Sunday, April 5, 2015

First 5 Pages April Workshop - Ellie

Name: Ellie
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: The Wicked and the Dark

Caetlin had expected to find her brother's dead body. What she hadn't expected was to find nothing at all. It wasn’t like she wanted to find a body at all, but Jax had been missing after his patrol for far too long—even for him.

Jax liked to play tricks on his sisters, but he never disappeared on a patrol for longer than it took to scare whoever’s turn it was after his. He was serious enough about protecting their patrons that he wouldn’t pull a trick that would get in the way.

The tunnels below Dorme weren't just infested with Shadeu, but—worse still—rival cabals, out to knock other families out and take their clients for their own. There were only so many people that lived in the city, which meant there were only so many pockets to pay the cabals for protection. One less group of guardians meant the clients had to find a new cabal to pay.

A frown tugged at Caetlin’s mouth behind her metal mask. Something was definitely wrong. She didn’t want to jump to conclusions and scare Eloise and Peony, only to have their brother pop up later. Jax wasn’t just their older brother—he was their leader, the family’s first born, and only male in the family. He was the strongest of them all. Caetlin refused to believe he could have been killed by a shadow beast or a rival guard.

And if word got around about the leader of the Three Bell cabal being gone, then they would lose their own clients for appearing weak.

-No. Don't think like that. He could just be wounded, overwhelmed, or hiding. Perhaps trapped...Maybe he fell asleep somewhere… Caetlin thought, trying to justify her brother missing for so long without as much as a note.

"Damn you, Jax." Caetlin growled into the tunnel's dark crevices, the words muffled behind her face mask. All the cabal members wore masks to conceal their identity and their voices. Not really a rule, but more as a precaution. If a cabal with bad intentions found out a rival’s identity, they could take advantage during the day, when they were defenseless. Tunnel guards didn’t carry weapons above ground under their dresses and suits; too conspicuous and bulky. Only the mayor’s watch carried weapons during the daytime.

Her watch began two hours ago and she'd already checked the closest tunnels and territories under their protection. Jax should have met her under the family’s estate and been back in bed, but instead he was missing and Caetlin’s nerves were on edge.

Not a single Shadeu or opposing cabal member had been spotted the whole time she’d been on watch. It wasn't rare, but it wasn’t common either. There were nights when she had killed ten shadow lurkers in a single section, and other nights when there were none in any sectors—at least ones under the Three Bells, her cabal's protection.

Still; there was something going on, her instincts were going crazy and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. The air felt electrified with lurking eyes, watching her as she crept through the stone underground corridors.

She was in the far south of the city, close to their home, kicking up black ash and dust as she waited for her guard duty to end.  Her younger sister, Peony’s, watch would be next, then followed by her older sister, Eloise’s. Maybe they’d have better luck finding their older brother. Their parents had been up in Nahljie for a month, looking into some orchards, so they wouldn’t be of any help.

The silence was suddenly broken by the shuffling of feet. A sound that would usually be soft and light echoed like grating chains. The scraping crawled through the dark tunnels, over the cobblestones and rocky walls, right under Caetlin’s skin. No one would make such a ruckus while traveling underground unless they wanted to be heard.

Jax. Caetlin thought; hope soared in her chest. She sprinted around the corner, saw a shadowy human figure and stopped short.

A man shambled towards her, slumped; he held the side of his stomach. All the hope Caetlin’s chest crashed. The man in front of her wasn't Jax. This person was dressed in a black and grey tunic, with a hood and matching pants. His face was covered by a metal mask, but she couldn’t make out the design on it with his head flopped onto his chest. It was a member from another cabal. Her hand hovered over the dagger at her side as her eyes skimmed over his weapons; two swords at his back and three daggers at his sides.

He wasn’t really a man—more like a boy—no… not a boy either. He was around her age, maybe eighteen or so. Tall; then again, most people are taller than her five foot-almost two-inches. If she were to guess with him hunched over, she’d say he was about five or six inches taller than herself; much shorter than her brother, and lean compared to her brother’s bulk.

He lurched towards her, his hand going out. Instinctively, Caetlin palmed her dagger hilt and shifted her feet to root herself. “Who are you?” She demanded. Did he get wounded fighting Jax?

The cabal guard didn’t say anything before he collapsed forward and crumpled to the ground.

Caetlin watched him for a few moments, noting how his back moved slowly and shallowly as he breathed. He was unconscious, not dead—at least not yet.

Usually the protocol for this type of situation would be to leave him there to be found by either a lurking Shadeu or—hopefully for the person—one of their own cabal members. But he wasn’t in his own section; he was in hers, which made it her cabal’s problem. She couldn’t just leave him as bait to draw Shadeu into their territory; they’d have a swarm of them in, and then it would be her problem.

With a muffled string of curses, Caetlin stalked over to a broken stone pillar with their seal etched on it, and pulled open a hidden rock door. Inside the small hole was a wire. She tugged it three times and replaced the rock.

