Novella opening

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
1,641
#1
In order to celebrate the momentous milestone of 1540 posts (the year of Anne of Cleves' brief reign as Queen of England), I'm submitting the opening of a novella I'm trying out.

The main thing I want to know here is "How much more setting/character detail does this need?" I am aware that's it about as bare bones as a skeleton stripper - just the way I naturally write - but am unsure how much more to load on.

But beyond that, all thoughts gratefully received.

---

I smelled the victim before I ever saw him.

That wasn’t strictly true. I’d already passed the slumped over man with barely a glance, thinking him just another of the Rat Quarter’s many sots and no threat to me. Certainly he reeked of wine and worse - well, he wouldn’t be the first to mess himself while drunk.

It took me another three steps to place the cloying, coppery scent in the air and realise the man’s sh*t stained tunic was at the least of his worries.

I turned to see Sia, my erstwhile apprentice, already crouched down with her hands pushing hard against his neck.

“How did you know?”

She ignored my question. “Save him!”

Easier said than done. He was already out cold which gave him maybe a minute if we were very lucky. I knelt on the cobbles and saw that the blood flowed from only one side, which was a small blessing, but only if I stopped woolgathering.

“I’ll hold, you staunch,” I said.

She let go and my hands closed on slippery sticky skin, pushing them back together as hard as I could. The feel of it and the stench of him made my stomach lurch for all I’d smelled that mix a hundred times on a hundred battlefields. That had been when I was young though, and now I was old, old enough to hate the idea of seeing another man die.

Sia moved back into view, holding a needle and thread.

“We don’t have time for that,” I snapped, partly because I’d never felt her remove the needle from my pouch. “Just wrap something around it as tight as you can.”

She sliced at her tunic swiftly, tearing off the dark gray cotton and binding it around his throat. I shifted my hands briefly for a moment to let her bandage over the wound, before pressing down savagely again. The man moaned slightly, an awkward and pitiful noise that I took heart from as at least we weren’t strangling him yet. We might with how tight Sia had to pull the cloth but it seemed a better gamble than letting him bleed. The gods would understand that if we accidentally murdered him, surely.

Whoever had planned on not so accidentally murdering him was long gone. A couple of minutes earlier on our way and we’d have disturbed them; a couple of minutes later and we’d have found a corpse. Whoever they were, they’d been careless about it. Not only did the man live - hopefully - but they’d left the knife behind.

Sia finished wrapping the makeshift bandage and picked the weapon up before I could even say anything. She’d probably spotted it when she’d realised the man was bleeding.

“There’s a leech three streets back that way. Need a hand carrying him?”

“Not in this lifetime.” He was heavier than he looked, but with a grunt I scooped him up in my arms. I couldn’t tell if he was still bleeding through the cloth, but I was reminded that wasn’t the only thing he’d leaked this evening. I’d have to wash my clothes once I was done with this, or better yet burn them, but I carried him onwards anyway. It wasn’t how I’d intended to protect the weak when I swore my knight’s vows, but there’d been nothing in them exempting the Rat Quarter’s poor, and I took my vows seriously.

So I lengthened my stride and walked as fast as I could, wondering all the time whether this man would live or die. And whether I’d find the man who did it.
 

Phyrebrat

ba-Ba-ba-brat
Supporter
Joined
Feb 13, 2011
Messages
3,923
Location
In your bedroom wardrobe...
#2
Hi Peat,

Nice as always. Some thoughts:

I can't say too much about the development of character appearance because those things kind of come low down in a list for me, and besides I usually see a character's appearance based on how I see the name (if that makes sense). Sia is such a strong name that I have a automatic idea of what she looks like. However the POV hasn't a name here so I'm working with generic broad strokes.

There's a great sense of urgency and (the dreaded word!) 'stakes' in the beginning but as we're not told how important the victim, the perp or the POV is, it's hard to get worried for them beynd the initial few passages.

Great first line, and I love when character's self-reflect and correct themselves as in the second line. It's kinda unreliable-narrator country which always works so well in fiction, I think.

Typically I usually read coppery as blood's taste so for it to be sh*t is a little disturbing to me :D

The dialogue, 'Save him!' would be really more punchy if it was included earlier - perhaps after 'I smelled the victim before I etc...'

The POV comes across as a Good Guy, salt-of-the-earth type - hating to see another man die

Re the wound; I was wondering if they don't have some mossy crap to stuff in there to clean or prevent infection? The POV seems to be quite 'smart', so if he's being asked to save someone I'd expect some kind of cleaning or something, no matter how throwaya, or at least one of them referencing it.

not so accidentally - I think these might be easier to read if hyphenated.

You asked about the description of place. I'm fine with brutalism but I think you might benefit from a bit of expo on what the Rat Quarter looks like; is it one-story shanties or multi levels? Victorian or more Pueblo Jovenes. Just a few words here and there. The incluson of cobbles makes me think of traditional olden times, but I think a bit of colour would be good. Otherwise we just have the blood. Mind you, contrasting that with the grey cobbles is a nice image, so if the place is really drear and drab, maybe that's how you could get some world in there.

Overall though, I think the fear for the victim I felt at the beginning evaporated in the absence of why this was important to the POV. It seems important, but I'm not sure why - and I think the POV could be a bit more panicked or 'emotional' in that regard.

Sorry not to have more ideas or comments. And sorry for typos -on my phone.

Anyway, I liked. 'Twas an easy read.

pH
 

Onyx

Member
Joined
Apr 24, 2018
Messages
955
#3
I don't know if I will be able to communicate this well:

There is something awkward with the relative 'precision' or maybe wordiness of the prose in contrast to the earthiness of the character and scene. Or maybe some sentences go on too long:

I’d already passed the slumped over man with barely a glance, thinking him just another of the Rat Quarter’s many sots and no threat to me.
I'd passed the slumped-over man with barely a glance; just another Rat's Quarter sot who's no threat to me.

Simply too many descriptors and details. Also, "throat binding" sounds like strangulation rather than first aid:
She sliced at her tunic swiftly, tearing off the dark gray cotton and binding it around his throat.
She slashed at her tunic, tearing off dark grey strips and pressing them to his throat.

Such scenes don't have to read like Raymond Chandler, but I think you're way too wordy for the grittiness - they are the opposite of punchy. The problem is probably that the passages take longer to read than the time it takes for the action to happen, and are not "bare bones".

If I'm not making any sense, I can try to break down more passages.
 
Last edited:

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
21,622
Location
Highlands
#5
Good opening sentence, and I think what follows works quite well. Any criticisms I have are more like niggles, specifically:

- more sense of place. Aside from the third line, there isn't much of a sense of setting. I'd like to get more of an atmosphere with that, too.

- more sense of character. We get his observations, but we could be missing a little depth, such as his motivations. Don't make generic statements, be specific, ie "a hundred battlefields" could be "from the battle of XXX, to the campaigns of Duke XXX." Those little details also help to make the story feel more real - a more intricate and believable lie.

So my niggles at this stage are that although you've captured the sense of immediacy, sprinkling a few details specific to character and setting might bring it even more to life.
 

Joshua Jones

Well-Known Member
Joined
Apr 6, 2017
Messages
802
#6
I second @Brian G Turner's thoughts. Overall, I thought it was a good opening, and most of the critiques I could offer would be nitpicking and to the same effect as his.

Out of curiosity, why did you go with "apprentice" rather than "squire"?
 

HareBrain

Bunny of Wonder
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Oct 13, 2008
Messages
9,518
Location
West Sussex, UK
#7
I thought it worked well on second read. On the first, I was thrown by the opening couple of lines. I didn't like him backtracking, but it's hard to place exactly why. Maybe the revision snatches us straight back out of the story period as soon as we're in it; we're in the time he's setting it down, not the time in which the events are happening.

