Monday, November 08, 2010

New Beginning 803

Corrie shoved her way through the underbrush, branches snagging on her clothing and raising angry welts on her skin. Breathless, she glanced behind her as she struggled through the vacant lot. Her view was obscured by a jungle of vegetation, but she could hear a furious crashing in the distance, and the tops of small trees shook with her pursuer's passage. Hurry, she thought, plunging forward into the dense tangle of untamed bushes and vines, the pale glow of a streetlight like a beacon in the distance.

She didn't recognize the man who was chasing her, but Corrie knew, if he caught her, his intentions couldn't be pure. There was no other reason for a stranger to follow a woman down a deserted street in the middle of the night.

Not for the first time, Corrie cursed her bad luck. It seemed like anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Like the espresso machine jamming right before closing, or the stillness of her car's engine when she'd turned the key in the ignition. Or the man who was now pursuing her, on the one night she'd decided to walk the six blocks from the coffee shop to her apartment.

Her foot caught on a root and she fell headlong into the dirt. Her shoulder scored a glancing blow off a mossy rock. Damn, she thought. This is it.

The crashing noise was getting closer. Then she heard a man's voice, stern, commanding, "Come Here!" The noise stopped. Then started again, in the other direction! She poked her head up over the bushes and could see, silhouetted by a streetlight in the distance, a man fixing a leash to a Labrador's collar.

Corrie's pulse was still racing, her hands still shaking uncontrollably, wild thoughts shooting like lightning through her mind. Yes, once she'd got the machine unjammed, that was one strong cup of espresso...

Opening: Joie.....Continuation: anon.


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuation:

Corrie's foot snagged on a vine and she fell down, hard. A disturbed constrictor slithered away with a warning hiss. Behind her she could hear her pursuer, and in the distance, the baying of wolves, and--

"Are you alright?"

"Wha-- uh..." Corrine looked up at the silhouetted figure standing over her.

"The city's really let this place go to heck."

"There's someone chasing me. Back there."

He reached out a hand. "Let me help you up. I'm Evil Editor."

"Shit." What a day.


Anonymous said...

Suspense = short sentences, minimal description.

Took me years to learn that, and I'm giving it to you for nothing. You're welcome.

Evil Editor said...

Somehow I don't equate the term "vacant lot" with "jungle of vegetation," bushes, vines, underbrush, trees...

I suppose she entered the jungle lot hoping the stalker wouldn't want to follow there, but I'd be more likely to think I'd be easier to catch there. And would have a better chance on the street where someone might hear my screams or a car might come along.

You don't need "if he caught her," in p.2. It implies that if he fails to catch her his intentions could be pure. His intentions are the same whether he catches her or not.

When you're clawing your way through a jungle trying to escape a guy who's chasing you through the night, it's ridiculous to think, Man I'm unlucky. First the espresso machine jams, and now this. The jammed machine is the last thing on your mind.

Anonymous said...

Being chased by a man you think is going to rape you seems, to me, to be in a completely different category of "bad luck" than things like, say, a broken coffee maker.

Reading that list served only to pull me out of the narrative so I could think to myself, wtf, this author has no idea what it's like to fear an imminent assault.

Anonymous said...

Suspense = short sentences, minimal description.

Took me years to learn that, and...
it's still wrong.

Ellie said...

I agree with EE -- maybe an "abandoned" lot would have a lot of vegetation, but "vacant" implies, well, vacancy.

It also seems odd to say she "decided" to walk home after the description of her dead car -- seems that's what forced her to walk, not a whim.

I think you're trying too hard to work in all the "bad luck" in a scene where she'd have a singular focus. Unless you frame it like "she'd gotten so used to little things going wrong that she'd stopped thinking something like this could ever happen to her." A busted coffee machine and a pursuing stalker are contrasts, not two of a kind.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me you're so determined to paint this picture you use every word possible to say the same thing: underbrush, branches, jungle, vegetation, small trees, dense tangle, untamed bushes, vines. (What, no thicket?) I think she could just "plunge forward, the pale glow of a streetlight" etc. to advance the action and get us out of the wordapalooza.

Unknown said...

TMUI - Too much unnecessary (at this point) information.

Corrie's being chased by someone or something she thinks is going to hurt her. That's all she should be focused on.

In trying to get to "action" you might be starting too late. Try starting with the expresso machine issue or the dead car. Show me a bit about her world before some starts chasing her. By starting here, I don't have any attachment to Corrie and don't care if she gets killed - or worse.

Okay, on to what you wrote.

You have details that appear to contradict each other.

The following words each invoke different images and, in my opinion, some of them are contraditory:

(1) underbrush
(2) vacant lot
(3) jungle of vegetation
(4) small trees
(5) dense tangle of untamed vines and bushes
(6) deserted street; and
(7) 6 blocks between coffee shop and apartment.

Vacant city lots are . .. well . . .vacant. There might be some small bushes but not the level of reforestation you're describing. If this planet's rules aren't Earth's or there's some reason that the lot is far more overgrown than the city setting would imply, the reader should know that. As it was, I was whiplashed trying to get a setting in my head.

Also, once you set the location be done with it. All four sentances in the first paragraph have landscape references. That probably contributed to the confusing description as you're trying to say the same thing many times in close proximity.

There are other seeming contradictions too. She can't see because of the "jungle of vegetation" but she sees the "tops of small trees" shaking behind her. These two difference visual impressions are at odds. Also if she can "see" the tree tops moving, the "furious crashing" shouldn't be too distant.

There's a lot of telling here.
"Furious crashing" and "breathless" being two examples of it. The flashback in the third paragraph grinds your story to a halt and loses whatever suspense you had going for you.

Verb choices don't always match the urgency you're trying to convey. A "glance" doesn't seem to convey the urgency.

IMO, we don't need her to think "hurry" since that should be obvious.

I'm also giving Corrie the "too stupid to live" award if she ran into a vacant lot rather than stay on the main road for 6 blocks to her apartment where, presumably, there would be people.

If you cut, your chase scene comes down to:

Branches raised angry welts on exposed skin as Corrie shoved here way through the underbrush. She shot a glance over her shoulder. She couldn't see the man chasing her. From the noise, he was closer. A street light beaconed from too far ahead.

Try to cut the redunancy and contraditions. Consider starting a bit earlier too. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

The lot reads like it's in the Amazon, and if the pursuer causes the tops of small trees to shake - well, to me a small tree is still at least fifteen feet high (mature trees around here are in the 100-foot range) and I'm already thinking giants. So I've got a woman in a jungle being chased by a giant - and then I find out she's in a vacant lot six blocks from home. Disappointment reigns.

Other things that didn't ring true with me:

Angry welts aren't raised the moment the injury occurs. They raise over time - sometimes as little as minutes, sometimes hours.

Something I learned in lifeguard training: When you're panicking, your senses close themselves off. You don't notice injuries, and if something makes you fall you bounce up and start running again. Your vision focuses only on the task at hand (running away), you don't hear much at all, and you only think about what you're doing (running).

And what the others have said: all this and she's thinking about her coffeemaker and a her car?

Joie said...

Author here. I generally don't comment on these, but I did want to mention that the story takes place in Atlanta and our vacant lots are quite jungle-like down here, hence the (possibly overly descriptive) details about vegetation. They're covered with kudzu, for one thing, and generally dotted with baby pines. The one next door to my house has grass up to my waist and webs of kudzu taller than my head and it's November. The city plays a major part in the novel and I felt it was important to describe the setting accurately, instead of pretending it was some nameless city somewhere, where everything had been paved over and covered with asphalt (our vacant lots are still dirt, y'all).

Anonymous said...

Oh, and one other thing. The jungle is so over-the-top that I can't help thinking that it is either imaginary (resulting from a spell) or that the Fairy Forces of Evil are able to create such things on the fly, to trap their victims. Which would be cool, but if that's what's happening, but don't start the book with it.

If you start with something that sounds wrong and then say "Ha! Fooled you! It wasn't wrong because of this reason" all that happens is that the reader gets mad at you. You need to set that up ahead of time (show it happening in a mundane, non-threatening, setting, for example) and then you can write this scene.

Khazar-khum said...

"Vacant lot" means different things depending on where you live. Here in the desert it means a plot of land in an otherwise developed area, so it's pretty much just dirt, weeds and trash, but no bums.

In places where things grow, it can be a spot of land covered in trees and brush, with the usual trash & bums.

In Berkeley it's People's Park, which is an open area full of trash & bums.

vkw said...

I agree with everything Kings Falcon said, so I don't have much to add. Follow his advice.

Your description of a vacant lot with trees and vines is well . . . wrong. I suggest going to a vacant lot and walking through it.

But all is not lost. After walking through your vacant lot, at night, you'll probably notice the following:

poorly lit, if there is any light at all.
Street lights off in the distance along with cars driving past - too far off to help.
uneven ground ready to twist your ankles.
weeds with needles hiding the uneven ground
garbage from McDonald's wrappers to tires to broken fence posts ready to trip you if the uneven ground fails.
Dangerous to run through

I'm serious about taking a walk tonight, but bring a friend.

The only reason someone walks through a vacant lot would be to shorten the distance or if they're looking for something.

I have recapped bad days in my mind: I lost my keys, then I was late for work, now I can't find that file, my assistant is grumpy, now I have to deal with the boss and I forgot to pick up coffee. What else could go wrong?

But, I agree if I am thinking I am in danger, I may not be doing that. I may be thinking more about getting away. And, the recapping of bad luck does take away the suspense.

And again, my opinion, your "unlucky" list, doesn't sound that bad to me. Unlucky is having the espresso machine blow up and burning you. Unlucky is planning a vaction for 10 years only to have scheduled during a hurricane. Unlucky is buying a lemon. (If your car is 10 years old, never had an oil change, and it has over 100,000 miles on it, then you may be very lucky and your luck ran out when it doesn't start.)

My point is luck is relative. Someone else may point out, at least she has a job, at least she has extra income to buy a vacation or for that matter espresso. I think I would steer away from the luck thing and have the curse be something more specific - like watches stop.


Anonymous said...

Oh, kudzu. Why didn't you say so. Seriously - if you know the names of the trees and plants, use them, and see what a difference it makes. Specific beats vague.

angela robbins said...

"...Corrie cursed her bad luck. It seemed like anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Like the espresso machine jamming right before closing, or the stillness of her car's engine when she'd turned the key in the ignition..."

i think this is too much of writerly insert. i don't think the above things would be going through her mind as she is persued by some creepy man lurking in the shadows. it sort of takes the reader out of any sense of danger and urgency the MC would be feeling.

also, try shorter sentences to get that sense of urgency/danger.

i'd just mention there's kudzu and waist high grass. KISS: Keep It Simple Sweetheart.

the descriptions in themselves are good but not the right mood for what you're going for, i don't think

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

I'm glad I didn't comment until after your explanation about vacant lots in Atlanta. Those two sentences in your comment gave me a clearer mental picture of the setting than the story did. Be specific! Don't say underbrush and vegetation when it's baby pines and kudzu and waist high grass.

Also, suddenly going back and linking an imminent sexual assault to a jammed espresso machine does cut the tension quite a lot. I wonder if perhaps you should start your scene 30 seconds earlier when Corrie first notices the man, maybe takes him for just some creep ogling her. That would be a good time for her to mentally run through her awful day - all of which thoughts are dropped when he starts chasing her.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hi Joie: I think between the query and this NB you've gotten a consensus of feedback suggesting not to equate being chased by some dude potentially up to no good with machines not working, losing keys, etc. That should be an easy fix in both places.

Another thing to consider is that if a car doesn't start and someone begins following you shortly thereafter, your assumption wouldn't generally be that it was bad luck about the car and the stalker, but that perhaps the stalker sabotaged the car to force you to get out and walk, making you easier prey.

I also agree with King's Falcon and Anon 1:11 about the details and with Ellie about the decided to walk home bit.

A suggestion based on the query for this: If this is the guy who spills it about what she is and that her bad luck is a manifestation of the protection spell she's under, back up further in the day to start this and let's see some of the bad luck in play. One instance of a coffee maker not working and a car not starting does not a trend make. Convince us that a typical day for her is far worse luck-wise than it is for the average joe so that we're prepared when the fairy dude mentions it's a side effect.

Right now she's just some faceless chick without a machete in some wild jungle running from an unseen person and we're all wondering who from Atlanta would really rather take their chances with kudzu than run a couple of blocks to some place more populated.

The advice to start with action doesn't have to be taken quite so literally. Action can also mean storming into work and heading straight for the ladies room to clean the mud thrown onto your white pants by the bus you were supposed to catch as it squeals away and then having to wait on a line of irritated customers only to have the espresso machine break down for the THIRD time that week during your shift and then when you're trying to unclog a can of whipped cream it suddenly goes off in your hands and, as accurately as grapefruit juice, it squirts squarely in your eye and when you go to wipe it away you rub your contact lens out and right then your boss shows up to tell you that Mary won't be in today so you're going to have to work an extra two hours despite the plans you made to meet your girlfriends for the first movie night you've been able to arrange with them in nearly a year. And on your break you pace around the breakroom and fume, thinking, Well hell, ain't that all a crock, but at least today started out better than yesterday, right before you slip on an ice cube and fall on your butt just as that cute new barista with the little goatee walks in. That can be action, too.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10:38 a.m: perhaps it is "wrong". But editors like it, and their checks clear.

So I'll say it again:

Suspense= short sentences, minimal description, and may I add, superminimal backstory.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 10:38 a.m: perhaps it is "wrong". But editors like it, and their checks clear.

So I'll say it again:

Suspense= short sentences, minimal description, and may I add, superminimal backstory.

No. It's just as possible to create suspense with both description and long sentences if used appropriately. It's what is being described that is important. So long as it ratchets up that feeling of anxiety, unease and anticipation, it's suspenseful.

Editors like good writing, not blind adherence to arbitrary "rules".

Zachary Gole said...

alaskaravenclaw: I think possibly the problem here is that you and Anon #2 may be using different definitions of "suspense".

Suspense can mean an oppressive feeling where nothing too bad may be happening right now, but it's clear that something dangerous may happen at any moment. It's about the anticipation, rather than about what's going on right then. That kind of suspense doesn't require short sentences and minimal descriptions; in fact, it may benefit from long, detailed descriptions, to slather on the thick atmosphere, create claustrophobia, and paint a picture pregnant with peril.

But that's clearly not the kind of "suspense" that's being attempted here. This is an action scene. Corrie's not making her way nervously through a dark alley, fearing that something might jump out at her; she is running in terror from something she's already seen. It's not about the potential that something may be about to happen; it's about something happening right now. And for action scenes like this, yes, absolutely, you're right; short sentences and minimal descriptions generally work better.

_*rachel*_ said...

Epileptic trees!

This does feel like it could be more hurried, like Corrie would be.

lisa c. baker said...

I was reading through all these comments about how vacant lots don't have vegetation and thinking, Yes they do! The one behind my house is a massive jungle of kudzu! --then I got to the comment where the author says she lives in Atlanta. So do I, and yes, our vacant lots are jungles! I was walking in one yesterday and I might have some welts. :)

Interesting how people who live in other cities have a totally different image in mind when you say "vacant lot." To me, author, your description of all that vegetation gave me a vivid and familiar picture--there are at least three lots like that on my street.

But I agree you should call it kudzu and baby pines--gives more of a feel for the city anyway.