Annotated Excerpt: TEN LOW by Stark Holborn (Titan Books)

HolbornS-TenLowA large chunk of this book was written as a NaNoWriMo project a few years ago. I’d never done NaNo before (I did write most of Nunslinger’s 180k words in about eight hazy months, so I wasn’t too worried about word count), but I’d come out of a crappy year in terms of publishing, and wanted to write something just for me. An idea that had zero ties to the publishing world, didn’t have the market in mind and was just a mash up of influences that had been percolating, which ranged from Mad Max: Fury Road to Hard to be a God.

I think I write best in intense, consuming bursts – I like writing that way, at least. Most of Ten Low was written with headphones on, ambient desert wind roaring, getting words down without worrying too much about where things were going. I ended up with 50k words that way. Of course, when it came to fleshing those words out into a full novel, I completely ran out of gas; spent weeks agonising over the fact I didn’t know what the plot was or why; resorted to augury in the form of flipping through a dictionary, stabbing at random words, which – horrifyingly – worked.

So, writing an annotated excerpt has been an interesting experience, because so much of what I wrote at first was subconscious, especially this first chapter. I knew where I wanted to set the book. I knew who the main character was, roughly who else she would meet and… that was it. This chapter hasn’t changed all that much since I first scrawled out those first 1000 words for NaNoWriMo. I hope it does the job and welcomes you to the dusty, teeming moon of Factus, where an ex-convict medic sits alone by a fire, one dark night…

*

One

The Book of the General

I hunch closer to the sputtering fire.

Fun fact – Ten Low was written in past tense. I changed it to present much later in the editing process than I usually would, at the suggestion of one of my editors, Tasha Qureshi. It was one of those ngggghh moments when you stare and stare and then realise that the other person is absolutely right. As soon as I tried it, I saw that present tense gave the writing extra immediacy and punch. I always wanted this to be a headlong, fast-paced story that grabs the reader by the arm and drags them along before they even realise what’s happening… The change to present tense reflected and enhanced that, so I was pleased to make the changes (all 14,000 tracked alterations, to be precise).

The darkness is vast, hiding countless lives, but down here the wind just coughs dust into my eyes. I close them against the grit, against the light of the struggling flames, against the emptiness around me, knowing I should sleep but afraid of what I might dream.

Zooming in from endless space, down to a lone figure in the wilderness: a million stories in the universe, but you’re about to hear this one.

My thoughts have a habit of coming loose. The more I keep to myself, the more they seep from my head, catching on the stubble of my scalp and trailing out behind me like cotton. Unless I’m careful, I won’t get them reeled in again before I make Redcrop. I can’t afford that. Single words, single thoughts: no doubts and no questions.

I tug the scarf further towards the brim of my hat. Sometimes I wish for hair, thick and curling as it once was, to cover my ears and warm my scalp. I feel for the pouch at my hip. It is slack, the beads inside cold and too few. Breath. I hold one to my lips and try to believe it is what people say: a sphere of pure air from the forests of Prosper.

The bead clacks against my teeth before I bite down. The splintering plastic cuts my trailing thoughts and stops me from leaking into the night, even though there is no good oxygen within; just an empty orb and a dusting of dex-amphetamine. Enough to ease the fatigue caused by the thin air, even after all these months.

An extended simile here. I’m a sucker for weird metaphors and WELL aware that I over-use and overwrite them (I tend to ditch a fair few during the editing process). But crafting them is part of the joy of writing for me! Hitting on a strangely perfect way to capture a very specific sensation or experience…

This one’s unobtrusive but hopefully earns its keep. As well as reflecting the threadbare nature of the setting, there’s a hint that the speaker themselves is frayed, unravelled somehow. Hopefully it also nods towards a theme of the internal versus versus external worlds – the constant interplay between the two and how sometimes the parts of us we’d rather keep hidden can bleed out and affect our lives.

Then we have a bit of world building in terms of person and place, hinting that whoever this is, they are not what or who they once were. I try my hardest to slide world-building in quietly; the reader might not know where Prosper is, but the fact that there are forests and good air there doubles down on the fact that there aren’t any here.

I swallow, the noise loud in my ears. Beyond the tiny fire there’s nothing. Just the wind. Some folk say the wind is alive, that it coils between the stars like a snake. Who am I to say they are wrong? Too long out here and you begin to hear the wind speak. An endless sigh that started a hundred thousand cycles before I was born.

… extended metaphor alert. But also grounding some of the low-fi sci-fi tone: you’re more likely to find folk-tale here than hard science.

Carefully, I drag my bag closer and bring the notebook into the firelight. The cover is peeling, and there aren’t many blank pages left, but I turn to one and take the pencil nub from the crease.

Hafsa Gellam, I write, and see her face again, eyes heavy with exhaustion as she gripped my hand. Beneath her name I draw a line and label it Child Gellam. Another line, another name: Child’s Child? I draw on, tracing four imaginary generations, until the pencil scrapes the bottom of the page.

So much potential… Life in the Barrens is hard won and easily lost, but Hafsa is a strong woman, and the child seemed healthy when I left. If the child lived, and went on to produce a child of their own and so on… I close my eyes. What if just one of those newly possible people saves another, with a word or a deed or a single, unthinking act? How many futures could that tiny, bloodied newborn carry within? How many lives could I add to the tally?

Embedding a major theme of the book: the power of human potential and how every single decision changes the world.

When I open my eyes I know at once that I’m no longer alone. Something is out there, beyond the firelight.

It’s them.

I can’t see them, but I sense them, clearer than ever before. The hairs bristle on my arms. They’ve surrounded me.

‘What do you want?’ I whisper.

The wind howls; whips out a tongue to lick the moisture from my eyeballs, cat-slinks around me. But that’s just the wind. They haven’t moved.

The wind is corporealised (is that a word?) here as a prowling, animal-like thing to emphasize that fact that the presence – they – are intangible, bodiless, unquantifiable.

‘What do you want?’ I ask it again.

Useless to talk. They would not listen to anything I have to say. I’m not even sure they speak. Words are a skin to keep fear within the body, and they have no bodies, have no fear.

Whether they understand me or not, there is a shift, a change in the air as if they are pressing closer, and my heart starts to beat madly. They seize my attention, stretch it far beyond my normal capacity, stretch it out to the east where something waits, hot and sharp and urgent.

Lots of rule of three in this and the following paragraph, serving to conflate this mental experience with physical sensation; seize, stretch and stretch, followed by the short, somatic punches of hot, sharp, urgent.

My mind rebels, catapulting me back into myself, into a confusion of images: cold metal piercing skin, pain on the wings of black birds, a figure gloved in blood…

I open my eyes. I’m lying in the dirt, the hat fallen from my head. Beyond the fire there’s nothing, just the night. Have they gone? Impossible to tell. They’re never truly gone, just as they are never truly here.

But they have left a feeling behind them: the conviction that past the plateau to the east, something waits.

I look up to see the ship fall flaming to the earth.

A potent image that – literally – brings the plot crashing into Ten. (Hey, I never said I was going for subtle). In this case the flaming ship carries associations with a wreck, a tragedy, a comet, a falling star: a catalyst that will change everything.

*

Stark Holborn’s Ten Low is published tomorrow by Titan Books in North America and in the UK.

Also on CR: Interview with Stark Holborn (2020)

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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