The Stranger

The Stranger

A Story by Sam-Stafford
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A short story which explores themes of tradition/modernity and honesty/dishonesty on a small Island community, in the context of a mystical visitation from a shape-shifting, ambiguous stranger.

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The Stranger 

By Sam Stafford

 

 

A blanket of purple tumbled from the highest summit to the coast, unleashing rain upon the Island’s inhabitants. A rectangular house - weather-beaten with grey roughcast render - lay within a hollow a step down from the peak. The houses were well-built. They had to be. Jim Sinclair stood beside the jutting vestibule; his hand planted against the wall - glad for the presence of only a little wind. Using the corner of the doorstep he removed his right boot. Standing on the clean part with his now bare foot, he removed the other in the same way. He gave them a bash against the wall to release the drier mud and set them both by the door. Jim closed his eyes and sighed. 

A familiar call came from the kitchen as he opened the front door. “Aye, I’ve taken them off,” Jim replied. 

The smell was good. Smoke rose from charcoaled meat, wafting from the grill with the assistance of an open window. The steamed vegetables were perfume and the potatoes smelled earthy as they bubbled in an uneven metal pan. “Smells good,” Jim said. He moved to the open window and looked out at the darkening evening. A cluster of lights at the pier sparkled even more for the mist of rain. Spray peppered his face, and he closed the window with a slam. 

His mother was hunched by the stove, lips pursed and wrinkled, stirring a thick gravy. She pointed to the steam forming droplets on the back wall. “You’ll get damp if you close that window,” she said, without turning to him. 

Jim balled a dish towel in his hand and wiped roughly at his face. “I’m already damp. Wish we’d listened to Isla about the extractor fan.” 

“Hmm.” 

Jim chucked the towel in the direction of the washing machine. It hit the corner where the machine met the wall and fell limply to the floor. Jim watched it for a moment. Innocuous, that was how it appeared. But that had been one of the things, hadn’t it? One of the things he hadn’t noticed. He trudged to the washing machine, picked up the towel and chucked it inside the drum. His mother's eyes studied him. Even after he turned from her, her attention was hot on the back of his neck. 

“Sheep okay?” she asked, after a moment. 

“Ach, we’re two yews down on yesterday. Looks like blackleg. Vet will confirm tomorrow, I doubt.”  

“Not good,” she said, pouring the contents of a beaten kettle into teacups.

Jim carried both through the opening arch to a lean-to conservatory. There were three wicker chairs in a slight crescent line. The one closest to the wall pointed towards the low window, out of which there was the view of the hillside and the disintegrated terminus of a stone track. Clutches of heather were like port wine birthmarks against the hillside. Watching through the window was a young-ish woman in a thin, floral night gown. Individual strands of damp-hay-coloured hair frazzled outwards from her scalp. 

Jim placed the teacup on a side-table next to their wedding photo. It showed him standing beside Isla, dressed in kilt, sporran, and hose. His short brown beard had since turned charcoal grey and merged with his longer nose hairs. Sure, he’d changed, but naturally with the years and seasons. Some women down at 'The Water Hoose’ had said he was more handsome than ever, but they were drunk as parrots, his mother had been quick to remind him. They called me a silver fox, Jim protested, and his father had said that must be why the sheep were dying. Passing his gaze across the picture he acknowledged that those women held nothing on Isla; the double cream skin bathed in yellow, the only wrinkles around her eyes - and then only because she smiled so broadly.  She was a summer snowfall or an Indian winter; people had noted her changed climate. But how beautiful she had once been.

“Thank you,” Isla said. The thick smell of vegetables, potatoes and meat made her gag. She preferred it when Jim smelled of sheep s**t than when he picked up the smell of her cooking on his clothes. And just what was so difficult about cooking the same meal every day? Isla pulled the tartan blanket up to her neck. Not that it was cold - the cooking in the adjacent room saw to that.

Jim reached out to touch her arm, understanding that she wanted him to leave. Even with the wool barrier between them the surface of her body was an alien planet. Her muscles twitched expectantly as his fingers neared. The response discouraged him. Instead, he patted her twice on the shoulder and hovered his hand shakily above her arm. God, when had he become so scared to touch her? How had he become so fearful of rejection that he’d given up trying? Had it happened in increments or overnight? He hadn’t the faintest clue. He simply hadn’t noticed. Jim removed his hand, forced a smile, and returned to the kitchen. 

“Anything?” his mother asked in a droll tone.  

Jim peeled the shirt from his body, smelled his pits and continued into the bedroom to fetch a towel. “Bloody hell. I’m needing a shower before driving to the village.”  

Doubled over the side of the hollow chest, Jim strained to reach the large towel at the bottom. His mother caught up to him and held the lid off the top of his head. 

“Jim, answer my question.” 

