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First Page: Unnamed Urban Fantasy

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The spring sky was the color of pumpkin. Raw and stretched across the horizon, torn into bits and pieces by the branches of the forest. Above the thin band of color stretched a mass of purple and gray, storm clouds threatening to soak me.

I sighed. “Stupid rain.” Above me, high up through the grasping branches of the trees, there were still places with no clouds. Deep blue gaps of night peered down at me, big and empty as an upside-down ocean.

On another day I would have loved a sunset like this. I would have welcomed the rain. But today I was pissed at Meeka, so the clouds just threatened to soak the herbs I had spent the last three hours collecting, making my mood even worse.

I ripped the last few leaves from the stem I was working on and stuffed them into my sack. I should have worried that I would bruise them or crush them, making them release some of their potency. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wanted to smash them, so they would know I was angry. So something besides myself could suffer from my mood.

So Meeka wanted to stay in Creswell. I didn’t. She knew we couldn’t stay long anywhere, just living in town was a risk in itself. And how would we ever find mom if we went stagnant in some backwash settlement? Without thinking, I let my fist swing down on the herb bush. Stinging scratches leapt over the skin of my knuckles.

“Damn!” My voice was deadened by the forest, calm, swaying in the wind. I sat down in the damp and let my fears envelope me for a few moments. Fears of getting caught, of losing myself, of past, present. A picture of Heth floated in the black of my mind, catching there as I stared at the empty twigs of the herb bush. It was his fault she wanted to stay, and I hated him for it. Goddam ‘love’.

Heat blazed as I thought about him, flames growing and licking my hand. The sudden pain brought me back to the forest, jerking my arm back against my body. The bush was on fire. Little tongues of flame danced over every branch, filling my nose with the smell of char and something like rosemary, pungent and bitter.

“Shit shit shit!” I crawled backwards out of the way of the flames, the skin on my face feeling stretched and tight in the sudden heat. My stomach churning uneasily, I watched the flames slowly eat away the bush. Good thing I was mostly done with it anyway. The brightness of the fire made the forest seem so much darker, the night creeping in all around me, accusing me of crimes I couldn’t stop myself from committing.

I knew it was my fault that the bush had ignited. It happened the most when I was angry, and I had let myself get angry. Guilt rose inside, creeping along my spine and mixing with the fear that was already clenching down on the muscles in my stomach. Magic was a crime when it was used by someone not registered with the state, but what I could do was so much worse than the parlor tricks the mages played.

I shivered in the wind, but it wasn’t because of the cold. Deciding I had enough herbs for the day, I stood and tried to brush the dampness from my jeans. It clung there to the seat of my pants and the backs of my thighs, quickly growing stiff and cold in the wind. It would be fiercer out on the hillside, where there were no trees to tame the gusts,

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. Milena
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 04:14:08

    First of all, I like this a lot. It reads a bit like YA, though, in the sense that your protagonist sounds very young.

    Also, I’m curious as to why she (? I’m assuming it’s a female) doesn’t do anything to put out the fire, even with the coming rain. Forest fires are no small thing; will it just go out by itself because it’s magical? I’d like to know, but perhaps the explanation is coming directly behind the cut-off, so it might be nothing.

    The writing could be tightened and cleared little: for instance, if she’s out collecting herbs, I would expect her to know a lot about them, so the expression “something like rosemary” made me stop.

    That said, I would definitely read on.

  2. JenMcQ
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 05:57:59

    I liked this too, and would have read on if I had picked this up off a bookstore shelf. It had a bit of a paranormal “Hunger Games” feel to it. That being said, it is TOO “Hunger Games”? You use many similar references. Meeka has the familiar ring of Peeta. There appears to be a new order, with a culture that is repressed enough to live in a settlement and gather in the forest. You mention sky the color of pumpkin (in HG, the cat’s eyes were the color of rotting squash).

