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First Page: Wizard in Hiding

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The girl stood by the front windows of the shop, shivering, arms wrapped protectively about her. She was staring hard at something, her eyes jittery and desperate. It was summer, and the building was not air conditioned, so she couldn’t have been cold. I hadn’t seen her enter, but I knew her on sight. She was a regular—Lori or Tori—a good kid. She was maybe sixteen, and though she went to school and had a nice family and all, lately she’d gotten this wild, disheveled look to her: drugs or teenage rebellion…maybe both. She hadn’t seemed the type, though, and she looked far too healthy for it to be drugs.

She’d been coming in for about two years, her tastes changing from a mild X-Men fixation to a darker, apocalyptic vibe. Constantine was one of her favorites.

I had been doing my pre-closing clean up: counting the register, adding up the day’s receipts, making sure the special orders were correctly filled out on the store’s antiquated computer system. I’d just popped the deposit in the safe for the morning when I noticed her standing pensively by the Fantastic Four rack. Well, it’s not so much a rack as a lidless cardboard box crammed full of musty old comic books, sandwiched between even more lidless boxes full of the same, all stacked on old wooden and metal folding tables for as far as the eye can see.

The fact she was in front of that rack should have told me something was terribly wrong.
My name is Gabe Heller—at least it has been for a while now—and I’m a wizard. Well, time was. I was powerful, brave and cunning. I made some enemies, saved distressed damsels, slew a dragon and even helped save the world once. But that was another lifetime ago.

Suffice it to say I lost my powers, and after that I slipped out of my old life and under the radar of just about all my enemies…and my allies. I’ve been in hiding for fifty years. That might seem like a long time, but not when your life expectancy is three to four hundred years—more if you have the will and the power to keep it. Officially I’m eighty-seven years old, but I look somewhat younger. When I’m well rested I get carded when I buy cigarettes. No, they’re not for me, believe me. I quit the day they raised the prices to a buck. But when I don’t shave and fail to get enough sleep, I can pass for thirty.

How did I lose my powers? Remember I said I helped save the world once? Well, losing my powers was the price for that selfless act.

Technically I got between a big bad demon and the hurricane sized necro-spell he and a handful of other baddies were just about to unleash on mankind. I was sneaky and royally screwed up their spell, killing most of the spell slingers. But the demon was sneakier than me, and before I knew what was happening it psychically and physically mauled me, ripping huge chunks of my guts and soul—and thus my power—out of me with his teeth…and his claws, and this hooked tail thingy. God it was awful. I’d hoped I would just die, but I lived, mystically hobbled and left without a prayer of protecting myself.

The physical scars took a couple decades to fade—on occasion I can still feel them—and I’m pretty sure my soul healed, but my powers never returned.

So here I am, fifty years later, working at a comic book store in Pittsburgh. Three stories of graphic novels, classic and new comic books, action figures, Sci-Fi models, pseudo mystical materials, and a ten foot tall replica of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park—all nestled at the end of Penn Avenue.

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

23 Comments

  1. SAO
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 05:39:20

    This sounds like an interesting story, but this is basically all backstory. You introduce the girl and then forget her and there’s no interaction.

    I think you should start the story and feed us backstory as we go. For example, “. . . her eyes jittery and desperate, like mine had been right after I was hit with the necro-spell and lost all my powers. But that was long ago. I’m no longer a wizard, but I know when someone needs help/stay out of trouble and so I ignored the girl/walked over and said . . .”

    The comic books can help, because Gabe can say something like, “Constantine, which depicted a laughably wrong view of the cosmos/actually got the Demon pretty close to right”

  2. DS
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 07:08:45

    I was mildly interested down to paragraph four then my mind snapped to the first book in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series (Hounded) and I spent the rest of the page comparing the two setups. I’m not sure what the answer is but I do know that I rarely keep reading books where I spend the first chapter thinking about another book.

  3. Nicci August
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 08:30:18

    I started skimming at paragraph three and skimming never good. I’m interested in the premise, but so far it seems to be all back story and description. I agree with SAO that you introduced the girl, then abandoned her.

