You can achieve a very fast narrative pace with short snappy sentences and dialogue fragments, but make sure it isn’t overdone.
Title: The Hut
Genre: Literary Fiction
Language: US English
Synopsis: Following an accident that left his once-handsome face horribly scarred, Zhou (aka Meixian) must make the best of things, including accepting an arranged marriage with a young woman disfigured by a birth defect. Zhou spent his childhood mocking her. Despite the persecution, she has loved him all her life.
“It’s a raw deal. A raw goddamn deal. Fucking bastards!”
She’d have scolded him before. But she was too afraid now. He’d been bad tempered for years—all his life, it seemed. But he’d come home from that hospital horribly embittered—and fierce. And since the other …
She hardly knew him now. She hated thinking it, but it was true: those horrible scars suited what he’d become.
Or had they made him that way?
She couldn’t look at him now without picturing him standing in defiance of Yanglei … and that gun. The terrible things he’d said. The calloused indifference he’d shown toward her—his own mother!
Was it indifference? It was resentment, wasn’t it? No … no … hate. Yes. That was it.
She tried not to blame him. He’d suffered so much.
But then, how much of that had he brought on himself?
It was his rage—and her fear of it—that’d held her back from telling him what Huang had already confided in her. But she was afraid now—how he might react in public—if he heard it for the first time in the meeting. Besides, she had more bad news to put on him. In fact, it was good news, if he could see clear enough—but he wouldn’t.
So she’d decided to get it all out on the table at once. She’d started with the news they were the only family that wouldn’t be relocated to Lingbu. They were staying in Shanquan, moved to the old hut where the seer had lived for the last four decades. They’d get a new parcel there. Close in, at least.
“We’ll make do,” she said, almost whispering.
“This is that motherfucker Mingfang’s doing.” He stomped to the door and back again.
She’d never seen him so enraged. She clasped her hands in her lap to hide their trembling.
“I’m sure of it.”
“You don’t know that,” she said. “What’s Mingyang got to do with—”
“Don’t be stupid, Ma.”
Heavens. His voice was venomous.
“It’s punishment. Why else would we be the only ones not put up in Lingbu, huh? And who else but him’d wanna see us punished? Huh? Tell me, goddamn it.”
She knew better than to respond.
“Sorry motherfucker,” he muttered.
“I’ll curse him if I goddam please.” He stalked to the door again and bashed it with the heel of his hand, rattling the hasp and the hinges. He leaned with both hands on the door for a moment, then wheeled on her. “You ever seen inside that goddam hut? It was a fucking pig sty. Forty years on, still smell the pig shit in there. I don’t know how that old witch lived there so long.” He pointed at her. “You wait’ll you see it.”
He snatched his cigarettes off the table and stormed to the window, lit up, hung his top half out the opening.
She looked at their room, the three beds. They’d lose the old babu bed. Just as well; she never much liked it. Took up too much space.
Oh, lao gong, how could you leave me like this?
She had seen the old pig hut. She’d visited the seer there many times. It was bigger than the garret room, but the floor was dirt. She remembered beams of light swording down from holes in the roof. And that was years ago. The old seer had just died in July, which is why the land and the hut was free. She had no kin. She must’ve been a hundred. More maybe.
Meixian was right, though, about the smell. Hard to imagine still smelling like that after all those years. And it was a mess. Meixian was skillful, though. He could fix it up, make it suitable for … a family.
He came out of the window fuming. “I don’t how we’ll get a decent crop in on that land. The back side’s all pine trees and rocks. It’s got that big hillock with the sassafras taking up space. Rest’s bottom land, there along the creek. Floods ever time it rains. Never dry unless there’s a drought. Be like plowing a bog, you wait and see.
She sighed loud enough to get his attention. “There’s nothing we can do, Meixian. Not until you get married.”
“Married?” His grimace was terrifying. “You crazy, Ma? Look at me?” He put his hand up to the scars. “Who the fuck’s ever gonna marry me!”
“Sit down.” She patted the chair nearest her.
“I don’t want to sit down.” He was breathing out his nostrils like an old bull, but he looked tired.
“There’s something else I have to tell you. Please. Sit.”
He slouched over and dropped into the chair, crossed his arms.
“What is it?”
Editorial comment: No-one can accuse this opening of being slow, that’s for sure. It’s pretty breathless in fact, the short snappy sentence fragments and the curt dialogue quite stylised. One could argue that it’s too much, and there are areas where a bit of judicious copy-editing is needed. For example, it would be better to have the first two sentences as one, with a comma after the first instance of “deal”. I’m not too sure about some of the contractions— “who else but him’d wanna see us”, “It was his rage—and her fear of it—that’d held her back”, and “you wait’ll you see it”. They’re not “wrong” exactly, but they’re quite awkward to read and don’t flow naturally to a native English reader. You’ve elided quite a few words in Zhou’s dialogue, to give him a particularly abrupt way of speaking which helps the speed of the piece, but sometimes I think it’s overdone, like “Forty years on, [you can] still smell the pig shit in there.”
There are many sentence fragments. Some editors (and by extension some agents and publishers) do not like any sentence fragments even in fiction. I completely get what you’re doing here, but the trick with a stylistic signature like this is to not let it become apparent. Here, by dint of its repetition, it does become apparent, partly because it’s not just Zhou’s dialogue that’s broken up into fragments, but also his mother’s speech, and her inner thoughts. Because it figures in all three of these different “voices”, it’s apparent to the reader that this fragmentary way of speaking or thinking isn’t to do with the characters, but it’s more to do with the author. It becomes “visible”, so to speak. Now certain literary authors have very distinct “voices” themselves (you can tell a Cormac McCarthy book in a few paragraphs, for example) but relying on a quirk of style like this for appeal is not recommended. For one thing the constant stop-start staccato rhythm will just get exhausting for the reader.
There’s also a little too much exposition for my liking. From “She couldn’t look at him now” to “close in, at least” we’re in a past pluperfect shadowland: “she had done this”, “she had done that”. We’re neither in the moment, nor is the story being simply narrated in the past tense. At this point, so close to the beginning of the book, I think you would be better advised to stick with the conversation between mother and son, get some sense of the immediacy of their confrontation (and her fear of him), than rely on her introspection to explain what’s going on.
On a bad day the copy-editing problems would put me off, just a lack of attention to detail in sentences like “Floods ever[y] time it rains.” On a good day I’d be intrigued enough by this opening to ask to see a little more. The setting (for an English language novel, at least) is different, the voice very distinct. It would greatly help your cause if there was a clearer idea of the plot arc in your synopsis. I understand it’s difficult to do in the 50 words I give you, but you ought to be able to compose a summation of your entire book in one line, if necessary. It’s sometimes called an elevator pitch in the film industry, the idea being you get in the lift with the studio boss and you have to get him interested in your movie idea by the time he gets to his floor. You only have about 15 seconds to speak. “Hi Mr DeMille. You don’t know me but I’ve got this idea for a movie …” Go for it.
Thanks for posting.
“There are many sentence fragments. Some editors (and by extension some agents and publishers) do not like ‘any sentence fragments even in fiction.’ ”
I’d say any editor (and by extension some agents and publishers) that would want to eradicate all sentence fragments (especially in dialogue) is probably an editor that one would want to steer clear of. As an editor myself, I would steer clear of a writer who “didn’t” use sentence fragments in dialogue, as without sentence fragments, dialogue sounds stilted. I can see sentence fragments (outside dialogue) being a concern if the writer was doing it inadvertently, but that’s clearly not the case here. I think it’s an interesting voice I’d like to hear more of.
Regarding the “floods every time it rains” piece. I didn’t read that as cliché. I read it as a reasonable comment about “bottom” land along a creek, which I expect would “flood every time it rains.” I can’t imagine a more apt way to point that out.
Agree about the elevator pitch. That needs a lot of work.
Thanks for the comment. I entirely agree about sentence fragments. I like their use. I think they lend immediacy and a closer approximation of “real” verbal pacing in dialogue particularly. But I do think it can be overdone, particularly if the narrative is also broken up into short, often conjunction-led sentences (“And it was a mess.” “But she was too afraid now.”).
The “floods ever time it rains” phrase was picked out because of the missing “y”, not because of any sense of cliché. I’ve made that more clear, so thanks. A few spelling mistakes aren’t necessarily going to turn an agent off, but my message repeatedly is that authors should showcase absolutely their best work. These samples are only a few pages long. There’s no reason not to polish them until they shine—don’t give someone an excuse to put your submission down.
I agree with this piece having an interesting voice and setting, as I mentioned in the critique, and a silver star is a high accolade!