Tuesday, April 28, 2009

#14 1000 Words

GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Inches from Dr. Bowen’s eyes, ants scrambled from their mound,
spoiling for war. Thin cords bit deeply into his wrists and ankles. A
sandaled foot crushed against his ear. Somewhere above a thicket of
legs, voices bickered in a tongue full of clicks, pops and swooping
vowels. His usual knack for identifying languages failed him.

He felt his pulse flutter against the cords in skips and starts,
like a frantic message in Morse Code. He struggled to remain calm. Any
outward signs of agitation might amuse his captors and inspire
torment, the way a cruel child might poke at an injured frog to make
it hop. His heart defied him, but obsessing about its queer rhythm
only made it beat harder and more erratically. Rivulets of sweat ran
into his eyes, blurring his vision. What a day to forget to take his
beta blockers.

The foot eased off his head. He squirmed away and shifted off a
root that had been pressing into his ribs. Hands reached down from
behind, helped him sit and brushed ants and bits of leaf from his
face. That token of kindness should have calmed him, but his heart
continued to stutter.

He turned to find himself eye to eye with a young woman. Under
calmer circumstances he might have found her pretty if he ignored the
swath of scabs marring half her face. Her gaze rigid, she inspected
his damaged ear, more benumbed than painful. A warm trickle ran down
his cheek.

Close to ten men and women surrounded him. Petite and nimble,
they moved with child-like grace. They resembled local Amerindians,
but their faces seemed flatter, their complexions more olive than

They bristled with machetes and spears and even a crossbow. None
of them carried a gun, that he could see. A few wore armor: gauntlets
and cuirasses made of leather and braided twine, vests with
overlapping scales resembling the elytra of beetles. Several disguised
themselves with bits of jungle.

One man, the eldest among them, stood apart in manner and dress.
He wore black sneakers, jeans and a Ziggy Marley t-shirt. Something
about him seemed familiar. The wrecked guitar leaning against a tree,
with popped strings and splintered ribs, cinched it.

“You followed me! You were on the bus to San Ignacio!” Dr. Bowen
accused, racking his mind for a notion as to why this motley gang
might be interested in him.

The man’s head turned lazily to face him “Follow you? I am think
I am one who is follow.”

“Listen, I didn’t see anything. I won’t say anything about… this.”

“This?” said the man, eyes quizzical, smile warped. “What you mean… this?”

“I don’t know,” he said, his voice whiny and pleading. “Whatever.
I didn’t see... anything.”

The man shrugged. “No matter. You live for now. Don’t give reason
to change mind.”

The man understood English, never a certainty this far west in
Belize, but a good sign. Clear communications had once helped him
wriggle free of a similar predicament in the Congo. It would help if
he knew his captors’ proclivities and sensitivities, but that depended
on who they were, which was far from clear at this point. These were
not mere drunken soldiers at a roadblock.

When he worked in Colombia in the 1980s, FARC narcoterrorists
near Buenaventura sometimes held tourists for ransom. Somehow, he
didn’t get the sense that this bunch ran drugs. Could they be leftist
rebels, too poor to possess a single AK-47 among them? The Guatemalan
border lay less than fifty kilometers away.

He began to feel woozy. Syncope was not his friend. From the
looks of it, no one in this crowd could perform CPR on him the way
that bystander did when he had collapsed outside a Starbucks in
Georgetown earlier that year. He had come to in a puddle of coffee,
siren keening just for him. His pulse had evened out before the ER
nurse could stick the electrodes on, so no one could tell him if his
fibrillation had been atrial or ventricular, a critical distinction. A
baby aspirin would keep him safe from atrial fib. For ventricular fib,
he needed beta blockers to prevent a death spiral that only a
defibrillator could reverse.

The woman who had helped him up now pored through the contents of
his pack. She pulled aside his prescriptions, medical kit and granola
bars, repacked the rest and tossed it to one of her comrades. She had
already relieved him of the pocket knife that had hung in a sheath on
his belt, but let him keep his keys, wallet, passport and pocket

“Excuse me. Those pills. Can you bring them here? You see, I’ve
got a heart problem,” he said, his voice hoarse.

The man who spoke English interrupted a discussion and turned to
Dr. Bowen. “Oh, your heart has a problem, does it?”

“Yes,” Dr. Bowen coughed.

“Mine too.” He held up his broken guitar. “My beauty. Smash up.
It break my heart, as you say.”

“No, really. I need those pills. My heart’s beating too fast, and
it’s irregular. Those pills will help me. Just one. I only need one.”

The man strode up, bent over him, and pulled his eyelid up with a
forefinger. He then placed two fingers against Dr. Bowen’s neck.

“You’re fine,” he said. “Just excite. And too red in the face,
maybe. But how I can know? People like you, if you’re not pale, you’re

Dr. Bowen felt a strip of cloth slide over his eyes and pull
tight. He jerked his head free. “Please! I’m no threat to you.” He
motioned towards a pile of stones set with a bronze plaque and cross
coated in verdigris. “That cairn over there, it’s my wife’s memorial.
This is where I lost her. I just came to remember Liz. I brought her
sweet peas.” A wilting bundle of scarlet blossoms lay atop the stone

“Stay still!” said the man from the bus, securing the blindfold.


  1. Good opening could use some minor editing. For future reference try not to use telling words like he saw, he felt, he heard because it's author intrusion--it pulls the reader from the character's head.

    good luck with it.

  2. This is very itriguing and I do want to know what's going to happen, but I was a wee bit confused at the beginning.

    On a reread, I'm not sure why, but somehow I thought the sandaled foot crushing his ear was another bound person. So I had this impression that he was not alone in his capture another victim had helped him sit up.

    Since its urban fiction, I had leaped to the idea that a woman with powers had helped him. Again, I'm not sure why- but that's what I thought.

    I actually liked the second paragraph better than the first. Maybe it could be the first paragraph.

  3. Hi,

    I'm not a bit urban fantasy reader, so I don't know what they look for in an opening, but I did like this one for the unusual situation and ease of reading. Oh, and because you've set up a really interesting and realistic situation here.

    Your protag inspires my immediate sympathy. Poor guy. Just trying to remember his wife and these guys come along. I wouldn't have minded a bit more clarity as to how they came along, such as if they ambushed him or what, but the events you describe keep you going past such tiny murmurs.

    I like your opening paragraph, but I did think at first he was bound with someone else on top of him. I was surprised to realise it was a foot on his head from his captor. You have a couple of typos (i.e. you're missing 'act' in 'act of kindness') but nothing major.

    I would agree with reviewer one that you could remove such telling words as 'felt' in some lines and end up with a stronger line, but it's not advice you should take to extremes. Words like 'felt', 'saw' and 'heard' serve a purpose, and if that's the way in which you are choosing to write, you are entitled to it. Eliminating them will not always lead to stronger sentences, and not everyone is trying to capture a very close third person POV. It all depends on if you WANT to distance your reader or not. There's nothing wrong with 'he began to feel woozy' for example. But removing 'felt' from the line where you are putting a blindfold on him would improve it by helping us feel his situation more immediately.

    Other than that, I enjoyed this read and would definitely read on, if only to find out what the name means and where you bring in the fantasy. I might add, I think the dialogue here is realistic and stellar. Nice job.

    I hope something here helps.

  4. I have to admit I spent way too much time re-reading the first paragraph to figure out what position he was in. It might have helped to say whether he was flat on his back or face-down on the ground.

    I felt there was a little bit of overwriting in spots. For example, I had to stop and think about what 'his heart defied him' meant. That pulled me out of the story. Sometimes it's better just to say what his heart is doing.

    The bit of backstory about his heart event in the Starbuck's pulled me out of the story as well. I'm not sure the first scene is the place for that.

    Once people started talking, I perked up, but I was hoping to get a sense of what made this story urban fantasy and I didn't see it.

  5. It's amazing how hazy and rough this reads to me now, a couple of months since I last read it closely. I've been heavily engaged in revising the latter half of the book. Either my perspective has been refreshed, or I'm a better writer now, or both.

    I pretty much concur with everyone's observations so far.
    This will help immensely when I get around to revising the front of this book again. Thanks to everybody who's commented so far (and those to come?)

  6. Just a few comments, and hopefully not something someone's already said:

    1. I think the bit about his previous collapse at Starbucks should be cut out. It's not necessary.

    2. Play up the heart problem with more clarity. It took me a while to figure it out, and then it seems repetitive and not necessarily a realistic part of his panic. It's a little off right now. And I think if you can pull it together this could become part of what keeps the reader's heart pulsing.

    3. More emphasis on the captors. I'm assuming, because of the listed genre, that his captors are from another time or something. If that's the case, I need more to clue me into that. As someone who isn't into the history of that area, their clothes and speech patterns won't do it for me.

    But if the doctor has been in that area, he might note that their clothing looks "ancient" or is a throw back to another time in history or something that will just clue me in subtly.

    I think the writing is strong, and with a little tweaking this could be really amazing.

    I do want to know what happens next for sure. Good luck!

  7. Like some of the others, I was confused in the beginning. For some reason, when you were talking about the ants and then about the sandled foot...I thought maybe HE was an ant getting squashed. I was prepared for the fantasy element anyway, so don't laugh at my strange interpretation. I think it's very descriptive and engaging.

  8. I thought they were siccing fire ants on Dr. Bowen at first and was relieved that they weren't.

    Plenty of tension, certainly; but I would have liked to get to know and care about Dr. Bowen a bit under more normal circumstances, before he was captured.

  9. What I get from this scene is that you have never experienced the sort of pain and stress that Dr Bowen would be in.

    I invite you to lie down and have one of your friends (or your enemies) crush your face into the dirt with his boot on your ear.

    Then rewrite the first paragraph, and see if you can actually convey some of the feeling, rather than a dry summation of events around the good doctor.

    This was dull and uninteresting because you neglected the body's response to pain. I didn't bother reading on.

  10. I like this but I think it needs a little work. A bit of telling, a few overdone words (benumbed sounded awkward to me). Also, I think it doesn't quite capture emotion. And it slowed down too much. I thought the description in the earlier paragraphs worked because it set the scene but the paragraphs that started with
    "The man understood English, never a certainty this far west in..." dragged for me. I'd eliminate or nearly eliminate them. For me, the story was moving along until those three paragraphs. Cut those, tighten a little, and this is a really great start.

  11. What struck me was the use of medical jargon here. Fine if you know it, but not very helpful if your reader doesn't.

    I agree that the first paragraph didn't set the place or condition strongly and the back story could be pared right back.

    The strongest paragraph to me was the part at the end - about the sweetpeas.

    I would like to see this after you have another crack at it. It certainly has promise.

  12. I felt skeptical after the first paragraph, which is not promising. When I become skeptical, I tend to look for other bits to reinforce this feeling.

    First, "the cords bit deeply into his wrists" - unless the cords are penetrating his skin, "bit deeply" is a bit of an exaggeration. Then, when his pulse starts beating in "skips and starts" I'm thinking - no, that doesn't happen. But in your case, it would because he has a heart condition. Maybe mention the condition at that time - "he cursed his damaged heart, its erratic beat a reminder that he was in danger of another attack." Or something.

    There's a lot of description about the motley gang surrounding him, but it's so matter-of-fact that I don't sense any panic from your main character. Would he be calmly remarking that they resembled some Amerindians, or would he be thinking - "where did these guys come from and what do they want with me?"

    I think you need to get a little more into your MC's head, and not be a distant narrator and this will feel more compelling. I hope this helps, I think you have a good set-up here - interesting setting and situation. Good luck!

  13. Interesting start. The reference to his previous heart episode in Georgetown is unnecessary. I suggest taking it out so that it doesn't take the reader out of the immediate danger your lead character finds himself in. If it is an absolute necessity, I suggest trying to insert in in a different part of the story were it could blend in a little bit better than its present location.

  14. Thanks everybody. Here's a partial revision:

    The Georgetown paragraph has been excised almost completely.

    Chapter 1: Captive in Belize.

    xenolith n. – a stone foreign to the matrix that embeds it.

