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First Page: The Jane Austen Project

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They had warned us that we might feel strange at first, not ourselves. But when I opened my eyes to sky and treetops, colors as indistinct as a grisaille painting, my first astonished thought was that the journey had injured my sight. I sat up, heart racing, rubbing my eyes, lining up facts. Local time at the portal site, 20:48:13. Dusk, a phenomenon I’d previously had little reason to notice. Cones yielding to rods, which do not mediate color vision.

I was in damp grass, at the edge of a field, not far from a clump of trees that shone white in the gloom. The word came with an effort: birch. I should have stood up at once, to salvage my dress, but I sat blinking and shivering, and it took me a moment to wonder whether I was alone.

I was not. Liam, my colleague, was about two meters away, just as when we had stood in the airlock doing the countdown. But he was facedown, as still as if carved of marble, and my heart leaped again and began to bang in my chest. Could he be dead? Fatal arrhythmia, though never reported yet, was considered a potential side effect.

He shuddered and groaned. I let my breath out slowly.

“Are you unwell, my brother?” This archaic sentence emerged from my mouth so naturally that I almost laughed, and I began to feel better. I glanced around again, eyes adjusting. Field. Trees. Twilight. A hedgerow. No one seemed to have witnessed our arrival. Everything was fine. It would be fine. There was no cause for alarm.

Liam rolled over and sat up, head in his hands. “Jesus. Like death warmed up.” But then he lifted his head and looked around. “And you? Are you all right…” He looked at me and paused, like he had forgotten who I was. “Rachel?” he finished, with a rising note of relief that furthered this suspicion. But then I had, myself, just groped for the name of well-known tree.

“I am well. Yet, William, recollect: we will go by other names here.” I felt his pulse at the carotid, rapid but steady. “Breathe slowly and deeply.”

“Ah. Caroline. My blunder.” Our heads were close together. “Why did they decide to call you that? One of the most annoying characters in all of Jane Austen. Do you not fear it will prejudice her against you?”

Now feeling able to, I stood up. “I will worry about that later.” I brushed myself off. Was my dress damp from the ground? Was it dirty? I smelled earth and grass, something floral, and something like rot, as if everything here was festering. What I heard: the rustle of leaves and grass stirred by a light wind.

Not far off, a road, which forked; beyond it, a field stretching into gray indistinctness. And in the Y of the fork, an upright post with a projecting arm, and hanging from it, an iron frame like a sinister, enormous birdcage, holding something that had been a man.
I pointed. “You see that?”

“So they really were everywhere.” Liam sprang to his feet, straightening his wig. “Or we are just lucky.”

A strengthening breeze brought the stink of rot more clearly, and now I understood what I was smelling. “A highwayman?” I tried to match his detached tone. I took a few stiff steps, brushing off my dress again, fighting nausea. They liked to put condemned criminals on display near the scene of their crimes: a warning to others. I felt for the reassuring bulk of the money belt under my corset, a fortune wrapped around my torso, and hoped the warning had worked.

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

14 Comments

  1. Jo
    May 19, 2013 @ 06:09:14

    It’s an exciting opening. Very little telling and a nice balance of mystery and explanation that is woven into the text. That’s hard to do with an opening as strange as this. However the tone shifts like crazy and it is throwing me off big time. I’m assuming that they naturally talk very stilted and scientific and are trying to match the speech of a Jane Austen novel? Or that time period? The shifting back and forth makes it hard to pin down either character as they talk half in stilted and half in causal. And at times Caroline/Rachel seemed to know what was going on and at times she didn’t. We bounced between her detachment and her emotions very quickly without much explanation why. There seems to be an overabundance of cataloging and scientific remarks that seems a tad overdone, almost gimmicky.

    I love the sentence when you say she doesn’t have a lot of experience with dusk. That’s an excellent hint that her world is different from the one she’s entered. I do think it would benefit from being it’s own paragraph and a bit more description. If I was promised writing like that I’d give the book a go.

  2. Ros
    May 19, 2013 @ 06:10:46

    I would love to think that the market for Jane Austen fanfic has been so oversaturated in recent years that no one will ever read it again. Sadly, this is not the case, and I expect people will lap this up. Time-travelling Austen fic is likely to make your fortune.

  3. Mary
    May 19, 2013 @ 06:59:52

    I am not such a huge fan of Jane Austen that I enjoy reading fiction featuring her, nor do I like time travel books that much.
    I’m just saying this to clarify that I’m not your target audience by any means.
    But: I really like this. It’s an interesting opening, it’s different than anything I’ve read recently (although possibly because its not my genre), and I like the writing. At times it gets a little overdone for my liking, but once again that’s a personal preference.
    The only thing I would say is that at first it seems like they have to talk in the formal language of the time, but towards the end of the page it seems more modern and less formal. Also, Liam/William’s comment about Caroline being the most annoying Austen character seemed out of place. It seems like an obvious way to get across that they are going to be interacting with Austen, but it’s also kinda a weird time for him to be voicing that concern.
    However, on the whole, I think this is one of the better first pages I’ve read. Good job!

  4. Maria
    May 19, 2013 @ 08:12:51

    It was an interesting read. I enjoyed it.

    However there are a few things that need to be smoothed out. She’s two meters away from Liam. Where’s the transition to show she moves closer to touch his pulse?

    I understand what the first commenter is saying about tone. There’s an historical tone and a scientific tone for me. So that’s an old world voice and word choice combined with a futuristic voice and word choice. The paragraphs could do with some smoothing out of tone, maybe just pick one to start with, especially in the first paragraph.

    Some of your verbs could be more active, and you need to go easier on the commas. The paragraph with the birdcage had so many commas it was difficult for me to read.

    I enjoyed the tension as well.

  5. Renee
    May 19, 2013 @ 09:06:44

    Like Mary, I was never a huge fan of Austin (although I do enjoy the movies made from her books). I did, however, enjoy this first page despite a few minor issues.

    Whenever I see ‘that’, I automatically re-read the sentence, omitting it for a stronger version. I’ve actually ended up not finishing quite a few books due to overuse of ‘that’. ‘That’ is a filler word and can almost always be removed. Here are two examples:

    Your version: They had warned us that we might feel strange at first, not ourselves.
    Without ‘that’ and removal of passive ‘had’: They warned us we might feel strange at first, not ourselves.

    Your version: so naturally that I almost laughed,
    Without ‘that’: so naturally I almost laughed,

    Such a small tweaks, but one that retains your voice and the integrity of the sentence, while strengthening your writing.

    There are also instances where you’ve overused ‘but’ to begin a sentence. In fact, in a single paragraph you’ve used ‘but then’ to begin two sentences, making for repetition.

    As Maria wrote, ease up on the comma use. By overusing commas, you create a sentence where too much is happening. This makes for a jumbled and difficult read.

    Overall, this seems likes an interesting story. If you clean up the issues addressed in the comments, I’m sure you’ll find an audience for your work.

  6. Ros
    May 19, 2013 @ 09:44:06

    @Renee:

    Your version: They had warned us that we might feel strange at first, not ourselves.
    Without ‘that’ and removal of passive ‘had’: They warned us we might feel strange at first, not ourselves.

    There’s nothing passive about that use of ‘had’. It’s a pluperfect tense, indicating something that happened prior to the action being described in past tense. It’s completely correct in this context.

  7. Rhian
    May 19, 2013 @ 10:05:09

    The mood and atmosphere are great, and I really like the initial confusion about the dusk and the heroine’s eyesight. That sort of detail really sells a story for me. Time travellers should be hyper-aware of their surroundings, after all. Rachel’s immediate worry about her dress is very appropriate.

    I think your character’s voice – internal and external – is a bit less successful. The speech is quite stilted and as Jo says, scientific. Contractions did occur in the 18th/early 19th centuries, despite Jane Austen using them infrequently. I’d recommend looking at the way Patrick O’Brien writes his dialogue in his Aubrey-Maturin novels, as he immediately and strongly conveys the period without losing the natural rhythm of speech. “Are you unwell, my brother?” sounds especially odd to me – if they’re siblings, surely “Are you unwell, William?” would be just as good.

    Although I’m not the biggest fan of modern Austen-related fiction, I found myself wanting to read on, so I think you have something good here. One of my problems with such novels is that they very rarely get the dialogue feeling anywhere near the original period. You have more leeway here, since your protagonists are time travellers, but I think it’s worth spending a bit more time on getting a natural conversational flow – then you’ll end up with something really decent.

  8. Marianne McA
    May 19, 2013 @ 10:27:20

    I’ve nothing useful to say, but I liked it. So far it feels a bit akin to ‘To say nothing of the dog’ which is a favourite of mine. I’d have some reservations about buying a book with Austen as a character. I’d want to see how that was managed before I decided whether to read the book.

  9. Elyssa Patrick
    May 19, 2013 @ 11:29:15

    I liked this. I would be interested in reading more. The only thing that made me go, huh?, was when Rachel says to Liam, rememeber we’ll be using our other names bit. Since her first sentence was translated to fit the time period, it didn’t make sense to me that this other information be needed to be said as a reminder to another character who was part of the project. It felt more like a way to slip the information to readers, and I think there’s a better way to do it so it doesn’t feel so much like an authorial intrusion to get that out there to readers.

  10. Sunita
    May 19, 2013 @ 11:37:28

    @Renee:

    Your version: so naturally that I almost laughed,
    Without ‘that’: so naturally I almost laughed,

    Such a small tweaks, but one that retains your voice and the integrity of the sentence, while strengthening your writing.

    No. You just changed a sentence whose meaning was clear to a sentence with more than one possible meaning. The original sentence was a good sentence. Your change has the potential to throw the reader out of the reading experience.

    And I second Ros: Pluperfect (or past perfect) tense adds precision. If the author thinks that type of precision is important to communicate, then removing it is a mistake.

  11. SAO
    May 19, 2013 @ 13:33:10

    I didn’t feel anything Austen about this. She’s full of bucolic fields and towns — think Marianne’s raptures over nature in S&S — not dead highwaymen hanging from trees. If it wasn’t labeled with Austen’s name, I’d have liked it better.

    I thought the period speech sounded stilted in a way Austen never does. If you can pull it off, great. If not, make them sound more normal.

    Maybe my problem is too many Austen-themed books are bad. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t an improvement or even sophisticated. With your corpses in birdcages and time travel, it looked like yours would be ghastly, too. I might have liked it if I wasn’t going to be constantly reminded that Austen wrote far superior books to the possibly highly readable popular novel that I think you’re writing.

  12. willaful
    May 19, 2013 @ 18:23:30

    Aside from the dialogue being a bit clunky — which I could see being part of the plot — this was an intriguing beginning that made me want to read on. It didn’t bother me that it’s not particularly Austen-like in tone because I don’t have any reason, so far, to think that’s what it’s going for.

  13. Kathleen
    May 20, 2013 @ 09:55:03

    As the author, I would like to thank you all for your excellent and constructive comments. You guys have raised some issues I have been struggling with and some others I never thought of. It’s been really helpful.

    @Marianne McA, I was intrigued by your reference to “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” because Connie Willis’s time travel stories have long been an inspiration to me, but I am curious as to what on the first page gave me away.:)

    @Rhian, I love Patrick O’Brian! How he puts you in the past so effectively, not just with dialogue but with everything. Thanks for giving me an excuse to go back and reread.

    @Ros, hahhaha! I wish you were right! If only it were that easy!

    Several people have commented on the tone shifts, both in dialogue and the narrator’s voice, as being awkward and confusing. I see ways to make the dialogue less clunky, but there is a larger problem: I did this on purpose. They have just been transported in time; it’s hard on body and mind. For a just moment they can’t remember who they are, who they are supposed to be, what’s going on. Rachel is a doctor, so her lens is basically scientific, and she’s trying to be objective at a weird and disorienting moment. The shift between their own speech and 1815 speech they’ve been drilled is also my attempt to dramatize this confusion. But what I am hearing is, it’s not working. So my question is: should I more clearly signal that this is what’s going on (by simply having Rachel think it, or have one of them say it)? Should I have them speak in their own voices, using their own names, and save the disguise aspect for the next scene when they meet actual 1815 people? Or does that run the risk of introducing confusions of its own?

    Your thoughts much appreciated. And again, thanks.

  14. J0
    May 21, 2013 @ 20:11:32

    @Kathleen:

    I think that a lot of the confusion arises from the two voices themselves rather than from them mixing within one character. You need to get deeper into the head of your doctor. Is she a specific type? Most run of the mill doctors think just like normal people. So her thinking about cones and rods sounds a bit too heavy unless she’s an eye doctor.

    Your character has extremely formal speech that would make me think she was a bit of an odd duck more than that she was a scientist. She’s cataloging, but it’s really obvious what she was doing. Regular people don’t think like that. If this is a facet of her character then you need to distill it so that this becomes obvious and work her emotions into it. And this needs to either have a reason (she was raised to speak/think this way or chose it for some reason) or repercussions for the character like people thinking she’s weird or a bit off.

    I would focus more on characterizing her through her observations for now and letting the second voice (the one drilled into them) come in later. For example, if she was a really dedicated doctor and had an interest in the history of medicine having her note the types of medicinal plants would be interesting. For example, Willow trees contain aspirin. That could lead her thoughts down the line of realizing she may have to use this medical knowledge in her new time period and then introducing us to the time travel aspect and the training they both received. If my Wikipedia research is correct Aspirin the pill did not come into existence until after Jane Austen’s death so willow bark extract would have been in use.

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