Covering Ground

Toby Frost

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A cavalry unit is riding north to try to seize ground before an enemy army can take it, to force the enemy to fight at a disadvantage. Albrecht and Margot are riding with them. The rest of the army is marching up behind them. The terrain is rather like the South Tyrol, so a mixture of Italian and Austrian. Nightwing is a friendly wyvern.

My main question is whether it all all feels convincing: in particular, the pacing of the riding and the look of the countryside. Any other thoughts would be welcomed too.

-

They followed the road north. There had been a little rain during the night, and the ground was firm enough. By the time that the cannon trains and the camp followers walked this way, Albrecht reckoned, it would be thick mud.

The Hundred Swords rode in a fast trot that sped into a canter and then dropped down again as the horses tired. Albrecht saw riders move up the column and drop away as they pushed and rested their horses. Several riders nodded to him; one old fellow waved and smiled.

“This is how we used to do it,” Albrecht called to Margot. “This is how you cover ground quickly.”

She grinned at him. “No,” she replied, “that is.” She pointed, and he saw a vast shadow sweep over the land like a wave. He looked up and saw Nightwing soaring overhead.

They rode through a sea of fields, many of them staked with vines. A outcrop of grey stone rose from the fields like the back of a whale breaking the surface, and on top of it was a white church with a high steeple. The church was silent as they rode past.

Chunks of forest broke up the landscape; conifers jabbed upwards like barbed arrowheads. On both sides, the hills began to rise into mountains.

The sun shone, but the air was cold and fresh and full of the scent of pines. This was cavalry country, Albrecht thought. His mind drew lines across the fields like those in the old military textbooks: thrusts forward and arcing blows to the flanks like hooked punches to catch an enemy by surprise.

“Beautiful place, isn’t it?” Margot called to him.

For now, he thought. “You’d hardly know there was a war on!” he shouted back.

The sun swung across the sky and they rode for as long as they dared. As dusk set in, Francesco slowed the column to a walk, and then sent the signal to stop. A farm stood a mile to the east, apparently abandoned. Its walls would give them some cover if they were attacked. Too bad we couldn’t hold that church, Albrecht thought, but it was too far behind. What mattered now was taking ground, picking the place where they would fight.
 

sule

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They rode through a sea of fields, many of them staked with vines. A outcrop of grey stone rose from the fields like the back of a whale breaking the surface, and on top of it was a white church with a high steeple. The church was silent as they rode past.

Chunks of forest broke up the landscape; conifers jabbed upwards like barbed arrowheads. On both sides, the hills began to rise into mountains.

The sun shone, but the air was cold and fresh and full of the scent of pines. This was cavalry country, Albrecht thought. His mind drew lines across the fields like those in the old military textbooks: thrusts forward and arcing blows to the flanks like hooked punches to catch an enemy by surprise.
This might sound strange, but these three paragraphs was where the pacing got the most choppy for me. I think it was the shortness of the middle paragraph specifically. That this was cut into three paragraphs that were only a few sentences long each made the passage of time feel a bit rushed (at least to me) like we were jumping quickly through the setting without enough description to ground me in the place before it moved on to the next thing. It might just have been that this was cut into three paragraphs; it's possible that I might not have noticed the jumpiness of it if the second paragraph was attached to the top of the third. The description in that third paragraph is great, by the way. I love that Albrecht is interpreting his surroundings.
 

Toby Frost

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That's very helpful: I always find these kind of "time passes" scenes hard to write without them becoming choppy and episodic. Maybe it needs a bit more explanation. Thanks!
 

HareBrain

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The problem for me is that your paragraphs feels quite isolated; they don't run smoothly one to the next. For example, the start of your second paragraph, about the horses speeding to a canter, follows logically from "the ground was firm enough". But in between, you have the bit about the cannons and the mud. And the mud goes nowhere, meaning you have to start a new para. If you chopped the mud line, you could (and probably should) leave out the paragraph break. Or if you keep it, I think you have to find a way to bleed it into the next paragraph.

Then you have the bit with Nightwing. That's a dead end too, and you then have to start again from scratch. But in a passage like this, I think you need the whole thing to read as smoothly as possible. What Sule says about those three middle paras is true, but I think it would still be somewhat choppy if they were joined together, because they feel self-contained. I agree the best bit is where Albrecht is describing his surroundings through the filter of his thoughts. This makes it feel like the description is coming from him rather than a film-director author.
 

