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Coffee In a Paper Cup
*Please note: This excerpt is taken from the beginning of the work.
You’ve had worse in seatmates.
Four-thirty AM in what has got to be the smallest international airport in this country, and you’re curled sleepy around your thermos of coffee, one foot tucked up underneath you, watching other tired people, electric signs, TV screens all reflected in the windows against a still-dark sky. Dawn’s threading along the edges of the hills; you can just decipher the outlines of planes creeping along the runways.
You catch yourself humming along with the music from your iPod, stop. Take a nonchalant sip of your drink (craving the scent more than the caffeine) pretending it wasn’t you humming a (probably off-tune) accompaniment to Sigh No More.
‘Don’t stop on my account.’
You look up, raise an eyebrow at the guy who just spoke. Tallish, he wears battered work boots, jeans threadbare in patches, a grey T-shirt under a leather jacket that, like the rest of his clothes, has a lot of character. (Really. Nicer to say that than ‘seen better days’.) Military-short light brown hair, stunning green eyes, a smile he doesn’t mean.
He looks so tired, and don’t you know exactly how that feels?
Gestures with his own cup of coffee. (Paper cup, you notice mournfully. At least it’s biodegradable.) ‘This seat taken, sweetheart?’
You shake your head, move your coat to make room for him, and just to let him know he’s coming on a bit strong, deliberately place your left hand on your knee.
The engagement ring’s just a white lie, useful for fending off anyone sketchy…
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You have some great visual images in here. I think if you could make them stand out even more by cutting out a few of the adjectives and parentheticals. For instance, “windows against a still-dark sky” could just be “dark windows” and I think you would preserve the image, and strengthen the dreamy feeling you create by lining up image after image.
Zoe McKnight says
I enjoy your writing style. Several lines required re-reading, not because they weren’t clear, but because they were clever ie. “craving the scent more than the caffeine”, “Nicer to say that than ‘seen better days”. In just a short bit of text, you’ve told the reader a lot, I already have a sense of who the main character is. I would definitely keep reading. I’m curious. Great job!
You give a great sense of the MC in this excerpt. There are a few places where I would remove extra words. “One foot tucked up(delete) underneath you.” “TV screens all(delete) reflected.” “Like the rest of his clothes.”(delete entire phrase). “Deliberately(delete) place your hand.” In short stories, every word has to count and you don’t need these to convey your meaning.
I would remove the parentheses and weave them into the sentences instead. They chop up the story.
“Smile he doesn’t mean” makes me think he’s not actually being friendly, but you probably are referring to the fact that he is so tired.
Maybe replace the ‘tired’ in the first large paragraph with ‘exhausted’ since you use ‘tired’ later on.
You could soften the ‘white lie’ part to make it more subtle. Something like “insurance for fending off anyone sketchy.”
I really enjoyed this piece. My suggestions are merely ways to tighten it. This definitely shows that you’re a strong writer. Good luck!
First, my hat is off to you for taking the step of putting part of your work out here for critique!
In my opinion, the biggest strengths of this piece are the way you set the emotional tone, and the way you draw the reader in, making us want to know right away who this leather-jacketed guy with the insincere smile is. I think you did a very good job in these two areas.
I echo what another poster said about some bits needing to be reread, and my suggestion would be to tighten up the second and third paragraphs, especially the descriptions.
I do wonder if it’s your intention to make me more curious about the leather-jacketed guy than about the “you”. (I’m not sure if narrator is the right term here.) And I’m sure this is not new news to you, but it’s my understanding that writing in the second person POV is very difficult to pull off. I found it a bit disconcerting as I read your piece. So you’ve certainly taken on a challenge! You’re brave!
But you’ve definitely pulled me in, making me want to know more. Kudos.
Sorry, I couldn’t help but comment on the comment Liz posted while I was writing mine. I thought the ‘white lie’ metaphor was great. Also, isn’t it interesting that Liz didn’t take the ‘smile he didn’t mean’ as insincerity, as I did, but rather just that he was so tired he didn’t really feel like smiling, but did anyway. (To be nice? Or for some other reason?)
Michelle McCartney says
Liked it. Interesting narrative voice and scene is set well along with the atmosphere of the piece. Early days but it looks promising and grabbed my attention. Not much more to say than that at this stage. Way to go!
