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  • #135710
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    Alright, this is a scene I wrote during one of my writing practice sessions a few weeks ago. I would appreciate advice on how to improve the prose, or at least y’all’s thoughts on the writing as a whole. Advice on improving the introspection and character voice is welcome as well.</span>

    ———————————————————————————————————————–

    Hugon walked through the busy streets of Troyes, his rough brown boots stirring up dust on the road. Finally no mud, he thought, summer heat makes work so much easier. 

    Fellow townsfolk passed him on every side, going the same direction he was. Poor and rich, young and old, knight and peasant, cleric and Jew, all came to the grand fairs, him included, though his purpose was not the same as most.

    Hugon ran a hand through his tousled blond hair. He hadn’t bathed in days, and in a few more his near shoulder length hair would be a filthy disaster.

    He loosened the cuffs on his white tunic slightly, and tightened the sturdy brown belt around his tucked in shirt. The fine belt had previously belonged to a fair guard, but the inebriated fellow hadn’t needed it.

    He turned the corner and the sounds that had been growing louder as he approached now filled his ears. Merchants bartering with prospective buyers, artisans and retail merchants hawking their wares, horses neighing, and gawkers talking and yelling mixed together to create a cacophony that could wake the dead.

    Smells came with the noise, that of sweaty bodies, fresh-or at least supposedly fresh-meat, strong wine, and baked goods. More exotic smells, such as the spices brought by the Italians from the east, and that clothy scent of Flemish woven, English wool, mixed with the rest.

    He always had his senses directed toward something even more interesting than exotic smells, and that was the exotic people. Italians and Lombards called from their stands with their flamboyant dress and coaxing tongues. Saxons from northern Germany bargained with their rough speech and suspicious looks. Gascons guarded their supplies closely with their unfriendly demeanors and conspicuous weapons. Scandinavians with the blood of the Norsemen still running strong through their veins made the locals look even smaller than they were, especially him.

    He entered the fair quarter and was immediately caught up in the seething mass of people, but he directed his path towards the visiting merchants, ducking past shouting men and arguing women.

    Temporary stalls lined the sides of the street, the owners within touting their goods like there was no tomorrow. They probably would have sold him their daughter if he had offered enough.

    He came up behind what appeared to be a wealthy artisan’s wife and flexed his hands. Time to get to work. He laid his hand on the woman’s right shoulder simultaneously slipping a small knife along the side of her purse hanging from her left shoulder.

    The woman jerked around, her black hair whipping his face. But by that time, much of her coin had found a new home in his sleeve.

    “Excuse me, ma’am,” Hugon said, his voice a mix of affected helpfulness and mocking,“I believe I saw your husband near the tavern a ways back.”

    “Why do you tell me this, and why is it any of your business?” the woman snapped back at him in a mix of French and Italian.

    “Well, ma’am,” he said, his typical sardonic expression appearing on his face and in his voice, “he was with a young woman, and they were making their way deeper into the alley.”

    The woman turned beet red. The verbal confrontations with his “clients” was always his favorite part.

    “You impudent bastard!” the woman spat as she made her way toward the tavern.

    He transferred the coins from his sleeve to a large pocket he had specially sewn into the inside of his tunic. Well, who’s next then.

    As he was making his way towards a stall belonging to an Italian merchant, the sudden feeling of being followed ran through him.

    He glanced backward. A large bald man was pushing through the crowd, and it seemed to Hugon that he was coming straight at him. Then he noticed that another man, this one only slightly taller than him, was watching him from in front of a wooden stall displaying colorful tunics.

    That was enough for him. He quickened his pace through the crowd, and towards the end of the street. He shot a look backwards. Both men were now heading straight for him, their pace quick and confident.

    These bloody brutes were going to ruin his workday. Well his clients would have to be patient, he wasn’t taking any chances. Taking chances never ended well.

    He sped up his pace even more so that he was nearly running by the time he reached the last few stalls. He could sense the men closing in.

    As he was passing the last stall, a booted foot stuck out from beside it, the hem of a skirt just showing above it. He was moving too fast.

