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Red pen session 008 – critique of The Vertigo Shot, a novel extract by Lae Monie

09 Dec

The eighth red pen podcast was released on Sunday 27th November 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 am now running these on this blog, and also have a feedback page where authors / readers can swap feedback.

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 (this is the last-but-one) 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.

This episode’s piece was emailed to me by crime author Lae Monie who featured as my second Author Spotlight and whose ‘More Hungry Boys’ extract was red pen session number three. It does contain some strong language.

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 / synopsis and extract, then my feedback…

Synopsis

Darian has been thinking about killing for a long time. And so has his sister Consuela, a bi-polar disorder sufferer who has been self-harming since her teenage years.

On 3 November 2001, on the family country estate, the family is reunited for the wedding anniversary of their parents Cecilia and Reginald Attenwell-Smith. The reunion sets off old grudges. Granddad Barron, the founder of the family empire and Darian, a spoiled, 27-year-old, with no income of his own and many addictions, argue over money. Cecilia, a high-class lady with a string of highly publicized flings and her daughter Consuela, a 29-year-old musician, married to Tito Santorious, a record producer, with a 2 and a half year old baby, Kylie, and a dangerous mental disorder increasingly out of control, are set off by each other’s idiosyncrasies. Barron, enraged by what he regards as, ‘’the family’s despicable conduct’’, cuts off Darian’s allowance and refuses to pay off his creditors then dismisses his own son Reginald from the role of MD for lack of ‘’suitable interest’ in the company.’’ His plan is to regain control of a family that he feels is rapidly falling apart. His actions throw the family into turmoil. Reginald, terrified that his wife Cecilia is going to leave him, pleads with the patriarch. On her part, Cecilia is now frantically looking at ways to maintain her expensive lifestyle and is less interested in solving her son Darian’s money problems and finally showing her true colours. ‘’It’s time you take responsibility, Darian. I can’t bail you out every time. I cannot. I won’t. You’re becoming a liability.’’

Alone, helpless, Darian steals a silver set from the family city residence to pay for his increasing debts and expensive lifestyle. The ‘’theft’’ doesn’t sit well with Cecilia, who is concerned about Barron’s reaction if he ever finds out. She pushes her son to ‘’Get the silver back!’’ giving him an ultimatum.

Each with their demons and feeling under pressure, Darian and Consuela fuel each other’s hatred for their family members fantasizing on countless ways of killing them and then one night, only a few days after the party, Darian’s violent fantasies turn into reality during a massive row with his grandfather. Turning up unexpectedly during the murders, Consuela, her son and Darian get on the run, but after a few days, Consuela’s and her son’s bodies are discovered on the grounds of an abandoned farm. Darian also turns up. Extremely disturbed, he claims not to know anything about the events of that fateful night. The police have no reason to investigate further. A phone call from the estate made when the murders were supposed to have taken place have Barron pleading for help, ”‘Please, come quick. My niece is gone crazy and is killing us all.”

But not everyone believes Darian’s story. Tito as well is tormented. Torn by his belief in Consuela’s innocence, he battles to clear her name. His conviction will put a strain on his relationship with his mother Nefeli who, although understanding at the beginning, later feels herself a victim of the murderer – ”she robbed me of my son.” Battling with their own individual problems, Nefeli and Tito have to learn to live with their inner guilt and torment whilst Darian inherits the family fortune. In the meantime Darian, burdened with guilt and pressure from Tito to ”come out and tell the truth” decides to ”finish the job he has started.” Satisfied of having proved himself more than the ‘’feckless boy’’ his grandfather has continually taunted him with and having fooled the police into believing his innocence, he rigs the country estate with homemade explosives and blows himself up.

Novel Extract

The extract for this episode, from The Vertigo Shot, was taken from the beginning of Chapter 8, dated 1990 and is in the first-person viewpoint of the brother Darian. It does contains some strong language.

