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This is a ~3000-word piece, with deliberately stylized writing. Is the style of this piece successful or gimmicky? Does it read smooth or choppy?

He sat on top of the highway. City on a hill. He was looking down at the cars, but not at their metal chassis. He was concerned with their existence, and their heavy weight in our perception of time. The cars moved so fast, they didn’t intake information at the same rate as he, standing still. Their time moved much too fast to see details. He got thinking— people down there only spent a split second of their life ever in that exact spot he was watching. Speeding past the overpass that out looked a sublime mountain range. Metal was hiding wood, concentration was hiding beauty. Not that they noticed, no, their eyes were on the road. He could slowly breath in and out, but the cars would keep on coming, pouring down the highway, each speeding like the one in front of it. When did they take a break?

His mind would jump through his thoughts, looking about randomly. They were serious thoughts, but still subject to the decay of fresh crisp air. They sort of sat in his head, sometimes turning into words, and in the slow process of permeating into pure emotion, fermenting in his mind. Then he switched to the mountain range again, the one the drivers would never see.

This is how his story began. This is how his story ended. Staring at the mountains, but of course, he wasn’t actually seeing them, because he was not really looking. He was preoccupied. Stuck in his thoughts, his time was much slower than normal. Opposite the cars, that moved too fast to look around, he was moving too slow. He was in the past; a whole different dimension than the present trees his eyes were perpendicular to. He would look at the trees, but really they were an afterthought. To his head, they were a mere green projector screen to watch, letting him take his thoughts and see them outwardly.

His head was busy rewinding previous memories. The screen went dark, and he visited the episode at his house earlier that day. He saw his mom’s deep blue eyes, and straight blond hair. He could smell the air, and remember would it felt like to stand on his front, un-mowed lawn, which was reaching up and itching his ankle. He could zoom in on his mom’s shirt and see the texture of how the ink lay on the cotton if he wanted to. He could see the gritty dark red of his roof if he wanted. This was all in his memory.

The details were mostly blurs though, such were the nature of details. Mostly, he was watching the content. He was watching the visualization of the words, and the face expressions that was created from them. “You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house” she blurted. This contorted her face, so it looked like she was thinking, as if it were a hard math problem, where she scrunched her eyebrows closer together, and created extra wrinkles above her face. Emotional, frustrated, she looked as if she knew she’d get it wrong, transfixed with enlarged vivid eyes, and complete with a frown. From the tip of her nose, she was holding a downward wrinkle that spilled the frown around her lip and under her cheek.

She had been thinking so hard, he was sure that she barely saw him leave. Her thoughts had glossed over the usually attentive glare in her eyes. She was so emotional, her view had blurred, and she hadn’t noticed time slip past her. The sky darkened, and he had left the house, unable to deal with his mom’s outburst.

His mom’s outburst had been loud. The neighbors could hear it. Of course, realistically every family has tension, so out of courtesy, they looked away. They could clearly hear it, yet their face would hold purposeful neutrality. Out of courtesy, they did not hear it.

Why is everyone letting themselves be so blind to the truth? He remembered what he had been looking at. “You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house”. He had dodged his moms eyes, and had looked at the grass. The vivid green had reminded him of the colors of his adventures. As his mom slipped into her own world, so did he. He mentally closed the door to her, and recalled the lit blunt, and watched the smoke dance upward. As he followed the smoke trail up, He went from the green of the grass, to the trees, and then finally the sky. It hazed and dazed and dazzled, synergizing into a dizzying ride. His head was spinning, but his eyes were enjoying the colors too much to stop. He looked at the blue sky, and saw it darken. The darkening snapped him back into the conversation with his mom. He had snapped back a few minutes too late though, her mom had already dazed out of her anger. She now held a subdued anxiety. He tried to stay for dinner, but that wound him tighter, he needed to leave.

