As always, my comments are in red. Barbara's are purple. Please add yours in the comment section!
Love this unusual setting. I forgot to ask. Is this a historical romance or straight historical? Since medievals are experiencing a bit of a resurgence, this setting is still commercially viable.
It’s a romance. Sigh. ;-) The action will switch to England very soon, though.
Even better. England is still the--pardon the pun--"Queen Mother" of settings for historical romance.
Damn, he hated the silence.
Starting with a twist is a good way to pique our interest. Normally people find silence restful, relaxing. The fact that your hero doesn't speaks volumes about him and his situation.
Sir Steven of Riverton held his breath. Drops of perspiration swept down his neck despite the cool night. He listened for the rustle of leaves, the yip of fox kit, the whirsh of owl wings. Nothing. Even the breeze scarcely stroked his beard-stubbed cheek as he led his bay gelding, Jasper. Step by step they eased through the tiny clearing. Sluggish light from the quarter moon cast a watery path ahead.
Brilliant beginning. You've used tactile and auditory clues to set your scene instead of just visual. Is whirsh a real word or did you invent it? Either way, I know exactly what you mean. Even the last sentence which uses visual description does so in an original way. I've never seen 'sluggish light' or a 'watery path' anywhere else. This is fresh writing and I wish I'd done it!
I did make up ‘whirsh.’ (Thank you!)
One query about your hero's name. Steven spelled that way seems more modern to me than Stephen. Did you research the name to make sure that spelling was common in the 12th century?
Absolutely right. It’s now Stephen. ;-)Also, I'm not sure I need the name of the horse yet. I'd really like to zero in on just your hero. The horse is a prop at this point.
Humm. I never thought about the horse’s name. It is kind of wonky for the 1100s--and I did think I needed to name it right away. But I’ll go back and work w/ the wording to take it out. Your comment here ties in with one you made on an earlier RP entry about focusing on the hero’s name in the opening, and how we’re just getting to know him (or whomever we’re opening with). Best not to bring in too many other names all at once.
When he left the village earlier, his decision to avoid travelers and return through the woods seemed unnecessary. Few knew of this meeting. What need for subterfuge? Still, routine propelled him off the familiar road between village and monastery. Now, as he pushed on, the very silence shouted.
Thank you for not succumbing to the temptation to use an ! here. According to Heather Osborn (editor for Tor/Forge) "Every time you use an !, you kill a kitten." Barbara has used an embedded hook here (if you followed my online MY HUSBAND MARRIED A HOOKER workshop, you already know a hook is a tantalyzing bit of information that draws the reader in and propels them forward.) She's let us know Sir Steven is up to something secretive and dangerous without giving away too much.
He inhaled, soft, easy. A trace of rancid sweat hit his nostrils. Jesu! On the right. He ducked the instant a knife blade nicked his ear. Instinct drove his own double-edged dagger down then up through cloth and flesh. He wrenched the blade free. Warm, copper-scented wetness pulsed across his arm.
It seems I'm only cataloguing all the things you're doing right. Using scents and tactile impressions along with short "stream of consciousness" phrases pulls us into tight POV. We're experiencing everything at the same time Steven experiences it. This is how it's done, kids.
A word about curses. It's so important that they be appropriate to the character and the time period in order to lend a ring of authenticity. Sir Steven would be a Christian and during this century, he'd think of his Savior by his Latin name. Well done.
Not his blood, thank God. And he damn well better move if he wanted to keep it that way. Reins fisted, Steven leaped into the saddle just as keening whoops slashed the air. The rest of the pack. His mind marked the voices—too many. He couldn’t fight them all. Four, six, more shadows burst into the clearing—front, sides, back. He knew the drill. Draw the circle tighter. Trap the target.
I love the way you use language in original ways. The idea of a sound slashing the air is vibrantly new to me. Notice how as the action speeds up, Barbara's sentences get shorter. This gives the passage a sense of urgency.
He made those rules. He could damn well break them. The circle rotated. Strongest always in front to block escape. Bent low over his mount’s neck, he yanked sharply left, always the weak side of the pattern.
By letting us in on his analysis of the situation, you've deftly shown us he's a military man without telling us so.
He kicked out as he galloped past a shadow. It went down. The well-trained Jasper leaped through the opening. Then a sting on his left sent fire up Steven’s leg. He reached down, jerked free the knife, jammed a fist against his thigh. This time the thick wetness oozing through his fingers was his own.
