Kill The President, Again [1]

Mon0Zer0

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Greetings Chronners!

This is the opening extract from the first chapter of Kill The President, Again. I'm specifically interested in if this starts strong enough to hold the reader's interest. This has been quite a tricky opening to write - I know the broad outline of the plot but I've had trouble finding the right place to drop the reader in.

Quick note - although this is based around an election, and there are mentions of specific parties, this isn't intended to be critical of any one party or even about party politics or anything like that. I hope that comes across here.

I feel like character and dialogue are particularly tricky for me, but any comments would be warmly received!

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I. Wraiths of Harlem



When Noah got back from the job it was after sunset and the street was in almost complete darkness, save for the street lights by the depot entrance. A small crowd of day labourers haunted the sidewalk, lolling on the crumbling stoops of vacant brownstones or standing in line for the automatic soup kitchen.

The air was ripe with the usual downtown stink, all the stronger for having been in the perfumed confines of a plush model twelve driverless car. Harlem’s rotten sewers were the by-product of years of neglect by design. After all, what was the point in repairing infrastructure for a neighbourhood that hadn’t housed a living soul in fifteen years? Every surviving former occupant was now a resident of one of the many city run communes and poorhouses dotting the satellite districts north of Harlem’s Limbo.

To the south, the Afterlife loomed large over the Manhattan skyline, clearly visible even from this distance. It’s spire shaped superstructures pierced the night sky like a gothic cathedral made of steel, glass and neon. It had always struck Noah as perverse that the dead district was perpetually filled with light and motion, while everywhere else was darkness and decay.

It was election season and every advertising hoarding on Long Island had become a frontline in the battle to turn the nation red or blue. No more so than the area from Limbo down to the Afterlife, where it seemed endless amounts of money had been spent capturing all available space for the cause. This year the battle was expected to be particularly hard fought as, for the first time in history, the republicans were fielding a dead presidential candidate. This had caused some consternation amongst their rivals who were deeply worried about the outcome. They used to say death and taxes were life’s only certainties, but since the arrival of the Afterlife, a new one had emerged: The dead always vote in record numbers.

As Noah stepped out of the car, he was greeted by whoops, hollers and wolf whistles from his fellow labourers. A model twelve in Limbo was a rare thing, indeed. The guys would be busting his balls for weeks.

It had been a long day coding and as tired as Noah was he didn’t feel like heading back to the commune just yet. His employers had fed him round five and it had only just gone nine so he didn’t feel hungry, but, still, he had a mind not to let the chance of a free meal go to waste. Who knows when he’d get the chance of another.

The line for the soup kitchen was about ten long, but it moved swiftly. You tapped your ID to the screen and a bowl of thick white paste was dispensed from the machine. The gloop was a nutrient dense liquid resembling chicken soup but with none of the taste. With successive tax cuts, this was all the city could afford to feed its fifty thousand remaining residents.

Noah had just used his coupon when a firm hand on his shoulder startled him. He turned to find a middle aged man with a pale complexion and a shock of red hair receding in the way you never see in real life. The street lights cast strong shadows across the man’s brow making his features look drawn and corpse-like.

“Well la-de-da if it ain’t the prince of New York city,” said the man, his voice nasal and piercing with more than a trace of Boston.

It took a moment until realisation dawned, then Noah grabbed the man’s hand and shook it warmly, “Petey! I didn’t recognise you. What you still doin’ here?”

“Well, I been waiting for my magic carriage all day, but looks like it got lost on the New Jersey turnpike.”

The vending machine dropped a bowl into the server slot and began to fill with mush. Once full, a ghostly face popped up on the view screen and said “Have a nice day!” with the kind of vapid wide-mouthed smile that only the dead could muster. Noah picked up his bowl and waited for Pete Nolan to get served, but Pete motioned to say he’d already used his coupon. They headed kerbside to take a seat and as they walked Noah took in Pete’s appearance.

Pete had lost a lot of weight since Noah had seen him last. Tattered and frayed clothes hung loosely on his frame and he took weak steps, limping almost imperceptibly. His skin was bloodless and pale, and you could almost see the muscles and tendons wasting away underneath; his arms were so thin his wrist bones jutted out from beneath oversize sleeves.

Noah had known Pete for nigh on five years, ever since he’d started coming to the depot. He’d learned to code through the portals installed in the commune by the Mitra institute. Although he’d excelled in a Self Orientated Learning Environment, there were still gaps in his knowledge that Pete had gladly covered in the long days when work was scarce and there was nothing to do except hang about and brush up on theory. Back in those days Pete was a force of nature, always quick to roast or pick you up with a crude joke. Now, he was quite literally half the man he used to be. The twinkle in his eye had been replaced by weariness and hunger.

They took a seat at the roadside, perched on the kerb with their legs in the road. Noah put the spoon to his lips.

“So no luck, huh?” he said and then took a mouthful of gruel. Pete’s eyes were fixed on the spoon.

“Not a bite,” he said, “I ain’t worked in almost two weeks.” Two weeks was a long time to live on nothing but mush, even if it was regular – which it never was.

“Too bad, man. Too bad.” Noah placed the spoon back into the bowl and stirred mindlessly. “Say, where you been? I ain’t seen you in forever.”

“Eh, the city moved us over to Melrose – you know the commune on Third? Now I gotta walk an hour just to get over here.”

An hour’s walk, in his condition? That was rough. It was bad enough getting here from Washington Heights on foot and that was just a few blocks. “You should get yourself down to Claremont, they'd fix you up for sure.” said Noah.

“Claremont? They closed that place down last year. Harlem’s the only depot this side of the Afterlife.”

“No chance of relocating?”

“About as much as he has of being president.” Noah nodded towards a billboard across the street bearing a picture of the democratic hopeful, Solomon Gulp. A broad smile with perfect white teeth that spoke of apple pie summers and chilli cookouts; a jutting chin raised up and to the right in the traditional American manner symbolising hope for the future. Someone had graffitied the words ‘LIFE IS FOR THE LIVING’ across the advert in four feet high letters.
 

AnRoinnUltra

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Works for me, the election doesn't feel central -the whole undead thing looms large and that's what I took away from it; it was easy to read ...Solomon Gulp, class name, he's got my vote! Nice work, think there's one or two technical things in there but I'm not the one to pick them out. I enjoyed it anyway.
 

msstice

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It's a little confusing and some of the hints are a bit subtle. Nothing much is happening - it seems like a decent way to world build and fill in backstory, but I suspect some more action would be good.
 

Mon0Zer0

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It's a little confusing and some of the hints are a bit subtle. Nothing much is happening - it seems like a decent way to world build and fill in backstory, but I suspect some more action would be good.

Hi, thanks for the comment. Are you able to clarify which bits were confusing for you?
 

msstice

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I initially assumed The Afterlife was a club. It's fine if this was the intended effect. It's fine if the two characters are zombies and we are only meant to find that out later, but overall I felt a bit distant from everything. The caveat is that I'm not a zombie/horror fan, so things typical of this genre will go over my head. Sorry I can't pin point it and be helpful.
 

Mon0Zer0

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The caveat is that I'm not a zombie/horror fan, so things typical of this genre will go over my head. Sorry I can't pin point it and be helpful.


Hi, this is actually good feedback. It's not a zombie or horror story, but I can understand why you might think that. The takeaway is that I need to clarify there is nothing supernatural about the "dead".
 

DanielOwen

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Hi, so this all made sense to me, but it's not much of a hook in terms of actual story. There's a lot of setting backstory - the dead have returned to the world somehow and have been returned in such a way that they are a part of everyday life; the afterlife is real and physically present, as is Limbo. Inequality is even more out of control than in our real present and work is sporadic, unreliable and low-paid, to the point that even skilled programmers are working hand-to-mouth by the day and living on basic handouts.

This whole section mostly seems to be a character reflecting on the backstory of the setting, first by examining his neighbourhood and then by examining his friend, another programmer/hobo who is even more down on his luck. They have a bit of conversation about how dreadful everything is and that's it.

You asked specifically if this starts strong enough to hold interest; for me it's a no. Nothing happens except setting exposition. I don't even feel like I have a good handle on Noah (presumably the main character?) except as a viewpoint for social commentary, and no sense of what specific problem he might be facing except the relentless, grinding poverty that seems to be a general feature of the setting. Don't get me wrong, the afterlife being a real geographic feature and the dead having major sway in contemporary politics is a cool idea and doubtless has a lot to offer, but for my money we need a better sense of the character through which we're going to be accessing all of this. At the moment, Noah doesn't seem to have an opinion on anything; he just tells us things matter-of-factly, which makes him a bit of a dull narrator.

If you're struggling for a place to start the story, it feels like it needs to be later than this. I'm a big fan of starting at the last possible moment you can for it all to make sense - you can feed in backstory and context as you go once we're in. Starting with a load of backstory means the reader has to wade through exposition to get to the actual story, and that's sort of what this feels like. What's the inciting incident for your story? Whatever it is, I'd say start closer to it. Maybe in the middle of it, or even after it.

With that all said, a couple of more specific things about the text:
When Noah got back from the job it was after sunset
This has Noah getting back from wherever he's been and exploring the sights and smells of his neighbourhood 'having been in...a model twelve driverless car' but then four paras later...
As Noah stepped out of the car,
This is a bit of a lurch. It feels like he gets back home twice, once to a quiet sunset street and once to whooping and hollering. Also, the description of the day labourers has them 'haunting' the place and standing in lines for the automatic soup kitchen, but then whooping and shouting when someone comes back from doing a job. Seems incongruous somehow.

I don't mind the dialogue; the characters' voices are maybe a bit generic, but that's fine and can be polished up later. I'd be tempted to keep the dialogue and chop out the exposition paragraphs - we find out about wage poverty, communal living, automated soup kitchens, work scarcity, all of that from the dialogue. It even takes us a bit into the politics of the situation. Pete is a much better way of examining the setting than to have Noah run through it all in his head, and it gives us a specific handle on it all. Just having Noah tell us "Petey's story was one repeated a thousand, maybe a million times over in the shadows of manhattan" or something similar will get us there.

In conclusion: keep the characters and develop them; ditch the exposition and work it in as you go. There is clearly an interesting idea at the core of this, but I think you need a more developed character by which to access it and more of a story hook to grab an audience's interest. Hope this is helpful and best of luck going forward!
 

Wayne Mack

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I like the dystopian setting and there is a lot of good descriptive text.

This is a double edged sword, as I did not feel that I got to know either of the characters nor much about the plot line. I felt buried in the world building. The most interesting section, to me, were the lines,
This year the battle was expected to be particularly hard fought as, for the first time in history, the republicans were fielding a dead presidential candidate. This had caused some consternation amongst their rivals who were deeply worried about the outcome. They used to say death and taxes were life’s only certainties, but since the arrival of the Afterlife, a new one had emerged: The dead always vote in record numbers.
Perhaps, lead with that thought and start with Noah watching the nominating convention. A political fight between a living and a dead candidate would be unusual enough to draw me in as a reader. Alternately, given the title of the book, perhaps start with killing the president for the first time.

Note: The names of political parties would be proper nouns and should be capitalized.
 

Mon0Zer0

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Thanks @DanielOwen and @Wayne Mack for your comments. I'm having trouble finding the right protagonist for the story, too.


The most interesting section, to me, were the lines,

Perhaps, lead with that thought and start with Noah watching the nominating convention. A political fight between a living and a dead candidate would be unusual enough to draw me in as a reader. Alternately, given the title of the book, perhaps start with killing the president for the first time.

Those lines were the initial spark for the idea in a completely different draft.

Opening with the first "killing" is a good idea!

Back to the drawing writing board...
 

DanielOwen

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I'm having trouble finding the right protagonist for the story, too.

Have you considered using multiple intersecting POV characters instead of a single protagonist? A story that runs through the depths of urban poverty and the heights of political privilege might be accessed best by characters who live separately in those worlds. Their experiences and opinions of one another's realities could help create some contrast via differing viewpoints.

I'd also suggest that Pete from the sample above is a better viewpoint character than Noah. He has more problems and is deeper into the mire of systemic poverty; Noah seems to be keeping his head above water, and is consequently less immediately interesting and less in danger. Through Pete, you can examine the poverty trap from inside and really get into the meat of how humiliating it is to live on handouts while trying to maintain a cheerful, friendly facade as his body literally disintegrates from not being able to afford food.

Opening with the first "killing" is a good idea!

Agree, this is a very good idea. Big bang to start off with, and sets up the narrative plus ties in with the title. Also gives us an immediate big event to experience through the lens of the POV character(s) and establish their opinions, positions, politics, etc.
 

PadreTX

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For me, I did have problems holding the interest until the conversation started between Noah and Pete. At that point it became easier to have interest.

It was confusing at first to understand the setting at the beginning.
small crowd of day labourers haunted the sidewalk,
I did not know if that meant ghosts, New Yorkers, or both. I'm guessing New Yorkers.

My bias is start introducing the reader to Noah. After that describe the setting that could be easily understood.

Quick note - although this is based around an election, and there are mentions of specific parties, this isn't intended to be critical of any one party or even about party politics or anything like that. I hope that comes across here.
the republicans were fielding a dead presidential candidate
democratic hopeful, Solomon Gulp. A broad smile with perfect white teeth that spoke of apple pie summers and chilli cookouts; a jutting chin raised up and to the right in the traditional American manner symbolising hope for the future.
It already looks critical that the Republicans have to field a dead candidate, while the Democrat looks lively.

One thing to be wary though. With using ghosts as characters, we just recognized the twentieth anniversary of September 11th. You don't want to present the story in a way that appears insensitive. Hopefully I explained that correctly.

Nevertheless, the plot is original. Congratulations.
 

HareBrain

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It had always struck Noah as perverse that the dead district was perpetually filled with light and motion, while everywhere else was darkness and decay.
Struck me that this might make a good and intriguing opening line (though you might have to capitalise Dead District to make it clear it's not just a district that's been abandoned or whatever).

Otherwise I think you've prioritised background over character (by which I mean his actions/feelings/thoughts in this moment). Unless the background is spectacularly absorbing, I find this rarely works, and even when it does it works best in small doses.
 

Deke

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As a reader (I’m not up to critique the actual writing at this point, just plot) I agree with the earlier mention of starting off with the politicians squaring off to hook your reader. I’m not sure if the forum stripped your formatting or you haven’t gotten to it yet, but I would have benefitted as the reader with the story being broken up into the proper paragraphs.

As for what I liked, I was feeling the crush of the city and the dystopian vibes, the bit with the soup dispenser helped a lot with the world you were trying to build. Also Pete is a great character to convey that desperation and degradation, so well done there.
 

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