Sunday, June 21, 2015

First 5 Pages June Workshop -- Bell Revisions 2

Name: Terry Bell
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: The Merciful Crow
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
Near ten minutes were run 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 off the boys inside already. Taking three meant Pa had a merciful end to deliver.
Taking ten was taking too long. Ten meant something was fouled up. And from the whispers sweeping the courtyard, their throngs of onlookers knew it too.
Fie gritted her teeth and stared at the tiled ground 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 her head 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, for nigh five hundred years.
But the crowds of soldiers and aristocrats packing the quarantine court said it mattered to the high castes tonight. It wasn’t easy to search their faces by torchlight, and it only got harder if she found family in the audience, but Fie had kept the habit since the first time an angry next-of-kin had trailed them out.
From the looks of it, the latticed galleries were all Peacock-caste courtiers, fluttering in mourning paints and ornamental woe as they gawked from a safe distance, hungry for scandal. Fie relaxed a hair. If any of the sinners’ kin were there, their shame would be the Peacock’s main attraction. Instead they were transfixed by the spectacle of thirteen Crows below, awaiting a show.
The Hawk-caste warriors ringing the red walls weren’t likely relations, but Fie eyeballed them anyhow, taking no chances. Their hands had anchored on their sword hilts the moment the Crows had dragged their cart through the gate, and hadn’t budged since. There was no grief in their stony stares. They weren’t waiting on a show. They were waiting for the Crows to foul up.
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 by the cart. 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 wrinkled her nose. 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. His shoe idly inched toward the burner.
Anywhere else and she’d have ‘accidentally’ punted the patchouli herself. Hangdog was likely itching under so much high-caste attention, and the sneering arcades above 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 toward the burner. Fie could practically smell his grin behind the mask. Pa called him two-second clever: too fond on making fools of others, never catching that his purse got cut while he ran his mouth.
Fie looked at the soldiers, then at Hangdog, and resolved to scalp him if the Hawks didn’t do it for her first.  
There was a squawk from the hut’s rare-used hinges as Pa stepped outside, a broad damp streak down the front of his robes. There had been mercy killings after all.
Fie’s relief lasted half a heartbeat before metal rasped horribly behind them.
Any Crow knew the song of quality steel being drawn. She’d missed kin in the crowd after all. But Pa only turned toward the sound, torchlight flashing off his mask’s glassblack eyes. And then he waited.
A hush iced over the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze at Pa’s silent threat.
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.
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 rattle 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.”
 “I’ll handle the moppets,” Hangdog said, starting forward.
“Not on your own.” Pa shook his head and motioned for Fie. “They’re bigger than you.”   
Fie blinked. She’d expected tots, not lordlings near grown.
She followed Hangdog inside. The second the door swung shut she cuffed him 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 filtering through canvas window screens. The overgrown lordlings were already cocooned in tight linen shrouds on red-stained pallets, a blot seeping through at the throat of each.
Bundling up the dead 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 off. “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 alight 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.
Fie wanted to kick him.
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.”
Fie shook her head. “No ‘we’, halfwit. Pa can sell your hide to a skinwitch, not mine.”
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 Peacocks overcame their sorrow enough to jostle at the lattices for a better look.
Fie’s skin crawled. Of all the bodies she had ever dragged off to burn, she decided she hated these two most of all.


  1. You've done an amazing job with this. Everything is very clear and your world is coming across really well now. You've painted a great picture with your voice the details you've provided.

    The additions of her scanning the crowd for mourners works really well, as does the addition of her having done this for 16 years. Although that did make me question how old she is, so at what age did she start her training?

    Small thing, but it hung me up: ...vivid orange where the light caught tattered robes or the long curve... I would change "or" to "and" -- the "or" threw the description off for me.

    I got hung up a bit on Pa's description of Hangdog. It didn't flow as well as your other descriptions.

    The addition of the corpses being adults instead of the kids Fie and Hangdog expected adds more intrigue.

    It might be good to give us a small reminder that she and Hangdog have been doing this for a long time. An idea, after Hangdog says that Pa doesn't trust them to get it right, maybe you could have her say something like, "After all these years?"

    This has really shaped up to be an amazing opening. I would read the rest and now I want to.


  2. Your revisions have transformed your story. I get it now and want to know more. You've built a clear world as well as intrigue about the plight of your characters. I can't imagine where this will go (and want to know!)
    I also like the addition of Fie scanning the crowd. You've also worked in more active voice which makes the action easier to follow. Great job. Good luck with this story.

  3. Terry - Thank you so much for allowing me to see these revisions. You have really transformed this opening, and I want more.

    I love that you added her looking into the crowd. It really made it more personal, made me feel like these were real people in the crowd looking on. Your additions here have just been great. Honestly, I'm hard pressed at this point to offer any advice to make this opening stronger. The best advice I could give you is to take what you've done here with these first five pages and apply it to the rest of your manuscript. If you do that, I definitely think you'll get an agent's interest.

