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Tim Needles's picture

How to Lose Your Heart, Escape a Dying Planet, and Tell a Joke on Mars

By Tim Needles in Teleport Us

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The last known human returns to post apocalyptic New York, his former hometown, during an expedition to meet up with the being that saved him.

(3600 words)


Mbella's picture
Mbella February 24, 2013 - 12:07pm

Great story- fun read!  I love your characters- well done!

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 5, 2013 - 4:22pm

Thanks for the comment and for taking time to read it MBella, I appreciate it!!

B.A.Scanlan's picture
B.A.Scanlan from Australia is reading Martian Time-Slip March 2, 2013 - 8:04pm

A very rich and intruiging universe that you have imagined here, I am impressed to say the least. 
My only two quarrels are the fact that you never explained whether the martians were colonisers or natural inhabitants. I'll have to assume the latter. 

Also, at the very beginning of the story...

“There may be no better asset to survival then a bad childhood.   I think the fact that I had totally unfit parents might’ve been fate because despite all logic, here I am again, at home in New York,”

I believe you meant 'than' rather than 'then'. 

Other than that, brilliant work!

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 3, 2013 - 9:51am

Thanks so much B.A.Scanlan, I appreciate you taking time to read it! You're assumption is correct but I should've addressed it, thanks for the heads up, I also can't believe I missed a grammatical mistake in the first sentence, crazy!

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff March 3, 2013 - 12:26pm

Browsing through the stories I noticed this one because it had such a standout title. But ultimately, I clicked the random story button. And lo and behold it gives me this story. It was meant to be.

I really liked this. Very interesting world and characters. The only critical thing I can say is that the entire story is told mostly through dialogue. Which is a cool way to do it, but I wanted more description of the setting and also the characters. I know it's New York and that image is easy to put in your head but I just wanted more detail of the surroundings. Sights, sounds, smells, that sort of thing. But overall this is a really cool piece.

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 3, 2013 - 1:46pm

Thanks EdVaughn, funny the random button brought you here!  You make a good point, I may have edited too much of the descriptive elements out.

Joe P's picture
Joe P from Brainerd, MN is reading Wheel of Time March 5, 2013 - 12:58pm

Love the title.  And the story delivered as promised.  Nice job.  As for suggestions, I'd say break up some of thoseobger sentences with periods.  That's the only thing that really stood out as far as improvements.  A good read.

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 5, 2013 - 4:20pm

Thanks Joe, I appreciate the read and the comment! Yeah I was a bit of a grammartard writing this because the story has been in my head for quite a while but you're right on, I need to embrace the period!

Rob Pearce's picture
Rob Pearce from Cambridge, England is reading Lots of unpublished stuff and short story collections March 7, 2013 - 6:01am

Hi Tim, Mr. Grumpy here.

This really needs a good, thorough look over for the grammar and punctuation, which is distractingly poor. There are too many long sentences, too.

A lot of the early dialogue is stilted, and feels like it's one character telling the other what they both already know, for the reader's benefit. Your excuse of "reminiscence" only works for a few cases of that, most just need fixing. Also, you have far too many instances of characters prefixing their comments with "Yeah, well", which is annoying in real life, not acceptable in fiction.

There's an odd mix of pseudo-technical names without explanation (e.g. "mapographer"), and devices that the viewpoint-of-the-moment (and the viewpoint is very ill-defined throughout) clearly knows about but are described in vague terms rather than named (e.g. "a device emitting a green beam" or "a small metallic oval device which he held out in his palm as a small, thin cylindrical piece emerged and rotated slowly"). Oh, and just about everything is described as "small", rendering it worse than useless.

There seems to be a lot of action going on in your head. Unfortunately by the time it hit the paper it's a bit of a muddle. Sorting the punctuation may help a little, but I think the problem is deeper.

