And now for a double post. Woo-hoo!
WARNING THIS POST WILL SPOIL THE WHOLE STORY.
So I just finished reading through The Hole and, as promised, I'll give you some feedback. I was tempted to comment section by section, but I figured that a lot of my praise/criticism could probably be more effective served all at once, in a massive, crushing volley
. But first, a comment on your site in general. Around section 60 of The Hole (after writing the post above) I decided I would take a breather and check out some of your other writing too. I have to say, some of your other articles (namely, the ones I have read) have a really great pace a strong voice and, more importantly for philosophical pieces, you raise good points and defend them well. As a fellow philosopher, my hat comes off to you.
So now for my first criticism... What happened?
Here's the thing. You had me hooked from the start. Your introduction was colourful and morbid and it drew me in. Here's this dark character, watching the lady across the street haul her dead husband to the curb, and he offers to help her--not out of sympathy--but out of the sheer desire to fuck her. Bravo. This is a powerful statement and you get it across in a simple way, an *artistic way*. Moreover, the scene steps beyond the sheer ugliness of the sentiment in Elliot's heart. At once, you are giving us some great characterization and also making Elliot *believable*. The world has ended, but he is still a man. He thinks with his dick, he *is* a dick, but, in the end, it still drives him to do the right thing; to help Evajean haul her dead hubby to the corner, and then offer to feed her and console her. Right on Aaron.
So, again, what happened? Really, that is the only strong characterization we get in the novel. From then on in, the characters become two dimensional and even start to contradict themselves as more of the story is revealed. That said, I was following along with the comments people were leaving, and I appreciate some of the things you said in response. Your replies about the difficulty of serialization go a long way to explain your motivation. It’s true, when you're writing a serial novel, you have to make some tough calls. If you discover that something is disagreeable, then you can't go back and correct it, because readers who are part of the way through will suddenly be lost and confused. Still, I offer this counterpoint: if you suddenly decide as the author to *change the nature of the characters part way through without warning* then the readers will be equally lost and equally confused, but also annoyed.
"Hey," We'll proclaim, "What the hell happened to the self-serving post-apocalyptic Elliot that got me into this book in the first place?" We, the readers, suddenly find that he's been replaced with a sentimental, subservient lackey to Evajean, one who constantly pines over his dead wife and daughter when, only chapters before, they had been completely forgotten in favour of banging the neighbour. My point is this: Elliot was ugly, and human beings are *ugly*. You had it right the first time. Multiply that fact by the fact that the world has ended and you have yourself a solid character further tempered by, and reacting to, the circumstances. When you switched things up and made him more sympathetic to Evajean's plight, and more accommodating of her often ridiculous desires, it really killed the mood you had going. And I kind of feel that it took you a *long* time to get it back on track.
Now, on to Evajean. I don’t like her. At all. She’s highly irrational, and quickly becomes a ‘groaner’. In other words, she’s a character who makes me groan. I groan at her dialog, her choices, and her often childish behaviour. These problems seem to be acutely linked to the presence of Hope—apparently sent by Moroni to foil the pair at every turn. There was one reader who posted a comment recommending that either ‘the dog needs learnin’ or it has to go’ or something to that effect. And he was right. So right. The dog nearly cost Elliot and Eva their lives on no fewer than four occasions and, honestly, Hope never redeems himself for that. Furthermore, the dog dilutes the story. You put in frequent breaks in the action to make room for Evajean scratching Hope’s chin or tweaking his ears or whatever. It’s filler, plain and simple. At worst, the dog is a nemesis to the characters, always under foot, or giving them away, or whatever, and at best it is a distraction. My recommendation: swap out Hope and give them an abandoned German Sheppard with a name tag that reads “Beast” or something. Give them something that will *help* them, while still providing the cute cuddly animal companion that you were going for.
