Do you grade yourself at your job? People do that all the time, right?
I know I do. Usually, I do said grading in the comfortable privacy of my mind. It’s cozy in there! But today, I’m going to pull that process out and show it to the world. Don’t worry, it’s strictly not a I’ll show you mine if you show me yours situation.
So, what grade do I give my writing?
<insert drum roll>
Sure, it varies from story to story with some turning out better than others, but that’s the general grade I give my writing. It’s a good grade, right? It’s an A. That’s solid. But, it’s an A minus. So, what’s that minus all about?
That means there’s obvious room for improvement.
I could list off a handful of things that I know I need to work on, but I’ll stick to what I believe is the biggest weakness in my writing at this point in my career.
What’s an opening, you may wonder. Those are how each scene, chapter, book, or series begins.
I don’t think I have a problem with all openings. Since I write single scene chapters, the two are interchangeable for me. And I think I do those pretty well. It’s the book opening where I feel like I could improve things in a big way. I think that’s true for a number of different reasons. One is that I think it’s the one consistent bit of criticism I’ve noticed over the various books I’ve written to date. Not that every reader has offered that observation. But I have noticed it as a recurring theme in reviews. Yes, I read reviews. It’s helpful to read about what worked and didn’t work for a reader.
And no, I’m not encouraging anyone to manufacture critical feedback for my benefit. If you loved one of my stories, hearing why you loved it is awesome feedback!
Another reason I believe it’s true is that I go back and read my stories from time to time for various reasons and I’ve noticed the slow start in some of them. Not all. But most. I’m actually reworking the opening chapter of The Beepocalypse right now because it drags out of the gate. My oldest daughter, Soji, gave me some awesome feedback on it. “Dad, the first chapter is too factsy. This is fiction. It’s supposed to be fun!”
I went back and read the opening chapter because, of course, I knew she was totally wrong and just not getting it like I meant for a reader to get it.
Doh. She was right. It was way too factsy (which I assume means “being so full of facts that it’s boring”).
So why am I bringing all this up?
Is it because I enjoy highlighting my areas that need improvement? (Notice I didn’t say weaknesses!) No. It’s because I consider every story a chance to practice something. Pick an angle of storytelling and really work that angle for a particular story. And I’ve chosen the book opening as one of the things I wanted to focus on for Sole Chaos.
After thinking it over, I decided I needed to start the story off with a bang. You know, to get the story sprinting right out of the gate. So, I did exactly that. Here’s Chapter 1 in first draft form…
The forty-five caliber bullet exited the muzzle at a speed of over a thousand feet per second.
Less than a second later, it punched through the gnarled bark of a Sitka Spruce tree and sent out a shower of splinter shrapnel.
The splinters buried into the ear and cheek of the enormous red-haired man whose head was inches to the right of the point of impact.
To his credit, he didn’t flinch.
But Charlie knew that every beast could be broken. Could be trained to obey.
He holstered the forty-five he’d taken from a hunter he’d killed the day before and spat on the glowing embers in the campfire. It hit with a sizzle and a puff of white smoke. The wind gusting over the top of the mountain peak hit the fire and the embers flared brighter.
Charlie sucked in a breath of clean, cold morning air. His lungs prickled in a pleasant way. The sharp scent of evergreen lingered as he let the air seep out of his nose and mouth.
Even after what he figured must’ve been the war to end all wars, a body could still get a breath of fresh mountain air. Only on a slice of heaven like Kodiak, Alaska.
The rising sun burned orange behind the brown gauze curtain covering the sky. Been like the nuke went off five days ago.
Musta been nukes. Plenty of‘em.
Nothing else made sense.
Not from what he’d seen going on in the town at the foot of the mountain.
He turned back to the man tied to the tree. “I get it. You’re the strong, silent type. I like that.”
Charlie had found him half-dead and gibbering like a madman. Course he didn’t find him tied to a tree. That was his work on account of having to break him. But whereas the man couldn’t stop yapping before, now he wouldn’t say a word.
He’d gone quieter than a nun at a nudie bar.
Charlie strolled over to his captive with a friendly smirk hanging lop-sided on his face. “Thing is, I don’t need you to be the talkin’ type. What I need is for you to be the obeyin’ type.”
The large man’s gray eyes flashed defiance and Charlie knew the job wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot.
That was fine.
More than most, Charlie enjoyed doing things the hard way.
Even when the hard way wasn’t the only way, he sometimes chose it anyway.
Charlie stopped in front of the man, inches from his face and looking up at an angle that would’ve put a crick in his neck if he’d slept like that. “I’m gonna ask you again. What’s your name?”
Repetition was part of the training.
The larger man’s auburn beard twitched like an overgrown bush with a raccoon running through it.
But still no reply.
Charlie shrugged, a silent ackknowledgement that he understood the deal.
The hard way, it would be.
He lowered his right hand to the Bowie knife sheathed at his hip and and unsnapped the button. In a single, fluid motion, he drew out the fourteen inch blade and held it in the air between them.
Not a flicker of fear passed through the other’s man eyes.
Charlie would’ve hollered with approval if it wouldn’t have interfered with the training at hand. Like dealing with the BlueTick Coonhounds he’d bred and trained since the age of ten, you had to make it clear that there was a time for play and a time for training.
And the better a dog was trained, the more time there was for play.
This dog had yet to be brought to heel.
Charlie passed the blade through the tight space between their faces.
The man’s bare chest bulged as he involuntarily went for the weapon. He had no chance at actually getting it. Charlie had been tying knots since the age of three and he knew twice as many as any mortal man. He knew the best ones for building spring traps. He knew the best ones for stretching hides. And he knew the best ones for keeping an impressively strong man tied to a tree.
