Monday, June 3, 2013

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Santelli

Name: Rebecca C K Santelli
Genre: YA Historical Mystery
Title: A Serpent in the Garden

A Serpent in the Garden, Prologue

The abbey bells rang and the young woman lifted her head. The sound reverberated deep in her bones, threatening to shake her to pieces. She had traveled 50 miles in 4 days, on foot and unaided, driven by desperation like a horse before the whip. If only the labor had not been so hard, if only the midwife had been more skilled, if only she could have rested, the journey would have been easy. She had once been lithe and lively. She could ride a horse swifter than the flight of an arrow, race across the fields like the fallow deer, and dance like the sparks in a bonfire.

She had met him at a dance. She still remembered the dark thrill she felt when he followed her into the courtyard and, with burning eyes, demanded a kiss. She gave him his kiss and more, stretched out on his feather-soft cloak, the night curled around them like a raven's wing. But his love had long since burned out, collapsed into ashes, as her brother warned her it would. She had hoped the flame would be reborn when he saw his son, but now she knew this hope had been foolish, as had all her hopes.

The baby was begging to be fed again. She sat at the side of the road and offered him her breast. He nuzzled against her chest and she felt the milk come down, warm and comforting, for her as well as him. His tiny fingers, delicate as butterflies, patted her arm and she felt the weight of her love for him, a love as strong as death. When he finished, she rose, wrapped him in her cloak, and struggled on.

Not long afterward she felt her enemy approaching, as one feels a storm coming down from the mountains. She knew in an instant that he would show her no mercy, that he would not be satisfied with letting them run away. And so she hid her sleeping baby in the bushes far back from the road. She did it gently, concealing her own fear so her son would not wake and cry out. She looked at his face one last time. She prayed that St. Nicholas would protect him.

Then she walked back to the road to meet her fate.

A Serpent in the Garden, Chapter 1

A nightmare, shapeless and half-remembered, shook me from my sleep. Had I dreamt of my mother again? Of chasing her ghost through darkened labyrinths or seeking her corpse in ruined crypts? I have grown up in the shadow of such dreams, though my mother died long before I can remember. No-one ever speaks of her—or of my father. It is forbidden.

Unable to settle myself, I dressed and went down to the courtyard. A damp breeze pressed upon me and I shivered despite my woolen gown and velvet mantle. No-one else was stirring. The air was dark, sapphire blue. It felt as if the entire castle had sunk to the bottom of the sea. I half-expected to see schools of gleaming fish swimming between the battlements, as if between the teeth of a massive shark. I imagined it was a judgment on my great-grandfather, Gotboldis, who built the Hirschburg. He was a man renowned for his battle-prowess—and his cruelty. When the castle was new, he captured so many men for ransom they overflowed the great tower and filled the oubliette. Without an inkling of conscience, he constructed an additional building to hold more captives. How many hopeless men starved to death in those cells when their family could pay no more?

I shuddered, but reminded myself that Gotboldis was long-gone, to the cleansing fires of purgatory or, more likely, to his eternal punishment. There would be no desperate men locked in these lonely chambers today. But wait! As if in direct challenge to my silent thoughts a voice cried out. “Judge thou, O Lord, them that wrong me. Overthrow them that fight against me. Take hold of arms and shield, and rise up to help me.”

Had the ghost of a long-dead prisoner returned to take vengeance? I crossed myself quickly. There was a pause, and the owner of the ghostly voice coughed. “Ghosts cannot catch chill.” I scolded myself for being so childish. Clearly a flesh and blood human being was crying out to God for help, but I had heard nothing about any prisoner.

Luckily the larder was nearby. I found an empty barrel and dragged it to the cell from which the voice had cried. I clambered on top. Standing on tiptoe, I peered through the tiny, barred window.

A reassuringly mortal form huddled in the corner. He wore a dark robe, and on the top of his head a bare patch of skin shone slightly in the darkness. Why, it was a tonsure—and the robe that of a monk! I was aghast. Surely, this was the work of my uncle Arnulf. Arnulf has inherited all Gotboldis' avarice, but none of his intellect. He constantly accuses the monks at the nearby abbey of plotting to overthrow the Barons von Hirschburg, but my tutor, Father Gregory, told me the truth; it is Arnulf whose lustful eyes are on the abbey lands.

“Good Brother,” I called, “good Brother—”

The monk rushed to the window. He looked up, but my shadow obscured his face. “Mistress, God’s peace be with you,” he cried.

“How came you to this place, Brother?”

“I hardly know myself. It happened so quickly. Brother Rudolfus and I were in the forest collecting firewood for the abbey of St. Nicholas, and we somehow became separated. I heard a noise in the foliage and, thinking it was Rudolfus, I called out. Then four men burst through the trees with swords drawn. They bound me and gagged me and dragged me away!”

“Was there a man among them with a great gray beard, bald as a vulture, with half his teeth black as cherry pits?”

“So there was. A huge, hulking bear of a man with his stomach hanging halfway to his knees.”

“Arnulf! I knew it could be no other.”

“If I did anything wrong, I would be glad to make amends.”

I paused. That Arnulf had taken a man of God captive was appalling enough, but in so doing he had put the entire household in danger. It was highly unlikely the monks would resort to violence, but they had powerful allies, including the Duke of Gef√§hrlichwald, who started feuds at the slightest provocation. Should I run directly to Baron Baldric, my other uncle and, thank the saints, my formal guardian? Baldric does not share his brother’s extensive prejudices or his reckless temper. I was certain he had not approved the kidnapping of the monk. On the other hand, Baldric was unlikely to jeopardize his tenuous alliance with Arnulf with open dissent. Perhaps it would be best if the monk simply escaped, vanished like the morning mists that wreathed Stag Rock.

“I will get you out, Brother.”


“Trust me.”


  1. The passive style of writing makes the story less exciting than it should be, for me. Author, I respectfully suggest a word search for "was" "had" "had been" and "would be." Then revise your sentences to get rid of as many as you can. I realize the story is historical and the speech can't be modern, but right now it feels static.

    Example: No-one else was stirring. The air was dark, sapphire blue.

    Versus: Nothing stirred in the dark, sapphire-blue air.

    A few things interrupted my reading flow -- for example, the MC hears a prisoner, and the next sentence is "Luckily the larder was nearby." That stopped me flat, wondering why the larder was lucky.

    Or, in the prologue, the 2nd sentence talks about traveling fifty miles in four days, then "if only the labor hadn't been so hard." I assumed "labor = 50 miles", so the next sentence's reference to a midwife made me stumble. I get it now, but think it could flow more smoothly.

  2. First, this doesn't directly relate to your writing, but your genre alone had me interested. I would definitely be willing to pick up a book in that category.

    I think one of your strengths is in similes and metaphors. I particularly liked the image of the school of fish because it managed to describe the dampness as something so thick you can see it as well as feel it. I can clearly see what you're describing, and I like your eye for detail.

    For a few critiques: the "But Wait!" feels awkward to me. If someone is crying out, I'd expect to see exclamation marks, but in the dialogue rather than the set up. Also, right below that, who says, "Ghosts cannot catch chill."? I hate the idea of dumbing down writing for young readers, so I'm not suggesting you do that at all, but some of the vocabulary you use seems a little too elevated to me (e.g. avarice). I understand that words like that help to set your tone, but I'd try to choose your spots carefully.

    You packed a lot of information into your first five pages while still getting the mystery going right out of the gate, so I think you have a lot of positive things to work with!

  3. Let me start by saying your metaphors are great and your story feels historical (which is good since it is!) Perhaps the metaphors are a bit heavy handed though. I'd weed through and keep only the best of the best. Maybe one or two a page. Also, I think the prologue is likely unnecessary. They are generally frowned upon and I see nothing in there that can't be dripped in later. I'd rather see you start with the MC. If you do, then I won't be confused about the character's gender either! :D I assumed it was the boy in the bushes until the monk said otherwise. The comment above about passive voice is a good one as well. Keeping us in the moment is essential. Love the premise, love the feel. Can't wait for the revision!

  4. Nancy Kress, June 4

    I liked the Prologue because, as a Prologue should, it both intrigued me and gave me background information that probably can't be included in the main story, since no one knows it but the new mother, who is presumably murdered. However, I would suggest a few changes to the Prologue. First, it is important to create trust in the reader, and I questioned that a woman who has given birth, apparently VERY recently, can walk fifty miles in four days. Is she carrying that much food with her? All sorts of questions arise, which distracted me from the story. Make the distance shorter or the girl having hitched a ride in the back of a compassionate farmer's hay cart or whatever.

    Also, the girl's emotion is not coming through. She "feels the weight of her love for him" and she "conceals her own fear"--but those are descriptions of emotion, not the thing itself. Show us her love for the baby through a desperate gesture; show us her fear through how she feels it: guts twisting or feeling as if she cannot breathe. Let us see her panic "Could she hide with him? No--what if he cried out and they were both discovered? A sudden terrible picture of a sword piercing that little body... Hastily she pulled yet more leaves over him, sobbed once, and turned back toward the road." Or words of your own devising, but bringing us into her desperate emotions.

    Cut cliches like "a love strong as death" and "to meet her fate." This story gives every indication of being strong enough that you do not need to overwrite.

    Chapter One: Here, again, I need to be able to trust your knowledge of the period, which seems to be medieval. However, medieval covers a lot of time. A few sentences about her bedchamber beore she leaves it would help--are there rushes on the floor, or carpets? Glass in the window? How far along toward, or in, the Renaissance are we here?

    I'd also like you to pay more attention to that castle. She dresses and goes down to the courtyard, where she "half-expects" to see fish between the battlements, "as if between the teeth of a massive shark." But she's in the courtyard, looking up, so the metaphor seems a bit strained. More important, no prisoner would be kept in a cell whose bars gave out on the public courtyard, especially not such a controversial prisoner as a monk. Nor would a young girl have keys to the larder (and there would be keys). I suggest reading David Macaulay's Cadecott Honor Book CASTLE, with its wonderful pictures of how castles were constructed, including why everything was situated as it was.

    Your protagonist: How old is she? She seems to have a strong grasp of local politics, so she's not a young child. If she's thirteen or fourteen, and this is early or middle medieval, why isn't she already betrothed? Or is she? This sort of information would intrigue YA readers far more than clergy-baron politics, and it might be good to have her thinking about that, instead of her great-grandfather's past, before she hears the monk's voice. (You can include Gotboldis later.) Chapter One must present a problem that will grab your intended readers, even if you then leave that problem for a while to introduce another.

    Finally, when you revise, eliminate as many progressive-past constructions ("was begging to be fed" can be "begged to be fed" and weak linking verbs as you can. There is a potentially strong story here--don't encumber it with unnecessary padding.

    Best of luck with the novel.

  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Your sense of rhythm is lovely, and you clearly have a mastery of language that naturally lends itself to the historical genre. That's great. I've also heard a number of agents say that they'd love a great historical lately, so that is also in your favor. I completely agree with Nancy though, and Lisa and the other commenters raise good points.

    For me, the biggest problem with the prologue is credibility. I don't believe that she could have run so far, or that she senses her husband coming unless she has some sort of supernatural powers. But since you are billing this as a YA Historical, I assume that's not it. I also don't understand her motivation for hiding the baby. One, her husband arrives and she meets her fate, the noise is likely to make the baby cry. And even if he doesn't, isn't the father going to wonder where he is? And even if he doesn't, isn't the helpless baby going to starve to death or get eaten by animals on the side of the road?

    I will admit also that when I started the first chapter, my mind was still on what happened to the baby. I consequently made a mental connection between the baby and the mc in chapter one. It took me a while to realize the girl could be the baby, and at that point, I got confused about all your backstory, and I realized I had no idea about the story question. What is the story about?

    As far as the writing goes, I admit that I am a language lover, so I have no problem with metaphors as long as they are used as shortcuts to understanding instead of filler. A great metaphor should reveal, both character and setting. As an example, your metaphor of the aquarium would only be made by a character who had spent time looking at fish from underwater, a mermaid maybe, or from someone used to looking at a fish tank. It's a lovely metaphor, and I appreciate the beauty of it, but it doesn't serve your story.

    I'd love for you to try an exercise that might really help you convert this largely passive, distant prose to the kind of active, connected prose that readers seem to want these days. Take a sample and visualize it from the perspective of a camera lens. What action would the lens be seeing? What tells us about the character and the story in an active way, and how does the character respond in a way that shows who she is at the starting point of her journey? What is she truly seeing and feeling? How can you use her responses to show us how she feels through the lens of the camera instead of telling us how she feels?

    Connect us to the story by bringing us closer to the action instead of keeping us at arm's length and really think through what a girl of her age and station would and could do, and show *that* in your beautiful language, and we will follow you anywhere!

    I'm looking forward to seeing this next week!



  6. I'm already really interested in where this story is going. Like others have mentioned, through, I found the metaphors and language a little overdone. I also thought the MC was a boy until the conversation with the monk. I would have liked to have a better understanding of her living situation, because I thought it was a boy living in a monastery or church initially. Easy fix. :)

    Your prologue told me a lot about how the mother felt, but I think you could show those feelings through her actions and desperation and amp up the emotion there a lot. As a new mom, I had a hard time connecting my emotions to the way she was describing her own. I also didn't find it believable that she could have walked that far that soon after labor, although I was also confused initially by what "labor" was referring to (walking so far or actual labor?).

    With your obvious mastery of language, I feel like you can do a lot more showing than you have so far in a very effective way. I look forward to seeing your next entry!

  7. I did find the first paragraph of the prologue confusing in relation to what had happened. At first, I thought she was in the abbey, not on a road. Did she give birth during her journey, and is walking that much afterwards possible?? (I've had 2 c-sections, so my experience is irrelevant here)

    When she knew her enemy had come, why didn't she try to flee, or hide? If she knew he was coming, why stay on the road where she was easy to find? I know she was trying to protect her child, but there is a lack of desperation and heartbreak she must be feeling. I found the prologue very gripping, especially not knowing what happened to the child.

    I love the comparison of the castle to a shark, and given its dark history, makes it seem like a dangerous place. I was confused about her location in the castle when she heard the monk's voice. It said she went down into the courtyard, but would the prison cells be visible or audible from there? If not, then what would lead her to them. Just a thought.

    Looking forward to more!

  8. I agree that by making the writing more immediate in terms of the mother's actions and emotions in the prologue, it will make it even more gripping. And it is a gripping scenario, and I'm already intrigued to know more. I'm enjoying this story and would definitely want to read more!

    You have some wonderful suggestions here for revision, so I'll address a couple points that stood out to me that weren't already mentioned. One is the introduction of the enemy. I felt like the introduction could be enhanced a bit to strengthen it. I'd love some added details about what makes him so dangerous, so powerful. How did she feel him approach? Can she sense him psychically somehow, or are there some details you can give us that she notices as he approaches to make him more real to the reader? I found myself wanting to have a sense of why he's after her. If he's such a concern, perhaps she'd be thinking of him before he appears? It would make sense he'd factor into her thoughts of the journey ahead, even before she begins it. I think a little bit more of these details would make this scene more real and his introduction seem less abrupt.

    Speaking of this, my biggest concern is we need a very strong rationale, I think, for why this young mother would risk her life, and her baby's life, to go on this long journey alone and on foot. Otherwise, when she knows there's a dangerous enemy around, it seems reckless of her to not at the very least arrange to travel by cart/carriage and in a group of strong men skilled in defense. Maybe that rationale could be that she's learned the enemy is nowhere around (maybe given wrong information by someone she trusts?), so she figures it's safe enough for her to make the trek to introduce her baby to the father. It might also help if the journey isn't nearly so long as you've currently made it.

    Moving onto the first chapter, I already like your MC, how she's unafraid to do what is right. I'm sensing it's going to be a major life-changing choice that she just made, releasing the Brother. One thing I wanted to see was her name. If you can, you might want to work in her name early on in the chapter, so the reader has a name to connect to the MC from basically the outset.

    All that said, I really like the voice and the story you're telling here, and I'm excited to see the revision!