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First Page: Book of Magical Wars: Tale one, The Cave

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Water dripped from the stalactites above the fire pit and added a mist to the smoky haze in the cave. Jenna trembled and glanced over the flickering, reddish flames to where her father sat. The lines etched in his face appeared deeper than before the global attack.

Unable to stop repeating the question but she had to know, to be sure and only her father could tell her. “Are we safe here?”

Turning sixteen had not prepare her for this type of situation. She should be at a show or hanging out with friends, not huddled in a damp, cold cave with her father, too frightened to even peek outside.

Her father sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe if we lay low for a while, things will settle down. Until then we stay put.”

A gust of air from the cave entrance spiraled up Jenna’s back, chilling her. She huddled deeper into her coat and whispered. “I can’t help wondering who they are and why are they doing this.”

Small stones rattled at the back of the small cave. Jenna jerked her gaze toward the sound. In a deep crevice of the stone wall off to one side her, a half concealed boulder protruded from the dirt floor. On top, an outline of a darker shape moved.

Jenna gasped. On her hands and knees, she scrambled around the fire to hunker beside her father.

The old man grabbed the handgun by his side and pointed it toward the figure. “Come out or I’ll shoot.”

Low laughter came from the figure. “Do you think to frighten me with such a threat, human?”

“It’s one of them.” Her father nudged her with is elbow. “Get behind me.”

“But how did he get in?” Jenna, close to panic, clasped the back of her father’s coat. “He didn’t come in from the cave opening.”

“You dare judge me by your abilities? A true insult if ever I heard one.” The voice, deep and melodious, should have invoked more fear but instead, Jenna found herself relaxing under the gentle tones.

Her father remained tense. “What do you want with us?”

“Your death.”  Amusement laced the low, husky words.

The older man tightened his hold on the gun, keeping the nose pointed at the figure. “Not without a fight.”

More laughter issued from the corner. “You think to defeat me?”

The figure shifted and stood. A tall, lean man stepped into the firelight. Shining black hair flowed about his face, shoulders and down his back. Twigs and leaves decorated the waves. His clothes were muted tones of greens and browns. Laced up knee-high boots encased his slender feet.

He moved to the fire and squatted in the spot Jenna had just vacated. His eyes, the irises now visible, picked up the surrounding hues. Reddish orange flickered in his eyes. He lifted a hand and tucked a strand of hair behind his left ear, revealing the sharp point to the tip.


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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. Son
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 05:39:00

    I’m interested in what’s going on. However I’m not much of a fan of adjectives, and there’re HEAPS in this fragment. The beginning of a book should be more about capturing the readers’ interest than setting up everything in the scene.
    SMALL stones. SMALL cave. A TALL, LEAN man with SHINING BLACK hair. REDDISH ORANGE flickered in his eyes.
    None of it is bad on its own, but I feel the tension of the scene is being buried under all that description.

  2. Holly
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 06:24:05

    The writer captured my attention and I would probably read more. I think with some polishing, re: taking out the adjectives as Son said, this has a lot of potential. Good luck!

  3. Courtney Milan
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 08:34:26

    I’m going to agree with the two comments before. The story is interesting–really interesting so far, but there’s something clunky to the writing.

    I could try and point out specifics, but I just want to point out something that I think is symptomatic of what is wrong with with this: the complete lack of the verb form “to be.”

    Look, I get that sometimes people tell you not to use “was” because they think it’s passive. Those people are WRONG. As it is, nothing here ever just is. He isn’t wearing boots. His feet are encased in laced-up knee high boots.

    This matters, because when you use a strong verb, you’re letting it dominate the sentence. Sometimes–oftentimes–you want to do that, because strong verbs indicate action, and it’s good to have people act. But sentences without was are all *loud* sentences, and the end result is that it feels like you’re shouting. You don’t need to shout about his boots.

    Sometimes, WHAT things are is more important than the way they are. “Jenna was close to panic.” is stronger than “Jenna, close to panic, clasped the back of her father’s coat.”–who cares what she’s doing with the father’s coat? Sometimes,

    I’m not saying that you should use “was” every sentence, but you don’t get a full first page without “to be” on it unless you’re actively trying to eradicate the word. It’s okay to use it in moderation.

    And that says to me that you’re writing towards rules, not towards the effect on the reader. I can tell. It reads super-clunky. And even though the story is engaging, the writing is not.

    This isn’t the only thing; it feels like you’re trying so hard to describe the physical scene, because you’ve been told not to have people in a white room, that you’re forgetting that the goal is not to describe things, but to convey the experience of the character. You’re telling me entirely too much about how things look, and not enough about how things feel.

    Think about this: you’re in the middle of a global attack by aliens, and some stranger walks out from back of the cave you thought was safe and says he wants you dead.

    Are you going to be thinking about how his boots lace up? If you must think about his boots, you’re probably going to be thinking that he’s wearing the boots of the oppressors, the ones that you saw cutting down crowds in the capital before the TV feed got cut off. In other words, description should not merely describe–it should move the story forward and deepen the connection with the reader.

    This is writing getting in the way of the experience of the story, which in this case is a darned shame because I like the story. The story’s good enough that if you keep up this level of tension throughout, this won’t stop you from getting published.

  4. dm
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 08:50:58

    Interesting premise, but too many typos and construction errors for real critique to be useful. If a good prose composition class is not available to you, I’d suggest investing time in reading early 20th century stylists (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, DuMaurier, Heyer–or if you gravitate to spec fic, Leiber, Bester, CL Moore) to get a better handle on English sentence structure in commercial fiction. You’ve got a tin ear, and no amount of feedback will fix that.

  5. DS
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 09:09:07

    The only thing I want to add is the lack of anything interesting in “THE BIG REVEAL”. He pushes his hair back and has a pointy ear. By the time you got there I would have been surprised if he didn’t have a pointy ear. In fact I was thinking he sounded like a resin garden sculpture. .

  6. Liz Talley
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 09:18:54

    I’m certainly intrigued and I’m already predisposed to like your heroine because she’s in such jeopardy.

    I agree with Courtney, you’re paying too close attention to the rules and it’s a little over-written. Don’t worry so much about the writing. Worry about the story. More writers would have better success if they became storytellers instead of consummate writers.

    You have a good start. Ditch the rules. Tell the story :)

  7. elaine mueller
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 10:36:38

    Agree with what everyone else said about the over-writing and need to establish drama rather than description, but you lost me at the first sentence. No one builds a fire under a dripping stalactite. If your survival depends on an open fire, you build it where it’s going to burn best, and that isn’t under a steady drip of water. While that sizzling drip may set a dramatic mood for your description, it doesn’t add to the story. I wouldn’t read any further than that.

  8. hrwriter
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 13:41:41

    Everyone has already covered the problems with the writing, and I agree with all that’s been said. Aside from that, the piece starts out sounding like an alien invasion. But the title says “Magical Wars” and then the invader appears and seems more fey than alien. So I would have liked some sense of whether these beings are from outer space, or if they’re from another dimension on earth, Maybe you get into that on the very next page, who knows, but I would have liked to know the source of the threat to humankind right up front.

    The premise is interesting, though, and I wish you the very best of luck with it.

  9. Deb
    Jul 23, 2011 @ 16:44:14

    I would read on for a bit to figure out what’s really going on.
    In addition to what some others have said,
    Line 1 doesn’t work for me — its not engaging (and I also wondered why they built fire under a drip).
    Feel you’re better off starting with Line 2 & 3.

    Would also have liked to see more urgency/danger to underscore their plight – like her thoughts on what might happen to them now that the enemy is present with, apparently, the upper hand.
    Think you could also tighten to leave room to get into that: e.g. “I can’t help wondering…”, “the irises now visible” – things that add little or nothing; or can be shown later.
    There was good release of info; and I do like some of the visuals.

    Good luck

  10. Wahoo Suze
    Jul 24, 2011 @ 00:01:07

    I’m intrigued, and I’d like to keep reading, but I’m also a little confused. Aliens vs. elves? Global attack? Is the man in fancy boots the enemy or the romantic interest?

    It has a lot of potential, but I think it would be a cleaner, less distracting read if you kill your darlings (a la Faulkner) and just tell the story.

  11. hapax
    Jul 24, 2011 @ 10:30:09

    I don’t really want to pile on, but in addition to the clunky description, I really couldn’t read the elf/alien/whatever’s dialog without laughing.

    He sounds like a melodramatic supervillain from a comic book. I half expect his laughter to sound like “Mwah-ha-HA!”

    And this: The voice, deep and melodious, should have invoked more fear but instead, Jenna found herself relaxing under the gentle tones.

    would have made me give up on the book entirely. Unless you’re going to reveal in the next page that the dude has cast a Spell of Stupid on the heroine, having your heroine, hiding in a cave in fear of her life, confronting an ominous threatening stranger with apparent superhuman abilities, “relaxing” just because the guy has a pretty voice, immediately paints her as someone I don’t care if she lives or dies.

  12. Sharon
    Jul 24, 2011 @ 11:27:10

    I agree with most of what’s been said.

    The villain’s dialogue is stilted and unconvincing. It’s hard to be frightened by a character that I find laughable.

    I’m confused by her relaxing from the sound of his voice. Unless one of his abilities is to mesmerize humans with his magical voice, then she shouldn’t relax so easily, and having her do so undermines the tension you’re trying to create. If it is a special ability, show her recognizing it and fighting against it, adding to the menace instead of diffusing it.

    Too much description is also killing the tension. If Jenna’s taking the time to observe small details, it makes us feel as if she’s more relaxed than she should be in this situation. If she’s scared for her life, she’s not going to be thinking about his boot laces or his shining hair flowing down his back. Pick just a few key details, and don’t just describe them, show us how they make her feel.

    You’ve got several typos. Clean this sort of thing up before submitting for critique.

    “Unable to stop repeating the question but she had to know, to be sure and only her father could tell her.” This sentence is very awkward and a grammatical mess.

    I agree with others that while having a stalactite drip on the fire creates a cool image, it’s not very realistic. Stalactites form over hundreds or thousands of years, and the minerals from the dripping water create a matching stalagmite or other formation on the floor of the cave. This means that that spot is not only wet, it’s also spiky and uneven. Hardly the spot that you would choose to build a fire.

    Despite all the criticisms, I love the idea of a dystopian where fey beings like elves have returned and are waging a war against humans. This draft still needs work, but that’s part of the process. Good luck and keep plugging!

  13. Julia Sullivan
    Jul 25, 2011 @ 15:15:27

    You’re paying infinite attention to fake rules, like the mythology that “was” is a passive construction. You’re not paying attention to the real rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and proofreading.

    Then there are some completely weird lapses of logic and narrative structure. “Turning sixteen hadn’t prepared her for this” isn’t a deft incluing (to use Jo Walton’s brilliant formulation) but a non sequitur. Of course turning sixteen didn’t prepare her for hiding out in a cave on the run from enemies! Similarly “the lines on his face seemed deeper than before the global attack” is clumsy, and leads to both “duh!” and “WTF?” reactions.

    And why is her father “the old man?” That would be fairly unusual for a father of a sixteen-year-old, so I wouldn’t just dump it in there as our first description of him—it’s out of the ordinary enough to be distracting to the reader.

    If this story is about human society worldwide suddenly being attacked by elves/faerie/whatever, I LOVE the idea madly. Let go of your preconceptions about how stories are “supposed” to be constructed and write it the way it comes to you. You’re crunching this into a straitjacket that’s holding the story back. Forget about “teasers” and “hooks” and the nonsense about not using the verb “to be” or the word “that” and all the other silly urban legends about writing that are promulgated by way too many writing teachers. Write the story first, then edit it.

    Best of luck to you with what seems like a fantastic idea!

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