Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New Beginning 975

“I should let you starve.”

Old Tom grinned at me from his pallet on the floor. “The Guild wouldn’t much approve of that. You’re still my apprentice.” He raised the bandaged stump of his right leg and pushed himself to a sitting position. A sheen of sweat covered his face and torso.

“And if you die while I’m out foraging?” I asked.

“Then you won’t have to starve me. And don’t be an ass. I’m trapped in the city now, but I’m a Master Forager. I can survive for weeks with just water, even in this miserable place.”

I doubted he’d survive another month, with or without water. Tom had melanoma. The forager’s curse. The result of a lifetime spent outside Atlanta’s walls, away from the shade of buildings and towering solar panels. Black growths mottled his chest and arms.

“I saved the best for last,” he said, holding out a small wooden box bound with rawhide. “It’s for the Marsh Clan. Worth at least thirty pounds of salt meat.” The box rattled like pebbles in a dried gourd.

“When you return, we’ll talk more,” Tom said.

“So you haven’t told me everything.”

“So sue me.”

Once outside the door, I opened the box.

It was filled with acorns, just like I'd expected. Just like those black growths on Tom's chest were probably ticks and leeches, not melanoma. I was used to, and tired of, the exaggerations of my elders.

I got it. They had to feel important. There wasn't enough to feel important about these days. But come on. "Master Forager"? Capitalized? Christ.

Opening: Anon......Continuation: Lisa Hurley


AlaskaRavenclaw said...


Evil Editor said...

I would add "I said" to the first sentence. I wasn't sure for a while that Tom hadn't said it.

Maybe it should start a bit earlier so we know why the narrator wants to let Tom starve. I can guess it's because Tom is no longer useful with his leg gone, but it sounds more like something he'd say if they were having an argument.

"So sue me" doesn't strike me as the right language/tone based on what little I've seen.

dsh said...

I tried, for fun, removing the infodumps. What's left is confusing. That says this place isn't working as a beginning. And I wonder whether the problem is that there's nothing about the narrator; they're just reacting off Tom. Could there be a starting point where the "I" is acting more protagony?

“I should let you starve,” I snarled.

Old Tom grinned at me. “You’re still my apprentice.” He raised his bandaged stump and pushed himself to a sitting position. A sheen of sweat covered his face and torso.

“And if you die while I’m out?” I asked.

“Then you won’t have to starve me. And don’t be an ass. I can survive for weeks with just water, even in a city.”

I doubted he’d survive another month, even if he stayed inside the walls, in the shade. Black growths mottled his chest and arms.

“I saved the best for last,” he said, holding out a small wooden box bound with rawhide. “For Marsh Clan. Worth at least thirty of salt meat.” The box rattled like pebbles in a dried gourd.

“So you haven’t told me everything.”

Dave Fragments said...

I"m just confused. first, I know a few amputees and none of them act like this. Second, I don't understand the sweating because no weather is mentioned or even hinted at in the opening. Third, the amputees that I know would never starve and that included people with legs lost at the hip and both hands gone. In fact, one of the men without hands lived alone and did everything for himself. A BK amp once jokingly carried me upstairs and was asked not to ride the volunteer fire truck anymore. I never even think of him as an amputee.

So let's think about this:
who's here: Old Tom and his apprentice the narrator.
Where: Atlanta Georgia (I suspect in mid summer)
When: some dystopic future where exposure to the sun causes melanoma and Atlanta has a dome.

The characters are foragers or hunters and one has to leave for an extended period of time. From those horrific self-starvation episodes the IRA used to break the British hold on Ireland, we know the parameters of starvation with or without water (much to our regret). I suggest you read those stories because that sentence you put in is wrong.

Evil Editor said...

The piece doesn't suggest that Tom will starve. It's suggested only that the narrator could starve Tom, and I don't get the impression this is being discussed seriously.

As Tom's stump is bandaged, he probably hasn't been an amputee long enough to be acting like the long-time amputees you may know. Assuming all amputees act the same.

150 said...

It's not actually bad, but I don't think this is the right place to open the piece.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

It's not just the info-dumps. I don't find the main character likeable. Right out of the gate, he or she is threatening to starve an apparently helpless cancer patient. (Or I guess, in Post-Apocalyptia, not so much a patient as a victim.)

If it's said in jest-- I'm just basing that on Master F's grin-- it's still not working.

If the protagonist is supposed to be unlikeable... well, that's a tough row for a writer or a reader to hoe.

Like EE, I was snagged by the idea of lawsuits in Post-Apocalyptia.
I was also snagged by a wooden box being covered with rawhide. I'm familiar with two kinds of rawhide-- the kind that I buy for my dog and the kind that tends, in Alaska, to be nailed to the side of the house for several months-- or years-- after a successful hunt. Neither would do for covering a box.

IOW this is all the further I would read. In a bookstore, I'd be putting this down and reaching for the next.

Dave Fragments said...

Let me say this first to the author.
If the situation was clear, the readers wouldn't be discussion starvation. That means your words aren't doing their job of introducing the two characters.

