Wednesday, October 19, 2011

October Secret Agent #39

TITLE: Blackfire
GENRE: fantasy

I was ten years old before I learned that my absent, nameless father had given me anything more than dark-red eyes and fur.

I learned it the afternoon Marikha’s insufferable twins dared me up the highest, narrowest trail I knew. I outranked them. And I’d convinced them to follow me, or be shamed.

Our left shoulders brushed the cliff. The drop below was fifty feet to the nearest ledge, another three hundred into the purple-shadowed canyon. Stepped cliffs rose to the uplifted plateau of the Red Hills, five thousand feet closer to the clouds. If we followed the twisting trail to a ridgeline only a few dozen feet higher, I thought we might glimpse the flat turquoise grasslands to the south.

Fuzzy white seed-puffs drifted between red sandstone and lavender-blue sky. One puff got too close to my nose. I sneezed.

“Tel’s sick,” said one twin.

“Tel’s always sick,” said the other.

I angled the second sneeze back at them. “You’ll catch it, too!”

I was small enough to turn on the trail, taunting the bigger twins with sneeze after sneeze, only some of them real.

One twin lunged forward to nip me. I hopped back, drew a deep breath to yell a happy insult. A seed-puff lodged in my throat. My eyes watered. As I felt a real coughing-fit approach, I wedged my body against the cliff wall. Amid my sneezing and hacking, one of my weak forepaws skidded off the edge. I lost my balance, and dropped headfirst.


  1. This opening has a nice hook, with the MC's "nameless father" and his "dark red eyes and fur." I like the way you balance humor and tension, with the faked sneezing on the edge of the cliff. This pays off nicely at the end.


  2. The title is intriguing, and the first line really drew me in. It sounds like a great log-line opener. It immediately made me think that BLACKFIRE was going to be a werewolf story, so I wanted to keep reading in hopes that it WASN'T (personal taste). By the end of the excerpt, it feels like either talking wolves or possibly werewolves, still not sure.
    The second paragraph feels a bit choppy.
    I would suggest trying to find other means of describing things (sky, canyon, grasslands, etc) than colors. Mix it up.
    I like the feel. Again, personal taste--I love nature, animals, etc.

  3. I loved the first line. But it felt a little play by play after that. Real sneezes, fake sneezes and more real sneezes. Maybe all that could be tightened up and the story roll quicker towards the fall. I'm curious to know what else his father gave him.

  4. Point noted about setting description, since I need to hammer home quickly that this is an alien world. I'll probably leave the sneeze issue in, though, because the next pages bring up the reason for it.

    I cringed when the 'werewolf' comments came up, because I really want to stay away from werewolf fiction. I won't describe Tel's race here -- but they're not wolves.

    And I grinned when readers automatically assumed that Tel is male.

  5. I think this is well-written, and I didn't automatically assume 'wolf/werewolf,' but I wondered if this was backstory. Your genre says fantasy, but not YA or MG, so I'm assuming it's adult. In which case, I'd rather see an opening that takes place in the here-and-now. I'm certain this scene is pivotal, but it did leave me confused about this being a book for children or adults.

    My only other nit is to get a bit more sensory detail in -- whistling wind, cold air, etc. (Which is not to say your use of color and description of the terrain didn't create a clear mental picture; just think a touch more would really make it concrete.)

    Good luck with your writing!

  6. So...not wolves. Okay, I was thinking, why are these wolves talking? Are they talking wolves? Cuz I won't read a book about talking wolves. Now I want to read on to know what the heck they are! That, and I enjoy your writing style.

    Readers apparently assume my 1st POV MC is male too. What, violence and/or death-defying feats can't be done by females?

  7. Definitely a nice start... lots of questions - what kind of creatures are these, what is the deal with her father? Some nice descriptions with the redrock and lavender sky. Good job!

  8. I liked the first two opening sentences and thought they set the scene, although I did wonder who was older - the twins or tel.

    The red eyes, the fur, and the nipping made me think werewolf, and while I'm not crazy about werewolf stories, I was creating images in my mind and following along.

    Then I read your comment that says they're not werewolves, so I had to readjust everything I've already imagined, and I have nothing to replace it with because I don't know what they are. You haven't made it clear.

    You lost me. I wouldn't read more.

    SO my thought is, is it to your advantage to not let the reader know what they're dealing with, and to keep Tel's gender a mystery? The first thing we normally do in an opening is let the reader know who our protaganist is so we can ceate a connection, and I wonder why you don't make that evident.

  9. Good points, Barbara. I'll answer what I can. Yes, Tel's ambiguous gender is crucial to the plot.

    If I've lost you on my frame of reference, I understand. This isn't set on Earth. Tel wouldn't know concepts like 'lion' or 'furry Utahraptor', so I can't use them. But trust me, the next few pages do clarify a little more.

    I also needed to make Tel's 'voice' strong enough to carry readers through that initial disconnect. But of course, every reader's mileage varies.

    Thanks for your comments, and I'll look for ways to explain sooner.

  10. Even if you don't describe yet what Tel is, maybe you could drop some hints as to what he/she isn't. That might help clear up a little of the ambiguity. I agree with the others about the setting - especially since it's on an alien world. I liked the fake sneezes mixed in with the real ones.

  11. I've changed the paragraph that describes the setting, so hopefully it will be stronger. While only the first 250 words are uploaded here, I can say that Tel's physical appearance and gender are clarified in the next few pages.

  12. Since the genre doesn’t say YA or MG, I’m assuming this is adult. So why are we starting with this flashback at the narrator’s 10-year-old self. I assume we’ll see him/her do something amazing to save her/himself from death, something inherited from his/her parent, but why must we see this? I feel like the real story must start much later. I do like the details that make the narrator clearly not human. (I didn’t assume werewolves, but then I didn’t come at sf/f from the paranormal side, so I tend to assume bizarre creatures first.)

  13. Thanks, Secret Agent. After lots of false starts, I had to begin this mms. at age-10 Tel instead of age-18 Tel. This is the incident that leads Tel away from a 'normal' life, and sets the foundation for all the weirdness later. The story doesn't stay with Tel-as-a-child for long.