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The White Swan

Discussion in 'Critiques' started by Toby Frost, Jan 3, 2017.

  1.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Well, I've reached 3,000 posts, so tradition demands that I post something here. This is from the first chapter of a sequel to the fantasy novel I've written. The previous book establishes that Aline is a knight in a semi-religious order that, legally but unusually, has some female members. The order has been framed for black magic and she has gone into hiding. Aline has ended up leading a small group of rebellious peasants, who are with her at the moment. There is a price on her head. The setting is "kind of Renaissance", but this is very much a rural backwater on a border, hence the variety of names.




    “Her men are deadly,” the knight said, raising his voice against the rumble of the inn. “Well trained, fierce, familiar with the area. Bandits, but dangerous bandits. Would you pass the bread, please?”

    Aline handed him the loaf. For a bounty hunter, she thought, he was remarkably polite. He probably would have been less polite if he’d known that his bounty was sitting across the table from him.

    They were in the hall of the Old Bushel, sitting at a trestle table: Aline and six of her people, nodding like simple yokel folk as Sir Luc gave voice. It had seemed a pretty funny trick when they’d asked meekly to sit near a great knight, but the longer she stayed here, the crueller it felt.

    “But the White Swan is far, far worse. That’s what they call her, you see. It’s from her father’s coat of arms. Her men may be brigands, but she’s a monster.”

    Aline said, “What does she do, sir, if I might be so bold?” She attempted a rural accent: the result, while not wholly convincing, was at least different to her usual voice. “Is she a great knight like you?”

    Sir Luc shook his head. “Oh no, goodwife. The White Swan – I’m not sure if this is suitable for a woman to hear, actually.”

    Jules, Aline’s second in command, leaned forward. “My lord, we are rustic people. In the countryside, you see a lot, if you get my meaning. We’ve heard worse, I’m sure.”

    “I doubt it, my good fellow.” Sir Luc leaned forward. “It’s commonly said that Lady Aline de Vaux lost her flower to a devil. That’s where her strength comes from.”

    “Oh, for God’s sake,” Aline said, and then she remembered her accent. “Ah, shameful, that is.”

    “That’s what they say,” Sir Luc repeated, and took a deep swig from his wooden mug. “Peasants’ tales, perhaps. It’s hard to say. Quite acceptable, this ale.”

    The white-haired woman at Aline’s side said, “Then I’ll fetch some more, sir.” She touched Aline’s arm. Aline got up and followed her down the length of the hall.

    At the far end, several barrels stood in the corner, guarded by two grimy children. Meg passed them a coin and dipped the jug in.

    Aline watched the knight. From the look of it, he was telling a new story. “Bloody people,” she said. “Sleeping with a devil? He could at least give me some credit. It took work to be like this, not some rubbish about deviltry. Typical. I’ve fought devils, you know.”

    Meg’s eyes were small and shrewd. Aline had never quite worked out Meg’s age: she had to be at least twenty years older, but time seemed to have hardened her rather than worn her out. “I know. Don’t worry, we’ll get him soon enough. The amount of drink he’s poured down his neck, he’ll have to go out to piss soon. And then I’ll take him – pock!” It was the sound she always made to impersonate a crossbow.

    “I feel that I should call him out.”

    “What, a duel? Why?”

    Aline shrugged. “He’s a knight. So am I.”

    “He wouldn’t say that.”

    “But I am.” Aline couldn’t quite work it out. “It feels like the right thing to do.”

    “To prove you’re a knight too?”

    “I don’t need to prove anything. But… it’s how it used to be done. It’s honourable.”

    Meg leaned in close. “Call him out and we’ll all be in danger. My way, it’s tidy and quick. Quicker than getting cut down with a sword. Neater, too. Come on, girl, don’t get soft-eyed about this. He came here to kill you, same as the Forbidders of Sin. The only difference is that he’s got good manners.”

    Sir Luc was shaking his head, and Aline wondered if an argument had broken out. Then the knight raised his hand and waggled his finger, and she realised that he was chiding someone, but in a teasing, mocking way.

    I ought to call him out. A knight shouldn’t die like that.

    She wondered what had made him ride out here. Perhaps the Ecclesiarch, her old enemy, had stirred him up with stories of quests and deviltry. Or maybe he just needed the money, and there wasn’t much work for a slightly aging freelancer around here. Perhaps his holdings had failed this year.

    Aline followed Meg back down the hall.

    “Now, you should save that sort of talk for spring!” Sir Luc said, and Aline saw that he was talking to Erzbeth, their youngest member. She laughed and did something with her hair, and Aline felt the contempt that came with seeing someone fall for a very old trick.

    Silly old fool.

    Aline sat down and pulled a lump of bread off the loaf. She sat there, not really listening to Sir Luc’s current anecdote, wondering what he saw when he looked at her. Certainly not a knight of the Order of Saint Cordelia, or even a woman pretending to be a knight. Perhaps he just saw her as a cow, chewing mindlessly away. Or nothing at all.

    “Well,” Sir Luc announced, “nature calls and I must follow.” He stood up. “That’s the thing about drink: first it sends you to the tavern, and then it sends you back outside.”

    He stomped towards the door: a tall, solid man who would have been intimidating if he hadn’t been half-drunk. He looked back, and for a second Aline thought he’d realised who she was. But his eyes were on Erzbeth, and then he opened the door and was gone.

    “I’ll do it,” Meg said.

    Jules got to his feet. “I’ll help.”

    Aline nodded. “Go on, then. Just be quick.”

    She watched them walk across the hall. Meg opened the door and they both went outside. The door closed. Aline imagined Meg crossing the path, ducking behind the tree where she’d stashed her crossbow, dropping a bolt into the groove. It was the right thing to do, she knew, but it still felt wrong. She reached for the jug.



    Any comments are welcomed, but I have a particular question about this line from the second paragraph: "He probably would have been less polite if he’d known that his bounty was sitting across the table from him." Aline is thinking this, but I haven't made it explicit that she's doing so by putting it in italics and the present tense. As it stands, is it a slip of POV or is it clearly in her voice?
     
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  2.  
    Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner Writing and reading Staff Member

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    I don't see that as an issue. By not putting it in italics, you're not setting it apart, and therefore making it a natural part of her voice. That part works fine.

    What I would be critical about, though, is the complete lack of tension. This man may be acting the fool, but he's likely a powerful and armed man and therefore a danger. They may be toying with him to some degree, but there should be a sense of danger that he might spot some clue - people who feel they've done wrong, or are hunted, can be expected to be worried about being found out. In this instance, having that background tension would help make this scene more alive.

    What have you is too safe and too abstract - don't just give us Aline's thoughts, give us her feelings. In this instance, a degree of fear and tension - even if she thinks she can take him on, the bounty hunter could still hurt other people, or even escape and raise the alarm on their den. The challenge therefore is to not simply dispatch him, but do so in a way that will result in least physical threat to the others, while also ensuring there are no consequences that might follow from his disappearance.

    In that regard, she might want to find out who he's travelling with - a knight might routinely have a squire and/or servants. He might have travelling companions, or at least colleagues who know where's he is. That way, she can determine how safely she can act.

    Either way, bring up that tension, and show some sense of conflict within Aline instead of her being so abstract and self-assured, and both the scene and the character will come more alive IMO.
     
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  3.  
    Phyrebrat

    Phyrebrat ba-Ba-ba-brat

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    Nice, cleanly written and full of character. The only issue I had was with 'deviltry' which I've never heard before and bearing in mind my reading predilections, that may be why, but I thought the word 'devilry'.

    I'm quite taken with the character of Aline (how is her name pronounced? I kept thinking of skirts or dresses!) as she seems authentic and a good sort even when she has to act harsh. I'm sensing Sir Luc will be recruited ratehr than killed by her.

    As far as the POV question. I think using 'probably' as you have done would get you around anyone picky enough to raise issue with it. It didn't jump out at me, and I only realised the possibility of error when you mentioned it at the end.

    Admission: When I read 'Pock" I had to make the sound myself... My version is by popping my lips. ;)

    pH
     
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  4.  
    The Ace

    The Ace Scottish Roman.

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    Don't blame me, I voted, "Yes."
    No, "Deviltry," is actually the word. "Devilry," comes from the same place as, "Prolly," "Irregardless," and, " I could care less."
     
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  5.  
    Phyrebrat

    Phyrebrat ba-Ba-ba-brat

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    I used devilry in my WIP.

    Online Etymology Dictionary
     
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  6.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I have a great mental image of sullen youths summoning Satan (they've already got the hoods). "Did you invoke me through deviltry, mortals?" "Yeah, like, devilry, innit? Prolly."

    Although I've tried to keep the dialogue as modern as possible without becoming too Americanised - I think that a lot of dialogue in fantasy loses more than it gains in trying to sound "old" - I have avoided a few words. In particular, I've tried not to use "nice", which has a different older meaning, and "vampire" and "zombie", which are from the wrong time and place. I've used "deviltry" and "devil" instead of "devilry" (which just sounds like "villainy" to me) and "demon" (which is a bit generically Buffy for my tastes).

    As to conflict, you're right, Brian: I hadn't really noticed that. I suppose if I had to say something, I would argue that the conflict is in what happens to Luc, and the contrast between doing it the knightly way and the more efficient way (this is a bit of a theme for Aline, who is re-evaluating things in the course of being on the run). But I'm wary of explaining things after the fact, so to speak. It's also a good point that this knight might not travel alone - again, I hadn't really considered this properly, because my mental image just included that, without making it clear. This certainly shows the benefits of having another point of view on a piece of work!

    Thanks guys - I shall have a think.
     
  7.  
    Mr Orange

    Mr Orange Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb...

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    a nice piece Toby. to me, the sentence you were worried about is not clearly in Aline's voice, and it does jar a bit to me because of repetition. i would go for something like:

    also i agree a bit with Brian, also i think the need for tension would depend on Aline's state of mind. if she is on the run and jumpy at this point then yes, maybe a bit of fear when her accent slips or Sir Luc waggles his finger. but if she is treating it all as a bit of play, then i don't think the tension is needed.

    speaking of accents, Jules' speech jarred a bit as it was not at all rustic. might need countrifying up a bit

    and lastly, until
    i had pictured Sir Luc as middle-aged.
     
  8.  
    pambaddeley

    pambaddeley Well-Known Member

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  9.  
    pambaddeley

    pambaddeley Well-Known Member

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    I think it reads well on the whole but as others have said could do with having the tension wracked up somewhat and not dissipated as it seems at present.
     
  10.  
    RX-79G

    RX-79G Well-Known Member

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    I didn't think there was supposed to be any tension - Aline doesn't fear this man and he is clueless about his company.


    As for the thought paragraph, I would tie it together with style rather than punctuation:
    Aline handed him the loaf. For a bounty hunter, she thought, he was remarkably polite. Less remarkably polite had he known that his bounty was sitting across the table from him.


    I'm really not up on the state-of-the-art for fantasy speech, but the dialogue feels like it vacillates between 18th century English and modern.
    “Then I’ll fetch some more, sir.” 'Some more' sounds modern.
    “What does she do, sir, if I might be so bold?” 'Does she do' instead of "What is it she does?"
    Maybe its a small thing, but the language sometimes sounds elegant and then sounds like something overheard on the bus.
     
  11.  
    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I would argue in my defence that there is tension, just not of the "Will the hero escape this danger?" variety, but that may well be dodging the issue or just not sufficient. I'm very wary of saying "Ah, but it's meant to be like that, you see." I used to go to a writing group where that was one member's standard response to anything!

    Digression time: dialogue is a real problem for me, both in reading and writing fantasy. For one thing, why does a made-up world (ie not a historical representation of our world) need antiquated dialogue at all? I would argue that it's to create a sense of another time, with the sense of strangeness and mystery that this entails. It surely can't be to capture the authentic thoughts of medieval people, because they were far weirder than their fantasy counterparts ever seem to be.

    But it seems that there is a whole load of nuance that is lost when your characters start talking like Victorians or Jane Austen characters. Sarcasm, word-play, irony and puns are much harder to do (that said, they exist in Shakespeare and Chaucer - although we would often have to have them explained to us to get everything). And I am particularly interested in portraying a range of characters to get a variety of viewpoints (rebellious peasants, a queen, a commoner elevated to power almost by mistake, a painter etc). Logically, it would seem right to let them talk as naturally as possible without becoming anachronistic in how they speak, even if the meaning of what they're saying is slightly modernised*.

    There also doesn't seem to be an industry-accepted standard on this, although it seems that the more epic you get, the more olde-wolde the speech becomes. Locke Lamora talks (and thinks) like a 21st century American. The Game of Thrones characters sound vaguely Victorian to me. However, I would worry about falling at an early hurdle on this. And then there's the issue of consistency. Another thing to worry about!


    *Which tends to mean toning the religiousness down slightly and leaving out the more obvious ignorant stuff, or just not getting the characters into a situation where they get the chance to lose the reader's sympathy.
     
