Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's Broken? #5

GENRE: YA Paranormal

After entering the SA contest I revised the beginning of my novel. I've been trying to get the beginning right for YEARS, and it's driving me crazy.

This part of the forest is forbidden, but the smell of fresh cut trees lures me closer. I dart from behind a boulder and reach a large cluster of bushes several feet away. Chopped logs and branches litter the forest floor. Wagon tracks scar the earth. The wood gatherers might return soon. If I'm caught now I'll be searched and chased away.

If I'm caught after I steal, I'll lose my hand.

My heart beats a rapid warning. Run away, run away!

I know I should listen, but a small cut of wood calls to me from a pile of discarded twigs and branches. My practiced whittler's eye sees the figure of a rabbit begging to be released.

Stealing is wrong, I know. I used to buy wood from St. John's store in the village, but my mother has declared whittling to be a waste of time. She thinks it distracts me from Witch training.

The truth is, I don't want to be a Witch. Mother won't accept my decision, and has cut off my meager allowance until I "come to my senses." I'm not going to become a Witch just to get money again. I can't. It will cost me too much.

It's been almost a month since I whittled, and I miss my art.

Temptation's call is louder than common sense.

With my herb basket clutched to my chest, I move toward a large redwood. Something grabs my hair. I stifle a scream and reach behind me, feeling, praying I don't touch skin.

It's only a branch.

A hysterical laugh catches in my throat. I swallow it and untangle myself, leaving a few strands of my long auburn hair behind. My hands shake as I slip the hood of my red cloak over my head. I should have done it sooner.

I lift my skirt and step into the open. The crunching Autumn leaves seem to scream my presence. My heart flutters behind my ribcage. No one rushes out to stop me.

On tiptoes, I hurry to the pile and kneel. Instinct urges me to flee. I snatch the wood and dodge back behind the tree. Guilt nags at me to drop my prize--a block of cedar.

This piece was on the discarded pile, but something tells me it wasn't meant to be there. Zev, the woodcutter, owns rights to every tree on the island. Though twigs and branches are fair game, he demands punishment for taking anything else. I've witnessed Zev's cruelty and don't want to lose my hand.

Drop the wood and leave. Now, my conscience warns.

My fingers curl tighter around my prize as if they have a mind of their own. I want this wood; I need it.


  1. You write well. The piece catches my interest. Where you lose me is in the thought that one person controls all the wood on the island. Enforcement of something like that would be a nightmare and, in a society where everybody has to burn wood for heat and cooking (not stated, but certainly implied in your world), I find it hard to believe such a restriction would be tolerated by the populace. If just a small section of woodland was restricted, that would be believable, but then she wouldn't risk losing a hand just to get that wood, unless it had special properties, such as things carved in it come to life, etc.

    One other thing...more a quibble...I'd prefer you to call it carving instead of whittling. If her mom calls it whittling, that's fine, but carving sounds better.

  2. For me, I felt by an emotional distance, in the first line especially. 'This part of the forest is forbidden, but the smell of fresh cut trees lures me closer.'
    I don't feel the nervous tension I should in this forbidden place. I don't feel her. Don't get me wrong, the writing is very good, but I suppose I want to feel that blind desire for what she seeks, risking herself to get it, and I wanted it from the get go. I'll think further, but for now it's terribly late!
    Bed calls.
    Also...I've witnessed Zev's cruelty and I don't want to loose my hand - Could that be related to the threat of loosing her hand in another way. It has that distance again for me, but it could just be that I'm tired.
    I'll pop back.

  3. I feel as if the narrator does a lot of telling in this. Asides to the audience about her mother not wanting her to whittle, and her not wanting to be a witch. I think you can save this for later, and just show her stealing the wood first and go back later.

    Janice Hardy's The Shifter might be good for you to look at as the first chapter shows a protag stealing chicken eggs.

  4. Two things for me:

    1: I felt like you were trying to squeeze a bit too much info into the space. Though you interspersed it well enough, I think it reduced the tension of the scene (i.e., her worry about being captured/discovered).

    2: probably a bigger concern is my belief in the setup. Her motivation for stealing wood doesn't seem strong enough. For a hobby? Now, if this wood's special compared to shopwood... if the wood of this forest has magical properties or something, then I'd be more inclined to go along... now I feel like she's being way too foolhardy and I lose sympathy/empathy for her.

    Overall, from a structural/stylistic writing perspective, I think you're well on your way... just need the stakes to be ramped up (which perhaps they will be, but I think it needs to happen earlier) and the character strongly motivated for me to want to follow her.

  5. I love the description here. You make stealing a piece of wood exciting.

    I'm not going to become a Witch just to get money again. I can't. It will cost me too much.
    This caught my attention. I assume her cost is not financial. Otherwise, this doesn't make much sense to me.

    Temptation's call is louder than common sense.
    I don't think you mean common sense here. Something along the lines of personal safety sounds better to me.

    as if they have a mind of their own
    I saw no reason for this cliched expression. The sentence works fine without it.

    Good luck!

  6. I agree that you are trying to squeeze in WAY too much here. The things you need to cover here are:
    1) Setting - Where is she? What is she trying to do?
    2) Motivation - Why is this not allowed? Why does she need/want to do it anyway?

    You cover all of those things but it feels like you are jumping back and forth between them and then throwing in some extra too (ie, mother, Witch thing, store). It's like we have setting, motivation, setting, rules, setting, backstory...

    I'd suggest you try grouping this information more like this:

    1) Setting: what is she doing and where?
    2) Physiological response with pause: why is it risky? Why must she go forward anyway?
    3) More action (she ignores #2)

  7. I had the exact same thoughts that Bane of Anubis expressed. You write she could see a rabbit in the block of wood, but she used to buy other wood so presumably could see things in those as well. I have trouble believing she can't legally get her hands on all kinds of wood scraps. What makes that particular block so special? Her foolhardiness would be more understandable if we knew that it wasn't just a knick knack waiting to be released, but some kind of sentient/magical/whatever power.

    Generally speaking, your writing is strong - these beginnings are hard!

  8. Your writing is very clean. You also do a good job with the 1st POV without resorting to I this I that, and have varied sentence structure.

    I don't know enough of this world yet, but it reminded me a bit of the opening to Janice Hardy's The Shifter, where the MC's trying to steal eggs and gets caught. (You can find it on the Pub Rants blog, if interested). If your character gets caught early on, you may want to move that up a bit. For example, I'm not sure we necessarily need the two paragraphs about her mom forbidding her from whittling so early. I'm guessing it comes up again later on, either when she's caught (if she is) or when she sneaks her wood back to her house.

    I liked the moment when the branch catches her hair. Her reaction to that was more effective to set the tone than the explanations about Zev's cruelty.

  9. Neat! A clever premise. Does Zev control the town by controlling the wood?
    I think you could make your first sentence stronger and more gripping by reworking it just a little.
    My biggest writing pet peeve is an opening pronoun; there is no reason to distance the reader from the very start, and you can tell us so much more.
    (Which part of the forest is forbidden? The deepest part? The part that the townsfolk say is haunted? Zev's private lands?)
    Is the a Red Riding Hood story? I love the idea of her being a witch!

  10. The writing is nice, but I just can't get that excited about what I'm reading. Is the main conflict in the story a girl and her love of whittling? I suspect it's more about Zev and the witchery. If so, give me more indication. 80K words of struggles with wood carving do not sound enthralling.

    The only other nitpick is the bit about her long auburn hair. It sounds like the author telling us her hair color. Just say hair - when I think about my own hair in passing I don't give it adjectives.

    The writing is solid, but maybe just focused in the wrong place. Good luck!

  11. I feel like you know your character well, and yet the psychic distance seems quite far. Personally, I would love to see what this looks like in the past tense.

