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Red Pen Session 003 – critique of ‘More Hungry Boys’, a novel extract by Lae Monie

04 Dec

The third red pen podcast was released on Monday 5th September 2011 and was part of a series of episodes dedicated to reading a short story or self-contained novel extract (with synopsis) and then talking about it afterwards. I will now be posting these on this blog. I also have a new Feedback page for those seeking and offering feedback on works-in-progress or finished stories / poems / books.

I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors writing which I really enjoy so I thought I’d create podcast episodes doing this, and will now be running future ones on the blog, initially with the already-recorded episodes at 5pm daily then every Sunday evening (UK times).

Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments for the recording as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read the story, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!

Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them, then my suggestions for any improvement.

***

The piece featured in this episode was emailed to me by crime author and spotlightee Lae Monie.

Today’s item is 1188-word novel extract so she’s sent me the synopsis from her forthcoming novel ‘More Hungry Boys’ which I’ll read to you first. There is some swearing in the excerpt and this podcast has a ‘clean’ rating, as I like to keep the blog, so I’ve had to make some minor amendments accordingly. I hope it doesn’t detract from your enjoyment.

If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is morgen@morgenbailey.com.

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

So without further ado, the synopsis and extract, then my feedback…

Synopsis

Despite their excellent standing in the community, Erika and Nik Schnörrer are going through a tough time. Natural disasters have ruined the crops, destroyed their barns and even stolen a couple of their best friends. Known for their strong religious belief and charity sense and despite their hardship, they often take in the town’s panhandlers and strays, offering them a roof and pocket money in exchange for some help on the farm.

It is an agricultural accident that takes one of those farmhands from this world and the town gets together with the Schnörrers to give him a decent burial.

The event is ordinary, just a hobo coming to the end of his days, but it puts into motion a set of thoughts and ideas that the Schnörrers hadn’t considered before, heightened by the many financial problems and consequentially embarrassing delays in settling their bills. For Erika, this is all too much.

It isn’t long until Coaltrain comes along. Homeless and broke, he’s grateful for the warm welcome and together with their other farmhand, Charley, they set about keeping the farm afloat before the misery of a hand-to-mouth existence sends Charley into a rage strong enough to attack Nik.

With Charley’s legal problems, Erika is quick to capitalize on the potential assault charge. The Schnörrers won’t turn Charley in if he, in return, will pretend to be dead in order for them to gain from his life insurance policy.

With his back to the wall, the farmhand accepts, but it isn’t long before he decides to get a piece of the action. In response, Erika instructs Nik to supply the farmhand with more of his favourite drugs and soon the day comes when Coaltrain finds Charley dead in his shack, half-eaten by the local wildlife. The Schnörrers knows they have nothing to do with his death, but still they feel that his body would be best kept hidden.

Coaltrain suggests the swamps as a good dumping place and the Schnörrers go along with it.

Gypsy Moon comes along a few months later. She is a drug addict, stranded, scared and confused. The Schnörrers take her onboard and get her to sign a life insurance policy form. She then vanishes. Not knowing what has happened to her, the Schnörrers claim her life insurance, but it isn’t long after their claim comes through that the girl reappears.

In the meantime, Coaltrain makes copies of the blank life insurance policy form and starts recruiting more ”farmhands” for his own shady deeds and soon there are more deaths than the Schnörrers can account for.

When Erika confronts Coaltrain, he threatens to reveal their scam if they don’t go along with his plan.

With no alternative, the Schnörrers agree and Coaltrain is free to satisfy his insatiable desire for murder.

Extract

The first roach of the day. It isn’t that it gets him high or anything. He has stopped getting high on weed a long time ago, but it gives him something to do when he gets up, helps him wake up sorta thing.

Itchy holds a roll-up between his fingers and looks on over the filthy, fetid water of the swamp wishing death to the animals croaking and growling nearby.

”Lovely summer day, ain’t it?”

He hasn’t seen him come up the path. The freak walks about as quiet as a panther probably to pound on him when he least expects it. At the sounds of the old git’s voice, Itchy stiffens, puffs his cheeks in a sign of annoyance and turns away.

Unfazed, the hick strolls up for one of his meaningless chinwags. ”A day of friendship and love all around.” Nik chortles then falls silent. Itchy scratches the back of a hand wishing the redneck would go away. He doesn’t. ”Say, in the mood to earn a buck?”

Itchy turns at the sound of the magic word, looks up, but remains silent not wanting to seem too eager.

”Need help with the manure. Summer’s here and the soil needs extra nutrients.”

Itchy swats at a slimy insect buzzing a few inches under his nose. Cusses. He could kill something today. Maybe a nutria later on. After work.

”Could start now.” The redneck is still buzzing around. Itchy has momentarily forgotten about him.

”Now?!” Itchy turns. Flumoxxed. He hasn’t waken up yet, he needs time!

The redneck doesn’t seem to realize what is going on. He just stands there looking down on him with that freaking smile on his dumb mug.

“How ‘bout we make it after midday. I’d be totally awake by then.”

The redneck sticks his tongue out. ‘’I don’t think so. I need help now not at midday.’’ He pauses. ‘’No worries. I’ll ask Coal. He can use the extra bucks.’’

Itchy’s eyes wander to the side watching the redneck turn away headed back to the farmstead. Itchy shoots up from the ground. ‘’I can use the extra bucks too!’’

The redneck turns around. ‘’You just said you don’t wanna work before midday and I need help now.’’

Itchy kicks a stone. It plops in the swamps and Itchy remains staring at it. In the end he hears the redneck shouts. ‘’You coming or what?’’

He drags himself along, cussing to himself. Never in a million years he’d’ve thought to do some shitty work for chicken feed!

He is still cussing and mumbling to himself when he bumps into the redneck.

The old git turns, gives him a weird look. Itchy barks, exasperated. ‘’What?!’’ He spreads his hands and shows his teeth.

The redneck backs off. ‘’I don’t think you’re in the state to work.’’

‘’What the hell do you mean? First you come nagging at me about work and extra cash and now you’re telling me that I’m not up for it. I was having a great time on my own up there and you got me down here. Now you give me the cash you promised.’’

The redneck sticks out his tongue. ‘’I promised you extra cash in exchange for work.’’

Itchy spreads his arms out, feels the temperature rise. ‘’I’m ready for work!’’

A couple of the big manure shovellers are already parked outside waiting to be put into action. Itchy hitches up his jeans and waits for guidance. ”We’ll take one each. That way we’ll be done before sundown. Shovelling the manure from the barns to spreading it onto the fields.” He smiles. Itchy stomps to the tractor and hops in the cubicle.

They shovel manure from the barns onto the fields for the next five hours and when they are done the sun is low behind the birches, almost disappearing.

Itchy hitches up his jeans and snorts as he makes his way up to the baws. He snorts one more time when the hick doesn’t seem to register his presence.

”Look at that!” Nik points at a scrawny little bird flying toward the city. Seems truly amazed by it. ”That’s a yellow-crowned night heron. Ain’t it magnificent!”

Itchy screws up his face, feels his blood boil. What the hell is wrong with the hayseed today?

He makes as if he hasn’t heard not even bothering to give the bird a second look. Instead he lowers his eyes and focuses on something on the ground. If he isn’t careful, he kills the hick today!

He fixes his eyes on a spot of manure. A swarm of flies buzz around it annoying him. Mad, he kicks the pile of shit and watches them disperse in a frenzy. He snickers.

With all the flies gone, he realizes that the git is still babbling on and he still hasn’t got paid. The anger rises up again inside him. If the hick thinks of stiffing him, he sure has another thing coming. Itchy’s hands close into fists. He ain’t about to get screwed by a rube!

”I love that bird. We’re very similar, you know? The yellow-crowned night heron is more solitary than the average heron and sometimes hanging out at the swamp, me and him, are the only ones around.”

Itchy shoots him a glance. The hick falls silent with Itchy particularly enjoying that jaw of his shut with a slight tremor. “Okay. Give it to me.”

Itchy extends his hand to receive the cash. What he gets instead is the rube’s weird glance. A mixture of longness and some other shit he doesn’t even wanna put a name to. His blood boils, rushes to his head. Itchy is ready to throw punches.

”I guess you want your money. You’re probably wondering whether I’ve forgotten all about it.”

No shit! Itchy meets the hick’s eyes with one of his own stone dead glances, but nothing happens. The hick keeps on talking shit. ”On days and nights like these, I couldn’t bear to be alone.”

Itchy flares. ”Listen here! I ain’t got all day. In fact, I spent it all doing work for you and I didn’t do all this shit just so I can listen to you babbling on about shit!”

”I was only trying to make conversation, getting to know each other better. You’ve been with us for a while -”

”I don’t wanna make no conversation! I just want my due.”

The hick raises his arms in surrender. ”I was only trying to be kind.”

”There’s no kindness in my world. You wanna be kind to me, show me some Washingtons.”

