First Impact: DEATHSIGN by C.A. Schmidt

It's time for another First Impact Critique, where we take a look at your queries, first pages, back cover copy, etc. You want to make an impact right from the start. We're here to help you do that.

If you'd like to submit your first impact material, send it to Details here.

Remember, anyone who offers their comments is eligible for either $10 for Amazon or B&N OR a 20-page critique from me.

This week we have the first page of a cool-looking YA fantasy. My inline comments are to the side, with overall thoughts at the end. As always, this is all just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

First Page
I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

But every night it’s the same. A young man’s scream. A shattering blow and a white flash. Then the wizard comes to me through the gloom, wearing a sleep tunic and shabby sheepskin slippers. “Just a dream, Lina.” He hugs me, beard prickling my forehead, and I gasp. He’s real, he's Barba Luc, an old man with corkscrew curls and eyes of profound blue. The young man is just a dream. I clutch the rough wool of my blankets as my cheeks begin a slow burn.

I'm not following this yet.
Because, really.

I’m the tyro, apprenticed to one of the world’s seven wizards. Fifteen summers old and now, as Barba Luc steps beyond my canopy, utterly mortified.

Because I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

Suddenly, she doesn't seem so
It’s a cold morning, just past Spring Smallfire—the Games ended yesterday—so I pull on a tunic and wrap my cloak around me. The cloak is pale gray lamb’s wool, lined with fleece so soft it’s like wearing a cloud. I love the the way it drapes around my shoulders, the way it makes me look, reflected in my little bronze handmirror. Squint a little and I might look wizardly.

Or not. A thin face and dark-but-not-quite-black hair. A bruise splotching my forehead and freckles dusting my nose. I blame that bruise for my nightmares and my memory lapses, but the freckles and I don’t get along, either. As for the hair, well, hair’s hair. I drag a comb through it, then push my way through the canopy and out into the cottage.

Seven shuttered windows and an enormous bearskin rug. The hearthboy is chopping goatbites for breakfast, his open-backed tunic showing a shaggy black mane down to his waist. He grunts “morning blessings” without even looking at me. Typical. No respect.

I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares.

Adam's Thoughts
The writing is good. You've got a great handle on craft, and there's some good voice in here (I particularly like the line: "well, hair's hair.").

I have two concerns here. The first is a first person POV technique so common it has become cliche: describing the narrator in a mirror. Now I, personally, have not seen this trope enough to be bothered by it, but I'm certain other people have (that's how I know this is a cliche).

But also, the reason the mirror trick usually doesn't work is because it's artificial. The narrator has been wearing this same cloak, and seeing this same face, all her life. Why is she thinking about them now?

The second concern is also a common trope: starting with a dream. The reason this usually doesn't work is because the reader isn't grounded yet, and a dream is ridiculously hard to get grounded in because we know it's not real. I don't even know the gender of the narrator (I'm guessing about the "she"), let alone what her conflict is: why is it so terrible that she has nightmares? Why does she gasp when the old man (whom I also don't know) hugs her?

These are things the narrator knows, so the reader should know them too. We don't need to know them right away, necessarily, but the conflict and tension currently in the open are lost on us because we don't know what's going on yet.

(Also, I'm pretty sure the young man is going to turn out to be real, to be someone she meets, and (if I'm right about the "Because, really" line) to be a love interest. That's another problem with the dream trope: if it's prophetic (they often are) then it's also predictable, and you don't want that.)

What do the rest of you guys think? Do these things feel cliche to you?


R.S. Bohn said...

I love the writing. It's got a warmth and intelligence to it that really drew me in. And based on that alone, I'd be willing to read more.

As Adam said, though, the stars-with-a-dream and the mirror description are sort of cliche. I could also get past those. What I don't like at all -- and this is just me; I know others have no problem with this -- is the first person. It's almost a deal-breaker for me at this point.

Having said that, I do like this. A lot. My two cents would be to re-write, taking out the first person. If you do that, you can describe your narrator as you wish without resorting to mirrors or having your narrator dwell on their appearance.

I think you probably wrote this in first person because the main character is really speaking to you, living in your head, and you're truly giving them a voice. Complete understanding there -- I just, personally, think it would be stronger without using first person.