Toby Frost

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Thanks - I really find it very difficult to describe it in any other way. If I went on a long journey, and had to sum it up, I'd have a couple of vague overall descriptions (the countryside was very green) interpersed with small details (a statue I passed, the cafe I ate in, etc). I'm not saying that my approach is "right" or can't be improved, but I find it very hard to work out how to improve it. Perhaps more of Albrecht's thoughts would tie it together.
 

msstice

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I wonder if it would be better if you took a bit more time with the descriptions. Each sentence could be expanded into a paragraph. That by itself would slow things down, and perhaps give the sense of time passing. So you could describe the landscape a bit more, describe the riders a bit more, and so on.
 

.matthew.

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Before I even read this, I have to know, is this from the series you're currently working on?.. because I don't want any spoilers :)
 

Brian G Turner

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One thing I'm missing from this is a sense of feeling. There are a lot of objective descriptions, but how does Albrecht actually feel about all this? Is he exhilerated, tired, does it remind him of his youth, does the landscape remind him of anywhere else, is he alert for ambushes or fear what news returning scouts might bring, is he confident and impatient, etc. I don't expect you to cover all these bases, but at the moment I would recommend you consider putting some character emotion in to break up the list of observations.
 

Toby Frost

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Cheers guys. The passage is quite late in a sequence of fantasy novels, and we're nearing the big battle that will be the first part of the climax of the story. A magical spy has reported that the enemy are closer than the characters think, and so they have sent a force of cavalry to seize a useful position for the battle ahead - which is a risky tactic in itself. So perhaps Albrecht could be feeling that risk more, although he'd be very focused on moving quickly (there's some talky passages when they stop at night). I'm trying to be realistic or at least credible with the technology, which is why they're not riding at full gallop.
 

crystal haven

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I like this, and haven't much to add really. I would perhaps like to feel the movement and sounds of the horse as he's riding, the worry about pushing them too hard, the urgency of the situation causing the added worry if he doesn't move quickly. The landscape worked for me except for the whale description which took me away from the scene in my head. I hope my thoughts help a bit.
 

Bren G

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I had no trouble picturing it and think the advice thus far is sound. It certainly grabbed my attention too. And so, I'd offer just a coupla comments to draw your reader in even more.

Your first lines are critical. Yours clearly indicate there is a war on and that there is a marching army + Nightwings rule the skies. I can see it and I'm interested from the get-go. What I would like to know is some sense of mystery from the beginning. If I'm curious, I am more likely to read through. So for example, if the 100 Swords are retreating, you might say something like :

Albrecht muttered a bitter curse as they followed the road north. There had been a little rain during the night, and though the ground was firm enough, by the time the cannon trains and the camp followers walked this way, it would be thick mud. But that was the least of his worries as he wondered how they had arrived here. Yesterday's battle was all but won, Margot's legion had just taken the Sherwood Forest and prepared for the final surge of the Keep. But then the Mage arrived, shattered their forward ranks and reversed everything they had fought so hard for. That type of power was unheard of, unless one believed the tales from the days of Legends. How was it that it possessed so much power?

Great start !

Bren G
 

Phyrebrat

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Sorry I'm late to this. I think it's clean, well-written and all I need to know. What are your thoughts on it? What were you worried you were ding or not doing?

The only thing that occured to be, was when Nightwing flew over. Is he inured to that image, because the way it's described sounds pretty impressive but he doesn't make any note of it. Thing is, I'm not familiar with your playworld so not sure if he knows about this already, so ignore otherwise.

I'd read on.

pH
 

Guanazee

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Hello, I'm new here. I enjoyed your excerpt.

I generally like long explanations of scenery and backstory in my fiction so I had no problem overall with your piece. It might help a bit to change up how the scenery is experienced with the other senses. Like perhaps he's hot and sweaty on the road but coolness creeps up on him as he rides into the shadow of the looming mountains, etc.
 

Toby Frost

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Hello! That's a good idea. I think more about how the landscape affects him would be good. By this point, Albrecht is pretty used to Nightwing, who operates as a scout and something of a mascot for the others.

What are your thoughts on it? What were you worried you were ding or not doing?
Good question! I think it's a general "Does this work?" as much as anything. I'm very happy writing scenes that are effectively describing activity beat by beat (he said this, she did that in response, etc), but I'm less confident with scenes where time passes and the action is summarised into overall sensations and particularly notable details.

EDIT: interestingly, I asked quite a similar question about a journey scene in an SF story about a year ago. It must be something I feel particularly unsure about as a writer.
 
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Bagpuss

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Everyone who's commented seems to like the excerpt.

If I found the excerpt to be unconvincing in some setting respects and I had some potentially negative comments about the military logic you're employing, would you want me to comment on it or would you rather not hear it?
 

Toby Frost

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Go ahead. For what it's worth, this isn't the beginning of a story, and it isn't the start of the campaign.
 

Bagpuss

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Okay, well setting-wise the valley needs to have a river. It doesn't need to be big or too deep, but all the water that falls in the valley needs to go somewhere. So, you need a river. Also, usually the first roads into a valley would be built next to or near the river because it's usually the easiest place to build a road. So, in a convincing setting the cavalry really should be riding along a road next to a reasonably wide and fast-flowing river with quite clear water.

I thought the church was incongruous. Unless it's a monastery, churches don't usually get built in the middle of nowhere. They need villages to pay for their construction and support them with donations. So, an abandoned church surrounded by an abandoned village would seem more convincing.

Alpine farming tends to be quite intensive. This means they tend to use terraces (especially if this is a wine-growing area and they're growing vines), which is a detail you could include. Also, if they are growing vines then the vines will be on the most southerly-facing slopes.

I think the reason I found the journey unconvincing is that journeys are really about the transitions and, as it stands, the excerpt kind of lacks a convincing description of the changes that would take place in the landscape as the cavalry journeys higher into the valley. It depends on how high you want your valley to be, but lower level alpine farming is primarily intensively farmed crops. Higher level farming is all livestock. Above that, if you go high enough, the trees disappear entirely. The transition from one type of landscape to the other is what creates the sense of progress. Also, the road could plausibly undergo some changes. For example, it could be quite well-maintained at the lower levels, more of a dirt track higher up and, depending on how well-travelled the pass at the end of the valley is then the road could disappear entirely. My point is that all of those little details add to the sense of progress.

On the military side, I did read the excerpt and think: "they're all going to get slaughtered". I think that part of that was that the cavalry seemed to lack an obvious goal that they were trying to reach. It seemed more like that they were just riding along and then they were going to pick a random spot in the valley to defend. That seemed to me less like a military strategy and more like an expression of desperation. Then again, that might be what you're going for. I also realised, after thinking about it overnight, that the outcome of the forthcoming battle really depends on what level of technology the cavalry has versus whatever the Legion of Doom coming over the pass is equipped with. Since I have no idea what the respective levels of technology are, then maybe it's not quite as stupid a plan as I initially thought.

Miscellaneous point about the camp followers. I know armies tend to have them but given the circumstances of this mission I would have thought it would have been safer to leave the camp followers behind with the main body of the army and just take the essential stuff.

That was pretty much it, really. Good luck with the story.
 

ckatt

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Hi Toby,
I'm new to critiquing here on Chons and have been meaning to get involved for a while. I watch this forum and read this excerpt when you first posted it last month but am only now writing these comments. My first impression was that I liked it, especially when Margot says, No, that is. and we see the wyvern. I could really picture that image.

I would enjoy getting a better view of the countryside sooner. Other than the road that will be thick with mud after the cannons, there aren't any words spent on the landscape until halfway through. I liked the shadow as a wave over the landscape line, but wasn’t sure what that landscape looked like (well I had some idea —Italian and Austrian, but I'm not exactly sure and that’s not part of the text anyway.)

They rode through a sea of fields, many of them staked with vines. A outcrop of grey stone rose from the fields like the back of a whale breaking the surface, and on top of it was a white church with a high steeple. The church was silent as they rode past.
This paragraph gives me a much more vivid picture and I would have liked that sooner. I wonder at the ocean metaphors. Sea of fields and the stone like a whale. Those are great images though I wonder what brings them to this scene. Do these characters normally find themselves on a boat?

I snagged at this paragraphing. I might put They rode through a sea of fields,… until …catch an enemy by surprise. As one paragraph to bring greater continuity of the ride and give it pacing that fits the time spent. Looking through the comments of others I see that sule suggested the same thing, put it into better words than I.

On the whole, I get a better sense of Margot than I do Albrecht in this scene. But he is the POV character, correct? Her few lines have an attitude to them and I feel like I know the character while Albrecht fades into the scenery a little. Margot's lines are a reaction to the scene and I think Albrect needs to one-up her on that to assert his place as the central character.

I hope this is the kind of feedback you are looking for. Ignore anything that's off the mark.
-CK
 
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