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Above and Below, chap 1

by kmerignac 

Posted: 18 August 2003
Word Count: 1988
Summary: Okay, I've finished a book and need some feedback. It's a novel about a parallel world: the heroine is a young girl, Jo. I'm looking for first chapters that make a reader want to know more. Would appreciate any comments on where I might be going wrong - and you're honesty will really be appreciated, no matter how hard it might seem! Should probably say that this first chapter is a bit hard going in places, so not for the faint-hearted.

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Gavin paused in the doorway and looked out at the rain. He glanced at the watch on his wrist but already knew he couldn't afford to wait, not if he wanted to make his train. Judging by the dark clouds in the sky it wasn't going to ease off anyway.
He stood for a moment and watched as what seemed like thousands of people rushed past, heads down, shoulders heavy. One man collided with another, glanced up, reproachful, and then continued on his way disappearing rapidly in the crowd. Gavin frowned, tired of it all. He wedged his briefcase under his arm and turned the collar of his coat up, then stepped, grim-faced, out onto the pavement where he was swallowed within seconds by the throng and swept along towards the underground.
His mind drifted to Penny again. He wondered what she’d be doing now; not that long ago she'd have been waiting for him at home, offering a kiss as he came through the door, the appetising smell of their dinner and the subtle scent of her perfume hanging in the air. His heart rose to the back of his throat and seemed to stick there, heavy as a stone.
He walked past the traffic lights and then side-stepped, deftly leaving the steady flow of people to head for the tiny grocery store where he did most of his shopping these days. There was a sign above the door of the shop: OPEN – 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. As he walked inside he nodded hello to the faded old man behind the cash desk, and came to the conclusion that this was no empty promise.
He could get most of what he needed here, and what he couldn't, he did without, only going to a supermarket if he absolutely had to. All those multi-packs of chicken breasts and two litre bottles of coke, those screaming children and distraught mothers, all cruel reminders that he was alone. No family, no wife… no exes in the wings, and no children tagging along behind, wretched by-products of previous marriages. Just a single, forty-four year old bachelor - a kind of modern day social outcast, misunderstood and rejected.
As he walked around the shop he did what he could to ignore the voice of his conscience, nagging at him to cook a proper meal; even if he bought what was needed, he’d never actually muster up what it took to put the damn thing together. When push came to shove, there was absolutely no point going to all that bother for one. He threw a wedge of cheese and a tin of beans into his basket - not exactly haute cuisine, but it would fill the pit in his stomach. He took a bottle of whisky down from the shelf too, and looked at it in his hand. He was drinking too much, too often, and knew it. The bottle went back onto the shelf, but felt no better for it. Just empty at the idea of spending the evening without its comfort. He picked it back up again, paid, and left, his dinner now hanging from his hand in a blue plastic carrier bag.
The rain had eased off while he’d been inside. It was spitting now and the sun even looked like it was trying to break through.
Gavin stepped back onto the pavement, and into the crowd.
Maybe she'd found someone else? The thought made his heart sink, and his grip tightened slightly on the handle of the bag. He could do with a drink. They'd have been married by now if his mother hadn’t fallen ill. If that damn doctor hadn’t diagnosed her cancer quite so quickly. Or, at least, if he hadn’t given her just six months to live.
His mother, having decided she didn’t want live-in help on the grounds that it was too impersonal, had said she wanted to move in with them… she only had six months to live for Christ's sake, what else was he supposed to do?
Penny had stuck it two months, and then moved out. They didn’t get on. His mother had wanted her son to herself, and had made damn sure Penny knew it; shouted loud and clear that a mother deserved more at the end of her life. Penny left. His mother stayed on. Seventeen months. Then she’d left too. And now he had no one.
His underground station was looming ahead and the crowd on the pavement before him began to disappear down the stairs as if swallowed by some gaping, toothless mouth. He fumbled in his pocket for his pass and descended with the others, then filed meekly through the turnstiles and on to the trains.
The platform was already crowded.
He pushed his way towards the front as a train rushed through the station, whipping up the rubbish on the lines and temporarily drowning out the general hubbub. He glanced up at the screen: four minutes. He dropped his briefcase and bag onto the stone floor between his feet and thrust his hands deep into his pockets.
A whisper, and he turned his head expecting to see someone from the office. There was no one he recognised, but people were beginning to look at him and he turned back again, embarrassed. Losing his damn mind on top of everything else.
Louder this time. Still hard to say where it was coming from though. Probably some practical joker. He cursed quietly and looked over his shoulder. Behind him were two young girls talking shop and absorbed in their own conversation. A dumpy middle-aged man with pale grey skin stood to the left reading a paper. He didn't look much like a comic, and he didn’t look familiar either. But he couldn’t see any other likely candidates.
'Excuse me, did you say something?'
The grey man stared at him over the top of his paper. He didn't reply at first. Gavin supposed he was busy trying to decide if he was dealing with a nutcase or not. Eventually the man shook his head, and then went back to his paper - as effective a way as any of discouraging further communication.
Gavin's hands played with the loose change in his pockets. He was feeling a bit stupid. And a bit claustrophobic too. He could’ve done with a bit of fresh air. Or a drink. He looked at the bag on the floor at his feet, searching comfort in the knowledge that he'd be home soon and able to unwind.
His train was approaching. He could hear it in the distance, and he turned his attention to the tunnel, impatient to leave the station. To leave the crowds. He noticed something on the tracks in the shadows at the entrance to the tunnel and peered more closely to get a better look. It was a person.
A man.
Gavin was aware of a fly landing on his cheek and he moved his hand absent-mindedly to swat at it. He realised his heart had started beating a little faster, although he hadn’t yet had time to figure out why… but there was a man down there on the tracks… and a train approaching. What did he have? A death wish?
The lines of the track were beginning their gentle murmur. Gavin scanned the crowd. No one appeared to have noticed. He shuffled his feet and squeezed his fists in his pockets. He wanted to do something, but wasn’t sure what. He couldn't bring himself to open his mouth - there were too many people. And maybe he was supposed to be down there. He'd look a bit damn stupid if he started screaming for nothing.
He moved closer. His bag, forgotten, slumped noisily onto the floor behind him. The man - and it was a man - was approaching the platform. One slow step at a time. He had to have heard the train, but he was in no apparent hurry. And he wasn’t wearing a uniform either… Gavin felt uncomfortable. He didn’t like this. It was getting dangerous. He glanced around him, nervously, before speaking.
Too quiet. He cleared his throat and tried again.
‘Hey! You, over there!… Hurry up and move, there's a bloody train coming!!'
He looked around him. At the others on the platform. Some were staring, suspicious. The grey man was staring too. Then he bent to pick his briefcase up and moved towards the back of the station and all of a sudden Gavin felt angry - the bloody idiot thought he was mad. He could feel himself sweating now and apprehension was rising up from his toes and through to his scalp. He looked up at the screen. One minute to go. One bloody minute to go. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. And he could feel panic rearing its ugly head.
'Hey! Someone do something for Christ’s sake!’
He realised he was searching the crowd for a friendly face.
'What's the bloody matter with you all?!'
He felt penned in, the platform so crowded that all movement was hampered. His eyes were drawn to the screen: Train Approaching.
'Someone get down there and save that man for Christ’s sake?!!’
He was addressing those nearest the tunnel and pointing wildly at the tracks. He realised he’d begun moving across the platform.
'What's the matter with everyone?! Someone do something!'
People were beginning to turn, asking neighbours what was happening - but no one was actually doing anything. It was as if they hadn’t seen what was going on, and for the first time it occurred to him that maybe they hadn’t. Maybe he was seeing things? But he dismissed the thought. He couldn't be. He didn't do that kind of thing. There was definitely someone down there… so why the fuck wasn’t he moving out of the way of the train?… What if he couldn’t hear it? What if he was deaf or something? Or injured, and unable to run? Gavin swore out loud and jumped down onto the tracks - others might, but he couldn’t just sit and watch the man die.
'They can't see me, Gavin.'
There was that bloody voice again. Inside his head. Clearly audible despite the din in the station. Confusing him. Making him nauseous. He’d nearly reached the stranger now, but that feeling of things not being as they should was stronger than ever and he slowed as the man’s face came into the light. Then he stopped completely, and stared… it was him… only different. The same mouth, the same nose. The same eyes… but not quite. He could feel bile rising quickly in the back of his throat and had to lean over to retch onto the line, and the stinking foulness of this act seemed to drag him from his reverie for all of a sudden the sound of the train was deafening in his ears and he had to clap his hands over them to block it from his brain. He stumbled and fell to his knees, unable to make any sense out of what was happening to him any more - he was finding it hard to breathe and could feel tears falling onto his cheeks. His head had begun to hurt and white noise was deafening him: a multitude of angry bees hurling themselves at his skull. He wanted to run, to escape the noise, sure his head would explode, but his legs were numb and so he knelt, terrified, and prayed to a God he’d lost faith in years ago. When he looked up it was to see the train rushing around the bend in the tunnel, its silhouette glowing in the dark, the screech of its brakes echoing through the hall, drowning out the shouts from the platform as it roared into the station.
And his screams went unheard.

