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First Page: YA Fantasy

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The agony of sixth period geometry had ended at last, and Frederica Fitzgerald shot out the back gate of her high school to freedom before the bell had even ceased to sound. She adjusted the weight of her backpack and slogged uphill to her house. Quiet prevailed in her neighborhood, with only the swaying rustle of pine trees and the scratch of her sneakers on the sidewalk for background noise.

The promise of a storm loomed in the sky and, with a sigh, Freddy pulled the hood of her sweatshirt up on her head.  Yesterday was gorgeous, she thought. Sunny. Warm. Now we have a sludgy dish drain for a sky. She dug her music player out, tucked her headphones in and cranked the volume.

She'd only taken a few steps before halting. Her nerves prickled, and a strange tension took hold of her. The air itself seemed wrong, too thick, sparking with a strange power that weighed her lungs down as she breathed in.

A black stallion suddenly appeared before her on the road. She gasped as she fell, her nerves jolting, certain he'd flatten her. The horse reared. Freddy's stomach flipped, but his rider, with a firm hand on the reins, brought his mount back under control. The brutish horse glowered at her, but his agitation eased at last.

Freddy gulped in a breath, and her heart stopped trying to batter its way out of her chest.

Where did they come from? Even with her headphones on, she should have heard the horse coming, she should have seen it on the road ahead of her. Had it just materialized with its rider out of thin air?

The rider dismounted. A floppy straw hat screened his face from view, and he kept his back to Freddy. Obviously, he preferred soothing his stallion to checking on the girl he'd almost KILLED.

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

22 Comments

  1. sao
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 04:50:10

    Somehow this didn’t gel for me. I wasn’t feeling like Freddy was reacting to the details you gave.

    She shoots out of her seat and slogs home and muses over the threatening sky, like it’s merely a pity. In fact, it’s about to pour and she’s wearing a sweatshirt that is going to get soaked if she doesn’t get home before the storm breaks. She stops to put her earphones in, implying it’s a longish way home.

    The horse appears before her, she gasps as she falls. I have no sense of where she is. I assumed she was on a sidewalk. Even if she’s in the road, one presumes she’s walking along the side of the road, expecting cars to pass. Presumably the horse would be in the center of the road.

    Her nerves jolt, but I never got a sense of where she was relative to the horse, so it didn’t feel real. She doesn’t scramble up, crawl onto the nearest lawn, etc. She just lies there, watching the rider get his horse under control and dismount.

    She notices that it’s a stallion, but doesn’t notice the rider. When I first read it, I assumed there was no rider.

    Normal people automatically make assumptions about behavior: He was planning to ride her down — in which case she runs away, possibly abandoning her backpack. He was careless — in which case she might yell at him, from a safe distance, etc. She shouldn’t have been walking in the middle of the road with music blaring in her earphones — she takes them out and walks on the sidewalk, etc.

    You have her still lying there and we don’t know if she is hurt. She might have been killed and she’s still lying in the street.

    And what rider wears a floppy straw hat? That’s really odd, but Freddy didn’t notice it until now?

    I don’t see why she fell. Was she scrambling to get out of the horse’s way? Last we heard, she’d halted. Most people don’t fall down when standing still.

    You need to go back and make this work.

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  2. DS
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 04:54:46

    I’m not someone who needs a story to start with a bang, but I think if this one began with the rider appearing it would be more interesting.

    Also the self involved teenager response of why-is-he-trying-to-control-his-horse-he-nearly-killed-me-me-me is cliched.

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  4. TBel
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 07:50:36

    Maybe not quite the right tone for today’s YA? Seemed a little overwritten or formal–and Freddy’s description of the weather seemed unnatural. Think you need to do more showing of the ‘strange tension’ rather than telling. And I agree with the previous commenter who though Freddy’s reaction to the rider was cliched.

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  5. DS
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 08:07:13

    I came back to mention, after some thought. that calling an MP3 player or ipod, Rio, Sandisk, Zune, etc, a “music player”
    felt– odd and stilted. The author might want to listen to some Jr. High and High School students talk among themselves (or at least read a few places on the internet where they congregate).

    ReplyReply

  6. Vanessa Jaye
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 08:54:47

    The first thing that struck me is what TBel has aleady mentioned, the tone of the story doesn’t sound authentic for a modern teen’s voice. The other thing is, I think you need to deepen the POV, which would help make things feel more immediate and flesh out the character.

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  7. Marianne McA
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 08:56:07

    I’m stuck trying to imagine what a glowering horse looks like…

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  8. Gwynnyd
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 09:01:18

    The writing here is competent, but I agree that this needs a bit more connection to the surroundings and Freddy needs to be more of a person. You, obviously, can picture the scene very clearly in your head, but you aren’t giving the readers enough information so they can visualize it.