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  12.  
    HareBrain

    HareBrain Big Rabbit of Chrons Staff Member

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    To me, this suggests she doesn't know her name, so I was a bit surprised later to find she did. (In fact I didn't at first realise Meg was she.)

    Why would she say "same as the Forbidders of Sin"? Does it make coming here to kill her any more serious? It reads as her setting herself up for the good manners comment. (Which she might well be doing, to be fair.)

    Clearly in her voice.

    Talking about voice, though, the voice of the whole piece feels slightly comedic to me, and I'm not sure why. It could just be what you're well-known for, plus the "Would you pass the bread?" reminded me a bit of the repeated "pass the port" line from the crusty old knights in (I think?) The Once and Future King. It might be that there's a slight distance from Aline; I don't feel I'm quite inside her experience. But again, it's hard to pinpoint why, unless it comes back to Brian's point about tension.
     
  13.  
    RX-79G

    RX-79G Well-Known Member

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    I agree. But you are using a mix of modern and Jane Austen, rather than one or the other. Have them speak like Victorians, or Tom Brokaw, not both.


    I assumed it was supposed to be lightly comedic, in a similar way to the film Orlando.
     
  14.  
    pambaddeley

    pambaddeley Well-Known Member

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    I didn't mean tension in the cliffhanging sense, more in the 'is something going on that I as a reader want to invest my time in'. It all seemed as if it was all sorted for the 'heroes', quite easy really apart from a few qualms, easily put down, about killing the knight while he's taking a p**s. Didn't feel involvement in the scene.
     
  15.  
    Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner Writing and reading Staff Member

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    I think you're feeling the tension, but you're not communicating it very well.

    Re-reading the excerpt, Aline is smug that the knight doesn't know her identity, then pouts that he underestimates her, then she wonders how old Meg is. Then she says she should "call him out" and you play that part out via dialogue which makes us distant from the character.

    She's not really grappling with any internal conflict about her choices, and she's doesn't seem too concerned about potential discovery by the knight or the possibility of having to murder him. Because of this, we're left somewhat distant from the character and situation.

    As for the language - simply write neutral if you want a sense of period. Throw in some expressions to give a sense of class. Or, write entirely modern with entirely modern terms if that suits you best. Simply make which ever choice you make consistent.

    2c.
     
  16.  
    tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    Ok, I read this through a couple of times earlier and didn't have time to comment.
    Sometimes the sentence structure in this slowed me down and I can only think that it's part of the style that was meant to be in the story. So if you change the style maybe that weird feeling will go away. But once again it might just be me.

    Now we reach character involvement. I think you need more, but I'm puzzled by a number of things and mostly fearful that the reason for less character involvement is that there is something the narrator is deliberately not trying to tell us. Maybe I'm paranoid.

    We should get closer to Aline for a number of good reasons that are all screaming at me each time I read this. First though the setup reminds me of all those old pirate and swashbuckling movies, you know the ones with Errol Flynn, where the pirate walks right under the scrutiny of his pursuers and even has conversation. It seems to be there just to show how fun loving, clever and daring our pirate is. Sometimes how dashing also. One could almost, but not quite get that feel here.

    So for the reader there will be unanswered questions that could easily be taken care of with a bit of closeness to Aline.
    Does she pull this deception all the time with bounty hunters? If so what does she get out of doing it? Is she getting to know her target before she has him assassinated or is she looking for redeeming qualities by which to decide slow or fast death? Is that why she muses over the polite nature? Is he the first to be polite? Does she not like that, because she needs to hate them; or is she callous and just wants to play a bit like the cat with the mouse?

    Is this the first time she's done this--it almost seems that way--so it could be. What compelled her. Does she acknowledge the danger in what she is doing? Is she finding it fun along with her misgivings? What difference does it make that he's a better man than some? It seem's as though she is making a very large thing out of one please, or have we missed something.

    Is it normal and does it happen often that she has her pursuers ambushed and how does she feel about that and why does she not do the task herself?

    If she has a method of operation for disposing of bounty hunters, the reader should know, because Sir Luc could know or he could be oblivious. He seems to think he know a lot about her though it all seems to be ill informed rumor.

    So Luc could really be a silly old fool or he could be a crafty fox and I can smell cheese here and now the role of cat and mouse could be reversed and this does not bode well for the story because there are things the reader needs to know about the confidence of Aline's position if the expected outcome were to take a different direction. Otherwise the cheese the mouse the trap the snap, could all go flat pretty quickly if the reader suspect an unreliable narrator.

