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First Page: Sleeping Sword

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***

The night was thick and humid. I could taste the air on my tongue and could hardly bring enough breath through my nostrils; Rak made me stand still and breathe shallowly. We had been roof-topping our way about Norfine, and now Rak had me wedged so tightly into a window joint that I could almost count his ribs as they pushed into my own.

He needed the room to work, and my discomfort was only momentary, as he slipped a small hook up through a gap in the windowpanes. There was a soft click as the lock inside gave way and he used the hook to pull the opposing side open. Unfolding himself like a cat leaving a perch, Rak dropped inside. I was careful not to use my hands to steady myself on the glass and waited for him to signal I should follow.

Below me, he stood completely still, listening. A mosquito whined around my ear, and I willed it to go away. It landed where the pulse beat, hot and fast. Damn it Rak. Hurry up. I reached up and pinched the insect off, though one’s first impulse was always to swat. I felt my blood squish between my fingers, and wiped the hand down my pants leg.

Rak beckoned me down. I was already itching.

I stepped through the window, balanced precariously for a moment as I latched it, then dropped down to him.

The treasury was a floor down and through a passage behind a large hanging depicting the knotted and tangled family tree that had ruled over Norfine for nearly six centuries. I finally made this discovery several days earlier, after working as a servant boy in this household for nearly a week. It was a risk, but for the money we were going to get from the Drake, it was worth it. Rak said we could live like kings while the men who actually had the desire to reinstate the monarchy fought it out over our heads.

Dane, he had said, in the aftermath of war, men can buy their way into the gentry, and we’ll do just that, you and I.

***

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21 Comments

  1. Andrea Jackson
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 04:57:39

    Awesome first page. I’d love to see the rest of this book!

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 05:33:06

    Nice start, I’d definitely read on.
    However, your first few sentences are a bit weak. Too many “was” and “could”s, ad a few weak verbs. Also the repetiton of “breath” and “breathe.” They could be changed to read more positively, eg:

    “The thick humid night made reactions sluggish. I tasted the air on my tongue, could hardly suck enough of it through my nostrils, so Rak made me stand still and breathe shallowly.”

    Just fiddly stuff, but it strengthens the language.
    I don’t know what Rak looks like, so when he jumps down, I don’t get a clear mental picture. Perhaps a brief reference to long dark hair, or wiry frame would help. Sorry if he’s neither of those things, but you see what I mean!
    The first sentence of the second para is a run on, and would probably benefit from being split into two.
    The mosquito is a bit icky, and reminded me a bit of John Donne’s “The Flea,” but maybe that’s deliberate. Is this a romance or a straight fantasy?
    I’d read on for sure. Great atmosphere you’ve set up.

  3. joanne
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 06:06:33

    The first line made my mind wander to “It was a dark and stormy night” — which is not a good thing.

    I liked the rest very much, I would certainly read more, but a heads-up somewhere at the very beginning that Dane is male too would have made the reading better for me.

    Good luck and thank you.

  4. Emmy
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 06:52:50

    Until that last line, I thought the story was about a guy and a girl. Two guys wedged in a window, ribs rubbing together… yeah, I’d keep reading *g*

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Alys
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 08:40:31

    I mostly have to agree with everyone else. I found the first paragraph awkward, but was quite intrigued as soon as I got past it. The beginning is very passive in comparison to the tension involved in their illicit break-in.

    I did also think Dane was a female to begin with, not that I could tell you why. I think primarily I was assuming Dane was smaller, after being squished into a windowsill, and also I assumed Rak himself probably isn’t very big if he’s a sneaky cat-like thief. (Smaller than small man turned into female in my mind, instead of younger man, which is my new assumption. Am I doing better this time?) Some very basic description of your characters would help avoid this.

    I enjoyed the details about not using hands to steady himself on the glass, and the care needed to take care of the mosquito, though I’m wondering what the danger entails. Hands on glass or a drop of blood are generally modern crime/CSI worries, not fantasy world with gentry worries. This probably added to my curiousity, however, as I want to know what they’re hiding from.

    Thanks for sharing. I’d definitely read more.

  6. shenan
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 08:44:58

    Whenever I start a novel that jumps right into the middle of the action without setting it up and without providing any explanation as to what is going on, I stop reading. I’m a linear kind of gal and can’t stand not being able to follow from point A to point B and nicely on to point C. So this opening doesn’t work for me.

