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Red pen session 007 – critique of On The Edge, a short story by Aaron

08 Dec

I originally recorded red pen critique as part of a series of podcast episodes dedicated to reading a short story or self-contained novel extract (with synopsis) and then talking about it afterwards. I am now running these on this blog. For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.

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 story in this post was kindly emailed to me by Aaron and this story is called ‘On the edge’.

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 story, then my feedback…

On The Edge

It’s no use you trying to see me.  No use you squinting towards where you know I am.  You won’t see me, even though you know that I’m there.  I’m downwind of you – which means even if you had the sense of smell of a Doberman, you still wouldn’t sniff me out – but upsun of you.  If you even look in my direction, you’ll have your pupils shrunk so small that you won’t seeanything properly for five minutes afterwards.  And then to kill time while you get your sight back, you’ll try to swipe sweat from your forehead every few seconds.  Except that you can’t even touch your forehead, can you?  It’s encased in that big helmet.  That helmet’s the best – the lightest and the strongest – that money can buy.  But it won’t get in my way.  It’s alright for stopping stones, beer cans, and the other stuff thrown at you, but no helmet in the world can stop what I’m firing.

But all the same, after wearing it for all this time, it must be feeling heavy.  Oh, I see that you agree, because you’ve just taken it off, and mopped your brow.  One of your trademark gestures, that.  Every half hour or so, off comes the helmet, out comes the hanky.  You’ve got the time, after all.  You’ve just reached the end of your line, that twenty yards that you’ve defended for the last day and a half.  Dab, dab, dab on your forehead, and the serious ‘keep it tight’ look towards your mate at the other end of your post.  He’s not really your mate, though, is he?  Just a colleague, or at best a comrade.  And anyway, he isn’t the same man as was there yesterday, or even this morning.  There’s always been someone there at the other end of the line, but six other men have been and gone, and you’re still there.

So technically, that look at your mate isn’t a habit, in that it’s not always the same person you’re grinning at.  But even though it’s not always the same man you’re grinning at as it was, you’re still setting a pattern.  You want to watch that.  Setting patterns, I mean.  We watch for people setting patterns, in my business.  A lot of people think that we’re looking for stillness.  They assume that someone standing still is easier to hit than a moving target.  That’s only half true, but what we really appreciate is predictability.  A moving target is no problem, if you know that he’d be moving in that direction, at that speed, at that moment.  We can aim off for anything, within reason, as long as we know it’s coming.  It’s randomness that does for us. Very few people in my profession have any time for quantum theory, and not just because very few of us understand it.

While my eyes were focused right at you as you mopped your brow, my right thumb had moved the switch from ‘single’ to ‘burst’.  Some of my colleagues would tell you that a single shot gives you the steadiest hand and the best aim, and that a professional only needs one shot anyway.  But for me, it’s the result that matters.  The kit’s there – why not use it? Macho purist talk sounds good in the bar, but in the field, I know in my bones that any true professional will use the best tools he can get his hands on.  Even if he does lie about it afterwards.

And I’ll need all the tools I have to take you, my friend.  You’ve been moving up and down that twenty-yard patch for the last six months, with no sniff of you making a mistake.  It would be nice if we could put your longevity down to luck, but that would be to do you an injustice.  You have been lucky, that’s true.  The mistakes you’ve made have either been so minor as not to matter, or happened when no-one’s seen them.  But you’ve also been very skillful.  Clinical, even. Like it’s nothing to have stayed out there for so long and kept walking back unbeaten.  I’ve seen you talk about it afterwards – just the right amount of modesty, always with the  ‘I was just doing my job’ line.

But I’ll have you before the day is out.  I know it.  This is my day.  The wind at my back and the sun getting lower in the sky will help me, as more and more of the horizon becomes a ‘no-look’ area for you.  I know my moment will come.  Because, here’s the thing; I only need to be lucky once.  You need to be lucky every time.

Forty seconds later, you seriously erred for the first time in six months.  There was a click, and you were gone.  My first shot hit you as you were standing guard, too far forward but still apparently invincible.  In the second, you were looking in anger in my direction.  You weren’t looking at me, because you still hadn’t found me in my camouflaged hide fifty yards away.  But you knew what was coming.  The picture in my sight as the third shot struck was of you on your knees, your head in your hands at the calamity which you knew you could have – should have – avoided.

But it was the fourth shot, a moment and a world away from the first, that would make me.  You’d raised yourself onto one knee by now, and both of your hands were clasped around the handle of your weapon, the blade pressed vertically into the turf, being used as a crutch.  The man who had just dispatched you had leapt in joy, yelling who knew what obscenities, his left hand jerked as high in the air as he could manage, like he would willingly dislocate his shoulder if it meant that a few more people in the watching crowd would see him waving his trophy.