It's been a while since you used his horse's name. I was a little distracted by it. I wonder if you might wait until they are out of danger to even introduce the animal's name. Steven's the important one here. Let us focus on him.
The suck of breath rang in his ears, drowned his pounding heart. No sound of pursuit yet, but that would change. There…the thud of hooves echoed, far enough behind to give him time. Into the forest he headed. The thunder grew closer, loud enough to drown his brief stop to bound from the saddle.
Into the forest he headed is passive sentence structure. Your hero's not the least bit passive. I'd rather see He headed into the forest.
You’re absolutely right. The reason I wrote it that way was…I was afraid of having too many subject/verb constructions that people would think was too choppy. So I tossed that wording into the stream. Guess I’d better fish it out.
“Satan’s backside.” His bloodied leg buckled as he hit the ground rolling. Jasper picked up the gait and crashed through the underbrush onto a narrow path.
Another historically accurate curse, but I wonder if he'd use a two worded one here. Seems a tad long for the action. Perhaps a scatological remark would be more appropriate in these circumstances.
Point taken. I really need to find some different curses that would be “medieval appropriate.” I find myself using the same ones a lot. Or making them up--which doesn’t always work. OH!! I just thought of one. Merde! That would work here.
Perfect! You can't get much more scatological than "Merde!" As far as other curses go, God's Wounds, God's Feet, pretty much God's anything was used as an oath.
Steven hurtled into a large bush, ducked beneath the thick branches. And gritted his teeth when brambles clawed his cheeks.
Christ in chains. Can this night get any better?
Every publishing house has their own style rules but since this is Steven's direct thought, I'd want it italicized. To indicate that for both Dorchester and Kensington, underline the text to be italicized.
THANK YOU. Some of us have had this conversation so often. We didn’t know whether to italicize it in the text as we write or to underline it. Now we know.
The reason they use underlines is because it's hard to see italics in Courier New.
Earth vibrated as the others pounded past. Who were these assailants? Not Assassins. Too much noise. Subtle conniving marked Assassins. He could think of only one explanation. The murdering knights he hunted. Did they know his identity, or had they tracked The Black Dagger only?
Excellent hooks to set up the conflict for your hero. Now we know there are a couple dangerous groups who might want him dead.Your crisp, elegant prose speaks to me. I really didn't want this excerpt to end. When this one sells, I'll be at the bookstore on its release day with my wallet open!
Thank you for the things you pointed out, Emily. I appreciate your help so much. One thing I was worried about in this beginning--it continues along this line for another couple of pages--is that it has no dialogue. I feared having a narrative opening would be highly frowned on? And thank you for your very kind words. As the saying goes, “From your mouth to God’s ear”…and an agent’s…and an editor’s…. ;-)
I wasn't troubled by the lack of dialogue because there's so much action. Now, if it goes on too much longer, I might be bothered by it, but your POV is so good and tight, we know exactly what Stephen's thinking. I have more problems with openings that are merely the character engaging in internal dialogue, mulling over past events. We hear snippets of Stephen's thoughts, but mostly we're right there with him in the thick of things. Well done!
A former journalist and journalism professor, Barb now teaches English at a local college and devotes every spare moment to spinning stories about ladies and their knights in shining armor--because she firmly believes everyone needs a hero. She lives in Missouri.
Ok, now it's your turn to comment. Any suggestions for how Barb can make her story better?
PS.Today I'm over at the RomCon site blogging about favorite TV shows and movies and how they dovetail with book characters. I'm also giving away copy of Stroke of Genius to one lucky commenter. Please come over and let me know you were there.
In case you're unfamiliar with RomCon, this is the new Romance Conference sponsored by Borders Books. You'll need to register (it's FREE!) in order to leave a comment, but the site is very interactive and fun.
Hope to see you there!
Excellent beginning! Can't wait to read the rest:)
Love your made-up words. It really does give whole piece a fresh free.
SLight disagreement here. I loved knowing the horse's name, I think it put's us even more into the hero's head, gives us a feel for him, and how he feels for the horse.
Of course, I am a horse owner and lover, but anytime the animal is named, my sympathy for the charaters goes up a notch. Just my unpubbed 2 cents!
The use of the phrase damn well once and the again in next paragraph. Fine if you are sort of settling up a pattern to set a rythmn to the pace but I am not sure that is what you did here.