    His foot caught the boot and he went head first into the ground, his limbs sprawling in the dust. Blast. This was going just perfectly. He slowly pushed himself up. That fall had not been a graceful one.

    The men were now standing above him, along with a woman, presumably the one that had tripped him. He quickly analyzed them. The bald man’s large rough hands were holding a mean looking club, and his face was holding a satisfied smile. And the smile wasn’t even pretty.

    The short man also had a satisfied look, though it was mixed with something that appeared to be contemplation. He had long black hair streaked with gray that reminded Hugon of a drawing a merchant had shown him years ago of a white and black striped horse.

    The young woman was smirking down at him. Blast her. Her hazel hair fell across the brown cloak that she wore, though the hood was pulled down. She had a slight dusting of freckles, and a firm, though still soft, face. Her pale blue tunic fell down to those criminal boots. He would steal those boots right off her feet just as soon as he had the chance.

    The man he had labeled “Stripes” said, “It’s about time we found you, we’ve been searching for days. You didn’t have to run, boy.”

    Lacing his voice with sarcasm, Hugon said, “Of course I didn’t, being chased by two ugly brutes is a normal thing for every man in this heavenly city.”

    Bald boy raised his club, “Let me pound a little respect into him, Rolant,” he said in a voice that was a mix of pleasure and gruffness.

    Stripes shook his head, “Willing confederates are always better than unwilling ones, Sean.” His voice was not highly refined, but bald boy made him sound like King Louis’s best courtiers.

    Hugon brushed the hair out of his eyes, and straightened. He was backed up against a wall and his three assailants were boxing him in in a formation resembling a cone with Stripes in the middle.

    “Cut to the point,” he said. “Have I stolen something from you? If I have, you were too forgettable for me to remember.”

    His eyes were darting back and forth. There had to be some way out of this. That still smirking woman would be the easiest direction to break through, as long as he watched out for her boots that is.

    ———————————————————————————————————————–

    I have one specific question, and that is y’all might have noticed there were two pieces of italicized, direct thought. Do y’all think that is necessary or should it just be indirect thought like the rest?

    #135727
    Rose
    @rose-colored-fancy

    @noah-cochran

    Hi Noah! Always fun to see your writing pop up again!

    Your prose is actually fairly good! It’s very clear and fairly strong. I don’t see any glaring issues, though there are some things you may want to keep in mind. I’ll come back to that later 😉

    As for the italicized thought, personally, I don’t use or particularly like it. Since you’re writing in a third-person limited, it isn’t needed, and for me, it always pulls me out of the story. I already understand he’s thinking all this, so there’s no need to italicize.

    Now, there were some larger issues I noticed that don’t have to do with prose.

    You seem to have trouble describing a large crowd of people vividly and accurately displaying the large amounts of diversity, so you’re using a list format. First, you describe all the sounds, then all the smells, then all the people.

    I used to do this all the time. Apparently, other people struggle with crowds too!

    The problem is that it has no imagery. Personally, I can’t picture a medieval Lombard off the top of my head. A solution to this is singling out a few people and describing them instead of trying to describe a large crowd.
    This is hard to explain, so I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs where I was describing a market scene.

    Despite the early hour, the market was filling up with vendors setting up stalls. A boy teetered on a stool, trying in vain to secure a carpet to the wall for display. Intricate geometric designs in blue and yellow danced across it.

    Ferran shot a look over his shoulder to make sure I was keeping up.

    “Don’t get lost,” he said, briefly.

    I gave a kneeling camel a wide berth. A father and son unloaded sacks of spices from its back and the camel stared at me with large, placid eyes.

    A girl with black hair coiled in intricate braids draped a bolt of emerald fabric across the stall, it dripped down, displaying the fine weave. The bolts of fabric on her stall were brighter than fields of wildflowers in spring.

    I was glad about my red dress. It had felt conspicuous and too bright, but now it was the only thing that kept me from fading into the stones, an invisible speck among all this noise and color.

    This isn’t fantastic, it’s from a first draft, but you get what I mean. I only describe four people in total, but you (hopefully) get a detailed idea of what is going on in the entire market.

    People are hard-wired to connect to individuals, more than a large group.

    So, instead of saying “Gascons guarded their supplies closely with their unfriendly demeanors and conspicuous weapons.”
    You could say:

    “Hugon slowed, eyeing a conveniently placed apple on the edge of a stall. He tried not to attract attention as he wandered past. If he was cautious, he might be able to pocket it without anyone noticing. An unfriendly snarl interrupted his carefully planned heist. The soft hiss of metal over leather made him jump aside, away from the stall. The Gascon trader was glaring at him, a short knife half out of the scabbard. Hugon tried to look innocent, which was far from easy.”

    Something else you might do to enhance the voice and the scene overall is to have him calculate who he could rob. He might comment that it was no use robbing the Italians and Lombards because they had far less money than their fancy clothes let on, and that the Saxons always kept one hand on their purses, and that he’d rather not rob a Scandinavian for fear that they’d break him in half.

    That way, you get voice and characterization, while simultaneously getting an idea for the scene.

    Another issue I noticed was that the first half of the text is just a description, and Hugon only observes what’s going on around him. The reader doesn’t know why he’s there, or what he’s looking for, or what might happen.

    Then halfway, suddenly, he’s planning things, he’s active, he has goals and it’s so interesting. And then he gets caught and something might happen to him and who are these people and what do they want from him and why have they been looking for him and all these other fascinating questions get raised at once.

    The first half of the text wasn’t terrible, but the second part was interesting and active and so fun to read! So, you could try to mention why he’s there, and he can immediately start scheming about who he can rob and you can drop in some backstory about whether he’s been successful with this before, or whether he’s fallen on hard times and is resorting to thievery.

    I really like Hugon, he’s a fun character to read! He has this humorous, sarcastic voice that gives everything a bit more zest. Use it, especially in descriptions. Opinions and reactions are some of the most interesting parts, and they give you both the character and whatever you’re describing.

    Okay, as for prose, you’re definitely on the right track! It lacks some polish, but it isn’t jarring or hard to read. Some things you may want to watch out for are the distancing verbs like ‘saw, heard, seemed, thought’ They increase the narrative distance, and they’re irrelevant since you already know it’s what Hugon’s seeing. You don’t use these often, but a couple slipped in.

    Another issue you seem to have is overusing -ing verbs. They’re not necessarily bad, but if you can change them to an -ed verb, that sounds better. So instead of saying “The young woman was smirking down at him,” you can say “The young woman smirked down at him.”

    A trick to improve your prose is to go through a piece of text and try to cut one word from each sentence. You won’t always succeed, but it forces you to be more concise.

    I’ll try to rewrite a paragraph, and try to show you how I’d improve the prose:

    The young woman was smirking down at him. Blast her. Her hazel hair fell across the brown cloak that she wore, though the hood was pulled down. She had a slight dusting of freckles, and a firm, though still soft, face. Her pale blue tunic fell down to those criminal boots. He would steal those boots right off her feet just as soon as he had the chance.

    And the edit:

    The young woman smirked down at him. Blast all of them and her in particular. He couldn’t see much of her face, her hood shadowed most of it. He only got a vague impression of firm features, barely softened by youth, framed by hazel hair. Her periwinkle blue tunic seemed almost too delicate for those criminal boots. He would steal them right off her feet as soon as he had the chance.

    As you can see, I didn’t describe her too much, since this isn’t exactly the time for it. He’s in obvious danger and wouldn’t get much more than an overall look at them. You can mention the details, like her freckles, later.

    (Okay, I think I might have gotten confused. I wrote it as though her hood is up, but you might have said her hood was down. Whatever, you get what I mean 😉

    It’s great that you’re paying attention to your prose, but I do want to warn you, it’s very easy to get stuck on it. I spent a lot of time trying to improve the prose in my first draft, and now I’m completely rewriting it, so all that time is wasted. In your second draft, you’ll end up cutting out entire scenes, possibly even chapters, so don’t get stuck on the prose.

    I like to make it readable before I move on since I have a tendency to rephrase something several times when my train of drafting gets stuck. But how you have it now is good enough for a first draft! It’s readable and there are no glaring errors. It will get more polished as you continue writing.

    So, in short: Your prose is fine, don’t get stuck on it, when you’re describing a crowd of people, pick a few people doing specific things and describe them instead of listing, don’t stop the story to describe things, use your characterization to describe stuff, don’t over-use -ing verbs, and be careful with distance verbs.

    That’s all I can think of, hope this helps!

     

    Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?

    #135770
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    Wow Rose, you are fantastic at giving spot on writing advice! I love the concept of describing individual people and things to help show the larger picture, I will try to utilize that technique more in the future. Absolutely agree with the -ing verbs tip, I’ll work on that.

    I was also leaning against using direct thought. I had been using it early in my chapters to start them off with a further physic distance, and then moving into indirect thought, but I’m not convinced that is necessary.

    #135822
    Rose
    @rose-colored-fancy

    @noah-cochran

    Awesome! So glad that was helpful!

    I was also leaning against using direct thought. I had been using it early in my chapters to start them off with a further physic distance, and then moving into indirect thought, but I’m not convinced that is necessary.

    I think in that specific instance, it would be more important to be consistent than to work on the psychic distance. I don’t have much experience with it, since I’m writing in a fairly constant, close, first-person perspective. Still, I think it would be jarring if you switched from direct thought to indirect thought in the middle.

    It was very interesting/amusing to see my exact same mistakes in someone else’s writing XD I hope that saved you some trial and error XD

     

    Without darkness, there is no light. If there was no nighttime, would the stars be as bright?

    #136792
    Brian Stansell
    @obrian-of-the-surface-world

    Hi Noah,

    One thing I learned through the “snow-pocalypse” week 😜 here in Texas, was what happens when a man goes a full week without a shower (since we had no water or electricity).

    Hugon ran a hand through his tousled blond hair. He hadn’t bathed in days, and in a few more his near shoulder length hair would be a filthy disaster. He loosened the cuffs on his white tunic slightly, and tightened the sturdy brown belt around his tucked in shirt. The fine belt had previously belonged to a fair guard, but the inebriated fellow hadn’t needed it.

    My hair is between fine and coarse. That is one thing. Naturally, dark hair is more coarse. Blonde hair is thinner. (I mean on a single hair basis.)  The volume of hair just depends on the cut and style and the choice to grow it and its health and the person’s diet. A person who goes hungry a lot will not have healthy hair.  This perception of blonde hair and blue eyes being the most desirable because of how Hollywood glamorizes it is just weird.  Blondes have the thinnest hair, blue eyes are the weakest visually, and tend to have more eyesight problems later on.  Fair-skinned people are more vulnerable to the sun because they have low levels of melanin and are not as naturally protected as those with darker skin.  The old “Aryan model” is actually not the ideal physical specimen when it comes to being fit for survival and endurance in harsh conditions, so there’s that.
    But, back to our muttons…
    If you character “hadn’t bathed in days”, I highly doubt his hair would just look “tousled”.  More than likely, it would be unkempt and a little wild, if not dull, flat, and oily-feeling.  Hair flourishes on fat and natural oils.  If he has been traveling it would be gritty and perhaps have a sandy feel from being out on the open road, and it would have the sticky feel of sweat in it, from no bath and it might even have an unpleasant odor if he sweats a lot.  (I know, not the romantic ideal anymore, is it.)  Fine hair tends to curl when it gets wet or oily, so the coarseness does matter.  During the 2020 year, I let my hair grow long and it got to shoulder-length after a year of no haircuts because the salons were closed.  My hair curled and went wild.  I was the human equivalent of Chewbacca. Not a pretty sight. I had to wet and comb it out but it curled as it naturally dried, and blow-drying would’ve made it brittle.  Why is blow-drying relevant? Because of hot sun and road conditions for a traveler.  It would achieve a similar effect.  Just a couple of days will make it a filthy disaster if your character has not bathed or treated his hair with something.  Humans sweat during the night, their hair gets mussed, and if this traveler has to sleep out in the open with his traveling animal, well…you get the idea.

    Now under all those additional considerations, what do you think that “formerly” white tunic might look like? It will probably have sweat stains, and dust marks where his hands brushed it, or the wind just lifted the soils off the road. It will have taken on an animal smell too.  Nothing will be crisp and clean in those conditions.  His clothing will have a miasma of odors. His boots will be caked from the mud you mentioned, and his tunic will perhaps have clots of mud stuck to it from his recent travel.  If this is a period piece, any bathing done will most likely happen in a dirty river, or merely be the equivalent of a sponge bath, while kneeling on the wet dirty banks of a river.  It is doubtful he could allow his clothes to properly dry because he wouldn’t want to be caught out and exposed for a long enough time.  He will have had to wear his clothes in a kind of drip-dry fashion. In period pieces, freshwater was harder to come by.  Cleaner water would come from a spring or a well, or rain buckets stored away from dust and grime.  All other water sources will have some degree of dirt in them. Consider what they might do to hair or clothing.  White clothing will be the hardest to keep clean.

    Leather, unless it has been cured and dried, will soften over time, so any belts he wears will need to reflect that.

    He loosened the cuffs on his white tunic slightly, and tightened the sturdy brown belt around his tucked in shirt. The fine belt had previously belonged to a fair guard, but the inebriated fellow hadn’t needed it.

    Slovenly “inebriated” people tend to be slobs. Any article of clothing one takes from them, may not be meticulously kept in the best condition.  A drunk may wake up in an alley or passed out in a horse trough, so you can imagine the condition of their clothing under such circumstances.  If you want your character to procure a fine article of clothing, have him take it from a fop or some arrogant buffoon who spends most of his time preening and prancing about for the ladies.  His snobbery will ensure that his finest qualities are external, and his internal character is more than apt to be lacking.

    The best thing that has worked for me for descriptions and writing prose is gathering world-building details and logical conditions that arise out of those factors and what is known about human physiology under certain conditions.  Then think through the five senses of a character: what they smell, what they can taste, what they hear and feel.  Think of environmental conditions, lighting, time of day, weather conditions, period conditions, customs of the people and behavioral patterns, etc.  Get a 4-dimensional picture and experience of that world in your head and then become the character you are writing and sense what they want, and what their sense tells them about the world around them.  Who might be a friend or foe? What conditions offer them an opportunity to get what they are seeking and why.  Some characters, you may not want to show what is in their head, because it may reveal a plot point that you still need to be concealed until later.  Choose a POV that does not impede your scene needs.  Keep enough mystery in the scene to intrigue a reader, but give them something to taste so they follow your character staying hungry for more.  Promises and rewards should be small early on unless you are setting up the BIG promise or hope that drives and motivates your principal characters. That pay-off will come at the climax and in the denouement.
    Think about what environmental conditions are necessary details for what will happen with the action.  What knowledge does one need to understand the ensuing action of the scene’s moments?  What do you want to reveal, and what do you want to hide.  Have your reasons for when and where to reveal or conceal.
    As an author, we readers can only see what you show us, or logically think through something with the facts you give us.

    Wishing you blessings in your writing journey. You are making a very good start and most of what you have shown is done very well.  Keep a logical flow, so that readers do not stop following your character into the world you are building without pausing. Be willing to show the unpleasant and grimy side of your world, because it keeps it feeling authentic.  Beautiful women do pass gas.  Clerics have bad days and sometimes want very much to cuss their parishioners. Those truths are unpleasant but authentic. Be careful not to glorify the ideal, without grounding it in the real.  When writing your first drafts, just write how it comes.  Most of what Rose and I are telling you are things sorted out in the revisions.  Don’t worry about writing flat characters in the initial drafts, unless writing them distracts you.  Then flesh them out.  You need to keep the process fun and delightful to you, so you can follow through just getting the story roughed out and complete.  Then go back and refine and feel and sense in a more dynamic and multi-sensory way.

    Brian Stansell (aka O'Brian of the Surface World)
    I was born in war.
    Fighting from my first breath.

    #136830
    Noah Cochran
    @noah-cochran

    Thanks for the tips Brian!

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