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First Page: Sylvan Legacy, YA Historical Romance with Fantasy Elements

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The horse’s hooves thunder across the hillside, and with each bunching of its muscles, I feel my heart pound. My hair breaks free of its pins, and pale strands sweep across my cheek. The warmth from the horse’s sides radiates through my thin breeches, and I’m thankful I hadn’t bothered with a riding habit this morning, though what I wear in its stead is highly improper.

I glance over my shoulder at my brother Robert, who follows on his long-legged chestnut mare.

“Careful, dear sister,” Robert calls out, the wind snatching at his melodic tenor voice, “I’m gaining on you.”

I laugh, the wind snatching it away, too. “Your leggy mare will refuse to jump this next bank just as she always does.”

I press my booted heels to the stallion’s sides, and a little thrill jolts through me as he charges forward. The thrill is not my own—the horse shares his emotions with me, the physical contact with my body creating the connection. He is aware of the snow giving way beneath his hooves, the smell of the crisp air, the feel of my weight on his back. He is torn between wanting to rid himself of a rider entirely, and being grateful for the chance to run free.

The mare behind him is on his mind, too, a speck of awareness that I take advantage of—it tells me how close I am to reaching the creek before my brother, therefore winning our little race.

The bank jump approaches. It’s nothing but a fallen log on a hilltop, but from this direction, the horses will have to jump down about four feet. My horse’s ears prick forward as he notices the log, and he tries to increase his strides. I ask him to hold himself back with a squeeze of my fingers on the reins, and he responds—grudgingly.

One heartbeat, two, and then my beautiful horse arches over the log. I lean back to aid in his balance on the landing, and his legs stretch toward the snowy ground beneath us. His front hooves land, the rest of his body follows, and I give him his head. He stretches forward greedily, proud of himself for making the jump. In five strides, we are at the creek, so I sit back on my heels and spin him around to face the bank.

I expect to see my brother peering down at me from the top of the hill, so sure that his green mare would refuse it, but instead, I watch her arch over the log. I smile at first, proud of my brother for convincing her to jump, but my face falls when the mare slips on the landing.

Too fast, her legs are folding beneath her weight, dragging my brother down with her. I drop the reins and sit up straight in the saddle. My arms fling away from my body as if I’m trying to catch my brother, but instead, I let the magic do it for me.

Golden light springs forth from my fingertips and bathes my brother and his horse in light. It stops the horse’s fall and supports her weight until she can sort out her tangled legs. Once she rights herself, the light fades away, leaving them safe at the bottom of the hill.

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. SAO
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 05:02:53

    The opening para is a study in why I hate first person and magic is not my thing, so I’m not your audience and take my comments with that in mind.

    I have a bunch of quibbles with this scene:

    Galloping forward, I don’t see how her hair can sweep her cheek. I presume it was tied back and wind is pulling it back.

    If she’s thundering ahead on the horse, how can she hear her brother between the wind and the hooves?

    If she can communicate with the horse, why does she use reins?

    Thin breeches, snow and wind spell very cold legs to me.

    Either the snow is deep enough that it is hard to jump and see the log, or if it is a light sprinkling, the feel underfoot is hard, frozen ground.

    But the most important thing is that nothing is happening. You’ve told us she can communicate with her horse and can do magic, but there’s not conflict. We haven’t learned her character, what the plot is, or been given any hint of the hero.

  2. reader
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 06:41:42

    She’s describing her actions in too much of a third-person kind of way. “My arms fling away from my body,” might sound more natural as “I fling out my arms as if I can catch him. The magic does it for me.” “I smile at first, proud of my brother” and “my face falls” are outward descriptions too. Give us internal reactions so we’re seeing it from inside to outside. “My clever brother, convincing the mare to jump,” shows her pride instead of telling it. Then let her *feel* alarm or panic when the mare starts to slip, and let us feel her panic too. Please excuse the tinkering with your sentences. I just want to show you what I mean.

