Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's Broken? #1

TITLE: Siege of the Heart
GENRE: Historical Romance

This is the intro. I'm trying to convey a lot without slowing down the pace too much. What's not working?

England, December 1066

At least she now knew the truth.

But that was little comfort as Isabel Dumont watched the messenger ride out of the bailey. His mount took him beyond the palisade walls, along the road to Gloucester, a day's ride south. She let out a breath, a lacy cloud on the cold air. The messenger had declined her offer of hospitality, and she had not asked him to reconsider. Instead, she saw that his horse was watered and pressed a gold piece into his palm to ensure his silence.

The snow that had threatened all morning started to fall, but she did not move. She did not think she could. Her limbs felt waterlogged and heavy. Like the time Julien had knocked her headfirst into the river in a moment's foolishness. And then pulled her back to shore. That had been ages ago, but her brother's message now had the same effect, leaving her shocked and winded and frozen in place.

Sir Thomas, her father's sergeant-at-arms, stamped his feet beside her. "My lady, if you wish it, I will make the announcement-"

"No!" The word ripped through her chest and rang in her ears. "No. You will say nothing. To anyone."

His eyes widened. "But this cannot be kept secret."

His disapproving tone cut through the numbness that stole through her veins. She twisted away from him and looked out past the gates. The graying countryside had swallowed all sign of the messenger. If only his words were as easy to erase.

"Your father--" Sir Thomas began again.

"Do not say it," she whispered, her hands fisting at her sides.

Sir Thomas shook his head out of the corner of her eye. "I must. Your father is not coming home. I know it was not the news you hoped for, but Julien's message... "

His hand came up to touch her. Isabel could not bear to be comforted right now. Nor could she stomach the sympathy that prompted such an uncharacteristic gesture from the stoic knight. She turned on her heel.

Sir Thomas - dutiful, loyal Sir Thomas - hastened after her. "Isabel, wait!"

She wrapped her woolen mantle more securely around her. She would not discuss it further. She could not. Not now, not when she could scarcely think.

"My lady, please-"

Her hand slipped to the hilt of her sword - one of her father's cast-offs - and the feel of the leather-wrapped handle against her palm made it easier to rein in her breathing. "You said there were reports of the Welsh attacking crofters to the west?"

"Aye. I was going to have Kendrick and some of the other men scout the area, but--"

"Good. I will join them. Tell the men to make ready."


  1. Congrats on finishing and your story sounds great.

    For me, I kept waiting to find out what the message was. You spend a lot of time talking about the messenger's needs and the cold, and a side trip down memory lane about falling in some water, and I'm just reading along going..."COME ON already!" because I don't know what the big message is.

    I'm still not sure I know. Is it that her father isn't coming home? Is he dead? Is this different from Julien's message? Then you give info. about Sir Thomas, but I'm still not grounded yet. I don't care about how stoic, dutiful, and loyal he is -- not until I know what's happening here.

    Also, "Sir Thomas shook his head out of the corner of her eye" doesn't work. She saw him do this from the corner of her eye, perhaps?
    Good stuff: you have the sensory input down wonderfully and it seems we have a heroine who is going to kick some butt rather than wait around for help, which makes me like her right off the bat. :-)

  2. I agree that your story begins in an interesting way. The problems I have begin with the messenger. Her pressing a coin into his hand to ensure his silence is off. This is obviously not a written message, but a verbal one. That means that her brother trusted this man enough to send him with a critical message, in the expectation that he would deliver it. It should also mean, as he left immediately, that her brother must have given him other instructions. If she gave him a coin in thanks, that's one thing but, for a man exhibiting that kind of loyalty, trying to buy his silence should offend him greatly rather than shut him up.

    Next, there is no way that Thomas should call her by her name, given the information that we have. The relationship sounds formal - that isn't.

    The only other thing is the same thing CourtneyC said about the head shaking out of the corner of her eye. The sentence structure is off and it doesn't sound right.

    You do have a basic good beginning, though.

    Good luck.

  3. Those first two big paragraphs have a lot of distracting and confusing information that take away from my immediate engagement in the story. I became interested at the line "Sir Thomas, her father's..." I suggest keeping the first two lines (although the very first is awkward and could be reworked) then skipping straight to the Sir Thomas line. The other info can be woven in or put off till later.

    Once you are past the very beginning, you are in a groove.

  4. Just a few comments about things I noticed.

    "No!" The word ripped through her chest and rang in her ears.
    This didn't work for me. The news might have upset her, but this reaction makes her sound irrational. In addition, next time she whispers.

    His hand came up to touch her.
    Would this be appropriate action for the time period?

  5. I, also, was waiting to see what the message was. That, I think, is your hook. Put it out there as early as you can, because that (I'm guessing) is what the story is about.

