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Saturday First Page: Fantasy historical

Percy Wilkes grimly clamped a cheroot between his teeth as he waited for the alpha to acknowledge him.   An affectation, merely.   The wolves were averse to cigarette smoke and other unnatural scents.   Natural scents were bombardment enough.
"Do you smoke, solitary?" the alpha asked mildly, his pale brows lifted inquisitively.   "Shall I procure a light for you?"
Percy grimaced slightly around the cheroot and plucked it from his mouth.   He rolled it idly between his fingers.   "No, that will not be necessary, alpha," he answered.   "Force of habit," he explained with a close-mouthed smile.   "I find it soothing to the nerves."
"I do not approve of this modern fashion of adulterating the senses," the alpha began.   The alpha's mate lowered her head with an enigmatic smile.   "Human vices abound among the younger set; they have turned from the old ways.   We live in a scandalous, crass age, solitary."
"I admit that I am but a product of the era, alpha," Percy said with an elegant shrug.   "Perhaps it would be different, had I been raised in the territories.   But alas, I am accustomed to human privileges."
He swept his gaze along the floor before the alpha.   No challenge offered.
"Will you partake of the privileges of my territory, then, stripling?"   A steely note in the alpha's voice warned that he merely cultivated the façade of the obstreperous elder.
"I ask only to roam freely, and hunt when the moon comes upon us."
"Not many solitaries come so far west."
"I simply travel with my sister, an agent with the Bureau of Preternatural Affairs.   She is not one of us; I act as her tooth and claw."   To the wolves, a woman would need someone to serve as her keeper.
The alpha's amber eyes gleamed briefly with interest.   "Does your investigation pertain to the wolves?"
"We believe not, alpha.   Treaty matters with the fey only.   Your pack is very-distinct in its boundaries."
"But we are all entangled, solitary," the alpha said with relish.   "The bjorn of this territory is my ally."
A warning that this alpha would not be bound by any measure of neutrality, should Magdalena's investigation get out of hand.
It wasn't always so.   Wolves did not often choose to enmesh themselves in the affairs of the fey.   The three preternatural races were held in balance in many territories, a triangle whose center point shifted only occasionally.   And in the middle, humans, penned in.   In the natural order of the Old World their breeding would not have been allowed to run rampant.
But in the New World, with wide swaths of territory to be taken in hand, humans could be more useful.   One must be a master of something, after all.

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

21 Comments

  1. Tia Nevitt
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 06:29:48

    I”m a longtime lurker emerging to comment, so please be gentle! I will be gentle as well.

    I jumped in here because this is a fantasy historical, one of my favorite genres. I’m writing this as I read it.

    The first thing that hit me here is the adverbs. He grimly clamped. He asked mildly and lifted his brow inquisitively. The verbs you are using here are perfectly good; they don’t need the adverbs at all. When you edit, do a pass for adverbs and try to eliminate all but those you think you truly need. You will find that most of them can go.

    “Waited for the alpha” – I’m fairly sure that “alpha” as it pertains to wolf packs is a modern term. Check it to be sure. Also, you refer to “cigarette smoke” that describes the smell coming from a “cheroot”. This feels inaccurate to me.

    The next few paragraphs went by quickly. On a second read, I’m seeing too many dialog tags like “he began” and “said with relish”. Try to keep dialog tags to a minimum and just let the reader hear the conversation.

    “In the natural order of the Old World their breeding would not have been allowed to run rampant.” Does the “their” here refer to the humans?

    All in all, it intrigued me. I do need a better sense of time and place. I was thinking turn-of-the-century America until I encountered the word “bjorn”, which immediately took me across the world to Norway (or Sweden?). Also would it be “the bjorn of … are my ally”?

    Nice job!

    (There was not the usual intro here about this piece being up for comment, so I hope my crit is welcome!)

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  2. anonymous
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 07:55:20

    I agree with the previous commenter as to the overuse of adverbs. There was a great deal of “telling not showing”. A lot of the passage seemed (for lack of a better word) “writerly”, that is it seemed like an exercise in showing the skill of the writer, not necessarily serving the story.

    I did like the character’s name – Percy Wilkes, however his sister’s name really jarred “Magdelena”. I don’t know why you choose that name, but it immediately jumped out at me as another “writerly” affectation because I immediately went to Mary Magdelena and unfortunately that made me think of Dan Brown. Not in a good way. And I wondered how someone like Percy seemed to me (someone who would push the lines with an alpha over a cheroot) wouldn’t call his sister “Maggie” or “Meg” or anything else other than Magdelena in his thoughts. Why so formal in his thoughts when he wants to bend or break the rules (at least in my reading of the passage)?

    I wouldn’t continue with this story if I picked the book up and read this first page, but good luck with your work.

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  3. SAO
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 08:00:34

    It’s an intriguing set-up, but I felt it was all explanation. I think you’d have made it more urgent if you’d had Percy need to get the approval for Mag’s study and maybe have the approval in doubt.

    As it is, there’s no tension. Percy has no goal. He’s accompanying his sister, who has a goal.

    For an introduction, I was left not knowing all that much. Is Percy a werewolf? In some way related to them? Is he fey or a human? Are the wolves wolves (and since when do dogs smile enigmatically, if at all) or werewolves?

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  4. Tamara Hogan
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 08:22:29

    Yup, I agree with Tia and anonymous — adverbs ahoy, and I also find the dialogue tagging to be a little heavy-handed. Both of these issues can be rectified via revision.

    I’m intrigued by the world the author is building, which the dialogue and Percy’s observations reinforce: “I act as her tooth and claw” gives us insight into both the world and Percy’s role and abilities. I definitely got a sense of the imperiousness of the powerful Alpha, his relationship with his mate, and Percy’s show of diplomacy and respect via the author’s physical description and body language. LOVED the vibe created by the triangle metaphor, with the three preternatural races kept in check, penning humans in the middle.

    Trust your dialogue – it’s doing the job for me – and back off on the adverbs and tags. I’d definitely keep reading. Best of luck with this!

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  5. dick
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 08:59:36

    Yep, abort the adverbs. Percy Wilkes? Just doesn’t mesh with what I assume is a werewolf.

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  6. Lori
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 10:00:20

    You used the word/name alpha 12 times above. The fact that I counted means you overused it.

    Otherwise, I liked the idea of this. A little overwritten as others have said. Pare it down and I know I’d want to read more.

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  7. snethet
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 10:11:27

    I agree with SAO about the urgency and Percy having a goal. That said, I found the set up interesting and would like to read more. Good luck and thanks for sharing.

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  8. Shirin Dubbin
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 10:16:11

    I’m intrigued as well. I think if you apply Tia and anon’s notes you’ll have space to enhance the tension and the scene will pop. Like Sao I wondered what the underlying risks were in a lone wolf (solitary) approaching an alpha. I know Percy wants to protect his sister but does he have any worries the meeting will go sideways?

    I’d read more.

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  9. Cathy in AK
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 10:43:20

    I don’t read many werewolf or fey stories, but the combination of shifters, location (western US?) and time period (late 19th century?) grabbed me. Love the “I act as her tooth and claw” line. And I’ll disagree with Dick about the name Percy Wilkes for a werewolf. I kind of like the dichotomy.

    Clean up the adverbs and tags, as mentioned, and I think you could have a winner here :) Good luck!

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  10. FiaQ
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 11:28:42

    I have to say, the name ‘Percy Wilkes’ is bringing the immature school pupil out of me. The name is a breeding ground for nicknames and jokes. All rude.

    ‘Percy’ is slang for ‘penis’ and ‘wilk’ is slang for ‘vaginal discharge’ (as it accompanies ‘quim’, e.g. ‘quim and wilk’). So I’m little unsure about the name. That’s unless the pairing of these names was done on purpose. If it wasn’t done on purpose, then I’m sure it still doesn’t matter because these slang words are British, which has little to do with the story’s non-British(?) setting.

    Also, for me, there is a heavy association between Percy and elderly men (Percy was a very popular male name during the Edwardian era, so there is a huge number of men named Percy in WWI and WWII films, and in real life). There was an implication that men named Percy tended to be cowardly or uptight. So many old cultural references, really. So I agree with Dick on imagining a ‘Percy’ as a werewolf. All I see in mind when I hear ‘Percy’ is an elderly man who still thinks the British Empire is alive and that Vera Lynn is hawt.

    Sorry that this is such a shallow comment.

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  11. Anonymous
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 11:31:25

    I find the set up and voice intriguing. You have some helpful suggestions here. I would add one: the scene lacks a sense of place. You mention the floor, which suggests it’s inside somewhere. I’d like a phrase or sentence telling us where we are. (“the scarred wooden floor of the saloon”, for example).

    Nitpick: I question the use of the word “obstreperous” in this context. Is that really what you mean?

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  12. Wahoo Suze
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 11:31:31

    I’d keep reading. I’m intrigued by the setting, and I’m wondering about the fact that in an apparently Victorian?–historical setting, his sister is the one who’s the agent. That makes my inner feminist sit up and take notice. It sounds like there’s going to be some wolf-fey conflict. Sounds yummy. Keep writing.

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  13. C.J. Chase
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 11:48:49

    This reads a lot like my first drafts. I like to tell people I was a screen writer in a past life. My first drafts are almost all dialogue.

