Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Beginning 638

When the alarm screamed out, I watched them run for the elevators, moving people out of their way as they ran the length of narrow hall, carpeted for quiet. What I’d just seen was the truth of what they were underneath all their strong pretending.

Then, later on, when it was all over, I watched them being really nice and polite and polished up again. But I knew. I still knew, and I wouldn’t let them work on me to make me forget what they were underneath all that polite pinstriped suit crap, down under their skin.

They don’t trust you after that, which makes them act really nice afterward around you, like they’re saying without words just forget about that just forget about all that, that didn’t mean a thing.

But it meant everything. It was another one of those there are two kinds of people in this world instances. And there really are, you know. There really are only two.

There's people like them, people who act all high and mighty, like they never do it, like they never would do it, like they don't do it all the time except they don't get caught.

And then there's people like me, people who aren't afraid to pee in the middle of the office hallway when the need arises.

Opening: Robin S......Continuation: Adam Heine


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuation:

They were Colgate. Shiny, new, such promises! And then you squeeze them and all you get is minty goo.

I knew when I saw them that I was a Crest. Oh, not as shiny or new as they were, certainly, but when hard times came and I was squeezed, all I got was... minty goo?



Evil Editor said...

I would put a comma after "were" in each of the first two paragraphs. Otherwise some readers will think "underneath" goes with "were," i.e. they were underneath something. They'll figure it out, but the pause will save the trouble of having to.

In "They don’t trust you after that," you mean after you've seen them run for the elevators like starving people running for a bakery? I don't see that as the best possible example of the kind of people they are, mainly because I don't think those people would pay enough attention to who saw them running for the elevator. In order to start acting nice to everyone who saw them, and not really trust them, they would have to remember everyone who witnessed it. And if it happens frequently, they'd have to remember everyone every time. Do they see you two weeks later and think, There's that woman who saw me running for the elevator two weeks ago; I don't trust her. Maybe I should buy her coffee and a cruller.

none said...

So there are people who know you don't use the elevators when the alarm sounds, and people who don't know? Crispy.

Adam Heine said...

I admit, I didn't really get what was going on. Where are we? What was the alarm for?

What is "the truth of what they were" that they're revealing? Is it that they run when there's an emergency? If it's a fire drill, okay, they're over-reacting. But if it's 9/11 or Godzilla, then the narrator might be too smug.

I like the voice in principle. It's strong with fun insights. But without knowing what the actual emergency is, I can't tell who's overreacting: the narrator or the others. Consequently, I'm not very sympathetic towards the narrator.

Anonymous said...

Okay, once I read the cont and then reread the first sentence, I laughed pretty hard. Nice job, Adam.

This is interesting--I want to know what is going on, but it's just a little too long for me with the you know but won't tell us bit. Nice voice, though.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

This is a good hook. I would keep reading.

But I have to say that when a fire alarm goes off in my office it's like pulling teeth to get people to evacuate. There are so many false alarms and fire drills that it would take real plumes of smoke and flame to get people to panic.

Unless, of course, this is some different kind of alarm you're about to tell us about.

Evil Editor said...

It wouldn't hurt to call it the fire alarm (if that's what it is) in the first sentence. After five words I'm thinking it's her alarm clock.

writtenwyrdd said...

I particularly like the opening line and what it implies--that these people are despised by your pov character for their selfishness--but the followup isn't there to confirm my inference.

I felt we needed a bit more to be grounded into the situation and the character's mind. I don't believe it would take much, just a specific mention once of the pov character's attitude, and then you dive into the purpose of this.

Is this a real emergency or a drill? If it's a real emergency, the pov character's distanced and despising view of the people makes him feel like he's planning to shoot them or something.

Overall, you show good writing skills, but this particular opening needs a couple of tweaks to place the readers where you want them. Too many loose ends or too much guessing required means they aren't going where you want them to.

Dave Fragments said...

In the buildings I worked in, the instant the fire alarm went off, the elevators dropped to the first floor and opened. It was hard wired. I had nasty discussions with the safety people about this.

I'd cut "carpeted for quiet." It's a distraction. I know what you're trying to say that "their" floors are carpeted and plush. Common workers floors are not. But here, it is a distraction.

You use the word "just" too many times. I noticed it. Maybe you should leave it for the third paragraph only. It's much more effective there. It packs a punch there. It's a wet noodle here.

"What I'd just seen was the truth..." is a bit weak. You're talking about their behavior illustrating their selfishness and lack of concern for others. That underneath all the pretense of being friends or equals, they believed they deserved to live and the rest deserved to die. The narrator witnesses behavior that confirms their alleged superiority.

"I wouldn't let them work on me"... This makes me think of kneading bread dough or using a ratchet with a socket set. "I wouldn't let their pretended affection and false friendship make me forget"

"It was another one of those there are two kinds of people in this world instances." I think this sentence is weak but I've been trying to think of a replacement and I can't come up with a good one. Maybe it's that I don't like to use the "was" in any sentence. Maybe "This illustrates" or "This exemplifies" or "This demonstrates" ...

