Sunday, June 03, 2007

New Beginning 286

Carol Richens walked to the top of the grassy observation mound before she pulled a cylinder of Smart Nicotine Delivery System from the front pocket of her military style, bio-fabric khaki shorts and pinched the end of the cylinder to fire the tobacco. She is the Superior Leader of the Global Women's Army of Environmental and Military Engineers. Not one woman on the PanWestern American Training Base would dare notice that she was using an SNDS outside the defined hours and within the sights of the new Engineering recruits.

After the enriched hybrid tobacco was burning, Carol hooked the thumb of her ruined left hand into the side loop of her waistband, then used her good right hand to lift the brown cylinder to her lips as she thought about the meeting of the Superior Leaders from all four quarters of the country that had just ended. She took a deep pull on the cylinder and held the smoke in her lungs. The old system of country, state, county, and city might have been cumbersome, expensive and wasteful, she thought, but there had been so many leaders under that system that duty, responsibility and blame had been spread thin. She shook her head and sighed.

Below her the crowd erupted in cheering as the motorcade at last rolled into view. Using her good hand, Carol lifted her EnviroKill Ballistic Delivery System 304 A to her shoulder and waited, waited, then released the projectile. The male leader's head snapped backwards.

To Carol's surprise, she heard a loud report from the direction of a large nearby building, and immediately wondered who else could also have planned this removal. The Women's Army of Medical and Dental Workers? The Women's Union of Free Farmers? Or--and the thought chilled her--could it be a lone shooter, acting on commands no one else could hear? It didn't matter now, as the people were running to the vehicle, many screaming and crying. She quickly removed the Hawking Time Travel Apparatus from her pocket and pulled the return fob.

Opening: Anonymous .....Continuation: Khazar-Khum


Evil Editor said...

Not chosen, but excellent:

Still, there was something to be said for the old order.

She coughed once, twice, then hacked up blood the third time.

First it was that new arsine-based cream that had eaten through most of her left hand. Now it was lung cancer. If she'd only known about the risks sooner.

Getting rid of all the mayors, governors, presidents, dictators and royalty from the old system was one thing. Ditching the Surgeon General was quite another.


Beth said...

Nothing happens in this opening. Lots of detailed (and distracting) description and stage business, but no conflict. No story. Just a woman smoking and thinking.

Try to find the place in your story where the engine starts--the incident that jolts the plot into motion. That's where you start.

PJD said...

And fix the tense issues. (She is the Superior...)

Once again, beth is quite correct. What worries me about this opening is not so much that it's two paragraphs of nothing happening, but that it's two paragraphs of nothing happening in a training camp, which leads me to believe that after 20 or 30 pages there still may be nothing happening.

I'm sure someone else will point out how long your sentences are. Also, at the end of the second paragraph I'm unclear whether Carol preferred the old system of state/county/city or not. Blame being spread thin could be either a good thing or a bad thing at this point, I think.

Continuation: Really well done.

Anonymous said...

Nothing hooks me in this opening. You have a character ruminating and smoking and it reads like an information dump. Interesting details, such as the tobacco, but try to weave it into a scene in which something happens.

What about leading with the scene of the superior leaders from four quarters? It sounds riff with conflict. You could also get some of your world-building info to the reader less obtrusively. Hearing about the meeting after the fact is kind of a let-down.

Anonymous said...

Call me old fashioned but I'm willing to give a book a few paragraphs, pages or maybe even chapters before the first car crash. In general, I find that if I throw away my supreme amateur writer's rulebook (to which I am also addicted) which says "START WITH ACTION!!!, there are for more pieces that I enjoy.

I liked this and would like to read more.

Chris Eldin said...

Carol Richens walked to the top of the grassy observation mound before she pulled a cylinder of Smart Nicotine Delivery System from the front pocket of her military style, bio-fabric khaki shorts and pinched the end of the cylinder to fire the tobacco.

I think you can shorten this first sentence, and then tell us what she's observing from the top of mound. That's what I was reading for, and felt disappointed that I didn't get to see what she was seeing.


Dave Fragments said...

I'm with the other comments. An opening consisting of a person thinking! No action. If I didn't have dinner cooking, I'd be comatose from the excitement.

PJD said...