    The voice is great, I agree it has a YA flavor to it. I also agree that it could be tightened, reducing your wonderful way with imagery to a few select phrases will convey the same message without miring the reader in too much detail.

    Finally, I felt that there was perhaps too much of a drive for backstory in this first page, dropping lots of names and information instead of letting it unfold naturally over the course of the first chapter.
    Good luck with this!

  3. Anonymous
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 06:27:23

    I liked it, (assuming that it IS YA), but I agree that there were a few spots that could be tightened.

    For example – I was caught in the first couple lines because of the word ‘raw’, in that context. You’re talking about pumpkins, which get cooked, so when I saw the raw in the next sentence I thought you were still talking about pumpkin, but then it was stretched out across the sky, so maybe you’re just talking about the sky being ‘raw’, but that seemed a bit weird, and I don’t know if it makes sense for the sky to be stretched across the horizon, just because obviously that’s where the sky is…

    Actually, for my taste, most of the sky description could go. It gets a bit mixed up, and I’m not sure all of the figures of speech work – “big and empty as an upside down ocean” seems to be working particularly hard, to me, and I’m not sure the payoff is worth the effort.

    You also have one paragraph where the character is angry at the rain because it might spoil her herbs, and in the next the character not caring if the herbs get bruised because she’s mad. Maybe you’re trying to convey that she’s not especially mature or rational, but if you’re going for a different characterization, you might want to look at it.

    Also – why did she punch a shrub? That seems like a really unsatisfying way to express anger.

    These are mostly nitpicky, though. Overall, I liked it; I would read more. I agree with the concern that it might feel a bit derivative, but let’s face it, YA readers are not known for their endless hunt for originality. But if the story ISN’T quite similar to Hunger Games, maybe you should try opening it with a different, less Hunger Games-y scene.

  4. DS
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 07:49:40

    It would make more sense to be gathering herbs at sunrise rather than sunset. And from the description of the weather, I would agree with Milena it looks like the immediate problem the view point character is going to have is a forest fire.

    Overall it seems ok, though.

  5. Sunita
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 09:04:25

    I had a lot of trouble staying with this first page. In the first sentence I’m told the sky is pumpkin, so I was imagining the whole thing that way. Then there are clouds, branches, and darkness. After 3 paragraphs I finally realized that the pumpkin was the sunset, presumably streaking the horizon, not the whole sky.

    Also, the clouds would soak the herbs with rain whether the narrator is angry or not, wouldn’t they? So the difference is whether she cares, not in what happens.

    Enough with the details, you get the idea; for me, the writing was just too choppy to draw me in. I kept trying to visualize the scene and failing, so I never got to the point where I engaged with the character.

  6. Valerie
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 10:19:49

    This didn’t work for me. It definitely read as YA, which is fine, but the descriptions of the sky, the clouds and all of that felt a little heavy handed.

    Also, I don’t care at all about any of the people you’ve introduced here, because the only one I know anything about is a petulant child fire-starter. At least i hope she’s a child.

    Finally, I agree with many of the other comments that this may be a little too derivative of Hunger Games, especially with the naming conventions.

  7. Sue t
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 11:40:34

    I thought it was wonderful – great descriptions (although I think first two paragraphs sounded similar enough you could condense). I’m with the others in wondering if the voice is too youthful for adult YA but otherwise, you hooked me just by simply catching me with the descriptions, environment and character. Which is exactly what a first page is supposed to do. Well done and good luck! Oh, and even after having JUST read Hunger Games, I did not even come close to connecting the two.

  8. Cara
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 11:54:53

    My first impression was that the prose about the sky was too flowery. Then it seemed like it was almost intended to be ironic, but that feeling didn’t quite follow through, so I was never sure. But, see? All that business about the sky wound up distracting me from the rest of it. Seems like it should just be cut, because it feels too dear to the author and pointless to the reader. End result, an hour after reading it, what I remember is pumpkin sky and a girl punching a bush and irresponsibly leaving it to burn.

  9. Jackie Barbosa
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 13:51:40

    The opening sentences here reminded me a lot of UGLIES, which starts with the observation that the sky is the color of cat vomit. I’ve never read HUNGER GAMES, but that “echo” made me immediately feel a YA voice, which others also picked up on.

    People have already suggested that the sky description is a little too “much,” and I’d agree. I’ll also add that it fights against itself a little bit in terms of setting–at first, I think perhaps the sky is orange like a pumpkin because there’s something DIFFERENT about the sky in this world (maybe it’s discolored by pollution), and I think it’s daytime, but then there are the bits of night sky, so I think it’s night (but the sky is orange? strange), and then I finally get to the point where I realize it’s sunset. To me, that just a little too much for me to sort out when what I really want to know is who the protagonist is and why I should care about her (or him). But there is a vividness and creativity to the descriptions that I really appreciate. Just try to prune them a bit :).

    There are a few places where the writing is unclear/a trifle choppy. For example:

    “The sudden pain brought me back to the forest, jerking my arm back against my body.”

    I had to read this twice before I parsed out that it was the PAIN jerking her arm against her body, not the forest. (Now THAT’S paranormal for you!) This would be much clearer as “The sudden pain brought me back to the forest, and I jerked my arm back…”

    The last few sentences suffer from similar clarity issues:

    Deciding I had enough herbs for the day, I stood and tried to brush the dampness from my jeans. It clung there to the seat of my pants and the backs of my thighs, quickly growing stiff and cold in the wind. It would be fiercer out on the hillside, where there were no trees to tame the gusts,

    In the second sentence, “it” refers to “the dampness” but the nearest antecedent is “jeans,” so you really need a noun rather than a pronoun to make it clear. Later in the same sentence, her thighs are growing stiff and cold in the wind, but adding a “which” before “quickly” would make that infinitely clearer. And finally, the last sentence starts with another “It,” which this time is referring to the wind, but with the previous “it” that referred to the dampness despite its nearest antecedent being her jeans, the meaning is a little muddled. (I tend to favor avoiding “It” as the subject of a sentence for precisely this reason. It’s all too easy to lose sight of what “it” is. And yes, I just broke my own rule.)

    On the upside, there are some sentences here that I love, for example:

    The brightness of the fire made the forest seem so much darker, the night creeping in all around me, accusing me of crimes I couldn’t stop myself from committing.

    All in all, I think this is really promising but needs more focus. Concentrate on what you need this scene to accomplish–introduce us to our firestarting heroine whose powers could get her into a lot of trouble, her primary goal (to find her mother and get out of Dodge before her secret is revealed), and what might prevent her from achieving it (her darned sister has fallen in “lurve”). I got all that from the page, but there was so much underbrush that I really had to fight to find the core of the story. But I like the core.

  10. SAO
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 14:29:17

    This is a sit-and-muse scene. Your heroine may not be sitting, but she sure is musing. The action that there is is that She is thinking about what Meeka told her in the past.

    Far better to start the scene with Meeka there, saying she doesn’t want to leave. Meeka can pick leaves, too.

  11. Author
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 17:31:25

    Yes, it’s YA. I didn’t know what to call it in my email, so I named it ‘sort of fantasy/dystopian/romance’, I think it was labeled ‘urban fantasy’ because of the modern setting.

    I am absolutely going to change the bit at the start about the sky, But I figured I would wait until I completely finished my first draft, that way if I decide it needs to begin somewhere else, I haven’t wasted time editing.

    So what I would like some help with is making my character likeable. When I read back through any stories I’ve written, I tend to have problems making my main character easy to connect with. My character is about 17, does she sound younger than that? I didn’t think about it then, but she starts out whining. If I need to make her sound a bit more mature, what sort of things do I need to change?

    I grew up reading old books, so flowery prose is what comes easy to me. I’ve been slowly changing that, but I wonder, how do I know when it’s okay and when I need to be concrete? Some people said the descriptions were good but needed cut back a bit, is there an easy way to know where to cut back, or does that just take time to learn?

    last thing, can anyone help me with ways to describe ‘suddenly’? I didn’t want to say ‘suddenly the bush was on fire!’ That sounds…really bad. But what I came up with feels far too subtle to me, not urgent enough. Any advise you have would be very appreciated!

    Thank you all for your comments, I now have a better idea of what things I need to work on. :)

  12. dm
    Apr 30, 2011 @ 17:57:17

    @Author

    Re: crafting likable characters.

    This is a neglected topic in books about prose fiction. I can’t think of a single title by Swain or Bickham that spends much time on this, but it pops up frequently in screenwriting books. Try Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and maybe David Howard’s How to Build a Great Screenplay. Neither one requires you to read scripts–you just need to have seen the movies they discuss.

    Your other two questions are about prose style. Try Chris Roerden’s Don’t Sabotage Your Submission and Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact. The Iglesias title is also a screenwriting book, but because screenwriters have to convey action as concisely as possible, it’s a great tool for tightening up your prose. Modern commercial fiction generally employs metaphor sparingly–and only when the comparison conveys a more visceral understanding of the object or event than a simple unadorned description. In this case, the sky is orange. Pumpkins add nothing to our understand of this particular sky. Nor do the grasping branches or threatening clouds.

    I’d also suggest Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure, because your selection is not, at present, a scene. Until thinking in terms of “goal, obstacle, and disaster” becomes second nature, you’ll find that you write and rewrite, but never quite feel satisfied with the result.

  13. SAO
    May 01, 2011 @ 01:28:33

    If you write your scene well, you don’t need suddenly.

    “I reached for another handful of leaves (wartbane, rosemary, Thor’s wort). Heat seared my hand. I jerked it back, staring at the flames licking/devouring the bush. Shoot! I’d done it again.”

    I note, when I originally read it, the heat searing her at the thought of Heth, was not fire, but lust/love.

    I think your character will come through a lot better if she is acting and interacting, not explaining.

    This is the core of the conflict on your page:
    “So Meeka wanted to stay in Creswell. I didn’t. She knew we couldn’t stay long anywhere, just living in town was a risk in itself. And how would we ever find mom if we went stagnant in some backwash settlement?”

    But our unnamed character explains this, and we can’t see the stakes. Plunge her into the middle of the scene, starting with ‘I want to stay in Cresswell, said Meeka’ and then we can identify with her.

    When you have to explain who Meeka is and why unnamed heroine is angry you don’t have room for the subtleties of emotion that will make your char likeable.

    “Damn you, Meeka! you can’t do this.” I yelled at her and the misty smile vanished from her face.

    “I just want to be happy,” she said, making me feel like a jerk.

    Damn love, Damn Meeka and Damn Heth. My thoughts turned black as I thought about the (description) man who was the cause of all this.

    “Yeah, you’ll be real happy when you’re dragged off to prison. We can’t stay here. We can’t stay anywhere, you know that.”

    She didn’t say anything, just stood there looking like her heart was breaking. I couldn’t stand it.

    “Heth’s a liar and a bastard.” I wished he were here so I could – - -

    Now, since you’re showing the anger and the cause, you have room to show complexity and make your char sympathetic. And of course, you can use your char’s name, which helps.

  14. Sharon
    May 01, 2011 @ 13:39:54

    As I was reading through the other comments, I thought that I would not end up commenting this week because others, Jackie Barbosa in particular, had already said everything that I was thinking.

    Then I read SAO’s rewrite. After I read the original draft, I was mildly interested and would have kept reading, but I also could have walked away and easily forgotten this story. Opening with the emotional impact of the direct confrontation between the two sisters, however, left me really wanting more. Suddenly this seemed like a book I would have trouble putting down.

    This sort of emotional involvement is also a key way to get readers engaged with your characters.

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