First-Page Critique: The Fantasy Strategy

By Mark Alpert

Today we have a real treat, the first page of a fantasy novel submitted by a talented, anonymous TKZ contributor. Take a look:

Title: The Boy, the Girl and Dark Mother

He hates it when his eye pops out.

He especially hates it when it happens while he’s flying high in the sky. Oh why is he the only crow born with one, stupid, bulging eye? It pops out at the most inconvenient times, like now, while he is scouting for the Dragon Queen.

He dive-bombs down and catches the falling pupil just in time. He shoves it back in its socket. That’s when he sees below what he has been looking for.

A village.

“Oh good,” he squawks. “This town has a lot of children. Dark Mother will be able to find the boy and kill him easy.” He gathers up his old wings and flaps off to where he came from. “Hey, guys. Over here.”

Down below lays the small village of Wild Plum, innocence lying in wait.

Rooster, a big man on the verge of a double chin, scarred from years of battle, steps out on the landing of his tavern. He holds a flask, his fingers bent from seasons with a sword, a sword he never wants to torch up again. Above him, the faded sign ‘Lion’s Head Inn’ dangles in the breeze. A plump woman with a cane sways out, bottle in hand, eyelids
butterflying his way. “Come back in. I’ve got more to share.”

“I’m getting the ‘Rattle’ feeling. Guts are churning. Don’t know why they’re serving up fire. Once I figure it out what’s wrong, I’ll feel better.”

“We’re having a good time. Let go of yourself. Come in. It’s been a year since—”

“Go away.”

She purses up her lower lip. Sighing, she pours some Tangleweed into his flask, looks up and smiles. At getting no response, she swings back in, her too wide hips hitting the doorframe.

Rooster takes a deep draft of his drink. He watches the market before him, waiting to see if the warrior is going to spark back into his eyes.

Children are playing. Adults are abuzz with activity as well, but more to stay alive than anything else, bartering over homegrown products of leather saddles, belts and candles.

A girl with fiery red hair peeks out. “You upset Franchilla. She wants to be with you.”

“Nobody can help,” he says.

“What is this ‘Rattle’ feeling?”

“Worry about customers. Leave me alone.”

—————–

Fantasy is one of my favorite genres. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, and those books had an enormous influence on me. I spent hours poring over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. I read everything else he wrote, including the unfinished Silmarillion. I even memorized the poems he wrote in his made-up languages. I blame Tolkien for the fact that I had no girlfriends in high school. Seriously, I was obsessed.

But when I tried reading other fantasy authors, I was sorely disappointed. I discovered that the quality of fantasy writing, at least circa 1977, was inconsistent and often downright terrible. So I stayed away from the genre for the next two decades and didn’t embrace it again until the advent of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.

Perhaps the most important decision for a fantasy writer is figuring out how to introduce the book’s fantastical world. One popular strategy is to start the novel in the ordinary world, and then have the characters discover some kind of portal to the fantasy world. Examples of books that use this strategy are C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in which the Pevensie children enter the magical land through a wardrobe, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in which Quentin Coldwater discovers a hidden entrance to the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The first Harry Potter book follows the same strategy; it begins with Harry’s miserable life with his adoptive Muggle family, the Dursleys, before launching into his adventures at Hogwarts.

The contrasting strategy is to simply drop the reader into the fantasy world right from the beginning. That’s what Tolkien did in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, starting each book in the Shire, the most peaceful and bucolic region of Middle Earth. Philip Pullman did something similar in The Golden Compass, as did George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones. And today’s first-page submission adopts the same approach, beginning the narrative with a talking crow. (For some reason, it reminded me of the goofy buzzard in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. You know the one I’m talking about? After Bugs asked the bird, “What’s up, Doc?” the slow-witted buzzard sang, “My mama done told me to bring home something for dinner.” Look at the picture above to jog your cartoon memories.)

I love that first sentence: “He hates it when his eye pops out.” How could anyone resist reading further? And I also love how the scene suddenly shifts to the village below and the big, battle-scarred man stepping out of the tavern. There’s an excellent economy of language in these paragraphs, which have very few wasted words. And I adore the expression “eyelids butterflying his way.” The invented names are also great (Tangleweed for the drink, Franchilla for the plump woman).

