Monday, April 28, 2008

New Beginning 493

The evening’s shadows lay coiled under blades of grass, their black tips poised to lick the sun’s retreating heels in a feast of powerless neon.

Out he crept, hunched and squinting, weaving between the weeds with the spindly limbed nimbleness of a huge preying mantis, wrapped in a snorkel parka. Overhead, the gathering clouds drew a shroud over his furtive excitement, obscuring his movements from the eyes of the gods. Beneath him, bugs looked on in awe.

He fiddled with the gate latch and peered out through the wayward shock of hedge and nettles to check the coast was clear. From window to window to window, silhouettes of strangers flickered behind the painted frames like an incomprehensible cartoon strip running the whole length of the street, but between the trees and the badly parked cars, there wasn’t a soul in sight. On any other night, it might have been almost perfect.

House martins spiralled above him in search of evening insects to satisfy their brood. Branches stretched across the fading orange sky like skeletons dancing in a cartoon while wearing SCUBA gear.

He slipped across the sidewalk, bulged and rutted by shifting roots, and hid against a trunk, tight like moss hiding from the sun. He held his watch toward the fading light and squinted at the hands. And squinted. And squinted.

Bugger.

He'd forgotten what he set out to do.


Opening: WO.....Continuation: Anonymous

28 comments:

Kiersten said...

I like the imagry of the first paragraph, and I was interested, but then you lost me at snorkel parka. What on earth is a snorkel parka?? One doesn't wear a parka while snorkling.

And loved the last line of the continuation...brilliant.

Evil Editor said...

Is it the guy or the preying mantis in the snorkel parka?

It sounds like you're satirizing a style of writing. The problem is, I'm not sure. If it's supposed to be funny, it's not far enough over the top. If it's not supposed to be funny, it's too far over the top. You need to either rein yourself in or let yourself go, depending on what you're after.

benwah said...

Much too much. And not in a Marlene Dietrich kinda way.

The opening sentence is interesting, if packed...until you add that the shadows are set to feast on powerless neon. That makes no sense to me. Sunlight isn't neon. If there are neon lights, you haven't mentioned them.

I suspect EE is correct. Either tap the stylistic brakes a bit or make it clearer that this is satirizing a style.

Dave F. said...

Basically what you are saying is that the guy left his house at sunset, opened the gate and looked at his neighborhood from behind the hedge. There's not much there to hold a reader. What is this strange, nameless man up to? Why is he creeping out like a mantis? Is he a mantis? Is he an alien mantis landed on Earth waiting to feast on the unsuspecting strangers in the houses. I am reminded of the Harry Potter novels where in variably JKR describes the very mundane house on Privet Drive and within a hundred or so words, something strange happens - owls deliver letters, eyeballs appear in the hedges, Fat Aunt Camilla shows up... things like that.

You are enjoying the language. It's so easy to fall in love with the words we write. These are nice descriptions.

Distractions:
-- There's a continuity problem... In P1 the shadows are "poised" meaning it's just at sunset, and in P3, It's night. That's a fast passage of time.
-- A snorkel parka reminds me of Kenny from South Park. And the use of the word "shroud" in close proximity, reinforces his episodic dying.
-- Unless this is fast-growing carnivorous razor grass, P1 is a who cares.
-- Incomprehensible cartoon strip is Doonesbury. I never understand what that guy s doing.

Whirlochre said...

To clarify, a snorkel parka is an eskimo-style nylon coat as worn by English schoolkids in the 70s. Here, it serves as an indicator of Shadow Man's shabbiness.

So, he wears one, and moves like a PM. I was undecided how to fuse the parka and the mantis — in draft 1 it reads like he resembles a preying mantis in a snorkel parka, which is clearly ridiculous. Draft 3 beckons.

As to the overall pitch, I'll wait for a few more comments before ripping my own head off and swallowing it with my exposed windpipe.

Whirlochre said...

Dave.

Thanks for flagging the time factor — it's a stumbling block for the whole chapter. Glad it's not just me.

I take your point about the owls. I've left their equivalent till the next para.

Scott from Oregon said...

I'm a big fan of unusual, descriptive prose, but if I can't make sense of it, I get irritated.

The trick is to know where the top is and not go over.

Snorkel parka didn't bother me, not because I knew what one was, but because I assumed I didn't and that's fine.

I would love to say this was all very cool and all, but I really had trouble "getting it", which is unfortunate, because you are barking up my alley...

Phoenix said...

Whirl, I think it's clear there's "something afoot" in these paragraphs so I disagree with Dave's Rowling comparisons. In fact, in two cited, we have nothing more exciting than mail being delivered (the owl is simply world-building) and someone coming to visit. Your guy is clearly sneaking around for some mysterious, unknown reason, which could certainly be hook-y enough.

