Over the last several months, in the churning wake of agent silence, I’ve debated drowning my novel. The contemporary fantasy story I’ve been developing for some time was met with lukewarm interest last year at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, and I’ve spent much of my blogging time referring to entire process through a fishing metaphor.
I’ve been trolling for agents.
With the line of my story cast, the trail of its marked by the query-letter bobber, I’ve inched the throttle forward, careful for the tell-tale jump that would indicate an agent’s bite. While I felt a few nibbles at the conference last January (yes, January), the agents all wriggled off the hook for one reason or another. Some of the feedback I received indicated that I might be fishing in the wrong agent-waters, that the genre for the story or the audience had been too far off target for me to hook any of the real prize people I’d been searching for. So I refined my search, honing in on specific agents that supposedly tread through the specific channels of the genre, but alas, my trolling has yet to yield a catch. At this point, you might call me Santiago.
So, like any self-respecting fisherman and/or writer, it’s time to revisit the bait. Maybe it was something with the story, a scent–a feel, that has kept the big
fish agents away. Revision is part of the writing process, and while my story sports several drafts, I’m starting to believe the next revision needs to be more macro and less micro in scope. With all of that in mind, I’ve continually kept tabs on various writing sites and blogs that expound upon the different techniques and approaches to the writing craft.
Here’s the problem: The blogs give conflicting advice. So once again, you’re on your own, dragging your little skiff out on the Gulf in an attempt to land that marlin of an agent.
Here’s what I mean: Writer’s Digest published an article titled “10 Ways to Start Your Story Better” by Jacob M. Appel on March 29, 2011. This article included several helpful suggestions about the development of a story. One bit of his article I completely agree with is as follows: “In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter.” He proposes ideas like “Build Momentum”, “Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones” (He actually wrote that! I’m not just adding it here because it fits my metaphor!), and “Revisit the beginning once you reach the end”. All of these hints are solid, but there’s one in particular that jarred me when I read it today.
Way #4 was: “Open at a distance and close in”. He says: In modern cinema, films commonly begin with the camera focused close up on an object and then draw back panoramically, often to revelatory effect, such as when what appears to be a nude form is actually revealed to be a piece of fruit. This technique rarely works in prose. Most readers prefer to be “grounded” in context and then to focus in. Open your story accordingly.
Where’s the issue, you might ask. Well, Chuck Sambuchino, an editor for Writer’s Digest Books and successful author, posted an article today called: “How to Start Your Novel: What TRUE LIES Taught Me“. In his article, Chuck discusses how one of the most common reasons agents and editors stop reading manuscripts is simply that the story starts too slow. He goes on to say that today’s novels, especially debut novels, must grab the readers within the first page, paragraph, even sentence. He suggests writers start their book with the best, most carefully chosen words to hook the readers immediately.
Chuck uses the example of True Lies (1994), and how the opening sequence starts wide by presenting a wintry landscape, then zooms in to show a mansion, armed guards, and eventually, a knife popping through the frozen surface of water and a secret agent emerging in scuba gear. He says movies can do this, but novels should not. He suggests going “inside-out” with a novel, instead of Hollywood’s approach which is typically “outside-in”. He feels the best way to hook a reader, using the True Lies example, would be to start with the knife popping through the ice then slowly move outward, showing the secret agent, the armed guards, the mansion, and the wintry landscape accordingly.
So, these two blogs, both attempting to provide guidance on writing–specifically the beginning of a story, completely contradict each other. They both refer to film for support of their positions, and ultimately, leave a writer to decide on their own. While the writing is up to the writer, a little guidance never hurt anyone. I guess it comes down to which bit of advice to take.
Me? I think I’m siding with Chuck on this one. At present, my story opens with a character that is not the main character. The point of view character to start Chapter One doesn’t make it out of the scene, as she is murdered by the story’s main antagonist. My main character doesn’t actually get on stage until the start of Chapter Three on page 16. You might think 16 pages isn’t that far off the beginning, but it hasn’t worked for me so far. Below, I’ve attached the first Chapter of the story, currently titled Mythos. I’d love any feedback you’re willing to give.
My revision will start with my main character, on stage on page 1, trying to hook the reader within that first page/paragraph/sentence. Once my macro-revision is done, I’ll grab my skiff and head back out on the choppy waters of the Gulf of Publication to try and hook my marlin agent.
West Haverstraw, New York
Late Evening, Seven days to Spring
Wilma Aylward left through the back door of the West Haverstraw Addiction Assistance Center, hoping for a quiet night inside. As the Inpatient Manager, she cared for the many people in the building craving assistance, among other things. Her lead assistant remained in charge in her absence and, for his sake, it would need to be a quiet long weekend, as she was traveling to Miami for an important pick-up.
Her husband Justin and their two teenage sons were driving down to Florida for a long weekend as well. New York Mets spring training games in Port Saint Lucie, Florida were an annual tourist draw. While Justin believed Wilma enjoyed the solitude of their empty home for several days, she completed her journey. This arrangement existed for years, her husband never suspecting Wilma skirted beside them along the interstate en route to Miami. The Mets were all-encompassing.
Wilma trekked down I-95’s sunbaked pavement for the pick-up. The “patient”, as she labeled her after the first time she brought the young woman to the Addiction Center, stayed a week at most, until her eyesight and strength returned. Then, one morning, she would be gone. Wilma huffed at the idea of calling the patient a “woman”, because she was most certainly not that.
This strange annual cycle started in 1993. She didn’t care to understand the mechanisms, greater than her as they were. But the memory of how it began remained a vivid if enigmatic comedy.
It was her son Micah’s sixth birthday, and an Aladdin-themed party was in full swing. Autumn brown leaves fell from Apple branches, and reined the backyard of their southern Jersey home. Micah and many of his friends dizzied themselves with sugar and games. A cool breeze whipped through the open yard and carried leaves into her plastic red cup.
She forced a smile for her family and friends as she picked out the foliage, hoping to maintain the fleeting moment of solitude. Despite the festive environment, worry weighed her mind, her shoulders. Justin had been laid off earlier that week, and money would be incredibly tight for them. It was at that moment that the course of her life altered.
A costumed Genie of the Lamp approached Wilma. He spoke in a muffled voice. “Wilma, my name is Hermes.”
“I thought I hired Vinnie,” she said.
“I’ve taken his place—”
“You’ll have your money in two hours. Entertain these kids.” She considered a cigarette, but didn’t want to wear her worry. Her mother was old and didn’t need the stress. One stroke was enough.
“I’m not concerned about the money. I am Hermes, and I need your assistance.”
The name triggered a connection; something from her school days. Hermes was a Greek god. And while this man did have wings attached to his ankles, Wilma assumed that was all part of the costume. She rolled her eyes.
“Ok, Hermes. What do you need?”
“I’m glad you recognize me.”
Wilma focused on the blue face and tried not to laugh. “Whatever.” She choked down a chuckle. “You’re getting two hundred bucks. What else do you need?”
“You can keep my two hundred and add it to the seventeen cents in your pocket.”
Wilma thinned her lips and stared at the mask a moment; cartoon face, fixed smile, tiny pony-tail above ridiculously large ears. She pressed out another smile and knew she would have laughed in the man’s face had he sounded anything like Robin Williams. However, despite the absurd costume, something nagged her. The man was serious. She reached into her jeans and pulled the coins from her pocket. A dime, a nickel, and two pennies.
“People rarely know that I am also a god of commerce. I have a special connection to money, my dear.”
Wilma struggled to think of a way the man could know how much money she had in her pocket. She glanced around, hoping none of the guests overheard this conversation. Micah waved at her and Genie from atop the fort of his swing-set. She refocused on the man before her, coins still resting in her open palm.
“Your family, ages ago, attended me in Arcadia. I need your assistance again. Your help will not go without good fortune.”
Wilma stood thunderstruck. Just last week, her sister, a student at Rutgers, discovered their ancestors hailed from Greece, before transplanting to western Germany, then England, and eventually America. The man claiming to be a god continued to speak to her, telling her things about her family that no one could know. Her head spun. Then he said it.
“I need you to retrieve one of my kind from a crypt in Miami. Then care for her until she is ready to return to her mother.”
A cold wind whipped by her uncovered face, Wilma thought the memory felt surreal, like a movie she’d seen on Lifetime or something. Hermes had promised her good fortune that afternoon, but demanded total secrecy. Wilma had dwelled on the god’s request for months, all the while her family struggled. Ultimately, she agreed—after all the “patient” needed care and that was Wilma’s calling.
Following that first spring and that first retrieval, good fortune graced her family. Her husband found work. Her kids no longer had asthma. She had even been promoted. And it had all revolved around her secret task, a task that required Wilma to care for a young woman that appeared in a crypt, in Miami, on the first morning of every spring. The skeptic in Wilma kept her from believing the man was a god. Maybe it was all coincidence, but she asked no questions.
It had been almost twenty years since she agreed, and she kept the secret from everyone she knew.
The Mets were a great cover, she thought.
Wilma pulled the keys to her Nissan Quest minivan from her purse and moved through the dimly lit parking lot. Her packed bag waited in the van and she would head directly to the highway, driving straight through the night. Wilma, even after all these years, was too nervous to stop, but she knew she’d spend that night somewhere near Richmond, Virginia. Seven hours or so was about the most she could take tonight. She patted her purse, which hid a piece of folded, yellowed vellum with the woman’s location. Not that she needed it after so many years, but she enjoyed the auspices of antiquity.
Sharp wind sliced through the near-empty lot. Gravel crunched beneath her shoes as she approached her van. Once at the driver’s side door, Wilma saw the Center reflected on the glass. A soft roll of thunder echoed down, and Wilma hoped it wouldn’t start raining. She loathed driving in the rain. Too heavy a storm and she’d be lucky to make it as far as Washington.
As she slid the key into the lock, a flick of motion in the window caught her eye. She spun—the gravel sliding beneath her worn Nikes.
“Hello?” she said into the cold air around her. Her breath appeared for the first time, and she knew for certain it would rain. The temperature plummeted, as it always did before a storm. She saw nothing other than the fog of her breath and the rustling leaves of the pines around the Center. She turned and yanked open the car door.
Wilma squealed, dropping her purse. She turned and saw a cadaverous man with deep-set dark eyes. The man’s skin barely hid his bones.
The gaunt man tried to smile, but it looked more like a pained grimace.
“What are you doing here?” Wilma said, wheezing and trembling as she reached for her purse. She kept her gaze locked on Benjamin, a twenty-nine year old junkie who had been released almost two months ago. He had been in the Center for the better part of four months, fighting a heroin addiction that had splintered his family. The man shifted his weight from foot to foot and twitched his fingers. He was using again.
Wilma recovered from her shock and held out her hands to him. “Relax Benjamin,” she said. “Why don’t you go inside? Roger’s there. We can help you through this.”
This was the part of the job that scared her most, addicts returning and possibly becoming violent. She glanced to the light post and the call-box affixed to it, some twenty feet away.
Benjamin followed her gaze and seemed to know what she was thinking. “I’m not h—here to hurt you, Mrs. Aylward. He just needs the place.”
“A place, that’s why you’ve come?” Wilma clutched her bag. “Good. Go inside, Benjamin. This is the place to help you.”
“N-no.” The twitching became more pronounced. He was agitated. He glanced to the small grove of pines that separated the parking lot from a fenced residential neighborhood beyond. “That place. The place. The n—name of the place.”
“Benjamin,” she said, eyes shifting to and from the call box. She figured she could make it to the button before the disturbed man. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She stepped toward the box. “Go inside. Please.”
“Taking another step is not in your best interest,” said a different voice from behind her.
Wilma turned to see a man emerging from behind a tree. He moved with both arms tucked into a black, knee-length overcoat. His deliberate approach exploded the gravel beneath his boots like the thunder claps above her.
As he neared, paralytic fear gripped her throat. The tall man was broad-shouldered and dark skinned. Light from the post revealed his face and reflected off his bald head. Sharp eyes were set deep above pit-bullish features. But Wilma’s attention focused on the spear-shaped piercings that crossed the bridge of the man’s nose. The ink of a tattoo wrapped around his neck to the back of his head.
“I need the place, Mrs. Aylward,” the man said, his faint words slicing through a fog of breath. The percussive lilt of his voice sounded Indian to her, though void of the tranquil tones of any kindhearted yogi.
“I—I don’t know what you’re—”
“Please, woman. I know what you do every spring. The Emergence Point. Now.” The man pulled a pistol with a silencer from the folds of his overcoat. “Or Benjamin dies.” The man aimed the gun at the twitching addict beside him.
“Oh my God,” she said, her knees almost buckling.
“W—wait,” Benjamin said, holding his shaking hands in front of his face, “y—you said I just needed to show you where she was. Th—then you’d give me the bag.” The addict cowered behind his bony hands, an impotent force field.
“Benjamin, you don’t need what he’s offering you. Go inside. You had four good months here. Remember? Go inside. Please.” Her voice quivered. She did not look at the man with the pistol poised at her former patient.
“Woman, the place of the Emergence Point or the addict dies.”
“I d—don’t know what you’re talking about.” Now she shook as well. She had never revealed to anyone what she did, not even her husband. Hermes commanded vigilance, to be wary of anyone approaching her with knowledge of her task. The god assured her only they knew of the arrangement.
How could this man know about the patient? The Emergence Point?
A bullet burst from the silencer. Wilma dropped to her knees as the shot ripped through Benjamin’s hands then exploded in his skeletal face. Blood painted the gravel as the body dropped. Wilma screamed just as a thunderclap detonated above her. Tears streaming, her mind went blank.
“The Emergence Point, or your family is next.”
Wilma could not pull her eyes from the body mere yards from her. The feet still twitched. It had fallen backward, so she could not see the destroyed face. She pictured her husband, her sons, then the name of the place where she was to pick up the young woman surged to the forefront of her mind. Hermes once revealed that her task was ancient and of vital importance. He claimed that by completing her task, she helped the world move from season to season. Life and death, he had said, hung in the balance of her caring for the woman. She felt this man would kill the woman, but also believed the threat to her family.
“M—Miami,” she said.
“Where in Miami?” The man stepped closer, pistol pointed at Wilma. He towered over her. She continued to tremble.
“Grace Park Memorial.”
The man lowered his pistol as his lips peeled back from his teeth in a hideous smile. As the tears continued down her cheeks, Wilma thought she saw more people inside the tree line. She wondered where Hermes was now. The man turned to the trees.
“Be sure the messenger confirms this information,” he said.
Wilma was now certain people moved behind the thick trunks.
Thoughts streamed through her consciousness. She tried to envision her life as it would have been had she ignored Hermes nearly twenty years ago. What would it have been like had she continued to think the man in the Genie costume was crazy? The family was struggling, but would they have made it? Where was the god now, when she finally needed him?
It felt as if hours had passed when the man finally turned his attention back to Wilma Aylward. She sat, shaking, wet from tears, and stared at the front door of the Center. She pleaded in her mind for someone to come out.
A figure moved forward from behind the tree line. He stopped beside the man. “My lord, the messenger has confirmed the Emergence Point. He’s broken.”
With a wide, hideous smile, the man approached her. The crunching gravel pulled Wilma’s attention to his scuffed boots. She prayed. Wilma stared up at the man. To her, he was a demon. The man leveled the pistol at her. She pictured her sons, her husband, and prayed they would have a good life.
Another man came charging from the tree line. “Devak, my lord!” The man huffed the cold air in and out of his lungs. “He has escaped.”
The man’s eyes widened to the point where Wilma could see blood red strings crossing in the white. A huge vein pulsed on his forehead. He stepped toward his heaving herald, hand still squeezing the grip of the pistol.
Hope sprang in her chest. Perhaps the man would turn his attention away from her. After a moment though, the man looked back to her.
The last image Wilma Aylward saw was the flash of the muzzle as the bullet burst toward her.
Hermes dropped from the thick branches of a pine tree and limped toward the van from the back of the Addiction Center. He had waited for Devak and his men to leave. As he moved, blood dripped onto the gravel from his ankles. Devak had amputated Hermes’ wings, and the stumps remained untended. It had been the single most excruciating pain he had ever experienced in his eons on this earth. It was to relieve that pain that Hermes had agreed to the Emergence Point Wilma divulged.
He abhorred himself for not being stronger, for allowing a man to best a god and seize him in the first place. That would have never happened in the golden age of his kind. Devak must have the backing of another god.
He stopped beside the woman’s body. She had served him so very well. For almost twenty years, she performed a task that only a human could. Hermes reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of coins. The woman’s face was unrecognizable, but Hermes slipped the coins beneath her tongue.
“For the boatman, sweet Wilma.” Hermes pulled the van keys from her hand and stood.
Before opening the car door, Hermes noticed vellum in Wilma’s open purse. He reached down a bruised and bloodied hand and pulled out the scroll he had written. Devak and his men had ignored Wilma once Hermes had escaped, so the message had remained hidden. He flipped open the folded edge, leaving a red stain on the parchment.
Hermes had already been grooming Wilma’s replacement, but not a Guardian. The murder of Wilma’s hidden protector had been staggering, though only to him, as the Caregiver was never aware of her Guardian. But now Hermes needed two.
He rested his dirt-stained back against the soft leather seat. He left the letter on the metallic trim center console and closed his eyes.
Hermes was among the select few deities aware of a sudden boom of children sired by gods and goddesses with humans. Cruel measures existed to prevent such children from reaching maturity, and thus developing abilities associated with their progenitor, but those measures had failed in recent years, and the failure remained a maddening mystery to him. The first generation of divine descendants in many millennia was at or reaching maturity and he would need to tap one of those descendants to aid him in protecting the goddess and her silent passage home. He knew that any action toward a descendant would not be well received, as the delicate balance needed maintaining, but no other options existed.
Genealogies tumbled through his mind. Names fluttered back and forth. Families, powerful and old, streamed through his consciousness. He shook his head. Powerful and old did not always mean destined and fated. He needed a strong bloodline.
The god opened his eyes, inserted the key into the ignition slot and started the Nissan Quest. Hestia, goddess of hearth and home, held a special link to families, especially the lineage of gods. Though she remained aloof from the squabbles on Olympus, she had alerted him of a new bloodline.
A pure bloodline.
He knew who he would tap. The young man was untested, unaware, but Hermes had faith in the family.