YA Fantasy opening - Take Two

Plucky Novice

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#1
Following the great feedback received earlier in the week, I've taken another look at this and shortened it by 10%. I'd love to know what you think.

***

Standing alone on the side of a small hill was a modest, wooden house, all on one floor with a number of chimneys sprouting haphazardly from the roof. The hodgepodge of repairs and improvements made over the years gave it the look of a giant, angular patchwork quilt.

The inside was in keeping with the outside, everything tired and worn from decades of use, mended many times but just the right side of broken to be useful. It had a well-loved warm and cosy feel, the type of place that might have been witness to a lifetime of afternoon naps.

Oil lamps lit up the interior with a warm glow as Sarrien Benwick paced up and down, stroking his short grey beard. Oblivious to the dying embers in the fireplace, he walked up the incline to the far wall, stopping short of the trunk sitting at its foot, turned round and walked back. Reaching his favourite chair next to the fireplace, he sat down, stood up and walked back up the slope again.

‘Something wrong husband dear?’ asked Amelda from the kitchen on the far side of the room.

‘Hmmm…’

‘Sarri?’

‘Oh it’s nothing, nothing.’

She looked up from beating her cake mixture in a clay bowl cradled in her arm, yellow glazing flaked off the outside. ‘Nothing? You’ve been restless ever since you got back from the Sanctum.’

Sarrien finally noticed the fire was out, threw a couple of logs onto the hot embers and started prodding at them with a poker. ‘Well nothing much anyway.’

Amelda stopped her beating, ‘Is it this big storm coming? Is that what’s bothering you?’

‘I didn’t want to worry you but an inspector has turned up, unexpected and uninvited. She was at the Sanctum earlier.’

‘From Phaerox? What for?’

‘Yes from our illustrious capital, a Miss Osfelia Ribbal. As to what she’s here for, I’m not entirely sure, she has been less than forthcoming,’ he said shifting his weight over to one side.

‘They’re not due a visit to the academy are they?’ Amelda resumed her onslaught on the cake mixture with a well-practised rhythm.

Sarrien scowled ‘No they’re not. They persist in questioning what we do here.’

‘Maybe she’s interested.’

‘I doubt it. They won’t be happy until I’m gone and they can wipe the past away as though it never happened,’ he said with a shake of his head that ruffled his shaggy hair.

‘It can’t be helped now, we’ll just have to hope for the best. Now then, that ought to do it.’ Amelda half poured, half spooned the mixture into a blackened baking tin.

‘How far will hope get us? If history is our teacher, it won’t be enough. Anyway, I must get back over there and make sure the academy is prepared for the storm.’

Sarrien put on his hedgal-hide coat and sat carefully on a rickety stool to put his boots on. ‘Well at least we haven’t seen any Storm Warners’ he said grabbing his staff from its place next to the door, his hand resting comfortably on the grooved grip. It was scuffed, scratched and what looked like teeth marks were gouged out of the wood; the scars of a long partnership.

‘I may watch the storm from one of the towers so I could be a while.’

‘I know. Be careful.’ Amelda, still holding her spoon, gave him a lopsided hug as she tried not to cover him in cake mixture, before Sarrien slid back the heavy bolt and stepped outside, letting in a blast of cold air.

He put his hood up and pulled it tight around his face to shield himself from the powerful wind. Making his way north, up the stony path that wound its way through the rolling, green grounds of the academy, Sarrien’s limp was less noticeable as he leaned into the wind.

After several minutes the outline of the Sanctum rose into sight, deceptively diminutive against the cliffs behind. Silhouetted against the backdrop a tall, slender figure further up the path headed in his direction. The figure was closing fast, moving with an unnatural ease, seemingly unaffected by its battle with the wind.

Sarrien progressed more slowly, heart quickening a beat as he gripped his staff a little tighter. The figure continued to move purposefully towards him, its face bound up against the gales. With only a few strides between them, Sarrien stopped and almost imperceptibly moved into a stance. The figure didn’t falter.
 