The contact mechanism was their great-grandmother’s invention. There were hidden wires all through the Three Bell’s territories, connected to a map hung in their home, in the changing room. If someone was in trouble and needed back up, or found something, they’d pull the cord, which would ring a bell on the map, alerting the house. After the bell rang, it would stay lifted on the map, so they would know which bell had rung, until someone pushed it back down.

Eloise and Peony would be there within ten minutes. Peony wouldn’t mind as much, since her shift started after Caetlin’s, at one, but Eloise always had the early morning route from three thirty until sunrise, and wouldn’t get as much rest now.

While she waited for Eloise and Peony to show up, Caetlin crouched over the fallen boy. He was outfitted in typical cabal style; dark clothing with a hood, leather armor for his front and back, fingerless gloves. Shining metal armor overlapped each plate up his arms and legs. She pushed him over onto his back. His metal mask covered his lower face, delicately designed like a beast’s jaw clamping down and bearing its teeth.

13 comments:

  1. Hi there! I’m really liking the world you’ve created in this story. You’ve established the perfect mood of dark and dank and potentially dangerous. And I love that the girls are guards and fighters just like the boys. You’ve also opened your story with a question—where is Jax?—which is always a great idea, to keep the reader interested and turning pages to find the answer.

    As for suggestions for improvement…

    I’d like to see a little more emotion from Caetlin regarding Jax’s disappearance. The first paragraph talks about her expecting to find her brother’s dead body, but she doesn’t seem all that upset—at most, she looks a little annoyed. Her emotions just don’t seem to match the circumstances. If you could zero in on this and narrow down exactly what she’s feeling for the reader, I think it would be helpful, so we’ll know just how worried or scared we should be, too.

    Secondly, there’s quite a bit of telling/explaining that is pulling me out of the story. I noted a few places as I was reading:

    “The tunnels below Dorme weren't just infested with Shadeu, but—worse still—rival cabals, out to knock other families out and take their clients for their own. There were only so many people that lived in the city, which meant there were only so many pockets to pay the cabals for protection. One less group of guardians meant the clients had to find a new cabal to pay.”

    “All the cabal members wore masks to conceal their identity and their voices. Not really a rule, but more as a precaution. If a cabal with bad intentions found out a rival’s identity, they could take advantage during the day, when they were defenseless. Tunnel guards didn’t carry weapons above ground under their dresses and suits; too conspicuous and bulky. Only the mayor’s watch carried weapons during the daytime.”

    “The contact mechanism was their great-grandmother’s invention. There were hidden wires all through the Three Bell’s territories, connected to a map hung in their home, in the changing room. If someone was in trouble and needed back up, or found something, they’d pull the cord, which would ring a bell on the map, alerting the house. After the bell rang, it would stay lifted on the map, so they would know which bell had rung, until someone pushed it back down.”

    (continued below)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Part 2:

    As someone who writes almost exclusively fantasy, I know how hard it can be, because if the reader doesn’t understand the fantastical elements of the world, they’re going to be lost. On the other hand, if you explain too much, it slows the pace and you run the risk of the reader losing interest. I’ve found that it’s best to show as much of this as possible, so the reader is learning about the unusual setting through the context of the current story instead of the story being interrupted by paragraphs of narrative to tell what’s going on.

    For example, with the paragraph that explains Dorme, the Shadeus, and the cabals: this is necessary information, but I think it can be divvied up and shared through the context of the story, instead of being explained separately in its own paragraph. Maybe Alyssa creeps on down the tunnel, listening for signs of a Shadeu or the telltale sounds that mean another cabal member is encroaching on their territory. To add to this, when she hears the footsteps approaching at the end of the passage, perhaps there’s something about the sound that tells her it isn’t her brother because the Three Bells guards wear leather shoes instead of steel-toed ones.

    By sprinkling clues like this throughout (as the story is happening) you show readers the information you want them to know without stopping the story to explain it. I would go back through your passage and mark every instance where something has been explained to the reader. First, see if any of it can be cut completely due to it not being necessary at this point in the story. My gut tells me that you could cut the paragraph about the contact mechanism. Readers don’t need to know right now how it all works; it’s enough that Alyssa pulls it and expects her sisters to arrive momentarily.

    After that, look at the information that absolutely must be shared right now, and see how you can show that info through the context of the story without having to stop the story to explain it. When possible, scatter these bits about so the reader is learning things here and there instead of in big chunks.

    The show-don’t-tell thing is hard to get a grip on; if you’d like more info, check out the book Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, by Browne and King. They cover this issue extensively and really helped me to identify telling spots and rewrite them in a way that keeps the story moving forward.

    Best of luck with your rewrite. I look forward to seeing it next week!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful critique!! It helps so much and I can't wait to revise!! And I will definitely be checking out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers :)

      Delete
  3. Hi Ellie. I like the mood of your story. I’m imagining an old city without strong governance, such that mafia-like organized gangs are an accepted part of how things work — and our main characters are part of one. Intriguing.

    Your opening sentence grabs me right away. Your next sentence is a little confusing, though. It sounds like she was expecting to find SOMETHING, even if it’s not her brother’s body.

