Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

First Page: DARK HOUSES – YA Dystopian

Welcome to First Page Saturday. Individual authors anonymously send a first page read and critiqued by the Dear Author community of authors, readers and industry others. Anyone is welcome to comment. You may comment anonymously.

***

The forest was noisy. Wind ruffled the leaves, birds sang, and something small and innocent scurried through the duff nearby. Caylen liked a noisy forest; it was when things got quiet that she started to worry.

She moved forward quickly but carefully, being sure not to add any sounds of her own to the din around her. A flash of motion off to the right barely caught her attention; it was small, moving parallel to her path — just a bird. There was a shape up ahead, though, something strange about it, almost blending in to the shadow of a large oak, but not quite… something just not right. She raised her left fist in the air, waited long enough to be sure that the signal had been seen by those traveling behind her, and then lowered herself closer to the ground and moved off the path into the undergrowth. It was tougher going, there; she could feel the forest start to notice her. Still not alarmed enough to be silent, but watching.

She crept forward, and by about ten strides from the object her brain finally started to process the shape. She could make out a leg, covered in a dark fabric, stretched out from the larger bulk resting against the tree. There was a boot on the foot, nothing fancy. It was much the same as the boots on Caylen’s own feet, although hers were more worn. She eased closer, looking for a trap, ears and eyes open for any changes or danger. Her bow was a nuisance, the only part of her that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t mold itself to the forest floor, but she needed it; there was no point in getting somewhere quietly if she was unarmed when she arrived. A little nearer, and a little further around the side, and it became clear that the body slumped against the tree was no danger to her, and would never be a danger to anyone again. She had to be sure, though, so she found a fist-sized rock in the undergrowth and lifted herself up just long enough to throw it, hard, at the body.

The rock hit with a soft sound, tumbling to the ground rather than bouncing off the hard muscle of a living shoulder, and the body didn’t move. Caylen had her answer. She eased out towards the path, still cautious, but not alarmed, and when she got back into sight of those following her she raised her arm again, this time with a flat hand that she jerked forward. Come on.

She walked over to the body. It had been there at least a few days, from the look of it. No animals seemed to have found it yet, which was strange, but a careful sniff confirmed that the corpse was just starting to smell. The clothes were nothing special, but there could be something useful on the body; Caylen made sure she kept the smile from her face as she turned to greet Connell, the band’s second-in-command. “I’d check it out, but I’m on point.”

Connell peered down at the corpse. “Looks like one of us.” One of them. A Nomad, he meant. Connell crouched to get a better look at the face, then shook his head. “Hard to tell, now, but he doesn’t look familiar.” He glanced back at the group of nomads gathering behind him. “Romy, check him out.” He jerked his head down the path. “And you, Cay – if you’re on point, get your ass on point.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

27 Comments

  1. Louise
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 04:35:30

    I liked this. The setup was very intriguing, and I’d like to find out what was going on with the dead Nomad.

  2. Sam
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 06:26:08

    I would get rid of the first paragraph and start with the second paragraph. Other than that I liked it.

  3. RBA
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 09:20:15

    I agree I’d get rid of the first paragraph. The second one works well to draw the reader in. You discuss the sounds of the forest there, so probably don’t need to do it earlier too.

  4. Gwynnyd
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 10:01:20

    Dystopian is not my favorite, but I think your corpse is too clean. By the third day, the first few batches of maggots have already hatched into flies. Possibly you are sanitizing the experience for younger readers, but I think there is a difference between the clinical information you might have researched – “putrefaction starts on the fourth day” – and the actual smell of the corpse after sitting there in the woods for “a few” days, especially after it has been hit by a rock hard enough to disrupt the now fragile skin. Unless it has been cold, and your forest description makes me think of summer, I doubt if a “slight smell” would cover it.

    Disagreeing with other commenters, I don’t think you need to lose the whole first paragraph, just the first two sentences of it.

    Other than that, it’s clean, easy to read and you have a nice style. Good luck!

