Our second submission for July’s First Impressions comes from Stacie Dempsey. This is YA speculative fiction entitled DREAMKATCHER.
I woke with a jolt of familiarity. There was a memory digging footholds into my brain trying to resurface. The imagined stench of a charred experiment gone wrong lingering in my nose. Behind my still closed eyes I can see the outline of the old brick laboratory, black against the waking sky, flames escaping through its windows and matching the sky’s intensity. My heart pounds as I try to make my way back in. Heat sears my cheeks just as tears come flooding down to cool them. Their trapped cries resonate in my ears as a lone thought repeats in my head… I have to save them.
This dream clings to my consciousness, hanging like a low fog. A fog that a thousand suns couldn’t lift. There’s only one way to rid these terrible thoughts from my mind, something I should have done last night. I reach for the BAND on my wrist, knowing what I will find before I see it there. Blank screen, battery dead.
As I stumble across the room, limbs still heavy with sleep, my body begins convulsing with sobs. Overwhelming pain takes over and threatens to pull me back into the abyss of depression. It’s as if each sob slices into my soul, fracturing it until I’m spread thin enough to be carried away by the morning breeze. Wrapping my arms around myself I attempt to pull the pieces of me back together long enough to reach the port.
Racing the last five feet to the wall, I hold my wrist against the port ready to evict the nightmare from my mind. The glass panel glows red, confirming it’s dead battery and my failure to sync. As the BAND charges the panel slowly changes from red to yellow and finally green. The sync begins and I can feel my thoughts flowing out of me like a stream. It’s as if a dam has been released and is washing away these painful memories that infest my sleep.
Four years later and still the same nightmare plagues my thoughts. The same feeling that I should have done more, I should have tried harder to get them out. The same feeling of guilt for having survived.
This latest episode marks the second time this month I’ve forgotten to keep my BAND charged. Gram will be furious when she finds out. “Our BAND’s are meant to relieve the burden the day’s thoughts have on our soul. Without a proper sync each night we won’t be able to make it through the day”. It won’t be the first time I’ve received this lecture. Taking one last deep breath, I pull myself together and head downstairs to face Gram.
This first page poses many questions for the reader: What was the experiment that went so wrong? Who died in the fire? What do these BANDS do – and does everyone wear one, or only people who’ve undergone a trauma like this narrator? These are all things that will engage our interest and make us want to turn the page!
With that said, I should mention (and if I don’t, someone else will) that agents and editors often advise writers NOT to start their manuscripts with a dream or with waking up in the morning. This is because they see so many manuscripts beginning this way that the “dream/wake up start” doesn’t interest them anymore. Of course, there are always best-selling exceptions. The Hunger Games, for instance, starts with Katniss waking up and going about her morning routine. However, as a new writer seeking to attract the attention of an agent or editor, you might want to look for a different and more unique place to begin this story.
Secondly, I think the narrative could be tighter. Paragraphs describing her emotions would have more impact if they were shortened. Let’s take the third paragraph, for instance. There are four sentences: two describing her physical response and actions, two describing her internal feelings. Showing emotion is always recommended over telling emotion, although internal thoughts often help us connect with the character. I’d suggest keeping the physical responses, picking the best way to express her internal grief, and cutting the other sentence.
Likewise, many sentences could be shortened to greater effect. For example: Behind my still closed eyes I can see the outline of the old brick laboratory, black against the waking sky, flames escaping through its windows and matching the sky’s intensity. A simpler version would sharpen the image for us and make it more memorable: Behind my closed eyes I see the outline of the old brick laboratory against the waking sky, flames escaping through its windows.
Finally, I was shaky on the details of the BAND and her failure to charge it. Would the BAND have prevented her dreams – or simply washed away the pain of them? Did she realize she’d forgotten to charge it because she had the dream, or because the emotion was affecting her so much? I think if you tighten your paragraphs and sentences, these points will be clarified. And of course, if you do decide to start the story at a point other than waking from a dream, the BAND might end up being introduced in a different way.
