Novel Excerpt

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africanstardust
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Tue Jan 19, 2010 11:55 am Post

Well. I won't say too much, except that this is my first time actually posting something I've written for critique. This is an excerpt from a novel I've been working on for years, and I'm in the final stages now (I hope). That is all :) Oh and I hope this isn't too long, but it would have been odd to just post part of it.
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She was beautiful. She was so beautiful that I felt as if I’d had the breath knocked out of me, and I could do nothing but stare, clutching at the wood with my dirty, jagged fingernails. It took all of my effort to keep my breathing quiet so that they would not notice my presence. Shard’s face was grim, his eyes like flames, and the veins in his neck stood out as a show of just how much he had to concentrate to restrain himself.

“What is it you want?” he asked evenly. The firelight, the only glow in the room, played with their features and made Shard’s eyes seem even more fiery. Her own eyes - beautiful and grotesque all at once, burning and sulfurous, as yellow as a cat’s - watched him almost with amusement, almost mockingly. Although his frame was twice as large as hers and he loomed over her, there was some cold strength in her pale face, some steely invincibility in the way she carried herself.

“Jack,” she said in a whispery, smoky voice that somehow filled the room even though she spoke fairly quietly. “I haven’t come for a confrontation. After all, until the warrior who is to kill me is found, there isn’t anything to discuss.” She gave him a deep smile and walked to his desk, where a crystal decanter and two goblets waited.

Shard, I could see, was utterly in shock about what she had said. He whirled around, his frame becoming even larger as his chest heaved with breathlessness, and in a blur he had unsheathed a dagger and held it against the tight, pale skin of her neck, his other arm around her waist. Instead of panicking, she chuckled softly and put the decanter back on the desk.

“How did you find out?” he demanded, pressing the blade harder against her neck. I winced as a trickle of dark blood ran down the knife and dripped off the edge, landing in a sticky pool on the wooden floorboards. “How?”

“You did not think I would sit and wait to be destroyed,” she replied, and now there was an edge of hatred, of sulfur, to her voice. My skin felt cold at the sound of it and chills ran up and down my spine, raising goosebumps and tickling my scalp. “You cannot seriously think me so naive. Of course I know about him.”

Shard pressed the blade even harder against her neck, and now he drew out a faint gasp from her as more blood trickled to the floor. “Perhaps you are more prepared, then,” he growled, his lips close to her ear, his teeth clenched. “But you will be destroyed, and if your own conscience fails to do the job, the warrior will certainly step in. Do not overestimate yourself, Morgala. You are not as powerful as you think.” With that he released her, shoving her forward with such force that anyone, especially someone so slender as she, would have fallen over onto the desk. But she whipped around and steadied herself with surprising grace, her back to the desk and her palms on its edge.

“We shall see, Jack.” She took one finger and wiped the blood from her neck, then smeared it over her palm, looking at it with a somewhat fascinated expression. “But I did not come here for this.” She raised her gaze to his face again. “I came to tell you, if your sisters have not, that I have taken the last free city. Cristalia is all that remains. And it is not too late, Jack, to change your mind. Even now I will offer you freedom and riches - I will even spare your sisters - if you stop your search for the man and return with me. But,” she said, her eyes flickering fiercely, “if you do not come now, there will be no more chances. I will destroy you and all that you love.”

“I told you before, witch. I don’t negotiate with evil.”

Her smile returned. “Very well. For the sake of your mother I extend you these graces, but if you wish to spurn them, there is nothing I can do.”

“My mother!” He took a step towards her and his hand went to the hilt of his sword; his shoulders became stooped and every spring in his body seemed coiled and ready to release; instinctively I hunched my shoulders in a protective posture. “You destroyed my mother,” he bellowed, his voice rasping. “That you even dare to keep her appearance is utter cruelty. You caged her and reduced her to a whimpering mess, and now you say you extend me graces for her sake? No. No, I will not be coming with you.”

She shrugged, apparently unruffled by his outburst. “Very well. You have made your choice. In that case, I give you one final warning.” A grin spread on her lips, and it carried so much mockery, so much seething evil, that I suddenly thought she couldn’t be human. No human face could contort in this way and still be so strikingly, perfectly beautiful. “If you find the man, and he kills me, I won’t be going alone.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you understand?”

Shard did not reply, but realization washed over his features, followed by a flicker of fear in his dark eyes.

“Good.” She began walking towards the door and I backed away from the frame, pressing myself tightly against the wall in the shadows beside his bookcase. If she saw me, or if he saw me, one of them would kill me. I was sure of that. I watched her as she moved gracefully across the little entryway and opened the door, then exited into the cool night. I only had a moment to wonder how she would get off the ship - for that matter, how she had gotten onto it - when a bright flash of light accompanied a forceful gust of wind; then darkness but for the firelight.

I remained in my place, my eyes on the frame where I had been listening. After a moment Shard came out, walking slowly, wearily. He shut the door quietly and turned to go back to the room - but his dark, fierce gaze landed on me, and a malicious, wild expression bled into his features as he walked haggardly towards me. My heart raced and I cowered against the wall.

“No, no, I’m sorry! Wait, please-”


“Silence, you bloody nuisance!” he growled, clutching my shirt and pulling me out of the corner. “How long have you been here?” he demanded.

“I-”

“How much did you hear?”

“Not…I…”

Without waiting for me to gather enough courage to answer him, he dragged me out of the room, kicking open the door. I clutched at his arm as he pulled me across the deck to the railing and pressed me against it, threatening to push me over.

“Wait, please!” I shouted desperately. “I’m sorry. I heard everything, but I swear I won’t tell a soul,” I pleaded. “Please, I’m sorry!”

He seemed about to shout at me again, but slowly the wildness left his face and his expression softened a little. Abruptly he let go of me and stepped back, breathing heavily, his eyes on his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that.” He looked up at me. “Did I hurt you?”

I shook my head a little, my hand on my chest. “No.” But he had frightened me.

He nodded and walked towards the railing again. I put a little more distance between us as he placed both hands on the railing and looked out at the black sea, but I was fairly certain he wouldn’t do anything more. Little flecks of diamond dotted the black expanse where light from the slender, crescent moon was reflected. I was unsure whether he wanted me to leave, but as he hadn’t said anything I decided to stay. There was no chance I would be able to sleep now, anyway.

“Elizabeth,” he said after several long, quiet moments, using my name for once. “Since you have heard this, there are some things I should explain to you. I normally wouldn’t, but you’re quite clever, and I’d rather tell you the truth myself than have you find out some twisted version of it on your own.” He turned to face me, sliding one of his hands closer, and leaned towards me in an earnest gesture. “But you must swear,” he said, his voice suddenly grave, “that you will never, as long as you live, tell another soul what I am about to say. No one else on the ship knows; no other human on Earth knows.” He exhaled. “Can I trust you?”

The question hung in the air, floated in a mass of resounding, sudden silence. Even the ocean seemed to be holding its breath. I stared at him, unnerved by the change in his demeanor, suddenly feeling as though I was not speaking to a pirate captain at all, but to some sort of ambassador or general. I had never seen him like this before; even his face looked different. And what choice did I have? What would he say if I replied that he could not trust me? I closed my eyes for a brief moment and inhaled, then breathed out, “Yes. Yes, you can trust me.” I opened my eyes.

“I know,” he said, then straightened. “Come with me.”
The coroner will find ink in my veins and blood on my typewriter keys.
-C Astrid Webber

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Jaysen
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Tue Jan 19, 2010 1:32 pm Post

First, I am not a critic, just a guy who reads.
Second, I read for enjoyment or to pursue an interest.
Third, I have produced nothing of consequence myself (other than the ramblings scattered around the forums).

That out of the way:

My general impression is that I would continue to read this story for a time. Initially I was a bit confused as to the number of people in the room. I found it difficult to know which name referred to which body and am still a bit uncertain (I am slow). Assuming that the next couple of pages do not confuse me further, or that the story becomes a little bit more interesting, then I am in for the whole read.