    I disagree with above poster. I can see her hair sweep across her face. Long hair will fly back but also fly all around and into your face. I’m not as sure she’d refer to it as pale. I do agree with the breeches and wind. My husband’s legs are always unbearably cold when he bikes in winter without thick pants. I can’t quite picture your character “thankful” she didn’t wear warmer clothes, despite the warm animal under her. She might be grateful for the horse’s warmth, instead, as she berates herself for going out in thin breeches.

    “he tries to increase his strides” might work better as “he tries to lengthen his stride” (Since I don’t really know how horses run, I may be mistaken, but I think at least you’ll want stride instead of strides.)

    Since this is historical fantasy and I expect a slower pace than in contemporary, I’m not itchy for you to start with an immediate conflict; however if you could inject some at all on this first page, it would be to your benefit in selling a reader immediately. I’m a patient reader who will give your second and third page a chance before deciding whether there’s a plot here. But a great many readers are not so patient.

    I think you’re good at visuals. You set a scene without overdoing it, giving just enough descriptors to give me a feel for where we are. I get tiny hints of your character, just the tiniest, so for the moment, she feels rather stock. Rebellious, strong-willed young woman, confident in her magical ability. I want to hear something original about her, though, to endear her to me. Right now, she’s ordinary, if likeable enough.

    Maybe if her brother is alongside her at the start, instead of behind her, it will be easier to believe they can hear each other. Since she’s going to pull further ahead anyway, it makes sense in the scene.

    I also really liked the communication between your character and her horse. I liked her awareness of his movements and his emotional state. I could feel that connection. I thought that was very well done. I did have an instant where I thought, “oh no!” because I believed her brother was going to either be badly hurt or killed. So I cared enough to feel concern for them both. Nicely done.

    I think your writing style is very readable. If you can set up your conflict earlier or at least hint at it (some worry distracting her? Does her horse sense *her* feelings? Does it respond?) and if you can stay inside your character, giving us a few more internal reactions, I think you have a marketable story.
    Hey, you got me to read the whole page, and I really dislike present-tense stories and generally won’t buy them (but I think I’m rare in that regard.)

    Thank you for sharing this. I know it’s tough to hear critique. :) Good luck with your work.

  3. SHZ
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 07:38:33

    We don’t need to know exactly what the narrator looks like in the first paragraph. Find a way to work things like hair colour into the story later on. I know that I would never be thinking about my “blonde” hair. I think of it as my hair.

    We certainly don’t need to know everything about her outfit either. Try and start in a place where the reader is pulled straight into the action. The details can come later. If you choose this POV, make sure you’re writing the way a person would think. If you want more description, then maybe a different POV would be better.

    In addition to that, I like a good adjective, but not every noun needs one with it.

    That said, I think your premise is good, and with some reworking I’d be interested.

  4. SAO
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 08:03:14

    I forgot to add a rant about present tense. Simple present “I glance over my shoulder” is used for repeated, general, or non-time specific actions. “I glance at the clock often in math class.” A specific action in progress uses the form (to be) verb-ing, as in “Her legs are folding.” Compare “I walk to school every day” with “I am walking to school now.” If you said, “I walk to school now.” People might assume you mean you used to take the bus, not that your feet are moving on the sidewalk at this moment.

    While some people find the present tense to provide immediacy, I personally, find it distancing, as I absorb the generality inherent in the grammar usage and feel like you are not talking about the here and now, but general actions.

    All readers are different, but I suspect I am far from alone in being distanced. However, to explain why, you need to understand and analyze the grammar, which most readers won’t bother to do.

  5. Abbie Rhoades
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 08:14:19

    Writer of the Sylvan Legacy.

    Overall I enjoyed reading this, but do agree with many of the details pointed out by the others and had those thoughts while I read through this too.