    Really great job. Good luck!

  4. Terry this is such a great revision. It is so much clearer now! As you revise the rest of the manuscript remember, remember that you don’t want an info dump, but if the reader is trying to figure out what’s going on it takes them out of the story.

    Fie’s looking into the crowd is a great touch. It humanizes them, and it humanized her. I love how her first thought is for the crows safety – it really drove home for me that they are powerful only in this situation, but that power has its limits. I felt nervous reading this – a good thing!

    One thing that I’d love to be a bit clearer – what is Pa’s silent threat? Didn’t he just look at them? Maybe a bit more there.

    Also, handdog throwing that body made me not like him at all. His callousness still bothers me – also his threatening to drop it. It made me wonder why Pa would put up with his fooling in such a charged situation. I know you want to show him a bit of a trouble maker, an imp, but perhaps have it not only involve the dead.

    Good luck with this – keep us updated!

  5. Thank you for letting me read these first five pages! The opening line is outstanding... SO scary, it immediately hooked me. Also the tension that you building is tremendous. The more I read, the more my OWN stomach got a "queasy pinch" just like Fie's! You have amazingly vivid descriptions like having to stuff her mask with mint so she wouldn't smell the plague-stink. I could completely visualize the scene in my head using more senses than just sight, which I love about your writing!

    Seeing as I'm not a huge fantasy reader, I have a few questions that might seem elementary, but here they are:
    * Is Hangdog a person, or some sort of creature?
    * Pa is Fie's father, but not Hangdog's, right? Hangdog is just one of the two "assistants" that cart away the dead bodies for Pa.
    * Why are they called Crows? (Hangdog and Fie)
    * What is it that was so bad about the 2 dead bodies (compared to ones in the past) that made Fie hate them most of all? (Or is that just a tease of something we will find out later on?)

    You have set up a VERY vivid scene that captures the readers attention and imagination immediately, and keeps it for all five pages. Well done! Other than those few questions, I don't have anything negative to say, or much to revise. Keep up the great work, and if the rest of the manuscript is as captivating as this, I'm sure you'll find your match quite quickly! Best wishes, Tina

    ~ Tina P. Schwartz, Founder & Literary Agent, The Purcell Agency, LLC

  6. Terry,
    I've enjoyed this throughout, and I continue to. You've got beautiful descriptions and compelling action. Just a few things: First, I was a little thrown by the kin drawing a sword in the crowd. Wouldn't that be kind of far away? I liked the earlier sequence where it was one of the guards on the wall drawing an arrow (if I'm recalling correctly). And second, I want to be a counterpoint to the idea above that Fie and Hangdog should be more sad about the deaths. I think it's believable that they'd be pretty distanced and macabre, given what they do for a living, and given their place in society. It also allows for a nice character arc, if that's what you're going for. Anyway, it wasn't too macabre for me. All in, nice work, and best of luck with this!

  7. Hi Terry,

    Truly solid work! You've really transformed these pages, and they were already good to begin with. I'm seeing something that I can definitely picture being published by several different imprints/publishers, and if I can picture that, I'm pretty certain that agents will have specific editors in mind as they read.

    I'm happy and impressed that you've really rounded Fie out and humanized her. There's much more depth here than there was at the beginning, and i love that. Now a few specifics. . .

    I would consider pulling the second paragraph into the first. Separating it breaks rhythms and loses the flow. Also consider saying the "onlookers suspected" instead of "knew" -- if the Crows haven't been there in 500 years, you don't want to have the reader stopping to consider that word and wondering how they knew.

    Is the courtyard tiled? I get something like Moorish or Indian tiles from that. Is that the image you're going for? (Just checking, not suggesting a change!)

    The connection between queasy gut and keeping her head clear isn't perhaps as smooth as it could be.

    If they haven't been to the palace in 500 years, saying that "fair fewer had been this high caste" is a little confusing still. Could you smooth that out?

    You're very subtle about the killings -- which is fine, but leaves a little confusion Your "a broad damp streak down the front of his robes. There had been mercy killings after all" leaves room for that to be either sweat or blood. Later in the story, I would love to have this left there, but this early on when the reader is trying to get their feet under them, it might be better to go ahead and opt for the blood so that the reader can keep reading without wondering.

    I'd also love to have Pa's threat clearer. Are you suggesting that Pa could leave the bodies? This is critical information. Without it, we have no context to go on and our interpretation of the crows is up in the air.

    And finally, if your connection between Fie hating the two bodies more than any others is that the crowd is jostling, I'd love more of a sense of threat in that jostling.

    Best of luck with this, Terry! You've done a FANTASTIC job and I have no doubt we'll be seeing much more of this. I'll be looking forward to reading it.