Words With Just One Beat

Our writing assignment, assigned yesterday by Kathy Stinson:

Kathy: Write a page or so about anything to do about your day, or your week.
ME: That sounds easy…
Kathy: Use words of only one syllable.
ME: Oh. My. God.

On this day, I learned how to write with words of just one beat. You would be shocked at how quick your mind is to use words with more than one beat. It hits home as soon as you try to tie your own self down. You have to use tricks to make the lines work. And then what you write sounds false. Clipped. With no flow.

It hurts to think this way.

I’m just off the phone with one who speaks with words with far more than just one beat. Big words like “Sche. Dule.” and “A. Gen. Diz. A Tion” (no, it’s true, she said that) and “Li. Aise”. And I see the point of this task. Why use big words when small words will do? To make one sound big, of course. The big cheeze who can “A Gen Dize”.

Another phone call. Ack! Too Many Big Words! I’m stuck on words with just one beat! Help me!!

Can’t there just be a nice… me-di-um?

(Picture James’ fingers cramping up with his mind).

Yesterday, in Kathy Stinson’s writing course/group, I had a chance to read a portion of Fathom Five. This is what I read, warts and all:

Chapter Eight: This is No Sound the Earth Owes

Rosemary kept running long after the splashing ovation faded behind her. It was only when she tripped, barking her shins on the stones, that her body took over and told her to rest, or else. She lay gasping, shuddering from shock instead of the cold.

If she wanted any proof she wasn’t in Clarksbury anymore, she had it. Unless the Bruce nuclear power plant had an accident that she wasn’t aware of, Georgian Bay was not populated by flying salamander piranhas.

She supposed the true name of these creatures was something more creative and glamorous, but her mind couldn’t think of an alternate right now. She still had to get her breath back.

As she recovered, she became aware of a throbbing pain on her right forearm. She realized that one of the piranhas, dead now, still had its teeth buried deep under her skin. She sat up and stared. Blood trickled from the bite, down her wrist, and over the back of her hand.

Rosemary worked her fingers into the creature’s mouth and forced the jaws apart with a wet snap. She cast the creature aside and clutched her forearm. The wound bled anew. Now she had time to think about it, it hurt. A lot.

She washed the blood off her arm by cupping water in her other hand. She wasn’t going to chance dipping her bloody arm into the water itself. Fishing through her pocket, she pulled out a handkerchief. With some difficulty, she was able to tie it into place.

She leaned against a boulder and caught the rest of her breath.

Looking around, she saw that she was at the site of another shipwreck. The gunnels of a rotted steamship poked above the waves. Wooden furniture of a sort Rosemary hadn’t seen outside of an antique shop lay scattered about. There was no sign of any people.

She winced as her wound protested a shift of her arm. She turned away from the wreckage, and wondered what to do next.

“The piranhas change nothing,” she said to the air. “I have to find Peter, and I won’t leave until I do.”

No, they change everything. I’m not alone on this world, and the creatures that are here want to eat me.

“I just need to avoid the water,” she replied.

I was hoping to get across that water. The only boats I’ve found are wrecked. What do I do? Grab some rotting planks and ancient nails and build myself a raft?

She leaned forward onto the big rock and buried her face in her hands. “What am I going to do?”

The wind whistled and the waves rolled.

Gradually, Rosemary became aware of a new sound shifting over the rush of water. A high note and a low note sidled into her consciousness so gently that she hardly noticed it. Then the low note began to reverberate in her chest, while the high note plucked at the hairs on the back of her neck.

Rosemary looked up. The sounds were no hallucination, but she was hard pressed to find their source. She scanned the land and water, only catching the fleck of motion beyond the waves by sheer luck.

She focused on that fleck as it grew larger, revealing itself as a boat. It was thin and moved without sail or motor, cutting through waves it had no business cutting through. Two people were on board, a woman at the prow, and a man at the stern. The man held the rudder.

Their mouths were open and the differences in their pitch matched the differences of their frames. The woman looked as thin as a pole, the man was three times her size.

The sounds they made weren’t human. They were felt in the chest and on the back of the neck far more than they were heard by the ear. The notes were too perfect, and neither stopped to take breath.

As the boat neared shore, the sounds faltered, and the boat slowed. The singing stopped when the boat crunched onto the stones.

Rosemary watched the couple crouched behind a large rock. As she suspected, they weren’t human. Their skin was as pale as alabaster and the woman’s red hair stretched beyond the small of her back. The man bore a thick, windswept black beard, and both had eyes which looked around with the intensity of coals.

They were of the race of the woman who had welcomed her to this world, Rosemary realized. Perhaps she should talk to them. They may be like that hostile woman, but they may not have been involved in Peter’s kidnapping. They might know where Peter had been taken and, more importantly, how to get there.

Then the couple grabbed harpoons from their boat, and Rosemary decided to hide a little longer.

As she watched, the couple glanced warily at the small cove past her rock. They turned to each other, joined hands, and began to chant.

As with the singing, the sounds were barely audible to the human ear, but were loud enough to tug at Rosemary’s heart and shake her brain. It made her feel sick, but she held on, and kept looking.

The chants quickened, and the couple pulled apart, leaving two more people between them.

Rosemary stared. Where there had been two, now there was four. A second man and a second woman stood, clasping hands. The man was slimmer than the first, with a red beard; the woman was huskier than her counterpart, and with long black hair. Both had harpoons already in their hands. They turned and faced the rock.

For a frightening moment, Rosemary thought these four might be hunting her. Why else would they land here, harpoons at the ready?

But by the way the four walked, concentrating their attention at the cove beyond the rock, Rosemary realized that she wasn’t what they were after.

She frowned. If it wasn’t her they were after, then what?

A wet tentacle looped lazily around her ankles.

Rosemary looked at her feet. She barely had time to register the sucker-covered tendril before it tightened and pulled.

Rosemary fell, smacking her chin on the rocks. She lay senseless as the tentacle dragged her along the stones towards a tide pool. By the time she’d recovered enough to grab for handholds, another tentacle had wrapped around her chest, and raised her into the air.

She caught a glimpse of a giant squid floating in the centre of a small bay cut into the cliffs. It was twenty-to-thirty feet long, what she could see of it. Not particularly giant, a part of Rosemary’s mind thought. Who cares? the rest of her mind yelled, it’s still bigger than I am!

In the centre of the tentacles, an eye the size of a dinner plate stared at her. The creature drew her closer, and Rosemary saw her chance. Balling her fist, she swung with all her might and punched deep into the creature’s pupil.

The tentacles flailed. Rosemary plunged underwater, still caught around her ankles and chest. She struggled to free herself, but she couldn’t surface until the tentacles let her. As she gasped for air, she heard the creature’s roar echo across the rocks.

There you go, Rosemary, she thought, that’s calmed it! She glubbed water as the tentacles pulled her under again.

She’d almost given up hope when she surfaced again. She choked and spat out water, before paling to see the squid’s eye up close and glaring at her.

Then a harpoon missed her by inches and skewered the creature’s eye.

The squid wailed. Rosemary was tossed aside. She landed heavily on the rocks and rolled back into hiding as the lithe figures leapt to the attack.

The battle was short and brutal, with the sounds of metal ripping flesh. Finally, the squid sank to the bottom of the cove and the four hunters stared at their kill in triumph.

They didn’t rest long. Leaving the bulky man and his second to tie ropes to the squid’s tentacles, the two women stepped back to the boat. Along the way, they stopped to survey the wreckage, and eyed a mahogany bench appraisingly. They chattered to each other, discussing how to load it onto the boat, their voices barely carrying across the stones.

Rosemary brushed wet hair from her eyes. Soaked again! She decided there was nothing to lose in talking with these people, so she stepped out of hiding.

“Hey,” she called.

The slender woman with red hair whirled around to face her. She caught her breath in shock, and her second disappeared.

Rosemary stared at the spot where the stockier, dark-haired woman had stood. So, this place is weird, she told herself. I already know that. Focus, Rosemary, focus! “Hey,” she said again.

The woman stared at Rosemary in abject horror.

Rosemary raised her hands, palms out, wondering how she could possibly make herself look even less threatening than she was. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m not going to hurt you. You saved me from the squid, after all. I just need your help.”

The shock faded from the woman’s face, replaced with a wary glare.

“Please,” said Rosemary. “I need someone to take me across the water. Can you do that?”

The woman’s wariness intensified. “Darius!” She hardly raised her voice, but the tone of it cut across the stones and singed Rosemary’s ears. “Darius! Come quickly!”

“Loria!” The thick-set man came running, his second nowhere to be seen. “What is it? Why did you cut your thoughts?” He stopped short at the sight of Rosemary. “Who is this?”

Before Rosemary could say anything, Loria cut in. “She broke into my thoughts! She broke them with her words!”

Darius stepped protectively in front of Loria. “What is the meaning of this!” he snarled at Rosemary. “Who are you?”

“My name is Rosemary,” she stammered. “I-I’m not here to hurt you or do anything. I just need your help! Please!”

She took a step towards them and halted when Darius raised his harpoon.

“Stay back, thoughtbreaker!” Darius motioned for Loria to run to the boat.

“What about our food?” Loria protested.

“We’ll hunt another day,” said Darius. “We must get this news back to our village. Go!”

“Wait!” Rosemary stood, flabbergasted, as the two retreated to their boat and pushed off from shore. They sped across the waves, interrupting their song briefly to flash Rosemary looks of hostility and fear.

Rosemary began to shiver in the wind again.

“Why wouldn’t they help me?”

Overall, they liked the story. They liked Rosemary and thought the action went well. But, as I hoped, they found some flaws — some of which I’d completely missed.

  • Tighten this sequence. Cut words like “appraisingly” (kill all the adverbs). The phrase “gasped for air” is used twice.
  • Can we make the sirens less human? Except for the singing, they don’t seem all that different. They even speak English.
  • Would Rosemary, when grabbed by the squid (Kraken, actually) take the time to measure it? Also, how did the four not see her while she was being attacked?
  • The wound is forgotten.

On the other hand, they were kind enough to heap on some praises too:

  • The sounds were the most effective element of this section. The way they were described, and especially how Rosemary felt them, set the scene apart and made it interesting.
  • Rosemary is spunky. Some wondered if, after all that, she’d just step out of hiding and say “hey!”, but others thought she’d be a good rolemodel for young teenage girls.

As expected, reading a section from chapter eight left most readers up the creek, not knowing how Rosemary got there and what she had already experienced. They peppered their critiques with questions, most of which would have been resolved by reading the previous chapters — but this technique also pointed out some details that I myself had missed…

  • Where did Rosemary get her handkerchief? Most girls these days don’t carry handkerchiefs. What does it say about her that she carries one?
  • How did Rosemary tie the handkerchief around her with only one useful arm? We need details here. Did she use her teeth?

I’d call that a very useful critique. I was incredibly nervous throughout the session as we led up to my reading. And it was a hard thing keeping my mouth shut (as authors are supposed to do) as questions are flying. I hope I get a chance to do another reading.

The lunch break is over, and this is a long post. So I’ll leave things here, now…

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