Sunday, June 7, 2015

First 5 Pages June Workshop - Bell

Name: Terry Bell
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: The Merciful Crow
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
It had been near ten minutes since he’d vanished into the quarantine hut, and Fie had spent the last seven of them glaring at the gilded door and trying not to pick at a stray thread on her ragged black robes. Taking one minute likely meant Pa found the boys dead. Taking three meant he had mercy to hand down.
Taking ten was taking too long. And it likely meant something had gone sideways.
Fie gritted her teeth until the queasy pinch in her gut retreated. There was no call for trouble. The other Crows flanking the drag-cart were stiff as posts in the torchlight, even Hangdog to her left, who hated being ogled even more than Fie did. He had to be itching under the stares of the courtier crowds wreathing the quarantine court galleries. The Sinner’s Plague didn’t often strike the Peacock caste within the capitol, but apparently when it did, it was a spectator sport. They certainly seemed to be waiting for a show.
But those wreaths were thorny with soldiers. And they were staring like they wanted the Crows to make a move.
The queasy pinch came back.
From the tilt of Hangdog’s beaked mask, he was eyeing the incense burners outside the fancy little hut. Fie’s own nose wrinkled. Plague-stink she was used to; she couldn’t fault the royal palace for trying to daub that over. She could, however, fault them for their taste in patchouli.
She pursed her lips. Probably there was enough time to kick the burners over before Pa finished up with the two plagued sinners. Probably Hangdog would help.
Probably that was why Pa had threatened to toss them both off Mile-High Bridge if even one toe went out of line. And that was if the Peacocks didn’t get to them first.
The Merciful Crows hadn’t been summoned to drag plague bodies out of the royal palace for somewhere about five hundred years. Being summoned now was no honor, just a dangerous oddity. Higher castes got fussy when the Sinner’s Plague ate one of their own. Capitol Peacocks were about as fussy as you got, and it was even easier for them to make people vanish off the Mile-High.
Fie huffed in her mask, and let the patchouli be.
As if Pa had heard her, the gold-painted hut door squawked on rare-used hinges, and he stepped out. A broad dull streak swallowed all light hitting the front of his robes, and it only spat a little dark, damp crimson back.
A ripple fluttered through the galleries of Peacock nobles, all rich silks, flitting fans, and rainbows of greasy mourning paints, as garish as the frothing lattices they crowded behind. The sight made Fie’s skin crawl.
But the Hawk soldiers were worse. The moment the hut door opened, hundreds of hands went to hundreds of sword hilts in a single smooth motion. And then they stayed there.
The beak of Pa’s mask turned toward the soldiers, orange light sliding off its glassblack disc eyes. A hush slithered into the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze, Pa’s warning settling over them like a chill.
In the city streets, in millet fields, from Abharin’s western merchant bays to its cruel mountains of the east, Fie had never once met someone happy to see the Crows coming, but there wasn’t a single town that didn’t need them just the same. Plague bodies could rot a town down to stone before year’s end. Only the Crow caste could handle the corpses without catching it themselves.
Anywhere else, and the higher castes could cut them down like a harvest for any invented slight. But here in the quarantine court, with two bodies that could bring the palace down in less than a half-moon – here was where the Crows could not be touched.
First one Hawk hand lifted from a hilt, then another and another, until the only threat came from hundreds of razor-sharp glares. Then Pa’s rough voice rumbled out: “Pack ‘em up.”
The order was meant for Fie and Hangdog, as befit them as his chieftains-in-training. Fie nodded, swallowing, and ducked through the doorway as hundreds of Hawk eyes followed her inside.
The only illumination was what little torchlight bled through the canvas window screens, smearing over two pale, formless lumps. The boys had already been shrouded up in the customary linen, a blot of darkness at the head of each. Her mouth quirked in a grimace. It was a mercy to put sinners out of their pain, but only a mercy for the sinners. At least Pa had taken care of the mess.
“Think we made him mad?”
Fie jumped at Hangdog’s voice. “What?”
He jerked his head at the bodies. “Should’ve been our job, bundling the stiffs. Maybe Pa didn’t trust us to get it right.”
Fie’s stomach twisted. “If Pa’s got reasons, he’ll tell us,” she lied. “Sooner these scummers are on the cart, the sooner we clear the damn patchouli.”
There was a short, muffled laugh as Hangdog picked up one shroud by the shoulders. Fie took the feet and backed through the door, feeling every gaze in the courtyard land on her again – and then slide to the bloody shroud.
Quiet shrieks ruffled through the Peacock galleries. Fie sighed and nodded to Hangdog. They heaved the body onto the cart with an unceremonious thud.
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 five of ‘em faint if we drop it, and wager Pa hires a skinwitch to take our hides when 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 pull the cart toward the hall leading out of the palace, the Peacocks overcame their sorrow enough to cluster by the golden lattices as the cart passed by, jostling for a better look.
Of all the bodies Fie had ever dragged off to burn in her sixteen years, 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.
At this rate they’d be throttling the viatik fee out at the gate. No chance it’d be anywhere near fair recompense for marching the twenty miles here double-time.
Fie’s fingers tightened on her rope. Caste law was good as iron, even if the sneering arcade of Peacocks thought themselves above the plague. One broken taboo and they could leave death itself in this fine hall, and let them learn the price of sin firsthand.
Then her gaze snagged on a curiosity. The ground-floor gallery for palace staff was silent as the bodies in the cart – and not for want of watchers. The servants nearly outnumbered the courtiers above, and their grief was more than ornamental.
The hairs the back of Fie’s neck rose. Nobody liked Peacocks that much.


