Monday, February 4, 2013

1st Five Pages February Workshop - Tulli

Name: Jude Tulli
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: SMOLDERING EMBER

Princesses and kidnapping have a long history together, but this time is infinitely worse because it's all my fault. My mother's dying wish has only taken a week to make me wish I'd been the one to do the dying. It would have been easier.

They say some creatures belong to the night, but there's one that is the night, and it carries the dark on its back. I picture it in my mind and I see nothing. Me, the great Ember Ahti, some ten years past a prodigal childhood filled with foof into flames. Nothing.

The first hint of nightfall caresses the frosted window glass of today's disheveled inn, the Wild Boar or the Buzzard's Nest; goodness knows I can't keep their insipid names straight anymore. I've grown to taking comfort in the gentle kiss of sunlight against my eyelids as I sleep, but my time for rest is almost over and I've enjoyed not a single wink.

No. Instead, I toss and swallow the taste of ashes as I relive the horror. Princess Salandra, her panic-stricken eyes. I'll never forget. How her tears trickled down my shoulder as I embraced her delicate frame and promised I wouldn't lose her. I lied.

I'm not ready for any of this.

I'll never get any sleep now. I toss off the quilt my mother wove and scratch at the rash it's left on my neck. Mother! She got me into this. Then she went and died on me. Bitch.

I run a comb through my long red hair. It bites hard on a tangle and I pull it a little harder. It hurts more but still won't come loose. I throw the comb at the wall and it bounces and hits me in the chin. I don't know why I even try anymore.

Perhaps the king of Quakkao will indulge me with a bath. Not if he knows my success rate, he won't.

Only six more princesses I can fail. Still, it's not over until someone dies who shouldn't. Salandra's still alive. She should be, if Mother's information was true.

Protect first. Then rescue any you've lost. That's what Mother told me, and it's clear she knew enough to be worth killing. I always said we should have moved back to Littleville.

I check my pockets to make sure my reagents haven't disappeared. Not that I have any left worth mentioning.

I open the window and step outside. I rip the last eye of peacock feather from my bodice and hope they have peacocks in Quakkao as I toss it up toward the rising moon. It twists and crackles and grows into a gloriously plumed firebird.

"Lovely streaks of blue in your wings." I hop upon his crackling back and he lifts me up, high above the squalid city.

His flames roar as he lets out a reverberating caw and changes direction. My stomach feels as if it's falling. I look down.

Below us the creature runs, and despite our flying at top speed it's gaining. "Can't give up now. We've already sworn to protect Princess Mercy."

A wall of pitch strikes me. Even the burning form beneath flashes not a sliver of light inside my eyes. I snap my fingers. Nothing. Just like last time.

"Damn it! Remind me to learn a stronger light spell when we get to Quakkao, please."

The firebird dives.

"Don't attack it! Are you trying to get us killed?!"

I hold on and squeeze my useless eyes so tight I'm forced to smile. "This is why I hate relying on magic!"

Stomping hooves, a brusque and guttural neigh, the whoosh of flaming wings against the air. Something sharp pierces my thigh, and blood trickles like rain down my leg. Now it's a downpour. I'm being sucked dry!

"Up! Now! Up!"

I welcome the return of the light though it stings. "Wait! Down!" There's a boy facing the black as it hurtles toward him. He's just standing there, like a crazy person. Is he trying to get himself killed?

"Swoop!" The bird does and I grab the idiot by his armpits and he climbs up behind me as the dark overtakes us all. "Up! Faster!"

The light returns and I lose control of my tongue. "What's the matter with you?" I'm more than a little angry that he almost got himself killed, and not just because he could have gotten me killed trying to save him. Not that I've really noticed in the seconds I've known him, but if I had to guess I'd say he has a sense of calm about him. "Are you blind or stupid?"

"The first one," he replied. "How about you?"