“She said thank you.” 

“You know damn well what I mean.” 

Jim sighed. “Aye, well, okay, I know what you mean.” 

“Well…” 

“Ach,” he said, and the meaning was clear. He’d learnt that from his father. 

“Jim,” she chastised. “God knows I can’t look after two homes, can I? I’m older than time, your father says, and shouldn’t have to. I dish up his dinner and leave it in the oven. It makes the tatties go funny, and I agree with him. It would be one thing if you didn’t have a woman…” 

“Right. Okay. Alright.” 

“I just don’t understand. In my day… well, things went on. Nothing like this, but things did go on. We wouldn’t mope about them for God knows how long. You pull yourself along. You know, if everyone acted like her, the world would stop spinning for a stubbed toe.” 

“I guess she’s grieving. Lonely. Or something. Look… Ach, it doesn’t matter.” 

“Don’t ‘ach’ me! She’s got you cleaning up after yourself, I’ll give her that.” She pursed her lips and exhaled noisily. “Twenty-odd years I tried with no luck. But don’t get to thinking that this is your fault.” 

“Enough,” Jim said, pushing into the bathroom. “I’ll drop you off home on my way in. Weather’s only going to get worse so dish me up something ready. And be ready yourself.” 

 

Jim’s hair was still wet by the time he opened the passenger door of the 4x4 and helped his mother up onto the seat. He hadn’t noticed the gravy on his chin, or the sweetcorn husk buried in his beard. The car took three attempts before the ignition caught. Not that it would have mattered - the car could roll into the village from gravity alone. Isla sat watching it and willing it on. She prayed for the ignition to catch so she could watch the rear lights disappear down the hill. She would be alone, then. 

Only when she saw the lights blink from view did she remove the wool blanket. She folded it and placed it beneath the wicker seat. She stood and took in the calm isolation. The air was fresh and cool, and the night was silent save for the undercurrent chirping of grass-life. She scanned the still, black night. No light was visible from this window and so the darkness seemed at once immediate and endless. She turned from the window and wiped a tear from her cheek. Another cup of tea would settle her nerves.  

In the kitchen, the air was heavy and tightly strung, as if it were about to snap. Jim and his mother had been quick to leave, and the tablecloth was uneven. The chairs were untucked. Everything was ordinary. Isla tucked the chairs under the table and stopped. Her heartbeat quickened. She heard the incessant ba-dum, ba-dum and felt it as a throbbing in her head. She had seen countless cats act in this way, for no clear reason. A premonition - for nothing had pierced the quiet and no light had illuminated the darkness. But the air grew colder and the hair on her neck stood on end regardless. She felt as though she was being watched - so much so that she called her husband’s name. As her thoughts turned from fear to skittish amusement, the doorbell chimed.

Isla grasped the door jamb; her muscles responding with unified tension. Her jaw stiffened and her heart pounded within her chest. How could it be that there was a visitor? A chill spread from her midriff. Her head was light and empty. How could it be that there was a visitor? No lights had approached up the track. Not a soul had been up or down that track, no farmer. The vet? He wouldn’t be up at this time of night. It was challenge enough to get Alistair up in the day. Someone might have cycled - if they were mad and had legs like Gavin Hastings. None of her family lived on the island. She had no friends. Her husband's family knew where he was and didn’t visit the house when he was out. His friends would be in the pub drinking with him, and even they would have approached from the track. She would have seen. How could it be that there was a stranger at her door? Whoever it was must have approached, without a light, across the dark hillside.

The thought came to her slowly. Only he would approach without a light. Now there was a thought, whoever was at the door hadn’t tripped the light sensor. So, it must be him. Although her heart still pounded, her body thawed and she moved towards the door, almost pulling the handle off in her eagerness. Then a second thought as the door opened, had she imagined the ringing bell? The door banged against the wall and Isla stared into the dark. She looked out at the shady land against the dark purple of sky. Panopto mewed somewhere in the darkness. Paws padded against earth as he ran towards the house. As Panopto jumped to enter the door, he tripped the porch light.  

The front became bathed in harsh light and Isla gasped. She might’ve slammed the door if it were not for Panopto who would have been caught in the jam. Instead, she stood petrified, her breath turned to lead in her gullet. Panopto turned and hissed at the figure.

She hadn’t seen the form at first. The great canvas of its back was turned to the door and it wore a thick, black shawl. Its large shoulders were not the silhouette of the hill against the sky as she had thought. Its head was far above her eyeline, despite it being a step below. The hood of the shawl obscured the back of its head. The shawl was old, and many fine hairs covered it. It was torn in places. The porch light blinked off and the figure lumbered around like a ship turning to come into port.  His head was deep within the hood, obscuring his features. 

Isla stared wide-eyed and with a grief-laden, wavering voice said, “Whoever you are, I don’t want to know. Go away, there’s nothing for you here.”  

