Sunday, June 14, 2015

First 5 Pages June Workshop - Bell Revision 1

Name: Terry Bell
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: The Merciful Crow


Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
Near ten minutes were spent out since he’d vanished into the quarantine hut, and Fie had spent the last seven of them glaring at its gilded door and trying not to pick at a stray thread on her ragged black robes. Taking one minute meant the Sinner’s Plague had finished the boys inside off already. Taking three meant Pa had a merciful end to deliver.
Taking ten was taking too long. Ten meant something had gone sideways. And rustling whispers from the throngs of onlookers meant they knew it too.
Fie gritted her teeth and stared at the courtyard’s tiles until the queasy pinch in her gut retreated. As the only caste that survived handling plague bodies, the Merciful Crows were duty-bound to answer any summons. And as Pa’s chieftain-in-training, she was duty-bound to keep steady now.
These were no different from the hundreds of bodies she’d burned in her sixteen years. No matter that only a few dozen had ever been from the capitol. No matter that fair fewer had been this high-caste.
No matter that Crows hadn’t been summoned here, to the royal palace, in nigh five hundred years.
But the press of flesh in the galleries of the quarantine court said it mattered to the high castes tonight. The aristocrats of the Peacock caste were all flutters and fans and garish rainbows of mourning paint, gawking at the thirteen Crows below like they waited for a show.
The Hawk caste warriors, though – they were much worse. They ringed the red walls of the courtyard, hands anchoring on sword hilts the moment the Crows had dragged their cart through the gate. Those hands hadn’t budged since. And their stony stares said they were waiting for things to go sideways.
The queasy pinch came back; Fie kept her eyes nailed on the door. It stayed damnably shut.
There was a slip of a movement to her left. Hangdog, Pa’s other trainee, had shifted. Torch-flame charred his silhouette, edging it in vivid orange where the light caught tattered robes or the long curve of his beaked mask. From the tilt of his head, he was eyeing the patchouli burners squatting around the hut.
Fie’s own nose wrinkled. She’d stuffed a fistful of wild mint into her own mask’s beak to ward off the plague-stink; she couldn’t fault this fine palace for trying to daub it over as well. She could, however, fault them for their terrible taste in patchouli.
Hangdog’s fingers curled and uncurled. His shoe idly inched toward the burner.
Pa had already threatened to toss them off the Mile-High Bridge if one toe went out of line, but Hangdog was likely itching under so much high-caste attention. She couldn’t fault him either. Those high-caste sneers were begging for some nasty surprise.
But not here, not now. Fie tugged at the hood of her robes, a sign only the other Crows would ken. Don’t make trouble.
Hangdog’s foot slid another half-inch. She could practically smell his grin behind the mask.
Fie looked at the soldiers, then at Hangdog, and resolved to scalp him if they made it out of the palace alive.  
There was a squawk from the hut’s rare-used hinges as Pa stepped outside. Weight peeled from Fie’s shoulders. A broad dark streak stole any light from the front of his robes, spitting only a little damp crimson back. There had been mercy killings after all.
A snaking rattle from behind choked her momentary relief. Any Crow knew the song of quality steel leaving its sheath. Pa turned toward the sound, orange light flashing off his mask’s glassblack eyes. And then he waited.
A hush slithered into the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze, Pa’s silent threat settling over them like a chill.
In the city streets, in millet fields, anywhere from Abharin’s western merchant bays to its cruel mountains of the east, a higher caste could cut the Crows down like a harvest for any invented slight and never lose a blink of sleep.
But plague bodies could rot a town to stone before year’s end. Here in the quarantine court, with two dead boys that could bring the palace down in less than a half-moon – here was where the Crows could not be touched.
There was another rasp as the blade returned to its scabbard. Fie didn’t dare look back. Instead, she fixed on the rumble of Pa’s rough voice: “Pack ‘em up.”
The order was for her and Hangdog. Fie nodded and ducked inside.
The second the door swung shut she cuffed Hangdog upside the head. He cursed in the hut’s thicker darkness.
“What in the twelve hells were you thinking, fooling like that?” she hissed. “The Hawks near gutted Pa for walking out a door, and you’re aiming to try their patience?”
“Aiming to make you mad.” This time she heard Hangdog’s grin. “They can’t afford to cross us anyway.”
“You’re the only one keen to test that,” she snapped, then stopped cold.
Her eyes had adjusted to the little torchlight that bled through canvas window screens, smearing over two pale, formless lumps. The boys were already cocooned in tight linen shrouds, a dark reddish blot seeping through at the throat of each.
Bundling up the stiffs was their job, not Pa’s.
“Maybe he didn’t trust us to get it right.” Hangdog didn’t sound like he was grinning anymore.
Something was sideways. Worry sparked up her spine. “If Pa’s got reasons, he’ll tell us,” she lied anyway. “Sooner these scummers are on the cart, sooner we clear the damn patchouli.”
There was a short, muffled laugh as Hangdog picked up one body by the shoulders. Fie took the feet and backed through the door, feeling every gaze in the courtyard land on her – and then slide to the bloody shroud.
Quiet shrieks ruffled through the Peacock ranks as Fie began to swing the body up onto the cart. Hangdog gave it an extra heave. It toppled onto the wooden boards with an unceremonious thud. A collective gasp swept the galleries.
Pa cleared his throat, muttering pointedly, “Mercy. Merciful Crows.”
“We’ll be nice,” Hangdog said as they headed back inside. He’d just picked up the last body by the feet when he added, “Wager someone faints if we drop this one.”
“Wager Pa hires a skinwitch to take our hides if we do.” Fie shook her head. “Let’s just get out already.”
The second body was met with another round of sobs. Yet once it was loaded and the Crows began to haul their cart toward the hall leading out of the palace, the Peacock courtiers overcame their sorrow enough to jostle at the frothing lattices for a better look. Apparently when the plague struck Peacocks here, it was a spectator sport.
Fie’s skin crawled. Of all the bodies she had ever dragged off to burn, she decided she hated these two most of all.
The long walk down the main corridor was no better. Its tapestry of slick marble tiles whined against the spikes bristling her shoe soles, dulling them with every step. Instead of patchouli, perfume oils now smirched the stagnant air. And worst of all were even more galleries of Peacocks, shuddering daintily in their silks as if the hooded, torch-clutching Crows were no more than a parade of rats.
This was bad business. At this rate the Crows would likely be throttling their payment out at the final gate. 


  1. I am blown away by your revision. The details you have added make me more connected and intrigued by this scene. I am becoming invested in both Fie and Hangdog as characters. I laughed at the detail of Fie putting mint into her mask.

    Your voice is unique. It strayed in this quote from Fie, "“Let’s just get out already.” This sounds like a modern day teen not fitting with the setting and language.

    When Fie "resolves to scalp" Hangdog, I am inclined to take it literally and not playfully as the scene leads to later on.

    You used the term "gone sideways" twice. I didn't know it, so I googled it. I question your use of it in this text that has such an old language feel to it.

    Another comment on style. You often have the subject of your sentence as an inanimate object doing things, such as "A snaking rattle from behind choked her momentary relief." I like the occasional use because it adds variety and poetic language. I just warn you against overuse because I get lost in the wording. Having her hear a snaking rattle places me as the reader in her shoes.

    Overall such a wonderful revision. Congratulations! This story is shaping into quite the YA fantasy!

  2. Wow. This revision is awesome.

    I still love your first line. I love it more each time I read it. The details you've added really clarify the scene and give me a better idea of what's going on.

    I'm going to be really hard pressed here to give you tips for improvement.

    Definitely watch out for passive voice. An example is "Fie’s own nose wrinkled." Fie wrinkled her nose is active. These are the kinds of little things you'll want to weed out as you go through.

    I do think you could stand to add some character details here. Especially regarding Hangdog. I'm getting a pretty good idea of Fie, but Hangdog doesn't quite feel as fleshed out. More specifically, I'd love to get more of an idea of how Fie feels about Hangdog. Also, rather than the Peacocks being just a general crowd, consider allowing Fie to focus in on one or two of them, let them stand for the crowd. What those specific Peacocks do and how Fie views them would really tells us a lot about both characters.

    Also, I wondered as I read if Fie had ever witnessed Pa having to put down plague victims. If she knew what went on behind the closed doors or if it was a mystery to her. In addition, there's a kind of callousness to how she talks and thinks about plague victims, and I wondered if she felt that way about those boys in particular because they were a higher caste or if Fie felt that way about all the plague victims. I can understand how dealing with death all the time might harden her to it, but a little bit of sympathy...a little bit of navel-gazing if you will about how she feels about death would go a long way. I assume the boys have parents (though I could be wrong about that). Does Fie wonder how they feel about losing their boys? Are they in the crowd? I trained as an EMT, and one incident really stood out in my mind. We showed up to the house where a little boy had drowned. He was dead and there was almost no chance of reviving him. We worked on him anyway and, and the EMTs with me were all business. Frighteningly so. After, when we got back to the station, one of the EMTs just walked off into a corner and cried. So if Fie is all business on the outside, but has contradictory feelings on the inside, it might be worthwhile to show a little of that to the readers.

    Honestly, this is really shaping up well, so I can't wait to see your next revision.

  3. Wow, this is intense.

    I feel that I have a better grasp of this world now. I don't know exactly what you revised, but it is clearer to me. So the castes are wary of each other, as enemies? That seemed strange to me. If Fie is there as a Merciful Crow, wouldn't the scene be all about killing the captured plague carriers? Or is it because they are in the Royal palace that things are tense?

    This reads like serious epic fantasy. This world you've created seems real within its first few pages. I think it's the kind of book where the reader really has to pay attention, and not just read while the TV is on. Like George RR Martin's books, you have to pay attention to what is happening on the page.

