Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Beginning 502


The watchman guarding the gate--in between drinking and dicing with his friends--told me horses were forbidden the city. And then denied I had a place at the officers' school.

I showed him the letter, and he smeared it with greasy palms. While he puzzled, head bent, over the words, a youth in uniform, and leading two bay horses, approached. Where had he sprung from? I'd checked everyone leaving the Hippolita train to see if Della were among them; I couldn't have overlooked those covetable horses. They scented the air and stepped out lively. My horse's head hung low in defeat. Travel had begrimed the colours of the Aquilla in its mane, and they dangled like the flaccid fingers of drowned men.

The watchman shoved the letter back at me. "S'pose it's all right."

Why should anyone's word count for more than mine? Let the fellow mind the gate; that was his business.

"Till your brother finds out," the watchman added, with a snort.

“What’s all this?” A huge barrel of a man rolled up to us, his finger almost to the second knuckle inside his nose; only Zeus knows what he was mining for. Behind him trotted a wizened little runt with a short man’s scowl.

“Fella has a place at the officers’ school. Has papers.”

The barrel snatched the letter from my hands, smearing it with runny snot. “I don’t know,” he said. “Writing’s smudged bad, paper's greasy. Could be forged.” He turned to the scowl. “What do you think?”

Scowl took hold of the sheet and muttered, “Looks all right.”

I turned back to the watchman. “Then can I--”

“Be right back.” Scowl began to walk toward the gate.

“My letter!” I took a step toward him, but barrel blocked my way.

“I need it,” Scowl said. "You'll get it back."

“Where are you taking it?”

“Right over there," he sniffed. "I got to take a crap.”

Opening: BuffySquirrel.....Continuation: ril


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen Continuations:

He opened his coat. "Here, kid, wanna buy a better ride?"


My brother? His objections would not stop me. I pushed past the watchman and lead my horse on. The horse, its neck arched high, deposited a turd that smeared across the pavement. Ignoring its foul stench, I straightened my uniform and strode proudly into the city. Well-trained in the oldest profession, I had finally found my vocation; camp follower. My brother will just have to find some other whore to pimp.--Stephanie

"Then let's make sure my brother doesn't find out," I said.

The watchman eyed me with a sense of greed and anticipation, like a hound watching a rabbit hole.

I had always been the observant type. That's how I got into officer's school, though the drowned candidates ahead of me didn't hurt. I should have refrained from hanging their flaccid fingers from my horse, however. I had blackmailed the superiors at the school with incriminating sketches and I would blackmail the watchman.

--Julie Weathers

none said...

Lol at the continuations. My poor protag would be horrified! lol

Evil Editor said...

It would be unusual for one's palms to have much contact with a sheet of paper one was holding.

I'm not sure what's meant by "the Aquilla." Aquilla's a character's name, right? What is it that's dangling, and what does it usually do, instead of dangling?

I wasn't under the impression the watchman knew the man with the horse, yet he knows who his brother is?

none said...

/me tries so hard and fails so often

Thanks, EE. Maybe in third person I'd do better!

Anonymous said...

Evil, did you test out your theory about the palms on the paper before posting that, or is that basic editor tradecraft showing itself?

That would never have occurred to me.

...dave conifer

none said...

I have dozens of pages in books with smeared ink where I've been reading them just after applying handcream. But maybe that comes off the fingers, not the palms? I always thought it came off the sides of my palms. Bloody annoying, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Buffy, as far as I'm concerned, you succeeded. I like it -- wondering what happens in the next 150.

...dave conifer

Evil Editor said...

I didn't mean to imply failure. I just assumed my questions would be answered if I were familiar with the setting and the time. My guess was that there's a "House of Aquilla" and they tie ribbons (colours) of this House in their horses' manes. I'm not the least confident that's right, however. The other comments were a nitpick and a question. Does the watchman know who this guy is?

Also, are horses the main means of transportation? Seems weird they'd be forbidden in a city if so.

none said...

Yes, ribbons representing the House of Aquilla, that's right :). They're supposed to catch the breeze and flap impressively. Ahem.

Where I failed is that the watchman's question is meant to imply that Our Protag is way too young-looking for his age (ie the letter actually belongs to his older brother). This causes him problems all through the book. But it clearly isn't coming across :).

Kiersten White said...

I don't know why, but I thought the MC was a woman.

And I had a harder time following this. If things got clearer quickly it wouldn't be a problem, but like EE said, there are too many references that don't make any sense. There's a lot of detail, and much of it is unfamiliar.

But I would certainly keep reading. I can't help myself.

Bernita said...

Buffy, I think it's fine.
You are never hackneyed.

When I hold a sheet of paper in both hands, it rests on my palms.

Evil Editor said...

It should be held with the thumb(s) on the front and the fingertips on the back. Practice that. Even if you need your palms for support, any grease would transfer to the back, not the side with the letter.

Dave Fragments said...

