Starting with “He woke up” is generally frowned upon as a start to a novel. Unless the fact of their waking up at all is of major significance, a character’s return to consciousness after a good (or otherwise) night’s sleep is not a particularly notable beginning to a story. Modern novelists are urged to start where the story starts. Sometimes the fact that you’ve started with a “He woke up” beginning isn’t easily apparent, as in this case.
Language: British English
Synopsis: Siggi is an ageing warrior who tries to preserve the last of her fighting years by stealing a legendary artifact destined for The Chosen One. The only problem: the artifact is buried in a mountain that warps time; the closer she gets, the quicker she ages.
Dawn coaxed soft colours out of a bruised sky, so that the new day would not hurt her sensitive eyes. A late autumn breeze sliced itself along frozen grass to bring her fragrances that had ripened for a full summer, so that she could not smell the rot festering beneath her fingernails. There was silence enough to hear the very pulse of this place, silence enough to drown out the small voice that lived at the end of her hearing, whispering that she was dying and too soon.
She found a smooth rock on the hillside, still coated with frost from the night before, and lay her palm against it. The cold touched everything but her fingertips.
Siggi pressed her palm harder against the rock, exciting the tremble that never quite left her fingers. There. Beneath the unyielding surface, a tremor that hummed through her hand. It was almost a song, wordless, and yet all the time chanting – at last.
Captain Gunfir’s deep voice carried over the dewy plains. “Ho! Is that it?”
She withdrew her hand from the rock. For a moment, her hand-print stood out on the stone, bone white against its black surface, before it faded like a memory.
“It’s close enough,” she said, eyeing him over her shoulder.
Gunfir’s heavy footfalls sent gravel skittering down before him. Too loud, Siggi thought.
“You’re up early,” she said, huddling her cloak tighter against the wind with one hand, resting the other on one of the two axes hitched to her belt.
“A captain always is.” His smile was as big as he was, a scab of teeth against bushy beard. “Besides, dreams like the ones you paint make it hard for a man to sleep.”
“And your men?” she asked. “Have they slept off their bruises?”
Gunfir laughed, oblivious to how he shattered the morning’s peace. “After the last ambush, hardly a man wanted to shut his eyes. Funny, how one man can be kept awake by dreams and another by nightmares. Ha!”
A murder of crows broke from the trees in the valley below, swirling into the sky like shadows loosed from the world. Though she only came up to his chest, Siggi stared up at the Captain until his smile eroded.
He feigned a cough. “They’ll be ready to march at your word.”
“It’s your word they march for Captain.”
“Aye but your promise of gold.”
One as useless as the other.
He swayed a little, like a half-drunk who thought he was sober, before he righted himself. Captain Gunfir was the only man in his company who indulged neither drink nor the mushroom that abounded here. His only vice was greed. It the only thing Siggi could bring herself to like about him.
She started back up the hillside, the frozen grass crunching beneath her hide-wrapped feet.
“For your men, the hard part has passed,” she said as he laboured to catch up. “I do not think the Guardians ever come this close to the doorway. Besides–” Still ahead of the Captain, she couldn’t find the strength to hide her sneer “– your men walk with the Chosen One. We’d have never survived the Guardians otherwise.”
“Some Guardians,” he said, half-chuckling, half-breathless. “I only lost four men for the ten we put down.”
Editorial comment: You mentioned in your notes that you’re wondering if you’re overdoing the stylistic elements of your writing, over the content. I’d agree with that summation, but in case that seems like a cheap shot, I’d try and justify the comment with a little more substance. I don’t think it’s the poetic flourishes that let this opening down particularly. I like the way you’ve used some of the more esoteric verbs: gravel ‘skitters’, she ‘huddles’ her cloak. Some phrases work really well, ‘like a half-drunk who thought he was sober’, others slightly less well, ‘like shadows loosed from the world’. The technical standard of writing is good, a little proofreading to do, “It [was] the only thing Siggi could bring…” and punctuation is a bit amiss in places.
But none of this is insurmountable. The problem I had, coming to this cold, was that by the end of these 500 words, or two pages, I feel like I’ve missed the exciting part – like I’ve arrived in the intermission. Yesterday there was some kind of conflict, an ambush. Captain Gunfir lost four of his mercenary company in this fight, and the rest of the men have been suffering nightmares since. Why did you choose to start the story after this fight, and not in the middle of it, or just before it?
Instead, we join the story at dawn the following day, with Siggi caressing a stone. This communing is a little complicated – we’re not really sure of any of the significance of any of the details you go into in some, well, detail: the rock is smooth, the cold doesn’t touch her fingertips (is she gangrenous?), the tremor/tremble is both in her hand and the stone, her hand leaves a white imprint in the frost, when you’d think it would leave a dark one. Captain Gunfir asks “Is that it?”, so we wonder is this the end of her quest, not the start of it?
The next 500 words, which I’ve omitted here, go on in much the same vein: the sights and sounds and even smells of their camp; banter between Siggi and the mercenaries; more inconclusive reflections on the stone. But there’s no real plot, no action, no real sense of progression, and the basic premise of the decaying main character isn’t explored definitively enough to stand out.
It seems harsh to reject this. It’s well-written with some nice touches. As I’ve said, the premise is interesting – certainly a different slant on the normal fantasy hero/heroine trope. This is not a young, good-looking, conventional heroine striding o’er the land in a Xena-warrior-princess style steel-plate bikini. But I think an agent would say, “shows promise, too slow a start”. If you were lucky they might also say, “tighten up the beginning, cut to where the story starts and resubmit”. The obvious solution would be to start with the fight, but if that’s too melodramatic, make it more obvious, more quickly, what the stakes for Siggi are. Get us worried for her. At the moment she seems to be entirely in control, apart from her rather smelly fingertips.
Thanks for posting.
This was fantastic! Thank you.
It feels good finally having the “style over substance” question answered so thoroughly, and interesting to see what an agent might think; even though my sights are set on self-pub somewhere down the line, I suppose a potential reader would have the same problems. Looking back, it’s not hard to see some similar problems creeping up in my other works. But, of course, the only way is up.
Again, thanks for giving me some real content to chew on in the next round of edits, and for the speedy response!