He had snatched the cricket ball out of the air less than a third of a second after it snicked off your cricket bat’s outside edge.  All season you’d been belting perfectly decent deliveries to the boundary rope of grounds in every corner of the country.  After almost two days in the field, the fielder’s ‘whites’ weren’t, and his maniacal grin, and slick, matted hair making him look as fired up as you were crushed.

After six months and twenty games, you were finally out.  And all twenty million pixels of it would appear tomorrow, with my name underneath it.

***

My comments

I’m a big fan of titles and I like this one. ‘On the edge’ can usually go one of two ways; that someone is on the brink of their emotions, turning to some form of physical violence (which was my first thought) or that they are physically standing on a border of something. So I’m already looking forward to seeing which one (if just one) it turns out to be.

The first sentence is not only nice and short but it is a great hook. It immediately sets the story in the first person (the protagonist) but also mentions another character (antagonist) and there is conflict there already. The second sentence implies that the protagonist can see the antagonist but the ‘you’ can’t see him or her. Then we get a sense of the location by the words ‘downwind’ and ‘upsun’ implying that the characters are outside and perhaps that being ‘upsun’ and the secondary character squinting, that it’s bright sunshine. T  he taunt of that character not having the smell of a Doberman is a humorous touch, our protagonist clearly knowing, or certainly feeling, that he or she has the upper hand.

Aaron’s not told me what genre this story is but it’s starting to have almost a supernatural feel to it and reminds me a little of Predator so perhaps our lead character is the antagonist rather than protagonist. I guess I’ll find out when I read on.

The ‘won’t see anything properly for five minutes’ sounds a little too specific for my liking but again perhaps this will be significant.

Now, I like the ‘big helmet’, it could be a member of the emergency services but from what we’ve heard already (and this is still actually just the first paragraph) I think it’ll be something more unusual, although there’s then the mention of stone and beer cans so I’m guessing police.

I love the narration, we’re getting how the main character is thinking aloud and the secondary character seems to be following suit. It’s interesting that there’s mention of a ‘hanky’ as I imagined the worker (or whatever the secondary character is) to be a burly chap who would wipe his brow with the back of his hand. Having a hanky almost makes him even more vulnerable.

The ‘twenty yards that you’ve defended for the last day and a half’ is really intriguing. So he’s almost like a sentry guard and I do wonder what he’s guarding. Then we get a third character albeit briefly plus six other men who have ‘been and gone’ so we know something really dramatic has taken place in the past few hours and I certainly get the impression that our lead character is responsible.

If you’ve listened to any of the other red pen sessions you’ll know that I’m not a fan of repetition (and I’ve got to be picky somewhere don’t I?) I’d chop some of ‘it’s not always the same person you’re grinning at.  But even though it’s not always the same man you’re grinning at as it was’ – just trimming half a dozen words so it reads ‘it’s not always the same person you’re grinning at.  But even though it’s not always the same, you’re still setting a pattern.’ and so on. Just a little neater and the second repetition isn’t needed as we know who the ‘same’ refers too. We then have another repetition; ‘setting a pattern’ and in this instance the second occurrence is fine because it’s a definite emphasis of the first.

Then the story gets even more interesting where our character says ‘WE watch for people…’ so we know that he’s not a one-off and that presumably he has ammunition rather than being able to cause the men in the helmet harm by his own hand, if you see what I mean, so it makes him more human than creature. And it’s a very interesting human observation – talking about people’s patterns. By him talking about moving targets and ‘in my profession’ leads me to think he’s a hitman so it’s almost James Bondesque, although James probably does know all about quantum theory.

Then yes, we then have him talking about his gun but then there’s an interesting twist. Whilst I’ve assume this character to have the upper hand he then goes and says ‘I’ll need all the tools I have to take you’ and he’s clearly patient having watched this man for six months and he almost has a respect.

I’m intrigued by why the horizon is a ‘no-look’ area which I’m hoping will either become clear as I read on or perhaps on a second reading.

The upper hand is then swung back into our character’s favour when says ‘I only need to be lucky once. You need to be lucky every time.’ And I like this.

There’s another precise timing; ‘Forty seconds later’ which again could be significant although it doesn’t matter so much now we know that they’re professionals but it may be better if a little more vague, perhaps ‘A minute later’.

