Tuesday, August 15, 2006

New Beginning 73

No Finish Line

His legs were burning, but the miles were rolling by. He couldn't believe he was in the lead. If he could hold on, this would be his first Ironman win ever. If he could hold on - that was the problem. In his last two races, he had had so many nutrition problems and his stomach just wouldn't let him hold through to the end. But today, he could feel it; he was going to be an Ironman champion. His stomach felt great. His legs, though tired, were still moving and at a pretty good clip and his head was still in the game.

Only two miles to go; the roar of the crowd at the finish line was already ringing in his ears. After he made the next turn, it would be a straight shot to the finish. He checked his watch as he passed the twenty-four mile marker on the Ironman marathon course – six-and-a-half minutes for that last mile.

The only thing that could stop him from winning now were the flames engulfing his legs. His shorts were beginning to smolder and he had a decision to make. He could endure the third degree burns, but would the chairman hand the trophy to a naked man?

Continuation: Dave Conifer


Anonymous said...

The writing is good and solid, and the writer clearly knows something about running. This snippet is pretty good - but it needs a hook.

The problem is that there's not much happening yet. Can we move it ahead to the finish line? Or perhaps have some tension, by having the runner fighting a problem rather than just smoothly sailing toward his win? An Ironman race is all about endurance, but reading shouldn't be. Give us some plot-candy as soon as you can.

The bit about the guy's stomach problems could be chopped; the first 150 words is just not a good place for backstory. Also, this backstory would tend to confuse non-runners, who don't consider the stomach to be the body part most likely to complain in a race.

Also, I don't really care about the runner yet. It isn't necessarily obvious to the average nose-in-a-book couch potato why anyone would want to win an Ironman - get us inside this guy's head, so that we understand why he cares about this. You don't want us thinking, "Hmm. One of those loons who likes exercise." You want us thinking, "Yeah! Go, man! You can do it!" Currently, there's not much we can empathise with, but that could probably be fixed by digging deeper into the man's emotional state.

Good luck with it!

Anonymous said...

I am on a roll with my continuations. That's 4 in the past week that got picked up. This was written so long ago I forgot about it...

Anonymous said...

Man, It's getting so everybody wants tension, tension, tension. And you better get to it within 50 words!

This blog is getting like so many things in society. Nobody has any patience to wait and let something simmer and develop. Does everything have to start with a car chase between two passionate lovers? Does every great book start that way?

I don't think it's unreasonable that the writer spent 150 words describing the feelings near the end of the race (and I think there's tension there anyway, just not the kind with fireworks that everybody is clamoring for).

Evil Editor said...

I would get the phrase "on the Ironman marathon course" out of the last sentence. He's been on the marathon course 24 miles; he's unlikely to be thinking about whether this is the swimming, biking or marathon part of the race.

Anonymous said...

One thing that would help is a name.

There's a lot of talk about emotions and so forth, but it's all abstract. It's also distanced in such a way that I'm not sure whether the man is running the race now, or remembering when he ran it in the past. You might try changing some of the verbs from past progressive (were burning) to simple past (burned) to get more immediacy.

It's not bad, just kind of dull. And that has nothing to do with being in a rush to get to the story.

Bernita said...

Would cut the rest of the paragraph from " -that was the problem."
The "if" tells us what we need to know. We expect any runner has concerns, we don't need them detailed as backstory.

Anonymous said...

Cars. Took my acorns to see the movie. What's that got to do with anything? Well, it begins with a race. The hero-car (can't remember the name) looses his tires. Three out of four acorns demanded, that I get them out of the theater, before the race scene was over. The fourth, got bored, shortly after.

Grisham's "The Bleachers". I read it to the end, though I'm not much into sports.

Point? I dunno how many people like to read about races, but I suspect, that more people would be interested in reading, if you start with something else, then plug in the race.

P.S. Love the 'flames engulfing legs' thing. If THAT was in the book, I'd really be interested.

Anonymous said...

The writing is very good, in my opinion.

I agree with Evil Editor. Remove the last reference to the Ironman Marathon. We already know which race it is.

I, too, want to care more about this runner, though. I want to care that he reaches the finish line. As it stands, I do not care all that much. He's a complete stranger.

Can he look to the crowds pushing at the sides? Will he see someone he knows... someone with a worried look on HER face (ok, his face)?

Anonymous said...

Sounds like he needs some tough-actin' Tinactin for that athelete's food. BOOM!

This was probably submitted too long ago, but wouldn't it have been great for a continuation where he gets busted for doping ala Floyd Landis?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:53 --

I agree with you. There's enough excitement here to keep me reading. I know something will happen to this runner. He'll cross the finish line, exhilarated or he'll collapse, near death with a massive coronary. Or not. Maybe he'll feel hollow.

However, I still want to care, regardless of what's happening. I need just a little snippet to hint at his life beyond marathon runner.

spongey437 said...

Ahhh... tension. It does seem that everybody wants some in the first 150 words.

What I was going for here was a feeling of the race and how our lead character is winning and gets comfortable with how he is doing. As it happens, he gets passed by the second place runner within the next 150 words and the struggle(tension) to beat him rises from there.

Wow, a name - you guys want the world. Seriously though, it hadnt even occurred to me that I didn't even mention his name one the first page of the book. I will have to see how I can work that in. maybe just start it with "Alex Foreman's legs were burning..."

Evil Editor said...

As it happens, he gets passed by the second place runner within the next 150 words

If there's a runner close enough to pass him, he'd be spending more time monitoring that runner and less thinking about his stomach. It sounded like he was breezing to victory.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Mouse, I didn't mean to attack you. A lot more people think you're right than think I'm right.

--10:53 ANON

Anonymous said...

I like starting with "Alex Foreman's legs were burning ..." Already better. But why not "Alex Foreman's legs burned, but the pavement still rolled by ..."? Or whatever, to change the tense structure and gain a little immediacy.

My concern, even with your sneak peek at the next 150, is what happens? If this is simply about a guy who wants to win an Ironman, I don't think there's enough there. I believe an agent would need more to sell it to a publisher.

I thought in the next 150 he was going to get pummelled by someone in the crowd or something a little more freaky was going to happen than the guy in second place passing him up.

Don't know what happens in the rest of the story (sorry, been too busy to read the queries lately and I think this was a recent one, my bad), but you might consider starting at a different point.

I'd read on, you've grabbed me enough with the style and suspense, but I'd need something more than the Ironman to hold me for long. If I'm gonna read about the Ironman, I'll wait for Jon Krakauer to do a book on that 85-year-old guy that rides with a six-pack hanging from his bike frame.

Final thought: Start writing about Alex Foreman when he's at the end of his rope. It's good writing, so keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:53 AM:
Nobody has any patience to wait and let something simmer and develop.

I've read plenty of great books that move gently and beautifully along, but most of those drew me into the story very quickly despite their pace. Tension does not mean action; it means that something needs to be resolved.

I do not need a car chase in the first 50 words, but I do want something that makes me want to continue reading.

I think the point when the other runner passes Alex would be a better place to start the story. That "OMG" moment would make me care more about him. I can't really relate to a person wanting to win an Ironman, but I can relate to the panic a person feels when they think they're losing something they really want.

Anonymous said...

Oops; replied before I saw Anon 10:53's second post.

No worries! I love a good debate (Mm; tension! Yummy!). I think your comment got this one moving very nicely. :-D

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

My only issue with this beginning is that it reads too much like what we triathletes write for each other to read, and not like it was written for Joe or Jane Average.

Yes, we endurance sport fanatics know that it's nutrition issues that will get you on these races, not your legs. But your non-triathlete reader doesn't know this. And a 6:30 mile at this stage of the game will mean nothing to a couch potato.

If you're seeking a broader readership than the endurance sport community, you should consider getting a little simplistic.

For example, instead of:

In his last two races, he had had so many nutrition problems and his stomach just wouldn't let him hold through to the end.

How about:

The last time he had been this close to winning, dehydration had caught up with him. But not today!


six-and-a-half minutes for that last mile.