It’s true, I don’t fault you for wanting to include that pet. The animal companion in a post-apocalyptic setting has been a staple since Fallout introduced Dogmeat. But Hope is not the way to go. He’s aggravating, and causes Evajean to become aggravating by proxy. I know that it’s hard to kill or abandon an animal companion once it has been introduced, but through the course of the story you reduce your characters—survivors, turned biblical champions—to dog sitters. Screw the dog, the characters should not be concerned with saving it. They should be concerned with not being killed themselves.
Which brings me to my next point. Barring the true nature of the characters as revealed close to the end of the story, the reader is supposed to see them as ‘survivors’. These are the people who have made all the right choices so far to survive the chaos which must have ensued close to the end, as people began to realize that the plague was quickly extinguishing the human race. Elliot himself, at the very start of the book, describes himself as one of the “Easy E’s”, a person who sat back and waited patiently while the world went about ending. This, I imagined at the time, meant that he was *really smart*. Sure, a lot of it had to do with being poked along in Line by Yaweh’s minions (his wife, et al), but was none of his survival based on his own actions? Instead of getting trapped in gridlock on the highways, or being stabbed in a frenzy of looting downtown, he was chilling in his house, waiting for the worst of it all to blow over. A good move. So where was this sensibility in the rest of the book? Case in point, once he actually gets his hand on a gun that he can fire, he leaves it in the back of the truck... 3 times? 3 TIMES?! Before he finally decides that maybe it would be better to keep his weapon somewhere that he can actually reach and fire it. This... does not compute. I’m sorry.
While these... terrible life choices might be explained by another character shift, I find that impossible to believe. I can understand your reasoning in wanting to make Elliot less of a dirt-bag, but I have no clue why you would choose to make him less intelligent as well. No, I doubt this was your intent. So that leaves one option open: you must have wrote the gun into the back of the truck where Elliot couldn’t get at it in order to build tension. If he can’t shoot the crazies, then he is in danger. Good. Anyone who leaves the gun in the back of the truck deserves to die anyway. But to this effect I advise you instead to *never give him a gun ever*. He admits that he can’t use a gun at the start of the book. The only shots he ever fires are at the Thomas-the-tank-engine centipedes anyway, in which case the bullets barely have any effect. Then he loses it in the basement when confronted by the rotting well-monster. My point is this: guns can be effortlessly excluded from Elliot’s inventory, and his IQ will automatically rise as a result. If he has no gun, then he will be left thinking to himself: “Fuck, I wish I had a gun,” rather than what he is left thinking now, that being: “Fuck, I wish I weren’t so dumb.”
These criticisms are all wrapped up in what I see as contradictions in character. Elliot, the smart survivor, leaving the gun in the back of the truck, catering to Evajean’s profound lack of common sense, and always breaking down when the dog threatens their lives.
That brings us back to Hope and what has to be the biggest contradiction in the story (and also the biggest contradiction in my own commentary)... they finally make the right choice, to leave the dog behind, but only *after* they realize that they are the prophesied Mighty and Strong, who cannot-fuck-up-no-matter-how-hard-they-try-so-don’t-even-bother. At that stage, they might as well have kept the damn dog with them. The crazies were ignoring them and Moroni keeled over without any resistance whatsoever, so the dog would have been absolutely harmless at that stage. But instead they lock the dog in a trailer... They actually leave the dog to starve or dehydrate, based on whichever resource, food or water, runs out first. Either of these fates are terrible. Elliot is seen to admit that they will likely not return for the Dog. So which is it, do they love the dog unconditionally? Or do they want it to die? If they want it to die, they should shoot it. At the very least that is humane. Instead, they condemn the dog to a slow, painful death. I find this disagreeable and silly.
Still on the topic of Hope, I’m not sure whether to commend you or scold you for the numerous allusions to classical literature which hinged on his internment in the trailer. First, when they enter Moroni’s city they ‘abandon Hope’, as is recommended by the sign at the entrance of the Inferno. Intentional? If so, this was a clever pun, but it made me immediately think “so this is why we have put up with Hope this whole time, for a cheap joke about Dante’s Inferno?” And--of course--when the little boy opens the trailer at the end of the story and releases Hope, I was reminded of the previously unfinished story of Pandora’s box, and how neither of the characters could recall that hope was--indeed--released by Pandora in the end. Unless I am mistaken on that. Either way, lo and behold, the boy does release Hope from Pandora’s Trailer.
