The Way of the Word

20. September 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 1

Some days, Ghenni thought, simply weren’t worth waking up for. The way That Day started, she was sure this was one of them.

“So,” Opona, her mother, said at breakfast, “what are your plans for today?”

“The usual,” Ghenni shrugged. “I’m gonna see Miki and Ankhoro.”

“They’re gonna look for seashells,” Lejani volunteered.

“Really? That sounds nice. What do you want them for?”

“Dunno. Depends on what we find. Perhaps we can make necklaces out of them. Or perhaps we’ll find the kind that sounds like the sea. Or we’ll sacrifice them to Wakano.”

“If you find no other use for them,” Lejani giggled. Ghenni glared at her.

“It’s not much of a sacrifice if you only sacrifice what you have no use for,” Opona reminded Ghenni. “I doubt that Wakano will appreciate that kind of sacrifice very much.”

Opona opened her mouth to say something else when they heard The Growl. The Growl came from outside, from the mountain where Wakano lived. It was so fierce that even the ground shivered with fear.

“I suppose Wakano is angry with you,” Opona said when things had quieted down again. “I told you he wouldn’t appreciate the kind of sacrifice you’re planning.”

Ghenni looked up at the hut’s roof, wishing she could see beyond at the sky. She gulped.

“I didn’t mean to be disrespectful,” she said softly. She heard her mother whisper, “Forgive her. She’s only ten years old, she doesn’t know any better.”

“I promise, you’ll get the most beautiful shell I’ll find today.”

Wakano growled again, but not so hard or so long.

“I guess that means Wakano accepts your apology,” Lejani said, giggling again. Ghenni hated that sound. She had never giggled that much, or at that pitch, even when she had been Lejani’s age. She was positive she hadn’t. She had never been so babyish.

“Perhaps we should sacrifice something bigger than seashells to apologize,” she said, glaring at Lejani. “Something like a little monster.”

Ghenni’s cheek stung sharply before she realized her mother’s hand had moved. She raised her hand to cover the hurt, looking wide-eyed at her mother, blinking wildly.

“Not even in jest,” Opona said, wagging her finger at Ghenni’s face. “Do you hear me, young woman? I never want to hear you say something like that even in jest.”

“I didn’t mean it,” Ghenni protested, ashamed of the whine she heard in her voice. “I just wanted to scare her.”


“Yes, Momma.”

Opona looked at her daughters and sighed.

“I ought to forbid you to play with your friends today,” she said softly. “But you’ve promised to find a shell for Wakano, and you have to keep your promise. So go.”

“Can I go too?” Lejani said. Ghenni shuddered at the thought. Opona smiled.

Uh-oh, Ghenni thought when she saw that smile.

“Of course, dear,” Opona said. “You have to promise me you’ll stay close to Ghenni.”

“Mooom,” Ghenni protested.

“Sure,” Lejani said much too brightly for Ghenni’s tastes.

“No buts, Ghenni,” Opona said.

Ghenni tried to stare her mother down on this issue, but the contest lasted only three seconds. Ghenni found something interesting on the ground to look at.

“Yes, Mom.” She held out her hand without looking up. “Come on, crab,” she said. Something warm and wimpy took her hand, squeezed it. Ghenni rose, pulling against the giggling weight that tried to anchor her to the ground.

Ghenni shook Lejani’s hand loose as soon as they stepped into the sunlight. Ghenni looked up and around. As usual for this season, the sky was a perfect blue, marred only by a couple of black clouds Wakano’s Throne spat out when the god was angry, like today. She could see Wakano’s Throne to the east, rising above the palmtrees. Ghenni had never understood why Wakano lived on top of a mountain, instead of coming down to let the people worship him. If she were a god, she would want the people to worship her. What else was the point to being a god?

“Maybe I’ll have to let you run at my heels, but I will not drag you with me. Is that clear.”

“Mom says you gotta play with me.”

“Only if you can keep up, crab.” The ground shuddered. Ghenni turned to look at Wakano’s Throne. “I’m sorry, okay,” she said toward the mountain. “Why is everybody so sensitive about the crab?” Life wasn’t fair, especially if even the gods took her baby sister’s side.

“Didn’t you want to look for seashells?” Lejani said. Ghenni, shaked from her contemplation of Wakano’s rage, glared at the younger girl. Lejani stuck out her tongue. “You won’t find them here, you know. You only find seashells at the beach.”

“I know, crab.” Ghenni sighed, exaggerating the sentiment to make sure Lejani understood the great sacrifice she made. “Lead on. But you explain to my friends why we have to drag you along.”

Giggling, Lejani ran off.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi, Jens! Providing feedback as requested. You told me to choose a chapter at random, but I decided to go with Chapter 1, since any story critiques I might give from later in the book would be out of context and probably wrong because of it. 😉

    Okay! Getting started.

    I can’t say much about the story, obviously, since this is only the set-up. But there are some things I noticed in the writing itself that might help you better tell the story.

    First, to your credit, this doesn’t feel like other fantasies I’ve read. From the very beginning, you start us off in an unfamiliar setting (Island Fantasy? have we coined a term?), and allude to unfamiliar cultural elements (worshipping a volcano god) for the genre. The concepts are interesting and hint towards an exciting new setting. I love the ambition and originality of it. Nothing feels boring or routine.

    The problem I have is, while you allude to these elements, you don’t clearly explain them, or establish how the characters should feel about them, which makes the very mention of them confusing. That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing to challenge your reader, play with them, and keep them on their toes, but they need some kind of context in order to play along.

    In a modern, or even medieval fantasy setting, an audience who is familiar with those tropes can fill in the blanks and have no trouble painting the picture in their minds. With something completely new, as you have created, just cleverly hinting at unfamiliar setting elements without providing proper context holds your reader at arms’ length. There needs to be more description to fully realize the new world where this story takes place.

    Reading and rereading the chapter, this criticism actually holds true for the whole thing. It almost reads more like a script than a novel. You give the minimal amount of narration necessary to visualize the story, and rely on the dialogue to carry your audience through. In theory, it’s a fine storytelling method — a succinctly told story often reads faster and can be way more engaging to a reader than one that takes its time with elaborate narration. But, in this case, the story still needs a bit more description than you’re giving us. It’s not just the setting getting the short shrift, but also the characters and their interactions.

    Ghenni reacts to things happening in the moment, but I have little sense of her history, or how her history informs that reaction. These people are her family, but I don’t get a sense of how her family life is informing their interactions.

    For example, her only criticism of Lejani has to do with how annoying she finds Lejani‘s giggle, but you tell us nothing more about their relationship. It makes it seem like the only thing that’s causing Ghenni to be so mean to her is the giggle, which makes her an unattractive protagonist. And that might be what you’re going for! (But I don’t think it is.)

    Now, I’m not asking for you to tell us their life stories right here in the first chapter, I just need more of a sense of who they are outside of their dialogue and immediate actions. Tell me more of what’s running through Ghenni’s mind. She may be young, but children’s thoughts are usually far more complex than an adult’s, what with all those hormones and emotions stirring things up. 🙂

    Another example: “Perhaps we’ll make necklaces out of them, or perhaps we’ll find the kind that sound like the sea.” Is Ghenni excited by this prospect? Is she smiling, or pitching her voice excitedly when she says it? Or, if Ghenni is a more reserved child, does she say it with noticeably minor inflection? Does the idea bore her? And when she says, “Or we’ll sacrifice them to Wakano,” is she mumbling it? Does the idea not appeal to her? Does she even take all this “mountain god” stuff seriously?

    These are the things I want to know when I read the dialogue. I want to know what’s going on in Ghenni’s head. Don’t just tell us what she says, tell us how she feels.

    You call this a YA novel, and it almost feels like you’re writing to that label. Being very sparse with your description, keeping the dialogue and the concepts and the emotions simple. But the best YA novels never feel like they were written for YAs. Putting aside the obvious example of Harry Potter, look at something like Gloria Skurzynski’s “What Happened In Hamelin?” Her descriptions are simple, clear, and to the point, but she paints the full picture. The tone of the story is palpable from the onset.

