Starfall/ACRA: Metal Fire #9, False Maria 03

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Tue Sep 19 20:03:05 PDT 2006


And so, we reach the third part of "Waggish" Wil Alambre's "False
Maria".  In his notes section-- and let me thank Wil for responding to
my comments at such length-- Wil has this to say:

>  Tom makes a couple good points concerning issue
> eight. The pacing I'm particularly happy with, and glad
> it worked well. I worry though because (as you're sure
> to notice, most likely having read the above issue
> beofre getting to this point) this issue seems to hit
> all the same beats.

Actually, though, I would have to disagree.  Now, there's certainly
some structural similarities between the two.  As far as the meat of
the story-- Eddy and Kimberly-- are concerned, the story starts with
Eddy regaining consciousness, tied to a chair, and becoming gradually
aware of his surroundings; he and Kimberly get into a very heated
argument that threatens to turn violent.  But the substance of the
"beats" are in actuality very different.

In issue eight, Eddy is helpless, completely at Kimberly's mercy.  Most
of the scene plays out in his headspace, and I think this is the right
move because the burden of suspense-- the feeling of danger and
jeopardy-- rests squarely on him.  We're interested in what's up with
Kimberly, but we're more interested, at least at this point, in whether
or not Eddy's going to make it out of this place alive.

In issue nine, Eddy is more cautious: he bides his time until Kimberly
is unconscious and then quietly frees himself from his chair (very
resourceful).  He is rewarded with an opportunity to escape, but he
chooses instead to help the girl, who awakens in time to fly off the
handle again.

And yes, this is somewhat _similiar_ to their argument in issue eight,
but the circumstances are different: Eddy is no longer at her mercy,
but rather playing "hero" (or, at very least, "decent human being");
having learned his lesson from issue eight, he tries a different tact
in convincing her that he's not the one "raping her mind".

What I like about Eddy is that he's very smart, a very fast learner:
like a good A.I. program, he's careful not to repeat his mis-steps.  I
like seeing intelligent protagonists, especially in suspense/action
fiction: it forces the villains (and the authors) to come up with
bigger and better and cleverer hoops to leap through.

And I think this approach of Eddy's, at once tactical _and_ somewhat
sentimental (I mean, to be _truly_ intelligent, he shouldn't be waking
up or helping the robot that's tried to kill him) is what makes the
difference between issues eight and nine; furthermore, I think the
slight structural repeat is a solid device to get this point-- that
Eddy's learning-- across.

I grumbled a bit in my comments on the last issue about the sudden
shift in POVs.
>  Worse yet, not only do we have the switching of
> point of views, but this time it *does* jump "in and out
> of the room". Hopefully it comes across as not too
> jarring. :)

And it wasn't so much that it was jarring, Wil (though it was a bit),
but rather that I have a strongly-held bias against viewpoint shifting
in suspense-driven fiction.  It's much, much harder for a writer to
stay with a scene, keeping suspense building, staying in the room; it's
also much more rewarding for the reader.

But in the case of issue nine, the viewpoint-shifts are definitely in
the service of the story because this installment is not
suspense-driven the way its predecessor was: this is using suspense to
refer to danger, to action, to the thriller elements, the nail-biting.
It's more of a mystery story, asking the reader to consider why certain
people take certain actions, and this offers a pleasure that's more
cerebral than visceral.

Certainly issue number nine starts off on the suspense track: stuck in
Eddy's viewpoint, we get no more information than he does.  And this is
why, I think, for most brands of suspense, an author should stick with
one viewpoint.  An exception, of course, would be Hitchcockian
suspense, or what I would call The Other Shoe Suspense: giving the
reader more information than the character, so that we wait as he
unwittingly steps into a trap-- that is, we wait for the other shoe to

As Eddy considers his predictament and makes his moves, we get into his
head: the "suspense" portion provides us an opportunity to get nice and
cozy in his headspace.  Wil is then canny enough -- whether he knows it
or not :-) -- to switch us from "suspense" mode to "mystery" by way of
a seemingly extraneous episode: Eddy, after escaping but before trying
to wake Kimberly, stops by the kitchen to have a peanut butter & mayo
sandwich.  It's such an odd little detail (and yet very realistic), and
it effectively derails the relentlessness of the suspense, centering
our attention not on Eddy's predictament, but Eddy's choices and why he
makes them: this sets us up for his decision to try and wake Kimberly.
(Ah, hell, I'm just going to call her Kim.)

