An Exercise in Self-Critique 3

This is the third post in the series where I critique the beginnings of my own stories, written long ago, and try to make them better. Here are the first and second posts. Today I’ll look at one of my favorite flawed creations, The Candidate.

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

Chapter 1: Arrival

Nihlus went two steps in front of Saren. That was the appropriate order of things. They were not yet equals. Nihlus often wondered if they ever would be, even once he was appointed as a Spectre. That was supposed to be a matter of formality now, but still. Nothing was certain with Saren.

Doing things this early in the morning made him derailed as usual. They were on a nondescript rocky moon of a standard hot gas planet orbiting an ordinary yellow dwarf in the Saeclum Cluster. The Spectre training camp moved to a different location each year; Nihlus had always imagined those would be challenging, unforgiving places, like Invictus. But from what he saw yesterday, staring through the viewports of the civilian transport during the three-hour silence that took to fly from the colony to the camp, Ganima was nothing if not tame. Tame and boring. Perhaps that was the challenge? Whoever manages to get through the training without once getting drunk and laid, gets to be a Spectre candidate.

He chuckled for himself, then raised a suspicious browplate. How long had it been since he last got drunk and laid?

The camp consisted mostly of long, thin-walled buildings for recruit housing, prefabs for officers, a tiny spaceport and various training grounds. It looked clean, maintained and again, boring.


In a competitive environment (such as traditional publishing), a beginning as lame as this would bury any story, no matter how decidedly non-lame it gets later. Out of 220 first words, 2 are “boring”. Although 2/220 isn’t even a whole percent, repetitions garner attention. And telling my audience just how fucking boring my setting is, does not make a good start!

Nihlus went two steps in front of Saren.

This is pretty good: we’re introduced to the protagonists, Nihlus and Saren, right away; they’re engaged in an activity (walking together), which beats a dozen of my drowsy, sitting, pondering and waking-up beginnings; and the quirky remark about Nihlus walking two steps in front is an attention grabber.

That was the appropriate order of things. They were not yet equals.

I’m conflicted about this. It introduces a piece of my head-canon that goes: in turian culture, the person of higher rank walks behind people of lower ranks. I’ve no idea if this is stated explicitly, or even mentioned, anywhere else in my stories, or MA’s. As a juicy little detail that might trigger a ‘hm, ok’ or an ‘ah-ha!’ reaction, or at least, pique curiosity, I suppose it’s not bad. But nowadays I’d think twice before burdening the first lines with obscure self-references.

Nihlus often wondered if they ever would be, even once he was appointed as a Spectre.

This is fine. I establish the viewpoint, ground the reader in a specific era of the Saren/Nihlus timeline, and set up the tone of insecurity and reverence that marks much of his thoughts and actions later.

That was supposed to be a matter of formality now, but still. Nothing was certain with Saren.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this, as it narrows down the when of the story further, and expands on that feeling of insecurity. But having the privilege of knowing exactly what I wanted of it, I also know that I failed. Nihlus has no reason to doubt that he will, indeed, be appointed in the immediate future. Something entirely different is keeping him in suspense. He wants to escalate their relationship from friends to lovers, and he believes Saren wants it too–but nothing is certain with Saren. This is elucidated aplenty in later chapters. Here, the remark is misleading. It’s the only thing I’d change in the first paragraph, really. I’d go with:

It was only a matter of formality now, Saren had said. But that did little to put Nihlus’s mind at peace.

And here things start to fall apart.

Doing things this early in the morning made him derailed as usual.

This is shit. First, no one cares if it’s morning or evening or whatever. With zero impact on anything that comes after, it’s just a waste of words.

Second, Nihlus has been judged ready to join the most elite military intelligence arm of the Council; he had been training for a year with Saren, after managing to impress him with his physical and mental prowess. One would expect him to be perfectly able to jump into action at the snap of the fingers at any time of day or night and no matter how ill-rested (or in this case, bored) he may be. Yet he’s derailed? Smehur, pls.

Third, this entirely unnecessary comment kills the pace. There I was, building tension, and then plop: derailed as usual. That redundant as usual undermines the very desirable impression that something new and exciting is going on here, something an audience might actually want to read about, like a story. Who gives a fuck whether Nihlus is derailed on his usual mornings?

And on top of it all, that line isn’t even technically correct. It’s not doing things (which constitutes a crime against specificity in itself) that makes him derailed, it’s being up early in the morning.

I know why I did this. I wanted to portray Nihlus as rebellious, sloppy, prone to vices, obsessions and addictions, and somewhat depressed. And sure, I can see him waking up in a foul mood. I can also see him being in a foul mood with no reason at all. But that line is a lame way of showing any of this. It’s in a bad spot, it’s badly written, and it sends the wrong message. It needs to be cut.

They were on a nondescript rocky moon of a standard hot gas planet orbiting an ordinary yellow dwarf in the Saeclum Cluster.

With this, I get the intention, but I have issues with the execution. They were on a blah-blah moon of a blah-blah planet near a blah-blah star in the blah-blah cluster. The uniform cadence and the overabundance of insignificant details (added, no doubt, to infuse the distant sci-fi backdrop with more sci, because that’s what people want when they pick up a Saren/Nihlus fic), seem calculated to put the reader to sleep. I’d trim this to:

They were on Ganima, the second moon of a giant planet orbiting StarNamePls in the Saeclum Cluster.

The Spectre training camp moved to a different location each year; Nihlus had always imagined those would be challenging, unforgiving places, like Invictus.

The first line here isn’t by any means stellar, but it grounds us in the where of the story (and I don’t mean the fucking galactic coordinates). A Spectre training camp is a cool setting that invites welcome curiosity. But then I ruin it at once by suggesting that, unlike Invictus and those other exciting-sounding places, this one’s actually dull. Seeing how this sets up the dialog later, and the gradual discovery of what makes Ganima non-dull, I don’t think it can be fixed with line edits. It would require larger edits outside the extract. So for now, the only intervention would be to change the semi-colon into a period.

But from what he saw yesterday, staring through the viewports of the civilian transport during the three-hour silence that took to fly from the colony to the camp, Ganima was nothing if not tame. Tame and boring.

I’m not happy with this misguided attempt at economy. That he and Saren did not speak at all during a 3 hour shuttle ride isn’t something to be glanced over, especially with the backstory supplied in Unnerved and Unnerving and Sound of Silence in mind. The contraction damages the readability of the text and doesn’t provide anything in return. I elaborate on the “three-hour silence” later. There’s no need to cripple the sentence here to foreshadow it, or whatever the hell I intended.

As for that last bit, I’d just cut it out. The revelation of Ganima’s special trait simply isn’t worth this lame lead-up.

But from what he saw yesterday, staring through the viewports of the civilian transport on the way from the colony, Ganima was nothing if not tame.

Perhaps that was the challenge? Whoever manages to get through the training without once getting drunk and laid, gets to be a Spectre candidate.

Ok, now we’re talking again. So the camp is for people aiming to become Spectre candidates, which eliminates Nihlus and ties in with the title. The tone and choice of words tell us more about his character, but this time it’s well-placed and fitting. I wouldn’t touch this.

He chuckled for himself, then raised a suspicious browplate. How long had it been since he last got drunk and laid?

Good stuff. Nihlus shows true character here (he’s been abstaining) in spite of characterization (he’s the type to get drunk and laid), which gives him some depth right at the start and suggests internal conflict.

The rest goes on to describe the camp and reiterate how boring it is, until it’s finally revealed, through mediocre dialog, that the challenge on Ganima is its thin atmosphere. As the “tameness” of the setting doesn’t really play a role anywhere in the story, cutting it out from the first chapter completely, including but not limited to all instances of “boring”, would be a simple but significant improvement.

Here’s the text after the cuts:

Nihlus went two steps in front of Saren. That was the appropriate order of things. They were not yet equals. Nihlus often wondered if they ever would be, even once he was appointed as a Spectre. It was only a matter of formality now, Saren had said. But that did little to put Nihlus’s mind at peace.

They were on Ganima, the second moon of a giant planet orbiting StarNamePls in the Saeclum Cluster. The Spectre training camp moved to a different location each year. Nihlus had always imagined those would be challenging, unforgiving places, like Invictus. But from what he saw yesterday, staring through the viewports of the civilian transport on the way from the colony, Ganima was nothing if not tame. Perhaps that was the challenge? Whoever manages to get through the training without once getting drunk and laid, gets to be a Spectre candidate.

He chuckled for himself, then raised a suspicious browplate. How long had it been since he last got drunk and laid?


Other posts in the series:

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