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A piece for critiquing

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Mokrie Dela
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#1

Posted 06 August 2013 - 04:30 PM

This isn't a one shot, but the first chapter (following a prologue) of something I'm working on.

It's not finished but this is in its third draft, and I wouldn't mind someone outside of me to give feedback - not just pointing out the flaws, but on how to address them.

----


It has never occurred to me to keep a journal. In truth, there has been little to write about. My life, up until recent times, has been nothing special. What changed? What didn’t change? Only when a man loses everything is he free to do anything. Rock Bottom is the ideal place to rebuild your life. It is in my darkest hour that I learned the greatest truth.

I was born on the seventh of April, in the year of our Lord 1833, to Harold and Lucy Arnold. I was the middle of three; an older brother and a younger sister. Home for us was a small, cramped house, sandwiched in the middle of a row of identical houses. Father worked at a factory by day – I never knew exactly what he did, but he often spoke of the new machines, and how loud it was, and he’d often smell of smoke from the coal engines. My brother – Joseph – also worked. His employ was at the freight docks and he spent his day loading and unloading ships. On some days I would help him. Work was scarce, and my parents, encumbered with love and cherishment for us, couldn’t bring themselves to send us to the workhouses. Instead I did fleeting work for the docks – a few days a week, a few hours each, for a few shillings. Once a week I attended what my mother called Dame School, in the house of someone we knew. Every Sunday was Church Day, and for the children, Sunday School, which delivered short of what it promised - mostly religious education, with little practical lessons, apart from how to read and write – which I never excelled at.

My memory of such times is as hazy as the city’s fog, but the sixteenth of March has stuck in my mind.
I was not helping at the docks that day; not too many ships had sailed in the last few days due to an off shore storm. The days when I did not work, I helped Mother. Looking back now, I am amazed I was never sent away to work in the mines or mills, but my parents had impressed strong values of unity and togetherness upon us. We were as one, regardless of our poverty.
My younger sister, Abigail was left at home, scrubbing the floor as I accompanied Mother to the store. I think Mother had designs on her becoming a Lady, and marrying into money. Mister Winterbottom – a heavy set man with thinning blonde hair – would always greet us with a warm, hearty smile. He’d always enquire as to our well being and offered the day’s remaining vegetables and meats (I suspect he set some aside at times) to us at a low price. We didn’t eat grand meals, but we did at least eat; oats and bread in the morning, usually bread and cheese at lunch and a hot dinner consisting of potatoes and some vegetables in the evening. Sunday dinner was the best meal; we got meat once or twice a week and would have meat and potatoes and vegetables. Christmas was by far the best day of the year though. We all worked hard and for that one day We could reap the benefits, of a fashion. Mister Winterbottom would see to it that we had the necessary ingredients for a meal worthy of The Lord’s Birthday, and for his year-long efforts, Father would buy him a bottle of whiskey. We would eat fresh meat and potatoes that day, and Father would get some nuts too. I would wake to see the bulge in my stocking, hanging over the fireplace and, with eager fingers, seek out the orange I received each year – an entire orange! I would endeavour to make it last for days, but was never successful. One of Father’s colleagues had a brother who was a woodsman, and he would also make a small toy for each of us. Oh what a day Christmas would be! And Mister Winterbottom did so much to make it so!
The sixteenth was by no means abnormal. I had accompanied Mother on her trip to Mister Winterbottom, and as she went about her business in the city. Naturally I was assigned to carry what needed carrying, and that was fine with me.
The markets always fascinated me. I watched the crowds as Mother waited in line, imagining them swallowing me whole. One day, around Christmas, we’d seen a magician in the street. He made things disappear and then conjured them back to reality. I imagined the crowds affording me the same ability – to be able to hide in the crowd, to champion the game of Hide and Seek... I was also intrigued in the people. These people that spent their days spending money and not earning it. That was the man’s job, I knew, but many of these people were men. Perhaps their lives were secure enough that they could assign some time to themselves, or perhaps they simply did not work as hard as Father. I remember seeing a man and woman, elegantly dressed but not out of place, walking at their own speed through the crowd as though they were spirits from another world. The crowd didn’t know they were there, and the couple walked on. I never saw them buy anything, but they were there often. I always wondered why – what was their story?
The groceries were not heavy, even for a young boy – though at thirteen I was certainly expected to be capable of manual labour, and indeed I was. We walked back home, after a couple other stops, which escape my memory. I do remember – clearly – walking down our street. Nothing was different of course, and I had no idea what lay ahead. There was no signs; no black crowd above our house, no sinking sun, shying behind rainclouds. There was no black cat crossing our path or other superstitious nonsense, only the same scene that I say daily – the row of tightly packed houses, cramped and dull, housing dozens of families such as mine.

Mother opened the door and instructed me to take the goods to the kitchen, which I did without distraction. I didn’t see the man sitting on the sofa – not until I returned to see Abigail’s shame-laden face. She had obviously granted entry to the man, who was impeccably dressed in a dark suit. His hat was in his hands and he had stood to greet Mother.
“She’ll grow into a fine woman,” the man said, with perfect diction and pronounciation. A well educated man, it would seem. “I commend your efforts, Mrs Arnold.” That’s our surname, Arnold. My name is Nathaniel. My Mother and Father believe in God, and every day before dinner we pray. And at bed time. We have to kneel by our beds and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Our names are those of God, she says. She taught us the meanings and how important they were. The name should be given carefully, so the child can become as that name suggests. My name means ‘Given by God’, she says. Each child is a blessing from The Lord.
Joseph’s means God will give, or something, another praise of The Lord. Abigail’s means Father’s Joy, which makes sense because our father cherishes her so much. She is his favourite.
I have no idea what this man’s name is. It doesn’t really matter I guess.
I immediately didn’t like him. I don’t know why, exactly, but there was something in his eye – a coldness. He dipped his head in polite greeting, calling Mother ‘lady’, but his eyes betrayed his manners. It was as though there was an aura around him, a hue that only I could see, and such sight was not one of vision but of... unexplainable perception.
Mother ushered us into the kitchen, closing the door behind us. We heard muffled voices as we sat at the table, playing with a single dice which Abigail had produced from a drawer – I have no idea as to its origins. Perhaps a forgotten Christmas present.
Mother returned and invited us into the sitting room, but there was something in her voice.
There was an accident.
Not much to worry about there is there? Our father was hurt in the accident. I asked if he’s ok, and getting nothing back.
“When will he be home?” I asked.
“He’s not coming home,” Mother said.
It was clear. Abigail was too young to understand it. I didn’t think she ever will. It was a speculation I wish was wrong.

For a time, I just sat there – for minutes or perhaps hours. I remember staring at Mother’s face, waiting for her to say it was a trick. But she didn’t. It was real.
I stood and went outside. That’s when I remember crying.

Father was the centre of the world. He was the sun, and the moon. He was my hero, a man who would walk through fire just to feed us for one night. He had always been, and I thought always would. That he was gone was just... impossible. He was my model of God. Father was always strong. The Almighty was strong. Father was always wise. God was wise.
Now, Father was gone. With no Father, there was no God.

Otter
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#2

Posted 06 August 2013 - 05:43 PM Edited by Otter, 06 August 2013 - 05:54 PM.

It's a great setup, and intriguing even if a little superficial off the top. It reads a little bit (and I'm being overly picky here) like "fancy-times" romanticism.

A few suggestions, and again please keep in mind that I'm giving the rigorous critiquing something so obviously crafted deserves:

- Nathaniel's relationship to faith, which is struck home at the end of the chapter, seems inconsistent. When you open up with "The Year of our Lord" I was immediately suspicious of an underlying sarcasm (for better or worse) which ultimately seems to ring true towards the end, and again when he speaks of Sunday School. But there are many moments when the subject seems to be treated with gravitas that, for me, contradicts this.

- The setting is clear in all aspects but location. I'm assuming London because of the fog and the precious name of "Mr Winterbottom" but the docks throw me off a little bit. Not sure how important this is to you.

- I was feeling really dry on style (up until the imagery of the crowd swallowing him, which runs the risk of being a little cliche but was a welcome flight of abstraction) and I think you could benefit by trying to breathe a little more life into these vignettes of his life... without going overboard.

- Too many "-"s off the top really broke the flow. Personally, I only rely on - something this significant - if I really mean to emphasize something more than just a contracted sentence or an aside in brackets. Kind of leads into this next point:

- Nathaniel doesn't quite feel genuine to me. I'd suggest looking deeper into the history of styles, expression, and memoirs of this era to help build a stronger representation of this character, and how he would write, in your mind. I initially mentioned a feeling of superficiality, and this is where it seems the most pronounced: Nathaniel feels, a little bit, like a put-on caricature. I think you could stand to flesh him out a bit. Obviously, you have a whole story left with which to do so, and perhaps once you've spent more time in his shoes you can return to this opening chapter.


Thanks for a great read! Helping me adjust back to the grind on this tuesday-after-a-long-weekend.

Edit - an interesting source for you may be the journal of Adam Ewing from Cloud Atlas or the Master and Commander series. You'll find some incredibly rich language therein, which may nt quite suit Nathaniel, but lead to some unexpected Aha! moments to inform his character and setting.

Mokrie Dela
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#3

Posted 06 August 2013 - 11:52 PM

Thanks for the read and advice.

Religion - Nathaniel is brought up by a religious family. He's impressionable and as any kid would be, not completely committed to the faith. The "Year of our lord" was meant to be a speech pattern of the times, more than religious meaning. It's the Victorian era, and getting a handle on the language has been difficult*.
Sunday school was how he was brought up. If it continued he'd be religious, but his father dying changed that. With that, his faith is shaken and he becomes disillusioned. The loss of faith is important to the story later on (which is remaining under wraps!), and for the character growth.
I can see where some inconsistencies could arise. In my mind it was a religious education that would lead to a religious adulthood, but with the aforementioned event, his faith is gone. There simply cant be a god, if you get me?

Location - a good observation, but one that has little relevance, as the setting is crucial, and already thought out. The docks refer to those on the Thames, and yes, it is London. There is no mistaking that in the rest of the story which mentions the royals and other such events. A good observation, and thanks for pointing it out nonetheless.

Style. I feared it may sound too formal or dull. This chapter is a diary entry (a format i'm experimenting with) and as i said, was written as he's grown up, and educated by his new "family". The writing style is meant to reflect that of the era and his education of sorts. Any specific advice on how I can make it more full of life? Perhaps going deeper into his emotions? (i suddenly think I omitted that!)

"-" Hmm. I do use them a lot, when i feel a comma isn't enough of a "digression" or elaboration. I shall think about this, although I'm not sure how to overcome it!

The character - he's basically boring, I think you're saying. Another thing I feared, although I do think perhaps I've sold him short a little. I shall earmark this and return to this later **

Thanks for the feedback and that last bit about Adam Ewing. I shall check it out!


* The character is a slightly complex one in this way - he's a child of poverty, but this is written as him looking back, having broken from poverty into a new "family" (i use the term loosely), and a more prosperous life. He's grown and learned a lot.


**This passage was written about ten years after it happened (in story chronology) - he's grown etc, and there's a lot that the story will have in between. It's kind of like a flashback; the story opens with a passage of him in his "new" life, then there's this journal entry, after which the story does one of two things: 1 - continues from that moment, and how his life changes or 2 - continues from the time that it's written, with more journal entries providing "flashbacks" to his older life. I hope that makes sense.


Ziggy455
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#4

Posted 12 August 2013 - 10:14 PM

I'll give it the two sides.

Editorial-wise, Otter's on the ball. For the journal of somebody within the 1800s, the style feels a little too modernized. Getting in on some older-dated literature is a tedious task but you can try reading some Poe, and definitely Shelley's Frankenstein aswell as it's extremely old and written in journal format. Stoker's Dracula would be a good reference, not on themes, but on style, yes. You'd make Nathaniel feel more real if you dived into him as a person. This is his own journal. He can put his real thoughts here, and a lot more than he would in other scenarios.

Your grammar's good, and it all reads smoothly, so I won't go too deep into this kind of stuff. You've improved a lot, and for that I commend you. So we'll jump into the creative part.

Creatively, I like the story so far. You're setting it up nicely, because we're getting a little insight into Nathaniel's family life, and we're seeing change. The deepy-religious hints can be allowed due to the age and times -I believe God was the high-point in the 1800s.

I agreed with Otter on the location before you mentioned it. It's always been my philosophy that you need a stage for your actors, and I want to envision everything about the world we're in. I'd assume it's London too but that's only due to the names, and the fact docks were a large part of London's trade businesses in the 1800s.

I'd like to see the next part before I give you more on the story, which I do enjoy. I'd like to see where it goes from here, and I want to see Nathaniel develop too.

Mokrie Dela
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#5

Posted 13 August 2013 - 09:57 AM Edited by Mokrie Dela, 13 August 2013 - 01:32 PM.

Thanks ziggs. As i said, the setting is introduced in the prologue (this is chapter one).
I will have to take some time and look into those writings you mentioned. I can see that the style isn't "Victorian" enough. That I'm not "in depth" enough in Nathaniel's character is a good point too. I think what I was trying to do was to write this slightly childlike, which in hindsight didn't work. It's written ten years later, and he's grown since then. I think I need to write ALL of it (chronologically) and have the character develop through the story, from childhood to adulthood, THEN rewrite this.

