Tuesday, February 12, 2008

New Beginning 449

I walked into the lab just in time to see the explosion.

Dreanor stood at our bench, swirling a flask. Spell-bottles and potion phials were spread out to either side of her, and the air around her was tinged greenish. She turned as she saw me, started to smile, and then the flask blew up in her face.

“Dreanor!” I yelled, crossing the cluttered room in three steps. She fell backwards into my arms, still holding the jagged neck of the flask. Her head dropped back, and her eyes rolled to white.

The other researchers were by my side in an instant. “Lay her down,” Iris ordered, pushing empty cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, and a case of preserved lizard skins aside, trying to find some room on the floor. “Right here, put her here.” I did, cradling Dreanor’s head with my hand as I gently eased her to the floor.

“Ouch!” I pulled my hand away as quickly as I could without dropping her, then shaking it. “Her hair’s on fire!”

Funny how I hadn't noticed that. Guess I was too busy noting how her eyeballs rolled to white to notice that her hair was a blazing inferno.

"Get some water!" Iris told me, pushing aside spider remains and rodent bones.

I started to go for a bucket just as the firemen ran through the doors. "Whoa," the first one in yelled. "This looks like a charge of battery."

"I didn't do it," I said. "I told her that her face lit up when she smiled, but would she listen to me? No."

"A real live wire, eh?" the Fire Chief replied. "Douse her with foam, Johnson. This one's an electrical fire."

Opening: Shannon Page.....Continuation: Mignon/Christine Elden


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen Continuations:

"I didn't see any flames," I muttered as Iris slapped a towel against Dreanor's hair. It sizzled and smoked, the odor of burnt hair and the bitter reek of chemicals stinging my nose.

Iris's narrow shoulders blocked my view of Dreanor, but I heard her mutter something that included 'idiot' and my name.

"Hey, I'm just the boss. Nobody tells me anything."

"Even the janitor knows more than you do, Looby. He reads the memos. And for someone who supposedly loves his wife, you know surprisingly little about her project."

"Sure I do. Via-something. Altering swamp gas to solid form."

Iris did not suffer fools, which was why I hired her. Usually, however, she treated me with more respect than now. "Viagra, you idiot," she barked at me before ordering the staff to get the stretcher and call the ambulance. "And she was making it for you."


Ted, one of the other researchers, drew back in surprise. "Invisible hair-fire? What a miraculous discovery. She'll be written up in the annals for sure."

"She'll be dead is what she'll be." I was searching my brains for something that might work against such magic, but kept coming up empty.

A few seconds later, it didn't matter. Her skin was starting to peel off as the invisible flames spread to her face. She didn't react. She was gone.

--Christopher M. Park

As I extinguished the lab assistant, I kept one eye on the polyester-clad woman with the clipboard who glared at us with a face like a lemon in a juicer. What a day for a health and safety inspection.

The report landed on my desk a couple of weeks later:

* Packaging materials lying in traffic zones
* Mice, rats and lizards in close proximity
* Cauldrons old and poorly maintained
* Insufficient cleaning of pestles and mortars
* Vials and urns left uncovered
* Recipes poorly catalogued
* Laboratory manager has scant regard for the safety of her staff and lacks the basic skills required for efficient running of the facility

Every time I closed my eyes, I could see that woman sniffing, pushing her glasses up her nose, scribbling her notes. Fucking witch.


Evil Editor said...

“Ouch!” I pulled my hand away as quickly as I could without dropping her, then shaking it. “Her hair’s on fire!”

That should be "then shook it."

Although I would change it to:

“Ouch!” I yanked my hand away. “Her hair’s on fire!”

As you gently eased her to the floor in the previous paragraph, there's little danger of dropping her. Besides, the body reacts to such extreme situatons as having your hand in flaming hair faster than you can think about not dropping someone. Your hand flies out and then you have time to think, Oops I dropped her.

pacatrue said...

Hi Shannon,

I was comparing your query to this opening. Many people in the query comments thought that the searching for the kidnapped child was the hook, and I agree that is the greatest point of tension and importance. However, the spot that you chose here to open the story is potentially interesting as well. I think what was lost, as EE actually said in the comments, is how we get from this point to the pivotal kidnapping. the query says she investigates but the trail goes cold. I think instead you need to tell us in the query what the trail is, what she's learning, and then when the trail goes warm again before the kidnapping, we will get it more. That search has to be the central plot focus or otherwise she's doing a little of this and a little of that and just living like we do in real life.