    I also tend to glaze over complicated visuals. And okay, this isn’t complicated, but the business with getting into … somewhere… to do… something… doesn’t mean anything to me at this point. So having to read about the details of something meaningless is… meaningless.

    I have no idea who the characters are or even what gender the POV character is. (I assumed it was a woman for most of the excerpt.) I can’t even tell from this excerpt what genre it is. All that adds to the confusion and makes me even less interested in reading past the first paragraph. (And yet again I say — blurbs would really help set these very short excerpts up. If nothing else, a heads-up on the genre would be nice.)

    —–The night was thick and humid. I could taste the air on my tongue

    I assume the character is tasting with his tongue, so there is really no reason to mention the tongue. Unless this is a science fiction story and the character can taste with something other than his tongue.

    What does the air taste like? Why is the character able to taste it? Is there a heavy smell in the air or what?

    —– and could hardly bring enough breath through my nostrils; Rak made me stand still and breathe shallowly.

    Why is he having trouble breathing? Because of a heavy smell? Too much exertion? He’s weak, injured, or sick? What? What action is he stopping in order to stand still?

    —– We had been roof-topping our way about Norfine, and now Rak had me wedged so tightly into a window joint that I could almost count his ribs as they pushed into my own.

    Why is he wedged into a window joint? (What IS a window joint anyway?) Is this a dormer window and the roof is so steep that they need to wedge themselves in somewhere to keep from sliding off the roof? Are they going down a rope to a window? Why do both characters need to be right where they are if there is not enough room for both of them?

    —-He needed the room to work, and my discomfort was only momentary, as he slipped a small hook up through a gap in the windowpanes. There was a soft click as the lock inside gave way and he used the hook to pull the opposing side open. Unfolding himself like a cat leaving a perch, Rak dropped inside. I was careful not to use my hands to steady myself on the glass and waited for him to signal I should follow.

    Why does he need a hook to pull the window open once it’s unlocked?

    Why should the MC need to steady himself on the glass as opposed to the window joint or roof or side of the building or whatever? (I assume here that “glass” refers to the window.) Why should he need to be careful not to use it to steady himself? Is the glass fragile? Is he worried about leaving fingerprints and didn’t bother to wear gloves? Why does he need to steady himself at all? Is he weak or sick? Injured? Shaking from fright or nerves? Hanging from a rope? What?

    —–Below me, he stood completely still, listening.

    Why is he below? Is this a skylight they are using to enter the building? With a latch? If not a skylight, why wouldn’t they be on the same (or nearly the same) level?

    Why didn’t Rak do all this listening before he went inside?

    —–A mosquito whined around my ear, and I willed it to go away. It landed where the pulse beat, hot and fast. Damn it Rak. Hurry up. I reached up and pinched the insect off, though one’s first impulse was always to swat. I felt my blood squish between my fingers, and wiped the hand down my pants leg.

    He could feel his pulse beating hot and fast? Where? In his neck?

    Why didn’t he just slap the mosquito right off the bat instead of trying to will it away first? And why pinch instead of slap? Are they that worried about making any sound? And how big is this mosquito that the MC can feel blood squish between his fingers?

    —–Rak beckoned me down. I was already itching.

    Itching from what? The mosquito bite? To get to work doing whatever they were there to do? To get out of there? What?

    —–I stepped through the window, balanced precariously for a moment as I latched it, then dropped down to him.

    It sounds like he is balanced on the windowsill. In which case he can hardly close the window and latch it. Unless it is a really wide sill. If he isn’t on the windowsill, what IS he balanced on and why is his balance precarious? Why not just step down onto the floor and close the window? If the window is too high for him to reach it from the floor, why is it so high off the floor? And how will they get back out?

    —–The treasury was a floor down and through a passage behind a large hanging depicting the knotted and tangled family tree that had ruled over Norfine for nearly six centuries.

    Where are they now? Why is there a secret passage to the Treasury?

    —-I finally made this discovery several days earlier, after working as a servant boy in this household for nearly a week.

    How did he make the discovery? Did he take the job to go poking about for secret passages and then went around checking behind tapestries and moving furniture and twisting wall sconces? Not that what he found was much of a secret passage if an obvious doorway was concealed merely by hanging a tapestry or whatever in front of it. And all one needs to do to break into the Treasury is nick behind a tapestry and open an unlocked door???

    —– It was a risk, but for the money we were going to get from the Drake, it was worth it.

    What was a risk? Taking a job in the castle or wherever? Making the discovery? Poking around looking for secret passages? Stealing something? What?

  7. theo
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 10:08:08

    I have mixed feelings on this. I think part of this stems from the fact that I have no idea what the genre is. Fantasy? Romance? Intrigue/Thriller? Mystery? Nothing in this opening gives me the faintest clue. Others perhaps get it, but I didn’t. And the names are no indication either.

    I also thought I was reading about a man and woman, especially the rib to rib description and I think too, in part because the first few lines remind me of a strong male leading a less strong female.

    I really liked the mosquito description and having to keep quiet enough to have to ‘pinch it off’ rather than swat at it and risk falling or pushing their hands through the glass to regain balance, but again, maybe a bit more of a reason in the description of why the narrator feels the need not to swat. I was itching too though :)

    I can’t say whether I’d read on or not though. Not enough info here to tell me what I’d be getting in to.

    Kudos for putting it out there. Good luck!

  8. MS Jones
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 10:29:09

    Like Sophy Dempsey, I must be bent – I like it when books open with incomprehensible action.

    Shenan, have you read any Lee Child? He is the master of baffling first chapters that thrust the reader into a scene. First sentence of Persuader:

    The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot.

    Then it’s twenty-five pages of ka-pow! and death! and rescue! of hostage! then car chase! and argument! and escape! to viper’s nest! You don’t find out the protag’s name until page 18 (the name’s Reacher. Jack Reacher), and you don’t find out that the whole thing is an elaborately faked set-up until Chapter 2, which is where the info-dump begins. It is, in fact, written exactly like all the James Bond movies, which ALWAYS open with an action-packed scene.

    While other aspects of Child’s oeuvre don’t work so well (and let me just add parenthetically and completely OT that his books are masculine mind-candy that are squeed over by critics, including Janet Maslin of the NY Times, again illustrating that if it’s done by/for men it’s worthy of deconstruction), yanking the reader into an interesting story ain’t one of them.

    So I would read on; I don’t feel the need for background in the first page, or even the first chapter.

    Author, I would just change a couple of sentences –

    Rak said we could We would live like kings while the men who actually had the desire to reinstate the monarchy monarchists fought it out over our heads.

    Dane, Rak had said, in the aftermath of war, men can buy their way into the gentry, and we'll do just that, you and I.

  9. shenan
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 10:48:59

    Ms Jones wrote:

    —-Shenan, have you read any Lee Child? He is the master of baffling first chapters that thrust the reader into a scene. First sentence of Persuader:

    I tried one of his books and didn’t like it. That opening line (that I now can’t quote) though would keep me reading. But only if what followed provided an explanation or at least set things up. (Although I’d be wary of the use of “the cop” instead of a name.)

    I don’t want to have to work at figuring out what is going on in a story. I figure it’s the author’s job to clue me in.

    I want to know who characters are. What they’re doing. Why they’re doing it.

    I don’t necessarily have to have everything explained and set up right off the bat and down to the last detail. But if someone is breaking in to a building, I want to know what the building is, who the characters are, whether the POV character is a male or female. I want some sense of what is going on. I don’t want to read two pages or twenty collecting clues and bits of info to get an idea of what is what.

    This is especially important to me in a fantasy or SF story, where I have to figure out what made-up names refer to and where everything is set in a whole other — totally unfamiliar — reality.

    So it’s not jumping right into the action that I have a problem with. It’s trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

    After a manuscript page in this story, I have no idea what is going on beyond the fact that some guy named Dane and another named Rak are breaking into… somewhere… to steal… something… for … some reason or other. And I had to read a ways to even figure out that much.

    I’m the kind of reader that writers hate — I routinely dump books in the first page. Or first paragraph. Or even the first line. And no, I don’t need a First Line Hook like the Lee Child example. But if I start out lost in a story, I’m gone.

  10. DS
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 11:38:49

    Ok, I could go with this one past the first page. I want to know how big that mosquito was though if he could feel his blood squish between his fingers. Sounds more like a tick.

