Getting a crit from someone who dislikes your story from the get-go is a horrible experience. (I’ve given some bad crits, too, but this post is all about me, me, me.)
After receiving a negative crit, it can be a pleasure to drive along a road with lots of roadkill and mentally swap one critter for another. Another solace is to imagine how those pesky vermin would crit Gene Wolfe. I don’t have to write in Wolfe’s tier to find the exercise curiously refreshing.
Crit: On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe
Hi, Gene —
I just enjoyed reading the first chapter of your story. There were a few places where I got confused, most of them noted later in detailed comments.
The intro letter doesn’t seem to move the story forward. It leaves more questions than answers, plus the spelling errors (“whorl” for “world,” for instance — you might want to check to see if the autocorrect function of your spell checker has a bad entry) and the odd phrasing make me doubt the author’s credibility.
The very beginning of the chapter, the extremely long musing on the pen case, dragged and I wondered what the purpose was. It seems to me that entire part about the pen case could be dropped and the story started when the boat arrives.
One thing that concerns me is the lack of description. It’s hard to get a sense of what this place looks like, or the people, for that matter. I think you need to work on adding more visuals — just a line or two here and there, not a lot.
> Like you we left friends and family and the light of the
> Long Sun for this new whorl we share with you.
> We have long wished to do this. Is it not so for you?
Lack of contractions sounds stilted. Inexperienced writers sometimes omit contractions to give a foreign sound to a speaker, but really it’s not necessary.
> He-hold-fire, a man of our town, has labored many seasons
> where our lander lifts high its head above our trees. The
> gray man speaks to He-hold-fire and to us, and it is his
> word that he will fly once again.
“He-hold-fire” sounds primitive for a culture that is space-faring. (The lander is a space shuttle, right?)
Who’s the gray man? The village prophet?
> One alone from each town of this new whorl,
> whether he or she.
That spell checker again! <vbg>
> Speak our word to others.
Very odd phrasing.
> It is worthless, this old pen case I brought from Viron. It
> is nothing. You might go around the market all day and never
> find a single spirit who would trade you a fresh egg for it.
> Yet it holds . . .
Interesting! I think there might be something special about this pen case, maybe a secret compartment or something.
> At present it holds two quills, for I have taken the third
> one out. Two were in it when I found it in the ashes of our
> shop. The third, with which I am writing, was dropped by
> Oreb not so long ago. I picked it up, put it in this
> pen case, and forgot both Oreb and his feather.
Who’s Oreb? Some explanation, please.
> My name is Horn.
> This is such a pen case as students use in Viron, the city
> in which I was born, and no doubt in many others — a case
> of black leather glued over pressboard; it has a brass hinge
> with a steel spring, and a little brass clamp to keep it
> shut. We sold them in our shop and asked six cardbits; but
> my father would accept four if the purchaser bargained
> awhile, and such purchasers always did.
Nice detail. What planet does this story take place on? What does a cardbit look like?
> Three, if they bought something else, a quire of
> writing paper, say.
Terrific word! But most people won’t know what it means.
> Rajya Mantri wants to lecture me.
This character’s mentioned only one time in chapter. Would like to know who he is.
> Reviewing what I wrote yesterday, I see that I
> have begun without plan or foresight, and in fact
> without the least notion of what I was trying to
> do or why I was trying to do it.
This is just my personal opinion, but the story here seems to echo the author’s actual thought processes. Cut this beginning and start over?
> It is all in the pen case. You have to take out the ink and
> string it together into the right shapes.
A clue about something hidden in the pen case? Stringing out ink sounds like a mixed metaphor.
Text in strikethrough not needed, IMO.
> If I had not picked up this old pen case where my father’s
> shop once stood, it is possible that I might still be
> searching for Silk.
> For the phantom who has eluded me on three whorls.
Not sure what Silk is and why it’s important to find it.
Second paragraph is a fragment.
Also, if Silk is not an actual phantom, might be better to find a different, more descriptive, word. SF readers tend to read literally.
> I question travelers, and I write new letters
> subtracting some facts and adding others,
> composing flatteries and threats I hope will
> bring this town and that to my assistance; no
> doubt my scribe thinks I am penning another
> such letter at this moment, a letter that he,
> poor fellow, will have to copy out with broad,
> fair flourishes upon sheepskins scraped thin.
A 62-word sentence is a bit long for comprehension, don’t you think? Suggest breaking up into more manageable pieces.
> I wish Oreb were here.
Another mention of Oreb, and still no indication how he relates to the protag.
> Now that I know what I mean to do, I can begin.