That letter is either going to be rolled as a scroll, or folded and held in a packet with a ribbon tie. Am I right? For someone to rub their palms over it, they would need a flat surface or they would have to crinkle the letter and spread it out.

Another oddity I see is "train" which to my mind implies IRON HORSE and RR tracks. However, I think you mean caravan or safari (something like that).

The first oddity - I have seen horses step lively but "scent the air" only brings to mind the smell of dung. Sorry, but horses smell like horses and unless some fool bathed and sprayed them with perfumed water. Well, you get the idea.

This seems (and wants) to be a letter describing the adventures of Baby Face (not-Nelson). If this is the way long distance communications occur, then the letter is too short and perfunctory. You are losing the opportunity to to name and describe the city, name the school, and add character details. How the character writes to "Suenna" is important.

I hope this letter finds my honored patron well. The gates of Samarkand are as impressive as I remember. However, the watchman was not. At first he forbid my entry with horses relating some silly excuse of a dungg handlers strike. Then he denied I had a place at the Citadel because of my age. When he finally accepted and tried to read your letter, he crumbled the page into a small ball and when he flattened it on the broad expanse of his stomach, he smeared the ink with his greasy hands. The fellow was more interested in his dice throws and food than any interruption by what he viewed as a youth trying to riase higher than his age.

Try something like that as the letter. This shouldn't be a telegram. And being a letter, your reader will probably stick with it until the end.

You should include something that grips the reader or foretells the conflict ahead. Make it juicy gossip.

writtenwyrdd said...

I loved that continuation.

Author, the opening was confusing. I think you might omit much of the 2nd para (the other horses stepping out lively, the other youth) as the point of the para seems to be that he's traveled hard, not that someone else has not. And you give the impression the pov person has traveled by road, and the other horses by train, but confuse me with mention of having checked the train. Too much backstory that doesn't place us in the scene.

The fourth paragraph I liked, but it didn't make sense in context. Who else's word was involved here? The guard hasn't given his word about anything, so there isnt a real comparison in place. "Smeared it with greasy palms" is an off image to me. Dirty, perhaps, but greasy is too odd.

The last line nicely sets us up to expect our pov character is young, and, to my mind, a female.

It's a good choice of starting point, I think. Just not quite working yet.

none said...

Am I right?

Umm, no. Go to the bottom of the class :).

Dave Fragments said...

So how is the letter carried and how does the man smear it?
He CAN just leave greasy thumbprints on it.
I wonder if it is it printed on Vellum, typing paper, newsprint or parchment, rag-paper?

I thought about novels I read that started out and felt like this. Here's the opening paragraph and a half that sounds (at least to me) very much like your opening. I has that letter feel and it draws the reader into it as a friend.

An Instance at the Fingerpost
Iain Pears

Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally, I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst friends. I do no intend to pen a lengthy self-justification, or tell in detail how I deceived and cheated out of renown which should rightfully be mine. My recital, I believe will speak for itself.

I will leave out much, but nothing of significance. Much of my tour around that country was of interest only to myself, and finds no mention here. Any of those I met, similarly were of little consequence. Thos who in later years did me harm I describe as I knew them then, and I beg any reader remember that, although I was hardly callow, I was not yet wise in the ways of the world.

BTW - a fingerpost is a large pole set in the ground at a crossroads with hand shaped signs pointing out the various roads to cities.

Bonnie said...

I like the opening, but I did think the protagonist was a woman, perhaps a woman disguised as a boy. I wasn't clear on everything that's going on, but then a complex world takes time and the basic situation of a young person entering a new and probably dangerous world that s/he doesn't fully undestand is clear enough and well executed. I would keep reading.

Anonymous said...

I searched Evil's blog the other day for references to Aquilla, so I think I'm a little bit familiar with your story line. BTW, I lurve the name and the character. (as much as has been revealed here, anywho)Is this a chapter opening? First sentence missing (in)? Maybe instead of "denied I had a place. . ." you could have some reference to Aq's youthfulness?

I too wondered about the stock (I actually had to order real parchment paper once; it is very stiff, but perhaps the letter is written on woodpulp type paper)and how the letter was transported (scroll, etc). Also agree with WW that P2 is distracting, unless the bays have later significance. Also would say [his mane] instead of its.

I would read on.

LOL on the cont!


Anonymous said...

Shit, I think blogger ate my comments!

P1 is missing [in] the city. And maybe you might want [his] mane instead of its?

I've read everything you've posted (via archives) on Aquilla and I like the character and story line.

I also wondered if the letter was written on paper or parchment (very stiff stuff, that) and whether it was rolled or folded, etc. Agree with WW that P2 is distracting, unless the bays have later significance. I would read on.

LOL on the cont!


Whirlochre said...

Loved the flaccid fingers of drowned men, and I'm intrigued overall, but I did struggle.

Is there anywhere else to sneak in the details of the watchmen's drinking? That sort of set me up with the idea that this was going to be a hard read.

