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First Page: The Black Serpent

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Averat Garlantine, raised in staid comfort as the youngest son of an old noble family, is sent with his sister to the capital Whitetower. She hopes to enter the druid’s school; he hopes to find a place away from the reach of his brothers. They find a glittering court, and at its center the heir to the throne, Lucalyn Raysarian. Avery is drawn to Lucalyn, but as attraction grows their responsibilities keep them apart. Around them the city is in tension between the castle on the hill and the slums along the river. When children start disappearing from the slums, Avery finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into the dark history of Whitetower, the secret’s of Lucalyn’s family, and the perilous magics that protect their world.

The first time he kissed the prince was at Sieffre’s feast. They had been sitting close, and it had felt almost natural when Lucalyn’s hand curled around his neck to lean forward. But when the slight touch of lips deepened, lengthened, Lucalyn had pulled back, his golden eyes wide and dark. A smile played at the corners of his lips.

“That was unexpected,” Lucalyn said, voice low. The darkened room, smoke curling around them scented and sweet, seemed to recede. Something between them had crumbled.

And then shot right back up.

“Lucalyn, Avery,” Dylia Arayvial called. She sat with the others on the other end of the bench. Had they been seen? But, no. There was no surprise in Dylia voice, just her usual direct tone.  Lucalyn pulled away and Avery dropped his hand from the prince’s shoulder, still surprised it had been there. “Henrit claims there have been children disappearing from the Westside. But this cannot be true?”

Children? The Westside? Avery blinked. He wanted to take Lucalyn’s sleeve, go with him somewhere more private. But now the others were watching them, Dylia and Henrit, Marcal, Jyron, his own sister Ivy. It felt as though Lucalyn’s attention had been ripped from him, and he needed to catch the tattered pieces and stitch them back together before the pattern was lost.

Lucalyn said to Dylia, his voice unsettlingly normal, “How have you settled on this topic? We are young people at Sieffre’s feast, not our parents at a council meeting. But,” Lucalyn leaned forward, the soft light flicking along the plains of his face and Avery was taking a drink of honey wine to keep from staring, “We have heard children are missing, but we cannot be certain the numbers are escalating. It may just be the result of increased reporting. It is unfortunate, but the Westside has never been known for the stability of its families. We do what we can but a certain amount of delinquency is inevitable.”

The topic, strangely incongruous backed by faint music, scented smoke, and soft torchlight, was becoming familiar. Children. Disappearing. Yes, he had heard talk. The servants had been talking. He recalled one of the servants had a niece who had gone missing. “I don’t think it’s just increased reporting, Lucalyn. Children are going missing from stable families.”

Lucalyn turned to him, a muscle tightening in his jaw as he said, “You have further information, Garlantine?”

“Not, information, no.” They were still sitting close enough that Avery could see the flecks of silver in Lucalyn’s eyes, eyes in which Avery could imagine he saw a touch of frustration that might match his own. Or not. “I was talking to one of the maids. Her niece is missing. I think the girl was around ten years old, and happy, as far as that’s possible for a ten year old.”

“You have been talking to the maids, then?” Lucalyn said.

“Our Avery has always been like that,” Avery’s sister Ivy — no, she wanted him to call her Ivinal, here — said.

“It was because I found other company so tedious when we were children, Ivinal.” She would know he meant their brothers. Lucalyn’s lips flickered in a smile, and Avery thought he might speak, but instead the prince raised a cup.

“Shall we all pray to the Makers then, for the safety of wayward children?”

The conversation moved from the children, to the sorry state of the river, to the age of the oldstones ringing the inner cities. Avery held on through the twists and turns, offering occasional comments. He found himself hanging on to the prince’s words, waiting for him to speak so he could offer a reply. Not so unlike the girls who would follow Marcal Dusmalan from room to room after dinner. He wanted to laugh, or yell, his insides coiling, but he could only smile and drink his wine. The king, Lucalyn’s father, came by to laugh at them for talking of such serious things during a feast, then tell them to quiet down and watch the dancers. Mention of the dancers put an end to the talk.

This was Avery’s first Sieffre’s feast at Whitetower, and as he watched the dancers he felt some of his frustration funnel into fascination. They entered to the precise metric of drumbeats, like the thud of a heartbeat. Swirls of cloth accompanied their movements, giving glimpses of the bare skin beneath. Back home at Grandrel Gate, his father never would have allowed such dancers into the hall. At the Gate they had of course celebrated Sieffre’s feast, but on feast day Avery had played board-and-piece games with his brothers and sister, seen one dull play approved by his father, then snuck off to escape his brothers and talk with the players.

He shifted along the bench, the heat suddenly heavy and smoke oppressive. Beside him Lucalyn had grown quiet and was watching the dancers as though trying to find the answer to a difficult problem in the swirls of silk. The prince seemed to glow in the half-light; the firelight glinted off the gold threads in his collar and woven through his shirt, the golden chain around his neck the mark of his position, his status, the importance of his family. Avery looked for longer than he intended, and when Lucalyn turned to meet his eyes Avery did not look away.



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. Emmy
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 05:54:23

    I really like your writing style, it flows smoothly and you have some nice descriptions.
    One thing I found a bit confusing was the kiss at the beginning. If they’re seated at a table with friends how come no one saw it? If it’s so smoky you can’t see what your dining companions are up to then I think there would be a lot more coughing than kissing.
    Also, if this is a first kiss (with a crown prince no less) I would expect a bit more emotion: shock, fear, longing, happiness or whatever it is you think it should convey. And you might want to establish whether same-sex relationships are accepted or forbidden in this world, although I assume the former since otherwise why would they be kissing in front of people?
    I think it needs a bit of tidying up, and some of their discussion of the missing children was maybe a little clunky, but I would definitely give this a few more pages to see how things progress. Thanks for posting it and good luck.

  2. DS
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 07:23:53

    I was stopped at crumbled because it seemed an odd word to use. It didn’t mean anything to me and I couldn’t place an emotion with it. I thought that something probably did shoot up.

  3. Caro
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 08:10:12

    I like the world you’re building – I’m intrigued.

    However, nothing really happens here. The kiss was a good start but then it fell flat and I didn’t grasp if it was significant to the story or just a way to hook the reader. The “children disappearing” was kind of interesting but didn’t tie in the main character’s emotions or daily life in any way. I guess you’d say this was foreshadowing, but right now, I don’t much care.

    There’s Avery and Lucalyn and Dylia and Ivinal all introduced in this first page. You’ve also got the king stopping by and this Marcal Dusmalan character introduced. That’s quite a crew of people to digest – especially with so many unfamiliar names. No one is really doing anything but watching some dancers. Avery is ruminating. A lot. You are telling me lots of things. The last three paragraphs are just… telling. Some backstory, some info dump, more of Avery’s ruminating. I did get a bit excited when you told me that Avery wanted to laugh, or yell, his insides coiling, but I thought… why? I have no clue.

    Bottom line: you have not connected me to your main character in any way. Not emotionally, not with a goal or a conflict, not even with some physical danger.

    And thus, you are in danger of losing me as a reader.

  4. Patricia
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 08:28:51

    I also didn’t understand why others did not notice Avery and the prince kissing. If they were sitting close enough to their companions to have a real conversation then they were also close enough to be observed, and I would think someone would always be observing the prince even if they were trying not to be obvious about it.

    It is a bit of a slow start but I don’t mind that. Other people may feel differently.

  5. cecilia
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 08:39:50

    I don’t have a problem with not much action on the first page. I look at Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, for example, and what happens on her first pages is often quite mundane. But what is conveyed says a lot about a main character and his/her life, concerns, etc.

    Here, I’d like less breadth of information and more depth. Who are Avery and Lucalyn, and what’s at stake for them as individuals *before* the exciting crisis of the missing children? You’ve given a blurb, so we know the disappearances are important. They don’t have to be so obviously introduced immediately. If the relationship between Avery and Lucalyn is important, I’d rather see more time on that, and care more about them, before plunging into the action-y plot.

  6. theo
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 09:45:50

    First off, I want to tell you that neither of the possible genres here are something I’d ordinarily read. That said, I love to try new stories if they grab me. This doesn’t. There’s nothing happening here. There are explanatory, “as you know, Bob,” paragraphs with little or no real interest. They’re all to set up the story. You’ve told us that this is most likely M/M, (which isn’t for me ordinarily,) fantasy/scifi, which I also don’t normally read, they’re at a ball and Avery wants to shag the prince. Oh, and children are going missing. Pretty much the story in a nutshell there except for the ending which I can probably figure out as well.

    The kiss didn’t turn me off from reading forward, but for me, it’s in the wrong place. The tension of Avery desiring the prince and how the prince reacts to him in return is much more interesting than the actual kiss at this point because it’s treated so matter-of-factly through the rest of this page. Is this a usual thing? The prince goes around kissing everyone? How does he feel about being singled out? I would think he’d have trouble following the conversation for a bit until his desire/excitement/embarrassment/however his reactions play out, have calmed down. But we don’t know. You haven’t made us privy to any of that.

    I can understand the chit-chat conversations and the prince’s boring reaction to the children going missing, but he’s surprised when he learns Avery has been talking to the servants, and then you drop that. The prince has no other reaction than his lips curl. Does he speak to the servants? Is that beneath him? Does he expect his court to remain aloof from them?

    You’re trying to tell me what the entire story is about on the first page. I have no further reason to read on because nothing really draws me in. I don’t care at this point about any of the characters.

    Also, and again this might just be me and the story not being a genre I gravitate to, I stumbled over every name on this page. So, now I’m trying to stay interested in what’s going on while also trying to figure out who everyone is since such as Avery who is really Averat who is also Garlantine…too many characters means too confusing for me and I wouldn’t read on. I don’t want to have to keep referring to the back blurb through the first several pages to know who is who.

    If you’re writing for a niche group, then I’m guessing all of this is fine. If you want to attract a broad readership, you need to make it a tad friendlier and less boring as a first page. You can write, there’s no doubt of that, but overall, I found it over-complicated for a first page.

  7. Lori
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 11:58:45

    I loved the writing style. Nice flow, good tone. I’d want to read.

    I do agree however that the kiss came too early and the chance that they weren’t seen is improbable. I’d have liked it more without the kiss but with perhaps a tension of will they or won’t they?

    But I’d be reading on.

  8. Erin Satie
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 12:46:58

    I like the writing quite a bit. It’s vivid and atmospheric, very musical.

    I agree with the commenters who’ve pinpointed the strangeness of a public kiss that nobody sees. In a room full of people, at least some of them are going to be watching the Crown Prince. To me, the hidden/public kiss seems like a cue or a symbol, a good clue about what kind of book this will be — complicated, erotic, a little ominous — but it hasn’t been translated properly into a believable alternate reality.

    I disagree with the commenters who are saying that not enough happens, or that they’re not connecting to the character, etc., etc. I think plenty is happening. By the end of the page I felt both situated in the story (fantasy; our hero is provincial, sheltered & naive; he’s going to be hurt before he can grow; intrigue, class-based blindness, violence), and introduced to what I assume would be the main plot, with talk of the murdered children.

    I understood who the hero was, and I felt for him. What turned me off is that, personally, he struck me as too naive and too silly. I picture him as being a little like Sansa in Game of Thrones, more interested in good looks & pageantry than substance, and too dazzled to look beneath the surface of things. I don’t have a lot of patience for protagonists who have QUITE so much growing to do.

    I also think that the passage could do with a little trimming. Maybe not quite so much detail about the dancing, and not quite so much backstory about the innocent games back home.

    On the whole, though, this is the sort of thing that would pique my interest. If the hero were a little less TSTL.

  9. Author
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 14:20:16

    Thank you everyone for the comments! It is really amazing having this forum available. I have been a lurker on dearauthor for a while and just recently plucked up the courage to submit. Just having work read and critiqued is so great. I don’t get the chance to talk much about writing in real life, so this is a wonderful chance to get feedback.

    I have read many of the prior first page submission and find it interesting to read the author replies – so I thought I would throw in my own responses to some of the main points raised. Here they are:

    On the why didn’t anyone see them?? Point: This is a good point! I have many original drafts where I take time explaining the layout of the room, the tables, where everyone’s sitting, the decorations, the food, etc. But when I read those drafts the descriptions just slowed things down, so I ended up taking most of them out. Seems I ran into a baby with the bathwater problem, because the location of Lucalyn and Avery relative to the others became unclear. This is probably because of my limits as a writer. I am still working on blocking a scene and then giving just enough information that the reader gets what they need without being hit over the head. I will add in a sentence or two making the layout of the room clearer. Also I will emphasize more that the room is just . . . dark. A castle at night lit by candles will not be very illuminated. I was thinking when rooms are that dark it’s hard to tell from certain angles whether people are kissing or just talking. At least that was my idea. I agree this should be clearer. Thank you for the comments and veritable consensus on this point.

    On the content of the conversation: Ah man, this conversation. I tried out three different topics for this scene, and ended up sending in the conversation about the children, but was not completely satisfied with it. I have written a good number of short stories in this world, but have yet to complete a longer piece. I think the tighter plotting necessary for short-stories influenced my choice of topic in this scene, but thinking about it more I agree with @cecilia who said there is no need to introduce the disappearances yet. Avery and Lucalyn encounter the disappearances themselves, actively, in the third chapter. On reflection I think I should make that the first time the disappearances are introduced at all. It is early enough. So I am changing the conversation to be about something that will happen in the second chapter.

    On the treatment of same-sex relationships in this world: This is literally dealt with in the next lines of dialogue, I hope in a subtle and interesting way. I wanted to include that dialogue in my submission, but then I would have been closer to 1,000 words – not really a first page anymore. Pretty much the point of the upcoming dialogue is to establish that the culture in general is pretty tolerant of same-sex relationships, but such relationships become problems because bloodlines are important (for magical reasons) so reproduction is important. This also means same-sex relationships between two people with certain lineages are discouraged. There is some conflict based around this, but not too much. Lucalyn’s the prince so he can kinda do what he wants.

    On the Avery should think more about what happened issue: I agree and am working on it. My original draft had hardly any internal reactions, which I realized was a huge problem and very removing for the reader. I did a major revision to get more of Avery’s POV, but I agree with the comments saying this could be more consistently and skillfully done. This is so difficult! It is probably my biggest issue as a writer. Basically I need to burrow even deeper into Avery’s POV and get those reactions onto the page, somehow. This is crazy difficult for me but also SO IMPORTANT because what it actually means is I need better characterization. So I will certainly be working on this.

    On Avery’s personality (especially @Erin Satie): Thank you so much for the feedback! I have written Avery in so many scenes it great to see how he appears to a new reader in his first scene. He’s not supposed to be provincial, just raised in a more traditional, less liberal environment. But he’s supposed to be clever and actually a bit impulsive and impatient. I would hope that the second half of the chapter, where there’s some more action and he makes some decisions, would dispel the TSTL notion. But that he struck you this way at all is troubling (my fault as a writer). I think I will move most of the descriptions of Avery’s home away from internal reflections and into a bit of dialogue that happens later in the chapter – a conversation between Avery and Lucalyn’s little sister (surprise! Lucalyn has a little sister).

    On the complicated nature / slowness of the scene: This is a fair critique. I think I am going to try to address it by punching up the emotional connection (by delving deeper into Avery’s POV, see above). I read a lot and enjoy many genres, but for this piece my influences for atmosphere and style have been Patricia McKillip, Ursula K. LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart and the like. I reread some of their openings and they are better than mine in terms of linearity and setting the scene, but are fairly heavy on names, descriptions and/or dialogue and light on action. Perhaps this is what @theo meant by writing to a niche market.

    Finally, on the names: The names! Fantasy names are such a headache. It bothers me when names are too similar to names in the real world, but also when they are so complicated as to be unreadable. Here I tried to strike a middle ground, though I recognize where the middle ground lies will be different for every reader. I did put a fair amount of thought into the names, and there are some regional patterns and trends that I hope come through later on and will be interesting to some readers (They would be interesting to me as a reader. Though the whole point of writing this is to try to craft something that would be interesting to me as a reader – how’s that for a niche market?). I chose to name Henrit, Dylia, Marcal, Jyrom and Ivinal in this scene because (I hope) it will be interesting later on that they were there, for one reason or another. I also wanted there to be other people in the room because it is a feast! And I did not want just a nameless crowd. The king is also important, though he appears for only a second here on the first page. He is around later in the chapter.

    In terms of the Averat/Avery/Garlantine business, I am a big fan of names that have varying levels of formality. I like exploring what it means when characters switch between one name and another. In high school (not recently) I read a lot of Russian novels, and I got used to names like Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov and their associated nicknames and just thought they were so cool. While I would not attempt to pull off a name with quite that many syllables and that much alliteration, I wanted the names in my world to be a thoughtful element. More genre-appropriately, I am probably thinking of something like George R.R. Martin and how the first 100 pages of Game of Thrones contain huge amounts of name-dumping, even just straight up lists of names. I think Martin even included last names in his dumps, effectively doubling the number of names. I know this turns some people off, but not me! On first read the names worked for me because they expanded the world, and on second read they worked as buried bits of plot and connections. Again I am not pretending to have Martin-level skills of plot weaving (if only), and also I am writing romance not an epic cross-continental struggle for power. But I do have a variety of plot treads of varying complexity, which require a rather large stage, multiple characters, and historical context. I wanted to present at least a glimpse of some of these threads on the first page, and this started at least for me with character names, though there might be a more subtle way to do it.

    Whoa, that response got pretty long! It’s just so nice to get a chance to talk (write?) about these issues. I hope my responses at least prove interesting for some people.

    Thank you everyone for comments on writing style – I appreciate knowing that the tone works for some and was not an active negative for any (so far). I work pretty hard on tone and it is important to me, so I really appreciate hearing readers/other writers respond positively.

    Now, on to more writing / revisions. Thanks again everyone for comments! Like I said I have been a lurker and appreciate everything dearauthor does for the writing community. Now I have broken out of my shell I will try giving back by offering some comments.

  10. Maura
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 17:34:44

    “the secret’s of Lucalyn’s family…”

    Please watch your punctuation. Plurals don’t get apostrophes.

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