    I’d suggest moving more quickly into the story itself and giving us the back story a little deeper into the story.

  4. Jane Davitt
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 08:44:24

    I liked the start a lot and wanted to read more, but then I was left feeling breathless as the backstory avalanche hit. You don’t need to give the reader everything in one whoosh; spin it out, reveal bits here and there, tease and tantalize.

    And, yes, I also got a strong feeling of similarity to the Hearne books which isn’t good.

  5. Jacques
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 09:02:46

    I’m not familiar with Hearne’s books, so I didn’t notice that echo. But the other’s are clearly right, too much backstory.

    In a sense your wizard is a raconteur, so I suppose you could have him do more telling than is usually advisable. But then his way of speaking better be really engaging. I’m not sure his is. Is his the wizened voice of an old geezer, or the impish voice of a young rascal?

    In the account of his battle with the demon he seems young (“thingy”). But elsewhere he sounds old. I suppose that ambiguity could be fun if handled well, as in Howl’s Moving Castle.

    He’s young for a wizard. But he’s old, and hobbled. Old people like to live in the past more than the present. Young people throw themselves into the moment. That puzzle might be enough to get me to read on. But if it’s not handled well, you’d lose me pretty quickly. So far he’s just an old storyteller, with an occasional youthful speech tic.

  6. Marianne McA
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 09:06:30

    I agree that there’s too much backstory: I didn’t feel I needed to know more than the bare fact that he’d lost his powers, unless the demon is going to reappear in the next couple of pages.
    Also, I’d a minor technical hiccup about the girl’s position .’By the front windows’ put her outside of the shop initially, then as I read on I had to reposition her inside the shop but had her looking out of the front window in some kind of state of shock, and then I had to mentally twist her round to look thoughfully at comic books. On rereading, I’m imagining that she was looking thoughtfully at the comic books first, and then gets distraught afterwards: but I’m not entirely sure. I wonder – and I’m not a writer, so what do I know – if it might be worth using a more precise term than ‘by’ so the reader gets a clear idea of where she is.

    But taking it as a whole, I’d be interested in reading on – I want to know what happens next.

  7. Violetta Vane
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 09:41:29

    As others commented, there’s a backstory overload. And I tripped at Constantine. I would expect Hellblazer, and seeing “Constantine” instead vaguely irritated me… and other people who like the comic but hated the movie might have the same reaction.

    I did like several of the details before the backstory began. The sense of place was nice and strong.

  8. wikkidsexycool
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 10:32:32

    I really enjoyed this, even with the backstory dump (I tend to also do this, and I’m working on starting with more show and less tell). I wanted to know more about him and less about her. But really, I have a feeling that this isn’t the start of the story. It was good, but man I’d really like to read about his battle to save mankind! I love that he’s working in a comic book shop. I still buy them, and have co-created my own online. I agree with what others have stated also.

    Here’s the thing, I’d buy this in a heartbeat. But as I read on it puts me in mind of a sequel, as if he’s telling the reader what happened in a previous novel. I apologize if I’m way off base with that. And I’m thinking the name of the story isn’t finalized yet. But I really like your protag. He could be larger than life, just like your novel if you go big with the show and less tell.

  9. Bren
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 10:37:32

    I agree with the others above that the backstory/infodump was too much. Now it does sound like you have an interesting set up, both with your narrator and the young lady he notices, but we really don’t need to know all of that information on the first page. Might I suggest a conversation with the young lady? Some of this can come out then. Hook your reader in with a bit of sparkling dialogue.

    Also, watch your descriptions. They are good but they need to be strategically placed. Usually the first page is no place for setting description, so save it for later.

  10. Arwen
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 10:54:20

    I liked it. It made me think of the movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I wanted to know why the X-Men box was bad. I wanted to know more. Yes, there was a lot of backstory that could come out later. I liked the narrator and hoped he was going to be the mentor and not some weird “i like little girls” creep.

  11. evie
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 10:57:11

    Hey author! Good on you for submitting. I liked the premise and voice and would be willing to keep reading a bit more, if you promised not to drown me in back story.

    A few things which occurred to me:

    –The first three sentences are sort of…plodding. Passive. They are super-important in terms of first impressions. Some people won’t read any further than that. They need to be better constructed. Not flashy, just tight. I think you could say all that in less words, e.g.: “The girl stood looking out the shop windows, shivering, though the building was not air conditioned.”

    –Like Marianne, I also had to mentally shift the girl from outside to inside.

    –To address this back story problem, I’d cut it off his reminiscences at “buck.” At the very latest. (I like, by the way, how you use carding to indicate appearance, and the price of cigs to hint at how long he’s been around.) At that point you really, really need to get back to the girl. I like how the wizard reveal comes about so casually, it just needs to be kept brief. Brief is intriguing. Brief makes people want to read more. Think of the details of his life as a trail of bread crumbs that lead the reader through the book.

    – As others have said, do pay close attention to his use of language.

  12. hapax
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 10:57:15

    Hate to pile on, so I’ll start with saying I *loved*loved*loved* the opening description of the comic shop; I know that store, I’ve spent too much time and money there.

    But it also dates your story a bit; stores like this are fast disappearing, unable to keep alive in the face of internet competition, the manga bust, and the aging of their core clientele.

    The protag’s backstory is interesting, but too much all at once. Like others, I started skimming, which is never a good sign.

    And — I wouldn’t have thought this, except that this IS a romance website — is there going to be a romance between the narrator and the girl? Because eighty-seven / sixteen definitely hits my “skeevy” buttons.

  13. Heather
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 14:36:25

    UF is my favorite thing to read, I don’t know if I’d read any further. Like DS my brain went to Hounded by Hearne. For me it was too soon for the MC to be so heavy on the self-congrationulation. A bunch of bragging about how great he used to be. Don’t care, turns me off of the MC .

    A personal nit is that he doesn’t know the girl’s name for sure. Yet he knows that she goes to school and has a good family. She’s a regular and has been coming for about two years. I would expect him to know her name, not Lori or Tori. I work in retail and that’s just not something that rings true for me, sorry.

    Good luck, I think that if you get rid of some of the backstory on Gabe he’ll be more likeable.

    Heather

  14. Anne
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 14:37:11

    I was interested for the first 3 paragraphs and liked it well enough, then you lost me. I’m really done with wizards of that sort, sorry.

  15. Meljean
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 15:37:37

    I like it. I do agree that the backstory could be moved a page or two so that you don’t interrupt the flow of the action, from seeing the girl –> whatever happens next and (I’m guessing) the protagonist goes to talk to her. You probably wouldn’t want to push the history too far back, but it might fit better as a reaction to the girl seeing him (especially because the explanation of ‘how he looks’ would fit more organically there.)

    But either way, I’d read more! And now I’m kind of dying to know why the Fantastic Four rack is a “oh no” moment. I’ve always feared it would be X-Force, and staring too long at Rob Leifeld’s pencils — either your feet would disappear or all of those pouches would explode.

  16. Infiniteworlds
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 21:23:08

    “Because eighty-seven / sixteen definitely hits my “skeevy” buttons.

    Why? It worked for twilight. :P

  17. Anne
    Aug 04, 2012 @ 23:50:33

    @Infiniteworlds:

    Thanks! I wondered about that myself.

  18. hapax
    Aug 05, 2012 @ 12:26:23

    @Infiniteworlds:

    It skeeved me out in TWILIGHT too. And don’t even start me on DRAGON BOUND or LORD OF THE FADING LANDS or …

    I guess I’m just not the right audience for paranormal romance.

  19. Wizard in Hiding Author
    Aug 05, 2012 @ 19:26:18

    This has been great! I’m so glad I submitted here. Your critiques (most of them unanimous) have been an eye opener. Thank you! I hadn’t realized I’d written such a huge info dump.

    I stayed up all night rewriting the scene, putting your advice to good use.

    Here are the results.