I think i've got enough to go on; cheers guys.

EDIT: Are there any such victorian-era writings that are online, and free to view? I'm unable to get to the library atm, so i'm thinking writing blogs, forums etc

Eminence
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#6

Posted 15 August 2013 - 12:18 PM Edited by Eminence, 15 August 2013 - 01:05 PM.

QUOTE (Mokrie Dela @ Tuesday, Aug 13 2013, 10:57)
EDIT: Are there any such victorian-era writings that are online, and free to view? I'm unable to get to the library atm, so i'm thinking writing blogs, forums etc

Pretty much all Victorian literature is in the public domain these days, so you can grab all the major novels for free. Project Gutenberg is a great site for this. Obviously anything by Dickens is great, but you could (should?) also check out Middlemarch, Jude the Obscure, Mary Barton, Jane Eyre and last, but certainly not least, Wuthering Heights.

Stylistically, while I think you could learn a great deal from reading more Victorian works, I think you're on the right track. I'm definitely getting a sense of the era through the way you're writing, although as Otter says it does feel a little inauthentic. The thing I'd ask, though, is whether you simply want to imitate the Victorian style? If so, I don't really understand why.

To explain this, let me move onto my opinion of this from a story standpoint. I'm going to be blunt. I found it boring. I found it beyond boring, in fact. I found it boring because I've been there, done that, seen it all before. Read a few of the novels I've mentioned and you'll feel like you've been there before too. From the cliche description of a cliche Victorian child's upbringing, to the standard themes of poverty and religion, there's just nothing new here.

And don't get me started on the threadbare 'as hazy as the city's fog' simile. I'm guessing you're not familiar with Bleak House? tounge.gif

QUOTE (Bleak House's Second Paragraph)
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.


I guess what I'm trying to ask is why? The Victorian writing style is archaic and verbose and – to me, at least – undesirable. The era has been mined for all it's worth. So honest to god, what are you bringing to the table?

It's such a specific choice to make for a contemporary writer to set something in the Victorian period. If you're going to, I think you need a greater awareness of the era, not in terms of research and accuracy, but in terms of just knowing what has come before. I'm not saying you need to head in the direction of satire or anything, but you need to be mindful of when you're approaching one of the era's tropes – and there are a lot of them – so that you can then subvert them and pull the rug out from underneath the reader.

Because then I'll be like... 'hang on, I was sure this was going to happen, but instead this happened. I wasn't expecting that. Huh. I guess this writer knows what he's doing'.

At the moment, I'm not sensing that. I think you're using the tropes as building blocks more than anything, even if subconsciously. But by writing in this period, you're both making a comment on – and competing with – Victorian literature. So you need to have more to say. And you need to say it differently.

Otherwise, why shouldn't I just go grab any of the novels mentioned above and read those instead?

Mokrie Dela
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#7

Posted 16 August 2013 - 10:17 AM

That's a very good point, Eminence. I will have to look into those writings you mentioned. All I can say is that this story does have SOMETHING [slightly] different about it. It's an era I've always wanted to explore, and tbh i've never been able to satisfy that want through films or books. I wanted to walk around the city, crafting my own little story.
As said, this is just a small part of the story, put up to get feedback on so I can make it feel more victorian. The storyline itself is planned out and i'm confident about it. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it's what I wanted to write.

This extract does nothing to make the reader WANT to read it; i'm aware of that. I also have to admit, with some shame, that I'm not hugely aware of Bleak house. I think in many ways that's my downfall - so many classic novels i've not read.

My biggest issue is simple getting the feel of the era through speech. If you remember, a year or so ago i shared a friends work, and there was a passage in it that read:
QUOTE
"Do not let it be that some of our wine is now dressing the floors.”
Which in this day and age would be "you better not have spilt our wine!"
I think as previously said by yourself, Ziggy and otter, reading literature from the era/style would address that.

I will take your "boredom" into account however, because even in the midst of an interesting story, a dull chapter can mess things up. I'm experimenting with a format of having the story play out in present tense, as per the norm, but with "flashbacks" told via journal entries throughout, telling the character's backstory (this is one such entry). I'm finding it difficult to have that work, so any advice on that would be great too.

I think more character development is needed, and a little more education/awareness too. "As hazy as the city's fog" has to go, i think. That passage you shared has made me want to avoid the word "fog" - perhaps metaphors would be better....

Thanks for the feedback guys. I've got some work to do now tounge.gif




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