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 earlier 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) until July when it switches to Saturday night as the Author Spotlights move to weekday mornings (because I’ll only then be running two interviews a week :)).
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 featured in this post was kindly emailed to me by crime novelist, short story author and interviewee Graham Smith. 976-worder Shooting Stars first featured on ThrillersKillersnChillers eZine, but is also available at http://thrillskillsnchills.blogspot.com/2011/11/shooting-stars-by-graham-smith.html?zx=fde569de31e41252 and http://www.thedock.info/submissions/fiction/shooting-stars-by-graham-smith.
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 email@example.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 (or without critique for Short Story Saturdays) then feel free.
So without further ado, the story / synopsis and extract, then my feedback…
I nestled the butt of my Parker Hale M-85 against my shoulder and checked my range once more. I was perhaps half a degree off, so I adjusted the sights and peered once more through the telescopic sights.
Street artists were plying their public trade with gusto and aplomb. I could see jugglers, human statues and street dancers. A mime artist came into view pretending he was stuck behind a glass wall. God this guy was original! I’d never cared for mime artists. All that being stuck in a box or descending imaginary stairs bored me rigid and the stupid expressions on their faces were more nauseating than comical.
I lifted my aim to spot the flag blowing on the cinema’s roof to gauge the correction necessary for windage.
Some snipers modified their rifles. I had never been in favour of changing something so carefully crafted, so lovingly designed. The only concession I had made to my beloved rifle was the fitting of a sound suppressor which would also reduce muzzle flash.
I wasn’t concerned about the noise as the world would soon hear all about my intended victim’s death. My concern was with the telltale muzzle flash which would betray my position to all the bodyguards and security people at tonight’s premiere.
To further conceal my position I had retreated to the back of the room and was shooting from a prone stance on top of a sturdy kitchen table. The open window I’d be shooting through would afford me two seconds to shoot the Hollywood starlet who’d mocked me all those years ago.
Two seconds was all I’d get and would be all I’d need. Second one would be spent identifying the target and drawing a bead on her temple. Second two was when I’d put the extra ounce on the trigger and send my bullet on its murderous way.
My rifle was as always loaded with just one bullet. I’d never needed a second shot and as the distance was only one hundred metres I knew I would not miss. Having just one bullet was my secret trademark. If they escaped my single bullet, I let them live.
I’d crafted a special bullet for this one. This was an area where I did modify. I trusted no one to make the alterations but myself. I had taken the round apart and had weighed out the powder to my own exact specifications. I wanted the bullet to mushroom on impact with her skull, to do the maximum amount of damage to her brain without coming out of the other side and hurting an innocent bystander.
I was always stringent with my preparations and the one rule I had in my career as an assassin was that I would never incur innocent casualties. This trait had nearly got me caught once or twice during high speed getaways but I held my stance rigidly.
I checked my watch. Seeing that she was due to arrive in a further five minutes I went into my pre-shoot routine. Stretching first legs and then arms into suppleness, I then flexed my fingers in the manner of a classical pianist preparing for a virtuoso performance.
My breathing was already under control but I used the routine as a way of relaxing my nerves and slowing my heartbeat so that breaths could be taken as shallowly as possible.
My apprentice looked across from the other window where he stood. His job was to act as my spotter and give me notice as to what my target was wearing and what colour her hair was today.
By the time my days work was done, I could guarantee her hair would be blood red in at least one place.
‘She’s here.’ There was an excited shrillness in his tone. I would have to work on that.
‘She’s wearing a luminous green dress. Three bodyguards who are all muscle and no skill. Christ, she looks good in that dress.’
I brought my eye slowly to the scope, willing him to concentrate and took in the view. Other celebs were making their way towards the red carpet. Waving, laughing and flashing some of the most expensive teeth known to man. The street artists were performing in the background but were largely being ignored by the stars who were more concerned with the paparazzi below me.
‘She’ll be in your sights in five, four, three, two, one.’ As the apprentice hit one, I saw Jessica in the flesh for the first time since she had publicly berated me for my impotence.
I centred the cross hairs on her head as she moved from left to right and then she stopped dead in her tracks. She waved to the mime artist and beckoned him over. I’d forgotten how she loved those silent freaks.
I re-acquired my target as her sudden stop had thrown off my tracking movement. Her bouncers had peeled away and I had a clear view of her. My finger tightened on the trigger and just before the bullet left my gun, her co-star who was also her latest beau leaned towards her so they could kiss for the amassed cameras. My bullet went so close to her that she must have felt its passage.
The mime artist was not so lucky. I saw the bullet hit him bang in the sternum. He clutched his chest, blood oozing between his fingers. His knees wobbled, eyes went blank and he fell theatrically. First to his knees and then face first onto the recently swept pavement.
And as for Jessica? Well she just laughed at the man dying in front of her, thinking it was all part of his act.
The irony was not lost on me. I’d just shot a mime artist with a silenced bullet and he got a round of applause as he died.
© Graham Smith 2011
My comments (NB. I type this as I read the story not knowing all the ‘facts’):
Titles are important and usually have to summarise the story. I took Graham’s one of two ways: the romantic setting of a star gliding across the sky, but then my crime head took over and I imagined a hitman aiming at a red carpet celebrity. From the first sentence, I could tell that great minds think alike, but then knowing that Graham’s a crime writer, I should have guessed that option first.
Repetition in writing is best when the second (or third) instance of a word or phase is used to enhance or conflict with the former, and in the first paragraph we have two ‘once more’s. Story openings should be a hook and short first sentences work especially well. Although the opening is gripping because it’s drama and we want to know more, if Graham deleted the first ‘once more’ it would be snappier. If it later transpires that the character does need to have checked the range a few times then I’d suggest changing the first ‘once more’ to ‘again’.
Every word counts in short stories so I would lose ‘public’ from ‘public trade’ because by being ‘street artists’ they’re in public.
I wondered whether gusto and aplomb were close enough but then thesaurused aplomb to make sure (Word’s gives me alternatives of self-confidence, style, ease, assurance etc) so different enough great choices. Aplomb’s a great word and not used enough (clearly, as I had to thesaurusise it).
Sets of three aren’t called ‘the power of three’ for nothing and here we have ‘jugglers, human statues and street dancers’, so that gets a tick.
I like Graham’s sarcasm when referring to the mime artist and the whole scene is very visual (I’d have put a comma after ‘God’ though). That dual statement: ‘God this guy was original! I’d never cared for mime artists’ is a good example of show and tell. We already know from the sarcasm and the references to ‘bored, stupid, and nauseating’ of his feelings so ‘I’d never cared…’ could go. If you’re in any doubt about a section, if the piece is fine without it then leave it out. 🙂
The attention to detail (I lifted my aim…) is great – not only does it show the reader that the hitman knows his craft but that the writer does too.
I love it when inanimate objects are almost additional characters and the narrator’s gun feels like one to me.
Not being an expert on ‘muzzle flash’, I would have liked a description of it the second time rather than a repetition, even just ‘light’, ‘spark’ or suchlike keeps it cleaner.
‘prone stance on top of a sturdy kitchen table’ made me picture him (I’m assuming it’s a him, we’ve not been told yet) standing on the table so perhaps more description there would help. Note: Soon after this post aired, regular visitor Janet Bailey pointed out to me (ever so politely in an email) that prone means lying face down. Of course, she’s absolutely right (Wikipedia agrees: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prone). See, this is why we need second (third) opinions. Thank you, Janet. 🙂
I know I go on about repetition and most readers probably wouldn’t notice but if there’s a change of them losing a connection with your story it’s worth looking at. In ‘The open window I’d be shooting through…’ paragraph we have two shooting and one shoot (two of them in one sentence). I would remove the ‘I’d be shooting through’ because we’ve already had description of him at the kitchen table so we don’t need it.
All stories, regardless of length, should avoid an info. dump at the beginning and slowly unravel as we read. It’s not until paragraph six that the intended target is revealed and I like having got to know our hitman first. It also indicates here that the killing is personal and therefore potentially not a ‘hired hit’ as we may well have considered.
I mentioned earlier that repetitions should enhance or conflict and both ‘all I’d’ does this well. I also love the subsequent breakdown of the two seconds, although I’m not so keen on ‘murderous’ because as we know bullets can kill and are aware of the hitman’s intentions behind firing his rifle.
Commas are usually used when a narrator pauses for breath so I would use them before / after ‘as always’.
Having just one bullet in his rifle shows us he’s a pro, as we’ve seen earlier from his knowledge of his rifle and positioning. ‘My single’ jarred with me and I’d use something simpler like ‘that’.
I’m no Lynne Truss when it comes to grammar but ‘I trusted no one to make the alterations but myself’ felt like the equivalent of a split infinitive so would recommend ‘I trusted no one but myself to make the alterations’.
Losing a single word in a sentence can make a difference and losing the second ‘had’ from ‘I had taken the round apart and had weighed out’ would be neater. I’d also delete ‘from her brain’ because we know the bullet’s intended for her head.
With the repetition (sorry, I know, I keep harping about them) of ‘innocent’, I’d be inclined to remove the first innocent and just have ‘a bystander’ as it would then make ‘innocent casualty’ more impacting.
Stephen King is famous for his dislike of adverbs (___ly words) and they’re more obvious when at the end of sentences (a reader remembers the end of a sentence more than the first so the second half of a sentence should always have more power) so ‘…I held my stance’ would be sufficient.
