Fantasy novel revision: Introducing Horace

Here is a revision of the first couple pages of an early chapter in my book. It introduces Horace, the main character, as a child. He is an adult for most of the book, but here we see him when he  uses magic for the first time.

This revision is based on suggestions made by an editor I met with at the Manuscript Mart at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace.

If you want to learn more about Horace and the nature of his power, stay tuned 🙂

When Horace was five years old, he used magic for the first time. In his mind it wasn’t magic. It was just a wish that came true.

Horace and his brother Zain were walking home to their village of Stony Field. They had spent the day sitting beside the West Tower Road, near a spot where a nasty wheel rut was baked hard as stone by the summer sun. It was the only road that led out of their village, to the border town of West Tower. A few wagons made the journey between the towns every day.

When wagons struck that rut, their wooden frames groaned, their drivers cursed, and — if Horace and Zain were lucky — something good would shake free from the wagon load. The drivers never noticed. But Horace and Zain would scramble forward and scoop up whatever fell. Mama sent them out to beg and scrounge every day for whatever they could, and this rut was generous to them. Today they had collected two winter apples, a head of lettuce, a small loaf of hard, black bread, an onion, and a wooden mug. Six-year-old Zain carried their treasure in a patched linen sack slung over his shoulder.

There was one other prize that Horace had wrapped in a dirty rag and stuffed into his pocket. It was a handful of seeds.

“Mama will find out about the seeds,” Zain said. “Seeds go in the garden.”

“I want to feed the bird,” Horace said.

“She’ll hit you with her broom.”

“She won’t know.”

A house finch with a brilliant red neck had been perching on the scrap-wood fence that Mama and their older brothers and sisters had built around the family’s garden. Horace thought it was a beautiful bird, with its narrow brown body and the shock of raspberry-red feathers around its neck. Every morning it would land on the fence and whistle a couple notes. Horace waited for the bird to see its red feathers, but it didn’t stay long. It was searching for food. It was waiting for something good to grow in the garden. Horace knew birds liked seeds.

“Don’t get beat for a stupid bird, Horace.”

“I won’t!”

They walked in the tall grass that lined the West Tower Road. Stony Field was only a mile away, closer if they cut across the rocky field that gave the village its name. Horace had no shoes, so crossing the field was always hard on his feet. The stones left bruises if he wasn’t careful. Zain cut toward the field and Horace followed.

“I’ll race you,” Zain said.

“All right.”

As Horace sprang forward, Zain pushed him to the ground and sprinted away.

“Not fair!” Horace yelled. Horace was the youngest of his seven brothers and sisters, and the others were always pushing him around, including Zain. But Zain made a joke of it when he shoved Horace. They laughed about it together as brothers. Zain was the second smallest, so he knew it was hard to be the little one.

Horace got his hands and feet under himself and prepared to stand. He stopped. He had landed on an earthworm and crushed its middle. It was twisting back and forth trying to right itself, but its middle wouldn’t work.

Horace felt a desperate, guilty sadness as watched the worm struggle. It was dying and it was his fault.  Well, it was Zain’s fault, too. Zain had shoved him down. But Horace didn’t like the idea of something dying because of him. Stony Field had already had its share of dying. So many of the men had gone off to fight in the emperor’s war. They marched away and they didn’t come home. Horace’s father was one of them, but Horace didn’t remember him. He was only a baby when their father marched to war.

Horace watched the worm struggle in the stony earth and wondered if a worm could feel pain. He touched its crushed middle with the tips of his fingers. It was cold and moist. The worm just twisted and twisted. Horace closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, little worm. I’m sorry I landed on you.”

He imagined the worm all better. He wished he had never hurt it. The thought made him dizzy. Then the dizziness passed and he felt tired. He opened his eyes and shook his head to clear it. He didn’t want to fall asleep in the field. Mama would be mad.
He looked down at the worm. It was whole again. It crawled away.

“Oh,” Horace said. “Isn’t that lucky?”

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Novel Revision: Page One

This is the first page of the novel I’ve been working on. It’s a fantasy novel set in a secondary world analogous to Medieval Europe (no points for originality).

Anyway, I’m in the midst of heavy revision of the 95,000 words I have written so far. I’m drafting a new outline based on feedback I’ve received from an editor and an agent.  Here’s page one. I’m trying to balance character and setting on this first page. Villiard is one of three protagonists Some might argue that I should spend more time on him and less on the setting in these first paragraphs, but I want to pull the reader into my world. And the city where the book takes place is very much a character in its own right. 

Let me know what you think, if this this is working or not.

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was born, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel where fish leapt from the water and ducks swam with the current. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains that marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish at the headwaters were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city, of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Downstream from its headwaters, the River Weiss carved through its valley, the Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket. The river watered crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where Villiard had grown up.

As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, the river was throttled by the Vaydeenum. Here in this city where Villiard now lived, the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood. He could could smell the rotten stink of the Weiss choking to death on the foulness Vaydeenum. He saw rotten, dead things float by, and he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart. Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After a long day of working in fields he had drunk from it. He had led herds of sheep to it for watering. But here the city had changed the river, and it had changed him.

Vaydeenum was a provincial capital of the empire, its central citadel visible for miles. It had sprung up as a trading town millennia ago around a ford. Over the centuries as it grew, the city had pressed against the banks of the Weiss, dirtying its waters and choking the life out of it. Vaydeenum was a muddy, dusty, sprawling miasma of stone and brick, winding streets, trade and power. As the river ran through its heart, past tanneries and sewers and slaughterhouses, the water congealed into a fetid sludge.

Like all rivers, the Weiss escaped the city that abused it. It flowed south into the coastal plain, where it forked and forked again into a wide delta that spanned for dozens of miles until its urban putridity emptied into the Ashen Sea, where the water would be redeemed in the salt and the sun.

No one could catalog all of the foul contributions that Vaydeenum made to the River Weiss, but some people specialized in tracking very specific adulterations, including Villiard. There were people who trawled the Weiss for its contents. The remains of wrecked riverboats could be salvaged for wood and nails. Orphans and urchins would swim in the stinking mire for half-rotten fruit that had fallen from boats. And then there were the bodies. The body’s were Villiard’s business.

Muse & the Marketplace takeaway: Novel revision time

So I went to my first Muse and the Marketplace, the annual writing conference held in Boston by the wonderful nonprofit Grub Street. This was a big event for me because I had signed up for the show’s Manuscript Mart. The Mart is a unique feature of the conference where writers can sign up for meetings with literary agents and book editors who have donated their time. The agents and editors will read 20 pages of your manuscript and a synopsis ahead of the show and then sit down with you for 20 minutes.

I signed up for a meeting with an agent and an editor at a major press and sent them the first 20 pages of the fantasy novel I’ve been writing since December (95,000 words written so far).

The meetings happened yesterday, and they were productive but painful. Long story short, although I have good ideas, my synopsis revealed some holes. I need to re-plot the book. I also need to rethink my character arcs. My beta readers love my characters and other aspects of my writing, but this editor and this agent saw past that. They wanted to see more depth. They wanted my characters to have more at stake.

Bottom line, a character can be well-rounded and interesting, but that’s not enough. They must have a wound that drives them. They should be striving to regain something they lost. Or they should be seeking to right a wrong that was done to them. They should be trying to restore order in their lives after something has upended everything.

I thought I was doing these things with my characters, but it’s clear to me that I need to do more. I need to raise the stakes.

For a few minutes I came away from these meetings discouraged, but as I drank a beer with a bunch of other writers (including my mom), all I wanted to do was go home and write. I had the urge to revise.

The manuscript I have was only 75% done, but I’m not going to finish it. Not yet. I’m going back to the beginning. I’m going to rip pages a part and revise. I can’t go any further into this book until I’ve gotten the first few acts just write. I need to make sure I have a good story before I finish it. I’ve spent a few hours on it so far. The first chapter is gone. Important elements of it have been integrated into subsequent chapters.

I’m also digging deeper into the inner lives of my characters, seeking out their pain and disappointment, they hopes and dreams. I’m going to pull it all out of them and make them desperate to push my plot forward.

Here’s how the book starts now:

A city can do horrible things to a river.

Villiard Lopin walked along the bank of the River Weiss, and he could see and smell the depredation. Hundreds of miles to the north, where Villiard was from, the Weiss was a wide, green-blue channel swollen with life. As a boy he had traveled to its icy headwaters at the foot of the Routeau Mountains,  which marked the northern edge of the Helmonic Empire. The fish that far north were fat and fresh and delicious. Here in the city of Vaydeenum, fish that knew no better to stay upriver bellied up and floated with the current.

Villiard knew the river well. Downstream from its headwaters, it carved through the great Weiss Valley, the empire’s breadbasket, watering crops that fed tens of thousands of people. It flowed past villages and baronies, abandoned castles and ancient monasteries. It flowed past Five Oaks, the town where he had grown up. As the valley gave way to the great coastal plain of the Ashen Sea, it was throttled by  Vaydeenum. Here in this city the Weiss was not the river that he remembered from his countryside boyhood.

He could could smell the rotten stink of river choking to death on the foulness of the city that he now called home. As he saw the rotten, dead things float by, he longed for Five Oaks. He had left so much behind to come to this city in search of a fortune to replace the one his ancestors lost. But to see this river so abused and debased twisted at his heart.

Hundreds of miles to the north the Weiss was still the river he swam in as a child. After long days of working in fields he had drunk from the Weiss.  He led herds of sheep to the river to water them. But this city had changed the river, and it had changed him.