Is this language deliberately written down to match a character's traits? If so, use "was" in my prior comment.

Chris Eldin said...

I really like this a lot. It's subtle and layered, and if you take the time to enjoy the writing here, it speaks volumes about the main character, and her nemeses.

Nicely drawn, R.

_*rachel*_ said...

I wasn't thinking fire alarm. I hypothesize that this is a top-secret test facility and the narrator is one of the subjects; the people who ran are the scientists. Or at least something secret and important and dangerous.

I think the italics you had got lost. They help.

I think it could be condensed just a bit--cut a few phrases here and there. Not much else.

Knowing your reputation, this may end up places I don't like, but this hook is something I'd read.

Robin B. said...

I agree, EE. I need those commas.
(I also need those italics, by the way.)

As for the people noticing, some offices, say, executive suites, with only a few staff on hand, wouldn't pose the problems you mentioned. Everyone would know what happened - and all hoo-ha exec cachet, gone with the proverbial wind, baby. Forever.

Especially if the narrator is a longstandig member of the working underclass.

For my money, a first person narrator is by definition an unreliable narrator, even when she (or he) isn't aware of it; as with anyone.

So the world-building use of language may not be picture perfect or even grammatically correct here and there, but it's not always supposed to, wouldn't you say? I sure would. It seems to me a first person narrator's use of language is an invitation to understand her point of view.

Evil Editor said...

Found your italics. The second set could be quotation marks or even hyphens between all the words, as it's one long adjective.

Adam Heine said...

There's nothing wrong with an unreliable narrator. What I was saying is that I (and maybe I, alone) get the impression that the narrator is overly smug, and so I don't like him/her. So far there's nothing to make me want to stay in this character's head for much longer. Smugness grates.

Joanna said...

I liked the character; then, I find class smugness (from the lower end) easy to identify with... I especially liked the "they don't trust you..." paragraph. And yes, the narrator's reaction to the event as described so far sounds excessive, but that just made me more curious about what the aalrm really was.

_*rachel*_ said...

Yes, I'd go with "unreliable" to describe my narrator if his/her gender was ambiguous. You're scaring me.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Ah, yes, those italics make all the difference. ;o)

In context, it might make more sense, but the narrator watching the execs run while the alarm is screaming seems a bit off. I think it's because, for me, watching implies calm, studied behavior, which, if this really is a crisis -- unless maybe the narrator pulled the alarm herself as an experiment? -- isn't the kind of reaction I would expect. It's that distancing thing that WW also noticed. I think maybe just taking the narrator out of that sentence might help: When the alarm screamed out, they ran for the elevators.... Maybe you're going for parallel structure in Ps 1 and 2? Still, it seems too much of a detachment in P1.

Maybe, too, holding back a bit on the repetition and saving it for important points would make the points stand out more. I don't think you need "watched them run" and "they ran the length" in the same sentence. Or the narrator telling us the truth of what they were underneath all their strong pretending as well as underneath their pinstripes as well as under their skin.

It's not so noticeable in a short piece like this, but used throughout a novel, that kind of repetition could become anticipated, which would make it lose its punch and maybe become less delightful for a reader. Too much of a good thing, you know. Great in small doses like we're getting here, but a whole novel of it? I'm not sure I'm up for that. But that could just be my taste.

You definitely have "the human condition" part of "literary novel" down cold!

Dave Fragments said...

Let's think about Robin's opening.

My experience with fire drills and real fire (or evacuation alarms) is different than what I read here.

Many of my coworkers used rather dangerous chemicals and compressed gasses. So when we had emergencies (like a broken valve spewing explosive gas, or a fire, or a spill, we left it to the professionals to handle. The "fire drills" or "emergency exercises" were conducted twice a year and usually had fake dead bodies or serious injuries. So the attitude from the first anyone conceived of doing an experiment was "safety" and the second consideration was Safety!

It was the disgruntled employee -- those grumpy, curmudgeonly jerks who wanted less work (and did next to nothing) -- who never the building left in a timely manner during fire drills. Or found an excuse not to evacuate, or didn't report to afire warden... Or did something equally stupid! Refusing to comply with a fire drill is not even childish because all grade school kids behave and leave the building. (even if they fuss and fidget and chatter and act silly, they follow the leader).
When the bosses (who were the first to respond) started naming the people who did this at All Employees Meetings, the evacuation times quickened. Repeating a drill once a week while a parking lot full of employees looked for the laggards also helped.

One night, we had a fire in a 20 foot high hot stall that left a circle of black burn mark on the ceiling 30 feet above the stall. It only burnt for 30 seconds. We showed everyone that burn just because it was a good example of what not to do. We also showed everyone a blast wall 20 feet high with a 1 inch bow in the middle from a small hydrogen pop (not a real explosion).

I've been near a few "events" in my research. The "start your heart" type events (or "cleaner!" events as we called them)...

For a few years, we had weekly safety meetings. I got to "teach" the safety manual or sit as one of my coworkers "taught" one of the 55 parts of the safety manual.

