Friday, November 6, 2015

On the Block #6: WONDER WHY 9:50 AM

TITLE: Wonder Why
GENRE: Adult - Upmarket Fiction

When a reporter appears at her husband’s funeral, former Seventies rock music icon Elaine Brooks is forced to confront the thirty-year-old tragedy that sent her into hiding. She begins a soul-plumbing journey to reconcile with her past and help her equally talented son navigate the dangerous life she once rejected.

It began in the topmost branches of a stand of pine trees on a scorching October afternoon.   The keening wind dropped down through the branches, raked the over-baked earth, and began to strip away all such things that were past their prime or not firmly anchored.  Newly freed tumbleweeds raced each other across the sandy soil, more dynamic in death than in life.  A drift of dirt, born when the spring winds last blew, disintegrated in a swirling red cloud of dust, and a rusted gate broke free at last, clanging madly as though a ghost on a mission had just torn through.

And just that quickly, the seasons turned.  Summer lifted away and autumn stole quickly in, soothing the hardscrabble landscape of western Texas and beginning to work on the souls gathered around the gaping hole carved into the earth.  Across the dusty caliche road that wound through the cemetery, a man leaned back against one of the larger headstones and lifted a damaged hand to hold back the shoulder length hair that whipped about his face.

 Elaine watched him from behind dark glasses and wondered who he was. One of the homeless from the shelter where Ethan had worked?  Several of them dotted the sea of mourners arrayed behind her, here to pay their respects to the man who had handed out used clothing and a kind word twice a month for the past eight years. Then the disease left him too weak to stand, and the fog of the morphine lulled him into oblivion.

24 comments:

  1. Nice, fluid beginning. One nit: "Gaping hole" suggests a crater, not a grave. Yeah, it might feel like a crater to her, but the POV at that point is rather distant - indeed, we don't even know that the MC is present in the scene. It threw me and left me confused for the next couple of paragraphs.Otherwise, lovely writing that captures a time and place.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Brent. Sometimes those 'nits' are what make an agent move on to the next ms, so it's good to be aware of.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  2. Lovely writing, but be cautious about getting overly descriptive before establishing your POV character. Once we learn Elaine is there, the omniscience of the first two paragraphs is inconsistent with her close third. Those can be filtered through her eyes without losing any of the beauty of the prose. (And seeing the man first makes him appear to be the central character of the scene when I don't think he is.)

    Also, who is Ethan? What is his relationship to Elaine? It's obviously his funeral, but if she's been in hiding as the logline states, he must be someone important enough to bring her out of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Peter. Great points. As soon as I submitted to On The Block, I did some studying, I read Donald Maass' great book "The Fire in Fiction", and got some feedback through Scribophile, all of which basically told me the same thing. I've been very careful with my POV throughout the rest of the novel, and your comments show me how I can improve the first few (all important) paragraphs. I am using the wind to signify the beginning of change in her life, but I see what you mean - it needs to be through her eyes. BTW, Ethan is her husband, and that is established in the next paragraph. Thanks again!

      Delete
    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  3. The descriptions opening the story are beautiful, but where is the character seeing and feeling those things? The description will have more basis if it's seen through the eyes of your MC. How she looks at things and experiences the world can say as much about the character as anything else. Use the descriptive passages to show us your MC as well as the world she lives in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for critiquing! Very helpful comments. They reinforce some of what Peter is saying above, where I replied in more detail. I'll put this to good use!

      Delete
  4. I didn't have a problem with the pure description in the opening, since you get to the character's place in the scene quickly enough. (It's all on the first page, after all!) Especially when you're writing for adults, I see nothing wrong with starting with a scene or image that sets the tone and plays into the symbolism or themes in the story, and then essentially zooming in with that lens until you come to the character.

    There's so much emphasis on YA these days, and a lot of books that fall into the adult age category (especially in genre fiction) are also written with a youthful voice that would still be suitable for YA, so it's refreshing to see something written in a style that does feel 'adult', with more development of the details and a bit more going on with the language.

    There are a few spots where the language could be smoother, however. I don't think you need the 'such' in 'all such things' in the first paragraph; it sounds a little self-conscious and doesn't add anything. Actually, I think that sentence would have a better flow if it simply said, 'and stripped away all things that were past their prime or not firmly anchored.' (And that's some nice symbolism there!) :)

    I agree with Brent that you don't need 'gaping'; it's more effective to just have the image of the people gathered around the hole without trying to make it overly dramatic with a descriptor like that. Also in that paragraph, I would cut 'back' from 'leaned back against', which would also remove the repetition of the word when the man holds 'back the shoulder length hair' (and 'shoulder-length' should probably be hyphenated).

    Also, I think you need to stay with the past perfect in the last sentence ('had left him' and 'had lulled him'). If you were shifting back in time, as you would in a flashback, I believe the change in tense would have to start in a new paragraph; it feels inconsistent when it changes within a paragraph. (Hope that makes sense!)

