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Red pen critique no. 010 – critique of Circles, a short story by Aaron

16 Dec

I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors’ writing which I really enjoy, so I started creating podcast episodes doing this. Because this was not only time-consuming but also restrictive being audio-only, I decided to switch from audio to text and will now be running future ones on the blog. The first nine episodes have already been blogged (and are listed on the https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/red-pen-critique  page) with new episodes being run here 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 as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read, 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.

***

The story in this post was kindly emailed to me by Aaron whose short story ‘On the Edge’ I critiqued in episode no.7.

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, Aaron’s story, then my feedback…

Circles

A Roman cohort on the march was not a quiet thing.  More than 400 men each carrying a third of their own bodyweight, in kit that was mostly metal, produced a great deal of clanking.

‘Sir, these Britons.  They don’t all happen to be deaf, do they?’ said Marius Sextus.  He was trying to get his name known, and Centurion Brevus, alongside them on horseback, was as good an officer as any to try to impress.

‘Not as far as we know.  Although they are probably stupid. And mad.’

‘Mad, sir?’

‘Of course they are.  Trying to fight us the way they do.  If you could call it fighting – all that yelling, and throwing stones at us.  As I say, insane.  But what makes you think they might be deaf too?’

‘Because maybe we hardly ever find any of them because they can hear us coming from ten leagues away!’

‘Jupiter, that’s a good one.  I think I might just have heard it before, though.  Yesterday, I think it was.’  Brevus was apparently of the view that new men should be broken, rather than bedded, in.  He picked up his pace and moved further up the column.  Marius saluted, and swore under his breath.

Marius wondered whether Brevus was created miserable, or whether the weather here was driving him that way.  Only three hours after noon, and already the dusk was approaching.  Even here in the southwest of the island, it was cold enough at night for the armour to freeze to your skin if you weren’t careful, and the water in your pigskin bladder rarely completely unfroze before midday.   Gods only knew what it must be like in Hibernia.

Ten minutes later, one of the cavalry scouts returned from his evening reconnaissance.  The rider was looking excited as he dismounted and walked to  report to the Cohort Commander.  From Marius’ place towards the back of the column, he couldn’t hear the discussion, but the scout was using a lot of hand gestures.  Twice, he swept his arms around to indicate circles.  This seemed odd – granted, the circle was the standard patrol route, but everyone knew that; why bother telling the Old Man something he would already know?

Whatever had been said prompted an order to halt soon after.  Marius now had the dilemma that every soldier in history faced – is this particular stop going to be long enough to make it worth dumping my pack, given that if I do, I’ll only have to pick it up again later?  All around him Legionaries stamped feet, stretched limbs and generally tried to keep warm until the officers’ conference that was apparently taking place had finished, and the soldiers would either resume marching, or set up camp.

After a few minutes, Titus, the Decurion, gathered his seven men round him.

‘Good news.  We’re almost done for the day.  It seems the scouts have spotted something worth looking at a few hours’ march west, and the Old Man wants to have a look tomorrow, when the light will be better.  So, we’re going to stop for the night on that hill over there.  If we’re quick, we’ll be camped by the time it gets dark.’

‘What have they seen – a settlement?’ asked Marius.

‘Probably.  And if it is, the locals probably won’t be that pleased to see us.  But remember – we’re Romans, not Barbarians.  We’re supposed to be civilising this country, not tearing it up.  Think hearts and minds.  Nobody expects you to knock on the door of the chieftain’s hut and hand his wife a bunch of plucked herbs, but we don’t want the place to end up looking like a butcher’s shop either.  We’ll take a surrender if we can get it.    Right?’  Nods all round.

Setting up camp hadn’t gone as quick as Titus had predicted, and it was fully dark by the time the tents, surrounded be a protective ring of stakes driven into the ground, were up and the men, less the sentries, were in bedrolls.

***

The following morning was a relatively bright one, but fog sat on the plain where the settlement lay, and Marius still literally couldn’t see what was causing all the excitement.

‘How come we’re always at the back of the column, Deci?’ It’s hard enough to march over this ground when it’s fresh, let alone after it’s been churned up by everyone else.’  He asked Titus as they formed up ready to start marching.

‘Well, they tell me it’s because we’re the toughest squad in the cohort.  But personally, I think it’s just because Legionary Junius’s personal admin is so bad, no-one wants to be downwind of him!’

‘That’s not fair, Deci!’ Junius said, but smiling as he did. ‘I keep all my kit clean and my sword sharp – that’s what matters, isn’t it?  Everything else is time you’d be better off spending asleep, or eating.’

‘Junius, I’ve seen women of the Colchester brothel quarter who look in better order than you!  And our tent smells the worst of any in the 2nd Augusta.  It’s embarrassing.’

‘I tell you what would be embarrassing, Deci.  It would be embarrassing to be as familiar with brothel quarters as you seem to be!’

‘If you could fight as well as you talk, we’d have conquered Britain by now, Junius!’

***

The remains of the morning fog made the sight ahead of Marius indistinct as they marched towards it.  He couldn’t be sure, but it indeed appear to be a small settlement, made, unusually for the lazy and unimaginative locals, of stone rather than mud, or straw.  The houses were arranged in  an outer circle with another shape inside, which would explain the scout’s gestures the night before.

But something wasn’t right.  Marius might be new, but he thought they would have seen some locals by now, or some animals, or ploughed fields. Something other than the houses themselves.   But no – they weren’t houses, he could see now – they were – something else, that didn’t really have a name.  Just rings of huge stone blocks, half-buried into the ground with the long sides pointing upwards, and other, equally huge blocks, placed on top of them.  The overall effect was like a ring of stone doorways, built for men the size of giants.  Fortunately, there were no actual giants to be seen.  But even so, what was it all for?

The cohort surrounded the stone rings, and set up a basic camp while the officers wondered what to do next.

‘Can we have a fire, Deci?  You won’t be able to see it from too far, in this weather.’ asked Junius.

‘Give it a go, if you can find anything to start it with.  Nothing actually stays dry in this godsforsaken country.’

‘Thanks.’

***

After five minutes the fire wasn’t hot enough to boil water, but  Marius and Junius got close, to keep as warm as they could. The privilege of being the one to set the fire was that you got to stand closest to it.

‘What do you think this place is, Junius?’

‘Some kind of temple, maybe?  But it’s got too many doorways, and isn’t finished.  Where are the walls?  And the roof?’

‘Do the Britons even have gods?’

‘Everyone has gods.  But they must be different ones from ours  – how can the same gods that created Rome have made this place?’  Both men laughed.  ‘But whatever this thing is supposed to be, it was important to whoever built it.’

‘Because it’s so big, you mean?’

‘Because of what it’s made of.  This isn’t local stone, you know. At least, not that bit in the  middle, set out like a horseshoe.’

‘But the outside ring is local stone?’
‘Looks like it.’
‘So where are the other stones from?’

‘Who knows?  But I’ve never seen its like, and I’ve served everywhere from Exeter to York.  Hibernia maybe, or Wales.’

‘Wales is a hundred leagues from here!  Hibernia twice that.’

‘Right.  So someone wanted all this rock – what do you reckon, five hundred tonnes? – mined, dragged all the way here, then arranged like this.’

‘But why go to all the effortjust for a couple of rings of stones?  Why didn’t they build a proper temple, or a bathhouse, or a circus, or something useful?’

‘No idea, but whatever this place is for, it must have been pretty important to them.’

‘Centurion Brevus was right.  These people are insane, Junius.  Demented as Hades.  We’ll never even understand Britain, let alone conquer it.  Come on, this fire wouldn’t keep a mouse warm, never mind ten of us.  Let’s go back to the others –  somebody was talking about starting a dice game.’

The cohort moved on later that day.  The stone formation was obviously no use for anything, and the scouts had reported a cluster of villages over the next hill.  Marius, an eternal optimist, thought that perhaps there could even be some women there.  Now that was something worth spending time thinking about.

***

My comments:

The title itself is intriguing. Titles can be short but one-word ones work well if they have different meanings / connotations. Every story should have a hook, with short sentences working best, and Aaron doesn’t disappoint. In just 11 words we’re introduced to the era, some of our characters, sight and sound – two of the five senses.

Normally where we have repetition of ideas (not a quiet thing / great deal of clanking) I’d suggest losing one of them (in this case the ‘not a quiet thing’ because it’s more of a tell) but because it’s the introduction it fits.

The first line of dialogue introduces Aaron’s humour as well as telling us Marius’ status within the cohort, and his aspirations.

Being British myself I enjoyed us being thought of in the manner that these Romans think of us. I know that Roman names often end in ‘us’ but hoped that with two out of two so far being thus, that they’d not all be.

I thought that leagues (e.g. Jules Vernes’ 20,000 leagues under the sea) may refer just to depth so I look it up. I probably would have taken the author’s word for it had I not been red penning the story. It was fine. I also looked up Jupiter and earliest references to it and again was assured that Aaron knew his facts. If you’re in any doubt when you’re writing, do check for inaccuracies as there will always be someone out there who will point them out.

The interaction between the men continues to be strong and you would expect rivalries. I loved the line, ‘Marius wondered whether Brevus was created miserable’ as it shows both their characteristics.

It’s always advisable to read your writing out loud and one phrase that jarred with me was ‘and the water in your pigskin bladder rarely completely unfroze before midday’. Although it’s a fantastic show (‘it was really cold’ would have been a classic ‘tell’), just losing the ‘completely’ would improve it.

There’s a slight slip in tense with ‘The rider was looking excited’ and it would be simpler as ‘looked’.

When these red pen sessions were podcasts I wouldn’t mention punctuation being audio-only but now they’re textual I can. 🙂 I spotted two spaces between ‘walked to’ and ‘report’. An easy way of checking for rogue spacing is by doing a ‘FIND’ (Ctrl F) and instead of typing in a word, tap the space bar twice (or more). If you’re a writer who puts two spaces between your sentences (I’m not), it’ll pick up those too but most publications these days prefer just one so it’s a good habit to get into, and less work. 🙂

We have a nice visual with the scout using hand gestures and the first instance of our title, ‘Circles’.

Although readers should have questions of their own as they read a story (which should all be answered by the end), it’s great when a character has one too. All stories should have conflict / dilemma and although the story starts with a loud noise, it’s not until the hand gestures that we have a hint of a puzzle. It’s no bad thing that it’s not until a few paragraphs in as we’ve been getting to know our setting and characters.

Names should always have capital initials and the ‘Old Man’ tells us a lot; it’s respectful that it’s in title case but the name hints at a slight disrespect, unless that’s a modern interpretation.

Stories can be edited to death and at some point you have to ‘let go’ and I’d suggest very little editing so far. Losing the ‘soon after’ would neaten up the ‘Whatever had been said…’ line and ending the sentence at ‘halt’ would give that word more impact.

Then we are told of Marius’ dilemma – whether to remove his pack. It seems a simple task to us but clearly different to him.

The ‘generally’ before ‘tried to keep warm’ is another ‘spare’ word I’d lose, as I would ‘apparently’. Stephen King advises minimal adverbs and these two do weaken the writing.

We’re then introduced to another character, and another ‘…us’!

My limited knowledge of Roman history lets me down with Decurion so I would have liked to have known who his seven men were; minions or leaders?

Titus’ mentioning the Old Man had me intrigued as I though it was just a label that Marius had given the Commander. Would Titus not have called him the Commander, especially when addressing men of a lower rank?

The phrase ‘plucked herbs’ is another indication of the era whereas now we’d say ‘bunch of flowers’ (probably not plucked or picked but bought from a petrol station).

In the case of the simile ‘as quick as’ it’s usually then followed by a noun so I would say should be ‘quickly’.

Another word that can be trimmed is ‘fully’ from ‘fully dark’ as it’s almost like saying ‘completely dead’. I’d also lose ‘relatively’ and ‘literally.’ Again I’d suggest using ‘FIND’ to look for your ‘ly’ words and if the sentences still make sense without them then they can go.

Commas are usually used where a reader would pause for breath (especially when reading out loud) and one should go between ‘formed up’ and ‘ready to start’.

Our next character is also an ‘us’ so again I’d suggest Aaron picks something different. Even if it’s done in a humorous piece like this, it can get tiresome. Again the rapport here between the men is fantastic.

There’s a slight typeo in the next paragraph (The remains of the morning) with ‘appear’ rather than ‘appeared’, and I spotted two spaces between ‘arranged in’ and ‘an outer circle’.

Tenses again slip, this time into present tense, with ‘Marius might be new’, which I would say should have been ‘might have been’.

I did guess where they were with ‘rings of huge stone’ and although it’s over half-way through the story rather than nearer the ending I was pleased that it was a surprise there because it allowed me to envisage their exact location.

‘in this weather.’ asked Junius’ should have been a comma after the speech but again I think this is a simple typo.

When you’re setting a story as far back as Roman times I’d avoid phrases like ‘After five minutes’ because they wouldn’t have had watches to know it that accurately, so ‘a few’ would have done. Again there were two spaces between ‘water, but’ and ‘Marius and Junius’, and then further down between ‘not that bit in the’ and ‘midde’.

Hyphens (-) should only be used to connect words (unless an English teacher or equivalent would like to correct me’ so where we have ‘five hundred tonnes? – mined’ it should be a dash (–).

I again consulted Google / Wikipedia for ‘circus’ but being an ‘us’ word I should have guessed. 🙂 Thank you http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circus.

As you can tell I loved this story. It reminded me of a historical Terry Pratchett, not that I’ve read much of Terry’s work (or fantasy for that matter) but if Aaron does publish his work, I can see him having a strong following.

Thank you, Aaron, for inviting me to pull apart your story. I hope the feedback has been helpful.

***

Aaron is one of a number of authors, readers and a publisher(!) offering to read other authors’ writing (and / or wanting feedback) for this blog’s https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/feedback page.

***

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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2 responses to “Red pen critique no. 010 – critique of Circles, a short story by Aaron

  1. jennyworstall

    December 16, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Fascinating, particularly the difference between the hyphen and the dash. Thank you!

     
  2. morgenbailey

    December 18, 2012 at 10:10 am

    You’re very welcome, Jenny. Thank you for commenting. x

     

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