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First Page: Unnamed Steampunk

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***

Friday before Mardi Gras, 1849

Galveston Island, Province of Texas, Viceroyalty of New Spain

 

“Bloody cold up here,” groused Robert.

“It’s sixty-eight degrees and idyllic,” Ashley Cooper retorted. A light breeze whispered from the southeast. The few clouds drifting above were so white and fluffy they looked as though the Almighty had hand painted them onto the bright blue background. “Get down from there, Wellington.”

He gave the fat old tom a nudge with his elbow. The cat, who according to BELIAL legend was long past his ninth life, fell lazily to the wooden floor, where he resettled himself atop Ashley’s freshly shined boots.

Robert stamped his feet and blew on his hands. Granted, people of Robert’s condition had low body temperatures, but this was ridiculous…

“Robert, just read the damned ships and then you can go walking to warm up.”

With a sigh of martyrdom and a roll of his eyes, Ashely’s long suffering younger brother braced his hands on the railing of the widow’s walk and stared intently at de Vaca Roads, some eighty feet below them and seven miles away.

One did not need a telescope when one had a brother of equivalent optical powers.

The only commercially navigable waterway from the Gulf of Mexico into Galveston Bay, de Vaca Roads flowed between the Island’s easternmost point and the Peninsula de Vaca. The aquatic gateway welcomed hundreds of merchant ships, both steam and sail, to the Puerto de Galveston every week.

Ashley smiled to himself as he imagined the much sparser traffic moving through the water hundreds of feet below.  As the merchant ships completed the visible Quadrille—Port Royal to New Orleans to Galveston to Veracruz and back to Port Royal—a similar but unseen circuit was completed beneath the waves.

German engineers, who’d designed the mighty motors that squatted on the ocean floor turning water into the steam that powered modern life, had also designed stealthy, state-of-the-art nautiluses. Manned by intrepid British crews, these engines of subsurface commerce paid nighttime visits to the ports of New Spain, bringing with them luxury goods without the burden of Spanish tariffs and advanced machina in contravention of Spanish import bans.

Ashley believed the British Isles produced the world’s best smugglers. Galveston’s Alcalde agreed and made only cursory attempts to thwart them. Government officials craved cheap liquor and contraband mach just like anyone else.

But the next nautilus was due in two days’ time.  This morning was for speculation, not trade.

 

 

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

24 Comments

  1. Courtney Milan
    May 28, 2011 @ 07:37:19

    The writing is good and I get a strong sense that this is a rich, interesting world that you’ve built.

    But I’m not drawn into this, and I feel like you’re skipping some basic steps.

    For instance: I don’t know where they are at the end of this. Dirigible, air ship, tall tower, hot air balloon, castle? All I know is they are up in the air.

    It kind of feels to me like the story of the blind man and the elephant. You’re describing the trunk and the legs, and I don’t get a clear picture of what the whole is. Just tell me it’s an elephant and then move on.

    I don’t have a good sense for what’s beneath them, or how high they are. De Vaca Roads are “some eighty feet below and seven miles away” but then there’s the line about “he imagined the much sparser traffic moving through the water hundreds of feet below.” Are they above the waterway that is called “de vaca roads” (and that’s confusing, too, because you introduce the name and I form a visual picture in my head of, well, normal roads, and then you disrupt it by telling me that the roads are made of water), or are they seven miles away? Maybe what you mean is that they are above part of it, and the rest stretches seven miles into the distance. And I still get confused about the water being “hundreds of feet below”–I think you’re saying that the traffic is moving under the water, but the line after that refers to “merchant ships” which don’t move under water.

    I don’t know whose point of view we’re in until the line about a brother of equivalent optical power.

    I didn’t know Ashley was a boy until he smiled to himself.

    All of these things mean that my attempts to attach myself to this fail–every time I start to form a picture of what is going on, you contradict it a few lines later. That’s frustrating and it consistently pulls me out of the story.

    This is a very rich world, and your writing is otherwise good. I just don’t feel like I’m being put in the story.

  2. DS
    May 28, 2011 @ 07:59:12

    The location– widow’s walk on top of a house I thought. And Ashley in the south is usually a male name– Gone with the Wind. I actually know a couple of male Ashleys. I was ok with pretty much all of it.

  3. Maura
    May 28, 2011 @ 08:44:43

    I had to go back and re-read the first couple of paragraphs a few times to figure out that Ashley and Robert were brothers. There has to be a simpler way of establishing that without doing the “Ashley Cooper” and then a few paragraphs later “Ashley’s brother.”

    Likewise, I was confused about POV. It looked like you were starting out with Robert’s POV, until you got to the part about “this was ridiculous,” which suggests we’re meant to be reading from Ashley’s, which seems to be backed up by the next few paragraphs. I got a lot of exposition, but no real hint of narrative voice.

  4. hapax
    May 28, 2011 @ 10:49:37

    I love steampunk, and it seems like you have an interesting world in your head here.

    But I kept being tossed out of it by little niggling word choices —
    e.g. “The Almighty had hand painted” — what other kind of painting is there?

    “Ashely” — I know it’s a typo, but it threw me for a moment.

    “nautiluses” — such an awkward plural. Should that be “nautili”? (But I’d have to puzzle that out, like I did with “machina”.) Maybe re-cast to avoid the plural?

    And the two paragraphs beginning with “The only commercially navigable waterway” were just a dump of geographical names that registered to me as “Blah blah blah merchant ships blah blah blah”.

    Perhaps if I were more firmly established in the protagonist’s voice and personality from the start, these wouldn’t bother me so much?

  5. brooksse
    May 28, 2011 @ 10:50:49

    I didn’t have any issues with the POV… I figured Ashley was a male when the cat settled on his “freshly shined boots,” and that it was his POV. Given the setting, it just seemed more likely to be a man wearing boots.

    I also didn’t have issues with the setting, being familiar with the geography of the region. I could picture the brothers on the widow’s peak of one of the larger houses in Galveston. The premise of 19th century smugglers traveling below the surface via submarines of some type is interesting.

    And since you referred to Texas as a province of New Spain, even though the story takes place almost 15 years after the Texas Revolution and a few years after Texas joined the US, I’m guessing this is a Galveston Island where Texas had not gained independence from Mexico and Mexico had not gained independence from Spain. That could be interesting as well.

    I would probably read on.

  6. dm
    May 28, 2011 @ 10:54:23

    Unfortunately, “widow’s walk” is a contemporary misnomer for a Federal balustrade. These low wooden railings were a common decorative feature on American neoclassical houses–Georgian and Federal–and ran around the perimeter of hipped and gambrel–not flat–roofs. They were never intended or used as look-outs. What the author is describing here would certainly add drama to the scene–two people perched on a sloping roof with only a one-foot tall decorative wooden railing to prevent them plunging several stories to their deaths–but is probably not what the author intended.

  7. brooksse
    May 28, 2011 @ 12:33:40

    @dm:

    While reading I was picturing something like this house in Galveston, but maybe on a home with another story or two:

    http://www.galvestonhistory.org/1839_Samuel_May_Williams_House2.asp

  8. Sharon
    May 28, 2011 @ 13:06:12

    Here’s what I got: They’re somewhere up high – not sure where. It’s a nice day with a cool breeze. There’s a cat. Ashley is a guy (I wasn’t sure at first), and his brother has some special “condition” that makes him cold and gives him super eyesight. His brother is also a whiner, and Ashley is very tolerant. I’m not familiar with a widow’s walk, so that didn’t do much to clue me in, but with re-reading and help from earlier comments, I gather that we’re standing on top of an 80-foot tall house, gazing at ships 7 miles away, using Robert’s supernaturally amazing eyesight.

    The next couple of paragraphs I had about the same reaction as hapax – “Blah blah blah merchant ships blah blah blah.” I had to force myself to read it a couple of times to get that there were merchant ships on the surface and hidden submarines traveling hundreds of feet below them. I would suggest leaving out some of the geographical details at this point and focusing on the things the reader really needs to know right away.

    Basically, it was far too much work for me to gain basic orientation in this story.

    I was also thrown a bit by the use of the word “nautilus” for submarine. I assume this is drawn from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne, which featured a particular submarine named Nautilus. That novel wasn’t published until 1869, however. It’s kind of like setting a novel in 1889 and having everyone call ocean liners “titanics.” Granted, your story world is not 1849 as we know it, and that gives you leeway. Still, I thought I’d mention it.

    Finally, I didn’t find much to hook me into the story on this page except for some interesting world-building details. I don’t have much of a sense of Ashley yet, and I don’t know why they’re watching the ships or what their goal is. That may come out in the next couple of pages, which is probably fine, but so far I haven’t found a reason to care about the characters or what they’re trying to do. That wouldn’t stop me from reading a little farther to find out, though. It’s always hard with these short excerpts.

    On the plus side, your story world seems rich and fascinating. I suspect I’d like Steampunk, but I’ve never read any. What’s lacking is a few simple clues to help orient the reader right off the bat, and a little more focus on story and characters.

  9. dm
    May 28, 2011 @ 13:15:59

    @brooksse

    Yes, you’ll see this term still in use for balustrades at some older institutions. The use probably dates from the Colonial Revival, as does the quaint folk history idea that they were used as lookouts. There is no evidence that these were ever used as viewing platforms. Notice in your example the height of the railing and the narrow space between it and the cupola. It’s barely wide enough for an adult to stand, and the balustrade itself is roughly knee height. Even if the roof is level at this point, it’s a precarious perch at best. This leaves our hero kneeling in a two foot gap between the railing and the cupola.

    Cupolas were certainly used as lookouts but the “widow’s walk” is just a folksy name for a decorative element that often surrounded cupolas, or bordered roofs. There are a lot of these ye olde time misunderstandings that persist at older museums, largely passed down through oral tradition by well-meaning docents, who enjoy recounting these kinds of zingers. My favorite is the business about Queen Anne chairs having curved backs to accommodate S-curve corsets…which weren’t introduced for another hundred years. Or the “fun fact” that I’ve heard school teachers, who should know better, tell their class about how the doors are low because people were shorter back then…

  10. Rachel
    May 28, 2011 @ 13:18:30

    There were two words at the very beginning of this that made me want to stop reading immediately–“groused” and “retorted.” Said is a perfectly good word, and most readers skim right over it so that it never seems repetitive. In fact, said and asked are the only words you’ll ever really need when formatting dialog. Words like whispered and called are ok sometimes, but only if you really want to emphasize the way someone said something, and these words must be used extremely sparingly.

    This person is a good writer, and there’s nothing in here that can’t be fixed. But it’s important to remember that sometimes you have to sacrifice florid language for the sake of brevity and clarity. I was a little confused by the setting here, as were some other readers.

    I hope this doesn’t discourage the writer. As I said, the writing is good, and that’s the main thing. I’ve had similar problems myself. I’ve written things that were so clear in my mind that got lost in translation when I wrote them out. My second readers really helped me when I wasn’t being entirely clear. It’s hard putting something out there. It’s your baby, and it’s easy to be sensitive. But the criticism really is constructive, and personally, if I didn’t think you could do something awesome, I wouldn’t have bothered to comment. Good luck.

  11. theo
    May 28, 2011 @ 14:36:46

    You had my interest until the ‘martyrdom’ paragraph and this is why. I can excuse the widow’s walk which in the northeast, it was romanticized to be because of the convenience of claiming women would wait in watch for their seafaring husbands/lovers who never made it home. It’s simply an example of italiante architecture people ascribed all sorts of romantic ideas to. It’s been misused so often, I can ignore it.

    What made me immediately lose interest is, rather than being thrust into the story of why they’re on the roof, I get a history lesson of the harbor. And in that history lesson, I’m completely confused because I’m looking down a road or…no, I’m looking at a waterway. But no, not really. I’m supposed to be looking beneath the waterway and wait, if the brother has some optical acuity that’s a super power, is it telescopic for distance? That was the first impression I got. Then I got that it was more x-ray like.

    It’s not that the writing is bad. But by trying to work my way through the confusion, I didn’t really get a chance to know if it is or not.

    My first experience with steampunk was Robert Conrad in Wild, Wild West. I don’t read it often, but that doesn’t mean that with good, clear writing and a strong story I’d pass it up either. In this case though, I think I’d place this back on the shelf.

    Kudos for posting. It’s tough to do! And good luck.

  12. Different Rachel
    May 28, 2011 @ 14:45:15

    @Rachel: “In fact, said and asked are the only words you’ll ever really need when formatting dialog.”

    This is the kind of style-homogenizing “rule” that makes every attachment in my inbox indistinguishable from the rest. Yes, dialogue tags are often overdone, but one verb conveying tone is hardly overdoing it. A writer’s goal should not be to have “most readers skim right over” the words.

    That said, I don’t think the first two tags are necessary, regardless of stance on said-is-all-you-need. (Why would you ever need “asked,” by the way? That’s what question marks are for.)

    “Bloody cold up here.” (Obviously a complaint, so “groused” is redundant. If he was cheery about the bloody cold, that might be worth mentioning.)

    “It’s sixty-eight degrees and idyllic.” (Obviously a difference of opinion, so “retort” is again not adding anything new.)

    If the only purpose of the tags is to identify the characters present, there are less-clunky ways.

    Ashley gave the fat old tom a nudge with his elbow.(If the reader can infer the aforementioned Wellington is the cat, the reader can also infer the nudger is the one who spoke to the cat.)

    Robert stamped his feet and blew on his hands. (He’s obviously the one who complained of the cold, and this is soon enough to give that speaker a name.)

  13. Loreen
    May 28, 2011 @ 15:40:06

    I agree that the world-building sounds intriguing and I think it is original to move the steam-punk genre to Texas. However, like the other commenters, I just don’t get enough of the story or characters. I like fantasy and steampunk when the writer reveals the world without doing a lot of exposition. What is really important in the opening is the same for any other romance: who are the characters and what is their problem. I know that Ashley and his brother are spying on illegal submarines, but why? Are they officers of the law? pirates? The big picture is getting lost in the details.
    For example, is it really necessary for the cat to be there? Is the cat an important character somehow? I don’t really understand the reference to the legend of the cat’s 9 lives. Why is that important?
    That being said, I would read on at least a few more pages to see if the story started to pick up.
    Good luck!

  14. Maude
    May 28, 2011 @ 15:43:57

    I definitely liked this, enough so that I would like to read on even though steampunk is a genre I generally avoid.

    I would like to say something though. I am commenting as a reader, and I get the impression that point of view is one of those things that writers worry about far more than readers do. I have often come across complaints about POV and “head hopping” that make me go back and reread something to try to figure out what the problem is. I never do. As far as I am concerned, if I, the reader, have no problem, there IS no problem. And in this passage, I had no problem.

  15. Tasha
    May 28, 2011 @ 16:11:39

    I agree with the person above who commented about the cat. You start out with this cat and BELIAL legend (does this refer to the demon?), and then . . . nothing. Also, you drop hints about Robert’s “condition,” and then . . . nothing.

    Also, and I realize I’m being way too nitpicky here, but given the context of smuggling, can’t “speculation” and “trade” mean the same thing? If you mean “speculation” as in “pondering,” perhaps choose a different word that doesn’t have that dual meaning?

  16. dm
    May 28, 2011 @ 16:48:20

    @Maude

    I get the impression that point of view is one of those things that writers worry about far more than readers do. I have often come across complaints about POV and “head hopping” that make me go back and reread something to try to figure out what the problem is. I never do. As far as I am concerned, if I, the reader, have no problem, there IS no problem. And in this passage, I had no problem.

    When writers talk about point of view, we mean more than just simple perspective, more than who is describing the action. “Head hopping,” just means switching perspective during a scene, in a way that confuses readers. Not all in-scene perspective switches are confusing or bad. But the POV issue with this scene is not one of perspective, it’s one of emotion. POV is a tool we can use to establish a strong reader to character connection. If we’re deep in the character’s point of view, we’re going to experience the scene with him. We’re going to feel what he feels. There isn’t a single emotion in this scene. I have no idea how Ashley or Robert feel about anything, and so I, the reader, feel nothing about the scene. So in a sense, you are right. There is no problem in the scene in the sense that there are no confusing point of view “mistakes,” but there’s no emotion, and hence no engagement, either.

  17. Molly
    May 28, 2011 @ 20:31:48

    Whoa!
    Okay I have read a lot of Saturday blank pages. Some were not as good as yours, but didn’t receive the level of criticism yours did today. I am not sure why. I think the criticism is excessive.
    I liked the cat. I like the name Ashley for a guy. In 1840s, Ashley was guys name. It had better be a guy. I still wasn’t sure but then this was a first page. I was a bit more patient thaan some of the readers apparently.
    I didn’t have a problem with POV and in many other books I get so mad trying to figure out who said what.
    The stuff about the house and the state Texas might be right. Look into it.
    Otherwise, keep on going. I found this engaging I would keep reading.
    Good Luck!

  18. Rachel
    May 28, 2011 @ 23:36:02

    @Different Rachel I agree that it is sometimes useful to use other words. As I said in my post, “Words like whispered and called are ok sometimes, but only if you really want to emphasize the way someone said something, and these words must be used extremely sparingly.”

