Stream of Consciousness vs Back Story Dump – First Page Critique: Storm Season

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

We have an anonymous submission entitled STORM SEASON. Our gratitude to the courageous author who submitted the first 400 words of their baby. Read and enjoy. I’ll have comments to follow and please feel free to provide your own constructive criticism.

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My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict. My drug of choice is heroin. And, like the sticker says, its street name can be anything from Big H to Thunder, Nose Drops to Brown Sugar. I prefer Cinnamon. I can send the boys to the store for Cinnamon (wink, wink) and no one’s the wiser.

I started using about twelve years ago when I was eighteen. I’ve been through the gamut—alcohol, pot, pills, coke, meth (which I really liked but not as much as coke). Coke is a better high but doesn’t last as long, and is more expensive than meth. Smoking coke is the best but it always scared me a little—I imagined myself running down the road, doing a Richard Pryor impersonation, my hair ablaze.

Anyway, I found my taste in heroin. It’s not spooky like people want you to believe, like I originally thought it might be. It’s the place where pleasure exists. It’s chilling out on a beach and sipping margaritas with the most beautiful boy that God ever created, and this boy is all about pleasing you. He wants you to feel him, get in his head, and touch his love for you. He’s yours. You’re his. Total love. Total ecstasy. That’s how heroin feels. Like you found the love of your life and all you can do is gaze into each other’s eyes.

And I never intend to let him go.

I decided to start this blog in hopes of explaining my drug usage to people. You know, my family—mom and dad, and close friends who don’t understand, who are confused by my addiction. Or those who are disappointed in me. To that I say, F-you. It’s my issue. Deal with your own issues and get over me.

I’ve numbered these blog posts in Español. Don’t ask me why. I’m just crazy that way. BTW, if anyone else can learn from these installments, or you happen to be going through something similar, maybe this blog can be a place of experience and healing. Feel free to leave a comment.

So, you know, I’ve written quite a few of these—thirteen to be exact—which I’ve already scheduled out to publish monthly from December 2016 to December 2017, the next thirteen months. I’ve scheduled them out this way because I won’t be around much longer.

FEEDBACK

OVERALL – My first thoughts were that this type of character is a challenge to write because the reader may take time to sympathize or relate to them, if they ever do. With the reference to 13 months, I thought of the big seller – Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, where one of the main characters is a teen girl who has already committed suicide and given 13 audio tapes to the people who helped her make that fateful decision. So given that first impression, I read through this piece a few times and found the most compelling part to be in the middle where the author compares heroin to a lover. I really liked the way that part was written. Well done.

BACK STORY – The intro is in first person and has a stream of consciousness thing going on, but I found myself pulled out of this blog post concept when the author meandered through backstory or drifted off course with poorly timed dark humor (like the Richard Pryor reference or the cutesy “wink wink”). Sometimes humor can be a great punch and give insight to a character, but it can also diffuse any building emotion or distract from any traction the author has made with the reader. After I found the “lover” reference in paragraph 3, I wondered if that could provide an intriguing start that the reader might be lured into the story via that imagery.

SUGGESTED REWRITE: I tried keeping as much of the author’s work that fit into the “lover start,” but I did embellish on the tone in a few spots.

REWRITE EXAMPLE

I found a place where true pleasure exists, like chilling out on a beach and sipping margaritas with the most beautiful boy that God ever created, and this boy is all about pleasing you. He wants you to feel him, get in his head, and touch his love for you. He’s yours. You’re his. Total love. Total ecstasy. That’s how heroin feels. Like I found the love of my life and all I can do is gaze into his eyes. I never intend to let him go.

My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict. Heroin is my lover, my drug of choice.

On the street he goes by many names—Big H to Thunder, Nose Drops to Brown Sugar, but I prefer calling him Cinnamon, because I can send the boys to the ‘store’ for cinnamon and no one’s the wiser. I’ve been faithful to my lover since I was eighteen. Most addicts can’t handle him, but I can.

My mom and dad and close friends don’t understand. They’re disappointed in me. I wanted to tell them to fuck off to their faces, but I decided to start a blog instead. I’ll admit it. I’m a coward. I’ve numbered these blog posts in Español, to put my education to good use. I don’t know what anyone will learn from my lover and me, but feel free to post your comment somewhere else. I don’t need your opinion.

