Thursday, July 14, 2011


John here.
Two weeks ago, I posted regarding short story writing and openings in particular. I have been working sporadically on this untitled story, and the opening has undergone two rewrites.
This was what we started with:

When the motion sensor was tripped near the Crystal View River, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote looked at the digital clock of her government-issued Chevy Tahoe, knew she had fifteen minutes left in her shift, and cursed the impending overtime, assuming another night-wandering deer triggered the sensor. Then she saw the blood on the while birch tree.

Re-reading it now, two weeks later, I don't much like it--it's slow, the details I have offered (the truck brand, for example) offer very little and could have been learned by looking at Google Images. The other thing is that my goal was to pose a question. It takes a long time to get to it. The opening sentence is 42 words, after all.

Here's the the next version:

When the motion sensor tripped, Peyton Cote cursed. The U.S. Border Patrol Agent had fifteen minutes left in a miserable nightshift. Her uniform shirt was sweat-soaked, her lip was split, and this call would definitely lead to unwanted overtime above and beyond the mandatory ten hours she had already logged.
"Got that?" a voice barked over the radio.
She got it. Knew the location well. Had been there twice this month already.
Another Goddamned deer or kids smoking dope. The fact that the call had come over the radio at 10:45 P.M. bugged her. For more serious matters, the call would come via cell phone, eliminating listeners--those recreational ambulance chasers as well as the more sinister, those who owned radios for more lucrative reasons. This was Northern Maine, after all, and the prescription-drug trafficking had not relented.
But this call was over the radio. The tripped sensor was a deer, no doubt. Except it would still take an hour and a half to prove the damned assumption right.

You can tell that the scene is coming into focus a little for me. For starters, the opening line offers more immediacy (and hopefully more tension). In subsequent lines, I tried to add clarity--not all but some of those pesky who, what, when, where, and why details (I began literary life as a newspaper scribe and still teach composition classes, after all)--as well as sensory detail (the sweat) in an effort to let readers feel what Peyton does (old-fashioned "showing"). The ten-hour shift information is also an attempt to paint detail but also establish this story as a procedural, too, and to do that early. After the first paragraph, dialogue ensued, but I never ever felt engaged with the story. For example, the cell-phone-vs-radio information was relevant but killed the flow.

This the third (and most recent) version is as follows:

The 9mm rounds, fired through a silencer, sounded like quarters dropping to the snow around her.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Peyton Cote rolled to her left, felt her shoulder strike the base of the pine, and moved like a turtle on its shell, burrowing through the snow, until her back was pressed firmly against the base of the thick trunk.
A slug hit the trunk above her, and the tree shook, light snow falling to the ground around her.
How the hell had it come to this? May I see your license and registration? The stupid bastard had even given it to her, watched as she took it to her Chevy Tahoe, and then fired a round through her windshield.
A chunk of the tree, maybe four inches from her skull, leapt into the air, tumbling end over end, landing softly in the snow.
There were three of them. That much she knew. She also knew she had to keep the off her--maintain at least thirty yards.
She leaned out and fired once, twice, and pull back behind the tree.
"Marty. Jesus, look at the blood. Marty say something. Oh, Jesus, Tommy, look at the blood. I think she...what about our mother? Marty, no. What about Mom?"
"We can't leave her out there," a different voice shouted. "She knows. This ends now. It has to."
The gunfire had died out. She knew they were approaching. Afternoon sun was fading. (It got dark before four this far north.) She leaned to her right again, spotted a short squat leather jacket struggled through the three-foot-deep snow. Could hear him wheezing. "Stupid bitch. I'll finish her for you, Marty."
He was weaving and muttering as if delirious. Stoned? Drunk?
Again, she wondered about the overreaction. A shootout? For a traffic stop?
She leaned put, settled the site on his left kneecap and squeezed.
His left leg went back as if if kicked by a horse. He did a 360, landed on his back in the snow, and screamed.
She couldn't see the third man and instinctively pulled back in behind the tree, hunched low, and heard her own breath rasping in and out. Where was he? Her head swiveled, both hand on the 9mm, gun held chest high, barrel pointing up straight out in front of her--not textbook technique, but right not she didn't care. What she cared about was making it home to her son, Tommy. A single mother to a nine-year-old, her priorities were ironclad.

I think this one is much stronger. I don't know the antagonists (and I think it reads this way, too, right now). By the time I finish it, though, I'll know the plot and will go back and flesh those characters out. But I like the progression of Peyton here. The monologue and questions are establishing her voice, conveying back-story, and (again, hopefully--you're the real judge) additional tension. And there are two conflicts at play in this version: the shoot-out (external) and her internal struggle as a single mother (internal). Hopefully, readers also find tension in Peyton's internal battle. After all, she shouldn't be thinking about anything but defending herself at this time. Yet as a single mother, there is always an additional responsibility that her male counterparts don't have--and many don't comprehend.

That's where I'm at. Love to hear what my Type M colleagues and readers think.


Rick Blechta said...

To me, it's very interesting to see the progression of your original inspiration through the three versions. Talk about the story coming into focus!

It also demonstrates just how hard a writer needs to work on their prose in order to make clear all the thoughts behind the words.

Thanks for sharing this, John.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I find this really interesting too. The third version is much more suspenseful and a clear sense of the jeopardy your protagonist is in.

What caught me by surprise was that I saw "Border Patrol" and I was thinking Mexico. Then saw "snow".

Looks like it's going to be a good story.