This is feedback from a chap called Martin in Germany, on my Matrix fanfiction story Unplugged. While I'm completely terrible at taking criticism - and that's the honest truth - what Martin had to say is the kind of feedback us self-published dream about. It was honest, considerate, balanced and from a complete stranger, so there is no fear of bias. I think many of Martin's criticisms are valid, and have helped me a lot when it comes to thinking of my future Matrixfic. I'm sharing this with you because, well, because I think it's a good example of feedback-from-a-random stranger and to challenge myself to keep up to the improvements he has suggested.

Hello Johanna

I just wanted to give you some feedback for your recently posted Matrix fanfiction story "Una Carmine - Unplugged." I'm something of a would-be author myself, and I know how frustrating it can be not to get to hear what people think about the stuff one has brought to paper... or to screen, as it is.

I enjoyed your story a lot, especially after having seen The Matrix recently. Before I get into more praise, maybe a few words of criticism first.

While the format of the story as a diary - if not actually original, reminescent of e.g. Dracula - is very powerful in the context of reality called in question, it holds the danger for the author to identify too much with the narrator. It might be that a real diary would read like that, but then a real diary does not neccessarily make a good story. I think you use your characters too much as some form of alter ego. While this is fun itself, and great for good role-playing (especially for games like the V:tM, M:tA or CoC), you'll find it often times weakens the power of the narration, as this strong bond between you and your main character can...

a) lure you into spending too much time on details from the character's life that don't add to the story itself and thus weaken the tension and in the end LESSEN the suspense of disbelief; and
b) make the reader rather feeling left out than drawn in. It's sometimes a bit like watching a good friend (the character) flirt with someone else (the writer). You may not want to begrudge your friend the pleasure, still you wish s/he would do it some other time. Hey, readers are fickle creatures, ready to drop you anytime they feel they don't get the attention they crave.

Of course, details of the main character's life are important, especially if you want to contrast the "virtual reality" of the Matrix to the "real world" outside. There's a dilemma: just how much colorfull setting is enough? Still, in your Una Carmine story, it's too much biography, too much setting - especially in contrast to the "other world", which is left a bit too much to the readers imagination, or to memories from the film. That is sad, because I think the story mostly goes beyond the usual fanfiction found on the net and could make a really good stand-alone merely inspired by a good movie. After all, you don't need to have seen the Highlander movie to be able to appreciate the TV series. (Whether you can appreciate it at all is of course a matter of taste.)

But I think the weakness of the story is not only the strong pseudo-biographical element of the diary. You got hurried at the end. It is a danger I know only too well. At the beginning of a story, it's full of life, of promisses. But as one works on it, one begins to see how much of the fictional world is just a construct to support the story, and anyway, there are new ideas, other projects to concentrate on. You want to move on, get it done. That is at least how the story presents itself. (There's an easy way out of the trap: begin writing in the middle of the story and add the beginning after everything else is done. This also has the benefit of allowing much more creativity with symbols, foreshadowing, etc.)

In a real diary - as in a good story - the narration gets denser the more our (in)trepid hero leaves the confines of normal reality. Noone spends that much time to write down the ordinary details of life. We know them anyway. But what you would concentrate on, describe in detail, move in your mind to find a way of dealing with, is that which falls out of the ordinary. Fortunately that is exactly what the reader wants to be told. So your story would greatly improve if you would not only maybe lessen some of the biography, but add substance to the later encounters. May 19th and everything that follows is MORE important than anything that has happened before. Yet it makes up less than a quarter of the text. Don't tell us about the bit with the invisibility code like you're writing a lecture, tell us how Carmine was told. How she reacted. How she feels about it. I mean, there is something totally alien "imbedded" in what she thought for the largest part of her life as "herself". She is someone who prides her control over her own life, who hates it when others meddle in her affairs. What greater meddeling could there be? And the way Malachite imposes herself on Carmine. I don't think that the Una Carmine you so painstakingly describe to us at the beginning would so easily accept the leadership of someone as pushy and seemingly inconsiderate as Malachite. Think about how much time the film took for the initiation of Neo, the set-up of the first meeting with Morpheus, the first conversation, the choice between the two pills, the trace procedure, the waking-up in the pods, the flushing down and the rescue by the Nebuchadnezzar, the repeated waking-up scenes aboard, the first meeting with a "pure" human, the explanation of the Matrix, the learning programs... of course, you shouldn't simply copy the scene. It would be a spoiler for those who haven't seen the film, boring for those who have and yielding no artistic satisfaction for you. But compare that sequence of scenes to your version:

