Earthwyrms (YA) hopefully no longer embarrassingly poor opening scene, 1200 words

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Smeerp of Wonder
Staff member
Oct 13, 2008
West Sussex, UK
This has gone through several revisions since I last posted it, so although the structure is basically the same, I thought I'd give it another go (and a new thread) as I want to sub it again. All comments welcome. I have one particular question which I'll post after the text.

(Contains bad language.)


Adam hunkered in the long grass by the chain-link fence, peering into the stark light and shadows of the machinery compound. All was still in the breathless May night, only the faint drone of the town’s ring-road breaking the silence. No sign of danger, no reason to pull out. This was it, he realised, nerves tightening his gut. They were going to become criminals.

‘Hope I’m not kneeling in dog sh*t,’ said Rick next to him.

‘Shh!’ hissed Jezz from Rick’s other side. ‘Ad?’ she called softly. ‘Those on the left, you think?’

Three of the earthmoving machines were in near-darkness, missed by the uneven spread of the security light. ‘Makes sense,’ Adam said, trying for the experienced cool of the lead in a Hollywood heist. ‘Even if there’s CCTV, it won’t get our faces.’ Which mattered, because they’d forgotten to bring masks.

Jezz took the bolt cutters from her rucksack and put them to a bottom link of the fence. The gunshot wire-snap jumped Adam with panic, but he clamped down the urge to run for safety.

‘Isn’t there a quieter way in?’ whispered Rick. ‘Like driving a ****ing truck through it?’

Jezz didn’t answer, but cut more links in a vertical line from ground-level up. Adam kept looking round, heart tripping on adrenaline. He was amazed Rick was still here. Rick had never even climbed Doaky — there was no reason the tree would mean anything to him. He must really want to get into Jezz’s pants.

‘Now pull,’ said Jezz. They wrenched up the fence from either side of the bottom of the cut, to make a triangular opening. ‘Rick, you’re biggest, you go first.’

Rick dropped to his front and wriggled though the gap, his jacket snagging a couple of times on the cut wires. Jezz pushed her rucksack through and followed it, Adam bringing up the rear. They skirted the edge of the illuminated patch to reach the shadow of the digger. The air stank of diesel and grease.

‘How much sugar d’you bring?’ whispered Adam, trying to spot the filler cap.

‘Kilo bag,’ said Jezz.

‘One, that’s it?’

‘All Mum had. Don’t sweat, it can’t need much. It makes the fuel turn solid in the engine or something.’

Adam wondered if he should have checked for himself. ‘I’ll search it up,’ said Rick, and reached for his phone.

Don’t, idiot!’ hissed Jezz. ‘The light.’

‘Yeah, but I can — shiiiit …’

The urgency in Rick’s low whisper froze Adam rigid, Jezz too. Rick was staring towards the corner of the compound, by the lane.

A human shape stood there, beyond the fence.

Adam swore silently, and shrank deeper into the digger’s shadow. He and Jezz had worn their black kickboxing pants as camouflage, but he noticed with horror that the satin fabric still showed a faint gloss. He willed it not to be seen as the man in the donkey-jacket trod slowly along the strip of bare ground, a couple of metres outside the compound.

If this was a guard checking the fence, they were screwed — they hadn’t even tried to push the wire back. And now they were trapped in here. Jezz had said that being sixteen, they’d get away with a police caution. Adam had believed it at the time, but now his imagination raced through court appearances, juvenile detention, visits from his distraught mum. As the man approached the break in the fence, he tried to bottle up an urge to pee. Five paces from the gap now. Four, three, two …

The man walked right past it. Thank Christ.

And stopped.

Adam’s muscles tightened, ready for pushing, running, escape. But the man didn’t investigate the fence. Instead two people came from the other direction to meet him: a woman with long pale hair and a dark cagoule, and a man in a leather motorbike jacket with red flashes on the sleeves.

If these were security guards, they were the weirdest-looking Adam had seen.

It got weirder. Leather-jacket got to his knees and began to work at the ground with a small tool, maybe a trowel. Adam strove to see, hardly daring to breathe. After a couple of minutes, donkey-jacket handed the kneeling man something small, and leather-jacket buried it. With the earth tamped back down, he rose to his feet, then the trio stood dead still for minutes. The hairs on Adam’s neck rose at snatches of low-voiced chanting.

