Draft first chapter of short story - grateful for critiques

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Draft first chapter of short story - grateful for critiques

Postby aeriph » Tue Oct 07, 2008 9:20 am

Hey everyone. Below is the draft first chapter of a short story I'm working on. There is one further chapter in the story. I'd be really grateful if anyone could take the time to read it and comment, or even give it a quick critique. This chapter is about 1300 words.

Parasidia Lost

Chapter One: The Tower Road

Veoben trekked through the sea fog in a trance. His legs had settled into a rhythmic precision the day before, and since then his feet had repeated the beat a thousand times on the smooth stone of the tower-road. Somewhere in his brain, low level functions were keeping balance, avoiding the unguarded edge of the highway and starting to raise concerns about the next break. Veoben paid no attention. His thoughts were elsewhere, hypnotised more deeply with each stroke of the rhythm.

The traveller's mind was in Parasidia, his home and the place he had set out from weeks ago on his determined journey. He had left on the night of Lucia's funeral, taking food, money and the ornamental sword his father kept above the mantelpiece. It's name – Maelstorn – had finally surfaced from Veoben's memory a few days earlier. As far as he knew it had never been used, but he had a suspicion that its flawless blade concealed experience of more than sitting dormant in its mount. There was certainly some dim spirit to the weapon, and holding it gave Veoben a strange, primeval pleasure. It held a persistent mental presence for him, a sensation that reminded him sharply of Lucia.

He remembered the first time he had become aware of her, alone in his room working on an overdue Martial Sciences essay. She had walked past his apartment, and for a moment he found himself informed of her exact location, in the way one knows the position of one's limbs in the dark. As abruptly as the information had entered his mind, it fled again. The event was repeated a week later, this time during lunch in the Hall. There was someone, a girl, his age, to his right about twenty paces away. He stared between the crowded diners but saw no obvious candidate. He did not dare stand up and make a fool of himself. The feeling stayed then, and slowly grew more exact until he was constantly and inescapably tuned in to her whereabouts and activities. He began to wake in the night and quietly wander the corridors, standing outside each apartment trying to determine if she was inside. On one such expedition he realised she was doing the same and they spent the early hours trying fruitlessly to find each other.

Their first meeting arrived by accident. Veoben, having seen no proof of the girl's existence, had decided that she was some sort of spirit, despite his senses' conviction to the contrary. This caused a slight panic in him when, walking between lessons, he realised that they were about to pass by each other. His blood galloped inside him and he felt the pressure of an imminent revelation. The distance closed and he saw her face. He stopped moving and her name fell from his mouth,

Through the fog on the tower-road, Veoben saw what might have been a village. He could make out the sheltered tops of two support towers between him and the distant settlement; a couple of thousand paces and he would be there, drying his mist-sodden clothes and eating the salted food that the road villages relied on. As he approached the first shelter, he noticed movement inside. It seemed odd that someone would rest in a shelter so close to a village. Veoben peered over the edge of the road, looking for one of the sea-level ports that grew around some towers. The blanket-like weather revealed nothing, so he continued towards the structure cautiously. The figures, five in number, formed a line blocking the entrance. Veoben pulled his quickknife from its sheath on his hip. He cursed; the fog had rusted the short blade to bluntness. Throwing the dagger over the side, he released Maelstorn from its scabbard. The long sword whined like crystal glass as it met the air. Its blade was untarnished and glossy, as if freshly waxed. Veoben approached the shelter. Its occupants, all young men, abruptly knelt down as if in reverence. The traveller glanced behind him for an ambush. One of the men started to speak in Nomad, an old language still widely used on the roads.
“Weather god, it is a long time since you travelled this way. We have brought you our best supplies as an offering. In return we ask that you bring nothing more than this mist to our homes.”
Veoben paused to translate and laughed. One of the men flinched and the group parted to let him pass, revealing a tightly-packed parcel on the floor behind them. Unnerved, Veoben stepped forward, turning to keep Maelstorn facing the strange party. He kicked the parcel before picking it up and checking its contents. As promised, it was filled with fresh fish, some meat and flasks of water. Veoben took a final look at the men and sprinted away, not stopping in the village where the doors were boarded and windows shuttered, evidently prepared for a storm. He ran through two empty shelters on the other side of the settlement, until, legs pounding to a stop, he fell to his knees and filled his lungs with the coarse air.

The fog had cleared before nightfall, and Veoben fell asleep in a warm, dry breeze, thousands of paces from the disturbing village. Too tired to fathom where the pleasant weather had come from, the teenager sank into his dreams without hesitation. He dreamt of Lucia; her full, pretty smile; her obscure choice of subjects at school; her skin that was unusually pale for a Parasidian and her unbounded optimism. Their brief relationship played out in front of him. He was alone with her again, in her apartment during the Season Change festivities. They had quietly left the celebrations in the Hall and met there. No-one else was in and they didn't waste the opportunity, soft lips and warm skin finding each other in the dark. Veoben relived the heat of her body pressed against him, her fingers in his hair and the tentative duress on his back, pulling him on to her.

The scene changed to late afternoon on the day she died. They were walking through the woods in silence after the argument. The trees merged to become solid stone walls, and soon they were amongst the seats in the North Chapel, surrounded by mourners. Veoben watched Lucia drift blankly to the front of the room where she began to climb into the empty coffin. He rushed forwards to grab her but the seated relatives became a huge, faceless crowd, surrounding him like a black sea. For a moment he saw Lucia's mother, a gaunt face with fierce grey eyes. He remembered her sobs, the primitive, desperate noises clamouring in his ears and forcing his guilt irretrievably inside him.

Veoben fled, stumbling through the door. On the other side was the creature; the terrible, impossible being that he had seen after following Lucia's screams on the night she died. It was thick and muscular, like a large, serpentine man. A dull black crust covered its body and its skin crackled as if burning, leaving a hateful stench in the air behind it. In his nightmare, it bolted after Veoben as he ran to the cliffs at the edge of the forest. He found himself balancing on the precipice, moving hopelessly along it as the atrocity crashed through the woods towards him.

A light rain splattered on Veoben's face, waking him. Sluggish alarm bells rang as he realised he was upright, walking forwards. His feet were negotiating the edge of the tower-road, and the ocean breathed majestically hundreds of paces below him. Startled, the wanderer fell back on to the hard causeway. It was morning, and the shores of Aermayn were close. In the far distance, the Life Tree was faintly visible. He was nearly there.
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Re: Draft first chapter of short story - grateful for critiques

Postby admin » Tue Oct 07, 2008 6:42 pm

Begin at the beginning, tell the story, stop when the story's done.

You would be amazed at how many beginning writers start the story in the "present" and, in the second paragraph, hit the reader with a flashback. Most readers, and most editors, stop reading at that point. Yes, epics used to start in media res, but the market for old fashioned epics is small these days.

It is harder today than ever to break into the fiction writing game. I've been trying for years, and sell about one story in ten. (I've got a story in the December Analog.) But even the minor magazines reject more than 98% of the stories they read. Of course, some of those stories are just plain bad. But a great many of the stories are ok, just not good enough. Which is why you need to hook your reader in the first paragraph, with something new and different, and keep the reader hooked by pulling him so rapidly and vividly through the story that he doesn't have a chance to stop.

Here are the opening sentences of the last five stories I read:

"Come, Come," said Shapur quite politely, considering that he was a demon.

That's by Asimov. Probably would not sell today.

"The boat -- it was a yawl boat with a patched weathered sail -- made two reaches below us while I sat with the sculls poised, watching over my shoulder, and George clung to the pile, spouting Milton at Everby Corinthia.

William Faulkner. Better than the Asimov. Probably would not sell today. The second "boat" doesn't really work, and most readers won't understand that use of "reaches".

"Once, long ago, the devil built a bridge."

Jerome Bixby. Nice hook. It's not what you expect of the devil, so you keep reading to find out what happens next. Still, the story would probably get a nice rejection letter, a "please let us see your next".

"Gareth was a black cat with orange eyes."

Lloyd Alexander. Great image. Readers like cats. The second sentence builds on the first. Might sell, if the author was lucky.

Sorry I haven't said more about your story, but you need to start over from scratch. Ask yourself, "What is this story about? How is it different? Why would the reader care about these characters? What is the beginning? You don't have to know the middle and the end, but you absolutely have to know the beginning. Start there, and make every sentence as vivid as you can.
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