Speculative Faith is holding their winter writing challenge (follow if you wish to participate as a reader, or writer, or both). This challenge’s opening sentence is: If the reports were true, Galen had come to the right spot.
This is the third challenge, and the one that, I think, gives you the most room to go your own direction. Still, you can only go in that way two hundred words – a limitation that caused me a lot of work. Here is my finished product:
If the reports were true, Galen had come to the right spot. Ten paces away, the Washerwoman loomed into the fierce blue sky, yellow with sunlight; right at hand, he saw the marks on the rough canyon wall.
Galen knelt down. Black lines crossed and joined each other in figures as vaguely human as the Washerwoman. Faded and faint they were, beaten by sun and wind. Yet they must have been bold once, to decorate the lifeless desert three thousand years.
He covered the worn drawings with one hand and pressed the other on the rock, just above where it met the earth. And, his mind humming with the old legends, he pushed.
The rock gave way, his hand plunged into cool emptiness, and he stared down into a black shaft.
His blood ran hotter and faster throu gh his veins. Odds and sense were both against the people who claimed they saw human shadows on the high clefts, or heard voices raised in ancient song among the rock formations, but he didn’t care. The wind rose, sweeping through the canyon, and scattered pieces of old stories, of before the ruin and the separation.
Galen forced onto himself the coolness that had saved his skin more than once, and crawled into the shaft.
And here is my unfinished product, before I began the process of editing it down to size; as first completed, it was 160 words over the limit.
If the reports were true, Galen had come to the right spot. Ten paces away, the Washerwoman loomed into the fierce blue sky, turned yellow by the sunlight. Right at hand, the rough canyon wall glowered dark red, and he could hardly see the black marks.
Galen knelt down, resting his hand on the warm stone. The black lines crossed and joined each other in figures even more vaguely human than the Washerwoman. Faded and faint they were, beaten by sun and wind. Yet they must have been bold once, to decorate the lifeless desert three thousand years.
A bush, tough and stark, clung to the rocky wall with an intense will to live. He brushed his hand past it and planted his palm on the rock. His other hand he pressed on the worn drawings, and – his mind humming with the old legends – he braced himself against the canyon with all his strength.
The rock gave way so suddenly he nearly bashed his head against the stone. But he caught himself and stared down into a black shaft. A draft of air wisped around his hand, inviting him to consider what cool, dark spaces it had flowed from.
Galen felt that his blood ran faster and hotter through his veins. But he forced onto himself the coolness that had saved his skin more than once. Odds and sense were both against him, and still more against those people who claimed they saw human shadows on the high shelfs of the canyon, or heard voices raised in ancient song among the rock formations at dawn.
And through these facts swirled a wish that he had not stripped the emblems from his clothes. It was better to travel undistinguished, and no one he was seeking could understand his emblems. But they gave him the dignity of their stern and beautiful lines. He had always gathered from the stories – the old, old stories, of before the ruin and the separation – that the rock-dwellers had, in the barren and dusty deserts, held high dignity.
Galen measured the shaft with his eyes, measured it again with his hand. Satisfied that it was large enough, he crawled in.
On the whole I prefer my original version, especially the bit about Galen’s emblems – briefly but richly evocative of what time and place he lived in, who he was, and who the rock-dwellers were. But neither version is ideal. If I were to revise the original sketch again, on my own free terms, I would find places to smooth and to sharpen. The word limit forced on me a deeper examination than I would otherwise have given it.
Of course, on my own free terms I would have started the story several chapters earlier. It’s not easy to be compelling and self-contained in two hundred words. I guess that’s part of the challenge.