Why is no one grasping the present? What are they avoiding? His mom knew what he was up too. She found a bag of it in his room when she had gone to clean. It had been messy too long, and she was trying to be motherly and help. She knew he would not tell her about it if she didn’t ask, and he would probably lie about it if she did ask. Suddenly she saw the reality of parenting. She was mad, and had scolded him heavily, but then she had glossed over and let him go. It didn’t matter what she soliloquized, he was going to crawl around her back, no matter which direction she turned. In the reality of it, she was mad that her kid was lying to her, ruining his future, ‘But we can’t stop them, can we?’ she thought. She had stopped talking to her son. She just stood still. And thought. Son gets older every single year. She was not necessarily thinking words, only melancholy waves of sadness regarding her sons maturity. Her mind would slip in and out of old memories. All until she woke back up into the mud field of the backyard. She was stuck, trying to view him as a kid, malleable, and open to advice. She was stuck, not ready for him to grow older. ‘that’s usual, right?’

“You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house”. His mom did not even consider how he had felt. He doesn’t like sneaking around. He doesn’t like hiding, and ducking. Still, to the same degree, he’s a person, and he will make his own decisions. He will sneak around in her house, as it is his life that is inhabiting her house, not her possession. ’Does she hate me?’, he wondered. He wished he could tell her the truth. She was his mom, she should comfort him… but it didn’t seem right. Why was she suddenly mad now? Oh, so she found out he was not at the friend’s house he said he’d be at. In an unsettling way, he was happy to be punished for that mistake, as he had made others, and was scared she had found out about the more pressing details.

The neighbors saw it get darker, they had been watching the television near their front window. In fact, that had seen him as he walked out of his house, a little after dark. He walked with his arms a little too tightly crossed, which gave off a dark, negitive aura of energy that was wound up and tangled in him. His hood was clear over his face though, so they saw no expression. After hearing loud burst earlier in the day, they wondered if he was running away from home. They waved at him, to see if he would show some warmth, but he didn’t even notice them in the window. He kept walking straight.

There on the grass, overlooking the highway, was his friend. As he stared at the highway, thinking of the cars, thinking of the trees, she also thought. She was dizzy trying to remember the night before. She had been coughing, she was spinning. Her time was moving slowly too. She hugged herself, out of fear she would suddenly disappear. She was looking at, but also not really seeing, those distant trees. She was watching the lit blunt too, and she re-watched it go into her mouth. She coughed. She was having a mal-reaction. This was not supposed to happen. The Asthma was getting in the way. Was it, was it really happening? Was she just nervous, and doing what she thought would happen, or was the weed really what was causing her asthma attack? At first it wasn’t that bad, but after being encouraged to continue, the actual attack started. She was put in her own world. She tried not to over think, but her efforts made her over think about over-thinking, and then anxieties started choking her before her breath did, and then they harmonized, hitting at the same fear, the same nerve in her brain: hopelessness. Isolation. For a full lifetime, she was alone. She didn’t see him look at her with an abyss of concerned. She didn’t notice how hard he was fighting his high to leave his world and enter hers. She didn’t notice him grasp her, and comfort her. She was coughing, maybe even too her death. Her head was spinning, and things were not happened as they were supposed to. She couldn’t breath. She couldn’t grasp. She couldn’t see. Her eyes were watching nothing. They were not registering. Her senses were stuck attending her lack of breath. They were—

Then they had gone home, separately. Both, completely scared of what happened, both, thinking they would never try it again. “You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house”. As his mom said that, she knew how incorrect it really was. He had probably tried some of the weed she had found, probably seen how it felt, and probably liked it. He will probably keep doing it, right? Could she stop him? It’s his choices, right? She felt so clever, as if she had seen it all. She saw so clearly what she was sure happened, it filled right into the details. The details were wrong. She was so clever, so sure of herself, she didn’t bother to notice her son’s phased face, and delicate body language. He had jumped when she told him not to sneak around, she didn’t notice how vulnerable he looked at that moment. He solemnly said “ok, sorry”. Maybe she would not understand the depth of what that meant, but she could have picked up on the fact that it had meant something. She didn’t really see that though. She did not notice.

“ok, sorry” he said. It wasn’t necessarily directed at any one, but more to everyone. He had encouraged her to try the stuff, and he had freaked out his mom, by telling a bad lie. Maybe he had made her hate him. ‘Does she hate me?’, he wondered. He had let his reality slip out of his hand. He saw what should have happened, and yet somehow it didn’t. On the brink of a total asthma attack, her inhaler did not bring down the adrenaline as it did her coughing. He saw what should have been a calming evening. The two conflicting pictures stayed dissonant in his mind.

He loved her. Though he felt sorry about that too. Sorry that he had to risk a solid friendship. He wanted so bad to hold her, to calm her down. His touch was fire, he never knew when he was going to outstretch his boundaries, and when she was going to melt. When she was going to wonder why he was always touching her, and when she was going to feel uncomfortable about their relationship. She was in equilibrium with him, they were both friends. He didn’t want to break that, scared that it would shatter.

She, of course, was blind. When they were together, she rarely intersected eyes. They were good friends, and they had interesting, flowing conversations. While she was thinking, he was sweating, searching her eyes for recognition of his existence, but she never looked back. She was always looking out into the distance. “I didn’t mean to” he wanted to say. She would probably not respond to that, how could she? She wasn’t even sure what had happened.

“I didn’t mean to”. His mom though, would dismiss this. Of course he meant to, right? He needed a way to get off the radar for an exciting night, right? He needed space, chance to be a kid. He must have meant to lie. At this point, time would speed up for his mom. She would go inside, and continue making dinner. She would continue her day, trying to ignore the white elephant in the room, her kid is doing things. He is doing what he will, and she can’t stop it. He is growing up. That’s what she would see all through dinner. He wasn’t so hungry, so he put his plate in the sink and left the table soon after dinner started. He’s growing up so fast isn’t he? She thought this, and then kept eating undisturbed. After dinner she did the dishes, and did not see him again that night.

In the morning, his mom looked better. He was happy to see his weed where he left it, untouched, undisturbed. He was in the clear then, this would all just fade away, right? He tried to call that happiness… really, it was just a minor relaxation. He still had a lot to fear; many things broke that night. He felt as if the whole incident was his fault, how could he even talk to her again? His lies felt so piercing, to both himself and others. “no mom, I’ll just be out for a bit, I’ll stay safe” “don’t worry about it, Emily, you’ll be ok, nothing bad happens when you try it” “no, everything’s ok, I’m fine, thanks for asking”. He was not fine, though this is not to be over dramatized. He felt no sense of impending doom, nothing was gettingworse. It was just that, nothing felt good, nothing was right. Everything was in its wrong place, and he felt powerless to fix it.

The mistakes were not even big enough to need fixing. He could not outright bring the subject up, just think about it. Just think about and know others are doing the same. Always thinking, until the thoughts turn stale, and go south. Its the worst fate: to have to guess what everyone else needs, to guess what they are seeing, to not know. ’Does she hate me?’

His mom had collected her thoughts. She would keep letting him go on suspicious sleep overs. He would continue to do what he wanted, and he would find the consequences that it would give him. “You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house”, his mom thought of that. She had cooled down, and knew that it would not stop.

No, he was sick. He was so sick, he had to excused himself from dinner right away. He could not eat calmly, when he kept seeing her cough. He kept remembering that gut wrenching feeling, not knowing how to help, watching her unable to breath. He needed fresh air. He got up, went to Emily’s house, and brought her up to the lookout on the highway, where they had smoked the day before. It had all gone wrong. “It had all gone wrong” he said to her, while watching the cars. But of course, everyone was in their own world, blind to everyone else. He looked at the cars, at the trees, but what was there to see? The cars moved so fast, he could barely see their color, and so many of the trees were identical. He could just make out the outline of each tree. It was more of a green screen, then a forest. He could not see really see the trees, even though he had all the time in the world to look at them. So maybe he was no better off than the driver, just as blind, just as occupied. They were driving, he was thinking, he was worrying, he was crying. Tears rolled down his face, blurring their shapes. Why was he crying, he didn’t really know. He felt like he was being so over dramatic, and yet, still, he cried. Sitting next to him, Emily didn’t really notice. She was thinking about how much it hurt to cough. She had not even heard his statement. He repeated it. “It had all gone wrong” to which she calmly replied. “yea, it did, didn’t it?”. They both separately looked at the trees, and sat in silence. “You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house”, he thought of those words, he thought of that day, the overgrown green grass, the dancing smoke, the texture of his roof, time and space. He thought of her, the neighbors, his mom, himself, the hundreds of cars passing by. It was all so claustrophobic, so many people, all with a place they want to be, and a place they think that others are going. All focused on the road, not taking a second to look around. He thought, and then took a breath of fresh air. In flowed a new breath, and then he let it all tumble out of his lungs, out of his windpipe, and finally out of his mouth.

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4 Answers 4

I read small segments through the piece and found a wealth of great little details though I think it still reads a little to much like a flight of fancy piece. That is to say it is obvious the importance of the piece to yourself though not to the reader. It helpful if you ask your self two questions with your piece:

  • "what is the most important feeling I want to covey to the reader"
  • "how can I do that with the least words possible"

Regarding the style it will read fine if you economize on words.

A great exercise with this piece would be to try and rewrite it with half the word count whilst still maintaining its original meaning.

P.S. I am not trying to be mean in my criticism its just this is a common trap people fall into.

P.P.S. Cormac Macarthy uses this style to much success in his book the Road

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Maybe I'm not the best person to comment on this since it's not my usual cup of tea, but I have to admit, I had trouble getting to the end. So many thoughts and feelings, but nothing seams to actually happen. My thoughts just wonder off while I read.

I like the image you start with, cars going too fast to see what's happening around them, but I don't think those first three paragraphs are gripping enough to engage reader's interest (your question's been up for more than 24 hours and the only other person who wrote an answer admits to just skimming it). When a reader starts reading a new piece of fiction, the first thing he's going to ask himself, after reading the first few sentences is "so what?". You start with the intimate thoughts of the character without giving a reader time to connect with the character, we have no idea who's thoughts those are (and by that I don't mean the character's name), so how can we connect? A random person is thinking about something, so what? And also, nothing happens. It's a bit hard to read something where nothing really happens. I strongly believe this first three paragraphs should be cut down into one. The fourth paragraph is the first one that actually aroused my curiosity, but it faded out very quickly.

Then, all this point of view switching made me feel like I was on a roller coaster. And you're not just switching points of view, you're switching types of points of view. After the son's point of view, you switch to the mother's rather abruptly, but I can live with that. It's when you later switch to the mother's POV again, you also tell things that mother doesn't know, which is a different type of point of view - it's almost as bad as switching from third to first POV. Later again, you have both son's and mother's POV in the same chapter, which is very confusing. You also have neighbour's POV for just one chapter, which looks totally out of place to me.

I realize what you were trying to accomplish with the repetition of the sentence “You will not sneak around as long as you live in my house”, but to me it feels like someone is rewinding a movie that I'm watching over and over again. The first time I was even confused, had to return to the previous paragraph because I thought she was in some kind of a trance and repeating herself or something. It's generally not a good thing to go back in time, much more to branch scenes like this, not without at least some warning, some clear structure that would make it clear what's going on. All in all, I like the idea, but the execution needs to be smoother.

Also, what's the main theme here? Is it drugs, mother-son relationship, son being friend-zoned, fact that no-one cares what goes on around them? You have too many of them in here I don't know what's it about.

I like the ending, though, and how you connected it with the beginning, that a nice touch.

I hope you don't find my answer too harsh. It's not a bad story, it just needs to be cleaned up a bit. Pick one theme and give it more emphasis, tone down the others. Try to be more concise, like user5438 advised, and try to cut down on the word count, say more with less words. Try, if you can, to add more action. Not events, but action, like what characters do while they talk, think, sit and so on. We're a fast moving society these days, we need action to stay focused. It's also very hard to imagine a scene in your head when there's nothing actually happening. Ever noticed how rarely two characters in a movie just stand while they talk? They're most often walking or doing something while they talk, rarely standing still. For most of the piece, you're telling us what they're thinking, is there a way you can show that through their actions?

Again, I hope you don't find this answer too harsh. It's not given in with bad intentions. It's also just my thoughts and views, you can take them or leave them as you like.

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I need to start by giving you a huge pat on the back. Good for you attempting such a challenging piece of writing! This reminds me of the work of James Joyce. You are certainly aiming high when you set your sights on trying to emulate the work of one of the most unique, complex, and difficult writers ever known. This could be compared to a number of contemporary writers, especially those working in the cyberpunk field, but any comparison would be to someone whose work is cerebral, pyrotechnical, elaborate, artistic, and demanding.

I think if you are going to try to write this way, you are setting the bar very, very high. It usually takes years and years of practice to be able to successfully accomplish this kind of writing. But I think if you want to be a successful writer, you must be dispassionately honest in assessing your skills. In other words, you MUST be able to recognize your true abilities. You can't fool yourself. If you can't honestly admit to yourself what you are able to do as a writer, you cannot advance. It would be like saying, "Oh, sure, I know how to lay a concrete foundation for a house," when in fact you really don't know how to lay a concrete foundation for a house, and you go ahead and fake it, and you put down a really bad concrete foundation, and the house collapses, because you weren't honest with yourself about your true abilities. So you need to be honest with yourself about your ability to handle the English language. You want to write elaborate, complicated, artistic fiction, but you must realize that you still need to learn more about the basics of English. Don't be discouraged. You know a lot already, and you can learn the rest. But you should start with something much simpler. You really should learn to walk before you learn to run! You will be amazed what you can accomplish if you do it that way!

Edit in response to Standback's critique of my answer:

Hm. Well, okay. Admittedly, what I wrote here was not a very direct answer to the question posed, and the reason for that is because all of us, all writers, have shockingly fragile egos. We all need encouragement, especially novice writers. So I maintain that what I wrote is an answer, and the questioner should be able to extract that answer from what I wrote. For the three years I spent editing my science fiction magazine, what I wrote here is exactly the sort of answer I wrote, and I do mean wrote (we never sent form letters) to all the novice writers who submitted to us.

But if you must have a direct answer, here it is:

The style of your piece is not successful. It is horribly choppy. No editor would keep it on his or her desk for more than the ten seconds it would take to get it back into the return envelope.

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Encouragement is awesome, but I'm not seeing an actual answer to the question... –  Standback Jun 27 '13 at 7:56
    
@Standback Well, there's your answer. –  John M. Landsberg Jun 27 '13 at 19:27
    
Hey John :) Personally, I'm still seeing this as a weak answer. It's a terrific response, and it's pretty close to what I'd write myself in a forum or personal feedback! But on Writers.SE, our Q&A format is different - we want to answer specific questions directly and thoroughly. Here, OP has essentially asked for an analysis of his style - whether or not it works, and (implicitly) why. That's what I, personally, am looking for in a good answer. –  Standback Jun 27 '13 at 20:52
    
I know our critique guidelines aren't quite crystal clear - we're still working out the kinks! But I see you've got background on the SE network, so I hope you'll take my single downvote in due proportion :) If you'd be interested in talking about (my humble opinion of) how critique responses to questions like this should look, I'd be really happy to hang out in the chat room. –  Standback Jun 27 '13 at 20:55
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You basically told him in a very polite way that his writing sucks, but you didn't tell him why it sucks. It doesn't help the writer at all, it just leaves him with a vague feeling that something, somehow, is very, very wrong. I know negative critique is hard to hear, but without it, no one would ever learn and improve, in writing or any other craft. –  Tannalein Jun 28 '13 at 16:34

From the opening, the style feels distinctly noir-ish to me. Short, choppy sentences; curt tone; detached musings about humanity - I can just imagine a hard-boiled private detective narrating the first couple of paragraphs.

I suspect that this is, to some extent, intentional - that you wanted to evoke the voice of someone detached and curt; that you want the reader to feel awash in the narrator's rapid stream of thought. That being said, I think the style choice has significant problems as well.

The noir tone is so strong, I was frankly astonished when the narrator turned out to be a teenager. Whether or not you make the specific association with noir that I feel, this style feels entirely out of place as a teenager's viewpoint. It's a rare teenager that has anything approaching the vocabulary on display here, and nobody has this type of phrasing - opaque and impossibly bombastic (e.g. this line - He was looking down at the cars, but not at their metal chassis. He was concerned with their existence, and their heavy weight in our perception of time. - what teenager speaks that way?).

The style leans too heavily on melodramatic phrasing. If I've already begun comparing this to noir, I'll continue - the typical tough, curt detective uses noir-type writing to seem nonchalant and collected. They crack dry jokes about crime, violence, drinking. That means they take the choppy sentences and use them as punchlines - if not for actual humor, the for sharp contrast or to make a painful point. A random sample from Raymond Chandler:

I was as empty of life as a scarecrow's pockets. I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee. You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.

The lines are short and choppy, like yours, but what they do is build up to a punch - which is still delivered deadpan. That's a tough skill to learn! But in the meantime, you've gone for melodrama, which is really, really hard to take seriously. Some examples from your piece include:

  • This is how his story began. This is how his story ended.
  • Why is everyone letting themselves be so blind to the truth?
  • Why is no one grasping the present? What are they avoiding?

These are all lines which, I think, are trying to add weight and import to the piece. Unfortunately, they're not very convincing, because you haven't done much (at this point in the story) to prop them up with characters or situations we understand clearly and find compelling. For example, when the narrator bemoans "everyone being blind to the truth," we haven't yet seen anybody being blind to the truth, or what the truth may be, or why the narrator feels he sees something other people don't. So he's got this deep complaint, but the reader isn't with him on his complaining - it just seems melodramatic.

IMHO, the total effect takes the style from "curt and introspective" into "disjointed, deliberately oblique, and self-important." That's a reasonable point to reach as a writer experimenting with style, but for the reader, it's not so fun...

I found that for me, most of this piece is downright confusing. I think you're intentionally being disjointed, giving us a bit of detail from here, a bit from there, not showing us everything at once... but I don't feel you've grounded your work enough to take that kind of hopping about. For example, at The screen went dark, and he visited the episode at his house earlier that day, you've shifted into a flashback before anything has occurred in the timeframe you've chosen to start from. You can tease readers with a mosaic of snippets, but for that to work effectively, you must know what your hook is - why you expect your reader to care enough to read past the first page. This piece deliberately hides what it's about until near the end - the style you've chosen makes it difficult to get interested and read that far.

Lastly, as others have discussed, you make many POV swaps, shifting from the narrator to his mother and to Emily. These kinds of shifts can be very disconcerting; I'm wondering if that was intentional on your part - it seems like it might be; switching POV as suddenly as you switch subjects from line to line. Assuming this is an element you'd like to keep, I think it would be nice have the different POV's use somewhat different styles of narration; at the moment they all speak and sound very much alike - even if their content is different. Also, the narrative is so dominated by the narrator that the shifts seem more like brief slips than intentional departures. Perhaps if the piece was more balanced between its various POVs, you could achieve a similar effect, but be less confusing and more a sense of skipping back and forth between known quantities.

In conclusion, my sense is that the style here is quite gimmicky. Definitely choppy, but I see that as being the intent. Style is very difficult to separate from content; the same style might work much better with more appropriate content or with different detail, but in the case presented, I felt the style was distracting and more decorative than I enjoy.

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Just to confirm, I was also surprised to find the narrator a teenager. –  Tannalein Jun 28 '13 at 16:23
    
"...what teenager speaks that way?" An impossibly angsty one who thinks "deep" thoughts. –  Gagege Jul 1 '13 at 18:52
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Raises hand as angsty teenager with deep thoughts and a broad vocabulary –  Maddy Byahoo Jul 9 '13 at 0:10

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