    Or maybe in this case, from lack of closeness, its just an uninformed narrator.

    As it stands this could go in many directions beyond what Aline has planned, but without some sense of what all the stakes are, the reader could be left in the dust by what is being withheld.

    I wouldn't be disappointed if Luc was killed.
    And I wouldn't be disappointed if Aline were captured or killed or injured.
    I probably wouldn't care if the whole thing ended in a bloody mess.
    The point is that there is nothing for the reader to invest in without some background coming from Aline.
     
  17.  
    The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    I like it and would read on. And I am becoming quite picky. The line you highlight is my favourite line in the whole piece and I am quite happy about its place and not needing italics.

    Things that didn't work for me going through the first time -

    A sense of tension over what will happen to Luc starts to build but a satisfying conclusion to this tension is missing. This statement is the zenith of the tension to me:

    Meg leaned in close. “Call him out and we’ll all be in danger. My way, it’s tidy and quick. Quicker than getting cut down with a sword. Neater, too. Come on, girl, don’t get soft-eyed about this. He came here to kill you, same as the Forbidders of Sin. The only difference is that he’s got good manners.”

    And I see nothing other than a quick painless decision other than that. The coda of thought after the decision felt too after the fact to me.


    Things that didn't work for me going through the second time and after a bit of thought -

    Not so much a didn't work, but a strong sense of place is missing. We don't know how it smells, or what it feels like, or how they are dressed. Only that they are drinking ale and eating bread and sat a trestle table in an inn. That we have a time of knights and yokels allows me to fill in the blanks but I'd rather have a few more clues as to what makes this place distinct.


    I think I'd have been a bit confused if I didn't have the framing opening paragraph you give before the text and while it is a sequel, I'd prefer a bit more of that information in the text itself. I'd also prefer more of Aline's thoughts and experience, I think when they're there they're strong and like Harebrain would agree I'm not quite in her experience.


    Is this meant to be an In Media Res intro or a Establishing Normalcy intro? I read it as the latter and am therefore fine with there being no tension as to what happens to Luc but would like more about the world and Aline. Others seem to be very much focused on what happens to Luc and I think might be seeing it as the former. It can easily be read both ways and I think that either that needs to be fulfilled in both ways, or it needs to be more clearly one or t'other.
     
  18.  
    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    I'm late to the party here, but congrats on the 3,000!

    There's not a lot I can add to the comments here. As you might expect with my historical hobbyhorses, I was bemused by what period this was meant to be set in. To me, the idea of knights errant gives a medieval impression, but the idea of duelling is much later, and usually with rapiers which aren't what you'd usually associate with knights, so I'd like some better grounding in time and place. As for language, to me you'd be better off losing both "bounty hunter" (decidedly late C18th, and probably American to boot) and "freelancer" (a later adaptation of an invention of Sir Walter Scott), which were to my mind jarring with a good bit of the dialogue. I think you're better off not attempting any of the ye-olde-talk and just let them speak naturally. By the way, "bounty" is surely the money paid to the successful killer, not the person he's chasing.

    I, too, thought it was comedic in tone with the dialogue at the beginning, and I can pinpoint it to Luc's Bertie-Woosterishness and Jules' "My lord, we are rustic people. In the countryside, you see a lot, if you get my meaning." which is all nudge-nudge, wink-wink to my mind. The tone changed when Aline moved away with Meg, becoming more thoughtful, with greater depth, and to me that sat uneasily with the beginning. I'd suggest making Luc less obviously ridiculous (unless this is a Scarlet Pimpernel bluff on his part, of course!) and removing Jules' line to make the tone more serious throughout -- the others could still have fun with him, but without the whole descending into comedy.

    I liked that Aline wanted to do the honourable thing by the old man, even though it's not sensible, and that she agonises over her decision, but I can't help thinking she's not much cop as a rebel leader, and her gang aren't much better. Eliminating a potential threat quickly is a good idea, but not with a crossbow in the yard of a pub where they've been sitting for some time with the victim and some of them follow him out. Better alternatives are a knife in the dark somewhere they'll have time to strip the body of valuables to make it look like an ordinary mugging, or a crossbow bolt from a distance when he's ridden out of the town/village, and they can hide the body.

    Despite my cavils, as usual with your work it's easy to read, and enough interest is generated for me to want to read on, which is the important thing!


    You must have missed that Cadfael episode! I always see skirts, too, but I'm pretty sure it's Al-ine not A-line.
     
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