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First Page: Cat in the Dark, futuristic/paranormal (and multicultural)

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A trunk full of contraband, a deadline, and the damn car won’t start. Vrzala grits his teeth and focuses on the heavily-accented-english bitching in his right ear, thinks of kicking the tires in frustration, and instead digs out the pack of smokes he’d stopped to get. If they’re going to cost him a good start on this job, he might as well enjoy them. Lot harder to enjoy the lecture he’s getting, though.

“You want some sixty-year-old piece-of-shit, you got it, don’t call me when it don’t start,” Hsao’s saying, and variations on that theme. Vrzala rolls his eyes, not even paying much attention, sorting through what he can catch from passerby, the shopkeeper in the doorway, the convenience store clerk. Can’t anyone think of a good mechanic at a time like this? Why did it sometimes seem like people perversely thought of anything but the useful stuff, when it really mattered to him? It’s enough to make him even crazier.

“It’s a classic,” he finally spits, and that’s the most he gets in edgewise. Hsao’s off again, and Vrzala turns to glare at the car, only to end up glaring at a kid in the way. He looks down, and the kid looks up.

Vrzala guesses the kid at maybe seventeen, eighteen, and not entirely a local. Not with those huge gray eyes, so pale they’re almost the same silvery shade as the sleek antique sportscar behind him. The kid’s brows come down in a hard line, and Vrzala can’t even think to frown in response, too taken aback at the kid’s silence. He just stares, Hsao’s droning almost forgotten.

The kid puts out a hand. “Keys,” he demands.

Vrzala blinks at the voice and adjusts his assumption. Not a boy, a girl, not a kid, a young woman. The cut-off jeans and black workman’s boots don’t help, or the shapeless black shirt, but there’s a hint of breasts under there. The hand held out is filthy, grease crossing the palm. Vrzala shakes his head, then tells Hsao, “Arrange another car for me. Now.” He snaps the phone shut, doesn’t put it away, just looks at the kid. The girl.

Her fingers flick, impatiently.

“No, sweetheart, I’m not that stupid,” he drawls, letting his foreigner’s accent color the words more than usual. “Now, get.” He waves her away, considering ringing Slavik for a suggested mechanic. He can’t be sure Hsao will come through, and if he’s there much longer, he just might end up in a sling along with the goods. Not how he wants to blow a damn good record: brought low by dead car. “Go on,” he tells the girl, uneasy. He can’t put his finger on it.

“Gimme the keys,” the girl repeats, then her lower lip juts, making her look even younger. She shrugs, hands going up as if surrendering, but sarcastic about it. “If you’re stunted enough to let a car this gorgeous get this bad, you don’t deserve to be driving. Mister,” she adds, lip curled, the honorific a double insult. “Someone ought string you up for criminal negligence.” Her mutter’s half-drowned by the stomp of her boots.

Vrzala has a split second of dissonance, snaps out of it. Sounds like the girl has some kind of a clue, and it’s not his car anyway. Just a loaner for as long as he’s on this godforsaken chunk of concrete and rock. “Hold up, kid. What do you know about cars?”

“I know this one could run great if you spent more than a yuan a year on it.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

17 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 08:44:01

    I think you’ve got an interesting start, but I’d like the stakes to be higher. Or at least for it to be clearer what the stakes are. The ‘trunk full of contraband’ is all we’ve got. I don’t love the main character so far – I don’t hate him, but he seems to be blaming other people for his mistake (why would he insist on a classic car?), and he’s not doing a damn thing to fix it. So there’s some good language, but really we’ve got an MC with some possible issues of sexism/racism (I’m not clear whom he expected to help him with the car, or why the person who shows up is so clearly unacceptable) who’s standing by a broken down car and bitching about it.

    I’m not getting a clear sense of setting, either. Maybe future China, or somewhere else in Asia? But then everyone speaking English doesn’t make sense.
    There were also a few spots where the language could be tightened. I didn’t understand “Vrzala rolls his eyes, not even paying much attention, sorting through what he can catch from passerby, the shopkeeper in the doorway, the convenience store clerk.” I think it should be “passersby,” but even then, I don’t understand what he’s trying to catch.

    “Not entirely a local” doesn’t make sense to me, either. Maybe it will eventually, but I don’t see how someone could be partially a local…

    I’m not sure if it’s a typo or broken English, but “someone ought string you up” is missing a word, and if it’s meant to be broken English, I’m not sure the colloquialisms fit.

    I don’t mind present tense, but I was a bit jarred by the “Why DID it sometimes feel” phrasing – I’m not sure if it was a deliberate switch or just a lapse.

    And it seems like your MC is kind of a rough-and-ready type, so I’m not sure about using ‘breasts’ – maybe ‘tits’ would be more in character?

    I also found a couple jarring comma-splice/sentence fragment issues. I know they can be use d for effect, but I didn’t get the impact of “Vrzala has a split second of dissonance, snaps out of it.” I think a ‘then’ would be fine there.

