Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November Secret Agent #19

TITLE: Alvilda: Viking, Pirate & Queen
GENRE: Historical Fiction

When Grandfather died, I didn't get to carry his sword. Guthbrandr, a long, shining blade carved with runes that glowed in the firelight, mysterious and powerful. For years I believed no power
on earth could defeat that sword or my grandfather, King Sigar of Gotland. But in the last days before his death, I had yet to learn that swords, like the men who wield them, are neither immortal nor invulnerable to attack.

The thaw had come but the late winter snow had not yet melted away. I stalked silently through the woods with my sword in hand, pursuing one of the many outlaw war bands that raided Gotland's shores. My island home had warriors of its own. We called them Vikings and hailed them as heroes, brave men who sailed the sea in wooden ships and returned home laden with foreign gold. If they died in battle, Odin sent his Valkyries to bear their souls to Valhalla, where the Vikings feasted forever in the company of the gods. But the foreigners who raided our shores deserved no such honor. We called them pirates and our laws punished piracy with death.

I placed my booted feet in the tracks of my prey, following them through the snow. I heard noises ahead, a silent rustling that echoed through the trees. Crouching to avoid discovery, I proceeded with deliberate steps.

The pirates had paused in a clearing surrounded by evergreen shrubs. I approached from the south, taking care to remain downwind.

12 comments:

Sharla said...

I love your way with description! Favorite line was about placing booted feet in the tracks of the prey. I like that.

I did have to reread a couple of times, the first and second paragraph seem disconnected from each other. There needs to be a tie-in of some sort between the grandfather and what is going on. You open with the grandfather dying, so that's clearly important, but then he's gone. Or is the next para supposed to be the "last days before his death" you mention? If so, that's unclear.

Good writing though, very polished!

Lauren said...

This is a beautiful excerpt. There is so much vibrancy in your description! Historical fiction can be difficult to pull off, but with the apparent strength in your writing, this piece promises to do well in that regard. I would also like to point out that a woman in a position of power always makes for a powerful and interesting read!
- Lauren Smith

Ammy Belle said...

I liked the slowness of the opening, the atmosphere that was built up from that, and I think you need a transition paragraph to go from that to the next paragraph, since I was not really sure how old the character was, how long the grandfather had been dead, etc.

I love your descriptions - I think they are amazing, and that should be mentioned.

thanks!

Bridget Baker said...

Your second sentence is a run-on... I think they have their purpose, but maybe not right smack at the beginning.

Otherwise, I liked it. other commentors already pointed out that the first paragraph and the second have little to do with one another--I'd like more information about the central plot, which has to revolve around dear grandpa's death, (right?) in paragraph two. The second paragraph seems to sit lumpishly between a backstory (interesting backstory) and action. Maybe move it down a bit?

calla4 said...

I do agree with Sharla, I, too, had to read the first and second paragraphs twice. Maybe because of the names. I think cutting the first and second sentences would help and then maybe bringing them in after mentioning how men aren't invincible. I thought your descriptions were great. The voice drew me right in. I'd keep reading.

YA Writer said...

Beautiful voice. Love the pirate angle. Not sure whether the info about Odin belongs here.

Some tense issues: I placed; the pirates had paused. Lot of hads that aren't needed if you show rather than tell.

Also how would crouching help avoid discovery? wouldn't hiding behind trees be better?

So, she's walking on icy snow? Not sure how to stalk silently on that.

C Foster said...

I'm still trying to figure out why he/she didn't get to carry the sword. Is that a good or a bad thing? I found this a bit cumbersome.

Leah Petersen said...

I love the emotion of the opening paragraph. I can feel his longing.

The second paragraph is an info-dump that leaves me cold, and I don't believe that a first person narrator would feel the need to explain all this.

It redeems itself toward the end. The writing itself is very enjoyable. But you need to clean this up to make it a truly compelling beginning.

Concentrate on hooking us. If we're in we can put up with a bit of ambiguity for a time. Especially if you casually drop in key words like Odin, or Valkyries as part of the action. Someone reading historical fiction probably has some interest in and grasp of basic histories.

K. Cooper said...

I feel like the first two paragraphs are huge infodumps not necessary to the scene. For one, there's no connection between the Grandfather and the other paragraphs. If he's dead in this pirate-hunting scene, then gramps isn't necessary here; if these are the days before his death, wait to introduce gramps until he's relevant to the action at hand. Secondly, everyone knows what pirates are, so there's no need to define them as "foreigners who raided our shores." Nor do we need to know about Odin or anything here. I would focus more on the scene at hand, which is nothing more than your character stalking through the snow to hunt the pirates. The "booted feets in the tracks of my prey" is fabulous. Start there. Start with that image and build out the surroundings with the snow and how hard it is to keep silent (melting snow crunches. always.). Add trees or bushes. Then add the noises ahead. Then show us the pirates and gives us more than paused. Are they circling to discuss something? Have they built a fire? Weapons at the ready or no? Then...what do they do? You can get some pirate interaction in that first 250 words, rather than wasting that space on backstory the reader doesn't need to understand the hunting scene. You might also consider getting your character's motivation in there. Why is he out hunting this specific band of pirates? Did they steal grandfather's sword? If so, wait until he sees the sword to even mention the grandfather. If not, let us know the reason why he's hunting this party of pirates.

While your writing on a sentence-level is quite good, I think you need to work on the bigger picture. You need tension, not backstory, in here. Great subject matter (who doesn't like vikings?) but I don't think this is there yet. With a little tweaking, it could be good, though.

Barbara said...

The first two paragraphs are explaining, and whenever you're explaining, nothing is happening in the story. It's not moving. Start with, "I placed my booted feet . . .' and go on from there. K. Cooper has offered some great suggestions.

Secret Agent said...

RE: title—It definitely needs work. :-) I like what it tells us about the historical placement of the character (and the story), but it’s not an evocative title.

As for the text—

When Grandfather died, I didn't get to carry his sword. Guthbrandr, a long, shining blade carved with runes that glowed in the firelight, mysterious and powerful. For years I believed no power on earth could defeat that sword or my grandfather, King Sigar of Gotland. But in the last days before his death, I had yet to learn that swords, like the men who wield them, are neither immortal nor invulnerable to attack.

You have to be very careful with voice and phrasing in historical novels—“I didn’t get to” throws me because that’s a very contemporary way of putting things.

Why is your second sentence incomplete?

By the end of this paragraph, I’m irritated, as a reader, because there is no immediacy/urgency to it—none of this matters to me yet because I’m not invested in the unfolding plot (as there is no plot yet) or series of events. There’s no tension.

Whereas I think this could make an interesting opener, you have to frame it in a way that is tense and urgent—for example, a la Lord of the Rings kind of epic storytelling, you can explain the importance of the sword to the family history (or whatever) and end the excerpt on the note, “When Grandfather died, I didn’t get to carry his sword.”

That is the sentence that matters most—everything plateaus from there.

The thaw had come but the late winter snow had not yet melted away. I stalked silently through the woods with my sword in hand, pursuing one of the many outlaw war bands that raided Gotland's shores. My island home had warriors of its own. We called them Vikings and hailed them as heroes, brave men who sailed the sea in wooden ships and returned home laden with foreign gold. If they died in battle, Odin sent his Valkyries to bear their souls to Valhalla, where the Vikings feasted forever in the company of the gods. But the foreigners who raided our shores deserved no such honor. We called them pirates and our laws punished piracy with death.

This is tough.

I think this is background information—not yet relevant—and I also think that you can probably weave this into the story via dialogue or actions, farther along (or in exposition in small details); don’t drop history into the text unless there is absolutely no other way to do it.

I placed my booted feet in the tracks of my prey, following them through the snow. I heard noises ahead, a silent rustling that echoed through the trees. Crouching to avoid discovery, I proceeded with deliberate steps.

The pirates had paused in a clearing surrounded by evergreen shrubs. I approached from the south, taking care to remain downwind.


Two thoughts:

1- “Following them through the snow” is almost redundant of “tracks of my prey”—it’s kind of clear that your MC is tracking.

2- Everything else works! I’m definitely intrigued by this—I have a sense that this character is female, so I would urge you to frame this a little bit differently if the character is male.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to everyone for the constructive comments. It's very nice to see that so many of you had helpful things to say.

In re the Agent's comment: this protagonist/narrator is, in fact, female, and I'm glad the Agent picked up on that in the voice.

The sentence fragment was a conversion error, which I'll own as a mistake without further excuses.

Thanks again to everyone!