Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#2 1000 Words

TITLE: The River Man
GENRE: Romantic Suspense

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Second Coming, W. B Yeats

Chapter One: Midnight in the Garden of Eden

On the fertile riverbank just north of Basra where the Tigris meets the Euphrates, in a place known as the Garden of Eden, Seth Hoffman waited to die.

He could smell the cordite, the scorched flesh, the acrid scent of diesel on his clothing. He knew what was happening and how it would end. Captives would be executed, their bodies left in a public place where the authorities would be certain to find them.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

His life didn't flash before his eyes. There was no heart-warming reminiscence of family and friends. Instead, Seth remembered the last time he'd seen his younger brother Thomas when Family Services separated them, putting Tommy in foster care and Seth in detention. He could see Tommy's little face surrounded by blond curls, his nose red from crying, his brown eyes bloodshot and all he felt was --regret.

What would Tommy think of him now? A black ops killer for hire?

He'd screwed up so much while growing up. He was a killer – proud to claim the dozen dead terrorists killed while he and his black ops unit were behind enemy lines, and the hundreds of kills he'd made as an ordinary soldier. But it wasn’t really his fault that his identical twin brother died. A fluke of nature caused the single fertilized ovum to split so that he and his twin shared a single inadequate placenta. Seth just happened to grow larger faster, crowding out his twin so that eventually, the tiny fetus just stopped growing. He died fifteen weeks before birth, his body drying up into a fetus papyraceous.

When Seth was born, his little brother was stuck to him like a tattoo, the body leaving a small indentation on his side, the paper-thin corpse surrounded by a desiccated membrane. His parents named the dead twin Zachary and buried him in a tiny cherry wood box in the family plot beside Seth’s great grandmother and great grandfather.

All his life, that image haunted Seth – a dead Zachary snuggled beside him inside his mother’s body, growing tinier and thinner with each passing week while Seth grew larger and stronger.

When his mother became pregnant again when Seth was four, his mother sat him down and told him that he had an identical twin who died when they were both still in mommy’s tummy. Once, the old bastard claimed that Seth was a spoiled little sonofabitch who actually killed his own brother, hogging the nutrients in the placenta they shared, causing him to dry up like a fallen leaf in autumn.

Until his mother’s death when Seth was twelve, the family made a yearly trek out to the grave and laid fresh flowers on the tiny plot in remembrance of Seth’s first killing, their accusing eyes heavy on Seth’s back as he stood at the grave marker and said his silent apologies for a crime he'd never chosen to commit.

Tommy, born when Seth was almost five, was eventually told the same story – that Seth grew too big in the womb and starved his little brother to death. As a result, Tommy looked at Seth with awe as if he was someone to reckon with, able to kill even before he came into the world. Tommy never held the death of unborn brother against Seth, who in his eyes could do no wrong. Seth always protected him when dear old dad was on a rampage, drunk, a bottle of bourbon in one hand, a knife or bat or gun in the other, depending on what was close by when the frequent rages struck.

Seth carried in his mind’s eye an image of his dead brother – an identical version of Seth at every stage of his development, exceptionally fragile, staying about six inches tall. He imagined that, unlike Seth, Zachary had a soft voice, was shy, and averted his eyes when speaking as if not wanting to impose on anyone – not even to save himself. In contrast, Seth was an extrovert, assertive, in control, never afraid to put his needs first or promote his own causes.

Seth was a survivor.

Now, as he waited to die, Seth felt so much regret. One more tour – that was all he had intended to do – so he could make enough money to find Tommy.

One more tour.

Danger and death were a reality to those deployed in Iraq but like his fellow operatives, Seth felt the rewards were worth it. In truth, Seth was like all the others; he didn't really think it would happen to him. Resignation surpassed fear when he realized how wrong he'd been, and all he could think of was Tommy. It was his face Seth imagined as he was dragged out of the truck to the riverbank, forced onto his knees, a man with a large knife standing at his side while one of his captors spoke in Arabic, reading off their crimes from a page in his hand.

Seth tried to keep focused on Tommy as events around him spiralled down, but the screams of the other two security officers as their heads were sawed off shattered the quiet desert night and brought him back to reality.

Before the assassin could do much with his knife on Seth’s neck, something drew their attention away and Seth conquered the pain and flipped onto his back, kicking out blindly, knocking the man over who stood poised to kill him. Seth rolled down the riverbank, letting gravity propel him until he felt the water, cold and wet, on his legs.

Then darkness closed in as blood loss sent him into unconsciousness.


