Friday, March 20, 2009

New Beginning 618

Sechra stopped just below the hill-crest. She didn’t know what might wait on the other side, and she’d be foolish to meet it with her breath ragged and her heart pounding from the steep climb. She breathed deeply. The smell of ripe blackberries rose warm and sharp from the bramble thickets. Winter would be on them soon, whether or not she was here to know it. She didn’t know how long it took to find the hidden spring, or whether, having found it, you could come back.

Well, and she didn’t know if she would want to come back to her aunt Rena’s house, to the Dunlin villagers who looked with wary curiosity at the outlander’s orphan, to days filled with spinning and milking and gardening and small gossip. She had liked it little enough when she thought she had no other choice. But since she met the old woman yesterday, since she knew she had a choice, she had been aware of something wild and sweet in the world around her, something she might miss.

Sechra finished her climb, then went down the other side of the hill. She pulled aside a clump of bracken, and there was the spring! Beside it, blackberry vines half-hid the old woman's still.

"Back for more already?" The old woman had appeared seemingly from nowhere.

Sechra smiled. Yep, she thought. Winter in Dunlin will pass a lot faster with a few jugs of Old Lolly's Wild and Sweet Blackberry Homebrew on hand.

Opening: Joanna.....Continuation: Batgirl


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuations:

And miss it she would. There were many wonderful discoveries to be found in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Unfortunately, she was stuck in the Ninety-Nine Acre Wood.

--Chris Eldin

The round of buckshot that crashed through the cooling air did not miss, though, and Sechra howled as it perforated her thick-furred backside. Her great clawed forefeet dug into the loamy earth as she waddled quickly to the crest, escaping.

On the other side the mountain slope stretched out, tangled with blackberries and sharp with pines. The bear went over the mountain, to see what she could see.


Sechra sorted out her breath again. Right. Aunt Rena could stuff her special springwater. Wild and sweet, she reminded herself, and began cramming blackberries into her mouth.


She crested the hill and saw a small copse, just a few meters away. That had to be it. She sprinted over to the trees, squeezed through the brush, and there it was: the hidden spring! And it could walk down stairs! Now life had meaning; now she had a Slinky!


Just then, the ground shifted under her, and with a mighty SPRROOINNGG the hidden spring uncoiled, sending Sechra flying high above the hill-crest. And so she returned all too swiftly to Dunlin, but fortunately plump Aunt Rena cushioned her landing.


"Hello there!"
Sechra gave a start. The old woman was waiting for her at the rocky outcropping, already unpacking her marvelous basket of wonders. As if hypnotized by the strange new scents, the bright circles and squares of color, Sechra drifted closer.

"Now this is Avon's starter kit, everything you need to get your business up and running. Mm, smell this lip gloss! Cherry vanilla!"
Sechra sighed, her heart heavy. How could she return to her simple peasant life when the wide world of home based, woman-empowering entrepreneurship beckoned?

--Sarah from Hawthorne

Evil Editor said...

My research indicates that in the US blackberries peak in June in the South, July in the North. In the UK "Superstition holds that blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas (29 September) as the devil has claimed them, having left a mark on the leaves by urinating on them. There is some value behind this legend as after this date wetter and cooler weather often allows the fruit to become infected by various molds such as Botryotinia which give the fruit an unpleasant look and may be toxic."--Wikipedia

I mention this because you say the smell of ripe blackberries was rising, and that it's almost winter. If the blackberries are ripe, it's probably early autumn at the latest.

I'd delete "since she knew she had a choice,"


"whether or not she was here to know it"

Neither is adding information.

batgirl said...

EE, you should have given yourself co-credit on that continuation. It is marvelously sharpened and polished.

Joanna said...

Great continuations! Thanks all.

EE, I haven't researched wild blackberries but I've picked them in Maine and upstate NY, where they peak in September. I'll need to think more about this.

writtenwyrdd said...

Lovely imagery in the first paragraph, but I also recognized the approach of winter wasn't at hand if blackberries were ripe on the vine. There also needs to be some sort of logical connector between the idea of ripe blackberries and winter's approach, along the lines of

She breathed deeply. The smell of ripe blackberries rose warm and sharp from the bramble thickets BUT SHE KNEW Winter would be on them soon ENOUGH. (And then perhaps something to indicate why this particular though is relevant.

