Opening of a fantasy novel

Toby Frost

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#1
This is the opening to a noir-ish fantasy novel.

General comments are welcomed, but two things stand out for me. First, this is a mock-Italian pseudo-Renaissance setting, a bit like Scott Lynch's Camorra (although the dialogue is modern rather than "fantasy", if you see what I mean). Julia is a local. I've used the English form of the name throughout - the Italian version would be Giulia - for ease of reading and pronunciation. Does that seem out of place?
Secondly, I keep coming back to this sentence: "She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why." I know what I mean to say, but the last few words feel awkward. If anyone can think of a better way of putting it, I'd be grateful!



Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she opened the door. She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why. Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside.

She closed the door behind her and waited, listening. The house was silent. The ground floor smelled of dust and the ashes of last night’s fire.

There were two chairs next to the table. One lay on its back, as if someone had got up too quickly and knocked it over. Julia crossed the room, treading carefully. There were a few crumbs on the tabletop. That was all.

She stood there, feeling the beating of her heart. Julia drew her long knife and she turned to the staircase.

The boards creaked softly under her boots. As she reached the top of the stairs, she saw him.

Carlo lay on his back, mouth open. The blood on his chest was as black as shadow.

They had cut his throat.

She saw the fingers of his left hand, how they had been twisted and broken. “S**t.”

Julia stepped back from the body. She thought: My money. He had it.

She sheathed her knife and looked for the chest where he kept his cash. Relief ran over her like sweat as she saw that it was still there, pushed into the darkest corner of the room. Julia crouched down and fumbled with the lid of the chest. The metal felt wrong.

No, no.

The lock was twisted, wrenched out of shape. They’d blown it open with gunpowder, or magic or something –

She lifted the lid. Even in this bad light, she knew at once that the chest was empty.

My money.

She clamped her hand over her mouth and screamed silently into the palm.

Think, damn it. Think.

Then she realised that she was kneeling beside a corpse, looking into a chest that had been full of stolen coins, and that whoever had murdered Carlo was probably still nearby.

“You’re the woman.”

She looked around. A man stood there, a metal bar in his hands. He was about twenty, very stocky, slightly hunched. There was something dead in his eyes: he was a living man, but he had the dull menace of a revenant. He seemed to blot out her way of escape, to swell up until she was trapped in here with him.

She heard the threat in his voice and knew that there would be no talking her way out of this. She knew his type: the kind of scum who’d carved her face six years ago.

Julia stood up. “I’m the woman,” she said.

“You stay still.”

She glanced towards the stairs.

“No! You stay still or I f***ing smash you.”

He took a step forward, remarkably quiet for his bulk, and she knew he meant to beat her, no matter what. Something inside her tensed, hardened itself ready to break loose. She felt the old fury rise up inside her, together with a kind of vicious contempt.

He raised the bar in his right fist and grabbed at her with his left hand. His thick fingers caught hold of her shirt.

Julia sidestepped to dodge the bar, pulled his left arm taut and chopped down onto his locked elbow with the edge of her right hand.

He bellowed, she tore free, and he came in swinging wildly. She ducked and pulled the long knife from her belt. As he swung the bar down again, his front was wide open. She darted forward, threw her weight against him and stabbed him in the neck.

He collapsed like a dropped marionette. He made a coughing noise and blood ran down his front. The man looked up at her with a kind of wonder, his hand pressed to his throat. Then something went out in his eyes and he slumped back.

It was him or me, she thought. She made the Sign of the Sword across her chest – not for his soul, but for her own.

A voice came from outside: stern, educated. “Luca! Luca, what the hell’s going on in there?”

Julia ran.
 

The Big Peat

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#2
First off - Julia doesn't seem out of place, but Giulia might have given me more of a sense of place.

Either way, I wish we got more of her out of this. The Point of View felt quite distant and emotion free for a lot of the segment. As a result, it was slow reading for me. I like we get closer and tighter after the fight and I enjoyed it more - my favourite line being:

"She made the Sign of the Sword across her chest – not for his soul, but for her own. "

Also - and this is more than a tad hypocritical - you use a lot of qualifiers ("a kind of wonder", "a kind of vicious contempt", "he seemed to blot out") and I think less might be more here. Particularly as they mostly come in the fight section, which is where the writing benefits more for being sharp.
 

Jo Zebedee

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#3
Teeth applied below. :)

This is the opening to a noir-ish fantasy novel.

General comments are welcomed, but two things stand out for me. First, this is a mock-Italian pseudo-Renaissance setting, a bit like Scott Lynch's Camorra (although the dialogue is modern rather than "fantasy", if you see what I mean). Julia is a local. I've used the English form of the name throughout - the Italian version would be Giulia - for ease of reading and pronunciation. Does that seem out of place?
Secondly, I keep coming back to this sentence: "She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why." I know what I mean to say, but the last few words feel awkward. If anyone can think of a better way of putting it, I'd be grateful!



Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she opened the door. I found this confusing - I expected her to have seen CArol at this point, but she hasn't, has she? I think, for preference, you could ditch this entire paragaph, and start with the next, making it clear it's Carlo's house. Otherwise, you're telling us what you're about to show us. She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why. On a personal note, I'd lose the whole line. What's it telling us that the first didn't? Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside.

She closed the door behind her and waited, listeningI don't think you need listening. It's a filter here, and weakens the next sentence which begins to build the tension for you nicely. The house was silent. The ground floor smelled of dust and the ashes of last night’s fire.

There were two chairs next to the table. One lay on its back, as if someone had got up too quickly and knocked it over. Julia crossed the room, treading carefully. There were a few crumbs on the tabletop. That was all.

She stood there, feeling the beating of her heart. Julia drew her long knife and she turned to the staircase.

The boards creaked softly under her boots. As she reached the top of the stairs, she saw him.

Carlo lay on his back, mouth open. The blood on his chest was as black as shadow.

They had cut his throat.

She saw the fingers of his left hand, how they had been twisted and broken. “S**t.”See, this is all great.

Julia stepped back from the body. She thought: My money. He had it.I wonder would it be stronger without telling us now what she's worried about. The My Money line below was the sucker punch for me and I think it would be stronger without this tell here.

She sheathed her knife and looked for the chest where he kept his cash. Relief ran over her like sweat as she saw that it was still there, pushed into the darkest corner of the room. Julia crouched down and fumbled with the lid of the chest. The metal felt wrong.

No, no.

The lock was twisted, wrenched out of shape. They’d blown it open with gunpowder, or magic or something –

She lifted the lid. Even in this bad light, she knew at once that the chest was empty.

My money.

She clamped her hand over her mouth and screamed silently into the palm.

Think, damn it. Think.

Then she realised that she was kneeling beside a corpse, looking into a chest that had been full of stolen coins, and that whoever had murdered Carlo was probably still nearby.

“You’re the woman.”

A reaction? She looked around. A man stood theretwice you've used 'stood there' - I'm not sure it works, a metal bar in his hands. He was about twenty, very stocky, slightly hunched. There was something dead in his eyes: he was a living man, but he had the dull menace of a revenant. He seemedseemed or did? to blot out her way of escape, to swell up until she was trapped in here with him.

She heard the threat in his voice and knew that there would be no talking her way out of this. She knew his type: the kind of scum who’d carved her face six years ago.

Julia stood up. “I’m the woman,” she said.

“You stay still.”

She glanced towards the stairs.

“No! You stay still or I f***ing smash you.”

He took a step forward, remarkably quiet for his bulk, and she knew he meant to beat her, no matter what. Something inside her tensed, hardened itself ready to break loose. She felt the old fury rise up inside her, together with a kind of vicious contempt.

He raised the bar in his right fist and grabbed at her with his left hand. His thick fingers caught hold of her shirt.

Julia sidestepped to dodge the bar, pulled his left arm taut and chopped down onto his locked elbow with the edge of her right hand.

He bellowed, she tore free, and he came in swinging wildly. She ducked and pulled the long knife from her belt. As he swung the bar down again, his front was wide open. She darted forward, threw her weight against him and stabbed him in the neck.

He collapsed like a dropped marionette. He made a coughing noise and blood ran down his front. The man looked up at her with a kind of wonder, his hand pressed to his throat. Then something went out in his eyes and he slumped back.

It was him or me, she thought. She made the Sign of the Sword across her chest – not for his soul, but for her own.

A voice came from outside: stern, educated. “Luca! Luca, what the hell’s going on in there?”