  5. Berinn
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 10:13:43

    If you keep the first paragraph, I’d cut a couple adjectives and adverbs. Other than that, your story sucked me right in. I’d buy the book!

  6. JB Hunt
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 10:19:19

    I agree with Gwynnyd. Begin with “Caylen liked a noisy forest…”

    This really pulled me in. In the short span of a few paragraphs, I felt like I was right there with Cay.

    I like it, and I’d definitely like to read more.

  7. Lori
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 10:58:58

    This isn’t my genre at all but I was immediately interested. The writing is polished and it flowed.

    I agree that the first two sentences should be cut. Otherwise, great job.

  8. Klio
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 11:30:07

    I particularly liked “she could feel the forest start to notice her.” More than any of the other descriptions, that gives the sense of a living forest and her familiarity with it.

    I liked the first paragraph but can see where, say, “innocent” became one adjective too many and might make a reader want the whole thing to be cut. Why not just tighten up that first paragraph and slide it in after the first sentence of the second paragraph. I like having a dollop of scene-setting before leaping into action, if setting is a major “character” in the story/worldbuilding.

    Anything else I could come up with would just be nitpicking. I’m enjoying the heroine so far and the hints of group dynamics. The first page encourages me to carry on reading from here.

  9. Anonymous (author)
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 11:44:16

    This is great stuff so far, guys.

    Thanks very much, even if you ARE being mean to my poor first paragraph! (joking. I see what you mean, even though I DO like it…)

    And I’ll do some more research into corpses. Or maybe add a vivid line about the fabric darkening around the spot the rock hit, as the body starts to liquify! Yum.

  10. Kristi
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 11:51:48

    I think this is good, but needs a little refinement. The first thing I noticed while I was reading was just that. “Was”. You can cut out 90% of the forms of the verb “to be” in this passage and be much better for it. It leads to stilted, actionless writing. Was doesn’t do anything. You are only telling us that things exist in a state of being. That’s not very dynamic. It leads to two problems with the voice.

    The first problem is a distancing from the experience of your POV character.
    Take this sentence for example:

    “No animals seemed to have found it yet, which was strange, but a careful sniff confirmed that the corpse was just starting to smell.”

    Where is your main character in this experience. She’s detached from it because you’re telling us what “is” instead of letting her experience it in real time. The sentence could really wake up with a little revision. Something like,

    “Strange, Cay didn’t see any open rot, or any evidence that scavengers had fed on him at all. She leaned in and took a hesitant sniff. The sweetly sour odor of death barely tickled her nose. A dead man should have smelled worse. Perhaps he was still fresh. That still didn’t explain why the animals hadn’t feasted yet.”

    Remember that animals have a much better sense of smell than we do, and so if she can smell it at all, the turkey vultures at least would be all over it, as would the bugs. But that is a world building point. If something is scaring away the scavengers, then that is an interesting world building point, and could work to your advantage.

    The other problem with the “was” issue, is that it isn’t as engaging a way to describe the things you are describing. Description is more dynamic when your character interacts with an object instead of listing off an observation about what it is.

    “Her bow was a nuisance” is a good example of this. How so? What is it doing to be a nuisance. This can easily be changed to “Her bow jabbed into her thigh every time she pushed forward while the string cut into her shoulder. She cursed it with each breath.”

    Change 90% of the “to be” verbs and the voice of this will come alive.

    The other thing that made me stop a little was the bow. I think it is a mistake in dystopian to just jump back to “old” technology as a way to show that we’ve moved backward. Old tech still developed in a very specific way, and we’d have to relearn that tech from scratch to have it again. A bow was fairly advanced tech, if the whole world has gone to pot.

    If I turned around tomorrow and it was the end of the world, I couldn’t just cut a branch off of a tree and make a bow. What wood do I use? What do I use for a bowstring? How do I plane my arrows so they shoot straight? Who fletches them? Is there a blacksmith around to make arrowheads? If not, am I using a sharpened stick? Is the arrowhead stone? Is my character in a place that has stone suitable for making arrowheads? Etc.

