Sunday, June 5, 2011

9 1st 5 Pages Workshop - June Entry #3

TITLE: Chasing the Taillights
NAME: Kate Larkindale
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The darkness is absolute. I’m not sure if my eyes are open or closed.
I strain to push the lids up, but they’re already wide. Something covers my mouth and nose, making breathing difficult. My lungs burn for air, but I can only suck in tiny mouthfuls through whatever smothers my face.

I turn my head, crying out as a savage bolt of pain shoots through it.
I teeter on the edge of consciousness, wavy grey lines wafting across the blank space before my eyes. I struggle to keep my wits about me - what’s left of them - fighting the darkness threatening to drown me.
I gasp for breath, certain now I won’t pass out. There’s nothing covering my face. It was the ground my nose and mouth were pressed into. Reaching out my left hand, I try to find something to hold onto. My fingers scrabble over small objects, pebbles perhaps, that skitter away beneath my touch. I reach further, wrapping my fist around them. Pain prickles my fingertips. Not pebbles. Glass.
Small, sharp shards of glass.

Using my torn hand, I drag myself forward, an inch, maybe two. A huge weight pins my legs to the ground. I can’t move them, can’t even feel them. Raising my head, I see light. Not a lot of light, but light.
Red light, bright at one end, dull at the other. I know what this is.
I do. My heart thumps at the side of my head and I can almost hear the gears of my brain creaking to make sense of this weird red glow.

A taillight.

I let my throbbing head drop as a reward, a surge of relief passing through me at this small achievement. It’s a taillight. But why is it there? What is there? And if that’s there, where am I? The questions whirl dizzying circles around my skull. What day is it? I struggle to remember. What did I have for breakfast? My eyes fix on the taillight, broken I realize, staring into it as if hypnotized.
That’s why it’s brighter at one end.

More light. White this time, sweeping in an arc across me. I blink, dazzled by the flood of brightness. All around me I see fragments glinting in the beam, tiny jewels strewn across what I can now see is a road. The yellow line is inches from my nose. Why am I lying in the middle of the road? Ghostly music drifts in my direction. A song I know, an oldie, The Beach Boys. It makes no sense here, must be in my head. I try to drag my other arm forward, wanting to raise myself onto my elbows for a better perspective. It won’t move. Pain rocks through my shoulder, my chest and courses up my neck to my still-aching head. The heavy, metallic scent of blood hangs over me.
When I glance back down at the road, I see the yellow line is smeared red.

The slamming of a car door breaks through the dull thumping in my skull, chases the music away for a moment. Footsteps scuff across the gravel, heading away from where I lie.
“I’m here!” I can’t tell if I’ve spoken aloud, or if the words are just in my head, like the unearthly jaunt of the Beach Boys song.
“Help me.”
The footsteps grow nearer. “There’s another one over here.” The voice is a woman’s. Another what? I try to form the words, but my tongue is heavy and thick, my lips uncooperative.
A face hovers over me, pale and moon-like in the unforgiving glare.
“This one’s conscious, I think.” The same voice as before. She leans closer, coffee and cigarettes on her breath. “Honey? Can you tell me your name? You’ve been in an accident, but you’re going to be just fine, okay?”

An accident? The cogs and wheels in my head speed up again, grinding together as they try to absorb the words.
“Mom?” The word is painful to form, “Dad?” Somehow I know they’ll be there.
“Is that who you’re with?” The voice is gentle, soothing even, but I sense the urgency in her tone, “Your mom and dad?”
I try to nod, not sure if my head moves or not. I’ve been in an
accident. That’s what she said. Does that mean Mom and Dad were in an accident too? Where was I before here?
“…Okay?” I ask, only the last part of the phrase making it out of my mush-filled mouth. Are they okay? That’s what I wanted to ask. Are they here? My parents? Are they okay?

The words build to a scream behind my forehead, hammering the bone with the need to escape. I’m aware of the woman’s hands coming down to hold my shoulders and realize I’m writhing on the cold blacktop, every movement awakening new hurt. A shriek rises and falls in the distance, growing nearer whoop by whoop. It’s in my head, extinguishing any music that lingers there. It stops abruptly, as if a switch has been flicked. Seconds later, flashing lights, red, white, blue, replace the sound.
Voices surround me. They’re all talking at once, the words swirling into a dull cacophony. I let myself drift in spirals on the rise and fall of their voices, the steady thud of my heartbeat an underlying rhythm to their song.

