I’m currently reading Gary Provost’s “Make Every Word Count”, as recommended by my editor. It’s a great book that teaches you how to trim the fat from your writing and literally make every word count.
It’s also full of exercises that help you improve as a writer. So I’ve decided to take the first chapter of my Seventh Circle comic script and turn it into a novel chapter, just as a practical test to see how it all fits.
(PS: Excuse the formatting. I’m aware it’s not how books are usually formatted, but it’s locked for some reason so must stay as it is, annoyingly.)
Here it is:
It was New Year’s Eve. Through the cold haze that hung in the air revellers could be seen, shuffling slowly in a crowd towards the city square. Even from a distance it was clear that anticipation ran hot through the morass of bodies. Each member of the crowd seemed eager to put the year behind them, and to seize the next with cheerful optimism, but naturally, few would actually see their resolutions through. The people had all convinced themselves that come the next day, everything would be better, as if the difference of a day would change their lives forever.
High above the neon signs and digital countdowns that surrounded the square, an old television set flickered dimly, broadcasting the spectacle inside a barren apartment. The joyful sentiment felt wasted among the emptied beer cans and fizzled cigarettes that littered each room. No resolutions were made here. Instead, the occupant pressed a revolver to his temple, as his hand trembled from the internal conflict playing out in his mind.
His name was Dirk. If you asked him for his life story six months ago, he would have explained that he was a moderately successful businessman, working one of those uninteresting, yet surprisingly essential office jobs you dislike hearing so much about. But on that day he was penniless drunk wanted for the murder of his wife and child. There was a sick irony that his life seemed vastly more interesting as a result.
“Pull the trigger?”
“Don’t pull the trigger?”
Dirk’s thoughts had been in pieces for some time, as both ends of his conscience pulled in opposite directions, never agreeing or meeting each other half way. His was a mind on the brink of fracture, racked with the guilt of his past misdeeds.
His wife Nikki had never asked for much; just that Dirk pulled his weight in supporting her and their son Sam, bringing in enough cash so that they could live comfortably. Dirk never missed a bill payment, and spent plenty of time with his family. From the outside looking in he seemed to have a fulfilling life.
That was what he lived for, that was his end-game since his childhood aspirations of fame and riches had been kicked to the gutter. His wife and son meant everything to him, but on the night he murdered them both he lost all purpose and became utterly broken.
He’d take it all back if he could, but life is a frail thing. Nothing would bring them back and Dirk knew this all too well. With their blood on his hands he gathered up what little money he could from the house he and Nikki had made their own, and rented out a dank apartment under a fake name. He could never return to his old life, not with the police waiting for him to make a move. All that was left was to get drunk and feel sorry for himself, struggling on in the hope that tomorrow, everything would be better.
On the other side of town Sasha stood next to the rooftop edge, wobbling as every gust of wind battered her sides. The New Year festivities were kicking off several storeys below, as the digital countdowns neared their end. The fall would surely kill her, but that was always the plan.
She was trapped, cornered by the squad of heavily-armed policemen that circled behind her to form a slowly closing perimeter. There was no more running from her fate, and it seemed that this time, death was the only way out. In an attempt to talk her down from the ledge the highest-ranking officer broke ahead of the pack, and spoke calmly in an attempt to establish common ground.
“Sasha Barret? You’re under arrest for the murder of John Barrett and Stacey Rein. I must ask that you step away from the edge slowly. We don’t want to see anyone else get hurt tonight. We can help you, I promise.”
In a moment of weakness, Sasha looked down again, re-assessing the drop below. She tried to gauge how long her body would fall before it hit the pavement, and how many people she’d kill as her frame smashed against them. She stopped thinking as the images in her mind became too graphic, as she had already made her choice. There was no persuading her otherwise.
The blood on her white party dress was still sopping wet, as her curled blonde hair thrashed violently in the wind. It was still unclear how she had ended up in this terrible place. Just hours earlier she was slipping into her gown, gearing up for a night of celebration and partying with friends. But now she was a wanted killer teetering on the brink. She had contemplated enough, and the point of no return had arrived.
“Shit! She’s going to jump,” barked one of the officers in the back-lines.
But in a second she was gone, lost to the gale that engulfed the skyline. Within seconds her body had tumbled downward and smashed onto the tarmac below. In the panic that followed another officer rambled almost incoherently to his colleagues.
“Fuck! Virgil, get someone down there now to procure the body, I want the street secured, now!”
Dirk had moved to his bathroom; the porcelain grid of stained white tiles and grot felt colder than his squalid living room, if such a thing were possible. Through some strange act of courtesy for whoever would eventually find his corpse, he began arranging loose sheets of newspaper on the floor, as if this would somehow soften the blow.
“Am I overreacting?”
The alcohol had taken hold and he was no longer thinking straight. He began weighing up his predicament against the trials that less-fortunate people suffer on a daily basis. Cripples, single mothers and drug addicts had it rough, but he was sure that most of those people never once contemplated taking their own life. He had to be sure, absolutely sure that this was his only option.
He pressed the revolver upwards against his stubbled chin, hearing the scratch of coarse hair as he swallowed hard, fighting the urge to wretch. This was really happening.
Dirk’s life had boiled down to a simple binary choice and he was approaching crunch time. He wasn’t the only who faced a tough decision.
“Dear god. What have I done?”
Nathan stood back in horror as he looked down at Holly’s slumped, lifeless body. She lay spread across the bed they had shared for the past thirty years, except it no longer felt like a place of comfort. The pillow in his hand was dotted with her blood, used moments earlier to smother the life out of her. Holly’s terminal illness had become too much to bear, too difficult for him to watch and so together they made a decision; that Nathan would kill her to spare them both.
After a few minutes of fighting and struggling Nathan had ended decades of marriage. With no children he was alone and staring into the abyss, imagining all of the accusations and backlash that would surely follow. How could they understand the strife they both had to endure for so long? How could they possibly begin to understand the pain of watching the one you hold dearest deteriorate and crumble into a husk of the person you fell in love with?
They couldn’t, and Nathan wasn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of pointing fingers.
The leather belt creaked loudly as Nathan curled it around a light fixture and tested it with his weight. He dragged a stool across the room, causing it to screech loudly against the wooden floor, sending lightning bolts of fear snaking along his spine. Ever the methodical man, he took time to position the chair beneath the crude noose as he assessed the best direction to kick it away. If he was going to kill himself, he had to make sure there was no way for him to back out.
He looked across the room and stared at a lifetime of possessions and photographs, playing out the fond memories they symbolised in his mind. They reminded him of the days before Holly’s sickness, as if the room was a bubble trapped in time, a perfect snapshot of their life together. This room was where they lived and it would be where they both died, together as always.
“Please forgive me,” said Nathan as he took one last look at Holly’s still, vacant eyes before kicking the stool clear, falling to his death with little resistance.
The New Year countdown had started on the street below as Dirk gripped his revolver tighter, breaking out in a cold sweat as he veered closer towards pulling the trigger. Courage built in him as he weighed up his options, condemning himself over and over for every poor choice, every mistake he had made throughout his life. He played out the night of his wife and son’s death repeatedly but the end result was always the same. He was solely to blame.
He had let his guard down for a moment and it cost him his family. It was an honest mistake, the kind of thing you never put too much thought into until it happens to you. They may have survived had he been more careful or perhaps done things a degree differently, but he realised that the world doesn’t work that way. There are no second chances.
The path had become clear as all roads led to one final, terrible conclusion. He could either commit suicide or spend the rest of his life running from the his guilt and the law like a coward. Neither choice appealed.
If he died there would be no more pain or anguish, and he’d never have to see Nikki or Sam’s faces in his nightmares again. Death would be a release.
The shot rang out across the room as Dirk’s head erupted in a blast of blood and brain tissue. His body fell forward and slapped violently onto the hard tiles, as his blood coated the newspapers below a deep red.
“Happy New Year!”
Across the city and indeed across the world, people shouted out in unison to usher in the New Year. It would be another year where new mistakes could be made, promises could be broken and more guilt could be suffered. This cycle would never end as long as people remain imperfect and flawed.
Dirk’s apartment fell silent as his mangled body lay there motionless.
Quickly he awoke, gasping for air. Dirk was lying face-down in the same position he had fallen after pulling the trigger, except now he was alive and breathing. His eyes re-focused painfully as he adjusted to the light streaming down from a street lamp above.
“Cold. So very cold.”
His hands trembled as he lay sprawled in thick, freshly-laid snow. He took a few seconds to compose himself until he saw he was lying in what appeared to be a back alley. Had he dreamt the shooting? Was this another drunken stupor that had led him to places unknown? There was no gun in his hand so he looked around to see he had dropped it.
It was nowhere to be seen so he slid over to a brick wall and sat against it, trying desperately to steady himself while fighting the nausea that rocked his body. One thing was for sure; this was the beginning of a terrible hangover.
“Hey buddy! You OK”
Dirk turned quickly to see an older man standing across from him. He instantly started to make excuses in his mind to try and explain away why he was drunk and passed out in an alley. Before he could reply the man sat on his haunches and continued talking.
“Yeah, you seem to have taken a pretty bad fall. How much do you remember? Let’s start with the basics. What’s your name?”
“Dirk. My name is Dirk.”
“How do you feel?”
“I think I’m fine.”
“Do you know when you fell? Have you been out here long?”
“Fell? What do you mean fell?
The man pointed across the alley towards a huge crater. Deep cracks sprouted from the centre and billowed up the walls of nearby buildings, sending debris everywhere. Dirk looked at the mess puzzled, as he assured himself that no man could cause that amount of damage.
“That wasn’t me. It can’t have been. I just had too much to drink and wandered out here, that’s all I swear.”
“What’s the last thing you remember? Think hard.”
Dirk buried his face in his hands tightly and strained to come up with a logical excuse for what was going on, but one vivid memory lingered. He could almost feel the cold steel of his revolver on skin. He remembered jamming the gun up against his chin just moments earlier, as the hum of his squalid bathroom cut through the air. But he couldn’t have gone through with it, could he?
“I shot myself in the head. But that was a dream. I mean, if I did it then… then I wouldn’t be alive, right?”
“Who said you’re alive?”
“Look, I hate to be the one to break this to you son, but you’re not alive.”
“Then where am I?”
The man folded his arms and looked at Dirk with a stern expression, as if to underline that what he was about to say was the truth.
“You’re in hell.”