    You might also take a look at what you're presenting. You describe how the messenger rides away, Sir Thomas, and the weather. Even the flashback tells us what Julien did, rather than telling us how Isabel felt or reacted to what Julien did. And nothing happens. She mostly thinks, does a little talking, and that's it. Give her something to do, even if it's just pacing. She's your MC but she doesn't get much play here. Make the opening all about her.

    I'd also suggest you describe her, rather than Sir Thomas and the rider. I pictured a typical medieval lady and then I find out she's wearing a sword and plans to use it - much more interesting than what direction the messenger took. Work what she's wearing in with your description of the cold. Show us she isn't wearing some fancy gown.

    And rather than setting up the story (which is what this opening is doing) jump right into it. Perhaps start with her revealing the message, then immediately confronting Sir Thomas about the Welsh. Get into it right away. The message will let us know what the problem is, and a sword wielding, ready-to-go-into-battle princess (if she is a princess) will grab the reader.

    Good luck with it!

  6. First, I loved the imagery that you used in this excerpty - "a lacy cloud on the cold air" especially. I could easily picture what was happening in this scene.

    Assumptions I've made from this as a reader: Her father is dead; Julien, her brother, sent her a message from the battle front, and she has somewhat close relationship with Sir Thomas. I'm not certain if you meant to imply the last one or not. I'm making this assumption based on the fact that he calls her by her first name, but then takes a step back and called her my lady. Again, I wasn't sure if this was purposeful or an accident based on this section.

    Similarly to a previous commenter, I was picturing her in a lady's dress untill the sword was mentioned. I liked that she had the sword and that she is intending to join the men, but I automatically pictured a lady's clothing when she's called "my lady". I found myself wondering if she was more of a tom boy character than I'd originally thought.

    Overall, there are a lot of interesting elements at play in this section, and I can see how finding a balance is difficult. Best of luck! :)

  7. I think you need to merge the information from the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs with the rest of those below it. These contain past past information that would make a lot more sense if it came after you'd settled us in the scene (which you do very well after this).

  8. I don't think anything is broken here. So many historicals start in this way. I LOVED reading this. I was hooked from the beginning, but I adore historical fiction and I've been to the battlefield in Hastings before as well as Normandy where the invasion began. Your detail is perfect and really engaging. I was hooked further by her father's cast off sword. Here's a girl who's not afraid of a fight. The knight touching her is lovely, definitely out of the ordinary and told a lot about the gravity of the situation for a knight to comfort her!

    I want to read on please! I have to know what happens. I just finished reading Game of Thrones and this reminded me of that book.

  9. This is the intro. I'm trying to convey a lot without slowing down the pace too much. What's not working?

    With this intro to your story, I was expecting to learn something of consequence that would really set the mood. However, to put it simply, I didn't. We don't learn what the message is. Without that, there's no context for her reaction. Keeping mystery in the story, keeping the reader asking questions that make them turn the page--this is different than keeping them at arm's length from the actual story (which is how this opening comes off). Remember that the only question you need readers to ask in the first few pages is: "What happens next?" Your story would be better served if the reader knows what the message is, so they ask: "What will Isabel do about it"...another form of that important question.

    The other issue I have here is stillness. Up until Isabel walks away from the knight and grabs her sword, all she's doing is standing still and reflecting on things that happened. This means you are telling things in hindsight, rather than showing them as they happen. In short: you are telling, not showing. Examples:

    The messenger had declined her offer of hospitality, and she had not asked him to reconsider. Instead, she saw that his horse was watered and pressed a gold piece into his palm to ensure his silence. This already happened, and she's reflecting on it, as in the previous sentence the messenger was already gone. Also, when you have to use the "had" construction (had declined), that's a good indication you are telling of past events.

    My best recommendation is to show the messenger arrive and deliver the message. Stay in the moment and active. That's more engaging than keeping readers guessing at what the message is. Another approach: you say you are trying to convey a lot. What exactly are you trying to convey? What's the one most important thing you want to show the reader? Focus on that. Everything else--the snow, the knight, the fact that she'll join the men--can come a page or two later, as long as you keep the reader interested enough to get there.

    I will say your talent for description is great. I wish I could see you use that talent to heighten mood and emotion in the *now* of the story, rather than describing memory and past events. For example, if we learned the message, and then it started snowing, we readers could see how that heightened her sadness or shock, rather than guessing at it.

  10. I like your writing, it's smooth and clear and easy to read.

    But I agree with the other commenters - tell me what the message is already! That's your first page hook. You spend too long on inconsequential (tho nicely written) trivia - the weather, the messenger, a flashback - get to the meat of the story. And get to the part about her wearing a sword sooner too, because up till then she's just a somewhat whiney aristocrat who's standing there doing nothing and worrying about a problem which we don't know about. At the moment, the only thing that's keeping me somewhat interested is the relationship between her and Sir Thomas, and I'm sure there are more exciting things afoot - you're just keeping them back for too long.

    Oh one minor nitpick - the tone sounds appropriately historical all through, except for 'ages ago' which sounded very modern to me.

    I'd really like to see a rewrite of this because I think there's a lot of potential. Good luck :)

  11. I agree w/ what Heather Davis said and some of the other commenters. The 2nd & 3rd paragraph have a lot of telling, which doesn't hook the reader.

    Start w/ "No!" The word ripped through her chest and rang in her ears. Then, the description about her hand on her sword. Then back to her comment "No. You will say nothing. To anyone."

    Then work in Sir Thomas's words. Contiue w/ her dialogue and work in her actions w/ some description of her and the countryside.

    Make her come alive w/ more emotion and action which will get the reader to feel for her & hook them to wanting to read more.

  12. I agree about just saying what the message is. Why she must keep it a secret. What's the consequences if others know about it.

    Sir Thomas calling her by name shows they are friends and hints that he will be the love interest. I like your subtle way of showing this. But if he is not a friend, then he should be more formal.

    I like that she's a fighter.

  13. At the end of the third paragraph, you describe your MC as "shocked, winded, and frozen in place." Yet, the first two paragraphs are filled with description - of the setting, the messenger, her actions - something someone lost in memory and grief probably wouldn't be able to process. Perhaps show (instead of tell) her shock. Have the messenger or Sir Thomas call her name to jerk her back to reality.

  14. Thanks to all the commenters! RE the message -- it comes in the next two paras in this sequence, so I'm not holding it back too long, just didn't get to it in the first 500 words.

  15. Hi Author! But even if the message comes next, it still takes too long - if I pick up a book in a bookshop, I'll only read the first few paras to see if it hooks me - that's all the time you have. Get it on the first page.

  16. Not a lot to add except to agree that I want to know about the message earlier. The first two paragraphs were well written but almost like backstory.

    Also, assuming Thomas issupposed to call her 'My Lady' and the 'Isabel' was a slip on his part hinting at another type of relationship, wouldn't he refer to Julien as 'Sir' rather than use his name?

    I like your writing style it produces pictures in my head. I'd like the first picture to be of her rather than the messenger if that's possible.

  17. The word "had" appears a lot. I counted 6 times in the first couple of paragraphs. That word brings things to a screeching halt for me if I see it more than twice. I'd see what you can do about rewording things. The word "had" can often be removed pretty easily and the pace clips along much better when it's out of the text.

  18. I think the problem is you're trying to convey too much, and it is slowing down the pace. For example, in the second paragraph you tell us that the messenger is travelling to Gloucester, a day's ride south. Do we really need that info right now, on the first page? I found it distracting, because I really wanted to know more about Isabel and the mysterious message.

    Some specific suggestions:
    Cut the sentence about the messenger I mentioned above.

    You start with the messenger riding out, then jump back slightly in time to the offer of hospitality and the gold coin. I liked this last touch, but it loses its power in past tense. I think you could even start here, with Isabel pressing a gold coin into the messenger's hand, then stepping back to watch him ride out of the bailey.

    In the third paragraph, she's feeling waterlogged, heavy, shocked, winded and frozen. It's a lot to feel at once. I would choose one set of descriptions. I'd also cut the sentence about her brother pulling her out of the water. Clearly someone did or she wouldn't be here today, and the mention of 'a moment's foolishness' lets us know that her brother isn't usually like that.

    "She would not discuss it further". I'd cut this sentence and the next two. You've already conveyed that Isabel is upset about the message and these sentences felt like they were laboring the point a little. You show us, through Isabel turning on her heel and pulling her mantle around herself, that she doesn't want to discuss it; you don't need to tell us too.

    This is a well-written page, and I think the cuts I've suggested might help pick up the pace just a little.

  19. I should have mentioned that I didn't read any of the other comments before posting, so sorry for any repeats.

  20. I agree with the above, not a lot to add...too long of an intro., the message isn't clear in the dialogue. I just wanted to add what I LOVE about this entry is that you have action and dialogue, and I think your dialogue is nicely done. Good luck tightening it up! I was hooked, looking forward to seeing more of it (hopefully!) in a future contest.

  21. The tagline with time and place is fine, but I suggest cutting to "The graying countryside had swallowed all sign of the messenger. If only his words were as easy to erase."

    Then have Sir Thomas say his line.

    Have Lady Dumont say her line. At that point, her hand slips to the handle of the sword, but say whether it is rough, smooth, weather-worn, etc. In other words, "feel" is not specific enough.

    I advise you to then reveal the message. You've stated it comes in the next two paragraphs. A professional agent has said an aspiring writer cannot delay such a teased, central concept for more than half a paragraph, which is about what I suggested above. Readers will not give a new writer more slack than that. You have nice writing, but you have to cut it mercilessly.