It's better on successive reads, and you've lured me in with those fingers.

none said...

Rag paper is the most likely, I think :).

Dave Fragments said...

The reason I asked about the paper is that it is a historical detail that could bounce a reader out of the story.

Also, as a historical detail, rag paper implies that people are throwing away worn out clothing. That implies they are rough laundering the clothing to wear it out, or wearing it until it's unusable. The former would be your nobleman, the latter would be your greasy guard. It also implies a printing press if it is rag paper. Only a printing press requires regular and square sheets. Hand-written, unbound paper requires no square corners or set size. .
Cellulose-based paper would have been used by Hamlet in the 16th century when he ordered the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The message was written, blotted and folded. Then it was placed in water-proof oil cloth and the entire package sealed with wax. The seal represented the king and guaranteed that the message was protected. It wasn't carried in a pocket like our modern wallets.

A letter on parchment or papyrus would imply a Julius Caesar society around the last century BC. Most ancient writing was lost thanks to the use of animal skins rather than cellulose-based paper. This stuff makes nice scrolls but lousy books. Roman and Greek histories were written this way. Animal skins rot in humid weather.

Your young man at the gates of a city doesn't have a sealed letter (so we aren't in Hamlet's time) and smearing a scroll is already problematic (as I explained earlier).

So I look at the name "Aquilla" and it's Latin or Italian origins and I'm already wondering about the story. I see "Hippolita train" and that too is ambiguous, for if it is a steam engine, and iron horse, then he wouldn't have a steed covered in road dust and dirt. SO I know that's caravan (a group of travelers, as merchants or pilgrims, journeying together for safety in passing through deserts, hostile territory) OR he is traveling alone across country. If he is safe traveling alone why is there a Hippolita train?
So the document that the fat, greasy guard is reading is an important detail. That's why my first comment asked "Am I right?" ... It's not me being cute and adorable. (HAH! I'm not, so don't remind me I'm not!) It's me as a reader telling you that on first read I saw a world with an iron horse, Roman culture and printed paper.

Those elements are anachronistic. I can live with a "world" that is anachronistic, Harry Potter has all sorts of anachronistic elements, so does Spider Man (violates Newton's laws) and Star Wars (light sabers and hand-to-hand combat), but in an opening like this, it throws me out of the story and makes me ask -- Do I have to work hard at understanding this world and Do I want to invest that much time and energy?

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Dave, if I recall correctly, this is an alternate history story. The train really is a steam engine not a caravan. It's not anachronistic, it's Roman-era steampunk.

Buffy, is this a chapter opening? (Is your ms opening still the guys laying track? I liked that.)

Yeah, I wasn't getting the age thing from the guard's exchange.

The second sentence in the second 'graph is a bit convoluted. I had to read it a couple of times to get it. However, because of the focus on horses in other snippets we've read, I think the bays are going to be important and their intro here is necessary. And because I tend to focus on the animals in stories, I liked the horses scenting the air and stepping lively. It gives them personality. As does Aquilla's horse hanging its head.

Maybe for the last sentence in that 'graph:
The begrimed colours woven in his mane dangled like the flaccid fingers of drowned men.

none said...

It's me as a reader telling you that on first read I saw a world with an iron horse, Roman culture and printed paper.

Ah! So that much came across :D.

Thanks everyone who commented :).

Phoenix, don't worry--the track-laying opening is safe. This is the same character, different novel.

talpianna said...

I assumed that "Suenna" was not a person but the alternate-world version of Siena.

none said...

Suenna has an interesting history. I wanted an invented town so that I could be pretty free with the architecture and so on, without being nit-picked to death :D. I had the imaginary town for a long time before I found a name for it, but eventually I woke up one morning and said, "I know! I'll call it Suenna!"

My husband then pointed out that he'd been listening to "Foundation" while I was asleep, and that I'd named my town after the planet Siwenna.


Xenith said...

(This is the opening for the first book about Marcellus (which was Facelift 28). It used to have a different, perfectly good opening that, in my opinion, is much better than this one, but for some reason not really understood by this mere human it had to be rewritten.)
(But don't tell her I said that.)

none said...

Xen, dear, it's had many openings :D.

Dave Fragments said...

I have a friend from college days who works full time for The Society for Creative Anachronism -- strange career and lifestyle. But then, I'm a scientist.

Steampunk is by definition anachronistic. There's nothing wrong with writing anachronistic stuff like that.

And although I remember the name Aquilla, I didn't look up previous references.

I though Suenna was a character and not the town. I was confused and put off by the three elements RR, Romans & paper. And then I had to accept and remember the horses. Then you returned the story to the fat guard and I suppose that the narrator enters the city and reports to officer's school.

That's too much to load into 150 or 200 words. It's confusing the reader with its density.

Bernita said...

EE, I prefer to cradle and cherish paper - not pinch it.