Except. Yes, a tad too much description, even for this descripto-loving gal. Some things that could go without losing meaning or voice, IMO:

in a feast of powerless neon

huge [small PMs are pretty nimble, too - besides, your comparison is to the nimbleness not the PM itself, so size here is irrelevant]

wrapped in a snorkel parka [You could bring this in later to indicate his shabbiness and the weather conditions. In this sentence, it's simply overload and, to an American audience, incomprehensible because it's not part of our vernacular]

drew a shroud over his furtive excitement, obscuring [condense to simply "shrouded"]

Beneath him, bugs looked on in awe.

to window

incomprehensible

whole

In the first 'graph, if the shadows are coiling under the grass, the tips wouldn't yet be black. So perhaps:

Night lay coiled upon the grass, the blackened blades licking the sun’s retreating heels.

Out he crept, hunched and squinting, weaving between the weeds with the spindly limbed nimbleness of a preying mantis. Overhead, the gathering clouds shrouded his movements from the eyes of the gods.

He fiddled with the gate latch and peered out through the wayward shock of hedge and nettles to check the coast was clear. From window to window up and down the street, silhouettes of strangers flickered behind painted frames like panels of a cartoon strip. But around the trees and the badly parked cars, there wasn’t a soul in sight. On any other night, it might have been almost perfect.

blogless troll said...

Guess my comment was eaten. I'll try again:

I liked this. I didn't know what a snorkel parka was either, but now I do, so I learned something. However, I did think it was part of the PM metaphor, that the PM was wearing the SP.

As far as getting to the action, holding the reader, much too much, etc., I'd read on. It's only three paragraphs for crying out loud. I'd rather read three more paragraphs of this without any action than three sentences of action in some of the published novels out there.

BuffySquirrel said...

Where my comment?

I have no knowledge of these snorkel parkas of which you speak. We had, hmm, parkas.

Without a big sign informing me this is meant to be funny--I need those a lot--this would be a first line rejection.

Getting old, that's my trouble!

Dave F. said...

I have to return to the owls. Normally, I'd let these comments be and not add anything further. However, these "spooky" openings are delicate prose.

Those owls presage things. These owls aren't simple letter carriers. These owl are harbingers -- like Wotan's ravens, they bring bad news. These are the owls of chapter one of the Philosopher's Stone and not the owls of chapter three who carry the invitation to Hogwart's School.
I'm borrowing from the HP Lexicon.
...He didn't see the owls swooping past in broad daylight, though people down in the street did; they pointed and gazed open-mouthed as owl after owl sped overhead.
...
Mr. Dursley, however, had a perfectly normal, owl-free morning...


Everything about Privet Drive is normal. It is the paragon of suburban boredom, normality and mundanity. Except today there are owls. In Britain is is bad luck to see an owl by day.

To "Hear the Owl Call My Name" is from Kwakiutl legend. It calls the names of people near death. Margaret Craven wrote a book on that and by strange events, it was part of my HS catechism.

And what happens? A baby is delivered to it's only surviving relatives. An Aunt must hold her sister's child in the worst of circumstances.

My point to WO was that although we can start a novel with mundane imagery, it has to link to the story. It has to further the story. Now I don't know what is beyond this opening. I do know and others have pointed out that something has to happen shortly. Are the "evening shadows" an image carried through the book? Is the "preying mantis" metaphor maintained? When WO says - "On any other night, it might have been almost perfect" which aspect is not perfect, is extraordinary, or is abnormal and not mundane? Is the character the intruder? Are the neighbors "wrong"?

You see why I mentioned the owls?

We are confronted with vivid images - the black tips of the shadows, the mantis, the stormy sky, nettles, an "incomprehensible cartoon strip" ...
Which of those images move us forward into the narrative? I suggest that WO pick one and carry it through the first chapter in the same manner the owls presaged the arrival of the baby Harry by magical methods.

Anonymous said...

Looks like my comment got eaten too. I was just going to say:

1. prAying mantis, not prEying.

2. Yeah, a bit too purple, the prose. Use sparingly--a little is fantastic, too much is...um, too much. :-)

Robin S. said...

Hey WO-

I love love love your prose, both when I can and when I can't understand it - because so many of your single images, as, for ex:

silhouettes of strangers flickered behind the painted frames like an incomprehensible cartoon strip running the whole length of the street...

are freakin' licking gorgeous images, and spot on. I see so many the pictures you've painted.

I hope you don't get beyond sick of me saying this, in so many words, over and over, but I think you simply need a few 'grounding' sentences - simple ones, direct ones, intermingled with your licking gorgeous ones, to give the reader (me) a grounding. Something to hold onto. Something concrete.

