The Valley

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OTʜᴇB
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The Valley

Post by OTʜᴇB »

Some meta information:
Spoiler:
This is more an attempt at creative writing than specifically conworlding, but it is about a very small conworld-type thing I've had in my head for a while. Bear in mind the last time I did any creative writing was in secondary school some 4 years ago so don't expect anything spectacular, and the story to it is largely improvised (I just wrote it start to finish without planning or going back on myself), but feedback would be very much appreciated [:)]


Dawn. The ground is still dark, the sun obscured by the mountains, but the sky is a warm orange. In the distance, bird calls echo from the tops of the pine trees that fill the valley. Bleary-eyed, you begin to wake up, taking in the dim light hitting the back of the curtains. You take a deep breath and slowly get up and open the curtains.

By the time breakfast is made, the sun has reached the mountain tops and is casting broad beams of light down into the middle of the valley, illuminating the trees. The glimmer of the stream running down the middle catches your eye as you scan the almost completely still landscape. You finish your cup of tea and place it gently on the worktop and get dressed. A plain dark green t-shirt, plain brown trousers, and plain dark blue shoes doesn't leave you looking spectacular, but what matters is that they're comfortable.

Coat on, you grab your keys and bag as you step out of the door to be met by a cool breeze - a welcome change from the harsh sun that comes in the afternoon. The garage door unlocks with a satisfying clunk and opens into the small space in which your bicycle and motorbike live. A difficult decision to make, but you settle on the bicycle and wheel it out and lean it against the wall. All seems in order, so you set off down the grass-covered hill towards the trees.

Hidden at the edge of the forest is the very start of a dirt trail - it's presence only made clear by the ever-growing mark in the ground from your bicycle tyres. Accelerating onto the trail, you begin your descent into the valley, winding back and forth effortlessly around trees and rocks. At first it feels fast, but you quickly acclimatise and begin to relax. Your mind starts to wander as you roll along the smooth ground.

This must be the thousandth time you've been here, but it never ceases to amaze you. Every tree seems beautiful in its own way, their leaves a rich green and bark a deep earthy brown. All you can hear is the bicycle chain quietly rattling around the gears and the tyres rolling along the dirt. There are no people for at least some 20 miles, no cars to spew toxins into the air, no litter to be tossed, no eyes to watch. The smell of slightly damp soil is omnipresent. The wind on your face grows stronger as you accelerate down the final straight into a clearing at the valley floor.

You grab the rear brake and skid to a satisfying stop, spinning to the side as you plant your foot on the ground. A childish grin sweeps across your face. Without the noise of the wind, the trickling sound of the stream becomes immediately clear. You kick down the side stand and climb off the bike and look around. Ahead of you is the stream with a simple wooden bridge over it. To your left, back into the forest. To your right, the rocky face of the mountains quickly starts to climb up into the sky.

You run your fingers through the grass. It's dry enough. You lie down on your back and stare up into the blue void. As you start to drift off into a daydream, you're pulled back by the snapping of twigs. You quickly sit up and scan the edges of the clearing. Silence, then rustling to the side. You turn to see a squirrel digging around at the base of a tree. You smile and quietly get up and walk back over to your bike and climb on, ready to head home again. You rumble over the bridge and disappear into the trees again as the squirrel watches on curiously.

The climb back home is long - over 15 miles the last time you checked - but shallow. Travelling at a slower pace, it's easier to dissociate and enjoy the mere experience of rolling along on a bicycle. It's simple, as most things should be. In this state, time passes far quicker, and doesn't feel like long before you start to see the end of the forest and the peak of the roof. The house looks as wonderful as it did when you first saw it. Just a small log cabin with a peaked roof and one large window. It can't be more than 15 metres long. Excited to finish the ride, you pedal harder and faster, panting as you come to a wobbly stop by your door, exhausted but satisfied. After putting the bike away, you step inside and remove your shoes. The last of your energy is spent slipping into your comfy pyjamas before you collapse onto the sofa.

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Re: The Valley

Post by Salmoneus »

One immediate observation you may want to be made aware of, if you're not already, is that a lot of editors will still automatically reject any story submission with present tense, second-person narration - I'm told the proportion of editors rejecting such things automatically has gone down from its longtime value of "absolutely all of them without question", but it's still a long way above zero. Similarly, many readers will automatically refuse to read your story, for the same reason. I will read it - because it's very short, and being presented for helpful comment on this board - but ordinarily I would automatically ignore it, and would find it hard to read a longer piece with this POV even if I wanted to.

