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First Page: Post-apocalyptic Fantasy Romance

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This time it was easy to spot the low space between two granite outcroppings. By pure luck, hunting for wild asparagus last week, Mal had discovered this opening on the other side of the first hill east of the settlement. It led to a clearing where a clump of scrub brush displayed a miracle in its spindly branches: a dense net of blackberry vines thick with fruit, still green and knock-you-back sour.

Every day since, she’d worried over that treasure ripening and vulnerable until she could get away again. But the fruit was untouched and black as a crow’s eye. She stifled a joyous yelp and swallowed a berry fat with juice. Her hunger, which never truly went away, had gotten worse since the bleeding started.

“Your Ma’s gonna beat you for eating before you bring those in,” Mikal ignored the thorns that tore at his bare arms and legs as he too shuttled more berries into his mouth than his bag.

He always said that, and she always answered it was worth it.

She was thirteen, old enough to go exploring outside the wall, and Mikal was always with her. Besides, everybody knew there were no special species around here except raptors, and raptors didn’t care about walls. She didn’t even try to hide her wanderings anymore; she just handed Ma the sack of whatever she scavenged and suffered the hard whacks that followed. But today Mal said, “She won’t. She quit beating me three months ago.” When it started.

They worked quickly and quietly, stuffing themselves as they filled their bags. “So why did she stop?” Mikal sounded dubious.

“If I tell you, don’t get all dramatic on me, okay?” He made a face at her. She might as well just say it straight out. “I’m dying.”

“Are not! Don’t be daft.”

“Am so. Ma told me a doc is coming to see me.” She sighed, “But nothing will help. It keeps coming back.”

“What keeps coming back?”

A blend of cackles and creepy chirps from the sky killed all talk. They both dove to the ground and rolled into the thorny vines, and for once Mal was grateful for her coveralls. They lay still as rabbits in dread of a fox. The gate was at least five minutes away at a full run; they’d be dead in two if they tried for it.


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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. KristieJ
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 05:00:43

    I’m not one for noticing a lot of details – I go mainly by how I ‘feel’ while reading and I really, really liked this one. I would definitely keep reading – in fact I was disappointed when this ended.

  2. Barbara Sheridan
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 05:43:02

    I’m not one for post-apocalyptic anything but like KristieJ above. I’m dying to read on to see where this goes.

    The writing in general is excellent so I’m guessing this is a pubbed author trying something “different” for them? If so, I say it’s working.

    If not, and you’re still awaiting that first Call–I imagine you’ll be getting one soon. If not with this project then the next.

  3. Stevie
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 06:23:49

    I can’t go with the flow here; I wouldn’t keep reading.

    Part of the reason is that I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, so there is no novelty factor for me. If it’s going to compete with, say, Damnation Alley, then it has to be very good indeed.

    But the primary reason is the girl’s apparent belief that the onset of the menarche means that she’s going to die.

    Of course the author may have some twist in store, where it’s not the menarche at all, but I’ve already put the book back on the shelf…

  4. Leah
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 07:01:04

    The genre doesn’t do it for me, but the writing is excellent. If I were into post-apocalyptic stories, or sf/f in general, I’d buy it.



  5. theo
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 07:40:26

    Post apocalyptic anything isn’t my genre of choice. The writing is good, but there were two things that struck me immediately that would keep me from reading further, even if the back blurb caught my attention.

    The genre is post apocalyptic fantasy/romance and yet, you’re starting your story with a thirteen yo girl. I had to go back and look because I thought through the entire thing that it was YA. If this is your hn, and your first page is a prologue of sorts, I need to know that.

    The second is the first paragraph. Again, for the post apocalyptic setting, that first paragraph could have been anywhere, anywhen. It read wordy *to me* and gave me no real feel of the era. Could have been in England, America, now, a hundred years ago, a hundred years from now. Until you mention the raptors, I just have no feel for when this is. And when you mention raptors, that could be past or future.

    Yes, I know it’s marked PA and would most likely say that on the cover or back as well. But for someone like me, who doesn’t ordinarily read this genre, this just didn’t grab me enough to want to.

    Good luck!

  6. Meljean
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 07:52:00

    I liked it. I’d keep reading.

  7. reynard
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 08:13:17

    It grabbed me, I wanted to read more.

  8. Jill Myles
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 08:16:42

    The first two paragraphs were kind of long and aimless (eek, sorry!) but once I got past them to the dialogue, it really picked up.

    It’s well written, and I *adore* post apocalyptic, but…I wouldn’t keep reading. It doesn’t feel original (the menarche thing has been used before by many books), we don’t have a real taste for the setting yet, and I’m not hooked.

    Sorry. :( Definitely a case of ‘differing tastes’.

  9. joanne
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 08:59:33

    I tried. Three re-reads and three cups of coffee and it still ‘feels’ like YA.

    Also, the ‘Ma’ and ‘doc’ and ‘granite outcroppings’ all felt more historical then post-apocalyptic. Then the ‘bleeding’ reference while added to the girl’s age had me thinking she had started menstruation. All together it just didn’t come together for me.

    I did really love the last paragraph but I wouldn’t have gotten that far if I had pulled the book off a shelf to read the first few lines before purchasing.

    Thanks & wishing you much good luck.

  10. Marianne McA
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 09:34:23

    I liked it. And, unlike Stevie, her belief about the bleeding hooks me in – because my mum had that experience: spent a long day in the attic, working out how to tell her mother she was dying.
    Minor quibble – I’d rather not have to cope with ‘Ma’, ‘Mal’ and ‘Mikal’ all in the same paragraph. Whatever way I happen to read, the similarities between the names trips me up. If by any chance Mal and Mikal are to be the heroine and hero, I’d find that confusing.

  11. Jia
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 09:51:34

    The writing is good and I love post-apocalyptic settings… but I’m not hooked. I wouldn’t keep reading. :(

    It doesn’t feel like a post-apocalyptic setting despite some of the dropped details — I agree with Joanne that it read more like a historical to me than post-apocalyptic. I also agree with the commenters who said that this first page reads more like a YA than a romance.

  12. Amy Redwood
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 09:52:08

    I would keep reading for a few more pages, to figure out where the story is going. I don’t care much for post-apocalyptic, but I enjoyed your writing.

    And I really like First Page Saturday, but I sometimes wish a short blurb would accompany the pages.

  13. Anon76
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 10:55:19

    The ma, mal, mikal thing had my head spinning a bit also. It makes things feel a bit disjointed.

    But what totally jumped out at me were these dialogue tags, which really aren’t tags at all (IMHO).

    “Your Ma's gonna beat you for eating before you bring those in,” Mikal ignored the ….


    She sighed, “But nothing will help. It keeps coming back.”

    Just my two cents.

  14. Anon76
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 11:00:25

    Oh, and just one more little nit: Mikal sounded dubious.

    When reading something from a person of thirteen’s pov, such a word as dubious yanks me out of the story. It’s a great word, but not one I’d attribute to a younger character.

  15. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 11:28:28

    these are GREAT comments, thank you so much!

    I agree: Mikal’s name is changed now. Mal is named Mal for a reason, so I can’t change that.

    “dubious” goes too — thank you. Though I think many 13 year olds would easily use dubious, these wouldn’t.

    I’m glad this reads like YA and that it has the feel of a historical; that’s the effect I want in the opening chapter. I wonder if this is more “epic” fantasy romance — is there such a thing? Well, there is now; how’s that? ha.

    On the dialogue tag comment — I’d love more discussion about that. I do tend to get weird with my dialogue tags.

    Anyway, thank you all for the comments. I’m reading them and considering every one.

  16. Julia Spencer-Fleming
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 11:41:47


    Your dialog is good, and the fact you use as much action for the dialog tags as possible is a plus. You just need to remember to leave out the commas unless the dialog continues to or from the attribution. So:

    She sighed. “But nothing will help. It keeps coming back.”

    I was disappointed when it ended–I want to keep on reading. I thought the language was smooth, the description of the setting vivid, and I like the way you’re establishing characters via dialog and action. I don’t know what Mal looks like, and I don’t care, because I know what she thinks like.

    Since I’ve been reading Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and Stirling’s Change series, I’ve come to expect post-apocalyptic stories to be rural and technologically backwards!

  17. Anon76
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 11:50:37

    Ah yes.

    Julia hit on what I should have explained more…the commas used before and after the dialogue tags. Love the action, but feel that a period should be used to seperate the action from the dialogue in those instances.

  18. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:07:37

    Julia and Anon76:

    Thanks. That helps a lot. I just didn’t know how to “do” dialogue tags.

    I don't know what Mal looks like, and I don't care, because I know what she thinks like.

    That makes me so happy!

  19. JL
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:17:24

    Like many others above me, my first impression of this is YA – which is not necessarily a bad thing. I have fond memories of many a Young Adult novel, but this doesn’t really grip me. It feels like I’ve read it before, a mashup of Depression-Era stories like “Sounder” and “Where The Red Fern Grows” in it’s description of the landscape and children on the verge of losing their innocence.

    I don’t really feel the danger either. There’s no anticipation there. Mal and Mikal don’t seem to be worried until the raptors are practically upon them. Is their conversation hushed, so as not to draw attention? Or are they talking in normal tones? They certainly don’t seem to be keeping any sort of watch on their surroundings.

    I would continue reading, however, just to learn more about Mal’s mother. Is she abusive or is being outside the wall worthy of punishment? Why does the girl need a doctor? (I have the awful feeling it’s virginity related.) So, in that way, you have hooked me.

    And maybe I’m too immersed in pop-culture, but upon reading “Mal” I think of the captain of the Serenity and “raptors” bring to mind fast moving dinosaurs.

  20. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:34:02

    This is so great. I’m tempted to post a link to my entire first chapter.

    We authors are all so self-centered in the end, ha.

    Mal/Serenity — yep, me too. Her name is Mallory, but her friends call her Mal.

    Mal and Mikal are speaking quietly so the raptors won’t hear them. Maybe I should make that clearer earlier. The raptors are mutated eagles, peregrines, etc. that are gigantic and like to feed humans to their chicks.

  21. anon again
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:34:30

    I like it and would definitely keep reading, but also think some of the critiques are on-point.

    Is there a way to write about the menarche (assuming that’s what it is) that makes it feel less cliched to readers who’ve encountered it before?

    Also, I wonder if it would work to move the raptor scene up to the beginning to “grab” readers more? Or if not the beginning, earlier in the page … or maybe there just needs to be more of a sense of danger, as someone already noted.

  22. Elise Logan
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:46:26

    It grabbed me. I’d keep reading – what predator are they facing? What makes her think she’s dying? Inquiring minds want to know.


  23. JL
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:48:03


    Mallory is also my niece’s name, so that would have been my second guess. :)

    As for the raptors, maybe throwing in a giant bird or bird of prey reference might not be a bad idea, although I would assume that at least a cursory description was coming up in the next few paragraphs. And count me among those who would be interested in reading the first chapter.

    Mal and Mikal are speaking quietly so the raptors won't hear them. Maybe I should make that clearer earlier.

    Yes, because without that the reader assumes they’re speaking at normal levels, without a care for who (or what) might hear them. Or at least I did.

    I’m really glad that readers are picking up on the tone you were trying to display as far as that YA/Historical feel. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Jill Sorenson
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:50:13

    I love it. Good job.

  25. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 12:51:40

    I don’t know if I can pull this off, but the menarche is what’s going on here. But in this world, it’s not a cliche because most girls/women don’t have periods. (The novel is called Bleeder at the moment)

    So she does think she’s dying because she has no idea what’s happening to her. Ma knows, though, and quit beating her when the bleeding started because it makes Mal super valuable. Most children are “grown in a bag” and people have to qualify to get them.

