I've got a long list of problems I need to solve in my novel, but right now I'd appreciate any help I can get with the opening paragraphs. Your 13-line approach is a fine tool for getting down to what really matters. Thanks for making it available.
Current Title: Zapped Subtitle: Back in the Game Genre: apocalyptic but not science fiction Word Count (so far): 45,057
Jack was driving home from the LAX airport after his final assignment in Iran when a flash of light lit up the sky. He felt the throttle of his Land Rover go slack, and heard the screech of tires as people around him slammed on their brakes. A metallic-red Camaro slid to a stop in front of him, sideways to what moments before had been the flow of traffic.
Jack felt the shivery energy of fight or flight. He swerved around the Camaro. Knowing the freeway would become a wrecking yard of cars and trucks scattered lane to lane, he pushed the clutch in so he could coast to the off ramp at Aqua Dulce.
"Damn! Hope this is just an attack on Edwards Air Force Base, not part of a global assault to put the world back in the dark ages. Either way, I'm back in the game of hunting terrorists."
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Disclaimer: This is not my genre--not what I read or write.
That said, my first impressions are:
1) Using "was driving" in the very first sentence actually makes it feel like a less active start. Not that you can't use a gerund here and there in your writing, but probably best not in the very first sentence.
2) You just jumped right in with both feet and landed at the inciting incident without any setup at all. I have no idea who Jack is, what he was doing in Iran, where he's going, what frame of mind he's in, or whether I should be rooting for or against him.
3) I read driving from LAX and then jumping to thinking that this might be an attack on Edwards AFB--roughly 100 miles from LAX and on the other side of a range of mountains--and find it hard to believe that he could even see a flash of light at Edwards from LAX. It's not until the next paragraph that I get a clue (Agua Dulce) that he's a lot closer to Edwards than to LAX. Now, maybe that's because I live in So Cal, but some of your intended audience probably do, too. Or are at least familiar with the area.
4) Overall, I think this needs to be a whole lot more immediate. We need to feel his heartbeat pick up as the adrenaline hits him. Feel his shock, first.
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An individual observes a suspicious explosion from a distance.
Just an attack on a military base? Is that a routine occurrence in this alternate history, futuristic narrative? Apocalyptic prose is soft science fiction, fantastic social science fiction, regardless.
The distance from which Jack observes the explosion is remote, best practice if he's up close and personal to the explosion, for immediacy's sake, plus, more so immediate, personal involvement, and most so for authenticity's sake. Explanation: "Telling details" authenticate a narrative's reality. Lack of or short-shrifted setting descriptions imply a setting is invented in a writer's mind and challenge or jeopardize reader willing suspension of disbelief, are inauthentic.
Examples of telling details, other than obvious roadway and nearby location details, might include the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Telling details express more meaning with less word count than otherwise bald and empty descriptions.
For example, early western migrants named the Joshua tree from Scriptures' account of God told Joshua to raise a spear in his hand to the city Ai, and Joshua's forces defeated it. An apt metaphor for an individual who would defeat terrorism. A tortoise and hare metaphor is apt, too. Telling details intimate or imply such contexts and textures.
Might Jack observe a Joshua tree impacted by the explosion close by where he passes the base instead of from, what, seventy miles away and a five hundred feet high mountain ridge in the way? Or through a mountain pass? Impossible regardless.
In any case, the explosion itself is the dramatic incitement incident of note. The fragment opens with thin backstory, attempts to introduce Jack's true nature and personality in a quick and ineffective summary nature. Then plows into the action of the now moment without character introduction completion.
That is a block method that is widely deprecated: this block, character development; this block, setting development; this block, event development. Best practice leavens the three indivisibly together.
Though the hallmarks of in medias res are present, the fragment jumps back and forth in time. The first sentence, for example, was driving, then or now; after Iran, then; when, now or then again.
Road trip from LAX to Aqua Dulce, an indefinite time span anytime in which Jack might not see an explosion at Edwards. An hour in light traffic, about sixty miles.
A common shortfall of rough drafts is a general tell facet, as like an outlined sketch. This happens, this happens, this happens, etc. The fragment reads like that, to me. The narrative point of view type is detached, third person narrator, and often more so writer than narrator point of view. "Detached" refers to remote distance and unemotional investment, from far outside and looks inward, little, if any, omniscient access to thoughts, emotions, and inside looks outward perceptions, unemotionally describes circumstances.
Readers want and need a dramatic persona with which to accompany a narrative, be it writer, narrator, or character persona. Artful detached narrator narratives entail a strong and clear narrator tone: emotional attitude toward topics and subjects. The fragment doesn't introduce an expressed tone.
By far, the most preferred narrative point of view anymore is third-person limited omniscient: a metaphor for first person, though first person enjoys a young reader niche. The fragment, to me, attempts that limited omniscient narrative point of view, intends maybe, yet uses only a few mechanical conventions of the detached type.
Example of shortfalls thereof are extra lens filters the sentences begin from or end upon: "Jack was driving", "He felt the throttle", "slid to a stop in front of him", "Jack felt the shivery energy", "He swerved around", "he pushed the clutch in so he could coast". One or two extra lens filters for each sentence of the fragment.
Prose craft wants few, if any, extra lens filters. An analogy is a fantastic camera that records all relevant sensation types and relevant persona thoughts and emotions is a best practice. The camera records from one persona's third eye, so to speak, for detached, a narrator's; for limited, a focal agonist's (the main contender). This fragment's camera records through unnecessary extra lenses.
Recast, the first sentence, in medias res, for illustration purposes:
//Way east, between San Bernardino range's wildfire-scorched and landslide slopes, a sick orange flash backlit the Oat Mountain skyline.//
Best practice, reserve backstory for later when it matters to the moment, use specific details for descriptions, locate readers in time and space, describe from inside a persona's eyes, ears, nose, mind, etc. -- not a writer's at some faraway desk.
"A metallic-red" inverted, confused word join, no hyphen and invert at least //red metallic// perhaps reconsider the color description, //red metallic// //red metal flake// //candy apple red metallic// //scarlet red metal flake.//
"lane to lane, he" comma splice, run-on sentence.
"the off[-]ramp" Noun takes the hyphen.
As is, I would not read further as an engaged reader, due, in the main, to narrative point of view shortfalls that don't work for me.
What you're doing is "telling the reader a story." That places you in the role of an external voice, devoid of all tone but what the word meaning and punctuation suggests to any given reader. And that reader's background, location, and interests probably don't match yours. Given that the reader can't see your performance either, what do they have but what amounts to a report, of the form, "This happened...then that happened...and after that..."? It's a dry recitation of facts, interspersed with authorial comments to explain, what you hope to find when you pick up fiction?
Remember, your primary goal is to entertain the reader, not inform. And the only sure way of making sure the reader takes the meaning of the words as you intend is to make the reader see the scene as-the-protagonist-perceives it. Only that way will a twenty year old woman and a sixty year old man experience the action as the protagonist does. Only that way will they care enough to want to keep turning pages.
I'm not talking about talent or potential, or even the story. What I'm saying is that there is en entire body of craft, dedicated to making certain that the reader is living the story in real-time, with the protagonist as their avatar. And because that craft is related to the profession of writing fiction for the page, it's not either taught or mentioned while we're leaning to write reports and essays in school—which means it must be acquired as part of preparing ourselves to write in a way the reader of fiction relates to, and expects.
That aside, in this, an unknown person sees a flash in the sky while driving. At the same time, and for unknown reasons, the cable leading from his accelerator pedal to the engine breaks. (that's not your intent, but it is what you said) Then, everyone around him slams on their brakes. He doesn't,(again, it is what you told the reader) which makes no sense given that someone slides to a stop in front of him and he doesn't hit them. Yes, you then explain that he swerved, but you can't retroactively remove confusion. And it seems not to make sense that the car can completely stop, and then he swerves, given that we're on a highway, and the reader has no idea of what traffic is like.
So added to the problem of missing craft, a great deal of the detail of this story is still in your head, leaving the reader wondering what's going on.
Not good news, I know. But it appears that you just sat down, typed it, and posted it, without thinking about how a reader, who knows only what the words they've read say, will see it.
So you have two tasks. First is to dig into the techniques of writing fiction for the page. In that the local library's fiction section can be a huge help. Fair warning, though. It's not a matter of reading a few hints and writing with the knowledge of the pro. Ours is a complex and difficult to master profession. So don't expect a book contract by Christmas.
Next, is to always edit from the seat of a reader, so as to pick up the "you know what I mean," issues, because we can never assume that the reader does.
Posts: 96 | Registered: Dec 2016
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Good on you Qwertyportne for having a go. I am a newbie here as well, I like your immediacy and it makes sense to me. Walexander is right to say take it up a notch. But how Qwertyportne say's? I would like to offer you to: 'Show, don't tell.' Imagine you are a fly (an intelligent fly) sitting on the head rest of your subjects' car. The fly see's everything but cannot read the drivers mind. Describe what is happening as you have done without thinking the characters thoughts out loud. Keep a bit of mystery or intrigue. reveal enough, not 'all'.
Example. Your text reads: 'and heard the screech of tires as people around him slammed on their brakes.'
Take out 'heard' Take out 'people'. Then what would you do if you heard 'The screech of tires' around you. Put your own reaction in. 'Show don't tell'.
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