How NOT to open a novel

This post has become a kind of personal record for how much my writing has evolved, particularly in the opening of the novel. Read early versions at your own risk (and, perhaps, be amazed at much drafts can change.)

October 2016 Opening Scene (600 words)
– Originally, this was a YA fantasy about sibling rivalry. An outcast girl and her “paragon” brother are very close, until said girl becomes as good as him, and jealousy drives them apart. The title for this novel was “Place of No Sky.” Please forgive the absolutely awful writing. That, first and foremost, was the problem with this opener.

October 2017 Opening Scene (1000 words)
– Novel has now been renamed “The Origin of Sight” and is borderline ya/adult fantasy with strong dystopian elements and a plot that wouldn’t look amiss as a Hunger Games spin-off, but with magic aliens. The characters have been aged up, the plot now centers around philosophy and social commentary, and I’ve started to find my voice.

However, note that it takes a long time to get to the inciting incident; too long for most agents. My first 5 pages have almost no conflict, no character connections, and no sense of purpose. The encounter is literally random.

October 2018 Opening Scene (400 words)
– I’m returning to Origin after a 10 month break, having officially trunked it in December 2017. Since then I’ve written a contemporary fantasy novel, first person PT and very narrow scope, with a heavy emphasis on the emotional. I’m hoping to use what I’ve learned to redraft Origin and build better character connection + immediate conflict.

The opening here is a scrap and redo because I’ve changed the inciting event from random fight to “purposeful” escape, and tried to stuff it with interiority from the characters, as most people struggled to connect with Nefral. I’ve also slowed the overall novel down, to give more space to worldbuild in subtler, gentler ways.

It’s not perfect, but it is getting better. I look forward to updating this post next year, and seeing how this novel has yet again evolved.

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October 2016 Opening Scene

On the island of Fallen Bells, a boy was dying – and a girl was killing him.

The boy lay with his limbs outstretched, a look of pained astonishment on his features. His chest was deeply scored and bleeding profusely, and his right hand was severed at the wrist. He was otherwise unharmed, and should not have been at death’s shore. Yet the skin of his face was pale and drawn, the flesh of his body stiff with cold. A thick layer of frost had formed around the mouth and eyes.

As for the girl, she knelt on his chest, barelegged and filthy, with both fists jammed so hard against his sternum that she had pulped the skin until his bones were visible. And still she pressed down, as if trying to crush his hearts with her mere hands, pushing through flesh and blood and cartilage with the strength that comes only through anger.

She made no sound; her lips were set in a line, jaw clenched and eyes wide. Untamed, tawny hair stood up from her scalp, part-shaven on one side and cropped short on the other. Her yellow irises were wild and bloodshot.The dying boy coughed weakly, opalescent eyes rolling in supplication up at the two magisters who stood frozen in indecision, not four paces away.

The taller magister peered at him through the holes in her red mask with something akin to compassion, but she did not move forward – not yet.Stood halfway between the magisters and the fighting children, crouched a second young girl. This one was a small, sleek creature. Her colouring and wiry hair spoke of raven heritage, and the skin around her eyes was very dark.

“Nefrál!” she cried out, and dashed forward.

But even as the hybrid moved towards them, the red-masked magister reached out and wrenched her to a stop. She was fiercely strong, despite her gaunt frame. “Keep back, lowly,” she said. “Do not touch her, or Amur will die.”

“But–!”

“He will live, if Master Sarieu does as he is bid,” said the magistra, gesturing to her companion. To the lowly, she added, “Pull yourself together, and go get help!”

The young hybrid flushed, but turned and ran back up the path, away from the beach, her voice ringing out ahead of her.

To her companion, the magister said, “Handle this, Master Sarieu – her!”

“Don’t give me orders,” said Master Sarieu. But he still circled the girl called Nefrál, removed his gloves, and laid a single hand upon her exposed shoulder.

At his touch, Nefrál suddenly cried out for the first time, jerking up and backwards, partially on her feet. But Master Sarieu retained his steady grip, pale fingers hooked under her collar bones. For a moment she stood arched backwards and balancing on her heels, him grimly supporting her – and then her knees folded, and she fell, wailing and screaming.On the ground, Amur gasped a ragged breath and sputtered out blue blood.