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Comments by other Members

Nell at 17:10 on 18 August 2003  Report this post
Wow Kate, this had me hooked from the first, then I was reading faster and faster to see what would happen. This is excellent stuff, well written too, and grabs the reader just as a first chapter should. You've described everything so vividly that this reader felt for Gavin straight away, and cared about what would happen to him. Excellent dialogue as well. It ended all too soon.

The only thing that bothered me was that the whisky bottle might be broken when the bag dropped to the ground - was it once or twice? I almost heard the clunk and winced.

But this is great, and I'll look forward to the next chapter.

Best, Nell.


And it's not hard going in the slightest!

Account Closed at 21:55 on 18 August 2003  Report this post
Hi, Kate - I was on the edge of my seat during the incident with the voice and the man on the line, right up until the end - though I did wonder if you needed quite so much explanation in the beginning few paragraphs - depending on what others think, could some of this background info be hinted at here rather than given depth and then highlighted later in the story??

Desperate to know what happens next!

Best wishes

Anne B

stephanieE at 11:11 on 19 August 2003  Report this post
Completely gripped. Wanted to go and give this man a hug and tell him that there are always sencond chances. Don't know if that's what you were aiming for, but that's what I felt - ratehr strongly.

It reads convincingly and easily, and I am sure will strike a chord with many of those who endure the same tidal flow of commuting that you describe so well.

OK, you wanted honest comments, so here are the small jars that I felt might be improved:

His heart rose to the back of his throat and seemed to stick there, heavy as a stone. I felt that if his heart had risen, then it wouldn't feel heavy as a stone. I wondered if it would be more interesting to have it stick there, like a rashly swallowed fishbone or somesuch...

If Gavin was worried about time to catch his train, (first sentence) would he have spent the time on shopping? And then, miraculously, the rain clears...

Other than that, I was watching the whole thing unfold on the platform at Hammersmith station and was jumping up and down with frustration that no-one was willing to help Gavin.

Good luck with this - we have our fingers crossed for you!

kmerignac at 22:17 on 19 August 2003  Report this post
First and foremost thanks for your comments - all good stuff:

Point taken about the bottle - it hadn't even occured to me. I'd kind of seen it as a gentle slump, but of course if you mention it then it's not come across as such!! Will change it!
I really appreciate your kind words - very uplifting - thank you! I particularly like the idea of reading more and more quickly because that's exactly what I was hoping for.

Anne B,
I wanted a bit of background just so that the reader could feel affinity so that when he was killed off they actually felt they cared! But if there's too much, then there's too much and I'll have to do something about it... I'm afraid I can't really put much more in later on, because that's the end of the line for him (the relevance of his death only becomes apparent at a later stage, but we won't be needing him anymore!). I'm interested in hearing what other people think on that one.
Thanks for your words though - I haven't
actually read any of yours yet, but will do as soon as I get the time. Promise!

Stephanie E,
I'm really glad you connected with the man! Do you think there's too much background too? I'd like to know what you think seeing as you seemed to like the guy! And jolly pleased I am too - it's not because I had to kill him off that I thought he didn't deserve a bit of TLC!
As far as your honesty is concerned, it's much appreciated!
I like your fishbones - I wasn't really happy with the stone either, but couldn't really figure out why! I think I'll have to change that. And well done about the timing - of course as the writer I knew that he'd already allowed time for his trip around the shop. He just couldn't wait for the rain to pass AS WELL! But I suppose these are things we're supposed to put in the text and not hope the reader will guess - so a big thanks for that too! For the rain - don't know about that; you know what the weather can be! If you picked it up though, chances are it's not right.
All in all, a million thanks for your honesty - I don't feel I can progress without honesty, and won't take offense at all. So thank you for that. Any more?

Yours, Kate.

Mika Smith at 09:32 on 22 August 2003  Report this post

It's taken me a while to get round to commenting on this. As you know, I'm not supposed to be here! ahem.........

You mentioned you want feedback on hooks. My observation is your hook, that first view of the man in the tunnel, is quite a long way into the text. I reckon you should plant it bang at the start in the first paragraph. It would hit the reader between the eyes with a much stronger image. It would take time to rework the chapter which would be a pain but I reckon it would have your reader, literally 'hooked' all the way through the chapter. You've got a lot of exposition at the beginning, I reckon this tactic would make it much easier to get through.

Having said all this, what you've written works as it is, so happily take or leave this. regards.

kmerignac at 17:32 on 22 August 2003  Report this post
You're right, that would mean a complete rewrite! Not really sure how I'd do it. Do you mean portray their meeting first, then go back in time, then do the accident? That's a kind of back and forth I'm not used to, but why not?
And, by the way, is this a polite way of saying it's boring? (Don't forget, I'm demanding honesty!)
Yours, Kate.

Mika Smith at 18:41 on 22 August 2003  Report this post
Dear Kate

Frag, didn't want you to think that. No, it's not boring, quite the contrary. I'm used to rewrites, I've written 200,000 words for my novel so far and most of that has hit the recycling bin. My advice was based on the theory you've only got one chance to make an impression and that is probably within the first few lines, so its not worth taking a risk. Youv'e got the good hook but it would be a sad waste if the person you are trying to impress can't be bothered to read up to it. Exposition written by anyone can be a hard chew. Steinbeck is a good example. The opening to the Grapes of Wrath bored me to tears. It was only because I enjoyed 'Of Mice and Men' I persevered with it.

kmerignac at 11:39 on 24 August 2003  Report this post
Thanks for that - feel a bit more reassured! And point taken.
Yours, Kate.

noddy at 10:08 on 30 August 2003  Report this post
Hi Kate,

I really enjoyed this. I already have sympathy with Gavin as a character, and I was quickly drawn into the situation. Personally I think one of the keys to hooking the reader is to pepper the writing with the familiar, and the underground commuting rush is certainly familiar to many (hopefully many who will sit and read your book on the train at the end of each day).
Have you thought about not revealing quite so much about Gavin so early on... to keep the mystery going. Perhaps the stuff about Penny and his mother could be revealed later... ?

Anyway, this would definitely be the sort of opening that would keep me reading.

Look forward to reading the rest.

Best Regards

kmerignac at 15:59 on 30 August 2003  Report this post
Dear Noddy,
Thanks for reading and for your comments - I think I've got a problem. You're not the first to say about detail, and as I've mentioned in an earlier response, I can't pick his history up later because it really doesn't matter later - his dead and gone and won't be mentioned again. His death is relevant, but it isn't immediately obvious why (suspense), but I think I'm going to have to bin all of the detail and leave it short and sweet aren't I! What do you think?