    Dr. Bowen lay on his side amidst a thicket of legs, thin cords biting deeply into his wrists and ankles. When a flicker in the gloss of a Philodendron drew his gaze towards its source, a sandaled foot descended to pin his head against the humus, keeping his eyes averted from what his captors wished to conceal. Wisps of fragrance drifted from his scattered, trampled sweet peas and mingled with the musk of decay.
    Inches from his eyes, ants scrambled from their mound, spoiling for war. As voices bickered in an unfamiliar tongue full of clicks, pops and swooping vowels, his pulse fluttered against the cords in skips and starts, like a frantic message in Morse Code. He struggled to remain calm, worried that outward signs of agitation might amuse his captors and inspire torment, the way a cruel child might poke at an injured frog to make it hop.
    But his heart galloped on, defiant. Obsessing about its queer rhythm only seemed to make it beat harder and more erratically. Rivulets of sweat ran into his eyes, blurring his vision. What a day to forget to take his beta blockers.
    The foot eased off his head. He squirmed and shifted off a root that had been jutting into his ribs. Hands reached down from behind, helped him sit and brushed ants and bits of leaf from his face. That token act of kindness should have calmed him, but his heart continued to stutter.
    He turned to find himself eye to eye with a young woman, pretty despite the swath of scabs marring her face. She carried a long bow and quiver packed with stout-shafted, spear-like arrows. Her gaze rigid, she inspected his damaged ear, more benumbed than painful. A warm trickle ran down his cheek.

  15. Hi TonyK,

    I preferred the previous version. This one spends too much time on description and very little on advancing my understanding / participation in the plot. Worse, it distances me a lot more. I feel like I'm listening to a narrator talk about a far off scene, instead of feeling the connection to the protag as I did in the previous excerpt.

    Honestly, I didn't think you needed such a radical rewrite. Your dialogue helped the excerpt move. Your events were spot on. Sure, you didn't focus on the pain enough, but that would have taken a few lines here and there, not a radical excisement.

    I think you could mention he'd had a heart problem the year before without going into detail, just to ground his fears. You don't need the whole chapter and verse, but not having the reference made him feel less grounded to me.

    Overall, I don't see this as an improvement. You've tinkered too much with a machine that only needed fine-tuning. But perhaps that's just me. Others may thing differently.

    Hope this helps.

  16. I liked this. I'd eliminate all the "felts" with rewording or restructuring sentences, but over all I didn't lose the flow.

    Good job.

  17. My interest level is engaged, and the writing gave me only a few snags, but nothing that pulled me out of storyline or physicality with the character. The wife’s grave is neat.

    On my second read through, I wanted to kick myself. You had plenty of hints about the heart problem, but I simply missed it. I think I needed a tiny bit more of a clue. Maybe a simple little “I need my medication” tagged on to the Morse Code line.

    I liked the incident at Starbucks as it tells me how serious his heart condition is, but maybe it’s not in the right location? In the opening paragraph, I assumed he knew what happened and why he’s bound up etc. After the Starbuck’s scene and since you haven’t clarified what happened prior to the 1st paragraph—I began to think he had passed out, finding himself in this bound position, not sure where he was. That came about 600 words in, which gave me a snag. I had to readjust my assumption, which I think readers dislike. Also “What a day to forget to take his beta blockers.” He remembers that but not how he ended up on the ground?

    Perhaps a clue that he’s disoriented in the beginning? A remembrance of his wife? Of his health concerns? That kind of grounding. You wouldn’t need to redo the neat opening, by doing so.

    These last comments are really getting nit-picky. Take them cautiously from a newbie…

    1. At a workshop in Feb., a comment was made that a guy character simply wouldn’t say or think something that an author wrote. Your character might, but it seemed odd to me so I included these for you to consider as well. “… the way a cruel child might poke at an injured frog to make it hop.” Struck me that way. Further, I liked the flowers, but would a guy use ‘sweet pea’ when under stress like this? If they were her favorite okay, but I’d say his wife’s favorite—sweet peas. (my sweet peas by the way are never all one single color.)
    2. I had to dig for this one—like I said newbie and I doubt I’ll have the right terms. There are slight steps aside at the end of some paragraphs with the author’s viewpoint, better told from your main character. It comes in as a miniscule info drop. I felt this a tiny bit with “His usual knack for identifying languages failed him.” Then stronger with, “That token of kindness should have calmed him, but his heart continued to stutter.” Again later, “These were not mere drunken soldiers at a roadblock.” Again, “The Guatemalan border lay less than fifty kilometers away.” And finally, “A wilting bundle of scarlet blossoms lay atop the stone pile.” I guess another way to say this is, we seem to begin in a strong intimate 3rd POV but then these lines tend to say distant 3rd to me. The last especially as he is blindfolded and can’t see them when the comment is made. If you are going in to focus on the main character, then pulling out to a farther distant point consistently at the end of the paragraph feels awkward to me. And that is strictly—my humble opinion! LOL

    thank you for sharing.

  18. This has a lot of atmosphere, but it does seem distant from the character at times. In the opening, he is Dr. Bowen, watching ants very closely, and my initial impression was that he might be an entomologist. I know, it was just a flash, but it didn't plunge me in like it should. I wonder if someone in that dire position would think of himself as Dr Bowen, or something more personal, like his first name, but that's just me. You could start closer if you wanted, with something like,

    Dr. Bowen couldn't look away. Then the ants. Showing his helplessness.

    There are a lot of very interesting details and weird situations in these few words, and I didn't get lost as far as the geography. The thought about the frog seemed stuck in there but you could lose it. I don't know about the heart attack in Starbucks, but you might trim it.

    And I wouldn't put the blindfold over his eyes and draw it tight before describing his wife's memorial. Author has to take over at that point and tell us what he wasn't seeing.

    But it's good,an intriguing setup. And do NOT use your second version.

  19. The reaction to my attempted revision seems unanimous, so I've reverted in part to the earlier version:

    " Inches from Dr. Bowen’s eyes, ants scrambled from their mound, spoiling for war. Thin cords bit deeply into his wrists and ankles. He wriggled away from the ants, and backed into the shins of an ambusher. A sandaled foot descended from the thicket of legs and planted his head against the humus. The musk of decay filled his nostrils, mingling with wisps from the scattered, trampled sweet peas he had brought for Liz.

    His hands and feet throbbed. His pulse fluttered in skips and starts against the cords, like a frantic message in Morse Code. He struggled to remain calm, worried that outward signs of agitation might amuse his captors and inspire torment. But his heart galloped on, unhinged. Obsessing about its queer rhythm only made it beat harder and more erratically. What a day to forget his beta blockers."

    I'll probably go insane if I linger on the opening anymore, so I'll let it rest while I go on to revise the final 20 chapters.

    I really appreciate everyone's bluntness and honesty in sharing their reactions to this piece.

    Some concerns that were expressed are answered in the next chapter (lack of grounding). Others are critical elements of the plot (sweet peas), or idiosyncracies of character (Dr. Bowen's lack of emotion).

    The medical mumbo-jumbo has been mostly excised.

  20. I like the opening paragraph immensely. From there, it became almost too much description. Too much telling, not enough showing. The Starbucks episode was too much of a distraction. The voice of the MC is there though, and I'm not sure you should have pulled out the medical mumbo-jumbo. If your MC is intelligent enough about his condition (hopefully he would be), it would make sense that he would be worried about all of this. All in all, its a good read that just needs a bit of tweaking here and there.

  21. I didn't see any comments, to avoid "contamination"of my comments, which are, of course, only my opinion.

    I don't like the opening sentence, but apart from that, the opening paragraph is good.

    I didn't like the paragraph with all the medical details, it just slowed the story down.

    Overall, the writing is good and the voice is quirky enough to fit what agents are looking for these days, so you're good here. The main problem I have is that I don't feel connected (yet) to your MC. I don't get into his head, don't feel his feelings, don't sense his fear. Your writing is a bit to descriptive, and creates a distance with the MC. Even his name, Dr. Bowen, is formal and creates a distance.

    Just my thoughts. Use what you want, ignore the rest.

  22. Your latest revision is a definite improvement. Keep pushing the emotion. Get into your character's head.