First chapter (prologue) – around 2,900 words

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  • #346648


    Hello community! I should probably warn you that this is intended to be YA fantasy and this extract is a prologue that skips through in time so it’s supposed to be a bit confusing (not too confusing though!). I’m a new writer, so I basically need feedback on everything I’m doing. I can see a lot of blaring errors but I’ve already rewritten this five times… I need some new eyes on the job.

    Prologue- Blessed to be Cursed

    Its dark, the waning moon high, and its time for a break-in.

    She’s stood in front of the house’s fence. The iron nails holding together the wood of the fence are rusted and its white paint is chipped, flaking away.

    Its uncared-for visage isn’t a sign of disuse. It’s a warning.

    She knows better than to touch the gate, places her hands on unsteady wood instead and climbs over the fence.

    The house is low to the ground, panelled wood surrounded by an overcrowded garden. Its windows are almost covered- she can just make out flashes of dark glass between leaves.

    She treads between the herb bushes and trees, around to the side of the house. The window there is more accessible.

    She walks close, places her thumb against its wooden sill. Underneath her skin (the pulse of her own heart) she can feel the thrum of magic. Drawing her thumb across the wood she can feel the grooves and indents of the runes carved into it.

    She takes a pick made of ash-tree wood from her pocket, the same tree as the sill. She slides the pick between the sill and the window, breaking their seal.

    She then pries the window open. It’s not easy. The glass pane of the window gets stuck what seems like every third pull. Lucky for her, it doesn’t make a sound and the thrum (the undercurrent she can feel) doesn’t stir.

    Eventually, she wedges the window open enough for her to get through.

    She can’t say she does this often, or has any practise at it. She just pulls and squeezes herself until she can place her feet on the floor, and then shuts the window behind her before the cool night’s breeze can follow her in.

    Evergreen then attempts to creep along the silent and still hallway, which means crouching and wincing when every footstep makes the floorboards creek.

    She can’t see very much in here. There’s a light ahead, at the end of the hallway, and the moon behind her.

    She pauses in front of the probably-first door she walks by. She counted based on her ability to see black outlines in black. This door seems as safe a choice as any. She can’t hear any snores, or late night working from within.

    This pause gives her a second to think.

    She could do this without him. She could walk on down the hallway, get it by herself.

    One part of her, a new part of her, or maybe an old one that has become more vocal recently, makes all of her hesitate. You made a deal kiddo, it says, and it sounds like her Uncle. He’d had a thing about deals.

    And she was supposed to be doing this for him.

    Evergreen cups her hands over her mouth. “If you promise to be useful…you can come in, Hayes,” she whispers as quiet as she can without being silent. Voices are easier for listening ears to pick up on than floorboard groans.

    The door opens and pale blue eyes glare out at her. His dark hair sticks out from underneath a cap. His lips are thin, his cheekbones haughty but gaunt. He’s not underfed. She thinks he might be using makeup. She’s saving a quip about that for a rainy day.

    He’s wearing a suit like its sensible clothing for running, or crouching, or any of the usual break-in activities.

    He steps out from the little room, into the hallway, and eases the door shut. His lip curls upward as he looks down at her baggy hoodie and comfortable track pants.

    They are both wearing all-black, albeit different types, of clothes. She guesses neither of them had any better idea of appropriate break-in attire.

    “I’m hardly the useless one among us” he mocks, in his honeyed voice, adjusting his cuffs, “surely you haven’t fooled yourself into thinking you could do this on your own.”

    “Give me the chance to prove it. I’d be thrilled to do this without your ‘help’,” she whispers back.

    “And have you run-off with the information, or, much more likely, get yourself killed and get the evidence destroyed in the process?” His laugh is an exhalation of air. “I’d be foolish indeed to trust something of this import to you.”

    She can’t deny that if she found it alone she wouldn’t share the information with him after but, also, ouch. But she’d agreed to work with him because it increased her chances of success, not because she enjoyed his company.

    “Stop talking so loudly. If he’s asleep we don’t want to wake him. And you know that you don’t have to be here. I can always rescind the invitation.”

    His face looks different bathed in shadow instead of daylight, sharp and angular. His eyes are hard, sharp as well, but they’re always that way. Daylight, moonlight, shadow can’t change their unyielding intensity.

    “Did you leave the window open?” He asks, implying he thought she had been stupid enough to do so.

    She gives him a deriding look and gestures down the rest of the hallway. “Are we going to do this or are you going to keep whispering at me in the hallway?”

    He huffs, an exhalation through the nostrils, and starts walking, long legs striding ahead. To her annoyance his feet make no noise against the floor even though he doesn’t appear to be altering his usual stride.

    She trudges along behind.

    Thin candlelight illuminates a larger area- the entranceway. There’s more light, so as she passes under she can make out the thin lettering on the head of the door frame above her.

    The candle is a sconce next to the front door. There’s also a cheesy welcome mat, proclaiming ‘Welcome home!’ right in front of it.

    There’s a small chandelier, its lights not on, hanging over the middle of the room. There’s shelves on the wall opposite and a staircase that goes up towards the right. There is also a door underneath the staircase.

    Innocuous, compared to the outside. Evergreen doesn’t know who he’s trying to fool. Particularly stupid children?

    “Where should we check first?” she asks, “back down the hallway or upstairs?”

    Hayes scoffs and walks towards the door underneath the staircase. The partial dark doesn’t hinder him like it does her. Evergreen follows.

    As she gets closer, she can see that the door frame is covered in runes. Thick carvings blocking almost all of its surface. She can’t make out what all of them do -it’s still dark, and she was never took any Proto-Norse language classes- but they seem to be pointing inward, unlike the standard ones on all the other doorways.

    It seems a bit out in the open, undefended, but Evergreen knows you don’t want your room for business tucked away so you have to tour clients through your house to find it.

    Those kind of heavy-duty wards take months, so this is most likely their best bet for where the object is stored.

    “Got any grievances unaired?” Hayes pushes the door open, but remains standing on the threshold. “Any ill-intent that’s going to get us zapped?”

    Evergreen pretends to think. “Hmm,” she says, “I think your hair looks stupid and your suit is both impractical and ill-fitting but those aren’t against the owner of the house, so I don’t think the wards would pick up on them.”

    Hayes catches himself raising a hand to touch his hair. He turns around to bare his pointy teeth at her. “Humans first,” he says.

    Evergreen walks in.

    True, wards like the hundreds carved on the door could keep out anyone who was thinking anything other than rainbows, but they didn’t tend to. Unless the owner was crazy paranoid. Your wards killing your guests at a party because they got peeved at you was a bit of a faux pas.

    Generally, wards only aimed to keep away people wishing harm you or to steal from you. And we, innocent teenagers clothed in all black who came through the window in the dead of night, only wanted to look at an object Mr. Rake had picked up recently.

    It’s a bigger room than you would suspect one under the stairs to be. There’s a lamp burning low on the long wooden workspace against one wall. Its covered in equipment of the trade: cleavers, grinders, graters, a stovetop. Against the back wall there’s a series of shelves, one shelf covered in potions with small, handwritten labels, another stacked with dubious jars containing murky liquids and a last crammed with books. On the third wall there’s a filing cabinet, a massive cauldron bubbling beside it and a desk with notes strewn upon it with a velvet-covered chair tucked into it.

    It smells, rather strongly, of apple. Evergreen thinks that could be from the green smoke spiralling out of the cauldron.
    “Alright, Hayes, now is your chance to prove you’re actually helpful.” Evergreen says.

    He strides in, brushing past her. “Don’t touch anything.” Is all he says before turning around and beginning to rummage through the shelves.

    This is the tricky part. They aren’t working off the most detailed description. ‘Object containing remains’ was all her Uncle’s notes had read.

    Hayes claimed he would be able to ‘sense the aura’ of the object.

    The longer Evergreen thinks about that, stood near the open doorway with the scent of apples taunting her, the more like-nonsense that claim appears to her.

    She lets Hayes do his may-or-may-not-be-legitimate thing, running his hands over bottles and jars, and moves off to look in the filing cabinet. The ‘remains’ part means the object is likely one of the creepy jars but Evergreen isn’t jumping to scarring herself for life by looking in them just yet.