  11. Chicklet
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 12:12:19

    Color me intrigued! I love movies and books that start in media res (“in the middle of things”) and fill in the reader later. Keeps my brain workin’. *g*

  12. LindaR
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 12:25:17

    I would read on.

    I also had a “dark and stormy night” reaction to the opening line, and I agree with other comments about tightening up, clearing the run-on sentences and such.

    Two particular things jumped out at me.

    1. “Damn you Rak.” This didn’t sit as authentic to the character, who seemed at first to be truly subservient to Rak. Then we find out Dane is a servant. (btw, would he refer to himself as a “servant boy”?)

    So my question as a reader is: is the Dane character afraid of Rak or not? I thought he was, but to think “damn you” in that case doesn’t quite work with me. Maybe that’s just me.

    2. The tapestry. This was a compelling visual to me, and I think it would be stronger if you cleaned out that sentence. Maybe introduce the tapestry on its own — have Dane admire it and then pridefully boast about discovering its secret?

    The more I think about it, the more I like this Dane guy, ha.

  13. Julia Sullivan
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 13:18:11

    btw, would he refer to himself as a “servant boy”?

    I betcha that that was the author’s attempt to establish Dane’s gender subtly.

    But there are subtler ways to do it: a job title that actually incorporated the word “boy” (“bootboy” for instance) would work better. A boy doesn’t think of himself as a “servant boy,” because he knows he’s a boy.

    To the Janes: Can we please get the first-pagers to specify their work’s genre? That would help a lot with the critiques. It seems like they used to, and now it seems like none of the past several have.

  14. Leah
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 13:23:17

    I liked it. I don’t care where a book starts–I don’t mind if they spell it all out, or start in the middle of the action. I do, however, have a hard time visualizing lots of action, like car chases and acrobatics. I could just handle the window-opening. But like the others, I thought it was a girl and a guy. It was a bit of an adjustment to see Dane as a guy. I liked the mosquito bit–it was different, and made the scene real. And as an asthmatic, I know how hard it is to pull in humid air.

    You have something good here. Best wishes!

  15. Jane
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 13:25:31

    @Julia Sullivan: Yes, I can ask for a genre specification. Maybe I’ll add that to the top of the query. I.e., – type: novella, full length novel.
    where in the process of writing: starting out, in submissions, etc.
    genre:

    or something like that. Some will change because of the long wait period. This one was submitted back in September. I kind of feel bad about the wait. I wonder if I should close submissions until I run out or get low or post two a day? Dunno.

  16. Lori
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 13:33:24

    I think this worked just fine as it was. Sometimes works get over-critiqued in a process like this one and personally I think this piece worked almost perfectly.

    I liked the opening. It wasn’t dark and stormy night in my estimation because it was building a tension that was necessary to the unveiling of the situation.

    I don’t know why, I assumed they were 2 men.

    Anyway, this completely worked for me. Good luck to the author.

  17. Cathy in AK
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 13:41:44

    I’m wondering if Dane made the self referral as a “servant boy” because “he” is in fact a she who was undercover in the house….

    I liked this, and enjoy having things start with some action as long as I get a hint of what’s going on. Nice job, author.

    BTW, some mosquitos are big enough to feel your blood squish between your fingers. Up here, at least ; )

  18. kirsten saell
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 15:03:25

    Ok, I could go with this one past the first page. I want to know how big that mosquito was though if he could feel his blood squish between his fingers. Sounds more like a tick.

    Heh, speaking as a Canadian who grew up on the prairies, I can totally vouch for the feel of your own blood squishing between your fingers–or splattered all over your palm after you swat the damn thing. Course, mosquitoes are the size of Mazdas there…

    I'm wondering if Dane made the self referral as a “servant boy” because “he” is in fact a she who was undercover in the house….

    If that’s the case, I am even more intrigued than I already was. And I was pretty hooked to begin with. The first paragraph wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t off-putting, either. Everything that followed was beautiful–especially “the knotted and tangled family tree that had ruled over Norfine for nearly six centuries” that clued me in that this is most likely fantasy.

    That’s it. I’m in. Let me know when it gets published, cause I want it.

  19. JoB
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 15:34:39

    Very fine. This is some good, well-thought-out, practiced writing.

    I like, for instance –We had been roof-topping our way about Norfine,

    Let me contribute a few niggles.

