The Nihon Review Forum

Everything Else => Writer's Block => Topic started by: Mesachie on December 31, 2010, 08:26:57 AM

Title: Not even a story
Post by: Mesachie on December 31, 2010, 08:26:57 AM
This is not even a short story yet, more like an introduction to a story.  But I thought I would let it out and see if it could be improved with some sage advice from the members here.  I haven't completely finalized the narrator/protagonist yet so I have been a bit shy on describing him more fully.  Part of the exercise was to use the old cliche in the opening sentence, it is not cast in stone that it remains, but I wanted to make it integral to the story.  

Before the Cinema

  It was dark and stormy night punctuated by the whistling of my battered, old pressure cooker.  I was baking bread on the stove top, since we didn't have an oven and it was too hot to cook during the day.  Outside an unnamed tropical depression pounded the palm trees around us, sending the geckos scurrying for cover.  Our kerosene lamp threw its dim yellow light over our small room.  As soon as a cloud farts, we lose electricity.  But a tank of propane kept the stove top going; we knew better than to rely on electricity in this corner of the world.

There is no odor better than the smell of fresh cooked bread.  The funny thing with pressure cooker bread is the complete lack of crust.  Zero crust.  It is the same on the outside as it is on the inside.  If only people were as obvious as that bread.  But they aren't.  No matter how I wish people transparent or at least obvious, mostly they are a confusing mass of conflicting motives, drives and feelings. 

Take Mya, my current girlfriend.  I had admired her slim figure and charming laugh from a short distance, often seeing her in the local restaurant and convenience store, or what passed for a restaurant on this island.  We exchanged pleasantries, laughed at the children chasing escaped piglets and shared our views on the weather in her native tongue.  She spoke a bit of my language too, so I was pleased when she made the effort to greet me in English..  What really got me interested in her though was that she was being courted by a tomboy.  The short-haired, chubby boy-girl that brought her flowers and tried to whisper sweet nothings in her ear just tickled my funny bone.  Not that I had anything against people looking for love and affection where ever their heart tells them to. 

But in the quiet evening, as I dodged a mosquito that snuck under the bed netting, I imagined a pudgy dark skinned suitor trying to stroke Mya's arm and nuzzle a kiss on her neck or nibble her ear.  Pretty soon the idea of sleep would escape me.  I wondered how interested Mya was in the dark eyed gaze of her admirer.  Were they dating now, starting to make a commitment? It took only a few very restless nights as I pondered the advance of their courtship and I finally started inquiring about Mya. 

Few things escape the notice of the old women in the villages here.  They had long noted Mya's admirers, the tomboy, a few of the lads at the poultry farm who were too poor to do anything but watch wistfully from a distance, and though the old women would cluck their tongues and shake their heads when the tomboy came with gifts when the boys were too poor, they also turned their heads and smiled once the two young women, so different in appearance, disappeared from sight.  Such relationships were part of the fabric of this place.  It drove the Catholic padres and the Born-Again Christians to tears, but everyone else just shrugged, laughed and let it be. 

 Mya, of course, heard about my interest in her.  Our conversations went from single word greetings to inquiries about my health and plans for the day.  She struggled with a language taught in school, but rarely used.  My command of her native tongue was not great, but it was improving. I could ask the price of something, shake my head no, and by their standards, rudely comment on how expensive whatever the object I was interested in was.  Finally we would bicker on a more reasonable price.  When I first arrived I was seen as a source of walking income.  But since I lived simply, generally ate what they did, and rarely indulged in luxuries, I became less of a target and more of a conversation piece. 

I had no work, at least in the sense of employment, so my days were free to explore and my nights were spent sipping the local beer, served warm, listening to radio and fending off children that wanted someone to buy them some candy, at least until Mya entered my life.  Not naturally amiable nor stand-offish.  So after some time, I made acquaintances and began to see the fabric of the island. Old people rule with a usually benign hand.  Spinster aunts watch over the up-bringing of nieces and nephews, drawing the line that doting parents often won't.  Children steal mango and guava from orchards of relatives who mostly look the other way once they are sure it is at least blood kin stumbling around in the dark, laughing and jumping at the branches full of ripe fruit.