Anonymous said...

You have a scene structure issue here. That first line is a headline, which is not what you need. It summarizes the scene to come, which kills suspense. Line 1 doesn't tell us anything that isn't immediately told again in a more dramatic story-like way. I'm guessing your writing technique involves writing a headline like this and then creating the scene. Which is an excellent way to do it, but you'll have a more suspenseful narrative if you delete the headlines and let readers discover what happens as the action unfolds.

Dave Fragments said...

This is a nice opening. Matches back to FL 487, I think. I like it.

I know what you want to have happen but this is not realistic. Let me explain. (well, it might get to lecture length).

I've talked about being an engineer. Well for several years, we thought that we might possibly store hydrogen inside crystal using a process called intercallation. Big scientific term that you don't need to know other than to "intercalate" a chemical structure we had to make it expand with hydrazine.

In English, we puffed it up like a sponge with rocket fuel. Groovy experiment and we got to play with rocket fuel. Yanno those maneuvering jets on the space shuttle that they use in outer space? That's rocket fuel - hydrazine. The little boy in me was thrilled but little boy go boom!

I spent many hours in safety class over that stuff. Most of those hours after this accident. We had other problems with hydrazine. So much so, we never ordered it again.

My grad student loaded hydrazine onto activated molecular sieve to purify it and it went WHOOOSH BOOM! right up the neck of the flask and into his face. Burnt his eyebrows off. Turned his face red. And might have torched his hair if he had more than a buzzcut. His eyes were safely behind goggles AS WAS REQUIRED IN A LAB. (pardon, but I yell about safety glasses and goggles.) There's a reason for lab coats with long sleeves, long pants, socks and shoes - protection.

The first thing he did was to walk one step to the eyewash and drown his face in water. Had there been fire, we had a shower over the eyewash, sink sprays and fire extinguishers. The first thing I would have done if he had passed out was to water him under the shower. Water being the cleansing agent is always at hand.

Had the flask blown up in his face, there would have been blood. (not the movie). We had a flask blow up inside a hood and it left only tiny glass shards about 1/4 inch big inside the hood. That's why it was inside the hood.

The flash was ugly yellowish and sodium-like (refer to the flame of a candle.) Copper burns green.

There was no garbage in the lab. I would have been fired if what you wrote - - pushing empty cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, and a case of preserved lizard skins aside, - was the circumstance. A lab is kept clean and neat and orderly and free of combustibles. When I see pictures of filthy labs in any TV show or movie, I know immediately that the writers never worked in a lab and hated high school science. You only have out on the counter what you need at hand. It is all pre-measured, staged, labeled and ready for use. The apparatus is set up and functional. And all of the safety equipment is in place.

Now what might you do with the opening?
I say keep it. It's good and EE's and the minions suggestions will make the writing better. I'm not asking for many words, just a handfull would do to make this more realistic. This is the quintessential case of making one word do lots and lots of work.

Well, the flask won't blow to bits, but a green cloud might gush out of it. The room wouldn't be cluttered. I believe that she grips the flask neck and holds tight. That a normal reaction. That's why you don't catch glass, your hands grip instinctively. Breaking glass cuts the flesh holding it. To this day, I never try to catch a falling object. If it doesn't bounce, I can replace it. I cannot replace cuts and gashes in my hands without pain and blood loss.

He would lay her on the floor between table, bench or chair. Again, there would be no garbage on the floor. Why would anyone work in a fire hazard when they could take the time to clean up and be safer? This isn't obvious to someone who hasn't worked with really dangerous chemicals.

It's a magic explosion. I don't know if you dowse it with water. He might chant something to reverse the spell. The local fire department wouldn't be there that fast, but the internal safety brigade (or emergency response team) would be there that fast.

Also, think about gloves and full-face masks (like a clear plastic welders mask). I've used both. Rubber and leather aprons, lead shields, metal gloves and vacuum boxes.