I love your singular take on the world - I just need a clear shot, here and there, to see it, so that I can know why I'm being sent there. Then I'm yours, and I'd read on.

The continuation, ah, was spot on as well. And bugger me for saying so, but you're as anonymous as I am, Sparky Junior.

freddie said...

Love the continuation. That last line is the story of my life.

I would read on. I like some setup before I get keeled over with action. For me it adds to the tension.

Like Kiersten, I loved the imagery of the first paragraph. I also liked the first half of the second paragraph. You sort of lost me at the gathering clouds drawing a shroud part, as I was wondering whether you meant they literally drew a shroud over him, or whether seeing them dampened SM's excitement. There were several sentences like this, where I had to stop and ponder what I thought you meant.

Overall, I like it a lot. I just think some of the description needs to be more clear.

Scott from Oregon said...

"I hope you don't get beyond sick of me saying this, in so many words, over and over, but I think you simply need a few 'grounding' sentences - simple ones, direct ones, intermingled with your licking gorgeous ones, to give the reader (me) a grounding. Something to hold onto. Something concrete."

I had a few minutes to spare so I thought I'd toss in another nickel...

The reason I couldn't "get it" were actually two separate ones. In your first sentence--

"The evening’s shadows lay coiled under blades of grass, their black tips poised to lick the sun’s retreating heels in a feast of powerless neon."

--you just went too far. I was fine until you gave the sun heels (sun's have heels?) and then-- "in a feast of powerless neon"... my my my what ever could that be?

Licking is not feasting, to start with. And then, you got me to agree that shadows can lick, and even if I agreed sun have heels...

I now have to figure out you meant "without power" as in AC current, and not some other "power".

Pardon my French but it's all a mind fuck and leads me away from what you really intend, and that's to get me to realize that the sun is going down. (Well, why didn't you just say so?)

The other thing that madde this too viscous to drink were the adjectives you paired with nouns "furtive excitement" "wayward shock"...

I think these are cool pairings, but on top of the images that you make us leave the scene for-- sending us into clouds with gods' eyes, off to see what cartoon frames look like, etc...), it just further confuses an already taxed mind.

I couldn't swim through a short story this curdled if I wanted to.

McKoala said...

I have no idea what's going on, but some of the description is stunning. (That's stunning in a good way). A combo of Phoenix and Robin's suggestions might help my confusion.

Julie Weathers said...

I enjoy beautiful writing. It's something I can't master, so I have a greater appreciation for those who can.

I liked the first sentence until we got to powerless neon and then I was confused.

Second graph, I don't care for the praying manis and the snorkel parka.

Don't care for bugs looking on with awe. Most bugs just look on with fear at big feet, if anything. At least that's what crossed my mind.

On any other night, it might have been almost perfect.

I love the last line. Very well done.

We can tell something is happening and wonder what he's up to.

talpianna said...

I'll wait for a few more comments before ripping my own head off and swallowing it with my exposed windpipe.

Now THAT I'd pay to read!

Sarah Laurenson said...

I used to wear snorkel parkas. It's perfect with the praying mantis image.

I love the imagery. I think dropping a tiny bit and changing a little order makes it work for me.
I'd read on.

Here's my suggestion:
The evening’s shadows lay coiled under blades of grass, their black tips poised to lick the sun’s retreating heels.

Wrapped in a snorkel parka, he crept out, hunched and squinting, weaving between the weeds with the spindly limbed nimbleness of a huge praying mantis. Overhead, the gathering clouds drew a shroud over his furtive excitement, obscuring his movements from the eyes of the gods. Beneath him, bugs looked on in awe.

He fiddled with the gate latch and peered out through the wayward shock of hedge and nettles to check the coast was clear. From window to window to window, silhouettes of strangers flickered behind the painted frames like an incomprehensible cartoon strip running the whole length of the street, but between the trees and the badly parked cars, there wasn’t a soul in sight. On any other night, it might have been almost perfect.

Whirlochre said...

Just about to leave a comment when Sarah popped up.

Ah! The miracle of the internet.

Like your edit better than Phoenix' version as some of these seemingly extra words are clues to what happens next.

So, in answer to Dave...

We are confronted with vivid images - the black tips of the shadows, the mantis, the stormy sky, nettles, an "incomprehensible cartoon strip" ...

At risk of purpling myself out, I have to say all of them are necessary. Each of these elements feeds into what happens later and your questions are precisely the ones I want the reader to ask. A man walks to the end of his garden — but why like this?

More in a sec...

Anonymous said...

To snorkel parka or not to snorkel parka. That is the question.

