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I really liked the idea of an older brother coming home from war and explaining to a little brother what he did there.

Did it work? You tell me.


“Go to sleep, Billy.”

“I just wanted to ask you a question.”

Billy’s voice sailed gracefully down from the top-bunk above me. It quivered with his eight-year old curiosity but had a way of hanging in the air, demanding response.

“Go to sleep, Billy.”

I didn’t want to talk.

“Ever since you got back, I’ve been wondering…”

He wouldn’t let me sleep until I gave in. I think I was like that when I was his age, too. “Wondering what, Billy?”

That was a long time ago, though.

I could hear him take a breath, summoning all of his courage, before asking me this: “Did you ever kill anybody… You know… Out there?”

I rolled to my side, pulling my blanket over my shoulder. Maybe I won’t have to answer him. “Why do want to know a thing like that, Billy?”

“Well, when you came back, no one seemed to want to ask you…”


This story appears as part of the collection "The Cruel Kids: Four Short Stories".  You can get it for the Kindle or the Nook.


Anonymous said…
I think this was beautifully said. The ending sentence is eloquent. Nice job!
Anonymous said…
Wow. Cool. I really like the last sentence, too. Really good. How a kid goes off to war to become a man, but he's still a kid, thinking he'll get in trouble somehow (and hurt his parents) if they ever found out.

I don't like your prose, though.
Unknown said…
What about the prose don't you like? Is it technically wrong? Is it not to your taste? Was the dialogue bad?

I don't mind constructive criticism when I can use it, fire away.
Peter said…
First things first

Billy’s voice sailed gracefully down from the top-bunk above me. It quivered with his eight-year old curiosity but had a way of hanging in the air, demanding response.

Voice’s don’t sail gracefully. What you’re thinking of is a clipper ship. Clipper ships sail quite gracefully. Voices are not clipper ships. Remember, your prose needs to accomplish two things: 1) move the story along, 2) create emotion. Scary stories start with “It was a dark and stormy night” because the words “dark” and “stormy” create emotion. Read “blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. At this point in your story, I don’t think you should be using words like sail and gracefully. Don’t pontificate. Especially in a first person piece. You’re describing too much. Readers don’t like it. Omit needless words. Don’t describe the language as having the quality of demanding a response. Make the kid demand a response.

Instead, say:


Billy wasn’t going to leave me alone until he had an answer. Eight-year-olds are like that.


“Go to sleep, Billy.”

I didn’t want to talk.

We know he doesn’t want to talk. He just told Billy to go to sleep. Therefore, “I didn’t want to talk” are needless words. ;)

“Ever since you got back, I’ve been wondering…”

This is too obviously expositional. “Ever since you got back”? Clearly that piece of info is for me, your dear reader, to catch that Jack just got back from... somewhere. Don’t make it so obvious to me. Raise questions, but don’t answer them yet. Allow me to make sense of the pieces. Just give me pieces, man. Let me figure it out. Our brains like to engage in this activity. So if you don’t give me all the info, my brain will enjoy constructing it, and your writing will be engaging.


I could hear him take a breath, summoning all of his courage, before asking me this: “Did you ever kill anybody… You know… Out there?”

Ouch. Oh, ouch, ouch. My eyes. Don’t do that. Don’t tell me that he’s “summoning his courage.” People don’t summon. That’s much too heroic a word. The moment you stop the story to describe these things, then you have stopped the story. It’s not necessary. Trust your reader. You’re almost being abusive, because you’re trying too hard to dictate pace.

Instead, say:

Billy paused, then took a deep breath. “Did you ever kill anybody?”

Believe me, this simple stuff is much more effective. At this point, you don’t need Billy to say “you know, out there.” It’s stronger if he doesn’t. I mean won’t the language raise questions alone? “Kill anybody???” What kind of brothers talk like this? Let us discover what’s going on, okay? Don’t make it so expositionally obvious. This makes us bored, and then we won’t read on, because this fluff is intellectually fattening, and we want our minds to stay sharp and lean.


I rolled to my side, pulling my blanket over my shoulder.

Avoid this structure. It’s no good. It’s amateur. “She glanced back, her hair falling across her face.” Don’t do it. I can’t explain why. It’s just fluffy. It’s not even good language, but it’s grammatically tolerated in English. There is something distracting about it. The comma and gerund give it away.

Instead, say:

I rolled to my side and pulled my blanket over my shoulder.

Furthermore, your prose does not accomplish two purposes. While reading it, I get the sense that you want to punctuate this scene with that moment of silence. There is nothing significant about his shoulder. You just wrote it. You just sensed intuitively that there needed to be a mood punctuation there, right? Well, let your prose accomplish more than just tell the story. Create mood with words. Why not have him cover his face, for example? The metaphorical meaning of this act will not be lost upon the audience -- if it’s only picked up on subcon.


“Well, I talked to Tommy Baxter, down the street and when his brother…”

Um, no. “Tommy Baxter down the street”??? This is unacceptable. Try to remove all the Tommy-Baxters-down-the-street from your writing. It’s so first draft. Sorry. I mean, come on. “Tommy Baxter down the street”? Here again, you are trying too hard to give the reader some expositional context to the point where the story becomes unbelievable. People don’t talk like this. It’s not important to your story that the readers know that the baxters live down the street. Jack and Billy know who the baxters are. They wouldn’t have to point this out to each other.

Any more advice and you’d have to pay me. :)
Unknown said…
Thank you very much for that. I really do appreciate it. To be honest, I had to laugh when you said this was so first draft, because to be honest, this was a first draft. It was actually a free write I did straight into blogger. Maybe I should have said that at the top.

Perhaps I'll revise some, based on your suggestions.

It really is appreciated. I've never really had an editor since high school, so all of my short story writing is completely intuitive. It's nice to get some negative feedback again. Seriously.
Peter said…
Oh, come on. It's not really "negative," is it? :) Granted, I should have used more smiley faces. :) :) :)

I think intuitively you sense it all. You sense pace and timing and character, etc. Just don't get in your reader's way. Your reader is in constant peril.

Language Hierarchy
Here are the parts of speech in order of importance:

1. Nouns (subject, object)
2. Verbs
3. Conjunctions and prepositions
4. Adjectives
5. Adverbs
6. Interjections, fuxpletives, etc.
Unknown said…
I meant to say constructive, not exactly negative.

I've decided feature-length screenwriting has killed the prose in me. That's why I'm doing these, to relearn how to do it.
Peter said…
Cool, cool. Keep it up!

For a wonderful exercise in prose, check out The Monkey Gramarian, by Octavio Paz, translated by some lady (I forget her name... Helen?).

That book is also a crash course in Semiotics. It be rock.
Peter said…
Ha. I just read my comments again. They were so "negative." Ha! Sorry. I shouldn't have been so "critical" with my criticism. I was kind of being a jerk. I mean, I said what I wanted to say, but I was being a jerk.

I want to say again that you really do have a wonderful intuitive sense for pace, character, etc. This is a first draft? That is so awesome. So awesome. That last sentence communicates so much. That's the function of a twist/switch/reversal, etc. That's the essence of good plot. Good plot delivers information in such a way so that when we've gone through A, B, C, and D, as soon as we get to E, we see simultaneous meaning, contrasts and ironies. We see A+E, B(C-D), (C+D)E.

Great work.

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