Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's Broken? #2

GENRE: Literary Thriller

After the Sheriff of small-town Balmer accuses him of killing his adoptive father, James flees. He comes back sixteen years later as a different man, insinuating himself into Balmer society to get revenge. But like most plans, he can't account for the unexpected. This is the opening.

Sixteen years ago I left Balmer, Alabama as a black boy. I return today as a white man.

Not a stick of the town has changed. Not even the weight in the air, the hot, dusty wind, or the mottled blue sky overhead that threatens equally distasteful sunlight or thunderstorms.

I approach on foot from the outskirts, and a well of trembling—what, I don't know exactly, fear? rage?-- fills me at the very sight of it. I expected something else. I don't really know what I expected, but after the calm of the years past, coming back here with a purpose feels . . .different.

A sharpness pierces me as McPherson's General Store, the first building on the left, looms up out of the dusty morning shadows. Sixteen years ago a boy stood there, next to the bottom step. The other boys surrounding him called him a freak, along with other names I won't repeat in dignified company. They didn't understand a black boy. They understood a black boy covered in white patches even less.

The memories of that day bubble up inside me, causing the trembling to intensify as I walk down Main Street, looking for any hints of change in the buildings or people. But I already know there are none. Main Street is still, like the mindsets of its residents, from another, older time. The general store still hunches over all the other buildings, the upper level sign propped up by lathed porch rails below, giving the building the look of a giant snarled mouth. Fading red letters on a square of white-painted wood in the window advertise separate colored and white bathrooms.

The sheriff's now-old-and-rusty '78 Buick Regal is still parked out in front of the bar—a low, long building full of shadows across the street from the general store—where it appears to have not moved since I left. Old Man Rogers still sits in his rocker, muttering to himself, an empty beer can in his right hand as he sways back and forth. His rocker hasn't moved, either. It's still on the porch of the Chamber of Commerce, a tiny hut at the far end of Main Street, huddled in the middle of a fork in the dirt road.

When I left, he was actually Middle-Aged Rogers, but his face has grizzled and sunk, and there is a stiffness to his rocking that shows the creaking in his bones.

The Chamber of Commerce always seemed a bit pointless to me. No tourists come to Balmer. If they did, they'd be shocked at the real world so gritty under their feet here. At the blood-soaked dirt they walked on. And those who wouldn't be shocked would probably move here. Like attracts like, after all.

There are three old-fashioned and hand-painted wooden signs advertising a notary public, real estate agent, and lawyer on an abandoned and weary two-story building up the street from the general store.


  1. Hi,

    Actually I don't think much is broken here. The first two sentences are grabbers and I was intrigued to read more. You give a lot of detailed descriptions up front, but you manage to give decent enough tidbits of the MCs past to have this make sense. I think a good description up front sets the tone. One thing I would add though is the date. Is this modern? Mid-century? It feels mid-century but who knows, maybe there's still towns like this.

    The repetition of the word 'still' to reinforce the fact that nothing changed works to a point. If you're going to use it so much, then only use it to show that nothing changed. I would suggest writing around the 'Main Street is still', because that kind of ruins the emphasis on the other meaning. But then again I also think using various words to imply this sameness might jazz up the prose a little more.

    The other thing that caught me is 'Old Man Rogers' and that when the MC left he was "Middle Aged Rogers". It's not quite working because the MC wouldn't know what he's called now and if he was called Old Man Rogers when the MC left, then the middle aged comment is a stretch because it looks like he was called Middle-Aged Rogers before, but that's clearly not the case. Basically that part of the sentence is not quite doing it for me.

    All in all though I like the set up and I like the vision you create.

  2. Some of the description here seems a little too detailed and expository for what a character would be thinking. Phrases like " the upper level sign propped up by lathed porch rails below" and "a low, long building full of shadows across the street from the general store" seem to belong more to a distant narrator than a character, especially a man on pins and needles, returning to a place so emotionally charged for him. Ditto the info about the Chamber of Commerce.