Readers, any thoughts you’d like to share with Stacie? I’d like to thank Stacie for sharing her page with us and point you in the direction of her blog: Smocus, Smocus. Be sure to check out the feedback from Krystalyn and Marcy, too!
I guess my one comment is that it’s all very dramatic for a beginning. I mean, I’m not very connected to the character yet, so the sobbing and feelings like she’s falling apart don’t really mean much to me yet.
For example: “As I stumble across the room, limbs still heavy with sleep, my body begins convulsing with sobs. Overwhelming pain takes over and threatens to pull me back into the abyss of depression. It’s as if each sob slices into my soul, fracturing it until I’m spread thin enough to be carried away by the morning breeze. Wrapping my arms around myself I attempt to pull the pieces of me back together long enough to reach the port.”
If this were later in the book when I know more about your character, I might feel more empathy, but starting with them when I’m not connected to your character makes the emotions seem hollow and dramatic. Especially because you mention that this event happened four years ago. If she’s still that heavily affected four years later, well…
In my mind, if she feels like she’s the cause, maybe she didn’t charge her BAND on purpose, because she feels guilty and feels like she needs to carry that guilt around like a numb fog because she’s responsible. That would make sense to me as a reader. But if she’s still sobbing and shattering in pieces, desperate to get rid of the emotions, it paints her as being a little too crazy for me.
This really got me interested. I love the imagery, but agree with Dianne that it could be a bit tighter.
But…I don’t like the first line. “jolt of familiarity” in itself is cliche – that on top of waking up set the wrong tone. If you start with the second line, it would be stronger (IMO).
It worked that I’m now curious about the bands, but you’re right it could be tighter. Less is always more, right?
I’m a real dystopian fan and would have definitely continued reading. It has a great, dark air to it, and the hints at the problems are very present. Tons of questions open up in those first paragraphs, making me want to read on.
My first suggestion is to not open with a waking up from a dream scene. As Dianne said, agents say that turns them off. Also, a lot of the sentences in the first couple of paragraphs have ‘ing’ words and feel long. A little tightening up and shortening would help the flow. I’m also curious about the BAND. This doesn’t need to be fully described, but a tiny bit more information (what the abbreviation stands for, or a better idea of what it looks like or a glimpse at its history) would help, anything to give it a more concrete stand in the mind.
But as said, you have me wanting to read further.
I have to agree that a dream is not necessarily a good place to start a story, for the reasons given. Still, I like the prose and there are a lot of things to wonder about. If dreams weren’t so cliche, this opening may work with a little tightening. The story itself looks like something I would be interested in reading. Maybe you could present the nightmares that keep coming back in a different way?
I’m wondering if the dream could be reworked as memories interrupting her actions, possibly triggered by what she’s doing. That’s almost more haunting than a bad dream because you can’t escape those memories. The story sounds interesting, so I’d hate to see the opening “waking up from a bad dream” stop an agent or editor from reading more. It’s worth revisiting how the memories resurface.
Great writers create worlds and characters and throw one obstacle after another at them. That is not the trick.
The trick is to express all the visceral reactions, concrete and otherwise, to the world and the other players in varying degrees to capture the readers attention and then their heart. 🙂
Anna from Elements of Writing
The first thing that threw me was the change from past tense used in the first 3 lines, to present tense for the rest. Those first 3 should be present tense if the rest is. Dianne’s advice about not starting with a dream or waking up is good, although it didn’t bother me here as it was a so full of interesting info that’s true, and not just dreamed. I like the BAND idea, and some of your prose is really lovely. Technically, you need to get rid of repeated words and phrases (like woke/waking, sky/sky’s, I attempt to pull the pieces of me back together/I pull myself together, etc.); it comes across as repeated info and feels stale. I enjoyed it! Good luck!