Friday, June 27, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #54

Most Wonderful Author: Kamil
Most Evil Critique Master: Aly
Working Title: N/A

The driest place in the world is in Antarctica. You wouldn't think it with the whole continent being made of ice, but it's actually true. Right in the middle, there's a place scientists like to call the Dry Valleys where there's no ice at all, just crust. It hasn't rained there in more than a million years and any moisture that manages to roll down into the valleys from the surrounding ice shelves is immediately evaporated by winds rushing through at 200 miles per hour: cold enough to freeze your skin solid or fast enough to rip it off. Oddly enough, even the Dry Valleys aren't devoid of life. A kind of bacteria called extremophiles thrives off the harsh environment and lack of competition for food.

In Sarah's new apartment, the walls were rotting in. A dark, gray water stain clung to the ceiling and bowed it inward, threatening to soak a sofa that looked like it had already been through enough. Sarah stepped in, wary of the creaking floor as she did so, she couldn't help but be jealous of those extremophiles in the Dry Valleys. At least they got to live somewhere nice.

Sarah trunk slipped from her fingers and thudded against the floor. The space between her temples throbbed. Heavy boots on the stairs echoed up through the hallway. Sarah's father, a middle aged man with wisps of thinning hair, circular glasses, and a forced smile pulled his way up the last step.

Strong Points –
This intro has some fabulously evocative description in it. That first paragraph in particular has an off-kilter beat that really makes it stand out. This strong imagery continues through the rest of the piece and doesn't just focus on the external senses, but ties in the emotions at work here. I can really get a sense not only for what this place looks like—kind of a dump—but also what Sarah thinks about it—that she's not too keen on it. My favorite line is:

A dark, gray water stain clung to the ceiling and bowed it inward, threatening to soak a     sofa that looked like it had already been through enough.

There's a lot going on under the surface there, and it's a great sentence. It really helps to build the atmosphere and set up what I presume will be the tone of this first scene—that Sarah's life is perhaps not quite going the way she wants it to, between the crummy new apartment, the rising headache, and the father with a forced smile.

Some Tips –
I hate to say this because I genuinely do like the description in the first paragraph, but I don't know that it transitions smoothly enough from the quirky-sounding narration to the actual story. It's a big chunk of writing for the reader before they get to the characters and plot they're going to be living with for the rest of the book, and the break between the first and second paragraphs is pretty abrupt.

There's several possible ways to address this, which could be mix-and-matched to what seems appropriate. The first I thought of, and probably most obvious way, would be to cut the paragraph entirely, or at least trim it down. This would get the reader right into the story, without the seemingly disconnected initial paragraph of information.

Another idea is to add a transition between the two paragraphs, some sort of “bridge” that gives the reader a heads' up that this information will be relevant later. For example, Sarah's comparison of herself to extremophiles could be moved earlier in the second paragraph to make the link more immediately clear.

Alternately, there could be more of Sarah in the first paragraph. With only these three paragraphs to go on, I'm not sure if the Dry Valleys analogy continues throughout the rest of the scene, but if it is tied strongly to Sarah, this connection could be made clear from the very beginning by including her in that first paragraph. One thought I had is that instead of simply listing the facts, they could be presented as things Sarah read in a book or heard from someone else.

Any of these three options (and others I haven't thought of!) could improve the flow of the intro, making it more natural and easy for a reader to follow. And—just a personal thing—if it did stay in, I'd love to see this analogy continued throughout the rest of the scene. It's an effective analogy, but it's also a lot of setup to only be used once in the second paragraph.

Aside from that, while the descriptive phrases remained solid, the sentences at the end of the first and third paragraphs started to get a little perfunctory, which incidentally is a very fun word to say. They're straightforward and express all the information they need to, but that's it. Varying their structure and tying them together more could draw the reader along more smoothly. For example, in the third paragraph, is Sarah's dropping of the trunk related to her headache, or are they both symptoms of how she's feeling overall? A quick example of one way to do this:

The space between her temples throbbed unexpectedly, and Sarah's fingers loosened, her     trunk slipping from them with a crash.

I feel that working this kind of information into those sentences would be a good way to not only keep the reader engaged, but also to inject the sentences with a little more of that great atmosphere-building description from the earlier sentences.

Would I Keep Reading?
It's hard to say, really. It's not that I don't like the writing (I do) or that I think there's something fundamentally flawed about the intro or story (I don't), it's simply that there isn't a whole lot of the actual story and characters here, with so much of the piece taken up with the first paragraph. When focusing on these three, there's just not that extra push I need to go from “idly interested” to “must read now”—but I get the impression that if I just had one paragraph more, I'd be hooked. If the story started a little sooner or if the first paragraph flowed more smoothly into the second, that might just be enough for me.

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