When we switch to Kim, it is at first in the context of a dream.  Now,
this is one of my few criticisms of the story thus far: as a dream, it
doesn't really work, for me.  Personally, when I dream, it's never
idyllic but rather very wonky.  People do things in my dreams for
reasons I cannot comprehend; it's not so much symbolic in the Freudian
or Jungian sense as it is bizarre and trippy.  (Even my "Realistic"
dreams are trippy in their own, low-key way.)

Maybe this is just me, my personal experience, intruding on my
enjoyment of what for others would be a perfectly realistic dream
sequence.  I dunno; most movies in which dreams are represented fall
short for me, too: either they go way too far into the surrealism,
where it detracts from the rest of the film, or they're just
picnic-postcards from childhood.

There was one movie I saw in which I thought the dream sequences were
really well done.  It was a really bad and pretentious local indie film
called DADBOT-- a very muddled satire of
"dead-scientist-trapped-in-robot" 80's sci-fi family comedy.  One dream
the scientist's son has, just after the scientist has been murdered,
goes like this:

Billy: "Dad, I'm going to be late for school!"
Father: "How are we going to get there?"
Billy: "In your new car!"

And that's it; it's completely unexplained, but its very very potent,
it speaks on a subconscious level about grief.  (If only the rest of
that film could have been that true and painful and deep.)

But I digress from my main point, which is: the viewpoint shifts arouse
our curiousity.  When we jump into Kimberly's headspace, the realities
of her existence as a robot are rendered in telling and exciting
details.  When the focus shifts to the Reeves subplot, its
juxtaposition makes it perfectly clear what's going on, and, I might
add, it gives the reader information Kimberly and Eddy aren't privy to:
it's very rewarding, then, when she figues it out (a protagonist
catching the shoe in midair is just as exciting as seeing it squash

So, in this issue, I think the viewpoint shifts are nothing to
apologize about, and when Wil left the room, he did so with a visible
purpose.  Like fellow Dearbornian George Peppard was fond of saying, I
love it when a plan comes together!  (He's buried about a mile away
from my house, in a family plot.  People leave cigars there all the

Wil worries about not living up to the promise of his opening, but so
far, I can say that he's exceeding expectations.  He's a very good
plotter, he's very good with mood and character, and he can come up
with some eloquent/surprising/amusing turns of phrase.  I think in the
latter case he might need to do some tightening up so that his wordsong
might have more "oomph".  A couple of examples:

> refreshing glass of warm, flat rootbeer. He was
> considering helping himself to the half empty box of
> sugary cereal, but the smell of the carton of milk
> seemed to lean more toward the curdled cheese area
> than he was willing to risk.

Especially with a sentence of that length, it might be better to say
"the smell of the milk carton seemed to lean more towards curdled
cheese than he was willing to risk", or, even more concise, "the smell
of the milk leaned (leant?) more towards curdled cheese than he was
willing to risk"; I think the 'seemed' is a bit extraneous here.

I wouldn't render the sentence as "the milk smelled like curdled
cheese" because I think the impact of the sentence is in "lean"; it
conjures up an image of Eddy mentally comparing it on the Scale of
Curdliness, the smell inching towards one end instead of the other.  To
cut out "lean" is to cut out the whole point of this great subliminal

>  Less then a minute after that, he was in the bathroom,
> taking a long, long piss. His bladder eternally thanked
> him.

In this case, it's a bit impercise: "eternally"?  I think these two
sentences provide a nice moment of grungy comic relief, but "eternally"
kinda sticks out like a sore thumb.

I think it's really a missed opportunity for the sentence, "his bladder
prostated itself in gratitude."  Or, if you want to more subtle and
accurate, "prostrated".

And though the details are scattered about the story nicely, they do
seem to pile up at the beginning; maybe fewer flourishes in the first
couple of paragraphs might increase a feeling of versimilitude, as the
reader wouldn't be distracted by their frequency: might be easier to
get into the story at the start.  I dunno.

These are really minor quibbles; it's a pleasure to read sentences like
these in the first place, sentences that are not only clever but
intelligent, sensible, and evocative of both plot and mood.  Many
writers can't turn a phrase like Wil can.

Hell, I wish I could. :-)


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