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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Critting THE LAST ORPHANS: just needs some tightening

A sci-fi/adventure YA called The Last Orphans goes under the red pen...

Chapter 1

Dad twisted around and glared, the veins in his leathery neck and temple bulging.

“You can’t keep carrying on about it, Shane,” he yelled. “She’s dead! That’s the short and sweet. Time to grow up and face the fact.>>IMO, you don't need that line.

“Bill,” Jackie shrieked, “look where you’re going!” >>I see why you need her name in here, but there must be some way to avoid breaking up the tension in her words. "Bill! Look where you're going!" Aunt Jackie pointed at the oncoming truck beyond the windshield. 

Spinning forward, Dad jerked the wheel. The tires screeched, and the car veered back into its lane. Shane’s body whipped hard to the left and then right, his head slamming into the window with a loud thunk. A lifted pick-up almost flattened the ancient station wagon. It swerved toward the opposite shoulder, roaring by with its horn blaring and the driver hanging his finger out at them. Rubbing the lump growing on the side of his skull, Shane almost wished the truck had put him out of his misery. >>This sequence had me thinking Shane was much smaller and younger, maybe 10 or 12, until later in the scene. 

By the time Dad got his window down and hurled a mouthful of curse words back at the truck, it was already a quarter-mile down the road.

“Such a tough guy,” Shane muttered sarcastically under his breath.

“What did you say, boy?” Dad shouted, his knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel so hard. At least this time he kept his eyes facing forward.

“Nothing,” Shane replied and looked out at the rolling hills covered in brown fescue, pastures separated by stands of twisted pine trees and rusting barbwire.

Jackie lit a Virginia Slim, her hands visibly trembling. She took a deep drag and rolled her window down a crack to pull out some of the disgusting smoke.

“You have got to be the worst driver alive,” she seethed between puffs.

“Well, it’s that one’s fault,” Dad retorted with a defensive whine in his tone, like he always did when she laid into him. Pointing his thumb at the backseat, he glared at Shane in the rearview mirror, the car drifting across the centerline again.

“You still cry’n?” >>who said this?

Shane was, but it wasn’t like he sobbed inconsolably. The silent tears in his eyes trickled out for two very good reasons. One—Shane had loved Granny. She was the sanest person in his jacked-up family. She had always been there when he needed a place to run to, a place where he could find a minute of peace. And now she was gone. It felt like a round bale of hay—those big ones full of moldy thistle that they fed to cattle—sat on his chest. Reason two—Shane’s boiling anger towards his dad made him want to punch something. With each passing moment, the pressure of his bottled-up rage increased, forcing hot tears to seep out of his eyes. Dad getting drunk and being a prick to him in private was one thing. Spewing all that crap about Granny at the reception—for that he deserved to have his nose busted. And he didn’t even have the decency to wear a suit to the funeral, showing up in his greasy blue work Dickies with his stupid name above the shirt pocket.

Dad slammed on the brakes and swerved off onto the shoulder. Gravel tinged against the corroded bottom of the musty old car, and a cloud of dust engulfed it as it skidded to a halt. He jumped out and ran around the front to get to Shane’s door, squatting down so he could glower at him the whole way. Dad pulled Shane’s door open so hard, it was a miracle it didn’t come off its creaking thirty-year-old hinges. >>Heh, difficult to run when you're squatting. Needs clarification.

“Get the hell out!”

Shane stared up at him, unsure how to proceed.

“I said get out, damn it,” Dad repeated, spittle flying from his mouth. “I won’t have a sixteen-year-old boy bawl’n like a little girl all the way home. Man up or walk.”

Too much wine had left Dad’s teeth and lips stained red, and Shane could smell the alcohol, even over the foul stench of Jackie’s cigarette. His aunt had whispered an apology to Shane, saying she’d only provided wine because she didn’t think his dad would drink it. What she hadn’t realized was that Dad had become such a raging alcoholic that he would’ve drunk turpentine if she’d put it out.

His father’s eyes widened, and his fists balled up. Shane expected Dad to grab him and try to drag him from the car. >>new paragraph

“You know what?” Shane shouted. Gritting his teeth, he climbed out. He had grown a lot in the last two years; he wasn’t the little boy scared of the big man anymore. Continuing in a quieter yet meaner voice, Shane put all the hate he could into each word, “I want nothing more than to be out of your stupid car.” >>I'd make that last line shorter. When people are angry, they tend to say less IME.

Standing there with his arms crossed over his chest, Shane stared down at his father’s sunburned bald head, ready to swap blows. Dad pulled his oil-stained hand away from the car door and straightened up in an obvious attempt to be taller. He huffed angrily, and his breath smelled like another DUI in the making.

Was he daring Shane to hit him? Why not, it might do him some good, Shane thought. And if he could knock him out, he’d be keeping him from driving drunk. It’d be a community service.

Dad leaned back a little, like he sensed Shane’s thoughts. The whiskers of his thick red and gray mustache pulled down on the sides and twitched. The muscles in his forearms, swollen from twenty years of work as a mechanic, rippled. His big scarred knuckles protruded outward as his fists clenched tighter. Shane braced himself, ready to fight. He’d taken a thousand hits on the football field; he could certainly handle one from this old man.

