An Exercise in Self-Critique 2

This is the second in what will hopefully be a longer series of posts where I critique the beginnings of my own stories, written long ago, and try to make them better. You can find the first post here. Today I’ll look at my oldest, dearest and most popular Mass Effect fanfic, Fruit from Palaven.

As before, I’ll paste the first 250 words of the story, then take that apart one line at a time.

Fruit from Palaven

The hum of the engines hadn’t bothered him before Donnelly and his crew installed the silly torque compensator (which was entirely unnecessary to begin with), into the guiding of the starboard cannon. Either there was a loose panel on the compensator, or the tech team didn’t return the original panels in proper positions, and now there was a sickening resonance with one of the lower frequencies of the FTL core.

Garrus had demanded that the engineering crew come back and reassemble the entire thing, but Donnelly wouldn’t hear of it. Literally. Garrus brought him in and instructed him what to listen to, and where to put his hand in order to feel the vibration. In the end, he even produced the frequency analysis of the entire spectrum of acoustic waves present in the battery, with the offending peak clearly visible – and clearly positioned just outside the range audible by humans. Donnelly shrugged and suggested that they take the question to Miranda, but Garrus said no. He’d rather stand it for a couple of days. In time, his brain would learn to filter it out. But right now, it was giving him a hell of headache.

Well, perhaps the headache was actually from grinding his teeth the entire day. It wasn’t just the damned resonance. The reality of serving on a human ship was taking its toll on his nerves. There was an entire array of little issues he’d learned to live with on the original Normandy, but forgot about in the interim…


This is going to be tough. Overall it’s a far cry from what I’d call a good beginning today, but I don’t see any glaringly obvious ways to make it significantly better apart from rewriting it. Let’s see what we can do.

The hum of the engines hadn’t bothered him before Donnelly and his crew installed the silly torque compensator (which was entirely unnecessary to begin with), into the guiding of the starboard cannon.

This first line is guilty of several mortal sins. First and foremost, it doesn’t establish the viewpoint character. We don’t get to see who’s talking until the second paragraph. Second, it’s removed from the narrative present. The past perfect tense tells us that the rest of the story will be told in past simple, and that this, whatever it is, happened before the story. All the usual reasons to use flashbacks and lengthy chunks of backstory sparingly and with caution (every time we’re removed from the narrative present the actual story is put on hold) apply tenfold for the first page, the first paragraph and especially the first line. Here the story stops before it’s even begun, and for what? I think I was going for an in medias res kind of thing in terms of the intimate point of view. But it fails because we don’t even know whose point of view this is.

Dropping the name of a minor character, Donnelly, only muddles the viewpoint problem further. It does, however, ground us on Normandy SR2, which is to say, during or after the events of Mass Effect 2. This is valuable information and it’s well placed here, though nowadays I’d think twice before encoding it into a relatively obscure reference.

Finally, the parenthetical in the midst of the heavy technobabble is jarring as hell. It doesn’t tell us anything new (we already know the compensator was silly) and it just serves to make hard reading even harder.

I’d revise this to:

The hum of the engines was giving Garrus a hell of a headache. It hadn’t bothered him before Donnelly and his crew installed the silly torque compensator into the guiding of the starboard cannon.

Either there was a loose panel on the compensator, or the tech team didn’t return the original panels in proper positions, and now there was a sickening resonance with one of the lower frequencies of the FTL core.

This is fine. The grammar seems a bit off (I still struggle with when it’s OK to drop the past perfect and when it isn’t). It expands not only on the previous line, but also on what we know about Garrus from both canon and fanon: that he’s a nerd, and that sounds matter to him more than they would to a human character. Basically, I wouldn’t touch this.

Garrus had demanded that the engineering crew come back and reassemble the entire thing, but Donnelly wouldn’t hear of it. Literally. Garrus brought him in and instructed him what to listen to, and where to put his hand in order to feel the vibration. In the end, he even produced the frequency analysis of the entire spectrum of acoustic waves present in the battery, with the offending peak clearly visible – and clearly positioned just outside the range audible by humans.

I don’t quite see why this is a separate paragraph. We’re still before the narrative present and we’re still talking about the noises from the compensator. It’s altogether a bit too wordy, and the technobabble gets too complicated in the second sentence. I’d simplify to:

Garrus had demanded that the engineering crew come back and reassemble the entire thing, but Donnelly wouldn’t hear of it. Literally. Garrus brought him in and told him what to listen to, where to put his hand to feel the vibration. He even produced the spectrum of acoustic waves present in the battery, with the offending peak clearly visible — and positioned just outside the range audible by humans.

Donnelly shrugged and suggested that they take the question to Miranda, but Garrus said no. He’d rather stand it for a couple of days. In time, his brain would learn to filter it out. But right now, it was giving him a hell of headache.

The first sentence of this is great (if I do say so myself). I love the Garrus said no in the end. Possibly my favorite bit of this story. After that, there are two sentences of similar length and cadence, and the second could be simplified. (His brain would learn? Really? It would be so much more natural to say, he would learn.) The last one finally brings us to the narrative present, but I’ve plucked it out of here already to put it on the first line. So we’re left with:

Donnelly shrugged and suggested that they take the question to Miranda, but Garrus said no. He’d rather stand it for a couple days. Eventually he’d learn to filter it out.

Well, perhaps the headache was actually from grinding his teeth the entire day. It wasn’t just the damned resonance. The reality of serving on a human ship was taking its toll on his nerves.

Now, this is where the story actually begins. The rest of the extract leads into a long list of Garrus’ daily annoyances. It’s only after another 250 words that Shepard walks in and the scene takes off. Overall, this beginning is as far from in medias res as it gets (and it looks like it’s not the only one).

But let’s take a look at the extract with the edits:

The hum of the engines was giving Garrus a hell of a headache.

It hadn’t bothered him before Donnelly and his crew installed the silly torque compensator into the guiding of the starboard cannon. Either there was a loose panel on the compensator, or the tech team hadn’t returned the panels in proper positions, and now there was a sickening resonance with one of the lower frequencies of the FTL core. Garrus had demanded that the engineering crew come back and reassemble the entire thing, but Donnelly wouldn’t hear of it. Literally. Garrus brought him in and told him what to listen to, where to put his hand to feel the vibration. He even produced the spectrum of acoustic waves present in the battery, with the offending peak clearly visible — and positioned just outside the range audible by humans. Donnelly shrugged and suggested they take the question to Miranda, but Garrus said no. He’d rather stand it for a couple days. Eventually he’d learn to filter it out.

Perhaps the headache was from grinding his teeth the entire day. It wasn’t just the damned resonance. The reality of serving on a human ship was taking its toll on his nerves.

An improvement, for sure, but nothing epic. There’s still more backstory than there is story here and it goes on the same way a while longer.

This is by no means a horrible beginning. It does the job of setting up the scene, the mood, and by the end of the story, Garrus’ discomfort is resolved. But I’d do it differently today. (Or so I believe. Doing shit right is a lot easier in hindsight.)


Other posts in this series:

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