Short dark fantasy story opening

Graymalkin

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#1
Hi. Here are three drafts/versions of a short story opening passage/scene setting of approx 200 words each (about 4% of 5k total word count) and I would appreciate ALL comments and comparisons on feeling for speed of/or lack of, story development, language, and basically which one passes in front of the eyes more easily.

The story centres around Lillie, retired farmer and widow, and her cat, battling a demon in her home. She finds the demon in the form of a fossil/stone. The creature animates, they have a series of encounters, THE END. Very much cat-and-mouse, event oriented.

I thought I'd finished it, left it, reread it, then asked a friend to read and we both feel it reads like a sequence of intelligible events rather than a colourful, flowing story. It's difficult to convey the overall tone and thread elements without reading the entire thing (obviously) but I would appreciate any and all observations.

1
Lilly heard her shopping bags tremble in the wind as she released them onto the worn flagstones of Coldharbour Lane. She peered about with sky-grey eyes, combing white strands back beneath her headscarf, expecting a gust to propel children from behind the tall hedges. But then she recalled they didn't really like coming down the lane that often.

The woman wheezed and grabbed her skirt through the Gabardine raincoat. She steered it over her waistline, before crouching to snatch up the fist sized statuette. Carved from some unknown material, the monstrosity was obscured in clay and lay heavy in her callous palm, glaring at her, alert and toothfull.

Now you are a feasome chap, she thought - a real nightmare. Tye will love you.

A window suddenly glowed at the new 'Holms' housing estate. It was coming from number eleven – that was Morris. One of the few incomers to use the monk's trod that passed her home, he would whistle her and stir the air with his walking stick, as though to emphasise the intrusion.

When the wind touched her face with rain, Lilly popped her discovery into a carrier. Late afternoon, everywhere grey, was settling in early and she hadn't much time to prepare for her granddaughter.

Her husband gone and children now parents in their own domains, only Lilly remained in the farmhouse – hidden and isolated within the quiet turns of the ancient hedge-lined trackway.

2
Lily looked about the secluded lane expecting a gust of wind to blow those shrieking children through but she was quite alone with the demon in her hand.

Made of some unknown greenish stone, it was round in shape and reminded her of one of those fossils – St Hilda's snakes they used to call them. Tye would know when she got here. She would tell her grandmother the proper technical name, how old it was, what it ate and everything

It was partly covered in clay. Small enough to fit in her hand it was surprisingly heavy. One of those little townie b****rds must have been playing on the building site to the back of her land.

The last few months saw the houses start to fill up and every family seemed to have at least two children and two cars. They brought cats which would scream while ****ing at night in her farmyard and leave tortured bird corpses by the hedgerow. And they brought dogs that loved to bark and would empty their arses right under your shoe mid-step if they could.

She felt rain and popped the stone in her bag. She still had the walk along the lane and wanted a rest after her shopping. Tye would get here about six.

3
Lilly groanеd when she eased down heavy shopping bags to retrieve the figurine from the narrowing path. Her autumn hazel eyes widened childlike at the monstrosity, partially swaddled in soft, wet clay. Carved from some unknown material, it lay heavy in her palm and glared up at her toothfully and unmoving.

Now you are a feasome chap, she thought - a real nightmare. Tye will love you.

When the raw wind touched her with rain, Lilly blinked and popped her unusual find into a carrier. Late afternoon settled in early, grey everywhere and she hadn't much time to prepare for her granddaughter.

As she walked by, an unlit window suddenly glowed from 'The Holms,' new-build housing, sat on old grazing land. It was number eleven: Morris, the only incomer she'd spoken to.

Infrequently, he would march past her house, whistling behind a silver-white moustache and waving a walking stick above his head, as though she were blind and might miss his performance altogether.

John was no longer alive to share these intrusions. Their children were now parents in their own domains. The Home Owners Alliance couldn't save the land from compulsory purchase, but Lilly had remained in the family home, the farmhouse – isolated, hidden and forgotten within the quiet turns of Coldharbour Lane.


I would like to make it clear I have read the rules and guidelines on critiques and Critiquing Arguments Boxing ring - please book a session and would basically agree with the following -

It's a common thought that the critic is taking out time from their busy schedule to do this and that the author should be maximally thankful for that effort.
Absolutely. Thanks very much.
 
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The Judge

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#2
I know the three extracts are very short, but as ever the software has screwed up the formatting you undoubtedly used. I think it might help to attract readers if there was some spacing between paragraphs within each section -- that would certainly help some of our older members whose poor eyes would welcome some extra space! Since you're outside the hour's window for editing, I've sneaked in to do it for you, which I hope is OK.