I have a few quibbles with this submission: you can’t write “down below lays the small village.” The proper verb is “lies,” although the author might want to replace the word with “is” instead, to avoid repetition later in the sentence, which ends with the phrase “lying in wait.” Also, I think the “up” in “purses up” is unnecessary. More important, I don’t like the title of the book; “Dark Mother” alone would be better.

All in all, though, I get the sense that we’re in the hands of a confident, inventive writer who’s not afraid to take risks and have some fun. I would definitely keep reading. In fact, I’d love to see more.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

12 thoughts on “First-Page Critique: The Fantasy Strategy

  1. I loved this, too. The voice, the action, the colorful wording, it held my interest without one hiccup. Fantasy isn’t my preferred genre, but I would definitely turn the page. Well done, Anon!

  2. “flaps off to where he came from” => “flaps off whence he came” would be smoother but I recall recent negativity toward “whence.” So a different approach to the phrase would be better.

    Promising opening. We’ve got an apparently strong villain, a hero if he can recover the fire, and a clear conflict.

    Some nit-picks:

    I’m confused–does the whole eye fall out? He only catches the pupil, which is really not a separate part of the eye at all. In any case I hope this problematic eye plays a role in the story and isn’t just a gimmick.

    “Hey, guys. Over here.” Unclear. I thought he was returning to report to the Dark Mother. Is he instead calling other crows for further recon?

    “to see if the warrior is going to spark back into his eyes.” Is he looking in a mirror? He’s not going to “see” the spark in his own eyes. But easy to fix.

  3. I liked the opening line, too. But I’m puzzled after that. (I’m not usually a fantasy reader, so I may be missing something). Anyway…

    The way it’s written, this crow only has one eye. So if it pops out, how can he find it?

    How does he “catch” it? With wing or claw? How does he “pop” it back in? How does he grip it? Is any of this even anatomically possible?

    Then we get a jarring POV switch, to Rooster. Then another POV switch, to the plump woman, then back to Rooster.

    We’ve lost the crow completely.

    I’d like to see this re-written from the crow’s POV only.

    • Thank-you Mr James,
      Here are my changes.

      He hates it when his eye pops out.
      He especially hates it when it happens while he’s flying high in the sky. Oh why is he the only crow born this way? He pecked the comb-over hair off the stupid Glassmaker who put the stupid eye together for him. “It’s too big, ya dumb warthog.” He said. On top of that, it pops out at the most inconvenient times, like now, while he is scouting for the Dark Mother.
      He dive-bombs and catches the falling pupil just in time. With his limber wing he shoves it back in its socket. That’s when he sees below what he has been looking for.
      A village.
      “Oh good” he squawks. “This town has a lot of children. The Dragon Queen will be able to find the boy and kill him easy.” He gathers up his old wings and flaps off to where he came from. “Hey, boss lady. Over here.”
      Down below is the small village of Wild Plum, innocence lying in wait.

      *****

      Rooster, a big man on the verge of a double chin, scared from years of battle, steps out on the landing of his tavern. He holds a flask, his fingers bent from seasons with a sword, a sword he never wants to torch up again. Above him, the faded sign ‘Lion’s Head Inn’, dangles in the breeze. A plump woman with a cane sways out, bottle in hand, eyelids butterflying his way. “Come back in. I’ve got more to share.”

  4. I’ve never been a fantasy fan, even in childhood, but I did read and enjoy the first couple Harry Potters. That said, I got a kick out of this. Love the confident voice and for once, didn’t even mind the POV switch from crow to man. Because I am not well-read in this genre, I can’t judge if this is fresh enough to find a place in today’s market, but I would read on…or better yet, read it to a little friend. (Who, I suspect, would love the fact an eyeball falls out).

  5. This is a fine opening, ripe with suggestion and fun, like this line: “He holds a flask, his fingers bent from seasons with a sword, a sword he never wants to torch up again.” Flaming swords! That’s cool and offhandedly introduced in a way that makes me believe it all the more. I can’t wait for the first fight scene!