And shouldn't it be "That isn't strictly true"? After all, the line "I smelled the victim before I ever saw him" never existed in the past. That might even be my problem with it.

Anyway, apart from that, it works. I didn't feel the need for any more description. (The guy clearly has a substantial beard, even though you don't tell us.) Like Phyrebrat, I'm a bit concerned that we know nothing about the victim or why he should be of any importance to us (apart from that his situation throws light on the main character), so we're going on trust at the moment that this is the right place for the story to start, and I think we'll need something more soon.

One minor thing, I'm pretty sure it's "stanch" rather than "staunch".
 

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Joined
Nov 10, 2008
Messages
9,786
Location
nearly the New Forest
#8
I've no time for a detailed critique, but just very quickly, although I enjoyed it there were a few too many awkward sentences and infelicities to make it a smooth read for my taste. It seems as if you've written it just as you would narrate it, but you know where the stresses are going to be -- at times your punctuation wasn't quite as I'd have used it -- so a number of times I had to stop and re-read a line to understand it.

Also some word use seemed wrong to my eyes and jolted me out of his character -- eg "mess himself" is fine, but then in the next line it's "sh*t-stained" -- why be mealy-mouthed with the first one if you're going to use the expletive immediately thereafter?

As to the setting, I'd like a bit more -- we've no idea of time or place and even things like "leech" and "knight's vows" aren't conclusive. If you could get in a line or two close to the beginning to let us know if it's fantasy of the kind-of-medieval sort or otherwise, I think it would help eg the man could be collapsed against a wooden hovel, or a concrete pillar. Letting us know time of day and weather wouldn't go amiss, either. By the way, a poor quarter in medieval times is likely to be smelling to high heaven in anything but very cold weather, with all and any refuse and nightsoil just dumped in the streets, so he's not likely to smell one man's soiled clothes until right on top of him.

Anyhow, a good first draft and I look forward to seeing more.

One minor thing, I'm pretty sure it's "stanch" rather than "staunch".
They're variant spellings of each other, so either can be used, but I'd always go for "staunch".
 

tinkerdan

candycane shrimp
Joined
Dec 10, 2012
Messages
3,711
Location
x(squared)+y(squared)=r(squared) : when x~infinity
#11
I found this to be an easy read. Liked it.
Not much to say.
Was a bit off with the initial comment at the beginning that only later led to the coppery smell as he realized there was blood involved.

However I guess when I pass a dead skunk in the road if first just smells like a scared skunk so there is that; although being in the road usually makes me certain it's also dead.

That aside I'd read on. Not sure I could help on deciding what more you need for description other than it does need to pinpoint itself earlier in some timeline especially when we don't know the name or much else of the main character. Could be anyone though for the timeline probably has to be a man.

Need more clues earlier to make that much more obvious.
 

night_wrtr

Non-human Protagonist
Joined
Apr 18, 2017
Messages
321
Location
US
#12
I agree with @HareBrain on the opening sentences. The first was fine, but the next two sentences I had to reread before I was on board, instead a smooth imagining of the scene.

MC: I think we learned a good deal about the narrator. Aged, battle-hardened, knight, good heart looking out for even the poor folk. He could scoop up the victim, which means he's probably a burly fellow. But, no name. A name can also give character. Any reason to keep that out?

Sia: Apprentice to MC, observant, quick to action and decisive.

Setting: This is probably what I noticed most. Not much detail here, but I don't think it needs much to get the point across. I would like to see more immediate description of the surroundings here though. Also, for instance, where was the knife? Was it left on the ground, on the table, etc.

I liked it and think it got me asking some questions that peaked my interest. Mostly about the MC and why he was there to begin with, but I want to see where the story is headed.
 

The Big Peat

Darth Buddha
Joined
Apr 9, 2016
Messages
1,641
#13
Thank you for your help all. Plenty to ponder and help me with the next version of this.

