Thursday, March 15, 2012

New Beginning 932

“I lead a hard life,” the Castle Bard sighed.

“Hmm,” said the princess. Ordinarily, she would have responded more articulately, but she was in the middle of trying to twist her hair into a neat bun and was only half-succeeding. It was twisting, but it was not neat.

He looked at the back of her head reproachfully. “I slave for your father the king, I suffer for my art, I work myself to a shadow, and you only say ‘hmm’. Is that kind?”

The princess released her hair and took her hairpins out of her mouth. “Would you really say you slave?” she inquired. “I can’t quite imagine Father demanding that you work without pause. Slaves do work without pause, don’t they?”

“I didn’t say I am a slave, I said that I do slave,” the Bard corrected. “I think they pause sometimes, if only to eat.”

* * *

Ethel hit "pause" on the Tivo and pushed herself up from the sofa.

On the way to the kitchen to get another bag of chips, the Bard's words hit her. "Oh God," she thought, "I'm . . . I'm a slave to afternoon TV!"

Opening: Rachel.....Continuation: Anon.


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuation:

“You never listen to anything I say,” the Bard whined continuously.

“That’s because you never say anything worth listening to. I mean really, have you been listening to this conversation? And look at that, now you’ve made me use a preposition at the end of a sentence. You know how I hate that! It isn’t neat and it certainly isn’t conversation worthy of a princess.” She turned towards the door. “Guards!”

Two thin men, each with a red diamond on his flat chest, shuffled into the room.

The princess flicked her wrist at the bard. “Off with his head!”


Evil Editor said...

A better excuse (than hair twisting) for not responding articulately would be the pins in her mouth.

Once the Bard points out that he didn't say he is a slave, the fact that slaves do pause is irrelevant. Thus I'd get rid of one of the two sentences in the last paragraph.

Why is "Bard" capitalized? It's just a job. If "king" and "princess" don't rate capitalization, "bard" hardly should.

Bard is probably the cushiest job in the kingdom. A scene in which he's whining about how rough he's got it may not be the best place to start, especially if we're supposed to like him.

Anonymous said...

2.A slice of bacon placed on meat or game before roasting.

Possibly not the cushiest job in the kingdom.

none said...

It may be a cushy job during peacetime, but if there was a battle, the bard was expected to compose an epic poem that included everybody involved by name and in (I think) 24 hours. Not all that cushy then, as the price for failure was their head.

I don't feel much enthusiasm about this opening tbh. Not even sure whose POV we're in. Is it omni? The writing's okay but the actual story feels a bit meh.

Mister Furkles said...

It is kind of difficult to critique a 150 word opening without any context. It isn’t badly done.

If you capitalize “Castle Bard” doesn’t that imply that the castle is talking? I’d use his name and then follow with the job. “… sighed Freddy, the castle bard.”

The second sentence in paragraph two is saying two things: She is having trouble talking and she is working on her hair. Depending on genre, you may want to split it into two. The first to say why she spoke inarticulately and the second to say why her mouth was full of hair pins. (As EE suggested.)

“Ordinarily, she would have responded more articulately but her mouth held the hairpins. She was in the middle of twisting her hair into a bun and it wasn’t working.”

You can do it better but that's one approach.

Evil Editor said...

If their heads were at stake, maybe my writers would meet their deadlines. A smart bard would have the epic poem written in advance and just need to paste in the names. In any case, I'd rather write a poem than stand in the middle of a field with a sword, surrounded by enemy knights with their bigger swords.

150 said...

Although this is the *kind* of thing I like, this scene itself is starting off pretty boring. One of the participants isn't even paying attention, for heaven's sake. Is there a later part you can skip to? It doesn't have to be wham-bam action, but a little more conflict than "I want to complain" vs "Your complaint has little merit." I do like the voice, though, so I might skip ahead to see where this is going.

Dave Fragments said...

I had a similar reaction to the opening that 150 had. This seems to be unimportant dialog in a daily setting. It's not even witty repartee between two people who enjoy that kind of sparring. Get to something interesting, please.

Mister Furkles said...

“…this scene itself is starting off pretty boring…”

There are two things some of you may be able to clarify for me. When considering a book, I never read the back — basically an ad — nor do I read the first pages. I always flip the book open to the middle and read a couple of paragraphs from each of several randomly selected pages. If I don’t like the prose, I won’t read the book.