    I’ve never yet seen a school let out that wasn’t awash with screaming, talking, milling kids, but she is alone far too quickly. No one else in her school goes out the back gate or walks/bikes/drives the same road home as she does?

    What is “a strange tension”? What exactly is “strange” about it? If you don’t define it, I will automatically assume it is a cliche and think of something wildly inappropriate. Her left elbow must feel connected to her left ankle as she walks and she can’t swing her arms! That’s strange enough to be why she stops, or does the “strangeness” manifest in some other way? Be specific. Let me feel her change as the weirdness builds, rather than just she’s walking, she’s standing, she falls.

    And if the air is weighing down her lungs, shouldn’t she struggle to expand her lungs or do something other than just keep normally breathing in?

    She does not react at all to this strangeness, it just is.

    I’m also trying to figure out how she can tell the horse is a stallion at first glance. What position is the horse in that she can see that it is indeed a male and not only that, not gelded? Side on? What does it say about her that the very first thing she notices about this apparition is the horse’s gender and the state of the balls and nothing about the floppy-hatted rider? Does the horse materialize so close that she can’t see the rider clearly? If that’s the case, tell us! That’s not just “before her on the road” , which implies distance. And a stallion? Seriously?

    If the horse is facing her, there is no way to tell it’s a stallion, until it rears up. And, if a horse is rearing and flailing its hooves inches from your nose, checking underneath to see if it’s gelded is not high on the priority list. Is he erect and waving it at her? In which case, just saying “A black stallion” seems understated in the extreme. And if its not facing her right in front of her nose, how threatening is it, even rearing? Was it standing still when it appeared? Running towards her? Moving across her line of vision?

    And about that fall: was she knocked down or did she trip or just take a dive or start to faint? Just falling down for no given reason is an odd response to being faced by a “brutish” horse and it makes her TSTL to boot. “I am suddenly being faced by a brutish stallion. Shall I dodge behind one of the many pine trees on this road or run to the nearest house and get on the porch or behind a gate where it cannot easily follow? No, I know! I will fall down so it can trample me more conveniently!”

    Other than the fact that she was named, you have not given me any reason to care about Freddy or what becomes of her. She’s a complete nonentity. No clue as to why she runs out of school. No clue as to why she’s friendless and does not seem to care. No clue as to why it matters that today’s weather is worse than yesterday’s.

    A person in a floppy straw hat riding on a teleporting brutish stallion, on the other hand, sounds pretty interesting. Maybe you are in the wrong POV?

    ReplyReply

  9. John
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 09:36:07

    Hmm…

    The writing is fair. I’ll give it that. But it lacks the…the energy that you expect of a teen book. You are dealing with a teenager, and teenagers are a lot more self-centered. Your protagonist should be thinking more about herself, too. You want to make the scene seem normal UNTIL the horseman, ergo you should try and write it as such. Have her stop and talk to friends…text someone…as eager as people are to get out of school, they usually have a social life of some sort that hinders there progress a little bit.

    Writing to teens, you also want to make it sound believable. You may want to prevent your novel from being dated, but if you’re aiming for the modern YA market where your book is going to be in the limelight for only so long, then you are better off saying an iPod or something. Plus, you want your narrative to fit your character. You wouldn’t write an extremely literary and intelligent, scholarly novel for a jock who only wants to pick up girls. While that’s an exaggeration, your narrative sounds a lot more adult than your character is, and as she seems to feed off of your narrative style, that is a bit of a problem. You can make a teenager adult, but here it seems more unnatural than character appropriate.

    As for picky things:

    How can a stallion just appear in the middle of the road? Why would she be walking in the middle of the road to begin with? People have cars in high school. Cars make pancakes out of slight girls.

    This is something I *personally* don’t like seeing…but I really don’t like her name. Sometimes a same letter first and last name works (I should know, I have one) and sometimes it sounds like a farce. This is one of those times. And why not just start off by calling her Freddy, or have a classmate use her nickname before the narration addresses it. When it introduces her as Frederica and then just uses Freddy…it sounds bad.

    And avoid caps-locking things. It takes a lot for me to not be annoyed by a caps-locked word in a book. It is not the internet, and an exclamation point has the same affect without looking obnoxious.

    I am interested in where the plot is going, and keep working on the manuscript…but there is a lot here that could be ironed out.

    ReplyReply

  10. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 11:41:26

    This reads like a first draft. The scene is sketched out, but there’s no depth, nothing there to seize the imagination of the reader. There’s a good skeleton here, but it needs a bit more detail.
    And why would he ride a stallion? Showing off, much? He obviously wants to soothe it first, because otherwise an agitated stallion will try to hurt both of them.