    In a dystopian, you’re either dealing with tech “leftovers” perhaps this is a compound hunting bow from the late 20th century that she found in some ruins somewhere. That could work. If she did make it, what is it made from? Again, if we’re dealing with dystopian, is it unusual or unique somehow? Made from something scavenged that you wouldn’t expect a bow to be made from?

    Unless these questions are addressed somehow, I have a hard time blindly believing a “bow”. Weapons aren’t that simple. It took humanity thousands of years to develop a bow. The only advantage someone post the apocalypse would have is the memory that at one time in history these things existed, and so could be recreated somehow. It’s still going to take a long time and some specialized effort to recreate one, and it may not be what we think of when we think of a bow.

    Now sharpen anything and tie it to the end of a stick and you have a shiv, knife, blade, or spear. That’s where I’d start tech-wise unless this is somehow a remnant of the times before the downfall of man.

    It’s the same thing with boots and clothing. Be very careful. Where do people get these things? Think about that. I’m not sensing that the world building has gone that deep yet, but it is the first page. It could go that deep, and I just haven’t seen it yet. If that is the case, some subtle and well placed details could give us a hint of that here.

    Good luck with it.

    Kristi

  11. Marianne McA
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 12:35:06

    LOL.Just behind my computer monitor there are 5 bows hanging on the wall. Two longbows. If the apocalypse comes, I’m sorted.

    I hadn’t read it as taking place on Earth. Probably because I didn’t know the word ‘duff’. (Do now: I just looked it up. ‘Decaying vegetable matter covering the ground under trees.’ Merriam-Webster) So I miscued myself into thinking it was a made-up word and therefore a made-up world.

    Like everyone else, I really liked it. Probably wouldn’t read on, but only because it’s reading as if there’s going to be a good deal of violence in the book, not for any other reason.

  12. Maili
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 13:09:21

    @Marianne McA: You haven’t heard of ‘up the duff’?

  13. Anthea Lawson
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 13:29:25

    I think you are a talented writer, and this is off to a great start! Agree with the comments above about tightening the beginning and watching out a little more for that distancing POV stuff.

    Maybe you want to deliberately invoke The Hunger Games, but if not, I’d think hard about dystopian YA + girl in forest + bow. Many readers will find that a derivative beginning (I admit that Katniss jumped immediately to my mind), even if your book is nothing like Collins’. Just a thought. :)

  14. Anonymous (author)
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 13:29:47

    ‘Up the duff’? I haven’t heard of that either!

    And I don’t want to sound defensive, but this is actually set well-after the apocalypse, and it was more of a Peak Oil/general decline apocalypse than a really… well, a really apocalyptic apocalypse. (Isn’t that a line from Buffy? “I now find myself needing to know the plural of the word ‘apocalypse’.”)

    Anyway, there were islands of civilization left over after the decline (I modelled the idea on the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome), and lots of artifacts left over as well. The more prestigious people have antique firearms, and basic manufacturing has resumed in what’s left of the cities. The Nomads have been around for generations, and have gotten fairly sophisticated about scavenging and making what they need.

    All this to say… I think I’m okay on the bows.

    I will take a closer look at the verb construction, though. Thanks!

  15. Anonymous (author)
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 13:33:26

    Re. The Hunger Games.

    Yeah. I think I’m actually in trouble on that front. Believe it or not, I’ve had this on the back burner for years (I generally write Romance), and finally got it ready for submission just as the Hunger Games phenomenon was peaking. I don’t see a way to change the character without changing the whole story, so I think I’m doomed to seem derivative, even though most of it was written, and the character was definitely developed, well before Katniss made it to the page.

    Oh well. Maybe I’ll end up trunking it for ten years and giving it another try when the next generation of readers rolls around…

    But in the meantime, please keep the critiques coming! Just in case I’m not doomed.

  16. Sharon
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 13:38:31

    Too many passive words. Too many adverbs. They slow the pace.

  17. Kristi
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 14:07:05

    That’s good that you’ve got your worldbuilding sorted out to that level, but I’m still a little confused. Are the bows something that is being manufactured?

    I could see that you headed back to the dark ages kind of feel, but when the dark ages happened, weapons tech did not backtrack all that far. Romans didn’t have weapon tech much beyond the bow except for their large siege type weapons.

    To take us back from modern tech to medieval tech would be like the dark ages throwing people back to the age of caveman stone hand axes.

    If modern manufacturing has shut down, awesome. That means that things will now be more hand crafted by specialists. I just want to make sure you’re taking into account the motivations of those specialists. Is a bow the very best blend of cheaply made, effective for purpose, readily available raw resources, and need from the population to motivate a weapons manufacturer to invest in learning to make them? If the answer is yes, then awesome. Go for the bow. I just didn’t want you to use it as a “time prop” to remind us that we’re back to days before our modern life. I want that bow to be the very best logical choice for your character in this time and place and have it supported by the reality of the world you’ve created.

    That’s what brings you to that next level when it comes to world building.

    As I said, the bow might just be exactly right, I just am prompting you to make sure you’ve thought about each detail to that level. The science fiction lovers will thank you for it.

    Kristi

  18. Maria
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 14:40:42

    When I think duff I think of the golf term. It means to flub a shot. Or I think of the beer that Homer Simpson drinks. Now I have a new meaning for duff…thanks!

  19. DM
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 15:02:59

    I have to disagree with Kristi and Sharon about the use of the verb “to be” and passivity. There is nothing wrong with “to be.” It allows the writer to vary emphasis. Not every detail should be highlighted with an action verb. There is nothing wrong with passive verbs. Yes, you want your protagonist to be largely acting in the simple past tense, but passive verbs are part of pleasing variation.

    Her bow was a nuisance, the only part of her that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t mold itself to the forest floor, but she needed it; there was no point in getting somewhere quietly if she was unarmed when she arrived.

    This is perfect. The important fact, the emphasis here, is that she needs the bow. A physical description of exactly how it fails to bend is a distraction from the point of the sentence: she needs to arrive armed.

    Dystopian YA is not my thing, but isn’t there always room on the shelves for another good book?

  20. Anonymous (author)
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 15:23:15

    @DM:
    “Dystopian YA is not my thing, but isn’t there always room on the shelves for another good book? ”

    I had hoped so. But one of the reasons I put this page up for crit was that I haven’t been getting any interest from agents so far. Not even requests for partials, let alone fulls.

    I think my query is strong, so I was hoping for ideas on how to improve the writing (I generally include the first ten pages with queries). But if the writing is reasonable, as well… maybe it’s a market issue. I don’t know. I’ll keep trying.

  21. Sue t
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 15:23:47

    I wish I hadn’t gone there but I immediately went to Hunger Games. I don’t think I even made it past the first sentence or two because that’s what I thought then getting to the bow and all, yes, it sounded familiar. Sorry about that. That’s especially hard when you had this before HG.

    When you are ready to query, I’d make a point of telling agents/editors (should you be targeting them) anything you can that makes it different than HG. That’s not to say it couldn’t work but I imagine they have been flooded with HG-like stories – like they are with HP, Twilight and more so you’d want to work hard at showing why yours is not HG. Good luck!

  22. Kristi
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 15:37:15

    On the contrary, I don’t have a problem with “was”. You need the word, and sometimes you just need to state something quickly. That said, this isn’t a super high paced opening.

    You have a character who is moving slowly and being observant of detail. I felt that the word “was” had been used so much that I noticed it. Your goal is to not notice structure repetition in writing. I saw it, so I thought I’d point it out as an opportunity to draw us deeper into the character’s immediate experience instead of just her surface observations.

    Notice I didn’t say cut them all out. Just look at each one carefully and see if there isn’t a different way to say it that puts us deeper into the mind and physical experience of Cay. If there is a way to do it, I’d change it.

