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Judge's comments are in red.

Part I

Hell

 

 

The picture on the television goes out before I even hear Obie's footsteps.  One moment, I am watching animated hippopotamuses caper in toe-shoes, and the next, the screen is crackling with tiny dots.  When I look around, my brother is a dark shape in my doorway. 

            He says, “Daphne, I’m leaving soon.” 

            “I know.”

            He draws back like I've startled him, but I'm not prophetic, just accustomed to how he comes and goes.  He's already dressed for Earth, in denim pants and a striped pullover sweater with two different colors of gray.  He is wearing black shoes.  His face is indistinct and I squint. 

            Down in the Pit, the furnace is off, leaving the city dark.  In the street, smoke is rising in columns from the vents, but my room is high up, so the air stays clear.  The only light is flickering from the interrupted television, making everything waver.  In the doorway, Obie looks uncertain.  His hands are in his pockets.  I'm sitting on my sofa, wearing two kinds of lipstick and holding an Instamatic camera in my lap.  The makeup feels greasy and I press my lips together.

            “Here,” I say, picking up the camera, waving Obie to the center of my vision.  “Here, pose for me.”

            He shakes his head.  “It hasn’t got film in it.”

            “I know, but I want to take your picture anyway.”

            I raise the camera to my eye and Obie appears in the little window.  He is only standing in the doorway, but suddenly, he looks very far away.  I click the button, lower the camera, and he is back to normal. 

            When I wind the advance wheel with my thumb, the camera makes a harsh grinding noise.  “Why can’t you stay?” 

            Against the backdrop of my room, with its chimes and its plastic trinkets and mechanical toys, he looks bleak, then begins to pace.  Every time he passes my television set, static flares and the light from the screen turns him blue. 

            Sometimes it makes him happy to see my toys spread out across the room, bright and plastic and prolific, but now, the shape of his mouth is all wrong.  As he crosses the carpet, his shoes make no sound.

            “Why can’t you stay here?” I ask him, louder this time.

            “Work to do—there's always work to do.  And I’m getting tired lately.”

            “We don’t get tired here.”

            “No,” he says over his shoulder.  You don’t.”

            And his face doesn’t look tired exactly, but something does.  Maybe it’s in his mouth.  Maybe I can see it there.  After all, his father was an actual man, real flesh, real blood, with a soul and a heart.  Virtuous.  Mine used to be a star, until he became the Devil.  Our mother, Lilith, has always just been herself.  It barely matters that our fathers were different men.  We both look like her.

            “It’s better when I’m on Earth,” Obie says, still pacing.  “People sleep and wake up again.  Things make more sense there.”

            “And here?  How is it here?”

            He sits down abruptly, facing me on the hassock with his hands clasped between his knees.  His mouth is so thin.  The hassock is crouched on four metal feet, each one clutching a shiny metal ball, clutching so hard that I think the talons of each metal toe might snap.  Sometimes, Obie doesn't say anything and I still understand what he means.

            I look at him through the camera, watching his face, his eyes.  “If you hate it here so much, why do you keep coming back all the time?” 

            “Mom,” he says.

            In my head, the word is like a red wound, a string pulling hard at something inside him. 

            He touches his mouth.  “She thinks something bad will happen if I’m away.”

            “Will it?”

            “Bad things happen all the time.”

            “I meant, to you.”

            But he just shrugs, like the possibility is remote or unimportant.

            “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

            “I know.”

We sit and look around the room, look everywhere except at each other.

            I imagine carnage.  Accidents and disasters, assault, like on television.  In movies, the blood is always copious and vibrant, but this is such a clean city.  I have never seen anyone bleed.

            “Do you like it better there?” I ask, although I don't really want to hear the answer said aloud.

            “Yeah,” he says, turning so that I can’t see his face.

            “Why?”

            “When I’m there, I don’t feel like there's something wrong with me all the time.”  He fidgets with the hassock cushion, tugs at the bottom of his sweater, runs a hand jerkily through his hair.  “It’s just much simpler,” he says.  “It’s much easier not to be noticed.”

            Down in the streets, everyone knows him.  He wears his lineage as though it were inscribed on his skin, the son of man.  I wonder if, on Earth, he is invisible.  Camouflaged.  Maybe Adam, made from dirt, could blend in with the surface of the world. 

            “How is it,” I ask, “to only half-way belong here?”

            Out my window, the spires of the high-rises look like giant fingers, reaching.   

            Obie’s head is still down.  “I don’t think anyone belongs here.”

            He tells me this like he knows it for sure, knows so much more than I do.  I have never left the city.  How can I argue?  My carpet is so silver that it looks like a lake of metal.

“What will you do there?”

He shrugs.  “Work.  Visit friends.”

“That must be nice, having friends.”

Obie smiles again, the corners of his mouth turning down a little.  “Sure.  How do you think I find all this junk?  I need someone to tell me what you’ll like, don’t I?”  He brushes his hair away from his forehead and lifts his face to look at me.  He’s stopped smiling.  “It only lasts so long.  They get old, and I don’t.  After awhile, they die.”

            “Dying doesn’t mean much, though.”

            I only intend to comfort him, because his mouth is thin and because he looks so sad.  Down in the Pit, the souls wander, shocked and gaunt, eternal.  It is not the right thing to say. 

            He shakes his head.  “Sometimes it doesn't mean much.  But sometimes it does.”  He’s standing up, backing away from me.  “I have to go now.  Is there anything you want me to bring you?”

            “No.  Surprise me.”

            “I love you,” he says softly, there in the doorway.

            “You what?”

            “Love you.”

            And I’ve only ever heard that word coming from the television.  Not from someone’s actual mouth, not talking about me.  That word isn’t something that belongs here.  I keep waiting for the buildings to start falling at the sound of it, the sky and ground to open up like mouths and eat everything.  But nothing happens.

            I am sitting on the sofa.  Everything is silver and black.  My brother is walking out of the room—he is leaving—and I want so badly to keep him here.  We’ll sit and talk about movies and record albums and the way that pavement smells when it rains in a city.  The door closes.

 

 

Critique:

 

When I read this hook, initially, I loved it.  It’s unique and fun and really forces the reader to want more.  So as you can imagine, I had high expectations of the pages.  The good news is there’s lots of good stuff here.  A city of darkened high-rises, a furnace shut down, television in hell.  I loved the idea that Satan’s genes weren’t as dominant as Lilith’s, great, just great.  Your dialogue is comfortable (did you say it aloud?), and you’ve started the story off with a definite scene.  Always a plus.

 

However—and there it is (preferable to but)—the pages need tightening up of the language and at the same time an expansion of the description.  There seem to be some pretty big missed opportunities here for exploring this world.  The

 

In first person narratives, it is essential to remain in the character’s head.  There were times it came across as omniscient.  You must limit yourself to what your character can see/sense.  When you write:

 

            Down in the pit, the furnace is off…

            (but then you write)

            I’m sitting on the sofa…

 

 

It doesn’t work.  If Daphne is on the balcony looking down toward the street level, then this visual takes shape in a much more fruitful way. 

 

A couple of extra notes:

• If you must use dialogue attribution, position it behind, or between dialogue, rather than before.

• Show don’t tell.

 

None of this is to say that I didn’t find the piece fascinating; I did.  In fact, with some expansion and critical editing, this book could shape into something I—and many others—would definitely buy.

 

 

Comments

( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
buymeaclue
May. 5th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
Okay, this? Is really neat. I think I missed the hook...I'll have to look back.

Clear, quiet rhythm to the prose (but maybe don't be quite so stingy with the contractions, eh? there are a few points when it tapdances between "formal" and "stiff"). Well-chosen and evocative detail work, smoothly inserted, no fits and starts. Dark and moody tone. And actual tension right off the bat! Huzzah. It's not show-offy, but it's definitely there.

I do feel like the conversation goes on a touch too long, gets a little too on-the-nose; it started to lose the battle with the Bulls game for my attention right about here: “How is it,” I ask, “to only half-way belong here?” But only started--I did keep going, and I think this'd be a definite library pickup for me, a possible buy.

I respectfully disagree with the judge re: the positioning of dialogue tags and attribution. Never heard of any rule against putting them first, and it does change the rhythm and emphasis of the sentences if you move 'em around.
rj_anderson
May. 5th, 2007 11:53 pm (UTC)
This is the best opening I've read yet, IMO. I love the narrative voice, the rhythm of the words, the understated yet powerful emotion. And that's coming from somebody who would normally give a book with this premise a wide berth.
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 12:08 am (UTC)
I'm in no position to offer the author of this anything, but I liked this. I really really liked this and would definitely pick it up to see where it goes. There are a couple of minor nitpicks (one being where it says: "I meant, to you" -- to me -- reads better as "I mean, to you". I know that she's referring to the past sentence, but it's not as though she still doesn't mean it. Really, this is just a silly nitpick). Overall, this is ready. It's good. Congrats!
lnhammer
May. 6th, 2007 01:18 am (UTC)
Agree that this is the best opening I've seen yet. Minor prose issues, but nothing to truly niggle over.

---L.
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 01:48 am (UTC)
It has a rather languid feel to it, sort of slow and methodical. The prose is solid; you show rather than tell with gestures, dialog beats and tags, so no problems there.

Unfortunately, I have a hard time reading in present tense. It jars me out of the narrative--but I suppose that's just a personal preference. I've tried reading other books that are in present, but it just feels wrong for some reason.

Overall, a promising premise, but I was tempted to skim much of that conversation. I would say less of it is necessary to get across the fact that she's close to her half brother.
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 04:59 am (UTC)
I rather thought that if she was close to her half brother, she would already know the answers to some of the things she asked. I was wondering, while reading it, why she had to ask now when he's obviously been leaving over and over for ages.
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 08:22 am (UTC)
I didn't even notice it was in present tense until you pointed it out. *g*
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
I'm in no position to offer the author of this anything, but I liked this. I really really liked this and would definitely pick it up to see where it goes. There are a couple of minor nitpicks (one being where it says: "I meant, to you" -- to me -- reads better as "I mean, to you". I know that she's referring to the past sentence, but it's not as though she still doesn't mean it. Really, this is just a silly nitpick). Overall, this is ready. It's good. Congrats!
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 05:11 am (UTC)
This is... interesting. My initial reaction was to dislike it - present tense is so awkward. It is also something that people do to deliberately try to look more literary than they have the talent for, which means that it comes with less than superb writing. I'm not saying that's the case here, just trying to explain the gut reaction I have to present tense first person.

It did grow on me as I read on. If I'd picked it up at the library I'd read a bit further to find out which way it went.

In my opinion this is one of those things that some people will love, and with luck one of those people will be an agent!

Al
buymeaclue
May. 6th, 2007 12:55 pm (UTC)
>It is also something that people do to deliberately try to look more literary than they have the talent for

Or because, y'know, they think it's appropriate to the piece they're trying to write. *g*
(Anonymous)
May. 7th, 2007 01:45 am (UTC)
Yu-huh. I didn't say every incidence is a gimmick. I didn't even say this one was. But I have done lots of judging and, as I said, the use of the unusual makes me suspicious. It's unusual for a reason. Y'know. *g*

(Anonymous)
May. 7th, 2007 06:06 am (UTC)
Sorry, that reads rude. Obviously I should edit more! I'd delete it but I can't figure out how. Anyway, I didn't mean to be rude.

Al
buymeaclue
May. 7th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)
Heh. And I just realized that my own comment was rather a kneejerk and that you did indeed say that you didn't mean evvveryone. My apologies.
(Anonymous)
May. 8th, 2007 10:28 am (UTC)
No apology needed. I was sleep deprived and taking myself altogether too seriously. But thanks for replying.

Al
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 05:26 am (UTC)
I think this is really very, very strong -- it flows well, is engrossing and shows us right away that you are totally at home in your Hell-world. IMHO, this is the strongest post so far, and for what it's worth, I didn't like the hook that much. I believe in the concept 1000% more now.
thatpirategirl
May. 6th, 2007 07:13 am (UTC)
Oooh, that's delicious. Of all the pages posted so far, I'd be most likely to buy this book. It's not perfect as-is, but it hooks me with its rhythm.
pickledherring
May. 6th, 2007 08:33 am (UTC)
Damn. I'd buy this right now the way it is. Good job. I desperately want to read the rest of it!
janni
May. 6th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
This is some of the strongest writing I've read here so far, too. It has that extra level of skill and smoothness and polish that brings it to the level of truly professional, IMHO.
(Anonymous)
May. 6th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
As an avid reader, I really want to have this as a book in my hand.....NOW! Good luck with this, can't wait to see it in print! Such a cool concept.
(Anonymous)
May. 7th, 2007 02:02 am (UTC)
This is strong and well written.

The only thing that worries me is this. What lifts this and gives it its rhythm, for me, depends heavily on the descriptive asides the MC uses. In this section, it makes for good reading. My worry is that it also makes her unlikeable. She's childish (hippoes and toys) and self-absorbed (hasn't bothered to find out why her brother leaves in the past; he's in obvious distress but she's contemplating her carpet).

Yes, this leaves room for loads of character development. And I would read on to see how you handle it. But it worries me that I finish this piece more interested in the brother that the main character, and it worries me that the aspect I enjoy about this section is something that I think will have to change as the story goes on and this girl becomes more human.

But I would read on.
(Anonymous)
May. 7th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)
102 here
Thank you all for such great feedback! This contest has been a very cool experience and I appreciate the attention to detail and the astute comments that everyone has been making. This is really going to help me a lot when it comes to tightening up the manuscript.

Concerns about present tense are certainly noted :) Believe me, I understand the automatic aversion. This is one of those cases where I didn't start out using it, but nothing else was working, so I wound up just trying to make it read cleanly and not draw too much attention to itself.


Anyway, thanks again for all the incisive criticism and the positive comments. You guys are awesome!
(Anonymous)
May. 7th, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC)
I'd have to read more... but the city scenes sound very BLADE RUNNERISH!

Haste yee back ;-)
(Anonymous)
May. 8th, 2007 11:05 am (UTC)
I agree with most of the commenters, first, that this is really interesting and gripping, and second, that the conversation gets a little too "HERE'S THE POINT OF THIS" toward the end. Since we're in your main character's head, she can think some of the things that she and Obie talk about now. "He comes back for Mom, I know." Or "He likes having friends, even though they make him sad. They get old, and he doesn't. They die, and he won't. I don't see how death makes a difference, but it does, to Obie." This type of thing will let us in to Obie's attitude, and Daphne's attitude about Obie's attitude, so two for the price of one. :)

Really, I like this very much so far and hope to see more of it.

Jay Montville
(Anonymous)
May. 10th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC)
I agree with the judge -- the hook was very compelling, and my expectations for the first pages were high. But I have to say I was disappointed. Your overuse of the "to be" verb makes the passage difficult to read, and the conversation could have been shorter, tighter. If I hadn't read the hook first, I'd have no idea where this scene is set (other than the section heading, which could be interpreted many ways, not just literally). You provide good imagery, but I think the reader deserves a little less mystery as to where this is taking place, or for that matter, the true identities of the characters. It's unnecessarily confusing, and at times frustrating to read. I'm sorry if my criticism sounds harsh, but I'm only doing so because your idea/plot sounds intriguing, and your hook suggests you have great material with which to work. Keep plugging away -- it has much potential. Good luck!
counteragent
May. 11th, 2007 03:52 am (UTC)
Love the tone. Haunting and yet almost sterile, or synthetic ("clean city", mentions of plastic, the sense of detachment). Very much like it as a version of hell.

Although the surreal, dreamlike tone works very well here and underscores how the characters can't quite connect, it _could_ get a little dull if it went on much longer at this point in the book (it would be fine to return to it later, of course). I hope the next few pages include some action or a shift in tone to vary it up.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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