"Oh. Sorry, I didn't--" I turn my head to catch a look at his face. Honest nose. Kind brown eyes, which he leaves open. Guess they're good for something.

"It's fine," he laughed. "You're bleeding!"

"It's nothing. How do you know?"

"I felt the blood on your robe when you lifted me. And shouldn't I be uncomfortably warm or something? I hear the crackle of flame and see red shadows dancing around. I'm not utterly blind; I can still sense light and dark."

"The firebird is safe when you're with me. Magic, of course. Don't try to ride one alone."

"Wasn't planning on it. So where are we going?"

"I'll drop you off with your family if they're close."

"We're not. Close. I'm a burden to them."

Pity. He seems about my age. Much too young to be cast out from family. "Then where would you like me to take you?"

"With you."

"You don't even know me, let alone where I'm going. It's too dangerous."

He runs his hands along my hairline to my forehead, then lingers over my temples, rubbing. Tension melts; his touch is lighter than any healer's. He proceeds to trace the arches of my eyebrows, the outlines of my eyes, the slope of my nose that I've never before wished so hard was gentler. Even the indent between my nose and mouth, whatever it's called; I have no idea, and I can't exactly stop to think now. My heart starts to flutter when he touches my lips, and it makes no sense but I don't really want him to abandon them for my chin, though he does. "I know you now. . ."

"Ember," I finish his sentence. "Ember Ahti. I'm not sure that's all it takes to know someone, and either way, I don't know you."

"Sterling. Pleasure. What's that rider got against you, anyway?"

"Rider?"

"Didn't you hear her whispering commands or were you too busy shouting your own? A bit obvious, aren't we? Light and noise are always less subtle than dark and silence. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I didn't know there was a rider."

"See? You can't afford not to take me with you."

I lean back as we fly, exhausted, and he catches me and rubs my shoulders just where I hadn't even noticed they hurt. "They're headed for Princess Mercy."

"I know." Well, I'd been pretty sure up until now.

Now, I know. Lucky for us, we seem to be faster. "Fly onward, firebird!" I shout, then remember the mysterious rider probably has ears.

I can whisper, too. "To Quakkao."

13 comments:

  1. Good writing and good voice! It leaves me rather confused, though. I think this is one of those times when too much is shown and not enough is explained.

    >>Princesses and kidnapping have a long history together, but this time is infinitely worse because it's all my fault. My mother's dying wish has only taken a week to make me wish I'd been the one to do the dying. It would have been easier. <<<

    Is the main character a princess? I read this entire excerpt assuming she was, and that she'd been kidnapped. It took me some thought to realize she must not be either. What is she, then?

    >>>Me, the great Ember Ahti, some ten years past a prodigal childhood filled with foof into flames. Nothing. <<<

    I don't understand this phrase. I still thought it meant she'd been kidnapped!

    Love the idea of the firebird being summoned by the peacock feather. :-)

    >>>
    A wall of pitch strikes me. Even the burning form beneath flashes not a sliver of light inside my eyes. I snap my fingers. Nothing. Just like last time. <<<

    My first thought was that they'd gone Between, like the Pern dragons. Again, it takes me nearly the whole thing to realize that she's being pursued by a horse and rider, rather than just some kind of formless blackness.

    The scene where he touches her face--nice description, but they're on the run from a darkness-wielding figure atop a firebird traveling quite fast. I don't think there'd be time for him to gently finger her face, no matter how smoothly the bird flew. Maybe this could come at the end of the scene, when you get into the sequel (the cool-off in the scene's conclusion)?

    Rider? Again, until the blind kid said this, I didn't know there was a rider, either.

    This is a great beginning, and I'd totally keep reading if I ran across it. It's just kind of confusing at this point. With some cleanup, I think it'll be wonderful.

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  2. I know we're not line editing but the syntax in the first paragraph threw me off. The "this time" - you mean princesses and kidnapping as in this instance where a princess was kidnapped or their history was worse or?? In the second sentence, are you saying it's been a week since her mom died and now she wishes she had taken her mom's place? The way these sentences are phrased really confused me/pulled me out of the story.

    I don't understand what you mean in the third sentence of the second paragraph. What's foof into flames? What does the prodigal past have to do with the night and there being one creature who's the night? Also I think that sentence would make an excellent first sentence (They say some creatures...).

    Who is the "their" referring to? I think my main issue at this point is that I am only three paragraphs in, but I am still really confused. I don't feel like you're easing me into the story. The voice has also changed dramatically. Some creatures belong to the night, then the caress of nightfall and the kiss of sunlight? The latter reminds me of a poetic style, but the former is simple but nice. Less poetic but still paints a nice picture. Taken together, they feel inconsistent. And this is the same feeling I get from Ember's thoughts being so scattered.

    I get the feeling that your world is very fascinating, but your writing is confusing me, and Ember's thoughts jump around too much for me to follow. First from princesses and kidnapping, then to night, then to the weather/setting, then to a nightmare, then to calling her mother a bitch...? etc. I also didn't understand a lot of the action at first.

    If you can ease us in more, I think your piece will really shine.

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  3. Okay, I love fantasy with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. I would possibly read ANY book with a phoenix on the cover, except a cookbook. So I really want you to work on this and get it shining, okay?

    Now… my favorite part of this was the peacock feather/firebird, and the casual way Ember comments on his blue feathers before hopping on. I’m intrigued by the blind boy they pick up, and curious about what’s happening to kill the princesses.

    Now, to work. ☺ In the battle/firebird scene, I would like to see much more detail about exactly what is going on, both physically and mentally for our MC. Writing these intense action scenes is hard! It’s so very easy to lose the reader, and at times, I was lost, trying to re-read and piece together precisely what was happening. Sometimes it’s helpful to overwrite a scene like this, with every excruciating detail, and then go back and pare down to the vital physical actions…

    Now, as for the first pages, before the peacock feather - I was a bit at sea. I felt like my attention was being pulled all over the place, and I wasn’t certain what you were trying to get across.
    For instance:
    “I run a comb through my long red hair. It bites hard on a tangle and I pull it a little harder. It hurts more but still won't come loose. I throw the comb at the wall and it bounces and hits me in the chin. I don't know why I even try anymore.
    Perhaps the king of Quakkao will indulge me with a bath. Not if he knows my success rate, he won't.
    Only six more princesses I can fail. Still, it's not over until someone dies who shouldn't. Salandra's still alive. She should be, if Mother's information was true.”

    There’s some important information in there, but it’s so sketchy, I had to work to put it together. (And, yes, we want our readers to work – but not on page one! That’s where we seduce them into giving us the next few hours/days of their time.)

    Also, the casual reference to his mother as a bitch threw me. Can’t leave something like that there, without a quick explanation at a minimum. “She tried to kill me often enough” or something. So we don’t dislike Ember?

    I'm not going to comment on the first paragraphs, as I agree with Helene and Kessie. But sentences like “Me, the great Ember Ahti, some ten years past a prodigal childhood filled with foof into flames.” need to be fixed in this revision. If it doesn't seem confusing to you, my advice is to read it out loud to someone else, and ask them to let you know when they get confused. Sometimes it's really hard to see the muddy places.

    I’m curious to read more – I hope you can spend some time really fleshing out the action, the firebird flight fascinates me. I wanted to spend more time up there!

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    1. Thanks Nikki! I think you might have thought Ember is a boy? Either way, I will make sure to close that possible loophole in the next draft. Great feedback, thanks!

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    2. Oh, DUH! I have no idea how that happened - apologies. There is a bodice in there and long red hair. Could be my fault, but I admit I DID picture a male MC for some reason! Possibly I was distracted by the magic. :)

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    3. That must have made the part with Sterling have a whole new dimension to it. LOL!

      It's confusing for me too, to write first person opposite gender. This piece started out as third person with two protags who were going to meet later in the book. Because of early feedback from my wife, I decided to shelf (shelve? shove?) the second storyline and stick with Ember.

      That's when it changed to first person present tense. Feel free to comment on whether you think that works. I'm liking it so far, though I do agree she needs a bit more focus. . .:)

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  4. I love the first sentence. I agree with the others that the rest of the paragraph is confusing because we haven't been introduced to this new world well enough. One way to do this is to use the definition of the word before the word or immediately after so that we can figure it out. But I would still hold off on totally new concepts until we are deeply into this new world.

    Although the language is beautiful "...creatures belong to the nights, but there's one that is the night, and it carries the dark on its back." I don't get it. Because after reading to the end it seems there may be more of these darkness things if they also have 'riders'. So why is there 'one' that is mentioned at the beginning. Is this to describe the creatures as a whole? I'm curious to learn more. Please give more detail.

    Then Ember takes comfort in the sunlight against eyelids "as I sleep, ..." but then we learn she hasn't slept. Is this super important?

    The part about Princess Salandra at first sounds as if she died ("panic-stricken eyes...promised I wouldn't lose her. I lied.") but then we find that she is alive.

    The part about "Protect first..." would do nicely for a second paragraph.

    I want to know more about this firebird - they are the mythical creatures who rise from the ashes of destruction to circle and renew the earth - if my 'lore' serves me correctly. I'm very curious to find out what Ember is. Is she a fairy? Princess? Elf? Dying of curiosity but the only way to fix me is to give me those answers in the first five pages.

    You are a poetic writer with your graceful and soaring language. But you can hit us over the head with facts and we won't mind.

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    1. These are big compliments coming from such a poetic writer as you. Great suggestions, too.

      Thanks! :)

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  5. I'd only add that you should be very clear when discussing each thing. That doesn't mean don't withhold information, just don't withhold information that is important to helping the reader understand this new world and situation you've created. You're clearly very creative. I love the idea, I'd just like to see it flushed out. I don't buy that she would be okay with the stranger massaging her or not be suspicious that he wants to immediately come along.

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  6. Jude,

    I think a lot of great advice has already been tossed your way, so I don't really have a lot to add. I'll just make a couple of comments.

    I really like the first half of the opening line: "Princesses and kidnapping have a long history together." I would leave it at that and then drive the story forward from there.

    The use of the word "bitch" took me by surprise. It didn't seem to fit the MC and the rest of the writing. It definitely stopped me in my tracks.

    I would love more clarity regarding the whole Princess situation and Ember's role in it all. As others have commented, the story jumps around a bit and the seeds of the plot aren't particularly clear to me.

    Look forward to the revision.



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  7. Thanks for the great feedback. You are all so talented!

    Looking forward to the revisions all around.

    Jude

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  8. Hi Jude,

    This promised to be a wonderful fantasy -- I do love so many of the elements, and clearly you have an ear for putting words together well. That's an awesome power, but sometimes it can make it hard to focus (both as a reader and as the writer) on the meaning of the words. Focus on clarity, not only within your sentences, but also within the context of scene and story. While a broad and sweeping bit of background and voicy narrative at the beginning is fantastic, you need to make sure that you are setting up a clear enough picture that we are grounded in something. Right now, the opening feels like a ball of yarn that I'm trying to unravel without quite knowing which thread to follow. I'd love for you to prioritize the information you need us to know and use it to lead us into the scene. Slow the scene down, give us the visuals, put us into the story, and let us just enjoy this fabulous world you've created. Don't make us work for it quite so hard. There's a lot going on and if we have to slow down to figure it out, it's too easy to lose ourselves and put the story down. Your writing and story deserve better than that!

    I'm really looking forward to seeing what you do with this!

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    1. Thanks, Martina! Looking forward to seeing what everyone thinks of the next draft (still in progress).

      :)

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