[there are exceptions. I've even tried writing some myself, though probably unsuccessfully. But it's worth bearing in mind that a) 2nd person present is strongly associated by many readers with newbie (and teenage) writers; and that b) it triggers instinctive and uncontrollable rage in many readers.]

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Re: The Valley

Post by OTʜᴇB »

Salmoneus wrote:
24 Jul 2020 00:15
One immediate observation you may want to be made aware of, if you're not already, is that a lot of editors will still automatically reject any story submission with present tense, second-person narration - I'm told the proportion of editors rejecting such things automatically has gone down from its longtime value of "absolutely all of them without question", but it's still a long way above zero. Similarly, many readers will automatically refuse to read your story, for the same reason. I will read it - because it's very short, and being presented for helpful comment on this board - but ordinarily I would automatically ignore it, and would find it hard to read a longer piece with this POV even if I wanted to.

[there are exceptions. I've even tried writing some myself, though probably unsuccessfully. But it's worth bearing in mind that a) 2nd person present is strongly associated by many readers with newbie (and teenage) writers; and that b) it triggers instinctive and uncontrollable rage in many readers.]
Huh. That's interesting. I can sort of see why it would be associated with newbie writers (I can't recall ever seeing it in any book I've read), but I can't see the reason for it being considered a bad thing. First person feels self-indulgent to me like "look at me and all the cool stuff I did", but at the same time the third person feels too distant like you're watching someone else having all the fun, so the second person kind of seems to sit in the middle ground for me where the reader is "there" but not detached from the events. Then I guess I get a similar effect from the past tense vs present, because when I'm reading stuff in the past tense I'm like an observer looking back over something rather than actually experiencing it. That's my experience with reading at least, so I think that largely informed how I wrote this.

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Re: The Valley

Post by Pabappa »

it might be a generational thing .... when i was young the Choose Your Own Adventure books were so popular that they had imitations that were also popular. They survived for quite a long time too, maybe thirty years, but lost their hold on the market when the Internet opened up and people realized that mediocre and even bad writers could come up with stories that were comparable to the originals since the thrill was about the structure of the story, and less so about the quality of the writing.

Not every book written in the 2nd person is a CYOA workalike with dozens of possible endings, but I'd bet that by sheer numbers, the vast majority of them are, and what goes with CYOA goes with 2nd person writing, by and large.

I wrote two CYOA workalike books in the 2nd person when I was ten years old. I have never claimed to be a good writer, but I joined the fad in the early 2000s by putting my books online, unedited ... and a few people were interested enough to play through a few times. Ive never considered myself a good writer, and I certainly wasnt a better writer at age ten than I am today, so the fact that people I trust not to have just been humoring me said that they enjoyed the book helped convince me that the adventure was more important than the quality of writing.

Its just a hunch, but ... maybe the association of 2nd person with bad writing has to do with the flood of CYOA workalikes that flooded the Internet around the year 2000, probably mostly by young writers who paid less attention to grammar and style than traditional authors would, and yet found a lot of people reading their work nonetheless. The fad has long since passed, or so I assume, so maybe the associations will pass too.
I'll take the theses, and you can have the thoses.

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Re: The Valley

Post by Salmoneus »

I think 2nd person has two big problems: weirdness, and authoritarianism.

Regarding weirdness, 2nd person is jarring because it never, ever occurs in real life. Except in weird situations like "someone is telling you your cover story for if the police catch you", or "playing D&D". I never tell you what you've done, let alone what you're doing, and certainly let alone what you're feeling and thinking - because by definition, you know that better than me.

Regarding authoritarianism: reading 2nd person is kind of like being thrust into some sort of strange BDSM fantasy. The author has set themselves up as my 'master', and is giving me orders, and gaslighting me about what they want me to think and feel about what happens. When I read "you begin to relax...", it feels like you're trying to hypnotise me. It just feels like a totally unsafe and non-consensual place, where I'm not even meant to think for myself! And of course, for someone like me who has issues with soi dissant authority figures, it's hard not to take it as a challenge. Oh, I relax, do I? Sez you! I settle on the bicycle? Like buggery I do, mate.

And wait, you're instructing me on what I have to wear AND THEN INSULTING HOW IT MAKES ME LOOK!? Bugger off! You wear those blue shoes yourself, if you're that keen on them! Mock your own shoes! (why the hell would I, or anybody, ever wear blue shoes!?)

--------

Present tense is less of a problem, and is becoming more common with the Netflix generation, because it's a more direct calque of how TV works. Then again, that also makes it a sort of shibboleth, because lots of people who like reading actually LIKE that it's different from watching TV.

But again, it has an underlying issue with weirdness. On the one hand, it requires you to use entire verb constructions that are never ordinarily used in this way, and consequently feel for many people right on the edge of what's actually grammatical. Present continuous is one thing, but most present tense narratives end up using the perfective WAY more than ordinary speech does, and in contexts where it's not usually grammatical. For isntance, if I say "I settle on the bicycle", the grammar normally makes clear that this is a habitual - something I do repeatedly or in general. Outside the very specialised language-game of "retelling funny anecdotes down the pub", that verb form is never actually used for perfective singular actions. [and the fact that it makes it sound like you're telling a joke down the pub is probably another reason many people turn their nose up at this form of narration]

And part of that is the semantics. There's no semantic opportunity for these verb forms. The logic of narration requires the speaker to, at best, be narrating while in th middle of the ongoing action, and that requires the continuous form of the verb normally.

More generally, there's a conceptual obstacle, because while some events can be imagined in such a way that you can narrate as they happen, others just can't be, and this leads to clashes in tense and sense. For instance, you write "you pedal harder... panting as you come to a stop". But you can't tell me i've come to a stop until after it's happened - it's not a continuous process, it's an event. And I can't pedal harder while I'm coming to a stop. Then "after putting the bike away, you step inside" - so the narration, as it were, has to leap forward in time, because 'after putting the bike away' is effectively a past tense, and a period that isn't contemporaneously narrated, thrust into the middle of what's otherwise a continuous narration. And then my energy is spent while so-and-so - but again, you can't tell me that until it's over, and until I have no more energy. indeed, that's borderline a grammatical issue, since the past participle there sits very uneasily in a present-tense narration - generally a past participle after a copula is a perfect (so a dip back into the past), not a description of the present state. [if I say "the house is built of cheese", you interpret this as perfect, and as an adjective, not as a description of an ongoing action! so to demand that I read it as an ongoing action is going to raise my hackles!]

-----

In any case, the broader issue with both present tense and 2nd person is that it demands attention. You're talking to me. You're telling me things that are happening to me. This makes me anxious! This draws my attention to the narration, instead of to what is being narrated! And it makes certain questions more pressing than normal. If you say "she walked in the door", I'm curious about who 'she' is, but it's not a pressing question - I can wait to find you. If you tell me "you are walking in the door", the question "wait, I am? what door? who the fuck am I? what's going on!? who the hell are you and why do you know more about me than I do!?!?" becomes a lot more urgent.

These properties can be employed to good effect. But in general, in most narratives, the idea is that narrator should slide into the background, so that the attention is on the events themselves. Present tense, and in particular 2nd person, slap the reader around the face with the narrator and make it harder to concentrate on what's going on.
(which is probably why they're both more common in short stories than in novels - weird and striking effects are more valuable in short stories, but get annoying in novels).

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Re: The Valley

Post by elemtilas »

I actually don't mind second person narrative too much. Admittedly, I haven't read enough ("good") stories to really form an opinion.

Although I can understand how (a lot of) people might find it off putting, I don't see it in the light of authoritarianism so much as direct immersion. From the writer's perspective, it's a somewhat unusual way to engage with the reader and allow them to more directly experience the action of the story. From the reader's perspective, it's a way of much more vividly interacting with the characters and directly experiencing the action.

This could be a function of having read many CYOA stories as a kid and having enjoyed the format very much. As a format, they aren't horrible, even though the writing itself is perhaps not the greatest. But let's be fair: those things came out in the 70s -- still pretty much the early days of post-Tolkien fantasy, or at least certainly hadn't matured yet! D&D was still brand new, as well. And as with any new format, it had its own kinks to work out. Not least of which was how to write 2nd person narration well!