The omitted "whether or not she were here to know" attempts this but doesn't do the job, being both too vague and a trifle awkward in construction.

You can obviously write well and have a lovely voice here; but everything has to point the reader int he right direction in an opening. Figure out what the purpose is (if you don't already know, which I am sure you do) and make sure all the points you mention feed that sense of things and the information you need to convey to the reader.

Evil Editor said...

It does get cold in October up north, but technically, late September is a week after the end of summer.

Joanna said...

Right, I see that the blackberries aren't working for readers. Up here we have ripe blackberries up until hard frost (which can come at the end of September), and often snow isn't too far behind; for farming purposes winter is October to March. But this detail isn't necessary and seems to be distracting. I'll cut the blackberries and substitute southbound geese. (The season is important for story purposes, as will be clear later in the book.) And perhaps change 'winter' to 'cold time', which is a looser and longer term.

Any other distractions I should fix?

writtenwyrdd said...

I actually love the blackberries and I'd hate to see them go. You could call them something like "a few stray, Autumn blackberries" or something, and keep that lovely bit of scent you evoke. It's very nice.

Dave F. said...

Try this version of your opening:

The smell of ripe blackberries rose warm and sharp from the bramble thickets. Winter would be on them soon. Sechra stopped just below the hill-crest. She didn’t know what might wait on the other side, and she’d be foolish to meet it with her breath ragged and her heart pounding from the steep climb.

The Dunlin villagers looked with wary curiosity at an outlander orphan. She didn’t know if wanted to come back to aunt Rena’s hous and long gone days filled with spinning and milking and gardening and small gossip. But since she met the old woman yesterday, she had been aware of something wild and sweet like the blackberries but fraught with danger and foreboding.

_*Rachel*_ said...

Nice and descriptive, but I'm wondering: is this the start of your book? As in, the very first words people will see on the page?

batgirl said...

I liked this. The writing is smooth and readable, and you do a fine job of fitting in a bit of backstory without distracting.
I like the blackberries (smell is too often overlooked in scene-building) - maybe consider whether they'd draw as much attention when there was more than 150 words on offer? Calling them 'late blackberries' or similar would probably gloss it enough for a casual reader.

BuffySquirrel said...

If it's the meeting with the old woman that has set Sechra's life on a different path, why not start there?

talpianna said...

EE, the version of the folklore I've seen is that the Devil spits on them--which fits better with the moldy look.


_*Rachel*_ said...

Buffy said it. If this is your beginning, it's well-written but dull. If all Sechra's doing is wandering around thinking, I'm putting the book down even if it does have nice imagery. Steinbeck could open with cornfields, but that's a bit boring nowadays. You've probably got action right after the cutoff; move it up. You've only got so long to hold my attention.

And a little more editing wouldn't go amiss. Dave's version, I think, is a good example. Polish your prose up a bit so your description shines. You've got good raw materials--use them.

Anonymous said...

This sounded D. Gabaldonish to me, but I did like it and I would read on. Loved the LOL conts!


Dave F. said...

All of the elements of a good opening are in the text. It took me a few hours to find the words explaining why I wrote that suggested revision and how ideas in the original opening work.

I didn't care much for the blackberries UNTIL I found out that they could be moldy and bad to eat. That works with Sechra's hesitation in cresting the hill because something bad might be there. That covered the first paragraph.

As for the second, well Sechra's hesitation in the bucolic surroundings sets up the reader for a description of the town. The trick here is to use the old Hitchcock twist and only half describe the town and what might possibly be bad for Sechra. In fact, I barely describe the town as inviting because of the backstory about Sechra being an orphan and outlander. Sechra is not of this village and still of this village. She's different and people naturally fear the different.

The Hitchcock trick is to leave the reader with a sense of foreboding and let the reader's mind imagine and envision the bad. Go back and watch the murder scene in Hitchcock's FRENZY where the young lady discovers she's the latest victim of the strangler and the camera backs away from the room and the audience only hears their voices. In our minds we see the strangulation and nothing Hitchcock could have put on that screen will ever match the horrific images we create. Even in Hitchcock's imfamous shower scene, he never shows the knife entering the woman's body but the audience cringes and screams because they imagine worse. So create the sense of foreboding and use the images to point at the villain or the evil.

