Tuesday, July 09, 2013

What's wrong (and what's right) with my Introduction and first chapter - your thoughts? Attempt #2

Well I've decided to do something different. Again. Since very few writers are able to do a perfect draft of their first book without a second opinion, I've decided to fall in line and do the same. The part I'm struggling with: to get my opening sequence perfect. 

I've noticed that even in published books and magazine articles, I sometimes find the material not very compelling, and at times, when evaluating my own writing for the hundredth time, I feel the same way. But is it really bad, and if so, where and what and how to fix it. That's where you come in, with a fresh pair of eyes. 

There's already been a clamour of criticism (thanks) which I've tried to take on the chin, turn the other cheek and also, if possible, take it on the nose. 

Coming through loud and clear thus far: 
- shorten your chapters 
- shorten your sentences 
- say less more simply rather than too much in long,sophisticated ramblings that are hard to follow
- get to the point: make your theme obvious and get to the crucial theme in your chapter asap 

Other valuable comments: 
- what time is it, can't you be clearer on the chronology of what's going on?  (I've provided time references right at the beginning, hope that helps).
- stick to the same tone - the opening doesn't work (hence I've completely redrafted it). 
- keep it interesting but try not to crowd in too much other stuff (I assume other stuff means quotes, memories from history...) 

 It's tough to find intelligent, literary criticism. So here's my second go to see if I can crowd source some useful feedback. I'm interested to know what knocks off your socks (if anything), what gave you a lump in your throat (maybe not a good thing) and best (actually worst) of all what made you want to click to something else. And so without further ado, here's a reboot, for the crowd this is version 2, but it's unofficially version 96 in the writer's back room. Getting somewhere? You be the judge:



Introduction (Scrivener)

Unhappy is the land that needs a hero
– Galileo
[July 28, 2212, midday]

“Who’s there?”
My eyes travel along the ramparts, to the archers, but my companion – a woman – directs me instead directly beneath our station, to the frozen canvas. Far below these towers our master has emerged without his war horse. He runs from the gate.  The eagle on his arm flaps.  The glossy mane and tail of his black wolf-collie is a dancing comma fluttering fast across the page.  The master’s silver hair flashes the cold light of brooding clouds back at us, we who watch from his soaring dark walls. As the great bird vaults into space, each great beat of its wings drawing it higher into the Highland air, our master seems to run faster.  Unusually he carries no bow this morning but his blade pokes under his flying gray cape like a stiff tail snug in its sheath.
In those legs; in that blur of fur covered feet crunching on frost and dry stalks of grass is a tale only he can tell.  Look closely.  In that whirlwind of running is the splattering of blood on pine needles, on wooden doors, on the silver wings of flying machines.  It is the thundering hooves of horses, the silver flash of swords, the rise of walled cities and colossal monuments followed by the flowery ruin of every arching steel achievement until we are back to the basic bloody mosaic once more…where ink splattering through the history books turns red, and our world recedes behind lines of blood dousing rocks, then sinking unheralded into piles of dust and banks of snow.  Time travels beneath those feet pencil sketching the lift and flow of continents, the rise and fall of families, of entire bloodlines, from the first days when fuming rocks were plastic and still shaping the red mantle, to the days not so long ago when men believed that anything goes and nothing matters.  I can tell you the mood of humanity has darkened since then.  The time of the Great Burning saw both governments and banks fail.  Corporations continued to function until they staggered and succumbed to the clutches of the mob. For many years since the business of men is but this: surviving.  Once more we discover that the earth is run by physical laws.
Neither modern nor ancient rituals, neither money nor any other immortality project makes any difference to the marching of ice.  Nothing we do is of any consequence, yet everything we do matters. Now, everything matters.  Behind the tranquil façade of snow, when everything is being wiped out, we see the animals return, bringing with them reminders of the nameless, faceless death that lurks in nature.  Life shines again, small and bright, a pinprick in a vast ocean of darkness.  When I open my own stricken, terrified eyes to the might of the dark in middle of the night, I try to hold onto this thought: yet the stars themselves came from the darkness.  The darkness was there first.  The darkness is full of horrors yes, but also magic.  And the mother that gives life to worlds…in time returns and takes it away.
Thus we have come to the full circle of the zodiac…where worlds end, and ends meet.  The end is not without irony.  Today the few of us that remain identify again with the animals. Our fate, even our daily circumstances are tied intimately to these creatures, and so we acknowledge them, and give them names.  Names for birds, and beasts, and almost every animal that we must eat.  We have even chosen an animal, and its creature power, to symbolise the vigour of each of us, and this House. 
But even with animal names and animal skins to keep us warm, the power of men, at least on this planet, is finished. The megamachines have been laid to waste in the giant graveyard of the world.  It is all gone.  Our tribe are the last; all we do is eek out our miserable lives, one day at a time. Our destinies are lost in dim landscapes that shine beneath an anodyne sun.  Our fate lies somewhere upon the cold shadows that bite deeper each day into our backs.  Alone in the dark, confronted by the flickering candle, we must face up to it in full: We have committed the sin of hubris, thinking that power comes from ourselves.  For this is what man is, and what he always has been – a creature unable to accept or come to terms with who and what he is.  An animal who defies his very nature. An animal that believes he is not an animal, certainly not like any other animal.  And yet, how did it come to this?  Not even nature is able to engineer such massive destruction upon itself? Or does it? This is the question we are faced with, here at the end at last, when life hangs like a drop of dew on a dead branch with the night wind approaching.

 
Chapter One (Oracle)
Between Landscape and Memory

O Sweet everlasting Voices be still;
Go to the guards of the heavenly fold
And bid them wander obeying your will
Flame under flame, till Time be no more;
Have you not heard that our hearts are old,
That you call in birds, in wind on the hill,
In shaken boughs, in tide on the shore?
O sweet everlasting Voices be still.
 – WB Yeats


[Late afternoon]

Shall I begin?
The iris stiffens, the pupil swells. Somewhere between landscape and memory a pair of unsympathetic grey eyes register the twirling storm with implacable patience. The twisting monster materialises out of an extraordinary silence before advancing toward the hill line where he stands.  Though he is in a hurry to catch those ahead of him, Christopher Ulysses waits.
Oddly enough he seems to tune out the sound and fury unfolding before him, and seems to look through, and beyond the growing shadow. He seems to search for everything beyond the storm now dominating the stage.
It is clear that Ulysses is profoundly disturbed, but it is impossible to tell whether the disappearance of his mother whom he presently pursues (a woman he is deeply attached to), or whether something else, in the storm itself but not the storm, vexes him.
A dull roar builds along the base of the side of the hill facing the sea.  It builds and builds until finally the sound of the squall breaks outward and upward.  The pitch overwhelms the hiss and scratch of frigid coils of sky. To the untrained eye the churning cell appears to be no more than massive maelstroms catapulting common debris in a stupendous but mostly harmless aerial ballet… but he instantly recognises the pink discharges for volcanic lightning.  It bursts from swilling frag plumes that swell out and invade the upper atmosphere in curtains of thick impenetrable ink.  The detonations tear at the fabric of the air itself.  Each one is hundreds of times more powerful than ordinary lightning.  Each blast is bright enough to burn away his shadow.
The ruined ground shakes under his feet.  Blinding flashes strobe against the lines of Ulysses’ face; a visage that belongs to the last of the king’s of men.   The lean man, though he belongs to a time beyond man’s greatest civilisations, has a medieval look about him.  He carries no electrical device, not even a digital watch.  Instead of a phone or a key, he carries a sword lashed to his hip. His lower legs are wrapped in furs, his chest – the ribs trying to contain the efficient heaving engine beneath – is warmed by a thick coat made of the hide of a Black Wolf. Underneath that he wears a light grey cambric shirt.  The only oddity is a layer of mail in the figure of 8, inch-wide bands of braided metal looping firmly around his body and at its apex, connecting to the hilt of his sword via an exotic alloy thread.
Since he remains still vapours collect and erupt from his smooth white skin.  The four braids coming off the back of his head swing a little against his broad shoulders as the hands of a stiff wind grab at them. Enormous plumes balloon out of his mouth but are whipped away by sharp winds surfing along the hill crest.
He remains uninterested in the storm; neither is he concerned with the raw power of the blitzkrieg; instead his quick eyes trace a muddy ditch filled with wolf tracks, then flit to dirty smears lower down the hillside where men’s boots have trampled white snow to oily black smears.  His keen vision catches on a carcass in the middle distance, then another.
Dark red frames both of them.  The one is a Highland bull, the other a horse from his own fortress. Even from a distance he recognises the stallion as Hadrada.  But there are no signs of wolves, or the party of men escorting his mother.  With the great storm drawing a vast curtain of blackened, swilling, electrified air over the whole low valley, his view of the ship is blocked.
Instead of monitoring the rotations of the storm, Christopher Ulysses is more interested in the manner in which the exhausted landscape rolls away from his feet; how it is sculpted and gauged by the glaciers of a previous age of ice.  For the lie of the land will have given their path; and his intuitions – he hopes – may find a shorter route.
When he does he begins to walk towards the storm, his hand clutching at the handle of his sword.  His mind turns briefly to the Greek historian and Athenian General, a man who speaks into Ulysses’ reality.
"But, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”
I search for you… he says, into the ether, even though I know you are already beyond my reach…
It is less for him an act of bravery than of despair and desperation.  The loss of a parent into the explicable, a torture perhaps as terrible as the finality of death itself, but for the opposite reason – it’s ongoing alienation and uncertainty…
He speaks to his mother, Kelly Sinclair, a tousle-haired haired woman with dark, passionate eyes and lilywhite skin. She calls to him, but he is the leader of the last black fortress that towers in these parts. 
I cannot come where you are going.  I will try to find you, and save you, but if I do not, if you make good your getaway you must save yourself.
He realises the risk of him going alone in these brutally cold and feral conditions.  He has responsibilities to his men, and as brash as his mother’s errand is, is his any less brash – him going in pursuit of her without taking anyone with him?  Besides the risks of running into a pack of wolves, or being overcome by the elements,  there is always that risk that seems worst of all – running into another human being…being ambushed, caught by surprise by a poisoned loner or gangs of thugs who , if they are hungry enough, will kill you without a word before eating the flesh from your limbs. 
He rationalises his risk-taking on the premise that the world is an empty place…He’s right. Things have certainly changed. This western seaboard of the country once known as Scotland is once more the final remote sanctuary for men (for there are hardly any women, or children left in the world).  But for her to leave now, a rare women in a time devoid of the feminine touch…it is an unnecessary travesty to him.  At least here there is an opportunity to live out the remainder of a life – such as it is – with a measure of freedom.  And he had the power to give it to her.  Here, in these outermost limits of the Empire that was once Britannia, is now less than a shadow of the curtain known to men as ‘the West’.  In these times there is no West and east, there is just the North and the cold star that governs it. There are no tribes beyond his clan, nothing but frozen waves and rocks tossing under bruised grey skies.  But the world does contain robbers, and wolves, that still plunder an exhausted land…
He steps faster over the snow leaving his own dark marks.
Sometimes, in spite of everything, we prevail… he says. The hand not clenching the hilt of his sword remains tightly closed.
He whispers to the woman whom he now knows he will never see again in his life; his mother, Kelly Sinclair. The line of the dark haired woman is drawn through one of the oldest families of France, a noble family, with origins in Normandy France. Originally Saint Claire.  But here, in these lands her kin were known as the Sinclairs… They came here via England when William the Conqueror invaded England and changed the destiny of the world.
The irony is not lost on him that his mother’s name means “bright-headed” or “strife” or “monastery” or “church”.  Nor does the mantra of her clan, “Commit thy work to God,” fail to sting him.  For he knows it is late July and with the summer solstice imminent, exactly why she and a small party have escaped out here to conduct a pilgrimage; to sail by boat across the Irish Sea to the 764 metre high Croagh Patrick, where it rises out of another U-shaped valley, one that echoes this one, created by a glacier during the last Ice Age.  She means to walk it barefoot and call an end to the terrible sufferings, and interminable winter and wars on this tattered envelope of civilisation.
She does not know it is already too late for prayers he says to the storm.
 “They rifle the deep…” Lord Ulysses whispers, quoting Tacitus.  The tall man with long billowing silver hair strides out over the last page of the history of mankind.  He possesses, in his sanctum sanctorum a library…and one of his books are the Annals…ancient writing by the hand of Tacitus.  A man, a senator, a historian;  Tacitus wrote about Nero, the wars and the changing tides and fortunes of Rome more than 22 centuries ere. 

His steps bring him closer to a roiling sky, swimming with the debris of spaceships and stables, cars and shoes, skulls and timepieces all spun together into a Trojan Monster.
It is profoundly sad to him that he should lose her to the ghosts of her mind, rather than to the practical difficulties of this world.  And then he notices it, the elephant in the room. The eyeless, mouthless, headless neck sucks, vacuums and blends, its ripping unmakes a man made world, and as it does so it utters a deafening scream.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This version is much stronger - nice work Nick

Anonymous said...

Kan nogsteeds bietjie korter, of hoe?

Anonymous said...

why don't you focus more on the drones?

Anonymous said...

still confused dude

Anonymous said...

better

Nick van der Leek said...

Thanks guys - I've uploaded a more recent, edited version. Please have a look. You can also email your thoughts if you like: nickvanderleek[at][gmail][dot][com]