    You have the same “talking heads” issue going on that I have in my first drafts. There’s no sense of setting. Are these guys sitting? Standing? In doors? Out doors? In California? On the moon? I haven’t even figured out what form these characters are. (Except for Percy, who must be human because he has fingers.) Your beats and dialogue tags all involve facial expressions and interpretations of vocal tone. Think of it as a movie camera that only focuses on the characters’ faces. You want to pull that camera back occasionally and give us glimpses of the rest of the setting.

    The good news is that it’s an easy fix with some revisions. A few hints and details about the setting dropped here and there. Be a bit more creative with your beats by using less description of facial expressions and more of movement. And be more specific in your dialogue wherever you can.

    Good luck, and happy polishing.

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  14. Fae
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 12:39:35

    Very much first draft material but easily expanded and brought into focus with a good critique partner and a lot of red ink. There’s enough good here to make me want to encourage the author to revise, revise, revise, but I’d definitely put it back on the shelf by the third para if it were published as is.

    I like Percy’s name. He’s got a bit of badass to him and I like the contrast with the name generally expected to belong to someone weak.

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  15. Patty H.
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 14:03:26

    I had a comment about the name. Percy can short for Perseus (Greek warrior god who defeated Medusa as in the YA story The Lightening Thief) or Percival (one of King Arthur’s knights). I like the name because in my mind, it alludes to someone with a quest–I’d like to see what the quest is!
    Last name Wilkes? My knee jerk reaction was ‘like John Wilkes Booth?’ It isn’t a bad thing to saddle the hero (I am assuming he is the hero)with a tough name–as long as we get to watch him deal with it!
    Good luck!

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  16. Bibliotrek
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 14:18:33

    I agree with previous comments. Also, given that Percy Wilkes is clearly a British name, and that this is a historical, the ending immediately raised warning flags for me:

    But in the New World, with wide swaths of territory to be taken in hand, humans could be more useful. One must be a master of something, after all.

    This struck me as incredibly offensive and made me immediately despise Percy. I really, really hope the language of mastery/conquest/imperialism is serving a particular function here, because otherwise a British guy thinking this way about people in the New World, especially native peoples, just makes me say OH HELL NO.

    So I really hope that’s the effect you were going for. If not, you may want to step back and really think about how the novel is dealing with American Indians and other tricky subjects, like the slave trade or lack thereof (depending on how alternate this history is).

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  17. Julia Sullivan
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 21:05:05

    The “alpha” theory of wolf pack socialization comes from studies done in the 1940s, so the term is a serious anachronism. (And recent studies suggest that wolf pack socialization is more complex than that theory indicates.)

    Even if you take the old-school theory at face value, there isn’t one alpha wolf in a pack: there’s an alpha male and an alpha female.

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  18. theo
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 21:27:00

    I have no idea why my comment posted twice.

    Sorry.

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  19. theo
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 21:31:03

    A cheroot is a cigar. A very specific type of cigar. If cigarette smoke bothers your characters, make sure he’s smoking one because cigar smoke is much stronger. At least the cheroot type cigars.

    I would have liked this much better had I not felt like I should be writing everything like ‘alpha’ and ‘solitary’ down so I’d be able to keep track of them. The action here was overshadowed by writing that is just too overburdened. Don’t try so hard. Good dialogue doesn’t need lots of adverbs and flowery descriptions.

    This particular story would go back on the shelf for me. I had to wade through too many paragraphs to find out Percy (who I immediately thought of as a cross between the Scarlet Pimpernel and an assassin) was on a mission with his sister who he was there to protect and they were worried about keeping the triangular balance intact.

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  20. evie byrne
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 09:36:02

    I was really intrigued at the world building and possibilities in this piece. I’m not a great werewolf fan but do I love the Old West/Old West-inspired worlds (like Firefly). Something about that setting makes the wolf thing fresh again.

    My advice would be to just clean up your dialog tags and keep moving. Remember, since you really just have a convo between two people here, it’s easy to keep track of, so you can drop the tags altogether in some stretches. Don’t worry, we’ll follow along! You definitely don’t need them to be referring to each other by title each time they speak (“Blah blah blah, Alpha.”….”Blah, blah, blah, Solitary.” = very distracting. We know who they are after the first paragraph. They already know who they are ).

    FWIW I like his name, though I did not know it has British slang connotations.

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  21. Tessa Dare
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 11:50:14

    I’m not usually a fantasy/paranormal reader, but I’m completely intrigued by this and want to read more.

    Like others have said, I wish I knew where and when we are. A simple “London, 1819″ or “Boston, 1835″ or whatever at the outset would do the trick.

    And at this point, I’d be flipping to the back of the book to verify who the main couple are – because based on this page, I’m intrigued by the potential conflict between the alpha and Magdalena. But I’m interested in Percy, too. That is not a criticism, just my own curiosity. I’d keep reading, either way.

    Good luck!

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