    She opens the top drawer of the cabinet and its filled with neatly filed paper. Running her finger along the line of them, she picks one at random. It reads ‘Changing Gender of Baby to Male’ across the top, and on one side has a long list of ingredients including: eight small pieces of cloth; snail slime; two puppy-dog tails; snake eyes (dice, not animal, is scribbled on the side); a bay leaf and a bluebell flower. It describes the method underneath but she honestly doesn’t care and places the card back on top and shuts the drawer.

    Hayes is stood reading a book.

    “Hey!” she whispers at him, “You’re supposed to be finding it before we get caught.”

    He ignores her and continues flipping through its pages, a crease forming between his eyebrows.

    She tries to send telepathic bolts of pain to Hayes but from the way he continues to page through the book coolly, unconcerned, she guesses that’s still not possible.

    They’ve still got lots of time, she reassures herself. Daylight is still hours away.

    She pulls out the chair, intending to sit down and wait out Hayes’s weirdness instead of risking having a whispered argument. It’s heavy, but she puts that down to its metal frame being solid.

    Green eyes blink up at her, the cat, curled up on the chair, startled awake from its nap. It takes a second to take in her clothes, which are, okay, maybe too conspicuous, and darts off to the door. It head butts it opens and has slipped through to the entrance beyond in seconds.

    When is a cat not just a cat you ask? When it is in a witches house.

    Evergreen looks at the jars, wondering if she shouldn’t just grab an armful of them and… her head begins to spin and nausea fills her stomach… look at them, she finishes, and the magic of the wards pulls out of her body. She shakes the feeling, the disorientation, off.

    A meow and then, “Claudia? What is it?” a muffled voice from upstairs asks. Busted.

    Hayes is flicking through the remaining pages as fast as he can. She fumbles to withdraw the peppermint leaf from the depths of her hoodie, then sticks it in her mouth. Hayes closes the book and withdraws his from a waistcoat pocket.

    Footsteps begin padding down the stairs above their heads, far too close for comfort.

    They scramble to hide.

    Hayes scrambles just as much as she does, she’d like to say, and looks very undignified doing so, the suit restricting his movement. He’s skinny but tall, and fluffs about before hiding around the side of the cabinet. Evergreen goes opposite him, crouching around the side of the workspace. This is where an impartial narrator would tell you it was because she was wider and shorter, and so suited the shape of the workspace better, but she’s the one telling this story so she’ll just tell you that the door opened facing that side so it was the smarter decision for escaping, thank you very much.

    Hayes is still holding the book and motions to Evergreen. “This is the object,” Hayes stage-whispers, “I can feel it.”

    “Can we talk about this later?” she asks him, not really listening to him as impending doom gets closer and closer. She risks a glance around the corner to see the one door, her only way to escape, still ajar. She could sprint now, try to get out before he got closer, but there’s no way Rake wouldn’t stop her in the open space.

    She almost doesn’t catch it when Hayes throws the book to her. She fumbles then gets a grip, painfully aware of the amount of noise she causes.

    She sends a poisonous glare Hayes way. He rolls his eyes and shifts his legs, putting one foot on top of the other like he’s casually leaning against the wall outside of a graveyard or whatever he usually lurks instead of against a cabinet in the middle of an interrupted reconnaissance mission.

    “Look through it yourself,” he whispers, “so you can’t call me a liar later.”

    Despite hearing the door begin to slowly creek open and a hissed “In here Claudia? They’re in here?” she begins to leaf through the book. Its cover is an unremarkable brown leather, and every page she looks at is blank. She presses her fingers against the parchment, but can’t sense anything beyond it. It could be some old trick, lemon water or fire, but… she brings the soft paper to her nose. It smells new. Unused.

    A witch would never just have an empty book laying around. Maybe Hayes really did deliver on his part of this.

    A foot swings into view, right around the corner of the desk, and a body follows. Mr Rake is turned away from her, looking back around the room, but that might not be for long.

    He has deep scarlet robe pulled around him and spectacles hanging from a chain around his neck. Although they are sleeping robes they still have the emblem of the coven on their sleeves.

    His head turns slowly. First, he’ll see Hayes then her.

    The taste of peppermint explodes in her mouth. “You are no longer welcome Hayes,” she whispers and watches him disappear.

