HH Com Rd 2 -#7 (115)

3:14am, Friday, June 25 (hook here)

38o39.715’N 074o34.274’W

The WITCH, North Atlantic, 23 nautical miles southeast of Cape May, NJ

Alone at the helm, shivering in the predawn darkness, Hazel Moran listened between the soft rushing of the waves for sounds of any other presence. Guided by the familiar red glow of the compass she headed the boat through the night, while the dim green radar display monitored the empty spread of ocean for unwanted company. To the west the coast had vanished, swallowed by the horizon, leaving nothing but endless sea. Beneath the overcast sky, the Witch surged forward under full sail, cutting through the offshore Atlantic swells without running lights to reveal the small schooner’s position. There was no sound of luffing and no strain on the wheel as the Witch moved in balance with the waves and the steady south-west wind. The damp air was warm and heavy; by afternoon storms would roll through the Jersey shore.

Hazel switched on the flashlight, aiming the beam astern. The weather-beaten dinghy dragged reluctantly in the Witch’s wake, like a sacrificial lamb sensing its fate. It hadn’t sunk yet, but rode low as water seeped through loose seams. She shined the light on her watch for a moment, then switched it off, letting the darkness close back in. It was 3:22 on June 25th. Sunrise was an hour away, and her eighteenth birthday was in two weeks, though over the last night she began to wonder if she’d see either one.

For a moment she caught her reflection in the dark tachometer gauge, her small face framed by a tangle of long, dark curls, her brown eyes wide and troubled. Normally Hazel enjoyed the night watch, miles from shore during the hours before the sun came up, when everything else in the world disappeared. Normally the mahogany wheel, worn smooth from a century of use, was comforting, but adrenalin still raced through her and she fought to keep from shaking. Normally, there wasn’t a dead body onboard.

There was one positive side to the deceased cargo. At least now her father believed her. Only the night before, he said she was just being melodramatic. Actually, “full of shit,” was how he put it, words usually reserved for Micah. She should have been honored. Micah was always ‘full of shit,’ she was ‘melodramatic’, which was just a polite way of saying the same thing. “I think you’ve been reading too many Travis McGees,” her father said when she tried to explain how her P.O.S Miata ended out parked beneath thirteen feet of water. He didn’t buy her story of outrunning masked gunmen in a Ford Explorer. Even his friend Joe agreed that pushed the limits of credibility. Her father alternated between relief that she survived her long drive off a short pier and frustration that she held to such an elaborate lie. Just tell the truth, he insisted, and she’d be in less trouble. Just admit she was screwing around and miscalculated one of her high-speed drifting skids into the lot. It was a maneuver she’d honed to perfection, and yet another driving technique her father banned, arguing she’d either get herself killed or raise his insurance rates. It was hard to tell which worried him more.

“Stop lying,” he said. Over and over. He wouldn’t listen.

But now she had proof. She nearly said, “I told you so,” but the words choked in her throat.

The Witch plunged into a wave, taking spray over the bow as she drifted off course. Hazel shifted the wheel, watching the compass as she returned to a heading of 139o. Her destination was deep water, the deeper the better. The depth finder confirmed the ocean’s bottom, over one hundred feet below, gradually dropping away.

The companionway banged open, startling her. Light from an oil lamp spilled out across the deck as Joe came above. Sweat glistened from his shaved head and thick neck, soaking his shirt and making the octopus tattooed over his arm seem even more realistic. He staggered to the rail, gulping mouthfuls of fresh air, looking like a queasy pit-bull. Her father emerged from below, and he studied her with concern. His broad shoulders hung with exhaustion, sweat slicked back his long hair, and the strain in his eyes made him look older than his thirty-six years. “She’s still in shock,” Ian said, half to himself.

Joe rubbed the stubble on his chin and scanned the darkness. “All clear?”

Do you buy description by the gallon?
This is so over wrought I'm thinking Puccini should write the score.


Contrast this with:

It was to have been a quiet evening at home.

Home is the Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-018, Bahia Mar; Lauderdale.

Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtain, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you are no longer check to jowl with the random activities aboard the neighbor craft. You could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap.

Because it is a room aboard, I call it the lounge, and because that is one of the primary activities.