  1. This is a new and terrible world. I feel the oppression, the illness, the stench. I don't read a great deal of fantasy but my students love it.

    In this section, I do not know much about your characters. I am not even sure if they are human. I want to know who Pa is. Who are the boys? Who is Fie? I need to know them to feel anything for them.

    When the story turns to Crows and Peacocks, I get totally confused.

    My students are fans of Rick Riordan. While I don't think you need to follow a formula, you may want to read the first pages of one of his books. Do they weigh heavily on the world building or characters? For me to want to read about such a terrible place, I need to care about the characters first.

  2. That is definitely an attention-grabbing first line! It reminds me of Charlotte's Web. Your opening pulls me in, and I really like your MC, who comes off to me as scrappy and tough, but also caring in that she's worried about her dad.
    I agree with the comment above that I could use a little more spoon-feeding in this new world you're creating. I started getting confused around the line about the Crows flanking the drag-cart. What are Crows? What's a drag-cart? Consider a bit more telling in there, to make it easier on us. Alternatively, I think your paragraph that starts "In the city streets..." is really helpful; you could move that up to help avoid the confusion.
    I got a bit of a Hunger Games vibes from this, with the capitol and the peacock caste.
    Overall, I'm really intrigued and would definitely keep reading. Oh, and you have some really beautiful descriptions. Best of luck!

  3. Hi Shaun, this is certainly intriguing. It makes me think of Game of Thrones meets Steven Erikson's Malazan books.

    I think you know this world of yours very well. I believe you have put a lot of time and effort into the world-building: The crows, the peacocks, a caste system, masks, a great plague...

    Trouble is, I'm a little confused to exactly what is happening. Now, don't get me wrong. I love your prose and the voice. You are clearly a talented writer, but for an agent to ask for more, she'll need to know EXACTLY what is happening. We get a lot thrown at us in these first few pages. Perhaps rethink this and try not to give us as much backstory right away. Concentrate on Fie (cool name) Who is she? How old is she? Where is this story taking place?

    As I said, you know this story like the back of your hand, but your readers are jumping in cold. I know a lot of fantasy stories dive right in with history and unfamiliar words, but it still needs to be clear.

    Please don't be discouraged. As I said, I think you have a brilliant voice. We just need a little more explanatory details. I'm looking forward to seeing how this progresses!

  4. Uh, I meant to say Terry, not Shaun!

  5. Hi Terry! Thank you for posting this :)

    So first of all: color me intrigued. I love the way you jump right into this. I believe it's okay to leave readers a little confused in the beginning, to dive in and let them play catch up. It's definitely a gamble—some readers will be turned off by this, and you'll have to pay off their patience sooner rather than later—but it can definitely be worth it.

    I think I'd love to get a little more character in these first few pages through. I don't mind being confused some about the Crows and the Peacocks and how long the plague has been going on (though I hope it will all become more clear later) so long as I've got some great characters to latch onto and root for. I kind of like Fie right now, but I don't feel like I really know too much about her yet. Obviously, you don't want to front-load the whole thing with character exposition, but you can use the opportunity to give readers some kind of unique quality about the character that makes us like her or is intriguing or even something that makes us distrust or hate her (if you're going for an unlikeable narrator). Just something that makes the character stand out. Because, really, I'll follow a great character through a book even if the book doesn't make any sense.