As Tom's stump is bandaged, he probably hasn't been an amputee long enough to be acting like the long-time amputees you may know.

Sorry, but most of the men were in initial rehab at the time I knew them. Except for the wannabee fireman he was getting a revision of the bone. And no, I'm not an amputee but I did spend quite a few months in rehab.

If the wound is infected that would account for the sweating but as for moving around, well, let's just say that we could all make it across the street to the bar (much to the doctor's and nurse's chagrin). And that involved curbs without cuts and he door to the bar. Even the bartenders had rehab rules -- if you couldn't open the door, they didn't let you inside.

It was, except for strokes in the elderly, men with amputations or paras and quads. Diabetes took a toll on feet and legs. MS was bad. Motorcycles took legs if they weren't fatal. Machinery cut off fingers and hands.
Gunshots ruined spines, mostly. Car accidents broke necks. Football caused neck injuries. Falling down stairs wasn't uncommon and that was a neck or high back injury. Falling off other things usually mid and lower back injuries.

I have a catalog of these things for reasons that I won't explain.

Anonymous said...

Agree with 150. This reads as if it's not the opening, that something happened before this that we need to know to make this scene work.

Open earlier or later, but not here.

Nice style though.

Anonymous said...

When I was a teenager, my older brother lost his leg (above knee) in an industrial accident. He convalesced at home; I became his orderly, so to speak, daily helping him drain puss from the wounds and incisions, until the infection subsided.

I saw nothing about Tom and his leg that caused me to stumble (no pun intended).

Anonymous said...

Why would The box rattle like pebbles in a dried gourd rather than like, uh, pebbles in a wooden box? What's the difference?

Evil Editor said...

Also, pebbles in a dry gourd is what a castanet would sound like. Marbles, being made of glass would sound different from pebbles, no matter what they were in.

Anonymous said...

Author here: Thanks for all the comments.

I confess I'm struggling with how to efficiently introduce setting and a bit of background, without info-dumping.

Evil Editor said...

The infodumps aren't bothersome to me. If Tom paused to tell us what the Marsh Clan is I'd have been annoyed, but what gets said here seems reasonable in conversation.

I'm somewhat bothered by the question: “And if you die while I’m out foraging?”

Why would he ask that? Why is this any more an issue now than it would have been six months ago?

And if Tom can survive weeks with just water, why does he declare that he's a Master Forager? Sounds like he doesn't need to do much foraging.

Dave Fragments said...

I confess I'm struggling with how to efficiently introduce setting and a bit of background, without info-dumping.

A brainstorming to break the logjam. Try something different that sets up tension or poses questions in the reader's mind. Even move sentences around and turn the opening silly so you have to fix it and maybe the fix will be better. Don't be afraid to play around like that.

Try stating the obvious and reversing that line that seems to open the story:
Apprentice become master and then caretaker. Old Tom sensed my unease and put on a brave face.
"You're afraid I'll die while you're out."

or maybe begin with his disease:
Old Tom grinned from his pallet. The smell of death hung in the once elegant Victorian room. Like Tom, it had seen better days.

Or maybe start with the box:
"I've been keeping these for bad times," Old Tom said, holding out a small wooden box bound with rawhide. “The Marsh Clan. will pay least thirty pounds of salt meat for it.” The box rattled like pebbles in a dried gourd.
"Should I be afraid you're going to die while I'm gone?" I asked.

In the current opening, Tom says:
"The Guild wouldn’t much approve of that."
How about specifying "that" in a few words.
"The Guild wouldn’t much approve of you strking out on your own, even to get me food."
"They (or You) would rather die?"

None of those are finished products. Rather ideas of how to create those fist few sentences that hold a reader for a few more.

None of them may be appropriate for the story but think of them as a method to get an opening. You have a situation between a Master who can't function anymore and his apprentice who must take care of him. It's a good role reversal and appeals to the best in us. After you get that bit to hold the reader, then you can relate the amputation and the melanoma.

Then step back and try to imagine opening a book and seeing those lines -- ask yourself would they hold your interest? That's why I said play with it above.

BTW - my current story is not much more than an opening and I just threw out the first sentence (20 words) as redundant with the second sentence. Right now that puts me really close to that writing. Tomorrow, I'll add more to the body of the story and maybe adjust the opening after I get halfway through the story. Time gives me a chance to forget the glory of my own words. I revise a lot.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Most setting and background will come naturally in the course of the story. Deliver it on a when-needed basis.

This scene would have more tension if it involved just handing over the box. What's in the box? We'd read on to find out.

That we're in post-apocalyptic Atlanta, that Tom has cancer and has lost his leg, that Tom is a Master Forager and our protag is his apprentice: none of that makes me want to read on. It can all be filled in later, if it's important.

Essentially, backstory is static and therefore gets in the way of moving the story forward.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of starting stories with a line of dialogue. It's a personal preference, but I like to be drawn into a story, not blindfolded, thrown into Storyworld, and left to glean meaning from disembodied speech.

Opening with dialogue (and no idea who said it) can work well if the main character is himself disoriented. Then it helps the reader experience the character's confusion. But in this case, the MC is fully aware of his surroundings, so throwing the reader into the story like this serves to immediately disconnect the reader's experience from that of the character. If we're supposed to root for the main character, we should feel like we're in this together.

I think the continuation of this story is the more effective piece of writing here, because it gives us a sense of who the main character is and how he feels about all this. The actual beginning uses a lot of matter-of-fact details to describe Old Tom's physical state, but it doesn't really characterize either person. That's why it feels like an info dump, not because there's too much description -- the details are actually quite good -- but because it's just so detached. It doesn't match the dialogue, which is much more emotionally charged.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Author to Anonymous (above) -- thanks, very helpful.

batgirl said...

I know this is a really minor point, but I envisioned the box as being tied around (bound) with a rawhide cord, not covered (bound like a book) with a piece of rawhide. A small change in words would clarify it.
The gourd bit didn't add anything and could be cut. The rattling doesn't need a metaphor.

I didn't mind the info-dumps so much as the absence of emotional content. Why does the narrator say s/he should let Tom starve? How does s/he feel about the melanoma risk, which presumably lurks in the narrator's future as well?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Author: Not sure if this is allowed, or if anyone is still interested in reading and commenting, but here is a re-write:

Old Tom grinned at me from his cot in the crowded hospital ward. He raised the bandaged stump of his right leg and pushed himself to a sitting position. “Welcome,” he said, “to my miserable final home.” Sun pox covered his face and torso. The ulcerated sores were common among old traders, a result of traveling outside Atlanta’s city walls, away from the shade of buildings and towering solar panels.

I placed a canvas bag of food beside the cot. The government didn’t waste rations on dying men and I’d brought enough to last the two weeks I’d be traveling in the swamps. Though I doubted Tom would last that long. His stump was badly infected.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said. “Time to tell me the last of your trading routes.” As his apprentice I deserved to know. He’d played games long enough, dropping hints about a final route of great worth.

“I saved the best for last,” Tom said. “Look in my backpack.” Among the grimy clothes I found a small wooden box bound with rawhide strips. It rattled as though filled with pebbles. “It’s for the Marsh Clan,” Tom said. “Worth at least thirty pounds of salt meat.”

I settled cross-legged on the end of the cot and Tom chanted the Marsh Clan route, using landmarks he’d taught me during our travels. I echoed him, fixing the route in my memory.

“Once you get there, you’ll see what else they have to offer,” Tom said. “We’ll talk more when you return.”

“So you haven’t told me everything,” I said in disgust. “I should let you starve.”

Tom laughed. “The Guild wouldn’t much approve of that. I’m still your master.”

I walked out, but left the food, even the jar of honey I’d brought as a special treat for the infuriating old man. He was the closest thing to family I had.

Anonymous said...

Hi Author,

A few initial thoughts on the revision:

You're giving your main character what he wants WAY too quickly. The instant the character gets what he wants, the tension is over. Here's what we have at the end of this excerpt: narrator is leaving for two weeks, Old Tom won't survive, narrator gets Old Tom to tell him the super secret trade route. Everything is resolved. Why should we read page two?

I see hints of something interesting when Old Tom says, "Once you get there, you'll see what else they have to offer." But in order to get your reader curious about this, I mean REALLY curious, you MUST make your main character really curious. Make him press Old Tom for more info. Make sure he doesn't get it. That's tension. Now we have no choice but to read page two.

Also, I'd like to add that badly infected stumps probably smell pretty bad. Don't waste such a fabulous opportunity to really immerse the reader in this scene!

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Batgirl, hi. I did think when I reread that maybe it was meant to be like leather hinges or something. Could be strings But... same problem. Rawhide's about as flexible as wood.

Anonymous, this one reads a lot more smoothly than the last. The info you provide feels much less dumped, and yet you've actually provided more info.

At this point I would read a little further, to see if the protag became more likeable and the world less grim.

Dave Fragments said...

I like that rewrite. It's a good opening.

Anonymous said...

Much, much, muchly better.

Next time you read it over (and you will a thousand times), consider dropping in a word that identifies the narrator's gender.

Good rewrite.

Mister Furkles said...


This rewrite is a huge improvement. I was in the library a couple of days ago. I browsed books by authors I hadn't read. If I'd picked this up it would have gone home with me. The first version would have been back on the shelf in an NY minute.

I wouldn't be to concerned with the MC being likable. In dystopia, we need to identify with someone who is trying to survive without being a mass murderer, pedophile or sadist.

Your voice is good enough to carry for a few pages before the inciting event. I read mostly for voice which is why I often read literary fiction that lacks plot or likable characters. You certainly write well enough for a good dystopia story.

none said...

This is better, no doubt about it. I'm confused however about a government that doesn't feed dying men but does allow them a hospital bed. Why? It reads like an attempt to describe a ruthless society by someone who doesn't really know how ruthless societies can be.

If this hospital is crowded with people who're being denied food, I don't give much for Tom's chances of hanging onto that canvas bag. I'm also a little puzzled how Tom can so casually--and openly--give it to him if the government controls food as rigidly as the narrative suggests.

IOW, there are things here that don't stack up.