“Sweetheart?” The voice by my ear startles me. “What’s your name?
Do you know your name?”
Do I know my name? Of course I know my name. I’m not an idiot. “Lucy…”
“Okay, Lucy.” The man’s voice is soft, yet firm at the same time.
It’s a voice I can trust. A safe voice. I can’t see who’s speaking though. A white beam shines right into my eyes and he’s nothing more than a silhouette against it. “Do you feel any pain, Lucy?”
I nod again, still not sure if my head moves or not.
“Can you tell me where it hurts?”
I shake my head this time. Everything hurts. Those wavy gray lines dance across my vision again. His shadowy figure appears to melt into the darkness for a moment, then comes back into focus.
“Mom?” I ask again, certain she’s around somewhere. “Dad?” My parents must be here. We were at a wedding. I remember that now.
Tony couldn’t come. Mom was disappointed about that, but Dad told her… What did Dad tell her?

“The diving’s more important, Monica.” Dad slides a second cup of coffee across the table. “If he’s going to make it to Nationals this year, he needs all the wins he can get. He can’t skip meets to go to weddings.”
“Oh, I know.” Mom stirs her coffee, the teaspoon making a bright tinkling sound against the side of the mug. “It’s just a shame. He and Adam were such good friends.”
I don’t even look up. “Tony and Adam haven’t been friends since they were kids. I doubt Adam’s going to miss him.”
Mom sighs. “You’re probably right.”
I know I’m right. The DeMarcos used to live three doors down from us, but since they moved to the other side of town, we’ve seen them maybe two or three times a year. When the wedding invitation arrived a month ago, it surprised me. If I was getting married, I don’t think I’d be inviting people as peripheral to my life as the DeMarcos.
“They were good friends,” Dad says. “Even though Adam’s a couple of years older than Tony.”


  1. Like this a lot. How it starts with intrigue and a good amount of tension (MC's physical plight, emotional worry over fate of parents, implied conflict w/ Tony). Nice.

    My only small nit would be that a little bit of the dialogue feels forced (e.g., "Even though Adam's a couple of years older...", "He can't skip meets to go to weddings."). Not bad, just felt somewhat unnatural, IMO.

  2. Wow. Very dramatic. Probably very realistic. However...

    Here's my concern - we start with action, disorientation, right after she's been thrown (I assume) during an accident that just occurred. BUT - and I hate to say this - what makes me care? I mean, I care about a kid being hurt in an accident. I'm curious what's going on. But I haven't connected with your MC yet. I want to care about her. That cements me in the story. Prevents me from putting down the book. And it isn't hard to fix. You have a good start with her asking right away for Mom and Dad. That's nice. Maybe you could interject some of Lucy's voice right away. She's in shock. She's hurt. What does that make her think? Where's the first place her head goes? Why? How does she feel emotionally. Frightened? Of what? Be specific, get us in her head while revealing the details of the accident. OR start somewhere else. Maybe not far. Maybe just before it happens. But enough to introduce us to Lucy.

    Jumping back to a discussion about the brother and the wedding right from there, IDK. Is that scene very important to know about right now? Can you take care of it with a simple line of dialogue between Lucy and her parents right before they hit? Just want to suggest some other options.

  3. Hi Kate,

    I agree with Lisa all around. This is a lovely bit of writing and you have some truly unique phrasing and imagery, but you're starting in the wrong spot. I think you can solve the issue easily by following Lisa's suggestions. Either you can start somewhere just before the accident so we know who she is traveling with and what the stakes are as we read the great line about "another one over here" -- which would let you draw out the suspense even further -- or you can weave in the memories from the flashback through her physical reactions. As it is, reading something this painful out of context made me want to skim to find out what was going on. That's not where you want to be in an opening. Even if you start a little before the accident, I think you need to space out the physical sensations; they're a bit too much all together this early in the book.

    Also, be careful not to tell then show. For example:

    The darkness is absolute. (Tell) I’m not sure if my eyes are open or closed. (Illustrates what you just explained.) I strain to push the lids up, but they’re already wide. Something covers my mouth and nose, [making breathing difficult] (Tell). My lungs burn for air (Illustrates what you just explained), but I can only suck in tiny mouthfuls through whatever smothers my face.

    I am really looking forward to the rewrite (selfishly because I'm hoping it means we get to learn a little more about what's going on :D).



  4. Thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately, I can't start any earlier than this point because the whole book is about Lucy trying to remember what brought her to that place, lying on the road. If I started before the crash, we'd already know the punchline.

  5. Kate, then where does the flashback come from? It's too cohesive to be a broken memory. The brain just doesn't work like that -- you don't stop to think something like:

    I know I’m right. The DeMarcos used to live three doors down from us, but since they moved to the other side of town, we’ve seen them maybe two or three times a year. When the wedding invitation arrived a month ago, it surprised me. If I was getting married, I don’t think I’d be inviting people as peripheral to my life as the DeMarcos.

    And if you think the flashback works there (where it doesn't work at all), then there's no reason the information wouldn't work earlier. At the very least, this would be a perfectly legitimate reason for a prologue or a set up that grounds the reader.

    I believe you can solve this problem even more easily. Write it in the present tense. That way, you get the immediacy of the technique, and the mc doesn't have to remember it at all.

    Have you read IF I STAY by Gayle Forman? She's a master storyteller and her opening before the accident was genius.


  6. A prologue? I'm not sure about that. I loathe them with a passion.

    The whole book is structured with a flashback within each chapter, but I could lose this one without losing much except for introducing the novel's structure and the other characters. I purposely wrote the flashback in present tense so it flows the way a memory flows: in the present. This moment before they go to the wedding is one of the last things Lucy remembers beforehand, so I thought it would be the one memory she could grab hold of while trying to figure out where she is and why.

  7. Hi Kate,

    I like the immediacy of the car accident, and the chaotic feel of your MC trying to process the small details. These type of openings are very risky tho, because instead of starting at the edge of action, you are dumping the reader right into the middle of it, which can be disorientating.

    I think because of this (and because in your comment you mention needing to start in this place), I would consider making a few changes. I would think about changing the time the accident happens not quite full on dark, so that a bit of light can help her process better. I would not start with her and the darkness, and trying to figure out if her eyes are closed or open and if something is covering her face or not. Don't get me wrong, these are all good details, but you want to be very careful here to provide a road map for the reader if you are going to try for such a 'dropped into the action' opening. To me, I struggled to follow along until we got to the first concrete image: the tail light. This is the image would be a good one to open with--she sees the tail light, the redness of it, the way it lights up her bare arm lying on the road, wondering what it is, where she is. Show her seeing the light playing across her arm, trying to process what has happened. As you gather up details (shards of glass reflected red on the concrete, the yellow line with a smudge of red, etc), the reader will make the same conclusion as Lucy does--that she's been in a car accident, only it will come about quicker, leading the reader out of the feeling of disorientation.

    The other recommendation I would offer is not to launch into the flashback of dialogue explaining where the brother is and where they were. To me it completely pulls us out of the scene, and I think too, you always want to avoid having the pacing go backwards when you are in the first chapter, and this is what a flashback does. Broken details could come into play, like her thinking Mom and Dad being with her, and that felt right, but her brother's name doesn't, which leads to something else--swimming, being at a swim meet? type thoughts. She can question these details floating up through the pain, leaving her doubting her memory if that's what you want to go for, but this way the memories/flashbacks won't impede the forward motion of the scene.

    I do think tho, with some adjustment you can make this opening work. :) Just be aware of how much you can disorient the reader before they disengage. With the change in lighting so she can see a bit more, you can have her spot people leaning over someone nearby--maybe they aren't clear, but a detail is--a bloodied hand with a smashed wristwatch--a watch she recognizes as her father or mothers. This could be the detail that allows the enormity of the situation to crash down on her and provide a way for readers to feel empathy for her. There's her dad right there on the road, and we suspect the worst. This will get the reader on your character's side. There's a difference between her thinking her parents were with her in the car, and seeing a parent's bloody in the distance, with an arm splayed out in her direction, unmoving.

    Anyway, just an idea or two--hope it helps and thanks for sharing this :) Very gritty stuff!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  8. Thanks for all the feedback. Stuff to think about as I revise (again)...

  9. Entry 3: I like the beginning of the story. Lucy's confusion as she regains consciousness is well done. I did have a question about how she could cry out if her mouth was covered, although you answered that later. To prevent confusion, maybe the fact of her lying face down on a street could be mentioned before she makes any noise with her mouth.

    The sentence that says "When the wedding invitation arrive lasr month, it surprised me." is a bit awkward. How about something like, "You could have knocked me over with a feather when the wedding invitation arrived last month."


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