Sometimes it's just fine to talk about an object that many of your readers are bound to be unfamiliar with. But since snorkel parka is such a bizarre, misleading term, it draws tons of attention to itself. Is it necessary? I googled it and it looks something, like, um, a regular ski jacket. Give it a miss.

Also, I think if you are going to write this type of descriptive prose, it has to be really, really good, much better than action filled prose. The bar is higher.

I got stuck trying to imagine coiled shadows UNDER blades of grass. WHAT? Think about it. I was willing to accept coiled shadows even though shadows down't really coil - that's as far as poetic licence took me. The words are nice but there ain't no coiled shadows under grass. If you are going to write this kind of description... I have to be able to read it without stopping to say to myself WTF.

ChrisEldin said...

I liked the first two paragraphs because they set the mood. I didn't think they were over the top.
And I liked the first sentence of the third paragraph. But after checking to see if the coast was clear, I wanted a change of pace. I wanted something to happen, not more looking around.
Just an opinion, but I'd keep reading.

Whirlochre said...

Zoinks!

OK. I'm awake now.

I'm heartened that some of the images seem to work, but disheartened by the way they remain submerged for some of you.

So — here's a revised version. I've chopped some stuff that cluttered it up (like the neon, which I never liked). This has left room to usher in a little 'action' — the owls, if you like.

I'll stick my neck out with the parka — and the shadows remain coiled as springs.

Thanks to all — including the anonymous house martin flapper.

It will still be found wanting, but is this a step in the right direction or do I still need more shopping trips to Machetes 4U?

Shadows lay coiled under blades of grass, their black tips poised to flail the sun from the heavens.

Out he crept, hunched and squinting, weaving between the weeds with the spindly limbed nimbleness of a huge praying mantis. He fiddled with the gate latch and peered out through the hood of his snorkel parka to check the coast was clear. From window frame to window frame, silhouettes of strangers flickered like an incomprehensible cartoon strip running the whole length of the street, but between the trees and the badly parked cars, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
'Let the grass verges of the evening throw up their wonders,' he whispered, scuttling onto the pavement. 'Let the fruits of every canine alimentary canal be ripe and juicy for the plucking. And let this never, ever happen again.' A sharp pain stang him atwitch from deep beneath his eyes. 'It's far too early for this. Far too early. Spoilt.'

Dave F. said...

Please tell me that you don't want to put the image of a steaming pile of dog poo on the first page of your novel? Please tell me that.

""Let the fruits of every canine alimentary canal be ripe and juicy for the plucking. And let this never, ever happen again."

I don't like to use adverbs. Badly parked is too much. It makes a judgement that you should let to the reader.

I think that he should peer through the hedge and realize that the street is empty. It's more logical. Then he looks to the houses to see the imitation of life in the widows.

I would not use the image that the shadows are like knives to shred the night. It might tie in later but you're asking the reader to remember too much. The only reason for an image like that would be if the villain is using a knife to shred something and that knife imagery prevails all through the novel.
It's a great image, but you've fallen in love with your words. If it read: Shadows lay coiled under blades of grass, their black threads poised to stitch away the light. You would have no trouble getting rid of it as not helping the story. That's my opinion.


Here's my reduction:
Shadows lay coiled under blades of grass, their black tips poised to banish the light. 



Out he crept. His head hunched and eyes squinting from beneath his snorkel parka. He looked through the hedge, through the nettles with the spindly-limbed nimbleness of a praying mantis.

He peered out from behind the gate. The coast was clear. There wasn’t a soul in sight. From window frame to window frame, silhouettes of strangers flickered like an incomprehensible cartoon strip running the whole length of the street.

"Let the grass verges of the evening throw up their wonders," he whispered, scuttling onto the pavement. A sharp pain stang him atwitch from deep beneath his eyes. "It's far too early for this. Far too early. Spoilt."

ChrisEldin said...

You deleted the second paragraph!?
I liked the second paragraph.

Bernita said...

Whirl, it's rich and vivid, but a little too dense.
I like your skill with imagery ( really, really like it) but spread it out a little.

benwah said...

Whirl, as someone who's frequently enjoys playing with language a bit too much (I let my character's speak without much of a leash), I have to say I enjoy the way you use the words. It's not necessarily the kind of thing I'd choose to read, but I give you high marks. (Rather like reading Martin Amis at times) Personally, I thought the line about the efluvia from fido's alimentary canal was perfect -- in that it captured a very particular mood and style. Collecting canine cloacal coils? I dunno what he's up to, but this ain't no Harry Potter. (For which I am eternally grateful.)

I'm still on the fence about the shadows under the grass being a bit too anthropomorphic, but I like this version much better, perhaps because we get that character in there. And why the HELL is he collecting dog shit?

Kiersten said...

I like it. And I like the introduction of dialogue, it breaks it up enough for me to add interest.