Feedback Wanted: Investigation of Sturgeon

Hi, all -
I moved this request from Cherokee to its own topic, to ease confusion. The story is located at:

I wasn’t sure how to organize my feedback – first I was doing it by line but decided to group by topic. If anything doesn’t make sense, feel free to ask questions. I don’t want to make it sound like a lecture, :-) so some of the comments are very brief. Throughout, I put brackets where I thought things could be deleted.

 First let me say that I liked the setting and the original style of the writing. It has a nicely subtle tongue-in-cheek humor, and has dark aspects without being really depressing. The narrator is someone I was interested in, and wanted to follow him to know more. A good example:

 I had been given clear instructions to enter via the servants entrance at the side of the building. Considering [these instructions as] that beneath my dignity, I marched up to the front door and rang the bell.

This is a good early clue to the speaker. I like the way it is phrased, but shorten slightly.

 But you leave the narrative uncompleted, with no real twist at the end. You cram a lot of “telling” into the end, rather than showing us. My suggestion is that you have the narrator go back with the info, find Sir Julian with Madame and then… do something unexpected.  This ending just didn’t fulfill the mystery and adventure you’d promised up front.


Okay – so, by topic, some of the suggestions I have. Remember these are my opinions, but most of them have been given to me in my manuscripts over the years, and some fairly big-name writers were the advisers, so I don’t argue with success. :-}


When to put in clues and plot points:

It’s a challenge to know when to add an important detail, especially since it’s so clear to the writer. I know that surprise is good, but you can’t randomly drop in facts w/o tying them to something. Ex: Your first line is intriguing, but you leave us too long without tying back into it (probably no more than 2 paragraphs in a short story). And it’s improbable – the narrator would not have seen/heard that “fact”.

 Being an investigator for hire, I was already well aware of the job, which even I considered dangerous. This probably should have been said earlier – remember, we’re in the speaker’s head, so everything he thinks we should know. Otherwise, it’s not playing fair with the reader. That’s one thing that makes 1stperson narrative hard.

 Another ex: So, did you see anything unusual last night?” – That "last night" should have come up when he was describing Madame’s job, back several paragraphs.

 Level of detail:

Another real challenge for short stories! The reader needs enough to “see” but there’s no room for the kind of leisurely scene-building of novels. You have places where the detail is good, but out of place, and other places where I need a bit more detail.

 I caught the train there, [it was certainly] a long way from where I resided [in] amongst the markets, hawkers and meat halls. Being employed means that for a time I can avoid the meat halls – they’re cheap to eat at, but you don’t ask [too many] questions about what you’re consuming. Actually, it’s better to ask no questions at all [about the matter].

I like these lines but they feel out of place. Don’t make the reader backtrack to pick up the plot (unless you’re really good at it, the reader gets annoyed).

  Order of the narrative:

You often throw comments in that pull the reader from a scene, and then throw him back in… it’s better to re-arrange a sentence to keep the scene together. The middle sentence is out of order here:

His leg was at a funny angle to his body. I hate to think what the three of them would have done with me. His face was a mixture of confusion and surprise, life just wasn’t working out like it was meant to for him.

 Sometimes you try to cram too much into one sentence. ex: I’ll have to go easy here, she looked to be approaching middle age, of thin build – like everyone given the food shortages – but it was her eye’s that held me. The first part, going easy, doesn’t seem to be due to her being middle aged (right?) and the last part seems to be the important point, so give it its own sentence.

 Emotional  level:

Go through and look at each of the speaker’s comments/attitudes – be sure it fits his persona. Ex: Thankfully, the station was coming up and I could get out of this version of hell. If this guy is a hardened thug-for-hire or investigator-for-hire, a drunkard asking for work is not gonna freak him. As writers, we all do this – writing a segment that is fun, but just doesn’t blend with the other pieces of information.

The thugs advanced on me and to lower their caution I begged, “please, I didn’t mean anything, I just wanted to catch up with my mate”.  If he was really leading them deliberately down the alley to attack them, that is not clear from the earlier paragraphs. Also "lower their caution" is awkward - what about "to bring them closer"?

 Respectable couples were out promenading after dinner and greeting their fellow lucky residents. The second half of this sentence is of a different tone, so it jars a bit. What about “Respectable couples were out promenading after dinner, archly acknowledging each other.”


 One habit that is good, especially if you don’t write regularly, is to have a small checklist and re-read the text looking for consistency in each area: punctuation, tense, plot details, name spellings, emotional tone, etc. It’s tedious, and you don’t have to do it all at once, but editors are annoyed when we writers don’t clean up our texts. Leaving in small inconsistencies might kick the story right into the reject bin, which is unfair but they do it anyway.

 Unless it’s different down under, you do have to put dialogue on separate lines (I am not fond of that, but it’s standard)

 Generally, look for places where you can tighten. There are extra words that can be [removed], since short stories have no extra room at all. Ex: [At which point] I pushed past, [only to be]was grabbed by two footmen and frogmarched around to the servants entrance

 The rhythmic sound of the horses’ hooves and the creaking of their wagons [on the roads] is pleasant, [on the other hand] though the contents are disgusting.


There are a couple of places where you mix tenses, and that usually will jar a reader out of a story:

I’ve had to hurry up to catch the last train out of here and hopefully it’s working.

 It was a couple of kilometres walk, (next paragraph)… The area, is full of small vendors of the usual sort

It looks like you start in past tense, which is just fine. But put all your main narrative in the same tense, and only switch to present if you’re doing dialogue. Or put it all present tense (but that is hard to read, especially for a long story)

I know this seems like a lot, but the shorter the story, the more polished it has to be (which is why it's such a challenge for me!) The book I recommend as one of the best for short stories is Damon Knight's "Creating Short Fiction" (1981). Good luck and keep writing!