Sunday, February 24, 2008

Three Lines Plus a Horse

Let's take a look at another opening.

The pill bottle in the pocket of her tight-fitting riding pants pressed hard against her leg as she climbed the rock wall and leaped onto the back of the blood-bay stallion. They topped the crest of the knoll at a canter then eased into a trot as she raised a hand to shade her swollen eyes from the early morning sun. Stormy Cat half-reared and whinnied then took off in a thundering gallop across the frost-tipped Kentucky bluegrass, which stretched out for miles and glistened like Swarovski crystals on a bed of green velvet.

First Impressions

I count 98 words there. If these words came in the middle of the text, most of my concerns would be eliminated because I would know the context better. The writing is generally strong and evocative and puts me right around Lexington horse country with those beautiful rolling hills and white fences. The rhythm of the language is wonderful; this writer has an ear. Vocabulary is good. Sentence structure is good, even with three long sentences in a row. In short, there's evidence of a real writer at work here.

But the excerpt doesn't work as the opening senteces of a novel. It feels unnecessarily coy. There is a hint of drama, but the context undercuts that drama.

Does anyone understand what's really happening in those 98 words? We have a female in tight pants riding a horse on a fine Kentucky morning. The horse is named. The female is not. Is this a story about a horse?

There are two details which I suspect the writer included as a way of creating mystery or "story questions." They don't work for two reasons. First, combined they account for 4 words, meaning they're hemmed in by 94 unrelated words about crystals and velvet and so on. Second, the details chosen could mean two very different things.

What are those details? Have you picked them out? Pill bottle and swollen eyes. I suspect the writer means them to indicate a character in distress (the female, who doesn't even rate a name, so how important can her distress really be?). But given the context -- the crystal and velvet and cantering under the sun, none of which could be reckoned distressing details -- the pill bottle and the swollen eyes become lost.

Also, what's something else that pills and swollen eyes could indicate when set against animals and grasses? Allergies and benadryl. At this point, this is the more logical conclusion because the surrounding details support allergies better than they support suicide. Everything is so beautiful and tempting, even exhilarating. Even a severe asthmatic might be tempted by this lush setting.

In other words, by being coy, by hiding the character's identity and the true state of the character's inner being, these three sentences shift from describing a character in crisis to describing a character with hayfever.

Breaking It Down

Let's take a closer look. There's a lot of good stuff here, even if it doesn't quite add up.

The pill bottle in the pocket of her tight-fitting riding pants

That is one gorgeous string of words. Read it out loud and listen to the cadence. It almost sounds like a canter. This is a natural result of using chained prepositional phrases, and is one of the reasons we like prepositional phrases better than other kinds of phrases.

Two nits to pick, though: get rid of fitting because it adds nothing, and reconsider pill bottle. What's more relevant, the bottle or the pills? Are there any pills in the bottle? What kind of pills? If you want to heighten the character's distress, this is one way to do it. Put the focus on the details which will enhance the distress.

pressed hard against her leg

Another prepositional phrase keeps the cadence moving. Nice. The verb and the phrase together give us a very precise understanding of what, exactly, this character is feeling. (Physically, not emotionally.)

as she climbed the rock wall and leaped

She doesn't climb AND leap. She climbs THEN leaps. Clarify this. Or, even better, get rid of climbed the rock wall because it just muddles things.

onto the back of the blood-bay stallion.

Another chain of prepositional phrases. I think the chain is the right choice here because it allows the sentence to end on the strong word stallion. Otherwise, she must leap onto the blood-bay stallion, which is less precise, or onto the blood-bay stallion's back, which has a less pleasing rhythm and ends on a weaker word.

By the way, I don't know anything about horses. Is blood-bay a particular kind? I know bays are auburn, so does blood-bay just mean red?

They topped the crest of the knoll

Try instead, They crested the knoll. Also reconsider the plural pronoun. Whose point of view are we supposed to be in?

at a canter then eased into a trot

This is where it starts to unravel. We started off with this evocative physical description of a pill bottle pressing into a woman's thigh as she rushed to her horse's back. The pill bottle is important -- we know this because she's consciously aware of it pressing into her leg. And there's speed, a sense of rushing somewhere for some purpose.

But then we get 15 consecutive words describing the ride: They topped the crest of the knoll at a canter then eased into a trot. I can allow the first part because it preserves the sense of speed and purpose. But adding on the second part undercuts this in two different ways. First, it literally slows the pace of the ride from a canter to a trot. The sense of scene urgency dissipates. Second, by talking this much about the details of the ride, the ride itself starts to become more important than the pill bottle.

Also, whose point of view are we in?

as she raised a hand to shade her swollen eyes from the early morning sun.

Ditto -- whose point of view are we in? Actually, I'm just going to tell you: this is objective. We're watching horse and rider from outside, as a camera would film it. Why? Because the camera would first see the hand raise, and then see the bar of shadow fall across the rider's eyes. Without the shade, she could be raising her hand to wave at someone.

If we were in the character's viewpoint, the order would be reversed. We would feel the character's annoyance at sun in her eyes (the stimulus) which she would treat with a raised hand (the response).

Notice how the detail swollen becomes lost here? It's not part of the action. I didn't even register this detail the first time I read the sentence.

Stormy Cat

I was confused by this -- I thought at first "Cat" was short for Catherine and referred to the rider, who still has no name.

half-reared and whinnied then took off in a thundering gallop

More details about the ride. By this time, we've forgotten all about the pill bottle and are reading a lush description of a morning ride. First we canter. Then we crest a hill. Then we trot and look around with our hands over our eyes. Then we half-rear and whinny. Then we gallop.

Here's what we don't have: a destination, a reason for the ride, a character's perceptions (or even, really, a character), or any real sense of context.

across the frost-tipped Kentucky bluegrass, which stretched out for miles and glistened like Swarovski crystals on a bed of green velvet.

Gorgeous. Really. But it does nothing to cure the missing context. Yes, now we know we're in Kentucky, and it's always good to get the setting established as soon as possible. And the language is lush and evocative, which is good -- though I do have a problem with the phrasing, because the grass stretches for miles, but the frost glistens. So we'd need to edit that clause even if we wanted to keep it.

But I don't think it's worth keeping in the opening. Save it for further into the text, after we know the character and the context. We might not keep reading if this is just a description of a beautiful morning ride. But tell us what's in that pill bottle and why her (whose?) eyes are swollen, and we might keep going.


Anonymous said...

The writing is generally strong

I would disagree most strongly. This passage pushed just about every 'OMG' button a horsey reader can have - it screams 'amateur' from start to finish. Please, writer: if you're going to write about a subject you have no experience in, run it past someone who _does_.

Breeches - or jeans, if you're riding western - tend to be either loose-fitting or elastic - because otherwise getting on a horse can be a bit of a problem. Tight-fitting is a visual effect that bears no relationship to the practicalities of the situation - and this would have been the point where I put down the book and vowed never to read another word by the author.

'rock wall'? Stone wall, maybe - drystone wall - but as those things are held together by air and gravity, they are not very suited for climbing upon. Let alone in tight breeches.
No rider would leap upon the back of their horse, etc etc. None of this reads remotely like the voice of a rider; and I find it hard to admire the sentence structure if the words making up those sentences are written without the slightest connection to the topic written about.

It is only in bad films that horses half-rear and whinny before taking off into the distance; and I dislike the way the ride was manipulated to give the author the chance to fit in the shading of swollen eyes.

And other than the bottle 'pressing against' we get only visual impressions - the breeches, the horse, the grass, the sunlight - but we don't get the sensation of scrambling onto a drystone wall, the coldness of air in one's lungs, the warmth of the horse, the sharpness of his spine, the play of his back muscles that allows her to feel every stride, the slipperyness of an unsaddled horse, the jarring steps when he falls into a trot, her hands clutching his mane...

This is all camera-and-soundtrack, which does nothing to bring me into the scene.

Ian said...

Gee whiz, Green_knight, why don't you tell us how you really feel?

If you want only to read 100% accurate stories about horses, I'm sure there are niche writers who fit that bill, but that's no need to take someone to task for not fulfilling your particular need. This writer is writing for dramatic effect instead of accuracy. I write about superheroes - clearly an impossibility in reality - but I expect someone picking up one of my books to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. So this particular writer has written a "camera-and-soundtrack" (love that phrase, by the way - I'm going to steal it because it's exactly what I write too and I'm proud of it) scene. I don't see how that is a bad thing if it transports an average reader effectively into the story.

Let the flaming begin! :)


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Re: the rock wall.

I had a very strong image of someone rock climbing. You know, like up the side of a mountain.

So I this image of a sense of urgency as though she's escaping from something, and the pill bottle is the key to it all.

Interesting how we all read it so differently.

Ian, I agree: it's not necessarily bad if it transports you into the story.

What do our blog hosts think of that concept? The transportation into the story, which seems to have just arisen. (and this one, I have no guess what you'll say)

Edittorrent said...

Transporting is good. :) And if it transported you, it worked for you!

Editors are not often transported, of course, and so when you do manage to transport an editor, wow-- every word, every image, every -experience- must have been perfect to accomplish that.

We're pickier than anyone else... as I'm sure everyone has figured out!

Dave Shaw said...

I have to admit that, until I read Theresa's comments, what I got out of the 'pill bottle' and 'swollen eyes' WAS allergies. Put it down to coming from a family of horse-loving asthmatics and hay fever sufferers, I guess. If the character is upset and contemplating suicide, this paragraph didn't contribute to me understanding that, and as such it's set expectations in me that are probably not going to be satisfied by the rest of the book. Depending on what follows, I might tolerate that, but as a rule I like to get into stories a little more directly.

I agree that the writer paints a lush image here. Properly set into the story, this would be a great scene; it just doesn't work for me as the beginning of the tale in its present form.

Edittorrent said...

Dave, my first guess was also allergies. (For an explanation, just ask Alicia's very charming cat, who feels personally crushed every time I can't pet him.)

It was only on a second reading that the possibility of suicide occurred to me. Or maybe the pills are meant to save someone at the end of the ride? I don't know -- and the reason I don't know is that we're getting a nice description of a ride without any real explanation of the purpose of the ride.

Ian, objective pov (camera and soundtrack) is fine when it's used properly. Here, because we don't get the information we need, the objective pov exaggerates the lack of context.

Green Knight, I stand by what I said. The quality of the writing is strong -- excellent manipulation of phrases and vocabulary, though there were a couple of minor hiccups. You may not admire the particular details selected for presentation (neither did I, but for different reasons), but the overall quality is still strong.


Becky Burkheart said...

Green_Knight said: This passage pushed just about every 'OMG' button a horsey reader can have - it screams 'amateur' from start to finish. Please, writer: if you're going to write about a subject you have no experience in, run it past someone who _does_.

I admittedly have a conflict of interest since I speak on this topic, but it pays to remember that there are a reported 2 million horsemen in the US. The majority of horsemen I know are readers - that's a lot of potential readers who are going to completely miss the beauty of the language, and likely toss the book, because they're OMGing over the problems Green_Knight lists.

It's not an either/or kind of situation. The beauty of the language could be just as well maintained with the horsey bits correct.

Sue L

Edittorrent said...

Yes, Theresa, Ben (the cat) takes it personally! But I think he senses that you WANT to pet him, and that your reluctance is due to some psychological problem, not due to him, because who could be more charming and handsome?

PatriciaW said...

I learn something from every one of these story breakdowns.

I think "pill bottle" is exactly what's needed. If it were just pills, I think loose tablets or capsules in a pocket. If it were just bottle, I think a water bottle or something like that. Pill bottle makes me think of a specific, narrow range of bottles in terms of size and shape, and I could feel what having that in a pair of tight jeans would feel like.

I get the comment about tight jeans and riding horses since I tried that on a vacation once. I don't agree that authors have to research every single detail to get it right for the small subset of the population that will know. At the same time, the author has to except that someone in that subset will notice and maybe go so far as to point out the weaknesses.

Bernita said...

"as she climbed the rock wall and leaped"
I use this "climbed and leaped" construction a lot - because I thought it was usually understood that the actions described were consecutive/continuous.