Isla stepped back to shut the figure out, but he reached forward and planted his hand against the door. The slow, certain, way he did so terrified Isla and she backed into the hallway. A sick, tingling sensation burned towards her genitals. This man, for, after the initial shock, she had concluded it was a man, was urgent to enter and she had no means to stop him. As she stumbled backwards, the stranger stepped forward.  

“What do you want?” Isla pleaded. Her voice was soft, and she wondered if he would be able to hear. The figure lifted his head. Each movement was cumbersome, and he groaned when he lifted his foot over the threshold and stepped into the hallway. The hall light, although dim, caught the brows of checks, and strands of wild beard. Why did the thing have to keep moving forwards? Only now, that this thing was invading her home, did she feel intruded upon. But she didn’t ask him to leave, nor did she ask what he wanted. 

“I must come in,” he said, now completely inside. His voice was deep and had authority. It was smooth and simple - wistful, almost. Isla, her back to the wall, was entranced by the figure at her door. She found herself nodding and her body shook with sick, orgasmic fear. He had asked the question without inflection, in a manner which was powerfully persuasive. The tone was clear, and the action spoke volumes. The figure nodded and walked past Isla into the kitchen. A wooden chair scrapped against the hard floor and creaked under the weight of the man as he sat. 

Isla creeped along the wall until she reached the entrance to the kitchen. She peered around the corner and through the doorway, fully expecting to see an empty kitchen. Maybe it was hope, or some kind of madness that sustained this belief, even though she could hear it breathing. The figure was sat at the table, palms planted, elbows at right-angles, back straight, head forward. The hood covered his face, but under the kitchens light, a familiar light, he looked more normal, more human. Isla relaxed a little. 

“I have not eaten, long time,” the man said. 

Isla took a deep breath. She couldn’t hold her foot steady and it rattled against the hardwood floor. She stared at the man and tried to compose herself. “Why are you here? Are you a friend of Jim’s?” 

The man sighed. “I couldn’t let you keep me out. It’s cold and I’ve been looking for some time.” 

“How long?” 

“Long time. I have not eaten, long time. Would you make me a meal? My taste is simple.” 

“You don’t sound like you're from around here,” said Isla. “What are you? A traveler?” 

“A stranger, I like. A traveler moves but sometimes a stranger stay. Will you feed me?” 

Isla watched the man. He hadn’t moved from his position at the table, but each time he asked for food he seemed to shrink a little. “What’s your name?”

“Stranger.”

Isla cocked her head to the side. “If you want to eat, I would like to know your name. Don’t you have a name? Even strangers have names.”  

“I have a name. My name not important. You wouldn’t like to know my name.”  

“If you are on the run, I wouldn’t...” 

“On the run? What do you mean, on the run? What does it mean, on the run?” 

“If you’ve done something wrong.” 

“Wrong? I wouldn’t have entered if you hadn’t opened that door for me.”  

Isla flinched from the frustration in the man's voice. “I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just... why don’t you want me to know your name?” 

“I said. It not important.”

Isla weighed the man up. "If I fed you, would you?”

“Leave?”

“Ye… yes.”

The man made a noise like a laugh, but breathier and without joy. “That not right.” 

“Would you leave?” 

“If you fed me, only to turn me out, that not good. That not honest.” The man looked towards the hallway. “I noticed a pair of boots by the door. Big boots. You don’t live alone, but you are alone, now.” 

Isla backed towards the kitchen door. Her breath caught as it left her mouth and a red signal of panic blinked in her vision. The man’s arms were huge, and if he wanted to, he could do just about anything he wanted to her. “My husband will be back,” she said.

“Don’t back away like that. If I wanted to hurt you, I could. Would have done by now. I noticed your husband’s boots. No rush, me. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Or I think I could take your husband too. Believe what makes you happy. You can trust that I’ll leave when husband back.” 

Isla nodded. “Will you remove your hood so I can talk to you better? It’s really frightening to not know who I’m talking to.” 

A cold wind whistled through the kitchen space, strong enough that the hanging pans clanged like a crude windchime.

“It would cause you confusion. Maybe I be more amenable when I’m not so gut-sore,” he said, rubbing his stomach.

Isla let out an embarrassed squeak and went about preparing a plate for the man. She stabbed three potatoes onto the plate and cut each in half with the side of the fork. Two thick porkchops seemed too little for a man of his size, and so she slapped an 8oz steak on the plate and covered it all in lukewarm gravy. Her hand shook with the weight of the now laden plate as she carried it to where he sat and placed it down in front. She waited for him to eat. 

The creature looked up and scowled. “What would Jim think of you feeding a stranger, before him? he asked.

Isla recognised the voice but it was not that of the creature. She backed into the wall with her hand over her mouth to muffle her scream. She swore and tears streamed down her cheeks.

The figure at the table looked up. “What are you screeching for? My son has been out working all day and this is the best you can do? What a treat. You really are a find. Feeding a stranger before him.”

“This isn’t real,” she said with her eyes closed. “There was something in the tea. You’re not real. This isn’t real.”

“You would think that, wouldn’t you? He’s out dosing the yews, clipping them, all day, eight till eight and you can’t even make him a decent hot meal? What is this? Cold meat and potatoes? Better for you to pretend it isn’t real.” 

Isla felt the old fury return. “I did my best.”

“If this is your best, I’d hate to see your worst. If this is your best, why not just stop? I spilt some tea the other day in the living room and you should have seen the state of the floor under the couch. Don’t you know to clean under there? Did your parents teach you these things? Or didn’t they teach you how to look after yourself?” 

“You only needed to say.”

“At some point, you realise you can’t talk a dandelion into being a rose.”

“Oh, just shut up.”

“Don’t speak to me like that,” the voice came from within the hood. “I won’t put up with it like Jimmy. I told him to buy local… someone who knows how things are. Just get out of my way, will you? Useless. Absolutely useless. And you know what else? You know what else...” 

Isla sunk to the ground sobbing.

Once the creature had finished, it coughed once. “Hey, what’s the matter?” Jim’s voice came from the hood. Isla glanced towards the figure. The creature’s long beard was replaced by a much shorter, salt-and-pepper one. It was Jim’s face inside the hood.

“Please leave me alone,” said Isla.

“Stop messing around. What are you crying for?”

“You don’t care.” Isla narrowed her eyes. The creature stood over her with Jim’s weak posture. How could anyone be so clueless? “It’s your mother. She thinks I’m awful. Can’t you tell her I’m trying?” 

“Ach,” the creature replied. “She’s fine, you just have to get to know what she’s like.” 

“No, Jim. Listen to me. She calls me useless. She’s never liked me.”  

“That’s just something she says. She calls me useless sixty times a day. You should just-” 

“She’s not my mother.”

The creature swung around. “Maybe that kind of attitude is the problem, Isla.”

Isla scowled. Oh, how it sounded just like Jim. It wasn’t just the tone; it was his attitude, the way he said things. It was the things he said. How he would formulate his responses so weakly that he could plausibly deny he had said anything. “I know what you’ll say now, Jim. You’ll say I should be grateful.” 

The creature scoffed. “Well, she has helped us out. I’m not being funny but maybe if you said thank you? That might be a start.” 

“She wouldn’t have to help us out if you’d just clean up after yourself. Can’t you help me out? Just once be on my side. Why do you always stick up for her?” Isla half crawled and half pulled herself to her feet, using the table to steady herself. Her eyes were filled with tears. “I know you love me, Jim. You work hard, but that won’t make me love you. It’s not like how it was in your mum’s day. I need more than that.”

“You need more?” the creature said. “I can’t do everything. I’m just a f*****g man. I’m doing my best.” The emotion seemed to come from the creature. It was not a brilliant impersonation; it was a channeling. It struck Isla that the creature was morphing from one person to the next. The creature collapsed into a chair by the table and cried. “Do you realise how much you hurt me, and how hard it was to forgive you?”

“I’m not going to talk to you until you remove your hood.” 

The creature fell silent.  

“You won’t because this is a trick, isn’t it? I’m not playing your game.” Her voice remained steady despite her shaking. Her chest ached with anger. When the creature didn’t move, she rushed for it, half skirting the table and half lunging over it to reach him. She gripped the hood, and the creature made no attempt to stop her. Sliding off the table at the creature's side she was able to pull the hood to expose its face. The creature looked down at Isla and smiled.

“No,” Isla said. 

“I told you I’d come back.”

“No.”

“Isla, what’s wrong?”

“You b*****d.” Isla strook his chest. “This isn’t fair.”

“You knew. You knew immediately. You must have heard that I ascended.”

Isla hit his chest once more. To stop herself from falling completely to the ground, she fell forwards into his arms. His two large arms wrapped around her, and despite the fact they were large and covered in the thick cloak, they were as they had always been. Soft, warm, and holding her against his chest. She was transported to a time when being in his arms was all that mattered.

He’d come from England. He didn’t have much money, but he said he was being financed by some people. They gave him a small allowance to continue his work. She had asked many times what his work was, but he would kiss her forehead and say she didn’t need to worry about that.

            When he arrived on the Island he had stayed at ‘The Water Hoose’ down by the pier. Nobody arrived on the Island inconspicuously, but Aadesh was more conspicuous than most, being young and brown skinned. He was in stark contrast to the rough, middle-aged men on the Island. He was from Halifax, but to the girls of the Island, it was as if Othello had landed. At first, it was giggles by the bar, while he only occasionally looked up to acknowledge it. The girls were intoxicated by his blue eyes. One night, the more adventurous of the girls had accosted him and had been upstairs in his room within an hour. The second rumour flowed from this, and upon hearing about his size and ability, a small queue formed at his table. After he made his way through the young, single girls who frequented the bar, he began paying visits to some houses during the day.

            Jim had been drinking a dram and laughing with an old friend in the kitchen. Isla hadn’t heard much except when Mike said, ‘Better keep your Isla away from him if the rumours are true.’ Isla had made some enquiries about the rumours. Aadesh came to do some work at the house, and one thing led to another. In truth, she had forced it to, had chatted to him more each day, and by the time she had taken him up to the bedroom, she had been completely in love. Most amazing was that she was unable to separate the visceral and ethereal ecstasy when he entered her. She gripped his back and wanted to hold him there forever. During the months that followed, she noticed herself becoming prickly when other women talked about him. He was young, she knew what he was up to. But he had a special connection with her alone.

            Aadesh left on a Thursday in November, and by the weekend it was as if the Island had forgotten about him. When he didn’t come up to the house, Isla had gone down to the ‘The Water Hoose’ and they said he’d booked up to the Thursday from the beginning and had never extended or cut short his stay. Isla had cried for weeks, had even slept in the lean-to, waiting for him to come to the door. She couldn’t bring herself to do anything in the house. Jim knew there was something wrong, probably suspected what, but never asked. She tracked Aadesh down online and found out about his work. He was a founding member of the Brothers of Eden, a tiny Christian cult which saved, and accumulated, female souls for heaven, through what they called ‘intercourse for the ascendency’.

Aadesh had bedded women with such prolificacy that he had ascended a cosmic level. She was glad she found out when she did, before it became common knowledge on the Island and before the Brothers of Eden published a list of the souls that had been saved. Brother Aadesh had saved 47 souls in a ‘northern island’. There was only 109 women on the Island, and the list included the wife of the local councillor and the wife of the vicar. The day after the news broke, the village was empty. The day after that, it was full of wives and husbands holding hands, going out for meals, showing face. As if, acknowledging that there was no other way out other than divorce on a mass scale, the Island had decided instead to perform a type of mass-amnesia. Aadesh was never mentioned again. The women gave their men a free pass, agreed to anal for the first time, bought them a holiday to Amsterdam, whatever was required.

But not Isla. Jim had tried to talk to her, but she’d remained silent. She sent a few emails to the email address she found on the website, but Aadesh never replied. It seemed he really had disappeared, probably onto another community. But she always believed that he would come back and ask her to run away with him. She simply couldn’t believe that the things he’d done to her, that had meant so much to her, had been a duty for him. Only with the stranger standing in front of her, with Aadesh’s blue eyes, did she think she maybe knew how Jim felt.

            “I think you should leave my house,” Isla said.

            The creature smiled. “What makes you think this is your house?”

            Isla walked to the front door and opened it. She came back to the kitchen and stared at the creature.

            “This is my house,” the creature said with a snarl. “Ever since you let me in. This is my house. You can open the door; you can push me into the dark. This is my house because this is my Island. You opened the door to let me in. Only you.”

            “This is your house, your Island?”

            The creature nodded.

            Isla pursed her lips and furrowed her brows. She nodded slowly. “You said it.”

            She turned to the front door and pulled a scarf from a brass hook. She wrapped it tightly around her neck. The creature stood in the kitchen and moaned. Isla grabbed for her hat and pulled it over her ears. She stepped into her boots.

            “And just what do you think you’re doing?” the voice came from down the hall. It was the voice of Jim’s mother again. Isla ignored it, pulling her coat around her, and buckling it at her waist. Her bag waited for her next to the door.

            “I’m back. You can’t leave now,” Aadesh’s voice called.

            Isla hooked the bag over her shoulder and stepped through into the night. The fresh spittle of rain felt good against her skin.

            “You can’t leave,” the creature screamed. Its large feet padded against the carpet as it ran forwards. The voice was of the creature, Jim’s mother, and Aadesh. As the creature neared, Isla saw its face. It had three ribs on either side of its head that came together where there was a beak rather than a nose. When it opened its beak, the inside was the blackest thing she’d ever seen. Isla pulled the door closed. The stomping continued as the creature ripped the house apart, screamed her name and banged on the door.

Isla walked a few metres from the house and the noise stopped. She turned her wrist to check the time; 8:30pm. It would take an hour to walk to the village and the last boat didn’t depart until 11. She noted that the creature hadn’t used Jim’s voice to tell her she couldn’t leave. Isla smiled as she scanned the houses on the hillside and at the coast. Their windows burned with artificial light, leaving the families warm and illuminated while Isla trudged through the darkness of the night.

© 2020 Sam-Stafford


Author's Note

Sam-Stafford
Any feedback would be appreciated, with particular attention to themes and pacing.

Thank you.

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In fact, your wordsmith skills are well above average for the hopeful writer. The problem? I call it, The Great Misunderstanding, and you share it with the vast majority of hopeful writers: Because we spent so much time perfecting a skill our teachers called, writing, we make the reasonable assumption that that same word, when used as part of the name of the profession, Fiction-Writing, points to that skill. But it doesn’t. Not even close.

Think back to your writing assignments in school. What percentage of them were stories? Damned few, right? So after twelve or more years of writing an endless number of essays and reports you’re pretty good at reporting and explaining. But…how much time did your teachers spend in best use of dialog tags? How much time on the three issues we need to address quickly, on entering any scene, so as to be sure the reader has context for what’s done and said? None, right? In fact, did a single teacher explain the major difference between a scene on the page and one on the screen? How about the elements of, and the progression of a scene? I ask because if we don’t fully understand the methodology of creating scenes, how can we write one?

See the problem? As the great Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We won’t even try to fix the problem we don’t see as being one. And your primary problem, the result of that misunderstanding, is that from the first line, your goal, by training, is to clearly, and concisely explain the progressions of events and their meaning, as does every well-written report. So the skills you’re using are, as with every report, fact-based and author-centric.

But...is that the fiction-writers’s goal, to make the reader know what happened? Or is it, as E. L. Doctorow put it, “to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

Focus on information as the goal and you get an outside-in commentary, presented by a dispassionate external observer. It will be every bit as exciting as a history book, and will read as, “Here’s where this takes place…this happened…then that happened…and why that matters is…” No way in hell can that make you feel cold rain seeping into your collar and chilling your neck, as you read.

So why didn’t you notice the problem? You did, when you said, “I have finished a novel which simply isn't good enough.” You see that the problem exists, but not yet knowing what the problem is…

You also possess two things the reader can’t: context and intent. You begin reading knowing whose skin we wear, and who we are as a person—including backstory and current mindset. You know that same thing about all the characters—plus, you know your intent for how the reader is to interpret the events. And that knowledge, coupled with your outside-in approach, causes you to leave out what seems obvious to you. And when you read it back you not only “fill in the blanks,” the narrator’s voice—your voice—is filled with emotion that only you can hear.

The reader? They have only the emotion that punctuation suggests and the meaning the words suggest, based on THEIR background, not your intent.

Look what that does to the reader’s perception of the opening, and how different that is from what you intend:

• A blanket of purple tumbled from the highest summit to the coast, unleashing rain upon the Island’s inhabitants.

You have successfully duplicated the single worst opening lines in fiction, Bulwer Lytton’s, “It was a dark and stormy night.” 😆

Think about it. Your story begins inside the vestibule. Why do I care what the weather outside is? You phrase it prettily, yes, but we don’t yet know where we are in time and space. We don’t yet know what’s going on, or who we are as a person. Where is he coming from? Dunno. Time of day? Unknown. Why tell the reader that falling rain wets the summit as well as the coast, when we don’t know where we are? Would the story change in the slightest were it to not be raining a five-minute’s walk from where we are? If not, all that weather-report does is slow the narrative and delay the actual opening if the story.

• The houses were well-built. They had to be.

So…some houses don’t have to be well built? Not what you meant, but it is what you said. My point is, how sure are you that your use of the term coincides with the reader’s interpretation of the words—especially, given that you don’t expand on why they need to be.

See what I mean? For you, the words act as pointers to images, concepts, and more, all stored in your mind. So it makes perfect sense. But for the reader? The words act as pointers to images, concepts, and more, all stored in *YOUR* mind. And without you there to clarify…

• Jim Sinclair stood beside the jutting vestibule; his hand planted against the wall - glad for the presence of only a little wind. Using the corner of the doorstep he removed his right boot.

This should be a new paragraph. That aside, you’re thinking cinematically, and telling the reader what they would see were they viewing the film version. But think of this as a reader, who has no idea of the year, or the location—even the planet; who doesn’t know who Jim is as a person, his age, his situation, or the smallest thing about him. Why do they care that he specifically removed his right boot? Why do we care that he knocked dirt from his boots if we don't know why they're dirty? Does it move the plot? No. Does it meaningfully set the scene? No, because he leaves the vestibule. Does it develop character? Hardly. And what other reason would we have for including anything in the story?

This works for you because you have a strong mental image of the scene before you read the first word, based of what you know of him, his situation, and backstory. The reader, lacking all that, is impatiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. Or as James Schmitz put it: “Don’t inflict the reader with irrelevant background material—get on with the story.”