I’ve written thirteen of these gems of wisdom and I’ve scheduled them to be automatically posted from December 2016 to December 2017. Why the automatic posts, you ask?

I won’t be around by the end. No one likes cliff hangers.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF PLOT – In the best selling novel turned film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” the book is written in a series of diary-type letters from a troubled teen with every letter beginning with ‘Dear Friend.’ It’s surprising how compelling it was to read the letters as the reader sees the character spiral into the dark secret he’s holding in his heart surrounding the death of an aunt. The movie rewrites the letters and turns them into a successful visual creation, but if our anonymous author plans for a series of blog posts of a heroin addict, it sounds like an interesting idea IF the character finds a way into the hearts of readers. The author must find a way to make Lily relatable and darkly likeable. It’s definitely possible to pull this off.

VOICE – To make the reader want to keep turning the page, the author must find a voice with the right amount of snark or use poignant imagery that keeps ramping the stakes up on Lily’s life. In the book and the movie – Perks of Being a Wallflower – the big reveal was heartbreaking and the author or filmmaker had to have discipline to pull off the twist as late as possible so there is a big finish to the book or film. A compelling stream of consciousness voice can carry the reader through a good book, but beware of too much backstory dump that doesn’t have a point or slows the pace. There’s a fine line to this and it will be a challenge that would be fun to pull off.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What do you think, TKZers? Would you keep turning the pages? What do you like about this submission? Where are the challenges?

VIGILANTE JUSTICE on sale from Amazon Kindle Worlds – ebook priced at $0.99

5+

19 thoughts on “Stream of Consciousness vs Back Story Dump – First Page Critique: Storm Season

  1. I always read any discussion of backstory since I can’t seem to get away from it in my own work, so thank you for choosing this as a topic. I really liked this piece, the character and the premise, and saw how the backstory could be better managed. Jordan’s suggestions definitely made it flow faster. And I would echo what Jordan said, the sooner this character can jump into present action, the better. Maybe get into it as soon as the third paragraph to show her buying drugs in the presence of her dealer. It would convey a lot of information about her (and maybe how off-track her life has gotten) right away. Thank you for sharing this with us, Jordan.

    • Thanks, Margaret. Good input, especially on getting into the present. The first 400 words are key to editors, agents & readers that gives a flavor of the story to entice them to keep reading. There is plenty of time to weave back story into the book as the plot develops that gives layers of depth to characters.

  2. I agree that voice is crucial for this to work. I do see the makings of a distinctive voice, and think that “dark humor” will help enormously with that. As Jordan suggests, however, it’s a matter of timing and touch. For example, the Richard Pryor reference is dated. Readers under 40 won’t have any idea.

    The first four paragraphs interested me. I’d suggest cutting the fifth, the one that begins I decided to … IMO it is unnecessarily “in your face,” and loses some of the reader good will you need. It doesn’t add anything.

    If this whole thing is to be blog posts (a modern riff on the epistolary novel) then I strongly suggest you make them as “scenic” as possible, i.e., giving us characters and dialogue and scene objectives and so on. Even with a great voice, too much telling will wear thin.

  3. Thanks, Jim. When I wrote my YA books, I was always aware of my humor references so I wouldn’t “date myself” and pull teen readers out of my writing if they couldnt relate to my pop culture references. After your comment, I wondered if the author was writing a YA or New Adult novel, which makes your comment more significant. If a writer writes in 1st person for an age different from their own, the author should research the age to give the voice authenticity.

    Thanks for weighing in.

  4. Honestly, I wasn’t keen on this and would likely have put it down as another negative druggy diatribe. Sorry to say, but that was my first impression. For me, I dislike openings like ‘My name is Lily Storm and I’m a drug addict.’ That form is quite overused by now, sounding more like a YA novel. I wanted to like this girl (Lily claims to be a 30-year old woman but that age didn’t fit the character’s attitude, which reminded me of a self-important 19-year old, so the story lost credibility for me). I couldn’t find anything to connect with this character, not in personality, action, setting, or Lily’s desire. I think Lily’s sinister arrogance turned me off (‘F-you. It’s my issue. Deal with your own issues and get over me’). Also, I didn’t believe that Lily really thinks the blog would be a ‘place of experience and healing’ since there was no element in the character that even hinted that she desired healing (‘I won’t be around much longer’). Was this a suicide prophecy? What if the story opened with the suicide prophecy, Lily on the heroin road to self-destruction, but Lily is honestly searching for a lifeline? I want to root for Lily, but I needed something honest from Lilly in order to turn the page. Here’s my question: What is the reason Lilly wants to live? Because without that desire, the reader will lose interest. Anonymous, good luck with your story! Thank you for sharing, brave soul. Keep writing.