The tongue sneaks out and wiggles. The hick has finally caught on! ”Say, I never meant to stiff you in any way and I don’t appreciate the insinuation -”

That is enough. In fact, it is far too much. Before the git can finish the sentence, Itchy grabs him by the collar of his tweed shirt, pushes him on to the ground and drops on him with a series of jabs before sticking his hands into the rube’s pockets and taking all the gelt he can find.

My comments

I like the fact that the first sentence is just six words. Hooks are great when they are short unless they’re something mundane like ‘It was raining’ but in this instance it’s amazing how much these six words tells us. It gives us a time; it being the first roach either says that it’s early or that he or she, probably a he, hasn’t been able to have one up to now – I’d say the former. We instantly know that the character smokes and likely rolls his own especially when it’s then confirmed that it’s weed. The first sentence also doesn’t tell us the tense or point of view which makes me want to read on.

By the end of the third sentence we know it’s a man, that he’s a long-time drug taker and that he has a problem; that he needs something to do. We also get a feel for the knowledge of the narrator which I like, especially with the second sentence ‘It isn’t that it gets him high or anything’ as if he knows the character well.

In line 4 (the second paragraph as it’s typed) we’re then introduced to him by his name and what a name! ‘Itchy’ leads me to picture someone who’s not particularly hygienic which fits in with what we know of him so far and even the water being fetid (and I love that word, a great addition to filthy giving it an alliteration) and the fact that he’s next to a swamp gives us the perfect location for such a character. And we have some dialogue nice and quickly so it’s not description heavy, although I love the description so far.

With the sentence ‘He hadn’t seen him come up the path’ by having the word ‘him’ we don’t know whether our secondary character is a man or a boy. I think we can assume that he is a man by what he’s said, but it would be useful to have the clarification plus also because Itchy is a man it could be misunderstood that he hadn’t seen himself come up the path although this would be an improbability but again having the clarification would eliminate this possibility.

Then the narrator goes on to call him a ‘freak’, presumably Itchy’s opinion too but again this is adding to the already-dark atmosphere. Now we know the man is old and again there’s no love lost by calling him a ‘git’ and then we see Itchy’s reaction. We have two great ‘show’s (Itchy stiffening and puffing his cheeks) so we can lose the ‘tell’ (in a sign of annoyance) which apart from making the sentence shorter it leaves a neat three action scene (stiffening / puffing / turning away) and I mentioned in the first red pen episode about the strength of threes.

I like the fact that the ‘hick’, as he’s now called, is unfazed as it shows strength of character and I can see these two standing up to each other nicely. Then we get his name ‘Nik’ which is a great contrast to ‘Itchy’ and I love the fact that he’s still being overly cheerful as he’s bound to know how much it annoys.

Then we get to see that money means something to Itchy and is already wearing a poker face by not wanting to seem too eager.

What Nik then asks him to do shows us what he does for a living; a farmer although we know that from the synopsis (which the reader won’t have had although may well be mentioned on the book jacket or ebook description when it gets published, and from the synopsis, I sincerely hope it does).

Lae has put the word ‘work’ in italics which shows us that Itchy doesn’t think much of that either. Although I love the word ‘flummoxed’ it’s a tell and we already have “Now?!” as the show as is ‘He hasn’t waken up yet, he needs time!’ and we don’t need that because he then goes on to say that he’ll be awake by noon (although I’d say we don’t need the ‘totally’ as awake is usually awake – like in ‘completely dead’ we wouldn’t need the completely.

What Nik does then (sticking his tongue out) is childlike and I’m really beginning to like this character. It’s great having the main (or certainly the first character we meet) as the dislikeable one and someone who is likeable; just that in itself creates conflict, although at the moment it’s quite light.

There’s then an instance of indirect action with ‘Itchy’s eyes wander to the side’ apart from them doing the action rather than Itchy himself (although I know he’s attached to them) it would be neater to say something like ‘Itchy watched the redneck turn away. And ‘headed’ is past tense so would need to read ‘heading’. Also I’d change ‘Itchy shoots up from the ground’ unless he really does. Perhaps ‘leaps forward’?

I like Itchy’s reaction where he kicks the stone and it ‘plops’ in the swamps (and swamp is singular so we could lose the ‘s’) – I love the onomatopoeic ‘plop’. Again we could lose the ‘remains’ as by saying that ‘he stares at it’ it’s unlikely he’d be moving. And we don’t need his name twice as we know he’s doing the action.

I know what is meant by ‘He drags himself along’ but again this could be taken literally.

I really enjoyed the bit where Itchy bumps into Nik and again it adds humour to what could otherwise be a very serious piece.

With ‘having a great time on my own up there and you got me down here’ we’ve obviously had a fairly major change in location in a short amount of time so if we could perhaps have them walking down a hill or suchlike before he says that we can have a better sense of place.

