Work In Progress: Need Some Critique

I’m a few chapters in to my science fiction novella tentatively titled The Painful Best and I thought I would post the first chapter just to get some reaction from my readers.  What I mainly want to know is: (1) Does it grab your attention and (2) Does it leave you wanting to read more?  Any other critique would be appreciated.

Thank you so much!

Chapter 1

As his eyes slowly opened, Michael felt the springtime sunlight flood into his brain on a wave of pain.  He lay face down sprawled on a soft carpet of green grass, his arms and legs splayed out as if to welcome a chalk line for a film noir dead body.  He squinted his eyes closed again, catching one of the green blades in his eyelid and then blinking his eyes open in reflex.  He could taste dirt in his mouth, feel the grit between his teeth, as he began to wonder what he was doing here and exactly who he was.

A strange ringing echoed in his ears, much like the after effect of firing a pistol without ear protection, but over the din he could somehow make out the chattering voices of children.

“Mister, are you OK?” came a high pitched utterance, and he wondered if it came from inside his throbbing head.

He rolled over on his side to face the direction of the sound, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the brutal sun.  Silhouetted there, her yellow dress dirty and nose running, stood a small girl with unraveling pigtails.  She smiled at him, two teeth missing.

He tried to speak to her but could not form the words.

“What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice a roller coaster of pitch.  “Are you sick?”

He managed to raise to a sitting position, but that only tightened the vice grip on his skull, causing him to feel something roiling in his stomach.  Again, he tried to speak, but his words seemed jumbled, cross-wired.  He could only gibber and moan.

He was mildly aware of a string of drool that escaped his bottom lip.

The little girl giggled, and that was when he heard a voice of one of the other children nearby.

“Don’t talk to strangers!”

“Oh yeah,” said the little girl.  “Sorry mister.”  And she toddled off, the hem of her yellow dress bouncing along.

He rose to his knees and shielded his eyes again from the sun and as the white washed world faded to familiar colors, he saw that he was near a small playground, rusty swing chains squeaking, children laughing, some of the little ones squealing as they descended the cyclone slide.  The pain in his head, an immense jack hammer, pounded away with each beat of his heart.  He wondered where he was or for that matter who he was.

Somehow the playground looked vaguely familiar to him but he could not place it, like seeing a high school acquaintance but not being able to remember their name.  He managed to stand, feeling something like the symptoms of vertigo, and staggered over to place one hand on a nearby red oak tree in hopes of ceasing the psychedelic madness of the spinning ground.  It helped a little, and he found that watching the children play caused the unnatural motion of the earth to subside, but his stomach retained the feeling of dread, gurgling and bubbling.

Something in his head told him to go home.

Where was that?

He could not remember his name much less where he lived, but somehow he knew that this place was somehow familiar.  His eyes scanned the area, looking out past the playground to a nearby street and a row of houses there, and somehow he knew that they had been built in the 1950’s.  A faded blue sedan rolled by slowly, its driver a blonde woman vaguely familiar, her right hand vigorously texting on a phone and the other trying drunkenly to stay on the road.  Something in Michael caused him to grunt out a short laugh, the first sound he had made since waking up.

He shambled to the fence separating the road from the playground and opened the latch on a gate, closing it behind him.  The sidewalk, small tufts of green grass poking up through the cracks, led away to a main street and more traffic, and he saw the woman’s yellow signal light blinking as she turned onto the main road and then sped off to the left.

“Bye, mister!” shouted the little girl.  He spun his head toward her as if on a swivel and she was waving a skinny little arm, her small hand a blur.  This is when he noticed two women sitting on a bench on the other side of the playground glaring at him, their eyebrows furrowed, their lips moving slowly, one of them reaching into her purse to produce a cell phone, the other clutching her handbag with both hands as if it were a child in danger.

He ignored them, turning to walk down the sidewalk to the main street.  He knew it was the main street, and he now knew that if he walked down it far enough that he would find his home.  Something like static was starting to clear in his mind and he was seeing more and more familiar landmarks floating out of the haze, but he still could not remember his name.

As he rounded the corner on a row of small town store fronts, someone slammed into him, nearly knocking him to the ground.  It was an older man with shabby clothes and the smell of unwashed hair and the faint odor of alcohol.  Two brown eyes stared out of all of that dirt and grunted a greeting.

“Watch where yer goin’, dummy!” he growled.

“Ss…” was all Michael could manage.  The old man, his torn shirt filthy, his eyes ringed by an unkempt halo of long gray hair and peppery beard, the top of his head bald, pushed past him to walk toward the barber shop across the street.  The old man paused to look back as if he were going to say something else, his mouth agape, and then scurried away.

