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Thread: Writing a story, tear it up and tell me why/how it sucks please

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    Writing a story, tear it up and tell me why/how it sucks please

    Here it is so far.



    Threshold

    "So I'm some sort of magician?"

    "Have you been listening to anything I've said?" she nearly shrieked, making no effort to hide her frustration. "You are not a magician. You never will be. Magicians spend years of backbreaking study before they can summon even the smallest of powers. You can't even begin to imagine the work, the sacrifice. You are NOT a magician." It was clear he'd struck a nerve.

    "Well, then what am I?" A question he'd been asking his entire life, never thinking to get an actual answer. This was truly a day for the unexpected.

    "You, Isaac, are a portal. You are a door. You are magic.

    "And I am going to use you."

    * * *

    Three days ago she had found him at his grandmother's apartment, where he spent most of his days. He'd just finished his routine run-through of the kitchen, making sure the appliances were off, picking up any half-forgotten meals, putting away anything sharp. He had been thirteen when he first started this sort of back-checking maintenance, and it had been a long time since then. He lived with his grandmother, and they took care of each other in their own ways. She collected the social security checks, fed the cats, told him stories. She did the grocery shopping at the market on the corner, dusted and swept, made the beds. He, for his part, did most of the cooking (a duty he had firmly insisted upon when she had nearly burned the building down for the second time,) took the phone calls, lifted anything heavier than a few pounds, and divvied out their respective medicines. And they loved each other. He always listened attentively to her stories, even the ones he'd heard a million times before, even the ones she could only half-remember, filling in the details when she began to wander off. And she asked after him, hovered, paid attention. They kept each other from being too lonely.

    Despite that, they were still lonely. She grieved for the life she had had, and he for the one he never had. They were both sick, in their own ways. She had been a lively, productive, and quite beautiful women in her youth. He could still almost remember her that way, from when he was little. Almost. She had been old even when he was young, and age had taken its toll on her. He, on the other hand, had never known a true youth. The doctors said he was depressed, that the part of his brain that enjoyed and craved life simply wasn't there, or it was broken. No one really knew which. Either way, he was a painfully sad young man, with less hope than a person should be able to survive on. His grandmother saved him that way. She gave him something to go on for, a reason to get up in the morning, to stay alive and try, with however questionable success, to be a functioning human being.

    A knock at the door, loud. He was laying sideways on his twin bed with his head on the ground, his torso vertical and his long legs flat. He was trying to see if he could make himself pass out. No luck so far, though his head did feel about a ton, and his ears were burning, his whole face throbbing along with the beat of his heart. Another knock, this time even louder. Rude, he thought. Don't they know I'm busy?

    "Isaac, dear, I believe there is someone at the door!" his grandmother cried from the other room where she was sorting the magazines he couldn't get her to stop ordering. Not reading them, mind you, just sorting. He didn't like how they cramped the already cramped walls of her bedroom, but it seemed to keep her busy, and she was happiest when she was busy so he didn't make too much fuss about it.

    "I've got it, Nana. One sec," he called back. Dumping his legs in a tangled heap on the floor, he picked himself up and marched to the door like a man walking out to the firing squad. No good ever came from knocks on the door. Probably just another vulture trying to sell his grandma things she didn't need.

    He unbolted the deadlock, turned his face into a mask of disapproval and disinterest with only the slightest adjustment, and opened the door. The heel of a small hand collided with his nose, sending a white flash of pain through his face. Instinctively reaching up to see if his nose was bleeding (it wasn't,) he blinked dazedly at the figure framed in the doorway. A young woman gazed back at him with an expression of mild disgust, as if he had smacked his face into her hand on purpose. She was slight and not tall, with lank blonde hair the color of dishwater. Shaking her umbrella free of water, he realized for the first time that it was raining outside. She was clean but not overly styled, in a gray pantsuit that could have belonged to an office manager or a high school guidance counselor. She was young, and might even have been pretty except for her cold demeanor, nose in the air, and the businesslike set of her shoulders. He immediately began to wonder if he was late on any bills.

    "Mr. Limen?" she asked without waiting for an answer. "My name is Mz. Serth." The ways he said it made it sound like "Say-earth." "We need to talk." Suddenly he felt underdressed, like he'd arrived at a job interview with mismatched shoes. He looked self-consciously down at his ratty gray sweatpants and his loose black tanktop, wishing he'd thought to prepare, before realizing how silly he was being. This was his house, and he wasn't on trial. Still feeling a little thick-headed from hanging upside-down on his bed, he continued to blink at her dully in the bruise-purple late afternoon light that filtered through the heavy rainclouds until, with an exasperated sigh, she suggested he invite her in so they could talk more comfortably. He did.

    Seated on the blue moth-eaten sofa in the small (cozy, he liked to think of it) living room, the young woman continued to appraise him, looking him up and down as if he were a horse she had been sent to buy, and she wasn't sure if he was worth the price. Before he could ask her what this was all about, his grandmother shuffled into the room to see who their new arrival was. She loved company.

    "Hello, dear! Isaac, who is your friend?" she asked with a tremulous smile. His grandmother was always inexorably delighted to see him in the company of a young woman. She thought he didn't see enough people his own age, and was worried he would never find someone. She was right, of course, but it didn't bother him as much as it did her. He had dated a few girls in the neighborhood over the years, but it never worked out, not for long. One way or another they got fed up with his lack of drive, and he never could muster the energy to fight for them.

    "Mz. Serth," said the young woman by way of introduction. She didn't look up from her study of Isaac. When it seemed no further answer was forthcoming, his grandmother bubbled something about tea and cookies and bustled off to the kitchenette.

    After another long moment of appraisal, Mz. Serth unclasped her crossed legs, leaned forward slightly, and spoke to Isaac.

    "So, Mr. Limen. Are you currently employed?" Possibly his least favorite question.

    "Not currently, no," he said sheepishly. He was embarrassed. He had been a dishwasher at a local diner for nearly a year, but after his fourth time sleeping in he had been fired. He was a heavy sleeper, and sometimes the dreams he had were so compelling that an alarm clock and responsibilities were not enough to rouse him. Sometimes a hurricane wouldn't be enough to rouse him. He felt ashamed at his inability to hold down a job, like he was failing himself and his grandmother. Her social security checks were hardly enough to support the both of them, and he hated feeling like a drain on her.

    "No," she repeated slowly, rolling the word around in her mouth. He could almost feel her checking something off a mental clipboard. "And you live here, with your grandmother." It seemed more than obvious to him, but he merely nodded. He still wasn't sure if he was in trouble or not. Best to play along for the time being.

    "You're on medication, is that right?" She listed the cocktail of pills he took to ostensibly ward off his massive depression and various neuroses. He nodded again, this time much more warily. "And how do you pay for that?"

    So she was a bill collector. The community mental health clinic where he'd been racking up debt had finally caught up to him. He thought it might happen sooner or later, but he had been really hoping for later.

    "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure how that's any of your business," he said, not feeling sorry, but starting to feel cornered. The sound of rain outside, the sound he had managed to miss all day (all week? he hadn't been out of the apartment in a long time) was very loud now, as if it was filling up the strained silence that was growing between the cracks of their conversation.

    "I'm here to make it my business, Mr. Limen. I'm here to offer you a job."

    If he kept blinking stupidly at her she was going to think he was a simpleton, but he couldn't help it. This was out of left field. Nobody who knew him offered him work, and they certainly didn't knock on his door to do it. Had he applied anywhere? Maybe gotten drunk enough to brave some online applications? He didn't think so, but suddenly he was hopeful. He could pay off his debt with a job. He could buy his grandmother some new clothes, which she was desperately in need of, even if she left the house more rarely than he did. A job.

    Not wanting to seem too eager, he decided to play it defensively. Straightening himself up, unconsciously combing his hands through his unstylishly long black hair, he asked what sort of work he would be doing.

    "You'll be my personal assistant," she said evenly. At this he had to laugh, he couldn't help it. It had to be a joke. She didn't seem to think it was funny. If anything she seemed annoyed that he was laughing.

    "I'm quite serious, Mr. Limen. I've spoken to your therapist, looked through your charts. You have the psychological profile I need." Suddenly what she was saying wasn't so funny.

    "You can't have," he said, feeling the indignation start to creep up his spine. Who was this woman that found his medical history so interesting? His private history. Who did she think she was? "Ever hear of doctor-patient confidentiality? He wouldn't have said anything to you."

    "Not under normal circumstances, no," was all she said. She did not break eye contact. Her lack of shame at prying into his personal life was stoking the coals of his rising anger. Unconsciously he clenched his fists.

    Very awake now, the dullness in his head replaced by red-tinged clarity, he stared back at her challengingly. "Look, miss, I don't know who you are or what your game is, but I think it's time you leave," he said, taking no pains to hide the ice in his voice.

    "Almost," she said, cool as anything. Reaching into her inside jacket pocket, she pulled out first a business card, and then a wad of crisp green bills. She set one on top of the other between them on the stained wooden coffee table, between the stack of magazines that had spilled out his grandmother's room and two TV remotes that didn't work. "An advance, in good faith. That card contains my address. Find me when you're ready to begin work." With that, she gathered herself up and swept from the apartment.

    He was still sitting there, open-mouthed, when his grandmother finally came in carrying a plate of store-bought cookies and two mugs of weak, tepid tea. "Was there someone here, dear?" No one, he said, and thanked her for the snack. She had already forgotten why she made it.

    * * *

    That night he dreamed a dream. Ever since he could remember, he'd had powerful, gripping dreams from the time he fell asleep to minutes, even hours after he'd woken. They stayed with him that way, refusing to be banished by the morning light. Or, as was more often the case, the afternoon light. He dreaded sleep, but equally he craved it. What he dreamt was compelling, terrifying, exhilarating. The setting changed, but one thing remained constant--he was always powerful.

    He was by no means a short man, but in his dreams he was a giant. His hands were long, sharp claws, his limbs fluid metal. He used them to destroy. This time he was striding through black clouds, rain lashing at him from every direction. You wouldn't think clouds could break, but break them he did. Every step ripped through them. Deliberate, almost lazy swipes of his claws tore holes in the atmosphere, revealing true darkness beneath. Compared to that, the storm was a kaleidoscope of light, the rich smell of ozone, atoms sparking and bouncing off each other in a symphony of energy. And he ripped it all apart, tearing it down to soothing black nothing.

    This time something was different, though. Looking down, far away beneath the storm, he saw a tiny figure struggling with a rope. The scene shifted, the way that dreams do, and he was watching from right beside her. Now that he was closer, he could see that the figure was a little girl, her blonde hair soaked and clinging limply to her face. He couldn't be sure, but he thought she was crying. The rope lay in loose piles behind her as she tugged and pulled, heels dug in the soft earth, straining backwards. At first he thought she was playing tug-of-war with someone, until he saw that the cord ended in a black chasm in the earth.

    No, not rope. Barbed wire. Her arms were sticky with blood as she pulled, hand over hand, trying to drag something too-heavy out of the pit. He wanted to help her, to grab the wire and help her pull, or at least to get her to drop it, but he found he had no voice, no body. He could only watch. The little girl paid him no attention, just kept pulling and bleeding and crying. It hurt him to see the determination on her face, her hands cut to ribbons. What could she possibly want so badly? What could be down there that was worth this? The storm overhead was loud, but between claps of thunder he thought he could hear her whispering to herself. "Come back," it sounded like. "Come back, damn you."

    * * *

    This couldn't be the place. He was on the other side of town, a much nicer district than where he and his grandmother lived, and he'd walked up and down this street three times now. The business card she had given him (the one that came with what he later counted out to be three-thousand dollars) had only an address and a name, Nina Serth. No title, no telephone number, no fax. He was standing in front of a massive old brownstone that even boasted a nominal amount of lawn in the front, enclosed by a weathered, wrought-iron fence. He had been expecting some sort of office building, maybe even a high-rise, but this was something else. The sun was out today, but it's light seemed pale and carried no warmth. Not knowing what to expect, he wore his best clothes, a pair of gray slacks and a white button-up covered by a black farmer's jacket. His stared at his scuffed black boots, trying to make up his mind. The address was right, and the affluence in the air agreed with the money she had given him, but he still couldn't quite believe it. What would someone with this kind of wealth want with him?

    Finally deciding it was now or never, he swung open the five-foot gate and walked to the door. Instead of a doorbell he found an old-fashioned rope pull and a brass knocker affixed to the solid oak double-door. In for a penny. He pulled the rope and heard not the electric buzzer he was accustomed to but a heavy set of bells start ringing through the house. After a minute the doors swung open to reveal a short, balding old man in traditional butler's attire. A butler. Get the fuck out.

    "Mr. Limen?" the man said with stately listlessness. He had a feeling everything the man said would be slow and deliberate, as if he had long ago resigned himself to being more proper than those he opened doors for. His right eye was looking directly at Isaac, the left one wandering somewhere off to the side. Somehow he made it seem very respectable, like it were an affectation he could afford to wear.

    "Uh, yeah, that's me. Mr. Limen." The title felt strange coming out of his mouth. He didn't feel like a mister anyone. He became aware of his mouth hanging open and quickly closed it.

    "This way, sir. Mz. Serth is in the library." The place had a fucking library. His room at home had a small bookshelf that doubled as a nightstand. He began to suspect he would never get used to this.

    They walked for what seemed an impossibly long time through rooms that that probably had names like the small parlor or the gallery, filled with ancient furniture and paintings. He tried not to stare, but it was out of his control. He felt like he was in an episode of Downton Abbey. By the time they reached the library--a grand affair of rich dark wood and leather accents, with overstuffed armchairs and even one of those stands where rich people poured their drinks--he felt impossibly out of place, and impossibly poor. He had figured he would be overdressed, but now he was wishing he'd rented a tux.

    Nina Serth was halfway up a ladder fastened to a ceiling-length bookcase, her brow furrowed in concentration, a pair of reading glasses dangling from her sharp nose. She was muttering something to herself, punctuated every so often with a loud "Damn!" Was this what he would be doing? Playing some sort of research assistant to an eccentric bookworm? He'd made fair grades in high school, and even been accepted into some good colleges, but he didn't really have the work ethic to triumph academically. He liked the smell of books, though, and this place had an almost overwhelming odor of yellowed paper and leather bindings and dust. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, letting the atmosphere wash over him.

    "Mr. Limen here to see you, ma'am," announced the butler. She started, caught unawares by the sudden interruption, and nearly fell down the ladder. The physical humor if it seemed at odds with this dignified place, but it made him feel a little more at ease. She was human. Still, he was very careful not to laugh.

    "Yes, thank you, John," she called down. John. He had been expecting something more along the lines of Jeeves or Basil--something very proper. He had definitely not been expecting a first name. He began to hope, hesitantly, that she wasn't as much a stickler for proper form as her mansion would suggest. Maybe she wouldn't even care if he didn't know which fork to use.

    She was wearing a different version of the same gray pantsuit she had worn to his apartment three days ago. He looked more closely this time. It was well-made, with nice material and brass buttons. It had obviously been tailored to fit her slight frame, but even for all that it still looked very understated. She couldn't have been much older than he was, but she carried herself like a woman much his elder. Confident, self-assured, down to business. Despite her surrounding, she didn't seem the flashy sort. The reading glasses she wore on a thin chain around her neck, and were the only ornamentation she wore. She was a hard read.

    Recovering herself, she began her descent down the ladder, and he had to resist the urge to check out her butt. He seriously doubted she would appreciate it if she caught him looking.

    "Mr. Limen," she said when she reached the floor level, "I'm glad you came." She might have been glad, too, but none of it showed on her face. She still eyed him as if she was sizing him up, and it made him more uncomfortable than anything else so far. He felt naked under that stare. He wondered absentmindedly if he had dirt under his fingernails.

    "Please, call me Isaac." He tried to keep the very real note of pleading out of his voice.

    "Yes, well. Isaac." Despite her familiarity with John, first names seemed to make her as uncomfortable as titles did him. She didn't offer him to call her Nina. "Have you eaten? I thought we might discuss your new responsibilities over lunch." He had, in fact, grabbed a gas-station burrito on his way over, taking extra pains to keep anything from dripping on his shirt. He hadn't wanted his stomach, which was never far from a knot, to make any unseemly noises on his first day at work. Whatever work was.

    "Sure, I could eat," he lied. He had a notion that invitations for casual interaction would be few and far-between with this woman (girl? No, whatever her age, she was not a girl,) and he wanted to get a better sense of who he would be working for. He hoped, without conviction, that breaking bread together might put them on a more level playing field. As things stood now, the disadvantage was all his.

    "John!" she called out. "We'll be taking lunch in the library." Having disappeared after introducing their guest, the portly butler reappeared in the doorway a moment later to confirm her request with a prim "Certainly, ma'am," and disappeared again. Isaac suspected they would not be eating PB&Js.

    In the interim, she began clearing away the accumulation of yellowed scrolls and more modern printer paper off the long, dark study table in the middle of the room. He, for his part, tried not to look too out-of-place, staring as much at his shoes as the rows upon rows of books. Only a few of the titles were in English, freshly-bound paperbacks mixed in with giant, ancient-looking leather volumes. His high school French felt more useless now than ever. Je suis dans une bibliothèque.

