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First Page: Ashes – Fantasy

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The common room was quiet as the last notes of song faded away. Quiet for a single moment until the braying laughter began again from the so-called ‘Peacekeepers’ in the corner. Aria Kenson risked a glance at the uniformed men. She couldn’t hold back the grimace at the mess they had made of the huge table they’d commandeered. So much good food lay wasted on the floor or strewn about the table and chairs. Each of the five men had stains marking their rumpled clothing. Out of the corner of her eye, Aria caught her mother suppressing similar disgust as Reina carefully stowed her flute. Aria scanned the rest of the room as she packed her harp back into its protective case. The two villagers remaining in the room hunched over their stew and ate as quickly as possible. No one paid attention to Aria as she rose from her stool in the corner and followed her mother into the shelter of the kitchen.
Keeper Alyse dusted the flour from her hands as she made her way through the room towards them. She snagged two mugs of cider from a counter and plopped them down at the little table out of the way of the women preparing for the evening meal. “I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to play for us tonight. Especially you, Aria, what with your newborn.” She glanced over her shoulder before dropping her voice to a whisper. “Those damned Peacekeepers would have driven away all my customers if I didn’t have you two to draw them in with your songs. Bad enough this lot insists on free meals for themselves and their beasts in addition to the rooms, but they’ve broken a dozen mugs already. Don’t even get me started on the amount of food they’ve wasted or that hasn’t been up to their standards.” Alyse snorted. “I’ll be glad to see the backs of them.”
Reina’s eyes flicked to the other women in the room. The others had worked at the inn for years, but still… “Watch what you say,” Reina cautioned in a whisper. Her light brown hair bobbed as she leaned forward. “You’ve heard the rumors about what the Peacekeepers have done down south… I don’t want anything to happen to you and I certainly don’t want them looking for trouble where there isn’t any.”
Alyse blanched. She darted a glance at Aria. “You mean the rumors the midwife has been spreading?” she hissed softly. “Surely you don’t think someone would tell those men that…”
Aria cut the woman off. “No one else saw what Maggie Rosewood claims she did and there were plenty of other witness at the birth besides the midwife. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t repeat the rumors here. Not now.” She glanced at the door to the common room. “Leia doesn’t deserve to be badmouthed before she’s even old enough to talk.” Aria took a long drink of her cider before she let her temper get away from her. “I’m not sure how much good our playing is even doing,” she said instead. “There’s barely been a handful of people passing through the common room and the lunch rush has long since passed. Do you think you’ll get more for dinner?”
The innkeeper sighed. She leaned her wide frame against the counter behind her. “I hope so, but I doubt they’ll notice if it’s just one of you or both. I’ll understand if one of you wants to go home.”
Reina turned to Aria. “Go check on Leia,” she said. “I’ll be fine here by myself.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and 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


  1. Carol McKenzie
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 04:33:24

    Hi Author, and thanks for sharing.

    I don’t know what this is. I’m confused by much of it. Your setting and some of your word choices seem to indicate a rustic setting, with an old-world feel. But some of your language is modern and it’s jarring. “…snagged two mugs of cider from a counter and plopped them down…” as an example. “Lunch rush” as another.

    I’m also not clear on who some of your characters are. It took me a few reads of the sentence where you introduce Aria’s mother to realize who the mother is. “…Aria caught her mother suppressing similar disgust as Reina carefully stowed her flute.” There’s no indication up until now what kind of music there was, who played what, or how many.

    Finally, this: “No one else saw what Maggie Rosewood claims she did and there were plenty of other witness at the birth besides the midwife.” Who is Maggie Rosewood? Is the ‘she’ in the sentence the midwife, or Maggie? Did the midwife do something, or did Maggie?

    And who is Leia? Aria’s newborn?

    Otherwise, nothing much happens to help me understand what you’re trying to convey. I don’t know who your MC is, Aria or her mother (I assume Aria, but the mother does most of the talking, either to or about Aria). I’m lost in time because of language, lost as to what this inn looks like. Common room, while an inn-like word, also made me think of common rooms at English universities, or American college sorority houses. Lunch rush made me think of a diner.

    There are so many modern references for Peacekeepers that I’m lost. It sounds Western, or like the motorcycle club, or I think of the Hunger Games, or Call of Duty. It’s a sort of generic term at the moment, and again, too modern sounding for some of the rest of your setting.

    Would I read on? Probably not, unless there was a really good blurb, or the writing was cleaned up, tightened, made clearer. You may have a good story here, but I’m too lost right now to even know how to think about what I’ve just read. I’m not compelled by any one thing on the page to keep going. I don’t know your MC, don’t really even know who he/she is, therefore it’s hard for me to care about her, to care what happens to her. You’ve lost me.

  2. SAO
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 05:46:38

    I was not drawn into your story. It’s just one page and I’m not sure this is where your story starts. The page was mostly backstory disguised as conversation. Because the chars were so busy conveying info to the reader, I didn’t get a sense of who they were. Further, you were trying to make it sound natural, so you provided the information in an elliptical manner, making me work to figure out what was going on. This is why, I think, your page is confusing. It’s not your writing style, few people can convey gobs of backstory well on page one.

    You have too many people on this page. I need to start caring about one or two, not remembering who is who.

    The last para was totally confusing. I just don’t get how rumors about the Peacekeepers that the midwife is spreading have to do with a birth. Then it turns out the birth is Aria’s and the rumors are about the baby. So what does that have to do with the Peacekeepers and what they did in the South? And presumably, Aria and Reina were also present at the birth, so what did they see or not see?

    It just strikes me as odd that a midwife is spreading rumors about Aria’s baby and birth and Aria talks about it as if she’s a third party and her mother is silent, not like mother and grandmother to the badmouthed baby. It’s like it’s third hand gossip. Or maybe I just don’t have the foggiest clue what you are trying to convey.

    Don’t be afraid of emotion. If you want me to care about your chars, show me what they care about. A mother worrying about a small baby is natural.

    I’d recommend starting with a scene, not backstory. You should give Aria a goal, even if it’s just to get out of the inn and get back to baby without getting pinched on the bottom. I don’t know what your story is, so it’s hard to me to suggest where to start, but it’s not with a page of confusing backstory.

  3. Kate Sherwood
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 08:30:09

    Yeah, sorry, I’m in the same place as the previous comments. There are too many times when I have to puzzle out what’s being said, and not enough times when I’m truly intrigued by the story and characters.

    I feel like we spend half our time on these first pages saying we need things explained more, and the other half saying we want less backstory, but… it IS a really important balance to get right! And they’re not exactly mutually exclusive – I think the trick is to decide what’s absolutely essential to the scene and make sure THAT part is crystal clear to the reader, without throwing in a bunch of extra stuff.

    In this case, from what I’ve read so far, I’m guessing the MC is Aria and the story is going to be about her trying to protect her baby from some external threat? But we barely see Aria do anything here… apparently helping her friend get business at the inn is more important than being with her newborn, so we’re not overwhelmed with her maternal spirit (I know, mom’s need to make a living, but we’re not getting any real sense of internal conflict, here – not getting much sense of ANYTHING internal).

    Maybe you start with a scene where Aria and the baby are together? And Aria’s trying to protect the baby somehow?

    I’m not sure, but… this scene, as written, didn’t grab me. Sorry.

  4. wikkidsexycool
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 08:57:16

    Hello Author,

    Thanks for having the courage to submit this. I have to agree with the first two posters, Carol McKenzie and SAO regarding too many characters being introduced and much of this being backstory. You’re also doing a lot of telling and not showing, but I was intrigued by the peacekeepers rowdiness. Maybe you could amp up whatever they’re doing to get such dirty looks. If I may suggest, why not describe what goes on while your main characters are trying to perform vs. how the peacekeepers are behaving? You’re already set up a conflict in your first few sentences, but then you quickly shift to the inn keeper and main characters disgust with them in their dialogue. Since this is a fantasy, talking heads recounting what previously happened simply pull the reader out of the world building you’re trying to establish.

    I think you’ve got something here, but it will take a bit of tweaking of your first page. I didn’t get why there was so much dislike for the peacekeepers because of what little is told to the reader about them. They’re in a tavern or inn, they’re laughing and making a mess. But it reads as if they’re having a good time, and that’s usually how people behave in taverns. They lose of their inhibitions and their table can get messy, especially if they’ve been drinking. So somehow you’ve got to show exactly why their actions are so unwelcome.

    I wish you all the best with this, and perhaps you can post a short blurb on the premise. You’re writing is strong, and shows you’re quite skillful. I hope you’ll give a follow up on how this tale is progressing, because I do believe you’ve got something here.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 09:22:40

    my first reaction was that I’d read this before, so much that I actually googled a bit of it. i haven’t. But the fantasy medieval setting, the tavern and the serving wenches are all Renfaire/Anne Macaffrey. I agree about the patchy vocabulary. But nothing happens and nothing makes me want to read on. It’s not “different” enough and in a weird way it reads a bit like a small town romance set in a diner!

  6. Author
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 10:59:47

    Thank you very much for the comments so far. I’ll definitely work on shifting some things around.

    @wikkidsexycool Here’s the short blurb on the premise you asked for:

    Halvel is a kingdom recovering from a war with Valnor, the neighboring country of elves. Magic is forbidden and the Peacekeepers harshly enforce the king’s laws.

    Aria Kenson lives in an isolated village where the only information about the world outside Halvel comes from the half remembered tales from a long dead minstrel and the few remaining veterans of the war. As the daughter of the minstrel, Aria finds it hard to understand the xenophobia of her neighbors, but she keeps her opinions mostly to herself. Her quiet life is interrupted when the village midwife begins spreading rumors that Aria’s infant daughter possesses magic, just as a band of Peacekeepers led by the king’s nephew arrives in town. Afraid that the villagers’ fear will eventually overcome their loyalty to their neighbors, Aria’s family makes plans to flee the country as soon as the Peacekeepers leave. Before they can do so, Aria’s husband accuses both her and their daughter of possessing magic and leads a mob against them. Aria watches as her mother, step-father, and daughter are murdered by her husband and the Peacekeepers. In shock, Aria uses her previously unknown magic to call a fire to save herself.

  7. Carol McKenzie
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 11:58:25

    Hi Author,

    Thanks for the blurb. But I admit I’m more confused.

    Who practiced magic? The residents of Halvel or the elves? I know a blurb isn’t supposed to tell me the entire story, although yours more or less does, but it should be written in a way that gets me to want to read more of the story. Your first page and your blurb are at odds, to me, over some crucial points.

    I don’t know what Aria’s goal is, for most of your story, until she decides to flee. Unless, after she saves herself with her previous unknown magic, there’s more of the story. Otherwise she’s apparently going to be spending much of the story having things done to her, happen to her, around her, but never actually DO anything herself. She’s never proactive: she’s passive until the end.

    The thing with the husband baffles me completely. He’s her husband, he loves her and their child, and presumably is planning to flee with them. But suddenly he’s accusing the baby of magic, and then leads the village in killing everyone in his family? Why? What happened to cause that huge shift? Or was he suspicious all along that his daughter did possess magic abilities?

    The Peacekeepers…they’re obviously reviled and feared by the villagers, but on the other hand, the villagers seem to possess the same sensibilities of the Peacekeepers. They are xenophobic. They kill her family for practicing magic. How then are they at odds with the Peacekeepers, if their thinking seems the same?

    And why is Aria so unlike her neighbors? Why is she alone not xenophobic, and why does she find it hard to understand why her neighbors feel the way they do? I sense a large portion of the conflict in your story lies in that relationship. I’d like to know why she feels differently.

    I’m sorry for the long seemingly negative post. But there is a story here. Your writing is good, and I think you could tell us that story. And I think that story is pretty clear in your mind. But getting it on the page in a way that makes it clear to us, that draws us in, is where you’ve got to do some work.

    Given the blurb, I’d really like to be at the birth of the baby, to see what the midwife saw, why she feels so strongly the baby possesses magic. Given the timeline of your story, that event wouldn’t have happened too far removed from your actual opening scene.

  8. SAO
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 12:05:26

    You really need Aria to react with fear on page one to the rumor about her daughter (although small babies are capable of doing so little, how can they do magic). You could put a great scene on page one with Alyse asking about the rumors and Aria glancing at the Peacekeepers in fear.

    That said your plot seems to be more about stuff happening to Aria rather than Aria doing things. Even the only thing Aria does in the blurb, saving herself, seems to be unplanned. Good stories have people doing things, not having living through events. Add to this that Aria loses everyone she (presumably) loves by the end of the book and you get a passive MC who is unable to prevent tragedy.

    If that’s not your book, you need to rework your blurb. If it is, well, do you want to read about a passive MC who is unable to prevent tragedy?

  9. wikkidsexycool
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 15:06:50

    Hello Author,

    Thanks for the blurb. Here are some of your strong points: The Peacekeepers and their function in this world you’ve created. I also have a sense that the personal relationships, especially those between the women in Aria’s family and their circle of loyal friends (the innkeeper sounds like one) make this a good coming of age saga for Aria, even though she’s already married and has a child.

    But that’s the thing. The reader isn’t privy to her early journey. It’s almost like the reader is being dropped into a story that is already half told. Perhaps there are flashbacks, but if there are too many of them, then why not just tell the story of Aria from the beginning? Did she exhibit powers at a young age? Was marriage in this society the only out for a female? Even if she’s a docile wife, if the only time she summons her powers is when her own life is in danger, then you may lose readers.

    Also, regarding her husband. I’m hoping a twist will be that he’s under the influence of dark magic and that’s why he turns on her. Because in your blurb he comes off like a major douchebag.

    I’m also hoping that you spare the baby, especially if a sequel is planned. That much killing of relatives in a novel is a risky thing. You’ve got your heroine losing everyone who matters to her, and the only trade off is that she discovers her magical powers?

    Think about your book as if you’re watching a movie. Wouldn’t you want to holler at the screen if you watched a scene where everyone dies, yet only when the hero or heroine is faced with their own demise, do they finally get some backbone to do something.

    Your blurb started out strong enough, but the ending is too much of a downer imho.
    I’d read on just to follow Aria’s journey in discovering her powers, but the “this time its personal” angle, where she only activates them or they kick in after a major trauma may be something to think about.

    She’ll have her hands full with grief and confusion and anger after her family’s demise and the betrayal of her husband. As a reader, you may want to think twice about the risk of transferring those same emotions to the readers of your novel. My best to you with this, and I still think you’ve got the talent to make this work, because you’ve already done most of the work. Now it just has to be fine tuned.

  10. Author
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 16:16:59

    @wikkidsexycool: Sorry, I should have been clearer. The blurb I posted is the beginning of the story, what’s relevant to the first page. The majority of the story is not so much about the loss of Aria’s family and the betrayal of her husband, but her growth from there. Not so much about the fire, as how she rises from the ashes. She is forced to leave her home and learn about the world outside of her village, and in that journey, learn that there’s more to magic than the harm that was caused during the war.

  11. wikkidsexycool
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 16:54:31

    Hello Author,

    I like how you’ve worded her ultimate journey, which is to learn that there’s more to magic than the harm caused. This could be a very power lesson for her, and if you can pull off much of what you state, this sounds like a tale that could be a real page turner. My best to you as you continue refining your story. I hope you’ll keep us updated on whether you self-pub it, or find an agent.

  12. Lindsay
    Jul 13, 2014 @ 20:45:53

    Hi Author,

    I’m your target audience for this and was willing to overlook a lot of the same things above that confused me (names for people, anachronisms in narration relationships to one another, etc), especially as the presumable heroine has a newborn daughter which is totally unusual for this setting. I definitely would have read on until the last few paragraphs — if Leia is Aria’s newborn baby, why isn’t she more protective of her? It’s one thing to have a kid you sorta know gossiped about, it’s another if it’s your newborn actually in jeopardy from peoples’ superstitions (or valid worries)!

    You lost me at the blurb. I’d need some serious validation as to why the husband would turn his wife and newborn baby in to be killed (and not just that he’s a moustache-twirling jerk), but killing the baby? Even in grimdark fantasy, which this doesn’t have the tone of, you don’t kill the dog, you don’t kill the baby. It also feels like it would be a way to shed your character of all the rough baggage of a family and needy infant in one clean swoop and I would put the book down at that point, both because the interesting hook was gone and honestly it would probably be too painful to read. I wouldn’t be able to buy into anything further from Aria (especially not if this book has romantic elements) either. I’m not saying people don’t and can’t get over losing their entire family in a traumatic situation, but I don’t think I would be able to get past the death of her newborn.

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