    But the images here are great and there are a lot of effective things about the style. The logline is also strong and this sounds like a very moving story.

    Good luck! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I agree with you about the current YA focus. While I can (and do) read and enjoy a good YA novel, they never quite capture my heart the way a truly adult work does.

      Delete
  5. I was fortunate to receive Wonder Why as one of my first beta reads. I found myself aching for these characters, Elaine in particular. The way in which she experienced the agony of her past resonated with me; I found myself rooting for her to reconcile with all she'd left behind, and reclaim the self she had forsaken in the process.

    There are some novels so beautifully written that they stay with you long after the last page. For me, this was one of them. The writing has an effortless flow to it, and the characters were flawed enough to come across as compelling and credible.

    I'm hoping for a sequel to Wonder Why. I didn't want to relinquish the journey I took along with Elaine, for in vicariously experiencing her struggle to regain her authenticity I learned so very much about myself.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You have a very poetic writing style that pulls me right in. I thought your imagery was beautiful. The only bump for me was your first mention of Ethan (as has been mentioned in previous comments). I would suggest putting, '...where her late husband, Ethan, had worked?" to clarify. Other than that, your intro was lovely.
    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  7. This sounds like an interesting story, and there is some really lovely writing in the first two paragraphs. That literary quality is appropriate for upmarket fiction.

    However, I think I would like this better if you pared back the description just a bit. The keening wind and tumbleweeds are enough to set the scene and the tone. The drift of dirt and clanging gate starts to feel like overkill.

    As others have said, I would also like to see your POV character introduced sooner. You could very easily have the wind blow dust in her eyes in the first paragraph, or something like that, to ground the scene in her point of view.

    I would also look at cutting the last sentence of the last paragraph, as it seems to be verging on an info-dump. You can fill in the details of how Ethan died later.

    Overall, though, this is nice stuff. I would keep reading.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I'm taking all these comments about my protagonist to heart. I have written an alternate page 1, just to see how well I think it works. I am going to step back now, give it a few days, and look at it again.

      Delete
  8. First of all, I have to say very nice logline. Second, tumbleweeds are not dead, they're just dormant. Third, I think you have beautiful descriptions, but there's too much of it. I want to have a sense of the voice. Maybe she can exclaim something? Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The tumbleweed itself is dead, but it holds seeds or spores which have the potential for new life --hence the metaphor :)

      Delete
  9. I agree with comments above- although your description is lovely, I'd prefer to know more about your character or conflict in these critical opening paragraphs. Someone above mentioned that there is a big emphasis on YA and youthful voices, and that your descriptive opening sounds more "adult". However, we write for readers with increasingly short attention spans, who are used to blog posts and Tweets. Hook them with more info about a compelling character first, then give them the description.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Very intriguing story idea. I also want to be closer to your character because she sounds amazing. I got kinda lost in the vivid description and wondered when the character would make her appearance. Good luck!!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Having heard all the comments and helpful suggestions, I was up until the wee hours rearranging the elements of the first page and working out an alternate beginning which includes more characterization of the protagonist. I thought I would post it here on the chance it might garner some feed back, so it follows below. One note - there actually IS a ghost on a mission in the story...

    Across the dusty caliche road that wound through the cemetery, a man leaned against one of the larger headstones and lifted a damaged hand to hold back the shoulder length hair that whipped about his face. He arrived with a keening September wind that cut through the desert heat and raked the overbaked earth, stripping away all those things that were past their prime or not firmly anchored. A drift of dirt evaporated in a sudden gust, freeing the rusted gate that brokered passage to the wild country beyond the tattered fence. With the echoing clang of metal upon metal, it swung madly back and forth as though a ghost on a mission had just torn through.

    Elaine watched the stranger from behind dark glasses. Who was he? One of the homeless from the shelter where Ethan had worked? Several of them dotted the sea of mourners arrayed behind her, here to pay their respects to the man who had handed out used clothing and a kind word twice a month for the past eight years, until the disease left him too weak to stand, and the fog of the morphine lulled him into oblivion.

    Twenty-four years. An interlude of peace. Eight thousand days of grace. Half a million subtle, fleeting moments of contentment lay entombed in the glossy mahogany box draped with the yellow Texas roses. The truth came to her then, in the quiet way that it sometimes slips in, that he was her home. The sturdy canopy of his love and strength had sheltered her for so long that she had almost forgotten who she was and what she came from. She had become the person she saw reflected in his eyes, and until now, that had been enough. The past few weeks had drained her of all substance. Her essence seeped slowly away with his until she no longer recognized herself. She felt dry and hollow, as if she would disintegrate like an old leaf at the slightest pressure and blow skittering away with the wind.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The overly descriptive opening did not work for me. I did not get a sense of place or purpose, or the driving motivation or stakes hinted at in the logline. Well written, but not to my taste. Good news, you don't have to please me.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete