Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's Broken? #2

TITLE: Smoke and Wait
GENRE: Urban Fantasy

Alexandra MacPherson has mixed feelings about being back from the field.

Info dump, telling, or showing? All the above?

I don't know why I'd convinced myself things would be different. Only months, not years, had passed since I'd been in the field office. The building smelled the same; the walls and carpets were infused with a damp and musty odor, courtesy of an inefficient HVAC system that could cool things down -- mostly -- but not dry them out. Someone had burned popcorn in the break room. My desk hadn't changed, either. A single, framed picture of Jack and Sophie sat front and center. Jack, just off the plane and still in uniform, holding Sophie for the first time.

I picked up the photo and dusted the glass with my shirt sleeve. Sophie's right foot was bare, a victim of those worthless baby socks that never stayed on. I used to find them everywhere. In the car seat. Under the car seat. On the floor mat, covered with safety glass from the right rear window. I chewed savagely at my bottom lip before shoving the frame into the corner of my desk and under a shelf where it would be less noticeable.

I was stupid with contradiction. I refused anything stronger than Tylenol in the hospital, trying to prevent a fall off that wagon I worked too hard to find. But then I called Jack, listened to Sophie's voice on a message I should have deleted years ago. Two bad habits that usually led me right to the cliff of Screw-It overlooking the valley of I-Don't-Give-A-S***-Anymore. I hadn't been there in a while, but apparently I was contemplating a visit.

I scrolled through the emails that bred during my absence. Out-of-office must not have meant what I thought it did. I flagged the few that looked important, but right click and delete became the order of the day.

At least a hundred offerings for continuing ed. Right click, delete. Weeks-expired coupons from Borders. Right click, delete. My father's administrative assistant needed to make reservations for Thanksgiving dinner, and was 2:00 p.m. at 1906 Longwood Gardens okay? Right click, delete.

Unbidden, the fingers of my left hand tapped a beaten strip of metal against my mouth. I dropped it when I realized what I was doing, but who was I kidding. Avoidance would never work. The ball chain holding Jack's tags had been around my neck since the day he gave them to me. I wore them on my wedding day instead of pearls. They were as much a part of my uniform as they'd been part of his. And if Sophie had been old enough to have a cell phone when she was killed, I'd call her, too.

I roughly crammed the contents of the case file on my desk into a manilla accordion folder and mashed it all into my messenger bag. "You ready to go?"


  1. I don't think you have a problem with telling or info dumps. Rather I think things could probably be made just a tad clearer for the reader. I don't mind getting dropped into the actionwithout context (I prefer it) But in this case you have the narrator, Jack, and Sophie all introduced in this story, and introduced early. If you must do that, then I think it would benefit you to help the reader out in understanding who is who, without losing the mystery and suspense you have created.

    Yes my vague suggestion will be tough to implement, but who said writing was easy :)

  2. Here's what I got out of this excerpt: Alexandra's been on personal leave since her daughter Sophie - and probably her husband Jack - died. She was hospitalized, probably in the mental ward, and still doesn't feel completely whole. She's some kind of FBI or CIA agent, or maybe with some kind of military intelligence unit, since she works in a field office and mentioned wearing a uniform.

    How'd I do? I think I'm right, but I can't say for sure, because I don't think you info-dumped or did too much telling instead of showing. If you had, I'd know all this stuff for sure. On the whole, I feel like I got a good sense of Alexandra and where she's at right now.

    The only line that threw me was "I was stupid with contradiction," just because I don't think those words fit together in quite that way. And there's always a little polishing and smoothing you can do, but other than that, I don't have any real suggestions. (Lame, I know.)

    I don't think this is as rough as you might worry it is. Best of luck with it.

    P.S. The urban fantasy element is intriguing. Definitely wondering how that fits into this story...

  3. I'd tweak a few, tiny things, but I don't know why you think anything is broken here. I wholly agree with Krista V.

    I *love* how you introduced the tragedy with the glass-covered sock musings. That was awesome.

    My tweaks:
    "I don't know why I'd convinced myself things would be different." (different how? this never becomes clear. Do you mean different as in she thought she'd cope better at work than at home after the tragedy?)

    "...dusted the glass with my shirt sleeve." (I'm wanting just a drop more description here. Did she tuck her hand inside the sleeve and dust with a fingertip or rub it with her albow? I'm just wanting to picture it better in my mind.)

    "...where it would be less noticeable." (Do you mean where she would be less likely to see it? As-is, it sounds like she doesn't want *others* to notice it.)

    "...a fall off that wagon I worked too hard to find." (I wish you had used the word "climb" instead of "find.")

    "...then I called Jack, listened to Sophie's voice" (I would say you "dialed Jack's number and listened" because it isn't clear to me that Jack didn't answer and play Sophie's message to you...and then you say that was 2 bad habits and I was re-reading to figure out which two things you meant. Getting understanding here would clear up another problem later with this: "And if Sophie had been old enough to have a cell phone when she was killed, I'd call her, too." Perhaps if you took out the reference to calling a person and instead said you were calling a phone or a number. Also, this sentence seems to come out of nowhere, but you tagged "And" at the beginning. It is disjointed right now in the para. it is in. Perhaps if you moved it to after "avoidance would never work.")

    "Unbidden, the fingers of my left hand tapped a beaten strip of metal against my mouth." (I need a little bit more description here, too, so that I can picture it. Perhaps, "Unbidden, my left hand stole underneath my neckline and pulled out the beaten strip of metal and tapped it against my lips." Also, "Who was I kidding" needs a question mark.)

  4. Author here. This is the first page or so of the second chapter and it's been rewritten and revised to the point I don't know what's good and what needs work. I know what I like, but that doesn't mean it works, if that makes sense. I know I'm prone to info dumps, too much backstory, or dialogue that serves the same purpose, so when I try to fix things, I worry I've gone too far the other way. Thanks to everyone for your comments and advice!

  5. I especially loved the paragraph about the emails, and I wouldn't say there's much of a problem with info dump. It's interesting. I don't know if I like that the first thing she does back at the field office is call his cell phone, maybe that could be a memory or something? But the rest of this is very engaging.

  6. I got the same information as Krista, with possible drug abuse (cause of the Tylenol line). I only saw a couple of lines to nitpick; overall I think this works very well.

    1) "the emails that bred" - I don't know if 'bred' is the right word for emails piling up.

    2) "I was stupid with contradiction." - someone else mentioned this, too. I think this sentence could fit better at the end of that paragraph. The contradiction takes a while to explain, so the sentence seems more likely to work as a conclusion rather than an introductory statement.

    3) "Unbidden, the fingers of my left hand tapped a beaten strip of metal against my mouth. I dropped it when I realized what I was doing, but who was I kidding. Avoidance would never work." Actually, I like the first sentence very much, but 'who was I kidding. Avoidance would never work.' seems too tell-y. My suggestion would just be to cut the avoidance sentence and to say, "who was I kidding? The ball chain holding Jack's tags had..."

    I think you've done a great job with this, overall.

  7. I thought you could probably condense this by half. You've got a lot of valid info here, but you also have a lot you don't need.

    Parg 1 - let us know what she expected would be different (unless it's mentioned prior to this) and then go straight to 'My desk hadn't changed...' Do we really care about the HVAC and how the office smells? Perhaps cut all that.

    Parg 2 - it's all relevant info that gives us insight into her life. You could be clearer at the end as to who the picture would be less noticeable to - herself or coworkers - and perhaps say why she doesn't want it seen. (Adds motivation. So she's not reminded of her loved ones, or so people won't ask questions about them, whatever)

    Parg 3 - Perhaps rewrite the whole thing. It's wasn't very clear. I got the impression the tylenol sentence took place in the past, but there was no 'had' in the sentence. 'I had refused...' and that made me wonder about the call to Jack. Did she do it then or now? I couldn't tell. It also wasn't clear what the two bad habits were. I'm guessing calling Jack's number and popping pills, but I'm not sure. Perhaps just state it. You might also cut 'apparently' because she'd know if she was headed in that direction or not. And in reference to the phone calls, perhaps have her call Jack's number rather than Jack (I'm assuming he's dead.) because that also adds some confusion as to whether he's alive or not.

    Parg 4 and 5. The e-mails obviously don't matter since she's deleting them all. Cut it all to just one sentence that says she went through e-mail then perhaps go right into Parg 6.

    Parg 6 - you might say what the metal is - his dog tags, or the chain that holds them.

    Parg 7 - cut 'roughly.' crammed says roughly.

    Overall, I thought it worked. It's just a bit cluttered. If you clean it up it will read smoother and be clearer.

  8. I found it all rather 'telling'. I'd prefer concrete description and actions with some more importance than just deleting emails. I believe there's too much introspection here; five out of your seven paras start with "I", which gives an indication of this.
    I suggest giving her something more interesting to do while she ponders her life.
    Good luck!

  9. I think you worked the info in really well. The only comments I have are that I didn't get "stupid with contradiction" and I wondered if Sophie is still a baby or an older child? Using the baby socks was a nice way to get in the glass from the accident, but I'm not sure the rest of it worked so well. I remember those types of baby socks, and how after a couple of days of socks falling off, I went out and bought some that wouldn't. No more sock problem. So I'm not sure what this says about your protag., that she was scatterbrained? Didn't pay attention to details? Didn't care? Was neglectful?

    I'm probably reading way too much into this, but there you have it.

  10. No info dump for me. I like it. This was the sole line that caught me up: "I was stupid with contradiction. I refused anything stronger than Tylenol in the hospital, trying to prevent a fall off that wagon I worked too hard to find." Rework.

    I wouldn't use this as an opening of a first work, but I enjoyed: your humor, the character you've created, the photo reveal, and the hint of pain with Jack by using the dog tags. All pulled me nicely into the story.

    Well done.

  11. Thanks so much for your comments, everyone. Krista, you were pretty close. :) The MC is an ATF agent. The voice mail message she alludes to is the last one left by her husband before he and their two-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident. She's had on-again off-again substance abuse issues, and has a tendency to drunk-dial her dead husband's cell phone number (which she's kept active since he died). She always thinks of it as "calling Jack."

    I think I've rewritten this scene half a dozen times. The scene before has always been pretty tight (a raid at the Port Authority where Alex gets injured). This is a transition to the next scene, which I've also been consistently happy with. It's the middle bit I just get bogged down with. There were a few other paragraphs that I took out to get under the word count, and I don't even miss them, which is good.

    macaronipants, it wasn't until I had my second child that I found baby socks/booties that didn't fly off in less than a minute after they went on.

  12. I thought this was great, especially as you say you have a tight first chapter. I'm dying to read more, good luck!