Tuesday, May 07, 2013

New Beginning 1002

Tasting the acid burning my throat, I question the logic of honoring Uncle Sal’s bet. One pill would erase the pain of my knotted stomach, and the bottle’s just sitting in my purse.

Still, fifty bucks is pricey for one valium.

Grandpa’s gold cross digs into my palm. I open my fist and set it on the podium, then take a sip of water and swallow back what breakfast I didn’t lose down the girls’ room toilet last period. I glance at the crowd. Those kids who aren’t gaping open-mouthed aren’t bothering to pay attention at all. God, just, help me finish this. Please.

Mr. Garcia, my computer watchdog, scratches the jagged Iraq memento on his arm and nods as if granting me permission to continue. My sister Meghan smiles wide and warm, her blue eyes shining in the auditorium’s harsh light. Her eager thumbs-up encourages me.

I clear my throat. “Tallying the price of freedom takes a pretty complicated equation. First, add the number of flag-draped caskets returning from the frontline to the number of tears cried by children who have a shiny medal instead of a parent. Then, multiply that by the number of disabled vets and multiply again by those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Because the true price of freedom is counted in damaged lives, not dollars spent. See, without that ultimate price no freedom is bought, no peace is established.”

I end with a hoarse, “Thank you,” and take my seat beside Kyle Connors.

Kyle leans too close. “Why’d you even bother, Loony? I got this.”

I want to punch him (and collect off Aunt Madge), but I left my fist on the podium.

Kyle steps confidently to the podium. With one swift motion he pulls a pistol from his jacket and fires six shots into the ceiling. "America!" he yells. "Fuck YEAH!"

He brings the house down. When the applause lets up (and the last bit of ceiling finishes raining down), Mr. Garcia steps to the front and hands Kyle the debate tournament trophy. 

Opening: Veronica Rundell
Continuation: Khazar-khum/anon.


Evil Editor said...

Apparently Uncle Sal bet you $50 you couldn't get through your speech without a Valium? Nice, was that supposed to improve your chances, or did he just want your money?

I'd start with the 3rd paragraph. The first one makes me think you're chained to the wall and some evil character is pouring acid down your throat and if you could just reach your bottle of cyanide pills you could end your misery.

Not clear whether a jagged Iraq memento is a tattoo or a scar or a bracelet fashioned from shrapnel.

I'm not sure what the final point of the speech is. It sounds like the point is that if we went to war and none of us got killed or disabled, peace and freedom wouldn't be established. But don't we try to minimize damaged lives as much as possible? I'd drop the last sentence of the price of freedom paragraph. I think the previous sentence is the point she wants to make.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

In the first two paragraphs, I can't figure out what's going on.

The third paragraph might be a better place to start, but please, sans vomit.

Fourth paragraph: It sounds as though Mr. Garcia is scratching a memento into his arm.

Fifth paragraph... I can't really tell if the girl is pro-war or anti-war, but having listened to a lot of student speeches, I'd say that's pretty true-to-life. However, it does suggest that the story might have a Message and that's never a good idea. If the girl's plitickle opinion turns out to be the same as mine, namely that These Colors Don't Run The World, I still don't want to read a story that preaches it.

Of course I think it quite probable that your story doesn't intend to preach at all. But putting the speech at the beginning makes it seem as if it does.

Decide what the purpose of this scene is and take out anything that doesn't serve that purpose.

Dave Fragments said...

Am I right to assume this is Young Adult? It has that same desperate and panicky YA tone as the i Love You Beth Cooper book.

Help me Author... Is this really intended as a political statement? I hesitate to comment because it seems to be exactly that.

PLaF said...

Is there such a rule as: never open with vomit?
I’d open with the Valium line, then give a quick intro into why a tranquilizer might be necessary at this exact moment. It takes too long to figure out the person is giving a speech.
The melodrama with “Tallying the price of freedom” para gives good teen-angst vibe, but unless this story is about the meaning of freedom, the high cost of living free, or the toll it’s taken on the speech writer, I’d open with something else.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comments. I've re-written this opening so many times I want to chuck the whole damn thing, so it's certain that three hours after I sent this to EE I got a whole new idea about it....

That being said, an earlier version started with para 3 and the next revision likely will, too.

No, it's not a political book. Yes, it is YA.

I'm glad to know that trimming the speech will still have the same effect because to me it seems to drag and I've cut it to the bone over these seventeen edits....

The MC struggles with anxiety disorder and hates her meds because she's convinced they stunted her growth. Her father is a war vet who battles PTSD, so she's acutely aware of war....but the story is mainly about how she deals with her own mental issues sans meds and plus the secret boyfriend. (Not Kyle)

Thanks for the awesome continuation Khazar-Khum and Anon. Somewhere someone is living that scene already, me thinks.