  5. When I read the piece, I didn’t have problems with the name, but I do agree with Paula. There is nothing here to connect to the woman at this point.

    I liked Jordan’s rewrite as it drew me into the story but I wouldn’t have gone much further as there is no “signaling hope” for this character. She doesn’t show any courage to tackle her issue. And, courage is one of those traits that makes us want to follow someone on her journey.

    Jordan’s first paragraph drew me into the story. But, I think I would have added the following as the last sentence to that paragraph. “But I must.”

    Where Lilly writes that she doesn’t want to see comments on her blog because she doesn’t need them is too much in the face snarky. Why write the blog in the first place? She may be saying she doesn’t want to see the comments, but one could contend she really wants them; wants understanding. Perhaps indicating that she’d once been told to keep a journal to work through personal issues could set the stage as to why the blog. Instead of telling the reader post them elsewhere, Lilly could say “Ignore the entry if you like. Comment if you like. Judge me if you like. I may or may not read them … as I like.”

    Where Lilly discusses the 13 posts as being automatic, I’m torn. It signals finality, but also raises questions. What are in those 13 posts? I would suggest eliminating “I won’t be around at the end” and use Jordan’s line “No one likes cliff hangers.” This give some interesting subtext to the line.

    Thanks to the author for sharing this piece. Good luck on the rewrites.

  6. Hi Larry. Like you, I found it hard to relate if the character lacks hope or appears unredeemable. That’s my personal 📚 preferences. In my rewrite, I wanted to work with as much of the author’s wording & imagery as possible but like you, I would’ve liked more from the character or have a compelling mystery I want to read about.

    The voice here has real potential. It’s the reason I found the prose gems to inspire a more focused intro using as much of the author’s words as I did. I liked the author’s instincts.

  7. I kinda liked the first paragraph. The only problem is I kept comparing it to the start of Trainspotting, and that makes this seem flat in comparison. My suggestion is to watch its opening: https://youtu.be/BLMxoDZDHDk This first person introduction to a heroin addict is sooooo much more exciting. The dialogue is strictly a monologue from the Renton character. You know so much about the character by its end, even if you take away the visuals. It’s based on a book by Irvine Welsh, although I’ve never read it. You don’t want to repeat or copy that, but you do want that sense of excitement for your readers.

    • Thanks for the link & input, CF. It’s great to read other influential books or watch films for imagery to inspire an author to explore their own voice & storytelling.

  8. I read this five times (both the submission and your rewrite, Jordan), and I couldn’t figure out what to say that would be helpful. My first impulse was: I don’t really like this opening and the narrator. But that’s useless unless I can articulate the why.

    I’m not totally put off by the “Call me Ismael…” type of opening. But it’s been done so much that it feels stale. (For the ur version see Grafton’s first: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I am a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I am thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”)

    Maybe it’s because the tone is so flat-sounding. I get that the writer is giving us a troubled narrator, probably even unreliable given her drug issue. But Lily comes off as zombie-like, as if she is already dead and I don’t mean in an intriguing way as in “The Beautiful Bones.” It’s like she is reading to us in a monotone, and that is going to get old real quick. Even with a troubled drugged-out and given-up narrator, I have to feel there is a human being behind the story.

    Not sure what would fix this. I do like Jordan’s rewrite and the idea of starting with the writer’s really terrific metaphor of heroin as a lover you can’t quit. That at least feels like there’s still some blood flowing. This made me think of “The Girl on the Train.” I didn’t like the book overall but this character brings that narratorl to mind. In “Train” I did like the way Hawkins opened the book — though it is essentially all narrative backstory, the first graph is a chilling image….there’s a pile of clothes by the side of the tracks. Could have been could left by engineers. Or it could be something else. My mother always said I had an over-active imagination…

    The opening is an arresting image, that hints at something sinister but also says something about this unreliable and not-likable narrator we are about to meet.

