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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Critting UNLIKELY MAGE: implausible setting

UNLIKELY MAGE is a speculative fiction WIP. Apologies for the late post!

The motor-drone sound didn’t bother Bert Reese. He could snooze through any commotion. Especially the lecture in his psychology class.

Sleep provided an escape from Mr. Butreil who taught class like a man whose sphincter muscles never relaxed. And Bert was performing his usual shut-eye admirably. Then a word broke his sleep pattern.


Bert raised his head and fixed a hard-eyed look on the teacher. Butreil caught the movement and scrunched his face like a man eating a lemon. Or maybe his sphincter had ratcheted up a degree.

Around him, the other students showed the same lack of enthusiasm as he had. One boy with spots was combing through his lank hair with his fingers and gathering the dandruff into lines of dingy white. A girl openly read from a novel with the cover of a bare-chested man while another doodled with a broken eraser pushing it with a long finger. Behind him, Bert heard a feminine sigh. Bert straightened in his too-small chair. >>I had assumed this was a college course -- now I'm guessing it's high school BUT... got to ask for a reality check here. I took Psych in high school. It was strictly an AP/college-prep level course and therefore everyone in the class wanted to be there. We were all alert and well behaved. I can't imagine that a school with this kind of behavioral problems in its students would have the resources to offer Psych, let alone foist it onto unwilling students.<<

“You said wizards are historical figures?” Bert said. Around him, students looked up. The girl closed her book, the kid pocketed the eraser, and Dandruff-Head swept the junk onto the floor. A sound of feminine disgust came from behind Bert. >>Why is a psychology class talking about wizards? Nothing that gets talked about in this scene has anything to do with psychology...<<

 Butreil gripped the pencil he held and released a breath. Bert hadn’t bothered to raise his hand.

“You say they use fake crap to do their tricks, make elephants disappear, whatever. But you don’t know that.”

“Bert.” His voice held a warning.

Like I care. Bert flipped a negligent hand. “You can’t explain all of it.”

“Show me proof it exists, then.”

“Man, that’s like saying, ‘prove your innocence’.”

Someone snickered and the teacher narrowed his eyes

“Bert, the science is incontrovertible. The physics alone make it impossible—”

“Sez who?”

Red crept up the teacher’s neck and face earning Bert’s interest. >>And my disinterest. Teacher's incompetent and Bert isn't making a point, he's being an ass. Why should I keep reading?<<

Definitely an eight on the scale of Pissed Off. 

Once again, a feminine laugh came from behind his chair. >>and she's an ass too<<

Butreil ground his teeth. Bert wondered if he’d see the teacher’s fillings ping out of his mouth like bumper cars. He was disappointed when Butreil ignored the question and turned back to his study guide.

“The history of wizards goes back to biblical times,” he said, reading from an open textbook. “Shamans and druids made their own magic, formulating legends and myths about…What?”

This time, his anger wasn’t directed at Bert but to a point over his shoulder.

“How did they make their own magic?” said the light feminine voice.

Red crept up Butreil’s neck giving it the appearance of a turkey’s wattle. The look he usually reserved for Bert, the I-know-better-and-you-are-stupid, formed on his face.

Butreil threw a hand out, gesturing. “People they called oracles hid behind screens. Read entrails. They interpreted natural phenomenon like a meteorites going across the sky and said, ‘Lo and behold, it’s a sign’. Anything handy, anything not readily explained.”

The teacher snorted and had a half-smirk on his face. “They sure didn’t pull it from the air, that’s for sure.”

Snickers came from every corner of the room. Bert opened his mouth to snarl something but the girl beat him.

“You are wrong to make a broad assumption that cannot be proven.”

“I don’t have to prove it, missy, all I have to do is use common sense and intelligence.”

“And there you go, putting those personality traits together when you have so little of either.”

When the teacher’s mouth dropped open, Bert could see the guy still had all his fillings. Even in the back teeth. He snapped his jaw shut and pointed one bony finger.

 “You. Now. Office.”

Another soft chuckle from behind. “I apologize, sir.”

At that, Bert turned. The girl was off to one side and her crooked smile was for the teacher but at his movement, her brown eyes flicked to him and then back to the front of the room. A new girl.

Not that he cared enough to know who she was. Not after seeing what flicked around her like so many fireflies.

Why bother.

He turned back to Butreil who must be about apoplectic by now.

But the teacher’s face seemed flat lined, emotionless. Then he shrugged and turned back to the textbook spread in front of him.

Bert narrowed his eyes and felt his skin crawl. When he saw his doubled fists on the desk, he leaned back and put his hands out of sight on his lap.

“Magic is performed for entertainment, illusions made and practiced by those skilled at nimble tricks…”

Butreil droned on, reading the book while his class slept. After hazarding a glance at the teacher two girls passed a magazine back and forth. A boy with a nasty pimple on the back of his neck was stealthily texting. Another kid with stringy blond hair had his head back and mouth open to the ceiling. His guttural snores caused a few in the room to snicker but Butreil was oblivious.

“…when the tricks are performed at high speed, it is seamless and creates the impression that fire has appeared out of nowhere. Live audiences do not have the convenience of high-speed cameras that slow the action, enabling the exposure of the illusion. And in today’s technology, some magic still cannot be explained…”

The bell rang but Butreil continued talking his head bent and eyes on the words of his study guide. Someone poked the snorer who jerked and coughed as the herd rose and made for the classroom door. Bert let the mob go ahead of him.

He turned at the door to stare at the teacher, still speaking without any tone his focus on the book.

The new girl didn’t seem to be in any hurry to join the mayhem in the hallway either but gathered her books slowly, her eyes narrowed at the still muttering Butreil. >>Teacher told her to go to the office. Why didn't she?<<

The teacher jerked and grunted, then looked around confused at his nearly empty classroom. The girl hugged her books to her chest and slipped between the desks to the front. Her eyes flicked briefly to Bert then she was out the door.

Butreil sat back in his chair in a seriously major funk. >>POV slip? Did you mean for the narration to be omni?<<

Bert shrugged and joined the exodus to the doors. The embodiment of “never waste time on Fridays” was the motto of every person at high school. He made it to the hallway leading to the outside doors without touching anyone. Or talking.

Avoiding people worked both ways. His friends knew better than to stop Bert especially after school and he didn’t want to talk to any of them on the best of days anyway. And this wasn’t even close to a good day. He walked unmolested down the hall and parted the crowd of yapping idiots. Only the propped-open doors to freedom held his attention.


He heard someone call his name but didn’t stop, pretending the voice was an annoying insect. The coach pushed ahead of the escaping students and blocked him. For a moment, he debated pushing around the man but decided against it. He felt his face turn to stone as the coach shook his head.

As coach of the track team, Ralston had the look of a man who had never been on the receiving end of a harsh word. He encouraged rather than degraded his young folk. They worshiped him for it. Especially since the results brought a winning strategy and medals to the team. >>How does one look like they've never received a harsh word?<<

“Now, kid, just hang on. You’ve been dodging me for ever since you quit and I want some answers.”

“What kind of answer will get you out of my face?”

Ralston stiffened and Bert could see frustration cracking his forehead into grooves. “I want to know why.”

“Man, I do not have to give you any whys. I quit. That’s it. That’s all. I quit track.” He tried to brush past but Ralston held out his hand without touching Bert. He knew better than to touch him. Everyone knew not to touch him.

“Bert,” he said. “You were good at it, always on time. And you seemed to enjoy it.”

As Ralston spoke, Bert tuned out the speechifying. As usual. He looked past the coach at the trophy case filled with tributes to past athletes, faded photos, and school emblems. The pictures of smiling boys were ancient, the edges curling with the years. In the reflection of the glass, the back of Ralston’s head looked like the beginning a monk’s bald spot. His eyes shifted to the reflection of his face. Hard, stoic, with a veneer of anger clouding them. >>Two sentences doesn't feel like speechifying to me...<<

Nothing familiar there. But I’ve been born twice now. Not many people could say that. >>Ah. Now there's the first line of a story. Could we start here instead?<<

>>I lost faith in the setting pretty early on, as you can see. Didn't feel plausible to me, so as a reader I'm not willing to give you the benefit of a doubt on other aspects. The characters you've introduced have been cast in a very negative light and that makes it difficult for me to take them seriously. Or care what happens to them. 

Your last line, now that's interesting. Also, the fact he's trained everyone not to touch him -- but given that Bert's a jerk I don't know why anyone would want to touch him anyhow. Since we've gotten off on the wrong foot, can we get a do-over?<<  


Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

"I'll get you, my pretty. And your little red font too."

Nah. No do-over yet.

"...we're still collating." - Ash, Alien.

Excellent crit. Much thanks. Will check into the psych thingy.

Matthew Keith Reviews said...

I can't lost I faith in the story or the characters. The scene was portrayed well--I immediately recognized it as a room full of disinterested students with a blatant lack of respect for their instructor.

The things that jumped out at me...

-The instructor's name and the main's name were too close and because of the separation between some of the paragraphs I had to go back and read more than once to make certain I knew who was being referenced. There was more than once when I thought Bert was Butreil and vice versa.

-Butreil obviously demands respect from his pupils. He wouldn't react so strongly if that weren't the case. As was already mentioned, why was the girl who'd been sent to the office not gone from the room immediately, as she'd been told? Why does Bert feel so comfortable treating his instructor with open disdain?

-They go through this back-n-forth on wizards but the argument never goes anywhere. It just kind of tapers off and Butreil starts reading again as if it never happened and the students immediately go back to languorous behavior as if they, too, were oblivious to the argument that just occurred. Weird.

-If this is set in fictional world where everything is a little "off", that's one thing. But if it's supposed to be representative of our "here and now" I think it missed the mark some.

-I'd also consider changing psychology to history (or something). I, too, immediately assumed a college setting.

-Last of all, the ending line was clearly saved for last and answered a lot of the nagging questions I had as I read this excerpt. But I have to agree--that's the story, right there. It's the hook. It's hard for me to say it would be effective sooner, because it really resonates where it is... by then you know already how bored Bert is with school and the contempt he holds his teachers in... it works where it is. But maybe a little allusion to it sooner (hints), just to invest the reader before you drop the bomb in those last 3 sentences.

Matthew Keith Reviews said...

Wow. Nice way to begin. Can you tell I typed that in a dark living room with a laptop balanced on a pillow? "I can't say I lost faith..." is how I meant to begin that comment.

Charity Bradford said...

I won't add anything since I've sent a full crit already. Mostly I want to jump to CD's defense.

Having read the first book this all made sense to me. The professor drops it and acts like nothing happened because a mage worked a little spirit on him.

I guess the trick here will be to make that clear for new readers so they aren't lost. And, Bert's personality is a complete turn about from the last book--I understand why, but you might want to give a better hint as to why so new readers won't think he's a complete jerk.

Poor Bert. *sigh*

Matthew Keith Reviews said...

I read the first one, too, but I didn't catch spell. From the new girl behind Bert?

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

I hate it when names are similar. Louis L'amour did it a lot. Thx.

Yep, the girl behind Bert is the key. More explanation later in the chapter.
And I am impressed. A dark living, laptop balanced on a pillow. *G*

Bert can take it. he's a big boy.