by Larry Martin
“Okay, Jordan,” says Samantha, our Critique Club leader, “it’s your turn to read.”
The seven other members of our Fiction Writers of Sunnyville club all have a copy of my story, previously emailed, and will follow along as I read. FWS is an accomplished group of retirees; all have published at least one novel and are working on another or, as in my case, on short stories. We meet every Friday morning in one of Sunnyville’s many club rooms, seated around two card tables.
I take a sip of coffee, then proceed with a brief introduction. “This is a rather long short story, over 7000 words. I’ll keep to our limit and just read the first 1500. It’s called ‘A Cold, Snowy Path’, about a lone hiker in the Yukon, late nineteenth century. In the dead of winter.”
I begin reading. I can tell there is interest in the story and wonder what critique the members will offer. The story is in the genre I am known for — outdoor sagas with an historical bent, about early mountain climbers, ocean sailors, river rafters, hikers in unfamiliar territory.
My protagonist, a newcomer to the Yukon, is beset by extreme cold as he tries to reach his buddies at a distant camp. There he will find warmth and shelter. He’s only a few hours away but the temperature is so cold, minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit, that he has to stop and make a fire along the way. Then the fire goes out. He has a dog with him.
I get to the last paragraph.
“The man held steadily on. He was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six o’clock he would be in camp with the boys. There was nobody to talk to; and, had there been, speech would have been impossible because of the ice-muzzle on his mouth.”
“Okay, I’ll stop there. I’ll read another 1500 words next week.”
Samantha takes over. “Who wants to comment?” she asks.
Bill raises his hand and is called on.
“Jordan, it’s interesting, and I see you’re building the question of whether the man will make it to his camp, but there are some problems. One is your overuse of semicolons, which I’ve noted. However, the major problem I find is your excessive use of ‘was’. I checked it out on Word. You used ‘was’ 52 times, and frankly the repetition is tiring to the reader. Allow me to read three sentences in your first paragraph.”
Bill picks up his copy and starts reading, emphasizing each ‘was’.
“It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky.”
“Here’s a suggestion for rewriting just those sentences,” he says, and begins reading his rewrite. ‘The bank proved steep, and he paused for breath…Nine o’clock already, he thought. Sun’s not out, though the sky is cloudless.’ That’s just a suggestion, Jordan. I would try to change most of the ‘wases’ to some other verb form.”
“Thanks,” I reply. “I’ll consider that.”
Mike quickly raises his hand and begins speaking. “Interesting, your last comment, Jordan. You said, ‘I’ll consider that’. I counted thirty uses of ‘that’ in this excerpt. Let me just quote two sentences, beginning on line twenty-nine.”
“Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks…That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.”
“Excessive use of ‘that’ is generally a sign of weak writing,” adds Mike. “You’re a good writer, and I’m frankly surprised you used ‘that’ so often.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Mike,” I reply. “I’ll look into that.” My comment elicits some laughter. We’re really a friendly group, all seeking to improve our writing.
“Anyone else?” asks Samantha.
Alice offers a comment. “I pretty much agree with what’s been said so far. Just seems like a lot of overwriting to me. One other area where I think the writing could be sharpened is your repetition of the word ‘it.’ Just look at that first paragraph again. I won’t read the whole thing. All these uses of ‘it’ are in that one opening paragraph, beginning on line five.”
“It was a steep bank….”
“The very next sentence.”
“It was nine o’clock.”
“And the next sentence.”
“It was a clear day.”
“Then sentence six of the same paragraph.”
“It had been days since he had seen the sun.”
“Too many ‘its’,” Alice continues. “Also, you use the first three as a pronoun, and the fourth one as a preposition. All this, I think, draws attention to the grammar and away from your story. At least it does for me.”
“How would you change it?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she replies, with an air suggesting genuine concern for the story’s problems. “It’s up to you. Bill offered one suggestion for fixing the ‘wases’. I would just pay attention to your use of ‘was,’ ‘that,’ and ‘it’. You can easily search for these words. Combine phrases so they’re hardly needed.”
“Any other comments, Alice?” asks our leader.
“Oh, one other. The man has no name. You just call him ‘The Man’? Why not give him a name, make it a little more personal. Okay, I’m done. That’s all.”
Samantha asks if anyone else has a comment. Two members have so far offered no critique, and remain silent. I get the feeling that, by now, they perhaps feel sorry for me and don’t want to pile on.
“No other comments? Okay,” says Samantha. “I do have a criticism no one’s mentioned. The piece starts out giving us the man’s point of view, and that is pretty much maintained throughout. The narrator tells us that the gloom of the day ‘does not worry the man’, that a noise in the forest ‘startled him’, and that at one point the man noted changes in his cheek from the cold. But then the narrator also gives us, in several places, the dog’s point of view.”
Her emphasis on the word “dog” translates into “Do you know what you’re doing?”, and elicits a few titters from the group.
Samantha has more to say. “In fact, Jordan, you go back and forth with point of view, between the man and the dog. I personally don’t mind the dog having a point of view, some stories are written that way, but a general rule is to keep only one point of view in a short story.
“Where,” I ask, “do I have the dog’s point of view?”
“Several places. Samantha glances down at her copy. Here, line sixty-two.”
“The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.”
“And again, on line sixty-eight.”
“But the brute had its instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels…The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.”
“So, you see, you go back and forth. I am not a stickler for point of view like some people, but do draw the line on interjecting an animal’s point of view along with a human’s, especially when they are presented by a narrator who is physically removed from the scene. It sounds artificial to me. That’s just my opinion.”
“Thanks,” I reply. “Anything else?”
Brian, heretofore silent, speaks up. “Jordan, you said you have another 5000 words to this story. It’s finished?”
“I suggest you go back and rewrite the thing before submitting more to our group. I don’t want to be too critical, but do think the points raised here are valid, and seriously weaken your story. You can’t hope to get it published in this style of writing.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about that, Brian. It’s already been published.”
“I have a confession to make. It’s not really my story. The actual title is “To Build a Fire,” and it was published in 1908 by Jack London. The only thing I changed is the title. It is still being read in high schools and is widely regarded as a classic man versus nature short story.” I pause for effect. “A classic.”
There are a few guffaws as people stare at their copy. I see Brian doing a fast web search on his smart phone. While he’s searching, I take another sip of coffee, and then Mike speaks up.
“You can probably do this with a lot of older literature,” says Mike. “Imagine reading Beowulf here. This critique group is really for what we ourselves write, not fiction written by others, no matter how famous they may be.” He looks to Samantha, as if hoping she will reinforce his disdain for my trickery, but she stays mum.
Brian puts down his smartphone. “Okay, I found ‘To Build a Fire’. It popped up in a website ‘Twenty Great American Short Stories’. So you fooled us, I admit. But I agree with Mike. The criticisms are still valid for modern writing. Styles change, and what’s considered good writing changes over time.”
“I suppose so,” I reply. “Just thought it would be interesting to see how we respond to what’s generally considered great literature, even today. As I said, the story’s read in schools across the country.”
“So is Beowulf,” says Mike, fairly dripping with sarcasm. Brian slowly shakes his head, and Alice pointedly does not make eye contact. Still, I have no regrets. I made my point, and offer no more rebuttal.
“Let’s move on,” Samantha says. “Who’s next to read?”
- END -