I know that some of the minions will get a kick out of the time one of the guys (short, blond muscle dude, looked like a midget Matthew McConaghy) picked up a bucket and it crushed sloshing chemicals up the front of his clothing, down his neck, onto his face and over his hands. We stripped him naked and marched him into the showers naked. Made him stand under UV light to see the chemicals fluoresce on his naked skin. Then sent him back to the shower until he was clean. Very clean. Took pictures too. Then we threw away his clothing as hazardous waste. Gave him coveralls for the drive home.
And he thanked us for our good work. (I kid you not.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, EE and minions (so far!). I'll check back for more, but a few minor points...

-Thanks EE for catching my grammar mistake. (shudders)

-Dreanor's hair, being witch hair, is merely smoldering, not bursting into flames. (I'll make that more clear)

-Thanks Pacatrue--yes, I have been working on the query, trying to make the connections more clear.

-Thanks Dave for your long and detailed response! And, well, I probably shouldn't say this...but I do work in a lab. And, lizard skins aside, it does look like that--cluttered, boxes everywhere, benches very very very crowded with stuff. There just isn't enough space for all the stuff and people we've got. And it's a major research institution, too, putting out first-rate science...and no, I won't name names!

-The other thing about the magical lab of the story (which you don't get in the first 150 words, of course), is that they're not working with explosives. So nothing SHOULD have blown up.

Okay, onward! Thanks again guys.

Robin S. said...

I think the tendency toward first line punch lines may have something to do with hearing/reading how agents/editors want an immediate hook or they won't read on.

I'm not saying this means the first line HAS to hook in precisely this way, or even that it should. I'm simply saying I'm guessing this is the background behind anon's "scene structure issue" issue.

That said, I often like the bomb-dropping first line followed quickly by explanation- not because it's the quick-hook-'em-or'lose-'em strategy as much as an age old storytelling device than can work well when done well.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Ah, now we know commenter calendula's name ;o)

Shannon, I think one more good edit to tighten things up and make things more active and urgent, and you'll have a great opening here.

A few suggestions:

Spell bottles and potion phials spread across the table and a green-tinged cloud wisped about her. More active verbs and fewer pronouns.

"Dreanor!" Three steps and I was across the room. The exclam indicates yelling.

Iris shoved aside empty cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, and a case of preserved lizard skins, clearing room on the floor. "Right here. Lay her here." More active - Iris isn't trying to find room, she's making it. And we don't really need her ordering the narrator to lay her down before she's cleared a space.

Delete gently since that's what eased implies.

Use EE's version of the last 'graph. But Ouch rings wrong to my ears. If you don't want to use a stronger expletive (do witches in your world have their own set of oaths?), even "Oh!" or "Oww" would work better, IMO.

Now, government-funded, grant-underwritten labs may work the way Dave describes. But I've been in small teaching labs and worked in a couple of small medical research labs that looked more like warehouses. I do agree with him that if the flask blows up in her face, she'd likely have shards of glass stuck in her face and neck and maybe chest.

Anon continuator: your list made me giggle.

EB said...

To a degree, I'll echo what anonymous has said about structure. I like the opening line, but, as pointed out, it seems like headline. That can be looked at another way: it can be used a bit to build suspense. More about Dreanor or the lab or...something when we know at some point the big boom is coming.

Like Dave, I've spent plenty of time in labs (no exploding jet fuel, but plenty of other nasty solvents and radioactivity), and many of his points are spot-on. I think you missed an opportunity to point out what might be in the lab when you talk about moving aside cardboard boxes and such. Lizard skins, okay. But bubble wrap makes me think MailBoxes Etc, not Witchy U.

As I think about it, it seems your describing not so much a boom! explosion as Dreanor's passing out. Too many details. More disorganized shock, less seeing eyes roll to white. That seems a trite way of describing somebody passing out. And unless the little boom was a capital BOOM!, I'd expect wailing and shrieking, not blithe eye rolling and hair smoldering. Sorry to go on..

Anonymous said...

Heh. Yeah, I was a tad surprised to see my real name there...but that's okay. Any minute now I'll be all Published and Famous, right? :-)

Seriously, I see that I have a bit of polishing to do on this one. And so to it.


p.s. Whoa, new "choose an identity" below!

Dave Fragments said...

Hydrazine is rare in laboratories.
Most laboratories I knew and toured handled water-based chemistry. They had nothing seriously dangerous. Not that you couldn't get hurt, but not deadly poisons, radioactivity or Listed Chemicals (cancer causing stuff).

