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First Page: Unpublished Manuscript

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Duncan Sinclair hadn’t come to the Haven for the fires, but they were on his mind as he beached his sea-kat in a small cove just beyond the port. They were on his mind as he breathed in the Mainland smell that rose to greet him from the autumn mulch underfoot. And they were on his mind as he listened to the slow drumbeat coming from a distant fire circle. Soon it overlapped with the rhythm coming from another and another until the music matched his steps and his heartbeat.

Trouble usually began in the Four Arcs amid the crush and slide of bodies dancing the New Moon fires, and Duncan had stayed out of trouble’s way for too damn long. He whistled, and then he whistled at the top of his lungs, and then he laughed out loud, which wasn’t something he’d done much of lately.

What he had done was sail his kat through some rough waters to get here in time for tomorrow’s skirmish. But he wasn’t tired. He was awake.

Taking a familiar route to the Haven, he crossed a pasture where years before he and Greta had practiced battle tactics before taking them to O’Brien for the captain’s approval. The heather snagged his boots, but his feet felt as light as his spirits.

He was ready to offer his services and his arm to the squad again, even if that meant fighting alongside his brother. He jogged past sheep, some wooly, all with black faces. He had played for a similar crowd on the Edge the previous night, with more sheep than people in attendance.

If he’d had his fiddle with him, he would have headed first to the bard’s pavilion to play for a more appreciate audience than sheep, but he wasn’t traveling as a bard this New Moon. His first order of business was to find Conall and tell him the news, but after that he would find Captain O’Brien, and after that, who knew?

Perhaps he’d dance the fires with an old partner and teammate. Or maybe he would find her singing in the pavilion. Either way, he could still taste her skin like honey against his lips.

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. JoanneL
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 09:06:37

    All the sentences and paragraphs are nicely written. They just don’t come together to make the whole thing interesting or intriguing.

    There is nothing here among all the places and people and actions that draw me in and make me want more. I don’t understand what you want your reader to feel or see and I wouldn’t continue reading.

    If the goal is to pull the reader into a story then either I’ve missed the message or you have not done the job. Either could be true since it’s all subjective but for me it didn’t work. There may be other readers that love it.

    I appreciate the effort that it takes to put a first page here for critique from strangers and I’m sorry I couldn’t find more to like. Good luck with your writing and thank you.

  2. The Romantic Scientist
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 09:43:44

    This passage left me a little confused–I assume Duncan has come back to Ireland or Scotland? Is there an element of fantasy here, with the fire circles? I’m guessing this is a historical, given the mention of Duncan acting as a Bard. There are too many unanswered questions, but they don’t have me wanting to read more to find out the answers.

    I agree with the first commenter that you write well, but I’m afraid I’m not engaged enough at this point.

    Thanks for putting your work out here, and good luck to you!

  3. Darlynne
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 10:04:52

    Is Duncan going to play, to dance, to fight, to sing, to sail? I thought perhaps we were on a contemporary Caribbean beach, but then I wondered if, with the reference to bards, we were somewhere medieval (what do I know?). But then mention of an old partner and teammate, of fighting his brother and playing his fiddle told me I don’t have any idea what’s going on here or when the story takes place.

    On the nitpick side: Heather can’t snag boots (assuming they’re leather), unless it has thorns or stickers. Common varieties of heather are suitable for grazing, so, at most, the heather would brush against Duncan’s boots.

    I know how hard criticism can be and how difficult it is to display your work publicly. The most important thing you can do is start again, be certain in your own mind where and when your story takes place and then make it clear to your readers. Keep going. Tell your story.

  4. Patricia
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 10:46:26

    What I get from this passage is that the main character is thinking — thinking about what he has done in the past, what he might do in different circumstances, and what he is planning to do in the future (although I am unclear on what that plan is). However, the only thing he is actually doing, right now in the present, is walking, and walking is not very interesting. His thoughts are all over the place and his actions are trivial. As a result, I am having trouble relating to the character or figuring out what is going on. I would rather see the character fully engaged in the moment, at least at his initial introduction. His ruminations on his past and future can come later, after the reader has gotten to know and care about him a bit more.

    One nitpick: “a more appreciate audience” jarred me. I think “a more appreciative audience” is probably what you meant instead.

  5. job
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 11:38:33

    Lots going on here. Too much, I think. You got

    fires, sea-kat, the port, the Mainland, drumbeat, fire circle, music, Four Arcs, dancing, New Moon, skirmish, battle tactics, the squad, fighting, his brother,on the Edge, his fiddle, bard, Conall, the news, Captain O’Brien, dance the fires, and an old teammate.

    — I suggest you take five or six of these concepts and use them to tell the reader what is actually going on. Be straightforward. Is this a story about the ‘Haven All-Celtic Music Festival’ off the coast of Ireland, or the ‘Haven Interspecies Olympic Games’ in the Star System Gamma-M36, or the ‘Haven Battle for the Oaks’ in an alternate universe of magic?

    When the reader is full of questions about the main character, she wants to turn the page. When she can’t figure out what sort of book it is, this will not so much make her want to read further.

    — Because you do want to Intrigue, entice, and puzzle the reader, maybe pick the two concepts that lead to the central mystery of the story. What is the ‘news’ he’s carrying? Why is he uncertain he will join a ‘team’?

    — Then I’d suggest you leave all the rest of the names and concepts off the first page. Add them later.

  6. Susanna Fraser
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 14:21:23

    I may be swimming against the tide here, but I really like this one and would keep reading. I assumed it was fantasy or possibly science fiction right away from the combination of familiar and unfamiliar elements, and I found the writing evocative. If I didn’t get a clearer picture of when and where we are and where the story might be going in the next few pages, I’d set it aside, but for now I’m curious and intrigued.

  7. Jane Lovering
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 15:25:02

    I agree with the comments – this is well written but unengaging. My real concern is about those sheep ‘some of them woolly’… Surely, all sheep are woolly? It’s rather in the job description…

  8. Gillyweed
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 17:57:54

    I’ll be honest — I know the timing is coincidental but it bothers me a little bit that someone who couldn’t offer anything constructive to last week’s First Page Saturday author is now up for critique (and presumably hoping for more than a one word response). That said, I’ll still try my best to offer a helpful critique.

    Here goes… I agree w/ some of the other posters that you’ve got a lot going on in this first page but not enough conflict to engage the reader. You’ve introduced four characters (possibly five, if Duncan’s brother isn’t one of those you’ve named) and various details about Duncan’s recent past, distant past, and his future plans. Even though they’re not info-dumpy, those details disrupt the pace of the scene — the momentum zig-zags back and forth without urgency or focus. I think you might be contributing to this lack of urgency by leading w/ a paragraph about something (the fires) that’s interesting but admittedly tangental to the character’s motivations.

    In order to connect w/ Duncan, I need to know why his story matters. What’s at stake for him? Why is it important that he go to Haven and not, say, Branson, Missouri? What will happen if he doesn’t find Captain O’Brien or tell Conall his news? Why does he care? Duncan is thinking of getting back into the fighting game after so many years… why? What’s changed in his life? More importantly, how does he feel about it? If Duncan cares deeply about his own fate, the reader will start to care as well.

    You’re a good writer and used some nice imagery, especially in the first paragraph. If you can give the reader more of a sense of what’s at stake and how your hero feels about it, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble keeping people reading. Best of luck to you!

  9. Avery Shy
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 18:50:33

    It’s very well-written. Good sentence structure, syntax, ect, ect. But I’m not engaged. This is one of those “I’m not sold, but I’d read a few more pages before putting it down” kinda things.

    I liked the first bit; he’s going somewhere, he’s excited, something is going to happen. But then you start backtracking. Why? Is backstory important here? Unless something is about to happen directly relating to the information given (ie, unless Duncan’s brother is about to appear, or he’s about to be ambushed by his squad) it doesn’t need to be there.

    I’m betting even if some of that information is important, some of it isn’t. Focus on the now.

    Is he about to see Greta for the first time in years, and dance with her in a suitably romantic fashion? Then delete the stuff about his military past/future and his dislike of his brother, and whatever “news” he has to give Conall. Or are we going to see the scene with Conall and O’Brien? Then delete the stuff about Greta and the bard thing.

    Better yet, don’t have any of it. Open with the first bit about Duncan being excited and visiting this familiar place. Then let the reader watch him do whatever he’s going to do. Incorporate necessary information about the next scene into the next scene, don’t dump it here.

  10. JB Hunt
    Apr 28, 2012 @ 19:34:32

    Thanks, commenters, for the feedback. This is incredibly helpful. I had originally placed this scene in the middle of chapter one (after the other characters mentioned here have been introduced), but I wanted to see how the story would benefit from Duncan’s reverie as an opener.

    I have my answer — it doesn’t work very well. I appreciate the insight, and I’m going to take your advice to heart.

    @Gillyweed — I inadvertently pushed one of your buttons last week. I’m so sorry. My one-word comment was on Thursday, and it was actually for Jane (because the post had come through the feed two days early and the formatting was whacky). I should have clarified the comment, but I seem to have the attention span of a flea these days.

  11. SAO
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 03:44:18

    You’ve already figured out that the reverie doesn’t work. I’d say no sit-and-think or sit-and-think disguised with other action, like beaching a catamaran works as an opener.

    I do want to nitpick about heather. I’ve been to the Yorkshire moors. Heather is a low growing plant that gets woody and when it covers ground, it is extremely hard to walk as the top of the heather is a foot or two off the ground and you can’t see the ground. Between what you can see and the solid ground is a tangle of woody branches, some of which will support a person’s weight, others won’t. There are very few foot-sized holes between the top of the heather and the ground. Walking is basically impossible. For this reason, there are never any grazing animals in heather-covered moors and they aren’t called pastures (ie productive meadow) but moors (meaning wasteland). I’ve never seen heather in a pasture; only in gardens and in moors. You may never have seen old, woody heather. If it’s in a garden, it’s probably grown straggly and been replaced or is young enough not to be woody.

    Also, heather won’t ‘snag’ boots, unless Duncan is following a very narrow path through the heather. But you don’t practice battle techniques in the middle of a heather moor.

    Things that are common in meadows are thistles and stinging nettles. Grass in the meadow near my dacha is elbow high in summer, but there are almost no grazing animals to crop it. In England, sheep keep grass shorn close enough to look mown.

  12. hapax
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 10:23:33

    I think that the author has already figured out that this isn’t quite the right place to *begin* the story, but I do want to pass along kudos for the world-building.

    Far too often I see information in historical and sff fiction dumped in an unrealistic way. After all, I never park my car thinking, “hapax left the 2004 Honda Civic as close to the back door as she could. The vehicle — a personal transport machine, powered by a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine — was the most expensive thing she owned. Her eyes lingered on the scarlet paint job; but despite her love for bright colors, she had actually picked this model because of its reputation for low mileage and dependability.”

    And yet how often do we see characters exiting their space-ships, or recalling their past service under William Wallace, or bringing their dragon in for a landing, in just such a way!

    Sea-kats, New Moons, the Edge, the uneasiness over the brother… you tell me just enough to “get it”, and be intrigued, without making me painfully conscious that what I’m reading is “just a story.”

  13. Gillyweed
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 22:58:49

    @JB Hunt: Thanks for so graciously clarifying about last week — I’m sorry I jumped to a bad conclusion. A couple of the comments rubbed me the wrong way and I ended up venting my fury on you. :)

  14. Loreen
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 23:04:39

    I agree with others that this isn’t the right place for your story to start, but the writing is smooth and I’d be willing to read more. Perhaps you could start with the fire circle?
    Slow down—way down. I have no idea where we are – in what century and even what reality.
    (also, very small comment…it isn’t possible to whistle at the top of your lungs, is it? I am a terrible whistler and no expert, but this seems anatomically impossible to me)

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