind the clumps, and some of the tenant’s children ran between them involved closely in some game. Most of them were the ‘real’ children. Anyway, that’s how she thought of them now, -the real flesh and blood children that stayed through the winter, huddled in the rain at the bus stop, being called in at night to do their homework. They had no respite from the material world such as the strange ones seemed to have. As they wound back and forth, she noticed two of the strange ones with them; one of the Palmetto girls and one she wasn’t sure about.
The Palmetto girl appeared about twelve, unusually old in appearance for one of their kind, and was slender with light brown skin, her hair thin and in a spiky teenage ‘Do’ of some sort, a string of wooden beads round her slender neck. Her face, however, was typical; it had that sense of simplistic joy just under the surface, -so much so they had to hide it from those around them, like a child for whom it was always secretly Christmas morning.
The other she had never seen before, a little boy, no more than five, maybe younger. He was cute in a homely way, pudgy, short-legged, with ridiculously buzz-cut hair on his round skull.
Vera steered to give the children a wide berth.
The game reached some sort of reconciliation, and the tenant children parted ways with the others saying they had to go have dinner. The Palmetto girl watched them wistfully for a few moments, and then wandered off, pulling at her tank top strap so it snapped against her shoulder. The boy seemed unaffected by the children’s departure, and ran off a little ahead of Vera, grinning at her as he went by.

Rocket Sheep
August 26th, 2004, 12:04 AM
Hey! How come your name is Theredpen? I'm the one that makes ms look like they've just wiped up a horrible shotgun accident?

I've tempered this example of the first two paragraphs by putting navy for what I want you to take out, and attempted to make the red seem nicer by what I want you to put in. I'm late for my editors' anonymous meeting so I have to stop at two paragraphs.

Simple past tense is nice... why confuse it with probable tenses? You need to add "began to" to your list of spell check items. You may use it once per 5,000 words. No more. It's slow and clumsy. Just tell us what is happening not what began to happen.

In the first years of her solitude, Vera {began to} witnessed strange things. She {had} frequently awakened at odd hours with bouts of insomnia, and {would} wandered about the apartment {trying to get back to sleep (can't sleep as you wander)}. Sometimes she {would stand}stood at the windows and stared out at the night.
Across the street from her bedroom window, {there existed the small}stood the remnants of an ancient almond orchard, about the size of a single lot, hemmed in heavily at the edges with billowing acacia seedlings {of acacias}. One summer, when the full moon illuminated the small field, she {began to see} saw soft colored lights floating {around} in the long grass under the trees.


Sorry, I have to go put on my red ink patches now, I've got the jitters.

Rocket Sheep
August 26th, 2004, 12:45 AM
Oh... I meant to say also, it has a nice dreamy lyrical feel to it. And it would be nice to know the nature of her solitude up front since it is the opening line... the death of her lover etc.

theredpen
August 26th, 2004, 12:47 AM
I'm theredpen because of a stupid mistake. I picked it as a temporary title because there is jar of pens on my desk with a red one in it, and I wasn't sure at the time this site was any good; IE; I wanted a temporary ID, little did I know the eternal damnation I was stumbling into...aaaaah! anyway. Everyone makes mistakes, but ouch, -eh?

Yes, I have tense problems. this was one of the first half dozen or so short stories I started towards the beginning of my career (we won't mention when that was) that I originally wrote in the first person and present tense, and rewrote as third person past tense, and well uh-oh! screw ups result, -will review.
Yes, opportunities to remove wordage is always appreciated.
Thanks

Does anyone have advice on 'active verbs' VS 'past tense?' -I think this is getting me into trouble with my tenses. Am I the only one who sees a conflict here? I keep getting advice from my (very few) proofreaders that past tense; but active verbs are generally preferred by readers.

Rocket Sheep
August 26th, 2004, 01:10 AM
Simple past tense is what we read most of and that makes it easier for us to write and read it. Writing in present tense is harder as is writing flashbacks when you are in past tense... all those had hads slip in and writing in future tense for any length of time is just plain weird.

Writing in simple past tense (no need for hads) and moving the story forwards (no flashbacks) is the easiest way to tell a tale and something readers find simple to follow.

Writing in the active voice can be done in any tense. It only takes a little practice. The word 'by' is a good indicator that you're not being active: The icecream was enjoyed by me... instead of I enjoyed the icecream. Also make sure the action is attributed to something... Dogs are liked... People like dogs. Also as with the orchard, kill the there was's/there weres: There was a forest over the hill... a forest sprawled beyond the hill.

That's probably what people are trying to tell you.

I think Elements of Style is a free download now, somewhere.

Dawnstorm
August 26th, 2004, 01:50 PM
Here (http://www.bartleby.com/141/)

However, it's Strunk, not Strunk&White.

===

Having provided the link, let me proceed to say, I don't like The Elements of Style. Strunk wants you to be bold and positive and clear, and has no respect for other modes of expression.

I don't know, if the book gets better with whites additions (I like White as an author; Charlotte's Web is great!):

The sheep has this to say:


Simple past tense is nice... why confuse it with probable tenses? You need to add "began to" to your list of spell check items. You may use it once per 5,000 words. No more. It's slow and clumsy. Just tell us what is happening not what began to happen.

It's also what Strunk would want you to do.

However, I refute the claim that "began to" is slow and clumsy. Well, it's slow, but it's only clumsy if used clumsily. Now, I could not find a guid on the effective use of "began to" or even the "would" in Strunk's book; he simply doesn't like them. The impression is that all writers are supposed to sound like bold frontiersmen. I enjoy to read stylists and Strunk discourages them by his very selective discussion of style.