OK, I’ll admit it, I kind of liked that bit. Well done. But it still wasn’t worth all the shit the dog put the characters through. You could equally well have achieved the same effect by having the boy awaken on the streets of Charlottesville and find Hope in the very pet store where it had been left originally, by the main characters who were WAY TOO SMART TO BRING ALONG A FUCKING UNTRAINED PUPPY IN THE FIRST PLACE! Have him look into the puppy’s eyes and lovingly say: “I think I’ll call you Hope!” Everyone grins, the day is won, the boy and his dog walk off into the sunset, the end.
Hmm... what else? Well, Moroni went down way too easily. Someone commented about it being an anti-climax and I really have to agree. The reason why I kept reading the story at all was because I felt like you were really building to something. I realized at section 78 when the characters finally put away the journal and went to face Moroni, that I was out of luck as a reader. There was no way that in around 1500 words that you would you be able to do your story (which I had actually enjoyed, for the most part) any justice. I knew exactly what was going to happen. They were going to walk up to Moroni, with no resistance, and set off their Bible-Nuke and that would be it. I was not disappointed. But, alas, I also was. I feel like you got to the end and just sort of... gave up! It wasn’t the grand ending that I felt you were building to. It really was the definition of an anti-climax.
This was part of a larger problem though. You had themes of fate running throughout the book. Elliot was constantly pondering the significance of Evajean, the last woman on earth, living across the street. And their bizarre luck they had in discovering Nahom, and so on. From the first time Elliot asked such questions of himself, I knew this was a story about Prophecy. And the problem with Prophecy is that it’s naturally supposed to come true. I believe this realization really hit home in Nahom, when they escaped from the Ritual in the basement of the church. I knew from that moment on that these characters were untouchable, that anything which came for them would be overcome--and that can make for a really long and unfortunate read. However, the saving grace of stories with a central theme of Prophecy, is that they can still be really cool! Glorious battle scenes and debates about free will and all sorts of goodies. Instead, Moroni bitches at them a bit and then, poof, it ends.
I have a suggestion for you that I feel will help lessen this blow. Do not advertise that your story is based on Mormon Mythology. All the twists in your book are based on that fact, and when you know it from the get go (reading the blurb on The Hole’s main page) it really tips your hand too quickly.
With all that said, I must admit that you had some really great moments in this story. I found that things really picked up once you introduced the centipede creatures. I never really had a clear image of what they were supposed to look like, but that didn’t matter because they were fun and unexpected. The barrier itself was also really cool. I enjoyed the imagery, the part about blown-glass really gave me a nice image of what you were going for.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Melvin, or whatever his name was, the first Outcast. I was also a little pissed that it seemed like his only function in the story was to give them the map and then die. I also found it kind of forced when he went from pleasant-host to creepy-nutter in a split second. I suggest that you reverse the order. Make him creepy to start and then have him get friendly once he relieves his duty to them as an ‘Outcast’.
Speaking of ‘Outcasts’, the museum lady was also a lot of fun. She gave the story one it’s one laugh out loud moment when she proclaims after her incomprehensible explanation: “That is why I know without a doubt that it is written in Reformed Egyptian.” Hilarious. Perfectly insane and meaningless. I loved it. She was a great character and I only wish she had played a bigger role. Hell, why not replace Melvin with her? Cut him out altogether (he just dies anyway, right?) and stick her in the church instead, she was a Methodist, wasn’t she? Have her tag along for a little while. While you’re at it, cut Evajean’s line about not taking in other people after the Nahom chapters. They violate that agreement twice later on and it becomes just one more contradiction to deal with, since I assume you had planned the presence of the Outcasts from early on... right? Right?