    Rake twists faster around to face her, and as he raises his hand the wards covering the whole house glow a blaring white.

    Pepperiment thick in her mouth, she drops the book, and uses her braced legs to propel herself under the workspace.

    The corner she was in a second ago is blown apart, wood and wall torn into shreds from the force of wind Rake had thrown at it.

    She crawls further, pushes herself into the small space behind the cauldron, then puts two hands on the coarse metal and pushes.

    The cauldron tips over, dumping whatever apple-smelling potion Rake had been making. Where it hits the floor it starts to foam and gain size.

    Rake’s familiar rushes to him and scales up his side, claws digging into fabric and flesh. He yells and tries to bat her off while stepping away from the advancing wave of concoction.

    Evergreen jumps on top of and then over the desk, runs out the door, and legs it down the hallway.

    The wards are a hum, a constant chant in her head, and she needs to get out of the house before they are fully awake and she gets fried.

    She tries to open the window but her fingers slide, slick with sweat against the glass. She throws herself against, through the glass, as it shatters. It doesn’t cut (that would be worse than dying, leaving her blood to a wronged witch). She doesn’t roll, although she wishes she had later. That would have been a cool thing to be able to have said she’d done. She hits the ground, rolls a bit, stares up at the sky, stunned.

    It’s a moment of pity she lets run too long.

    The ground comes alive beneath her. She pushes herself up, gets her balance, and then stumbles towards the gate. She has to constantly pull her arms and legs out of the grasp of the plants as they grab at her, but they get at fabric instead of flesh. She steps on one of the writhing plants in order to boost herself over the fence.

    Evergreen runs out into the night. Or, well, she walks back to her house. Running would make her seem more suspicious to the night-denizens who wander the streets, and her house is only around a half-an-hour walk away.

    Around ten minutes into the walk she remembers to spit the tasteless peppermint out.

  • #655134



    I get the frustration with writing and rewriting the same thing only to have it still seem off. Someone–I forget who–once said “We have to write a million bad words before we get to the good ones.” As far as I’m concerned, a truer truth has never been truthed.

    I’ve been working on my first novel for three and a half years. In that time I have scraped a 30k word draft, a 60k word draft, and a 70k word draft. If you can, get a critique group ASAP. Mine has been amazing, they saw the earlier drafts– and very lovingly tore them apart. They truly enjoy and admire my current draft–which once I copy edit, will be the one I submit to agents– Their feedback has been invaluable and their praise means the world.

    A few things stood out when I looked over your work.

    1) After reading the first 500 words, I knew almost nothing about who the character was. I didn’t know her age, what she looked like, if she was human or what she wanted. I also–and this is even more important– had no reason to care about her. By the second paragraph the reader should have a sense of the characters personality: sense of humor, vulnerabilities, idiosyncrasies–give the reader something about them they can relate to.

    2) I didn’t have a clear understanding of what your world was like. You mentioned runes and a cheesy welcome mat, is this some sort of hybrid world, like Harry Potter or is it different all together like Eragon. I couldn’t tell and I should have has some inkling by the first 1000 words tops.

    3) A lot of your sentences started with ‘She’ or a name. I think once I counted 5 in a row. I highly recommend never having more than two sentences that start with the same word in a row– or even in the same paragraph. A great way to develop your skills is to take a few sentences and rearrange them.
    For example..

    “She takes a pick made of ash-tree wood from her pocket, the same tree as the sill. She slides the pick between the sill and the window, breaking their seal.”

    Could be changed to say

    “The window was stuck closed. Evergreen pulled a small pick made of Ash from the pocket of her ____…” Here you could tell us what she is wearing, “…then shimmed it between the sill and the window. With a low hiss, the seal broke.”

    You mentioned redoing this a number of times but the characters are still flat. One things I have found helpful is taking my characters out of their world and putting them into vastly different situations. Perhaps you could write about Evergreen and Hayes at an amusement park or the grocery store and really get to know them in a new context. After doing an exercise like that, you may fine you know them better and it will be easier to share their personalities with your reader.

    I know this was a lot of constructive criticism, but I’ve been in your position and know that the only way to get better is to accept the flaws in our writing and learn from them.

    Keep writing, you’ll eventually get to your good words.


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