> But not at the beginning. To begin at the
> beginning would consume far too much time and
> paper, to say nothing of ink. I am going to begin,
> when I do, just a day or two before the moment at
> which I put to sea in the sloop.
<sigh> A very redundant paragraph. Suggest cutting.
> Tomorrow then, when I have had time to decide how best to
> tell the convoluted tale of my long, vain search for Patera
> Silk — for Silk my ideal, who was the augur of our manteion
> in the Sun Street Quarter of Our Sacred City of Viron
> in the belly of the _Whorl._
> When I was young.
Finally it’s told who Silk is. I’m not sure why you just didn’t call him a fortuneteller. I had to look up “augur.” At first I thought it had some thing to do with a drill bit.
Is “manteion” a made-up word? A bigger hint of its meaning would be useful.
“In the belly of the _Whorl_” sounds strange, like the world is a whale.
Second paragraph is another fragment.
> The mainshaft had split — I remember that.
> I was taking it out of the journals when one
> of the twins ran in. I believe it was Hide. “A
> boat’s coming! A big boat’s coming!”
Sounds like he’s working with some type of equipment (surely it can’t be any kind of book), but I can’t picture it. More detail?
Who’s Hide, BTW? He sounds like a small child.
> “Sinew’s here, too.”
> Just to get rid of Hide, I told him to tell his mother about
> it. When he had gone, I got my needler from its
> hiding place and stuck it in my waistband under
> my greasy tunic.
I take it a needler is some type of weapon.
> Sinew was stamping up and down the beach, lovely shells of
> purple, rose, and purest white snapping beneath his boots.
> He looked surly when he saw me, so I told him to bring the
> good telescope out of the sloop. He would have defied me if
> he had possessed the courage. For half a minute we stood eye
> to eye; then he turned and went. I thought he was leaving,
> that he would put out for the mainland in his coracle and
> stay there for a week or a month, which to tell the truth I
> wanted much more than my telescope.
Is Sinew meant to be unsympathetic? If not, I suggest omitting the part about the shells breaking.
What kind of shells? This is an excellent opportunity to show more about this world.
What does Sinew look like? Hair color, eye color, height? More description of people would help me visualize.
> The boat they came in was indeed large. I know I
> counted at least a dozen sails. It carried a
> couple of jibs, three sails on each of its big
> masts, and staysails. I had never seen a boat big
> enough to set staysails between its masts before,
> so I am sure of those.
> Sinew came back with the telescope. I asked whether he
> wanted the first look, and he sneered at me. It was always a
> mistake to try to treat him with any courtesy in those days,
> and I could have kicked myself for it. I put the telescope
> to my eye, wondering what Sinew was doing the second I could
> no longer watch him.
Is the protag’s dislike of Sinew relevant to the story?
> It was a good instrument, made in Dorp they said, where they
> are good sailors and grind good lenses. (We were good sailors
> in New Viron, too — or thought we were — but did not grind
> lenses at all.) Through it I could see the faces at the
> gunwale, all looking toward Tail Bay, for which their boat
> was plainly making. Its hull was white above and black below
> — I recall that, too. Here on Blue the sea is silver where
> it is not so dark a blue that it seems it might dye cloth,
> not at all like Lake Limna at home where the waves were
> nearly always green.
Parenthetical asides tend to distract the reader. Cut?
I also wonder if the mention of Lake Limna is necessary.
> I had become used to Blue’s blue and silver sea long ago, of
> course. Perhaps I only think of it now because we are so far
> from it here in Gaon; but it seems to me, as I sit here to
> write at this beautifully inlaid table the Gaonese have
> provided for me, that I saw it then through the glass as
> though it were new, that there was some magic carried in the
> big black and white boat that made Blue new to me again.
> Perhaps there was, for boats are magic — living things that
> ordinary men like me can shape from wood and iron.
Confusing. Are we in a flashback here? I thought he was on the beach waiting for a boat to land.
The bit about boats being alive is lovely, though.
> “Probably pirates,” Sinew snarled.
> I took my eye from the telescope and saw that he had his
> long, steel-hilted hunting knife out and was testing its
> edge with his thumb. Sinew could never sharpen a knife
> properly (Nettle did it for him in those days),
> although he pretended he could; but for a moment
> before I returned to my study of the boat, I wondered
> whether he would not stab me and try to join them if
> pirates in fact came again.
The protag definitely doesn’t like Sinew! But I have no reason to believe that Sinew, whoever he is, is quite the evil character as portrayed.
Watch those parenthetical remarks.
> There were five besides Gyrfalcon’s sailors, who had been
> brought along to work the boat. Perhaps I ought to list all
> five now and describe them, since Nettle may want to show
> this to others. You would do everything much better,
> darling, I know, working in the descriptions cleverly
> as you did when we wrote _The Book of Silk;_ but it is
> a skill I have never possessed to the same degree.
> No doubt you remember them better than I, as well.
Is “Gyrfalcon” the name of the boat? Missing a “the” before it.
Still don’t know who Nettle is.
The sudden direct address is disconcerting. Are you calling the reader “Darling”?
> Gyrfalcon is fat, with busy eyes, a noble face, and a mop of
> sinknut brown hair just starting to turn gray.
> It was his boat, and he let us know that the
> moment that he came ashore. Do you remember?
Great! Some description. The made-up word “sinknut” doesn’t say anything, however, and sounds like it was just added to let readers know these people aren’t on Earth. What does a noble face look like? More detail, please. I would like to see how Gyrfalcon showed that he owned the boat.
> Eschar is tall and stooped, with a long, sad face, slow to
> speak until his passions are roused. He was on our lander,
> of course, just as Marrow and Remora were.
“Land” instead of “lander”? They were all standing on the protag’s property?
> They were too many for our little house. Hoof and Hide and I
> made a rude table on the beach, laying planks across boxes
> and barrels and bales of paper. Sinew carried out all the
> chairs, I brought the high and low stools I use in the mill,
> and you spread the planks with cloths and set what
> little cheer we had before our uninvited guests. And so
> we managed to entertain all five, and even
> Gyrfalcon’s sailors, with some show of decency.
I’m curious to know what the house looks like. Hoof and Hide? Are those both names? They sound odd. Who is the “you” addressed? How are all these people connected?
> Marrow rapped the makeshift table, calling us to order. Our
> sons and the sailors were sitting on the beach, nudging one
> another, whispering, and tossing shells and pebbles into the
> silver waves. I would have sent them all away if I could. It
> did not seem to be my place to do so, and Marrow let them
Oh! The protag’s family! Could have been told earlier — “my son Sinew” at first mention, for example. Is Marrow also related? His name sounds like he should be: Marrow, Sinew, Hide, Hoof, Horn. What’s the reasoning behind these strange names?
> Remora cleared his throat. “Not, um, so. No — ah —
> intent to, um, contradict, but not, er, I.”
Dialog doesn’t need to sound just like real people talking. In fact, it’s better to leave out the nonsense people speak.
> “Your Chapter’s got more gelt than any of us,”
> Eschar remarked dryly.
“Gelt” — slang for money? Why not just say money?
“Said” is more transparent. Also, watch for too many adverbs that describe how people say something.
> “Not mine, hey? Custodian — um — solely.” The sweet
> salt wind ruffled his hair, making him look at once
> foolish and blessed.
How can a wind be both sweet and salty?
> Gyrfalcon snapped, “New Viron needs a caldé.
> Anybody can see it.”
> You nodded then, Nettle darling. “It’s
> become a terrible place.”
Watch those words that replace the invisible said.
What’s a “caldé”? The reader has to work too hard to decipher meaning.
And another direct address. Very disconcerting.
> Gyrfalcon summed up, “It’s that or we fight, and a fight
> would destroy the town, and all of us, too, in all
> probability. Show them the letter, Marrow.”
Oh! Finally we come to the purpose of the letter.
> Han Mau and I have formalized the court. Up until now, it
> seems, litigants have simply done whatever they could to
> come before the rajan (as their ruler was called at home)
> and made their cases. Witnesses were or were not called, and
> so forth. We have set up a system — tentative, of course,
> but it is a system — in a situation in which any
> system at all will surely be an improvement. Unless they
> choose otherwise, Nauvan will represent all the plaintiffs,
> and Sornvar all the defendants. It will be their duty to see
> that evidence, witnesses, and so forth are present when I
> hear the case. In criminal cases, I will assign one or the
> other to prosecute, depending.
> I feel like Vulpes.
> They will have to be paid, of course; but demanding fees
> from both parties should encourage them to come to
> agreement, so that may work out well. Besides, there will be
> fines. I wish I knew more about our Vironese law — these
> people don’t seem to have had any.
> Back to it.
This whole section is very confusing. It feels like it was accidentally dropped in from another place in the book. Not sure where in time or place it’s occuring. Certainly the reader hasn’t met Han Mau or Nauvan or Sornvar or Vulpes yet.
> “Yes, and here’s something I hadn’t known — something they
> explained to us. You get the best maize by crossing two
> strains. Some crosses are better than others, as you’d
> expect; but the best ones will yield a lot more than either
> of the original two, fight off blight, and need less water.”
Not sure how this conversation about the maize seeds relates to the story. Feels like an infodump.