Another thing I found you really did well was that creepy mess of dead babies that crawled up out of the well. Holy shit. Absolutely terrifying. I give you full points for that one. It was dark, the imagery was spectacular, and you really had me worried for Elliot for the first time... ever. Well done.
My highest praise of all goes to the journal entries of J. Smith Jr. Jr. Jr. That was probably the highlight of the book. You revealed what was going on, but not in an ‘info-dump’ kind of way. You told a secondary story which was integral to your own, and I found it highly enjoyable. Then you went even *deeper* and told a story inside of that story with J. Smith Junior trying to redeem himself by warning the Mighty and Strong about his transgressions. So good. I felt like the layers were just shedding off at that stage, revealing unmitigated truth, something which I had been craving from your story all along, and something which you delivered well and with good timing.
And now I’m going to call you out. That bit was copy and pasted wasn’t it? I don’t mean from someone else, I mean out of your own writing. In the comments just before the section containing the journal entry you mentioned that you had written a short story earlier on, one which had given you the idea for The Hole. I presume that this journal entry *is* that short story. If I am wrong, I apologize, but the difference between the journal and the rest of the novel is *alarming*. Prior to that, the narration had been a little choppy (“First they went here, and then they did this. And then they were attacked, but they escaped and had lunch.”) The journal entry was just... different. Good different. AMAZING different. If anything, I take it as the climax of the novel in general and the crowning achievement of your story. It was clear as a bell, thrilling to read and it was exactly what I was waiting for, exactly what I knew you would deliver if I gave you the chance. It reflects the writing talent you display in your other articles on your website and completely blew me away. But holding it up to the rest of the book... well... it almost feels as if it’s a different story all together. And I think it is. The quality of those few sections is radically higher than the rest of the novel. In the journal, you are telling a real story. A captivating one at that.
The journal, however, does present problems for the final 3 sections. Once you had revealed all of those details, the rest of the story really was a downhill ride, and a rapid one at that. The two characters knew that they were unbeatable, and just had to walk down the road to mop up Moroni’s mess. Evajean said it best: “It will just happen, so let’s go get it over with.” When she said those words, I was tempted to shut the browser and stop reading, because she confirmed my worst fears. That nothing up to that point in the book had really mattered at all, and neither would anything that happened after. Sure, much of your story was cool, thrilling, scary, or moving. But all of it was just determinist filler to get them to that point. It was always just going to happen, and they just had to ‘go and get it over with’. So close to the end of the story, mere pages away, I feel like including a line like that... was a bit of a death sentence for what suspense was left. It's sort of like what happened in the 'non-existent' third installment of the Matrix (they only made one movie... ONE!). Neo is aided by a machine called Deus Ex. As in Deus Ex Machina... as in a random plot device that sews up all the loose ends and ends the story. And Deus Ex Machina, as I understand it in the context of literary devices, is a BAD thing. But, I must say, as far Deus Ex goes, you pulled yours off fairly well! So good job on that.
OK... so rereading this I can’t help but feel as if it is harsh and long winded, but as an author myself I crave honest feedback more than anything else. I hope I didn’t dwell too much on the negative and that my overall message came through. You have a compelling novel here. But it needs work. I would consider this to be less of a first draft and more of an outline. You need to go back through and fill in the narration, fix the inconsistencies and vamp up the characters. The task ahead of you, if you really want this to be a great novel, is greater than simply hunting for typos. You need to go back and make all the changes you wished you could have when you were serializing it. In conclusion I’ll give you some hope (eh-heh): I have complete faith that you can take this novel to the next level. You demonstrate a lot of skill as a writer and I think you can raise the level of your writing throughout the book to match the content of Smith’s journal.
I hope this feedback helps you and that you take it all with a grain of salt. In the end, it’s your novel to do with as you see fit and these are just the ravings of a lunatic fan who you will likely need to get a restraining order against in the future.
Thanks for the read, it was a great way to spend the weekend.