  23. DS
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 15:53:09

    I like it pretty well. I even liked the first paragraph except I would get rid of the word “innocent”. Out of place, if you want an adjective to describe small animals go for harmless. I think that is what you are trying to convey.

    Also agree the corpse is too fresh. It didn’t seem that the weather was refrigerator cold although it would be nicely creepy if somehow the apocalypse had affected natural scavengers so you end up with copses hanging around until burned or something.

  24. Janine
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 22:14:05

    ETA: Apologies for the length of the comment — my enthusiasm for giving you feedback is a mark of how much I like your voice.

    I liked this a lot — I think it’s one of the best first pages I’ve seen here at DA. Here are my thoughts:

    1) My philosophy on the passive voice is that it has its place and is overly vilified, but one still has to watch overusing it.

    2) I agree with those who recommend cutting the first paragraph, although — if you started with a quiet forest, and there was an ominous reason why the forest was quiet, the second line in the first paragraph would make a kickass opening.

    3) I think the writing itself is really good here, but you have to catch teens’ attention quickly these days (not to mention agents’ and editors’) so starting with something even more tense and potent might work better.

    4) Also, it’s probably a matter of taste but it seems to me that the second and third paragraphs are a touch long. I lost my focus trying to read them. Probably partly because they are on a computer screen, but even in a book, I think my eye would search for a place to rest and the book would lose my attention if I didn’t find it.

    I would break them up this way:

    “She moved forward quickly but carefully, being sure not to add any sounds of her own to the din around her. A flash of motion off to the right barely caught her attention; it was small, moving parallel to her path — just a bird. There was a shape up ahead, though, something strange about it, almost blending in to the shadow of a large oak, but not quite… something just not right.

    She raised her left fist in the air, waited long enough to be sure that the signal had been seen by those traveling behind her, and then lowered herself closer to the ground and moved off the path into the undergrowth. It was tougher going, there; she could feel the forest start to notice her. Still not alarmed enough to be silent, but watching.

    She crept forward, and by about ten strides from the object her brain finally started to process the shape. She could make out a leg, covered in a dark fabric, stretched out from the larger bulk resting against the tree. There was a boot on the foot, nothing fancy. It was much the same as the boots on Caylen’s own feet, although hers were more worn.

    She eased closer, looking for a trap, ears and eyes open for any changes or danger. Her bow was a nuisance, the only part of her that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t mold itself to the forest floor, but she needed it; there was no point in getting somewhere quietly if she was unarmed when she arrived.

    A little nearer, and a little further around the side, and it became clear that the body slumped against the tree was no danger to her, and would never be a danger to anyone again. She had to be sure, though, so she found a fist-sized rock in the undergrowth and lifted herself up just long enough to throw it, hard, at the body.”

    I tried to put the new paragraph breaks in places where there was tension in the story. That’s where you want the reader to pause, so that the impact of the line sinks in. The first and last lines of a paragraph stick with us more.

    Therefore, these breaks emphasize lines like “There was a shape up ahead, though, something strange about it, almost blending in to the shadow of a large oak, but not quite… something just not right,” “. She eased closer, looking for a trap…” and other lines I see as places that would amp up the tension and suspense.

    5) I also think you could tighten some, for example, taking the third paragraph, here’s how I tightened it:

    “She crept forward. Ten strides from the object her brain started to process the shape. She could make out a leg, covered in dark fabric, stretched out from the larger bulk resting against the tree. A boot on the foot, nothing fancy. Much the same as those on Caylen’s own feet. She eased closer, looking for a trap, ears and eyes open. Her bow was a nuisance, the only part of her that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t mold itself to the forest floor, but she needed it; no point getting somewhere quietly if she was unarmed when she arrived. A little nearer, a little further around the side, and it became clear the body slumped against the tree was no danger, and would never be again. She had to be sure, though, so she found a fist-sized rock in the undergrowth and lifted herself just long enough to throw it, hard, at the body.”

