Author Topic: Variations on a Theme - literary fiction - first five pages  (Read 230 times)

Offline Nicholas_Sheppard

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Variations on a Theme - literary fiction - first five pages
« on: September 18, 2022, 05:43:53 AM »

The train slowed, squealing and clangourous, into Holborn Station. I emerged from the stale heat of the Underground and walked past kiosks onto Kingsway, where delivery bikes wove amidst rumbling buses and the buildings were half in shadow, half in sheer morning sun.
      On the train, I had opened my satchel and glanced through the English lecture I would shortly be delivering, but the words had begun to hide among themselves on the page, and I had found myself dwelling on the name from the past I was sure I had overheard on the news. For a second at a time, I thought of a Midlands bedsit, powerful ecstasy pills, my school bag in the hallway of a Westminster Pied-à-terre.
      A little further, closer to the Virginia Woolf building, the pavement grew crowded. This was one of the best times to catch sight of new King’s College English undergraduates, whose imaginations, and remarkable A-Levels had borne them out of mundane suburbs and set them within a short stroll of Shakespeare’s Globe and the site of the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer’s pilgrims had started out on their journey. Perhaps they had already been to an open day, or they had signed up for a readers pass at the British Library or taken in the musty interior of the Senate House. I watched one boy linger in the morning light, and saw how the scene and occasion were imbued with significance for him. With a momentary pang, I pictured the outgrown bedrooms left behind in family homes: single beds and writing desks, posters for Bloc Party and Arcade Fire, school photographs, the crinkled spines of prescribed texts, a phase of life abruptly muted and stilled.
Sunlight gleamed on marquees and the pale backed leaves of plane trees. I overheard listless polyglot chatter where people converged at coffee carts and at crossings. The lecture I was about to deliver would introduce my third-years to the 19th Century Aesthetic Movement. This paper was a success with students, who were drawn to its fin-de-siècle lusciousness and cast of bohemians and dandies. Later, with the freshers, I would introduce a module on The Anti-hero: Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock, and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Many undergraduates had been turned away to keep the numbers manageable.
      I entered the Virginia Woolf building, which housed the faculty’s offices and administration. Rodney was behind the front desk. I walked up and saw his computer screen was mostly taken up with an intricate spreadsheet of room bookings and term dates. In a corner of the screen was a smaller tab playing a livestream of Good Morning Britain on ITV. Rodney was a pillar of the place, known for his menagerie of pet hates, and tone of droll reprehension which, delivered in a thick Bristol accent, was often lost on newcomers.
     ‘Morning, Danny.’
     ‘Hi, Rodney.’
     ‘I’ve got a few bits and pieces for you to pick up,’ he said. ‘And something for you to sign.’ He produced a faculty document and a pen. ‘There’s also a bit of photocopying that needs doing. I know what you’re like,’ he said, referring to my trouble remembering my faculty code, which could lead to the photocopier displaying the word error, with a contextless string of numbers. ‘If you’re willing to wait a minute, I’ll do it for you now.’
     ‘Thanks, Rodney.’
      He left me to linger in the soft glow of the reception area. I wandered over to the Virginia Woolf statue, just off the foyer. The faculty, some years ago, had commissioned a Madame Tussaud knock-off and had it installed in a glass panelled box. Arranged in a sitting position, Miss Woolf had a sickly pallor and hurtling look. Her eyes were oddly recessed, and tended to follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa, if reimagined with the bleak ferocity of Francis Bacon.
   A student from last year was passing through with a friend. Katie was a round-faced girl, likely the type who, through a kind of cheerful bolshiness, could make things happen more successfully than many of her solemn, prettier coevals.
   ‘Good morning, Professor O’Neal!’
   ‘Hello Katie. Ready for another term?’
   She nodded. ‘I’m taking your Aesthetic Movement paper, by the way.’
   ‘Glad to hear it.’
   ‘This is my friend Sarah,’ she said, motioning at the other student.
   ‘Hiya,’ Sarah said.
   ‘Looking forward to the year?’
   ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night, though.’ And it was true she looked bleary-eyed, perhaps still unused to the impassive hum of London at night, or the nearer hum of the half-sized fridge in her student accommodation.
   ‘That statue always gives me the creeps,’ Katie said. We all turned to look at Virginia Woolf in her glass case.
   ‘I know what you mean,’ I said.