And that was besides knowing just how much pressure to use in securing his arms stretched backward around the trunk so as to produce exquisite agony in the joints while doing no real harm.
Pain focused the attention like little else.
The art of it was finding the right amount of pain applied at the right moment in time.
Now was one of those moments. It was an opportunity to demonstrate dominance. To clarify the pack order.
In a flash that caught the larger man by surprise, Charlie’s left hand snatched through the thicket of red hair and yanked at the man’s right ear. At the same time, the blade sliced through the air and landed exactly where he intended.
Right on the bridge of tissue connecting the ear to the head.
And the razor sharp edge sliced through it like a red-hot brand through fresh snow.
His left hand came away with the severed ear as a tiny fountain of blood spurted through the air.
The man roared and, again to his credit, it came out thick with fury rather than fear.
Charlie let himself grin this time. Nothing wrong with letting the larger man know he was enjoying himself.
Because he was.
Blood flowed down the bearded man’s neck, shoulder, and into the thicket of hair carpeting his exposed chest. What must’ve been his shirt hung in tatters from the hardest-working belt Charlie had ever seen.
And he’d seen more than a few.
The only thing bigger than the one-eared man’s barrel chest was his round belly. That thing would be a lot harder to support in this new world.
Calories weren’t gonna be spilling off the grocery store shelves anymore.
And that was just fine by him.
People had gone soft.
Too much comfort and convenience.
Charlie sauntered over to the fire and turned in profile so the man could see. He placed the severed ear on the side of the knife blade and then lowered it onto the coals.
He waited patiently for the meat to cook.
There wasn’t much meat in an ear, so it didn’t take but a few minutes on each side to finish the job.
The rich scent of roasting flesh filled the air.
Charlie’s stomach grumbled and pinched. He was hungry, but he was no savage. No sick and twisted cannibal type that next door neighbors always said was a nice young man after the truth later came out.
No, he was just a man that understood how to break an animal. He’d been doing it all his life and he’d never failed. Well, some dogs didn’t take to training. Those were shot.
This one would be too if breaking him didn’t bring him around.
Charlie certainly hoped it didn’t have to go that way. He had a feeling the man could prove to be wonderfully useful. He was a local. And he clearly was a local that wasn’t used to being on the wrong end of abuse. So that meant others knew and submitted to him.
There was currently an opening for second-in-command and Charlie had a hunch this behemoth would fit the bill.
Charlie plucked the medium-rare meat off the blade and blew on it to cool it down. He glanced over and caught the man’s wide eyes. “Good. I see that I finally have your attention.”
He kept blowing.
When the meat had cooled enough to not scald his tongue, he tore it in half and popped a half into his mouth.
Damn thing was rubbery as all get out.
But he wasn’t eating for pleasure so he kept at it until, swallow by swallow, he finished it.
The man’s beard parted where his mouth hung open.
That was a good sign.
But the real note of progress showed in his eyes.
“I’ll ask you again, what’s your name?”
“Alexei. Volkov,” the man replied with a wincing eye on the side with the missing ear.
Charlie nodded like he knew it all along and had just been waiting for the man to admit it. “Well Alexei, it’s like this. I like the looks of that town at the bottom of the hill. And I expect with all that’s going on that there’s no reason I can’t have it.”
Alexei starred at him in silence.
That was good. That was an appropriate time to be silent. The beast was learning.
“I got screwed out of a million dollars. I was going to win it. None of the others stood a chance. Losing it made me very angry until I realized I’d been thinking too small. Money comes. Money goes. But power? The power of life and death over thousands? That’s the power of a king. Kings don’t need money because they already own everything.”
He pushed the remaining half ear at Alexei’s closed mouth.
His mouth opened.
Charlie shoved the portion of cooked ear inside.
Alexi closed his mouth and chewed.
“Chew your food, now. Just like my Grandma Ida always said.”
Charlie waited while he chewed.
Alexei swallowed and his face contorted into a grimace of digust. He finished swallowing and spat to the side. “Who are you?”
“Folks call me Charlie Bog.”
Alexei’s eyes widened in horror. He muttered something through his beard. The same thing over and over, but not loud enough for Charlie to hear.
“What are you mumbling there?”
Alexei’s mouth snapped shut and he shook his head.
Alexei looked away. “You. You are the dark god of my ancestors. I know it.”
Charlie shrugged. “Maybe.”
Hell, who was he to get in the way of a useful superstition?
“Even so, that name’s a little old world for me. We’re gonna be friends and my friends call me CB.”
Alexei began muttering something, and while Charlie didn’t know much about other languages, the accent definitely had a Russian ring to it.
Charlie slipped a glove on while making his way back to the fire and then pulled his knife off the coals. He returned to Alexei and offered a comforting look. “This is gonna hurt.”
He raised the knife and pressed the flat of the blade onto the bleeding wound that used to be Alexei’s ear. Flesh sizzled and popped and the stink of burning hair filled the air.
Alexei screamed in anguish and then his head slumped forward.
In a flash, Charlie whipped the knife at the ground. Exactly one rotation later, the point stuck into the moist ground with the blade buried halfway up.
Charlie left the unconscious man and walked over to the nearby ridge.
Far below was the town of Kodiak.
Just waiting to be claimed.
So, what do you think?
It’s a first draft and so will get tightened up with subsequent edits, but I love that the story literally starts off with a bang. Yes, that’s the nerdy writer in me!
Thanks for reading!