A Beast in Venice – excerpt

Brigham Stone walked the ancient  (When you use “ancient streets,” “ancient” comes from outside Brigham and his world. Ancient is a value judgment Brigham wouldn’t think about, and it comes from the narrator, if the narrator is established, or the author. And it’s a cliché. Using “ancient” works against you here. May seem minor, but it’s a major point in writing and narration of stories. We’re in scene with Brigham in a third-person narration. Why not stay in a close third person? In great storytelling, jerking the reader around with inconsistent narration can really hurt the writing and the enjoyment of the story. I hope this is clear. If you can master this narration/POV/world-source concept, and avoid missteps in consistency, your writing will continue to improve. Realistically, most contemporary authors don’t care.) streets of Venice at night in search of a good martini. Street lights glowed through the misty air, casting eerie light on the old bricks and ghostly shadows in the fog, like specters hovering above the paving stones.

The opening measures of Mozart’s Requiem still pulsed through his head, as did the images and names of his friends who had died recently, too young. He had left the church thanking God that the concert was over.  This is good writing. Very engaging. But be careful about the how the imagery and information transfer disrupt the flow of the writing. You’ve locked the reader into walking on the streets of Venice, then you do a mini flashback to leaving a concert where he was glad it was over (He had left . . .). Awkward. Here are the reasons. Is his reaction to the concert important for the story? Would you argue it is part of his characterization? If so, it’s not the right place. The purpose of this paragraph is to orient the reader and engage him or her in the prose. Solidify setting. Stick to the purpose. Keep focused. Don’t force the reader’s mind into sporadic, random thinking of the narrator who hasn’t determined solidly what is to be achieved. Leaving the church might be important, and if so, why not start with the leaving and then do the streets? It would avoid non sequitur thinking forced by flashback construction.

He raised his collar against the chill and checked his watch: nearly ten o’clock. The bars would be closing soon. A man and a woman dressed as nobles from the eighteenth century walked past him, staggering and laughing, three-cornered hats on their heads, masks in hand, cloaks billowing behind. It was the time of Carnevale–must have been to a ball.

He craved a martini, but the night, the time, and the cold conspired and worked against him. He pushed his scarf up around his neck and quietly said, “Fuckin’-A,” in resignation to the diminishing probability he would get a martini this misty night.

Then, through the window of a bar, he beheld the lovely emerald-green glow of a bottle of his favorite gin. He peered in. His breath fogged his reflection on the glass. Again, he said, “Fuckin’-A,” this time a whisper of happiness. It was rare, though, to find a bartender in Venice who knew how to make a martini, or one willing to take instruction. He went in, hopeful.  This is all very good advancement of setting and character enmeshed in action.

When Brigham began to recite the recipe and procedure, the barista held up his hand and said, “No problem, I know.” All right, then. Brigham left him to this task and went to the men’s room. When he returned, the drink waited for him on the bar. Immediately he knew there would be trouble. At the bottom of the glass sat a bright yellow strip of lemon peel. For the love of God, where was the olive? Don’t panic. Taste it. Maybe it’s okay. With the first sip he was confronted by a most vomitous and disgusting swill. The bartender blinked at him expectantly, then inquired as to the quality of the drink.

“Well,” Brigham said, “truth be told, I can’t drink it.”

“What you mean, you can’t drink it?” the bartender asked loudly, his brow furrowed.

“I think the proportions are a tad off,” he said, holding his forefinger and thumb an inch apart.

The bartender’s face reddened. “What? I don’t understand.”

As an American, Brigham couldn’t just come out and say that something was terrible. Italians, on the other hand, had no trouble doing this, so he decided to make like a local. “Honestly, it’s terrible. I think you put too much vermouth in it.”

The bartender screwed up his face. “It’s Martini, like you asked.”

“Ah, that explains it. I asked for the cocktail martini, not for a glass of Martini. Who in the fuck can drink just Martini?”

“I give you what you asked!”