    I cut from 185 words to 153, so roughly by 17%. The words I cut were the following:

    “and by about”

    “finally”

    “a”

    “There was”

    “It was”

    “the boots” (replaced with “those”)

    “although hers were more worn” (I don’t think she’d focus on that so soon after finding a body, but maybe I’m wrong? Still, unless it’s crucial to the story, I don’t think this detail belongs on the first page of your book. And if it is crucial, you haven’t conveyed that yet, and you need to).

    “for any changes or danger” (We already know that’s why her eyes and ears are open since you have told us she is looking for a trap. Telling us something we already know just undercuts the tension here IMO).

    “there was” and “in” (I think “No point getting…” works just as well)

    “and a”

    “to her,” (It’s evident that she thought it might be a danger to her from her caution, therefore I think you can drop “to her”)

    “a danger to anyone” (I think this isn’t needed, “never be again” also gets the point across – and more powerfully, because your phrasing was a bit clichéd IMO)

    “up” (She lifted herself – this tells us she is moving up, therefore “up” can be pruned)

    These were the words that seemed extraneous to me, and if you look at the list, you’ll see that most of them aren’t that vivid or distinct.

    Trimming extraneous words is a valuable skill for any writer and I think anyone can learn it; it just requires training yourself to look for them. It’s almost always good to tighten throughout your manuscript.

    6) To illustrate combining suggestions 4 & 5, if you take my tightened paragraph and break it up into smaller paragraphs as I suggested earlier, I think it becomes even stronger:

    “She crept forward. Ten strides from the object her brain started to process the shape. She could make out a leg, covered in dark fabric, stretched out from the larger bulk resting against the tree. A boot on the foot, nothing fancy. Much the same as those on Caylen’s own feet.

    She eased closer, looking for a trap, ears and eyes open. Her bow was a nuisance, the only part of her that wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t mold itself to the forest floor, but she needed it; no point getting somewhere quietly if she was unarmed when she arrived.

    A little nearer, a little further around the side, and it became clear the body slumped against the tree was no danger, and would never be again. She had to be sure, though, so she found a fist-sized rock in the undergrowth and lifted herself just long enough to throw it, hard, at the body.”

    7) There are a few other things you could sharpen, for example you use the word “body” twice in the same paragraph. I think “the thing slumped against the tree was no danger” would work well — that way you’ll avoid repetition and save the punch of the word “body” for the last word of the paragraph.

    8) On another topic, if you are not getting any requests, it might be a good idea not only to make sure the query emphasizes the differences from The Hunger Games as suggested above, but maybe make the first page something radically different from The Hunger Games?

    You could start with a prologue that is set in a different time from this scene — the first scene could even be a flash forward. Or, if the body is important, you could start with a prologue from the dying man’s POV.

    I like this scene a lot, but if the Hunger Games thing is the root of the problem, then it’s worth exploring all your options for making it clear that this book is different from HG on page one.

    9) Finally, I just want to say — I don’t usually give this much of my time and attention to First Pages here at DA, and the reason I did it this time is because there is so much I love about your writing. So please, take it as the compliment it is. Good luck to you!

  25. Anonymous (author)
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 22:51:22

    Great notes, Janine – I need to go through them slowly, I think, to absorb it all, but even a quick skim makes me recognize the value.

    Thanks very much for taking the time.

  26. Janine
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 23:14:17

    @Anonymous (author): You’re welcome! And I’ll just add what I always tell my CPs — that any advice, mine included, will not be 100% on target. You know your story and your characters better than anyone, so only take the advice that resonates with you.

  27. My5cents
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 09:52:55

    I was intrigued until I read this sentence:
    “it became clear that the body slumped against the tree was no danger to her, and would never be a danger to anyone again.”
    Nothing wrong with it, but you were building tension in the first two paragraphs (a good thing) only to immediately release it on the first page (a bad thing).
    I would have preferred if the corpse had disturbed her in some way. E.g. it was someone she had known OR the way he (I assume it’s a male? it’s not clear) was killed reveals who the killer might be (something like: “Another victim of the nefarious X tribe”).

%d bloggers like this: