Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Historical Opening

This is one of the long-lost openings hiding in our mailbag. The author tells us it's historical fiction set in the western United States, about the erosion of Spanish power and the expansion of American colonial influence.

Young Kincaid hunkered with the slave in a narrow band of shade in a dry creek bed. A stiff breeze drove the hot breath of the desert against the lad’s skin, drawing moisture from his body and torturing his thirst. *A man could lose his mind for want of water,* he thought, *any would do. Cool sips from the spring back home or even slurps from a buffalo wallow.*

The asterisks are mine and are meant to indicate where the author italicized the text.

First Impressions

This opening does a lot of things right. We get a clear sense of time and space, and we are introduced to a point of view character in the very first words. There's a problem (thirst), with the hint of a bigger problem (why are they in a creek bed in the first place?), and there's enough of a question in my mind that I would keep reading.

But I would be watching out for overwriting. I'm already worried about that tendency overshadowing the story.

Breaking It Down

Young Kincaid

Right from the first two words, I'm intrigued. I like the use of the adjective here -- it signals a more objective form of third person, but that doesn't put me off because there's a degree of intimacy in the adjective. "Young Kinkaid" implies that there is also an elder Kincaid, and that the reader knows -- or will soon know -- all about any Kincaids we need to know.

And yes, I know this is a familiar trope in westerns, but I'm not sure this is a western in the John Wayne and Hoss model. I don't know that from the first two words, of course -- I know it from the one-sentence logline the writer included in the email to us. This is okay, because what was in that logline would also be available to readers in the jacket copy.


Do we need down after hunkered? Merriam Webster online says "usually" we do. What do you all think?

with the slave in a narrow band of shade in a dry creek bed.

This first sentence is taut without being dull. Plus we get a lot of information, enough to orient us immediately. Who, what, where -- Young Kincaid and a slave, hunker, in the shade in a dry creek bed.

Plus, take a look at the almost lyrical rhythm you get from those chained prepositional phrases. Four in a row, building one into the other. Read it out loud. Can you hear the music in that? The prepositions are down beats. The nouns are up beats. The first and third prepositional phrases end in a single unadorned noun. The second and fourth include adjectives, and the adjectives plus the nouns each have three syllables. There's such a lovely feel to this. My ear is delighting in these phrases. I especially like the strong ending, three solid, single beats in a row.

That makes it all the more puzzling that the next sentence starts to trip over its own toes.

A stiff breeze

I want something different here. It's two strong up beats, two single syllable words, right on the heels of dry creek bed. It throws off the rhythm. Also, stiff breeze feels like one of those phrases you reach for automatically. I've seen it before, and I've never been completely sure whether a breeze can truly be stiff, and yet I keep seeing it. How stiff is the breeze meant to be? Can we call it a gust or a gale or a blast or a squall?

drove the hot breath of the desert

Mixed response. I like hot breath of the desert because it feels evocative. I know just what the hot breath of the desert feels like. But can breeze drive desert breath? Wind and breath are both air in motion. Do we need both? Why not let the hot breath of the desert be the subject of the sentence, and let it do something to Kincaid's skin? Such as,

The hot breath of the desert licked the lad's skin
The hot breath of the desert parched the lad's skin

Or whatever verb you choose. That gets rid of the stiff breeze, which felt off, and eliminates the doubling up on the air-in-motion concept. It also helps with the modifier, which is also a double:

against the lad’s skin, drawing moisture from his body and torturing his thirst.

The participle police would like it duly noted that here are two present participial phrases used correctly. I know, I know. It shocks me, too. These are a special breed of phrase sometimes called a cumulative modifier or a sentence modifier. Usually, a present participial phrase will modify a noun in the sentence, meaning that the present participial phrase is functioning as an adjective. But sometimes, phrases modify the entire independent clause rather than a single word in the clause. In such cases, you can place the phrase at the end of the sentence without the participle police writing you a ticket.

And this is one of those cases. The paired phrases (1 -drawing moisture from his body, and 2 - torturing his thirst) don't modify just the breeze or just the desert breath. They modify the cumulative idea of what that wind is doing to the boy's skin. Do you see? The wind doesn't torture the boy's thirst. The wind blowing against his skin does.

It's an important distinction, and one a good writer will always be sensitive to.

A man could lose his mind for want of water,

I love this. I love it that "young" Kincaid positions himself as a man -- that tells me so much about this character -- and I love the very strong character voice. It's youthful and frustrated and colloquial, and that want hints at the time period. The rhythm of this sentence is strong, and the alliteration in the final four words works, to my ear, anyway.

he thought,

You don't need the thought tag if you're italicizing the text. The italics function as a thought tag of their own. But I like the way the thought tag serves as a beat, a transitive pause, between the first cheeky line and what follows.

any would do. Cool sips from the spring back home or even slurps from a buffalo wallow.

I suspect this phrasing is deliberate and is meant to let us know there's a hint of disorganization in young Kincaid's mind at the moment. "...any would do" creates a run-on, and the final fragment balances it in a way that really appeals to me.

But there are two little hiccups in this final fragment. First, I think "cool" is misplaced -- it's not the sips that are cool, but the spring water. This is a bit of a judgment call, because this isn't a technical error. And it's entirely possible that the writer means to signal that the act of sipping is itself cool.

But slurps -- that word choice doesn't feel natural in this voice. I think the writer was looking for a way to create contrasting pairs, and that's what gave rise to the sips and slurps. And I like the technique, as a general rule. But does young Kincaid think like this? I'm already forming an impression of him, and my impression tells me this word choice doesn't quite fit. Buffalo wallow, yes, that works. Slurps from a buffalo wallow, maybe not.

Plus, with the doubling up on the wind, and the cool, and the slurps, I'm starting to get a slight hint of overwriting. I wouldn't call this overwritten, not exactly, more just in need of a tweak and tighten. But it errs in the direction of overwriting, and so I would already be looking for more evidence of that as I continue reading. I can see the writer's preference for pairs, and I'll be looking at how he handles singles and triples and paired pairs. Is pairing a default tic, or is he doing it deliberately and varying his rhythms?

And I would continue reading, by the way. I think this is a strong opening.



green_knight said...

I like it, even though it was a little too rich for me. And my backbrain thinks it's set in Texas - slave + dry creeks. The sips and slurps didn't work for me at all, and overall, I found the analysis pretty much on the spot. It's specific, it asks questions, it contains contrasts and inherent tension.

I'd definitely pick this up and read on.

Wes said...


Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful analysis of my opening. Since I discovered your blog a few months ago, I've been amazed at how deeply you and Alicica can analyze three or four sentences. Studying your critiques and expositions on writing has helped me in my first attempt at fiction.

You are correct in that I lean towards overwriting, and I'm trying to correct that. Also with sips and slurps I was trying to show how anything along a long continuum of water quality was suitable.

Hopefully I can refine my technique and produce a serious book that tells the story of desperate people dealing with Spain's failed colonial policy, slavery as practiced in the Southwest, and Manifest Destiny.

Alicia’s book on point of view has helped greatly too.

Again, thank you

Bobbie (Sunny) Cole said...

loved the prose - it just got a bit rich, as green knight suggested. sometimes when we as writers have a thick tapestry going, we neglect to focus on the main image we want to convey. then it's time to choose which is more important.

great analysis!

Edittorrent said...

Wes, if this is your first effort, I'm even more impressed. You must be one of those writers gifted with a natural ear. Listen for the high, clear notes in your paragraphs. They'll never steer you wrong.


Wes said...

Thank you. Yes, it is my first. And I will listen

Rachel said...

Great post. I stumbled over here via a writing friend. I'm not sure, but I think I might be guilty of overwriting. I've had the terms, "pretty", "lyrical," and "wordy" applied to me.

I write instinctively, so what IS overwriting, how do I recognize it in myself, and how do I stop it if and when I do it?

and Thanks! I'll defintely be reading more often.