    The opening chapter is about Ma turning Mal in for the bounty, so we find out this is unusual pretty quickly.

  26. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 13:04:27

    okay. I hope this is not against the rules here, but here’s a link to the first chapter. I’ll leave it up for a couple of days:

    linky linky

  27. JoB
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 13:08:19

    I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, so I’m disposed to like the story.

    Three or four thoughts on this one.

    First . . . you’re explaining us to death.

    You explain how Mal found the berries and where they are and how she got to them and that it’s a bad idea to be picking them and she’s going to get yelled at for it and that she’s spent a month waiting for them to ripen and that it’s safe enough to go out and get them and that she’s of an age to go looking for berries . . .

    We don’t really care that much about the berries.

    You tell us about the gate and how far away it is and how Mal’s the right age to go through it . . .

    But perhaps the best way to give us the ‘essence of gate’ would be to run the character through the gate. Bang, it goes, slamming behind her. “What the hell are you kids doing outside?” goes the gatekeeper.

    You explain Mal’s relationship with her mother
    Maybe put Mal in the front room with her mother and let them act out how they feel about each other.

    I guess the second comment is more of a question.

    Is that the attack of the beasties-from-the-sky part of the plot action? That is, does the outcome of this action change anything that happens in the rest of the story?

    Or is the attack An Exciting Incident to start the story?

    If the plot begins in Chapter Three when a mysterious stranger shows up
    then you might consider starting the ms with Chapter Three.

    I am wondering about some parts of the plot.

    Why does Mal hide the existence of these berries? If food is so scarce berries make a big difference in the diet and some girl spots a food source and doesn’t tell anyone about it because she wants to scarf it down by herself … then I’d beat her when she got home, too.

    How could people who live in part by gathering not know what’s growing within ten minutes of their own gate? A patch two miles away, ok. But so close . . . ?

    If the countryside is full of fearsome monsters, why do they let young kids wander around loose?

    If food is scarce, why is the labor of these two teenagers (essentially full-grown workers,) not put to use? Why are they not grinding flour or weeding fields or hunting, instead of wandering the countryside at their leisure?

    If it’s hard to get kids and one has to qualify . . would you beat your kid?
    Not saying it’s unlikely, but what seems to be acceptance of this by the community seems odd.

    And two niggles:

    I have just the smallest puzzlement about the blackberries. Round here, for two weeks, there are half a million blackberries.
    Why one rare clump of them?.
    Also, the local blackberries are a bush of long thick canes, full of thorns. Not a vine or a dense ‘net’.
    Might be a regional thing . . ?

    Finally, I spotted one or two ‘writerly’ phrasings you might reconsider.

    displayed a miracle
    that treasure ripening and vulnerable
    stifled a joyous yelp
    swallowed a berry fat with juice
    shuttled more berries into his mouth
    no special species around here (which is also a
    creepy chirps,

  28. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 13:19:12

    JoB — thank you!

    I was so looking forward to your comments, and you did not disappoint. I’m going to take some time to think about everything you said.

    Oh, if anyone clicks on the linky above, Mikal is now Kaje.

  29. JoB
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 13:19:48

    @ Stevie — Nobody could compete with Zelazny. OMG, that man could write.

  30. JoB
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 13:25:14

    @ author —

    Everything I mention is fully fixable . . . or else it’s authorial decision and doesn’t need to be fixed. Hope some of what I say is useful.

    And I expect my questions about the world-building and the fictive economy get answered in Chapter Two or so.

    I love this kind of story.

  31. JoB
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 14:52:36

    @ author —

    I did go to your link and read the rest of the chapter.
    This is all very fine. Just lovely.

    As above, I’d suggest you maybe think about pulling backstory and explanation of all kinds out of the first page. You might drop in a teaser at the beginning . . .

    The last blackberries she ate came from the fields above the settlement.

    She wasn’t watching for raptors. It was too early in the year. They wouldn’t start diving out of the sky, stealing children till mid June, when the chicks hatched.

    and you might add just little feather-like touches of unexplained weirdness.

    But the big weird-and-strange
    and the fictive world
    and the family
    — this is only IMO —
    maybe work better if you put it in an ongoing scene (which you do anyway) than if try to crowd it into Page One by ‘telling’ us.

    Cool work.

  32. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 15:03:40

    I am humbled. great input. I often think you (JoB) must be an editor in “real” life!

    thank you for taking the time to do this.

  33. Stevie
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 15:04:27


    Glad to see a fellow Zelazny fan!


    Zelazny’s Damnation Alley is, I think, essential reading for anyone writing about mutant predators, as well as being an incredibly good book.

    And if you are writing about babies born in labs then you really need to read CJ Cherryh’s Union stories; she has thought through the economic as well as moral consequences of such an advance in science.

    You might also like to note that Mallory is the surname of one of CJ Cherryh’s most famous characters; your heroine is going to have to be pretty remarkable to stand comparison with Signy, with or without the crew of the Norway…

  34. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 15:06:52

    @ Stevie


  35. Janine
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 15:24:03

    Though I think the criticisms are valid, you have a nice voice and the characters have potential, so I would keep reading.

    I just didn't know how to “do” dialogue tags.

    They can be tricky. You may find Strunk & White’s helpful with that.

    For what it’s worth, I actually liked some of those writerly phrases JoB suggested you reconsider, so I vote for keeping the following:

    displayed a miracle
    swallowed a berry fat with juice
    shuttled more berries into his mouth
    creepy chirps

  36. DS
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 15:26:27

    If I were the author I might choose something besides “wild asparagus” to lead to the discovery of blackberries. There is something called wild asparagus, that is harvested and cooked like real asparagus, but the harvesting time for the wild asparagus is a lot earlier than a week before blackberry picking time.

    That’s the only thing that left me feeling a bit puzzled.

    It would have to be something pretty horrible to send me diving into a blackberry thicket.

  37. Stevie
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 18:08:07


    Yikes indeed, and I know it is daunting, particularly since it seems to take precious time away from your writing, but reading at least some of these books will help you to write better in the story that you have chosen, and that is the object of the exercise.

    CH Cherryh’s website has her journal about the process of how a prolific and much published professional writer works, and I think that looking at might be helpful to you as well.

    Best wishes for the work-in-progress…

  38. the author
    Apr 25, 2009 @ 19:35:23

    @ stevie —

    that site is wonderful — I notice Ursula K. Le Guin is missing from the list of essential writers in sf or fantasy . . . hm. . .

  39. mara
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 03:56:31

    Uh, I couldn’t read that excerpt, because it was password protected or something. I was curious, not because of your work itself, but more because of your particular style of writing.

    Maybe I’m too late. I wanted to say that what I have read here is OK, but I would start with the third paragraph, and it would have to be reworked a bit, perhaps.

    I’m not sure I would read this, though. I am not a fan of these kinds of stories, and you would have to have a big hook in a page or so, or be someone like Jacqueline Carey.

    This probably didn’t help you, but I wish you luck.

  40. the author
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 08:10:40

    @ mara

    the password is


  41. Julia Sullivan
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 15:03:59

    Everyone has said many good things, but nobody has said one very little thing–blackberries don’t grow on vines. They grow on bushes.

    Also, wild asparagus is an early-spring plant; blackberries are a summer plant, so there really isn’t much overlap.

  42. RStewie
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 15:46:59

    Blackberries in AL grow on vines. They usually generate from a thicket, but the branches are more vine than bush.

    Also…I might choose death before diving into one. Talk about bleeding!

  43. the author
    Apr 27, 2009 @ 16:04:55

    @ Julia Sullivan and RStewie

    My life experience is that blackberries are vinny too — but apparently there are different varieties. Here, though the problem is my crap writing! The wild asparagus is being left on the cutting room floor.

    I love all this feedback so I can see where I failed to write what I meant to say. And yes, crawling into the bbys is bad, but better than the alternative in this case.

    Thank you for your comments.

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