The Shorewalker - Opening (Revised)

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Yeah, that's a very good point and one that I've given a lot of thought to.

My reasoning for not starting earlier revolves around a few issues. One, I would have to invest quite a bit of time setting up places and characters that will swiftly become irrelevant. Two, the Jenn that we see back then is even less engaging than the one stood at the gates. Three, the events that lead to the catastrophe span a number of months. Four, whilst the events are interesting, what happened is nothing like as important as why it happened it terms of the overall story, and we don't discover that until later in the book.

There is, however, a plan B.

I have a prologue in the form of a letter. This is written by Jenn to her much younger brother as a sort of last will and testimony. It is penned just before the denouement of her tragedy. It is obviously a way of giving the back story, but it also serves to put a lot of flesh on the bones of Jenn's character. It's too long to post here (it's about 2,300 words) but it's fairly concise in given a lot of detail pretty quickly. I also think it makes Jenn much more sympathetic...but it is obviously a device to get things done and out of the way.

Yet again, thanks to everybody for the engagement! I might not agree with everything, but I'm sure as hell going to sleep thinking it all over!
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There is, however, a plan B.

I have a prologue in the form of a letter.

Without having read it, I'd advise against this idea. For one, 2300 words is insanely long for a letter, especially one in the prologue of a first book. For another, it's very hard to avoid info-dumping - by nature a letter tells rather than shows, after all, and though there are ways around this (David Mitchell's Frobisher excerpts in Cloud Atlas being a good example) it requires a lot of skill, structural manoeuvring and a fair bit of willingness on the part of the reader to play along. At the start of a book, when you've yet to hook anyone into your story or your characters, it's a risky move. A lot of people would simply put the book back on the shelf, and who could blame them? Resorting to a letter suggests the author isn't confident in their ability to provide backstory in a natural and sequential way as the story unfolds. That's not a good way to start a multi-book epic.

You'd be much better off to continue refining Jenn's character and sharpening your portrayal of her. The advice about her passivity and wallowing is well-placed, and working on it in these opening scenes will ultimately help you with the rest of the book, because you'll be more attuned to weak spots and will have the tools to deal with them in your editing process.
Yup, it's problematic...but the other option for the backstory is an info-dump somewhere else...or I add around 20,000 words to the front of a book that's already running at 230,000.

The other problem with actually telling the tale of the backstory is that it's just as miserable as the current opening! There are no heroes, there is no hope...and we haven't even touched on what Jenn experiences as she flees. Believe it or not, this first chapter is the first glimmer of hope in about a year's worth of story...which is why I wanted to start here initially.

The letter IS an info-dump, but many prologues serve this exact purpose...they set the scene. It was actually one of the people here who suggested back-story in letters or diary might have been Toby Frost?...and I quite liked the idea. I think it's preferable to where this backstory originally appeared, and that was chapter 3 and took the form of Jenn explaining what had happened to her to the assembled Watch. That little info-dump took around 3,500. :poop:
Um. Regarding miserable. There is the character being dumped on and fighting through it in a way that makes you think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, then there is character dragging their feet and being miserable. Seemed to me the whole fall of the House of Jenn and her quest to the Watch was where her character is built and might be a more interesting place to introduce Jenn to the reader which is why I queried where you start. However what you've said about her at that period, then maybe not. What I am trying to say in this post is there are different shades of miserable. You saying "no hope" - but Jenn is hoping for help from the Watch. When did that start?
By the end of the chapter, there is the glimmer of hope (I think I quoted the exchange earlier?) and Jenn begins to emerge from that point on.

I actually really like the way the chapter is structured in that she is at zero at the very start, the trudge through the city in the rains and her hesitation/concern at the inn are a microcosm of her trip across the continents (there is a flashback mid-chapter of some of her troubles), and then she finds what she wasn't sure she would...somebody to listen to her and a glimmer of hope.

From there, she begins to build, but the key will be to keep the reader onboard during the first chapter. I've done that not by making her display insipient heroism, but rather by hoping to intrigue and interest in what has happened.