    — Use of Rak’s name.
    Because we are in First Person and there’s only one other character in the scene, you can just use ‘he’.

    ‘gap in the windowpanes’ is unclear.
    Broken window pane? Line of space between the sashes?
    And what is a window ‘joint’?

    – and could hardly bring enough breath through my nostrils;
    Nostrils feels academic. Nose, maybe?
    As a life-long mouth-breather, I recommend it in tense situations.

    — What is the lighting?
    Are we doing daylight robbery? Are there torches, gas streetlights, a few electric bulbs that cast odd-shaped shadows?

    — Simplicity

    I would suggest a reconsideration of certain colorful phrasing.

    Fr’instance.

    I could taste the air on my tongue

    I root around in my mind, trying to find when I’ve consciously tasted the air with my tongue, rather than just smelled it or experienced the ‘whole top of the respiratory tract regrets this encounter’ feeling.

    The seashore. The air does literally ‘taste’ salty. You swallow and you get the salt.
    Urban air can have a ‘mouth feel’ to it when there’s something burning or there’s urine at truly monumental levels.

    But mostly my encounters with smells are not tongue-focussed. The ‘I taste air on my tongue,’ idea doesn’t chime into my memory. I don’t get the ‘Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly what it feels like.’ moment.

    I could almost count his ribs as they pushed into my own

    The implication is that the narrator’s ribs are busy counting Rak’s ribs. This might just be imprecise imaging and there are hands involved in this.

    But if the narrator’s ribs and skin are doing the counting. this rings false. I’ve never distinguished somebody’s ribs unless I was doing it with my hands.

    A mosquito . . landed where the pulse beat, hot and fast.

    Another spot where I get a sense of ‘exaggeration’. This may also be a tiny bit of a POV slip.

    People don’t (from inside) feel the beat of their own carotid.
    Try it.

    (Are we at the carotid? A problem with this image is that I don’t know where the pulse is supposed to beat hot and fast and my mind just goes wandering off on this interesting tangent.)

    And the matter of heat.
    Is a pulse ‘hot’ to the person who is pulsing?
    Or is that what you feel about somebody else’s pulse?

    If the character is not just at this moment experiencing a sensation of his own hot and fast carotid pulse, then he’s using highfalutin words to say the mosquito landed on his bare neck.

    The narrator might come to us with more intimacy and immediacy if he noticed ‘the whine and the tickle as the mosquito landed on his neck, just above the kerchief.’

    I felt my blood squish between my fingers,

    I won’t niggle at this exactly. I’ve encountered less robust mosquitoes, perhaps, or have insensitive fingertips.

  20. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 15:38:03

    This is the third in a row that I’ve really liked. Some talented writers have been submitting here! Good luck to all.

    The squished mosquito part read “boy” to me (a woman might press her palm to her neck, making no noise), but I also tripped over the servant boy reference, wondering if it was a disguise.

    If so, even better. I love heroines dressed as boys.

  21. Wendy
    Dec 06, 2008 @ 16:28:10

    Greetings all! This is your author speaking.

    I’m really pleased with all the constructive crit (i.e. “fiddly stuff”) and the differing POV on starting in the middle of things. Gives a girl something to think about.

    And speaking of things to think about: Dane’s gender! This was the most interesting thing I learned. I hadn’t even considered that he might be ambiguous. This is something I love to read, so making him this way might have been unconscious. …or, more likely, since I hadn’t nailed down a “youthful male” voice just yet, it was just an accidental byproduct of my own gender voice. Regardless, he’s 16-ish and Rak’s “journeyman” partner in a variety of somewhat illicit undertakings.

    Mosquito remarks in a nutshell: I’m going about setting a fantasy in a climate and geography that are similar to my home. I’m expressing my love of Minnesota and Wisconsin with this, and–as it has been pointed out by our Canadian friend–the blood suckers can be pretty fat up here.

    Humidity/dark and stormy just made me smile. My homage to Snoopy. Seriously though, it’s very good to get some repeated remarks about the opening paragraph (and its weaknesses). Lets me know where I sit.

    Thank you again, everyone. I am really very grateful. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything critiqued, and never anything that was as new as Rak and Dane were when I sent this in. I’m feeling motivated and will write with comments at hand.

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