Having resided in Venice for a few years, Brigham knew that mixology was not part of its culture. Neither did they have a word for customer service. Used to being treated like crap by merchants and waiters, he had had enough. He was sick and fucking tired of being given shit when he had asked for Shinola, and then having to fucking argue about it. This bar had a bottle of the finest gin in the world, and the bartender said he knew how to make a martini. Fuck him. He wasn’t gonna take no for a fucking answer this time.

“Sorry,” Brigham said calmly, trying to keep all them fucks out of his sentence, “but take this back and just give me a glass of Ten Gin, and another glass on the side filled with ice.” He slid the glass toward the bartender. “And I ain’t payin’ for this.”  This has admirable glimpses of humor created by cultural and linguistic differences. It’s a scene meant to be cute, which is okay as long as it doesn’t seem that way. It’s too long, and there’s too much manipulation in the dialogue to contribute to your story. Cut to one-third the length. 

As the bartender shouted a string of obscenities in Italian, a man came from a back room. The barista shouted and gestured wildly in the other man’s direction. The man, apparently the boss, shouted at the bartender, who stomped off behind a curtain leading to the back.

The boss smiled. “I’m very sorry. Let me make you a proper martini.”

Brigham nodded. “That would be lovely.”

Ah, this man knew how to make a martini, for not only did he fill the glass with ice and water to chill it while he mixed the drink, he garnished it with an olive, rather than a twist of lemon–an act of barbarism no doubt learned for the English. He put the drink on the counter. “Please,” he said, pushing it slightly toward Brigham. “Offre di casa. On the house, as you say.”

Brigham sniffed the drink and smiled. He sipped it. The cold juniper-flavored herbal joy of the gin went over his tongue like the word of God into the ear of the faithful. He took his time with it, (consider deleting highlighted) held each sip for a few seconds, and let the elixir infest (word choice: this has negative imagery and credibility issues that work against you. Something along the lines of “infiltrate,” “soak,” or “coddle” might work.)   his blood and brain. He held the olive above the glass on the end of its toothpick and twirled it around. The light shining up from the glass bar illuminated the olive like a little green planet. What a wonderful thing an olive was, particularly when soaked in gin. Nibbling the olive, he stared unfocused at the bottled behind the bar, the gin having taken the edge off the damp cool of the night.  Cut. I’ve highlighted suggestions. Wordiness with hyperbolic descriptions and off-tone adjectives and adverbs is every writer’s curse (and downfall).

“Sorry for my barista,” the boss said.


“I should sack him, but he’s my sister’s husband, and you know–”

“I understand. No problem. This is delicious.”


He finished the drink, thanked the man, and stepped into the cold night air feeling a hell of a lot better than when he went in, and almost believing in God and all his angelic hosts. (Is this a thought you want here? Does it convey something significant? I’d delete it.)  The warmth of the drink contrasted deliciously with the chill of the night. He walked in happy solitude through the misty and silent darkness thinking thoughts all high and philosophical, contemplating his mortality and the short span he had left, his youth having fled years ago. This is good. Specific. Character-enhancing stuff.   He had been thinking about death recently, as he would turn fifty-five tomorrow. Happy fucking birthday, dead man. The next thirty years would not be so kind as the past thirty. Things were as good as they were gonna get. From now on, it’s dying time.  Good.

A man hurried past him, long cape flowing, a tri-corner hat darkening his face. Nothing more than a shadow in the dim and hazy light. Continuing a short distance, the man turned abruptly to the right and disappeared–into a solid brick wall.

Brigham studied the wall and the pavement next to it, but found nothing. The white marble outline of an old door, now bricked in, stood where the man had gone. He pushed on the bricks, but they did not move. The mortar between the bricks and the marble was solid. There was no evidence of the man, and no hint as to where he might have gone.  Good storytelling. And in the right place. 

Very good! Always, in revision especially, focus on purpose for every element you put on the page. Be relevant and supportive to your story. Avoid what feel like attempts to make the reader admire the author’s intelligence or talent. Readers will admire great writing and the creation of great stories more than overly poetic, clever, obfuscatory cuteness in the writing and construction. You are a very good writer on the edge of super. Stick to clarifying the thinking about what you want to accomplish and learn how you can best do it.

Thanks for the submission.

Bill Coles

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