    The writer, as Jim says, has a voice. But it feels like the writer is holding his/her character at arm’s length. If the writer is not willing to open up a little, risk spilling some emotional blood on the page, why should we care?

    Will come back later and read again. Maybe something else might come to me that would be helpful.

  9. I dislike the opening paragraph. If the writer could open instead with present day action and weave in the “I’m a drug addict” stuff, it would become much more readable. The paragraph comparing heroin to a lover shows a lot of promise, very original and well-written.

    I like Jordan’s rewrite, but I don’t know if the writer has it in her to reshape this work to such a degree. I get the feeling she’s chained to the YAish “My name is” opening, and if that’s true (which I hope it isn’t), it doesn’t hold much promise for the rest of the novel.

  10. Thanks, Don. I would rework my rewrite until I found an intriguing vulnerability to entice a reader to keep turning pages, but the rewrite came from the great potential from this author’s character voice that I plucked from the prose. There’s talent here that I hope the author pursues. Thanks for weighing in with your feedback.

  11. Back when I was going to a writer’s group, from time to time we would have a new member who was using a fictionalized version of self as therapy, as a way to heal from experiencing {fill in the blank}. In fact, one of these folks actually told the group that her therapist suggested it to her. From their point of view, it was a good idea, until the person presented their work.
    So, we were treated to a treatise (is that an alliteration?) on either divorce, drug addiction, death of a child, surviving cancer, or a child suffering with HIV.
    Don’t get me wrong, these are monstrous things to happen to a human being, BUT it makes for boring fiction. It is boring because it tends to be about the writer’s personal self, rather than the characters.
    I think part of the problem is that this writer isn’t Nicolas Sparks who can bring off a tear jerker as good as anyone.
    As I did in writer’s group, I gave my evaluation of the presented piece and it was rarely good. I’ll do the same here.
    This piece is too clever by half and too boring by a factor of 10. Instead of writing about self, use bits and pieces of your experience in your writing like seasoning on food. Sometimes a lot is good – cajun, and sometimes a little does a lot. Don’t tell us about an addicted person, create a character that is compelling with some of these issues. Think about Lisbeth Salander in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
    I know this may sound harsh, but I’m doing this to help you become a better writer just as others have done for me.

    • I had a technical expert who helped me with my writing research in exchg for me reading his work & giving feedback. Because he wrote in first person, everything he wrote was limited to only his experiences. To get him to see 3rd person might give him distance & allow him to write through someone else’s head, rather than his own, I had him write a 1st person love scene. He thought it would be easy until he absolutely couldn’t finish & realized 3rd person could broaden his writing to creating a character from scratch.

      From personal experience, I often explore hardships through my original characters & recently dared to write about a significant death to me. The death stopped me from writing for 2 yrs but my writing this way also brought me back. Writing personal pain can he done. In the same way an intimate love scene can be explored in a deeper way through someone else’s head, so can personal tragedies. It’s been cathartic for me but only family or people who know me well can see me through my writing. It can be done.

      Thanks, Brian.

    • You make an excellent point, Brian, about fiction in general. The “trick” of the novelist is to take what is specific and personal and make it feel universal. I always go to this example: A novel about your own experiences in WWII isn’t very interesting. A novel about four brothers who go to war and only one brother survives so a troupe is sent into occupied France to find him IS interesting. (Saving Private Ryan).

  12. I much prefer the rewrite to the original. Like others have mentioned, the author hasn’t found the right voice yet. Normally I love first person POV, but I didn’t feel drawn to the character, which you really need in order to pull it off. The Brave Author also needs to be careful about starting too many sentences with “I.” If I were to rewrite this piece, I’d be tempted to start off with something like, “By the time my last blog post goes live I’ll be dead.” Although, I did love your first paragraph, Jordan.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Sue. I’m a junkie for the intimacy of writing in 1st person but it can be a challenge to avoid backstory and keep a structured pace so as not to lose the reader inside the head of the character.

      The rewrite intro is nearly all from the anonymous submission & embedded in the 3rd paragraph. I wanted to use as much of the author’s words as I could and only find a different order & flow. There’s potential in this author’s voice.

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