You won’t be able to see it from the blog post but Graham’s submission was in the correct format with a flush (to the left) first paragraph opening then the other paragraphs indented a few spaces. After ‘I held my stance rigidly’ he then has a break (as I’ve indicated by the single asterisk) but then starts the new paragraph (blank lines usually indicating a small passage in time) indented. Whenever there is a new section of text it shouldn’t have an indent. Of course I could have just told Graham this when I emailed him but many of the submissions I receive (for the blog and the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition I help to judge) have incorrect indenting so I thought it worth saying here.
‘She was due to arrive in a further five minutes…’ implies that there have been other five-minute chunks. Because there haven’t been any mentioned I would lose ‘a further’.
‘Stretching first legs…’ – again this is probably me but I wondered if he had second or third pairs of legs? Of course he doesn’t but again I slipped out of the story so changing it to something like ‘Stretching first my legs…’ would avoid this. Also lose the ‘then’ before arms as there’s a subsequent ‘then flexed my fingers’. I know I’m being really picky but you want to make your manuscript as tight as possible. I liked the comparison between the hitman and the pianist, especially as they both love their instruments, which are usually black. 🙂 Not sure about ‘into suppleness’. I know you want to find new ways of saying this but I didn’t love it.
The great thing about first person viewpoint is that we get into the mind of our narrator, and especially enjoyable when it’s a profession we can’t (hopefully in this instance) have experienced ourselves (although my first-written novel’s main character was a hitman!).
Intriguingly we’re then told that our character isn’t working alone, and I love that he’s an apprentice (especially as my hitman is too). 🙂 Although up to now has only been a very short time, I wonder if a reference to a walkie-talkie would spoil this. Do they crackle? Hum?
When writing, you should always think of the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste), and we certainly have vivid sight (inside and outside the room), sound (the street artists etc), touch (him and his rifle). Smell and taste are usually the ones left behind. Whilst we’re unlikely to get taste unless a character is eating something but everything has a smell. If he’s renting a room it would likely be a hotel so if classy would smell nice or if dodgy (less likely if opposite a theatre showing premieres) would be an unpleasant smell. Just a thought.
‘my days work’ should read ‘my day’s work’ because it’s the work belonging to the day. 🙂
In one of my college creative writing classes my story was picked out because it was the only one that contained a colour. It’s funny that everything has a colour yet we often forget to mention them and here Graham gives us a great picture of what our hitman envisages the woman’s hair to become, contrasting with the red carpet no doubt.
We don’t get much in wordage from his assistant but just the tone of his voice provides a great deal, and I love the hitman’s reaction to it.
Again we have a great description of what’s happening and the contrast between the celebrities and street artists (although I’d tweak ‘The street artists were performing in the background but were largely being ignored by the stars who were more concerned with the paparazzi below me’ to ‘The street artists performed in the background but were largely ignored by the stars who were more concerned with the paparazzi’.
Graham and I clear shop at the same fiction factory as the main character in the novel I’m currently editing is called Jessica. 🙂
I’d not heard the term ‘cross hairs’ so Googled it, taking the phrase to be ‘cross hairs on her head’ until Google told me it referred to the rifle (thank you, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reticle which actually lists cross hairs as one word). It’s funny how just the placing of words can have two different meanings so again we need a little more here.
Clichés are always best avoided so I’d recommend an alternative to ‘stopped dead in her tracks’ – just ‘stopped dead’ would be fine, and especially poignant given the circumstances.
The irony of the hitman’s feelings towards the mime artist and what happens to him wasn’t lost on me. ‘recently swept’, I’d say should have a – hyphen (as explained in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyphen).
Graham and I are clearly twins as having just mentioned irony, what do I then go on to read? Yes, irony. A superb ending.
Despite being less than 1,000 words, this story packs a punch (or it would if it weren’t a cliché). Apart from it being my genre (crime), I loved it. It may sound as if I pulled it to pieces but really these are very little picks and Graham should be very proud of his story.
Thank you, Graham, for offering up ‘Shooting Stars’ to me. I hope my feedback has been helpful to you (and the readers of this blog post :)).
Graham Smith is married with a young son. A time served joiner he has built bridges, houses, dug drains and slated roofs to make ends meet. For the last eleven years he has been manager of a busy hotel and wedding venue near Gretna Green, Scotland (which is running a fantastic crime writing weekend – see below.
An avid fan of crime fiction since being given one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at the age of eight, he has also been a regular reviewer for the well respected review site Crimesquad.com for over two years. You can read my interview with Crime Squad’s Chris Simmons here.
When not working, Graham’s time is spent reading, writing and playing games with his son. He enjoys socialising and spending time with friends and family.
Graham will be hosting a crime-writing weekend on 8-10 March 2013 – see http://www.themill.co.uk/crime-writing-courses for details (I’m going!).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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