|Review of inbetweens' Sugar-Coated
||[Dec. 6th, 2004|05:35 am]
The Critically Constructive Feedback Project
I think this one got to its intended author already, but for posterity's sake (and because everybody should read both Honey's fic and Ria's review of it), I'm posting it here now. :-)
Rating: none given but I'm guessing at least R?
Warnings: dark themes/implied D/s
Reviewed by: elcomplot
(In advance: please forgive the horrid mishmash of British and American spelling. Hooray for education in both places. Forgive the horridly idiosyncratic punctuation. Hooray for not paying attention to education. Some of this stuff is ridiculous, so please read with a grain of salt and process only what will help, for I am so far from being an authority on anyone’s writing that I might be the anti-authority. Yes.)
I hope you’re as for the “in the form of a letter” approach as I am, as I used it last year with all three of my authors and found it worked best for me. I think stories that challenge you as a reader function as a dialogue between you and the author, and so what better way to share thoughts and constructive criticism than as dialogue? Ahem. Yes.
Let me begin by saying that when I first began work on this second wave of the CCFP, I printed out all three of the stories you had specified you might like read and carried them around with me everywhere, furtively placing them beneath research at work and scribbling on them with any writing instrument that was handy. I read all three because even though you had a first choice, I wanted to find a story that communicated with and to me personally, so that I in turn could communicate my interaction with it to you. I have decided to go with “Sugar-Coated,” mostly because it was your first choice; I enjoyed all three of the stories and find that you have a very distinctive style and voice that runs through your work and makes it appealing as a whole. The fact that I had the opportunity to read all three has allowed me to pick out things which I think are interesting from each story, and I have to admit that I don’t know if you did it purposefully, but I found that your three choices worked together as something of a harmony: where one dips, the other seems to rise; the discord apparent in one seems to be soothed by the smooth flow of the other. Though the focus of this piece of feedback is “Sugar-Coated,” I hope you won’t mind if I refer to both, “Elle a la Mer” (for which I cannot find a grave accent) and “For Shame” as well.
All this sounds like a lot of waffle, so let me start attempting to make sense (an attempt which might fail). I just wanted to explain a little of my thought process throughout this process. Woot.
I haven’t read any of your work aside from these three stories, so I don’t know if what I’ve come to think of as the “tension” which binds all three together holds true for the rest of your fiction, but as I read, I found myself drawn to what I don’t want to call a theme—because I don’t think it’s as overt as all that—but maybe a… centre of stylistic and thematic gravity? In all three stories, I think there’s this force constantly drawing attention to contrast—between characters, between situations, between landscapes and details— and to the way in which it is resolved—or not—in each piece of fiction.
I read “Elle a la Mer” first, and the first thing I marked on the page was a contrast in textures: Miranda is “seashell pink” and the ‘seashell’ conjures for me at once the smoothness of the ridiculously over-priced pink seashells they sell at Pier One and the jagged edges of the seashells that cut your feet on the beach; Miranda is all “curves,” which of course are smooth, but she’s “brighter than sand,” which is grainy and grating. Furthermore, the image is “etch[ed]” into Dom’s eyelids, which makes me think of someone forcing these uneven lines into memory through force: again, it’s jagged and grating. The name is like a “polished stone,” but again, penknives cut the name into desks, and there’s the friction again.
There’s this constant push and pull: Miranda is graceful and moves with the waves, but Dom is stupid and obsessed—this made me laugh like a moron, by the way—and clumsy, lumbering and terrible. You don’t let the contrast become obvious and simplistic, though, and so unappealing—like the what I must admit I think is a disgusting mixture of smoothslick sun block and grainy sand that tends to result at the beach, Miranda’s grace does not obscure her sturdiness and strength—there is a constant mixture of contrasts even within her (not just between her and Dom), in which both qualities are equally important; likewise, Dom’s clumsiness nonetheless gives way to “It’s easier to love the ocean when you’re here,” which may be stupid and obsessed but certainly says a lot of true things much more gracefully than more words could have.
Though what caught my eye at first was the contrast, what stuck with me at the end of the story was the smooth integration of two separates into a whole: in that last scene on the beach, Miranda is ethereal but not separate from Dom: they’re stuck together by the salty sticky skirt. They’re brought together by the ocean, which is this encompassing thing that is powerful but does not dwarf the importance of what’s going on with these two creatures, because you pay such careful attention to detail. Miranda “fits perfectly beside the ocean,” and in the ocean, and her and Dom’s nearness holds him “steady”—there’s this incredible harmony, and the feeling of contrast from the beginning is gone, replaced by this steady smooth forward and onwards, with the “to be continued” letting the story fade into the reader instead of forcing the situation to a sharp end.
While in the beginning of the story each contrasting quality plays an equally important role in defining what’s happening, towards the end, the jagged, marring, clumsy half of the equation is subsumed, which I’m not using correctly (but I hope you can read minds and know the crazy meaning I’m infusing it with). Like the waves crashing into the beach that run through the beginning and end of the story and hold it together through imagery, that grating factor at the beginning—insecurity, the despair of being overly hopeful—and knowing it—disappears into the smoothness of the slow beating between them, to shamelessly steal from another fandom.
I don’t want you to feel like I’m imposing some horribly over-analytic reading onto your story; I hope you don’t believe that. I’m spending all this time discussing this because it called very strongly to me, but in no way do I believe it to be something pressing or attention-diverting in the story; if anything, it’s an undercurrent: I think that’s what made it so apparent to me, because I’m a little obsessed with underpinning and the ugly stitching on the other side of the dress. It’s stitching that seemed to be in all three stories, but I hope you’re not sitting there shaking your head and thinking along the lines of “What the fuck?” because that would not be good.
