It’s a veritable feast of First Page Critiques this week here at Kill Zone. No one planned it this way, but it sure is fun. Today, we have a Fearless Writer and the opening of The Root of Atlan. The actual submission is just below, then my comments.
I hope you’ll weigh in as well.
The Root of Atlan
I woke to an excruciating headache and shouting. The last thing I remembered was walking through the airport after my flight and then what seemed like a bolt of lightning. When I pried my watering eyes open I found it was twilight or predawn and there were torches all around me. It hadn’t felt like I was unconscious but I definitely wasn’t where I had started and I was a bit groggy. I was surrounded by a number of other people, all of us lying on a circle of odd black stone ringed by tall stone pylons and mud.
My breath steamed in the chill air. Surrounding us were about fifteen men holding torches. They were dressed in brown leather armor and looked like they had stepped out of a fantasy novel. Looking closer at them I could see that they weren’t, strictly speaking, men. At least, not like men from home. Their faces resembled a cross between human and gorilla with dark ash-brown skin, receding chins with heavy jaws, and short, pushed-in noses surmounted by bald heads. Their faces were tattooed heavily.
They were armed with short, heavy swords and they were all heavily muscled. Overall, they made Neanderthals look elegant and poised in comparison. They were shouting at us incomprehensibly and I could see from the faces of my fellow travelers that they didn’t understand either.
A new group of the ape-men came into the circle of torches and began tying our hands behind us. When one of them got to me I fought back as best I could. I had been raped once and refused to be a victim again. Since I had spent the years since the rape learning how to defend myself, my best was actually pretty good despite my weakness and grogginess. It eventually took three of them working together to get me pinned so they could tie me up. I was not going to go along quietly with whatever they had planned.
Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved. I ended up wrapped up almost like a mummy and bruised over a significant portion of my body.
I wasn’t the only one who fought back, or even the most successful. One guy actually managed to get away, the last I saw of him was with a couple ape-men in hot pursuit, but I didn’t think he was going to make it. They moved pretty fast for their bulk and they looked angry. The rest of us were herded out of the muddy clearing we were in and down a path through some woods. The light grew as we headed out, but we missed the sunrise due to the heavy cloud cover.
We hiked for a couple hours until we came to an encampment. Off to one side, there were lines of what were almost horses if you could picture them with horns and split lips like a springbok. Their hides were brown and tan with barring or stripes in black and medium brown.
We were herded to the center of the encampment and ropes were tied around our necks. The ropes were then staked to the ground so that we couldn’t stand. Since our hands were still tied behind our backs it was almost impossible to get a grip on the stakes. We weren’t fed or given any water and those on the edges of the group were the targets of a kicking or cuffing as soldiers passed by. I had been heartened when I saw my pack and duffel along with a few other bags that were clearly from my fellows unloaded and put in a tent. If I could just get to them I had some stuff that might give me an edge in getting away.
Dear Fearless Writer.
Please, take a breath. I feel like I’ve just read twenty pages of an action screenplay in 400 words. Relax. You have a whole novel to write.
This is what seems to be happening:
A traveler (male? female? transgender?) experiences some kind of time/place shift after a bolt of lightning, and “wakes” surrounded by shouting, tattooed, non-human creatures. Other travelers have been transported as well, and they all attempt to fight off the creatures. The creatures are determined to tie up the travelers, and lead them out of a muddy clearing and to an encampment. At the encampment, the travelers are staked to the ground with short ropes, then starved and beaten.
The Root of Atlan has an energetic, rather exciting premise, but there’s both too much and too little going on at once for a reader to get a good handle on the numerous scenes. Even though the storytelling is done in first person, the narration feels way too distant. Too dispassionate and detached, yet immediately observant of the scene. (i.e. facial details, numbers of men, black stone, pylons, mud, swords, etc.)
First person is, well, personal. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the past tense—it still needs to feel a bit raw and immediate. There’s pain and noise, but where is the confusion and terror? This traveler has come through a hole in the universe. Where’s the shock? The traveler is almost immediately attacked, and we get an explanation about this person having been raped, instead of the sweat and dirt and pain of the immediate fight. Treat the rape with the seriousness it’s due. It’s a great revelation that explains the character’s toughness, but let’s have a few demonstrations of that extraordinary toughness first. Then deepen the character.
(Get to know your character. Here are Proust’s 35 Questions, a survey of your character’s personality. I’m not saying you have to use all that you come up with or even fill it all out. But the more you know about your first-person character, the better grip you’ll have on their view of the world.)
“Being tied up was never a start to anything good unless safe words and mutual consent were involved.” Clever and amusing, but a weird aside for someone whose life is obviously in danger. Unless this is intended to be satire or comedy—and it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to be.
I count no fewer than three scenes in this opening:
–Traveler awakens in a strange place, surrounded not only by fellow travelers, but tattooed, angry locals who are joined by more locals, bent on tying them up. Travelers unsuccessfully fight back.
–Travelers go on a forced march (hike seems too tame a word).
–Travelers arrive in a camp, where they are tied down and starved.
Here’s a bit of practical advice. An exercise, if you will. Take one of these three scenes and work the heck out of it. Put yourself in it. You are the person fighting for your life. You’re the one waking up in a strange place, surrounded by angry, combative creatures. You’re the one who was on the way to the bathroom before you got transported, and you really had to pee, and you’re so freaked out you notice it happened without you realizing it but you barely notice because you’re being attacked by tattooed human/gorilla creatures brandishing swords!
Who are your fellow travelers? Do they count at all, or are they simply redshirts who will all be dead by the time you escape the encampment and go on with your adventures? Is there someone who fights bravely beside you that you will want to stay close to?
Your single traveler is not going to see everything at once. The forced march is a good time to observe more details about our fellow travelers, and the creatures—single one or two out that are especially frightening or you think might help you.
Write long. Indulge in the scene. Then come back and tighten it up and edit. You may not even use everything you write, but you will have observed it. Keep the vital, most visceral parts. Write the experience, not an overview of the experience.
As I read through this the third time (I’m slow on the uptake, I guess), I realized there’s not a word of dialogue! Creatures are shouting unintelligibly, but the travelers don’t even offer a grunt. No one is screaming? No one is crying for her mother? No one is saying, “Get your hands off of me, you damned dirty ape!”? (Sorry, I have zero idea how to punctuate that sentence.) The lack of dialogue is a big part of the narrator’s detachment from the story.
Mention the duffel or the absence of the duffel sooner. I really like the idea that it exists and that the traveler wants the stuff inside it. We can already see what the traveler’s first action mission will be.
Think about opening the book with your character already escaped from the encampment and living in this strange new world. You don’t need to start at the very beginning of the traveler’s arrival—surprise us.
Go and read the beginning of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to see how he immediately immerses the reader in the story. The scenario—that the world is now inhabited by zombies and Robert Neville is the last man—is not the story. It’s a masterful tale of humanity and hope and survival.
Then show us what you know about your protagonist. It’s a fascinating premise and has great potential to be a terrific tale. Take your time. Enjoy the ride. Have fun with it.
TKZers, what are your thoughts on this submission?
Users who have LIKED this post: