I was surprised, last week, to receive two emails from a Canadian writing festival, one, accepting my story Starman: Life on TrappistOne and the other, rejecting another story I wrote around the same time, The Curious Incident.
Both stories were written in response to Ronovan’s and Silverthreading’s Writer’s Quote Wednesday Writing Challenge. The story accepted, Starman, has become, for all intents and purposes, an episodic serial, a sort of graphic novel in waiting, spurred, in part, by the weekly Wednesday prompt.
It began, as blog responses to this weekly prompt do, with a quote; the first, from Starman, the David Bowie song of the same name, while the other, The Curious Incident was inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ story of the same name.
Happily, the Canadian festival in question, has provided exhaustive and very constructive critique. So, let’s go with the rejection, first. I intend to republish the original story, here and then, the critique of that story, as provided. Then, I hope to initiate some discussion, regarding both story and critique and finally, edit the story in accordance with that feedback. The end result, I hope, will be a re-edited story I hope I can recirculate but also, and here’s the left-field angle, a practical exercise in the use and value of criticism.
Here is the original story. The prompt, that week, aside from choosing a suitable quote, was ‘mystery.’
The Curious Incident
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’
‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’
‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle,
Waking up somewhere you don’t recognise is not good. Waking up beside a complete stranger doesn’t augur well, either. And if they’re dead, that’s not a mystery, it’s a disaster.
My mysteries usually occur in the dark end of a dimly lit alley, the air redolent of scuzzy, discarded condoms, beer puke, urine and faeces, the graffitied walls dripping with a primeval slime.
This was a high class hotel suite. The sheets made the crinkly noise of Egyptian cotton and the complimentary pillow chocolate that was stuck to my face, was at least 70% high grade cocoa.
The corpse beside me was naked. Checking her pulse was out of the question. Her throat was slit from ear to ear and she was the colour of an old dish cloth. It was a big bed so little of the blood bath had oozed as far as me. Of course, I thought, it helped that she was surrounded by bloody teddy bears, maybe two dozen of them.
They weren’t just ‘bloody’, like splattered, no, they were oozing blood. It was like a teddy bear massacre. And these were just my waking moments, that fuzzy twilight where you can see the light, in the distance, but all your other senses are still playing catch up. Because just about then, I began to smell the blood and forgot about the teddy bears. It smelt like a slaughterhouse.
Then the fog lifted and I leaped out of that bed, stark naked, ready to run, as far and as fast as my feet would carry me. And that wasn’t too far because my clothes were there, by the side of the bed, folded neatly over my Zimmer frame walker. Then it occurred to me I hadn’t moved that fast in 20 years or more. And I’m naked, Christ, I didn’t even like looking at my own body, anymore; scarred, pitted and crooked as it was. Suddenly, I needed to pee. I looked around for my socks that were stuffed, neatly, into my Drew Jimmy’s orthopedic shoes. I grabbed my boxers, too and sat on the Ottoman at the end of the bed to put them on.
That done, I hobbled to the bathroom behind the bed. In there, I lifted the seat off the toilet and waited. Jesus, I thought, now with the stage fright? The bathroom looked untouched. The toilet roll had that triangular fold like it was a dinner napkin, for God’s sake. What the fuck was I doing here? Where the fuck am I? and who, the fuck, is the stiff in the bed next door? Still nothing, the sluice is open but there’s no flow. Fuck it, I have to get out of here.
I gave up trying to pee and paused, to unwrap a small tablet of soap but when I turned on the tap, it wasn’t the only faucet to let fly. Christ, I cursed, as a trickle of pee ran down my leg, soaking my boxers, before I could get it out again to point it at the pan. Of course, I’d put the lid back, so now there was pee on my feet and the floor and by the time I got the lid up, again, it stopped.
That was it. I went back inside and got dressed in a hurry, well, as quickly as my rickety 78 year old frame could manage. Composed and leaning on my zimmer, my bed companion, deceased, I paused, long enough to look her over. She was a real beauty, maybe 55, 60, or thereabouts. Blonde, if bottle enhanced, and nice jugs, too, though just a little too pert, given wear and tear. In fact, they defied gravity, sliding neither to the left or right, nor flattening like the worn out dugs of the last woman I bedded and that was ten years ago.
Before I left, I took a hand towel from the bathroom and mopped the pee from the floor. Then I took another and wiped down any obvious surfaces like the bathroom door handle and around the bed, on my side. Then I threw both towels in the bath and soaked them, quickly, by turning on the bath faucet.