“The ocean, the ocean!” said Mistra Fen, between clenched teeth.

Master Sarieu did not need to be told. Even as she fell, he picked her up under the jaw with both hands, and carried her as he splashed through the roiling surf. When he was nearly waist-deep in the ocean, he threw her in and held her under with one pale hand around her neck, and the other across her face. She kicked, but had no strength; she fought, but was calmly defeated. He continued to hold her down for the full ten minutes, and stirred not an inch as wave after wave of near-freezing water broke across his back.

[I’m going to stop there because I can’t bear to inflict any more on anyone. BACK TO THE TOP!]

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October 2017 Opening Scene

I. Individuals of a society are not born equal.

II. If individuals are not equal, then to treat them with equality is to inflict on them an injustice.

III. If imposing equality on individuals is unjust, then any society founded on the principles of equality must be an unjust society.

IV. Therefore, a just society must be an unequal society.

— from ‘The Pillars of Law’

#

On the island of Fallen Bells where no birds ever land, Nefrál drifted through the boiling rain along a barren stretch of beach.

Most Calaani spent rainrise standing together in companionable silence. Nefrál preferred to walk alone, often backwards, to watch her footprints fill with water. She hunted for white seashells, but found only blue—and contemplated whether there would be a beach of any kind when she went to her exile, in less than a year’s time.

The downpour limned every flawed feature: hands too large for elegance, shoulders too narrow for strength, and skin the colour of wet sand. She had neither the pearlescent eyes nor cerulean complexion for which the Calaani were known, bearing instead all the hallmarks of an anomaly. Sometimes her appearance still bothered her, but on the whole Nefrál had found it easier to change her feelings than her skin.

When rainrise finished, Nefrál wrung out her tattered clothes, gave her damp hair a shake, and ran with clumsy feet to the drudges’ shelter where she lived, having no place among her own kind. The metallic dome sat halfway between shore and cliff-side, windowless and brightly painted in uneven shades of red. The drudges spilled out of the shelter to attend their daily jobs, now that the rain—so deadly to them—had cleared off.

Nefrál stepped between the rush of grey-clad figures to look for Mythala, who she found by following the sound of arguing. Three other drudges, umber-skinned in contrast to Mythala’s dark-green hues, arraigned in a semi circle. One of them shouted a stream of words. The heated discussion stopped as Nefrál approached; angry eyes dropped earthwards, and they slunk off. Anomaly or not, Nefrál was still Calaani. Sort of.

“Problem?” She glanced at the retreating figures.

“Na.” Mythala’s own glower dissipated into a crooked grin. Her scarlet crest of feathers flattened, resting against dark hair. “Just Learim and his louts, pickin’ a row with me. Like ever. Y’ scared ’em off.”

“I won’t always be here,” Nefrál said. Her exile was something she thought about a lot these days. “Learim will be, though. For at least as long as you.”

“Well, y’ here right now, and he’s not,” Mythala said, with her usual practicality. “Where we off to, anyways?”

Nefrál didn’t have anywhere to go, and exploration had lost its allure with age and familiarity on an island so small. But she and Mythala went anyway, veering off from the shelter to clamber along the northern shoreline, amidst the lichen and seagrass which grew rife. Midway round the eastern side, the curving line of the coast became ragged, jutting forth at odd angles. When the tide was high, there was no beach at all, only the ocean breaking against sheer cliffs. The tide was rising now. Mythala stood on the thin scrap of shore to keep her feet dry, gazing south, while Nefrál hunted for starfish and crabs among the shallow waves.

A Calaani youth ran round the curve of jutting cliff, who Nefrál knew vaguely by sight. Amur was alone and bare to the waist, a sheen of sweat on dark blue skin, and a multitude of dark braids tied back from his face.

Nefrál didn’t see him in time, and he didn’t see her at all.  They collided hard. Amur fell into the brine; she fell against the cliff-face, knocking her head. A spot of darkness grew in her vision and then—

She is in a strange room with bland walls, restraints on each limb. A light is above her head, so bright she can see little else. Amur moves into her field of view.It is not the Amur she is familiar with, though. He is far older, fully grown and then some. He wears neither a magister’s kiton nor a youth’s leso wrap, but a stiff white tunic, and a mask covering his mouth. Other figures come, to help hold her down. She wants to flee, so snarls and snaps, roused to fury. Amur lifts a scalpel, and presses it to her neck—

As swiftly as it had come, the brief dream faded. Blackness faded, her normal sight returning.