I’m not sure exactly what is meant by ‘Itchy spreads his arms out’ perhaps ‘thrust his arms’ or ‘put’ or ‘held’ (although thrust is better) and ‘spread out’ is the verb so technically it should read ‘spreads out’ or ‘thrusts out’ so it’s not a split infinitive. I’m also not a fan of repetition and we’ve already had him spreading his hands so another verb would be good.

After that confrontation we’re at the farm so again having some narrative about their journey would be useful.

I really like the contrast with Itchy ‘stomping’ to the tractor then ‘hopping’ in the cubicle; the first verb still being wearing but then he seems to find his energy.

I’m a little unsure about the timeframe as it’s got to be well before midday when the two men meet but they get to the farm quite quickly then just work for five hours when the sun is low behind the trees.

I then like Itchy snorting but not sure about him ‘hitching up his jeans’ again unless it’s a particular peculiarity he has.

I’m not a farmer so assumed that ‘baws’ was a farming term but then when the hick (I assume this to be Nik) and then Nik talks I assume it means ‘boss’.

I love the fact that Itchy snorts again when he’s being ignored because although Nik is technically his employer, Itchy has no respect for the man.

I wonder if ‘snickers’ should be ‘sniggers’ although that could just be an Englishism. I’m learning things today; I didn’t know what a ‘rube’ was and Google tells me that it’s a ‘country bumpkin’ so that you Lae for that. Whilst I’m all for unusual words, a writer has to be careful not to get carried away. It’s fine in this instance because it’s in context but if a reader struggles because a whole section doesn’t make sense you may well lose their interest.

We then enjoy Nik’s adoration of the bird and Itchy’s exasperation which again is a great contrast.

Nik raising his arms is a ‘show’ and ‘in surrender’ is a ‘tell’ and normally I would have said to lose ‘in surrender’ but I don’t think that him raising his arms is enough but then we have him saying “I was only trying to be kind” so the jury is out on this one.

I love Itchy’s description of the money as ‘Washingtons’ – Lae could have used any standard word for money here but again she went one step further and again it really works.

And the humour returns with Nik tongue waggling; it’s hilarious.

Lae ends this extract by another description of money; gelt. I know the German word for money is geld and think of gelt as being South African but again it’s in context so it works well.

Conclusion

This extract has everything that a novel opening should have; a great beginning location (the swamp), two characters with opposing traits and moods, some wonderful dialogue and it has ‘pace’.

Although I’m not normally a fan of description (unlike one of my poets who loves it, I tend to glaze over too long a passage of description – which this extract isn’t guilty of), I would have liked a little more description of the farm and their journey going from the swamp to the farm.

The dialogue was superb. There is a sense of dialect without an overdose of dialogue that we can’t understand, and Lae has, on several occasions, picked unusual alternatives to words where an bland one would have done.

I’m especially intrigued by Itchy. He’s not mentioned in the synopsis but is clearly the lead character at the beginning and I’m guessing a strong character going forward so it’ll be interesting to see how he fits into the scheme of the novel.

Although I’d normally go for more contemporary stories, if this ever becomes an audiobook then it may well end up in my ‘to be listened to’ pile.

Update

After red penning Lae’s story, I had an email chat with her and she explains that:

  • Baws is the way boss is pronounced down south in Louisiana where the story is set.
  • Snicker is an Americanism for Snigger however since the story is set in the States I thought it would be nice to keep in all in one uniform ‘’language’’.
  • Gelt is an American slang word for money.

So thank you Lae. I know some of my listeners / visitors are from the United States so will have been one step ahead of me.

***

Lae is a 30-something author and citizen of the world (she’s travelled a lot – I’ve moved four times and 60 miles in my entire life). Lae says “I have been a writer for … well, it feels like forever and I can’t think of anything else I would like to do. My stories reflect the terse, lurid, violent tales about crime and desperation from the point of view of the criminal. They seek to discover the heart of criminality to create compelling reading for those who enjoy crime and are interested in the humanity of even the most unlikely characters.”

***

If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is morgen@morgenbailey.com.

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

** NEW!! You can now subscribe to this blog on your Kindle / Kindle app!

See http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B008E88JN0

or http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B008E88JN0 for outside the UK **

You can sign up to receive these blog posts daily or weekly so you don’t miss anything. You can contact me and find me on the internetview my Books (including my debut novel!) and I also have a blog creation / maintenance service especially for, but not limited to, writers. If you like this blog, you can help me keep it running by donating and choose an optional free eBook.

As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

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Posted by on December 4, 2012 in critique, ideas, novels, review, writing

 

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