    Wizard in Hiding

    The girl stood by the front windows of the shop, staring out at a desolate, rain slicked night on Penn Avenue. She was shivering, arms wrapped protectively about her, even though it was August and the building wasn’t air conditioned. I hadn’t seen her enter, but I knew her on sight. She was a regular—Ivy—a good kid. I hadn’t seen her in a while and she’d changed. Gone were the pristine Sketchers and preppy private school uniform. She was maybe sixteen, and though she hadn’t grown taller, she looked leaner…and meaner. Her hair was cut short and ragged, and she wore a tattered t-shirt and black sweats over filthy old sneakers.

    Drugs or teenage rebellion…maybe both? She just hadn’t seemed the type.
    She’d been coming in for over two years, her tastes changing from a mild X-Men fixation to a darker, apocalyptic vibe. Hellblazer was one of her favorites.

    I had been doing my pre-closing clean up: counting the register, adding up the day’s receipts, and making sure the special orders were correctly filled out on the store’s antiquated computer system. I’d just popped the deposit in the safe for the morning when I noticed her standing pensively by the Archie rack. Well, it’s not so much a rack as a lidless cardboard box crammed full of musty old comic books, sandwiched between even more lidless boxes full of the same, all stacked on old wooden and metal folding tables for as far as the eye can see.

    The fact she was in front of that rack should have told me something was terribly wrong.
    My name is Gabe Heller—at least it has been for a while now—and I’m a powerless former wizard. For three years now I’ve worked at Lux Comics in Pittsburgh. Three stories of graphic novels, classic and new comic books, action figures, Sci-Fi models, pseudo mystical materials, and a ten foot tall replica of the T-Rex from Jurassic Park—all nestled at the end of Penn Avenue.

    I’ve been in hiding for fifty years. That might seem like a long time, but not when your life expectancy is three to four hundred years. Officially I’m eighty-seven years old, but when I’m well rested I get carded when I buy cigarettes. No, they’re not for me, believe me. I quit the day they raised the prices to a buck. But when I don’t shave and fail to get enough sleep, I can pass for thirty.

    I was about to walk over and ask the girl if she needed help. Help, as in Can I call your parents for you? But some fool started yelling from the store’s entrance.

    “Hey Heller! I freaking asked you if you were good to go? Marly and me are taking off!”

    I turned and felt my insides melt. I’d told my fellow co-workers they could go home. Kyle: a pimply teenager with blue hair and five rings in various parts of his face. And Marly: a twenty-two year-old stunner that makes me feel things…things an eighty-seven year-old should never, ever feel. With her mahogany hair and her eyes the green of lilies before they bloom, she was just gorgeous. And though she deigned to work in our grubby little comics store while she attended Carnegie Mellon, she’s remarkably smart and talented…and probably many, many things I don’t deserve.

    She’d move on soon enough.

    She’d already policed the store, gathering up scattered items that customers had moved and shoved into the wrong places, and I saw the not so little pile of it on the far counter.

    I looked back to the two and waved good bye. Kyle turned to go with a grunt and held the door open for Marly—not so much out of a sense of chivalry than his way of trying to assert his claim. Marly was too sweet and kind to ever tell the little jerk he hadn’t a chance in hell with her. That was another reason I liked her so much. You don’t see that kind of courteousness in the youth of America these days.

    Marly smiled at me, and flicked her eyes from me to the girl standing by the windows. I shrugged and nodded, showing her I knew the kid was there.

    I watched as Marly shook her head, turned and walked out the front door, Kyle following on her heals like a blue haired puppy begging for attention. She was wearing a green and yellow cotton sundress under a faded denim jacket. The dress came up a little over her knees, and the expanse of leg she showed as she moved away was lovely.

    I stood there and fell into a momentary reverie, replaying part of a dream I’d had about Marly and me under a very warm waterfall…

    I’m eighty-seven, not dead!

    So I was pretty startled when I turned back to where Ivy had been standing to find a vampire stalking toward the wide eyed girl as she stood with her back against the far wall of the room, shaking.

    I knew the thing was a vampire, not because I could feel his nasty preternatural energy—‘cause I don’t have the power it takes to light a candle anymore—but because he was a walking, rotting corpse with deep, blood red eyes, and gross yellow fangs. He was around six feet tall, had some mangy black hair matted atop his head, and was no doubt wearing what was left of the outfit he’d donned the night he’d died.

    Necro Immortalis vampires didn’t care much about fashion or hygiene. Of course when you’re rotting for the rest of eternity, I guess your priorities change.

    I had no time to think up something brilliant, and no magicks to use against the creature—times like this I so missed being a wizard! So I looked desperately around me and found something useful lying open in a mostly empty box of pizza—a large pepperoni extra cheese pie my coworkers and I had chipped in on for dinner. I may not have had any powers anymore, but I still knew a thing or two about the spooky side of the street.
    Rotting corpse vampires were tough and hard as hell to kill, but they were pretty much exactly what Bram Stoker wrote about in Dracula…except a lot yuckier.

    I strode quickly from behind the counter, grabbed the pizza box with one hand, and snatched the half empty plastic container of garlic butter in the fingers of the other.
    I plastered a big fake smile on my face and called “Hey kid!”

    Girl and vampire both turned startled glances my way. I gulped and kept my eyes away from the vampire’s. Even the rotting corpses of the mystical world can do all kinds of nasty things to your mind if they make eye contact with you.

    “If you and your friend here are hungry, we ordered pizza earlier.”

    The girl looked at me like I was crazy. The vampire was about to turn toward me, probably to backhand me hard enough to snap my neck, or maybe use some of those nifty vampire mind control powers on me. But just then I purposefully tripped on a wrinkle in the ancient, cheap brown carpeting that had tripped me many times in the past, and flung the clotted garlic butter in the vampire’s face.

    The monster grabbed immediately for the eye I’d hit dead on, and cried out in an inhuman, raspy scream. Smoke started billowing from the burning wound the garlic butter had caused. The vampire wheeled around, screeched, flailed in agony, and darted for the door.
    Heart pounding in my chest, I set the half empty box of cold pizza down on top of a crate to indecipherable Manga and panted with relief. I hadn’t seen a vamp in…well—that one I was going to have to think about—and I was pretty happy to have survived it unscathed. Hell, I’d sent the rotting monster running and screaming into the night.

    Good on me!

    I gulped some air and wiped some sweat from my brow with my forearm.

    “I think you should call your parents to come pick you up,” I said and turned around to look at Ivy…

    But Ivy’s eyes were wolf amber, and the muscles all over her leaned out body had popped out, coiled with tension. I gasped and tasted the forest on the back of my tongue. From the color of her eyes, and the way she was shaking, she was dangerously close to shifting into her beast.

    “I don’t need you sticking your nose into my fights…” Ivy said, her voice low, the roll of a growl flowing under every word.

    In less than five seconds I’d gone from staving off a vampire attack to getting threatened by the supposed victim I’d saved…a freaking werewolf, no less…

    How the hell did I get myself into this kind of fix?

  20. Anne
    Aug 05, 2012 @ 23:32:37

    @hapax:

    Here 16 is legal, it has nothing to do with paranormal in my case. More with ‘perfectly legal’ and ‘different strokes for different folks.’

  21. Twila Price
    Aug 06, 2012 @ 12:24:47

    @Wizard in Hiding Author

    Your rewrite definitely gave the scene more immediacy and punch, though I think it was probably closer to two or three pages than one. :-) I liked getting more characters and seeing more about the girl and her problem.

    I did have one small thing to say — if you wanted to use “Constantine” instead of the name of the comic, you could say that she’d moved from a “Gambit” or “Wolverine” fixation to one on “Constantine”. I know I used to enjoy Gambit-centric stories when I was an X-Men reader. Oh, and there are still lots of those kinds of comic book stores in my neck of the woods, so it’s not too much of a retro vibe for me.

  22. Wizard in Hiding Author
    Aug 06, 2012 @ 19:02:50

    @Twila Price:

    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it better. And the comic book store in question is still running strong. And though many keep commenting about the girl’s age, she is not a romantic possibility. She is an innocent he has to save to get this part of his life started.

    Again, thank you for the critique.

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