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First Page: Unnamed Fantasy

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I am in Hell! Literally. I am a spirit, a ghost, drifting endlessly, aimlessly, from one end of Hades to the other. Well, thatmight be an exaggeration. From what I have seen thus far, Hell is circular. There is a foyer where the new arrivals are processed so that might denote a beginning, but on the whole, the place is limitless. You could spend countless lifetimes here and still not finish the guided tour.

My name is Christopher Algernon Tarleton and when I was alive I fancied myself a bit of a writer; a sonnet here, a play there, a snippet of prose in between. Life was gallivanting along, and there was even talk of one of my plays being staged. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Providence played its part, and the first thing that blighted botheration did was order a complete rewrite. I was struck by an extraordinarily fast-moving carriage, and spent the next century or so haunting an old castle with occasional visits to Lucifer’s domain. Since the beginning of the last decade I’ve been living here permanently, working as a scribe for him.

The daily routine is deadly dull but we’re expecting a visitor later today; a live specimen! The dead ones who arrive down here are mostly useless. The very first day of their ordeal renders them speechless. I ask you! Gutless wonders, the whole lot o’ them. I, personally, have never ‘enjoyed’ the head honcho’s notion of hospitality. Being a spirit, I’m neither Here nor There.

I was writing in my well-lit yet strangely dismal cell when I heard the faint sounds of a sudden hullabaloo. A few moments later a most savoury aroma drifted in. Piquant and appetizing, it tantalized my senses; the unmistakeable fragrance of freshly baked goodies. Once inhaled, never forgotten.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but one of the mixed blessings of being in Hell is that the olfactory sense comes alive with a vengeance (It probably heightens the agony of torture). This bouquet, therefore, capable of cutting through an atmosphere so strongly redolent of flaming coals, charred flesh and other unmentionables, was very welcome.

The aroma intensified suddenly and grabbed me by the nostrils. It pulled me out of my cell and into the hallway where I drifted right through Montrose and Oliver who were on their way to the Great Hall. A geriatric specimen was shuffling along behind them.

Montrose shuddered. “Where in damnation,” he grouched, “are you off to?”

“And a very good day to you too,” I retorted.

Monty personifies the word choleric. Tall, wide and bald, he is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That might account for the grimness; no doubt the job description calls for just such a characteristic. Oliver, on the other hand, is an amiable fellow. As humans we had been chums throughout school and university. He had perished in a riding accident some years before my own demise so picture my astonishment when I first received an invitation to visit him. In Hell! It’s a mystery why he’s one of the Horsemen though; looking at Oliver one wouldn’t say that he could bring forth disease and pestilence. Always in fine fettle, he is seldom less than dapper; Savile Row still enjoys his custom. He was the one who had recommended my services to Lucifer.

“Hold on to your hose, old man,” he chortled. “That fire’s meant to blaze that high.”

“Brilliantly droll, Oliver,” I shot back. “You might want to consider a change of career. The other comedians wouldn’t know what hit them.”

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. Anonymous
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 05:30:56

    I’m intrigued by the set-up, but it feels over-written, to me. For example, you don’t have a single said — four lines of dialogue, with a ‘grouched’, ‘retorted’, ‘chortled’, and ‘shot back’. I don’t have the same aversion some have to the occasional interesting dialogue tag, but I think you’re over-doing it. If you don’t like said, maybe you could skip the said:

    Montrose shuddered. “Where in damnation are you off to?”

    That still makes it clear who’s speaking. Although I’m not sure why the guy’s shuddering.

    I was also put off by the first few lines — they might be great in a query letter, but felt too deliberately clever for the opening of a novel. And then you give us a solid chunk of exposition. The exposition is written in a fun style, but there was way too much. I would have preferred it mixed in with the rest of the story, not vomited out immediately.

    You’re also doing some strange tense-mixing, which I couldn’t see a reason for — present tense for the general description in the early paragraphs, then back to past for the rest… I didn’t see the point.

    I’m not sure about the character voice — parts sound like historic England, but does ‘head honcho’ fit in with that? And what time period was the MC alive during — does ‘school and university’ make sense for that era?

    I think I’d start all of this with the action:

    The aroma of freshly baked goodies grabbed me by the nostrils. Any bouquet capable of cutting through an atmosphere so strongly redolent of flaming coals, charred flesh and other unmentionables was very welcome.

    It pulled me out of my cell and into the hallway. I drifted right through Montrose and Oliver who were on their way to the Great Hall, a geriatric specimen shuffling along behind them.

    Although this still isn’t super-exciting. I know it hurts to polish writing and then cut it, but is there somewhere later on, where the REAL action starts, that you could jump to?

  2. Emily
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 07:06:01

    This whole page seems to be backstory. All of it. The whole thing. What’s on page two, or three, or four, or five? I bet there’s something more interesting than this. I’m sure you can find a more clever way to slot in the information about Hell, spirits and the protagonist. You don’t need him to just straight up introduce himself and start the tour. I assume something exciting is going to happen when we get to the baked goods, so get to the baked goods. Or the interesting thing that waylays him before he gets to the baked goods (this isn’t it). On the first page I don’t care about some guy walking down a corridor and waving to his buddy, even if it is a corridor in Hell.

    Your voice is fun, but Anonymous is right about “head honcho” — it doesn’t fit with the rest. It’s a mid-twentieth century term derived from a Japanese word for a squad leader.

    If Christopher’s meant to have been picking up random slang over his years haunting and in Hell, I actually think that might make him a little more accessible as a modern protagonist. However, if we first see him as a ye olde playwright guy and then see him using the wrong slang, it looks like a mistake. If anachronisms are what you’re going for, I think you need to show them to us first, then tell us where he’s originally from and how he’s picked it all up (as above, I don’t think this intro stuff should be on the first page, anyway).

    If, on the other hand, you are trying to be historical, you really need to go through this stuff with a fine-toothed comb, looking for language that’s wrong (wrong enough for two people to pick up on it just reading your first page).

    So I think you will end up cutting this whole page in favour of something cooler a few pages in, but I will say anyway that it has way too many exclamations for me. I’m also not sure what tense it’s supposed to be in.

    You probably don’t need QUITE so many adjectives. I mean, do your goodies need to be most savoury, piquant, appetising AND unmistakeable? Not to mention you’ve already used evocative nouns and verbs. The goodies are also aromatic, tantalising and fragrant. Not to mention they’re unforgettable. I can’t even imagine a smell or baked good so spectacular I’d need all those words to describe how great it was. That sort of thing needs to tighten up.

  3. ANG
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 07:43:03

    Well, I for one, liked the voice, albeit mixed with new and old English. That being said, I think you should pick one and stick with it. Head Honcho is not something a ghost from the 18-19th century would say even if he has picked up the vernacular roaming around in Hades for 200 or so years.

    I agree it’s too prosy, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. I do not write, nor read fantasy, so I say, pick one or two adjectives and leave it at that.

    I didn’t mind the set-up. I thought it was rather clever, albeit a little long. Therefore, I’d suggest keeping the first two paragraphs and leading the third with —

    The daily routine is deadly dull but we’re expecting a visitor later today; a live specimen!

    And then go one from there. We really don’t need to know about the cookies. Yet. I mean if you really want us to know ghosts in hell can smell, you can add it later. The point is, if we’re expecting a live one, let’s hear about it. That, to me, is more exciting than muffins or cake.

    All in all, I think this is an interesting premise and I would probably read more if there was something to pull me in on the first page. And I do really like the voice. If you stick with one vernacular. All the best with this.

  4. Jane Lovering
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 08:50:49

    Too many’!’ We can infer exclamation from what is said. Sorry, but it is one of my pet hates.

  5. Darlynne
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 09:51:16

    I must agree with other comments about adjectives, overuse of exclamation points and so on, But I did enjoy reading this entry and if you can nail down the voice, there is great promise here. Thanks for posting.

  6. Lynne Connolly
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 09:57:44

    There are actually a lot of modernisms mixed in with the olde-worlde speak. If you mean that to come out, then say so up top, but otherwise, it’s a distraction.
    “rewrite,” “foyer,” “head honcho,” “goodies,” “geriatric,” “job description,” etc etc. If you want him to have a mix, say that he’s mixed with a lot of people and picked up a lot of new words. But for the purposes of the story that doesn’t give him a clear identity.
    I didn’t get a clear image of the age Tarleton was supposed to have come from. I’m assuming 18th century because of the name and the carriage reference.
    I’m strongly reminded of the angel in Powell and Pressburger’s “A Matter of Life and Death,” but he dated from the French Revolution and kept strictly to the language from that era. If he used a (to him) anachronism, he said it was so.
    It’s very overwritten, you are trying too hard, and I also agree that this is all backstory. Get to the meat of the story and do it fast.

  7. SAO
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 10:22:40

    This read to me like a tour guide trying to bring excitement to a spiel about an old house.

    I couldn’t get a sense of the book. Is this going to take place in hell, or is this going to be about how one of Satan’s guests’ lives and how he or she got her invitation?

    If the former, it’s hard to imagine a romance in hell that I’d want to read without turning hell into something not very hellish. If the latter, it seems like a very affected way to start.

  8. theo
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 15:39:35

    He lives in Hell and they’re all expecting a visitor, a live specimen today. Those are the two most interesting things in this, but you never follow up on either of them. What did he do to get him in Hell and why would they be expecting a “live” visitor? I don’t care about the rest of the overwritten facts right now. I want to know about those two things. Work the other stuff in later. Its an eye-glazer for me right now and that won’t get me to page two, three or four as someone else mentioned before the story gets good.

  9. Marianne McA
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 15:47:23

    I didn’t mind the exclamation marks and mannered writing – I read it as characterisation – that this is how Tarleton writes, rather than how the author writes. Having said that, I did think it could be trying to spend a whole book in his company: apart from the phrase ‘extraordinarily fast-moving carriage’ he didn’t entertain me. I can’t put my finger on why – he’s nearly Woosterish, but not quite.

    And one point that may be just me – I confused myself over ‘Hold on to your hose, old man’. Because I was thinking historical characters, I read hose as the item of clothing.

  10. Loreen
    Jul 16, 2011 @ 22:40:01

    This character could be charming and fun as a secondary character in the novel. He sounds like a witty, but ridiculous dandy. I would not read on if he is the hero and I would be especially put off if the whole novel is going to be in his voice, however. The narrator needs to tone it down quite a bit in order to make the unique and witty character shine.
    I like the premise, though, and I hope you continue to work on the manuscript because it sounds unique.

  11. DS
    Jul 17, 2011 @ 07:50:49

    I read it once and thought- meh, someone in hell fantasy. I’ve read a few of those including the better part of a whole shared world series.

    Read it again and started to have a lot of questions. One was why after being hit by a carriage did he have haunt a castle for a hundred years. Another was why Lucifer needed a scribe. I would think he would have enough laser printers down there to take care of his needs– all with the toner light on and refusing to pull the paper through.

    Anyway, the first paragraph struck me as unnecessary. Then Providence (?) ordered a rewrite– I assume he was referring to Providence as the “blighted botheration.” After that I really began to be confused.

    IMO this page needs a thorough rethink.

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