This novel is currently shortlisted for the 2018 “Wattys”, the annual writing awards on Wattpad, and riding high in its categories. We at The Opening Lines wish it all the best of luck in the awards. The killer question; is the opening of this book up to professional standards?
Title: En garde, Milady
Language: US English
Synopsis: The Marquess of Greystone owns a shipping line, has fought pirates and tolerates his aunt’s meddling desire to see him wed. He seeks an original who will love adventure. Gabriella, in all her stubborn, outspoken beauty, will prove few can compare with her. One dance with sabers proves her claim.
Text: The sound of steel clashing against steel resounded throughout the room as the two opponents dueled as if fighting for their very lives. Their metal blades caught the sunlight streaming through the large windows and cast flashes of light against objects for mere seconds.
At first glance, one may think the tall opponent dressed in black leather would easily conquer his smaller opponent dressed in white. But each counterattack was swift with strategic measures.
Their feet danced for better positioning and carried them across the floor with one arm wielding the blade and the other used for balance. Neither made a sound other than an occasional grunt of effort. Sweat rolled down their temples and burned eyes but their concentration never wavered.
The dark clad opponent swung his blade down towards the shoulder of the swift-moving rival. As if it had not been swung with speed, the shaft of that sword was caught with a long dagger with a curved handle and swept down. In syncopated timing, the duelist in white swiped their sword against the opponent’s ankle barely missing the calf. The leather of the boot prevented injury leaving them both dancing back to once again circle with swords outstretched.
The dance of blades continued as they fought for domination. The tall opponent once again advanced using great strength with a downward hammering attack to overpower the shorter contender. But such effort quickly drained their strength, while defending such a pounding, tires the arms.
Once the one clad in black slowed such pounding blows, his opponent took advantage. The sword that had blocked the attack, caught his blade and swept it down while the dagger came across the leather-clad leg. A quick step back and the sword slashed across the gut. The strike would only kill if deep enough. Prepared to end it, the position was taken to bring the opponent down with the dagger across the neck… but the loser in black threw his sword down and raised his hands.
The winner in angelic white reached up and pulled the face guard free. Long dark hair, damp from the duel, fell free of the hairpins to swing across her shoulders down to her hips. She was barely panting. Yet, he bent to rest his stiff arms against his knees as he gasped for breath. If they had not been using blunted steel blades and thick chest pads, his injuries would have been serious.
“An excellent bout, Sir Rosenthal. You almost had me that time.” Gabriella Barrington, the daughter of Baron Staffordshire, stepped forward offering her hand. He took her gloved fingers and bowed over them.
“You flatter me. Your speed with the blade continues to increase. I fear you have surpassed your teacher. You are in need of a fresh partner.” He followed her across the room to an elaborate cabinet used for fencing equipment.
“I enjoy our practice. Few can compete with you.” She opened the cabinet doors and slid her foil into a slot which held a variety of swords. “I believe you scored twice today.”
He stepped beside her and placed his foil inside. “Shall we work with your saber on the morrow? I have recently purchased one I would enjoy testing.”
Her eyes rose from unlacing her chest pad. “Certainly. I would enjoy it. You are the only partner I have that chances using sabers with me.”
“It’s understandable.” He pulled his padding over his head and hooked it onto a peg in the cabinet then reached out to take hers. “The bout could be dangerous with your speed. I will need to be in top form. This eve I will find my bed early.”
She wagged a finger at him. “I am not so clumsy. My brothers keep me in top form.” She slipped her gloves off and set them on a shelf.
“Where are they this morning? Have they grown bored with my skill?”
“Father called them into his study this morning. Which reminds me, he will wish to speak with you before you leave. I would wager he wishes to hear of our bout.” Gabby walked with him towards the door.
He bent at the waist with a smile and a nod. “Till the morrow.” He went to leave the ballroom barely missing being hit by the young boys who raced inside.
They froze after one frown from their sister. The eldest pushed his brother down by his shoulder to bow while he murmured, “Sorry, Sir Knight.”
He gave a slight nod and continued on his way with a smile the boys failed to see.
“We want to practice now,” Philip told her.
Derrick ignored his younger brother and asked, “Who won the exercise?”
