SF novella opening, radically revisioned (1300 words)

luriantimetraveler

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First — thanks to all who provided such thoughtful feedback on my last stab at this story. I tried a few other ways in to that particular voice, and didn't make it very far, so I went back to the drawing board. This much different story is what is emerging, and I'd particularly appreciate feedback on:
  • Places to trim "info-dumps"
  • What is either confusing or exciting about the world-building
  • Places to strengthen character voice

Thanks in advance!

****


There was always a fight to be had at Angela’s, where no one was squeamish about me being a woman, and no one knew who I was, what I did. Train runner, Charon, industrialized ferryman — ferrywoman. Reaper.

The closest thing I could think of to Angela’s was how they showed Wild West saloons in the old Earth movies, although I think only us off-worlders have ever seen those movies, us born on Genesis before Council officially transitioned to the surface. Angela’s was some strange hybrid of bar, temple, and sports arena, halfway up a mountain on the southern tip of the continent. The town, Eihji, was my half-way point, where my train gently pivoted north again, part full of salt-packed bloomed bodies. It was because Eihji was on a mountain, at altitude, that I didn’t have to wear a mask, and could almost pass for one of them — surface-born. The higher oxygen saturation in the grasslands and the northern forests gave us off-worlders headaches, like the oxygen was an overfull river carving its way through our brains. That’s what we got for being born and mostly raised in low ox-sat space.

I left the loading of the train in the hands of the kadisha, those locals assigned or forced or volunteered to tend the bloomed in their iso-wards: every settlement did it differently. Third daughters or petty criminals or, in one community, a single family, generation after generation emptying bedpans and changing sheets and administering pain meds. Here, in Eihji, the kadisha were mostly second sons and daughters — trading care for the bloomed for goods from across the continent, delivered on the train that followed me. I didn’t stay to watch, although it was protocol to do so — to double check the inventory of rough wooden boxes full of coarse sparkling salt and desiccated bodies — no, I wanted Angela’s, wanted the fire of moonshine thrown back, wanted the touch of a fight: hard, fast, out of control.

I wanted it like water, like air, which is a bad spot to be in: needing anything or anyone like that. They’re supposed to pick us runners, use psychological and genetic profiling — to weed out the weak, people prone to loneliness. Either they read my profile wrong, or running the train had gotten to me — a decade of runs, a decade of running, a decade of the dead.

Angela’s remained the same: smell of lumber and sweat, skylights flooded patches of the floor and left the corners dark, the rope-woven enclosure at the center of the room.


Another off-worlder brought me the first time, my first run through Eihji: it was the end of fire season and everyone was happy to be breathing good air again. Bordo, the other off-worlder, met me at the train, said he’d known my predecessor, had something I might be interested in.

He was tall, like all of us, with a shaved head. He didn’t have mask calluses on his cheeks, so either he lived in Eihji and the mountains full time, or he just suffered through the lowland headaches. He laid an offering on the bar, took a carved oak gall from the bartender and placed it in a globe at the center of the room, returned to the bar to throw back a glass of moonshine. His carved gall was pulled first, against a thickset local, chosen by chance. They stomped and bowed inside a rope enclosure at the center of the room.

And then they went after each other, Bordo and the other man — fists and knees, feet and skulls — blood and sweat and spit, until Bordo won — his long leg arching through the air to make contact with the other man’s temple so that he swayed and took a single questioning step before falling to the rush-covered floor.

My glass of sour wine burned in my throat — only fighters drank moonshine. As Bordo made his way back to me, I replayed the fight, felt in my mind each blow — each moment of contact. I could not remember the last time someone had touched me, I had touched someone else. And then I did remember: hugging Noah, brother, twin, second self.

Bordo was gone the next season I rolled in, but I found my way to Angela’s, worked up the nerve to give an offering, had my ass handed to me in the ropes by a thin man with fire-fast punches. And I kept coming back: twice a year when my run turned south in the mountains, I was there. Ready to fight.

You’ve got to understand — I was twice the other: once as off-worlder, and again as a runner, a Charon. Sure, we knew how to contain the bloom — the sick isolated, the dead packed in salt and ferried away on my train twice a year, to be disposed of in the north — although I bet most of them didn’t know what that meant, didn’t want to know. To most of them I was another arm of the train, of the dead, of the bloom: those furls of angry red, bruised purple, noxious orange — clusters of fungus first on skin, and later in the throat, stoppering speech, and then the lungs, fluttering the breath into stillness — and all along, in the brain, the parasitic wings arcing through the delicate folds of the mind — the bloom, which, if buried, spread from body to earth, climbing across trees, shrubbery and crops, into the wildlife and and livestock alike.


I laid my offering on the bar: a clay jar of oil from the foothills.

The bartender, a tall woman with a crown of braids, shook her head, pushed the jar back towards me, and said, “You can’t fight here, Reaper. It would profane what we do here.” She gestured towards two men inside the ropes, their bare feed slapping the rushes as they prepared to fight.

Need bubbled in me. For connection, for release, for an unleashing of that part of me that stayed bound up through the long miles and months of running.

Just for a second I imagined raising the jar of oil and throwing it at the man next to me — the fight that would follow: uncontrolled, breaking tables and chairs and bottles and bones.

Instead, I said, “How did you know me?”

The bartender shrugged. “One of the kadisha thought he saw you here before, but it doesn’t matter — you are known here now.”

Something closed in her face — closed the way all faces were when I was known, when they knew me as a runner. Reaper, she’d called me. Charon, others said. Outsider. In one of the northern settlements, they called the runners “rootless,” although I don’t know if they used that for all off-worlders or just us runners. We didn’t belong on this earth.

“Keep it,” I gestured at the oil, and walked out — knowing it would be a problem: what to do with an offering from a Reaper? I stalked through town, kicked up the fine, dry mountain dust, focused on keeping my breathing measured, not getting too much air.

I approached the train, my train: thirty black cars stretching well beyond the simple platform of the station, each car roofed in solar panels that fed a bank of batteries housed in their own carriage at the end, all of it headed by the engine and my living quarters.

“Are you done?” I asked a red-haired kadisha who stood spitting seed hulls on the platform. Two other kadisha emerged from a carriage with heavy bags of salt.

The red-haired kadisha straightened. “Two more to load, ma’am.”

I grunted and made for the engine. I wanted to be gone, wanted to be moving again, because at least when I was running — I really was alone —with only the salt-packed corpses, and I knew their blank expressions had nothing to do with me.
 

HareBrain

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I'm not really a SF reader, much more fantasy, so treat this in that light, but I found this very dense and hard to get into. As well as all the new terminology, I think what made me keep bouncing off it was not being able to get inside the character at a particular place and time. I'll come to that in a bit, but first, the introduction, which I think needs to have some of the information trimmed, as your question suggests you instinctively know.

There was always a fight to be had at Angela’s, where no one was squeamish about me being a woman, and no one knew who I was, what I did. Train runner, Charon, industrialized ferryman — ferrywoman. Reaper.

The closest thing I could think of to Angela’s was how they showed Wild West saloons in the old Earth movies, although I think only us off-worlders have ever seen those movies, us born on Genesis before Council officially transitioned to the surface.

The bits in red for me are are too much. I think "who I was and what I did" is intriguing, and it's not necessary to answer the mystery straight away, especially with new terms that make us think "oh dear, do I have to remember this?"

With a bit of trimming and rearranging, I would edit the opening down to this:

There was always a fight to be had at Angela’s, where no one was squeamish about me being a woman, and no one knew who I was and what I did. Angela’s was some strange hybrid of bar, temple, and sports arena, halfway up a mountain on the southern tip of the continent. The closest thing I could think of was how they showed Wild West saloons in the old Earth movies. [From this point on I've left it alone] The town, Eihji, was my half-way point, where my train gently pivoted north again, part full of salt-packed bloomed bodies. It was because Eihji was on a mountain, at altitude, that I didn’t have to wear a mask, and could almost pass for one of them — surface-born. The higher oxygen saturation in the grasslands and the northern forests gave us off-worlders headaches, like the oxygen was an overfull river carving its way through our brains. That’s what we got for being born and mostly raised in low ox-sat space.

I think something like that gives good intrigue and a few nice world-building details, and flavour, without overwhelming the reader.

Then you go on to this:

I left the loading of the train in the hands of the kadisha,

And I wasn't sure whether this was talking in general or in a specific occasion, the occasion of the story. I wanted it to be the latter but it turns out to the former, and continues being the former for some time -- to the point where even when you talk about "the first time", I'm not sure if the story is going to start now or if it's just talking in a general reminiscence way. In non fiction, I would probably not be so bothered as in fiction, and that might be just me, so see what others say. But for my taste, I think all this worldbuilding (apart from maybe a short intro) would be better drip-fed into it once we're involved with a particular person doing particular things at a particular moment.

You might be thinking here, "Ah, he wants it written like a third-person story", and to an extent I think that's true. First person (past tense) allows a lot of licence for diversion and exposition, because the narrator's time-zone isn't the story's time-zone. I think it's easy to let this go too far.

I should say, though, the world seems very well thought out.
 

paranoid marvin

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I would tend to agree with Harebrain in that I think it is better to ease the reader in rather than have to remember too many unfamiliar terms.