Right. So moving swiftly onwards. “For Shame.” A story much more overtly concerned with contrast, obviously—between Sean and Elijah as lovers, between this amazing relationship and the guilt-free cheating it’s so at odds with. I think here and in “Sugar-Coated” there’s also a break in—I want to say… reader mindset? that’s necessary in order to stay with the story. There’s humour in both stories, the humour that seems to define fandoms with great friendships at their centre (er, okay, so that’s not very specific. Not that many fandoms of the blind hatred type), but there’s this easy banter resting lightly atop these heavier, darker themes, and I think you have to switch from reading with an eye to appreciating the friendship light-heartedly to reading with the intent to more thoroughly deal with the more serious aspects of relationships that are a part of both stories (though in “Sugar-Coated” I think you’ve intentionally made it harder to do this—to forget the darkness for awe of the light—which I will go into later).
The first scene has that lovely shift from the regular and the usual to the new but not entirely unexpected that seems to creep up on Orlando—and the reader. As a scene, it seems to rest on one end of a balance that on the opposite side contains the resolution of the story—here Orlando thinks that “they always act like this” but eventually admits that okay, “tonight is a little different” and that’s alright. Tonight is a little different, but in the long run, the ‘different’ ends up rearranging itself seamlessly into the picture to form a new sort of ‘always’ (this being most apparent in the final scenes). The dynamic of the group functions with—perhaps even needs?—this duality—Elijah/Sean, comfortable/a little desperate, established relationship/a little something on the side—to retain its stability.
This realisation hits the reader (this reader, at least) more Dom than Orlando-style. The latter keeps rationalising away and grows increasingly comfortable, but all I could keep my focus on was the slow kisses and the sharp nips with the teeth, the big hands and the small hands, the aggressive and the mellow, the low voice and the high pitched squeal—I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to happen. I felt a little outraged—I’m reading and thinking that Orlando will eventually be forced to own up to his actions. I’m indignant for Bean and most of all for his trusting hands—and like Dom, I’m left pensive and a little wide-eyes when it just seems to…work out, to not explode into the drama I may have secretly been craving.
(As an aside, let me say that the end lines of each scene of this story are superbly chosen. That’s bad form, I guess, praising instead of explaining why I found them appealing—but they’re just powerful. They don’t ‘sum up’ what has come before them, a la most sharply cut-into-scenes stories, but rather capture this essence of “holy mother of fuck” (this is a technical term) which characterized the story for me. The orange juice and the contrast, Orlando carelessly standing after being caught by Dominic, the amazing, “’No,’ he replies, because it’s not” (which left me blinking, pleasantly surprised by the brutal honesty (and boy oh boy, are these too many parentheses)) all leave you reeling, subtly.)
I have to admit I liked this story best, though I got to know “Sugar-Coated” more intimately—I scrawled all over “For Shame” and hey, if you’d ever like a crazy conversation about it, please let me know. But getting to how it then worked for me as a reader of “Sugar-Coated”: in “Elle a la Mer,” I was left with the impression of contrast that flowed into harmony. In “For Shame,” the contrast resolves itself through lack of resolution—the same tension keeps the plot of both together, but the fun’s in the pursuit in the second, and the victory is in the haphazard, almost careless struggle for control which turns out to be unnecessary.
In “For Shame,” I feel like you’re left with these two poles rejecting and attracting and the point is the unsynchronised movement—the story is about that dance and how it’s still harmonious even though both parts of it are stubbornly refusing to give up their arrhythmic flailing. I’m babbling and not explaining myself well at all, mostly, I think, because I’m fighting to say something that the stories already say so well. All three are just good.
Okay. So, finally, yes, perhaps, indeed, “Sugar-Coated,” which I think is rendered all the more powerful when accompanied by the other two and what’s going on in them. “Elle a la Mer” has this honest resolution, and “For Shame” finds honest balance in discord, so when “Sugar-Coated” is all silence and lack of honesty and missing resolution and ends up grating horridly, you’re left with this feeling of inadequate understanding and dissatisfaction which mirrors Elijah’s perfectly and makes the story very effective.
It’s swell that this was supposed to be 300 words, as it’s now 1,895 and I’m just about to get into it. Well done me. Follow directions well I cannot. I’m going to continue this erratic babble about contrasts further down the line (I make myself cringe, for crying out loud) but since my focus was on this story, let me break it down further so that you can get more encompassing feedback and not just Maria’s Great Philosophical Theory About Contrast in These Stories.
Alright. Here we go. I’ll be using the page numbers you get when you print the story out, for easier reference. I’ll also not be using page numbers most of the time, I realise as I proof-read, because I suck the big time. The comments are generally in order in each category, though, so you’ll find the source material of each comment below the one of the comment before that (in the story, that is), and… yes. I need to shut. up.
Extremely stupid nitpicky shit which was probably caused by a Typo Encounter of the Third Kind, but what the hell, I’ll let you know anyway:
At the beginning, you’ve got: “…Tragic, castmate Elijah Wood reports as his licks his lips clean,” when I think you might have meant he.
“That’s disgusting, Bill. Though, maybe if it was flavoured…” Alas, this shows only care on your part, as people don’t say, “Maybe if it were flavoured” when speaking to their friends before going to dinner. But wouldn’t it be lovely if they were to? My little (more accurately, my fucking huge) inner grammar geek would go through life feeling sated and well loved. Likewise “Me and my mates” at page four, showing remarkable sensibility to how Orlando actually speaks but oh-so-painful for my sad, sad, self. Ha ha. Other grammar geeks? No? Yes? No.