  2. Terri
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 09:46:55

    You’re page is very polished–just couple awkward lines (IMO)”If they were going to cost him…” And a passive verb “then her lower lip juts out” rather than her lip juts out. But what I really had a problem with was the setting. I know your on a street, but what is the weather like? Day or night? Where are you? What does it look like? Doesn’t have to be a lot of detail, but a little would be nice. And this is just me…I’m not a fan of present tense. It really throws me for a loop, don’t why and that’s just my preference. Good luck and thanks for sharing.

  3. Loreen
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 10:14:04

    I like this a lot and would keep reading, but are you going to switch out of the present tense? It is pretty awkward to narrate an entire story in the present.
    Right now this reads more like a screenplay than a novel.

    Is the heroine really about 18 years old? It kind of annoys me when the hero first thinks the heroine is an adolescent boy, then a young girl, then (OMG) she puts on a dress and he realizes she is 26 and fall in love. What is he, blind? I know this trope doesn’t bother other people, but it bothers me. Grown women do not in the least resemble adolescent boys – I don’t care how thin they are.
    I have always found this common romance switcheroo to be kind of creepy.

    I think you have a compelling voice and if the story will change tenses, I will keep reading.

  4. Tamara Hogan
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 10:14:38

    There are a couple of places in this snippet where I felt the POV work was a bit distant, which disconcerted me .
    The first couple of paragraphs clearly establish that we’re seeing the action from Vrzala’s perspective, but the way several of the latter sentences are written makes me feel as if Vrzala might be one of those (annoying) guys who refers to himself in 3rd person. A couple of examples:

    Vrzala guesses the kid at maybe seventeen, eighteen, and not entirely a local

    Vrzala blinks at the voice and adjusts his assumption

    Each of these sentences momentarily pulled me out of Vrzala’s headspace. Is there a need for him to think of himself by name?

    Consider the following tweaks:
    “He guesses the kid might be seventeen, maybe eighteen…”
    “The kid might be be seventeen, maybe eighteen…”

    The first option yanks the POV in a little closer to the character, and the second option deeper yet. Something to consider.

    Best of luck, and thanks for putting this out there

    !

  5. Lori S.
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 11:27:11

    I’m sorry, but I’d have to pass on this one. I’m not getting any sense of urgency from Vrzala(maybe it’s just me, but I’m not fond of protagonists with unpronouncable names), which I’d expect from a guy with a trunk full of contraband. Also, the present tense is driving me nuts.

  6. Darlynne
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 11:52:09

    You know what? I loved this voice. I am a huge, possibly the only, fan of present tense narration, so this worked for me in many ways. I agree that some things need tightening and/or editing as mentioned above, but I would definitely like to read more. It has a real noir feel.

    @Loreen: Interestingly, the other night on America’s Got Talent–my guilty summer pleasure–a Justin Bieber lookalike turned out to be a young woman, aged 22 (she claimed to have had the hairstyle long before he did). So while this trope may not appeal, it does happen. I was convinced she was a teenaged boy.

  7. theo
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 14:24:27

    I had to stop when Vrzala rolled his eyes. I take it I’m not your target audience here because if I have to stop at every character name to try once again to sound it out, I’m just not going to keep reading. This one is too much work for me between the names and the present tense.

    I do understand there is an audience for present tense as evidenced by the comments, but overall, I have to agree with anonymous’s comments on the awkward phrasing, fragments and sense of place.

    It’s missing a sense of urgency for me too. There is nothing going on here except someone shouting about a broken down car. If there were planes dropping bombs around them or molten lava chasing them and it’s their only means of escape, then the broken down car becomes an absolute problem. As it is now, I’m thinking, “gee, just get the damned thing fixed and move on.” Not good for me to be angry at the story right from the start.

    Kudos for putting it out there. I know how hard that is.

  8. Anonymous 2
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 14:38:22

    Honestly? Seriously 100% you want to hear my true feelings?

    I can not understand this scene.

    A trunk full of contraband, a deadline, and the damn car won’t start. -> I don´t get what the verb here is. Go I guess. But it´s a peculiar opening line, subject is not clear. I get it tries to portray a situation, frustration, but sentences without subjects might work better for a blurb than opening a narrative.

    Vrzala grits his teeth and focuses on the heavily-accented-english bitching in his right ear, thinks of kicking the tires in frustration, and instead digs out the pack of smokes he’d stopped to get. -> too long.

    If they’re going to cost him a good start on this job, he might as well enjoy them. Lot harder to enjoy the lecture he’s getting, though. -> Who is they, the cigarettes? and what is making it harder to enjoy the lecture he is getting and why? I assume the lecture is the heavily accented bitching mentioned previously.

    I do not like the use of bitching, not if you meant it to be the hero. If you mean it to be an asshole, Ok then.

    “You want some sixty-year-old piece-of-shit, you got it, don’t call me when it don’t start,” Hsao’s saying, and variations on that theme. -> the “and variations and that theme” feels awfully clumsy. Nevermind “don´t start” got a free pass due to dialect.

    Vrzala rolls his eyes, not even paying much attention, sorting through what he can catch from passerby, the shopkeeper in the doorway, the convenience store clerk. -> I don´t understand either (keep in mind, if random readers can not understand it is a problem). what he can catch from passerby? should it not be plural passerby? Catch what? Information? Do the convenience store clerk and the shopkeeper count as those passerby or not?