Michael felt sick.  His stomach began to roll and bubble and his throat felt tight.  He found a door to a storefront and upon opening it he smelled fried bacon and saw many round tables, red and white checked table cloths, and various people eating their breakfast, but who now were stopping what they were doing to stare at him, each face a puzzled mask.  Murmurs were heard as he staggered toward the sign at the back that read “restrooms”, found the men’s room and rushed inside to dry heave into the cool toilet for a few minutes.  Moving to the sink, he pressed the button on the one spigot plunging his hands beneath the cool water, and rinsing his face, feeling the coldness wash away the pain in his head.

That is when he looked in the mirror.

A man he did not recognize stared back at him, his dark hair close shaven, a balding area on top, a shaggy dark goatee ringing his mouth and wrinkled circles around dark eyes.

“Who are you?” he mumbled, his tongue finally working.  “And where are you?”

A knock at the door startled him and he took in a sharp breath.

“Hey in there,” came a soft voice of a woman.  “You OK, Michael?”

Michael.  She called me Michael.

“I’ll be right out,” he said, grabbing a handful of paper towels from the stainless steel dispenser and wiping his face.  He used the paper towel to pull on the bathroom door handle and propped it open with his foot as he then threw the wadded towel in the trash.  A young woman wearing a green button down shirt beneath a grease stained apron stood in his way.

“Michael,” she said, her blue eyes wiggling back and forth, studying him.  “You been out all night again?  You gotta stop doin’ that.  Bad for your health.”

“I…I don’t know.”

She held an orb shaped pot of coffee in one hand and a pen in the other.  She pointed over her shoulder with the pen.

“You want a cup of coffee?  Might do you some good.”

Michael nodded, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

She led him to a seat in the back of the restaurant and brought out a cup of black coffee, a small bowl filled with cold disposable cups of creamer and a glass sugar dispenser with a chrome lid.  He found a spoon in a paper napkin along with a fork and a knife, and instinctively poured cream and sugar into his coffee, wondering if it was purely instinctual.

Judith.  Her name is Judith Rigby.

Michael straightened his right leg and reached into his front pocket where he found a set of three keys on a keychain that had a picture of a roller coaster that spelled out the words “Frontier City”.  He also found a wadded up ten dollar bill and in his back pocket a wallet with a few business cards for businesses he did not recognize.  No driver’s license or identification other than where one of the business cards had something scrawled in pencil across the back.  He couldn’t make it out because apparently some of the graphite had been rubbed off.  It looked like a phone number.

But my name is Michael.  Michael…Pros…Prosper.  Yes, that’s it.  Prosper.

He sat quietly for some time, sipping at his coffee which seemed particularly good even though he couldn’t remember ever drinking coffee.  However, as he drained the cup, he started to remember the taste of it, the sounds in this restaurant, the smells, and Judith’s kind face.  He supposed she wore that kind face for everyone.

Oh yeah, her husband died.  Couple of years ago.  Brain cancer.  She has a little boy…what’s his name?  Dawson!  Oh that kid is a brat.

Lost in thought, Michael didn’t notice Judith appear next to him and slide the green and white check stub across the red and white checked table.

“Um…all I have is this ten,” he said to her, pulling the crumpled bill out of his pocket again.  His keys fell on the floor.

“It’s ok, honey,” she said, that smile beaming out of her.  “It’s on the house.  You go home and get some rest.”

He did not say another word, only rose to his feet, brushed down the t-shirt he was wearing, and exited through the front of the restaurant, this time not many people acknowledging his presence, and a few of them waving as they did in every small town.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “Work In Progress: Need Some Critique

  1. Hi, Roger.

    I prefer soft sci-fi to spaceships and robots, so the scenario is intriguing so far.

    I’d like to see Michael experience more fear at not knowing who he is or where, though. Remember when you were a child and the world seemed so vast? It was easy to feel lost in places that are ordinary to an adult. I feel like Michael, although an adult, would revert to this feeling in such a scenario. If you could tap into that, it may ratchet up the tension a bit.

    My only other critique is that a few of the similes seem didactic, and they slow the pace. For example the line “he spun his head as if on a swivel” works better without the simile. Or you could just as easily say, “he swiveled his head.” Same deal with the chalk outline comment early on. I suspect everyone knows what that is without having to reference film noir.

    Overall, it has a lot of good elements and, as expected, strong prose. It will be really slick with a few more passes to tighten up a couple of spots.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Over all, I would keep reading, but I would need a little more suspense to tease me in further (but I’m a sucker for the detective story that reveals one bit of evidence at a time, luring you deeper into the case just before the chapter breaks).

    My biggest hang-up — and this is probably a choice you made, so ignore it if it goes against your instincts — I had a hard time with the narrator knowing so much and the character knowing almost nothing. For instance, does the character know what a gunshot sounds like? Did the character go to high school, that he would describe his partial memory loss using that simile?

    I agree with mobewan: if I hadn’t known this was a sci-fi going in, there’s no way I would have been able to tell that you were writing a sci-fi, which I kind of love. Genre’s are fuzzier and fuzzier, and I love the idea of a fairly “simple” memory loss opening up a stranger story.

    Thanks again.

  3. Hi Roger, always feel privileged to read a WIP.  I know how difficult is to put something out there you’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into, so respect for doing so.  Some thoughts below.  These are IMHO, so please ignore, challenge, rip up as you see fit.  And sorry, seems to ramble a bit but enjoyed it so wanted to give you feedback that might possibly help.

    General thoughts – seems fairly straightforward memory loses story, wouldn’t know it was SciFi at all.  Got me hooked on wondering why Micheal had lost his memory, but he seemed to recover it quite quickly.  Seemed a very real scene, I.e. gave me a good sense of someone suffering for slight amnesia.  Is there some way to give me as the reader any more insight or clues as to what’s going on? For some reason I felt the two women on the bench are part of something…general style was good, set the images very solidly in my mind, but in a few places it feels like you are trying to hard to describe things and perhaps its getting in the way of the flow – you describe a playground, some kids, two women on a bench, the shops, a tramp, a diner, the restrooms and a waitress all in great detail in the first couple of pages. Difficult to pick out what’s actually pertinent.

    Bottom line, would read on, but if you’ve sold it to me as SciFi I’d want something wierder to happen soon to keep  my interest.

    Some specifics: 

    I like the description in the first two sentences, but feel the following ones started to get a bit overwrought with saying the same thing.  For example, do you need both “he could taste the dirt in his mouth” and “feel the grit between his teeth”.  Feels like it takes a tad too long to get to the punchline of memory loss.

    Same goes for the second paragraph – “echoing in his ears”, “pistol fired without ear protection”, “over the din” – three references to noise.  Do you need them all?

    Liked the description on how he felt as he came to, eg. ‘ceasing the psychedelic madness of the spinning ground’

    Mister are you OK” came a high pitched utterance.  The word utterance seems a bit…fancy…makes me feel like it’s going to have been said by something interesting.  Which turns out to be a child…so felt a bit disappointed for some reason.

    Liked the dialogue the kids had with Micheal.

    “…as the white washed world faded to colors…” really like that part.  simple but evocative and you don’t over egg it.  Spelt ‘colour’ wrong though 😉

    The name Michael appears in the story too suddenly.  I liked the introduction at the rest room bit, I’d leave it out until that point.

    ‘He spun his head toward her as if on a swivel and she was waving a skinny little arm, her small hand a blur.’ – again a lot of description, slowed the sentence and imagery down for me.

    You describe the man Micheal bumps into and who goes into the barber shop in great detail.  Detail I’ll probably forget by the time the story gets back to him.  If the story doesn’t get back to him, why did you tell me all that stuff??

    1. Thanks so much, Mobewan! Great critique. I’ll get to work on these things immediately. Some notes: It is indeed a science fiction novel, but the plot points in the novel will unfold for the reader a little at a time. Suffice it to say that the setting is not what the reader thinks. He is not where he thinks he is (or where the reader thinks he is), but I think if I were to insert some weirdness in the first chapter it would help with the sci-fi element. I have also debated with myself about telling this story in first person. I wonder if that would change the perspective enough so that the reader knows as much as Michael? Worth a thought.

      1. 1st vs 3rd always seems to be a hard decision. I always thought it would be as simple as ‘a story from one persons perspective’ = 1st person, ‘many different perspectives/characters’ = 3rd. But (and please bear in mind I’m a fledgling writer, I have no real “commercial” experience except that based on reading loads), I’ve found that if I go with 1st then the whole style of the story becomes that of the character rather than my own style – i.e. if they are enigmatic and spiritual then you can go with the descriptive terminology, letting their personality come through in long sentences. The cynical ones tend to be sharper and punchier, not suiting long sentences. 3rd person tends to lend it to my natural style more easily. So I’ve tended to chose 1st or 3rd person depending on how challenging I want the writing to be and the nature of the main character.

        Reasonably good chance I’m talking rubbish though…;-)

  4. Yes it catches my attention & I want to read more. Only 2 small things that niggle at my addled brain. They might just be personal things. The light searing into Micheal’s brain (seems hard if he’s laying face down) & naming the main character just seconds before the waitress does seems off. There may be something off with the last line of the chapter, but that may be my disappointment that I’ll have to wait to read more. It seems a little awkward, maybe like this,”and a few of them waving as they often do in every small town.” I hope I’m not being too forward.

  5. This is really good. I would definitely read the rest of this! It is very well written and is very dramatic! It is truly brilliant!

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