Loved this…..beautifully written. I echo Liz(who is most likely an editor, and a good one at that). I felt I was on that train, and I loved the line, “dawn’s threading….” gorgeous. Only a bit confused with opening line–made me think he as already seated across from you. You don’t need to change opening line, but maybe add a caveat after “Don’t stop….”etc.
Really lovely tho–I’de love to read the rest.
I meant airport, sorry, not train….it harkened back to a story I wrote about a train ride- early am- I took in India last year. I read your piece again, and wonder if you could rearrange to : ” You look up, raise an eyebrow at the guy who just spoke and think, I’ve had worse seat mates”
I like your style and how it immediately drew me in. I think the first paragraph could be tighter – you’ve got great visual images but they should stand on their own rather than blend together.
I agree with the parentheses comments and the piece would flow easier if it wasn’t as choppy.
I thought Leather Jacket was insincere as well and I really liked the last line.
Dianna Zaragoza says
I liked the second person point of view – not enough people use it, imo. The passage has a few spots that were a little wordy, and could be cut for easier readability. Not bad, though.
The wedding ring tells me a lot about the main character – a good touch. I like how she was both partly drawn in by him, and pushing him away at the same time. That’s a dynamic that could be played up for a long time and in a lot of ways.
Summer Ross says
You have a terrific opening line- it draws the reader inside the story and makes them want to keep moving forward.
This sentence:–> Four-thirty AM in what has got to be the smallest international airport in this country, and you’re curled sleepy around your thermos of coffee, one foot tucked up underneath you, watching other tired people, electric signs, TV screens all reflected in the windows against a still-dark sky.<–
Is too long and you have 'sleepy' when I think you meant either sleeping or sleepily- but sleepy reads awkward.
I noticed you used 'just' twice in this small section- keep track of how often you use it- it's a word that should be used sparingly to keep it's effect otherwise it comes off as redundant.
I love your use of descriptions and your ending line for this section made me even more curious as to what would happen. Keeping the readers interest is the key- great job!
Your dialogue between the characters and internally for your main character came off as believable and smooth.
I did relate to your main character- caffeine- lol yup that's where you got me with her.
Elisabeth Kinsey says
You’ve got conflict right away and a goal for the main character. If you are writing a novel or short story and it’s all like this, thumbs up. Submit it around. I do about thirty a month and make sure they take simultaneous submissions.
Jay Gordon says
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent too much of my life in dreary airports on the verge of screaming and throwing myself against a plate glass window to escape, but I was emotionally involved from the first line.
I happen to like the “still-dark” expression: it strengthens the feeling of the boredom of waiting through the night. “Dawn’s threading along the edges of the hills” is exquisite. I’m not sure I believe someone had the forethought (or space in her carry-on) to bring a thermos. There is, however, something compelling about the the imagery of “Coffee in a Paper Cup.” That’s pretty much all you can get in an airport unless you’re sitting down in a restaurant. It is, however, a great contrast. Maybe the thermos is explained later in the story. Or she is just impressively practical.
The description of the guy is sensual without being overtly sexual, kind o’ dreamy to match the tone. Any woman worthy of the title surely fantasizes, at least on some level, of having a primal, high-testosterone man take an interest, however briefly. The average reader is likely to think this could be the lady’s lucky day, thereby identifying with her.
There’s some good advice in the comments about tightening the draft. The confusion of submitting to critiques of your writing is the conflicting advice. My suggestion is to listen to anyone who is generous enough to offer advice and edit according to what ultimately resonates with you. In the end you are the one who will get the credit or blame for the final product. Advice is easy to give; craft takes talent and discipline — along with confidence in yourself.
I can’t wait to read the final story. I hope she gets her guy. I can already imagine the book cover: erotic but tasteful — satisfying to readers on many levels. Not the least of which is caused by strong visual writing.
I’m not sure why you chose to use second person point of view. It is an extremely uncommon viewpoint for a story, and for good reason. I could not get past that and found it so jarring that I could not focus on any other aspect of this piece. I can’t think of an instance where this point of view would be appropriate other than something like a choose-your-own-adventure.
Sheila A. Donovan says
I love “Dawn’s threading along the edges of the hills.” So poetic. You’re painting with words.
A suggestion to change the word “Tallish,” because, as I finished reading the sentence before it, the words were “Just spoke.” next word “Tallish.” I was reading it as “Just spoke Tallish.” I wondered what country that language was from. I paused and read it again. This time it was clear, but the word “Tallish” annoyed me. It might work in actual conversation, but not on the page.
