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Author Topic: Novel excerpt
ccwritergal
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Genre: Novel-length literary ghost story

This is a second draft of a chapter beginning. Any comments would be welcome.


December whispered to her from all along the slow, Southern streets. Polly rolled her window down for a deep breath of salt air, and the first gust of humidity soothed the tender bruise on her jaw. Somewhere tall grass was smoldering. The smokey musk tingled her nose for an instant before it was gone. The familiarity of the palm-lined street and the scrubby mesquite trees spread through her like a dull ache in her bones. Part of her had been homesick for so long. Now all she felt was sick.

Gina turned the steering wheel for the final corner and the old mansion at the end of the cul-de-sac swung into view. Polly blinked as memories of the past tried to merge with memories of those restless dreams once again. The 1840s plantation house had been the unshakable sentinel of her sleep since she left almost twenty years ago.

[This message has been edited by ccwritergal (edited May 06, 2005).]


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wbriggs
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What I liked: "homesick. Now all she felt was sick." It makes me want to find out why.

What I don't like is that all this mood-setting involved things that either took a while to figure out, or that I couldn't picture, and the things I wanted to know, which Polly already knows -- why does Polly feel sick? Who's Gina? -- I couldn't find out. Details:

December whispered to her [I can't picture this]
slow, Southern streets. [streets are always slow! and "Southern" just seems like a way to shoehorn in the detail that she's in the South. The mesquites and the palms do this well enough I think]

humidity soothed the tender bruise [I can't imagine this happening]

Somewhere tall grass was smoldering. [How would she know it's tall?]

the familiarity of the palm-lined street [why's it familiar? if it's where she grew up, tell us, maybe with, "the familiarity of the palm-lined street where she'd grown up..."]

Gina [who's Gina?]

Polly blinked as memories of the past tried to merge with memories of those restless dreams once again. [I can't picture memories trying to merge]

The 1840s plantation house had been the unshakable sentinel [thinking about this, I could figure out that what you meant was she's had lots of dreams with this house, but it took a little thought]


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MaryRobinette
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I didn't have wbriggs's problems with this, but then I grew up in the South, so I knew what "tall grass smoldering" meant.

You say this is a chapter beginning, so may I assume that it's not the beginning of chapter one? If this were the start of a book, there are some things I might comment on, but as it's probably designed to show the contrast between where she was, and where she is now I think the time spent on setting is well-used. And by this point, I'm guessing, we would know who Gina is and why she's driving.

Nice sense of language. I have a pet peeve with "all" as in "all along" since it doesn't add any meaning. Actually, in this case you could take out both words, but--and this is the tricky thing--they are the sorts of filler words that appear in the language where I grew up. (North Carolina and Tennessee, although your story is farther South than that, right?) Anyway, the point is that if you've been using a slight tinge of Southern word choice throughout, then you'd want to leave those, but I can't tell without knowing what the rest of the book is like.

Oh, and welcome. I almost forgot that part.


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NewsBys
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Sorry, but when you said December, I instantly thought cold, ice, snow, sleet, holidays. So when you mentioned palm trees, humidity, heat, salt air, burning brush. I was completely thrown, and jerked out of the story. I had to stop, start over and reread the first few sentences again, thinking I had misunderstood. Is it necessary to mention the month?
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ccwritergal
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Wow, responses already--I'm so glad I stumbled across this site!

Thanks, you three, for taking the time to read my fragment.

wbriggs: nice to hear from such an interactive reader--even though I'm striving toward the "literary," accessible writing is one of my goals. Thanks for your insights.

MaryRobinette: so glad to meet a fellow Southerner in here. Your well-seasoned comments really resonated--good point about the "Southern" tinge needing to be consistent throughout. Thanks for your careful comments and the welcome, too!

Newsbys: Good question--I'm in Corpus Christi, and it's easy for me to forget the majority of readers will have "Northern" associations with December. I hereby whisk Polly away to November.


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Survivor
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Hmm, it's funny, that a change of only a month makes that much of a difference in how the reader percieves it.

I like this. I'm seeing a woman in her late thirties coming back home after the final (and long overdue) dissolution of her poorly chosen marriage, or something of this sort (there are a few missing details). I do have a bit of a problem with the names, I mean "Polly?" And Gina does sort of pop out of nowhere. I mean, if she's driving the car, then she's the active cause of the entire scene up to that point.

I can see that there is a tendency for the text to exclude non-Southerners, but I found it easy enough to understand. The tone isn't over the line, though perhaps it could stand to be throttled back a little, with a little more plain speaking to balance those novel metaphors. I'm against simply excising any of the imagery, though. Each one seems well chosen to me.


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wbriggs
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Hey, I'm a Southerner too! (But I missed out on knowing about "tall grass smoldering." Is this an idiom?)
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Survivor
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In some places (apparently including this place, wherever it is), it is common to clear an overgrown field by burning it over. Tall grass, grass that has not been mowed, smells different from short grass, particularly when burned (partly because it would be rather difficult to get a field of short grass to burn at all, let alone the question of why you would do such a pointless thing). I don't think the concept is particularly "Southern", but it's a bit more common in areas closer to the equator, since in areas with harsh winters people would probably rather not "waste" the fire.
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jeduthun
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I like the contrast between the extreme gentleness of the opening and the hint of violence: "the tender bruise on her jaw". Makes it more powerful to be surrounded by such swooning images. It's also surprising because it's my first read-through, but if we already know her jaw's been bruised, it might not have the same effect.

The word "swung" interrupted the flow for me. I tried to imagine a mansion swinging, and I couldn't do it.

Will refrain from posting agreements with above posts.


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djvdakota
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See, now, being in the rockies November ain't that much different from December.

But the fix doesn't necessarily have to be the month, but the placement of your mention of it. Coming in the first sentence it says: Cold, winter. That's it's job. That's what it does in that first sentence. But if the first sentence first establishes that we're in the south, then your reader would have a whole different outlook on what December might be like.

And I wasn't as bothered by the language. I thought it was quite nice, actually.

[This message has been edited by djvdakota (edited May 09, 2005).]


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Survivor
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So perhaps "Georgia's mild December whispered..." would work better? I don't know that this is set in Georgia, though. But whatever state, as long as it isn't "North Dakota's mild December" or something like that.
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djvdakota
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Ooh! Survivor! That's purty!
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wbriggs
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My opinion: the sentence as it is says things I wouldn't want to say. Specifically: "You're reading a story. The author doesn't want to come out and say it's December in the South, and, being a clever writer, finds a way of saying it that doesn't say it." But I don't want to be aware I'm reading (let me feel like it's happening!) or that the author exists.

I'd rather just get the info straight: "It was December in Savannah." Now if the author had something more important to say and had to tell us the setting to say it, as in, "Polly hadn't been back to Savannah for years" -- which is about Polly, but incidentally tells me where she is -- that would be fine. But I don't want the info packaged poetically, just to have it packaged poetically.

Maybe another bit of my reaction to the first sentence is that it seems to be about Polly's internal world (since December doesn't really whisper, it must be her perception), but it doesn't really tell me about that internal world, because I don't know how she feels when December whispers to her (nostalgic? spooked? cold?).

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited May 10, 2005).]


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rmbryan
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I like the flow, but there is something wrong with all along the southern streets. All breaks up the flow. You paint a picture that makes me think of summer. The last two sentences throw me out of the story. I do like your imagery. I love your first sentence, it’s poetic, except for the all. You have good prose.
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MLR
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I grew up in the south (Georgia), but I never heard of mesquite trees until I moved to Tucson, Arizona. A quick google revealed they are native to the desert southwest.

I believe you are thinking of scrub oaks instead. There are, of course, live oaks as well, which are the large oaks that Spanish moss sometimes grows upon. And although there may be some palm trees transplanted along the coast, mostly you see yellow pine (long needled).

And, yes, you might smell long grass burning in December, one has to wonder why? Sea grass is kept to prevent beach erosion. Farmers burn off grass in the fields (spring maybe?), but the soils near the ocean are very sandy, so you don't see much farming there. However, if it's any help to you, my daddy used to rake the yard and burn pine needles nearly all year long. They were quite fragrant.

[This message has been edited by MLR (edited May 24, 2005).]


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Survivor
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No, that's my bad. I'm the one that said "Georgia", That probably didn't fit terribly well with the palm trees either, at least for most of the state. Naturally (or perhaps I should say, "artificially") humans can plant mesquite trees pretty much whereever they want them, and there are places in both Florida and Georgia that have done just that.

But really, for all I know, this could be set in Texas. I'll guess that it isn't set in Arizona, though, since there's not much salt air in that particular state. Probably not enough for a deep breath of it, anyway.


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Eddy Gemmell
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Too much scene setting for me. I've seen this called 'warming your engines' - the advice (from someone far more experienced than me) is 'don't do it'.

Also, as already mentioned, Gina comes out of nowhere and I stopped reading at that point quite confused and went back thinking I'd missed something. All the sentiment is hard to pull off I think when we know nothing about the character.

I'm in the UK so maybe I'm missing some on the southern US background necessary to really 'get it', who knows.

[This message has been edited by Eddy Gemmell (edited May 25, 2005).]


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MaryRobinette
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Guys, guys. Read the intro to this again. This is not the first chapter of the novel. Presumbably we know the characters and understand where she is already, from the previous chapter.
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