Just to let you know, I don't mind confusing (I am a fan of the Wheel of Time series and LOTR) as long as the story is there. Based on the combination of magic, pirates, and plots by evil to achieve world domination, I would probably finish the read and pass it on to the fam (unless there is content not appropriate for a 12 year old boy).
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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africanstardust
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Wed Jan 20, 2010 5:26 am Post

Thanks for taking the time to read it and for your comments :) I suppose it is a bit confusing...I sometimes forget people aren't in my head.

Nope, all appropriate, all PG (for violence, you know).
The coroner will find ink in my veins and blood on my typewriter keys.
-C Astrid Webber

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xiamenese
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Wed Jan 20, 2010 8:21 am Post

Hi,
I'm not a fiction writer or a critic, either ... most of my work is "second-hand writing", i.e. editing into good English translations done by Chinese native-speakers. But I had a few moments, so I read your excerpt. I don't know if I'd read on ... probably for a bit to see if it develops into something I'd want to finish, but on this much I'm not sure. I don't know whether I will like the protagonists enough to care about what happens to them.
That said, there was only one thing that pulled me up short; that was the word "exited" in
I watched her as she moved gracefully across the little entryway and opened the door, then exited into the cool night.

It seems too abrupt in relation to moving gracefully ... I'd probably have written "stepped out". But that's just my personal take, make of it what you will.
:)
Mark
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dr
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Wed Jan 20, 2010 11:39 am Post

I'm hesitating to say much, because fantasy is not my genre and I'm not familiar with the stylistic norms of its authors and readers. I write research-based fiction, trying to invoke the look and feel of times and places, but always with implication rather than explication. The old mantra, SHOW, don't tell, is one of my imperatives. And also to say more with less.

So my first reaction is that the passage is too long for what it's saying or setting up. And while a little suspense is always welcome, I'd like more expository hints from the start about who these folks are, where the action takes place, and why they are heaving and panting so much at each other. I'm not trying to be sarcastic, but the emotional temperature seems overheated, especially for a beginning. It's like an action-adventure film that starts with crashes and explosions instead of something quieter.

The other stylistic problem is too many cliches. Dirty, jagged fingernails: this narrator has time to study a manicure? Beautiful used over and over again; SHOW it in some detail, like the curve of her brow. Jack is a good character name, but Shard? Sulphur pops in too often; first as a smell, then a sound. And for a scene that is cruel and violent, there's way too much talk going on. If you plot it to its basics, we have an exchange of threats, a scratch on her neck, more threats and counter-threats, with some hint of larger histories and contexts.

Quite late in the passage, we finally learn that we are on "the ship." Is it a boat, a space vessel? Where are the elements that would constantly hint of that environment? The slap of water, the tilt of floor, a faint smell of oak or canvas?

It doesn't help that our narrator is a weak individual who cowers before the all-menacing Shard. (His name reminds me of pro wrestlers.) Readers usually like to feel a little more confidence in a narrator, unless this is a worm-turns sort of plot. What about 3rd-person POV instead of first? Instead of "I" give that character a name, Elizabeth. It's a surprise that she's female; why go on so much about Morgala's beauty, power, strength? Are we into a Xena-Gabrielle sort of pairing here, with hints of tribadism?

I'm not sure that the characters know, or are ever going to find out. By the end our menacing Shard has grown softer, more complex, not "a pirate captain at all...but some sort of ambassador or general." We should know those facts about his identity and situation from the start. Then his need to find someone to trust is more convincing and understandable.

My favorite analogy for story-telling is poker. There are two principal varieties, stud and draw. In stud, the cards are face-down. You roll a card and place a bet. Stud is life: you never know what's coming up, and you bet on whatever is showing. Draw poker is different: you are dealt a hand, study the cards, throw in some rejects, take new cards...and then proceed to play them out in a sequence that will entice, entrap, or intimidate your opponents. Enticement is the best way to win a pot, if you have the best cards. And that is the essence of good story-telling.

PJ
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Wed Jan 20, 2010 1:12 pm Post

druid wrote:Enticement is the best way to win a pot, if you have the best cards. And that is the essence of good story-telling.