Julia ran.
Overall, I think it works but I think you could strengthen it with just a little more precision in places. And, sorry, this is a personal preference for me, and you might want to ignore it, but I think a cull of filter words would strengthen it a lot. :)
 

The Big Peat

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#4
I'd like to quickly qualify on the qualifiers - particularly as Jo picked up on one - I do like them. And I think they've got a definite place in fiction like this, where people are undergoing highly stressful situations and the mind reacts in strange ways. They show the way we're watching ourselves, the way our thinking is distorted, the way the mind presents threats greater than they actually are. Its the number of them rather than the use itself - particularly as I just spotted a third "kind of" (kind of thug, different but still repetition) in the text.
 

Montero

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#5
"She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why."

I don't like it either, trying to pin it down - too many words is what first springs to mind.

My first suggestion is:

She paused on the threshold of his home, uneasy/on edge - there was definitely something wrong.

Which I don't entirely like.

Having written that, I realised I'm not too keen on the whole "on the threshold of his home"

She paused in his doorway

She paused just inside his front door

I might be tripping over style here - I am not a fan of high fantasy and grand vocabulary - maybe threshold of his home type phrases are what is appropriate to the sub-genre you are writing in.

Or maybe towards -
She paused in the doorway, uneasy - the familiar room felt strange - she took a deep breath and stepped inside.

Might have something about her telling herself that she can't find out what is wrong standing on the doorstep.
 

HareBrain

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#6
Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she opened the door
Maybe it's just me, but this very strongly suggests that she is opening her door to find Carlo outside, having come to her for help. So it's a bit of a jolt to find she's instead opening the door of his abode. Might be worth re-ordering things to make it clearer.

Secondly, I keep coming back to this sentence: "She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why." I know what I mean to say, but the last few words feel awkward. If anyone can think of a better way of putting it, I'd be grateful!
I think the uneasiness might partly be because we're expecting "what" rather than "why". I might go with something like, "She stood on the threshold of his home, skin prickling with the certainly that something bad waited within".

I'd prefer Giulia for local colour. I just read a book on the Templars in which the author insisted on calling Jacques de Molay "James of Molay". It sucked half the romance out of it.
 

The Judge

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#7
Just a drive-by on the opening lines issue. I also think it's all a bit clumsy, and to my mind HB is right that we expect the "what" to follow after ie she's sure there's something bad there, but doesn't know what it is waiting for her. What you're telling us is that she knows something bad is inside, but doesn't know how she knows that. But I'm not sure we need that information, do we? If it's some atavistic instinct kicking in which later she learns how to control, fair enough, but then I think you need to make more of it. If it's just a sixth sense which never crops up again, perhaps leave it vague.

If we're all giving ideas of how to re-write it (;)) how about something like:

Carlo was in trouble -- Julia sensed it the moment she opened the door to his house.** She stood on the threshold, sure something bad awaited her. Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside.​
**or apartment/lodgings if house not applicable -- "home" is a bit mimsy in this context.

And yes, definitely Giulia.
 

Toby Frost

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#8
Thanks guys - good spotting on the "kind of", too. I use this way to much and I've just been through the manuscript purging them.

Maybe something like this would work better?

Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she saw that his front door was open. She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her. Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The things I want to say are:

- Julia has gone to Carlo's house
- She gets a gut feeling that something is wrong (and perhaps can't tell why)
- She braces herself and goes in

The trouble is trying to say them in a short and punchy a way as possible! That said, Jo's option of cutting the whole thing is looking increasingly tempting...
 

Brian G Turner

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#9
Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she opened the door.
Coming back to this sentence after reading this - if Carlo is in trouble, then shouldn't Julia assume she is also in trouble? After all, if she fears/senses/suspects danger inside (enough to draw her knife) then surely the peril must directly affect her?

Focusing on any danger facing her would also be the stronger opening, because we're immersed in it directly - whereas "someone else was in danger" feels a little too safe. Better to put the reader on their toes as quickly as possible? :)

She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why.
I'd be much more specific and less vague. If the chest has been forced, then perhaps the door had also been forced? Might there be marks from a jimmy bar in the frame, showing that someone may not have kicked the door open - the noise might attract attention - but had certainly forced it?

Smell might be another cue to draw on - using both might help bring a greater sense of danger early on, which may be a good thing. :)

“You’re the woman.”