    Even so, I don’t like to see is an aversion to the word said, and I don’t like to see tags indicating tone where the dialog can speak for itself. As you said, groused and retorted are redundant here. In other instances, writers often use flowery tags to make up for lack luster dialog.

    Asked is used the same way as said–when the dialog itself doesn’t indicate the speaker clearly. I don’t see how a question mark can do that.

    We need rules, in part, because following them makes us better writers who can communicate clearly. We also need them because breaking those rules occasionally and artfully can bring life into a text.

  19. Julia Sullivan
    May 29, 2011 @ 05:39:06

    “Ashley Cooper” is going to make everyone from South Carolina assume that this is a pseudonym, FYI.

    Why “Mardi Gras” in New Spain? The Spanish Lenten carnaval traditionally starts with “Jueves Lardero,” which is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, not with Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday/Martes de Carnaval.

    It seems unlikely to me that a Spanish person would date anything as “the Friday before Martes de Carnaval” rather than “the day after Jueves Lardero,” even today (and Martes de Carnaval has become much more popular thanks to the globalization of the last 50 years); in 1849 it seems at least as unlikely as someone in today’s US dating something by its relationship to Whitsuntide.

  20. Karen
    May 29, 2011 @ 07:53:44

    At first I thought Ashley was a girl. Oh well. Good writing though, but the setting itself was just not doing it for me. Oh its not the steam punk aspect of it but just nothing exciting was happening. I’d probably move one.

  21. Cindy
    May 30, 2011 @ 08:43:32

    I love the steampunk genre but I have to agree with Karen and a few others. There needs to be something on the first page that pulls the reader in. A history of the waterways isn’t going to do it for me. Depending on my mood, I might have read the first page but possibly not.

  22. Emily
    May 30, 2011 @ 09:22:14

    I didn’t have a problem with the exposition, and I thought your writing was nice. I actually do think the “groused” tag adds something. If it just read “said” I’d assume Robert was making idle conversation about the weather. I don’t, at that point, know anything about him which would make me think he was complaining.

    Is your main character intentionally named for The Lord Ashley? If I picked this up and read the first page I would be expecting lots of politics, based on the character’s name (which I would assume to be an intentional reference to the Anthony Ashley Cooper of a couple centuries prior) and the loving detail put into telling us about a bit of trade and the local government’s relationship with it. That’s a good thing unless your book doesn’t actually have much by way of political happenings.

  23. carly
    May 30, 2011 @ 15:43:24

    I like what the other posters said, and I’d add two things. One, I don’t think this is the real start of your story. I bet you could chop off the first five pages of this manuscript and make it a much better story.

    Two, you’ve written yourself into a lot of corners here. You’ve got several info-dumps and a character-relationship dump that people identified as not particularly enjoying all on your first page.

    But the real problem is they’re written in a way that isn’t interesting or characterizing. Most of us don’t remember attributes. We remember the essence of things.

    So your three paragraphs that start with “The only commercially navigable waterway from the Gulf of Mexico into Galveston Bay” are packed with information that needs to be shaped and cut down to its essence.

    For me, the essence is that there are two circuits at sea, one above and one below. One is legal, the other isn’t. That’s the point you should be hitting. Not the list of cities, not the nationalities involved in enabling the smuggling ring. That’s distracting. Moreover, you need to draw this picture for us using sharp images that have meaning for the larger story. Doesn’t matter what, you need to decide. For example, it’s a steampunk story, so you could use something about the circuits running in opposite directions clockwise vs. counterclockwise, so that it’s like the days only seem to advance, and in reality, the work of days (you could describe the Quadrille as legal and law-enforcing) gets undone at night (smugglers breaking the law).

    Good luck with your story!

  24. Mia
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 13:59:17

    It’s interesting to me that people are asking you to include more information about the cat or the brother’s condition–it’s a first page, people! That’s what the rest of the book is for. I find it intriguing rather than confusing if the author drops hints about something and then doesn’t immediately infodump about it, but lets the story show us what they mean or lets the further information trickle out naturally. I know first pages are important, but I think some people expect it to carry too much weight.

    I’m generally tired of steampunk these days, but this one sounds pretty interesting. I’d probably give it a shot and read further. I do agree with some previous commenters that my eyes glazed over a little re: waterways and nautiluses, though.This may be important information for the story, but perhaps it can be worked in a bit more naturally?

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