    Mark makes a great point about the different ways to introduce a fantasy world. The just-get-on-with-it camp has two factions, wide-angle and close-up. Ursula Le Guin, recently passed, was expert in the wide-angle view. Her book A Wizard of Earthsea opens thus: “The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.” A lovely, gentle opening. Put the kettle on and curl up by the fire, dear reader: a cozy tale commences.

    The close-up approach, gaining favor in newer writing, is masterfully exploited by writers like Joe Abercrombie. Here are the first lines of The Blade Itself: “The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird.” After this, dear reader, you won’t come up for air until longer after the kettle’s boiled dry and the fire gone out.

    Today’s writer opts for the close-up, yet mishandles it by rushing. The fantasy world is new to the reader, and a little time is needed for bearing-getting. I would sit happily on the shoulder of the talking magical crow longer, at least long enough to figure out some more about the bulging eye. It’s a birth defect, we’re told, and so by definition a natural part of him, yet it’s also completely detachable (the orb drops to earth like a stone, no optic nerve or muscle to dangle by). Without more information to go on, the business simply doesn’t sound plausible – unless the “birth defect” refers to something else? How much magic is going on here? Is he a shape-shifting creature with a bodily quirk? (Q: how many shape-shifters with a disability have been written? Not many, I think. Opportunity there?)

    As Scott finds, the mechanics of snatching the eyeball out of the air and popping it back in bothers me. I wonder what sort of anatomy the “crow” really has – hands, maybe, or preternaturally clever feet? Is this n

    I think the writer has a good story to tell. The style is confident and enjoyable. Just slow down a little.

  6. I was rather confused reading this the first time. Is the crow witnessing Rooster and he can hear what is being said between Rooster and the woman?

    Upon second reading, no, it appears to be two different scenes, the crow flying and Rooster. If that is the case there needs to be some break to let the reader know that. (granted it could just be missing from the formatting on this site).

    I think the writer needs to spend a bit more time with the crow and its mission.

    “Oh good,” he squawks. “This town has a lot of children. Dark Mother will be able to find the boy and kill him easy.”
    For me, as it is written, it seems the more children there are the easier it will be to find a specific one.
    Is this a typo or a mistake? If it is intentional, I hope the writer gives an explanation for it soon in the story.

  7. I read fantasy and it’s the genre I write in. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in it–I’m don’t call myself an expert in anything–but it’s the genre I know most about.

    It’s common in fantasy to start in the omniscient POV. Usually it’s a wide angle of they scene, show some action before zomming on the main character. In this case, we have a very intimate POV with the crow and then we get the wide angle shot.

    This may work, but it depends on your audience, brave writer. If this is a book for children, elementary school/middle school, then the talking crow does not need more explanation. But if it’s for high schoolers and up, the talking crow’s POV either needs to be eliminated, or it needs to be a lot more intense.

    Other than that, I though the writing was good, the details showing, and I’d want to spend more time in this world. Perhaps a few dialogue tags and some hand gestures, as well.

  8. I’m late to the party, brave writer, but here are my comments:

    1. How does the crow see the eyeball that falls out in order to catch it?

    2. There are POV shifts in this snippet. I don’t like more than one POV per scene, although some established authors use the baton passmethod for POV changes effectively.

    3. I don’t like a lot of repeated words and phrases, particularly on the first page.
    For example, “back in” is used three times:

    He shoves it back in its socket
    she swings back in
    Come back in

    4. Some sentences don’t make sense:
    “Once I figure it out what’s wrong, I’ll feel better.”

    Lose the word “it.”

    5. Too many characters are introduced on the first page:

    One-eyed crow
    Dragon Queen
    Dark Mother
    Boy
    Rooster
    Plump Woman
    Red-haired girl
    Franchilla

    6. The characters all sound like the author.

    This sample is very confusing as written. If the one-eyed crow is the protagonist, keep the first scene in his POV. Crow also needs some conflict. Dropping his eye isn’t enough since he catches it right away and then spots the village immediately.

    Hmmm…I’ve never read anything quite like this before. Best of luck, and keep writing!

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