    IMHO–If you wanted to grab your reader by the throat, get to the part where her brother is jumping the log quicker. That’s where things get really interesting. I think every reader on the planet has read a scene with a girl riding in breeches, so that’s not new and interesting. And if you Don’t tell the reader yet that she has a special connection with her horse; when the brother jumps and his horse begins to fall, the reader is going to think him and his horse are dead or at least severely injured. Their eyes will be glued to the page to see what happens next. But when I already know she’s got special powers, I’m like “she’ll save him”–so it takes away the intensity and the surprise when she does. Does that make sense?

    And a totally minor thing. “Golden LIGHT springs forth from my fingertips and bathes my brother and his horse in LIGHT.” And “Once she rights herself, the LIGHT fades away, leaving them safe at the bottom of the hill.” I guess I think you should reword/use a Thesaurus so you’re not using light so much. It draws me out of the story when words keep continually being repeated.

    I think your writing style is easy to read and I read every word. First person, present tense, never bugs me, but some people absolutely loathe it. Honestly, just a few tweaks and this will really shine.

  6. Cathy Burkholder
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 09:45:53

    One more quibble – if she’s an equestrian with a magical emotional connection to her own horse, I would think she would refer to the horse by name in her own thoughts at least once. I’m not a horse-woman, so I can’t say for certain, but when I had pets, I thought of them by name, not just as “my dog” or “the dog near my leg”. It come off as if she doesn’t know the animal very well.

    First person, present tense doesn’t bother me, so I think when you rework the intro, this would be a very attractive intro. I’d want to keep reading if I came across this in Amazon.

  7. DM
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 09:54:01

    None of the elements of a dramatic scene are present here. Your POV character has no goal, she encounters no obstacle, and she makes no efforts that result in disaster. What you have here is slice of life, business as usual for these characters. Even if you fix the tense issue (commercial fiction is written in the simple past), there isn’t much you can do with your ideas until you master the basics of storytelling, and the building blocks of stories are scenes. Find a copy of Bickham’s Scene and Structure. It’s a semester’s worth of MFA training in 150 pages, and I say this as someone who has one of those MFAs.

  8. JL
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 12:19:34

    While I don’t disagree with some of the quibbles brought up by other commenters, I really like the scene in general. I think there could have been a wee bit more description of the magic, but I like the build up of the scene and how the magic was introduced.

    Plus, I love siblings in YA, so maybe I’m a bit biased.

  9. *
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 12:21:25

    This doesn’t really work for me. First person present tense can add immediacy to a story, but it doesn’t do that here because there is too much description shoehorned into the narration, making it come off as awkward.

    I laugh, the wind snatching it away, too. “Your leggy mare will refuse to jump this next bank just as she always does.”

    Just a note, I’ve actually had a conversation on a galloping horse with another person, also on a galloping horse. It’s hard. Hard to talk, hard to hear. Not really the sort of situation where you use long sentences and descriptive adjectives. Another observation: people who own horses generally tend to talk about their horses by name. “Your leggy mare” is an unlikely phrase, and would have been difficult to say given the context of the conversation.

  10. Anthea Lawson
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 13:05:23

    I think you’ve got some lovely freshness and description to your writing, and I agree that you have a flair for detail. I also agree with previous posters that this could be tightened up a bit.

    I’m curious if she’s NOT supposed to be magical, and if the real problem is that she used magic to save her brother. If so, you want to get the reader to that point sooner. Conflict (ie. a problem) is the engine of the story, and keeps the reader engaged. Make sure to hook us with a story question asap!

    If you love writing in present tense, keep doing it. But DO look at your target market and consider the style of the majority of published books. It’s hard enough to sell a novel — why make it even harder for yourself? :)

    Good luck!

  11. Lori
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 13:10:36

    This isn’t the type of story I buy yet this first page kept me reading all the way through. So I really did like the voice and the writing.

    I agreed that the language was too stilted, the action too distanced. But those are easy fixes. And to say ‘start in the action’ is annoying. You start where the story starts. Not every reader wants to open a book to an immediate whallop. Sometimes we readers like a little foreplay too.

    Good luck with this.

  12. Janet Mullany
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 22:20:07

    @DM: commercial fiction is written in the simple past

    No, it is not. Usually, but not always.

    But I do have to say this sounds overwritten where maybe the author flipflopped between past/present and first/third to see what would sound best. First person requires a huge amount of (invisible) authorial tweaking.

  13. Gwynnyd
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 00:40:51

    Late to the comments, again, but what struck me as wrong, wrong, wrong was the one phrase, “I lean back to aid in his balance on the landing.” SERIOUSLY? She has a magical connection to her horse and yet jumps in a style that “interferes with the horse’s jumping movement, making it more difficult (and sometimes painful) for the animal to clear the obstacle.” That leaning back style was totally discredited by Caprilli’s work in the late 19th and early 20th century. If you are writing a plain historical it makes it a nicely researched detail for the readers who know the history of jumping – and kudos to you for knowing it, unless you really don’t know that it’s better to rise up off the back and stay upright on a drop fence to help the horse balance. “Slipping the reins” would make more sense than “leaning back.” – but if she has this magical connection to her horse shouldn’t she be able to sense the horse complaining when her center of gravity is too far back, she pulls his head up, and makes it harder for him to jump? No wonder he wanted to toss her off before they got to the fence.

    It makes me wonder if the rest of the story will also be full of carefully researched, but wrongly used, details.

  14. Faye
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 11:57:57

    I’m also not a general fan of present tense, but I did get caught up in the story quickly. I could feel the scene here far better than in many published works, with the combination of a warm day and residual snow, wind, etc. At least where I live, in the spring the wind is far warmer than the settled air, which would maybe make sense with the clothing you’ve described.
    Not being a horse person myself, some of the objections others raised didn’t stick out for me in the same way, but I would wholeheartedly agree that the horses should have names (even if it seems like too much info up front- drop the blond hair, add names).
    For me, there was action and tension in the brother’s fall. I was expecting him to be hurt or killed, and caring. An ability to sense her animal’s feelings did not immediately equate to an ability to shoot out beams of magical energy to me, so I was not actually expecting her to save him. I thought it was a good initial moment of drama without throwing us headlong into the major conflict of the story.
    I’d keep reading!
    Good luck!

  15. Author on Vacation
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 12:08:07

    OK, in a 554 word document, the word “the” is used FIFTY-THREE times.

    Purge the repetitiveness. Find ways to vary your sentence structure an eliminate excessive use of the same words.

    Instead of “The horse,” use the horse’s name. Instead of “I laugh, the wind snatching it away, too. ” try “Frosty winds subdue my laughter, snatch it beyond hearing.”

    Stop distancing your audience with distancing language. Your narrator is describing empathic impressions she picks up from her horse. The feel of this, the smell of that. You want to make these impressions more vivid and real to your readers. Describe the actual sensations without qualifying them as “feelings,” and “smells” and so on.

    As to your story, it’s solid. I would definitely read more. I wish you very good luck with this.

  16. P. Kirby
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 14:44:56

    I laugh, the wind snatching it away, too. “Your leggy mare will refuse to jump this next bank just as she always does.”

    Erm, that’s a lot of dialogue to be speaking while on a galloping horse. I’d see the dialogue more as “Star won’t take this jump,” where “Star” would be the mare’s name (because we horsey folk do refer to our equines and others by name). Better to just drop in a little explanation like, “…she knew Robert’s leggy mare hated to jump” or something similar.

    In general, while the writing was nice, I didn’t connect with your protagonist. At all. I think this is because your protagonist and her world just felt too perfect, dreamlike. Horses galloping across a lovely landscape, everything is beautiful and wonderful and even when Robert’s horse falls, it’s okay because…magic. It’s all very pretty, but there’s not much beneath.

    I’m usually rather patient when it comes to introducing The Conflict, but this beginning feels too much like an anecdote in your protagonist’s life, the kind of thing that might belong in a later chapter.

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