    ReplyReply

  11. Ros
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 14:14:48

    @Marianne McA: All horses glower, in my experience. Especially when you’re trying to make them do something they don’t want to.

    But I totally agree with everyone else about the writing and especially with John about the capslocking in this page. Sorry.

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  12. Marianne McA
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 15:06:53

    @Ros. Failure of my imagination, then – not a failure of the writing. And, to be fair, if I don’t object to Black Beauty narrating a book, it’s hardly fair to quibble at a fictional horse that’s merely a bit moody.

    (I would never try to make a horse do anything it didn’t want to: horses are large and v. scary. I spent a very long hour on a pony trek once, only because I was totally unable to work out how one got off the damn thing.)

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  13. orangehands
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 17:15:12

    I agree with what’s been said so far.

    One way to take care of the music player is to just not mention what kind it is; when people see “headphones” or “earbuds” they assume it’s hooked into an MP3, ipod, etc.

    I like the “dish drain for a sky” line but it seems like it should be in the narrative rather than something she’s thinking about. Though I’m not sure why she’s thinking of the weather, period, since she’s already been out and about during the day for at least seven hours in school.

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  14. tsukishine
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 17:28:46

    In all it just didn’t work for me–it felt too much like the initial stages of something, rather than the finished product, as someone earlier said. In fact, in the first page alone, it kind of mirrors the situation–horse appearing out of nowhere as the unsuspecting protagonist is heading to her destination, rider that is unnoticed until he dismounts, rider that soothes his horse before even checking on the protagonist–of a YA I read not that long ago. As someone pointed out above, it seems to be a cliche, in which case, there’s nothing wrong with keeping the basic idea, but change it. Make it your own! It’s a great situation to reveal potential aspects of your character. Is she fiery tempered? Have her temper flair at the rider. Even if she’s mild-mannered, there’s ways you can show this while building this scene that would keep it from trending into old familiar territory. Own the scene, rather than letting it become formulaic.

    The language of the piece kind of added to the problem. In the first sentence alone I ran into trouble–first because the notion that the school day ends at six periods, instead of four, or seven or eight (as with all the high schools in my experience) jarred me, but since the setting isn’t plainly stated I could chalk this up to being a different country, different time, etc.

    However, the thought that your protagonist could conceivably make it out of the school before the bell had finished ringing seemed far-fetched for me (it’s a small quibble, and odd, because I’ll suspend my disbelief for bigger things, but small things like that seem to be asking too much of me…). Regardless of that, the first sentence has this energy: she bolts out of school! She’s so eager to get out of there! Yet in the rest of the paragraph the tone is abruptly less energetic, and suddenly the protagonist is slogging up a hill. I think maybe you’re trying to show that strange tension you mention later–if it’s hard to breathe and she’s going uphill then she’d hardly keep bolting. However, the quick change, with no real transition, is disconcerting.

    There’s promise, but it definitely needs polishing.

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  15. valerie
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 20:08:02

    “The language of the piece kind of added to the problem. In the first sentence alone I ran into trouble-first because the notion that the school day ends at six periods, instead of four, or seven or eight (as with all the high schools in my experience) jarred me, but since the setting isn't plainly stated I could chalk this up to being a different country, different time, etc.”

    That’s funny. Both the middle school and the high school I attended ended at 6 periods, with optional 0 period (at the ass crack of dawn) and 7th period (mostly sports and college prep courses). This was in Southern California. That kind of thing varies wildly from district to district.

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  16. Beppa
    Jun 12, 2010 @ 21:16:41

    @tsukishine: “that the school day ends at six periods, instead of four, or seven or eight (as with all the high schools in my experience”

    My high school had six periods. :)

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  17. tsukishine
    Jun 13, 2010 @ 02:31:41

    @valerie, Beppa: Oh, good to know! I attended two high schools, one in South Korea and another in NC, and my siblings have gone to high school in AZ, GA, and HI, so we’ve had fairly varied school experiences, but clearly not as varied as I had thought, heh.

    Learn something new every day. :)

    ReplyReply

  18. theo
    Jun 13, 2010 @ 07:58:26

    This read like a…to do list to me.