Unlike others, I don't even like the title that much. It feels like a bunch of incidental images that could be tacked on to a story for artistic effect, rather than relating to the essence of the story. And as such, I suppose I do agree with the person who said the story "delivered on the promise", since I didn't get a sense of the true story, just a load of bits thrown together. The "joke on Mars" thing is an especially egregious example - being thrown in to the text with no connection to the story at all, purely to justify including it in the title.

Damn, but I sound like a grumpy old sod now. Sorry.

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 7, 2013 - 2:47pm

Yikes, well thanks for reading the story.  The grammar is certainly an issue but it's my first story and I haven't gone over grammar since high school so I'll try to take a look over that.  I'm not quite sure about your second point though because all of the things you are refering to are actually the same thing (the mapographer is the small, thin cylindrical device which then emits a green beam) so I don't quite understand.  In terms of the title I wanted something catchy and I thought it was funny that it didn't specifically relate but maybe the humor is just subjective.  I get that you didn't like the story but I feel like your issue might be more stylistic but please let me know if I'm not comprehending something because I'd love to improve my writing.

Rob Pearce's picture
Rob Pearce from Cambridge, England is reading Lots of unpublished stuff and short story collections March 7, 2013 - 3:22pm

I'm sure there probably is a wide stylistic preference gap that will likely mean you'll continue to write stuff that doesn't appeal to me. You probably read a lot of stuff that doesn't appeal to me, so that in itself isn't a problem.

My issue with the "mapographer" is precisely that I hadn't worked out that the three bits I quoted were supposed to be the same thing! As I recall, the name was given first, in dialogue, and the descriptions later, and separately. Why? When the author describes something to the reader, it carries a strong implication that this is something new, something the reader doesn't know, and possibly (depending on style to an extent) that it's something the viewpoint character doesn't yet know. If you are choosing to describe the device for the reader's benefit, then do so when it's introduced, in combination with the name. For example:

He lifted the mapographer, a thin shiny cylinder with a rotating dish at one end, and pointed it....

After this, the reader knows what a mapographer is, so in all future appearances you can and should use its name.

(The same is true of characters. Once you've established that the guy is called Bob, floating references to "the dark-haired man" are likely to confuse the reader into thinking somebody else has just appeared. I don't think you did that so much, but some people fall into that trap in an effort to bring in some variety where it really isn't needed.)

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 7, 2013 - 3:27pm

Thanks for clarifying.

ArlaneEnalra's picture
ArlaneEnalra from Texas is reading Right now I'm editing . . .. March 9, 2013 - 7:05pm

Well done!  You had me interested in your story when I spotted you had jumped on the logo bandwagon.  I want to say I've only seen three stories with logos/covers so far.  The story itself reminded me of Douglas Adams and Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe. I definitely liked the whimsical feel.

Wonderful Read!

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 10, 2013 - 3:48am

Thanks so much ArlaneEnalra, that's a wonderful compliment!  I really appreciate it!

Adam Jenkins's picture
Adam Jenkins from Bracknell, England is reading RCX Magazine (Issue 1 coming soon) March 10, 2013 - 6:53am

I like the idea of the last human alive re-visiting his ruined planet, and the start feels nicely bittersweet.  The dialogue isn't bad, though all of your characters have a very similar voice.  Johnson and Williams especially sound very similar in the way they talk (not helped by the fact both of them like to say "yeah, well" at the starts of sentences).  As soon as they get to New York, the pace becomes frenetic and it is hard to follow at times.  They are back on the ship in no time, and it would have been nice to see a little more of ruined Earth.  You have a nice vein of humour that runs through this, and the tone is good. 

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 10, 2013 - 6:21pm

Thanks for the read and the critique, helpful points.

