1.07.2007

HH Com Rd 2 -#12 (101)

hook here


I watched heavy smoke spill into my backyard--my brand-new backyard--and knew I had no choice. It was time for drastic action.

I'd have to interrupt my mother.

"Mom," I said into the phone, as smoke rolled past my kitchen window. I craned to see its source, but a weathered fence blocked my view of the next yard.

"--and you'll be cramped in that old twin bed--" My mother's anxious voice eddied past like the smoke.

"Mom--" Another billow nosed through leafless bushes huddled against the fence, and brightness flickered through the slats.

"--once you've been married, you can't go back to--"

"Mom. I'm sorry, but I need to hang up. The man next door seems to be torching the neighborhood."

Earlier in the day, I'd seen one of my new neighbors unload a red gasoline can from his battered pick-up and head through his weedy yard. I'd been too busy double-checking my children, sending them off perfectly attired for their father's wedding, to wonder what he was up to. Now I wondered.

"That hillbilly?" My mother's voice rose a note. "Ned, Alison says that hillbilly neighbor of hers is burning the place down."

"I don't think there are hillbillies in Wisconsin, Mom." I could hear background grumbling on my mother's end of the line, one hundred miles away. Ash whirled high above the fence, higher than my rooftop. Out of control? The early April grass was green, but everything else was dry brown, and these yards backed onto a brushy nature preserve. It could all go up in a minute. "Look, I've got to--"

"Ned doesn't think he's a hillbilly either," reported my mother. "More like that Unabomber. He says check to see if he's just burning leaves or roasting a pig, though, before you call the fire department. You don't want to put the fellow's back up, the first week you move in."

Especially when he reminds you of the Unabomber. I looked for my jacket. I didn't feel like venturing from my safe little house, but unfortunately my stepfather's advice made sense.

"Tell Ned I'm heading over there now. Call you back." I hung up before my mother could protest, grabbed my jacket, and dodged to the front door through stacked moving boxes.

I hurried down my front walk, scanning the scene. A wide swath of weeds in the Unabomber's front yard had already burned to the ground. His house sat at the very end of our short dead-end street, slightly askew, as if it had wandered in from the country and carelessly flumped down. Which was probably backwards--it looked like a small farmhouse, overrun by the suburbs decades ago when the nature preserve behind us was still cow pasture.

The other houses, tidy middle-aged ranches and Cape Cods, clustered round the cul-de-sac as if having a pleasant coffee klatch. Too bad their yards were empty. No surging mob armed with questions and buckets. Nobody to casually ask what the story was with my next-door neighbor. And I didn't know these people well enough to ring doorbells and ask for backup.

In fact, everybody I did know in town--my ex-husband Jeff's family, former co-workers in the family business, our friends, our old neighbors, our kids--was at Jeff's wedding. My folks and brothers had gone back to my hometown up north, after helping me move in. My chest tightened. For the first time I could remember, I was completely on my own.

I slowed, considering. I could confront a big stranger single-handed. Or I could bother some other strangers, and look nervous and officious if this guy had his fire under control.

I headed for the Unabomber's house.

A haphazard flagstone path straggled through the charred stubble and past the front porch; I followed the tang of smoke and the hiss of flames to the back yard. Chances were, he wasn't as alarming as he looked. He might appreciate a helping hand. He might even have a perfectly rational reason for setting his lawn on fire.

I rounded the corner of the garage.

My tall raw-boned neighbor (consider saying "the Unabomber") leaned on a spade, watching flames lick out from a wide black patch dusted with skeletal ash. The smoke was gauzy now, but the air trembled with heat, and as the fire reached a stand of waist-high weeds, it poured up the tough stems, drenching them in flame. My eyes stung as I drew near. I coughed.

The man turned.


I'd probably read the full five pages, but this is a slow start. You've taken 750 words -3 pages- to set a fire and get us almost to the plot. I think a ruthless paring of the backstory and set up is in order. I also don't get a sense of a distinctive and compelling voice here. Cozies need that. It's really really hard to have much new in the plot department for a cozy, which makes voice all that more important.

7 comments:

Maprilynne said...

I was very into this hook (it's one I read to my family over Christmas when I was trying to explain the CoM and what a hook was. I used this as my example of a great one and they all agreed.) I think the novel could be really, REALLY great. But as Miss Snark said, there is a lot of overwriting here. I just don't care how the smoke billows through the slats in the fence, tell why he's burning it!
I would really LOVE to see this story trimmed and on the morket some day. I mean that. The novel has awesome potential. I hope you don't give up on this!!!

Maprilynne

Virginia Miss said...

this shows promise but needs some pruning.

here are some suggestions:

in the first paragraph:

Heavy smoke spilled into my brand-new backyard. Time for drastic action.

Cut paragraph five down to simply "mom."

Eliminate paragraph eight altogether.

Revise paragraphs 10-12: "There aren’t any hillbillies in Wisconsin." He was more like the unabomber. "Look, I've got to--"

"Ned doesn't think he's a hillbilly either," reported my mother.

Ash whirled high above the fence backing onto a brushy nature preserve. It could all go up in a minute. "I'm heading over there now. Call you back." I hung up before my mother could protest.


After that, ruthlessly prune to get us to the unabomber sooner.

Kathy said...

Miss Snark, heartfelt thanks. I'm just starting my first rewrite on this story, and feedback from a genuine pro is priceless. I'm sharpening my paring knife even as I type.

The "no compelling voice" thing – uh-oh. Not sure how to attack that, but at least now I know it's something to work on. Maybe I'll reread the first five pages of my favorite cozies (and Entry #35, above) focusing on pacing and voice, and see what they teach me.

Again, thank you for grabbing me by the shoulders, turning me toward the right path, and giving a shove. I don't know whether this story will ever reach publishability, but thanks to you, it will definitely get closer.

Kathy

Oh, and Maprilynne -- thank you too for your feedback and encouragement.

Fuchsia Groan said...

But she's Midwestern and "nice"! Maybe a generic voice is in order... one that gradually gets more distinctive and assured as she solves the mystery.

I thought this was well-paced, and I like the level of description-- but I'm not a big mystery fan, and I thought The Corrections was only a little bit overwritten, so take that for what it's worth.

McKoala said...

The narrative voice didn't grip me, but I loved the conversation with the mother. 'Mom, the neighbourhood is on fire' 'oooh, Ned did you hear that'. Maybe it could be trimmed a bit, also the description of the neighborhood - it seems to take her a while to get to his house. Could you leave the back story for later?

Had you considered starting with: "Mom. I'm sorry, but I need to hang up. The man next door seems to be torching the neighborhood." ? That would grab me!

Anonymous said...

I hate to do this, but I have to totally disagree with most of above! I thought the pacing was great and I loved the part about the Mom going on and on, and I liked the backstory, too! Don't pare down too much, writer! Or you'll lose valuable character/story. I liked the voice, too.

Twill said...

I'll drop somewhere in between the various comments. I liked the voice, especially the personification (anthropomorphizing?) of the houses.

But I think it could be cut to get to the confrontation faster and on to whatever else is going to happen.