Few thoughts/comments

- There's no reason I'm keeping the narrator anonymous, other than I always struggle to identify the right moment for the narrator to talk about themselves ("As you know dear reader, I'm 6'4", a veteran of the nastiest wars and jails, and my hobbies are reading Proust, pressing flowers, and chicken strangling..."). Still not sure where to put it here.

- Hopefully it'll be easier to do that once I've included time of day (I spotted that one when I started to write the next scene then realised I had no idea), immediate locale, weather and a description of the victim, because...

(The guy clearly has a substantial beard, even though you don't tell us.)
I think you're right, but I'd been thinking hood myself until I read your comment. And of course, there's no clue there. None.

Typically I usually read coppery as blood's taste so for it to be sh*t is a little disturbing to me :D
This line? "It took me another three steps to place the cloying, coppery scent in the air and realise the man’s sh*t stained tunic was at the least of his worries."

The intention is that he realises he's smelling blood as well as excrement, not that the coppery smell is excrement - does it make sense now? Anyone else stumble here?

Re the wound; I was wondering if they don't have some mossy crap to stuff in there to clean or prevent infection? The POV seems to be quite 'smart', so if he's being asked to save someone I'd expect some kind of cleaning or something, no matter how throwaya, or at least one of them referencing it.
There could be if I wanted I guess but, based on what I read in my research, when it comes to stopping arterial bleeding on the neck, you stop the blood flow asap and worry about the rest of it after they're not about to immediately die. Maybe you kill them from infection or strangulation, but maybe beats definitely watching them bleed out. I was trying to convey some of that urgency, but I get the feeling I didn't.

Out of curiosity, why did you go with "apprentice" rather than "squire"?
He's not training her to be a knight - that's something more details on would emerge through the story.

And shouldn't it be "That isn't strictly true"? After all, the line "I smelled the victim before I ever saw him" never existed in the past. That might even be my problem with it.
I thought that sentence was acceptable past tense - anyone else care to weigh in on this?

One minor thing, I'm pretty sure it's "stanch" rather than "staunch".
I originally typed it as stanch, then was unsure I was right, looked it up, and decided to go with staunch as more common usage.

Also some word use seemed wrong to my eyes and jolted me out of his character -- eg "mess himself" is fine, but then in the next line it's "sh*t-stained" -- why be mealy-mouthed with the first one if you're going to use the expletive immediately thereafter?
Curious to know if anyone else found this odd because I was second guessing at it myself. I stuck with it because it feels natural to me for people to switch between polite terms (particularly euphemisms) and expletives in short succession, but I know that not everyone will find it natural.
 

awesomesauce

Disco unicorn!
Joined
Apr 23, 2018
Messages
139
#14
I think other people made some good points. I especially agree with @Brian G Turner that a few light details would make it more immersive.

For me, I got drawn in and I didn't find the anonymity of the speaker a problem in this section. I think adding an introduction would slow down what should be a pretty intense scene. By the end of this, I know the MC is some kind of veteran warrior, and a knight and in a position to have an apprentice. I'm starting to get a sense of voice and personality. (He does his duty but there's something misanthropic in the way he talks about the sots in the alley and the condition of the man's clothes with disgust.)

Most of the things that caught my attention (in a bad way) were things that slowed it down. Like:

"I knelt on the cobbles and saw that the blood flowed from only one side, which was a small blessing, but only if I stopped woolgathering." -- That remark about woolgathering feels like an authorial remark, wishing the character would get on with it; people don't actually stand around while a guy is bleeding to death from the throat in front of them and muse on their own woolgathering.

(Also the "partly because I’d never felt her remove the needle from my pouch" aside.)

And there are a couple other long sentences that could be rearranged and broken into shorter sentences that would make the action move faster, like when the MC's picking up the man.

Things I specifically liked were how his initial appraisal is to determine potential threats, which tells me something about the character right away, the sense of the character's voice coming through when he describes "the man’s sh*t stained tunic" and when he snaps at Sia when she goes to stitch up a man's throat wound on the ground in an alley, and at the end when he's thinking he's going to have to burn his clothes.
 

Guillermo Stitch

Well-Known Member
Joined
Jun 4, 2018
Messages
132
#15
It's good. I think setting, for me, is what needs a little development. More visuals on the Rats Quarter, some concrete details, to anchor us in a place.

Personally I'm fine with being dropped straight in as far as character development is concerned. WE do have a glimpse of the relationship with Sia here to get us started - some competitiveness etc

Maybe some allusion to what kind of knight? A knight of what? Whose knight? But not necessarily. It all depends on what comes next.
 

The Judge

Truth. Order. Moderation.
Staff member
Joined
Nov 10, 2008
Messages
9,786
Location
nearly the New Forest
#16
There's no reason I'm keeping the narrator anonymous, other than I always struggle to identify the right moment for the narrator to talk about themselves ("As you know dear reader, I'm 6'4", a veteran of the nastiest wars and jails, and my hobbies are reading Proust, pressing flowers, and chicken strangling..."). Still not sure where to put it here.
I don't think you need to do this at all, here or anywhere else. We can learn about him as the story progresses. Sia can call him by name which gets that out quickly, and if he has a rank she can use this, too, even if ironically, ie with metaphorical quotation marks around it. If you want some elements of his physical appearance out there then height can be shown by his having to bend to get through a door while he's carrying the body; blood could be smeared over his beard; the dying man's hair is greyer than his own. That kind of thing continues the story while getting some info out.

This line? "It took me another three steps to place the cloying, coppery scent in the air and realise the man’s sh*t stained tunic was at the least of his worries."

The intention is that he realises he's smelling blood as well as excrement, not that the coppery smell is excrement - does it make sense now? Anyone else stumble here?
For what it's worth I got that immediately, though I can't help thinking he'd definitely see the blood before he smelled it.

when it comes to stopping arterial bleeding on the neck, you stop the blood flow asap and worry about the rest of it after they're not about to immediately die. ... I was trying to convey some of that urgency, but I get the feeling I didn't.
No, I didn't get any sense of urgency here. To my mind he's thinking too much about it and the sentences in which he thinks are too long and polished. Urgency would perhaps be better shown with shorter, more direct, perhaps incomplete lines.

He's not training her to be a knight - that's something more details on would emerge through the story.
I picked up the "erstwhile" viz-a-viz her apprenticeship, and I actually wondered whether you'd used the wrong word there as it seemed so odd. I assume he'd had a profession before taking his knight's vows and she'd been his apprentice then, but was no longer, either because she'd qualified to journeyman status or the apprenticeship was interrupted. It's intriguing, certainly, and it might be an idea to get some further info on it out sooner rather than later.

I thought that sentence was acceptable past tense - anyone else care to weigh in on this?
I agree with HB. The "I smelled..." line is thought and written now, in the present, as he recollects what happened in the past, and so the fact the line is wrong is also in the now, and must therefore be expressed in the present tense ie "That's not strictly true." If something happened in the past which was wrong eg "I told Sia I couldn't smell the victim" then you can use the past tense for the correction ("That wasn't...") since the error/lie -- the telling -- was itself in the past.

Curious to know if anyone else found this odd because I was second guessing at it myself. I stuck with it because it feels natural to me for people to switch between polite terms (particularly euphemisms) and expletives in short succession, but I know that not everyone will find it natural.
I think if the "mess" line had been spoken out loud and the "sh*t" in his thoughts it wouldn't have had the same effect on me, since people do muzzle themselves somewhat when talking since they have to bear in mind the sensibilities of their audience and/or how they want to be perceived. Or if the two words were well apart within the extract, with the "sh*t" coming after he's picked up the body and he's revolted by the thought of his own clothes being soiled, that would have made sense. But the "mess himself" in his thoughts made him sound a bit old-maidish, which was then almost immediately contradicted, so threw me out when it came to building a picture of his character.
 

Similar threads

Top