    Also, you have Robinson Crusoe here. You need some dialogue. You take way too long to get to the meat of it, and the conflict. A lot of this is an info. dump, but there is some good stuff in there. If I were you, I would take my favorite bits and work it into a scene with some action and conflict. Just my thoughts. Good luck and happy writing!

  12. I agree with Lucy Woodhull... the writing is good, but I'm not really feeling the stakes here. Why does she want to carve so much that she's willing to risk losing a hand? Can't she find something else to sculpt with that isn't so risky? And if she's that worried about getting caught, why leave strands of her hair in the tree? Long auburn hair isn't particularly common (or maybe it is in this setting, I don't know).

    I also agree that there's a bit too much information here. You can explain why she can't buy wood later, I think. Good luck revising!

  13. You have a lot of words here, but i'm not certain you use them wisely. I can tell what you're trying to do, and it's an excellent idea to illicit a visceral response from the reader, but you've added an extra layer between the reader's experience and the conveyance of information that YOU think the reader should know.

    Balanced narrative is tough to achieve, and the beginning pages of a story make it so important to hit that nerve and twist the knife. Try to keep your focus on engaging the reader with the sensory hook you seem to be going for. Don't dilute it with extraneous info we may not need yet.

    Hit hard with the opening sentence. Here's my suggestion:

    "The scent of fresh cut trees lures me closer, but if I'm caught stealing, I'll lose my hand."

    Then follow immediately with:

    "My heart flutters a warning beat. I should run away, but a small cut of wood calls to me from a pile of discarded twigs and branches. My practiced whittler's eye sees the figure of a rabbit begging for release. It's been almost a month since I whittled, and I miss my art."

    The thing about her mom and her being a witch comes out of left field. Stay focused. Make the reader feel her fear instead of only reading about it on the surface. From this point on it's a matter of tightening the narrative and leaving out unnecessary words and thoughts.

    Don't just tell us Zev is cruel, offer an example. If the MC has witnessed this cruelty, convey how she imagines it would feel to have the same thing happen to her. Because as is, it's hard to relate to her fear of stealing a chunk of wood. It seems more of a phobia than a justified fear. So the suspension of disbelief isn't happening and it's imperative that it does.

    Good luck!

  14. Your writing style is very clean. However, like others have mentioned, I think there is too much information being squeezed in. It makes it hard for the reader to "see" or focus on what is most important. I think it also prevented me from getting sucked into the world or feeling connected to the character's motivation. (I too think, heck just take some scraps that no one will care about and don't risk your hand. Not the reaction you are going for from your reader I know.)

    You've gotten lots of wonderful suggestions. One thing to consider is whether this truly is the right place to start (it may be or it may not be; I haven't read enough to know). Is this the place and time you need the reader to be introduced to the character? This may help you focus on what needs to stay in the scene and what pieces can go. For example, does she need to leave long strands of hair behind? Will this become important later? If yes, leave it; if no, maybe cut it because as a reader I instantly think this is critical.

    Thank you for sharing and best of luck to you. I'm sorry if the feedback is a little scattered. Keep trying, you'll get there!

  15. Everyone has said everything I thought: the mother/anti-whittling paragraphs seem unnecessary at this point, carving vs whittling, the red hair left behind on the branch.

    The only thing I have to add is that I have little idea what age this character is, and that always discombobulates me as a reader. Is she a little girl, teenager, or adult? You might consider introducing that detail (even while cutting others).

    Right now, I see her as about 9 years old--possibly because of all the poorly-thought out impulsive things she's doing. Is that what I should be thinking, or will I be surprised in a few pages to discover that she's 16 or 22?

    Again, this might not bug anyone but me, but I wanted to put it out there.

  16. I think the 14 comments above have probably given you enough to think about. I agree with the main thrust of their argument: You need to establish who the character is and what she wants.

    I would rewrite the danger in a more straightforward way, such as:

    If they catch me, I'll be searched, and if they find I have wood hidden under my cloak I could lose a hand.

    I'd just like to add that the narrative would be stronger if you left out a few key words.