Voice, right out of the box. Way to go.
Only comment — a little more lead-up to the guarding, as if he would put a hand on her knee. Give me a little more as to why she would make this assumption.
First, I applaud the author for sharing their work in this forum. That could not have been an easy decision. I certainly appreciate their desire to sharpen their talents.
I thought the same thing as Jenifer and kept thinking back to my old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I loved as a child. The second person narrative doesn’t work for me, and makes the piece difficult to follow because I was so focused on clues as to who the “you” is.
Initially, I thought the first line was a heading/title of the excerpt and therefore I pretty much ignored it. Reading it as part of the piece, it doesn’t work unless the piece is a flashback of sorts and that one line is setting up the actual story. With the entire piece being written in past tense, the first line doesn’t work because “you” doesn’t meet the seatmate until the end.
In addition to the POV, the parenthesis were jarring. Weaving those words into the narrative would have made for smoother reading. I would also consider a more economical use of words. There are some very long sentences which made me have to go back and re-read. Employing em dashes, ellipses, or even semi colons would have helped tremendously.
The use of “tallish” kind of irked me. At first I thought, “Hooray, a name!” Then I realized what the author meant. I would have formatted the word as “tall-ish” to be more universally understood.
Overall, despite the vivid descriptions of the scene and emotions of the characters, it read clunky because of what I mentioned above. The author broke many of my personal grammar pet peeves, which caused my mind want to close down. Although, those may be a cultural difference since I’m American.
The piece has a very nice framework and your word choice is dynamic and engaging for the most part. Very nice work!
Morgyn, I can’t speak for the author, of course (and I can’t wait to hear her response ), but I understood that she (“you”) put the hand there to show him she was engaged, not because she thought he might put his hand on her knee.
And Jay (forgive me if I’m amiss or mistaken), I’m really curious about what makes you think she wants a guy, or that guy?
The opening of story is interesting.
But I suggest that you tell your story in third person.
You can describe your main character appearance, and body language.
And your can write a more vivid description of the coffee shop.
So cool! I’ve just finished reading a book that had brilliant writing in it and I found yours was not so far from that. I really felt a sense of place. I could smell the coffee. And the engagement ring makes me want to know more.
As I read I got hung up on the capital AM, why not say in the morning? But I kept reading. It isn’t that it was not compelling, it was just interesting enough to make me want to see where it was going, but the hook at the end? THAT made me want to read more.
Susan Bearman says
It’s a treat to step in and read these other comment before I offer mine. I’ve been thinking about second person POV a lot lately—it can be tough to pull off and is a bold choice. I recently heard author Patricia Ann McNair from her award-winning collection called The Temple of Air. She read “Deer Story”, which was also in second person, although she was full half-way through the story before I realized it. That’s part of what made that story so successful—that second person didn’t get in the way. In fact, it seemed to be the only way that story could be told. That story was also very fast paced, almost like a roller-coaster ride, and I think that also helped make the second person work. I highly recommend the read. It can be an excellent exercise to write the same story with different POVs to see which works best.
You’ve gotten some excellent feedback here about tightening, so I’ll only mention a few different things. Personally, I like the parenthetical asides. Again, this is a choice and you should pay attention to pacing. Parentheses slow down the reader—not necessarily a bad thing, if it’s done with purpose.
Watch your adjectives. This is a good place to tighten your piece. For example, “Take a sip” works just as well as “Take a nonchalant sip”. On the other hand, you don’t tell us what kind of drink it is, yet you want us to smell right along with the character. What’s the source of the good-smelling caffeine? Coffee, we presume, but it could be hot chocolate or spiced tea. We can’t smell it if we don’t know what it is. This is a better place for a specific, even if it is coffee: Hawaiian Kona, Jamaican Blue, Dunkin’ Donuts?
Finally, I agree that you have a great opening line. The trouble is that you lead with the seat mate and then pull away to the broader scene and don’t get back to the seat mate for several grafs. This adds to the choppiness noted in some of the other comments.
Good l luck. All this conversation means that you have us hooked, which is a very good start.
I agree with the comment about her putting her hand on her knee. When I first read that, I had the impression that he had made some type of move to make her think he was about to place his hand on her leg instead of her just trying to make the engagement ring more obvious.
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