Tales of Rona, Chapter 1 by Alissa Bumgardner
This is a promising first chapter, although it will take significant work to bring it up to solid publishable standard. The good news: the prose is competent, the sentences well-constructed, and the line of direction is mostly straightforward. This is a good foundation to work from.
Before I begin to make any substantial criticism, let’s lay out what takes place in this chapter. We can divide it into roughly three parts.
Part one: opening. The viewpoint character, Mara, and some other (apparently young) people are racing in a wood. The mood is playful, even though Mara loses to her friend(-rival? romantic interest?) Talin. There is no hint of potential danger. A number of characters are introduced by name, but the reader gets little sense of personality from their interactions.
Part two: threat. Mara and Talin have another solo race to a mill on a road. Here they encounter soldiers from a group called the “Nasaru.” The soldiers take them for rebels (which they are) and attack. Mara and Talin escape, but Talin is wounded. Mara uses Magic (capitalised throughout) to speed both of their escapes, and they return to a city in the middle of the wood that is apparently home to the rebellion. Brief exposition is given on Mara’s relationship to the leader of the rebellion (said leader is Mara’s mother).
Part three: collapse/recovery. Mara collapses from the expenditure of Magic. She wakes up days later in the presence of her sister. She then gets up, finds Talin, has a conversation with him about his social status and obligations (he’d be Mara’s near-social-peer without a treasonous relative, but some mystical connection to the Land still acknowledges his status while people do not: this part is not particularly clear), kisses him, and has a minor confrontation with her mother over her actions and her untrained Magic.
There are three things in particular that need work in this chapter: tension, emotional intensity, and getting well-rounded characterisation onto the page. These things are naturally interrelated, and part of why they’re not here up front has, I think, quite a bit to do with how this chapter is structured.
(An aside: the author would do well to consider logistics as well. A not-insignificant collection of people – a town/city – in the middle of a forest? A city whose inhabitants are at war? How are they supplied with food? Premodern towns, even villages, rely on their agricultural hinterland, due to the problems of transporting perishable goods over any distance, and agriculture is labour-intensive at certain points of the year. How is the city defended? Walls? Magic? If a nearby road is commonly used by the enemy in small groups, the city is not exercising control over the surrounding countryside — and its inhabitants should be able to deny the area to an enemy that is not present in force: this is one reason that invading armies commonly laid siege to towns rather than bypass them and leave them in their rear, because that leaves the army’s supply line vulnerable. I digress, but logistical considerations can provide interesting sources of narrative conflict and tension)
(I may have something of a Pet Cause in logistics.)
The chapter opens in the middle of a race. We have very low stakes here, and very little time to get to know the characters — and we don’t know why they’re racing except for the hell of it. This segues into another race that lands the characters right in the middle of an encounter with an armed enemy.
One suggestion for establishing the stakes is to begin prior to the race. Allow a little time to establish the characters’ individual personalities. Establish the political situation also, and the potential for an encounter with an armed enemy. It might go far towards establishing character to let the young people be a little reckless and ignore any potential risk in favour of having their competition? Why are they racing in the woods in the first place? Training? A bet? Escaping from other responsibilities? Set the scene a little more, give the reader some more context for these people, and it will be a little easier to fall into sympathy with them.
And it would help to spread out some of the information that the reader receives as exposition in the part of the chapter I’m referring to as Part Three, and intersperse it with more character action.
In terms of combining characterisation and emotional intensity, we need to get down to the prose level to kick things up a few notches. Let’s take an example. Look here:
“Go on,” Talin said quietly behind her, his hand brushing gently across her back and resting for just a moment on her waist. “I’ll see you later. Promise.”
Mara glanced over her shoulder at Talin. He smiled at her. She wanted so badly to kiss him again. Instead, she sighed and headed for the door. Damien leaned over and whispered in her ear as she passed.
“Best tell her about the kissing later. She’s got enough to handle for now.” Then her uncle kissed her temple and let her pass. Once outside, she could hear her mother yelling at Gideon. Mara groaned and trotted across the street and pushed open the door with a sigh. Adella, standing in the middle of the kitchen, whipped around, eyes flashing with anger. Gideon stepped out from behind his wife and lifted an arm in Mara’s direction.
“You see, Del, she’s fine. Over seeing Talin, just like Damien said she’d be.”
“What in the hellfire were you thinking?” Adella demanded striding across the room, ignoring Gideon. Mara crossed her arms across her chest. “You should be resting.”
Here, in common with much of the chapter, we have a lot of what I’d like to call “stage direction.” We get action verbs and very straightforward description of what is happening. What we don’t get is any tactile sense, any full-sensory-experience, any hook of emotional reaction and feeling to what’s going on. You can take out some of the verbs and change the sentence structure to fit more detail in. Here’s an example:
“Go on.” Talin touched the small of her back for an instant, his hand briefly brushing the curve of her hip. “I’ll see you later. Promise.”
The quirk of his lips made her stomach do something warm and complicated. Mara wanted so badly to kiss him again. But Damien’s waiting presence — and amused expression — reminded her of her waiting mother. She sighed. She couldn’t put it off.
As she passed him in the doorway, Damien caught her arm and pressed a dry kiss on her temple. In a voice pitched for her ears alone, he said, “Best tell your mother about the kissing later. She’s got enough on her plate right now.”
Mara could hear her mother’s raised voice from the roadway. It meant she wasn’t surprised when Adella confronted her as she entered the kitchen, eyes bright with anger. “What in hellfire were you thinking? You should be resting!”
Or something like that.
Connect feelings — physical sensations, sensory impressions, emotional reactions — to a description of what’s happening, and it helps give a more rounded, a fuller impression of what’s going on. It helps the reader connect more with the characters. It fills out the world. The other thing is to not give too much stage direction. You have to trust the reader to fill in a few blanks — you don’t have to give them every step on the route to where you’re going in a paragraph or a scene, just the important ones. Every statement is a signpost.
Good news! The signposts here are pointing the right direction. The reader is not going to get confused about what’s going on in terms of straightforward events. But there are lots of them, and they leave out useful emotional and sensory data that builds characterization, reader connection, emotional intensity and tension. Work on that, and there’ll be a solid foundation there to move forward on.
“Sleeps With Monsters” columnist at Tor.com
Book reviewer for Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Ideomancer