Monday, March 14, 2011

MB4 March Critique: Cat Scratch Fever, or What?

Every second Monday of the month, your four Murderby4 hosts will get together to critique a short piece from our readers. Our first brave soul is Barb Carlson. Thanks, Barb, for sending this in!

Barb's piece was in response to this writing prompt from Write the last (few) paragraphs or stanzas of a story or poem that ends with the protagonist waking from a dream. Then, add dialogue or exposition (or a combination) that explains something in the plot that required the whole thing to be a dream.”

Below you'll find Barb's piece with footnotes for the comments made by Marta Stephens, Kim Smith, Ron Adams, and Aaron Lazar. We had a slight glitch with mismatched software, so even though you see a bunch of ALs in there, many of them belong to Kim Smith. You'll see that in the footnotes!

Cat Scratch Fever or What[AL1] ?

White light blinded him and he struggled to sit up. [AL2] He found he couldn't move ... he seemed to be tied down. Everywhere he looked was white[ms3] [AL4] .

Suddenly, [AL5] a humanoid figure swam into view. Long fingers with too many joints reached at him and he flinched as the cold, gray digits touched his face[AL6] .

Relax, he heard in his mind. No harm, no harm[AL7] . He screamed, as he saw the instrument in the creature's other hand. It was a long needle! No, it was a hugely [RA8] long needle! He thrashed against his bonds, and swung his head back and forth. The creature pressed its hand against his mouth, holding his head still with surprising strength.

Time after time, the instrument pricked his skin, sliding into his face impossibly far[AL9] .
His screams were muffled against the creature's hand, and he could barely breathe. Finally, suffocating, he passed out ...

And awoke with a start. He flung the cat off his face where it had apparently been kneading against his cheeks. He wiped off little pinpricks of blood from his face and looked in the mirror, breathing deeply[AL10] .

"Stupid cat!" he yelled[AL11] . "You were sleeping on my face again, you miserable feline! That's the third time in three months! Look!" He started counting the holes in his face. "Look at all these scratches! What the hell?!"

Angrily, he grabbed his work clothes, dressed quickly and stomped downstairs for some coffee. [RA12] He saw he was running late, so he rushed off to work with the coffee still in his hand.

By the time he got to work, he was much calmer, but embarrassed at the odd looks he was getting from his co-workers. Damn, am I bleeding again or something? I need to get to a mirror!

He hadn't been at his desk for more than a couple minutes when his supervisor walked in.
"So ... what happened yesterday?" she demanded[ms13] .

"Yesterday?" he said, puzzled. "What are you talking about? Yesterday was Sunday. I mowed the grass, watched the game and played video games." His brow furrowed. "Why?"
"John," she said carefully, "today is Tuesday. Yesterday was Monday. You didn't show up for work ... remember?"

He felt the blood drain from his face. "Huh?" he blinked. "It's Tuesday?"
She raised her eyebrows, "Um ... yes, it's Tuesday. What did you do? Get so drunk you blacked out?"[ms14] 

"No!" he pushed his chair back from the desk[AL15] . "No! I don't drink! Honest!" A horrible thought occurred to him ... that WAS just a dream, right? "I ... I ...," he stammered, "I have no idea." He swayed slightly, feeling dizzy. "Maybe I don't feel so good," he finished[AL16] .

Marcia frowned at him. "I think you should go see a doctor, and bring back a note saying you're fit for work. Take a couple days off if you need to, but you can't do this again." She started for the door. "Go right now and we'll talk when you get back."

John sat stunned and silent at his desk. Tuesday. It was Tuesday? How could he lose an entire day? Oh great, she wants to talk. I'm so screwed. He picked up his phone and punched in the number for the doctor’s office. They'd better not find anything implanted in my skull, or I'm going to have to kick some[ms17]  ET[RA18]  butt[AL19] [AL20]  ...

 [AL1]Kim Smith: Love the title!

 [AL2]This opening sure caught my interest!

 [ms3]Barb, since this piece was written in response to a writing prompt, I can see the challenged you faced.
A note to keep in mind though is that it’s frustrating for the reader (at least for this one) when a story doesn’t introduce the main character by name within the first couple of sentences. I want to know who the narrator is and why he/she is important enough to be in the opening paragraph.

 [AL4]Kim Smith: Would have like to see more description here about the “white.”

 [AL5]I’ve had a love/hate relationship with “suddenly.” I used to use it because how else do you describe something looming up out of nowhere, and it is a natural pattern of speech for us, right? Then I was soundly criticized for using suddenly – it was supposedly “amateurish.” So I stopped. Until a big time editor added “suddenly” back into my manuscript. LOL.

 [AL6]Kim Smith: Good!
 [AL7]It’s good that you have his inner thoughts in italics. This is correct.

 [RA8]Like Aaron I have a love hate relationship with some adverbs. I see them used all the time by the “pros”, but have had editors shred me for being lazy.  I think about alternatives every time I go to the –ly. Also, italics aren’t needed for emphasis here.

 [AL9]Kim Smith: Ouch! I flinched here :)

 [AL10]Kim Smith: Lol did NOT see this coming!

 [AL11]You might find that using an exclamation mark is sufficient. You don’t really need the “he yelled.” But be careful of using too many exclamation marks. They’re okay in dialogue to an extent, but try to avoid them in narrative at all costs. ;o) (not that you did that here, just since we’re on the topic!)

 [RA12]“Angry, he grabbed his work clothes and threw them on as he stomped down stairs for some coffee.” As an alternative

 [ms13]Let your dialogue SHOW the tone.  When you want to show emotion, use a beat instead of a tag. (i.e., “So…what happened yesterday?” Marcia tapped her nails on his desk.)  Note, the first time a character is introduced, name him/her before using pronouns. 
Also, stick to tags like “said” and “asked.”  The reader tends to skip over them.

 [ms14]Good bit of dialogue in this section.

 [AL15]“he pushed his chair back from the desk” is a great example of a ‘beat.’ You used it well here.

 [AL16]Kim Smith: Excellent twist!

 [ms17]Good start, Barb.  It would be interesting to see what you can do with this if you begin the story when he walks into his office on Tuesday. Thanks for sharing!

 [RA18]Great opening for a story, Barb. Mechanics issues aside, this sounds like it has the potential to be a great sci fi adventure. Good luck and thanks for sharing it!

 [AL19]Barb, this was a fun piece! Thanks for sharing it with us at MB4 today. I hope our comments were useful and that you enjoyed the experience. ;o)

 [AL20]Kim Smith: Love this! Very good work- would love to read more :P


Barbara said...

Thank you all! I'm glowing from the praise! This critique was so different from anything I've gotten before. Useful!

I had to laugh at the comment on the exclamation points. I do tend to overuse them, and 6 in one paragraph was probably a little bit of overkill. LOL!

I also appreciate the suggestions for avoiding the "ly" words. I had a little trouble with those sections. After not looking at this for a few weeks, I really hated "hugely". I probably would have caught that one eventually.

I'm delighted you enjoyed it :)

Thank you so much! (see? just one)


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Barb, thanks so much for being our first official writer to accept our critique on your work. It was really fun seeing what each member of the team had to say, and I'm glad it was helpful to you! Keep on writing and stay in touch. ;o)