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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Fragments and Feedback for Short Works » The Lowland Expedition

   
Author Topic: The Lowland Expedition
robertq
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The following is the opening a rewrite. Thanks for the feedback.

---------------------------------------------------------

The Lowland Expedition


Enna loved piloting the spotting balloon, but she’d always done so alone. Now, in a gondola crowded with two other people (plus one tracker-bird), the sight of Old Earth from the air was so inspiring, that she felt glad to share it.

The arid plain of the Lowlands stretched forth to the horizon, in soft, deceptively lovely pastels. Interrupting this landscape, the Xex river criss-crossed the plain with the precision of a shuttle in a mechanical loom; from the sky it appeared to be a series of parallel, tree-lined lakes stretching into the blue haze of distance. This illusion, of separate-but-parallel lakes, was broken if one looked down. Below, the five Expedition barges lay nestled

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skadder
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Hi,

Nothing really happens in your intro.

You tell us how she feels about what she is doing and then go on to describe what she sees. Although I am a little interested in the landscape, I am not hooked.

You also explain the view in terms of what it is and then what it looks like from the air. I think I would have used some of the words to actually have something happen--even if she was jostled by some other people...it would have grounded me in the scene.

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wise
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I think I would like to know who the other two people are and the purpose of this trip before you describe the landscape below. We need to become attached to Enna right away and I'm not feeling that yet. The second sentence might offer an opportunity. Why had she been alone before? If it was because she just never had anyone to share the scenery with, then maybe you need a stronger word than "glad". If it was because she liked the serenity of being in the air alone, then maybe another emotion is in order. Setting up a conflict between her and the other characters, or telling us why this day warranted these other people in the balloon will give us a reason to keep reading.

I'm having a little trouble understanding how the illusion of parallel lakes created by the weaving river would disappear if you looked down. If it's an arid plain (little to no vegetation - wait, you mention trees?), why couldn't we see the entire winding of the river? Is it because the balloon is close to the ground? Please explain this better. I do like the words you use in the description, especially the comparision with a shuttle.

"The blue haze of distance" - should it be "the distance"?

"Below, the five Expedition..." I don't think you need the word "below", as I assume everything but the clouds would be below the balloon.

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robertq
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Great feedback!

You guys rock!

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MattLeo
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I have a slightly different take on this. I don't think anything necessarily has to happen in the first half page, and I think that it is too much to ask a reader to become invested in a character in one paragraph.

The one thing you have to do, and that if you don't do everything else is in vain, is to keep the reader reading on.

Logically, there's only two ways this could possibly happen: the reader makes a conscious decision that he's hooked, or he reads on until (without realizing it) he gets hooked. It doesn't matter which way it happens, although I *do* question the durability of a commitment a reader makes in the first half page; either way the reader has to keep reading.

I think that's a balance between two opposing forces: reader motivation and cognitive load. The idea that you're going to get a real reader commitment to read on runs straight up with the volume of information you have to cram into his brain to make the sale. It's like starting a business; you start a business to make money, but you need money to start a business. The number one reason a new business fails is it runs out of money. You write a story to engage reader interest, your number one danger is running out of reader interest before the story launches, and what drains interest is cognitive load.

Which is all a round about way of saying that all things being equal, an opening should accomplish what it does in the simplest way possible. Do whatever you do with the least possible effort for the reader.

Let's examine the opening paragraph.

quote:
Enna loved piloting the spotting balloon, but she’d always done so alone. Now, in a gondola crowded with two other people (plus one tracker-bird), the sight of Old Earth from the air was so inspiring, that she felt glad to share it.
Sentence #1 is fine, but #2 is untidy. For one thing it's more syntactically complicated than it needs to be, with a long adverbial phrase (set off by commas) interrupting the flow of the sentence. Let's look at that phrase. Does the tracker-bird (in parentheses no less) carry its weight in the image you are painting? For that matter do the two passengers really carry their weight *given this is the opening paragraph*? Even if you do need them, turning the sentence right-side-out would help, e.g., "Now, the sight of Old Earth from the air was so inspiring she was glad to share it with the two passengers crowded into the gondola."