    "So, Serth," he began. He had decided that calling her Nina would be an unwelcome intimacy, and he couldn't stand to call someone his own age Mz., so he settled for the middle-ground. "You, uh, do a lot of reading?" Wow. Real smooth, Isaac.

    "Yes, Isaac. I do a lot of reading," she said without the faintest hint of a smile. No sense of humor, this one. No mercy to speak of, either. With that they let the matter drop, waiting for lunch in silence. He contented himself with trying to pick the dirt out of from under his fingernails (he had been right) while she reorganized her cleared papers onto a smaller writing desk beneath the floor-to-ceiling window on the other side of the room. He idly wondered if she was going to perform experiments on him. Maybe lunch was just to fatten him up. Or to drug him. He wouldn't especially mind being drugged, so long as he woke up with all his organs in the right spots.

    After an interminably long time, during which Isaac's fingernails got no cleaner, John-the-butler reappeared with a large silver tray.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Starjots's Avatar
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    I think your overly expressive writing gets in the way of the story Stripping out unnecessary adverbs and toning down some of the descriptions will sharpen up the story and let your original idea for what is happening come through.

    Dumping his legs in a tangled heap on the floor -- okay, this makes me think of something much different than you intended
    The heel of a small hand collided with his nose -- this made me think he was three feet tall, really, and it was never explained how this happened nor did she act remotely human when it happened
    blonde hair the color of dishwater. -- dishwater isn't blond and whenever i see it used to describe hair i want to quit reading
    Still feeling a little thick-headed from hanging upside-down on his bed -- when we met him he was lying sideways, now i'm thinking as a reader i have to double check this
    he continued to blink at her dully in the bruise-purple late afternoon light that filtered through the heavy rainclouds until -- holy cow, he's glancing at a sky behind a person in a doorway, this seems way too dark and stormy night
    (cozy, he liked to think of it) -- ( and ) make me think, hmmm there is a writer writing this, not what is this guy thinking about
    His grandmother was always inexorably delighted -- 'inexorably, kill it with fire
    "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure how that's any of your business," -- at this point I imagine him saying 'WHO ARE YOU' because just a last name isn't enough to let someone in and start grilling you with 20 questions, even a child will ask who they are by this time
    "You'll be my personal assistant," she said evenly -- modifying 'said' should be done rarely
    Very awake now, the dullness in his head replaced by red-tinged clarity, he stared back at her challengingly -- challengingly? if it ends in 'ly' kill it with fire unless in most cases.
    With that, she gathered herself up and swept from the apartment -- I picture someone with a broom or from Gone With the Wind in a gown, swept is odd
    She had already forgotten why she made it. -- no need to state the obvious
    He tried not to stare, but it was out of his control -- i picture someone holding his head
    he felt impossibly out of place, and impossibly poor. -- adverb red alert
    He had, in fact, grabbed a gas-station burrito on his way over -- now i can identify with this character, srsly

    The story may be great, but the last section took a lot of words for him go to her mansion, come inside and get offered lunch. How much of this advances the story? It may fill out her character and circumstance, but it seemed to drag in this section.

    Hope that is useful in some way.

  3. #3
    Global Moderator Polemarch's Avatar
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    Similar comments to above: there are faster, more efficient ways of demonstrating someone's inner self. Exposition can get in the way.

    First and foremost though, you're actually DOING it - writing - so keep doing that. Trying is just about 90% of it.

    I won't go through line by line, I'll just summarize to say that there's a lot of text. Perhaps approach every paragraph and ask yourself "Could I have conveyed the key points here in one sentence?" The point isn't to cleave down the length - the point is to remove anything which doesn't add specific, measurable value. If you can't explain to me why it matters, take it out.

    (anyway, keep writing, just keep writing and writing YES)
    We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.

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    Fuck year, I can use all of that. I was worried when I started I wouldn't be able to make it expressive enough, that the world would feel flat and undetailed. I actually went back after the first writing and added more detail. Too wordy is a problem I am very comfortable having, because I can strip it down without hardly trying. And focus on ACTION. I hope I can write action.

    Thanks a ton, I'll be back with another draft and more content eventually.

  5. #5
    Global Moderator Polemarch's Avatar
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    I wouldn't even bother editing yet, just get more of the story done. That's my two cents anyway
    We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.

  6. #6
    Senior Member Starjots's Avatar
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    make that four cents, all my comments aren't anything that needs to be fixed right now, you've got an idea, get it on paper before it gets cold

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