She looked around. A man stood there, a metal bar in his hands. He was about twenty, very stocky, slightly hunched. There was something dead in his eyes: he was a living man, but he had the dull menace of a revenant. He seemed to blot out her way of escape, to swell up until she was trapped in here with him.

She heard the threat in his voice and knew that there would be no talking her way out of this. She knew his type: the kind of scum who’d carved her face six years ago.

Julia stood up. “I’m the woman,” she said.
We're definitely missing an emotional response from here her - her colleague (friend?) is dead, her money is gone, she's faced with the threat of attack and even death - but she doesn't have an emotional reaction? IMO you're missing a trick here to make the reader share that moment.


Overall, though, it's a decent enough read - it has a YA feel to it, in that: a) the protagonist a young woman, b) there's a lack of detail to give it setting, c) and the way you give her thoughts in lieu of visceral reactions. That may or may not be a bad thing - Mistborn: Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, and The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks are all YA fantasy sold as adult fantasy, and this would fit in there.

If you want to make this feel more adult, then I'd suggest a little more atmosphere and detail in there - give us a clear sense of a world beyond the character's immediate experience, by showing the details she does. For example, in the piece you gave us, what time of day (or night) is it? What sort of part of town is it? What is the street like she steps from? What are the markings of class inside the building, such as decorations/no decorations, any religious spaces such as a personal shrine, signs of servants? Or, if lower class, how does this collection of wood represent a home? Is it rented, from recent gains Carlos has from his illegal activities?

You *don't* have to add all this in, but the greater sense of setting you give us might help raise the sense of place here.

ALSO! Note that while it's easy to slip into sensory descriptions of place to define a setting, note how just using a sense of character voice can do this - you mention Scott Lynch at the start, and The Lies of Locke Lamora starts with a really strong sense of voice, not least through the dialogue. I don't get that here - but as before, you don't need to - but it might be handy to consider.

All in all, a decent piece of work - I'm just suggesting that you might benefit from making it stand out a little more.

Also, you tell us in the introduction that this is based on Renaissance Italy - but where are the details that might suggest that? You don't need to give setting quickly, but it might be stronger if you could just through in one or two cues to warm the reader's engines.

Hope that helps. :)
 

thaddeus6th

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#10
As always, commenting without reading others' views to avoid being coloured by that. *unsheathes claws*

She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why. Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside. - think the second sentence would be better without the 'then', but that requires (to me, anyway) axing the 'She' at the start of the first sentence. Perhaps: "Her instincts made her pause at the threshold, sure danger awaited within but uncertain what. She took a deep breath, and stepped inside."?

She closed the door behind her and waited, listening. - axe.

The ground floor smelled of dust and the ashes of last night’s fire. - dust/ash could also be indicated by footsteps through up clouds of dust, or hanging as motes in the air. Whatever floats your boat, of course.

That was all. - implicit, so axe.

She stood there, feeling the beating of her heart. - made me think she'd shoved her fingers into her rib cage :p Maybe "feeling her heart pulse/pound/beat against her ribs/in her chest"?

Julia drew her long knife and she turned to the staircase. - axe 'she'

The boards creaked softly under her boots. - axe 'softly'. Adverbs are an enemy (I do massively overuse them quite unnecessarily for Sir Edric, but that's deliberately the case. Ostensibly, anyway).

As she reached the top of the stairs, she saw him. - Maybe 'When' rather then 'As'?

Julia stepped back from the body. She thought: My money. He had it. - depends how you're styling stuff, but I'd probably axe the 'She thought:'. It's clear that the italics denote her thoughts.

She sheathed her knife and looked for the chest where he kept his cash. - small point, so feel free to ignore, as per all comments, but I'd go for lockbox, strongbox or trunk instead. Chest is still making me think of dark blood and tickling her own ventricles.

Think, damn it. Think. - maybe a bit more rage against them, whether for the murder or the money?

Then she realised that she was kneeling beside a corpse, looking into a chest that had been full of stolen coins, and that whoever had murdered Carlo was probably still nearby. - dislike this. Bit like 'Suddenly' destroying the suddenness, it's giving away the next bit, but not in a good way. Could axe, or even just swap with the dialogue that follows.

She looked around. - axe.

He took a step forward, remarkably quiet for his bulk, and she knew he meant to beat her, no matter what. - change 'quiet' for 'quick' or suchlike. The sound is irrelevant for her.