Completely random: at around the third page, where you’ve got “fingers still tight around Elijah’s.” and then “Orlando’s hands fall away,” my first thought (at the first sentence) is, Wait, when did he puts his fingers around Elijah’s? and then (at the second) Okay, so he definitely put his fingers around Elijah’s at some point. Go back. Find it. Of course, there isn’t a place where that happens—he “reaches for the picture in Elijah’s hand” and it’s completely implied, but I swear I had this ridiculous Butthead moment where I was like, But wait, where? Uhm, yes. If you’d like to cater to the slow-on-the-uptake such as myself, you could make it explicit. If not (infinitely more advisable course of action, perhaps), well. Yes.
Toward the end of the page, you’ve got, “Are you trying to fatten or something?” and I have to admit I’m left looking for a preposition; I might have said, ‘fatten up,’ but it doesn’t strike me as something you’d forget to put in (though I leave out words all the time accidentally when writing); is this a purposeful omission?
Further down that page, you’ve got, “his cheekbones seems to sharpen.” Do you want seem here?
“…childish and truly content—nothing that fit that picture” at around mid-4. Nothing that fits? I’m not convinced. I see the fit working with the list of attributes above it, but it reads a little oddly to me?
“Orlando’s lips are familiar and friendly as Billy slides back into the booth, boyish and absolutely not seductive.” I might muck around with word order a tiny bit, here. Maybe “As Billy slides back into the booth…” or “Orlando’s lips are familiar and friendly, boyish and absolutely not seductive, as Billy…” The break with Billy’s action makes the object of ‘boyish and…’ as a qualifier a tiny bit ambiguous, and it might improve the flow of the sentence if you re-arranged?
“Call you at about an hour after we break?” I might cut the ‘at’ if I had to slide in under a word limit, or something. Otherwise, it’s pretty inconsequential, and I’m obsessive. I think its inclusion might help the speech sound natural, too, so… yes. Useful comment there.
Do you want “Elven bench” capitalised? I personally might not have done so. Again, a life-or-death matter.
“Are—“ Billy starts at the moment.” Are you missing a ‘same’ between ‘the’ and ‘moment’? At first I thought Billy was starting—“he started at the shock,” or something—but a second later I figured there was absolutely no reason for him to start, and he and Elijah are starting to speak at the same time, so I thought it might perhaps be the latter and not a poetic way of saying he took a moment’s pause, quickly. So uhm, yes. “Same,” or perhaps not?
“Elijah looks up, silently as Orlando studies his face, and waits…” Here, I’d decide between either leaving the commas in and changing silently to silent, or leaving silently but ridding myself of the commas; if you use the adverb, it seems to be working directly with the verb ‘to look up,’ and the pause that the comma creates seems a little odd to me. If you use silent, however, then it seems to be qualifying Elijah and not the action—it of course qualifies the action by default, but seems to warrant a pause because there’s a separation between the action and the adjective to come. Does this make any sense? Please let me know if it absolutely does not.
“It doesn’t take long for a tall, elegantly-painted…” you don’t need the hyphen here.
“… or if this is just something that’s been hidden from them all for these months.” This is odd, because my instinct is to cut the ‘for’ from this sentence, because it makes the flow awkward and makes me stumble a little while reading it, but I do understand that the ‘all’ functions with the ‘them’ and not with the ‘these months,’ and so to cut it and say, “them all these months” would probably result in the reader associating it with the wrong noun—the combination just doesn’t read as smoothly as most of the story does, though, so I thought I’d point it out.
“…to the front of the line, and keeping their skin in contact.” Here, I might cut either the comma or the ‘and.’ I don’t think you need both; I think either would do the work of separating the motion and the point of contact in the reader’s mind for you.
“Loads of alcohol, good.” ‘Loads’ reads as incredibly British to me; I think ‘lots’ would read as more American—I have no clue if this is just me. Mind you, from what I gather Elijah picked up a lot of the best Briticisms, so even if it were undeniable British and it weren’t just my personal weirdness…?
“Orlando pats him on the back, though his fishnet shirt…” Do you want through here?
“He just feels like a prey again, and realizes now how…” I, personally, might cut the ‘a’ there just for flow—I think “He just feels like prey again” might work well?
Okay. This is the biggest nitpicker point of all, but it’s something that cropped up several times as I was reading, and I wanted to point it out to you. I think slash creates a problem with pronouns and referents. The deal is this: when you’re writing het, you can say, “Elijah looks at Mary Sue and kisses her. ‘I want you,’ he says, and he presses his fingers against her neck, and she cranes her neck upwards and brushes her eyelashes against his cheek,” right? This is actually pretty careless grammar, when it comes down to it, but it creates no confusion because there’s a she and a he, conveniently rendering all ‘hers’ and ‘shes’ as referents to Mary Sue and all ‘his(es)’ and ‘hes’ as referents to Elijah. The problem with slash is that that lack of gender difference throws a big fucking wrench in the proceedings:
“Elijah looks at Orlando and kisses him.
‘I want you,’ he says, and he presses his fingers against his neck, and he cranes his neck upwards and brushes his eyelashes against his cheek.”
The problem here for the slow and obsessive and sad, sad, reader such as myself is: who the fuck said ‘I want you’? Whose fingers are pressing against whose neck and who’s craning his neck to brush whose eyelashes against whose cheek? You can infer a lot of it, of course, but sometimes it’s downright impossible—sometimes you’re helped along by knowing who the ‘narrator’ or narrating focus (more accurate, I guess) of the story is; in “Sugar-Coated” it’s Elijah and so you’re very often able to figure out if he’s speaking or being touched or whatever because you’re expecting the focus to be on him. However, it’s not always clear. Now, saying,
“Elijah looks at Orlando and kisses him.