The ripe fruit I was thinking of plucking was Mya, of course.  Once the tomboy heard of my interest, she came every afternoon or evening to sit with Mya and to glare at me if I came anywhere near them.  Mya, none-the-less, always called out a greeting as I passed by.  I could hear the tomboy complain bitterly as I passed on my way. 

Finally I ran into Mya on a warm late morning.  No tomboy in sight.  I smiled and we chatted, a bit in English but mostly her native tongue.  I asked if she had been to the cinema lately.  No, she replied, as I expected since it is a boat ride over to the next island where a slightly larger town hosts a weekend theater playing old movies and pirates of popular international releases.  Few people traveled over simply to watch a movie and they would often be caught overnight if they missed the tiny inter-island ferry back.  Made bold by the warmth of her smile and her attempts to keep the conversation going, I asked her if she wanted to go tomorrow.  She lost her smile and stared at me. 

I wondered if I had made a serious mistake.  Perhaps she needed more courting, a few more conversations, a more local date or two, before I should broach the idea of traveling together, even if it was just to the next island.  You would have thought I had asked her for her virginity.  And perhaps, in a roundabout way, I was. 

She said she would like to go, but I didn't see the warmth of her smile return.  She said she would have to make sure she was free to go, but she thought it would be alright.  I could tell she felt otherwise.  So I tried a different tact.  I said, “bring your mother and even your friend, if you want.”

“Friend?” she said, puzzled.

“The one you sit with in the evening. Short dark hair, not so pretty as you, but who likes to share sweets with you.”

Mya laughed.  “My mother, I do not know if she will come.  I am sure my friend will not.”

“Well, I will leave it up to you, but they both are welcome.” I grinned back at her.  The late morning sun lit her beauty, her teeth glistened and her dark eyes danced. I was happy to see warmth in her face again.

“Okay, then I will talk to you later,” she laughed, “and let you know who will ride with us on the ferry.”

I slept better that night than I had for some time.  And I was looking forward to see just who join our little party tomorrow.

Lost in my reminisce,  Mya punched my arm and asked how long was I going to bake the bread? I looked up at the clock and realized that I had forgotten to turn the stove top off and let the pressure cooker cool down.  She walked over to the tank and turned the valve closed.  I called to her, and put my arms around her.  The storm whistled outside, the occasional palm frond banged against the roof, and I thought about our first date, a disastrous trip to the movies that would change my life.  I nuzzled her neck and she pulled me closer.  It would take twenty minutes for the pressure cooker to cool down, good if we killed time and worked up an appetite.  I reached over and turned the kerosene lantern off.
Title: Re: Not even a story
Post by: Kylaran on January 10, 2011, 11:48:09 AM
Back in middle school (oh god, that was 6 years ago), I wrote fiction frequently for fun and for competition. I think I have a story that's still on about Love Hina. I haven't written anything in many, many years.

An interesting start, certainly able to be polished even more. Here's a few things.

1.) Despite the first person narration and the flashback early on, the time/location is somewhat disorienting. I would suggest you make it slightly more obvious that the majority of this part is flashback by carefully using words that we frequently use to refer to the past. Example:

But in the quiet evening, as I dodged a mosquito that snuck under the bed netting, I imagined a pudgy dark skinned suitor trying to stroke Mya's arm and nuzzle a kiss on her neck or nibble her ear.  Pretty soon the idea of sleep would escape me.

The "but in the quiet evening" refers to a single night, when the previous paragraph refers to multiple instances of time, rather than a single one. Since the time frame suddenly shifted I thought you may have been discussing the present for the narrator, when in fact the next sentence showed that it was still the flashback. Take more care how these minute detail suggest a certain setting.

2.) Mya's character. It's hard to sympathize with the narrator's attraction to the girl if we can't at least have a glimpse of her looks and her personality. By no means does your description have to be complete, considering this is an introduction to a story, but it needs to have sufficient detail for the reader to "fill in the blanks", so to speak. All we know is that a few local boys liked her, and a tomboy tried courting her, but if you provided a unique aspect to her personality or appearance that the narrator focuses on, it makes his attraction far more believable. Considering your exposition describing the locals on the island is fairly detailed, I'm assuming you wanted to leave out detail on Mya to purposely keep it vague. I think you can keep the feel, but add in just a bit more detail about her. Something to for us to grab on to.

3.) Your use of punctuation. There's a few a awkward areas in the text like this:

Lost in my reminisce,  Mya punched my arm and asked how long was I going to bake the bread?

In this case, it should either be a statement without quotes or a question in quotations. The subject of the sentence is Mya, and her asking him how long it took to bake bread is a statement, not a question. In addition, besides attributing a practical function to punctuation, think of a metaphorical one. Especially since you're using first person, feel free to use the dash, which can be quite useful for periodic sentences and loose sentences: two common types of sentences used in controlling how you want the narrator's thoughts to impact a reader.
Title: Re: Not even a story
Post by: Mesachie on January 12, 2011, 09:49:28 AM
Thank you very much for your thoughtful and insightful comments.  I am working on part II of the story now, The Ferry.  Since I really had no idea how it was going to turn out or what sort of hook/plot arc I was would end up using, I left much loose and undefined in Part I.  I will rewrite that to tighten it up and make Mya a more viable point of interest. 

I do very much appreciate the comments on grammar and so forth.  I get caught in the story telling (or story inventing process) and lose focus on the very necessary aspects of a readable presentation.

I will post Part II down the road, perhaps with a reworked Part I so that it will all fit together a bit more coherently.   
Title: Re: Not even a story
Post by: DrIdiot on January 12, 2011, 10:50:35 AM
I think the biggest problem is there's too much exposition.  One of the golden rules of writing short fiction is that you can't start your story with long exposition, because exposition tends to be boring unless you already have some established interested in the premise, which there is none in the beginning.

You have the right idea in that you don't start immediately with describing the girlfriend, but you still start by simply describing your surroundings, and it's a bit dry.

There are a few phrases which are awkward, but they're minor issues compared to this.
Title: Re: Not even a story
Post by: Mesachie on January 12, 2011, 02:08:38 PM
Okay, I think I missed that handout, the part about "no exposition". I won't say it doesn't ring a bell at all, but only remotely.  You make an important point.  Authors break rules all the time, but they need to know what rule they are breaking if they are to do it aptly.  I don't here so it is failing on that point. 

I do open describing the situation, the actual physical surroundings, the sounds of the pressure cooker, and of course, the cliche of "A dark and stormy night" which I may try to camouflage a bit in my rewrite.  I will think more about your points, but I am not certain, at least now, how I will be able to step away from the use of exposition in my narration, since I don't have any action planned.

Lifted from Wikipedia entry on Exposition is a discussion of your point: According to Robert Kernen, "Exposition can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story. It can also be the quickest way to kill a plot's momentum and get your story bogged down in detail. Too much exposition, or too much at one time, can seriously derail a story and be frustrating to the reader or viewer eager for a story to either get moving or move on."

I appreciate your thoughts, DrI. 

P.S. Is there an indent button I am missing in this posting window?  Often used to move sections of text somewhat more to the center so they stand apart visually from the main body? 
Title: Re: Not even a story
Post by: DrIdiot on January 12, 2011, 02:19:58 PM
You don't have to open with action -- some stories have no action.  I mean, it's your story, and I don't want to tell you how to write it, but if it's a more introspective piece, you can start with a simple statement by the narrator that catches the reader's attention (for example, "The world is actually flat, I've discovered." -- this probably doesn't apply to your piece).  Or you can do something else, be creative.  Think of your reader as very picky (readers are) -- you need to convince them that your piece is worth reading before they put it down.

(I don't know anything about indenting on this forum, sorry)
Title: Re: Not even a story
Post by: Kylaran on January 13, 2011, 04:02:16 AM
Think of it this way: every day you and I go about our business barely conscious of 10% of the things we experience in the world. We don't experience the world in paragraphs; rather, we do so in fragments of consciousness. You don't need to spend a paragraph fully establishing every bit of detail of your world because there's so many ways you can introduce it through movement or dialogue. Exposition is especially fishy in the first person because you don't sit there talking paragraphs to yourself as you think.