Ihe

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#2
I haven't read the previous attempt, so I will look at this with fresh eyes. I tend to crit anything that stands out to me, so it could be plot, it could be grammar, it could be perceived missed opportunities. I'm also direct about it but offense is never intended. As you've probably seen with other critters around here we're all very civil people :devilish::whistle:. I'll be giving a few examples to carry my points home--by no means are they my official suggestions. And as I always like to say before my crits: Take on board what makes sense to you, discard the rest. Here we go. (Goodness, what a disclaimer!)

Standing alone on the side of a small hill was a modest, wooden house,
I would try to meander less here, specially as it is the first sentence. You can strengthen the sentence by reordering it: A modest wooden house stood alone on the side of a small hill, etc. Also, no comma goes after "modest", as it modifies "wooden house", not just "house".
It had a well-loved warm and cosy feel,
You're telling instead of showing here.
She looked up from beating her cake mixture in a clay bowl cradled in her arm,
Clunky. Make this into 2 sentences or do without having to explain how she is whisking the cake. This is a rather long action tag that is worded awkwardly, I would do without it, or way more reduced.
‘Well nothing much anyway.’
Comma after "Well".
‘Yes from our illustrious capital,
Comma after "Yes".
Comma after "No".
he said shifting his weight over to one side.
Comma after "said".
Amelda resumed her onslaught on the cake mixture with a well-practised rhythm.
he said with a shake of his head that ruffled his shaggy hair.
Amelda half poured, half spooned the mixture into a blackened baking tin.
As you can see, there are several action tags that weren't needed. I do this a lot as well. I don't trust the reader to set up the scene in their head, so I end up repeating things in different ways to make my point. That's what you do here with all the batter-beating. It feels like you are giving the action tags equal importance to the dialogue. Just mentioning it once, and then maybe the promise of a cake, should be enough to set the cozy, familiar scene, and her action. More than that, it becomes annoying and gets in the way of the reading experience. This is specially true because those tags are not short. It messes with the flow of the dialogue in the reader's mind. Certainly did to me.
‘How far will hope get us? If history is our teacher, it won’t be enough. Anyway, I must get back over there and make sure the academy is prepared for the storm.’
I find his behaviour and attitude so far was not of a person about to go out. He paced and sat, sure, but it feels like he makes that decision to go out in the middle of speaking to his wife, out of the blue. If you want to portray his worry and sense of urgency and impending purpose, showing him packing up his gear for the trek while talking to Amelda could be better--which is what you don't show here, aside from a throwaway line or two. That way you can also describe/show a few of the equipment items, indirectly giving the reader a sense of the danger this trek poses (if he packs a gun, or a flare, or ties a rope around his waist, ready to pass it through looped spikes in the ground, in case he falls into the ice or something. All of these things spell out DANGER without you having to explain/show much else. If he has a magic staff that can do all that and more, then nevermind, but the rest of my point should still stand.
he said grabbing his staff from its place next to the door, his hand resting comfortably on the grooved grip.
Comma after "said". This is another thing I used to do: over-relying on all those "ings", either to continue descriptions with a false sense of action or because it seems simpler/shorter than having to structure 2 sentences instead of the one. What this does is create a sense of passiveness/fake action, much like overusing "was". It also weakens the action prior, as the modifier is placed after the fact. Once the reader catches on to this pattern, where every third sentence uses this structure (ie: "he blablaed, blablabing X for Y reasons"), it can become increasingly annoying as one keeps reading. This is true of almost any stylistic overuses. Do use it, as it has its place breaking up the monotony of other creeping sentence patterns. But I'd advise to keep it varied.
Amelda, still holding her spoon, gave him a lopsided hug as she tried not to cover him in cake mixture
The cake at this point feels like the true protagonist in this story. It is the single most mentioned element in the whole excerpt aside from the storm. When something so unimportant takes up so many words, you need to reassess. It the cake is plot-relevant then it's a different issue, but ease up on the sweets! Close repetition can transform a motif/recurring element into an annoyance fairly quickly.
He put his hood up and pulled it tight around his face to shield himself from the powerful wind.
I would choose to tighten up. The red part of this sentence is not needed. It's a given that if A. you go out into a storm, and B. you pull up your hoodie, it's clear why you're pulling it up. It's like explaining a guy by the side of the pool will change into his swimsuit because he's going in the water. Unnecessary. It's already clear he's going out into a storm. Mentioning a storm, then him pulling on his hoodie, and then simply explaining how he leans into the wind later on should be enough.
diminutive against the cliffs behind. Silhouetted against the backdrop a tall, slender figure
The word "against" is used twice in the space of a single breath. As you can see, these repetitions stand out to me and take me out of the story. I would do without so much silhouetting behind backdrops and cliffs and such, as you seem to describe both the temple and the figure in the same way--a contrast on a background, instead of coming into their own as independent elements. Play around with the introduction of the figure too. Have it meld with the snow, have it glide over it, etc. Or just be stark to set up a mood.

Lastly, I'll also say it is concerning how little the woman cared about him going out into the storm. I would make the storm a bigger deal, to ensure a proper hook for the reader and have some higher stakes ready. They do talk about it, but all his pacing and nervousness do not reflect in his partner's actions or words at all, nor in his preparedness, so the sense of worry you are going for is confusing in this scene.

Hope I could be of some help.
 

Brian G Turner

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#3
The opening could probably be tightened a little - a tad too much description in the opening sentence. Trust the reader to paint their own picture with the least words - you don't need to show every single detail you imagine, and their image will always be different anyway. :)

I don't like the opening dialogue, though - it lacks tension, and basically reads as: "Nothing's happening yet, but something will soon!". Which is a shame as there are some nice touches, but I think you could bring the story forward a lot more. Even if you must start at this point, I'd suggest you put more tension in it so it reads as something that will invest our interest more easily.
 

Plucky Novice

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#4
Thanks to @Ihe for the extensive review, some really good points in there. I'm conscious to avoid a stream of dialogue with no description (it's all new to the reader) or action, which has led to the chunky action tags. Perhaps it is this mindset that is causing me difficulty in a scene where the primary points are to introduce Sarrien, the storm and the inspector at the academy - they all have story relevance.

This is another thing I used to do: over-relying on all those "ings", either to continue descriptions with a false sense of action or because it seems simpler/shorter than having to structure 2 sentences instead of the one.
This, I suspect, is something prevalent in my writing. Should I be splitting these into 2 sentences? Or change the sentence structure, e.g. he said, as he grabbed his staff...?

Also cake is good. Be grateful it wasn't a pie, they're even better!
 

Plucky Novice

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#5
The opening could probably be tightened a little - a tad too much description in the opening sentence. Trust the reader to paint their own picture with the least words - you don't need to show every single detail you imagine, and their image will always be different anyway. :)

I don't like the opening dialogue, though - it lacks tension, and basically reads as: "Nothing's happening yet, but something will soon!". Which is a shame as there are some nice touches, but I think you could bring the story forward a lot more. Even if you must start at this point, I'd suggest you put more tension in it so it reads as something that will invest our interest more easily.
Thanks for the review Brian, it's helpful. I understand the tension point in the dialogue and you are right, I am primarily setting this up for something to happen later. The reader knows nothing at this stage and has no investment in the characters. My aim was to change that in order that the coming tension/conflict be more meaningful to the reader. Is this, for you, the wrong approach or is it how I've gone about it that is the issue?
 

Brian G Turner

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#6
The reader knows nothing at this stage and has no investment in the characters. My aim was to change that in order that the coming tension/conflict be more meaningful to the reader.
I totally, totally sympathize with this perspective. However, one of the big secret's to writing is to get rid of all of the introduction and jump straight into the first bit of story happening - and drip any background information in as the story progresses.

As a writer that feels wrong - we think the reader needs the setting explained to them first - but really they are perfectly happy to be thrown into the deep end, and forced to connect with the characters through the use of conflict and tension.

See if this helps:

1 In a rustic old cottage, an old man greets his daughter and suggests an inspector might be coming which could cause trouble.

2 In a rustic old cottage, a daughter is wrenched away from her father by the forces of an oppressive government.

Which one do you think might grab a reader's attention faster?

Go for emotional stakes as quickly as possible, and let explanations come later.

Just a suggestion, though. :)
 

tinkerdan

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#7
This piece is quite alright; however it could be stunning.
I think that this is one case where POV would make a lot of difference.
If you put this wholly into Amelda's POV you could start by using her observations and her own emotional investment into helping the reader have empathy for both her and her husband.
She can observe his behavior and compare it to how he usually is and contrast that to what he is doing and bring her own concern into the readers mind.

Presently you are starting by building a house and atmosphere that already exist around them and you've invested so much time in that that the reader might not be certain how important those are to the characters. We only know they are important to the narrator for some reason and we're not sure who that narrator is exactly.
 

Plucky Novice

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#8
@Brian G Turner I completely get this point. I don't have powerful emotional stakes available at the story outset but I could throw the reader into the middle of the storm. This would create immediate physical danger for Sarrien or at least a battle against the elements.

Even if I can't start there, I can get to the emotional stakes faster than currently.
 

Brian G Turner

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#9
It's all a matter of experimentation of what feels right to you - starting where you suggested would be interesting to see - probably a new crit thread for that, though. :)
 

Ihe

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#10
Starting in the midst of the storm is a good idea. Starting with him closing the door of his house behind him as he ventures out could also work, so as to get into the action but also giving us basic info, like that he is a local and is married.
 

Appello

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#11
[Sarien] put his hood up and pulled it tight around his face to shield himself from the powerful wind. Making his way north, up the stony path that wound its way through the rolling, green grounds of the academy, Sarrien’s limp was less noticeable as he leaned into the wind.

After several minutes the outline of the Sanctum rose into sight, deceptively diminutive against the cliffs behind. Silhouetted against the backdrop a tall, slender figure further up the path headed in his direction. The figure was closing fast, moving with an unnatural ease, seemingly unaffected by its battle with the wind.

Sarrien progressed more slowly, heart quickening a beat as he gripped his staff a little tighter. The figure continued to move purposefully towards him, its face bound up against the gales. With only a few strides between them, Sarrien stopped and almost imperceptibly moved into a stance. The figure didn’t falter.
I really enjoy your writing style and the sort of quirky, old-timey fantasy vibe you've got going, but I do agree with some of the other critiques that what you've got here for the most part is scene-and-world setting that, when you return for a reread in a few months time after having written more of your story, you'll most probably decide is superfluous.

For instance, you could honestly start the story with the above ^ excerpt, without your reader really losing anything in terms of momentum or understanding. The conversation between husband and wife doesn't give us much to go on, because to avoid it being too info-dumpy you by definition have to make it casual and familiar, thus minimising its usefulness as far as story-context goes.

To boil it down even further, it's the difference between starting a scene with two characters in a room proclaiming "someone is coming, and something bad is going to happen" versus starting a scene with them screaming "someone has come, and something bad is happening right now!" Now don't get me wrong there are times when you want to build the suspense and not dive straight into the action, but I think within the context of your opening here, you could benefit from skipping ahead some and filling in the blanks at a later date.

The philosophy that I try to take with my own writing is that every scene should advance the plot or momentum of the story in some fundamental way, and if it doesn't, it had better have a darn good reason for inclusion, ie. crucial character development or an incredibly important piece of information that the reader absolutely cannot do without and I cannot find a way to include within the action of the story. I kind of like to think of it as a scene needing to sell itself to me as I edit. 'Please don't delete me, oh glorious creator. I'm super important because I offer ____ to your future enraptured readers, and without me they'll be sad...' You could try something similar, but in a less 'I-treat-my-story-like-a-real-person-with-a-dozen-different-personalities' kind of way. I'm a bit weird like that :X3:

Anyway good luck with this, I think you have a lot of potential and the seeds of something great brewing in your mind! Happy writing :)
 

Plucky Novice

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#12
@Appello thanks for the great critique. I think your observations, as with the other critiques, are on the money. This is one darling that is going to be murdered and it is not alone.