      ‘They didn’t really do her justice,’ Katie went on. ‘It might have been better if they’d modelled her on what she looked like before she went in the river.’ She smirked at her little blasphemy then turned to Sarah. ‘You want to make sure you have a paper with Professor O’Neal. He’s like the teacher in that film Dead Poet’s Society.’
      Sarah nodded and twitched a drawstring of her hooded sweater.
   ‘I often wonder what would've happened,’ Katie continued, ‘if the “O Captain, My Captain” scene from Dead Poet's Society had taken place in a computer lab full of wheely chairs.’
      ‘Have you purchased all your texts?’ I asked.
      She bobbed her head to say she more or less had. ‘I think it’s crazy,’ she said, ‘that you can walk into a bookshop and be charged eight pounds for a novel that took the author a year to write, but be charged ten pounds for a completely blank notebook.’
      ‘Katie, you are a born philosopher.’
    A throat clearing and tap of paper being squared up indicated that Rodney had finished with the photocopying.
      ‘Well, I’ll likely see you down at The Strand,’ I said to the girls.
   ‘Oh, Professor,’ Katie said. ‘How’s your book coming along?’
   She meant my upcoming work of non-fiction, about Oscar Wilde’s years of hedonism and acclaim, just before his fall. In my satchel was a draft chapter with a large black clip on one corner. It had originated as a framework for my Aesthetic Movement module, broadened into a research paper, then I had passed it on to my literary agent, who had entered discussions with a publisher, a mainstream one, not some ascetic academic press. The publisher had seen enough in the pacy sample chapters to offer a contract and had set Christmas as a rough deadline. News of its forthcoming release had been uploaded onto the faculty portal. Many students were buoyed by the idea that the wider culture was about to get a dose of their current studies.
   ‘It’s coming along, Katie, thanks for asking.’
   ‘Maybe they should put up a statue of Wilde, instead,’ she said, glancing back at Virginia Woolf.
   ‘Oh, I don’t really care too much for statues and memorials,’ I said. This wasn’t entirely true; it was said that for years a rusted iron monument by Casanova’s grave had snagged the skirts of young women who walked on the pathway beside it.
   I left the girls, and collected my things from Rodney, who looked at me illusionlessly.
      ‘Any chance you can get your admin done before the end of the week, Danny?’
      ‘We live in hope.’
      Rodney’s frown suggested this wasn’t necessarily what he lived in. I headed back out onto Kingsway. At the southern end, between Aldwych and the Strand was Bush House from where BBC radio had formerly broadcast. As a boy, lying in bed in my drab house in the Midlands, I had listened each night to the eleven o’clock bulletin on the BBC, the stately fanfare playing through a tiny transistor radio next to my pillow, as much a part of the music of my upbringing as The Smiths and The Stone Roses. Beyond that was the beautiful Neoclassical Somerset House, a huge complex bordering a Georgian era quad. Near to that was King’s Building, the heart of the college. I went in through the old entrance hall. In the foyer were marble statues of Sappho and Sophocles, whom I appreciated for different reasons to those of the prim benefactors of a century ago. A fragment written on ancient papyrus had stated that Sappho was “accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover,” while a work by Athenaeus related Sophocles flirting with a serving-boy at a symposium: “Do you want me to enjoy my drink? Then hand me the cup nice and slow, and take it back nice and slow too…” 
      I had ten minutes before my first lecture, so I loitered at the base of the stairs. As an Associate Professor I was only teaching two modules, but it was important to stay abreast of the whole syllabus. As always, the freshers would be taking a number of prerequisites: Classical & Biblical Contexts of English, Introducing Literary Theories, and Writing London. All undergraduates were taught by their personal tutor in their first semester, but they could get jittery and seek guidance from other staff, based on reputation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me in the first weeks to see the inch of light beneath my office door cut across by dallying shoes for five, or ten seconds – once for five minutes – before a gentle knock. I did my best to steer undergraduates from the literary theory that had lured me when I was a youngster looking for anything subversive and trendy. Many of those writers had been poseurs with little to say, or to paraphrase Wilde, they had nothing to say, and said it; but they had been ambitious and savvy enough to collect coteries of young disciples, myself among them.
      I looked at my phone, scrolled through some faculty threads, and paused at a message from my friend, Molly: Perhaps you saw the news..? There it was, then, the past needing attending to. I took the measure of my feelings, then quickly typed in: The one charm of the past is that it is the past.

Offline Lanita

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Re: Variations on a Theme - literary fiction - first five pages
« Reply #1 on: September 18, 2022, 10:42:21 PM »
Nice pages. I think they're very well written and you have a distinct style. I'll comment on the things that jumped out at me.

The train slowed, squealing and clangourous, into Holborn Station. I emerged from the stale heat of the Underground and walked past kiosks onto Kingsway, where delivery bikes wove amidst rumbling buses and the buildings were half in shadow, half in sheer morning sun.
      On the train, I had opened my satchel and glanced through the English lecture I would shortly be delivering, but the words had begun to hide among themselves on the page (maybe the words began to blur?), and I had found myself dwelling on the name from the past I was sure I had overheard on the news. For a second at a time, I thought of a Midlands bedsit, powerful ecstasy pills, my school bag in the hallway of a Westminster Pied-à-terre.
**consider flipping the above two paragraphs so you open with him on the train. It happens first, so I'm not sure what you gain by presenting them out of order. You could also have him hear the snippet of news while on the train, because as of now, this happens off-scene and that takes away from the moment. Best to allow the reader to hear what he hears. It's okay to hold back key info to reveal later, but hearing the actual name of the person in question would spark my interest.
      A little further, closer to the Virginia Woolf building, the pavement grew crowded. This was one of the best times to catch sight of new King’s College English undergraduates, whose imaginations, and remarkable A-Levels had borne them out of mundane suburbs and set them within a short stroll of Shakespeare’s Globe and the site of the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer’s pilgrims had started out on their journey. Perhaps they had already been to an open day, or they had signed up for a readers pass at the British Library or taken in the musty interior of the Senate House. I watched one boy linger in the morning light, and saw how the scene and occasion were imbued with significance for him (can you show us why he thinks this instead of having him state it? He has no way of knowing this, so I want to see what he sees.). With a momentary pang, I pictured the outgrown bedrooms left behind in family homes: single beds and writing desks, posters for Bloc Party and Arcade Fire, school photographs, the crinkled spines of prescribed texts, a phase of life abruptly muted and stilled. Love this. I would like to know why this strikes him emotionally.[/b]
Sunlight gleamed on marquees and the pale backed leaves of plane trees. I overheard listless polyglot chatter where people converged at coffee carts and at crossings. The lecture I was about to deliver would introduce my third-years to the 19th Century Aesthetic Movement. This paper was a success with students, who were drawn to its fin-de-siècle lusciousness and cast of bohemians and dandies. Later, with the freshers, I would introduce a module on The Anti-hero: Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock, and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Many undergraduates had been turned away to keep the numbers manageable.
      I entered the Virginia Woolf building, which housed the faculty’s offices and administration. Rodney was behind the front desk. I walked up and saw his computer screen was mostly taken up with an intricate spreadsheet of room bookings and term dates. In a corner of the screen was a smaller tab playing a livestream of Good Morning Britain on ITV. Rodney was a pillar of the place, known for his menagerie of pet hates, and tone of droll reprehension which, delivered in a thick Bristol accent, was often lost on newcomers.
     ‘Morning, Danny.’
     ‘Hi, Rodney.’
     ‘I’ve got a few bits and pieces for you to pick up,’ he said. ‘And something for you to sign.’ He produced a faculty document and a pen. ‘There’s also a bit of photocopying that needs doing. I know what you’re like,’ he said, (I'd use a period after he said and then start a new sentence.) He was referring to my trouble remembering my faculty code, which could lead to the photocopier displaying the word error, with a contextless string of numbers. ‘If you’re willing to wait a minute, I’ll do it for you now.’
     ‘Thanks, Rodney.’
      He left me to linger in the soft glow of the reception area. I wandered over to the Virginia Woolf statue, just off the foyer. The faculty, some years ago, had commissioned a Madame Tussaud knock-off and had it installed in a glass panelled box. Arranged in a sitting position, Miss Woolf had a sickly pallor and hurtling look. Her eyes were oddly recessed, and tended to follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa, if reimagined with the bleak ferocity of Francis Bacon. Nice.
   A student from last year was passing through with a friend. Katie was a round-faced girl, likely the type who, through a kind of cheerful bolshiness, could make things happen more successfully than many of her solemn, prettier coevals. Good observation. Tells me a lot about the MC. [/b]
   ‘Good morning, Professor O’Neal!’
   ‘Hello Katie. Ready for another term?’
   She nodded. ‘I’m taking your Aesthetic Movement paper, by the way.’
   ‘Glad to hear it.’
   ‘This is my friend Sarah,’ she said, motioning at the other student.
   ‘Hiya,’ Sarah said.
   ‘Looking forward to the year?’
   ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night, though.’ And it was true she looked bleary-eyed, perhaps still unused to the impassive hum of London at night, or the nearer hum of the half-sized fridge in her student accommodation.
   ‘That statue always gives me the creeps,’ Katie said. We all turned to look at Virginia Woolf in her glass case.
   ‘I know what you mean,’ I said.
      ‘They didn’t really do her justice,’ Katie went on. ‘It might have been better if they’d modelled her on what she looked like before she went in the river.’ She smirked at her little blasphemy then turned to Sarah. ‘You want to make sure you have a paper with Professor O’Neal. He’s like the teacher in that film Dead Poet’s Society.’ Good characterization.
      Sarah nodded and twitched a drawstring of her hooded sweater.
   ‘I often wonder what would've happened,’ Katie continued, ‘if the “O Captain, My Captain” scene from Dead Poet's Society had taken place in a computer lab full of wheely chairs.’
      ‘Have you purchased all your texts?’ I asked.
      She bobbed her head as if (he couldn't know her thoughts) to say she more or less had. ‘I think it’s crazy,’ she said, ‘that you can walk into a bookshop and be charged eight pounds for a novel that took the author a year to write, but be charged ten pounds for a completely blank notebook.’
      ‘Katie, you are a born philosopher.’ (Nothing wrong with this reply, but might he be thinking of his own book in this moment?)
    A throat clearing and tap of paper being squared up indicated that Rodney had finished with the photocopying.
      ‘Well, I’ll likely see you down at The Strand,’ I said to the girls.
   ‘Oh, Professor,’ Katie said. ‘How’s your book coming along?’
   She meant my upcoming work of non-fiction, about Oscar Wilde’s years of hedonism and acclaim, just before his fall. In my satchel was a draft chapter with a large black clip on one corner. It had originated as a framework for my Aesthetic Movement module, broadened into a research paper, then I had passed it on to my literary agent, who had entered discussions with a publisher, a mainstream one, not some ascetic academic press. The publisher had seen enough in the pacy sample chapters to offer a contract and had set Christmas as a rough deadline. News of its forthcoming release had been uploaded onto the faculty portal. Many students were buoyed by the idea that the wider culture was about to get a dose of their current studies.
   ‘It’s coming along, Katie, thanks for asking.’
   ‘Maybe they should put up a statue of Wilde, instead,’ she said, glancing back at Virginia Woolf.
   ‘Oh, I don’t really care too much for statues and memorials,’ I said. This wasn’t entirely true; it was said that for years a rusted iron monument by Casanova’s grave had snagged the skirts of young women who walked on the pathway beside it. Interesting. I'd like to know what he thinks about this and how it fits with his worldview.
   I left the girls, and collected my things from Rodney, who looked at me illusionlessly.
      ‘Any chance you can get your admin done before the end of the week, Danny?’
      ‘We live in hope.’ Nice.
      Rodney’s frown suggested this wasn’t necessarily what he lived in.
(I'd start a new para here) I headed back out onto Kingsway. At the southern end, between Aldwych and the Strand was Bush House from where BBC radio had formerly broadcast. As a boy, lying in bed in my drab house in the Midlands, I had listened each night to the eleven o’clock bulletin on the BBC, the stately fanfare playing through a tiny transistor radio next to my pillow, as much a part of the music of my upbringing as The Smiths and The Stone Roses. Good to see this backstory. I find myself wanting to know more about him in these pages. I feel he's really trying to hide himself and we need to get into his personal thoughts more. I want to see who he really is vs. how he presents himself to the world.

(New para here) Beyond that was the beautiful Neoclassical Somerset House, a huge complex bordering a Georgian era quad. Near to that was King’s Building, the heart of the college. I went in through the old entrance hall. In the foyer were marble statues of Sappho and Sophocles, whom I appreciated for different reasons to those of the prim benefactors of a century ago. A fragment written on ancient papyrus had stated that Sappho was “accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover,” while a work by Athenaeus related Sophocles flirting with a serving-boy at a symposium: “Do you want me to enjoy my drink? Then hand me the cup nice and slow, and take it back nice and slow too…”
      I had ten minutes before my first lecture, so I loitered at the base of the stairs. As an Associate Professor I was only teaching two modules, but it was important to stay abreast of the whole syllabus. As always, the freshers would be taking a number of prerequisites: Classical & Biblical Contexts of English, Introducing Literary Theories, and Writing London. All undergraduates were taught by their personal tutor in their first semester, but they could get jittery and seek guidance from other staff, based on reputation, and it wasn’t uncommon for me in the first weeks to see the inch of light beneath my office door cut across by dallying shoes for five, or ten seconds – once for five minutes – before a gentle knock. I did my best to steer undergraduates from the literary theory that had lured me when I was a youngster looking for anything subversive and trendy. Many of those writers had been poseurs with little to say, or to paraphrase Wilde, they had nothing to say, and said it; but they had been ambitious and savvy enough to collect coteries of young disciples, myself among them.
      I looked at my phone, scrolled through some faculty threads, and paused at a message from my friend, Molly: Perhaps you saw the news..? There it was, then, the past needing attending to. I took the measure of my feelings, then quickly typed in: The one charm of the past is that it is the past. This is what I have been waiting to see. Is there a way to work it in a bit earlier? Or find a way to show it's still on his mind as he has the above interactions. As of now, the thread gets dropped until this moment. If it is something really important, I don't think he could have put it out of his mind all this time. I want to see it crop up again and again to remind me why this is important to the story.

Overall, great writing. Hope some of the tweaks resonate with you.

Offline MichelleG

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Re: Variations on a Theme - literary fiction - first five pages
« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2022, 05:02:27 AM »
Thanks for posting this.  I enjoyed reading it and like your style. I got a good feel for your main character and that is important.

I support most of Lanita's comments.  I do think you need to give us more about what he heard or a bit more reflections, apprehension, dread, whatever.  If you are not going to have a flashback to hearing the story later in the novel, why not hear it now?  Not on his computer, because then he could just replay it, but maybe the person next to him, or read a quick blur on that person's screen.  Not that he looks over people's shoulders on a regular basis, but at a quick glance that catches his eye - then its gone.

It took me three reads to get  - For a second at a time, I thought of a Midlands bedsit, powerful ecstasy pills, my school bag in the hallway of a Westminster Pied-à-terre. - were second long flashbacks to a time in his life that connects to the name he heard. Could you rephrase that to make it clear. The first two times I thought he was randomly listing things - which was really weird, yet interesting, for one person to be thinking of his upcoming lecture and ecstacy pills at the same time.  LOL.

I know during the course of a day we, and our characters, have conversations with people we cross paths with, but I think in a novel they have to add to the story - especially in the first few pages.  Are these conversations important?  is introducing that character - by name and description - important now?  The only thing I took away from the conversation with Rodney is that the main character's name is Danny and that Danny can't  remember the code to use the computer. The conversation with Kate told me his last name is O'Neall and he has a contract to write a book. The remainder of these conversations just reads like filler. 

Would it be possible to leave Rodney out all together and have her run into Kate.  Kate could introduce her friend to Professor Danny O'Neall
Then he could ask if she was ready for the year and she could say something like "Yes, I am," said Kate. "How is your book coming?"

I loved everything you said about the statue, especially the part about modeling it before she went into the river - that little tidbit of a reference really cemented me into the subject matter being taught and learned by the characters. And it is so subtle that a reader who doesn't know how she died would still get that the statue looks like it is of a body that spend some time in a river. Nicely done.  :clap:
"You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of isolation and the impunity with which crime may be committed there." - Sherlock Homes, The Copper Beeches - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle