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First Page: Dancing Circles, Fantasy

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Something drove her scrambling for consciousness like a drowning man clawing towards the surface of the ocean. Gasping, floundering and disoriented, pulse pounding in her ears, blood so thick with adrenaline it felt as if her heart and head were warring over the privilege of being the first to erupt.

That she hadn’t roused from sleep with a headache proved only a minor consolation. Jess wanted to sit up and scream, pound her mattress with her fists, throw her pillows across the room.

A temper tantrum wouldn’t cure the insomnia.

With a grimace pulling at her mouth, Jess kicked off her bed linens and fumbled in the moonlit darkness for a pair of breeches and shirt. After easing into the well-worn leather of her riding boots, she pushed away from the bed. It was never too early to start cleaning stalls and mixing mash for the broodmares, after all. And the routine chores would soothe nerves frayed from … whatever had startled her awake.

Moving through the rancher towards the kitchen, the pale panels of polished wood gleamed in Letra’s waxing but feeble illumination. The single lunar Twin hung low in the sky, near to setting. Before moving from the relative shadows of the hallway, she caught the gentle sound of leather against wood. Easing backwards, she breathed through her nose and shifted her weight closer to the wall. The floorboards sometimes creaked towards the center of the hall, and she had yet to pinpoint the guilty slat.

Jess wasn’t certain if her father’s signs of insomnia were routine after so many years or recently acquired habits. The only reason she’d discovered he was often up at night lately was because she was too. Where she haunted the stables and discovered an obsession for cleanliness in the feed room, he frequently received visitors under the veil of the night. Thus far, she’d caught nothing more than dual silhouettes through the kitchen window, a flurry of movement as the visitor departed without the slightest sound. Like shadow within a shadow.

Her view of the kitchen was rather limited, but she knew Deuroff Myfala had a guest. She could feel the second person in the way the excess energy vibrated along her skin, a chill deeper than the cool, strangely charged air of late night on the prairies. Whoever it was, the individual rivaled her retired Mardonkan father for presence.

"You knew this day would come, Deuroff. The blood of House Dracon runs strong. Just like always." A contralto voice, so flat and firm it sounded devoid of femininity. Jess gave in to the shudder she felt swelling just beneath the surface of her skin, but it didn’t ease her sensitivity to the tense vibrations in the air. If anything, the feeling of excess energy ratcheted up a notch

***

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19 Comments

  1. Leah
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 06:52:42

    I like it–I can see what’s happening. But your writing seems a little heavy. I’m guessing you could trim it a little. Sorry this is so short and unhelpful, but I have to get the kids up for Chinese school.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 07:46:50

    It’s interesting, but nothing is really happening. The beginning is confusing – I’m an insomniac, and it’s never felt like that to me, it sounds like a different condition.
    It needs a trim, and I’d love to see it deeper in her pov, especially as it starts with a dream-state. But it’s interesting, and I’d read past the first page.
    This sentence “Moving through the rancher towards the kitchen, the pale panels of polished wood gleamed in Letra's waxing but feeble illumination.”
    You have the panels moving here, not the heroine. And would she really think all that, or just notice the panels gleaming? TMI. BTW, you used “move” or a form of the verb twice in that para and I’m guessing that might be your junk word – the one you overuse. I have them with every single book, but very often I don’t notice it until my editor points it out.

  3. jmc
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 07:47:04

    I’m interested. The author set the scene up pretty well — I get the feeling of the still of night, being awoken from sleep and creeping around.

    The opening paragraph — I would tinker with it, because the -ings were a little repetitive and overpowering. (Something, scrambling, drowning, clawing, gasping, floundering, pounding, warring — I see the theme and how they contribute to mood, but they are too much in that short paragraph, IMO of course.)

  4. Ashwinder
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 08:02:28

    I’m tempted to tell you to start with:

    A temper tantrum wouldn't cure the insomnia.

    It’s got a lot more punch than what you have as an opener.

  5. Cathy
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 08:26:19

    I’m a bit confused by your opening para – it reads much more like your heroine is waking from a nightmare, not struggling with insomnia.
    I agree with previous posters that the writing could use some focusing, but I’m interested enough that I would at least read the rest of the chapter.

  6. vanessa jaye
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 08:38:35

    You’ve got some wonderful phrasing. I love this:

    Something drove her scrambling for consciousness like a drowning man clawing towards the surface of the ocean.

    And this:

    Jess gave in to the shudder she felt swelling just beneath the surface of her skin,

    But you also have a great lurve for those pesky ‘ing’ words. I know if I sent this in to my crit partners, or they sent this to me, it would be returned with every single ‘ing’ highlighted in yellow. lol. Try it yourself for fun, then see if you can’t cut or revise to get rid of as many of them as you can. They weaken your writing and make it a tad overwritten.

    The second sentence of the first paragraph is problemic, it’s a tad too long. I was almost gasping for breath when I reached the end of it. ;-) Consider something along the lines of:

    She woke up gasping and disoriented. Her pulse pounding so hard it felt like her heart and head were warring over the privilege of being the first to erupt.

    Also, this:

    With a grimace pulling at her mouth, Jess kicked off her bed linens and fumbled in the moonlit darkness for a pair of breeches and shirt.

    Could be simply this:

    With a grimace, Jess kicked off the bed linens and fumbled in the darkness for her breeches and shirt….

    Moving through the rancher towards the kitchen, the pale panels of polished wood gleamed in Letra's waxing but feeble illumination.

    This sentence is a bit murky/weak and needs some tweaking. First off, it reads as if the pale panels of wood are moving through the rancher. *g*. A simple ‘As she moved through…’ would help, but I still think the sentence needs more work. I love alliteration, but ‘Pale panels of polished’ could lose one of those p-words. Also the use of waxing for the moon is giving me pause. If the Leta is low in the sky near to setting, then it’s actually waning.

    Lastly, the paragraph that starts with this sentence and the next paragraph or two slow the pace down considerable. You had such a strong beginning then got bogged down with details. I’d look at these 3 paragraphs more closely and trim where you can. For instance if you tweaked the first mention of her going out to the stables to make it clear this is a habit she’s formed because of her insomnia. Then you don’t need to repeat that information here:

    Where she haunted the stables and discovered an obsession for cleanliness in the feed room, he frequently received

    This is a very intriguing start and I’d be interested to find out what happens next!

  7. joanne
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 08:44:44

    In the last three paragraphs your voice is so much stronger, your pace so much faster, your descriptions of the world & characters you’re creating so much more interesting that I would certainly keep reading.

    But the concentration on the “insomnia” seems to bring the beginning to a floundering halt rather then drawing the reader into your story. If her insomnia is not going to be the major focus of the heroine’s life then tightening that bit up so that the real story starts sooner rather then later seems to make more sense.

    Thanks so much and much good luck!

  8. Sandy
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 08:59:37

    I’ve been told never to start a book with your character waking up. It sounds like the insomnia is important to your plot, but maybe that can be worked in a little later? I didn’t really get interested until the last two paragraphs, and then I was VERY interested.

    I thought these sentences were confusing: “Jess wasn't certain if her father's signs of insomnia were routine after so many years or recently acquired habits. The only reason she'd discovered he was often up at night lately was because she was too.” You’re sort of introducing us to her father, but it just doesn’t read right to me.

    Good writing.

  9. Courtney Milan
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 09:02:16

    I think you have some very beautiful turns of phrase.

    I also think you know this, and you use them so much that the story is being obscured. I’m not sure who the main character is, or what’s going on inside her head. You’re describing it so loftily that I’m not relating–and you’re skipping some of the concrete details in the process.

    So, for instance, you spend a ton of time talking about the insomnia, but you leave the reader totally clueless for nearly a full paragraph about why she’s stopping before the kitchen, just because she hears the gentle (and to us) innocuous sound of leather on wood. No emotion from the heroine; no thoughts that her father would send her to bed, or she doesn’t want to bother him, or he said he would beat her if she gets up. In other words, you tell us all about how she breathes (through her nose) and nothing about the stakes for her, and why she stops.

    Think about it: A daughter hears a sound in the kitchen. She’s having insomnia, and she knows that sound is her father. The normal impulse for most children in this cicumstance would be to think, “Yay! I don’t have to sit up alone and insomniac. Daddy will make me warm milk and we can talk!”

    Now, that’s not your heroine’s impulse–but it might be your reader’s. By leaving that gap unfilled in the beginning, you’re letting the reader down. You want to start building the emotional world of your heroine just as powerfully as you’ve built the physical one, and that means, you need to capture that deep, emotional reaction, the one that tells us why she’s thinking “uh oh, better breathe through my nose” instead of “Yay! I’m going to tell Daddy what’s going on.”

    How she breathes is a lovely detail that will enhance a sense of tension. But you need to make sure that the reader feels the same sense of tension; right now, we’re just aware that she’s tense, but you haven’t given us any reason to feel that same tension.

  10. theo
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 09:36:25

    I, like Lynne, also suffer from insomnia, usually sleeping less than three hours a night. I’ve never clawed my way out of sleep. Rather, if I can even get to sleep, I’m awake at the least little thing. Immediately and without preamble. So the description of waking from a deep sleep and then the mention of her insomnia doesn’t work *for me*.

    It did work much better for me at the “Jess wasn’t certain” paragraph. The beginning to that point is so much purple prose I found myself wishing something would happen, anything at all, her tripping over a loose board, getting her leg tangled in her breeches, anything to change the pacing. Again, this is me and what I look for.

    Though I’m not a fantasy reader, if this was cleaned and tightened, I’d read on.

    Kudos for putting it out there. Good luck.

  11. Kathleen MacIver
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 09:38:47

    I’m not a fan of your opening sentence. It’s a simile… and as Nathan Bransford pointed out, similes are generally better avoided. The next two sentences were kind-of overkill, although I’m not sure that’s the word. They were so… heavy… that I had a hard time figuring out exactly what was being said. The third sentence was more powerful, because it was simpler.

    But then, when you said insomnia, I was at a loss. I had assumed she was drugged and trying to fight through it for some reason. You actually made me doubt I knew what insomnia meant… was it difficulty waking up, instead of difficulty falling asleep? That’s what it seemed your first four sentences were portraying… that she was fighting to wake up, not fighting to stay asleep.

    After there… well, I agree with those who said they’d love to see it in deeper POV. Find a better way to introduce her name, because most of the instances of “Jess” made me feel like I was listening to a narrator. I also think there’s too much description… it’s distracting me from what’s actually happening. How many of the details are actually important?

    Something like:

    She groaned, swung her feet out of bed, and reached for her jeans. She may as well get started on the chores. There was no such thing as too early on a ranch, after all. And besides, the routine chores would soothe nerves frayed from … whatever had startled her awake. Again. Was she doomed to a lifetime of sleepless nigh–

    She froze as sounds whispered from the kitchen. She shrank against the wall, to the safety of quiet floorboards, and crept down the hall. Was her father entertaining another midnight visitor? It seemed so… yes, there were definitely two people moving around. Who were these people?

    “You knew this day would come, Deuroff. The blood of House Dracon runs strong. Just like always.”

    She froze again.

    ——————-

    I know that doesn’t quite follow your scenario and it’s not in your voice… but see how I’ve cut almost all of the backstory? I’ve implied her insomnia without actually saying that she suffers from it. The fact that she froze when she heard the sound tells us that she has reason to think it might be something not-so-ordinary, and the fact that she’s creeping down the hall tells us that she is suspicious about something. Her thoughts tell us that her father often has midnight visitors, without the backstory that you used to tell us that.

    Anyway… my example is still rough, but I wanted to give an example of how you can supply the necessary information in two short paragraphs without using backstory and explanation, and without bogging your narrative down with descriptions that, while beautiful, aren’t really pertinent to the story that you’re trying to tell. This would get us to the suspenseful part much, much faster.

    I hope this helps!

  12. shenan
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 10:10:00

    I don’t know what the title means or why you picked it, but I like it.

    —–Something drove her scrambling for consciousness like a drowning man clawing towards the surface of the ocean.

    That line would be stronger with something more original than a drowning man in the ocean.

    —–Gasping, floundering and disoriented, pulse pounding in her ears, blood so thick with adrenaline it felt as if her heart and head were warring over the privilege of being the first to erupt.

    If that is supposed to be a partial sentence, it didn’t work for me, as I had to read it again to look for the subject and verb. If “it felt” is supposed to be the main part of a complete sentence, it doesn’t read that way.

    Also, I’m not sure I’m getting the visual you intend with the use of the word “erupt” there. I’m seeing brains and/or blood spurting out of her body like a volcano going off. (And if that’s the visual you were going for — then okay!)

    —-That she hadn’t roused from sleep with a headache proved only a minor consolation. Jess wanted to sit up and scream, pound her mattress with her fists, throw her pillows across the room. A temper tantrum wouldn’t cure the insomnia.

    But if she was sleeping, why is she going on about her insomnia? Unless her insomnia isn’t the getting-to-sleep kind but the kind that has her waking in the wee hours of the morning. Although this reads more like she woke from a nightmare than because of irregular sleep patterns. And what does a headache have to do with anything?

    Too, she wakes up gasping and floundering. Heart pounding. Clawing her way to consciousness. None of that seems to fit in with the desire to pitch a temper tantrum. At least not until she fully regains consciousness and her body calms down. (And really, pitching a fit isn’t the way to get back to sleep!)

    —-With a grimace pulling at her mouth,

    Why not just say “with a grimace” instead of adding in a description that doesn’t really add to the visual?

    —— Jess kicked off her bed linens and fumbled in the moonlit darkness for a pair of breeches and shirt. After easing into the well-worn leather of her riding boots, she pushed away from the bed. It was never too early to start cleaning stalls and mixing mash for the broodmares, after all. And the routine chores would soothe nerves frayed from … whatever had startled her awake.

    If she doesn’t know what startled her awake, why are her nerves so frayed?

    Why can’t she just slip into her boots instead of the “well-worn leather of her riding boots”? All the extra descriptions slow things down for me.

    —-Moving through the rancher towards the kitchen,

    What’s a rancher?

    —-the pale panels of polished wood

    I’m with whoever voted against the excess of “pale panels of polished wood” — although I vote to strike the entire sentence. (Can you tell I’m not into descriptions of sunlight gleaming off the linoleum? Or… you know… moonlight gleaming off polished wood.)

    —-gleamed in Letra’s waxing but feeble illumination.

    If the moonlight is feeble, how is Jess seeing by its light and how are the panels gleaming? Sounds more like a description of a full moon.

    — The single lunar Twin hung low in the sky, near to setting.

    If there are twin moons, where is the other one? Is Letra the name of the moon or the name of the planet? That whole bit there has me confused.

    —-Before moving from the relative shadows of the hallway, she caught the gentle sound of leather against wood.

    Since that line follows a mention of the moon, the use of “she” there makes it read like the moon is moving through the hallway.

    What are the shadows relative to? And again — I wouldn’t expect moon shadows from a feeble moon.

    Again I vote for over descriptions with “the gentle sound.” Plus, is the sound of leather against wood so distinctive that someone would readily identify it?

    Where is the sound coming from? Presumably — with all that nice moonlight — not from the hallway. From the kitchen then?

    —Easing backwards, she breathed through her nose and shifted her weight closer to the wall.

    “Easing backwards” and “shifted her weight closer to the wall” — two descriptions of the same move.

    —–The floorboards sometimes creaked towards the center of the hall, and she had yet to pinpoint the guilty slat.

    This reads more like the floorboards throw the sound of their creaking towards the center of the hall rather than that the floorboards in the center of the hall creak.

    How hard is it to figure out which slat creaks? She steps on a board, it either creaks or it doesn’t. If it creaks, she knows which board needs to be fixed.

    —-Jess wasn’t certain if her father’s signs of insomnia were routine after so many years or recently acquired habits. The only reason she’d discovered he was often up at night lately was because she was too.

    Where is this bit coming from? One minute she hears someone in the house, the next she’s going on about her heretofore-not-mentioned father and his insomnia. Does she think the person moving around is Dad? If so, why go into Stealth Mode? If she doesn’t — why doesn’t she think it’s him? Or is she thinking it’s Dad and the Unknown Visitor and she’s hoping to sneak up on them?

    —–Where she haunted the stables and discovered an obsession for cleanliness in the feed room, he frequently received visitors under the veil of the night. Thus far, she’d caught nothing more than dual silhouettes through the kitchen window, a flurry of movement as the visitor departed without the slightest sound. Like shadow within a shadow.

    If she has only once spied a mystery visitor, how does she know Dad frequently has midnight callers?

    How did she even know one of the silhouettes was Dad?

    If she spied the mystery visitor through the (presumably closed) kitchen window, she wouldn’t hear him depart unless he was darned noisy about it. So how would she know whether or not he departed without the “slightest” sound?

    Obviously she is curious about the visitor, so why didn’t she ask Dad about him? And why does she now feel the need (or desire) to sneak up on him? Does she suspect something nefarious is going on? Or is she just nosey?

    —–Her view of the kitchen was rather limited,

    At what point did she (nearly) reach the kitchen? And how is her view limited? By what she can see through the doorway? By the dark?

    —but she knew Deuroff Myfala had a guest.

    Who’s that? Dad? If it’s Dad, does she really think of him by his full name instead of “Dad” or “Pa” or whatever?

    —- She could feel the second person in the way the excess energy vibrated along her skin, a chill deeper than the cool, strangely charged air of late night on the prairies. Whoever it was, the individual rivaled her retired Mardonkan father for presence.

    I’m assuming here that Jess has powers of extrasensory perception. Otherwise how could she feel anyone’s energy?

    I’ve never heard of vibrations having a temperature.

    —-“You knew this day would come, Deuroff. The blood of House Dracon runs strong. Just like always.” A contralto voice, so flat and firm it sounded devoid of femininity.

    I’m confused with the “devoid of femininity” line. If contralto refers to a woman’s singing voice but the mystery visitor’s voice is devoid of femininity — well, I’m lost. Are you trying to describe a mannish woman?

    —-Jess gave in to the shudder she felt swelling just beneath the surface of her skin,

    Muscles shudder. So a shudder just beneath the surface of the skin doesn’t make sense. Plus I’m not getting how shudders swell.

  13. LindaR
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 10:40:18

    I join the comments about purple prose and floorboards moving — and opening your story with waking up. And I also am intrigued by the story on the other side of the words.

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m wondering about the house itself: A rancher? Okay. But then what’s this stuff about Deuroff Myfala and House Dracon? That all sounds too grand for a rancher.

    And somebody named Dueroff Myfala has a daughter named Jess? That doesn’t fit for me.

    But I’m VERY interested in that person her father is talking with, and I would read on to find out what that was all about.

    Just a side note about the moon: I thought waxing and waning referred to the stage of the moon’s cycle, not where it was in the sky, so your description of the moon was fine with me.

    Good luck with this!

  14. JoB
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 13:30:18

    I’m ready to be entertained by this fantasy, and I’d read onward at this point.
    But ISTM the writing’s got a few easily fixable weaknesses.

    May I put in a plug for straightforward sentences?

    When the subject of the sentence just walks along pulling the predicate and other baggage behind, this is a very strong and simple construction. It’s easy to understand. The pacing clips right along. The reader does not get tired of this. You don’t have to vary it.

    Look at some of your choices for starting sentences.

    With a grimace pulling at her mouth,
    After easing into
    Moving through the rancher
    Before moving from the relative shadows
    Easing backwards
    Where she haunted the stables
    Thus far
    Whoever it was,
    If anything

    At a glance, it looks like you start maybe 40% of your sentences with some modifying phrase or clause. Your writing would be stronger without these floppy, tentative approaches.
    Don’t ease your toe into your sentences. Jump in.

    Here’s a couple more cases where the first solid chunk of your sentence is less strong than it could be.

    Something drove her

    Something’ is a weak word. It’s especially weak to kick off your story.

    ‘Barely heard voices’ drove her.
    ‘A nagging apprehension’ drove her.
    ‘Undigested remnants of last night’s pork pie’ drove her.

    Gasping, floundering and disoriented,

    These are adjectives describing a noun that never actually finds its way into the sentence fragment.

    It was never too early

    ‘It was’ and ‘there was’ are weak starts to a sentence. Can we make the sentence subject a strong noun?

    Stable work waited for her …
    Three o’clock. She might as well get to something useful since she couldn’t …
    Stalls needed cleaning, even this early …

    (Though, frankly, if I had a barn full of horses and a couple dogs in the yard and maybe a milk cow or two and the chickens, I wouldn’t necessarily go down and wake the whole crew up at three in the morning myself.)

    That she hadn't roused

    technically a clausal noun thingum, I think, but WHY not recast this as ‘she hadn’t roused’

    But, anyhow, this bit of telegraphing the start of the sentence with leading modifiers may be a part of your voice … not a real problem with the writing. If you decide it is a problem … and you may not … it can be fixed just as easy as pie.

  15. SusanD
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 13:32:48

    Ditto on starting when she wakes up.

    I think William Faulkner once said, you need to “kill your darlings.” As others have stated, there were far too many writerly turns of phrase that took me out of the story and weakened it for me.

    I was confused as to the where and when of the piece. Jess, the stables, and rancher read as Earth to me; but then you threw in Letra, single lunar Twin, Deuroff Myfala, Mardonkan father, blood of House Dracon and I didn’t have a clue as to where I was in time or space.

    Personal preference note: Blood of House Dracon = vampire for me and since I am done with vamps, I would have put it back on the shelf. Others mileage may vary on this.

  16. Maya M.
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 15:09:43

    I really liked it, including almost all the word choices and flow. The few spots that made me say ‘huh?’ were:
    – why would SHE fell like a drowning MAN? made me wonder if this is foreshadowing some sort of body/gender shift later on
    – why would she assume that he dad has insomnia also, rather than thinking he’s up specifically to receive his visitors? since the effort to conceal such meetings (by having them middle of the night) suggests the more innocent explanation is less likely
    – the sound of leather on wood – made me stop and think about whether I’ve ever heard this specific sound before. Maybe not really necessary to make it so specific, since the point of this bit is that she’s trying to avoid waking others?

    those are all really nitpicky, but mentioned since they acted like tiny little speedbumps on the road of reading the page.

    Good luck!

  17. Anion
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 17:35:04

    Ditto everything Shenan said. Excellent comments, right on the money every one of them.

    Similes and metaphors are an important and useful tool, btw, and Nathan Bransford certainly did NOT say they shouldn’t be used or should “generally be avoided”. What he said was they shouldn’t be overused. What he said was also his opinion and should not be taken as gospel (neither should anyone else’s writing advice, unless it’s of the “dialogue punctuation should be inside the quotes” variety.)

  18. Rhianon
    Jan 31, 2009 @ 18:28:12

    Thank you so much to each one of you. The comments are very helpful — and though I’ve cut this entire scene for the sake of speeding up the pace of action, the nature of the feedback will definitely be applicable to the ms as a whole.

    Again, my heartfelt gratitude to all for taking the time to read and critique.

  19. Maya Reynolds
    Feb 01, 2009 @ 11:04:04

    SusanD said:

    I think William Faulkner once said, you need to “kill your darlings.” As others have stated, there were far too many writerly turns of phrase that took me out of the story and weakened it for me.

    Susan: It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a literary critic, who originally said in his “On the Art of Writing”: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. ‘Murder your darlings’.”

    I know because I have the quote posted on the wall above my computer.

    I had the same reaction as you did when reading this excerpt. I think the writer is trying a wee bit too hard. It feels over-dressed: like a woman wearing a lot of superfluous jewelry.

    My advice: Be straightforward. Just say what you want without dressing it up with additional prepositional clauses and dramatic phrasing.

    I suspect there’s a good story underneath all the verbiage. Break it loose.

    Good luck and keep writing.

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