03 August 2009

First Page Game #5

Paper Soldier

I run my fingers over the paper face on the recruiting poster. The army’s human weapon, shot then cast aside. How do soldiers – trained, ordered, paid to kill – come home and never kill again? Would my thirst for blood, power, violence be slaked by being that weapon, a pawn in someone else’s dangerous game? I think not. But I will meet with this Sgt. Masterson on the morrow. Perhaps become this man’s first female recruit.

My fingers glide across the poster. One claw rips through the soldier’s neck exposing the red brick underneath. My gaze lingers on the words under his feet. Serve the country that has rejected me, relegated me to this half-life, this lonely, nocturnal existence? Why do I torture myself with dreams of acceptance? Anger rises, my flesh radiates the heat. The edges of the poster curl and blacken. I draw away before it can become a flame.

Leaving the decapitated soldier behind, I venture out of the darker alley onto the main street of shops dimly lit by the flickering gas lamps. Time for a little window shopping.

The speculative elements intrigue me, and the story obviously depends on them, which is a Good Thing. The author isn't making me wait either, thereby bypassing a common slush issue. I like the heat radiating flesh, the thirst for violence, the claws. Also, the bitterness and anger indicates conflict even though the character is alone.

I'd probably keep reading, but--and its a big one--I'd be wondering what this little display (all she really does is tear up a poster) has to do with the story. I'm already wondering if this is where the story begins. We have a vague problem with the right degree of complication--she wants to get recruited and go to war to ease her thirst for violence, but she's a creature, and a female one at that. (If she felt a bit torn over her violent tendencies, it might add something--or not. I like me some dark characters so I'm cool with it.) But is it enough? We'd have to see how it plays out. "Going to war" doesn't seem as exciting and conflict-ridden as "being at war " or even "returning home from war." Just a thought.

I'm also seeing a lot of internal narrative--especially questions--substituted for concrete action. I'm wondering if her bitterness and thirst for violence could be better shown. I greatly prefer action over internal narrative, especially in short stories, because I feel internal narrative can do a lot of the fun work for readers. I've mentioned this before, and my fellow editors don't always agree with me, but I rank internal narrative right up there with telling: a little goes a long way. I'd be asking this author what can she do to show this creature's thirst for violence and seeming internal conflict over it via action?

There's enough hints at scene setting:the brick wall, the gas lamps, recruiting a first female, the poster, to satisfy me for a first page, but I'd want it nailed down pretty quick. Generally good work here, though. Thanks so much for playing!!

I've got lots more so keep reading and commenting. The participation in the comment thread has been the most fun, especially when folks kindly disagree. :)


lesleylsmith said...

Thanks for playing, Author. We appreciate it! :)
This piece is very dramatic. Kudos, Author. I like the speculative elements (and they are required here at Electric Spec). I like the fact that the protag is female. I, personally, enjoy internal narrative much more than Editor Betsy does. She, however, enjoys dark stuff much more than I do.

The paper poster is not that compelling to me. The "decapitated soldier" of the last paragraph is a bit misleading... I was looking around for an actual decapitated soldier. I'm also a bit confused with the "window shopping" reference. I assume this creature is not really going window shopping in the traditional sense--but what she's really going to do, I don't know. This is probably shown in the next bit.

The bottom line is I would keep reading.
However, the other bottom line is we would probably not buy this story unless the protagonist has a problem (which is clear) and she tries to solve it and she clearly succeeds or fails.
We are pretty "genre" here.
Good luck, Author!

Deb Smythe said...

You've got an interesting MC, internally and externally. I'm also digging your verb choices: slaked, glide, rip, radiate. Good stuff. I'd definitely give this a few more paragraphs.

I'm the editors, however, in wondering if the story might be starting in the wrong place. How soon before we get to the action and the inciting incident? Would moving opening to the battlefield or the recruiting office be better? I don't know obviously, just food for thought.

Fay said...

I liked how the MC was gradually shown to be some kind of creature by the references to claws etc. Much more intriguing and subtle than a chunk of description about exactly what she was.

The scene-setting was nice too, but the last sentence about window shopping threw me, and also when it says 'decapitated soldier' without referring to it as a poster.

I didn't like the first few lines. They sounded too angsty and preachy (like the reader has to agree with the sentiments). I don't think much of a story starting with a complaint against something. The first paragraph overall came across too formal for my tastes.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Thanks for all the comments. I really like this MC and I think she deserves a better story. Funny how you set out to write a story and the story is meh, but the MC is very interesting.

This story turned out to be a bit more philosophical than action oriented.

Anonymous said...

Not to deter from the game, but to look a bit closer at an issue raised in some of the comments:

I get a bit confused about the telling vs showing thing and would like to hear more of the reasoning behind it. I guess I grew up on fairy tales and there was the delightful narrator part of those. (i.e. "once up a time, a prince/pauper/dwarf/etc. was walking down the road...")

In a novel, can't the set-up be telling and then the action (showing) begins?

lesleylsmith said...

Excellent question, Anonymous! I think we've blogged on telling and showing here before. It is curious that our story tradition does involve a narrator, even today around the campfire. But that is not the modern style in written fiction. The gist of the previous blog was: writers are told to "show, not tell", but at least in my opinion some telling is okay.

However, in my opinion, some telling is better in a novel than in a short story. Rarely does telling result in a good short story. I have read some short stories in our slush that are all telling and I would never buy them. Telling removes the reader from the story. Showing puts the reader in the story. I admit this is a style issue, and some venues may be fine with all telling. Also in short stories, usually there isn't space for a big telling set-up.

Frankly, modern trends in written fiction are such that I would not start a novel with telling either. I would definitely start with action (showing).

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Excellent question.

I have no problem with some telling in either short or long fiction. BUT, and it's a big one, it must be in the hands of a deft storyteller who is doing it for a specific reason.

However, I'm always asking myself if something can be better shown when I run across it in editing situations and in my own writing.

My style is to lean severely into the show camp, almost to the exclusion of other techniques. That's my personal writing style. I don't expect writers we buy stories from to entirely duplicate my style--that would be boring. But I do lean toward more showing as an editor, too. That's my bent and something you should take into consideration if you want me to advocate for your story in our production meetings.

To me, showing lets me watch a story and character unfold via dialogue and action. I get to participate by thinking about the situation and character. If I'm told a character gets angry all the time, then I have to take it as black and white gospel. Not only that, it almost comes off as condescending. It's a lot more fun to discover it via action. That forces a reader to actively participate.

Considering fairy tales (for instance) are meant for children with few life experiences, telling works well for those kinds of readers and listeners. But today's adult reader is typically a thinker, does not take even the nightly news as gospel, and has a lot of life experience to draw on. They'd rather meet your characters as if they're meeting a real person, get to know them a little at a time, and draw their own conclusions.

Hope this helps. We could do a whole other post on it!