So the question is: why so much emphasis on the first page? I know agents and editors look there first but what about readers?

If you read the opening to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you will find several pages of back-story. Of course, Harper Lee could write a recipe for fruit cake and you would hang on every word. But I don’t understand why there is such an obsession with action in the first one hundred words.

It seems to me that this author is establishing character first. I like that approach. You find it in many popular novels. It requires a compelling story-telling style. Perhaps this author is more of a story teller than a master of English syntax. We want authors to be both but I prefer story tellers.

In other words, I like this opening. Author, just polish it a bit.

ril said...

It's not action that is needed on the first page, it is engagement. People want to engage with the story and the writing so that they make that turn to the second page.

What's interesting, and often overlooked, is that different people find different things engaging.

So one individual opinion is not a good indicator. However, if there appears to be a groundswell of disinterest (as it were), then that may be something to take notice of. Or not. Writer's choice to interpret the feedback as she or he sees fit.

Anonymous said...

I just tried sighing "I lead a hard life."

Couldn't do it. Ran out of breath.

Figure it would sound kind of weird, too, even for a Bard.

The Author said...

@ Mister Furkles

As I reader, the first pages are very important to me.

Not because of the 'you have to sell me on your whole book' aspect, but because I'm just too distractable.

When I decide to read a book, I'm inevitably going to put it down within the first couple of pages to get a snack, or check my email, or answer a text.

I can't even tell you the number of books that I never finished. I didn't hate them or get bored with them. I just put them down for whatever reason and never got around to picking them up again.

But if the first couple pages are really good, they hold me enough to either get me too invested in the story to stop, or enough to really want to pick it up again when I get back.

150 said...

It seems to me that this author is establishing character first. I like that approach. You find it in many popular novels.

Yes, characters are being established. Here, the bard is established as a whining bore and the princess is established as a detached bore. They are saying inconsequential things that I suspect won't become consequential over the course of the story. Their banter here could be replaced by almost any other banter to the same effect. It's going nowhere. That's not compelling.

Contrast that with, say, the banter that opens Pride and Prejudice, which establishes the characters AND presents the core problem AND shows the extent to which they are invested in its outcome. That's compelling!

If this conversation matters to them, let them show some passion! If it doesn't, give them a conversation that does!

(It sounds like I'm slamming the opening, which I don't mean to do; the voice is good, the writing is good, but the content isn't doing for me what I think the author wants it to do. Which is why I'd skip ahead instead of just skipping it.)

Mister Furkles said...

It reads:

"I lead a hard life," the bard sighed.

So, I saw him sighing after the statement. Basically, the bard is a whiner. At least that is the impression I got.

So, I like the nonchalance of the princess but find he bard a tiresome bore. Maybe it is a comedy in which the timid whiner bard gets into one mishap after another. It that is the case we need to know character before action.

Anonymous said...

Would prefer he spoke in rhyme. Needs more wit and/or vinegar. Seems like a goodish start, but these two are sounding just a bit too ordinary for the parts you cast them in.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

I did find it engaging, though it was a tad wordy and I'd want something to happen in the next two paragraphs or I'd be gone.

Mister Furkles, To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book of several decades ago. It may be interesting to ask ourselves why we now think openings should cut to the chase. But it doesn't change the fact that cutting-to-the-chase is what editors, agents, and large numbers of readers now expect.

Anonymous said...

So, I saw him sighing after the statement.

Which is fortunate for the author, as what you saw is not what was written.

Laurie said...

As said above, I like this, but it's too wordy for me, so I'd like to see it trimmed.

I like the princess doing something so ordinary as fixing her hair. The bard is a tad whiny, but that may be his character. I like the voice - it reminds me a bit of George McDonald's The Light Princess.

Anonymous said...

Tastes change, but I've read all of Harper Lee's novels.

Mister Furkles said...

The reason I cite TKAM is that most people have read it, it still sells really well and most critics list it at or near the top of best books of the last century. But here is another from 2005: North: A Novel by Frederick Busch. It is a murder mystery with action. It’s now in paperback so it must have sold well. It starts with a few pages of back-story. Another from 2002 is Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers – it is a WWII spy action novel. It starts with some pages of back-story. Furst has produced several such novels since, so they must be selling well. These are about 400 word pages not manuscript pages. So figure about eight or ten manuscript pages before any story action starts.