At last the newcomers moved off, but only as far as the corner of the compound by the lane, where the whole rigmarole was repeated. They were distant enough now for Adam to risk a whisper.

‘What the hell was that?’

‘F*ck knows,’ Jezz murmured.

‘That thing they buried — you don’t think it was a bomb?’

‘Don’t talk stupid,’ she said. ‘Wait till they’ve gone, then we’ll get on with our thing.’

That could take ages, Adam reckoned, if those people were going to bury several whatever-they-were.

‘Uh, guys?’ breathed Rick, who’d been doing something under his jacket. ‘Says here sugar in a fuel tank does bugger all.’

Adam groaned. ‘You’re joking …’

‘F*ck off!’ whispered Jezz. ‘I’ve heard it loads of times, I’m sure I have.’

‘Urban myth, according to this.’

‘But …’ The catch of confusion and failure in Jezz’s voice stuck a needle in Adam’s heart. He found her shoulder in the darkness and squeezed it.

‘We’d better split,’ he said. ‘They’re moving, look — we’ll be screened by those containers. Quick.’

They crawled through the fence-gap and hurriedly pushed the edges back down, then ran hunched over along the dark field-edge by which they’d come. Adam’s mind swarmed with thoughts enough to fill the night sky: relief that they were out of there, annoyance with Jezz for not researching her plan and with himself for not checking it, pain for that upset in her voice at the end, for knowing how bad she would be feeling. As they slowed to a walk, Rick started gabbing with the excitement of breaking in and nearly getting caught, not caring about failure. Because he didn’t give a flying f*ck about the tree, Adam thought.

‘There’ll be other plans,’ said Jezz at last. More to herself than to them, it sounded like.

‘Hang on, wait.’ Adam stopped. ‘Those three back there — think they might be anti the bypass too?’

‘I’m not asking them,’ said Jezz. ‘Three chanting loons in the dead of night?’

‘Maybe I will,’ said Adam. ‘What if there aren’t other plans? Two more weeks and Doaky’s a pile of sawdust.’

She grabbed his wrist. ‘Ad, they’re nutters. It’s too dangerous. Don’t.’

This wasn’t like her. She’d lost heart, Adam knew. And him going back would make her feel shown up, and if he was honest he was scared to do it. The raid itself had used up his fragile courage.

‘Let’s just go,’ Jezz said, that painful catch again, and she tugged, and they started off through the heavy night, trousers rustling against field-edge plants, sending up pale moths whirring dimly visible, and the smells of green sap. ‘We’ll have another think tomorrow when we’ve got cooler heads. My stress levels were in orbit back there.’

‘I noticed,’ Adam said.

‘I’ve heard pissing in a fuel tank can work,’ said Rick.


The question: I can't recall where, but recently someone (@Toby Frost maybe?) said one good way of starting a story was to show the MC doing whatever they're best at. I can see the sense in that, but here I've almost done the opposite. Is that a mistake?
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I read a version of this yonks ago. I found this held my attention better. The part that got me interested was the section from the appearance of "the human shape" to "f*ck knows". If this was to truly hook me in, I'd prefer it even earlier.
This is a lot better to my mind. It feels more direct, getting to the action more quickly and with less waffle and chit-chat, and I like the extra tension of having the guy approaching the cut fence and counting down the paces. The characters seem better developed this time around, with Adam showing more stress but less jealousy and he feels less passive and spineless -- moving the dog-sh*t fear to Rick was a good idea -- and I like him thinking of the consequences and his poor mum, and Jezz also shows vulnerability which I don't recall from last time. I think it's better, too, for getting them inside and not bolting at the noise of the cutters -- it makes them a bit more go-ahead even though they fail through lack of forward planning (there's teenagers for you).

I do wonder if you could get more unearthliness into the paragraph where the 3 strangers are burying the talisman and chanting, as it's a bit low-key. But yes, overall much better. Well done.

By the way, a couple of missing capital letters for "f*ck" at the beginning of sentences.

EDIT: interesting that it feels shorter, but I see it's actually a good bit longer than the previous version.