Why aren't we told how UC came by this knowledge and how she reacted to it. After all THAT is your story. Not a summary of the film's background world.

Just as a last bugging: don't come with the "there is more to follow" excuse. If you loose the reader's interest in the course of the story, it's no good. There's this old advice from journalism: It doesn't matter how good your article is, if the first three sentences suck, nobody is going to read it.

Okay, enough criticism. I hope I didn't step on your toes too much, but since I want to get to read the one or other story by you and about the crew of the Charlemagne yet, I thought the least I could do was to try to ensure that the next story is even more fun. :)

What did I like about the story?

The bit about our main character being used by the Agents is brilliant. Of course you need to have seen the film to really appreciate it. I wish you would have made even more out of it, but it's great as it is. Also the explanation with eidetic memory (don't we all love the GURPS dis/advantages list and all it's rip-offs to build better bastards?) was a hit. One of these rare moments, where you don't need to be told, because as you read it you can make the connection by yourself, and go "Oh, THAT's it. Well, I'd never..."

I liked certain details, like the gizmo that looks like it's from a Gilliam movie. It's the kind of item that has me wondering, makes me want to learn more. Basically the same thing with the "growing invisible" mystery. That drew me INTO the story, made me want to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Some of the jokes were great. A line to future archeologists... witty, brief, sarcastic. (Say, have you ever read Peter Hoeg's "Smilla's Senseof Snow" (the novel, not the movie, it sucks). If you haven't, do it. I bet you'd love the protagonist.) But such jokes are dangerous. While e.g. the one about anchovies at the end can convey a fundamental despair and the attempt of the protagonist to come to terms with the situation, too much simply makes the reader shrug it all off as a joke. I know where the desire to put these witty one-liners comes from: the author fears to seem pompous, fears to have the reader think: oh what a load of bull-shit. Like when you try to flirt with somebody, but don't really dare to show your feelings, it's easiest to make stoopid jokes. Well, in most cases it's a bad flirt-technique. And writing a story IS a flirt with your reader. Sometimes even sex. And in very few cases, it can be a love affair. But enough meandering and philosophical spouting: sometimes such a line is a great way to very satisfyingly release tension. And your story got a couple of them.

I also like the meeting with Sean and wished we could have had a second meeting. It was good that the first (well, second if you count the "dream") was so brief. Heightened the mystery. That scene had good pacing! But maybe we meet him once more? Well, I don't know, it probably was for the best that he was erased as soon as he'd served to introduce Carmine to Malachite. And it's a good sign that I as a reader wanted to meet him again. It's always better to give a bit to little than to give too much.

I liked the protagonist. How she was an extraordinary person by normal standards, but a quite ordinary and normal person by an "Unplugged"'s standards. I have a simple problem with Malachite, though. She reminds me too much of Trinity. Style, behavior (what little we get to see). Trinity already was a bit much of a modern movie archetype for me, the stereotypical William Gibson "Polly Millions" Razorgirl. But in your piece I'd say, either you make her Trinity (it is after all fanfiction) or give her something that sets her off. But that is a minor point.

I'm really looking forward to Cutting the Cord. In fact I was going to ask if I could contribute a story to your Charlemagne sage and if I could do something on Thoth, as I really liked the character brief, before I read that you already got him on the dissecting table. Well, so I'll just have to make do with my own ideas. It's not as if one could ever actually write all the stories one has in mind, is it.

So long, and keep up the great work

Irregular Rambles, June 15th
Una Carmine - Matrix Fanfiction
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