I was sprawled on a deep curve of the corner couch, studying charts of the keys trying to work up enough enthusiasm and energy to

which is the opening of The Deep Blue Good Bye by John D. Macdonald.

I've stopped reading after paragraph one.


Anonymous said...

I personally loved this, and would gladly read on to find out about the body, about the car, about Micah, pretty much about everything. I don't think this prose is at all overblown.

Good luck, author!

Anonymous said...

Come on Snark, it's Puccini!

Anonymous said...

Well, Old McDonald had it wrong. It's "batten the hatches" not "button the hatches." Off to the slush pile with you, McDonald.

Love your comments, though, Miss Snark. I just keep learning more and more.

Anonymous said...

"For a moment she caught her reflection in the dark tachometer gauge, her small face . . . "

Isn't this the old see-myself-in-the mirror trick that is expressly forbidden?

Maybe if it were a dream sequence, and all the characters were rabbits . . .

Anonymous said...

I thought the first two paragraphs were lovely -- brooding and atmospheric.

My problem came at paragraph three, when the character "caught her reflection" in the water. This is a cheap, easy, and hackneyed way to introduce a character description. And honestly, at this stage of the story, I don't care that she has long, dark curls, I only care about what she's *doing*.

The next few paragraphs are heavy with backstory. Supposedly, we're listening to Hazel's thoughts. So why is she thinking about what her dad said, or her rivalry with Micah? That's all in the past -- Hazel would be thinking about the present or the future, like what she's going to do with this body.

Author, don't worry about spelling everything out. Your readers are smart, they will catch up if you let them.

Just Me said...

Well, dang. And here I was in the dark sea at night, lulled by the rhythm of these words that so perfectly evoke the lolling, sloshing, rolling water, drifting along with the heroine's thoughts as she guides the old vessel, drawn into her dilemma....

Please, author: query widely. I can't be the only person here who wants to keep reading this.

Best wishes and good luck,
Just Me

Kate said...

Start at paragraph three, sentence two. Ditch the really technical terms (we don't need to know that she's turned 190 degrees, we just need to know she's turned east, west, north, south, and is heading out into deeper water). "Normally, Hazel liked the night watch when sailing The Witch off Cape May. She liked being miles from shore during the hours before the sun came up, when everything else in the world disappeared." Etc. I, too, would like to know about the body, and I kind of like that her dad told her she's full of shit, and that's a step up from "being melodramatic".

Anonymous said...

I was okay until you cut away to the dinghy and her description and the mahagony wheel, but you really lost me when you got into all the backstory about her dad.

Stay with your story. Stay with the action. Bring all that other stuff in later, if at all.

Some nice phrasing--if a little over done--and you obviously have been aboard a sailboat.

Good luck.


Anonymous said...

I was kind of startled that an almost 18-y.o. had a father who was only 36. Precocious young fellow he was, eh?

Knightsjest said...

Your hook is exciting and this can be too, you need to cut it back a lot though and particularly 'kill your darlings'. Your mc comes across as tough and resourceful in the hook so give us a bit more of that (not that she has to be invulnerable but show both).

Anonymous said...

Starting at "Normally, Hazel enjoyed the night watch..." (which has the nice paragraph ender "Normally, there wasn't a dead body on board.") would make this stand out for me.

Anonymous said...

I rather loved it. I would buy this book in a heart beat and don't think it's overblown at all.

One of the main things that I'm beginning to loathe in the cookie cutter novels that are being churned out is that there is a dearth of description. Scenes and situations cut and jump all over the place and I never am able to get a sense of where the characters are or if there is anything around them other than a cardboard set sculpted for a blank stage.

Please query this out. I would love to see what happens in the story. Good Luck!

Kat said...

I agree that there's too much description and much of it is rather... overwrought. I found myself skimming the first few paragraphs.

But at "There was one positive side to the deceased cargo. At least now her father believed her," I started paying attention. This started sounding like fun.

Severe cuts are probably in order, but I think this one has real promise.

Anonymous said...

Keep all the technical talk. It's gold. Keep the atmosphere, both figurative and literal.

Ditch the repetition: "Only the night before, he said she was just being melodramatic...way of saying the same thing." You've said this twice.

I'd trim it and tighten it, but it's evocative and portentious--a great start. It's not overwrought; it's just about 15% too wordy.

Anonymous said...

I stopped reading, too: it’s repetitive and somewhat inconsistent. For examples, at the helm tells us she’s on a boat. (You don’t need to repeat) Predawn darkness tells us its sometime in the night closer to morning (no need to repeat); if it’s night, how can she see the sky is overcast? Full moon or is this a time transition within the same paragraph? Apparently not: lights are still needed to see the boat’s position. Then again, you shift to talk of afternoon storms, and back to needing a light. Listening for any other presence suggests potential unwanted company. Swallowed by the horizon repeats vanished. You can pare a lot down. Good luck.

Virginia Miss said...

I found the opening slow but atmospheric, so I did keep reading. However, I suggest cutting so we get to the interesting bits sooner: "Sunrise was an hour away" and the "dead body" line. I think they're more important than some of the description and the weather forecast.

I agree with the previous commenters that looking in a mirror or mirrorlike surface as a device to describe the narrator is hackneyed.

I didn't like getting to backstory so suddenly, but then, the backstory sounded more exciting...maybe your story begins with the action, the chase scene that ends in driving her Miata off the pier?

Zany Mom said...

I don't mind atmosphere, as it complements the action. I like a lot of the imagery here. But I agree that this needs some serious pruning.

Anonymous said...

This needs cuts of lumberjack proportions. Chainsaw, please.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I liked the first paragraph, but then it gets too wordy and backstory-ish. Description is like spices, use it sparingly and in the right places and it can do lots for the atmosphere of a book, but if there's description in every paragraph, it tastes over-salted. Cut down on the spices and bring in the action earlier, and I'd read it.

The MacDonald opening Miss Snark quotes doesn't do it for me, it's pretentious, imho. Back on the shelves with that one. :)

You see how widely tastes vary.

Maria said...

I loved this. The best writing we've seen so far. I'd keep reading.

McKoala said...

snarl, blogger ate my first post.

The gist of it was that I was fine with the sailortalk and I didn't hate the description, but thought that it could be trimmed, or perhaps made more show than tell. e.g. how does the wheel actually feel in her hands? Steady and warm? Tense and cold? I agree that we don't need to know what she looked like at this stage, and especially not in this way and for me there was too much back story. A hint would be great - maybe just the Miata - something to let us know that something big has happened - but what? Tantalise us.

Overall I was in two minds about this. I'd probably read on for now, because although the writing isn't really to my taste it is fine as writing goes.

Anonymous said...

The style seems too literary, or at least too leisurely, for a murder mystery. You have some good turns of phrase, and I appreciate the realistic sense of being under sail, but as others said, prune!

You could try cutting any passage that isn't an actual plot point by 50% minimum, and at this point just tease us with backstory.

I hope you'll keep at this and pull it together -- I would read this book. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

This one's a straight-to-paperback novel. Lots of people love them. Only writers notice the method you use to show what the lead looks like. Unless more than one character catches sight of their reflection, most readers won't notice you did that. Of course, you could have someone smooth the tangle of long, dark curls that frame her face away from her wide eyes at some point in the story.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, MacDonald pretentious! I want to be that pretentious! Written in 1964, TDBG was the first of a 21 book series that is still in print. In fact, Random House Publishing released a whole line of MacDonald mass-market paperbacks in 1996. MacDonald died in 1987.

Beth said...

This is your opening:

It was 3:22 on June 25th. Sunrise was an hour away, and her eighteenth birthday was in two weeks, though over the last night she began to wonder if she’d see either one.

Then, trim back on the excess(particularly the reflection description; it's a cliche) and lose most of the backstory. Cut everything between "At least now her father believed her" and "The Witch plunged...". Just get to the action. Leave a sense of mystery. You want to pose questions, not answer them. Yet.

~Rebecca Anne~ said...

I personally enjoy a descriptive writer, so your style complimented my tastes in reading. The fine line between too much and too little is subjective. I agree with one of the annons, prune roughly 20% of the description and trust your readers to build the rest from your story.

Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

I really liked this, author. And although I did feel the description was a little over the top, it wasn't enough to stop me from reading. And c'mon. McDonald was a master. He learned that bare-bones beauty after years of labor. Keep your course and you'll get there too.

Rhease said...

I found myself drawn in by the rhythm of your prose and by the time she was joined on deck I cared what was going to happen. As others have said: query widely - you'll find someone that likes this. Oh, and do lose the reflection-description - it is contrived :)
Well done.

Richard Lewis said...

I reckon this is a good example of personal taste and, as has been commented, why one should query widely.

A lot of people won't read anything nautical, just as many people won't read anything horse-y.

I liked this pretty much as is. Some of the comments seem to be suggesting that you try writing a different style than what comes naturally and gives this voice. Sure a line edit would be helpful but that doesn't mean change the style. I'd read on.

Nancy Beck said...

I'll have to disagree with Miss Snark on this one. ::ducks::

I enjoyed the voice on this one, and although I didn't overly enjoy that huge paragraph (too much backstory for my taste), I think I would keep the first 2 or 3 sentences of that bigg'n because at least that part of that paragraph made me want to read more.

In fact, if you tightened this by getting rid of most of the backstory, I'd definitely read it.

Plus it's set in Jersey. What's not to like? ;-)

Good luck with it!


Anonymous said...

I like the style, but feel that too much of the backstory is being told not shown. Pare down your beginning to a few lines, set us up for the flashback, and then let us see the earlier events unfold as Hazel lives through them. I think you will find that this fixes the excessive description problem Miss Snark pointed out.

Anonymous said...

The author here...

Thank you, Miss Snark and all who posted their comments, for your input. It allowed me a fresh perspective on my writing, (and reflections in gauges). Some trimming and reshuffling is in order, though I will say sailing in the dark, your mind wanders through all your problems, especially ones that tie to the present problem. That includes changes in the weather and upcoming storms.

I like Kate's suggestion for a better starting point. The technical, however, will stay... it plays into the story at key points. In few more sentences, the body, some gasoline, matches and the leaky dinghy take center stage.
Hazel starts more vulnerable, but has a tough time ahead, and will change in the process.

Overcast night = no stars for reference, navigation-wise. Damp south-west wind = ugly weather in coming hours, something anyone under sail must ALWAYS keep in mind. But I must keep in mind the majority of my readers haven't spent their lives around boats.

Keep the comments coming... they are appreciated.

Unknown said...

I'd read more.

Author -- you might want to consider starting with driving off the pier. That would be better told in an active voice rather than as backstory. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

The author here again...

Malia said: "Author -- you might want to consider starting with driving off the pier"

I nearly ruined my keyboard! Out of context, it's too funny! I know I've got some trimming and revising... but that's a bit drastic.

But seriously. Originally I had, but revised it out. I'm going to trim the back-story, tease a bit more and tell a bit less, and hopefully that keeps the momentum.

Thanks again for all the comments!

Blogless Troll said...

Gabriele C. (MacDonald hater), I agree he can come off as pretensious from time to time, but all the How To Make Your Characters Breathe books in the world can't teach you half of what one Travis McGee novel can.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the voters here who liked this. I love the description. Too many times I am lost in a book that jumps from place to place without giving me a sense of where I am. Also, totally agree that readers who are writers view things differently. The average reader would swallow this in, not worry about backstory and the like. Plus, anyone read the book Twilight by Meyer? Hello, like 3 chapters of rain, sleeping, wet, school, rain, wet....ALL description, no action... It seems like reader who are just readers love the description of everything to the last detail.

Anonymous said...

The fact that Gabriele C. would make a sniffy rejection of John D. MacDonald and then say, "it's all just taste" made me die laughing.

Yeah, it's all just taste. Some people have none.

Anyone who'd laud an unknown above a much-published author based on a few lines of the latter's work... well, you have to bear that in mind when considering the comments that follow.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious how many other authors in the crapometer have had their work held up against a master such as MacDonald.

The prose may be wordy, but it seems to have appeal. Some pruning, revising, and clearly people would read it. I've seen some equally overdescriptive works win praise, yet fail to hold my interest. Fantasy, culinary mysteries and chiclit do nothing for me, and thats my personal taste. Does that mean I have no taste, just because it doesn't match someone else's? Thank dog we all have different tastes, or publishers would be looking for a very narrow selection. What fun would that be?