“Don’t come home ‘til you’re done blubber’n,” Dad growled with faltering bravado.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Shane replied and slammed the door so hard the car’s decrepit suspension complained with loud reverberating squeaks.

Hesitating, Dad appeared indecisive for a moment. And then he pivoted away and stomped back around the front of the car. He hopped in and must’ve floored the accelerator, because the engine groaned for a moment, threatening to stall. With a noxious puff of black exhaust, it roared to life and spun the bald rear tires in the dusty gravel on the side of the road.

Shane turned away and covered his face just in time. Once the rocks stopped pelting him, he picked one up and threw it with all his strength at the smoke and dirt cloud into which the car had disappeared. His shoulder hurting from the effort, he stumbled away from the road to get out of the choking plume and fell. When he rolled to a stop at the bottom of the ditch, he just lay there on his back in his Sunday finest. >>seems unlikely, if he's a football player

Granny had bought him the black suit to wear on special occasions, getting it a little on the bigger side so he’d get use out of it for a few years. She’d be sad to see it abused like this. It upset Shane something fierce. He felt more important when he wore the suit, felt like he was going places, like he could escape Loserville and go see the world. Of course his dad had to ruin it, just like he ruined everything else.

After Shane had calmed down and caught his breath, he decided it felt good just to lay there on the cool ground for a minute. Granny had always loved dirt, saying it strengthened her connection to God when she touched it. She liked to walk barefoot around her small garden where she grew most of her food. He remembered sitting next to her on the cool strip of grass that grew down the center, trying to count the stars. How could he know that last Saturday was the last time he’d ever get to do that with her, that she’d be dead two days later?

Biting the side of his tongue and rubbing his nose, Shane tried to suppress the tears. Granny was in a box, in the dirt, and there wasn’t jack he could do about it. The idea of being buried after he died gave Shane the heebie-jeebies, but it didn’t bother Granny. On that last night, laying in the yard, she’d said that she didn’t even need a coffin, that she’d rather have the cool soil right up against her skin. It was like she knew she’d die soon, even though she had seemed fitter than Shane at the time.

Against Granny’s wishes, his aunt who’d flown in from New York bought the finest box she could afford and spent a mint on the reception. He knew that was just her way of doing something nice for Granny, but he wished she hadn’t provided booze. Dad wouldn’t have acted like such an idiot if it weren’t for the wine. In this small town, it seemed everyone knew everything about everyone else. Shane expected the commotion Dad had created would be popular gossip for the next few months.

I suppose I should comment on the lack of sci-fi, but I figure it'll come even though I have cast the late-70s Volaré station wagon that my parents used to drive in the role of Shane's dad's car. That steel dinosaur was about as far from sci-fi as you can get, lol. 

You've got good voice, except for a few lapses which I hit with the yellow highlighter. Dad's bits of slang don't seem entirely necessary, TBH. I think you've done enough to demonstrate that he's drunk.

As a beginning, it's a little soft but the voice and the obvious problem between Shane and his dad carries it. You started with drama, which is the right place to start. Thumbs up, overall. 


Charity Bradford said...

I agree with L. Half way through I started to wonder where and how this would become scifi. However, I enjoyed your voice.

Here's one spot I noted:
Hesitating, Dad appeared indecisive for a moment.

You can drop the "appeared indecisive for a moment" that's what hesitating means. Dad can hesitate and then pivot away.

All in all, I'd keep reading to see where this is going.

Patchi said...

I really like the voice too.

I would have liked a little more grounding at the beginning to let me know they were in a car. Maybe "Dad twisted away from the steering wheel and glared" would help Aunt Jackie's shriek make more sense.

I'd keep reading.

nwharrisbooks said...

Wonderful advice, thanks everyone! Yeah, not sure SciFi is the right genre for this book. It's maybe more action adventure than anything else. Only thing science fiction about it is a government weapon that malfunctions and causes all the animals and insects to turn on the adults. I always have trouble labeling my work and putting a genre on it. Definitely going to apply these changes to tighten this up. And you'll see the query for this one in query con! Bent Agency--so excited!

Huntress, aka CD Coffelt said...

Big thumbs up.

While some of the echoes need toned down (Show the dad's anger with one or two examples then let it be), a reference to a lifted pickup (huh?), I was sincerely impressed with the Voice.

Every region in the county has a colloquial way of talking. Like folks call a soft drink 'pop' in one place and 'soda' in another. You and I must come from similar regions because the dad's slang was very familiar.

This line is especially excellent:
“You have got to be the worst driver alive,” she seethed between puffs.

Some places you commit what I term in myself as the Duh structure. For example:
"Jackie lit a Virginia Slim, her hands visibly trembling."
For the MC to see her hand was trembling it would have to be visible...DUH.

I love this. Makes me want to see what happens.

nwharrisbooks said...

Thanks Huntress! Yes, the setting is from the neck of the woods whence I grew up, the north Georgia mountains. It was a fun book to write because I could use so much slang, but also tricky because I don't want to lose the reader by getting too deep into the dialect. I'm sure you'd love some of the other setting references that come up later in the story, kudzu, chicken houses, etc.

Thanks for the advice on the echoes and Duh structure issues. Funny how hard it is to keep writing simple and not go overboard and describe stuff too much (so important to respect the reader's intelligence). Going to polish based on your advice now. ;-)