Also just from a reader's and historian's pov the excessive use of curses or swear words tends to slow the pace for me as a reader. I find that especially in medievals that they are often overdone. And because so many inflict the use of "God's whatever", I find it ironic because this is a period when people were closest to the church and its teaching and to use God' name in such a manner when frustrated seem suspect.
The use of "merde" is perfect because it has sort of timeless feel (shite) and doesn't invoke the too used "Gods whatever". And as a Norman or so we assume as he is in Normandy that he would speak old French.
What I like is you start at the action and through his action or reaction to what is going on we begin to learn about his character by you showing us and not telling us.
Barbara, This is beautifully written. Elegant choice of words-very descriptive. The action was real. Already have a feel for Steven's personality. Can't wait to see this in bookstores! A real winner!
Anonymous--I've always been a sucker for made-up words!
D'Ann--I love it when there's a slight disagreement. It means the RPT volunteer has the benefit of many opinions and can make the best choice for her own work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
I too love horses (we had a gelding and a mare when we lived in WY, but sadly they just won't fit into a Boston condo!) Cody and Star were like big dogs, following my DH around the pasture.
Jody--Thanks for your insight about the cursing. It's always a calculated risk to include them and yet, few things are as indicative of character as what spills from someone's mouth in an emergency.
Kathy--I totally agree. One of the things I love about Barbara's work is the lush way she engages all the senses.
I know Barbara as a member of a writing loop I belong to. I had no idea she was such an accomplished writer. I LOVED this excerpt. The only problem.... I want more!!!!
Uh oh...sorry....I just killed four kittens.
I loved this, including the historically accurate curses. 'Jesu' did make me pause, but only to reflect on how cool it was to find the Latin form here!
I have one suggestion to add: shouldn't "When he left the village earlier" and "seemed" and "propelled" be in the past perfect tense - "had left" and so on?
That's it - I'm looking forward to the moment you'll be published and Emily will feature you on her blog - I'll buy the book as well :).
Emily, pointing out what works is just as valuable as solutions to problems. I love the idea of !s killing kittens and I hope every new writer takes it to heart.
Barbara--this was fantastic. I'd agree to save the swearing for impact. When he's in pain, he can inhale sharply, gasp, etc. Give him a physical response. We mostly will gasp before swearing anyway. :) I don't much care for "God's whatever" IF it pulls me out of the story. It seems more thought about, more of a chosen oath than a natural reflex. "Which part of God/Christ shall I swear with in this situation?" lol
(Sorry, it posted before I finished.)
How does Stephen plan to hide/control his horse? Did he just jump off and expect Jasper to continue to run, like in the old West movies? Could Jasper navigate the forest correctly? Would a well-trained horse leave his master? idk I'm just putting it out there.
Also, with the popularity of the Twilight books, you might want to think about "Jasper" as the horse's name.
I'll be in line to have you sign my copy of the book. Submit it! (cringing about that kitten)
I think it would read better as a futuristic paranormal.
Ha! Seriously, this is so very good. I don't have the slightest idea of a suggestion, beyond what Megan Kelly noted about the name Jasper, and that's just because we all follow Twilight in this house. And if you love the name Jasper, just use it anyway.
Congratulations on a great job!
I don't imagine horses in Boston would work too well.
I asked memebers of my crit group(s) to come by and comment. I really did learn some stuff today.
Great job, Barbara. Enjoyed your work and Emily's comments. These critiques are very helpful.
Your descriptions are great and very visual. I see I have some more work to do in that area...
Have you started querying agents? I'll, of course, buy your book as well--and I didn't mind the mention of Jasper or the swearing.
WOW ... great beginning, really pulled me in. My very picky critique: do drops of sweat sweep? I like very much your ingenious use of words, but I'm visual, and that phrase stopped me. I'm glad Emily brought up the spelling of Steven/Stephen, as that did, too. However, on the much-discussed topic of swearing, it didn't get in my way, and seems appropriate to me -- it's clear he's a militarily-trained man, and the 'damn well better' rang true for me.
I'll definitely join that line to buy this when it is published, and only hope you're as good at keeping to a strict writing schedule as Emily is, so it'll be out soon! (Whew, managed to kill only one kitten -- but it was hard :-) ).
I'm currently in critique mode since I'm working on my own revisions, but I see very little I'd change in here. As Emily says, the senses are fully engaged. The tension is brilliantly tight. Word usage gives a sense of the time period. I blinked at the word "pack" though, because I've read so many werewolf romances lately. "G"
I don't read much in this time period so I'm assuming action is the market hook for this type of romance. The only thing I might ask is for a little more understanding of him as a man--besides being military and in danger. Was his planned meeting something that would save his country or his estate? What is his personal stake in this action? But as in all critiques, this is not a criticism so much as a subjective suggestion from someone who prefers character to action.
Great writing, Barbara!
Wendy--I wonder if there ought to be a way to revive those virtual dead kittens. Perhaps through one of Barbara's made up words . . .
Barb, when you get a chance to read the comments, pay special attention to Nynke's. She's our resident linguist and even though English is not her first language, I wouldn't want to tangle with her on grammar.
One of the strengths of a critique group is that everyone sees different things and brings a fresh perspective to the table. Thanks for your participation!
Megan--I think what the free horse might do depends on the horse. Some will bolt for their stable. The one time my mare threw me, the little stinker stopped running and came back to me, hanging her head and looking so sorry I couldn't be mad at her.
Gillian--I hadn't even connected the dots for Jasper and Twilight.
Is it just me or does the actor who plays him look constipated?
Beth--Interesting that you say the description is so visual. I think Barbara excells in using other senses, auditory, tactile and smells and because of that we each fill in the scene visually.
Marcy--Oh, dear. Not another dead kitten.
Thank you for your insightful comments. Marcy is my beta-reader, folks, and I trust her taste implicitly.
Patricia--Sad that the werewolves have stolen the word "pack" from us. But I guess that's the nature of language. It changes with use.
One thing I failed to comment on is that Barb deftly lets us know Sir Stephen has a nom de guerre, "The Black Dagger," which to me, suggests he's up to his noble eyebrows in clandestine work for king and country. The reference is tucked into the last paragraph, but perhaps it's a tad too subtle.
What do you think?
WOW! Barb, I didn't want the excerpt to end either. I agree with Emily about your prose and appropriate wording. Love "whirsh". Best of luck and I will be anxious to see this story published.
Deb--Thanks for stopping by and leaving your encouraging comment!
(Ooops. There goes another kitten.)
I'm so sorry I wasn't around today, but I was traveling home (through pouring rain) and it took me forever!
Thank you everyone for your comments. They are really valuable.
Jody--Swearing--good point in that I need to watch to not overdo it. Reading all the reactions about the swearing, I recall that I sprinkle in quite a few. Hummm. Maybe I could lose one or two.
Horse's name-Haven't tuned in to Twilight yet, but if Jasper's a name there, guess I'd better change it for later in the book.
Nynke--glad you brought that up, because I've struggled with when to use past perfect and when not to. As an English teacher, I want to put it in, but I'm afraid of overusing it. So I need to be a bit more discerning on just when it might be needed. Thank you.
Megan--It's Jasper the Wonder Horse :) I hoped (sorry, Nynke--I had hoped LOL) that he could be trained to take the rider's jumping off in stride and just go back home. I see I'd better make sure that is possible. Dang. All those things I didn't think to research.
Gillian--You gave me a heart attack with your first sentence.LOL
Marcy--Yeah, "drops sweeping"--I was searching for a nice, energetic verb there--maybe I should keep looking.
Pat--"Pack" yes, it does sound like a bunch of animals. Perhaps I can find another word for that one, too. I liked your suggestion of getting more character info about him in there. I'm going to think more on how I might accomplish it.
D'Ann--fellow 'unpubbed' :), your opinion on the horse's name is valuable. Thanks!
Deb, Beth, Wendy,Kathy, Anonymous, thank you all for you comments. Very much appreciated!! (Poor kittens LOL.)
And that you all for coming by to offer me support, good words and thoughts, and honest critique. I'm writing it all down.
And Emily, I want to thank you, again, for this opportunity. But more than just the chance for me, thank you for the time you give for this project that is so enormously helpful for all of us hopeful writers.
You're the best.
Thanks, Emily, for the lovely compliment.
Barbara, on the "drops sweeping", I like the 'sweeping' -- such a good active verb -- so maybe look for another noun? "Rivulet" comes to mind, but so fast that it likely is too-often used in similar circumstances. I feel sure you'll find the right combination! And, though I haven't read many of the werewolf books and can understand the concern voiced by Pat, I really liked your usage of "pack" -- it added another layer of understanding how Stephen thinks.
Just my humble opinions . . .
no matter what Emily says, I was kind of iffy about giving grammar critique to a native-speaker English teacher! And I drill my Dutch students so thouroughly in using past perfects (they tend not to use them enough), that the idea over overusing them never crossed my mind :). I still think it sounds logicval and grammatical in this context, not stilted, so if your instincts agree, go with it ;).
(By the way, it's a pity smileys don't make up for lost kittens...)
As a displaced member of Ozarks Romance Authors, this isn't the first time I've read Barb's work. She's a terrific writer and I can't wait to have one of her books in my hand so I can read the whole thing not just excerpts! (Sorry, kittens) I just have a few comments though.
If Sir Steven (Stephen) isn't Norman, I'd like to know that up front. If the story soon moves to England, perhaps just mentioning he was in a strange land or some variation of that.
I wouldn't be bothered by "He headed into the forest" statement. If there were a lot of sentences starting with "He" I would be, but as long as your subject/verb varies I don't think the reader will notice the repeated structure. You have too much action here to worry about that.
I have to disagree with naming the horse here--I think Stephen would think of his horse by name, not as "my horse" or "the horse," so to me the name would be logical. I don't follow Twilight, so Jasper didn't ring that bell. I nearly spewed my coffee all over the monitor with Emily's constipated question!
One more thing, but maybe since no one else mentioned it, it may be just me. "He knew the drill" sounded so modern to me. I don't recall hearing it before maybe the 1990s.
Like everyone else I didn't want this excerpt to end. Barb is such a talented writer, I can't imagine her not being published soon. So, Barb, send me an email when it comes out.
Maurine--Since Sir Stephen isn't a French name, I was sure he was English. Nice catch on "he knew the drill." Of course, military men have always drilled, trained, practiced, whatever. They've always had procedures and rules of engagement. Barb will just need to research to see if they thought of it as drill in 1200
Barbara, I am not sure if you have come across this link before (http://www.classics.ox.ac.uk/research/projects/dml.asp). If not, there are a few names listed who might know some new curse words for you. *smile*. It is for the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford, UK. They are connected with the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources. It can't hurt to ask for a list, I am sure.
I enjoyed reading your work, it was refreshing to find a few curse words used. If they are used in the correct context I do not mind. If they are sentence expanders, they are boring.
I live in a deeply religious village, it is Greek Orthodox. Their most used expression is 'Panagia Mou', everyone says it. It means 'My God!' when something dreadful happens, or they drop a pot, etc. (Note they are Kitten killers too Emily, LOL). I do not think they are taking His name in vain, it is something that has moved with them along the time path. I do feel though, if I was to read it several times over in a book, I might notice it more and it might irritate me.
I thought about the horse and name. It is nice to know the name, but I wonder if the horse description and name together are a little stilted, as one reads it. For me, when I read it, that was so. (Sorry, gosh I hate critiquing as a newbie), (getting braver Emily). Where was I, oh yes, you mentioned about no dialogue. Why not have him whisper 'Easy Jasper, easy boy'?, he reassured his bay gelding. I am not a horse fan, as explained to Emily in the past, but I do know they can be spooked by silence, especially if there is danger present. If you love your horse you would talk to it, I am sure, so it would be a good way of introducing just a small amount, and give Stephen voice and show his caring side.
I have just looked at the length of this comment and will shut up now. Again thank you both for an interesting post.
Whoops. ? should have been after bay gelding ;0
Glynis--This critique group isn't ranked by newbie/unpubbed/pubbed. We're all writers and readers hoping to learn from each other and I'm always glad when you post a comment.
Thank you for sharing that link to some medieval experts. It's amazing what you can find on the web. I hate to imagine researching with just books and source documents--though I do that as well.
I'm not sure Sir Stephen should say anything, to Jasper or otherwise, while he's making his way through the woods by stealth. If he suspects an ambush, it would only serve to pinpoint his location.
Oh, there are always so many things to think about...
Late to comment. Only one minor comment on this excerpt. Owls make no noise when they fly. Their feathers are specially desIgned for silent flight. It is so odd to watch these large birds fly and hear not a thing unless they click or screech. Will have to leave that reference out or change it to another bird.
Loved the excerpt. Want more. (I am trying not to kill kittens here.) Post here again when it is published so I can find out what Sir Stephen is up to and what happens. Best of luck.
Pat--Yet another demonstration of the power of a critique group. We all bring different things to the table. I didn't realize owls were so stealthy.
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