“Does that matter? My speed continues to increase. If you wish to practice your skills and learn more, shall we first change clothes?” She waited for their answers but instead watched as they dashed from the room to prepare.
Long ago she learned how to gain cooperation from her brothers and maintain their interest. Males had little endurance for boredom, but so did she. Competition stirred the blood and sharpened skill as well as confidence when performed well.
To train her brothers in the technique of sword fighting, they dressed in costume to create the illusion of fun when in fact she drilled them in form, technique, and mental concentration. They found the idea of being pirates the most fun. The challenge was besting her.
She went to her room and changed into her own costume. On the way back to the ballroom, she saw the butler approaching. His continence didn’t bode well. Nor did the fact that her time with her brothers was seldom interrupted.
“Will they believe you if I’m not found?” she asked him.
“I’m sorry, Mistress. Your parents await you in your father’s study.”
Editorial comment: Notwithstanding the success this book is having at the moment on Wattpad, I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit of a party-pooper and say that this opening needs a bit of work to get to a publishable standard.
My first gripe is that the first 400-odd words, or eight paragraphs, are written in a kind of distant, omniscient narrator mode. We are pure spectators. We’re not invested in the fight. We don’t care who wins, really, because we don’t know who’s fighting, which means that we’re not involved in the fight. (There’s also a bit of a rather clichéd black vs white thing going on, and guess which color wins, but we’ll ignore that for now.) Because we don’t know who the participants are, you’re also suffering from the side effect of having to use some rather awkward means of notifying who exactly is doing what to whom, “the taller one”, “the shorter contender”, “the dark clad one”. How much easier would it be if we knew who was fighting? And how much more involved in the fight would we be if we were one of the fighters, rather than some dispassionate observer watching from somewhere near the ceiling?
I’ll give you a challenge. Why not, as an exercise, rewrite the opening to this scene from the point of view (PoV) of Gabriella? It could start: “She blinked. The sun streaming in at the tall windows caught the pommel of his blade and dazzled her, for a split second. He sensed it instantly and sprang forward, using his height and longer reach, stabbing directly for her throat. She parried, ducked, wheeled away. He was taller, and heavier, but she was quicker, lighter on her feet. And he was beginning to sweat. It was a matter of time. As long as she kept him dancing …” and so on. This is from her PoV. We are now not mere observers of the fight. We are taking part in it, and we are suddenly party to the thoughts of Gabriella as she ducks and weaves and out-thinks her opponent. This is all going to bring us much closer to Gabriella, much more quickly. We are going to understand who she is, what her thought processes are, what her ambitions and goals are, and we’re hearing it from her, not from some off-screen narrator telling us who she is and what she’s thinking about. If she’s the heroine, then the sooner you get us close to her the better, and within the first page is best of all. If you try this exercise, I’m fairly confident that you’ll find that you like the result a lot better yourself, never mind what anyone else thinks.
Once the dialogue starts the scene is much better. There are a few copy-editing issues I’d mention:
I’m not sure that sunlight would flash off foils (which is what they appear to be fencing with). In my limited experience foils are square and dull and extremely slight. Fencing with foils is also all about contact with the point (the end of the foil), not the edge of the blade. The issue is that a foil fencer wouldn’t be trying to beat their opponent into submission with “pounding blows”. It’s a stabbing/thrusting contest rather than a chopping/hacking one. I’m also intrigued as to what code of fencing they’re fighting under. If this is historical romance, rather than fantasy, then your duelists need to fight by a recognized code. I’m not aware of any that use daggers as a secondary weapon. I’m no expert, and you could probably get away with it, but some Amazon reviewer of the future might well pop up and start taking you to task if you haven’t got your facts straight.
One last comment as a bit of light relief. I hope it’s not the butler’s “continence” that’s at issue as he approaches Gabriella. I rather hope it’s his “countenance”, otherwise we might be calling for the housekeeper, and a mop.
Best of luck with the Wattys awards. From the info you gave me this is not a final draft, so it doesn’t matter too much that it’s not really publishable as it stands. The Wattys judges have the benefit of the entire MS (or at least, what you’ve posted on Wattpad) to judge your work, not just the first four or five pages. When you get to the publishing stage however, be it chasing agents or self-publishing, those first four or five pages can make all the difference.
Thanks for posting!