Their purpose is to establish a character or setting. Mostly, we like our stories to start with action so the agent or editor will read at least a few pages. Some stories are best started with character others with place and time. Comedy seems to need character first. Literary fiction seems to need character first or sometimes time and place.

When an author’s prose is moderately engaging, if not compelling, how important is it really to start with action? As a reader, not as an author trying to sell a manuscript, do you really demand action on page one before you buy the book?

none said...

The detail of the princess fixing her hair is nice, yes. Although you have to wonder what kind of princess doesn't have a maid. Her naivete is also well brought out here.

If however the end of a story is implicit in its beginning, this doesn't promise to end on an interesting note.

Evil Editor said...

The subject of backstory was covered in two Q & A posts:

For examples of bad backstory, search the blog for "bad back-story" and "bad backstory."

150 said...

To save everyone a Google, the first lines of North: A Novel are:

"In a marriage, you have to tell your secret. But I also came to believe that my wife would die of ours. So I kept it to myself."

The first like of Night Soldiers is:

"In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia."

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Mr. Furkles-- Well, as I said, I like this and would probably read further, though not much further if nothing happened. It's not action that's necessary on the first page, but tension of some kind.

The scene between the princess and the bard shows some signs of tension, but it's not clear yet what that tension is, and there's a wordiness problem.

I do agree with others that there are probably better places where the dialogue could have opened-- more tension could be achieved if they were discussing something other than the bard's feelings.

none said...

I don't demand action on page 1. Or indeed any page. I want to be engaged with the story. This story has mildly piqued my interest. Maybe it would go on to engage me if it got the chance. I don't know. I only know it doesn't look promising.

Part of the problem may be that when I suggest 'something has to happen' people take that as meaning 'the bard must be split in two and the princess kidnapped', whereas I don't mean that at all. I mean, something has to happen.

And yes, some readers (and some genres) have a higher tolerance for pages of backstory than do others. Personally I'm with Don Maass. No backstory in the first fifty pages.

But if your writing is as beautiful as Harper Lee's, do what you like. Although TKAM itself initially got knocked back for being a series of episodes rather than a novel with a throughline, iirc.

Mister Furkles said...


Thanks for the clarification. I agree with you. It needs a little clean up. And we all like the opening otherwise but hope it goes somewhere quickly.


Rachel6 said...

Hahaha, wow, thanks for all the feedback! I definitely needed to hear "wordy"; it's a chronic problem for me.

This is my second draft of this novel; some of the elements I kept were ones my friends liked from the first draft. The bard starting off a little whiny was one thing I liked; I think I'll be taking that out now. :)

Even better, I think I have a more interesting place to start my novel.

Last thing to address: throughout the novel, only a handful of people have names. The bard and royal family don't. I'm thinking about Rupert for the bard; anybody like Rupert?

Anonymous said...

Well I don't like the opening. It is weak and wishy washy.

You've got poor dialogue.

Have the bard slam his fist on a wooden table, have the girl's hair tumble out of her hands and her Pug bite the bard.

I suggest Author, you google the top 100 openings lines of great novels and read them.

Get it going at the beginning with some depth.

Anonymous said...

Call me Ishmael.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

See what I mean?

Mister Furkles said...

Hi Rachel,

I liked your voice and the opening is okay if this is a funny novel. Rupert is a funny name. It is good if the bard is a silly person. I think of Bertram Wooster in Wodehouse novels as an example of a silly MC. Very old books -- but very few people have written LOL novels.

By the way, how large or powerful is the kingdom? If it is very small, then the royal family can be kind of self-reliant -- do their own hair. If it is like medieval France then lots of servants.

Of course, in any kind of kingdom, why would the bard be in the princess’s dressing room or does she sit around common areas of the palace to do her hair? If it is a comedy novel, either is okay because that is part of the humor.


AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Rupert's fine; he sounds like a rupert.

You may want to consider using fewer synonyms for "said", too. They're a little distracting and add to the wordiness impression.

150 said...

Hi, Rachel!