That said, often simple past is better, and often "began to" or "would" are used clumsily. In your text, for example, they don't quite work. But going back to simple past is only one way to amend this (the easier one; not necesserily the better one).

Step one: what expectations do you rouse by using "began to" and "would"?

"Began to": This hints at a structure in the text:
Began to see strange things ---> continued to to see strange things (more focussed) perhaps? ---> the things she saw ceased to appear strange (gotten used to them). You can use verbal structures like these to hint at text structures, like the one I've just said.

"Would": This indicates habitual action in the past. Simple past doesn't quite have the same effect; the paragraph will be reduced to "shopping list style" if you remove the "woulds". Traditional storytellers (and fairy tale aunts) rely on "would" a lot to introduce the "routine" that is broken by the transition to past simple (which is the transition from exposition to the story proper).

In you case, you would have two paragraphs of "woulds" as introduction to the story:

1. Began to see strange things (= period one).

2. Began to see strange children (= period two).

3.


She took a different route every day.
When she determined that it was close enough to nightfall to be technically an ‘evening’ walk;

I suspect that this is the transition to the story proper, but it's not quite clear.

Instead of reverting the entire thing to a big chunk of simple past, I suggest you work on the textual structure and try to use your elements more thoughtfully. In other words:

Your "began to" and "woulds" do work, if you know exactly what you're doing. Don't let Strunk get to you!

===

Let me counter the sheep's edit's with mine:

It was in the first years of her solitude that Vera began to witness strange things. She {had frequently} would awaken{ed} at odd hours with bouts of insomnia, {and} would wander about the apartment trying to get back to sleep. Sometimes she would stand at the windows and stare out at the night.

Across the street from her bedroom window, {there existed the small}stood the remnants of an ancient almond orchard, about the size of a single lot, hemmed in heavily at the edges with billowing seedlings of acacias. {One}In the summer of '69, {when the full moon illuminated the small field}, she began to see the soft colored lights floating around in the long grass under the trees, whenever the full moon illuminated the small field.

Notice that I agree with the sheep about the "there existed" (although I suspect, I'm less averse to it).

Also notice, how I made the time reference more specific ("summer of '69", excuse the Bryan Adams reference... just an example) and how I added the "the" before "soft coloured lights"; to indicate that they are - by now - specific coloured lights. Also notice that I shifted the full-moon-clause to the end with an added "whenever". I did this to be in keeping with the "would" structures earlier on.

Of course, this is not a finalised versions. It's your story and I didn't put all that much time into the edit. The "woulds" will have to be tightly controlled, temporal markers will have to be scrutinised... I can understand anybody who goes for simple past instead, but if you're going to be a writer, try to work out the style you've instinctively chosen for the text and make it work - before you turn to simple past.

Rocket Sheep
August 26th, 2004, 04:45 PM
I like the idea of locating the summer.

(The sheep forces a dry smile into place and runs off to find more red ink patches)

whozits328
August 27th, 2004, 12:15 PM
I love this story line and would like to see the rest. As per Strunk and White, my daughter was the one who finally got me to look at it. For some reason I've had a hard time connecting with the information, but Dawnstar's editing is an eyeopener.

ironchef texmex
August 27th, 2004, 04:58 PM
Ooh, I liked this one alot!

And as long as we're all remaking it in our own images, I'll offer up a third suggestion at an edit:

The old woman had had enough. She rifled through her closet until finding the kevlar-reinforced muumuu (the one with the pretty green flowers against a serene yellow backdrop). She threw on her bandoleer of .10 gage slugs and hefted the bullpup-style streetsweeper with her left hand alone, slapping the locking bolt into place with her right. They had woken her up one too many times. Tonight the kids were gonna pay!

Notice the active tense. Notice also that the old woman is now a crazed Vietnam vet. :D

Let's talk style for a little bit. Personally, I like Strunk and White's. Although I'm not sure that I use it in the spirit of good ol' Strunk. I strive for precision in everything that I write. It's just that sometimes I'm actually striving for writing that is obtuse, vague, enigmatic, whatever; at that moment I want be precisely vague (or vaguely precise, I'm not sure which) ;) . I want to be mysterious to the exact degree that the text calls for it and I attempt to use the language to precisely serve that purpose.

Red, your story reads so much like a Tim Powers book that it's scary (are..... you..... Tim Powers?). His writing is also loaded with sentences that include 'was' and 'had been' and I'm sure that there a few 'began to's someplace as well. If the story is good, I don't think the readers even notice. I never notice (unless, like today I have one of his books opened and I'm looking through it, counting up passives -- about three a page. Average).

Now that doesn't mean to disregard the Sheep's advice. On the contrary, if the story were mine I would have personally made almost every one the changes the way that she suggested. But the story isn't mine. You're the only one who can decide what it is that you want to say. I think almost everyone who posts critiques here has the intent of simply *helping*. When we rewrite paragraphs it is for the purpose of example, to help the writer understand what we are getting at. It isn't meant to belittle or say "Peon! This is how is should have been." Every critique should be looked at as a means to help the writer think about what it is that he or she has written. Nothing more.

Red, I would look at each suggestion and consider them carefully (especially the one about turning Granny into a gun-toting psycho. That's just genius! :D ). But I wouldn't make a single change without thinking it through. The reason being that your story is already very, very strongly written, and any changes at this point are almost as likely to decrease from the work's power as they are to strengthen it.

Good stuff! :)

whozits328
August 27th, 2004, 07:33 PM
Hey, forget the kevlar muumuus. None of us wear those things anymore.

Well, the house dress, maybe.

No, seriously; this is an excellent story line, Theredpen.
I wish you all the luck in the world.