‘I want you,” Elijah says, and he presses his fingers against Orlando’s neck, while Orlando cranes his neck upwards and brushes his eyelashes against Elijah’s’ cheek,” is a bit cumbersome. I think the desire to not repeat names over and over and over gives way to,
“Elijah looks at Orlando and kisses him.
‘I want you,’ the young child actor says, and he presses his fingers against the British man’s neck while the newly discovered Guildhall actor cranes his neck upwards and brushes his eyelashes against the hobbit actor’s cheek,” which is, as we know, the most brutally painful solution to this problem known to man. Now, needless to say, you don’t have this problem at all—but the Huh? factor does sometimes creep into your sentences for the split second it takes the mind to catch up with the eyes.
Mind you, a lot of it is inferable (Elijah whimpers and wraps his arms around his neck, stops himself from wrapping his legs around his hips: it’s pretty obvious that Elijah isn’t going to want to choke himself, and wrapping your own legs around your own hips would be pretty fucking complicated, so it’s obvious the second set of ‘his(es)’ refer to Orlando—but do you see what I mean?). There is this ambiguity, a lot sharper in some places than others, and there are places where I had to stop and figure out who the speaker or agent and object of the action were. I’m not saying it was difficult—at all—it just sometimes messed with the flow of my reading; it’s something I noticed in “For Shame” at times, as well.
Now, I don’t think you need to replace ‘he’ and ‘his’ with ‘Orlando’ and ‘Elijah’ 7,234 times—as I said, in some places, if you can’t infer, you’re being a moron. What I have done, though, is made a short list of a few times it happens in the story; I’ve put in bold points (point?) at which it was particularly hard for me to infer whom the referents referred to (ahhh!); most of the rest are painfully easy to infer and I’m just marking for exercise’s sake; I think many of them are confusing for a split second but immediately made clear by what follows.
I’ve talked about this a lot, but I do have to say that though I babble like an idiot, this did not seriously interfere with my reading of the story or my appreciation of its effectiveness or the talent of its author. Here comes a long list, but it’s, on the whole, a “check these places out and decide what reads best to you” thing—in no way am I implying that this is anything other than fairly superficial.
“Elijah turns back… over his receipts…” (surely he left no receipts of his own on Orlando’s dresser, so uhm)
“Orlando giggles, glancing over at Elijah. He keeps his head…”
“Innocent. He looks up, into Orlando’s eyes..” (you’ve got mentions of Billy and Orlando in the sentence above, but this ‘He’ is Elijah, which is a bit throw-off-y; I think this is one of the instances though, where, as I was saying, the fact that Elijah is the narrative focus helps elucidate the point.)
“’… New Zealand’s kinkiest.’ He laughs”
“…for a few moments, tugging at his hair when he shifts…”
“Orlando presses the brush to his lips” (‘Relax your lips,’ above this makes clear whose lips; but it’s far enough away, with enough description of Orlando and references to Orlando’s face and features in between to be a little cloudy)
“He studies the eye makeup..” (again, depends on the Elijah as narrative focus, as Orlando has just been speaking)
“He turns to look and there’s nothing in his face…” (Elijah is the last noun there, so there’s this feeling that this sentence could just as easily have been, “He turns to looks and there’s nothing in his face that gives away how impressed he truly is with the way Orlando’s face has mutated,” or something, you know? Fuck this is so stupid. I hope this doesn’t sound psychotic; I just have trouble with it in my own writing—I am shit at keeping referents straight (“He backed the car into the garage and it broke” is a favourite)—and so might be projecting my own issues a bit. Do forgive.)
“’Orlando,’ he greets him, with a kiss on the cheek. ‘You bring a new friend?’ Orlando rests a hand familiarly on his bare, tattooed arm. ‘This is Elijah…’” (References to Devon, Orlando, and Elijah, and so that first ‘his’ is completely without clear person to attach itself to—though the tattoos make it apparent a second later)
“Orlando’s hands find Elijah’s back, his hips, his crotch,” pointed out because it totally helped my slow brain to see the ‘Elijah’ there before the ‘his(es)’ to come; thank you.
“Elijah whimpers and wraps his arms around his neck, stops himself from wrapping his legs around his hips.”
“Orlando’s teeth drag along his neck, over the tender veins, and he laughs.”
Yes. On to the more in-depth stuff:
Points which i)did not convince me, stylistically, ii)left me thinking ‘I know what you mean, but could you carry it through a bit more for me?’ stylistically, iii)had you changed your approach a fraction, might have been more powerful, stylistically (or so it seems to me).
“Orlando. Wallet. Now,” Billy snaps. Okay. This was a difficult point in the story for me, one I kept coming back to, because I can’t decide whether it’s not there too soon for me—the first time I read the story, my first thought was, Uh? Why is Billy so angry, so suddenly? Mind you, I don’t think this remains unresolved—it becomes apparent that he has a reason to be (even if we are not sure what that reason is) when he is so reticent to leave Orlando and Elijah at the table, again when he is hesitant to speak at the bench, and finally, explicitly, in Elijah’s conjectures and questions at the end. The thing is, though, that I’m not sure the feeling of confusion I have as a reader is eased until far too late for me to remember the original feeling clearly enough—I don’t think that this choice works negatively in the prose or anything; I’m just a little bewildered to have it come out of left field and then remain inexplicable for a while (and not specifically inexplicable to Elijah, which I think would be more understandable for me, because Elijah is wading around in a big sea of inexplicable even if he does not realise it clearly yet, but inexplicable to me, as a reader, which feels odd), and wanted to share that with you.
(Related to the above is “Orlando fucking Bloom!” at page 3, though that snagged a corner of my mind a little less because the outburst could very well be and probably is partly or wholly about the wallet; however, even as I read it the first time around I felt a strong undercurrent of anger that seemed out of place and character for me. Again, this second moment builds on the first and the references to Billy’s feelings continue to work together to resolve nicely at the end; as I said, though, I did want to share this feeling with you.)
“Elijah studies the nose, the ears, the cheekbones, the lips — the lips.” I’m not convinced I would have used the second ‘the lips’ here. Though you keep a strong emphasis on the study of facial features (elf eyes, lips, cheekbones) throughout this, which I like, I think the “He looks up at Orlando’s lips. Shit,” right below it would have done the same work for you, a little more subtly. This entire story has a lovely combination of BIG FUCKING SIGNS OF EXPLICITNESS and subtlethingsthatyoumightmissbutaremoreimportantmaybe going on, and this feels a little more like the latter than the former to me?
“…and Orlando takes a few steps toward him, eyes grating their way over his body.” I know Orlando has begun the shift into the man he exposes later in the night—perhaps has already made that shift, but ‘grating’ seemed a tiny bit too violent for me here; I understand that he’s not doing something as smooth as ‘run’ his eyes over Elijah, and that there’s a sense of pressure and pressing and heat there, but ‘grating’ seems to me a little too much pressure?
“…and they speed up with it until Elijah can’t think about shouldn’t, can’t think about anything…” Okay. Here, personally, the “can’t think about shouldn’t” comes a tiny bit too soon for me. They’re dancing, and when this appears on the page, I think, Can’t think about shouldn’t what? There seems to be this giving in to a feeling before the feeling is completely defined, or the forbidden/unexpected desire is even revealed, which might be what you intended; I personally might just say, “until Elijah can’t think about anything but…” and simply cut that ‘shouldn’t’ out, because I think it’s heavily implied that this is what this first giving in to not thinking is going to lead to, and so much of this is in the implication—especially with the admission that Elijah wants to “touch him and push against him” following so closely at the heels of this sentence.
“Because Orlando can’t be both of those men in one body. He wants to ask if this is the sugar-coated Orlando, the one he’s modified and toned down. Made safe for Elijah.” I really like “Made safe for Elijah” here. I think it imperative that it stay, and since it’s so closely related to the sentence that precedes it, I stared at this part of the story for a long time, trying to decide how I felt about it. The thing is, the “sugar-coated” here seems painfully explicit to me. The story is subtle throughout, implication after insinuation, and suddenly this is here, jarring, forcing a connection between the earlier conversation and the title of the story when the connection already undeniably exists—I was thinking of sugar-coated Orlando before you used the particular set of words here, and I’m not convinced that you should put in words for the reader what you have so skilfully woven into her mind through the rest of the words in this story. This is completely a personal gripe; I don’t know how you feel about it. I personally don’t think it’s necessary; you’ve done an excellent job of communicating this idea through suggestion and careful plotting already, and the words seem redundant.
“Something is still wrong, but Elijah can’t…” I don’t know if I’d use the ellipsis here. I think the full stop might work just as powerfully, with the same implications. Throughout the story you’ve expressed hesitation with short and sharp statements—the feeling of reaching is expressed even when the expression is cuttingly to the point, as in the “Isn’t.” and “Wants” repetitions a couple of pages back. I might stay with that choice, stylistically.
Points which i)convinced me, stylistically, ii)made a powerful impression on me, stylistically, iii)may not have had particular impact on me, personally, but seem like strong stylistic choices to me, anyway. (Let us take ‘stylistically’ to have Amazing Elasticity of Meaning ™, please, because even though most of these are stylistic, there are a few that could be better described, I’m sure)
You write in present tense, at least in these three stories. I think it’s an excellent choice in this particular one; there needs to be a sense of immediacy and progress to the whole thing which you only get from present tense—I think part of the appeal is in being submerged before we know what’s really happening, as Elijah is, and in finding ourselves jumping off the tilt-a-whirl right before we puke and thinking, Huh? towards the end. I don’t think that sense of inclusion could have been achieved had this not been written in present tense.
I like ‘wails’ as a diction choice in, “’But I’m starving!’ Elijah wails” I think it ends up doing a lot of work for you in establishing the sort of character that Elijah turns out to be in this particular story without you having to do exposition; a little child-like and a lot impulsive but ultimately innocent and concerned with things like the drama of being hungry more than with the greater issues of darkness within others.
“Billy scrunches his entire face inwards”—this, like, “cringing at the wall” later, evokes a beautifully clear image. The word choice in both places practically paints the picture for you, shadows and contrasts and wrinkles and all.
As mentioned before, I like the use of humour throughout this. There’s this incredibly forced quality to it, which I think is important—forced on Billy’s part because he’s struggling to find a balance between what he knows and what might be unnecessary to divulge, forced on Elijah’s part because he is off-balance from the start, forced on Orlando’s part because he knows exactly what he is doing but is being careful—a little too careful, perhaps, though this is only obvious when you go back as a second-time-around reader, a few minutes older and that much wiser—to not let on. I think the “easy” banter, like your choice of punctuation and diction in certain places, goes a long way to establishing history and character and intention in a very subtle but very defined way.
(A good example of what I mean here, lest I come off as babbling about things unfounded in the text, is Billy’s “Can you believe Elijah thought you were a woman?” towards page 3—funny but not, a little too loud (a phrase which you actually use later on to make that forced quality explicit, I think (never mind (what is it with all these parentheses?) it was “A bit too excitedly,” but yes. This isn’t a particularly funny moment—I don’t think anything in this story really is; the “ass of the ringbearer” comment further down, like this moment and like a few others, is recognisable to me as funny, abstractly, but never actually pulls a laugh from me because of this tension that seems to be coiled around the humour; I hope to god this was intentional so that I don’t sound crazy but if it wasn’t, it’s what it ended up doing, for me, and it’s one of the things I found most effective throughout.))
“She’s pale and drawn, and her lips are parted: wet.” I like colons. Beautiful colons with their beautiful lined-up dots. This particular (innovative) use makes me happy. It places powerful emphasis on the quality of the lips, which you no doubt did purposefully. Likewise, Billy’s “Oh?” “Oh.” two lines later works powerfully through punctuation: a little expectation and teasing and interest, quick deflation and realisation and, second-time-around reading, perhaps a little anger read into it. It works very well.
The awkwardness of the conversation right after the discovery that Prominent Cheekbones Girl is Orlando is very well done. “Just kind of, you know.” “That’s, um.” “It wasn’t demonic or anything.” (This particular one is deliciously unexpected.) “Oh, no, I didn’t… Just the, um.” I think the stilted quality to the speech, both of their willingness(es?) to compromise with the other (“Lovely weather we’re having.” “Yes, lovely.” “A bit rainy, though—“ “Yes, a bit.” “Not very nice at all, really.” “No, terrible, you’re right.”) and the later contrast between Elijah’s honest good will and Orlando’s feigned fumbling (I have to admit I read a lot of Machiavelli in Orlando after the first read; in places such as “Orlando looks up at him with wide, doe-like eyes,” I was like, ‘Bitch, don’t you even pretend you don’t have absolute control over what’s going on, damn you’ (I thought this in the most positive, friendly of ways, mind you… haha) See This is what I came away wondering for further details…haha) works well.
“Elijah looks down at his ketchup-smeared plate.” I don’t know. I wrote ‘nice and violent’ in the margin here next to this image. It just works for me. Likewise I like the choice (like, likewise, I like it) of “Orlando’s burning right now” at 4, and the repetition of adjectives like “childish” and “boyish” to describe Orlando continuously; they’re nicely done away with through action (and sometimes even through outright work on the Elijah-narrator’s part) later.
As I mentioned before, I like the focus on facial features you have throughout. A story about physiognomy. Or not really but I love that word. I like the elf eyes and their contrast with the boyish eyes and their contrast with the heavily painted eyes later; I like the focus on lips and mouths and lipstick and cheekbones and cheeks with runny glitter. Keeping my focus on the face makes each change (the first, more superficial change of makeup followed (or preceded, but very subtly, as Elijah points out) by the change in demeanour) very marked, which is important because I think there needs to be a sense for the reader of seeing very clearly (if not understanding) the change and seeing a split-second before Elijah does what Elijah’s walking into; were we not as focused on the motion of each facial feature, I’m not convinced you’d be able to give the reader that second. It works well.
“I’m looking forward to it!” The exclamation point of innocence. I’m fond of it. Also fond of “shrouded like a wraith,” again graphically powerful, and “Orlando’s hands are suddenly in his hair, holding him in place,” one of the many moments in which you subtly show much without telling a thing.
. “He’s powder-white, eyes blurred in silver…” I hate to say something as trite as “his make-up’s blurred, just as his eyesight and perception are blurred!!” but I fear I must. Good word choice. I also like, “The leather pants fit well enough to almost draw Elijah’s eyes away from his face,” with its almost nice and subtle but very effective there—you almost miss it and that’s satisfying, because it’s almost, so there should be a little almost-missed-it ambiguity.
Elijah referring to Orli’s attire as a “costume” and the beautifully hanging “On the hunt for…something” are painfully, endearingly clueless. His looking to Orlando for “affirmation” and not something a little less powerful works well with The Clueless.
I like the contrast between the “goddesses or women that are only dreamt of” that Orlando seems to bring to mind and Elijah’s own perception of his dainty girlishness when he looks at his own version of the make-up; it draws in images this sharp contrast that remained strongly in my mind as the strong female imagery began to appear heavily at the end (culminating with ‘beautiful monster,’ which, while not necessarily female, read that way to me and probably captured my eye more than any other phrase throughout this; I think Elijah’s ability to recognise what he is seeing—beautiful, a little scary, intimidating but alluring, powerful—and this shows remarkable perception on his part, in these two words more than throughout the whole reflection at the end, and I think the word choice is excellent).
“Orlando,” he greets him, with a kiss on the cheek,” read very solemnly, very seriously to me. It echoed (for me) Orli’s ‘almost ceremonial’ a few pages back, linking the culture to Orlando’s seriousness in inviting Elijah into it nicely.
“This Orlando on this dance floor is meticulous, deliberate, and smoothly seductive.” I’m glad you chose to stress the separation twice; “This Orlando is meticulous…” would have worked fine, but the extra focus on not only him but the location and atmosphere works very well, highlighting Elijah’s’ willingness to separate and compartmentalise.
“The music speeds up as the night heightens,” is interesting and effective diction, and describing them as “hot and fast” when they’re dancing together is as well, as there seems to be this transfer of adjectives onto objects other than the ones they’re directly qualifying in both—there’s rhythm and passion and heat heightening in the first, and the dancing and their actions and what they want is as hot and fast as they are in the second. Speaking of fast, “and fuck him fast, fast, hard,” is fast fast and I don’t know, just hot. I like it.
“He wonders which Orlando he’ll wake up to next to if he does” is a wonderful way to start off Elijah’s analysis of what this night really means and who this man really is. It’s plaintive and evokes a little romance (which seems beautifully misplaced) with the image of waking up together, and sounds like the question of someone with a good heart. I think it’s a very well chosen lead-in to this shift in dynamic of the story.
“…watches him like a carnivore,” is one of the places which, like ‘beautiful monster,’ just seemed like brilliant word choices to me. Evocative and, though I’ve used this word about a thousand times now, truly powerful. Carnivore is also a satisfying word, aurally. It reads well. Also, ‘”feminine, vicious creature.” I’m not sure what it is about these images—the combination of seduction and strength and frailty and beauty and horror and rapture and terrifying appeal?—but I love all three.
“…not if this isn’t. Isn’t.” and “…but he wants. He wants.” feel like those startled little half-breaths you draw when you’re trying to put the world right-side-up again but can’t concentrate enough to do so. The parallel is nice, as is the parallel between “Orlando mewls and moans like Orlando shouldn’t, pushes him down like Orlando wouldn’t.” The rhyme makes it flow beautifully, a la tea and cake and ices and forcing moments to their crisis, and the subtle differentiation there—which reads to me like Elijah saying that the Orlando he knows shouldn’t mewl and moan (the ‘shouldn’t somehow recognising that Elijah recognises (whoa) that the reason why this seems incongruent is because he has this image (a self-created one) of Orlando that no longer fits this man) but more importantly that the Orlando he knows wouldn’t push him down, the wouldn’t implying more trust, more deeply held belief, more conviction about this truth of the world and his friend, making Orlando’s actions seem a little treacherous (but not, for Elijah had just as large a hand in it turning out the way it has)—is very well done.
Finally, I like the echo of “blurred” in Orlando’s smile, “sad, and blurred and the corners,” and I think your ending, that sharp and cutting and black-and-white “Didn’t happen,” is very effective. You began with a question, which I wanted to speak about only in conjunction with this short statement at the end because I think they end up representing a process that takes place as the story progresses—you begin this question (the question in itself giving a sense of something to follow, something coming, someone answering, something happening) about whether they can hurry and get going, and this characterises a large part of the first section of the story: inquisitive, hurried, moving forward without real search for resolution. The end is the opposite: a statement, quick but final and unhurried, an end—and yet, there’s no resolution here, either. It is an end, but it’s not necessarily and ending, and I think that effect sums up what happens here as well as a longer exploration of that thought on paper could.
This is what I came away feeling:
When I put this down, I felt a little dizzy. A little used. A lot confused, a lot intrigued. This story definitely leaves room for inquisitiveness; there’s a part of you that continues to mull it over long after you’ve read the last word. You wonder what Orlando you’re going to wake up next to, but the way in which the story winds down in the last page—the gentleness that Orlando treats Elijah with, a hint of wistful and a hint of sad but not angry—makes that question not leave you feeling unsatisfied, as if there’s more to explore. You get this brief, shocking flash of this side of a man you think you know, along with the protagonist, and I think the real triumph of the story is in allowing the reader to get caught up without the suspicion of Orlando’s true steel core tainting that sympathy and empathy she feels with Elijah and his perception: when the dancing and the kissing begins, it’s difficult to think it’s going to turn out anything but well; a little odd, maybe, a little weird in the morning, but you’ve built these expectations of Orlando as a friend and a boy in the story as Elijah shares his own thoughts, and that moment of darkness in the alley steals your breath a little with its coldness.
I think there are stories that are short and sharp and stinging, that leave you reeling; I don’t think this works that way. I do think, however, that this has all the sharpness and all the sting but not the punch to the face at the end; you’re left with this unresolved… thing, and somehow that’s a little worse. Without over-involving me as a reader with Elijah as an emotional character, you nonetheless manage to string me along, perception-wise, feeling the same, falling into the same trap, being as surprised and as unfulfilled at the end.
This is what I came away thinking:
This story is strong prose. The word choice is excellent in many places, the pace throughout controlled. There is no shift between the first and second sections of the story; the difference between the restaurant and the club starts with the lighting and slides into the circumstances, but there’s no sharp break in diction or syntax to make that obvious; since the intent is to catch by surprise to some degree, this is an effective choice.
You don’t develop any of the characters in depth; this is also a strength of the story. As I said, I don’t get involved in some internal melodrama of Elijah’s, I’m not left sympathizing with the Great Inner Darkness of the Evil Overlord Orlando. There’s just two guys who are friends and complex and young and have light sides and more intriguing sides, and the end result is satisfying for me as a piece of fiction: a sharp dart of the tongue and you’re trying to figure out what the hell you just tasted, but the taste is strong despite the doubt. Does that make any sense?
It’s understated and subtle and truly trusts in the intelligence of the reader, which, for me, was its greatest strength. It asked me to read carefully but kept one step ahead of me; as I said, it hinted at what was to come in what ended up giving me mere lines’ advantage over Elijah as a character; it didn’t seem like some horrible stage-irony tableau where I knew exactly what was about to happen but rather like a fast-moving chunk of life. You helped speed it up through effective use of the present tense, constant dialogue, constant movement, choppy sentences. It worked.
This is what I came away wondering:
Billy. He ends up being such a mystery in this, that character that you got cheated out of—the cereal box hinted that the figurine might be inside but it wasn’t, dammit, and it inspires further thought. I don’t know that I’d like to see another story in this universe whose focus was Billy, but that’s not to say that you’re not left with the idea that there should be, that there is, and that works very well. As I said, I was surprised at the anger, intrigued at his unwillingness to speak (especially when the character you have created here overlaps in my mind with this composite character I’ve created from interviews and fiction and film), left feeling like he was more interesting than even Orlando, who is the explicit mystery of this story. Why would Billy not outright warn Elijah? If he chooses not to, why do that horrible approach-from-the-flank thing? There’s a sense of him trying to protect Elijah but also of him not knowing what to say, which is odd—had he had an experience like what we see in this story, he could just share it; why would he choose not to? I really enjoyed Billy in this.