    It's pretty awesome.

    Great work. I'd read more if I saw this in the bookstore.

  4. Nice job with the revision! The action is much clearer, and the characters are more rounded and well-developed.

    Because I think you're really close, I'll nitpick. I stumbled over the line "But the press of flesh in the galleries of the quarantine court said it mattered to the high castes tonight." I got it on a reread, but it tripped me up the first time, I think because there's so much in there. You're packing a lot of world-building in here, so it's probably worthwhile to slow down and give us a breath now and then.

    I'm not sure what Hangdog is planning to do with the patchouli.

    Does weight peel from shoulders? I think of it as dropping.

    Finally, is Fie pronounced like pie or like fee? I keep going back and forth.

    None of these are big issues. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this and wish I could keep going.

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  6. Holy Revisions! Wow, this is really terrific! I have a better sense of Fie, and I am no longer confused. It reads fluidly, and I want to know what happens next – great job!

    Here’s a couple of suggestions for improvement:

    This sentence made me stop - The aristocrats of the Peacock caste were all flutters and fans and garish rainbows of mourning paint, gawking at the thirteen Crows below like they waited for a show. – Wouldn’t the aristocrats be afraid? Nervous? Sad? Perhaps people they knew were in the hut. And if I was one of them – I would be very worried that I, or someone I loved, was next. I think they would be feeling vulnerable.

    Also, I think you have an opportunity to show the tension between the Hawks and the Peacocks. And I agree with Margaret – the sideways reference (I think you use it 3 times)feels like it doesn’t belong. Also mile-high bridge – you might want to re-think mile as a unit of measurement.

    I think you could be a bit clearer about why she’s angry with Hangdog, and the scalp him reference seemed out of place as well.

    The treatment of the dead boys felt off. I know they are used to taking care of dead bodies, and so they would be business like, but Fie struck me as callous and unfeeling in this scene, going so far as to call them stiffs. You could give her just a line or two of interior thought, about how many times she has done this, and it is still so hard to see, especially someone her age – or something like that. And this line - “We’ll be nice,” Hangdog said as they headed back inside. He’d just picked up the last body by the feet when he added, “Wager someone faints if we drop this one.” – was hard for me to read, knowing it was a boy.

    Lastly, would the Peacocks really be pushing to get closer when this is so infectious? I’d be staying as far away as I could.

    Good luck, and I can’t wait to read next week!

  7. Great revision. I feel grounded. This is Much more understandable now. Before I didn't realize Hangdog and her were both apprenticing with her father and are the same age.

    Hangdog and incense -- intension -- could tighten this sequence. What was he planning? To knock the burner over? You mentioned a nasty surprise. And the "scalp him" seemed like he was planning something bad.

    Also, one toe went out of line is perhaps a bit cliché, plus Hangdog's shoe is inching toward burner so, this slowed down good flow you had going for me.

    I like the mint in mask.

    I agree with what others have said about her callousness, but I figured she has done this a lot and has become desensitized. It would be good to see her internal thoughts, her feelings. Show us how she feels, even if she wears a mask of coldness outside -- or she's happy to have the mask so Hangdog wouldn't see the fear (?) on her face. -- Or so he couldn't read her emotions.

    I wondered if she would scan the crowd to see if she could figure out who the boy's parents were. Or if they stand out to her because they are the only one's not watching as if this were a show put on for their entertainment.

    My comments are quite nitpicky since you've done a wonderful job with this. I can't wait to read your next revision. This would definitely be something I would continue reading.

    Hope this helps.


  8. Brilliant revision. Truly. Brilliant.

    I'd take your characterizations a tiny step farther by really putting yourself into the skin of every character from Fie to Hangdog to the royals to the soldiers to her father and thinking what EXACTLY they are thinking and feeling at every line of your manuscript. What do they want. What are their goals. What emotions are warring within them. See where you can make those reactions and conflicts a little bit clearer.

    It's still tempting at this stage of a manuscript to put words down because they sound beautiful -- as yours so often do! -- but the meaning has to be completely clear, and completely on point, in these crucial first pages. Once you've done the pass for emotion/goal/conflict, go through each line and make sure that the words clearly say what you think they say. Make sure that they are firmly rooted within your world and not within our world. Does scalping exist in your world?

    I am envisioning your caste system similar to the caste system in India, for example, so having been there and being a student of history and mythology, it is quite clear to me. But I wonder if others would have the same clarity and insight into the absolute chasms that castes can open between groups of people. Simultaneously, at the back of my mind, I have a niggling worry that the fact that the Merciful Crows are dealing with plague victims would automatically set them outside of any social construct. Because they are doing a service, one that is feared by others, they wouldn't truly be on the bottom rung of a caste system, but at the same time, they might be worse in some way than the bottom rung but also feared? I'd love a tiny bit more clarity in the reaction of the crowd and in Fie's thoughts to this as a grounding for going into the story.

    Apart from that, truly, truly well done. Bravo!