C Patrick Neagle's picture
C Patrick Neagle from Portland, Oregon is reading words, words, words March 20, 2013 - 11:12am

I like the pacing of this story, though I was sometimes confused by the leapfrogging between points of view. I haven't seen that full third person omniscient POV for a while and so I'm not used to jumping between characters like you have done here. At first, I thought our primary viewpoint character was Johnson, but that is belied when he, well, dies. Then I thought it was Willams, but Williams disappears for a while (at least from being mentioned in the narrative) when Jorgie arrives and takes over narrative POV. Personally, I found it distracting--that and the grammatical stuff that others have already commented on. Not so sure you need to embrace the period so much as the comma and the occasional semi-colon. Periods would help those run-on sentences, but wouldn't do much for fostering sentence complexity. Anyway, you might also consider focusing the POV down to one character. Given the bounds of this 'assignment', Williams would do nicely, since he's alien AND present for all the action (neither Johnson nor Jorgie can boast both points).

That said, you did one of the things I really like in world-building: you have a world in your head, but for the most part, the characters who live in that world don't feel the need to explain things they already know. And I liked that much of this was dialogue. I would, however, like to see a bit of tightening in the storytelling--if the discovery of a new 'last' human (which she is, since Johnson is no longer, strictly speaking, entirely human), then she should show up earlier. Everything then becomes about this remarkable discovery--also, add a few years to the character and the "How to Lose Your Heart" part of the title does double duty.

I also like the way you played with the 'utopia' part of the assignment by making Johnson's nostalgia of the past the utopian aspect.



Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 20, 2013 - 3:22pm

Thanks Patrick, really appreciate the thoughtful criticism, all good points which are very helpful!

Liam Hogan's picture
Liam Hogan from Earth is reading Hugo Nominations March 22, 2013 - 8:43am

Fun piece!

You could do with making Williams more obviously alien - commenting on the Brooklyn commute and his language make him seem as human as Johnson.

Some typos later on :

“And how is that?” Williams said standing up. - should this be "How was that?"

"or we can try to shooting him through the sun." (the to presumably is a mistake ..)

of what was once him home - his presumably.

And I think you take a big risk switching attention so completely, from Johnson. It might work if this is going to be a larger piece, but for a short, it's a bit of a clash, and makes it more cluttered than you'd want with a short.

When describing alien tech, you really don't need to describe it as something we'd know :

grabbed a small metal chewing gum container

But it wasn't chewing gum, was it?

Unless this is a larger piece, the arrival of the girl is a big distraction. And what actually killed Johnson?

Not entirely clear on the dystopia/utopia?

P.s. I lived in Hells Kitchen for 2 years - 48th and 9th... It's a bit of a slog from Colombus circle! Wasn't clear if Jorgie came looking for his friends, nor which ship knocked out Williams!

But still, good fun, and loved the comment on the Irish... :)

Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman March 22, 2013 - 10:11am

Thanks Liam,

Appreciate the comments and catching the typo's!  Yeah you were right Jorgie came looking for the boys when they didn't show, I'll try to clarify that, it was my first stab at a short story so I think I may have taken on a bit too much.  I'll try lengthening it and filling in some of the blanks.  It's the concept, characters, and humor that I really care about so it seems like they go over well which is most important, now I just need to fix the grammar and flesh it out. Thanks again!

Alastair Reynolds's picture
Alastair Reynolds May 12, 2013 - 8:05am

Hi all - just dropping by to apologise for the interruption in my reading of the stories, but have had a busy time of it with work deadlines. I've had a read of Tim's story but I'd like to give it another pass before I comment. And then I'll get onto the final story!



Alastair Reynolds's picture
Alastair Reynolds May 16, 2013 - 9:51am

Hi all - once again, apologies for the delay here, and thanks, Tim, for your patience.

Usual blather - I hope I can offer something useful here, and I will aim to be as honest as I can, but please take my opinions in the spirit they are intended, which is just that - opinions rather than gospel.

I liked this, although I wasn't always totally clear about what was going on, or what had happened before the story's beginning. Before I get into the discussion, though, I'll mention that I managed to critique the first three stories without being aware of the specifics of the brief, which is that they had to take on a utopian or dystopian theme and include a non-human character. (I may well have been told that when I agreed to do the critiquing, of course, but between then and now it had evidently slipped my memory and I was puzzled as to why all the stories seemed to be about dystopian futures. At least I understand that bit, although I'm still holding out for a utopia).