  1. I would never have guessed from the opening that this will be romantic suspense, but I’m game. Overall, I thought it was well-written, and I saw no grammar problems, except you misspelled spiraled.
    I’ve never heard of “fetus papyraceous” but looked it up. Perhaps you’re an expert on this, in which case I defer, but from what I read, I didn’t get the idea that this fetus would be as dry as you depict, and according to your timing, should have had bone development which would preclude it becoming “paper-thin.” One description I read referred to it as paper-like, which is not the same as paper-thin. So, I don’t mean to sound presumptuous and, like I said, if you’re an expert just ignore my comment.
    Of course, you’re showing us this guy has been emotionally screwed up from a young age, and I assumed it was his alcoholic father who found it necessary to inform the little brother about Seth’s “first murder” but it made me sick to think that his mother felt she needed to tell Seth in the first place. So, both his parents were abusive?
    Also, you say that every year until Seth was twelve they went to Zachary’s grave, but then you say his mother didn’t tell him about the twin until he was four, so whose grave did he think they visited before that?
    In any case, Good job! You have an interesting premise, clear voice, and good tension here. (And I’m curious how this will turn to romantic suspense.)

  2. I liked the beginning and I liked the end when you got back to the immediate story.

    The imbetween was filled with backstory and telling, which really doesn't belong in the first 1,000 words or the first chapter. I'd much rather see you hint at some of these people and weave some of this background when needed. All we need to know is that he's trying to find Tommy. That's enough to hook me because it shows your mc has a heart.

    Also, the backstory got confusing for me. A lot of names dropped and by the end I couldn't keep them straight.

    While reading, it took me a second to realize that we were back to the immediate story. Such an emotional scene, where your mc almost gets killed, might have more impact if you draw your reader in with word choice and thought so we experience it with him, instead, we are held at arms length as you tell us. Telling kind of kills the suspense.

    Your character has compassion and a heart to find his brother. Draw upon that and let us feel it too.

  3. The "old bastard" comment confused me. Who was the old bastard you were referring to?
    Other than that I was drawn into the story and I loved the way you showed why Seth might grow up to be a killer based on his childhood label. I felt the suspense; the romance, I'm sure, would build later.

  4. I liked the story and the imagery. I also liked the background describing what happened in the womb. It opened up questions that would keep me reading to find the answer.

  5. Author here -- I had a hard time labelling this so mea culpa. It might be a "thriller with a strong romantic element" or a "romantic thriller" or a romantic suspense, but I wasn't sure exactly where to place it in the bookstore. There is a larger external threat which brings the two together.

    Advice welcome!

  6. Trying not to restate things already said, the old bastard line left me wondering for a moment. I like the imagery of the dried up dead fetus, but I also wondered whether that was possible or accurate. I agree with others in wondering how this becomes romantic suspense. You have the suspense definitely nailed. You do a good job of describing the effects of such a birth on the surviving child, particularly if he were told in such a way as you describe. All in all, a good read.

  7. I was caught up in the story until it slowed down with backstory. At one point, you mention Seth's mother telling him about his twin and then immediately refer to the "old bastard". I read it a couple of times to see if I missed something...mothers cannot be bastards. I know now this is not what was meant.
    Once back in the present time, things picked up. I would like to learn little by little about Seth's past in snippits (as events unfold)by his actions/motivations. This could get your backstory in without slowing it down.
    Are you sure this is a "Romantic Suspense"?
    All in all, I enjoyed your writing.

  8. I, also, was tripped by backstory, as interesting as it was. A small, tantalizing chunk might work better at the beginning. You know, make us keep reading to get the full explanation. :)

  9. I'm in agreement with those who, while enjoying this, were thrown out of the story by the flashback at this particular moment.

    Then, you can weave the flashbacks into the rest of the story so we learn a little bit at a time. One minor comment:

    ' A black ops killer for hire?' is a line that isn't needed. Just saying 'What would Tommy think of him now?' leaves the reader on the edge of their seat...don't answer that question too soon and by telling instead of showing.

    Good luck, this was very interesting.

  10. This is good. Even with a certain amount of telling, I'm digging the story. I can sense some intersting action beneath it all.

    Some slight issues. 'identical twin brother' is actually redundant, because we already know that Seth's male. He can't exactly have an identical twin sister.

    The first time you call the father a bastard, it might help to tack on that you mean the dad, because that took a second to figure out.

  11. Sorry, one more comment:

    "On the fertile riverbank just north of Basra where the Tigris meets the Euphrates, in a place known as the Garden of Eden, Seth Hoffman waited to die."

    LOVED that.

  12. Oh my, what a set of characters. Lots of energy and tension. Good voice.

    My one critique is that I think this story should begin with the fourth paragraph from the end of this section. The rest of your submission is backstory to be worked in as the action moves along. All I need to know in addition to what you have in these last paragraphs would be who Tommy is and that Seth is determined to find him and therefore must find a way to live.

    The backstory no doubt plays heavily into Seth's journey, so use the information strategically to reveal throughout the story the inner struggle Seth is going through.

    This has major possibilities, is incredibly intriguing, just give me the action first and include just enough of the inner struggle to make me want Seth to prevail against all these terrible odds.

  13. I agree with most others here. The opening is great but everything after "think of him now" and until "all he could think of was Tommy" should be cut and moved elsewhere.

    It's a good backstory but I found myself jumping forward paragraphs at a time to get back to the action. Personally, I would focus on the action as he's moved past one at a time until it's his turn with flashes of scenes from his old life. Nothing too big, just something to give us questions as to what the hell is going on with his past.

    Also, when you say "something drew their attention away" it feels oddly disconnected. It's not specific, so it leaves us not knowing what's going on and pulls us from the story. Have a snapping of a twig, some shouting off in the distance or something that allows us to at least be distracted like the guards.

    It seems like Seth is a MC so having actual thoughts come in would help us get in his head even without the backstory. How did he conquer the pain? What moved him forward to live?

    I would read on, but cautiously.

  14. One more thing -- I too LOVE LOVE LOVE the sentence: "On the fertile riverbank just north of Basra where the Tigris meets the Euphrates, in a place known as the Garden of Eden, Seth Hoffman waited to die."

    Use this as the opening sentence, and then connect it to the fourth paragraph from the end -- wowzers! You'll have me hooked and I don't even read much suspense.

  15. I want to add that I too think that's a killer opening sentence. And if you tell me that just came to you in an instant, I will be soooo jealous!

  16. I too agree with what's been said: intriguing premise, great first line, interesting backstory that needs to be woven in later in the story, and the need to clarify who the bastard is.

    I'd also like to see you make the action with the assassin as vividly portrayed as the earlier parts, particularly this sentence:

    "Before the assassin could do much with his knife on Seth’s neck, something drew their attention away and Seth conquered the pain..."

    "Do much" and "something drew their attention" and "Seth conquered the pain" are vague and take away from the compelling writing that came before.

  17. I liked this. I find the backstory about his dead twin brother and his "first kill" very interesting, but it takes away from the story. I would open with the bit of action- him rolling down the riverbank and into the water- then jump into the background info about his brother.

    Also, great opening. The first three paragraphs draw you right in!

  18. *** Haven't read any of the other comments. Don't know if I'm right in line, or totally out in left field.

    - waited to die. <- Something odd about the wording. 'Waited for death?' instead?

    - Great job introducing your character and offering background info.

    - I did get impatient in the middle, even with your great writing. Suspected this was a POW situation, but still was strongly affected by the ending here.

    - 'Assassin' stood out odd to me. That word denotes somebody who sneaks around in shadows waiting for the chance to kill a specific person. Whereas, in this case - it would be enemy combatant/enemy/murderer/terrorist or something like that.

    - blood loss. Did he get his throat slashed? Or was this from an earlier injury?

    *** Ok.

    I don't know if I would read on, simply because I like sparkly and happy books. And I'm not sure where you're going with this. It opens like Action/Thriller, not Romantic Suspense. :)

    But this is absolutely great stuff. Excellent writing.

    Good Luck.

  19. I agree with a lot of the above comments, especially considering sprinkling in the backstory later on.

    As to the genre, most thrillers often have a romantic element to them (or subplot) but the main plot is the thriller/action part. When thinking about your story maybe consider: what is most prominent (from what i've read i'd say the thriller/action portion is your main plot), who is your target audience, who could you see buying this, or if you were forced to pick one section of a bookstore to file your book what section could you see your book succeeding in (i.e., who writes similar in tone/style stories).

    Best of luck and thanks for sharing!

  20. I really liked this and want to read more. That said, the comments made by others should be heeded. Overall quite easily fixed

    However, I have a couple of comments I didn't see from others. In the yearly trek paragraph, I didn't understand the accusing eyes on his back. In the paragraph before, his mother doesn't sound accusing; she "told him that he had an identical twin who died when they were still in mommy's tummy." That sounds okay to me, so why is she now accusing. And would the bastard of a father really care if he had another kid or not? Doesn't seem the type, but I can see him using it to torture Seth, so that part works well for me.

    Secondly, Seth is saving up to find Tommy. Wouldn't an assassin have connections and/or the ability to find a kid placed into foster care? Again, this is easy to fix: maybe he wants enough money to take care of Tommy when he finds him, etc.

    Overall I like the style and want to keep reading. Good job!

  21. The beginning was great, but you kinda lost me, starting at He'd screwed up so much while growing up because it's all infodumping and backstory.