I'm meant to be doing something else, so no time for a thorough critique, but I've read through each of the three quickly, and as it stands for me number 3 is the one I prefer. However, I have to say that none of them is quite hitting the spot for me as yet. I think the problem may be that you're too intent on getting backstory in there too early, with details of the neighbours and the chap with the walking stick. I don't know how much these others will feature in the rest of the story, so it's difficult to judge how much space you should give them at this point. Number one for me also falls down a little as it's a bit too long-winded as a start, and the omniscient feel of the second para is at odds with the POV of the first para.

I think if I were writing this, I'd actually start with the line "Now you're a fearsome chap" which I rather liked, and which immediately provokes interest as to who or what is fearsome, and the "chap" gives us a clue about the kind of person thinking/talking. Then I'd have her putting down the shopping and picking it up and the description.

As to POV, if you're happy with it as it is, fine, but I think I'd try and take it a bit closer. So for instance the line "John was no longer alive to share these intrusions" I'd probably write something like "Oh, how she missed John. He'd know how to deal with these intrusions. He'd be spinning in his grave if he could see what had happened after the compulsory purchase order and all the strange new people in their little box houses." Not very good, I know, but instead of telling us baldly he's no longer alive, it's perhaps bringing him into the story a little more naturally, as if she is telling it.

Anyhow, it seems a nice quirky little story you've got here. I look forward to seeing Lily's cat triumphant!
 

Graymalkin

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#3
Thank you. I do appreciate the edit. I realised my error with the paragraphs way too late. Interestingly, version 3 was my first draft. Then 1 then 2.
Your idea of starting with the speech is great. Ditto your POV example to reduce distance. I know I get too easily locked into a specific order of words or group of phrases and seeing your reworking really opens things up for me.

About Lily's cat ... umm that might also require a rethink. Ahem.

Thank you.
 

Plucky Novice

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#9
I definitely prefer number 3 and I would share the observation of others that there is preponderance of adjectives. I form the impression that this is intended to be a somewhat dark and moody setting. If so then perhaps you could bring more focus to developing that feeling in the reader and drop some of the backstory aspects, which could come later if you need them at all. Descriptive elements you want to keep could be portrayed in the context of that scene setting "It sat heavy in her hand, the black stone peeking through the half coating of clay or was it green? It was difficult to tell in the half light as the heavy clouds began to dampen her journey to Coldharbour Lane."

I'm no expert but if you want to draw the reader into the story and have it flow better then maybe this type of approach might help - less information, more feeling.

I hope that is useful and I'd love to read the finished work as it has the makings of a great story.
 
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#10
I think that any one of your versions could work, but they all suffer from sentences that have confusing structures. And I think those sentences knock the reader out of the immediacy of the scene. The number of adjectives is just part of the problem. Here are three examples, but this issue runs throughout the writing:

As she walked by, an unlit window suddenly glowed from 'The Holms,' new-build housing, sat on old grazing land. It was number eleven: Morris, the only incomer she'd spoken to.
This takes some decoding to read. Part of the problem is that "sat on old grazing land" is modifying the phrase "new-build housing" which is modifying "'The Holms'". I don't believe that is proper sentence structure and makes the reader initially read it as "the window sat on old grazing land". The next sentence suggests that number eleven is a building called Morris, but you're talking about a man called Morris.

Lilly heard her shopping bags tremble in the wind as she released them onto the worn flagstones of Coldharbour Lane.
Are the trembling of her shopping bags surprising, contrasting or otherwise interesting to Lilly? Would they not always make that sound when dropped? Is there a reason that hearing them tremble sets the scene or hints at Lilly's state of mind?

She steered it over her waistline, before crouching to snatch up the fist sized statuette.
What fist sized statuette? Is it an object that caused her to drop her bag in the first place? The reader can't tell how she came to know it was there, which makes "The statuette" rather than "a statuette" a distracting choice - the reader may feel that they missed its previous mention and backtrack to look for that information.

Lily looked about the secluded lane expecting a gust of wind to blow those shrieking children through but she was quite alone with the demon in her hand.
Until there actually is a shrieking gust of wind, why would Lilly look for blown children? Wouldn't looking for them be a reaction to a gust? This sentence is supposed to contrast the possible sudden appearance of children with the actual solitude of the Lilly with the demon, but it reads more like a string of three unrelated observations. Maybe some of the problem is tense - if there were children, they would have been blown into the lane by now, rather than "to blow" which is present tense.


If I were you, I'd rewrite all three with an eye towards fixing the confusing lack of flow in many of your sentences so they have more internal logic, then see which version has the best pacing. I would guess you are trying too hard to make these passages interesting by constructing complex sentences of contrasting information. And that's cool, if you can get it to work. But if you can't it would be better to got to short sentences that are more explicit.

I think it is an interesting set up, and I like the descriptors you're using. They just aren't strung together with a firm logic that promotes clarity and flow, and that's screwing up the pacing and sense of place.
 
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Graymalkin

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#11
Thanks for that @Plucky Novice and @Onyx. I appreciate your time.

I form the impression that this is intended to be a somewhat dark and moody setting. If so then perhaps you could bring more focus to developing that feeling in the reader and drop some of the backstory aspects, which could come later if you need them at all.
That is definitely my prefered approach. But the only short story I ever submitted was rejected on the basis that the conflict started too late. So now my internal censor keeps saying 'too slow,' 'it's a short story, there's not enough time for the atmospheric build. Get on with it.' I don't yet have a clear sense of the right pace/balance for this particular 5k story. There is a full initial draft ... :sneaky:

I honestly think the confusing sentence structure is largely down to a weakness in my formal English education. I believe I've read a great deal and sometimes feel I'm trying to emulate writing (styles/grammatical patterns) that I have found memorable, without having fully learnt the rules that produced them in the first place. Trying to feed through simultaneous story threads in order to avoid an episodic feel is clearly another factor.

The specific examples are real food for thought and Onyx summed it up nicely with -
I would guess you are trying too hard to make these passages interesting by constructing complex sentences of contrasting information. And that's cool, if you can get it to work. But if you can't it would be better to got to short sentences that are more explicit.
This is such a helpful experience. I hope to be able to reciprocate with something useful at some point.

Cheers.
 
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#12
I honestly think the confusing sentence structure is largely down to a weakness in my formal English education.
If I wasn't clear, let me address it now: You can write the way you're trying to write. You don't need formal education to build lovely sentences. (Most people with high English proficiency probably get it from lots of reading, high comprehension and vocabulary retention.)

You are trying to develop a sentence style, and you have the right idea and the vocabulary to match. So don't give up on that - just spend some time really thinking about each sentence you've already written and see if you can fix them.

Think about the function of time order in what the sentence presents.

Think about how a comma creates a participial or parenthetical phrase that takes you out of the main sentence, and how the next comma brings you back in: "Jeffrey, who hates water, was standing on the pier." Watch out for stacking those comma'd phrases together "Jeffrey, who hates water, because it is wet, was standing on the pier." The second comma should take us back into the main part of the sentence after the first took us out.

"The" vs "a" - think about whether the character and the reader have a prior relationship to what is being identified. "I went to our boat dock. Jeffrey was standing on the pier." -or- "The shore was interrupted by a pier. Jeff stood on its end."


Consider every complex sentence as its own story and see if it makes sense, or whether you'd want to ask a question to clarify if someone spoke that sentence to you. You are trying to make the sentences mysterious because you are going to reveal what they leave out later, but they need to work in the context of what is known so far, which is why thinking about things like what the main part of the sentence is about as well as cause and effect are so important to get right.

Why don't you pick at least one of your excerpts and refine the sentences without changing the structure?
 
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Graymalkin

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#13
Thanks for your ideas @Onyx
I'll be mulling these responses for a while I think. And then see what comes out the other end. cheers.
 

The Big Peat

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#14
First off, I love the voice. To me, its poetic and evocative, and I feel very drawn into the mind of this ageing woman in a changing world she doesn't care all that much for. I would argue loudly in favour of not losing too many adjectives. It even reminds me a little of Le Carre.

Unfortunately the unpolished nature of the sentence structure and narrative pulled me away. I am no use at solving this sort of thing so I shan't comment too much on that.

What I can comment on is which opening works best and, honestly, I think the answer is none of them. I prefer the first (but am probably old fashioned there) but all of them fall between two stools for me. They don't establish her ordinary life before going on to show it changing - but neither do they start with a big bang. I think you try to start with a big bang, but are too busy trying to establish ordinary life at the same time that it muddies the waters. And I would say pick one and stick with it.

I think the big bang is the best one for a short story and in that case, focus on what she finds and how it makes her feel. Does it matter whether there's a light in the housing estate, or someone passing by? If it doesn't, cut them.
 
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#15
I agree with many of the others... cut a few adjectives and simplify your sentence structure. Like @The Big Peat, I had trouble staying in the story - if it were one 600 word passage, I would not have done so.

And opening with her address to the statue is great - we get the conflict/tension right up front, which is key. If you begin with that, I think it changes the rest of the opening dramatically, so I don't want to invest a lot of time into something you're about to rewrite. Would it make sense to spend more time on the statue right off the bat? I assume the presence of neighbors are a bit less significant than a demon.

I'm struck by the image of the windblown children, but will admit that I don't quite get it. (I assume they are not peculiarly light, so what is going on?)

Do they avoid her because they think she's a witch? (That would be a lovely irony.) I do hope the cat is black.
 

Toby Frost

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#16
I agree with Peat on this one. Excerpts one and three strike me as the best, but I think the very best option would be something that incorporated the best of all three, and felt tighter.

For me, the big event here is "Lilly saw the statue and picked it up". That's the point where the story begins for me, because that's where the significant change to normal events happens. So, I would try to leave out the backstory elements as much as possible (here, at least) and deal with the immediate events. I would also break up some of the sentences, which I think get a bit sprawling and take away some of the immediacy and precision. So, for instance:

Lilly heard her shopping bags tremble in the wind as she released them onto the worn flagstones of Coldharbour Lane.
While "them" in this sentence obviously has to refer to the bags, the slight loss of precision means that by the end of the sentence some of the force of the image has been lost and I'm less sure where this sentence is going.

However, I'm wary of telling you to write in another way. I like your use of words and the things that you've chosen to set the scene: her wrinkled hands, the rain and the rather bleak setting. It reminds me of Clive Barker's Books of Blood.
 

TheEndIsNigh

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#17
I'm a picky s.. person.

Also, some have said in the past I lack courtesy and my critiques are blunt and impolite.

Please be aware that I only have opinions and have no intention of being so.

(you could skip to the summary first)
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Hi. Here are three drafts/versions of a short story opening passage/scene setting of approx 200 words each (about 4% of 5k total word count) and I would appreciate ALL comments and comparisons on feeling for speed of/or lack of, story development, language, and basically which one passes in front of the eyes more easily.

The story centres around Lillie, retired farmer and widow, and her cat, battling a demon in her home. She finds the demon in the form of a fossil/stone. The creature animates, they have a series of encounters, THE END. Very much cat-and-mouse, event oriented.

I thought I'd finished it, left it, reread it, then asked a friend to read and we both feel it reads like a sequence of intelligible events rather than a colourful, flowing story. It's difficult to convey the overall tone and thread elements without reading the entire thing (obviously) but I would appreciate any and all observations.

1
Lilly heard her shopping bags tremble in the wind as she released (put them down - who releases a bag?) them onto the worn flagstones of Coldharbour Lane. She peered about with sky-grey eyes, combing white strands back beneath her headscarf, expecting a gust to propel children from behind the tall hedges (does that ever happen?). But then she recalled they didn't really like coming down the lane that often.

The woman (presumably this is Lily who been named why drop it now?) wheezed and grabbed (hitched up) her skirt through the Gabardine raincoat. She steered it over her waistline, before crouching (bending) to snatch up the fist sized statuette. Carved from some unknown material, the monstrosity was obscured (covered) in clay and lay heavy in her callous palm, glaring at her, alert and toothfull. ?? (obscured and yet not obscured?)

Now you are a feasome chap, she thought - a real nightmare. Tye will love you. (not sure if thinking in this way should be inner speech marked - others may know what's best)

A window suddenly glowed at the new 'Holms' (Is that a colloquialism for homes because it jarred with me - one odd dialected word in a perfectly normal sentence) housing estate. It was coming from number eleven – that was Morris. One of the few incomers to use the monk's trod that passed her home, he would whistle her and stir the air with his walking stick, as though to emphasise the intrusion. (Too many concepts in one sentence for me)

When the wind touched her face with rain,
(I've heard of wind in her face and rain on her face but wind "touching" her face with rain is hard to accept) Lilly popped her discovery into a carrier. Late afternoon, everywhere grey, was settling in early and she hadn't much time to prepare for her granddaughter. (there's something odd about that sentence I suspect it's the "everywhere grey" part that throws me)

Her husband gone and children now parents in their own domains (cyber space?), only Lilly remained in the farmhouse – hidden and isolated within the quiet turns of the ancient hedge-lined trackway. (again too many things going on in one sentence IMO - It's a long winded way of saying she's a widow living alone in a house down a lane)



2
Lily looked about the secluded lane expecting a gust of wind to blow those shrieking children through (through what - and again does this ever happen?) but she was quite alone with the demon in her hand.