No one said a car crash had to happen in the opening paragraphs. Most of the books I really enjoy don't have a car crash until the second page, sometimes not even until page three. In fact, I just started (re)reading a play last night that I really like, and it just starts with a changing of the guard on a night watch. The ghost doesn't even appear until well into the first scene, and then it doesn't even do anything! It just makes like it's going to do something and then disappears when the cock crows. And everyone stands around talking about it until the end of the scene.

I guess for me the issue is not so much that "nothing happens" (clearly things happen--she walks, smokes, thinks, shakes her head, and sighs). Leading with the Very Special Name "Smart Nicotine Delivery System" to me reads like an author standing up and saying, "Look how clever I am to come up with a military doublespeak kind of Name for a cancer stick!" Then to focus so much on the cylinder (the word "cylinder" appears four times in the two paragraphs) just reinforces the feeling that the author is hitting me over the head with "little details" that are meant to illustrate... Something.

And all this gives me the impression that I'm about to read a book where the Little Details Illustrating Something outweigh the actual characters and story.

I'm not saying that's how the book is. I've only seen 150 words or so. I'm saying that's the impression this very short beginning leaves me with.

McKoala said...

Both continuations, pure genius.

The opening didn't grab me, mostly because I felt that I was being told stuff, not shown. 'She is the Superior Leader etc. etc.' (and that's a tense change from the previous sentence). Then in the second para she helpfully thinks about the political system. As a first couple of paragraphs, these didn't hook me.

Anonymous said...

Augh! It's a smeerp! Please don't call it a Smart Nicotine Delivery System when what you really mean is a cigarette.

Anonymous said...

The continuation (Very Good!)on this was the only part I remembered from my morning's read. So I had to make an effort to erase that cont and just look at the first two paras. I agree with just about everybody's comments (even anon's to some degree -- I'm willing to read more). I started thinking "Handmaid's Tale" (new world order)as I read the socio-polit content. I thought the "spread thin" sentence was long enough to make a clearer point than it does. I interpreted it to mean she was going to have to take the blame or responsibility for something that(in the old world order) would have been shoved under a rug somewhere.

Having EE post your intro: $0

Having some beacons of clarity shine their light on your work: $0

Making the first 150 words of your novel crisp as corn snow: $0

Having Phoenix write a cont. of your intro: priceless


Anonymous said...

These two paragraphs establish setting. We get a lot of info about the world here, and that should be important in speculative fiction, right? Well, it is -- to an extent. What's equally important is how that information is dumped.

Unfamiliar description needs to be slipped into the story the same way a pickpocket slips a snic out of a Superior Leader's regulation khakis.

Don't tell us "the enriched hybrid tobacco was burning." That's like saying "the fuel-efficient, all-terrain sports vehicle started up." It's not natural, not how your character would think about the everyday thing in her hand. Carol, however, might take a slow drag, taste the citrus hint in the smoke, and think, Phil-Mor Labs finally got it right. This enriched hybrid stuff really rocks.

It's nice that we already have a sense of character about Carol and an inkling of who she is and what the world's about. Just parse out your descriptions and don't be so heavy-handed with them. Trust your reader to fall into the rhythm of your world as you unwind the most important thing about it: the story.

Robin S. said...

I'm with anon 4:20. I'm willing to wait to see what "happens", and take the time to enter the world being described.

I agree the tense of the second sentence looks like it needs to change.

I'm good with the sentence length.
I like it. Sentence length is a taste and rhythm/cadence issue, not black or white, right or wrong, in my opinion. "Correcting" sentence length is akin to correcting personal style, I think.

Anonymous said...

Augh! It's a smeerp!

margaret, thank you so much for inspiring me to Google "smeerp" and to come up with this delightful list. Imagine my chagrin that I've not seen it before, though I have heard a few of the terms. Now I have words to use to describe some of the things I've seen here (and some of the things I've perpetrated on my writing groups)!

Anonymous said...

If the writing is excellent, you can get away with having nothing happen, at least in some kinds of books.

In this opening there were so many details that i couldn't form a mental picture of the woman and what she was doing. If you are starting with description, you have to make that description fantastic to make up for the lack of action, IMHO.

Xenith said...

The first paragraph reads like a satire, which could be fun. As a serious piece, certainly too many little details.

'Smart Nicotine Delivery System' sounds like politically correct marketing speak. I like, but surely it has a pronouncable short form, like Smarts? Snids?

And "Global Women's Army of Environmental and Military Engineers"??? That spells GWAEME. Shouldn't it make a cool acronym?

