Sunday, March 8, 2015

First 5 Pages March Workshop - Carpinello

Name:  Cheryl Carpinello
Genre:  Middle Grade XXX
Title:  Guinevere: At the Dawn of Legend—Cedwyn’s Story

A strong north wind rushed down the valley, scattering leaves already yellowed and blown down earlier by another north wind. Already the smell of winter filled the air, crisp and sharp with the promise of early snow instead of the mild fall usually seen.

It also carried another winter on its breath. A light dusting of ash lay upon the castle parapets and floated down on the roofs turning them a grayish-white. These days ashes covered every level surface and every nook, inside and outside. On days like today when the wind raced through, people tried to breathe shallow to avoid inhaling the acrid smoke carried from the winter up north.

Throughout the spring and summer, conflict ripped through the northern country bringing death to many and sending the ashes of whole villages, burnt to the ground instead of surrendering, south into the lands loyal to the one king. In response, legions of men rode north, knights of those shires pledged to and supporting one land, one king. The land being Britain; the king being Arthur Pendragon.

A slender young woman, chin resting on her hands, gazed north, almost oblivious, to the gusts whipping the golden hair escaping from the cowl of her dark green cloak. Days seemed to have passed since the sun last smiled on her land. Then a nasty gale raised up and whipped the hood off her head, revealing underneath the innocent but lined face of a young princess, just past fifteen years. A princess who should have been a queen.

A sigh escaped her blood-spotted lips, cracked and sore from a week of standing on this parapet while the wind destroyed the summer in her land. She waited each day for movement through the trees that would signal the coming home of the knights from the north. No sign of her father or King Arthur.

Months overdue was her marriage. Another change because of the fighting, the refusal of the northern clans to give up their freedom for a different freedom under Arthur. Two months ago, her father had left with a contingent of knights to bolster Arthur’s troops. Two months and no word, just ashes and smoke.

On one hand, she was relieved. As much as she loved Arthur and had given her consent to the marriage, she—like the northern clans—was reluctant to give up her freedom. However, she also feared for the lives of her father, Arthur, and those who fought with them. As each day ended with no messenger, the strain began to show on the faces and in the tempers of those in the castle.

The gossip of the women had grown silent replaced with the almost daily scolding of children punctuated at times by the swish of a willow stick and a cry of a child. And among the men left—those essential to castle life and those too old or unfit for battle—quarrels had broken out, quarrels over small inane things like too much wood taken by Cook from old Sauder the blacksmith. Quarrels that the princess had to mediate between old friends with the help of her self-appointed guardian Brywyn. Quarrels for which the solutions given were weak and sometimes only ceased hostilities for an afternoon or an evening.

She wrinkled her forehead as she replayed those scenes and showed no interest in leaving the battlements to entertain the afternoon’s lineup. Then her lips gently curved up as she remembered Brywyn’s orders for her to ride to the abbey this afternoon and escort the priests back to the castle in the morning for weekly prayers. It’s not that the reminder was needed, but that her shoulders—on which she had taken the running of the castle and the overseeing of all its inhabitants—needed a rest.

Closing her eyes, she silently thanked Brywyn for the hundredth time.

“Guin’ver!” The young man’s newly deepened voice broke through her thoughts.

The growing smile softened the lines on her forehead as Guinevere opened her eyes, turned, and waved before running to the steps down to the ground and Cedwyn who waited, as always, impatiently.

Inside the forest, the smoke thinned; the branches acted as a filter, and after an hour’s ride, the air smelled fresher and held a hint of pine. Only when a strong gust rifled through the tree tops did a shower of ash flutter down.

Two horses stood in a small glen munching on tuffs of green within reach of their bridled heads. Reins tied to sturdy branches kept them from wandering. Like their riders, the horses couldn’t have been more different. The biggest horse’s black coat—at over seventeen hands—looked almost grey with the ash and sweat mixed on it. Huge legs with thick white stockings stomped the padded ground more out of habit than a need to keep the flies away The black coarse tail twitched from one side to another for the same reason. Occasionally it tossed its head causing the black and white mane to rustle in the air and to keep the forelock out of its eyes. Unlike the smaller sorrel horse beside it, this was a retired battle mount whose job was to carry a princess and keep her out of harm’s way.

The slender sorrel stood at only fifteen hands, just tall enough to avoid the label of pony, a label it would have reacted to with a snort and a barring of teeth. Patches of white hair over its shoulders and rump spoke of years in a harness and its muscled legs told of a life pulling the war wagon loaded with supplies from camp to camp. Like its friend beside it, this mount was also retired. Both left behind on this current campaign, it having been decided that their duty had been done. The sorrel now was responsible for the boy, the princess’ best friend and loyal follower.

Both horses raised their heads and turned at the thrashing sounds coming from the bushes across the glen. Before seeing the cause, they quickly lowered their heads and hurriedly grabbed at the remaining tuffs of grass, stuffing their mouths. Break time was over.
Guinevere and Cedwyn pushed aside bushes with one hand and entered the clearing Their other hands doing as the horses had—stuffing the last of the wild raspberries into their mouth, and wiping at the escaping juice. Cedwyn spoke first.

“Those berries were almost as good as Cook’s circlette.”

Guinevere nodded, her mouth too full to answer. She took an animal skin filled with water off her horse, drank some, and passed it to Cedwyn. He drank his fill and handed it back.

“Yes, it was,” Guinevere said. “I’m glad we stopped, but if we don’t ride on quickly, it will be too dark to find the turnoff to the abbey.” She slipped a small booted foot into her stirrup and mounted her horse thankful for the split skirt Brywyn made her so she could ride astride. It was clumsy riding sidesaddle. She waited while Cedwyn mounted the sorrel.

A rush of wind found the glen and swirled fallen leaves caught in its grasp round and round like a dervish, a devil’s whirlwind. The war horse’s head jerked up and with ears flattened, it stared back the way they had come. The sorrel imitated it, but with teeth barred. Both horses pranced nervously and shook their heads. The sorrel backed up and prepared to bolt.


  1. Hi Cheryl, fellow workshop partner and a fantasy fan over here. :)

    I want to be honest and helpful here, okay? Okay.

    You are categorizing this as MG, but it reads much older. Everything, from the character's ages, right down to the pacing and the word choice. I'm all for not talking down to kids, trust me, but there is certain heaviness here that you don't find in MG these days. I don't know what happens next, but I thought it was important you considered who are you writing for, exactly.

    And there is too much setting and not enough action. It's a balance we are all struggling to find as writers, I guess. It doesn't have to be all out explosive action, but there has to be some sense of urgency in the pages, and I don't feel it as a reader. Five pages is a lot, and just enough to give up reading and pick up a different book. What I'm trying to say is, I think you want to start some time later in the story. If it really kicks in when they get to the abbey, then maybe you should start as they walk into the abbey? If nothing really happens at the abbey, then maybe even later.

    I love the paragraph where you describe the sorrel. "The slender sorrel stood at only fifteen hands, .." If events are about to begin unfolding now, if there is some sort of a trap they are walking into, then maybe you could even start there. That horse has some character.

    Anyway, I guess my advice is to cut down a bit on description and find just the right start for your story.

    Hope that helps,


  2. HI Cheryl,
    I'm also a fellow workshop participant and I'm a big fan of Arthurian legends. Unfortunately, I've read quite a few versions so it's hard sometimes for me to take a new version on it's own terms, but I'm working hard for your piece! I also write for middle grade readers.
    I feel the piece could be stronger if we started with a character, namely Guinevere, rather than a description of the setting. The ash really threw me off, I thought we were in a land near an erupting volcano that was threatening the people and the ash was a precursor or warning. If I had read the title I wouldn't have had that confusion, but still I'm not sure where the ash is coming from and that distracted me.

    There was another point where your two main characters left the castle and headed into the woods, but I wasn't sure when that happened. I think readers need something more direct between these two paragraphs:

    "The growing smile softened the lines on her forehead as Guinevere opened her eyes, turned, and waved before running to the steps down to the ground and Cedwyn who waited, as always, impatiently.

    Inside the forest, the smoke thinned; the branches acted as a filter, and after an hour’s ride, the air smelled fresher and held a hint of pine. Only when a strong gust rifled through the tree tops did a shower of ash flutter down."

    Just something as simple as "they rode out of the castle gates, Guinevere in the lead as usual" or however you want to say it so we know the setting has shifted.

    You've got a nice command of the language, but it can be a little convoluted at times and I'm curious what age group of middle grade you're going for, I'm guessing older middle grade.

    Also, I didn't quite believe that Guinevere had blood-spotted lips. I think I understand that you want to show us she has been suffering, but the castle's not under siege and she hasn't been tortured, it just seems hard to believe that she would have blood spotted lips, even if she's not living in the heights of luxury. Maybe save that for when she's really in dire danger.

  3. Just to give everyone a frame of reference: This is the second book of the trilogy. In the first book, Guinevere was betrothed to Arthur on the eve of her 13th birthday. At the end of that story, Arthur misses her next birthday because of his trips up north meeting with the different clans. As it turns out here, he has missed more. Also, the break between the scenes is a chapter break. My readers are reluctant readers and, as such, my chapters are short although not necessarily this short. Looking to flesh out this sample. I've toyed with the idea of making the first section a prologue.

    Appreciate all the comments.

  4. Hi Cheryl

    Thanks for submitting your pages. The Arthurian legends are some of my favorites so I relished reading this. As with many great stories, this tale has been told in books and films many times. How will your story breathe new life into this tale?

    You have a wonderful way with description. The scene where you describe the horses is very well done. I did feel, however, that the opening is bogged down a little by the descriptions of wind and weather. I would suggest trimming a little. A few active verbs and adjectives can go a long way in setting a scene. Give your reader a little, and they will fill in the rest.

    I see that this is categorized as middle grade. A retelling of Arthur and Guinevere would be great for that age group, but right now your prose feels a little more sophisticated to me, like YA.

    Think hard about whether you want this to be MG or YA. Right now it feels YA to me. I think it’s said that Guinevere is fifteen. That would definitely be YA.

    Overall, I think you have a strong voice and a great sense of scene and place in your writing. I’d concentrate on the intended target age group and continue to edit. Remember, a little description goes a long way. Think about that when you look at those first few pages again.

    Great start, Cheryl!

  5. Hi Cheryl,
    This is a beautiful start to a retelling of Guinevere and King Arthur, a story I love, which promises so much adventure and war and romance.

    I don't have much new to add to the other comments. I totally agree with what's been said. Since she is 15 and betrothed to marry soon, this is YA. Your voice and the story's scope is definitely YA.

    The opening with all the weather is slow and repeats itself. Just dive right in like this!
    "The north wind blew the ashes of a hundred burned villages to the castle, coating everything in a gray-white color that made Guinevere’s heart ache and her eyes burn." Something like that. You can rewrite how you like!

    But look what that sentence does: We're immediately inside Guinevere's POV (the opening as it’s currently written is very omniscient and we have no idea until paragraph 4 who the book is going to be about, which distances the reader. We have immediate conflict: someone, an army, is burning village and killing people. We can also picture the scene right away, the wind and ash floating down on the castle.
    The conflict could be more specific as well. Conflict is mentioned and freedom is mentioned, but we have no idea who is fighting who and what freedom they’re fighting for. If it’s more personal and specific it helps ground the reader, makes them care more, and helps define your characters.

    I’m also confused about why Guinevere would ride 1-2 HOURS to bring the priests to the castle for prayers? How often does she do this? Why can’t the priests ride to the castle themselves? The countryside seems very dangerous to ride such a long ways. Why would a princess, soon to be queen, do a task such as this if she could be killed? Wouldn’t she be remain at the castle with protection with war raging around them? Why do the priests need to pray at the castle anyway? The motivation of this action seems weak. Defining this would help set up an emotional conflict as well.

    A small thing: “tuffs” should be “tufts”. :-)

    Looking forward to your revision very much! You have a great voice and a beautiful writing style.

    All best,
    Kimberley Little

  6. Hi Cheryl!

    You have some beautiful descriptions in here! I think the overall feel you create matches your setting and character well.

    I did have a hard time getting immersed in the story because it took me some time to connect with Guinevere. I think cutting down the descriptions and more active verbs (as Ronald suggested) will help in this regard. I felt more connected to the narrator than Guinevere until the end.

    Hope this was helpful!

  7. Hi Cheryl
    Nothing beats Arthurian Legend. I Love It!

    Your voice and tone are lovely. Your descriptions, as has been mentioned, are beautiful.
    I did Not have a problem with the 'blood-spotted lips' as this painted a clear picture of how harsh the wind is up there on the parapet!

    I was a little confused with just the last portion of -- A sigh escaped her blood-spotted lips, cracked and sore from a week of standing on this parapet while the wind destroyed the summer in her land -- 'wind destroyed the summer in her land' Isn't summer already gone? I read this as fall is clearly under way as there are swirling fallen leaves everywhere.

    Your words are beautiful. I think the main take-away is: :) I have to do the same thing LOL :) Keep up the great work!

  8. Going to add some background here so that maybe it will help. Although Guinevere is 15, in this second book not only does her mature more, but the character of 10-year-old Cedwyn, who in book 1 was promised he would be made a knight after the marriage, is pushed more onto center stage with the events that happen. At the end of this book, Cedwyn makes an enormous sacrifice so that Guinevere stays safe.

    So with all that, I agree that MG really is not the ideal genre, but neither is YA. It is more of a Tween/Pre-teen story—those fuzzy years between ages 11-15.

    Hope this helps. Thanks for the great feedback. Working on revisions now.

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  10. Cheryl,
    It's already been said that the voice doesn’t feel middle grade and you commented that you agree, so I will not dwell on that point.
    I think your use of imagery is strong. I think it’s brilliant the way we are told about the fighting and the war through the description of the ash and acrid smoke carried from the winter up north.
    There is so much here that piques my curiosity. As someone who is somewhat familiar with the story of Guinevere and King Arthur, what interests me is what will be different about this version? And why are we getting another version of a story that's been told before? The biggest question that these pages raise for me is whose story is it?
    Your title: Guinevere: At the Dawn of Legend—Cedwyn’s Story implies that this story will focus on Cedwyn’s story. We are introduced to Guinevere first. The way this opening reads it feels to me like it’s Guinevere’s story and we are seeing the world from her point of view. Now this may change, but if this is Cedwyn’s story why aren’t we grounded in his point of view before anyone else?
    Instead of first being introduced to “A slender young woman, chin resting on her hands….,”why don’t we first meet Cedwyn waiting impatiently for Guinevere?
    This opening gives us a lot about Guinevere and her back story but Cedwyn is just dropped in without much of any description of him at all.
    When you revise, you may want to try writing this opening from Cedwyn’s point of view. What is he doing while the ashes fall and the Princess that should have been a Queen waits for news of her father and King Arthur?
    I look forward to seeing your revision.