Could become:

six and a half minutes for that last mile-- faster than he could have hoped for, after nearly eight hours of racing.

Of course, if you're aiming to market exclusively to those of us who buy these kinds of books at our LBS, don't worry about it. We're totally on board with putting the word "nutrition" in the first paragraph of a novel. We get it. But non-racers will likely see it as an odd distraction from what they think the race is all about.

braun said...

I think there has to be something to hook the reader's attention in the first handful of sentences. Nowadays it's common to let tension be the something but it doesn't strictly have to be. It could be an unusual tone or POV, an intriguing style, a fascinating character. Or just good, brisk writing which carries us along with it.

I posted about the opening to The Hobbit a while back... how it's got no tension, starts with description and backstory and takes its sweet time getting around to any kind of a plot, but it's still one of the best beloved openings in English literature. So you totally can have an opening without tension.


You'd better have something interesting in there. I have a pretty short attention span.

Regarding this opening, not sure I feel that something.

aly said...

This is basically a good opening, in that it draws the reader right into the action, reveals some tension as to whether Alex will see victory, and gets to the point (i.e., no superfluous adj's or adv's).

However, I agree with whitemouse that Alex needs to earn more empathy from the reader. To a triathlete, his struggles may be obvious; but to a non-athlete like me, some of the details are lost. Give us more concrete details that anyone who is human can relate to. The burning legs are a good start. These kinds of details will also keep the pacing more immediate. I'd take out Alex's thoughts about his stomach problems and his previous races. The reader should be kept in the present for now.

And we need a stronger hook in order to really care whether Alex wins the race or not. Of course he wants to win because he's been training hard, but give us something a little deeper. Maybe he's competing in honor of a loved one. Or maybe he's competing to run away from his problems, or to win respect for the first time in his life, or to...well, you get the idea. Though his underlying motivation shouldn't be blatantly spelled out in the first 150 words, there should be a hint.

Anonymous said...

There have been other New Beginnings that I felt the same way as anon 10:53--that a slower pace was probably appropriate to the kind of book it was. However, those gave me something to care about, an interesting setting, an interesting character, something.

One problem here is that a race is the very antithesis of leisurely pace. But other than the single mention of burning legs, this guy sounds like he's out for a casual stroll.

The second problem is that I've got no reason to care about this race or who wins it. I don't know anything about this guy. Who is he? How is winning or losing going to affect his life? What makes him different from every other runner in the race?

Beth said...

The problem I see with this opening is that we're being told how he feels, not shown. There's nothing vivid or exceptional about the prose; verbs and nouns are common and bland. As a reader, I am detached from this character. He appears to be cruising along, with plenty of time to think about his nutrition problems and check his watch, so there's not even the underdog factor to get me rooting for him.

And starting in the middle of a race, or a competition of any sort, is risky, because without knowing the characters and what's at stake, we are indifferent to the outcome. I'm thinking you either started this story too soon, or too late. My bet is on too soon.

Anonymous said...

My problem is that I can't relate to anyone who would actually choose to run 26 miles. I mean, I might break into a trot to pull one of my kids out of the path of a speeding car, but other than that, I pretty much like to move at a mosey. Maybe a saunter. Athletic types just make me scratch my head.

Macuquinas d' Oro said...

For some reason I thought I was in the head of somebody struggling to finish an Ironman in a decent time, not an elite professional triathlete trying to win his first event. I imagine the mindset of someone trying to win would be very different. He isn't focused on his stomach and legs and feet; he is focused on the need to finally win one for the sake of his sponsors and all the other people who believe in him. He's worried about his one or two serious rivals who have perenially beaten him in the last 5K.
This guy sounds too much like me, trying to keep it together and break 3:30 in a marathon that was won 70 minutes ago.

Very good comments, I thought, from Whitemeouse and Bunnygirl and others.

Dan Lewis said...

Here's the first line of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, not a thriller by any means:

Chapter 1: Perhaps An Accident
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.

