Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#5 January Secret Agent

TITLE: The Sign of the Cross
GENRE: Young Adult Historical

Pierre had a fire in his belly, a fire hotter than his father's furnace. Marta sat beside him, her faced bathed in warm spring sunlight, her eyes closed. She looked content, but Pierre knew her thoughts were as disturbed as his own. He took her hand.

Without opening her eyes, she said, "If you love me you will not go." When he made no reply, she glared at him. "You don't love me."

"If God calls me, Marta, must I not obey?"

She pouted. "You hear Him, do you?"

"I know He wills it, and what cause could be nobler?"

"I am afraid," she whispered.

He shrugged. "Should I fear unknown perils? Would you have me hide at home while every able Christian battles to regain holy Jerusalem from the heathens?"

"I care not a fig for holy Jerusalem, and nor do you!" There were tears in her eyes.

Damp, rotting wood and sharp pine - the sweet perfume of his childhood - filled his nostrils, and doubt washed over him. Could he leave Fourelle?

Apart from the rattle of a lone woodpecker, nothing stirred, in a scene that had changed little in a thousand years. All was calm and serene - like a painting - but the tale it told was a lie. Peace and tranquillity were of the past. Three months earlier - in November 1095 - Pope Urban had made a speech that lit a spark throughout Christendom, and nothing would ever be the same again.


  1. I like your opening line, and I like your title. I think the voices need some smoothing; you're definitely alerting us right away that we're NOT in Kansas 2011, and that's good. But the structure, the lack of contractions, made it hard for me to read.

    The last two paragraphs make use of some terrific imagery. The rattle of the woodpecker, the calm and serene, the sharp pine--all very good. I think I'd like to see the "Nov. 1095" reference done a little more gracefully. It would take more space, but tell us how they heard about it, what was going on, something like that. As it stands, it feels too expository.

  2. I like the way you evoked smells and sound to create the scene, and I also like that you didn't start with it.

    It felt like an abrupt shift between the girl looking content with her eyes closed and glaring at him. It tripped me up visually.
    Maybe instead: When he made no reply, her eyes flashed open. "You don't love me."

    I personally would take out the "Should I fear unknown perils?" because I thought, "Yes!" and I think it's stronger starting with the next sentence.

    I love the "I care not a fig" line!

  3. I love your descriptions in this. We also get a sense of the time period just from the characters voices. The thing that confuses me though is the ages of the two characters. I'm assuming they're young, but it isn't believable that in those times, and boy and a girl could wander off together without chaperons. Maybe they sneaked away, but that's not clear from the text since you present such a peaceful scene (other than the impending war, that is).

    The only other thing that bothered me was the date. Having the exact date thrown in there like that felt forced. Maybe there's a more subtle way you could work it in there, but having it between two hyphens makes it really stand out and reminds me that I'm reading a historical novel, and not actually there with the characters.

  4. Maybe I'm alone, but I struggled with the opening. I like the description, but when you say a boy has a fire in his belly and he's looking at a girl--I assume it's a sexual feeling. If it comes from somewhere else, then make us feel it with him. I felt like the dialog was good and pulled me into the right time, but the last paragraph pulled me out again.

  5. You're not alone, Jenn. I was bothered by the opening but that was partly because I'm inclined to see that metaphor as literal, especially because he compares it to a furnace. My first thought is that he's sick with fever. My second, a few sentences on, is that the heat is sexual.

    I feel that you (the writer) have a really interesting setting here, and a great concept for a novel (assuming we're going to be taken through the Crusades).

    I'm taken out of the moment by the language and the awkward date placement. The date you don't need, since readers will discover the time and place as they read on and the sentence is much smoother without it. As for the language, it sounds like they are trying to speak as though they are actors pretending to be of the times. Granted, my preference is for language that sounds natural to the reader. (A sidenote: I agree with cutting the unknown perils line.)

    I wouldn't read on.

  6. I wouldn't keep reading, sorry. There's too much dialog here and too much info dumped when I don't know or care about the characters yet.

    And the "fire in his belly" is an odd and somewhat cliched reference - which I first thought meant he was seriously ill.

  7. That last paragraph feels very detached from the rest of the scene. Is there a way you can work the information in more naturally? As is, that paragraph would keep me from reading on.

  8. What an interesting setting you have, so different from the norm! Right away we know the stakes: he's got his love, and I'm thinking he doesn't believe in what he's about to do, but is inspired to do it?

    On the other hand, I felt the dialogue to be contrived and forced and used only to inform the reader what's going on. I know that teenagers in 1095 talk differently than now, but they seem very mature for their age. I almost forgot it was YA.

    Overall, though, I wouldn't keep reading on. Just because this kind of subject doesn't interest me much and because the vibe I was getting from the characters didn't feel right (by that, I mean I felt not empathy for them. They were detached from me.)

    But good luck! :)

  9. I think this has great possibilities. You've got great imagery, and the dialog should like it's from another time. It does. I agree with getting rid of the date, and I think if you slip a couple of sentences in to show us that he really does care--or why he'd leave if he doesn't--it would be more gripping. "Fire in the belly" means obsession, and you let us know what he has on his mind right after that. One suggestion: right after you ask 'could he leave Fourelle?', tell us why his leaving is more important. Don't give up, you're almost there!

  10. The story has an interesting premise but the beginning is still slightly bumpy. Although the boy's voice is very appropriate to the time you're trying to portray, it is so stilted that I wouldn't be able to read a whole book from his perspective. I like the girl so much better. From this snippet, it is unclear who the protag is, so I would read on to find out.

  11. I took 'fire in his belly' to be an obsession, also, except that he doesn't seem to be obsessed. First, he's going because God called him, then because everyone else is going, then he flounders, wondering if he should go or stay. If he feels strongly about going, he should be portrayed that way. If he's going to be wishy-washy about it, cut the fire in his belly.

    The imagery and description was nice, but I thought unnecessary. At this point, we should be in Pierre's head (if he's the POV character). What does he really think? How does he feel? WHy is he really going? Marta was a stronger character. She expresses feeling and emotions, and you need some of that in Pierre.

    I'd suggest cutting the last parg. What you've done is to stop the events of the story so you can explain to the reader. Just tell the story. Trust that the reader can figure things out.

  12. Hey, Secret Agent here! Some of the voice here is a bit passive (ie: “All was calm and serene…”), which is a real challenge when you’re writing historical. The voice has to be lively and engaging for modern readers, but true to the cadence of older speech. The “fire in his belly” line is also unclear. To go from conviction to doubt in 200 words doesn’t feel genuine to me. But you outline the conflict very clearly!

  13. I'm intrigued by the time period - you've definitely picked an interesting era. This read more like a prologue to me than a first chapter. I don't know much about the time period, but the interactions don't seem that genuine to the time period. Why are they alone together?

    A few small things:

    -Marta seems more like a Scandinavian name than a French name to me.
    -You have really vivid descriptions, but I think the opening might benefit from more actions around the dialogue. Plus "she pouted" isn't showing much.
    -"I care not a fig" seems forced. Did they have figs in eleventh century France?

  14. Here's something nobody's pointed out: You've basically got four rhetorical questions in a row (Must I not obey? You hear Him, do you? What cause could be nobler? Should I fear unknown perils?) and for me, it's the biggest reason the dialogue comes off as a bit stilted. I'm all for playing with dialect and speech patterns to enhance the historical feel, but four rhetorical questions in a row seems unnatural to me in any setting...unless your characters are a bunch of Buddhist monks.

    Good luck!

  15. Sincere thanks everyone for all those comments and suggestions. They were all very helpful, and I will act on them.