I'm quite a way into my draft now and looking back on the early chapters, there is a blood bath in the offing. Not a surprise really, since they are the first chapters I've ever written.

As to having something great brewing in my mind, who knows! But I love most of what I've created and am enjoying doing it, which is the whole point really.
 

HareBrain

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#14
You've had a lot of great advice here, especially to cut the preamble. I'd add that the voice you're using is an outside narrator (omniscient) rather than a narrator within Sarrien (close third). The staff is scratched with "what looked like teeth marks" (Looked like to whom? Sarrien would presumably know.) "Sarrien's limp was less noticeable" (to whom? Presumably not himself) And so on. This might be your intention, and it's a perfectly valid choice, but I think it makes the whole thing feel less immediate.

My two favourite YA/MG novels, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, and Alan Garner's The Owl Service, both start with dialogue. Not everyone likes this, but it does jump you right in. The thing I noticed most about this opening, I think, was the lack of jumping right in. Ask yourself, what would you expect the hook to be in this beginning, for most readers? It should come fairly quickly.

But beginnings are perhaps the third most difficult thing about writing (after query letters and synopses), and you seem well-motivated to keep making it better. Good luck with it.
 

TheEndIsNigh

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#15
Following the great feedback received earlier in the week, I've taken another look at this and shortened it by 10%. I'd love to know what you think.

***

Standing alone on the side of a small hill was a modest, wooden house, all on one floor with a number of chimneys sprouting haphazardly from the roof. The hodgepodge of repairs and improvements made over the years gave it the look of a giant, angular patchwork quilt.

The inside was in keeping with the outside, everything tired and worn from decades of use, mended many times but just the right side of broken to be useful. It had a well-loved warm and cosy feel, the type of place that might have been witness to a lifetime of afternoon naps.

Oil lamps lit up the interior with a warm glow as Sarrien Benwick paced up and down, stroking his short grey beard. Oblivious to the dying embers in the fireplace, he walked up the incline to the far wall, stopping short of the trunk sitting at its foot, turned round and walked back. Reaching his favourite chair next to the fireplace, he sat down, stood up and walked back up the slope again.

‘Something wrong husband dear?’ asked Amelda from the kitchen on the far side of the room.

‘Hmmm…’

‘Sarri?’

‘Oh it’s nothing, nothing.’

She looked up from beating her cake mixture in a clay bowl cradled in her arm, yellow glazing flaked off the outside. ‘Nothing? You’ve been restless ever since you got back from the Sanctum.’

Sarrien finally noticed the fire was out, threw a couple of logs onto the hot embers and started prodding at them with a poker. ‘Well nothing much anyway.’

Amelda stopped her beating, ‘Is it this big storm coming? Is that what’s bothering you?’

‘I didn’t want to worry you but an inspector has turned up, unexpected and uninvited. She was at the Sanctum earlier.’

‘From Phaerox? What for?’

‘Yes from our illustrious capital, a Miss Osfelia Ribbal. As to what she’s here for, I’m not entirely sure, she has been less than forthcoming,’ he said shifting his weight over to one side.

‘They’re not due a visit to the academy are they?’ Amelda resumed her onslaught on the cake mixture with a well-practised rhythm.

Sarrien scowled ‘No they’re not. They persist in questioning what we do here.’

‘Maybe she’s interested.’

‘I doubt it. They won’t be happy until I’m gone and they can wipe the past away as though it never happened,’ he said with a shake of his head that ruffled his shaggy hair.

‘It can’t be helped now, we’ll just have to hope for the best. Now then, that ought to do it.’ Amelda half poured, half spooned the mixture into a blackened baking tin.

‘How far will hope get us? If history is our teacher, it won’t be enough. Anyway, I must get back over there and make sure the academy is prepared for the storm.’

Sarrien put on his hedgal-hide coat and sat carefully on a rickety stool to put his boots on. ‘Well at least we haven’t seen any Storm Warners’ he said grabbing his staff from its place next to the door, his hand resting comfortably on the grooved grip. It was scuffed, scratched and what looked like teeth marks were gouged out of the wood; the scars of a long partnership.

‘I may watch the storm from one of the towers so I could be a while.’

‘I know. Be careful.’ Amelda, still holding her spoon, gave him a lopsided hug as she tried not to cover him in cake mixture, before Sarrien slid back the heavy bolt and stepped outside, letting in a blast of cold air.

He put his hood up and pulled it tight around his face to shield himself from the powerful wind. Making his way north, up the stony path that wound its way through the rolling, green grounds of the academy, Sarrien’s limp was less noticeable as he leaned into the wind.

After several minutes the outline of the Sanctum rose into sight, deceptively diminutive against the cliffs behind. Silhouetted against the backdrop a tall, slender figure further up the path headed in his direction. The figure was closing fast, moving with an unnatural ease, seemingly unaffected by its battle with the wind.

Sarrien progressed more slowly, heart quickening a beat as he gripped his staff a little tighter. The figure continued to move purposefully towards him, its face bound up against the gales. With only a few strides between them, Sarrien stopped and almost imperceptibly moved into a stance. The figure didn’t falter.
Given young Plucky's extensive going over, I'll resist getting detailed.

What I would add/agree is that its a bit of a slow start. and the trend continues to the end.

Having said that I find you've got my interest, but its going to have to grab me by the throat soon or I'm going moving on to something else.

Regarding the setting. I somehow have the feeling that baking was not a night time activity for shed/oil lamp dwellers. I also feel that lighting the fire/oven/stove or whatever at night would be seen as wasteful heating. Obviously in a commertial setting this would be fine, but this is personal use. But I might be wrong on this.

Hope I helped

Tein.
 

Plucky Novice

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#16
Given young Plucky's extensive going over, I'll resist getting detailed.

What I would add/agree is that its a bit of a slow start. and the trend continues to the end.

Having said that I find you've got my interest, but its going to have to grab me by the throat soon or I'm going moving on to something else.

Regarding the setting. I somehow have the feeling that baking was not a night time activity for shed/oil lamp dwellers. I also feel that lighting the fire/oven/stove or whatever at night would be seen as wasteful heating. Obviously in a commertial setting this would be fine, but this is personal use. But I might be wrong on this.

Hope I helped

Tein.
Thanks Tein and particularly for calling me young. That hasn't happened in a while.

I'm going to outline some alternative openings and try to evaluate what they each offer. The big hook is at the end of the first chapter but I need to get there quicker or come at it from a different angle.
 

TheEndIsNigh

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#17
Appolgies Ihe. I mis referenced your extensive "going over" in the quote above.

I was quite impressed with the extent of your effort.

Young Plucky. As above, I thought you had done the going over, but only realised my mistake on seeing your reply.

As for the young - I was going off the Novice aspect.

Obviously, a simple mistake and assumption.

However, I'm sure from what you say, you'll remember the old line

You're only as old as you feel (with it's variations).
 

Ihe

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#19
Then I'll be the most immature immortal ever.

@TheEndIsNigh no worries. People don't believe me when I tell them, but I'm so cool and smooth I don't crit for the glory, the riches, or the beautiful women that often follow such literary exploits.
:cool: > :unsure: > :confused: > :cry:
 

Plucky Novice

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#20
As for the young - I was going off the Novice aspect.

Obviously, a simple mistake and assumption.
Perfectly understandable. Novice because I've only been writing for a year. Perhaps one day that name will be ironic. I suspect not but who knows...
 

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