Note the piece I've bolded. Why say "she felt glad" when "she was glad" is more direct? There's often a good reason for what I call "state of mind verbs" like "thought", "felt", "saw", "realized" etc., often to draw attention to how this is contrary to expectations or reality. "There was a man with a bloody knife" is more direct than "He saw a man with a bloody knife," and preferable too unless that is followed by "but it turned out to be a brush with red paint," or "it was a hallucination."

I suspect what you're saying is that Enna would prefer to pilot alone, but the landscape is so magnificent she doesn't mind passengers. There's two problems with this. First, it's a little early to be contrasting the experience she is having with an alternative that she is not having. It takes us out of the immediate moment, so I think that would better be expressed in paragraph three or later. Secondly, you've inverted cause and effect in your narrative. The cause of Enna's attitude comes in the *next* paragraph:


quote:
The arid plain of the Lowlands stretched forth to the horizon, in soft, deceptively lovely pastels. Interrupting this landscape, the Xex river criss-crossed the plain with the precision of a shuttle in a mechanical loom; from the sky it appeared to be a series of parallel, tree-lined lakes stretching into the blue haze of distance. This illusion, of separate-but-parallel lakes, was broken if one looked down. Below, the five Expedition barges lay nestled.
Now I happen to like very much the image you're putting in our heads, but are you doing it in the simplest way possible?

One red flag I frequently see near story openings is figurative language, e.g.:

quote:
with the precision of a shuttle in a mechanical loom;
Figurative language requires the reader to make mental effort to extract meaning, so the effort had better be low and the payoff high. Here I'd say the payoff is close to nil, since the image presented by the metaphor is at best redundant. At worst, it raises a lot of unnecessary questions: What does Robert mean by "precise" here? Am I picturing the right kind of loom? What does he mean by "mechanical loom" in the first place? Are there *non*-mechanical looms I need to know about?

In general I'd avoid metphor and simile in favor of straightforward and vivid language in an opening. In fact often a cliche would be preferable than a fresh but tricky metaphor, unless figurative language is an important part of the narrator's voice.

This little bit is interesting because it provides a vivid but economical image; it also sets us up to see the barges below, which I presume are important because it tells us this is a major navigable river:
quote:
This illusion, of separate-but-parallel lakes, was broken if one looked down.
I think you have more commas than needed. If "of separate-but-parallel lakes" is essential, you don't put a comma in. If it's not essential, you might not put the appositive in at all.

Finally note the "one" here: "... if one looked down." "One" is the preferred pronoun in formal writing where you want to emphasize the distance between the writer/narrator and the subject matter. If you wanted to sound informal (and thus more inviting to a casual reader) you'd write this as, "This illusion was broken if you looked down."

My advice: show what you've shown here stripped down to the simplest and most vivid language possible, if necessary trimming anything that doesn't add to the impression.

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robertq
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Great stuff Matt,

The metaphor about cognitive load is quite useful.

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robertq
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Hello Skadder,

We speak of hooks often on this forum. Can you cite me some examples? I'd love to study some examples of stuff that hooks you.

Hello Wise,

In the same vein, can you give me any examples of openings that create an immediate attachment to the character. Would like to study them.

Thanks again,

Robert

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skadder
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Hi.

Have a look at some of the competition winners (intro competitions) on WRITING CHALLENGES. You may get an idea of why each one won.

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wise
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quote:
Originally posted by robertq:

In the same vein, can you give me any examples of openings that create an immediate attachment to the character. Would like to study them.

I haven't been on this forum enough to find something here, but let me give you two examples from books I have on my shelves.

One of my favorite character hooks is the first chapter of "Seventh Son" by OSC. Peggy describing her egg-gathering session really pulled me into her character and the book.

I also like the beginning of "Kinsman" by Ben Bova. It takes place in a jet plane high over the earth, a similar situation to your balloon. It's a good combination of describing the setting and establishing the main character's personality right away.

"The Snow Queen" by Joan D. Vinge begins describing the setting and then the main character makes a comment to her best friend that shows the reader her opinion about the world they live in.

Those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head that would be helpful to you. Hope they help.

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