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Robin. It used to be that the best thing about books was that there was room for patience and development. Now, given the growing media fixation on instant gratification, books are being thrown out the window because there's not enough conflict in the first 150 words. I've been sorry to see that the movie industry is being ruined this way and I'm even sorrier that the literary scene is heading in that direction too. Most of the great books from the past 300 years would have failed these new "tests".

Before long we won't have anything except "Die Hard" books and movies.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, this didn't grab me either.

This appears to be futuristic science fiction. Author, you might want to check out the openings of your favorite SF novels and see how many new things get introduced at the onset. Generally, just enough to make the reader a promise: what kind of book this is. You fill in the details over time.

Also, let's be a bit more realistic. Would a human person actually think of a neo-cigarette as a "nicotine delivery system"? I think not. There would be slang, or they might still call it a cigarrette, smoke, fag, cig, etc.

Anonymous said...

I don't think a society enlightened enough to let women fight would need "Women's" in the name of their army. It sounds straight out of the 40's. Just call it an Army. We'll learn eventually that it's all-female.

I was annoyed by all the "calling a rabbit a smeerp," but I'd read on to see if things got interesting soon. Right now it's a soldier having a smoke. I can see that at the VFW whenever I want.

Sylvia said...

I think "heavy-handed" sums up the problem with this intro for me. Just let the reader work out the details of this brave new world as it goes on.

AmyB said...

I'm in the camp that thinks the sentences are too long. I'm a lazy reader. I don't like reading to be work, and when sentences are very long, I often have to consciously parse them, instead of just getting absorbed in the story. Add to that an excess of details, and my brain is saying, "wait, this isn't fun, this is work."

I'm exaggerating a little, because I think the concept and worldbuilding do sound fun. But I hink it could be made more accessible and engaging.

I'll also agree that it might be best to find a different way to open the novel. She's thinking about a meeting. It isn't a particularly strong hook.

I have no objection to "Smart Nicotine Delivery System," as long as there's a story- or setting-related reason for it having that cumbersome name, and I suspect there is.

none said...

And some of those classics would deservedly not make it these days. Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a great book, but the opening is dull, dull, dull. If Hardy had started it when the vicar met Durbeyfield, it wouldn't have taken me three tries to get into the damn book.

You don't have to start with action. You do have to start with something interesting, something that inspires the reader to read more. Description can do that. Someone standing around smoking can do that. This, imo, isn't doing that. It reads like the author is trying way way way too hard. That's all.

Beth said...

Anon 8:04 said: Now, given the growing media fixation on instant gratification, books are being thrown out the window because there's not enough conflict in the first 150 words.

Many of the older works of literature do indeed pass the sniff test for a good opening, even if that opening is written in a different style than would be popular today.

When people criticize an opening for lacking conflict, they're not necessarily begging for sword fights or car chases. You can have conflict in a very quiet opening--even in one that's purely description. (Look at the first two sentences of Gone With the Wind if you doubt me. The description of Scarlett O'Hara foreshadows one of the basic conflicts of the entire book: that Scarlett is at war with herself.)

Part of the art of good storytelling is learning how to infuse conflict and tension in every word you write. And the opening is not exempt from that.

GutterBall said...

Ponderous, man. This is ponderous.

I'm not usually of the "something fabulous must happen in the first sentence!" camp, but I gotta lean with them on this one. The sentences are long and info-stuffed with bits that could come out later or in a less heavy-handed way, as Sylvia described it (admirably). And while I have no problem with a story starting off with an officer smoking a toke and thinking about a meeting just past during which she got reamed for something that probably wasn't entirely her fault, why can't you just say that? In normal-speak?

Sure, you need your own Voice. Sure, you need to firmly establish the setting/time period in the early paragraphs, but you don't have to conquer Rome in an hour. Parse it out a little and grab the reader's attention before bashing him over the head with your world.

Of course...I've been accused of too little description time and again, so you can feel free to disregard every word. Heh. I'm a big fan of "less is more" in my own writing. Just not in what I read. Bizarro, huh?

Kanani said...

Would you please just call a cigarette, a cigarette?

It's stuff like this SNDS signals a book full of extraneous details that in the end are going to bog down your character and the plot.

I think you're seeing your scene just fine. Now find a more streamlined way to tell it and parse out the details differently.