“Godhells! Watch it, will you? Sodding fráls and featherheads!”

Amur’s voice cut through the haze in front of her eyes. Nefrál shook her head to clear it.

Mythala muttered, “Weren’t us who didna pay attention!”

Amur backhanded her across the face. To Nefrál, the blow would have been little more than a stinging rebuke, rude but bearable. Mythala, though, was no Calaani. At barely five feet tall to Amur’s seven, his strike knocked her down hard. She glared up at him, cheek already bruising and top lip split.

They should have left. Retaliation would only make things worse. But the waking dream, or whatever it had been, still rang in Nefrál’s head. The memory of Amur hurting her in the dream melded with Amur striking Mythala in the present, and rolled into a single tangled skein of resentment. Nefrál stepped between them. Courage she was not well acquainted with, but anger was a willing substitute, drowning out both fear and sense.

 “You shouldn’t hit the drudges,” she said. Anomaly or not, she matched his height.

Amur scowled at her. “Get drowned.”

Nefrál punched him. His head snapped back. She went for him again, but this time Amur anticipated her strike. He attuned, his form blurring, and Nefrál knew she was about to lose. A heavy blue fist swung towards her face, and she moved instinctively to block it. Her hand closed around his wrist, and for a strangely drawn-out moment she felt the twin beat of his pulse beneath skin.

[This is running a bit long, so we’ll stop here. See how long it took me to get anywhere with the text? BACK TO THE TOP!]

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October 2018 Opening Scene

I. Individuals of a society are not born equal.

II. If individuals are not equal, then to treat them with equality is to inflict on them an injustice.

III. If imposing equality on individuals is unjust, then any society founded on the principles of equality must be an unjust society.

IV. Therefore, a just society must be an unequal society.

— from ‘The Pillars of Law’

#

On the island of Fallen Bells where no birds ever land, Nefrál stumbled through the boiling rain along a barren stretch of beach. Time was her enemy and her feet itched to sprint. But running would risk drawing unwanted attention, so she counted a breath between every step and kept her eyes trained on the shore ahead.

Rainrise lashed the salt-raw tide, birthing clouds of steam. To her left, sheer cliffs loomed forty feet above. Glimpsed from other islands, the crags of Fallen Bells resembled an uneven row of bottom teeth; the discarded jaw of some long-dead god, perhaps. To her right, the North Sea surged in fretful waves.

The tide was rising, and most of the beach would be underwater by mid-morning. That seemed wrong; Nefrál was sure they needed the high tide now. Had they misjudged the timing of their escape? Maybe it didn’t matter. They only needed to reach the southward currents.

Farther up the beach, shrouded in a haze of steam, three young women had gathered on the rocks with arms and faces uplifted. One cobalt-toned, one violet, and one alabaster blue; all three with long, dark hair bound carefully into braids. All of them basking in the heat.

Nefrál averted her eyes. It was custom for all Calaani to enjoy rainrise in small groups. Like she should be doing, in fact. Anyone of them could choose to report her, follow her, stop her—and though they’d find nothing except a tattered leso wrapping her gaunt frame, the delay could ruin everything. Her brother had already called off two earlier attempts. They could not afford to put this off forever.

Anxiety fluttered in both of her hearts. Take a step, take a breath, avoid their eyes. Twenty feet till she drew level, then only another thirty feet until the next rocky outcropping hid her from their view. She hoped they couldn’t see the shake in her hands.

The first part of Revion’s “Plan” had required both of them to adopt new habits to excuse their unusual behaviour. Nefrál had therefore started ambling along the Fallen Bells beach during rainrise—often backwards, to watch her footprints fill with water. Let everyone see her here, every morning for months. Let them stop her, search her, follow her. Let them find nothing, again and again, until her oddity became routine, rather than suspicious.

[This excerpt is only 400 words, but that was enough to fit in some conflict, intrigue, and tension. Not perfect, but improving. BACK TO THE TOP!]

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