    One suggestion would be to convey your description more through immediate memories. Let him directly hear the taunting voices, let him see people using the separate bathrooms, let him see Middle-Aged Rogers, and then contrast it with the present. That way we won't just see what he sees, but we will experience his visceral reactions--and they'll follow up that knockout punch of an opening line. ;)

  3. I agree with Emma: there's not much I would change with this one. The description is so good, I don't mind that there's a lot of it. (Loved the general store looking like a "giant snarled mouth.")

    The last two paragraphs could possibly be cut. At that point, I'm ready for the narrator to get to wherever he's going.

    I tripped on the sentence "They ddn't understand a black boy." African-Americans wouldn't be unusual in rural Alabama. Something like "Black boys weren't welcome on the streets of Balmer" might be closer to reality.

  4. I got stuck on the long sentence in the second paragraph, but the rest read very smoothly. The first sentence is a grabber and you hint at the change in paragraph four. I really like the voice.

    Contrary to the previous comment, I also liked the old middle-aged Roberts. It emphasizes how young the narrator was when he left. Children think anyone older than their parents are really old. Maybe a side comment of "but what did us kids know back then" might help.

    Great opening!

  5. I think the first two sentences are very intriguing. I immediately want to know about him. And I like the contrast between how much he has changed and how the town hasn’t. I think you do a great job of describing the town and setting the scene, but I think you can sprinkle these descriptions through the whole scene instead of just giving them all up front. The reader needs to see James interact with people or react to some sort of action. That’s what will pull the reader in.

    I agree with l.s. Johnson that the memories would be more powerful if he relived it (quickly) instead of just saying what happened. Show the reader what it looked and felt like for him. You’ve established a really strong voice. I don’t think it will take much to make this scene shine.

  6. This is a compelling opening, not so much broken as perhaps hurt by small cracks in the foundation.

    For me, the first two lines are almost too reminiscent of Steve Martin in The Jerk. I say "almost," because the next line ("Not a stick of the town has changed.") helps ground the reader and show this isn't a comedy, and you do reference "white patches" a few paragraphs on. Still, it made me pause, and not for the reasons you probably want.

    The main issue here -- at least, for me -- is you're too heavy with the description. As much as I like the scene you're setting, it's too much to start. We don't need so many repeated examples of how the town hasn't changed, nor do we need so much description and exposition all at once. By the end, I was itching for your narrator to stop observing and start interacting. For the narrative to stop telling and start showing.

    What you've got here is strong, but it can be made stronger by cutting out the fat. Leave in the stronger details to get your point across, but excise the rest from the opening and get to the story. You can always weave those other details into the story later, piece by piece instead of all at once.

  7. Not much I would change - this seems very finished, very polished. There's a lot to hook - your opening sentence is fantastic - and there's a clear, slowly unfolding sort of style.

    My only complaints are that the mix of sentences is a little to heavily in favour of the long - especially description. Description is obviously a very important part of your style, but it slowed things down a LITTLE to much for me at points.

    I know it's part of the hook, but I don't get how he can 'return today a white man'. Maybe I'm just silly, but I don't know how to picture this guy, which is a bit frustrating.

    But honestly, this is very, very good. I can imagine this getting snapped up very quickly by an agent. If it hasn't, consider losing a little description to speed things up a bit.

  8. The first two lines also intrigued me. It makes me want to know how James changed from a black boy to a white man.

    The title is also catchy. What could Vitiligo mean?

    I agree with Nate, you're heavy with description and it seems like a repetition of what has changed vs not changed, etc.

    I somewhat lost interest when I started reading the paragraph "The memories of that day..." because of this.

    Perhaps James could interact with the locals so we can get a feel for his personality and show us who he is?

    Otherwise, it's well written.

    Good luck!

  9. Thank you so much, everyone! This book has been trying and failing for four years so I'm a little desperate to know what's not working. Hopefully now I can fix it!

    Thanks again!