I'm done telling war stories. ;)

I would say this: Dreanor swirled the long-necked flask. A green vapor swirled around her and the test bench touching the glass bottles and phials used to analyze magic. The exotic glassware held lizard skins, newt eyes and frog guts.
Dreanor smiled in my direction just as the flask belched a green cloud of wayward magic, surrounding her head. Dazzled, Dreanor's eyes rolled back. She wobbled, unsteady, dropping the flask, destroying a tray of rare gnat's testicles. I dashed to Dreanor's side.

Write something more like that. Make the lab magic, name ingredients, put them inside red-gold flasks or blue bottles. Think exotic thoughts and make the lab colorful.

Whirlochre said...

Ah - there's nothing like arriving late to the party after all the booze has been guzzled.

So - I'll go with much of what has already been said on this one, particularly this business of the current must-have desire by writers to brandish a flashy opening line. It's a means to an end I suppose, but one which is already well on the way to mutating into a perceived convention, with all its paralysing tentacles. Having just read some thoughtful comments about The Next Harry Potter on Nathan Bransford's blog (currently towards the the top), I'm reminded of the need, always, to distinguish between necessary and unecessary convention. This doesn't mean I'm about to start rendering manuscripts in turquoise ink on pressed rhino hide or floating bizarre semicolons into sentences in advance of my latent punctuation blindness, but every time I sit down to write in my Charlton Heston kimono, I'm keeping my eye on the calendar. It's 2008 and crinkle halter dresses are in, apparently.

As it happens, the first line in this opening works well and while it may be headlinish (ish), I appreciate the attention to curious detail in the subsequent reportage. In an emergency in a lab - yes - it's those lizard skins that have to be pushed aside. What I'm not getting is much of a sense of who the characters are. I know there is a 250-word limit on openings, but if Dreanor and Iris became Mr Adams and Johnny, it wouldn't seem to matter as far as it goes - but, hey, I'm sure you'll get on to this after the smoke has cleared.

As for reflex reactions, while it's true that you would almost certainly drop a pan of boiling water 'without thinking' if some of its contents splashed onto your hand, you would almost certainly not do so - 'by thinking' - if your baby daughter was crawling on the floor beneath the pan. This is how we got to be the supreme rulers of the universe and not ants.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hmm. I'm afraid I must disagree with Dave's rewrite that focuses on going to great lengths to explain that this is a "magic" lab. What I appreciate about Shannon's snippet is that it doesn't drill that point in. I like that it puts the focus on the accident and not the setting -- in effect, not trying to overload the reader with everything at once, but just dropping in one tidbit with the lizard skins done in a very smooth way. I suspect the reader will be clued in quite quickly as to what the research is and who the characters are.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Aw, but I like the destruction of the rare gnat's testicles.

Can't add to the great stuff already here.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Maybe try dropping the second paragraph altogether. I don't think you really lose anything other than some minor scene setting; and it might fix the structural problem of announcing the explosion, then going back in time to set the scene, then winding forward again...

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

Revised Opening:

I walked into the lab just in time to see the explosion.


I should have been there already. I had left my apartment in San Francisco nearly ten minutes earlier. But it was a long commute under the bay, and the ley lines get crowded in the mornings, especially the good dry ones. And, well, sometimes I had a hard time tearing myself out of bed. Especially on the mornings when my green-eyed warlock Jeremy was in that bed with me.

By the time I arrived in Berkeley, all the underground lines were jammed with witches on their way to campus, so I had to take the more dangerous mid-air route. Which meant that I had to materialize down at the bottom edge of campus, in the back room of the junk store the Elders had set up for just that purpose.

“Morning,” I said to the old warlock who sat behind the battered wooden desk.

“Mmph,” he replied, amiably, not lifting his eyes from his newspaper. A bubbling glass of demonbrew was by his side. I tried not to sniff disapprovingly, but I know I must have given him a look.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Hm. Hm. The other version starts with the explosion. This one starts with saying something about the explosion, then goes off on a rant about traffic.

Perhaps it would help if you decide what tone you want to set with the beginning. That way, you don't have the startling exclamation and the long explanation of what happened before.

Kalynne Pudner said...

