Monday, January 23, 2006

opener

So… this doesn’t have a title yet.

It’ll probably get chopped around a lot and there are references in there that will come out once I’ve got the structure properly sorted (still really at the stage of research/character building/plotting because I can’t spew it without notes), but, anyway...

I have doubts about the pace, the characterisation, the language, the dialogue, the atmosphere, the appropriate suspension of disbelief and whether just launching into it like this is ridiculous and/or gimmicky, the description of the action, whether it's overwritten, and also whether it holds together as an opener. And the authorial voice, god, the damned authorial voice.

I know I’ll keep on with it regardless cos I’m digging the characters but it’d be good to get some feedback now while I’m planning the rest of it, which shouldn’t take too long. Hope to post more stuff in a few weeks.

Please tear this one apart in any way you see fit.

And also I’d like to point out that I wrote this a week or so before the news story about the whale in the Thames.

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So the way it started was that there was this guy who rented out the sixth floor of a building perched on concrete stilts above the buried River Fleet. And running water was still running water, even if you did suspect that the rats and flies did more of the legwork these days than the ocean. The nice thing about the Fleet was that you knew it was there but you didn’t have to think about it too much, except that sometimes when you were waiting for the train to arrive at Farringdon Station, you maybe got a little conspiracy theorist about whether that metal tunnel running overhead across the platform really did contain trains or whether it concealed a kidnapped portion of the barely moving river, the city’s own hidden crawlspace.

And this guy, who, by this time, no longer had a name, waived his rights to the dilapidation fees from the outgoing tenant (the place was structurally and cosmetically sound) on the condition that they leave behind the rather fetching carpet, which was thick and soft and blue. Like how you always dreamed five-inch-deep fibre glass lining would be if you took off your socks and sank your feet into it, only without the accompanying lacerations. Obviously it’s pretty easy to chart these things if you’re working there every day, but if you were working there every day, you probably weren’t of a mind suspicious enough to notice. And it wasn’t exactly in the interests of the men who showed up for the monthly meeting to pass any comment. And if anybody had thought the sandwich delivery guy or the occasional temp would actually be believed, they would never have been allowed entry to the sixth floor in the first place. But it’s still the case that, the day after the new tenant moved in his pristine antique furniture, the carpet started to grow.

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It wasn’t that Bet wanted to fuck or get fucked by sharks. But there was something seductive about them, especially tonight, looking like the poster children of the ancient Romans, swollen bellies digesting a bloody feast of dying whale, their oily backs reflecting the autumn sunset through the Thames, all grey and tangerine. She zoned out the shreds of red and yellow blubber draped across a nearby tidal marker, a few feet down the embankment wall. Even from here, the smell was ripe, but she could focus on the car fumes or her coffee breath or the fact that she’d walked all the way from the temp place wearing too many layers of wool, and man-strength deodorant could only do so much. She could focus on the torpor of their bodies, the lack of shame. Sharks keep moving even in their sleep and other useless facts. Clouds of blubber drifted on the surface, above the lethargic bodies.

Hungerford Bridge was always empty of pedestrians at feeding time. The walkway wasn’t supposed to be dangerous, because sharks were not Seaworld dolphins about to somersault into the air and snap their teeth around unlucky passers-by. Then again, sharks weren’t supposed to have survived this far upriver and the second Hungerford Bridge wasn’t supposed to have crumbled like a sandcastle into the Thames just three years after its grand opening. But both these things had happened nonetheless.

Fuck ‘em, she thought. It’s my right as a Londoner to cross every single one of this River’s bridges by day or by night. If I change that, they’ve already won.

Especially this bridge, the third to carry its name. Bet was old enough to remember the first Hungerford Bridge, back before the Bullring became an IMAX cinema. And what this meant was that she was really too young to remember much about it, except for stories about dogs being kidnapped by men in pinstripe suits and tales of schoolboys braving Cardboard City. Back then, she’d follow her mother single file across the bridge, walking shoulder to shoulder with fearsome trains rattling in to Charing Cross with nothing but a piece of painted chickenwire between her and them and the river. It was the only bridge in London shared by trains and pedestrians and if you could stand your ground against a bloody great oncoming locomotive when you were only five years old and not jump headfirst into the Thames, well, then you’d be a man, my son, and you’d also not let a bunch of gun grey shadows in the water scare you off. Not even if those shadows did turn out to be sharks. Especially after those shadows did turn out to be sharks.

She sucked. It was always the same. If she went to the Zoo, she made straight for the reptile house because snakes were what scared her. The sharks weren’t scary, exactly, but she still felt that same fascination like she may as well have had sharkophobia for all the good it did her when trying not to detour halfway across London to the feeding spot to watch them floating so brazenly wasted like dignity wasn’t an issue. Yeah, it was hot, that shameless, post-frenzy inertia. Sharks were supposed to die if they stopped moving. Everybody was supposed to die.

“Amazing creatures, aren’t they? Excuse me, if I can just…” Bet looked down, where a man was kneeling on the marble floor, rifling through a big green rucksack. Man, she must really have been caught up in those mad shark thoughts if she hadn’t heard this guy approach. Why, of all the spacious alcoves that adorned the new and improved Hungerford Bridge, did he have to come into hers? It was like having to share a table with a stranger at an otherwise empty restaurant.

“I watched a feeding from onboard the whale carcass itself, once. A sight I will never forget.” He spoke with an accent, Swedish maybe, and he spoke too loudly and clearly and a touch nervously too, like he was reciting a telemarketing script. Bet nodded, stared downstream towards Southwark Bridge, avoiding eye contact, shifting her weight to move more quickly if need be, and wrapping her fingers around the keys in her pocket. She’d lived here for long enough that these were reflex actions. Any stranger who tries to talk to you on a London street is either crazy or recruiting for a cult. And Hungerford Bridge was always empty of pedestrians at feeding time.

He must have found what he was looking for in his bag because he stood up and sort of twisted his head into her field of vision. She took a step back as she turned to face him, blue eyes, warm but wary, in his late twenties maybe, floppy blonde hair, kinda cute in a Scandi sort of way. OK, very cute. He flashed her a dreadful salesman’s smile. “I’m very sorry to bother you here but I am conducting research. My name is Nils. Please.”

She took pity on him enough to at least shake his outstretched hand.

The tension in her biceps hit her sooner than the cold or lack of flesh as she tried to pull away. The cold snaked across her in a single shiver; her neck rigid, stiff. She moved her eyes from side to side, then down to her right hand where Nils, his own hand gloved in wool, was holding onto a false arm, some kind of green-black metal, studying her face. She tried to blink. Mist from the Thames was condensing on her eyelashes, freezing in tiny icicles. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move her tongue.

“Please, try to stay calm. It is for your protection. The cold would kill you sooner than drowning.”

Still holding onto the arm, he fished inside his jacket with his left hand and pulled out one end of the stripy winter scarf wrapped round his neck. It couldn’t have been more than a few feet long, this scarf, but it seemed to Bet, as he began unwinding it, that there were metres of the stuff. And, though she was mostly focused on trying to move her shoulders, trying to move anything at all, she couldn’t help but notice that it wasn’t really a stripy pattern, but three different colours braided together, all tinged orange by the sunset. He looked apologetic. The scarf was still collecting in loose coils at his feet, grotesquely long. It didn’t even really look like wool now, it looked like woven silk, or satin, or hair. Jesus.

She forced herself to look at him again. It was the expression on his face that really freaked her out more than the thought of what the fuck just happened. He looked calm now, glad that things were obviously going according to script. But also slightly bemused, like he’d been told some interesting fact about her but couldn’t quite see it himself. He took a step forward and she caught a whiff of seashells and salt and rotten seaweed. He reached behind her and pulled; she heard a thin screeching then a snap. He stepped back, something scraping against her cheek. She looked down. Severed from her body, thawing rapidly in his fist, was her hair. He’d broken off the length of her frozen hair. Bastard. He dropped it onto the floor, a soggy drain ball.

“I am sorry but the impact would have taken it anyway. At least this way, it doesn’t go to waste. We’re running on a shoestring here.”

This last delivered with the weird intonation of a speaker who has learnt the expression but knows of no direct translation into his mother tongue. Nils released his grip on the arm. He tied one end of the scarf around the safety railing, threw the other end over the side. Turning back to her and hoisting her up by the waist as though she were made of polystyrene, he lifted her over the railing so that she was facing him, her feet balanced on the tiny strip of marble that ran around the outside of the safety railings. He stopped, looked her in the eye, uneasy and anxious now that the reality of what he was about to do had arrived.

“We don’t want to harm you. I’m so sorry that you have to do this. I would myself but…” he trailed off, lost in thoughts that clearly didn’t concern the frozen woman in front of him. “When you meet her, try to remember what she’s been through. She is a great lady.”

He hesitated, kissed the gloved fingertips of his left hand, then brushed them tenderly against the metal arm, which had remained frozen to Bet’s right hand like some unfunny practical joke. “Give her a proper funeral.”

He pushed.

Hungerford Bridge swung through Bet’s vision as she saw the sky, then the water, then the sky again. She wished her eyes had frozen shut. She hoped the sharks had fed to full. She wondered who the hell he’d been talking about and how to let Debbie know she wouldn’t be taking the temp assignment tomorrow. She thought, ridiculously, of witches unable to drown being dried like raisins in the sun then burnt at the stake. The last thing she saw before she hit the water was the silhouette of the braided scarf, hanging down from the parapet, and behind it, a red and golden sunset.




4 Comments:

Blogger sb said...

Sam I like it. Of course I like horror. I like the characters - I am going to tear it up b/c you asked- but I agree that these characters have some life to live.

I like the folksy opening sentence a lot. But by the end of the first paragraph I wasn't sure what was going on. I also like the subsequent sentence beginning with And.. because you're not playing by grammatic rules but you know them and that's a great strength! Because it comes off very voice-y and interesting to read.

I just wasn't sure what was going on.

Now, the 2nd paragraph which I thought would tie up the first paragraph zooms into Magical Realism territory! Growing carpet, people losing their names.

I like that shit but I'd venture to guess you did a bit of overwriting - there.

Personal point.

I hate Bet's name. It doesn't seem like a regular name. I know, I know. It was distracting though. It was half - real. Like Annie Proulx uses weird-ass names in her fiction - but you sort of went half weird. Bet!

Your first sentence "fuck or get fucked" reminds me of Wally!

This is nice: looking like the poster children of the ancient Romans, swollen bellies digesting a bloody feast of dying whale, their oily backs reflecting the autumn sunset through the Thames, all grey and tangerine.

Story point.

The man shows up VERY suddenly. Could there be a "tap tap.." sort of dread inspiring section where this guy is coming? And then she's relieved it isn't some crazy looking person -

He's definitely a disquieting character but the action loses some perspective. He reaches into his bag, etc. She shakes his hand..?

Suddenly he's somehow holding her suspended??

I'm not a Londoner, maybe this is geographic, but I'm not sure what happened?

I'm not sure what happens after this. He breaks off frozen hair?

You've got a diabolic sense of humor coming out in your characters, some Kafkaesque dialogue but I'm not sure what is happening?

She just lets him push her? Y' see what I mean?

I'm not sure what happens.

In your note you talk about doing research etc .. I think, and this is just my theory which may not work for you - but you should freewrite it. You have a situation you like, which is a vision of a guy dangling a girl and then dropping her from a bridge. Now if you sat and rewrote, not LOOKING back, not overwritin', or correctin', and just wrote it until the story told you it was done -- I think you should do this. Focus on every little thing you can think of and don't look back or rewrite a sentence, and when you're finished print it out and put it away for 3 days before looking at it again and doing another draft.

6:25 PM  
Blogger Sam Spid said...

Hey - thanks so much for the feedback; it's dead useful and I appreciate it.

I hadn't really looked at it from the perspective of someone without a fairly intimate knowledge of London geography and it's very confusing without that.

The guy does show up too suddenly - that was because I was desperate to move it along from this monologue thing into action and just threw him in at random... will definitely try and ease him in with a little more suspense.

You've made me realise that I need to pull back the perspective a little more... it gets clunky and too close-up. But I can do that, no worries.

I hear you about not overdoing the research and free writing instead. A lot of the research *is* free writing... it's little sketches of the characters' backstories, which'll end up coming out in the story. The rest is Wikipedia timeline stuff because the story is going to trip back 100 years to a couple of real life characters and I want a picture in my head of that world.

So there's a couple of biogs I need to read but I've got a time limit on the research portion (about 2 more weeks). Then, definitely, I plan on just sitting down and throwing it out - can't wait.

Yeah, I hate Bet's name too... I wanted a name that wasn't shared by anyone I know. It'll probably change.

Thanks again - I will definitely incorporate that feedback into the next draft and bear it in mind when writing the rest of it.

1:17 AM  
Blogger sb said...

Someone else needs to review this. Here's the deal. REVIEW people's shit. You'll grow as a writer by giving your time to learn about someone's else's words.

6:26 PM  
Blogger wally said...

Yes boss.
I read the opening of this (uptil the man appeared) over and over again, because I wasn't sure if I loved it or hated it. It's a bit of both I think, I love the fact that I'm seeing this world clearly, even though I don't understand it and it's making me lose my footing. I hate it because it seems to be avoiding telling me anything. For sure it's a set up, creating a sense of what's to come, but I do feel toyed with which stopped me from being taken along with it all. It has a sweet ass rhythm. Which I suspect there was a real delibracy to creating, as if you were real careful about each word, nothing wrong with that, but if the reader can see it, if they can see you writing, well it's another barrier stopping them joining you on your journey. And as I suspect you really want to tell a tight tense story, so bringing the idiotic readers along is key. Am I being clear? Say if I'm not and I'll have another crack at explaining it.

I know London pretty well, so I could follow the geography, I really don't think you should change that to make things clearer. It's not important but it gives someone who recognises the landmarks an extra touchstone, and I don't think many readers will be too put off by not knowing the exact local.

During the second part of the story, I was thrown by what you were doing with the pacing. A lot seemed to happen over a short space of time, yet you managed to cram in lots of details, which were beautifully descibed and your language is so so sweet at times, but none of the details gave me much. Like you were throwing lots of really stunning colors at a canvas which already had the outline of a figure drawn on.

If you're going to have another look at this, I'd do as Jon suggests and freewrite it but also give it more room to breath. As a reader I could have done with another section like the first part only focused more on your woman, I'd like to have gotten to know her a little better before the nightmare hit.

It's damn high class piece, if I can go through it and pick out beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence.
Which is honestly what I can do with this story. A lot of them aren't just beautiful they're actually sentences I personally dig, they've got tastes and smells all of their own. It's like I'm walking past a curryhouse in Aldgate smelling what they're cooking but not being able to afford to eat. You know what I mean.

Anyway, give us some more. Pretty please.

5:04 PM  

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