First 500 Words: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So, Lindsay Ellis is one of my favorite YouTubers. She does video essays, mostly about popular fiction, movies, and TV shows. She’s smart, funny, and thought-provoking, and any time she uploads a video, I watch it as soon as possible. Her first novel debuted on July 21st, and I’ve been listening to it on Audible. I thought it might be fun to do a First 500 on her book. This is the first time I’ve chosen to do a book that I’ve a) purchased and b) actively wanted to read. I actually pre-ordered this in December of last year, I think.

In between chapters, there are “leaked memos” written by the MC’s father. I’m going to skip the one that precedes Chapter 1, partly because it’s so prologue-ish/foreshadowy that critiquing/editing it wouldn’t do much and partly because I prefer to just jump into the beginning of the story. Here are the first 500 words of Chapter 1:

On the morning of the second meteor, Cora’s 1989 Toyota Camry gave up the ghost for good. The car was a manual transmission with a stick shift its previous owner had wrapped in duct tape years ago, a time bomb the color of expired baby food that should have gone off sooner than it did. At $800, she had paid more for it than it was worth, but back then, she had been a freshman in college and desperate for a car. In the two years since, she’d grown accustomed to the ever-loudening squealing of the fan belt, but on this morning, after she put her key in the ignition and the engine turned, the squealing turned into a hostile screech. A disheartening thunk thunk thunk followed, then a snap, then an angry whirr, all before she could react. But by the time she turned off the ignition, it was clear that the car, her first and only car, was dead forever.

And she was already late for work.

As the Camry went into its final death throes, Demi, who was locking the front door on her way to work, froze mid-motion as she beheld the scene, wearing an expression of disappointment, but not surprise. Cora’s feeling of horror that this was even happening quickly hopped to embarrassment before settling into her old standby: numbness. She got out of the car, with no choice but to leave it on the street despite it being street cleaning day, approached her mother, and asked, “Can you give me a ride to work?”

Demi looked at her like she had just lost their house in a drunken bet. “Sure.”

It was the last word she said to Cora for about half an hour.

In short order, Cora was suffering the indignity of her mother driving her to work through the vehicular sludge of the 110. In any other circumstances, Demi would have told Cora she was shit out of luck, that she should have gotten the car fixed months ago, and that she could find her own damn way up to downtown LA. But it had been through PMT, the temp agency Demi worked for, that Cora had her temp job, and it had been Demi who had vouched for her. And so, here they were, crawling under the 105, Demi sacrificing her own punctuality for her negligent daughter’s.

“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?” asked Demi just after they passed Rosencrans, her anger now cooled enough that she was capable of speech. “You were supposed to replace the belt and get your hair done, and you have done neither.”

Cora resisted the urge to pull her hair behind her ears, as though that would hide her mess of a dye job. She’d bleached it blond several months ago, before she’d dropped out of college, but about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in since.

“I had to use it for gas,” lied Cora, keeping her gaze

What Works: The book is set in 2007 and is centered around a young, college dropout who is estranged from her father who she thought was crazy but may actually be correct about the government trying to hide extraterrestrial visits from the public. Nice and angsty, and even though I like fantasy better than sci-fi, but I probably would have tried whatever genre of fiction Ellis put her hand to.

The way that the story starts is good in that we get to experience the strained relationship between the MC and her mother, a sense of her financial status, and overall priorities. Just after the first 500 words, we find out that Cora spent the money her mother lent her on a concert. She’s feeling disenfranchised and is ready to grasp at fleeting happiness, because of an assumption that investing in her future won’t pay out.

What Needs Work): There are a lot of wasted words. For instance, the first 500 words describes the MC’s car dying and needing to get a ride to work from her mother. This is a great start to the story because it gives the reader a glimpse at the dynamic between the mother and daughter and a snapshot of how the MC’s life is going. However, the first interesting thing that happens in this chapter is that Cora realizes that her mother’s car is being followed. AND that her mother has seen the car before. But the best part is that neither woman is surprised. This is about 600-700 words in. So, anything before that should be a lot more succint.

Another issue I have with the first part of Chapter 1 is that Cora’s father has made the news. Unfortunately, the author holds back this information until later. In the scene, Cora’s father is referred to just by his name. When his name is mentioned on the radio, Cora’s mother changes the station. Cora indicates that she doesn’t mind having the station changed, but we don’t know why our viewpoint character doesn’t want to hear about this “Nils” person. We find out pretty quickly that Nils is Cora’s father and that their relationship is estranged, but I would have felt more engaged if this had been mentioned when his name came up.

One of the quickest ways to separate me from the MC’s experience is for the author to create purposeless mysteries. It’s a weird power-play a lot of authors like to perform. Terry Pratchett is the only one I can think of who does this effectively, but that’s because the information that he does let the reader in on is at least as interesting as what he’s purposely holding back. For most authors, it’s more effective to have the reader on the same page as the viewpoint character, rather than constantly lagging behind. The story should (generally) be a mystery that the reader and MC are solving together.

Anyway, with my edit of the first 500 words, I’ll focus on condensing the beginning so that we can get to the interesting parts quicker, without losing the dynamic between Cora and her mother that the author has set up.

My Version:

Cora was already late for work when her 1989 Toyota Camry went into its final death throes. Cora’s mother, Demi, in the middle of locking the front door of their three-bedroom house, turned, her attention attracted by the last, furious screech of the Camry’s transmission. Cora winced. She could feel Demi’s glare though the grimy, bug-spattered windshield.

If Cora hadn’t gotten her job through the temp agency Demi worked for, Cora would have been shit out of luck. Then again, she wasn’t feeling super lucky as her mother’s immaculate, but ancient, Olds Cutlass trudged through morning traffic on the way to downtown LA.

“What happened to the $200 I loaned you?”

This was how Demi chose to break the silence after — Cora glanced at the dashboard clock — twenty-seven minutes.

I had to use it for gas,” Cora lied. Demi had wanted Cora to replace the fan belt on her car and get her hair done. She’d bleached it platinum blond before she’d dropped out of college, but, since then, about six inches of her natural wet-hay hair color had grown in.

Drawing: Giant Tess

Sketch of Giant Tess circa 2010.

I’ve been kind of obsessed with drawing very tall, thin figures so that I can cram them over to the side of the page and make stationery out of them, for a long time. I never dated this sketch because I never finished it but I scanned it in 2010 and it looks like my art style/skill level from about that period, so we’ll go with that. Maybe even 2009.

I never did anything with her until 2018, when I finally made lineart out of her. I uploaded her to the now-defunct but nobody bought her, so I get to keep her. She’s a very exaggerated version of my usual cartoony style but I seriously dig her face, hair blouse. The main difference between the initial sketch and the original lineart is that, at some point, I decided that she was a giant and added a human for scale. I also finished her left arm. I wanted it to be very long and thin, like the rest of her, to show that the proportions were exaggerated on purpose.

Today, I was on YouTube and found an artist named Sinix who paints over his Patreon supporters’ drawings and paintings. He took a fairly bland giant, warped it quickly using the Perspective tool, and — boom! The drawing was instantly more dynamic. I remember Tess and the fact that she never really looked like a giant, so I opened her up in Photoshop and played around with her.

I tried a few different things, but ended up shrinking her head before using the Perspective tool on her. The tool also adjusted the climber’s proportions, so I ended up copying and pasting the original climber over the warped one.

I finally learned how to use Illustrator a couple of years ago, but I’m still more comfortable doing lineart in Paint.NET, especially for finishing touches, so I opened Tess up in Paint.NET and got to work.

Initially, I was just going to fix her neck and have the bottom of the rope fly across Tess’ pants, for a bit of movement. But after I did that, I realized that the hem of her shirt should flare out toward the viewer, so I worked on that for a bit before I realized that the focal point was her waist, instead of her face. So, I thickened her waist (which is still ridiculously narrow but more in proportion to the rest of her body) and simplified her shirt. I also made the climber’s rope swing away from the viewer, instead of toward.

Lineart: Giant Tess in Perspective, 2020.

At first, I was really sad at the idea of making Tess’ face so much smaller because that’s my favorite part, but simplifying the bottom half of her and making her waist more proportional lets the eye immediately find her face. I also super dig the way that the pearls get smaller at the top. In the initial sketch and lineart, they’re all the same size.

I thought I was done but I ended up adjusting her chest, a bit. It’s far from perfect but it does look like you’re looking up at it instead of at the profile. I’m still not sure how to put the face in perspective without completely ruining it, but, hey, there are limits to my genius.

I’m overall happy with the changes, especially since it’s obvious that she’s a giant, now. She never quite read that way, even with the climber for scale. I might color or paint her at some point, but I’m good with this for today. I think it’s much easier to appreciate the details without having them compete with each other. I also think she’d make badass stationery, now. 🙂

Here they are together so that you can compare the changes. Essentially, I shrunk the head, warped her using the Perspective tool, thickened her waist, simplified the bottom part of her top, and had the lines of her breast curve up instead of down. I tried adding a second arm, but — neh….

Giant Tess Before and After

Oh, and bonus points if you can tell me what I modeled the climber after (Hint: a particular episode of the original 90’s MacGyver). You won’t actually win anything, but you’ll make me smile.