    Shoot out of school
    Adjust backpack
    Slog uphill home (both ways?)
    Scratching sneakers (sneakers squeak on highly polished floors, they make a sucking sound in the muck, they scuff in the gravel and sand, but I can’t recall hearing them ‘scratch’)
    Insert weather report
    Insert character’s telegraphing of something paranormal/fantasy related coming
    Make assumption on gender of horse (I would think it’s an assumption anyway)
    Don’t notice anything about the rider, even though he was most likely facing Hn (I’m guessing FF is your Hn anyway)
    Rider dismounts all the while keeping his back to the Hn
    Check rider’s floppy straw hat

    All of those things can be interesting and drive the story forward, but the way you’ve presented them here gives them no life. No energy. No reason for me to care what comes next and when you’re writing YA, regardless of sub-genre, you need to entice your reader with almost every word. Teens have so much stimulus in their lives, you want to pull them away from all of that and into your story and this, I’m afraid, isn’t ready to do that.

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  19. Jo Ramsey
    Jun 13, 2010 @ 08:38:52

    On the subject of high school schedules: A lot of schools have moved to “block” schedules, usually 4 periods a day of 70-80 minutes each. Some still do 7 or even 8 shorter periods. (Had to look all that up for my YA series, because my publisher had never heard of block schedules.) Here in the district I live in, in Massachusetts, my middle schooler has 6 periods a day, and my high schooler has 5. So it really does depend on the district.

    As for this piece: Some really awkward phrasing threw me out of reading, such as “She’d only taken a few steps before halting.” I can’t quite put my finger on why that sentence doesn’t sound right to me… some verb tensy thing, I think.

    As others have said, there are other issues with this. I’ve worked in half a dozen high schools, plus attending one. In my experience, it is not physically possible to be out the door of the school before the bell stops ringing. Maybe if she jumped out the classroom window. Otherwise, she’d be fighting her way through the throng of all the other students who are also trying to get the heck out of there for the day. Freddy’s musing about the weather doesn’t seem very teenish (I have a 14-year-old; all she cares about weather-wise is whether it means Mom’s giving her a ride to school.) I think you jump from her leaving school to being in her neighborhood, which might explain why it’s suddenly so quiet, but the transition isn’t clear.

    I don’t have a problem with the horse suddenly being in front of her, because I took that to indicate that the horse did, in fact, materialize or teleport. However, as others said, it sounded to me at first as though the horse was alone; the rider should be mentioned earlier.

    And please, please take out the full caps at the end. If you really feel the need for emphasis, italics are your friend.

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  20. Anon76
    Jun 13, 2010 @ 11:41:01

    Imho, if the author would pay attention to situations like this, he/she could tighten the writing considerably.

    “The rider dismounted. A floppy straw hat screened his face from view, and he kept his back to Freddy. Obviously, he preferred soothing his stallion to checking on the girl he'd almost KILLED.”

    If the rider’s back is to Freddy, then how would she know the floppy hat “screened his face from view”?

    In what manner did he “soothe” the stallion? Whispered words? Strokes? Did he have his hand on the halter (sorry if that is the wrong word, not my story, LOL) to keep the beast in place as he soothed?

    Basically, what I am saying is that this doesn’t seem deep enough.

    While the author can clearly see the scene unfolding, the writing is leaving the reader in the dark. Motion and positioning is a difficult thing to master, and this page has problems in that area, as others have pointed out.

    My humble two cents.

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  21. Brandi
    Jun 13, 2010 @ 12:56:53

    I didn’t have an issue with the assumption that the horse was male. Most people assign a gender to a critter before they know whether it’s male or female. How familiar the pov character is with horses can limit or expand the author’s ability to describe the animal more accurately, but it isn’t uncommon, in my experience, for people to think that stallion is just another word for horse, colt means any baby horse, and just stare at you blankly when you try to explain what a gelding is.

    The story didn’t work for me, for most of the reasons already mentioned, I just wanted to throw in that the use of stallion isn’t going to make everyone assume she’s checking out Black Beauty’s junk.

    If the protag knows anything about horses though, I would have her assign a breed to the horse, rather than a gender.

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  22. Adobedragon
    Jun 13, 2010 @ 18:14:15

    “A black stallion suddenly appeared before her on the road. She gasped as she fell, her nerves jolting, certain he'd flatten her.”

    First thing that came to mind when reading this was, “Why’d she fall?” My reaction throughout the whole equine encounter was pretty much, “Huh?” It feels like, in the interest of making the scene move fast, the narrative was stripped of detail and now feels rushed.

    As for horsey gender. While I understand why someone might assign “male” as a default gender, the use of the word “stallion” felt like the writer doesn’t know much about horses.

    The whole rearing stallion schtick is really cliche. (In my experience horses, including stallions, are more likely to buck or bolt sideways than rear.) The text suggests that the writer grabbed for the first dramatic imagery/noun that came to mind when thinking of horses.

    But I’m a horse person and a stickler for accuracy when it comes to things equine. A non-horsey person may have a very different assessment.

    ReplyReply

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