He raised the bar in his right fist and grabbed at her with his left hand. His thick fingers caught hold of her shirt. - I'd rewrite a little: "He raised the bar and grabbed at her with his left hand, thick fingers catching hold of her shirt."

He bellowed, she tore free, and he came in swinging wildly. - 'bellow' is neutral. Perhaps screaming instead?

He collapsed like a dropped marionette. - if 'marionette' then strings being cut seems the go-to figure of speech, although if you're deliberately avoiding that, fair enough.

It was him or me, she thought. She made the Sign of the Sword across her chest – not for his soul, but for her own. - latter part works nicely.
*

Comments are largely small suggestions rather than anything wrong with the gist. Could maybe add some sweat and smell of blood at the end if you like.
 

night_wrtr

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#11
I enjoy this style of setting! Giulia would be nice to see a it has that Renaissance feel to the spelling. It wouldn't throw me as far as reading goes.

"She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why." I know what I mean to say, but the last few words feel awkward. If anyone can think of a better way of putting it, I'd be grateful!
I think its the word quite that reads awkwardly in this structure? What made her think something bad waited for her? Was it the silence or an empty feeling? Maybe it can be altered a bit that still shows confusion but something that causes that feeling. Hrm. "She stood on the threshold of his home and knew at once something was off, but couldn't quite tell why."

Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she saw that his front door was open. She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her. Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The things I want to say are:

- Julia has gone to Carlo's house
- She gets a gut feeling that something is wrong (and perhaps can't tell why)
- She braces herself and goes in
I like that version better. The door was open. This sets an immediate response of alarm in the character and reader.

Then she realised that she was kneeling beside a corpse, looking into a chest that had been full of stolen coins, and that whoever had murdered Carlo was probably still nearby.
You mention the stolen coins here, but the rest could be eliminated I think so that we get that surprise of the murderer still there, instead of telling us they are probably hanging around, it just happens.

The fighting flowed really well and was balanced with good imagery, avoiding the blow by blow.

It is missing some description of the surroundings maybe. A little more detail might be good, especially to get the Renaissance feel to it.

I want to know a lot more, so reading this section of the story would make me curious to keep reading.
 

Toby Frost

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#12
Hmm. Thanks everyone. How about this to replace the first few lines:

Julia reached Carlo’s house at dusk. She raised her hand to knock on the front door – and stopped. The door was already open.

Carlo always kept his house locked up. Something was wrong. She drew the long knife from her belt and held it down so the folds of her cloak would hide the blade.

Fear formed in her chest like ice. She took a deep breath and slipped inside.
 

The Judge

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#13
Yes, much better. Don't think you need the "Something was wrong" line, though, as we can guess that from the first sentence in that para and from her reaction. If you want something in its place you could always drop a line of backstory in there eg "He kept too much money on the premises to be casual about security."
 
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#15
I like it overall.

I would suggest making the danger and tension of the open door and dead Carlo be an emotion that is broken temporarily by Julia's realization about her money, and then she comes back to that dread just before the attack. Right now it is hard to tell whether Julia is generally bothered by both the murder and missing cash and why those together make her so incautious. So it might be better to have the broken strong box distract her from the danger, and then bring her back from that revere.


Her assailant might be 20 years old, but how would Julia know that or care? I would go for something more of interest to Julia's situation like "he was young, but not lacking a man's strength", which would signal more about what the observation of his appearance means to Julia in terms of a threat or his status.

I have a similar reservation about "six years ago." Would a person living in this time and place think in terms of years like we do, or would some other signifier be more relevant? "Slashed her face when she was still in her father's house." "Slashed her face the season before she took to road." "Slashed her face when she was only a maiden."


I'm not sure if the one line paragraphs dividing the action are entirely effective. I can see why you are separating the moments of time for pacing, but the frequent breaks play against the flow. Consider larger paragraphs with single line paragraphs used for emphasis.


"They had cut his throat." Is it reasonable that Julia has a feeling about who "they" might be at this point? If not, it might be better to leave the cause of the slashed throat out of her observation, and focus more on the details of that shocking sight - "An ugly gash divided his throat in angry red," kind of thing.


I don't care for "Think, damn it, think." I think it sounds unnatural in general, but especially for a period piece where "thinking" wasn't something people talked about. Consider having Julia think about something more specific: "How? How will I live?" "Damn! What now?"