I didn't quite succeed. That last sentence of the second paragraph isn't good enough for prime time. I'd rework the rest of the stuff over and over again. I'm obsessive/compulsive that way.

For the third paragraph, I think Sechra has to enter the village and find something disturbing or off-base or not quite right. Even if it is just a whisper or a the image of an object out of place. Later in the story that object or words (whatever it is) will return and introduce some jeopardy or trouble. Even the blackberries can return... Sechra can note the whiff of overripe blackberries before she meets a bad guy or gets into trouble. Do the same with the object that causes ill-ease.

And to over-explain, you want to set up certain objects, smells, feelings and observations as foreshadowing the story elements. Think of Alfonso Cuarón's imagery of the clocktower in "Prisoner of Azkeban." It's omnipresent and what was the gimmick in "Prisoner?" Why it was time travel. All those shots through the clock tower gears and the chiming bells and the ticking drop hints to the viewer. Set up those themes or motives in your story.

Anonymous said...

This might be just me...

I got stuck on the first sentence. I found myself pondering how one can stop "just below" a hill-crest. One can stop just below an overhanging ledge or other such clear and specific landmark, but to find the exact point where one is just before the crest of a hill... I think the word 'just' is the problem here.

You go on to mention how puffed she is, and yet how she is worried about what awaits on the other side, which made me think she would have had this worry much earlier and she ought to have stopped well before the crest of the hill (rather than just before) and composed herself.

Call me obsessive-compulsive, but it's a logic flaw that bothered me.

Your writing is nice and readable, though. I get a sense of character.

BuffySquirrel said...

Well, soldiers manage to stop just before the crest, but Sechra isn't a soldier, so, I guess that's a valid point :).

Joanna said...

Thanks for the advice, everyone.

Dave, I think you're skillfully sketching out the opening to a very different book. This one isn't horror. There is no mysterious menace in Dunlin, only the mundane problems Sechra already knows. Beyond the hill there is an entrance to a world that is much more dangerous.

Buffy, I've thought of opening with Sechra's meeting with the old woman; I might try that out and send it in for advice.

Rachel, I tend to prefer reading older books that give the reader a feel for character and setting before plunging into high drama. And some contemporary fantasy does this too--I'm thinking at the moment of Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo.

Batgirl and Writtenwyrdd, thanks for the advice on the blacjberries, I can fix that.

_*Rachel*_ said...

Just as long as you aren't mimicking Victor Hugo and spending every other 50 pages describing a bishop, Waterloo, or a nunnery. Control your urge to pontificate during chase scenes, and I'm fine. Dunno 'bout agents and editors, but I can't speak for them.

And if you are as long-winded as Victor... good luck, you'll need it.

150 said...

I actually just read a book blaming pookas for bad blackberries after Michaelmas. It's not shaping up to be a very reliable book, but I thought I'd throw that out there since it amused me I came across the same legend for the first time twice in the same day. :)

Dave F. said...

Now that read back what I wrote last last night, I agree - you're not writing dark horror. Still, the techniques can work with bright and happy images. Keep writing. I like your writing.

I was very amped up last night because of BSG. It's been a long time since I saw a TV show written for adults.

batgirl said...

I'm not seeing pontificating in this passage. There's a pause, and thoughts, and for some readers that won't suit, but in this pause we see what's behind Sechra, and get an idea of what drives her and of the world she's in.
Not to say it might not fit just as well in her meeting with the old woman, and present it in a livelier way, just saying that this isn't the same as giving us a potted history of Dunlin and Sechra's precise relationship to Aunt Rena, which would be cause for a bit of eye-rolling.

By the way, my son talked me into reading Chabon's Kavalier and Clay. Want pontificating? You got it. Want the history of comic books, the life of Houdini, the story of the Golem, and oh, yeah, what were the characters doing the last time we saw them?
So that hasn't been left behind with Hugo or Dickens, and Chabon is a successful literary author.

Anonymous said...

I saw Kavalier and Clay for $2 at the Red Cross shop the other day. I considered buying it, despite giving up half-way through Wonder Boys (loved the movie but thought the book unfocussed). So thanks, Batgirl, I'll save my $2.