Satisfied, I left, hobbling down a long corridor where I found an elevator. That tune, An Englishman in New York, was playing and I pressed the button for the lobby. There was no-one else in the elevator so I hummed along with Sting until the door opened and I shuffled out in to the busy foyer. I gazed around to get my bearings.
“Dad, Dad, there you are…where, in God’s name have you been? Every person in this hotel has been looking for you. The cops have been trying to find you. Jesus, what are we going to do with you? Don’t ever wander off like that, again. We’ve been going crazy, we thought you were dead or mugged or something.”
I looked sheepish and contrite, but I said nothing.
This is the critique that was offered. It is exhaustive and much longer than the story itself. I would appreciate, if you’ve come this far, that you read the critique and then, perhaps, offer your own advice or comments.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT
Waking up in a hotel room next to the bloody corpse of a woman in her late fifties, a 78 year old gentleman tries to get his bearings and piece together to circumstances that led him to such a situation. His knee-jerk reaction, once clothed, however, is instead to service his body by urinating, allowing him time to consider the implications of the dead woman. Leaving the corpse in the room, untouched, despite his care at mopping up his own pee, the old man saunters down the hotel corridor, sings along to an Englishman in New York in elevator, before encountering his child who questions his whereabouts from the night before. He man remains tight lipped.
The Curious Incident subverts expectation of dealing with a high pressure situation through the protagonist’s curious behaviour. The stakes are apparent from the off, but the greater surprises come from his peculiar gut reactions. Framing us, the reader, in his perspective gives us an insight into the sporadic actions of the man, allowing his empathetic responses like disgust and confusion to balance nicely against the mundanity of his need to urinate and clothe himself. It’s also interesting approaching the story from the angle of a Sherlock Holmes investigation, as the title and initial quote draws some engaging contrasts between the methodology of Sherlock and this old man’s thought process. There’s certainly some strong visual storytelling at work here too, describing the frailty of his body with sharp clarity to the point where the narrative feels almost sensory.
There are, however, some points for improvement within this short story. Currently, it’s a little unclear what we’re supposed to take from this short – a little ambiguity as to whether the man was or was not responsible is good for leaving the reader in a place of intrigue, but the ending is so abrupt here than we never really get enough of a sense either way for the mystery to be compelling. Even the slightest, most subtle hint of his true intent, will re-contextualize all that has come before, prompting multiple read-throughs for the sake of interest, rather than confusion.
The story is set up to be a mystery that needs solving, and yet by the second half it almost feels as if no more effort is being made to solve it. The man’s reactions are traded in for his surface level actions, without enough of a subtext for us to continue getting the measure of him.
Further confusing the characterization is leery, subjective gaze upon the dead woman – some might think this enough to suggest he had a hand in her death, but it only really comes off as muddled when he’s made no allusions towards her beauty upon first seeing her. In short, he’s shifting too much, rather than us organically peeling back the layers of his character.
Furthermore, his son/daughter who appears in the foyer (again, a lack of description of this character makes them feel intangible by comparison with the vivid imagery of the opening) doesn’t really add anything to narrative – their questioning doesn’t really reveal much about the old man, leading to the abrupt ending on a fairly weak reaction. Equally, all 8 clauses of the son/daughter’s questioning are just repeated variations of the same point. We get after one or two lines that they were worried what had happened to him, so leave it at that, rather than over-labour the dialogue. Less is always more in that field of storytelling.
With regards to your writing style, as previously mentioned, there are some striking moments of vivid imagery, blended nicely with the confused personality of the man. There’s room for drawing more direct contrasts in places, such as between the alley and the hotel, possibly even pairing each point of interest within both locations as a clearer dark/light reflection. More work on maintaining that standard throughout the entire story (everything from the peeing onwards feels very “surface”, and a little redundant), as well as keeping his emotional thought process apparent will help sustain our investment in the story. Directly asking the active questions is nice (although be wary of the grammar here, as a question counts as a sentence in and of itself), but asking them all at once does lessen each individual question’s impact – spacing them out allows each segment of action to have a clearer intent behind it (e.g. “What the fuck was I doing here?” followed by him searching for the answer, etc.). Finally, be wary of repeating some terms, like “blood” and its variations, too frequently, as this can break the strong flow of your storytelling.
Overall, The Curious Incident places us in a vivid, engaging scenario, with an interesting character to follow. However, further work is needed in defining the intent and characterization of this man, as well as making the narrative feel like a complete story, rather than a chapter of something bigger, whilst tidying up some of the writing flairs in places. There’s potential here – just really evaluate what you want a reader to take from this story.