You might also consider using something more evocative than "beating" for hearts and "creaked" for the floor. "Drumming", "surging". "Chirped". And is the creaking floor important? Did it give her presence away to the man? Did a later creak break her reverie? Consider linking these details to contrasting moments later on: "The pulse in her ears disappeared as he spoke "Are you the woman?""

Consider "I am that woman."
 

tinkerdan

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#16
I like what you have here-it just requires a lot of tightening.

I think if you take the first four paragraphs and tighten them and string them together, you might make something that draws the attention.

You wouldn't do it this way; however if I had it to do ....

The miasmic fog of trouble, she couldn't quite identify, washed over Julia as she opened Carlo's door. Something wasn't right. With a deep sharp intake of breath, she stepped inside and gently closed the door. She waited. The silent house smelled of last night's fire: dust and ash. The scene unfolded before her. Two chairs next to the table, one on its back as if someone rose too quick and knocked it over. Julia tread carefully across the room to the table. Crumbs:that was all. Near breathless at the throb of her irregular heartbeat, she stopped to draw her knife and turn toward the staircase. The quiet spoke volumes.
 
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#17
First off, I like it. I'm going to come after it pretty hard, but I offer my criticism because I liked it. If I didn't, I wouldn't have spent as much time.

Julia knew that Carlo was in trouble the moment she opened the door. She stood on the threshold of his home, sure that something bad awaited her but unable to tell quite why. Then she took a deep breath and stepped inside.
I think if you cut this down a bit you'll ratchet up the tension. "She stood on the threshold, sure that something bad awaited her."

You don't need the "unable to quite tell why" the reader will get that.

She closed the door behind her and waited, listening. The house was silent. The ground floor smelled of dust and the ashes of last night’s fire.

There were two chairs next to the table. One lay on its back, as if someone had got up too quickly and knocked it over. Julia crossed the room, treading carefully. There were a few crumbs on the tabletop. That was all.
What does dust smell like? I feel like this is supposed to be ominous, but it's not there yet. It's a dusty room with crumbs, and a tipped over chair, none of which seems particularly frightening. A splash of blood, a half-eaten meal...something to indicate that evil is afoot would strengthen things.

How is she reacting to this? Is she scared? Furious? Curious?

She stood there, feeling the beating of her heart. Julia drew her long knife and she turned to the staircase.

The boards creaked softly under her boots. As she reached the top of the stairs, she saw him.

Carlo lay on his back, mouth open. The blood on his chest was as black as shadow.

They had cut his throat.

She saw the fingers of his left hand, how they had been twisted and broken. “S**t.”
Give me more on her reaction to this. Okay, her heart is beating...like a hammer on an anvil? Like a kitten's purr? When she swears, is it a "The world is ending" or "I can't find my car keys" moment?

Offer her interpretation of his broken fingers.

Julia stepped back from the body. She thought: My money. He had it.

She sheathed her knife and looked for the chest where he kept his cash. Relief ran over her like sweat as she saw that it was still there, pushed into the darkest corner of the room. Julia crouched down and fumbled with the lid of the chest. The metal felt wrong.

No, no.

The lock was twisted, wrenched out of shape. They’d blown it open with gunpowder, or magic or something –
Why is she sheathing the knife? She sees a few crumbs and goes on high alert, but when she finds a body, she stands down?

Does she need to feel the metal to know that the chest had been blown open? It confuses without adding.

She lifted the lid. Even in this bad light, she knew at once that the chest was empty.

My money.

She clamped her hand over her mouth and screamed silently into the palm.
She probably doesn't even need to look. If someone blasted open the chest, it wasn't to make a deposit. (Though that would be an odd twist.)

She's screaming into her palm? Given that she more or less shrugged off the murder, the scream a bit much unless we know the significance of losing this money.

Think, damn it. Think.

Then she realised that she was kneeling beside a corpse, looking into a chest that had been full of stolen coins, and that whoever had murdered Carlo was probably still nearby.
As noted, if she is at all competent she would have come to this conclusion sooner.

“You’re the woman.”

She looked around. A man stood there, a metal bar in his hands. He was about twenty, very stocky, slightly hunched. There was something dead in his eyes: he was a living man, but he had the dull menace of a revenant. He seemed to blot out her way of escape, to swell up until she was trapped in here with him.
Stood where? (Below his location is significant, so the where matters.)

A metal bar? Like an ingot? A crowbar? A stave? A club? It is an oddly generic description.

Clarify his description. If he's a revenant, lead with that because in the grand scheme of things, that's more important than his stockiness.

She heard the threat in his voice and knew that there would be no talking her way out of this. She knew his type: the kind of scum who’d carved her face six years ago.

Julia stood up. “I’m the woman,” she said.

“You stay still.”

She glanced towards the stairs.

“No! You stay still or I f***ing smash you.”
I'm not sure why, but I don't like "smash" here. Also, if this is the guy who killed Carlo, he'll need a knife. If he's not, he'll need an explanation for his presence. Or Carlo needs his brains bashed in.

He took a step forward, remarkably quiet for his bulk, and she knew he meant to beat her, no matter what. Something inside her tensed, hardened itself ready to break loose. She felt the old fury rise up inside her, together with a kind of vicious contempt.

He raised the bar in his right fist and grabbed at her with his left hand. His thick fingers caught hold of her shirt.
He took one step and was able to grab her. So where was he when she came into the room? Or is this something the revanant can do?

The "something" is a bit confusing.

Julia sidestepped to dodge the bar, pulled his left arm taut and chopped down onto his locked elbow with the edge of her right hand.

He bellowed, she tore free, and he came in swinging wildly. She ducked and pulled the long knife from her belt. As he swung the bar down again, his front was wide open. She darted forward, threw her weight against him and stabbed him in the neck.
"dodged" > "sidestepped to dodge"

The rest of that sentence is quite clinical. Be as violent in your description as she is in her actions.

We already know the knife is long.

The death blow is confusing. Did she dodge the bar? Then she ran into him...took a step back and then stabbed him in the neck?

I think part of what would help is getting a sense of what kind of fighter she is. That will tell us a lot about her as a character. Is she a stone-killer, who was never in any danger from such an oaf? Was she terrified? what's her style? A brawler? A dancer who happens to kill people? A surgeon? There are endless possibilities that would go a long way to telling us so much about her.

He collapsed like a dropped marionette. He made a coughing noise and blood ran down his front. The man looked up at her with a kind of wonder, his hand pressed to his throat. Then something went out in his eyes and he slumped back.

It was him or me, she thought. She made the Sign of the Sword across her chest – not for his soul, but for her own.

A voice came from outside: stern, educated. “Luca! Luca, what the hell’s going on in there?”

Julia ran.
If he's on his back, the blood won't run that way; if he's on his front, he can't look up at her; if he's on his knees, what's holding him up; if her sword is still lodged in his throat, he can't grab his throat; etc.

Really work to envision what's going on here. It's not clear that YOU know what happened.

Where is the voice? Outside the room? The house?

To where is she running? Out the window? Down the stairs?

So again, nice job! I would love to read more about her Julia and her predicament.
 

Toby Frost

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#18
Thanks everyone. Lots to take in there. I'd answer a couple of the issues raised:

@Brian G Turner : I started writing this very much as not-YA: it was something of a reaction against stories where young people learned important lessons. Julia, we discover, is their equivalent of mid to late twenties - more importantly, all of the leads are grown-ups, in that they have finished becoming adults and don't learn about life in the story (although Julia comes to value friends as well as revenge). But I take the point about detail.

I had originally worked out the fighting in much more detail - she originally used a fairly standard arm-lock to make him pause before she struck - but there was too much description of left hands grabbing right hands or vice versa, and it all got a bit over-complex. And I suppose it would be messier in that kind of situation.

One thing that strikes me is that I'm inclined to make dramatic statements ("Something was wrong" etc) to rack up the tension, when they're probably not needed. I think I might have got this off old crime novels.
 

thaddeus6th

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Sep 15, 2007
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#19
A persistent problem for writers is finding it tricky to know how much is coming across to readers. Very easy to lay it on too thick or accidental skip things (because the writer knows all the stuff backwards and in trying to avoid laying it on too thick, lays it on too thin instead). It's why beta readers are so handy.
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
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#20
I take the point about detail.
My comments on YA may be a distraction - but detail could help enrich the narrative. However, it's a personal call, and I'd rather not make additional suggestions I know will be based on personal stylistic preference, rather than technical criticisms. :)
 

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