Hilary Custance at 21:21 on 02 September 2003  Report this post
Hi Kate, I read this as a gentle undemanding opening with a pleasing realism and so was quite surprised and gripped by the sudden excitment of platform scene. Like Mika, I think it would be a shame if an agent or publisher never got that far. So, here is my annoying suggestion for you. Why not open the novel by showing us the scene of Penny leaving, dialogue and all. You could have mother twittering maddeningly in the background about her state of health and Gavin caught in the crossfire. You could go on from there to say that mother left too, 15 months later. Now, here he is, with the rain crashing down, his supper to buy, his train to catch and nothing much to look forward to etc, etc ...and them bam, the platform scene. That way you have drama, quiet patch then drama again. Sorry, it's your story, and it is maddening when other people want to take it over, but the opening really does have grab not just your friendly reader, but your decidedly jaded agent/publisher as well.

Something I have been working on in my own stuff is trying to recognise and rephrase well worn phrases, e.g. 'Shouted loud and clear' 'rearing its ugly head'. It is worth trying to develop a little mental program to pick these up and change them into something of your own.

The platform scene was terrific and I am looking forward to chapter 2. Cheers, Hilary

bluesky3d at 21:50 on 02 September 2003  Report this post
This gripped me and I wanted to read on. There was just enough background information for me to develop a sympathy for the main character.

One point that you may be able to deal with is that in your introduction you talk about a parallel world, and then you take us to an underground station.. so the inevitable happened .. I started to think about the film Sliding Doors . It's not a major thing and it depends in what direction you take it..you may have avoided it but its just something to watch out for, that you don't take your reader to a parallel world with the film.

Great stuff! Would certainly like to read more.

Andrew :o)

kmerignac at 10:22 on 04 September 2003  Report this post
Dear Hilary,
Thanks for reading this and for such valuable input. It is, indeed, tricky, and I can see I'm going to have to do something - but it's going to be difficult pleasing everyone!! I do appreciate your giving this so much thought and will be doing some serious thinking of my own in the not to distant future. It's now come to a stage though where I don't know if I should stick at it with this one or start all over and put this one down to experience! Still, if you manage to read a bit more (when it comes), then maybe you can let me know what you think. Thanks for your honesty though.
Yours, Kate.


Oh, and you're quite right about those clichés - difficult to know how far you can go with them!

kmerignac at 10:30 on 04 September 2003  Report this post
Oops! I don't like the idea of that at all... but I've never seen the film and so don't think it will be anything like that!! What's the film about? And if anyone else has had the same thoughts, maybe they can tell me - this is getting very complicated!
My story has no future links with underground stations though (if that's what Sliding Doors is about) - I just wanted a fairly dramatic death and thought that might do the trick! The parallel world business will only become clear a little later, but is more fantasy than science-fiction.
Thanks for that though, and please tell me more about this film (maybe I'll have to see it!)
Yours, Kate.

bjlangley at 12:14 on 04 September 2003  Report this post
Hi Kate, I have to say that from the hearing of the voice onwards it's great, but I wasn't drawn in by the opening. Perhaps this is because Gavin's morning isn't familiar to mine, I'm often a train user, and don't work with many other people.
I don't think that there was too much information on Gavin, as when it came to the crunch I did have sympathy for him. It wasn't all blurted out in one go either, the information came out upon the course of his journey to the station, which makes it flow nicely.

Hilary Custance at 13:52 on 04 September 2003  Report this post
Kate, I shall certainly read on. Don't start again now, but be prepared for plenty of reworking. With my own first novel, the first chapter was the most rewritten and the original first chapter ended up as chapter 5. It is a bit cheeky to suggest it, but do look at my interview on the site about my experience of getting from first word to publication. Cheers, Hilary

kmerignac at 17:21 on 11 September 2003  Report this post
Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you, but I've been away and have only just made it back!

Thanks for reading and for your honesty. I don't think this is going to make it as first chapter after all because it's not exciting enough!! But I'm glad you liked the voice and everything. Thanks!

I will definitely read your article and it's not cheeky at all - and I think you're right about rewriting, although I'm not yet sure if it's worth spending loads of time on it just yet. I'm beginning to feel I should do something else! I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say though about getting published!

Thanks for that info, and there is definitely a kind of link however tenuous between the two. I think this will come away from being first chapter for this and a number of other reasons;

Thanks everyone,

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