    I sort of quite there, sorry. The voice is not working for me, I like the writing to be much more precise.

  9. P. Kirby
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 15:45:18

    I liked this a lot. Except for … the present tense. I don’t know why, but for some reason present tense is okay when the POV is first person, but it really throws me in third. And it’s totally f*cking with my brain here. I find myself automatically trying to shove it back into past tense.

    I agree with some of the other commenters and think you could add a little more description of the setting. I, however, like that you haven’t really revealed much at this point. I’m liking the mystery.

  10. Gwynnyd
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 20:13:08

    I know I am late to this, but surely Vrzala is some kind of telepath and thoughts are what he is “catching” from the passersby. He wants them to be thinking of a local mechanic and no one is.

    I didn’t find that unclear at all.

    On the other hand, Vrzala is not much of a hero so far, and I agree that it would be nice to know a little more about this futuristic setting. Other than the fact that 60 year old car mechanics are hard to come by, I don’t know anything about this future world.

  11. theo
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 20:42:17

    @Gwynnyd

    I actually think it’s the car that’s 60 years old, not that they’re looking for a 60 year old mechanic. I could be wrong. Since I found this confusing, I might just be. In this case though, I don’t think so.

  12. Tasha
    Jun 11, 2011 @ 22:49:35

    I hate to say it, but I’d stop reading based on the present tense alone.

  13. DS
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 07:22:48

    Present tense doesn’t bother me. I’m also used to landing in the middle of a situation and working out what is going on in the scene. One thing I was puzzled about was the “It’s classic,” he spits. That’s two words that it would be hard to spit and I don’t get the sense that he is spitting mad any way.

    I’m interested in what is happening here. However I’m feeling a bit dubious about the overly competent female mechanic with the silver gray eyes, whose sex is not too obvious but is easily sussed out. I’m fearing Mary Sue.

  14. MEl
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 11:42:35

    Present tense constantly knocks me out of a story, reading it is never a seamless experience for me. Third person just drops into the background and is rarely an issue.

    Hero is coming off less than competent, seems like a classic car driver would have a good mechanic on his cell phone, or some mechanical skills himself. Perhaps he is in a strange city? But I am interested the heroine who is initially mistaken for a boy. She seems waif-like and I do like waifs.

  15. SAO
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 15:41:53

    I was completely surprised when Vrzala snaps the phone shut. I assumed he was talking to Hsao, so I basically had no ability to see the scene. I spent a lot of the page being confused on that level. I didn’t know he was on a street (as opposed to in a meeting) until he scans passerbys. I didn’t know why the boy asked for keys, but had to next guess they were at a garage. When “her mutter is half drowned by the stomp of her boots” that the first clue that she’s not standing still. I still don’t know where she is or where she’s going. So, I felt like I was in a fog for the whole page.

    I live overseas and I am used to places like Pskov and Tbilisi, but Vrzala means on line one, I have to stop, struggle and suspect I am getting it wrong. You’re starting me off on the wrong foot. And FYI, I have never managed to pronounce Pskov correctly, despite having repeated help.

    Vrzala seems to have a problem, but the page isn’t about getting the car in gear and his load to its destination. I don’t feel any urgency. His solution is to dump the problem on Hsao, making me think the next action will be to sit and wait for car #2.

    I don’t think the present tense works. Present tense, by definition is about actions that are not completed, because when they are completed, you use past tense.
    Stories about about completed actions.

    Simple present is used for repeated actions and general statements: “She writes lots of books.” “She writes in her diary every day.”

    Present progressive is used for specific actions in progress now. “She is writing a book.” But no one wants to write a book full of is-ing constructions.

    In common English usage, Simple Present is not used for a specific action taking place now, so it sounds odd to many people. And it sounds very odd to me.

    My recommendations are: ditch the present tense; give Vrala a name we can pronounce, work on your setting, and put some urgency into Vrzala.

  16. Elle J Rossi
    Jun 12, 2011 @ 18:38:19

    I actually really, really liked this. I found it completely different and extremely interesting. I’d love to read more and see where you’re taking this. The tense didn’t bother me in the least. Refreshing!

  17. Emily
    Jun 18, 2011 @ 03:02:55

    I don’t read full-length novels in present tense, as a rule. I am not the only one, although obviously there are many people who aren’t bothered by it at all. If you’re going to write in present tense you should probably consider carefully what exactly you feel it adds to your story, then weigh that against alienating readers who dislike present tense and will pass on your book even if it’s otherwise right up their alley. The short stories and novellas I have seen use present tense successfully did so to some specific purpose, usually to create doubt as to whether the main point of view character would, at the end, be in a position to be recounting the tale in past tense. This doesn’t seem like a tale of creeping madness or potential imminent death to the narrator. It feels like the tense is a gimmick.

    This is also not the most expertly executed present tense extract I’ve ever read. It was very confusing and needs a lot of editing. The voice is appealing, though, so I think this page is probably shiny underneath, just waiting to be polished up.

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