Orlando: Just Complex or the Biggest Bitch of All Time? The first time I read this, I found myself falling completely into this false sense of security which left me with a tiny bit of a Huh? at the conclusion of the story. Though I could see where it had come from, I wasn’t completely convinced by what had just happened—actually, that’s not accurate. I was convinced, but trying to piece together Later Orlando with Earlier Orlando, much like Elijah. Reading it a second time around, though, I found myself giving the man absolutely no credit for innocence—I scrawled “deliberately misleading!!” over the page and stabbed “!!!!” in the margin.
The kicking at the sheets suddenly seemed insincere, the hesitant speech and the attempt to make sure Elijah is “okay” with the situation and won’t let the others make fun of him terrible contrived. His agreement with Elijah, “Dress up,” seems “deliberately misleading!” (haha) and the regret and wistfulness at the end purposefully put in place to hide anger or something realer, rawer. I do wonder where he’s coming from, what the history there is—also intriguing, and satisfying in his dancing out of your reach, like his foot at the restaurant. Interestingly, as I read it through again and again, there were times when he seemed more in control and deliberately manipulating the situation and others when he seemed to be as sincere and as caught up in the movement of it all as the next guy; this feeling of being unable to pin down His Characteristics is very well put-across.
Finally, Elijah, who ends up coming across by comparison (plot-wise) as the least intriguing but, for me, was also extremely interesting: how far is he allowing himself to be “pulled into” the situation because he knows how easy it is to escape responsibility for it—well, Orlando looked ethereal, and got him a drink, and it was the music. It’s odd—he and Orlando are in the dance floor and the passion on Elijah’s part doesn’t seem to be enough to obscure his judgment, or anything, but yet all of a sudden he seems surprised to find himself where he is—but returns to it despite surprise, only to be shocked again when it gets to be too too much. As I said, I feel like you get a slice of their lives, and so the questions are inevitable, for this isn’t character exposition, but the sections that we are made privy to are consistent, if intriguing, and hold together well even as they leave you feeling like there’s something missing.
This is what I think the centre of gravity of the factors that pulled all three above reactions from me was, and here is how it ties in to the Amazing (…) Theory of Contrasts ™
Alrighty-ho. Finally, I come to why I went into two pages of fairly from-the-edges conversation about “Elle a la Mer” and “For Shame.”
As I said, I think those two stories are driven by contrast. I think this story is driven by contrast, too. Perhaps ‘driven’ is too strong a word; it seems like something that implies purpose, and I don’t think that exists in any of these stories—rather, the contrast seems to be the mortar that’s holding a foundation with its own purpose in place.
The imagery of exposure and covering that goes on throughout “Sugar-Coated” is subtle but consistent. Orlando is beneath the bed, but his shirt rides up. There’s sugar-coated, of course, which serves as a grounding place for the title and the circumstances but also the more superficial dialogue at the beginning. Elijah needs to dust off a photo, making clear what the image is, and then picks up another photo, exposing one beneath it. Billy’s face scrunches inward, he cringes at the wall, as if melting into it. Orlando’s teeth show, there’s kicking under the table.
In the next scene, Orlando is Legolas, and has elf eyes, and is covered by the fact that he is wearing a costume. Elijah tries to close his eyes against an image and that image further evokes the idea of covering up when you think of Orlando as shrouded like a wraith. The lipstick is greasy and covers his lips, but the shirt is see-through: you make this tension explicit in Hiding his facial features but letting the whole world see his nipples, which I think sums up that push and pull between hiding, make-up, dress-up, costume, and being able to nonetheless feel completely exposed, free, strong. Orlando’s true nature only comes through when he is made-up, and in the dark.
Elijah is able to let go like he does only under the make-up, but eventually the line between that exposure and hiding blurs—Elijah’s make-up runs in streaks down his face, and he finds himself unable to figure out where painted Orli who is playing dress up ends and Orlando the man begins. All of a sudden the tension seems to snap—by cutting away the contrast between exposure and hiding—but instead of lessening seems to increase and sharpen: the contrast was keeping a balance that is lost when the contrast fades.
As I said, I read the three stories and found myself thinking that they worked together. “Elle a la Mer,” all beautiful blending of contrast that results in peace. “For Shame,” all sharp contrast that finds its balance in tension. “Sugar-Coated,” though—contrast which blurs but results in this incredibly unsatisfying feeling of lack of resolution and stability. This happens in “Sugar-Coated” alone, but when it’s held up for scrutiny in the company of the other two stories, it’s that much more effective.
I don’t know if this contrast thing is a specific quality that these three stories have—perhaps something I’m reading into them—but I know that as writers we often have things that appeal to us, for various reasons, sometimes not even consciously. These things can become signatures of our writing or the signature of the week—where sometimes there’s a recurring theme to work written around the same time? I had a theme of the week that involved light and sunsets. It was a bad time. I hope that you can exploit what I found in your stories for your benefit as both a writer and a reader of your own work. Yep.
Closing Remarks. For those in the audience i)who are not yet asleep, ii)dead, or iii)inducing vomiting so as to have an excuse to leave.
Honey, this is… 30 times the minimum number of words. Woot. Hooray for an inability to be concise. Did any of this make sense? If not, I’m afraid I will be forced to take drastic measures against myself.
It was truly a pleasure to be your reviewer. Truly. I enjoyed it immensely, and it challenged me, which was really satisfying. I hope to read more of your work soon (I am, I must admit, on one of the ebbs of the current of love I have for LotRiPS, but when my disposition changes, alas, so will your readership, dammit. It will include a very enthusiastic me). If there is anything you want to discuss further or outright smack me for, please do e-mail me. Have an amazing week.