All of this causes an entirely different outlook on safety, safety drills, planning and what to do in a real emergency. Think about that airplane that had to land in the Hudson River. How did the pilot do that? Practicing the unthinkable or the impossible. Not that I was anywhere near as good as that pilot. He's what we aspire to be.

So this should give some insight into why someone would look at bosses who "walk over" or "move people out of the way" with disgust. From the top, the organization holds something other than its employees important. A boss is not more important than a mere secretary or janitor in a fire.

All of us intuitively understand this. Even without drills, without practice, without safety meetings, we know how to behave in an evacuation. That is what points up the cultural difference Robin is pointing out in her opening. A sense of entitlement that "I'm first out" is appalling. It serves the opening better than car-chase action or gunshot action.

And not only that, it serves to explain what in any other circumstances would be considered unjustified behavior. If the narrator didn't perceive a class distinction -- we're better than you. Of course, the narrator could be wrong and paranoid, as opposed to right and merely disgusted.

That's what was on my wandering mind tonight.

McKoala said...

I like the tone; I like what this reveals about the narrator. As you say, she's not necessarily reliable. There's a bitterness behind the naivete and the distance she puts between herself and them. I think she's planning on blowing them all up.

I did have some difficulty in the first para, particularly placing myself at the start, with 'they' and 'people' and not knowing who either group was. I'm assuming it's a fire alarm. Given this is a chapter start, the context of the previous chapter may clarify.

I'm also not sure if you need 'carpeted for quiet' - there maybe another way of making this point.

I liked the second para, but not sure you need 'crap'.

I agree with EE on the trust point. I'm not sure it's trust. After perhaps a moment of shame, wouldn't they be oblivious to the thoughts of the riffraff, these pin-striped monsters? After all, their opinions don't matter that much to the Great and the Good?

Last para is great.

That is a wickedly hilarious continuation.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Hey Rob - love the voice, as always. I think this piece might need a bit of tightening and perhaps some stronger verbs. It feels like your message is getting a bit lost. I tinkered with it, but since I'm the soul of brevity, it's probably lost your unique touch. Hope this helps.

When the alarm screamed out, they raced for the elevators, shoving people out of the way as they scrambled down the narrow hall. What I’d just seen was the truth of what they were underneath all their strong pretending. When it was over, they were nice and polite and polished up again. But I knew. I still knew, and I wouldn’t let them work on me to make me forget what they were underneath all that polite pinstriped suit crap, down under their skin.

They act really nice afterward around you, like they’re saying without words just forget about that, forget about all that, that didn’t mean a thing. But it meant everything. It was another one of those there are two kinds of people in this world instances. And there really are, you know. There really are only two.

Neelloc said...

Hi Robin. I like the energy of the first para. I agree this needs to be tightened; to me the repetitions drain out some of the tension, weakening the prose. A minor nit is the word 'moved'; it sounds like the suits are picking people up and moving them like mannequins. I was wishing you'd send something in, so I'm pleased on that score. : )

Whirlochre said...

Late in, and I'm with much of what has been said — were underneath, the excess carpeting etc.

What I like is the way the voice is coming through loud and clear, and if it's unreliable, so much the better.

Robin B. said...

Hey you all,

Thanks for the ideas and comments.
What will 'come to pass' through the rest of the second novel - this is a chapter opening in it - is that the person the narrator is disappointed in and frustrated with is herself, although she never says it - as most people don't.

It's easier to toss those frustration bombs out to other people than turn them back in yourself, if you feel boxed in and hopeless. And it helps when the objects of your mistrust actually do deserve that mistrust. Happens all the time if you look around.

I'll look at tightening, though. Makes sense.

Sylvia said...

The continuation made me laugh out loud.

I liked the voice of the narrator and I felt the repetition worked as a part of how she spoke. But I did feel that the second paragraph didn't really shed new light - I would have liked to have seen something more through her eyes rather than another description of the same response. Maybe a contrasting reaction or a specific sweaty face or just what she was doing at that moment.

I didn't have an issue with the gneral concept of a panic (I presume the setting will show me it is a place that is dangerous - even just NYC in a high rise would do it for me)

When I reread it, I paused at the word crap as unnecessary but then accepted it as part of the narrator's speech pattern as opposed to offering new information.

I agree with Adam Heine that at the moment I'm not overly fond of the narrator (and I have no justification for presuming she's female other than that's my default state for gender until someone shows me differently) but I'm willing to read on and see what she has to say.

none said...

Eh, my sixth form college had a fire alarm you couldn't stay in the building with--it was that annoying.

Adam Heine said...

I would've been one of those people Dave F's boss had to name.

In college, I lived in an apartment with fire alarms hard-wired in every unit. One day at like 5 am it went off for a fire drill. Rather than walk outside in our PJ's (which would've been less work, honestly), my roommates and I opened the panel, disabled the alarm, and went back to sleep.

(We fixed the alarm when the drill was over. We were lazy, not stupid... not entirely stupid).

I don't think this has anything to do with the Beginning. Sorry about that, Robin.