    While the world you’re building is compelling, I don’t think we need to know this much about it so early. For instance, knowing that she (and the stranger) wears a mask is enough right now: we don’t need to know why yet. In fact, letting us speculate a little can be more fun.

    This balance of information and scene is something I’m struggling with right now. There are certain things that I feel like the reader NEEDS to know, right this minute. But make the scene a compelling scene first, and the rest will follow. I probably failed on that advice in my own opening, though. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the critique! I'm so glad you felt the Mafia-like organization, because that was one of my inspirations when I first started brainstorming :)
      And yees, information spreading is so hard! haha

      Delete
  4. The third paragraph was an abrupt shift that took me a bit by surprise. I recovered, but the explanation of the cabals seemed a bit awkward. The discussion of the birth order was really unnecessary, outside of the fact that the only male was the one in charge. I can't put my finger on a problem here, but by the end, I wasn't as concerned about the boy as I was about the communication device. I'm not sure if that is as it should be or not. Probably a little less description on that would be enough. I ended wondering what kind of society is it that cares so little about life and what kind of society only guards the underground and never the above-ground. And I wondered why they are so focused on the ground under their own land when they are supposed to be thugs for hire? If they are landed, they should have another way to make money. That seemed a bit off.

    I liked the characterization of Jax in paragraph 2; it was a nice way to make us care about him. We got a little bait and switch with the other boy, but it is easy to see that the boys could be tied together with an event. I'm just interested enough to keep reading awhile longer.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the critique, some great points :)

      Delete
  5. Hey Ellie,
    What an awesome setting you've established. You have a cool premise here to build on. You’ve set this dark and chilling scene, but the over telling of the story kind of “defangs” it.

    If you took out most of the explanations and just let the scene naturally happen, I think it would be a lot stronger – addition by subtraction. The bones are there for a really intense scene but every time you describe (show don't tell), it takes the reader out of the moment.

    I’m a big fan of Kings self-editing book. In it, I learned the importance of avoiding Passive Tense. Ex. The silence was suddenly broken by the shuffling of feet. King would probably turn that into: The sound of shuffling feet broke the silence – or possibly - Shuffling feet broke the silence. Caetlin grabbed the dagger will always sound better than The dagger was grabbed by Caetlin. Just a thought.

    Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy, but as Stephen king says in On Writing – “Do as I say, not as I do”. :)

    I really like your haunting style. Good luck and I’m looking forward to your first revision.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much for the critique, it helps a lot! Looks like I'll need to get my hands on a few awesomely recommended books after this :P

      Delete
  6. Hi Ellie,

    I love that you’ve established this story as fantasy right off the bat, and the setting is dark and dangerous. Great job with that! And you hooked me with your opening lines:

    Caetlin had expected to find her brother's dead body. What she hadn't expected was to find nothing at all. It wasn’t like she wanted to find a body at all, but Jax had been missing after his patrol for far too long—even for him.

    Great! But we go from that mystery to a description of their world with too many details. You have a great start – stick with it. Let us see her peer around every corner, her heart pounding – relieved she didn’t find Jax’s dead body, and terrified of what she would find. While she searches for him the details of your world could come out. In the distant shadows she saw a metal mask like a (something scary) but, it was only a person from a different cabel than hers. She only prayed the Shadeu hadn’t found Jax… Something like that. Watch out for clichés – hair standing on end, for example.

    Moving to the mysterious boy – she seems to have totally forgotten about her brother. And her sister won’t be mad she woke her – she’ll want to help find Jax! If you don’t want the focus of these pages to be on finding the brother, and the emotions and reasonings that would go along with that, find another opening. Perhaps her stumbling across this boy. Just something to think about as you revise.

    Good luck, I look forward to reading next week!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the input! I can't wait to get cracking on editing!!

      Delete
  7. Hi Ellie,

    You've done such a great job at establishing your world. I get a great sense of a dirty, dark, and dangerous place. Like another commenter mentioned, it's great that girls are guards in your world. I love books with strong female characters that break the gender roles of our society!

    A few suggestions:

    I really like the first line, but then I was thrown by the "What" at the start of the next sentence. I suggest just starting with "She hadn't expected to find"

    The third paragraph was a little too "telling" for me. I firmly believe that there is a time for showing and a (less frequent) time for telling (I'm not one of those "always show and never tell" people) but I think this tipped the scales too heavily towards telling. Could this information be sprinkled throughout the piece so it doesn't overwhelm the reader all at once? I felt this way again with the part beginning with "all the cabal members wore masks to conceal their identity..."

    The fact that Jax is missing was repeated in the first couple of pages a few too many times for me. This is more of a personal preference thing though; I don't like it when authors think that I, as the reader, have already forgotten something that was just mentioned.

    I really loved the line about "kicking up black ash and dust". It gave me a great visual of the world.

    The paragraph explaining the contact mechanism seemed a little too telling. As a reader, I didn't need much more explanation that just knowing the wire connected to a bell in the house.

    Overall, I think you've got some great worldbuilding in this piece and I would like to see more! Can't wait to see the revisions next week! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment! Really helpful :)

      Delete