As the reader, though, I just assume the mantle of whatever character I'm supposed to be and get on with it! It is, after all, the happy medium between having someone tell you their own tale (first person narration) and listening to someone tell you the tale of yet some other person (third person narration). With second person narration, you're in your own story, so to speak, and it's a sort of analogue to VR

Now to read the story!

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Re: The Valley

Post by OTʜᴇB »

It's pretty interesting how polarising it seems. A lot of the narration and writing I've experienced has also been the CYOA-type stuff, so maybe the two are kind of connected? I hadn't thought about the authoritarian side of it so much though, so that was an interesting perspective. I guess the challenge is to write in such a way where the reader can be "there" rather than just an observer. I could certainly try and write a different short about the place in a more descriptive manner without the character, so then it would be more like the reader is being taken on a nice tour, but then I kind of feel like some paintings would get the point across better.
(why the hell would I, or anybody, ever wear blue shoes!?)
My (actual) shoes are dark blue. Not vibrant, but much less boring than brown (well, when they're not covered in mud).

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Re: The Valley

Post by elemtilas »

...and read.

First impressions: well, I certainly don't feel as if I've just been through some kind of creepy bondage session. On the contrary, it is liberating in a sense, to be invited into this person's world and to coexist with her for a time. To just let the narration wash over one like a cool mountain breeze and act the part the narrator lays out. In fact, I think there may be some kind of fundamental relationship between acting and 2nd person narrative. After all, the actors in a play are not telling the story. They're just playing the parts the narrator has laid out, saying to them via the script: you settle on the bike, or you put on your blue shoes or your clothes don't make you look spectacular, but that's not really the point!

I think you did a pretty good job riding the happy medium between Character telling her own story and Narrator telling Reader about Character's story.


As for feedback: I think you did a pretty good job with the setting; I definitely get the sensation of being far from anywhere. There's certainly room for depth, though: from what kinds of birds are singing, to what the singing sounds like, to how this makes the character (me!) feel to what memories might be associated with them.

For example, you focus on the bike quite a bit: the chain and the wheels; and you take care to specify that I'm hauling on the rear brake (which I appreciate, because I really wouldn't want to be tossed head first over the handle bars!) I think if you extended that kind of care to the trees, e.g., which only get a passing mention, even though I've been a thousand times, the setting & it's place in my story would be more focused. If you wove those things in with memories & emotions, you'd also answer unaddressed questions such as why am I there in that place? Why so isolated?

Two rather jarring questions cropped up: first is, why do I have keys? I like in a place where there are no roads, no cars and no other people for at least a day's walk! The underlying question becomes: did you write "keys" because that's your experience with houses and garages, that everything must always be locked; or did you write "keys" because I, as the character, experience some need for locks and security in such an isolated setting?

The other is: where did I go while staring up into the blue void? What am I doing here? I've just ridden 15 miles, and you lay me down on the grass, and then *pouf!* a squirrel's activity startles me and I start the long ride home. I'd be readier to head home if I knew why you put me in that clearing by the crick and what happened during that time.

So, all in all, I'd say this was an engaging invitation or set-up to a story, rather than a story in itself. It was a sort of snapshot; a day in the life kind of thing. I've written a number of these kinds of "snippets" for the World, and I believe they are great exercises in worldbuilding because it helps us describe settings and explore characters without having to bother with story arcs and plot and other aspects of narrative writing. I think if you wanted to turn this into a story, this would have to become a smaller episode of a much longer narrative. If you didn't want to turn this into a long narrative, but just wanted to keep it as a picture of place & emotion, then I at least would recommend addressing the jarring questions. Give me a reason why I've just ridden thirty miles!

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Re: The Valley

Post by OTʜᴇB »

elemtilas wrote:
24 Jul 2020 18:06
...and read.

First impressions: well, I certainly don't feel as if I've just been through some kind of creepy bondage session. On the contrary, it is liberating in a sense, to be invited into this person's world and to coexist with her for a time. To just let the narration wash over one like a cool mountain breeze and act the part the narrator lays out. In fact, I think there may be some kind of fundamental relationship between acting and 2nd person narrative. After all, the actors in a play are not telling the story. They're just playing the parts the narrator has laid out, saying to them via the script: you settle on the bike, or you put on your blue shoes or your clothes don't make you look spectacular, but that's not really the point!