This opening raises all kinds of great questions. If it's the finest bridge in all Peru, why did it break? Why did you say "perhaps" it was an accident? Was something more sinister at work? Who were the five travellers? And best, all these questions are central to the story that follows.

Here's the first line of The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

The tension in that line doesn't come from the actions of characters. The tension comes from Tolkien blowing your mind, because you have no clue what a hobbit is. For the next page he talks about the hole, and you still don't know what a hobbit is. And just before he rambles on for another page about what a hobbit is, he mentions that the story will be a great adventure. On page 3, the adventure finally starts: "... one morning long ago... Gandalf came by. Gandalf!"

Tolkien was forced into convention-busting moves chiefly because he was inventing a genre on the fly. He needed that stuff about hobbits in there fast to prevent contemporary readers from throwing the book across the room. But even he couldn't get away from the simultaneous need for some kind of tension.

Authors with a reputation for tension get more latitude to begin slowly. The tension lies between the apparent inaction in the scene and the author's name on the cover. If a Stephen King book begins with someone cleaning the kitchen, the reader's natural response is to wonder what demon from the depths of hell is going to pop out of the garbage disposal.

So, you're a famous author, you're inventing a genre: two reasons it is ok not to do the tension in the opening of your story.

My instinct is to agree with whitemouse and tell you to start when the runner passes him. The details in the current opening can be filled back in incidentally during the struggle to win the race. But only you can make that decision.

Anonymous said...

I think using a name in the first line would distract me, and that this is fine as is.

The only thing I would change is the bit about the nutrition problems. I'm a hiker; I get the food/activity link; but my reaction when I got to "In his last two races, he had had so many nutrition problems ..." was "oversharing!" with a side of "why should I care." It took me away from the intensity of the race, too.

But otherwise, I really wouldn't change this.

Anonymous said...

Dan, thanks. Very educational.

ONe question, and it doesn't mean I don't accept what you said:

If somebody came to this blog and submitted 2 pages of description of a rabbit hole, what would happen? Would minions say "great convention-busting tension!" or would they say "boooring, we need action!" ?

Anonymous said...

On reading the Hobbit, the minions of 1937 probably said, "Jolly good beginning." That's why it was successful.

EE's Minions - ah, well, they're a tougher breed.

Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry about the last comment. Just realised Anon was referring to rabbits and not Hobbits.

It doesn't matter what you write about as long as you hold the reader's interest. There's a short story about boxing which just grabbed my attention in the first three sentences and I'm not a sports fan.

Beth said...

If somebody came to this blog and submitted 2 pages of description of a rabbit hole, what would happen? Would minions say "great convention-busting tension!" or would they say "boooring, we need action!" ?

Depends on how it was written. Because tension is not the same as action. It comes in myriad forms.

Anonymous said...

Beth, that's exactly how I feel. Just because nobody is slipping on a banana peel (or crossing the finish line) doesn't necessarily mean there's no tension. A tension (the best word we can come up with, we all know what we mean) is absolutely essential and is what makes a novel different from a users manual.

I still think that it's OK if that tension isn't established in the first 150 words but that's a matter of style, I suppose.

braun said...

Dan, I get what you're saying but calling that "tension" is a real stretch.

Tension is "someone's just pulled a gun on me." Tension is "there's a dead body here." Tension is not "Gee, what kind of creature must a hobbit be, to live in such a silly hole?"

Intriguing, yes. Tense, no.

Dan Lewis said...

Good question, anon 4:00. Well, there is some pretty good rabbit fiction out there. But you're right, there is a world of difference between "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," and "In a hole in the ground there lived a rabbit." But maybe you can recapture some of the magic by doing something like, "In a hole in the ground there lived a gentleman rabbit."

I think establishing shots like Tolkien's work if the setting has enough character, or is strange enough, but I think these are probably few and far between. Tolkien's works partly because the description is interesting, and partly because he set his hooks in you quickly.

Here's an opening I think probably wouldn't cut it today:

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy's country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

Of course, it's the first paragraph of the first Sherlock Holmes story. There was a lot more leniency for this kind of langorous opening a hundred years ago (there still is, in some genres). But the story really picks up on page 2 when Watson hears about a strange guy in the chemistry lab looking for a flat.

Beth said...

I still think that it's OK if that tension isn't established in the first 150 words but that's a matter of style, I suppose.

Think of tension as a form of friction or conflict. A character with a problem. Or it can spring from gap between what we're shown and what is only hinted at. Tension can be expressed in action or only in atmosphere and word choice, or it can exist entirely in the head of the reader, in the form of an overwhelming need to have a question answered.

One of those forms of tension should be present in the opening, the closer to the first sentence, the better.

Anonymous said...

Dan, you understand me better than I understand myself!

You made the point I was fumbling around. These days, on this site anyway, that Sherlock HOlmes opening would have been blown to bits by the minions. We would complain about lack of tension, no action, too much backstory, yada yada.

I think that those are important elements, but we shouldn't let the dog wag the tail by evaluating it solely on whether it follows any particular pattern. If it's engaging, to heck with the rules.

I think an experiment is in order. I'd like to see the openings of classic works posted, so us minions could apply our series of litmus tests and conclude that Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner shouldn't have quit their day jobs. It would be very educational.

I think we've gotten a bit shortsighted, requiring trite blockbuster scenes on the first page.

braun said...

Any of you read Alan Furst? WWII spy novels, amazing writer. This is the opening to his novel Kingdom of Shadows and is pretty standard for his openings:

On the tenth of March 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagon-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there'd been difficulties at the frontiers for some of the passengers, so in the end the train was late getting to Paris.

Check it out. We don't meet the main character in the opening paragraph, it's all background information, and there's no tension established here other than the generally tense atmosphere of 1938 Europe (the brick thing is not pursued further in the book).

This was published in 2001.

Why does it work? Well, for me it's because I'm instantly transported to pre-WWII Europe, something Furst is brilliant at. It also gives you a good taste of the author's style, which I very much enjoy.

If you need a hook in the first paragraph you'll probably put this down, but that's a good thing because Furst's books are much more "historical novels" than "thrillers". They're quiet, atmospheric, moderately paced and require very careful reading and attention to detail. With this opening, the reader knows exactly what she's getting herself into.

Personally I like that.

Anonymous said...

Beth, I understand and agree completely with your definition of tension. It doesn't have to be 2 guys in boxing match. It could be a guy who has a blister, or a girl who wants to go to college when her father wants her to get married. It could be a person who doesn't know why there are voices in his head. It just has to be two opposing forces in play, however subtle (or not) they may be.

I just don't think everybody here agrees with us.

And I think readers have long enough attention spans that it doesn't have to be spelled out in the first paragraph. The confusion, I think, is based on the increasing requirement by agents and publishers that THEY be able to understand what the tension is within a few seconds of reading something they grab off the slush pile. So more and more we're writing to get past the gatekeepers rather than for the reader.

But then again, what do I know?

Anonymous said...

Beth and Anon 9:35, I completely agree with you, and I'm wondering why this has to be stated so many times.

Repeating Beth's very clear comments:

[T]ension is not the same as action.

Think of tension as a form of friction or conflict. A character with a problem. Or it can spring from gap between what we're shown and what is only hinted at. Tension can be expressed in action or only in atmosphere and word choice, or it can exist entirely in the head of the reader, in the form of an overwhelming need to have a question answered.

Repeat, everyone: Tension is not the same as action.

Anonymous said...

Found the boxing reference if you're interested:

FX Toole's 'The Monkey Look'

I stop blood.

I stop it between rounds for fighters so they can stay in the fight.

Blood ruins some boys. It was that way with Sonny Liston, God rest his soul. Bad as he was, he'd see his own blood and fall apart.

Isn't that a vivid opening? I get queasy at the sight of blood but this is irresistable. I want to get sucked into the author's world and care about the characters and that's not happening with No Finish Line.

Afraid agents tend to skim the first paragraph looking for that 'love it' reaction and if you don't hook them immediately, you've lost 'em.

Minions here want to help - you've got a great reaction and some useful advice; in particular, Bunnygirl's. Good luck.