... and if you don't have the best cards, reallyreally good lying is the best way to win. Which is another facet of good story-telling.

ps
You can't conquer stupid — or cure it — with more stupid.

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Wed Jan 20, 2010 1:45 pm Post

ASD,

If you are like me you are probably beginning to regret posting the excerpt. Hopefully you are not like me and see the post from Druid as an informed critique of what you provided. There are many folks here who eat what they write. Make sure when you read their statements that you differentiate between the technical review and the personal dislike of a genre.

I am still interested in seeing where this goes. Keep at it.
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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Hu
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Wed Jan 20, 2010 3:36 pm Post

druid wrote:My favorite analogy for story-telling is poker. There are two principal varieties, stud and draw. In stud, the cards are face-down. You roll a card and place a bet. Stud is life: you never know what's coming up, and you bet on whatever is showing. Draw poker is different: you are dealt a hand, study the cards, throw in some rejects, take new cards...and then proceed to play them out in a sequence that will entice, entrap, or intimidate your opponents. Enticement is the best way to win a pot, if you have the best cards. And that is the essence of good story-telling.


Wilde: "I wish I'd said that."

Whistler: "You will, Oscar, you will."
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

Hu
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 9:35 am Post

Oops, sorry. I merely meant to compliment druid on his poker metaphor, not to stop the thread stone dead.

For what it's worth, I enjoyed africanstardust's excerpt, into which a lot of thought and effort has obviously gone. I also agree with druid's comment about the need for some more exposition of the context. In a lot of writing, what may be obvious to the writer is not necessarily obvious to the reader - hence "wood-for-trees" critiques and editors' frequent demands for additonal "sign-posting". As a repeat offender myself, I know all about these...

Of course, exposition and sign-posting have to be judiciously added, in case they go over the top and instead of mystifying readers, bore the pants off them.
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

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Thu Jan 21, 2010 10:03 am Post

Hugh wrote: not to stop the thread stone dead.
What makes you think that?
Hugh wrote:with druid's comment about the need for some more exposition of the context.
Our young friend, africanstardust, does point out in the preamble to the except proper, that it is...an excerpt. She doesn`t hint in anyway that the excerpt is the opening paragraphs of the novel. If that`s the case, then we need not bother ourselves unduly, as to, how, why, where, who, what, when etc. as far as this excerpt is concerned. I`m assuming that the answers to points raised by others would already be in our possession, being contained in the information she has already furnished earlier in the story. So, it`s to be judged, constructively, only on what it is. That said, just how much info do we really need, even if it is the opening chapters. What`s wrong with being left wondering, or intrigued, wanting to know more?

africanstardust,
Welcome aboard the Good Ship Scrivener, an old Pirate tub of questionable seaworthiness, but nonetheless, a doughty plougher of the seas of literary aspiration, ambition, endeavour and those most elusive of creatures: attainment and success.

Unfortunately, my young friend, you are henceforth, a member of Scrivener`s (If druid will sanction the use of a cliché), motley crew of scallywags, ne`r-do-`ells, deadbeats, no-hopers, miscreants, frauds, druids and various other species of nefarious characters - as you might expect aboard a Pirate ship.
Take care
Vic

P.S. I have a few points that I think may be of some use (If packaged constuctively). I shall return, as our Arnie said.
As a professional, you, are your one and only asset. Without integrity you are worthless, but with it, you are priceless.

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Jaysen
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 11:49 am Post

pssst.... Vic-k ..... She's been around these parts already. You were sleeping.

As much as it pains me to type this, Vic-k makes some good points. Would one of the smart people around here be so kind as to straighten us out?
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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ce
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 12:21 pm Post

I'd like to take a moment to compliment everyone who tries fiction; it's a difficult, thankless, crowded field, and taking time from busy lives to make art is always admirable, whether that impulse takes the form of a potter's wheel in the kitchen, a loom in the living room, a novel perking on the laptop, or a serious devotion to GarageBand.

That said, the difference between the amateur and the pro tends to be: can I edit my prose with clinical impartiality, killing my darlings, slashing the whichy thickets? And, once I do, will someone pay me for it? In the africanstardust excerpt, for example, druid's advice is invaluable, and might produce something like:

“If you find the man, and he kills me," she said, "I won’t be going alone.”

"Morgala. What is it you want?"

In the firelit darkness of the captain's cabin, I clutched my ragged nightshift closer. Shard's steady voice amazed me; I lay so close that I could see his neck-vein jump. The woman who sat at the table, toying with the port decanter, was too beautiful to be human.

"I've taken the last free city, Jack," she said. "Except Cristalia. For you, for your sisters: no more chances. Unless--"

"I don't negotiate with evil," he said, hand on swordhilt. An ethical pirate, I thought. Curious. Of course, I was a Yorkshire governess turned leman. Leman Liz. How my Latin tutor would laugh. But my othersight showed the old bindings between them, sheet lightning in the Caribbean night. Odi et amo, oh yes.

A flash; a wind at the cabin door; she was gone. Shard--Jack? She'd called him Jack--stood by the hearth a moment, head bent, then reached around the bedpost and pulled me to my feet.

"You bloody nuisance. How long have you been here?"

Hu
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 1:18 pm Post

vic-k wrote:Hugh wrote:
not to stop the thread stone dead.
What makes you think that?


Merely regretful that I'd off-topicked away from the original poster's request, which deserved more serious consideration. africanstardust is very brave to put anything in front of this crew.

vic-k wrote:Hugh wrote:
with druid's comment about the need for some more exposition of the context.
Our young friend, africanstardust, does point out in the preamble to the except proper, that it is...an excerpt. She doesn`t hint in anyway that the excerpt is the opening paragraphs of the novel. If that`s the case, then we need not bother ourselves unduly, as to, how, why, where, who, what, when etc. as far as this excerpt is concerned.


Yes and no. Generally when writers present an excerpt, they provide some context as an introduction. Unless there is no context because it's the opening scene. So... I assumed. And yes: Rule One — never assume. But, even so I did spend some of the time as I was reading trying to get my bearings. Which distracted me from the story itself.

vic-k wrote:That said, just how much info do we really need, even if it is the opening chapters. What`s wrong with being left wondering, or intrigued, wanting to know more?


Of course, but the question is: what is the reader left wondering about? Wondering about the deeper meaning and implications of the opening scene is all to the good; wondering about who is in this excerpt (if considered as an opening scene) and whether the action is in a ship on the sea, in space or somewhere else is possibly less so.

Yet whaddo I know? :? I do think cece's edit is good. Shorter is often clearer, although sometimes harder to write.
'Listen, some quiet night, when you've shirked your work that day. Do you hear
that distant, almost inaudible clicking sound? That's one of your
competitors, working away in the night in
Paris or London or Erie, PA.'

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africanstardust
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 2:58 pm Post

First of all, thank you so much to everyone who replied...you gave me a lot of good advice that I'll absolutely use.

Yes, I'm sorry, I should have said that this is not the beginning of the novel, but about 1.5 chapters in. It might also help to explain that the main character (Elizabeth) is actually quite bold, so the fact that she feels the need to hide says something about Morgala. However, she is also a sixteen year-old girl, so Shard is quite intimidating to her. But I do agree with druid's and cece's suggestions as well, so thanks very much.

@Jaysen unfortunately my skin is also far from thick, but that's partly why I decided to start posting things...I don't think I can afford not to leather up :)

@druid your advice is golden, thank you. You're completely right about my use of clichés; you would have cringed at the first draft. I'll go through with a comb.

@vic-k may I say that I quite like your choice of apostrophe.

Anyway, thanks for the advice and encouragement. To be honest I was expecting something like "How dare you call yourself an aspiring writer, you fiend?" So :roll:
The coroner will find ink in my veins and blood on my typewriter keys.
-C Astrid Webber

kl
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Thu Jan 21, 2010 3:02 pm Post

Actually, this is one of the most supportive and constructive boards out there for critiques. I've heard from other writers about boards where the lack of mercy crosses over into cruelty. We are, in general terms, pretty nice to one another here.

I have no other way to explain the honor and deference that vick-k and wock receive in these halls.
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