    You've got a guy about to die, and assassins attacking him. That's a great opening! We don't need the interruption of his trip down memory lane here, slowing down the action. I had to reread this three times, just to find where you threw in the assassins during all this backstory.

    I'd recommend cutting everything starting with the line I quoted above, and focus on the action of the chapter--it's a sure fire way to hook readers.

    (Plus, an opening where a character is musing about how awful their lives have been and blame a bad childhood for every bad decision is cliche and, frankly, boring.)

    Good luck!

  22. I'm going to join the chorus. AWESOME first line. then you infodump the backstory on us. Give us just enough to hint, to tempt, and weave the rest in later.

    MCs abused as children is cliche, although your take is rather more unique than the norm.

    Hook that opener to the action at the end and you'll have us up all night reading.

  23. Love the first sentence: great grabber. I, too, wouldn't peg this for romantic suspense, but it's hard to get the whole arc of the book across in the first 1000 words, as much as some people want it!

    You have a passive voice sentence up front that you might want to reword ("captives would be executed," etc.). Some agents flip out over this.

    I thought your use of language, imagery and sentence construction was solid and showed a strong command of the story. I have twins and know about twin transfusion syndrome, so I think it's very interesting how you've planted that seed in Seth as a character flaw--something that happened in the womb (and, of course, how his parents made him feel about it) is responsible for making him the person he is now. Of course, as a parent of twins, I find it inconceivable that someone would take out their resentment on the surviving twin, but it takes all kinds. You've also left us with a great cliffhanger ending to the 1000 words, so I would definitely want to read on and figure out how he survives this ordeal. Very cinematic!

    Couple of minor things: when you say "the old bastard," I don't think of his mother. For some reason, I think of a male figure. Next, you introduce Tommy, then bring up a dead twin. At first I thought Tommy WAS the dead twin, then realized we're being introduced to two separate brothers here in the span of a couple paragraphs. Could be confusing.

    My only global issues with it are from an agent's perspective: until the very end of the scene there's no real "action," the majority of the scene is a flashback, and there is no dialogue at all. I know every story can't cover all those bases in the first 1000 words, but I venture to say it's something that might get used against you if people were looking for reasons to not get hooked.

    That said, I like the conflict (raising money to find his brother), but don't see any romance coming at all. Given that romantic suspense is traditionally a female audience, would women be sucked in by this opening?

  24. Thanks so much to everyone who commented on my sub. I've tried to incorporate your advice in a revision that is posted at my own blog. If you're interested, please take a look and leave a comment and any further suggestions. I'll be sure to recipcrocate when you post your own work.

    Thanks again. This was really useful.

  25. One final note -- I think I'd market this as a thriller, with a very strong romance element. I do introduce the heroine in chapter two, but not in the first scene.

  26. I liked the beginning but I think the back story could come later. Better to get the reader hooked. I would just mention the twin brother not go into detail until later. I don't the think the back story has much relation to what's happening now.

  27. Wow, good writing and a grabber of a first paragraph. Then you take us out of it, away from the action, and into flashback.

    This type of action is becoming cliche. Keep us in the action, keep the action rolling. Show the backstory during a lull.

    That is minor criticism, because your writing skills are top notch.

  28. This is amazing. The mythic qualities here are almost Jungian, with a tone somehow of “1,000 Arabian Nights”. His twin dies in utero and Seth lives, so everyone agrees he’d killed his brother—no dispute. The twin is born with him, depleted, thin as paper and clinging to his skin. Amazing imagery. And Seth accepts the guilt, though it was unintentional. This is Myth in the classical sense. Myth is reinforced by his search and his need to rescue his younger brother.
    It starts with an action scene, but the real meaning, the motivating force, is in the backstory. I hope when you rework this you do not wipe out this meaning. I’ll not critique the writing because you can fix any problems with rhythm and flow. The heart is in the mythic elements. Find a reviewer who appreciates Joseph Campbell.
    Not sure if this will fit on the bookshelf as thriller/romance, but it probably has a lot of those, I hope done with your unique sensibilities. Maybe a better label would be simply Novel. But please don’t flatten the heart out of it.

  29. Author here -- wow -- thanks Galvin, for the encouragement. I am heavily influenced by Campbell, especially The Hero's Journey. I've really struggled with a "genre" label for this -- it really is about two characters who find themselves and each other while solving a crime and stopping a killer. There is a thriller element to it at times, a romantic element and suspense. I don't know which one dominates enough to lay claim to it overall -- probably romantic suspense is the best descriptor. I decided to start with the second chapter, in which both characters meet for the first time -- this excerpt used to be the prologue, until I read agents hate prologues. :D

    It's really hard to know what a novel is about from 250 or even 1,000 words.