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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Blood & Water

Good writers are determined to get things exactly right, and so they work and work and keep working, fine-turning their sentences and paragraphs to within a tolerance that would make a Swiss watchmaker proud. Here, the author seems more intent on showy syntax than on clear, precise, concise expression.

The story opens with a man—Pete Carter—driving at breakneck speeds down the blighted streets of "Canary Wharf" (now a high-rent financial and shopping neighborhood in east London, but still derelict at the time when the story takes place). My first assumption is that this is going to be a high-impact thriller, with Pete a fugitive on the lam. In fact Pete is a thirty-year old career criminal, and the car he's putting the hammer down on is a brand new Ford Sierra pinched from a dealer showroom on Pete's behalf by a contracted car thief. It's all pretty OTT—Over the Top. Still, I might go along for the ride were there fewer infelicities of language and detail.

The third paragraph offers some examples. It begins: "Tyres [Brit. spelling] squealed loudly in protest, struggling to maintain traction on the ancient potholed hardtop, and the rear of the car jolted violently threatening to spin out of control." For all its kinetic energy the sentence feels passive, with the car doing the struggling and the protagonist nowhere to be seen. And do we really need to know that the tires squeal "in protest" and furthermore that they do so in "struggling to maintain traction" i.e., grip? A sentence less intent on flexing its author's linguistic muscles might read, "The car's tires squealed and its rear-end jolted over potholes as Pete tried to keep it on the road."

Next sentence: "Deft work with the clutch and brake corrected the over-steer before he again trod heavily on the accelerator." Alternative version: "He downshifted out of the corner and floored it again." The first sentence draws attention to itself; the second puts the character in the driver's seat.

Last sentence: "With a roar of the engine, the car shot through the apex of the corner and raced away, down the deserted streets of the industrial estate." I'm not sure what the "apex" of a corner is, since apex usually refers to the top of something. But apart from that, if Pete has "shot through" the corner, then by my lights he has just driven off the road, and so it's a mystery to me how the end of the very same sentence has him back "on the deserted streets of the industrial estate." The image I'm left with is of a car shooting through a high guardrail and vaulting through space toward a perfect two-point landing on another street— the sort of thing you see in movie chase scenes all the time, but which, on paper, at least for me, is more annoying than exciting.

In the next paragraph proud Pete (and he has every right to be, having executed that last Hollywood stunt) grins "broadly" and "a childlike giggle escape[s] his lips." I want to know why the giggle has to "escape," since nothing else about Pete is inhibited. A paragraph later, when we're told that Pete's a "supposedly responsible thirty-year-old," I can't help wondering who does the supposing, and whether he (or she), too, should be locked up before being loosed on the back streets of London?

We read further to learn that rendering the stolen vehicle "untraceable" took nothing more than "a bit of fancy work with the engine number and registration plate." And what about those "gleaming alloy wheels" and that "gorgeous bright red" paint? As targets of theft go Pete's dream car is about as discreet as a fire engine. Within an hour he'd be in jail.

As for Pete's having done all this to please Susie—his wife and the mother of their two children—wouldn't she have been happier with an SUV? Apparently, since when Pete gets home (in the last paragraph) Susie goes "ape shit"—an abrupt diction drop, and hard to reconcile with phrases like "he again trod heavily on the accelerator."

The author might consider entering the action as Pete pull's into his driveway, and have readers discover what he's done through the dialogue with his wife, who, knowing him, smells something fishy. He might even consider narrating the scene from Susie's POV, leaving the joyride--and all that burning rubber--to the reader's imagination, which is better equipped to compete with movies.


  1. The first is more of an explanation of a term I used in the story. The 'Apex' of a corner is the point where the vehicle is closest to the inside of the corner - also referred to as the clipping point. Therefore 'shooting through the apex' implies that Pete turned the car into the Apex, allowing the rear end of the car to slide out slightly before applying the throttle, easing off the clutch, causing the car to slingshot through the corner. This is a technique used in Rally driving and gives the driver more speed on the exit to the corner. It's not a 'Hollywood' style stunt, but a highly skilled maneuver.

    You suggested that Pete would have been better off obtaining an SUV than the flashy bright red sports car. That was exactly the point I was making. Susie, his wife, would have been far happier with something more practical. Pete, however, is still a twelve year old boy trapped in a mans body, hence the hope that Susie would relent to him keeping the car. I never implied that Pete had gotten the car to please her.

    The comment about the dream car being 'as discreet as a fire engine' is exactly why Pete wanted it in the first place. Pete isn't a Brain surgeon, he's a hired thug who works as a bouncer, and occasional heavy for his employer. There isn't anything subtle about him.

    On two occasions you've made reference to the differences between American spelling and English. Is that really necessary? The manner in which you've pointed out differences appear a touch arrogant and condescending. That may appeal to your American readers, but may put you at odds with those outside of the US, who, for the most part, use British English, for want of a better term.

    The final point I'd like to make is overall tone of the comments you have made. I have found the remarks useful and will be making a few alterations to my work based on them. However, I do feel as though the tone used is unnecessarily critical and belittling without offering any positive thoughts or comments about the work.

  2. First, my intent in pointing out the British words was partly practical, since some readers might not be familiar with the Brit. spellings -and partly playful, but never condescending. I hold "tyres" and "tires" in equal esteem.

    As for apex, I wasn't aware of that connotation of the word, which seems special to race cars and their drivers. For it to apply organically to this close third person narrative, the word as used would have to fit Pete's experience.

    I do think if you tone down the prose and write more matter-of-factly, Pete's actions will come forward, where now the writing is in the driver's seat, so to speak.

    Lastly, I did mean to be playfully critical, not belittling, but the result came across to you as belittling, and for that I sincerely apologize.