Red Pencil Thursday
We’ve had experienced authors with New York Times bestselling titles under their belts. We’ve had brand new authors working on their very first manuscript. Today, we have our first sci-fi/fantasy author, James Marino.
I’m a closet sci-fi fan. In fact, I’m reading my way through Orson Scott Card’s Ender quartet right now. But this genre isn’t in my wheelhouse as far as writing goes. That’s why I’m counting on YOU to share your thoughts about James’ opener. Thanks so much in advance.
Working Title: Out of Darkness
Mia: Your title is your first hook. It’s your promise to your reader about what sort of story they can expect. It should set a tone, suggest a question, or make the reader think “Hmm, this sounds like something I’ve heard of. I’d like some of that.” Out of Darkness is atmospheric, but pretty generic. It could be a spiritual book, a moralistic tale, a mystery. It doesn’t necessarily say sci-fi to me.
James: That’s exactly what I was going for – atmospheric, spiritual/mythical undertones, a moral tale and a mystery. Sci-fi will come into play later. I’m starting it off as pure epic fantasy.
Varro Augustin rode in darkness. The sound of the riders around him was a meditative mantra. They were of one mind, one purpose, and they rode as one. They were a sacred weapon on a sacred mission serving a sacred order. They were sworn Sacred Warriors of The One True Faith and they would obey. His men would not question his authority any more than he would question the authority of those who sent him. They rode out of Autoria two hundred strong, breaking into smaller groups along the way, each with their part to play. He chose almost every man himself, all loyal and skilled. He knew very well what he was, what they were; game pieces on a board. But this did not trouble him. Pai Marbach was the game master and for ten years he had not failed in playing his part in Marbach’s sacred mission. What the most holy Pai’s mission was he did not really know and did not care. The most holy Pai was of the One True Faith and that was enough.
Mia: Ok, it’s clear there is a religious tone, so maybe Out of Darkness is the right title. Clearly, you have a well-thought out theology and world system. Pick a few unusual details to set the scene. Varro’s riders could be a biker gang in South Dakota. Make sure I know they aren’t.
Be careful of word repetition. It’s not creating the impact you want. You’ll notice I highlighted in red repetitions of the word sacred. I read my work aloud to catch those echoes.
My interest meter didn’t start pinging until you hit the bit about them being game pieces. I’d start with that thought idea, or better yet, with dialogue. Even if Varro is riding (on what? Give us some fun sci-fi wheels or wings!) he can have an earpiece in his helmet. Dialogue makes for a quick read. Drop readers into the middle of a conversation or better yet, an argument, and let them scramble to keep up.
James: Great ideas. I think slipping in some details about the world might work by adding some conversation and action between the riders. I’ve also thought about putting the conversation that happens in the past (which happens toward the end of the chapter) into the present and going from there. But I also want this image of these dark figures riding into the night.
He did sometimes wonder what Pai Marbach did with these game pieces he captured. He never saw them again after he delivered them. Whatever happened to them he was sure it was in service to The One True Faith. Yet he did wonder what someone like Pai Marbach would want with these insignificant commoners. What could The One True Faith want with a servant girl from the Shores? Why had a farmer’s son been needed? He remembered the first one well. He had been caught off guard when he and two of his men had been sent to seize an orphan who was taken in by an elderly couple in a small village. The couple actually took up arms against them when they found out they wanted the young man. Pai Marbach warned him to be on his guard but an old man and woman skilled with a blade in an obscure village? They cut them down in order to subdue them and the young man nearly put the sword to himself before Augustin could stop him. Then the youth had been silent the whole journey back. He did not speak a word and it was not Augustin’s place to question him anyway.
Mia: I’m glad you shared that Varro is concerned about what happens to the other pieces. He has a conscience. This makes him likeable—very important!
However, this paragraph is mostly backstory, which is fascinating to us as writers. However, it’s death to story momentum. All of a sudden I’m not riding with Varro and his horde of dark warriors. I’m thrust into a past I know nothing of, reading about people I don’t have the background to care about. If the reader needs to know any of this, have Varro argue with one of his lieutenants about it and get the info out that way. Hook me on Varro and I’ll follow him anywhere.
Long blocks of narrative remind me of the first time I read Crime and Punishment. Yes, it’s great literature, but it has daunting multi-page paragraphs. Pull out your favorite sci-fi book. How does it start? Action? Dialogue? Long chunks of narrative?
James: Again, great ideas. That’s the conversation I was looking for to get at the back-story. These are the bad guys but I want the reader to have a love/hate relationship with them. I don’t want them to be one-dimensional. Showing them arguing about this mission or perhaps arguing after finishing up a mission would pull in the back story and show their struggle. Thanks!
Each mission after this was more difficult yet each time he was successful. Every endeavor cost him more men but what was that in service to The One True Faith? All thought always came back to his Faith. The One True Faith purified all doubts. The One True Faith was the answer to all questions.
Mia: And yet he has questions. Lots of them. Openings need tension and a crisis of faith is very intense. I’d rather see Varro obeying with clenched fists, struggling with his doubts. I’d relate to him better. And as the protagonist, that’s his purpose—to be the character readers can identify with and root for.
James: This might be ok. These dark warriors are the antagonists and I want the reader to fear for the protagonists that get introduced in next chapter. I know traditionally you start off with the protagonist(s) but I thought showing these bad guys coming right from the start would set a dark tone. But I agree that showing him physically struggle with what he has to do is a great idea.
He let the darkness and the sound of the riders wash away his thoughts and they rode on. They would arrive under cover of darkness to the monastery at Vyron. No one would be allowed in or out while they made their search. Pai Marbach told him there was a traitor to the One True Faith defiling the monastery and hiding a woman among the novices. This woman was very important. But if she was not found then he was not to act against this traitor. They would need him to lead them to her. Curiously, the most holy Pai hinted that he actually would prefer that she should run. “This one I believe will be quite slippery and it may be for the best. How long since you had a good hunt, my friend?” Pai Marbach had asked. “Duty should come with some enjoyment, yes?” Varro Augustin smiled and thought yes, please run so I can hunt you down.
Mia: One of the most difficult choices a writer makes is where to start their story. I think we’ve found your beginning and it’s at the end of this excerpt. If you start with Varro’s conversation with Marbach, your story will zip along faster and we get a chance to get inside our hero’s head right away.
Just so you know, I once had to lop off twelve pages before I found the beginning to one of my books. However, the writing wasn’t wasted. I was getting to know my characters. It was like clearing my throat before I was ready to start.
Thanks for letting me take a peek at your work, James. My observations are just one writer’s opinion and only you can decide the best way to tell your story. Fortunately, as writers we get to play with words till they line up the way we want them. Good luck!
James: I think you are right. I need to start with Augustin and Marbach. Perhaps he’s just returned from one mission when they have this conversation? Then he argues with his men and start off in pursuit.
Thanks so much for this opportunity! You have given me some great ideas!
Bio: James is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who is trying his hand at writing a fantasy novel for his personal enjoyment. He is a Process Improvement Engineer at a large financial institution.
URL: Tracking my progress on the novel at – http://writingafantasynovel.
Now it’s YOUR turn. Please leave your comments, questions & encouragement for James. Thanks!
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