CavalierdeNuit said...

(If this had gone down at my Christian alma mater here's what would have happened.)

Suddenly everyone is in their underwear. I blink a few times. It's real. Mr. Garcia scratches his butt. He wears yellowed tighty whities, I knew it. Meghan wears lace garter belts to school? Now I know why she gets a ride home from that hot senior guy everyday.

The kids stare open-mouthed at each other. Grandpa always said that necking was his favorite activity.

Kyle's breath warms my cheek. He forgot his underwear. I glance at his crotch. He doesn't shave, he waxes. Grandpa's cross is hot in my hand and Jesus squirms. I'm not saving myself for marriage. It's not valium I need after all.
I agree with EE about starting with the 3rd paragraph, and I think the speech should be shortened. Perhaps she can forget her speech, say the most important sentence, then sit down.

Later, as Kyle is lounging on her bed with a cigarette, she recites it perfectly in her mirror.

"I open my fist and set it on the podium..." I think "I palm the podium" would sound better.

When I get really nervous my hands shake. Then I get paranoid. If I had been throwing up earlier I wouldn't be able to manage sipping water in front of a crowd. But that's just me.

khazar-khum said...

I hope--I really, truly, sincerely hope--that the opening is an example of a Kid's Thought process, and not the theme of the book. You know the Kid Thoughts, the ones right down there with the beauty queens wanting to end hunger and find world peace? Yeah, well, I don't want to read an entire book about them, and neither do any kids.

So what I hope is that this is really a story about her and Kyle, that they have lots of crazy, fun adventures, and that this sort of debate never rears its ugly head again.

Dave Fragments said...

Now I understand the valium.

You gave her the wrong speech. It's not "war" she's so aware of, it is drugs to inappropriately treat" mental illness.

When you said "The price of freedom" then I thought of Jefferson's quote that is so much misused. I think that connection is hurting this. I think you need other words for the concept of the ultimate price of war is measure in lives ended and lives ruined, in artificial limbs and good minds shattered. It is a burden of nightmares that no deserves. No veteran should be left dependent on drugs.

And I would try to keep her speech centered on PTSD and the side effects of medication.

I'd offer more but my full scale anti-war speech would be more than I want to share in a post on EE's board.

How about the opening line: "My first speech without Ritalin and ... " And then go on to describe her unsettled state. Maybe she says "I'm trying to live without my chemical crutch but my nerves ..." Those are not the greatest of openings lines but they might trigger a way in your mind since you know the character better than I do. .

Unknown said...

Thanks Dave for your comments.
It's not easy to start...and it's becoming impossible to stop revising.

The opening scene is of two top (rival) students vying for a the American Legion speech prize at their school--hence the patriotic theme to the speech. We don't revisit politics much in the manuscript so I'm not banging the anti-war drum.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Begin as you mean to go on. If you're not banging the anti-war drum (and really, the whole freedom-is-not-free schtick sounds more like the pro-war drum) then don't bang it, or any other political drum, because the opening is where we're forming our impressions and deciding whether to read on.

Your focus for this scene is:
Why does this always happen to her?
The other kids don't have this problem.
Why her?
Will the valium help? (optional-- we really just need to know about the anxiety at this point)
How do the other kids *do* it?

You can do all that without giving us her actual speech at all. Focus on her terror.

Right now, with the mysterious acidic taste, the anti-pro-war speech, the teacher with the itchy Iraq memento, creepy Uncle Sal, and creepy Kyle, you're giving us too many things to focus on. We don't know what's important.

It's okay if Uncle Sal, Mr. Garcia, and the Iraq war have a role to play later on in the story, but it sounds like they don't belong in the beginning. Really, four characters (counting the absent uncle) is a lot to plop onto page one. One or two is a lot easier on reader and writer alike.

Btw, I'm reminded of a memorable middle school speech contest... All the kiddies, bless their prepubescent hearts, gave speeches on Abortion. (They were all agin it.)

Except there was this one 6th grade boy who stepped up to the podium and spoke deeply and meaningfully on how Alaska could best promote domestic canned salmon consumption.

As you can imagine, he won hands down.

St0n3henge said...

The problems:
The opening of your book contains a speech, and
The speech seems moralistic and preachy and is scaring your readers away.

You say you can't stop revising it. That's a good indication you need to scrap the whole thing. Start in the ice cream parlor her father takes her to after she loses. Or the schoolground fight she and Kyle get into afterward. Whatever.

Kids' school speeches are excruciating. They're civic-minded things adults think up for them to do. No child I know of cares much whether or not they do well at them, unless there is a cash prize involved. They certainly aren't entertainment.

150 said...

Fun fact: I won thousands of dollars making patriotic speeches back in high school, although it was for the VFW.

I timed this at thirty seconds. Is it supposed to be just the opening paragraph, or the whole thing? The message is muddled: the last line makes the sacrifice sound justified, but the sarcastic "shiny" undermines it, for example.

If the story doesn't revisit the politics, why must we hear any part of the speech explicitly? Those things can be rough to sit through.

Mister Furkles said...

KK – Great continuation.

Veronica – Three minor things:

1. P4: I’d prefer Meghan first and Mr. Garcia next. The two Meghan sentences emphasize the MC’s fear. Then Garcia signals the start. Also I don’t get “computer watchdog”. Is that debate slang for timekeeper?

2. P5: You use “price” three times. Could be stronger if you use “cost” the second time. Then kill the last sentence “See ... established.”

3. P5: You use “number of” three times. Can them all. The problem with “number” is that people abstract the damage; they think, well, numbers. For example:

In the battle of Shiloh, 112,000 fought for two days resulting in 3482 killed, 16420 wounded, and 3844 captured and missing. – Okay, sounds bad.

Grant said that, after the battle, you could walk end to end across the field in any direction stepping on bodies and never set foot on the ground.

So, which yields the strongest image? You totaling the numbers or you stepping on dead and wounded bodies for three miles in every direction.

Unknown said...

Thanks all for the comments!
The numbers thing...MC is a math prodigy, numbers are how she makes sense of the world.

The speech segment is simply the conclusion, I must make that clearer when I trim.

I don't mind revising...it the first page and it's critical to get it 'right', right?

MC isn't a fan of war, but she's not supposed to be preachy about it. Will try to soften...

Wonderful thoughts, all. :)

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

My second comment disappeared, so I'll just agree with what AA said.

And 150 is right; this speech is way too short for a speech contest. But don't make it longer! Scrap it.

Evil Editor said...

I thought it was reasonably clear this was the end of the speech, as she thinks, Let me finish, and Garcia nods, giving her permission to continue. Both of these suggest that she already started. Then there's "I end with a hoarse Thank you." Which is pretty much the clincher.

Anonymous said...

In line with previous comments, I agree that if the story focuses on the MC’s anxiety disorder, then starting with a speech is not the most effective way to introduce that. ALMOST EVERYONE feels anxious giving a speech, so the burning throat, the nausea, etc. sound perfectly normal. Bring those same physical symptoms into an everyday situation, and you get your point across much more effectively.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Interestingly, the #1 fear of Americans is public speaking and the #1 fear of Britons is spiders.

Anyway, my deleted comment said that the opening page should focus only on her anxiety, not on anything else that will confuse us as to what the point is. (No acid taste, no Iraq War, etc.) And it should not contain four named characters. It's just too confusing.

You don't say where you are in writing this. But if it's any help, I always write my opening scene last, usually after around the fourth or fifth revision.

CavalierdeNuit said...

(I left a continuation previously, but I think it was too late, oops.)

You've left me a lot of great feedback so here are my thoughts.

I agree with everyone about the speech. I skipped over it when I was reading your beginning the first time. It's a good message though, I would find a way to include it. Maybe it doesn't have to be in speech form.

It's a good idea to start with the 3rd paragraph. Also, adventures with a secret boyfriend sound fun (does your MC sneak out at night? I used to sneak out when I was a teen. Hehe.)

"I open my fist and set it on the podium..." would sound better as "I palm the podium."

It seems the rest of my thoughts have been covered in the comments. Good luck:)

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

It's a good message though, I would find a way to include it.

As Samuel Goldwyn said, if you've got a message, send a telegram.

Or else be prepared to find complaints popping up all over goodreads, amazon, the ALA blogs, the various blogs specific to your genre...

The audience doesn't want our political views. What they're paying for is entertainment.

/all done venting on this topic, at least until it comes up again

khazar-khum said...

There is a way to use the speech.

She closes the speech, and is glad she's done with it because she hated the trite thing that Dad and Uncle Hank 'helped' her write--ie, wrote the whole thing while she sat there with her phone. It'd give some insight into her.

Unknown said...

Thanks Alaska and Cav and all...
This manuscript has been written for a while. Queried, revised, queried, and now I'm going back to the basic framework with a new-vision instead of a re-vision.

I really like the speech as a beginning point. They can be terrifying, and the MC gives this public address, while mastering her own personal demons, in memory of her grandpa who was an Am Legion big wig. This becomes clearer when she pauses after the speech and reflects on whether grandpa would have approved...

If anything the "message" of the story is self-respect which I believe comes across in a subtle way through the MCs interactions with her family, boyfriend, and her pursuit of "normal" despite her emotional issues.

Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuation:

He pushes a piece of paper toward me. I unfold it and focus through my tears to the number penciled across the crease. It's right. It's exactly right. To the cent. Fricking math geeks -- they got no empathy at all.


Anonymous said...

If you want to start with the speech, I would at least recommend not actually giving the speech word-for-word as a big block of dialogue. Right now, that one paragraph makes up about 30 percent of the excerpt. That’s A LOT, considering you say that the actual content of the speech is not all that important. If the focus of the story is really the MC’s inner agony, then keep the reader there. We should experience the speech, not listen to it. Good luck with the re-write. This looks like a cool story.

CavalierdeNuit said...

I agree with Alaska, political messages should be left out of fiction.

Consider the movie Apocalypse Now (a masterpiece). Is it a political movie? To me, no. It's a very human movie. If you focus on the humanity, it ceases to be about politics.

I understand where you're coming from Veronica, it works.

none said...

I have to disagree with those who want all characters to be talking about kittens or something safe all the time. If a character wants to put across a political message, that's perfectly legitimate.

Also, "I palm the podium" comes across as some kind of sleight of hand....

St0n3henge said...

It's certainly okay for characters to be political, morose, sarcastic, paranoid, etc... I do feel that putting a political speech at the beginning makes readers think the book will be preachy. Teens, especially, go out of their way to keep from being lectured. Their parents, teachers and pastors all preach at them. If they suspect this is going to be "that kind" of book they'll drop it like a dead marmot.

I really feel the book can be better served by starting with something else, but it isn't my book.

Author said...

The sudden laughter silences me and yanks my gaze into the crowd. There are a few gapers still hoping for my train to slide off the rails, I suppose, but it’s almost a relief to see that most kids aren’t paying attention at all. I unclench my fist and set Grandpa’s gold cross on the podium. My trembling fingers brush it once, twice, three times for luck.

God, just, help me get through this. Please.

I flush the bitter aftertaste from my pre-speech panic attack away with a sip of water, regretting honoring my bet with Uncle Sal. One pill would’ve numbed the pain of my knotted stomach, and the bottle’s just sitting in my purse. Still, fifty bucks is pricey for a valium.

Students shift restlessly waiting for me to continue—or give up, I suppose. Their creaking chairs and rumbling voices kick my heartbeat faster. In my search for a friendly face in the horde I catch my sister Meghan waving at me. My lips mirror her wide, warm smile and the tightness in my chest loosens enough for a deep breath.

“Tallying the price of freedom takes a pretty complicated equation. You might start by adding the number of caskets returning from the frontline to the number of tears cried by kids with a flag instead of a parent. You might then multiply that by the number of disabled vets and multiply again by those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Because the true price of freedom is counted in damaged lives, not dollars spent.”

Ending with a hoarse, “Thank you,” I take my seat beside Kyle Connors who leans too close. “Why’d you even bother, Loony? I got this,” he hisses in my ear.

Ignoring him, I rub Grandpa’s cross with my thumb. Kyle can have the prize. I didn’t do this for the money.

Dave Fragments said...

I think in the first paragraph you have to make it clear she's giving a graduation speech or a school meeting talk or whatever assembly she's speaking at... Not a full sentence just a few words in the right place.

I'd also remove the self doubt or "I suppose" because I don't you need it. That sentiment is repeated later and you can cut it out there too. You establish her insecurities without those two self doubts.

The money line is the last one. When Kyle says his line I would say "I turn away with Grandpa’s cross in my hand. Kyle can have the prize. I didn’t do this for the money." That's mostly your words and definitely your sentiments.

This reads much better than the original version. It's clearer and closer to what is important in the inner dialog she has going.

Unknown said...

Thanks Dave for catching the double supposing! (/face palm...)

I'm glad it reads clearer. Will work on setting in the 1st paragraph.

Anonymous said...

You may want to mix the internal dialogue with the speech to give the scene more immediacy. For example, here’s a slight re-arrangement of sentences:

I unclench my fist and set Grandpa’s gold cross on the podium. My trembling fingers brush it once, twice, three times for luck. God, just, help me get through this. Please.

“Tallying the price of freedom takes a pretty complicated equation,” I say.

A quiet laugh somewhere in the crowd silences me. There are a few gapers still hoping for my train to slide off the rails, but it’s almost a relief to see that most kids aren’t paying attention at all.

I continue. “You might start by adding the number of caskets returning from the frontline to the number of kids with a flag instead of a parent. You might then multiply that by the number of disabled vets and multiply again by those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.”

I flush the bitter aftertaste from my pre-speech panic attack away with a sip of water, regretting my bet with Uncle Sal. . . .

Unknown said...

Thanks Anon. Good ideas! :)

(capcha words so long I feel like I've stumbled onto the Scripps spelling bee site by mistake...sheesh!)

CavalierdeNuit said...

I agree with Anonymous. If you're going to include the speech, it should be mixed with internal dialogue. That way, your reader won't think they're being preached to on the first page. It becomes more about the horror of giving a speech, no matter what the speech is.