So…this problem carries over to your short stories as well, which means it needs to be addressed. It might be nice if, by reading fiction over the years we absorb the techniques. But, does eating teach us to cook? The solution is simple, though: Add the tricks the pros take for granted to the writing skills you now own.

Unfortunately, simple and easy aren’t interchangeable words, and you’ll be learning the skills of a profession, so there’s a lot of work involved. But learning to do something you truly enjoy isn’t really work. And the practice is writing stories, so… And added to that, when you master the techniques, the act of writing becomes a lot more fun, and often feels as if we’re just recording what the characters decide, on their own. So your protagonist becomes your co-writer, whispering warnings into your ear if you go astray, or try to make the protagonist do something that doesn’t make sense to them.

The library’s fiction-writing section can be a huge resource. But I have several suggestions: First, I’m vain enough to think that the articles in my WordPress writing blog will give you a feel for the massive differences in approach between fiction and nonfiction writing. Many were written for one of my publisher’s newsletters, so they’re aimed at the hopeful writer. The link is at the bottom

Then, if it seems you want to learn more, the best book on the basics of creating scenes that sing to the reader, and linking them into an exciting whole, is available free at the site I link to below this paragraph. It’s the book that got me my first publishing contract, and I wish you the same. Just be sure to read it slowly, with lots of time to think about each point, and practice it, so you don’t just nod in understanding, and then forget you read the point two days later.
https://ru.b-ok2.org/book/2640776/e749ea

So dig in. And while you do, hang in there, and keep on writing. The world needs more crazies who can be looking at a blank wall, and when asked what they’re doing, can honestly say, “Working.”

Jay Greenstein
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/the-grumpy-old-writing-coach/

Posted 9 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Sam-Stafford

9 Months Ago

Hi JayG

I did ask for it, you're right. It didn't sting too much. I'd always pick an .. read more



Reviews

I see you set sail in your unsinkable story boat only to run slap into the iceberg that is Jay. A lucky mishap if you ask me, Jay has a world of good advice to give out and most of it will be useful to any fictioneer. Fictioneer is a made up word I use because I want it to be a word, it isn't writerly, another b*****d creation, writerly. Point of fact I can't do word invention too often or people think I'm daft. Just the same way I can't rely on the reader to possess ESP. I believe I understood some of your implied meanings exactly as you wished me to understand them, but neither of us can be sure of that. If I understood Jay correctly it's better to be sure, at least until you have a reputation that overwhelms reason.
All that being said I do like your work - as I understand it.
Cooper

Posted 9 Months Ago


Well, you did ask for feedback, so you have only yourself to blame for this. I say that because it's going to sting, especially after you worked hard on it, and put so much of yourself into it. But…These are things you need to know, and, they re not a reflection on how well you write, your talent, or, the story, so I thought you’d want to know.

In fact, your wordsmith skills are well above average for the hopeful writer. The problem? I call it, The Great Misunderstanding, and you share it with the vast majority of hopeful writers: Because we spent so much time perfecting a skill our teachers called, writing, we make the reasonable assumption that that same word, when used as part of the name of the profession, Fiction-Writing, points to that skill. But it doesn’t. Not even close.

Think back to your writing assignments in school. What percentage of them were stories? Damned few, right? So after twelve or more years of writing an endless number of essays and reports you’re pretty good at reporting and explaining. But…how much time did your teachers spend in best use of dialog tags? How much time on the three issues we need to address quickly, on entering any scene, so as to be sure the reader has context for what’s done and said? None, right? In fact, did a single teacher explain the major difference between a scene on the page and one on the screen? How about the elements of, and the progression of a scene? I ask because if we don’t fully understand the methodology of creating scenes, how can we write one?

See the problem? As the great Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We won’t even try to fix the problem we don’t see as being one. And your primary problem, the result of that misunderstanding, is that from the first line, your goal, by training, is to clearly, and concisely explain the progressions of events and their meaning, as does every well-written report. So the skills you’re using are, as with every report, fact-based and author-centric.

But...is that the fiction-writers’s goal, to make the reader know what happened? Or is it, as E. L. Doctorow put it, “to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

Focus on information as the goal and you get an outside-in commentary, presented by a dispassionate external observer. It will be every bit as exciting as a history book, and will read as, “Here’s where this takes place…this happened…then that happened…and why that matters is…” No way in hell can that make you feel cold rain seeping into your collar and chilling your neck, as you read.

So why didn’t you notice the problem? You did, when you said, “I have finished a novel which simply isn't good enough.” You see that the problem exists, but not yet knowing what the problem is…

You also possess two things the reader can’t: context and intent. You begin reading knowing whose skin we wear, and who we are as a person—including backstory and current mindset. You know that same thing about all the characters—plus, you know your intent for how the reader is to interpret the events. And that knowledge, coupled with your outside-in approach, causes you to leave out what seems obvious to you. And when you read it back you not only “fill in the blanks,” the narrator’s voice—your voice—is filled with emotion that only you can hear.

The reader? They have only the emotion that punctuation suggests and the meaning the words suggest, based on THEIR background, not your intent.

Look what that does to the reader’s perception of the opening, and how different that is from what you intend:

• A blanket of purple tumbled from the highest summit to the coast, unleashing rain upon the Island’s inhabitants.

You have successfully duplicated the single worst opening lines in fiction, Bulwer Lytton’s, “It was a dark and stormy night.” 😆

Think about it. Your story begins inside the vestibule. Why do I care what the weather outside is? You phrase it prettily, yes, but we don’t yet know where we are in time and space. We don’t yet know what’s going on, or who we are as a person. Where is he coming from? Dunno. Time of day? Unknown. Why tell the reader that falling rain wets the summit as well as the coast, when we don’t know where we are? Would the story change in the slightest were it to not be raining a five-minute’s walk from where we are? If not, all that weather-report does is slow the narrative and delay the actual opening if the story.

• The houses were well-built. They had to be.

So…some houses don’t have to be well built? Not what you meant, but it is what you said. My point is, how sure are you that your use of the term coincides with the reader’s interpretation of the words—especially, given that you don’t expand on why they need to be.

See what I mean? For you, the words act as pointers to images, concepts, and more, all stored in your mind. So it makes perfect sense. But for the reader? The words act as pointers to images, concepts, and more, all stored in *YOUR* mind. And without you there to clarify…

• Jim Sinclair stood beside the jutting vestibule; his hand planted against the wall - glad for the presence of only a little wind. Using the corner of the doorstep he removed his right boot.

This should be a new paragraph. That aside, you’re thinking cinematically, and telling the reader what they would see were they viewing the film version. But think of this as a reader, who has no idea of the year, or the location—even the planet; who doesn’t know who Jim is as a person, his age, his situation, or the smallest thing about him. Why do they care that he specifically removed his right boot? Why do we care that he knocked dirt from his boots if we don't know why they're dirty? Does it move the plot? No. Does it meaningfully set the scene? No, because he leaves the vestibule. Does it develop character? Hardly. And what other reason would we have for including anything in the story?

This works for you because you have a strong mental image of the scene before you read the first word, based of what you know of him, his situation, and backstory. The reader, lacking all that, is impatiently waiting for something meaningful to happen. Or as James Schmitz put it: “Don’t inflict the reader with irrelevant background material—get on with the story.”

So…this problem carries over to your short stories as well, which means it needs to be addressed. It might be nice if, by reading fiction over the years we absorb the techniques. But, does eating teach us to cook? The solution is simple, though: Add the tricks the pros take for granted to the writing skills you now own.

Unfortunately, simple and easy aren’t interchangeable words, and you’ll be learning the skills of a profession, so there’s a lot of work involved. But learning to do something you truly enjoy isn’t really work. And the practice is writing stories, so… And added to that, when you master the techniques, the act of writing becomes a lot more fun, and often feels as if we’re just recording what the characters decide, on their own. So your protagonist becomes your co-writer, whispering warnings into your ear if you go astray, or try to make the protagonist do something that doesn’t make sense to them.

The library’s fiction-writing section can be a huge resource. But I have several suggestions: First, I’m vain enough to think that the articles in my WordPress writing blog will give you a feel for the massive differences in approach between fiction and nonfiction writing. Many were written for one of my publisher’s newsletters, so they’re aimed at the hopeful writer. The link is at the bottom

Then, if it seems you want to learn more, the best book on the basics of creating scenes that sing to the reader, and linking them into an exciting whole, is available free at the site I link to below this paragraph. It’s the book that got me my first publishing contract, and I wish you the same. Just be sure to read it slowly, with lots of time to think about each point, and practice it, so you don’t just nod in understanding, and then forget you read the point two days later.
https://ru.b-ok2.org/book/2640776/e749ea

So dig in. And while you do, hang in there, and keep on writing. The world needs more crazies who can be looking at a blank wall, and when asked what they’re doing, can honestly say, “Working.”

Jay Greenstein
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/the-grumpy-old-writing-coach/

Posted 9 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Sam-Stafford

9 Months Ago

Hi JayG

I did ask for it, you're right. It didn't sting too much. I'd always pick an .. read more

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Added on December 14, 2020
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Tags: Stranger, Horror, Family, short, story, mystical, shape shifter, suspense, off-beat

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Sam-Stafford
Sam-Stafford

Ormskirk, West Lancashire, United Kingdom



About
Been writing since I was a child. Still finding my feet in terms of my style so enjoy writing a broad range. Mainly doing short stories for this reason, but I have finished a novel which simply isn't .. more..

Writing