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First Page: Stand Apart – Fantasy, Romance

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The child was burning up with fever and as the night grew older her condition worsened. Mauren once more wiped a wet cloth across her daughter’s brow. It made no difference. The prayers hadn’t worked either. The head priest, Brother Eamonn himself, had come by earlier and given her the sacred ointments and holy sand. He’d stayed and prayed with them for hours. Mauren had been full of hope and faith; she’d seen such prayers work before. But the hours she and her husband had spent on their knees meant nothing.

Eventually Brother Eamonn had stood. She had always been a little overawed by him. Rumour said he was especially beloved of both the God and the earthly rulers. Now Brother Eamonn smiled at her, sympathetically, and it was more frightening than any of his stern sermons. She knew it meant that the Blessed One wanted her baby, her little girl. She tried to prepare herself for that, to accept it with the grace, the thankfulness, such an honour deserved. But after the priest left she stayed on her knees by Senda’s bedside while her husband continued to pray at the little altar upstairs.

But God wasn’t listening and her little Senda was still caught in this deadly fever.

The house shook with the wind and in the distance there was the wild roar of the sea. A log shifted in the grate, sending up star-blue sparks. It needed tending, but Mauren couldn’t pull herself away from the bedside, couldn’t stop herself from counting each and every rasping breath of her daughter. It was nearly midnight and Mauren caught herself in a superstitious shudder. The hour of changing. Sen was growing ever quieter now. Earlier she’d twisted and fought, shouting nonsense in confusion and fear. Mauren found the stillness worse.

She watched her daughter, dry-eyed. This was a pain beyond tears. If only the Temple had not banned the healers from their craft. It was a blasphemous thought and once she would have felt guilty for it, but once too she could have taken Sen to the hospital and gotten medicine and aid with which to fight this sickness. The healers were wrong, of course they were, to practice arts that sullied the body and taunted the wisdom of the Blessed One. But only a few years ago she would not have had to rely on prayers alone, prayers that no one answered. Except her sister had said there was another way, in whispers, away from the knowing eyes of the priest. She had even offered… but Mauren had refused and it was too late now.

Except suddenly there was a soft tap against the window. She glanced up but saw only her own candlelit reflection in the glass. There was another tap. She stood and hurried to the window, throwing it open. The curtains and the edge of the rug stirred in the sudden breeze. In the flowerbed beneath the window stood two men, one plump and white-skinned, the other slim and black-skinned. Both wore kindly expressions and gentlemanly cravats.

“Good evening,” the plump one said with a bow. “We were told you might be in need of some assistance.”

“I – ” Mauren almost agreed but cut herself off just in time. This could be a trap. There were harsh penalties for those who engaged the services of a healer. “Who are you?” She demanded instead. “What are you doing loitering here? It’s after curfew, you know.”

The two men glanced at each.

The slim one cleared his throat. “My dear lady,” he said. “We mean no harm. We heard from someone close to you that you needed help.”

“We prefer not to give our names,” the fat one interjected. “But your daughter is ill, is she not?”

Mauren nodded, heart in her throat.

“Then we can help,” he said softly. “If you’ll let us.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She 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

8 Comments

  1. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 06:01:29

    It’s smoothly written, and I’m intrigued by the setup.

    But…

    I’m not feeling as much as I’d like to. A mother about to lose her child is going through the most gut-wrenching emotions known to humanity, and I’m not feeling that in this piece of writing.

    You can’t go too far, of course. In reality a grieving mother is probably an incomprehensible mess, not something that could be put into words. But I think you can come closer than you did here.

    About the only touch of emotion we get is “This is a pain beyond tears,” which is telling, rather than showing.

    Could you leave out some of the backstory? You could have her feeling hopeless, show her really grieving for her child, and then have the healers show up and let us wonder why she’s frightened to let them in. Instead of telling us why the world has come to this state, show us how the world is affecting this one poor woman.

    Does that make sense? A scene like this has the potential to be incredibly gripping, and I think you’re selling your story short by not really diving into it.

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  2. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 07:08:41

    Hi Author and thanks for sharing.

    I agree with Kate.

    You’re doing a great job of transcribing events here, but you’re not showing me much about what Mauren feels. Yes she’d be a wreck, but you can tease out a few of those emotions and add them to this page.

    There’s a lot of explanation here that I don’t think is necessary, at least not on the first page. If Brother Eamonn is a crucial character, could some of his beloved status explanation wait for later in the story? If he’s not a crucial character, then I don’t really need to know he’s beloved by one and all. That she’s overawed, possibly. That his change in demeanor changing scares her, yes. You can do that in a sentence or two.

    As far as religion goes, if you’re introducing a new religious system, and this is just my 2 cents, give me one term to deal with at a time. Especially with a religion that seems complex and torn apart, which is always a good state for a religion. You have God, which is a vague term for me, since it encompasses far too much time and too many religions to be relevant and specific to your story. Then you have the Blessed One. Is that God? Or a different entity? Give me a term, ground me a bit and then move on. There’s a whole story here for you to give me the story.

    Quibbles about the writing itself. For the most part it moves along smoothly. Tiny quibbles in POV breaks though: can she see the hearth to know the log is sending up sparks? Can she see the rug that’s moved by the breeze, as she’s standing by the open window? If she can’t (and in my visualization, I can’t see either) then those pretty words need to go. Remember where your character is and remember what they can–and can’t–see.

    Would I read on? Eh, maybe. There’s a bit of intrigue at the end, with the two gentlemen at the window. But unless (or except; you seem to have a fondness for that word) something happens pretty quickly, and/or you start showing some deeper POV and emotions from your main character, I might move on to something else.

    First pages are the hook to get readers to keep reading. A sick child on the first page should pull at my heart strings. I have a child…well, he’s an adult-ish person now. But I remember when he was small and got sick. I was a mess, true, but there are definite feelings I had: wanting to pace from helplessness and frustration but feared leaving his side. The anxiety of waiting…the clawing sense of dread in the small of my back…for a change, any change. Exhaustion mixed with such hyper-awareness that I can still remember every detail of his nursery and what he wore–hell, what I wore–20-some years later, the night he had spiked a fever with strep throat as a newborn.

    I’d like a more visceral sense of what Mauren is going through. If the child dies and that’s your hook, you may be able to pull that off as enough of an emotion-packed opening. But if Senda lives, and I suspect she does (that’s not your hook then; it’s the guys outside and the Pandora’s box Mauren opens up if she invites them in) you’ve lost a huge first page opportunity to really pull us in, get us right there in the room with Mauren and have us in relieved tears when Senda pulls through.

    The father is a throw away character at this point, which I find disturbing on some level. Either do away with him completely or have him involved somehow. Deadbeat dad or not, future character in the story or not, he comes across as heartless, even though he’s praying. The mention of the sister is couched in nicely and oddly enough, she’s the one I’m most interested in so far in this story. EXCEPT…why is that? She’s shrouded in mystery, she has connections that are vaguely dangerous and heretical, and you don’t spend much time giving me her back story. Intentional or not, you’ve created a nice little character encapsulation for her.

    But on this first page, I shouldn’t be more interested in someone who has 20-some odd words devoted to her than I should be to the main character on your page.

    Last nit to pick :) I get mixed cultural references. I know this is fantasy and you need to give us some kind of details to, well, tell the story. But with Brother Eamonn, I get an Irish priest dressed in a cassock, stone churches, something really old. With the men in the flower bed outside a glass window, I get Regency or Victorian England, with men in cravats. Now I see top hats and gas lanterns on the cobblestones.

    If you’re going to create fantasy, you get to make up whatever you want, including names and clothing that aren’t associated with one specific culture or time period. It’s hard, but it’s also liberating to make all that stuff up.

    Thanks again for sharing and for indulging me in my long-winded critique. All the best to you!

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  3. cleo
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 08:03:49

    I enjoyed this. I agree you could increase the emotional intensity by cutting parts. I’d personally cut back on the descriptions, especially of the room and the weather, etc. I kind of liked the backstory.

    I enjoyed trying to figure out the setting – first I had it as a traditional, pre-modern, pre-indust revolution culture. Then the hint that there used to be modern medicine and but it’s been discredited, and I’m wondering if it’s set in the future or the past, and then the Victorian style top hats locate it for me. I’ve read a lot of sf/f and I enjoy figuring out the world building.

    I really like that you described the skin color of both men.

    I agree with Carol McKenzie that her husband seems like a throw away character and that is off putting to me. And her sister is the most intriguing.

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  4. Marianne McA
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 10:13:54

    I was drawn into the story once the healers appeared. Before that it’s very static – Mauren’s situation is life-changing and chaotic, but the reader ‘sees’ a woman thinking.

    While there are telling moments – such as Brother Eamonn’s softening being properly frightening – I’m not pulled into the page.

    I also thought the paragraph beginning: “She watched her daughter…” read as a bit of an info-dump. I could see her letting a blasphemous thought “If only the Temple had not banned the healers from their craft” cross her mind in these circumstances, but not her following thought “The healers were wrong, of course”. It’s not that someone couldn’t calmly ponder religious philosophy as they sat with their sick child, but it doesn’t feel natural here.
    (I could, however, imagine mental backtracking – being afraid the God has ‘heard’ your inward heresy, and swiftly covering the heretical thought with the ‘right’ thought.)

    I found Mauren a difficult name – I think because you use Eamonn in gives me an Irish feel, and I keep reading Maureen.

    But as I say, once the healers come on stage, and things start happening, I was pulled in, and wanted to read more.

    Good luck

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  5. Author
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 11:21:37

    @Kate Sherwood
    thanks for such a thoughtful critique. I totally get what you mean and I’ll try to add more emotion and cut some of the detail. I think because (spoiler!) Senda is saved I haven’t invested enough emotion into her being on death’s door so I need to work on that.

    @Carol McKenzie
    Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed critique, I really appreciate it. I was trying to make Mauren seem almost in shock, or too hurt and tired to even feel her grief, if that makes sense, but clearly that isn’t how it’s coming across so I’ll work on that. The husband is supposed to come across as quite cold and distant for reasons which hopefully becomes clear later, but I get your point. Thanks again for your thoughtful remarks!

    @Cleo, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you liked some of the setting and I’ll work on cutting down on some of the extraneous details. And I’m glad you liked how I described both skin colours – I wanted to get across that this is a pretty multicultural society (apart from all the Irish-y sounding names, that is…) but I was afraid it was a little clunky.

    @Marianne, thanks for commenting – the setting is not at all Irish so thanks for pointing that out, I might need to change some names a bit. It’s supposed to be very much a fantasy world, but I’m really bad at coming up with original names.

    Thanks again, everyone. I appreciate you taking the time to help me out.

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  6. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 11:35:48

    @Author:

    Names! Oh, my gosh. I have a hard time with real-world names.

    There are fantasy name generators online. Sometimes you can get lucky and get some ideas from those. It’s also a good idea to check any name in Google, even from a name generator, just to make sure those names aren’t already in circulation somewhere already.

    ReplyReply

  7. cleo
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 15:34:20

    @Author: I liked that you didn’t make one skin color the default and only mention black skin. That didn’t seem clunky to me.

    ReplyReply

  8. Kristi
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 20:54:21

    It was well written but I agreed with the first commenter. Author, your points in your comment made sense though. Clearly no romance as of now but an interesting set up!

    ReplyReply

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