(IMO The children just distract from that fact she's got a demon in her hand - they don't get blown and play no further part in the story)

Made of some unknown greenish stone, it was round in shape and reminded her of one of those fossils – St Hilda's snakes they used to call them. Tye would know when she got here. She would tell her grandmother the proper technical name, how old it was, what it ate and everything (what it ate? a stone statuette?)

It was partly covered in clay. Small enough to fit in her hand it was surprisingly heavy. One of those little townie b****rds must have been playing on the building site to the back of her land. (It may be true that the townie B's had been playing on her land, but that just reads as an isolated fact - Presumably the townie B had dropped it here, but from whence, how could she speculate)

The last few months saw the houses start to fill up and every family seemed to have at least two children and two cars. They brought cats which would scream while ****ing at night in her farmyard and leave tortured bird corpses by the hedgerow. And they brought dogs that loved to bark and would empty their arses right under your shoe mid-step if they could. (I'm sensing some issues here with cats and dogs - but I can't remember ever seeing a cats "at it" under the noses of barking dogs)

She felt rain and popped the stone in her bag. She still had the walk along the lane and wanted a rest after her shopping. Tye would get here about six.

3
Lilly groanеd when she eased down heavy shopping bags to retrieve the figurine from the narrowing path. Her autumn hazel eyes widened childlike at the monstrosity, partially swaddled just visible in the soft, wet clay. Digging it free Carved from some unknown material, it lay heavy in her palm, Wiping away the clay it and glared up at her toothfully and unmoving.

Now you are a feasome chap, she thought - a real nightmare. Tye will love you.

When the raw wind touched her with rain, Lilly blinked and popped her unusual find into a carrier. Late afternoon settled in early (late - and yet early?), grey everywhere and she hadn't much time to prepare for her granddaughter.

As she walked by, an unlit window suddenly glowed from 'The Holms,' new-build housing, sat on old grazing land. It was number eleven: Morris, the only incomer she'd spoken to.

Infrequently, he would march past her house, whistling behind a silver-white moustache and waving a walking stick above his head, as though she were blind and might miss his performance altogether.

John was no longer alive to share these intrusions. Their children were now parents in their own domains. The Home Owners Alliance couldn't save the land from compulsory purchase, but Lilly had remained in the family home, the farmhouse – isolated, hidden and forgotten within the quiet turns of Coldharbour Lane.

(see above for comments on domains living alone etc.)

I would like to make it clear I have read the rules and guidelines on critiques and Critiquing Arguments Boxing ring - please book a session and would basically agree with the following -

Absolutely. Thanks very much.
Now, as I said above I can be picky. To me, all three options lack something. If this is a short piece I appreciate you are trying to set a bleak and lonely life of a widow expecting a guest, but I think you're spending too much of your 5K doing it. We have an old lady living alone with a figurine she's found that she's going to show her grand-daughter. Children being blown through hedge and some old geezer in a new house don't seem to fit in, IMO. (unless they're key to the plot of course, in which case get them centre stage)

AND YET, there's something in there that appeals to my miserable side (dominant). Somehow even with all my nit picking I get her. After reading about her three times I could draw her face, her mental attitude and I know for a fact she voted for Thatcher :) Somehow, you paint her wonderfully (if maybe a little long-windedly (no pun). I suspect this tale has promise, and I'm intrigued by where it's going and who's going to end up on the sh--tty end of the stick.

Hope I helped

Tein.

P.S. If I would appreciate any PM feedback on my critique. As I said above, some have in the past not been happy with my curt techniques. If I offend I would like to know - but within the spirit of the none critiquing of critiques of course.
 

Graymalkin

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#18
Hi @TheEndIsNigh and thank you. You have helped. And you've clearly spent time on it. I think your observations/suggestions come over as focused and I sense nothing rude or impolite. I see bluntness as directness in this context, so please feel free to bludgeon any sticky-up nailheads as you see them!

Saying what we mean, as plainly as possible, is particularly important in this limited medium.

@The Big Peat, @SamThomas, @Toby Frost, also gave welcome food for thought. Part of me wants to qualify certain choices and 'explain' stuff but I think I need to just get on with a rewrite and with presenting something for further critique. The wonderful complication is that I now have more censors in my head, instead of just the one.

Hmm ... now about that cat. Heads or tails?
Thanks all.
 

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