Other than that, I echo Adam's critique, and think that such things as why she (I am also guessing "she" at this point) gasps when the wizard hugs her can be ironed out relatively easily. Yes, we need a bit more information.

I do hope you continue this, or if it's finished, that you edit it so that it can be the stellar book I think is really there.

Matthew MacNish said...

Man, I'm showing up late today.

Adam already talked cliches, and he's right, but I will say this mirror scene worked for me somewhat, because she's not so much describing herself to herself as she is reflecting on (see what I did there?) how she feels about how she looks. So it works for me (but could still probably be improved).

The dream opening, not so much.

As far as writing goes, I'm normally against this much echoing in the opening page, but I kind of like the repeated:

"I’m supposed to have powers, not nightmares."

Although I'm not sure I understand why the third one comes up. My assumption is that the hearthboy somehow reminds her of her nightmares, but I can't figure out why without at least reading on.

Steve MC said...

I agree with all your comments. Mirrors make me wince, but they didn't hurt The Hunger Games, so if she can get away with it, fine.

The only other part I didn't like was the wizard hugging her. It seemed a little creepy for him to do that to a fifteen year old girl, especially when the nightmares are a common occurrence. Much better to simply have him shuffle by, like on his nightly rounds, or maybe he'd touched her shoulder to wake her up, and says his line as shuffling off in his slippers.

That's one thing I really liked - the details here, and which ones she chose. Plus the voice (warmth and intelligence, as RS said), and the teen attitude in this wizard setting. The writing itself is good, and I'd definitely want to read more.

Just read Matt's comment, and I think she says "I'm supposed to have powers" again 'cause the guy gives her no respect. He knows she's no wizard. But yeah, it does repeat maybe once too much, so she might think, "If I had powers, he'd be bringing me bacon."

KayC said...

I like the voice in this, but for me personally, I find it a little too descriptive. I loved the fleece being so soft it's like wearing a cloud, but felt you could have done without the way it drapes around her shoulders and the way it makes her look in the mirror. I did like the image I got with her squinting and looking wizardly.

I felt the whole paragraph about her face was unnecessary and grated a little in first person. I don't think you need to describe every person we meet in detail straight up, particularly on the first page. Introduce us to her, yes. Describe her, no.

I got a little lost with "-the Games ended yesterday-". This seemed to be a random inclusion that has no meaning to the reader and pulled me out of the moment as I had to stop to think about what you meant (and I still have no idea).

I found her comment about the hearthboy - "Typical. No respect" a tell and it wasn't clear why. Show me he has no respect, rather than tell me. Give me a frame of reference to know why he has no respect. Is she the only one he doesn't look at perhaps?

And I agree with the above comments that the third "I'm supposed to have powers, not nightmares" is one too many.

With a little tightening this has lots of potential, but at the moment I'm not sure that I would turn the page.

Victoria Dixon said...

You've got voice, no doubt, which is a huge plus. But not only is this a combo-cliche scene, it's also confusing. (Not grounded.) She mentions a boy in the dream. What boy? I was lost in the second paragraph.
I loved the repetition of "powers, not nightmares," but I'd like to see a demonstration of what kind of powers she's supposed to have and maybe why it's imperative she get said powers. (Is she bullied because of the lack?) You do NOT need to show us the nightmares upfront. In fact, I wouldn't because they are not real and therefore stop forward progress to a degree. Give us the first nightmare once we've grown to understand the situation and feel sympathetic. Also, try to make it as creepy as possible. :) Seeing the good things in here, including a hint of strong world building possibilities, I have no doubt this will make a great story.

Patchi said...

I love the first sentence. I agree with the other comments that getting rid of the cliches will help the story. The dream doesn't bother me as much because it is clear it's a dream and the passage is brief. The mirror description can be removed without any impact.

For the other descriptions, incorporate them into the action so they can serve double duty. Lina can wrap herself in a cloak "lined with fleece so soft it’s like wearing a cloud." You don't need the separate sentences. You want to bring the action to life with descriptions, not describe for descriptions sake.

Add in a sense of who Barba Luc is and I think you will have a great beginning.

Good luck!