There's one thing to be said about the 'back-story as letter' option...The letter leaves off just as she is about to return to her father's keep, now under siege. We then open with a very different Jenn before the city gates of D'raynar. The questions of what happened in the middle, how she got there and why could perhaps capture the reader's interest?
I might be repeating what others have said (or going against it, come to that) but I think this could be trimmed quite a bit. For example, here:

Seized by black dread - her trusty travelling companion - Jenn could not meet the guard’s eye. Neither was she keen on providing a true answer. This time last year, a man like this would have bowed before her, perhaps opened a door at her approach whilst offering a respectful smile.

That was before her old life had been scoured away by fire and steel. Those men who had served her father were now as dead as the smouldering ruins of Harmengarf. Now she could not help but view everybody with suspicion, wondering whether they would be the one to slip the blade between her ribs.

The second paragraph could go. The fact that this time last year she was in a position of power is intriguing -- and the hook, for me -- but it becomes less intriguing, not more, after you answer part of our question as to what's happened. The answer is perfectly serviceable but not especially interesting. For the moment, I think you could well leave it unsaid.

And here ...

“I asked you a question, girl.” Jenn was tall, but still the guard loomed over her. “You don’t look the sort we want in the city without good reason.”

The words stung, anger simmering below the thick layers of fear that almost suffocated Jenn. Rage was possibly the only thing that had forced her onwards these last few month, but it would not serve her well here. Instead of delivering a sharp rebuke, she slid her gaze up at the ominous skies, these pregnant with rain, and then the high, crenellated walls of the city. She reminded herself of what might be inside.


The middle paragraph doesn't add much and slows things down again. You could replace it with "She had one -- vengeance -- but could hardly tell them that."

Both of these examples seem to be from your feeling the need to explain things up-front. The same goes for internal experience. You don't need to use so many words to show us she's angry. We would assume it from her situation and the exchange so far; all you need is to confirm it with a dialogue tag or something, which would keep us moving.

Possibly one reason I was anxious for it to keep moving, though, was because (as someone above pointed out, I think) she's very passive, and completely reliant on the elder guard's kindness, which is effectively random chance, since she does nothing to bring it about. While this might be realistic, I don't think it's a way to get the reader fully on board with your character.

I also agree with @Appello about the dangers of using a letter as a prologue. It will put some people off. If I came across it, and had a good reason to read the book (say I trusted the good reviews of it) I would probably skip the letter and maybe come back to it later, as I often do with prologues. I have read letters as introductions, and I usually ache for them to be over. If you do use one, it must have a brilliant hook.
Cheers, HareBrain.

I'm working on a bit of cutting, as well as jerking Jenn out of the passivity. As I said, I don't want to her to suddenly become Waylander, but I have hit upon a little exchange that mean she gets to earn her passage through the gates. Revised opening coming shortly...

As for the letter, the more I think about it, the more I believe it might be a necessary evil. It will avoid something much worse...and longer...but you're 100% right that the justification has to be there to stand any chance of selling it to the reader.

This is the opening...Brand is Jenn's nine-year old brother...


My most beloved Brand,

I do not know whether you will ever read these words. At this time, I have no notion where you might be, or even if you still live. I hope with all my heart that you do and that you have found safe haven.

I have left this letter with Baron Westridge, a bannerman of father’s, in the hope that at some point, word will come to him of your whereabouts. Perhaps it will find you when you are older, when you are better able to understand what has happened these last few months. They say that the victor is able to write the histories and fearing that father will not be the victor, I want you at some juncture to know the truth. It is the least you deserve.

Many of these events you will recall. However, as you are unlikely to have grasped their full import at the time, having seen them through the prism of a nine-year old’s eyes, I will attempt to explain why you were abandoned as best I can.
So is the rest of the story the body of the letter? The letter is intriguing but seems to stop mid-flow.
That was just a taster, Montero. The letter is 2,300 words and it would immediately precede the opening we see here before the city gates.

Those 2,300 words can obviously be cut down...I think aiming for 1,500-1,600 might be do-able.
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