Re Toby's comment about having the MC doing something he's good at, it's something that was said to me by an MA student at the Winchester critique group re the beginning of Triune** so it's obviously widespread. I think that, like most advice, it's worth thinking about, but for my money an impactful not-good-at beginning is far better than a do-nothing one which adds nothing to the actual plot. My advice is invariably to get to the inciting moment as quickly as possible, which is what you've done.

** I forebore from pointing out that actually being drunk and waking from a hangover was something Berendt was good at...
By the way, a couple of missing capital letters for "f*ck" at the beginning of sentences.

Ah, that's the autocensor. And when I tried to edit them, I found I couldn't, because in the editing box it reverts to the full word, with a capital F! So I had to actually edit in the asterisks.
I liked this - much more direct, immediate, and straight into it. I loved the way you built up tension in stages with jokes to pull things back slightly before building again.

Just a couple of word choices threw me a little:

A human shape stood there

Would "figure" be too repetitive? Simply because it begs the question of what other shape might have stood there.

Stopped me for a moment to figure out if it's the right spelling, as I don't normally see the word written. Not sure if this will translate well. Might anorak, even coat, be better?

Otherwise, much, much better IMO. :)
Thanks. I think I will replace cagoule, as I now realise it's the most bizarre looking and sounding word ever coined.
I was perfectly happy with cagoule, and knew exactly what was meant -- I've never heard of its being a synonym for balaclava, so I don't know if that's a US thing.

But on reflection, I wonder whether a teenager nowadays would know what a donkey jacket is, so if you're changing anything, I think it should be that one. Perhaps ask a teenager.
Would "figure" be too repetitive?

It's a better word, thanks. Why repetitive, though? It doesn't appear again in this piece.

I wonder whether a teenager nowadays would know what a donkey jacket is, so if you're changing anything, I think it should be that one.

You mean whether a reader would know it, or whether Adam would? I'm not sure a reader would be a problem. If they're curious, they can look it up, and if they're not, well, it's obviously a kind of jacket. As for Adam, you can pick up all kinds of random facts by the time you're sixteen. As long as there aren't so many of them that he seems to be an expert on the 1970s, I hope I'll be OK.

Perhaps ask a teenager.

I hear there are a lot of them on Instagram. I probably stand more chance of getting a response if I pretend to be one myself.
Yes, would Adam know what one was. I can see he might have picked up the word from somewhere, but would he be able to apply it to a specific type of coat and use it to himself at a time of heightened tension? The last time it was probably heard on TV was for Michael Foot at the Cenotaph!
When you say you are looking for comments, do you have any further guidance on what you are looking for?

I mean, are you looking for comments on the story as a whole? Are you looking for comments on this as an opening? Are you looking for comments on something else?

The reason I ask is that I have absolutely no idea what this story is about from what you have posted. It sits very much in a vacuum, which makes it hard to assess as part of an overall story, although it makes it very easy to make critical comments about (which I'm not going to do because I don't think that that would help you).

In terms of your question, about showing the MC doing what they are good at first. I would take this particular piece of "advice" with a grain of salt (or possibly an enormously hefty dose of salt). For example, this weekend the Marvel movie "Dr Strange" was shown on TV (in the UK). The opening goes through a fight sequence I didn't really follow and then we see Dr Strange doing what he is good at - which is brain surgery. We get 20ish minutes of him doing brain surgery. Honestly, I couldn't have been more bored at this point. My boredom generally continued as the film attempted to be funny by being anti-climactic until we reached Strange's final solution to the conflict - which was actually very clever and, for me, that was the most interesting part of the movie.

My point is that where you start is not nearly as interesting as where you might be going. In your YA novel, of what may be 70,000 words (or may be some other wordage), the first 1,200 words aren't going to stand out that much. Beginnings are boring. The Lord of the Rings starts with a birthday party. A birthday party, for crying out loud. It has no relevance to the rest of the plot. Pick any other book that you like, the beginning isn't necessarily that interesting or important. What is important is where the reader thinks you're going.

However, if you want a view on your beginning, then I think it's inconsistent. I get a strong feeling for the characters and their relationship with each other. I have no real visualisation of the setting (because there's little real description of the setting) and when the heroic trio exit through the fence I didn't follow why the chanting trio on the outside can't see them. Probably because there's little physical description of the setting. (Damn it, I've made a critical comment. Feel free to ignore it completely.)
When you say you are looking for comments, do you have any further guidance on what you are looking for?

The most important thing would be anything that doesn't work.

Pick any other book that you like, the beginning isn't necessarily that interesting or important. What is important is where the reader thinks you're going.

That's an interesting way of looking at it, and not one I've seen put like that before. I'm not sure I agree, personally -- I'm sure I've enjoyed books where I haven't been able to tell where it was going from the opening, and been put off by dull openings even where the direction of the story seemed promising. An opening needs a hook, and a suggestion of interesting things to come is one hook, but not the only one. (As for what the hook is here, I'd hope it's that the characters might be worth spending more time with, combined with the mystery of what the others are burying and the suggestion of ritual. But it could be different for others, and for some there won't be one.)

Your point about the lack of physical description is a fair one, though in my experience it's difficult with anything bit a very simple layout to get more than a small %age of readers to visualise it "accurately". In this case, I'd hoped that the comment about the containers would be enough to cover the idea that they can escape unseen.

Good point about the beginning of Dr Strange. (Actually I thought the solution didn't work -- it was meant to be taking place outside time, yet it still relied on things happening in sequence. How do you speak in sentences when all the words happen at once?)
I’m musing, not ignoring the thread. There are a few things niggling but I’m not sure why yet because the scene works okay I think. Which means it’s likely something about the characters.

I’ll try to be more useful anon.
Hunkered. I like that word. Think I'll say it again. Hunkered. Rolls off the tongue like pre-dawn light rolling off the blued-steel barrel of a shotgun as you wait in the bull-rushes on the first day of duck season. Hunkered down so the little buggers don't see ya 'til it's too late.


"The gunshot wire-snap jumped Adam with panic," This pulled me out of the story--the idea that a wire-snap can actively jump a person. I get the idea but it made me pause to think.

"This wasn’t like her. She’d lost heart, Adam knew. And him going back would make her feel shown up, and if he was honest he was scared to do it. The raid itself had used up his fragile courage." Too much internal dialogue for my taste (others may disagree). That's a fair bit of analysis and reflection for someone who's in the middle of their first felony act.

I'm torn about the chanting trio. I'd like a wee bit more about them but, if that slows down the scene too much, I'm also willing to wait. Just don't make me wait too long.

Finally, in re to your question, I think starting with a character weakness or failing can also be effective. The difficulty is in giving the reader a reason to root for or be interested in the character despite the failing. I think you achieve that with two tricks: first, the characters have a reason that the reader can relate to (saving something they treasure) and, second, they don't seem ready to give up, despite their failure. (Okay, that's a little up in the air but their mixed emotions make them believable.)

I like it. Especially "hunkered".
This pulled me out of the story--the idea that a wire-snap can actively jump a person. I get the idea but it made me pause to think.

Ah, is this like those "few odd turns of phrase" you spotted in TGP? I think I sometimes take risks with "creative" phrasing, looking for that perfect expression of what I mean. Maybe I should curb that a bit.
Minor nit-pick :-
With it being so dark they could just make out human shapes, and the cagoule only showed up as dark coloured, would they actually be able to spot red flashes on the biker jacket?
At dusk and at low-light levels, your eyes gradually move toward scotopic vision where the rods take over and influence your vision. So as your eyes do this shifting from cone to rod influenced vision, your eyes become more sensitive to shorter-wavelength light and light nearer to the blue and green end of the spectrum is enhanced. This sensitivity to shorter wavelengths is called the Purkinje shift.
Now, given that it's night time and that your eyes have undergone dark adaptation, it becomes harder to see colours of longer wavelengths courtesy of the Purkinje shift, making it harder to see shades of red at night
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I enjoyed it, although I did feel that you could get the first paragraph to the point a little faster.

The swearing is a bit inconsistent - you've got an unstarred "shiiiiiit", some "f*cks" and a "****ing". If that's just done for the forum then it's not a big deal, but if it's for the story you probably need to find a consistent censorship style.

"trying for the experienced cool of the lead in a Hollywood heist." was trying a bit too hard for me. Brought me out of immersion.

I really liked the phrase "bottle up an urge to pee." Good imagery, haha!
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