Lady Sophia sauntered through market square. She usually sent her servants to shop for her, but on this day she didn't know what she was looking for, only that she needed a distraction. That morning a letter had arrived, bearing the news that her husband was lost at sea. She didn't understand how he could leave her – the most beautiful lady in the land – in the first place. She placed a hand on her swollen stomach. Had he found her pregnant form ungainly? She shook her head in disgust. She carried his burden alone.
A glint of gold caught her eye. A merchant from the Outer Isles was setting up his wares. His dark hands held an elaborate golden frame of a mirror. He turned and the mirror faced her directly. In her reflection from the front you could hardly tell she was pregnant. She flushed, pleased at her still apparent beauty. She had to have the mirror. The only ones in the manor were small or handheld. This full-length one would do justice to her glory.
The merchant took her money and watched her saunter away, then picked up a much smaller mirror and fiddled with the curious nobs set around its frame."Lord Orris . . . come in, Lord Orris," he whispered into it.
The mirror brightened suddenly, and a man's face came into view. "You called?" he said.
"She bought it! My servant is bringing it to your house right now."
The man's face creased in a grim smile. "Did you direct him to set it up opposite her bed?"
"Of course, milord."
"Excellent. I'm sure we'll know who the father is inside of a week."
Opening: Mary.....Continuation: Marissa Doyle
Some of the unchosen continuations:
"How much?" she asked the merchant.
"Oh, so sorry. Already sold. But I have a very nice mirror inside. Come."
Indeed, the full-length mirror he led her to had an even more elaborate gilt frame. But when she stepped in front of it, she shrieked. "Who is that hideous creature!"
The merchant looked at her, then at the reflection of the bloated woman with the crow's feet and crooked nose. "Why, you, my Lady."
"No! I'm that beautiful woman in the mirror outside. That's the mirror I want."
"Then you need to discuss it with Marty's Fun House. They're on their way to pick it up now."
"I'll take it," she said, pointing to the mirror. "Wrap it up and send it to me, Lady Sophia the Beautiful."
The merchant suppressed a grin.
"Just bill my husband," she said through blackened teeth. The merchant nodded. Another one from the looney bin, he thought. Ever since the King had cut funding at the asylum, the poor wretches just wandered around.
The merchant shook his head and put the mirror back on the table.
That was one ugly woman, he thought. He'd seen double chins before, but a double stomach? There were some things even a magic mirror couldn't fix.
“Ah, Madame, you have exquisite taste. This is my finest treasure I bring back from my journey.”
She did not want to quibble with the wretched man, her patience growing ever so thin in the stifling heat. “How much?”
“For you, Madame, forty pieces of gold.”
“That’s more than Judas got for Jesus, you swindler!”
“Oh, but Madame, you have not seen what the mirror can do.” The man tilted the frame until the glass splashed back the sun’s glare from its silvered surface. Temporarily blinded, Lady Sophia’s eyes gradually adjusted until she saw the visage of her husband Mallomar drifting up through the queer glass. But he was not alone and Lady Sophia recognized the wench immediately. “He’s screwing my sister! The lout, the fiend, the infidel!”
“Oh, but there is more,” the man said, and the glass changed.
“No, it can not be!” she screamed, feeling faint. “My mother, too?”
“Oh, but there is more,” he said, twisting the mirror.
“No more!” she demanded. “No more!”
“Oh, Madame. Do you have a fine looking brother? How about a dog?
“No More,” she screamed. “Please! No More!”
“Oh, Madame, I see that he also fancies knotholes and cabin boys, and—“
At the manor, she spent many hours in front of her new acquisition. Not only had she regained her lissom form, but the mirror showed her smallpox scars as beauty spots and her hair to be as long and luxuriant as before it was cropped for the fever. The effects of the mirror went beyond the visual. When she stroked her hair, her hands slipped through glossy waves that curled down past her waist. Under her fingertips, her cheeks felt as plump and soft as a child's.
The real fun started for Lady Sophia, however, when she lured the second footman to her bedchamber. 'Strip,' she commanded. 'And don't take your eyes of that mirror for the next half hour.'
The half hour turned out to be three minutes, but oh, what a three minutes those were.
The writing style leaves me cold. It's plain and straightforward - which is a style I actually really like - but it doesn't work to engage the reader's interest on any level. The descriptions don't create any impression in the reader's mind because they're ordinary and often consist of "telling" rather than "showing".
Here's a breakdown of how each of the sentences came across to me:
Sentence 1: Telling; flat description
Sentence 2: Backstory
Sentence 3: Backstory
Sentence 4: Telling
Sentence 5: Flat description
Sentence 6: Okay
Sentence 7: Telling
Sentence 8: Telling
Sentence 1: Flat description; cliche
Sentence 2: Telling
Sentence 3: Okay, but adjectives do all the work
Sentence 4: Telling
Sentence 5: Telling
Sentence 6: Telling
Sentence 7: Telling
Sentence 8: Telling
Sentence 9: Telling
Also, there's no tension to this scene. Sophia isn't upset about the hubbie being dead, so why should the reader be?
I don't think your story starts here; find the point at which a character realises he or she has a problem to solve, and start there instead.
Good luck with it, Mary.
Already I don't like this woman. She's the MC? *shudder*
Whitemouse has shown how this is all descriptive and backstory.
What I don't get is why I should care about Sophia or empathize with her.
She just found out her husband's lost at sea. OK, maybe he's a bastard, but we don't really know that from this snippet. So what does she do? Saunter through the market square looking for a bit of distraction.
And, oh, by the way, she's pregnant. But she obviously doesn't want the kid because she considers it his burden, and she's more concerned about her looks than either the baby or the hubby. "Husband...meh. Baby...meh. Ooh, look, pretty bauble! Yes, yes yes!"
Now there could be a valid reason for all this, but as a FIRST impression, yuck. I'm slipping this vainglorious, cold bitch right back on the shelf. She's just not the person I want to curl up with for 300 pages. Sorry.
Hmm... About those continuations. We have the Chosen One and the Unchosen Ones.
Maybe we should label them the Buffy Award and the Scooby Gang Awards!
One thing that kept me from being fully engaged in this is that I can't make sense of Lady Sophia's emotions. She learned this morning that her husband is dead, so she's going to the market to look for a distraction? And she's preoccupied with why he left in the first place, and with her own beauty?
I get that she's vain, but still--the death of her husband ought to be momentous news (and if it's not, that might need explaining). I'd expect grief, or worry over her future and that of her unborn child, or possibly joy if her husband was controlling or abusive or otherwise undesirable to have around. But she seems to be really trivializing it. I find it hard to identify with her.
My other concern is lack of a hook. We've got a widowed pregnant woman roaming the market and buying a mirror. There's no sense of conflict, since she seems largely unperturbed by her husband's death, and no sense of mystery to draw me in and make me curious to read further. Perhaps there is a better place to open this story?
Sophia struck me as shallow, too, but is it really such a shock to EE's tender minions that a woman might not want her baby?
I think the writer did a very good job of exactly what she was going for.
And I disagree with Whitemouse. For example, Sauntered is showing.
Remember, showing and telling have levels. You can be telling about one thing, while you are showing something else.
In this case, the writer has painted an internal portrait of a woman possibly in shock, but at minimum a woman destructively disengaged. Phoenix has it exactly. "Husband...meh. Baby...meh. Ooh, look, pretty bauble! Yes, yes yes!"
(I would have said feh.)
And, I believe, of the moment when she acquires a catalyst that will change all that.
That being said, I think my reaction to a novel that started this way would be the same as Phoenix's and Amyb's. I'm going to spend six hours with this woman? No thanks.
Another thing that annoys me, besides the introductory character, is how safe and clean and quiet these medieval-type markets always seem to be, especially for a pregnant Lady.
Author, I found the first paragraph was not a keeper. Lady Sophia saunters, worries she's thought fat, gives hubby's death mere passing attention as she things about herself and just herself. She comes across as selfish, vain and heartless. Cut this stuff unless you want her to be perceived that way. (However, should you want that perception, try to show these traits and not just tell us, as jjdebenedictus says.)
The second paragraph has some nice description, but has no hook, no tension. Perhaps you should define what this scene is supposed to give us? I would expect that it might work better if she is getting the news her husband is dead at the opening. Assuming this mirror is important to the plot, you could even have that occur while she is strolling through the market. (A servant screaming, "Lady [lastname]!" and running up to her to tell her the evil news, or some such.)
twill, I have to agree with buffy, 'sauntering' is telling. I say this because the word is so loaded with baggage that isn't in the definition of "a careless, leisurely gait" that you cannot help but feel told that the woman is heartless, shallow, unlikeable, or mean, etc.
That's my opinion, anyhow. It's my observation that you cannot, as a writer, just go by the straight definition, you have to understand the subtle meaning of the word's baggage (the cultural assumptions attached to it.)
When it is a very powerful load of baggage, the reader is being told, quite forcefully, what they are supposed to take away from that image. It's the difference between looking at a painting and being told it's meaning. Sometimes that broadens the experience; yet at other times, it distracts from the artistic experience.
That's a good point, bernita. Where are the pattens to keep rich feet from fecal mud? Where are the rats, thieves, lepers and stench of unwashed bodies? Where's the cloved orange she delicately sniffs so she doesn't have to endure the odors? And finally, why is she shopping in a market for herself instead of having the appropriate merchants come to her?
Excuse my error: I should have referenced whitemouse's comment, not buffy's. :)
I can forgive the lack of dirt in a medeaval marketplace, mostly because I don't remember Tolkein or Rowling fussing much about laundry. And I'm reading 1787 about the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and they only mention the weather was hot and sweaty that summer. But the entire population of the city must have stunk and stunk badly.
I think the author has to work a little harder on making Lady Sophia a little more available to the reader. She's pregnant and doesn't understand the necessity of her husband traveling and now he's been lost at sea? There has got to be more substance to her than the vanity it takes to buy a mirror.
She carried his burden alone. is a loaded sentence indicating regrets for being pregnant and lot of other baggage. Rather than go shopping in the market, a very modern thing to do when depressed, perhaps the scene should be somewhere in the castle having soul-searching angst?
"it really such a shock to EE's tender minions that a woman might not want her baby?"
I think it's not that she doesn't want it - it's that she's seemingly completely uncaring one way or the other. It's medieval times. Your hubby died. Your life is now in limbo - you can't own anything; it has gone to whoever will inherit the estate (which will be the baby only if it's a boy) and what you have is just what the man in charge will give you and nothing more. She could be in a honking great panic. She could be sauntering into the church to offer thanks for her deliverance from that SOB. She could be anxiously waiting to find out if her lover will actually now marry her or if he'll run for the hills. Any way the story goes, her life has been turned upside down and we should see her in an emotional state, but we don't.
It's very charitable to leap from what we're given to "oh, she must be in shock" - more charitable than I am, I'm afraid. I don't want to meet this person, let alone spend a few hours with her, thanks.
So what this winds down to is - if Sophia is the MC, we need to have a reason to empathize with her. If she's not the MC but just someone you've used to get into the story (and presently we'll meet the beggar lad who actually is the MC) then this story isn't starting in the right place.
Author here. First off, this is the beginning of a 9k word novelette, not a novel. Sophia plays a very large part in the story, but is not the main character. It's a version of Snow White and I believe the set up is necessary, but will look at changing the opening.
Lady Sophia is not meant to be likable, but perhaps I can make her more sympathetic. I do agree that it needs more description. Thanks for all the comments.
Mary, what you want in an opening--any opening, but this is particularly important for a short story--is some hint of conflict and/or tension. Both of those seem to be lacking here. As for the character--she doesn't have to be likeable, but she should at least inspire interest or curiosity. Judging from the comments you've received, that's not happening. People were turned off by her coldness and unbelievability, not inspired to turn the page.
If the important event in this opening is her buying the mirror, then focus on that, and leave out the backstory. Without all that baggage prejudicing the reader against her, she becomes more interesting. You can reveal her character gradually, rather than forcefeed it to the reader. Mystery is good. :)
writtenwyrd, I am sonot following your explanation.
Sauntered is a descriptive verb. It shows us how she's walking, physically. Beyond that, yes it does impart information about her: if she's sauntering, she's unhurried, she's possibly in a good mood, maybe she's arrogant. Or unworried. That one word carries a wealth of information and possibly sub-text.
It is the epitome of showing--using action to impart information.
There's plenty of telling later in the opening, but not in that sentence.
How pregnant is she? Pregnant women don't saunter very well. They usually lumber and waddle near the end.
Beth, I see what you're saying, and I could be wrong (happened once or twice before!) but I still say that a word with such a wealth of connotation/baggage forces a perception on the reader that is really "telling." In this case, because we have no other information about the character. You could call it a poor word choice, too; I'm just splitting hairs here.
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