> “I agree. The point that you’re both forgetting . . .
> I’m not sure how I can explain. We call this whorl
> Blue, and call our sun here the Short Sun.”
> “At home, we called the whorl our ancestors
> came from the Short Sun whorl. Your mother
> will remember that, I’m sure, and I remember talking with
> Patera Silk about all the wisdom and science that we
> left behind there.”
Bad spell checker!
So they call their planet Blue. Very . . . simple.
> “One evening, when I was being punished for making fun of
> Patera Silk, he and I talked about the science of the Short
> Sun Whorl. The wrapping that healed his ankle had been made
> there. We couldn’t make it, we didn’t know how. Glasses and
> the Sacred Windows, and so many other wonderful things we
> had at home, we had only because they had been made on the
> Short Sun Whorl and put into ours by Pas. Chems, for example
> — living people of metal and sun-fire.”
What are “Sacred Windows”? A hint, please. Also would like to know “chems” are; the description doesn’t give much meaning.
> I ate, and cut another slice for myself. “You used your bow
> when you killed this greenbuck for us,” I said.
I don’t understand how a planet of people who travelled on a spaceship would have lost their technology. Why did they have to revert to primitive tools like bows and arrows?
Would like to know more about what a “greenbuck” looks like.
> “I’m going to offer a prayer. If any of you want to join in,
> you’ll be welcome. If you prefer to continue eating, that’s
> a matter between you and the god.”
> Hide began, “Father, I –”
> I was already making the sign of addition over my plate. I
> bowed my head and closed my eyes, imploring the Outsider,
> whom Silk had honored above all the other gods, to help me
> act wisely.
Except for the “addition” part, this ritual seems very Christian. Either these people’s Judeo-Christian beliefs need to be shown earlier or else the new religion they follow should be described.
> “He meant they had better things,” Sinew grunted. “Slug guns
> and needlers. But they’re making slug guns now in town.
> Father’s still got his needler. You’ve seen it. He let me
> hold it one time.”
Not sure how he could “grunt” words.
> “The new slug guns aren’t nearly as good as the old ones,”
> Sinew told him, “but they’re still too expensive for us, and
> conjunction’s coming. It’s only a couple years now. You
> sprats don’t remember the last one.”
> Hide said, “A whole bunch of inhumi came and killed
> lots of people.”
Whoa! Two new terms that need some definition. Just a sentence or two each, please.
> Sinew interrupted you, as he invariably did. “We can’t even
> make needles, and they’re just little slivers of metal. Most
> of the slug guns people have can’t be used because there
> aren’t any more cartridges for them. Everybody’s worried
> about next conjunction. I think we’ll get by like we did
> before, but what about the one after that? Bows and spears,
> that’s all we’ll have. Anybody planning to be dead before
> then?” When none of us spoke, he added, “Me neither.”
> I said, “We lost one whole level of knowledge when we left
> the Short Sun Whorl and went aboard the _Whorl._ We lived in
> there for about three hundred years, if the scholars are
> right, but we never got that knowledge back. Now we’re
> losing another level, as Sinew says.”
Ah! Thank you for the info. It’s a little late and a little “As you know, Bob”-ish, though.
> You said, “We brought knowledge, even if it isn’t enough.
> People from other cities have landed all over this whorl.
> If all of us pooled what we know. . .?”
> I nodded. (It seemed to me that I scarcely looked at her;
> yet I can see her face, scrubbed and serious, as I write.)
> “It might be, as you say. But to pool it we’d have to have
> glasses, when we don’t even have a Window for our Grand
> Hide put in, “Amberjack says that old Prolocutor’s trying to
> build a Sacred Window.”
It’s hard for me to understand why the knowledge isn’t already pooled.
Not sure why the description is in parentheses. Also, what color is her hair? her eyes?
The strange terms confuse me. What are “glasses”? a “Window”? a “Grand Manteion”?
I did find “Prolocutor” in the dictionary. Why not just use “Speaker” or “Chairperson”?
> But now, darling, I have been reconstructing our suppertime
> conversation for several hours, exactly as you and I used to
> try to reconstruct Silk’s when we were writing our book. The
> work has rekindled many tender memories of those days; but
> you recall this conversation better than I, I feel sure, and
> you can fill in the rest for yourself. I am going to bed.
Another one of those strange asides directly addressing some person.
Ending a section with “I am going to bed” feels a little clichéish.
I’m sorry — I just don’t have time to crit the whole chapter and will stop here. I strongly suggest you reconsider what needs to go in the story and what doesn’t. This section needs a complete rewrite.
My opinion, FWIW. Hope this helps!