8: 1990 – Darian

”That’s cruel,” I say. But I’m looking down in the hole. Waiting.

The match strikes the matchbook, sizzles then lights up.

Consuela lifts it over the ant hole and lets it drop.

”You should talk!” she sneers watching the insects scramble frantically for a way out that isn’t there.

She is mesmerized. Her pupils mirroring the little drama unfolding before her.

”You’re such a creep. Always pretending that you’re something else. Something else from the screwball you’re growing into.”

She smiles. In her hazel eyes the flames twist like red snakes.

”Listen to your sister.” The man has crept up to us in the quiet of the countryside. His huge walking boots stomping on the tall grass. Squashing. Stomping. Getting closer. We turn. Scared. We’re only kids.

We look up at the man towering over us. ”She switched on,” the man continues using an arm to indicate Cons.

I frown. ”I’m not a screwball,” I mouth too scared to talk back at my grandpa.

”You sure? Or that’s what mummy dearest tells you?”

Grandpa stoops just in front of my face. To instill a little bit of fear into me. To watch me squirm. And I’m afraid I don’t disappoint.

I hate myself for it, but I can’t help it. I can’t. That’s just me. Grandpa likes that. He actually enjoys it. In his grandson. His son. His associates. His enemies. Watch people squirm.

His black bushy eyebrows arch in a question mark. ”The school rang me today.”

He nabs me in the chest with his fingertip. Big and round.

My mouth falls open.

He smiles. Enjoying the moment. Enjoying the fear I’m sure he sees in my eyes.

”They told me what a bad boy you’ve been. They told me about your truancy. They told me how low your grades are. They told me about your complete lack of interest in the curriculum.”

I gulp so loud to draw a huge grin on grandpa’s face and his dark bottomless eyes seem to acquire even more power. They are boring into me as if trying to rip the soul out of me.

Cons is watching it all careful not to produce any sound that might give her presence away, break the moment.

Her eyes widen as she watches me being lifted by the collar and slammed against the nearest tree.

”You’ve always been awkward. An awkward mummy’s boy.”

I look at grandpa then at Cons for help. She’s watching my feet. I dangle them and give a timid kick.

”Let me go,” I plead. My voice hoarse by the strain put upon my throat.

I’m hoping Cons will get up her arse and do something. In fact, I know she will.

”Don’t beg, boy. That isn’t manful. You stand up for yourself. Fight me off. Come on!”

I squirm. My hands grope the old man’s. My feet kick the air. My cheeks are slightly red and pushed up into my eyes. I wonder what Cons is waiting for.

”Am I too big for you, huh? Want your mummy?”

Cons looks transfixed. She’s forgotten of the ants down the hole fighting for survival, of the fire burning their nest.

She’s forgotten. Because something far more fascinating has grabbed her attention. And I know now that the bitch ain’t going to help.

”Let me go,” I plead once more. Tears fill my eyes.

”Yes, I let you go,” Grandpa hisses. ”It’s plain to see that you haven’t got it in you.”

His voice is pregnant with disgust. ”I should have known you’d never rise to the challenge.”

He releases his grip and I drop to the ground.

Grandpa turns away heading back home presumably. A few steps in the tall grass and then turns once again.

I start ready to run. Grandpa’s features are hard, merciless.

”Like father, like son,” he says and stomps off in the tall grass leaving a trail behind.

Cons and I watch him until he’s only a moving object in the distance.

I stroke my nape – slightly sore. ”What was that all about?” I ask.

I know I shouldn’t talk to Cons because of the way she behaved, but again, I can’t help it. I’m always doing things that I know I shouldn’t.

I walk up to her. She is still crouched by the anthole, but her desire for pain has been fed now. Her lips are stretched in a sneer.

”What was that all about?” I yell.

I want her to answer me, not to crouch there looking at me with that wile grin on her face. But she doens’t. Instead, she turns away from me and laughs.

I feel my eyes swell and, full of anger, I shove her down.

She loses balance for a second, but quickly regains her crouched posture.

”Don’t laugh! Tell me what that was all about!” I demand stomping my foot on the ground.

She runs off. Her laughter a painful echo to my ears.

What was all that about?

9: Consuela

We’re on our way to Stratford. A day out.

Neither mum or I are particularly excited, unlike Darian who hops about like a cricket on meth.

The day isn’t too bad. That makes a difference.

We go down the river and take the ferry on the Avon.

The river passes through the nearby city of Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the scenery, some people say, is quite remarkable along those banks.

I cast my glance around the reeds and ”lush” vegetation along the murky waters and fail to get excited.

There are only four people on the upper-deck of a very old and rusty ferry.

The breeze has pricked up along our way to the old town and is threatening to steal mum’s hat.

The other passengers, all of geriatric age, have opted for a more sheltered trip and have retreated under deck.

Darian and I rush up the step ladder and take a seat at the very back ‘’to be alone’’.

Mum shoots me a glance and I know she’s thinking I’m odd. Slumped in the seat, angry at myself and the whole world. A ‘difficult’’ child who ‘didn’t make an effort from the word start and isn’t making an effort now.’

She likes saying that.

In the past, she used to say it all the time. Whenever we had an argument those words would inevitably tumble out of her mouth.

The old ferry clenches into motion and we’re off, painfully slowly.

Dad couldn’t make it. Granddad kept him behind with the old excuse. Work. It comes before anything.

I feel mum’s arm around my shoulder and look up. An odd display of affection from a woman who has never given a shit about me.

She looks as if she is about to burst into tears. Worried and emotional.

I know what she’s thinking. Time and time again I heard her on the phone with grandma cussing grandpa and family life. ‘My life for your status in society.’

I know that mum has never been happy with dad or us for that matter. We’re her stolen life and that maybe is part of what keeps us, me and her, apart.

When the ferry moors, Darian and I run along across the meadow.

Mum ambles up to the nearest and only cafe along the bank and takes a seat at one of the outside tables.

And then the nightmare starts.

10: Darian

I run back to mum almost immediately. The wind is blowing pollen everywhere and it gets in my eyes.

She sniffs as if she has been crying. ”Where’s your sister?”

”She stopped at one of the pools up that way.”

”What pools are you talking about? There are no pools that way.”

”She said she was going to join us soon.”

She throws me a look and grabs me by the arm, drags me along then starts to call out for Consey.

She is nowhere to be seen. ”When was the last time you saw your sister?”

”I told you! We were by the pools.”

”There are no pools, Darian. Stop messing about!” She yells yanking at my arm, getting frustrated.

I stick to my story. It’s the only one I have. ”I told you. She said she was going to join us soon.” But she isn’t listening.

I can see her mind wonder off wishing she was somewhere else, with someone else.

Cecilia: ”Have you tried Matilda? Sometimes she goes round her place. They’re quite friendly with each other.”

Darian: ”That’s Meredith and they fell out some time ago. Cons just stopped talking to her.”

Cecilia: ”Whatever her name is maybe Consuela just went to see her.”

Darian: ”Fat chance.”

Cecilia: ”But it’s worth a try.”

Reginald: ”The police has deployed two search parties within two miles from the town and two miles from the estate.”

Barron: ”She’ll turn up. She has no money to speak of on her and unless she got a ride from a passing car she can’t go far.”

Cecilia: ”You’ll be surprised.”

It’s well past ten in the evening when the police finally finds Consuela. Curled up under a lee on the outskirts of town. Her arms wrapped around her legs. Rocking back and forth. Cold and hungry.

Cecilia: ”How could you be so irresponsible?”

Reginald: ”Why did you run off, Cons? If you have problems, we are here for you. Anytime. Just come to us.”

Consuela: ”I could see you sitting at the table outside the cafe, but when I got back there, you guys had left. You left me!”

Barron: ”Don’t be ridiculous! You could have called.”

Cecilia: ”You could have come straight home.”

Consuela: ”You left me. Left me. I didn’t think about calling. The only thing I could think of was to get back at you!”

***

My comments:

Unlike one of my Monday night poets I’m not a fan of description so I like chapters or stories that begin with dialogue, and by the third word it’s already given us conflict (cruel) and we know it’s first person. And by the end of the first line (‘waiting’) we certainly want to know more. Why is our protagonist looking down a hole and why is he (I’m presuming he’s Darian) waiting? And what for?

Then we have a bit of indirect action ‘The match strikes the matchbook’ because it’s an inanimate object doing the action. Normally we’d have the character doing the action but I like the sizzling then lighting up. Consuela becomes our secondary character and we find out it’s an ant hole – so much smaller than I imagined (I was thinking of something well size!). And then we see why they’re being cruel (not that my brother and I doing something similar with magnifying glasses when we were younger was any better).

‘She is mesmerized’ is a tell. We get a great show with ‘Her pupils mirroring the little drama unfolding before her.” So if this was changed to ‘Her pupils mirror the little drama…’ it would be a tell for both statements, although I’d prefer ‘miniature’ instead of ‘little’ as ‘little’ can also mean that it’s not particularly dramatically rather than be of a small stature.

I really like the simile ‘flames twist like red snakes’ and we’re given a description of her by her hazel eyes.

And they’re related (oh, my childhood is flooding back to me – I also have hazel eyes!). We now have three characters; two children (as we then learn) and a man they don’t know, although he knows them presumably as he calls them siblings. I love the onomatopoeic words ‘squashing’, ‘stomping’.

I wondered for a second what “indicate Cons” but then I realised that it was the shortening for Consuela so perhaps we could have our protagonist calling her Cons in speech earlier.  Also we don’t need ‘the man continues’ but just ‘he continues’ as we already know it’s the man speaking.

Ah now, they do know the man. He’s their grandfather. This is a little confusing (unless it’s mean to show us our main protagonist is an unreliable narrator) as he would have known at the beginning that he was his grandfather.

I really liked the way Lae has conveyed not only the grandfather’s personality (the stooping and watching his grandson squirm) but the boy’s by doing what the old man expects. And we learn by how he treats other people that the old man is unpleasant to everyone. So in a way it’s turned two nasty children into two characters we can sympathise with, although it’s a hint, with an influence like the grandfather, of things to come.

I like the phrase ‘His black bushy eyebrows arch in a question mark’ although I’m not sure it’s actually possible but again the interaction between the two male characters is superb.

Listeners of the earlier red pen episodes will know that I’m not a fan of repetition but ‘Enjoying the moment. Enjoying the fear’ is fine because the second instance reiterates the first. And the four instances of ‘They told me’ would normally be a no-no but I like it, although three is usually better, four in this case is a little much, especially ending with the longest rather than snappiest one. I’d actually say that the third and fourth are pretty much the same thing so I’d lose the ‘…lack of interest…’. And again Lae’s description of the old man, through the boy’s eyes is excellent.

Not wishing to be picky (but I usually have to be) ‘give her presence away’ is a split infinitive as the verb is ‘to give away’ so it should read ‘give away her presence’ although in modern English we can get away with a lot more.

Our protagonist definitely gets our sympathy by his treatment by such a horrible man and we’re bound to be willing his sister, who I assume is older as the boy’s expecting her to help.

‘Cons looks transfixed’ is another tell although it’s the boy’s observation so it’s fine – although I’m sure Lae can replace it with a show of how she’s looking transfixed.

‘His voice is pregnant with disgust.’ is a great metaphor. We know what it means instantly despite being a really unusual paring.

With ‘then turns once again’ I thought that the grandfather was turning away in another direction rather than back towards the children so some indication of this would be great.

I really feel sorry for this boy and he has a really appealing nature which leads us to think, thankfully, that he’s going to be nothing like his grandfather, although I suspect that Consuela could be.

Again another little pick, and edit (of just one word so, yes, a pick)… ‘I want her to answer me, not to crouch there’ can read ‘I want her to answer me, not crouch there’ – petty but just a little tighter.

It’s a great ending to this short chapter – the children have gone from being friends (friends in crime as it were) to estranged and I’m intrigued as to where it’ll go from here.

Next we have chapter 9 – Consuela’s point of view, and from the off I can tell she’s older. I really like her description of Darian. Knowing Stratford a little, I can picture the scene which is always a bonus. Oh dear she’s such a dour character isn’t she? In comparison with Darian who’s got a spark. I hadn’t realised there was a ferry so that’s a new one on me. I didn’t realist it was big enough but even if there wasn’t this is fiction so some artistic licence is allowed.

Despite having earlier complained about inanimate objects and indirect action, I really like the breeze threatening to steal her mum’s hat and then I like her for calling the other people geriatric. It shows her personality that even if they’re not particularly old, she thinks they are.

The children aren’t having a great start on life, are they? A grandfather who’s cruel to Darian and the mother who’s shooting glances (although probably not as dark as Consuela thinks) to her daughter. It’s always interesting to see a character through the eyes of another and although Consuela initially felt annoyance (if not worse) towards her mother she talks herself out of it and we both feel compassions for the woman.

Another great chapter ending. It certainly makes me want to know what the nightmare is.

Chapter 10 is back in Darian’s viewpoint and because we’ve had a snapshot of his character it’s easier knowing how he will react, speak etc. In Chapter 8 he’s called her ‘Cons’ a few times and now he calls her ‘Consey’ so it should be one or the other. Fair enough it’s their mother doing the calling but this would perhaps be better in dialogue. Just a thought.

The ending (another great one) of this section is interesting as Darian feels the same about his mother as Consuela does – that she doesn’t want to be with them – it’s sad but the sign of a good story, that we feel that strongly for the characters.

I was a little confused by the next section as it’s written in script rather than prose and it’s between four characters so would need some dialogue tags (he or she said) without going overboard. I also want to know who these people are (staff presumably) but then we would have been introduced to them in earlier chapters.

My grammar check has flagged up “The police has deployed…” as being singular where it should be plural (so “The police have deployed” and technically it could be written as either, although to me the police is a singular entity so I overrule the grammar check and go with Lae’.)

This extract finishes with a bit of narration, which is fine because each section is separated, although it could as easily be conveyed in perhaps Darian recounting what happened either to us or to one of the household. The ending is again intriguing as Consuela states that she wants to get back at her mother and Darian (although the final section of dialogue doesn’t include them so I’m not sure who the ‘you’ refers to) but it’s a hook so we’re definitely left wanting more.

There’s a great mixture of description and dialogue and whilst starting the reader thinking that the children were horrible by their actions we soon learn where their main streaks come from but then when the grandfather turns out to be worse our sympathies lie with the children, or at least in my case, one of them. Lae’s very good at choosing unexpected words and ‘The old ferry clenches into motion…’ is a classic example of this.

Written in first person present tense it’s very immediate and very smooth as it was only when I was concentrating on the viewpoint and tense about two thirds of the way through did I remember what they were – the sign of a great story; where we’re being swept along with the action. I even did a search for words ending in ‘ed’ to make sure there were no tense slips and there were none.

It’s important in any piece of writing to include the five senses and we’ve had most of them. Sight and sound we have from description and dialogue. Taste is rarely used and unless they’re actually eating anything (which they’re not in this piece) it’s not going to be appropriate. Smell is easy to add and we could have it with the old ferry or the grass at the beginning or in Stratford. We could also have touch in a few places including these places so plenty of scope for Lae to make the piece even more atmospheric!

***

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.

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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 I also review stories (and post others in their entirety) of up to 3,000 words on Short Story Saturdays. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 3,000 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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