Have you considered opening with the fight scene and then working back a bit? This way you show what Angelo's is like before telling the reader. So for example (I've highlighted the initial changes):


Bordo laid an offering on the bar, took a carved oak gall from the bartender and placed it in a globe at the center of the room, then returned to the bar to throw back a glass of moonshine. His carved gall was pulled first, against a thickset local, chosen by chance. They stomped and bowed inside a rope enclosure at the center of the room.

And then they went after each other, Bordo and the other man — fists and knees, feet and skulls — blood and sweat and spit, until Bordo won — his long leg arcing through the air to make contact with the other man’s temple so that he swayed and took a single questioning step before falling to the rush-covered floor.

This was Angela's: part bar, part temple, part fighting-pit. A place where no-one knew who you were or cared what you did. A place for people like me.


I *think* it should be 'arcing' rather than 'arching', and the place you describe sounds more like a place for fighting rather than general sport. It kind of fits in more with the description of a Wild West saloon. You could then go back and say who Bordo is and his relationship to the narrator.
 

Wayne Mack

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I felt confused as to what was important and what was merely filler. Is the fight club bar really a key to the story? Will it ever be revisited? I am guessing at where the story will be going, but perhaps a better starting point would be:
I approached the train, my train: thirty black cars stretching well beyond the simple platform of the station, each car roofed in solar panels that fed a bank of batteries housed in their own carriage at the end, all of it headed by the engine and my living quarters.

“Are you done?” I asked a red-haired kadisha who stood spitting seed hulls on the platform. Two other kadisha emerged from a carriage with heavy bags of salt.

The red-haired kadisha straightened. “Two more to load, ma’am.”

I grunted and made for the engine. I wanted to be gone, wanted to be moving again, because at least when I was running — I really was alone —with only the salt-packed corpses, and I knew their blank expressions had nothing to do with me.

This to me starts telling the story. The one confusing detail to me is the term kadisha. It could perhaps be omitted at this point, or at least explained. I would also assume that, in this context, it would be a proper noun and hence capitalized.
 

sule

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My personal feeling was that this piece was stretched a little too thin with all the world-building being packed in. The early parts I felt should have focused more on the bar and what it meant to the main character; there were a few too many digressions in the first couple of paragraphs that distracted me as a reader.

It also seemed to me that the payoff of the scene (her not being allowed to fight) felt a bit anti-climactic. It was established how much this matters to the main character, and then when the bartender refuses her offering it felt like her reaction was muted. The bartender's lack of emotion also played into the anti-climactic feeling of it; personally, I thought it might have made more sense for whoever recognizes her or delivers the news to be much more emotional or aggressive about it, considering that it's been established the main character is basically an Untouchable. My personal feeling was that there should have been a more emotional reaction from both sides of it (unless, of course, the lack of emotion is part of the worldbuilding in which case that should be made more apparent).

I think this piece definitely has potential as a good opening for a story. Keep writing.
 

luriantimetraveler

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Thank you for all the thoughtful, encouraging, and useful feedback!

@HareBrain : This was exactly the kind of editorial critique I was hoping for. I actually think you're on to something with the idea of 3rd person — her voice in 1st isn't flowing smoothly, so perhaps 3rd will keep me more focused on the action (rather than meandering so much)

@paranoid marvin : Thank you for taking the time to read. Yes to both arcing (not arching...he's not building an arch with his foot :LOL: ) and the suggestion to start with more action. Despite my best efforts, I think this was a useful world-building draft, rather than a storytelling draft, which of course doesn't make for great fiction.

@Wayne Mack : Yes — you put your finger on where the story really began to start for me (as writer), and I just need to suck it up and cut all the meandering that got me there (but which the reader doesn't need).

@sule : Thank you for the encouragement and the read on how much emotion is going into it. I think Wayne Mack actually picked up on some of the problem there: not enough stakes. I'll keep that feedback in mind as I keep going.
 

Aquilonian

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I thought the writing was very skilful and expressive, I especially liked the description of how the bloom progresses, a lyrical description of something evidently horrifying and disgusting.

I actually thought this piece struck the right balance between two requirements, namely:

(1) Helping the reader to connect emotionally with the central character by letting us share her feelings about stuff she already knows and therefore doesn't describe to herself in detail, and

(2) Showing us enough of her backstory and the world she lives in for us to get a basic grasp on her situation as it pertains to (1) but without over-explaining everything at once in a massive info-dump.

For me I have to care about the character from page one to motivate me to go on reading. If I can get interested in her as a person then I'll persist in reading long enough for her background details to unfold in a natural way.

For the time being it's enough to know that she's in some ways a natural loner but who also needs some connection, including physical connection, and that her aloneness is intensified by her peculiar status as a kind of taboo'd person doing a job that needs doing but that causes her to be shunned by others.
 

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