The word ‘erred’ leapt out at me. I’m not sure why, perhaps because it’s the rest of the speech has been quite simple so perhaps this sentence could be tweaked slightly. We then learn that the error was for the man to be standing too far forward but if that’s all I wonder why it’s taken our character six months to shoot him and whether it’s been that long for the six men already felled – what makes this one special? We have another specific number ‘fifty yards’ but this is fine because he could well have worked out the minimum distance needed to be out of sight but still be able to shoot his target. Another word that leapt out was ‘calamity’, although what happened was one, it almost sounds a little too cheerful.

The fact that he’s earlier said that he only needs to be lucky once is rather a contrast for him having to take four shots to fell the enemy, although I love the descriptions used.

Being really picky, again, I’d lose the word ‘of’ from ‘both of your hands were clasped around the handle of your weapon’ and I couldn’t help laughing at this phrase as my one-track mind presented an image a world away from where Aaron was wishing to lead me, but that’s just me.

I’m then rather confused by reference to ‘The man who had just dispatched you’ because (a) I didn’t think by him still being able to stand up, that he was ‘dispatched’, unless it doesn’t mean ‘killed’ as I’m interpreting it, and (b) that it was our narrator who was trying to kill him. I do like that the man was so enthusiastic that the possibility of him dislocating his shoulder wouldn’t have distracted him.

Up to this point I imaged that there were no more than three (or four, given ‘the man’) characters but then we’re told there’s a ‘watching crowd’ which to me threw in a Roman amphitheatre as the setting. Then I’m thrown off course again by the mention of a cricket ball and after just a few more words we have the ending and I literally groaned… but in a good way. I did not see that ending AT ALL. Bravo Aaron.

Going back to the title, until I reached the end, the story had played out my ‘emotional / physical’ interpretation. Despite being an English sport, I’m not up on my cricketing terms but Wikipedia tells me that there’s a ‘leading edge’ which is described as ‘the ball hitting the front edge of the bat as opposed to its face… Often results in an easy catch for the bowler…’. So it all ties in very nicely. And now the 20 yards has a significance but I’m pretty sure that even the most avid of cricket followers wouldn’t have picked up on that, which is no bad thing at all, and now the ‘dispatched’ makes perfect sense, as does having the other man doing the dispatching.

Having read the whole of the story now I do feel mean for some of the pickiness earlier and to be fair a reader (unless they were a writer) wouldn’t dissect the story as much as I have. The only part I wasn’t sure about on a second look through was the ‘blade pressed vertically into the turf’ presumably it refers to the bat which wouldn’t be a blade as such, unless it’s a nickname.

Conclusion

Twist stories are very hard to pull off (Roald Dahl was an expert and is one of my all-time favourite writers) and Aaron had me fooled.

Apart from the end (which so cleverly slots everything else in place) my favourite aspect of this story is that there’s no info. dump at the beginning as so many stories are liable to have. I was continuously picturing one image and it being dispelled by what happens next, and it’s not until the end of the story that it all becomes clear, which is how a reader would want a story of any length to work.

This piece is 1,099 words and some competitions have a limit of 1,000 which Aaron would need to stick to if submitting this anywhere. 99 words doesn’t sound like a lot but when a story is so tight already it may be hard finding them. I mentioned chopping seven words from an early repetition and the description in the first half of a story would be the area I’d look at if anything needed to be trimmed. It’s a great story and should definitely see light of day in a publication of some kind.

***

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.

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For writers / readers willing to give feedback and / or writers wanting feedback, take a look at this blog’s Feedback page.

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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7 Comments

Posted by on December 8, 2012 in critique, ideas, review, short stories, tips, writing

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 responses to “Red pen session 007 – critique of On The Edge, a short story by Aaron

  1. Yvonne Hertzberger

    December 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I know nothing about cricket – but I don’t have to. This story had me on the edge the entire time with no clue about the twist at the end. Well done.

     
  2. morgenbailey

    December 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Great to see you here, Yvonne. Thank you for your comment, I’ve forwarded it to Aaron. x

     
  3. Aaron

    December 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Thanks, Yvonne, and thanks Morgen for passing it on.

     
    • morgenbailey

      December 9, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      You’re very welcome, Aaron. Thank you for being a guinea… er, willing volunteer. 🙂

       
  4. Tony

    December 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Lovely tight story with a great twist and beautifully critiqued. Blade It is the correct word for the bit of the bat that is used to hit the ball and the word is appropriate to hold the illusion for just those few moments longer.

     
  5. Zander Tepp (@ZanderTepp)

    May 12, 2013 at 3:49 am

    Stories with a twist are challenging to pull off and usually work when the twist is as good as or better than the expected ending. I felt cheated with this ending.

     

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