    So I feel like you're building your world (and I think you're doing a great job with that so far), but I think you might lose readers if you don't balance the world-building out with a great character moment or two.

    I can't wait to see your revisions!

  6. Hi Terry!

    Wow – I love your voice. It is so unusual and attention grabbing, I was immediately pulled in. I think voice is the hardest thing to nail – and you’ve done it. Great job!

    Like others have commented, I was confused. You don’t want the dreaded info dump, but a few lines here and there would go a long way to give the reader a sense of what’s going on. Try writing a paragraph summing up that moment in time – i.e., there are castes, and the lowest is Crows….. then look at the main essence of it and try to boil it down to a couple of sentences. That often helps me avoid the info dump, but also give the reader enough not to be confused.

    I have a sense of Fie – but I’d like more. As Shaun said, a good character will draw the readers in and keep them reading. And that’s what you want. I can’t wait to read your revision!

  7. Wow beginning and a very interesting voice and story promise-- once I got into it. It did take me a couple rereads at first to understand what is going on.

    I didn't understand that the mc was a Crow, or what that was, or that this society had a caste system until later. We need to get a better understanding of your world and who the MC is earlier.

    This is a world and a premise I'm very interested in and overall you have a great set up and caste of characters, and there is a lot more I want to know. I would read more, hoping things become more clear as we go along. I am intrigued and there's a lot to digest here. The information you've provided is very compelling, however I want to get to know who Fie is, what race, human or otherwise. Again grounding. Set the scene for the new reader not familiar with your cool world.

    You have some great descriptions and imagery, now use that talent to let us see Fie and her world more. I'm really looking forward to seeing your revision. Great stuff!


  8. Hi, Terry,

    WOW! Phenomenal voice, great opening line and situation, and fantastic world-building! Hats off. This has all the makings of a winner!

    Now, because you're obviously a pro, I'm going to jump right into the areas for improvement. I'm happy to have world-building slivered in. That's always, for me, the best way to handle it, and for the most part, you've done it very, very well. There are places where I feel we've lost something though, and you have to be a little careful here to let the reader feel grounded enough in the world to follow the action and the stakes.

    There are ways to do that while simultaneously increasing the tension. For example, I'd love for you to give us an establishing shot early on to show the tension of the soldiers and what could happen if something goes awry. The information that the Merciful Crows haven't been summoned to the royal palace in five hundred years along along with hands on sword hilts would bring tension even more to the forefront. The fact that Fie's father has been in the quarantine hut for a while longer should make others nervous, and that would maybe put those hands on sword hilts faster, showing the contrast between the tension of the soldiers and the gawking of the populace, and it would give you an opportunity to show that the populace hasn't had to face this threat themselves. The soldiers, presumably, would know about the threat if it exists outside the palace.

    Your information is all in here. I suggest that you take a highlighter, underline wherever you are introducing something critical for readers to know, and make sure that all those nuggets of information are in the best order and best place, and see how you can use them to showcase emotion or the story question.

    Avoid introducing superfluous questions this early on by leaving things unclear. For example:

    "But those wreaths were thorny with soldiers. And they were staring like they wanted the Crows to make a move."

    I don't understand what a wreath is here, although I love the figurative language you use.

    Similarly, consider using a complete term or adding just a hint of context detail to avoid misconception the first time you introduce a term. Using "Crows" by itself unnecessarily brings in Game of Thrones ideas and confusion, whereas if you started us off with Merciful Crows, we'd be better grounded. The masks are another place where a bit more detail could give us a better understanding.

    Here's a final examination:

    The boys had already been shrouded up in the customary linen, a blot of darkness at the head of each. Her mouth quirked in a grimace. It was a mercy to put sinners out of their pain, but only a mercy for the sinners. At least Pa had taken care of the mess.

    We don't know what the customary scenario is, or what Pa has done, so it's impossible to put it in context here. Give us a better picture of what's different about these two corpses. Make it clearer here that Pa usually has Fie and Hangdog wrap the boys. Clarify what the dark spot is, and give us a better understanding of what you mean by "only a mercy for the sinners"

    Also, just curious, but does the Sinner's plague usually strike children? If so, getting a hint of the kind of society in which children are considered sinners and what kind of a sin (taboo?) the Crows think is associated with this plague might be helpful.

    When it comes to character, it's not unusual for someone to respond to pain or fear with humor or distraction, but this early on, it would be great to show Fie with more emotional depth.

    Looking forward to seeing your revision. I expect it will be even more stellar! ; )