There's an intriguing set-up here which feels like it might be part of a larger story - either that, or there's a fair amount which I think needs to be made a little more explicit by the end of the narrative. Johnson and Williams seem to be revisiting a devastated Manhattan sometime after a disaster or societal collapse - they've come down from space, with only sketchy knowledge of what to expect. They're there to meet Jorge, who we later learn is an alien - but why? What's the relationship between the three? How long have they known each other, and why are they working together? All this seemed vague to me despite two readings. We know very little about Johnson and Williams - it's way into the story before we even learn that Johnson has a first name. I think we need quite a bit more context. They bicker a bit - is it because they're enemies, or just that they've been stuck together for too long? Is the tech that they use alien, and if so, what happened? Jorge has been to Mars - but who is living on Mars? Is it other humans, or aliens?

Let's look at the positives - the dialogue is actually quite funny, especially the opener about the Bush adminitrations. I laughed at that, which put me in a good mood for the rest of the story. I also liked the bit about the tech being Jorge's "bread and butter" - felt very naturalistic in context. The stuff with the virtual reality overlay is also very good - it conveys the sense of loss very well. The story is fast paced - a hell of a lot happens in just over 3000 words. I confess I didn't full understand all the ins and outs - the girl, the other spaceship - but I'm always ready to let a story simmer in my imagination for a bit if things aren't immediately clear. It was a bit of a shock for Johnson to die when he did, because until that point I'd felt invested in him as the main character. But that's not necessarily a fault, it's just that we could probably use knowing a bit more about Williams up front.

Negatives: the main fault, I think, is a tendency toward awkward sentence construction. This also affects the dialogue. A lot of time, this is due to too many run-on clauses. Here's an example:

Johnson held out the VIMS which projected an image of a man reading the newspaper on a bench with pigeons at his feet and as he rotated the device it showed a fork in the road.

This would be clearer if it was split into two or even three sentences, something along these lines:

Johonsn held out the VIMS which projected an image of a man reading a newspaper on a bench. There were pigeons at the man's feet. As Johnson continued to rotate the device it showed a fork in the road.

OK, there's nothing hard and fast here but it is something to think about and often it can make all the difference where narrative clarity is concerned.

The dialogue is nearly there! One of the things throwing it off slightly is, I'd suggest, a tendency to insert the attributional tags a bit too late in the line. Here's an example:

“Half of it is probably underground, it’s a dead city. The tourists don’t even come here anymore,” Williams replied.  “What were they thinking building with steel?  The pyramids lasted thousands of years.   New York barely made two hundred.”

I think you need to get that "Williams replied" in a bit earlier:

"Half of it is probably underground, it's a dead city," Williams replied. "The tourists dont even come here anymore. What were they thinking, building with steel?"

Sometimes, moving the dialogue attribution somewhere else means that you might be better off triming a line or two from the dialogue, as I've done here. Again, there's no hard and fast rule - it's just a question of playing around with the rhythm of the thing until it feels "right". And unfortunately, there's really no way of learning this stuff other than by committing a lot of writing until parts of the process start becoming intuitive. If it's any consolation, I still find myself puzzling over bits of dialogue where the rhythm doesn't feel quite right. It's as much to do with what comes before and after the line in question as the line itself.

That's it, I think. Mainly, I think the story would benefit from a bit more context, slipped in as unobtrusively as possible, of course. But good luck with it, and good luck with the rest of your writing.

Al R










Tim Needles's picture
Tim Needles from Port Jefferson, New York is reading Stories edited by Neil Gaiman May 16, 2013 - 1:23pm

Wow, thanks so much for the comments Al! I really appreciate the specifics and the depth of the critique, it's really helpful!  The characters are from a novel that I'm working on so it's helpful to know what I need to fill in for the rewrite.  Thanks so much for really taking the time with the story and especially for the examples!