Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the story first at Daily Science Fiction.
Care and Feeding
by Tim Pratt
Daily Science Fiction
Mailed August 22, 2014 – available here.
Basic Outline: Character makes a deal with the devil to win love.
From the author’s notes:
I mostly prefer to let my fiction speak for itself, but I will say this one was inspired by many encounters with those little free library boxes people put up outside their houses (a la “Little Free Library”:http://littlefreelibrary.org/). I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if each of those came with its own highly specialized librarian…” and my imaginings became rather darker from there.
Despite that spark of inspiration, Care and Feeding is a standard Faustian Bargain story.
The opening introduces the wierd as the wierd, leaving the reader partially in reality but stepping through the door:
“Most people can’t even see this place.” The alley librarian leaned against a five-foot-high stack of wooden pallets like a makeshift counter. He wore a lumpy no-color knit cap pulled low on his forehead, and he had the sallow skin of a meth addict and bloodshot eyes the color of weak tea, but when he grinned, he showed off a headful of shiny white teeth. “They just walk right by.”
Notice the opening salvo of instant mystery. What is an alley librarian? Why don’t most people see this place? These are good hook questions that ultimately cannot sustain, but they are answered quickly. While I may be disturbed by “no-color knit cap”, it isn’t a flying snowman. (This is actually foreshadowing, but because it’s so strange, it doesn’t draw that kind of attention to itself.) I’d say there’s intrigue in the opening. It moves on to a description that explains exactly what an alley librarian is, or at least an alley library, and the nature of the library tells us about the librarian. Rich setting details not only place the reader in the physical space, but point towards a personality of the person who inhabits it. The second paragraph closes on the near-same question I had: Why don’t most people see it?
The whole third paragraph offers the intrigue of the world being suddenly different, and the disparity between the narrator’s experience and tacit acceptance of this change. We know we are in the wierd, and so does the narrator, and that’s not a cause for panic. The whole opening scene lands us in the wierd and deposits us safely back in reality.
In the meantime, Leonard’s true purpose is revealed: he’s in love and wants some reciprocation. He’s willing to sacrifice to get it, therefore he makes a deal. We know how it will play out. We’ve read this story before, so we can follow along, if it’s well told.
The story also shows how twisting expectations work: Leonard loves Tyana. Leonard is offered Magic. The expectation is he will use the magic to make Tyana love him, but he twists and does something unexpected. He tries to use the magic as a gift. The table is turned on him when Tyana takes the gift to make someone else love her. (Cue the only song by the J. Geils Band I can remember.) Of course, Leonard tries to correct, and the Trickster gets him again, causing the death of his rival by Tyana and then Tyana’s death. He loses everything he wants, and pays the price. His final act is also his final loss.
It also has a circular ending. The last lines reflect the first lines, and change the perspective of how the librarian could have been interpreted, but wasn’t.
Finally, this story takes 12 scenes to lay out James Van Pelt’s Seven Sentence Story as a prime example of the form.
Lesson: What the Protagonist wants doesn’t have to be the first sentence.
This is a lesson that I need to learn. Too many of my stories falter with the opening because I feel this need to rush right into “this is what the character wants” without enough introduction–or context–to make it meaningful. Perhaps this is the risk of extreme rule-mongering in workshops. Yes, the protagonist needs to want something, but it doesn’t need to be the opening salvo. I can think of a few stories in my trunk that could be fixed by dropping this stupid rule I’ve picked up.
Exercise: Setting that reflects a personality.
While the story is good at minimizing story clutter (each scene begins and the last possible moment and stops as soon as possible), it also provides a clear link between the library and the librarian. My first impression reading the opening three paragraphs was a sense of the librarian as a character. Going back over it, I can’t say I agree that the description of the library reflected the personality of the librarian, but it sounds like a good idea, so that is the first exercise from this story.
Douglas Adams wrote a fantastic description of Dirk Gently’s bedroom that stays with me and builds on a series of humorous references that end with “Hercules, upon seeing the room, would have returned half an hour later with a navigable river and a mop.” The description of the bedroom, besides being frightlfully well crafted, explains Gently’s disheveled life and personality.
So the exercise is to take a person and a place that go together, and describe the person through the place. Even better, without the person present or involved (meaning no direct mention of the person: “she had strung her hose like Christmas garlands across the shower door” is not good, but “hose strung like Christmas garlands” is fine). A few more stories in my trunk could use this kind of work, I think.
Exercise: Circular Endings
I don’t want to suggest a whole story, but an opening paragraph that is quoted or even repeated in a final paragraph, and a summary of how to get from one to the other, should make for a good exercise. I know I struggle with endings. When does the story end? How do wrap it up? How do I satisfy the reader? I don’t know.
The ending echo of the opening should recast the entire story.