It's cool to start the story with the bard whining (and even with the princess ignoring him) but I'd love to see them whining/ignoring about something compelling instead. I don't feel the need to stick around and see whether they decide his life is hard or not, but if, say, the princess bristles at the implication that her father is a slaver, or if the bard is complaining instead of working on the ode he has due at dinner, or he starts elaborating on interesting worldbuilding bits, I'd want to keep reading.

Sorry we turned your comments thread into a huge "philosophy of openings" debate. You're a good sport. :)

The name Rupert's fine by me.

none said...

I wonder how many times it has to be said that novels published so many years ago are not useful guides to the kind of novels that will be published today.

Still, 'Call me Ishmael' has at least the advantage of being text.

Anonymous said...

Rupert is not a bard's name. One would be more likely to find a Prince Rupert than a bard Rupert.

Unless that's the point...?

Anonymous said...

The opening lines are not useful guides. They are by people who started off writing bad opening lines.

H. Melville wrote a terrible opening line in an earlier novel. Then he got better. Ditto Dickens.

This opening can be better constructed.

Anonymous said...

One of H. Melville's earlier works starts off
"Six months at sea! Yes reader, as I live,". I call that opening weak. But he found a strong way to open. Later.

Write more. Make me read on.

Good luck.

Rachel6 said...

I do see y'all's points about the famous openings, and about the weakness of mine. Alaska, thanks for the advice about "said"! I think I overuse that one because I'm afraid of overusing synonyms like "remarked".

I love Wodehouse, though I definitely can't claim to be anywhere near that good! My novel is more humorous than anything else, but I think I can better establish why the princess is doing her own hair, and give a little glimpse of her independent nature while I'm at it.

Again, thanks for your time and insight! Y'all have been a tremendous help!

Author said...


Rupert the bard turned from the window. “So, another suitor?” he asked.

“Mm-hmm,” Princess Adele said. She took a hairpin out of her mouth and tucked it tentatively into her hair.

Rupert grimaced. “Another prince?”

Adele turned her head slightly, trying to see the bun she was twisting her hair into. She frowned at the escaping hairs, took another hairpin out of her mouth, and attempted to poke it into the bun.

“Your parents are going to run out of suitors soon,” Rupert went on. “All the royalty and near-royalty in Quenton, a couple of Sablinian lords, and now a Flandoner.

Wonderful. They’ll have to expand to commoners next!”

The princess took one hand away from her hair, and it promptly uncoiled down her back. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”

Rupert regarded her compassionately. “Why don’t I call Cecily for you?”

Adele began picking hairpins out of her hair. “Because I am determined to learn how to do my own hair! Mother says every princess should have the ability to be self-reliant.”

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Rachel, this is a somewhat more interesting beginning point, but it would be a lot more interesting if we had some hint that Rupert had ambitions that way himself. Instead it seems to veer toward info-dumpery.

Here's the one and only thing I learned from my first agent before she told me to take my cat and leave her sweater:


What you've got here is 171 words. I would like to ask you, please, as an exercise, to cut 71 of them. Then just take a look at the result and see what you think of it.

(eg "have the ability to be self-reliant" could become "be self-reliant")

Dave Fragments said...

I would say "goose the sarcasm" a little bit. Rupert is teasing the princess and this sounds a little flat. I like this second version better because from the start we have a dilemma -- looking for Mr Perfect.

none said...

Obviously you anonymice all know that I will lose track of which one(s) I'm arguing with and take great pleasure in winding me up to that point :).



This is better. But I'm not sure how you tuck something tentatively.

sarahhawthorne said...

This is definitely a step in the right direction: you're introducing a conflict (Adele won't choose a husband) and implying a character arc (Adele needs to be self-reliant).

But I feel you actually went a bit backwards on Rupert. I liked that he was self-pitying and free to challenge the princess - it spoke to their relationship and his character. Now he's a kind of a blank. Maybe you can combine the two:

Rupert the bard turned from the window. “Another suitor?” he asked.

“Mm-hmm.” Princess Adele took a hairpin out of her mouth and poked it tentatively into her hair.

Rupert looked at the back of her head reproachfully. “Your parents are going to run out of princes soon. More importantly, I am going to run out of nice ways to send them off. And you only say 'mm-hmm'?"

The princess took one hand away from her hair, and it promptly uncoiled down her back. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”

Rupert sighed. “Why don’t I call Cecily for you?”