    [several feet away]
    from [Witch] training. I wd say from my training.
    [herb] basket
    of [my long auburn] hair
    [the hood of my red cloak]. I wd say my hood.
    [the sentence beginning "Guilt"] This distracts from the fear.
    [conscience] shd be driven by fear.

    The relationship between the wood gatherers and Zev is not clear. Who has the authority to sever hands, Zev or the wood gatherers? Who is she afraid of?

    I hope these comments are some help.

  17. I'm with you on the intro. I think I just got mine figured out, after about the hundreth try and some great comments from the First 50 (thanks, everyone!)

    I love: "Temptation's call is louder than common sense." I would make that your opening sentence and go from there, because it calls to the reader and is easy to write from:

    "Temptation's call is louder than common sense.

    I know I shouldn't be here- this part of the forest is strictly forbidden and anyone caught will be severely punished. Is the risk of having my hand cut off to steal a piece of wood worth it?

    To me, it is."

    Only do it well, of course. I'd delve into her whittling passion now and how important it is to her. You've got some good tension going on but it's a bit scattered, kind of like your MC. She- and you- need to be focused if she's going to successfully steal her wood. But I am intrigued by the story,and want to know if she ever does free the rabbit from the wood (I like that bit), so good job!

  18. I wanted to know why that part of the forest was forbidden? Was it because Zev owns it? Or because it's haunted or magical? If there isn't something special about this wood, why steal it from a cruel man who will cut her hand off? Why not steal from the store in the village?

  19. Hmmm, some nice writing but my main problem is I'm far more interested in her being a witch and why she doesn't want to be one, than her whittling hobby and stealing wood for it. And mentioning how she used to buy wood at a shop (and the fact that the wood is hardly crucial anyway) lessens the stakes.

    Also, for me, there's too much second-by-second detail of the wood, her steps etc. From 'Temptation's call' to the end takes too long and feels like false tension to me, it isn't grabbing me.

    I don't think the first para is punchy enough to start a book. Personally I'd begin the page with: If I'm caught stealing, I'll lose my hand. Then explain how she's stealing wood to whittle and perhaps say something like she needs something to keep her mind off the witch question, and segue into it like that.

  20. I remember this from the SA contest and you've definitely captured mood and tone in this version. But there is also no new information here, so you've used 500 words to tell us what you told us before in 250.

    You might show us the scene instead of telling it. For instance, 'This part of the forest is forbidden.' She knows that. WHy would she say that to herself?

    She wouldn't. You're putting it out there for the reader, and that's what causes the distance many people have commented on. Allow your MC to just do whatever it is she is doing -- the smell of fresh cut trees lures me deeper into the forbidden part of the forest. - She has a reason now to say it's forbidden because that's where she's going.

    Perhaps go through this and eliminate all of the explanations that are placed there for the reader and don't tell us what she did. Let her just do it.

    I think we also need a good reason why she is compelled to get to this wood and risk losing her hand. It has to be special wood or for a special reason. As someone else said, f she's risking losing her hand because of a hobby, she comes off as foolish. Show us why it's so important to her.

    And I thought the suggestion to change whittling to carving was a good one. They may be the same thing (or they may not. I don't know) but the word 'whittling' itself sounds like something you play around at, while carving sounds more serious.

  21. I agree that at the moment I think she's a bit silly to risk a hand for a piece of wood. Show us why it's important, why it has to be this particular wood.

    I love the present tense by the way :)

  22. I also thought the writing was good. There was a lot of telling and too much info pushed into these few words. In the beginning of a novel, I sort of want to stretch out and get a feel for things over the first ten or so pages. I heard somewhere you should start of novel in a moment of change, discovery or drama and I don't see this scene as fitting into any of those categories. Basically, start in a place of movement for your character.

    I also had some trouble with the idea that one man controls all the wood. Not saying it can't work. But maybe don't bring it up until you can show us a scene of how this works. I thought a great first line would be "If I'm caught, he'll take my hand."