I think you did a pretty good job riding the happy medium between Character telling her own story and Narrator telling Reader about Character's story.
That feels wonderful to hear! I'm very glad you enjoyed it.
elemtilas wrote:
24 Jul 2020 18:06
As for feedback: I think you did a pretty good job with the setting; I definitely get the sensation of being far from anywhere. There's certainly room for depth, though: from what kinds of birds are singing, to what the singing sounds like, to how this makes the character (me!) feel to what memories might be associated with them.

For example, you focus on the bike quite a bit: the chain and the wheels; and you take care to specify that I'm hauling on the rear brake (which I appreciate, because I really wouldn't want to be tossed head first over the handle bars!) I think if you extended that kind of care to the trees, e.g., which only get a passing mention, even though I've been a thousand times, the setting & it's place in my story would be more focused. If you wove those things in with memories & emotions, you'd also answer unaddressed questions such as why am I there in that place? Why so isolated?
Very good point. Skimming back over it, there are definitely lots of places where I've stated things but not really described them. I think as I was writing it I was naturally paying more attention to describing things that I think I personally would be thinking more about if I were actually there. For instance, If I were going cycling there and I heard bird calls, I'd think "ah, bird calls, anyway...", where the fancy stop got more detail because that's something I'd be focusing a lot on if I were actually there doing it. I imagine trying to give more description of surroundings and motivations would also make it easier to convey that the longer more monotonous parts of the ride are actually longer by filling them out, where currently I do think the speed of time is very inconsistent between the experience and the reading speed in those parts.
elemtilas wrote:
24 Jul 2020 18:06
Two rather jarring questions cropped up: first is, why do I have keys? I like in a place where there are no roads, no cars and no other people for at least a day's walk! The underlying question becomes: did you write "keys" because that's your experience with houses and garages, that everything must always be locked; or did you write "keys" because I, as the character, experience some need for locks and security in such an isolated setting?

The other is: where did I go while staring up into the blue void? What am I doing here? I've just ridden 15 miles, and you lay me down on the grass, and then *pouf!* a squirrel's activity startles me and I start the long ride home. I'd be readier to head home if I knew why you put me in that clearing by the crick and what happened during that time.
Both good questions! I think answering them here won't do much for the story itself until I write them in for a second version if I get around to it, but for the sake of not leaving questions unanswered:

I say "keys" because that's my experience and I hadn't really considered at all that locks wouldn't really be necessary given how far away everything is. I guess it somewhat exposes my own subconscious, thinking everything should have some form of lock because that's just what people do. There's also some misanthropy in the background, and if I were to write another snippet then I might describe that misanthropy and the desire for distance that lead the character to live in such a place to begin with.

For the second question, that did reveal I hadn't conveyed the reason for cycling in the first place. To be fair though, if I'd've said you're cycling because cycling is fun and this clearing just happens to be on the route, and today you stopped there and - on a whim - decided to lie down and look around a bit, then that might not have made for that engaging of a story because it seems a little arbitrary. I added the squirrel largely because I thought it might all be a little lethargic without any tension anywhere. I might keep it, or instead draw out that section more with description instead - maybe even a nap given how early the character got up [:D]
elemtilas wrote:
24 Jul 2020 18:06
So, all in all, I'd say this was an engaging invitation or set-up to a story, rather than a story in itself. It was a sort of snapshot; a day in the life kind of thing. I've written a number of these kinds of "snippets" for the World, and I believe they are great exercises in worldbuilding because it helps us describe settings and explore characters without having to bother with story arcs and plot and other aspects of narrative writing. I think if you wanted to turn this into a story, this would have to become a smaller episode of a much longer narrative. If you didn't want to turn this into a long narrative, but just wanted to keep it as a picture of place & emotion, then I at least would recommend addressing the jarring questions. Give me a reason why I've just ridden thirty miles!
Totally agree. This was very much a snapshot. I have little intention to experiment with larger story arcs at the moment (maybe in the future), and writing much shorter things like this I actually found quite entertaining in a "leisurely" kind of way, like writing for the fun of the process rather than any impressive end result, and having it all in a bite-sized package.

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