I agree with Sarah. It reminds me of (the way my kids tell me) I tell stories: dangle a teaser, then back up and set out all possibly relevant background info so that the dramatic climax is properly appreciated. (Hmm..."too much background" was the theme of most of my query criticisms, too.)

But what ends up happening is that the audience loses sight of the teaser long before that climax is reached.

I do like that your revision establishes the explosion setting as a classroom, and I could see a short step backwards for some buildup. But the whole morning routine just sounds tedious to those of us who want to hear about the explosion.

('Course, I'd like to hear more about Jeremy, too...but not right here.)

Maybe combine the two, something like:

I walked into the lab just in time to see the explosion.

I should have been there already, but the underground lines were jammed, and I'd had to materialize at the bottom of edge of campus. I'd only just nodded a greeting to the old warlock behind the battered wooden desk and started toward Dreanor and my bench when the flask blew up in her face.

Anonymous said...

After reading your original, and your new version, I have this to say.

Writer, I think you're getting too caught up in your 'headline' first sentence.

I think that style of beginning can work in some genres, for example crime, or romance. But it doesn't seem so appropriate to fantasy.

I walked into the lab just in time to see the explosion. I think what you're trying to do here is give the reader a sense of immediacy. Why it doesn't work well for me is that you've now told us what happened--therefore everything that comes afterwards is diluted.

I'd rather see you start *just before* the explosion. Take us by surprise!

Wes said...

Ditto on Phoenix' comment on making it more urgent.

Anonymous said...

Some tome of writerly wisdom I read said the best place to start is the latest point at which you can keep moving the narrative forward and don't need backstory to provide "setup" or "orientation". Which works pretty well, actually.

It has also been said there are 3 ways to begin a story: 1] the "Running Start" wherein there is trouble galore and things are already flying, as in your exploding lab scene, 2] the "Community Start" in which things are already going amiss but the main character doesn't know it yet so we get a brief introduction to his/her world as he/she collides with the Trouble, which might be a well-focused version of this scene, sans that stray line about the explosion; and 3] the "Slow Burn" in which there is no Trouble yet, but just the main character doing miscellaneous stuff for who knows how long, waiting for you to get to the Inciting Incident, which would be an unfocused version of this scene.

If you go to your library and pull out a selection of the classics of your genre, and read the first three pages you will probably find they all use option 1 or 2. If there is any backstory in chapter 1, it probably won't be until after page 5. Why is this? It works. Go study the first few pages of a dozen books of your genre to see how they handle pace and timeline etc and you will have much clearer idea about how to begin.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a problem with using that first line as a teaser, then backing off a bit. But you've stepped back way too far. Past the three point line, past center court. Somewhere up near the rafters where the championship banners hang. The trick, I think is to work the transition. What follows your first line must be in some way connected, eg, the lab or the goings-on therein, perhaps. Instead as another commenter pointed out, we've got a morning commute. (And while I understand you're using details to define your genre, I admit to a bit of mental whiplash, sorting through ley lines and dreamy warlock eyes when I thought there was something about an explosion in the offing.)

Phoenix Sullivan said...

My bias is that I really appreciated in the original you didn't whap the reader up the side of the head with all the witchy stuff right off. It looked like it was going to be a slow and natural reveal for the reader.

In this version, it feels to me like you're trying too hard to world build. For instance, would your MC really be thinking warlock and witch when she refers to the people she interacts with daily?

Take jammed with witches on their way to campus. My first reaction was, "Is this a school for female witches only, since we've been introduced to the word 'warlock' to indicate a male? Or does 'witch' in this world refer to either gender?" But then I wondered if the narrator were Cuban or gay, whether that same line would read, jammed with latinas on their way to campus or jammed with lesbians on their way to campus.

Then there's a witchy reference in practically every sentence that the reader isn't grounded for yet, and it's confusing, and I for one will have forgotten about the explosion long before it arrives again, and who cares anyway since there's no emotion tied to the explosion line at the beginning.

My vote goes to a little tighter version of your original. I thought it was a good start.

Anonymous said...

Thanks guys....still working... :-)

man this writing stuff is HARD!

Whirlochre said...

I'm with Phoenix on this one. Go with a rewrite of the original and introduce the witchy stuff a frog at a time. If you do go with version 2, that suspended first line will have to go.

Bernita said...

I'm with Phoenix - a tighter version of your original.