Having dreams figure in your novel opening is often problematic. You really need to ground the reader in your characters’ reality first.
Title: The Distorting Mirror
Genre: Psychological Horror
Language: British English
Synopsis: A scream wakes Ashling, but nothing seems amiss in her family home. Then her mother recounts a strange dream. Their dog, missing for years, returns. The border between dreams and reality blurs, and Ashling has to venture through her worst nightmares to find the tragic truth of what’s happened.
A scream wakes Ashling. She throws off the sheets and runs down the hall to her mother’s room, their heads separated only by a wall when they sleep.
Her mother isn’t there.
The bed is neatly made, lavender sheets as smooth as if they haven’t been slept in at all. Beyond the window lies a hazy grey day, no mountain or fields beyond the edge of the garden, just the gargantuan ash tree beside the front gate throwing a net of shadow over the house when the low sun breaks through.
Who else could have screamed?
Ashling goes back to her room, pulls on a pink dressing gown over her black and white pyjamas. As her adrenaline drains, a throbbing ache slithers up the side of her nose and takes root behind her eyes, trying to push them out of their sockets to make space for itself.
Ashling’s father’s room is on the other side of hers, the sheets in a mad tangle on his empty double bed. In the corner is another empty bed, a neatly made single, for her brother Niall when he visits.
From the kitchen come three sharp thuds which send her headache into a mad, twirling ecstasy. Her white-haired mother Maeve sits at the table, trying to pull a long knife with a blunted tip from a turnip, banging it on the table again and again.
“Bloody things…” She wears glasses, a dark body warmer over her jumper and cardigan, and a long grey skirt. “Morning, Ashling. How’d you sleep?”
“Ma. I thought you were… I don’t know. Did you hear the noise?”
“There a minute ago,” says Ashling. “Someone screamed.”
“Well it wasn’t me,” says Maeve. “I don’t know who it was. Your brother’s in Cahirlock and your father’s been outside all morning.” With the newly freed knife, Maeve points through the window at her broad-shouldered husband Liam leaning over the strip of bare soil by the back fence, placing down bulbs and shaking seeds and shovelling compost from a wheelbarrow, straightening up his back now and again as if in pain. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
“I don’t know,” says Ashling.
“Anyway, don’t be worrying about that. I’ve done you toast, it’s on the counter.”
Her mother has taken the crusts from the toast and beside the plate is Ashling’s favourite mug with a spoonful of coffee in the bottom. The mug has a cartoon fox on it and beneath it are the words “What the fox?”
They hear Liam’s boots clop through the back door into the porch a second before he comes into the kitchen, leaving lattices of soil on the tiles behind him.
“Ah for God’s sake,” says Maeve. “Knock off your boots before you come in.”
Liam tuts. “I did sure.”
Liam is tall and strong, touching seventy but doesn’t look more than fifty, with a shaved head covered in grey stubble and a tanned, square face. He stares at Ashling in her dressing gown and says, “The dead arose, I see. Sweep up the floor for your mother there.”
“You sweep it up,” says Ashling. “It’s your mess.”
“I’ve been working all morning, not lying on me arse,” he says, then opens the fridge and drinks straight from the carton of cherry juice, his life-giving elixir.
He clops back out and the tension in the kitchen relaxes. Ashling sighs as she sweeps his muck from the floor, then goes for a shower, leaving her mother on the sofa at the other end of the kitchen watching the news – a civil war in Venezuela, a massacre at a mosque in California, food riots in Egypt.
The shower eases Ashling’s headache and after, she wipes the steam from the mirror. Normally she has a ruddy complexion she tones down with foundation but now she’s as pale as a corpse, her round face made even whiter by contrast with her black hair. She wonders why her parents didn’t mention her pallor and applies the foundation to bring her colour back up. Then she dresses in jeans and her favourite hooded top and goes back to the kitchen.
She sits at the table peeling and chopping the carrots, worrying about her paleness.
Maeve turns off the telly and goes to warm her hands at the black stove. “I had a dream last night. A nightmare. It was so clear. Usually my dreams are mixed up nonsense…”
“What was it?” says Ashling, thankful for the distraction from her own thoughts.
“Well, I was riding a horse somewhere like a forest. But there weren’t many trees left. It was like they’d been cut down, or there’d been a fire. The grass was all yellow and black. It felt very sad, like the whole world was dying, and there were lots of murky puddles and little bits of fog on the ground that twirled around when the horse’s feet went through them.”
“Hooves,” says Ashling.
“Hooves I mean. I looked down at myself and I was in the nip. Stark naked I was. But I wasn’t ashamed of any of it. There was no-one around anyway except the horse. The horse was white but it was kind of grey at the same time. I must’ve been thinking of the ones outside. Anyway we galloped along until we came to a place. It was like it appeared out of nothing in front of us. I felt cold for the first time, and ashamed too, and got down from the horse. The place was a platform made of concrete, and on top was a rough stone table with a wooden chair at both ends, just like the one you’re sitting on. It felt wrong to have such an ugly, cold place in the middle of a forest, even if it was all burned and bare now. Then someone appeared in one of the chairs.
This submission starts when Ashling wakes up, and the main plot thrust comes from a dream. I have strong opinions on both of these plot devices—I think they’re problematic for a novel—and I’ll try and explain why.
First, the mechanics of waking up. We’re not instantly awake, unless we’re one of those military “special services” types who sleep with one eye open and their finger on the trigger. So Ashling might feel that something had woken her up, but unless it was particularly prolonged, she probably wouldn’t know exactly what it was. So we’re not off to a good start if the first sentence creates doubt in my mind that the scene is realistic. Reading on, we’re not told what the significance of the scream is and we begin to wonder if there is any significance, because it appears, from what her mum says, that Ashling dreamed the incident. If in summary Ashling dreamed she heard a scream and then woke up, I’m really wondering why you’ve started the book with this sentence. The temptation would be to say, “so what?”
Then dreams. When someone at the office, or at a barbecue, or on the sixth tee, pipes up and says “I had a really weird dream last night. Let me tell you all about it” does your heart leap with anticipation? I bet it doesn’t. I bet what really happens is that you privately switch off most of your attention and get on with thinking about things that are important to you at that moment (do you have a chance at that promotion? will you get that fat sausage on the end? is your tee-shot going to be as bad on this hole the last one?) Dreams are really never quite as interesting as one thinks, even one’s own, and other people’s? Bo-oring. My eyes began to glaze over with Mum’s earnest retelling of her horseback-in-the-nip story. Why should I care what Mum’s subconscious is dredging up? It tells me nothing about any character. It certainly doesn’t seem to advance the plot. Again, why is it here, in the first couple of pages of your book? Perhaps it’s a premonition, and she really will be riding a horse naked through a dystopian burned forest landscape? I go back to the synopsis and see that the story is all about blurring the edges between dreams and reality, at which point, to be honest, this reader would give up. It’s all very well to write a story about the edges of reality blurring, but we haven’t had any reality yet. In order for us to appreciate Ashling’s reality distorting, we must be immersed in her reality in the first place. And if it’s Ashling’s reality that’s going to distort, why are we hearing a word-for-word verbatim retelling of her mum’s nightmares?
Others might be interested in what happens, but, in order for you to twist the reality of the characters that I’m reading about, I need to understand and at least empathise to some extent with their reality first. Even in the more prosaic sections of this opening are odd details, like her mother thumping a turnip on the table (why?) and the fact that the knife she is using to cut it has a blunt end (why is this specified? Is someone given to self-harm in this household?) and the fact that cherry juice is “life-giving” (why?). Given the number of weird details I wouldn’t be surprised to find the whole opening some kind of dream-within-a-dream, and the next line to be “then Ashling wakes up. It must have all been a dream, she thinks. She hears a whinny, and, poking her head out of her bedroom window, sees her naked mother riding a white horse off down the garden between the rose bed and the runner beans.”
Technically the writing is good. It might be interpreted as a PoV slip for Maeve to refer to “her” broad-shouldered husband, since we’re in Ashling’s PoV at that point and therefore possessive pronouns should really relate to Ashling. I would recast that sentence to avoid the issue.
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Other submissions featuring dreams here.