Wednesday, March 23, 2011

New Beginning 844

The blunt, heavy blade of the axe swished through the humid air, striking its target with a loud thwack; its wielder smiled as he gazed upon his handiwork, the mangled mess that now lay at his feet.

Dismembering tree stumps in the sweltering heat didn’t qualify as a good time in his book, but Vardin did as his uncle had told him. He still didn’t understand why it couldn’t wait until a hint of fall found its way into the summer heat, but he knew his uncle wouldn’t take well to any complaints.

Grunting, Vardin lifted the collection of wood he had chopped that day. He gazed at the tree trunk where the axe’s dull blade rested and wanted to grab the axe. But it would have proved impossible. He shook his head as he turned to head home.

Vardin wiped the sweat from his brow as he staggered through the forest, trying not to drop the bundle of wood cradled in his arms. He had more than enough strength, but it felt awkward in his arms. One of the logs fell to the ground. He thought about picking it up but realized it wasn’t worth the effort; his uncle would never notice.

Lysette was leaning on the white fence outside her Grandmother's cottage, on the path that led from the Forest to Vardin's uncle's house. She smiled at the young man as he struggled down the path. "Well look at you," she said, coyly. "You got wood."

Vardin blushed. "Yes," he replied, out of breath, "but I just dropped a big log in the forest."

And with that, the moment passed.

Opening: Ryan Mueller.....Continuation: ril


Evil Editor said...

P1: I would go with "Vardin" rather than "its wielder."

Although, if this wood gathering scene is where you've decided the story should start, I might go straight to paragraph 4. It tells us everything we need to know. It tells us pretty much everything that's in the first three paragraphs. Including that Vardin hasn't enough sense to take along a wood carrier or a wheelbarrow or a tarp to make his job easier.

Remove "realized" from the last sentence. You might also dump "his uncle would never notice." as it's so obvious. How could the uncle notice that he had one fewer log than he started out with?

none said...

Too many 'but' constructions. I encountered this throughout the last-but-one book I read, and it got very wearing.

Vardin should probably sharpen the axe.

Anonymous said...

Not entirely clear how he managed to wipe his brow with his arms full of logs.

Evil Editor said...

Yes, if he has three arms, make that clear up front. Also, if he has more than enough strength, would he be staggering? I wouldn't think the fact that his bundle feels awkward would cause him to stagger through the forest. Maybe an occasional stumble.

Maybe it should start, Vardin trudged through the forest, a bundle of wood cradled awkwardly in his arms. Then move on to paragraph 5. We'll find out what a meanie the uncle is when Vardin gets home. Unless the uncle is dead. Is the uncle dead?

Dave Fragments said...

The last time I watched a person wield an ax, I thought I was going to have to phone an ambulance. I even went so far as to check to see if I had the numbers near the phone and ice ready for the foot.
But while my alter-ego is despicably waiting for blood and dismemberment, I can honestly say this opening is worth 3 words.
Vardin chopped wood.
I'm craving more exciting things.

Robert Brenchley said...

Axes are expensive. Surely he didn't leave it behind! It's not just Vardin who's incompetent, it's the whole family. Someone should have been there with something to transport small logs. What about big ones, the trunk? You'd want a horse to pull those.

Bran Flakes said...

Re: the continuation - LMFAO!

daveconifer said...

Ril is still a master of continuations. Man, I've missed this place!

...dave conifer

Laurel said...

I don't want to be mean, but this whole opening puzzled me. I agree with the issues raised by others but also have a few of my own.

The first paragraph made me think the wielder had cut off someone's head, which just about stopped my reading right there. I don't like gratuitous violence - even as a joke, which I assume this is.

Then I thought Vardin was cutting down a tree, but your description doesn't match what I have seen when I have watched someone do this. Number one: people don't cut down trees with a dull axe unless there is a very good reason for doing so. Number two: chopping down a tree doesn't leave a mangled mess at your feet. it leaves a tree. Number 3: it takes time for a tree to fall. You don't thwack an axe and immediately see a mangled mess at your feet. If time passed here, I didn't get a sense of it.

If Vardin is chopping firewood and not felling trees, why is he in the forest? This is a job that is done close to the house, and I don't think he would leave an axe, dull or not, in the forest. Tools are valuable. Are you trying to characterize him as a ditz? I don't know. I can't tell.

If Vardin and his uncle are camping, they would typically gather wood for a fire - not chop down a tree and then cut donuts to divide into firewood.

Starting with paragraph four might be your best solution.

Unknown said...

I'm with Dave on this. "Vardin chopped wood" is all the intro says.

By making the first paragraph vague as to who is using the axe and what the axe is being used on, I am thinking there is something mysterious going on. It's a HUGE let down that the scene is this mundane.

Cut this down and get to something interesting.

Ryan Mueller said...

I'd like to thank everyone for their comments.

@Evil Editor

The funny thing is that I actually did start with the fourth paragraph, but then people in my critique group told me it didn't do enough to grab readers.

It was actually my intention that Vardin would come across as not having much sense because he really doesn't at this point in the book.

Yeah, I can see the point about staggering. I'll fix that.

And the uncle isn't dead.


Would changing a few "but" constructions to "though" constructions help. For example:

"Though dismembering tree stumps in the sweltering heat didn't qualify as a good time in his book, Vardin did as his uncle had told him."


I actually used to have that as "tried to wipe his brow," and looking back on it, that makes more sense, though three arms would certainly make him interesting.

@Dave Fragments

Originally this opening spent less time on Vardin chopping wood, but I tried to create something to grab readers' attention by making them think something completely different was occurring. I guess it didn't work.


I don't know if incompetent would be the right word to describe Vardin, but he usually acts before thinking. Also, when Vardin arrives home, his uncle scolds him for leaving the axe.

By the way, I knew this beginning was a little boring. I tried to spice it up by making people think it was about an axe murderer at first, but apparently, that didn't work.

Since I submitted this beginning, I have actually changed this to the second chapter. I think this works better in that context. The first chapter introduces a different character and ends with somebody about to kill that character in the forest, so I think the transition to this chapter works pretty well.

However, my opening to that chapter isn't particularly thrilling either. Right now, I start it with a dream, which I know is a lame beginning.

Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can grab readers' attention without any kind of action going on?

Evil Editor said...

It should be pointed out that Vardin is dismembering tree stumps, which would leave a mess. The wood chopping obviously was done earlier.

Dave Fragments said...

Well Ryan, let's have a conversation about Vardin.

No wait, let's think like Vardin and write him in third person.

Vardin never liked chopping and wood but chopping wood was better than chopping stumps with a dull axe. Uncle Buttfloss lost three toes chopping stumps. A minor sacrifice to the forest gods he said. Vardin loved that story. It always cheered him up the way people recoiled at the barbeques when Uncle Buttfloss removed his shoes and socks on a bet.

My object being, if you think that your character is boring and you write him or her doing boring things, then the reader will find it boring and not read on.

Tell the reader Vardin is imagining chopping off heads. Tell the reader Vardin imagines he is playing golf when swinging the axe. The axe could be sharp enough for killing yesterday's chicken and chasing the traveling salesman but not today's wood.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can grab readers' attention without any kind of action going on?

Honestly Ryan, it's more about the difference between pedestrian writing and sanitized voice versus more active writing, precise word choices and a voice with guts. In the right writer's hands, someone sipping their morning coffee can have a reader thoroughly engaged.

It's not always about what's happening on stage but how the action (or inaction) is executed.

There's a lot of swishing and gazing and wanting and shaking of the head and things feeling awkward and knowing and not taking things well and falling to the ground and realizing how things are here. For a strong guy in a hard world, Vardin feels kind of wimpy. Worse, the writing feels kind of wimpy. If this is your novel's voice throughout, I think you're going to need to up your game a bit.

You know your MC and what needs to be conveyed about him and his uncle, so take the following with the proverbial grain as it might not be the right things to stress about the characters. Or even a scene you want to keep. I simply took what you said and cut out a lot of the wimp and redundancy. The thing to take away is that you'll probably want to go line by line on your next edit and see if you can bring more immediacy and emotion to the words.

The blunt blade smashed into its target, taking it to the ground. The muscles in Vardin's forearms protested as he dragged the heavy axe head out of the mangled mess at his feet.

Why limbing tree stumps couldn't wait till a hint of fall took the edge off the sweltering heat, Vardin was damned if he knew. Still, he'd learned long past not to question his uncle's orders.

Beyond tired, he heaved the chunks of chopped wood into the cradle of his arms. Too late he thought to reach for the dulled axe, and when he did, the precarious balance of his load shifted. He set his teeth against the tipping wood and held on tight. Rot the axe, he decided. One night in the humid forest wouldn't rust it, no matter what his uncle might say.

With the top logs teetering and sweat stinging his eyes, Vardin shuffle-raced his way home, trying to keep his body centered under the weight of the wood. He was within sight of the house when one log tumbled to the ground, nearly tangling in his feet. With a scowl, he kicked it away, hoping his uncle wasn't watching.

He'd been beaten for far less.

Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuations:

But his uncle did notice. Vardin sensed his stern disapproval as soon as he walked in the door. He dropped the wood in the box as casually as he could, but he could feel his uncle's gaze at his back, burning through him. The silence was hard to bear.

Vardin finally turned around and faced his uncle. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'll bring more tomorrow."

His uncle's expression never changed. He sat there as always, hunched and taciturn, but there were sparks in his eyes. Vardin threw himself on the floor, sweat rolling from his brow. "What do you want from me?!" he cried.

Suddenly, something hit him on the back of the head. It was Grandma Suzie's soup ladle.

"I keep tellin' ya, you addle-brained nincompoop," she snapped, "that thing ain't your uncle. It's the woodstove. An' stop bringin' in wood, it's hotter'n blazes in here as it is. Now go get dressed proper before that lady from the special school gets here an' finds you talkin' to the furniture."


because his uncle would be dead soon.
Vardin was sick of chopping and hauling firewood for the crematoriun. He was determined to take the facility to gas and he'd have to kill his uncle to do that. Using a piece of wood used as a club would work as well as the ax, maybe better.

--Wilkins MacQueen

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any suggestions on how I can grab readers' attention without any kind of action going on?

Yeah. Try starting where there's some kind of action going on.

Unknown said...

I don't think that starting in the 4th paragraph would help grab the reader. Right now that paragraph reads distant and omniscient. If you can't give me interesting action, give me an interesting character to listen to. Dave's suggestion of diving into V's head and letting me know what he thinks about all this is a very good one. Action doesn't have to be physical. Give me something (a place or situation) or someone (a compelling character) to care about and I'll go with you as the MC chops wood - at least for a while.

Tricking the reader into thinking a murder is happening and then revealing that V is breaking up stumps is a cheat. It creates false tension. It breaks a promise you've made to the reader. And many readers will put the book down there.

If V "forgets" the axe, he can't notice he's left it behind. If he notices it left behind, he's going to do something to bring it, even if he has to carry it in his teeth based on the relationship that appears to exist between V and the uncle.

On the new opening you mention - DO NOT START WITH A DREAM. It's cliched and you'll have to work 5 times harder to keep the reader.

batgirl said...

Brilliant, brilliant continuation.

Author, I'm with Alaska on this - the story starts when the character goes through the door and it locks behind him, or when he can't decide to change his mind and go fishing instead.
Where is that point in your story?

Also: one of the easiest workshop crits to give is 'I wanted more detail/background on this aspect'. Take it with a grain of salt. What readers (rather than other writers) usually want is for something to actually happen.

(word ver is splact: your story should start with a splact.)

daveconifer said...

"Honestly Ryan, it's more about the difference between pedestrian writing and sanitized voice versus more active writing, precise word choices and a voice with guts. In the right writer's hands, someone sipping their morning coffee can have a reader thoroughly engaged."

Great comment, Phoenix. "Starting where the action is" is not always the right thing to do, and it doesn't take a car crash or a murder to make a compelling opening. I don't know where this notion that readers don't have enough patience to stick with a book for a few pages and give it a chance started.

My advice would be to start your story where you think it should start, and write it well.

Laurel said...

"I don't know where this notion that readers don't have enough patience to stick with a book for a few pages and give it a chance started."

I agree. I rather enjoy easing into a story - a well written story.

batgirl said...

As someone who began a book with a character feeding chickens, I'd like to clarify that as a reader I don't require explosions or drama on the first page (or even first 5 pages). But I'd like the opening to _do_ something - illuminate character, build the world, hint at plot or tensions.
Phoenix's rewrite does a fine job of showing how the same events could illuminate character and establish tensions.