Adele began picking hairpins out of her hair. “Mother says every princess should be self-reliant.”

Rachel6 said...

Alaska: I do make it clearer later in the story that Rupert has some ideas. I'll see if I can work that into this opening. :)

And cut. Yeah. *takes deep breath* 100 words! I shall hit that goal before midnight!

Rachel6 said...


Rupert the bard turned from the window. “Another suitor?”
“Mm-hmm,” Princess Adele said. She took a hairpin from her mouth and tucked it into her hair.
Rupert grimaced. “Another prince?”
Adele turned her head, trying to see the bun she was twisting her hair into. She frowned at the escaping hairs, took another pin, and poked it into the bun.
“Your parents have nearly run out of suitors. All the Quentonian nobility, a couple of Sablinian lords, and now a Flandoner. Who’s next, a commoner?” He smiled. “I’m a commoner.”
The princess removed a hand from her hair. It flopped down her back. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
Rupert regarded her compassionately. “Should I call Cecily?”
Adele shook hairpins from her hair. “I’m determined! Mother says princesses should be self-reliant.”

Alaska, I only got to 124, but I think I learned my lesson. :) Now, as Query Shark says, apply to manuscript!

Anonymous said...

But I'm not sure how you tuck something tentatively...

It's a guy thing.

enya said...

I liked the tucking tentatively (in its ORIGINAL context--ahem!): it gave me a visual and some character info. What I didn't like was 'attempted to poke it into her bun' or whatever. Because you either do or don't poke. You may not poke well, but you're either pokin' or not. You removed that phrase in the revision, though, so never mind.

Getting better. I think you could cut the "I'm determined!" and just keep the mother/self-reliant part. The meaning remains clear (IMO).


none said...

Lol, Anon, then a princess probably shouldn't be doing it XD.

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

96 words, if I may:

Rupert the Bard turned from the window. “Another suitor?”

“Mm-hmm.” Princess Adele took a hairpin from her mouth and tucked it into her hair.

“Another prince?”

Adele frowned at the escaping hairs, took another pin, and poked it into the bun.

“Your parents have nearly run out of suitors. Who’s next, a commoner?” He smiled. “I’m a commoner.”

The princess let go of her hair. It flopped down her back. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”

Rupert regarded her compassionately. “Should I call Cecily?”

Adele shook hairpins from her hair. “I’m determined! Mother says princesses should be self-reliant.”

Less is nearly always more. When you revise you need to cut and keep cutting and cut again, so that in the end every word has fought for its right to be there. When you're done you'll find your stuff looks surprisingly like the stuff in bookstores, which is an important step to having your stuff sit next to that stuff.

Also, cutting reveals problems you weren't able to see when they were concealed by wordiness.

I kind of agree with Sarah that the whiny bard was more interesting. But this one is more likeable.

You also need to decide whose POV the story is from. Little things-- you can't really show a POV character's facial expression, except in a mirror.

Anonymous said...

Lol, Anon, then a princess probably shouldn't be doing it.

If she really wants to, I might let her.

Anonymous said...

If a Princess has been taught to be/is learning to be self reliant she won't tentatively do her hair. She should be boss of it. Or whack it off if she can't manage it without a servant.

She sounds like she has balls but her hair thingy shows me otherwise.

Define the characters clearly, especially in the opening.

Rachel6 said...

Thank you so much, everybody, for all your input and insights. :) I think my best plan right now is to let it sit for about a week, try to regain a little perspective, and figure out how I want to recreate Rupert. I'm currently leaning toward the original beginning, with him whining, because then there's room for character development. DV, I will be back next Saturday with a new and improved beginning!

Alaska, I am quietly groveling before the wisdom of your knife. ;) But I do have to ask: if I'm writing in omni, can I show a character's expression?

AlaskaRavenclaw said...

Yeah. But people hardly ever do write in omniscient anymore. That doesn't mean you can't do it, of course, but there's no particular reason to in this story AFAICT.

The advantage of taking a single-character viewpoint is it gets the reader closer to your protagonist and more involved in the story. The disadvantage is it's easy to screw up.

none said...

You can describe anything you like in omni. Just beware of head-hopping.

I honestly don't think you should keep rewriting this and bringing it back for our approval. You'll end up with something not your own.