    Here, you’re starting off simple, but the story isn’t pulling me in. There’s nothing wrong with the characters, but neither are they singing to me. Perhaps this is a stylistic choice. Maybe you have your reasons for using such sparse narration. My only suggestion then would be to take another look at this beginning chapter, and ask yourself: what, besides a dogged determination to finish what you start, is making you go to the next chapter? What have you described thus far that piques YOUR interest — not the young adults you’re writing for. What pulls YOU through the story?

    I’m actually quite curious what this would look like if you just cut loose and wrote down every little thought running through the characters’ minds, every little twitch of their body language, every minor movement, be it a shift of the eyes on a wrinkle of the nose, in reaction to those around them.

    It would perhaps be far less bearable than what exists now, but I think somewhere between that overwritten extreme, and the underwritten extreme which you’re drifting close to here, may lie your ideal draft.

    Other minor notes follow:

    – You have a few instances of confusing phrasing. Specifically, in the very second sentence, “The way That Day started, she was sure this was one of them.”

    After reading that sentence enough times, I got the rhythm of it down and can now breeze through it to get to the rest of the text, but on that first read-through, it made me stumble. I understand the reason for capitalizing “That Day”; implying that the events about to be described in the book have earned it the name in people’s memories.

    I think if you added some emphasis to it — put it in quotes, or italicize (or, in an official manuscript, underline) it — the reader won’t be so confused when you follow it up with “she was sure this was one of them.” As it reads right now, it looks like a grammar problem.

    – “Opona opened her mouth to say something else when they heard The Growl. The Growl came from outside, from the mountain where Wakano lived.”

    It’s not necessary to name “The Growl” again immediately following your first use of it. The repetition sort of comes off like you’re writing to an early reader, which doesn’t strike me as your intent for the book. “It came from outside, from the mountain where Wakano lived” should suffice.

    – And in the line immediately after that: “It was so fierce that even the ground shook with fear.”

    This line gives the impression that the story is a folk tale being told around a camp fire… which is a cool concept, but the rest of the chapter doesn’t come off that way. My first instinct is to say you should change that description to be more… well… descriptive, and tell it from the perspective of whichever character (Ghenni?) whose shoulder we’re looking over.

    However, if you ARE trying to give the story a “folk tale” feel, then I would suggest completely reworking your telling of it. To feel authentic, my first suggestion would be to seriously pare down the dialogue, and lend more personality to all of the descriptions. Make them more conversational and “He said, she said” rather than the script-like dialogue delivery that you have now.

    (Like I said, I don’t *think* that’s what you’re going for, but I wanted to make the note just in case.)

    – “I suppose Wakano is angry with you.” seems a bit too passive of a way for Opona to say it, since she’s basically scolding Ghenni’s lack of respect. Is she being passive on purpose? Again, more characterization would help in understanding the tone of these exchanges. As it stands, I would suggest taking out the “I suppose”, which makes it a much more matter-of-fact, authoritative statement. “Wakano is angry with you.” Or, if that’s too sharp, “Wakano must be angry with you.”

    – “I promise you’ll get the most beautiful shell I’ll find today.” Who is saying this? It could be Ghenni, or it could be her mother trying to appease Wakano by making up for her daughter’s insolence. Or, it could be Ghenni speaking to her mother in apology (which is what I first thought before I read the following sentence).

    You deliver the elements of the story, but parse them out like clues for the reader to follow. Keeping an element of suspense or mystery in your story is essential, but making the reader have to guess who is speaking and who they’re speaking to will only push them away. (Unless the point of a passage is for the reader to expressly NOT know who is speaking or being spoken to, but that’s not the case here.)

    – “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful,” she said softly. She heard her mother whisper, “Forgive her. She’s only ten years old. She doesn’t know any better.”

    Every time someone new speaks, their dialogue should get a new paragraph. Like so:

    “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, she said softly.

    She heard her mother Whisper, “Forgive her. She’s only ten years old. She doesn’t know any better.”

    Also, and again, knowing more about her mother’s body language and the tone of her voice when she says this will give us more of a feeling for the culture, as well as her personality.

    – There’s some passive language in the narration. For example:

    “She had never giggled that much, or at that pitch, even when she had been Lejani’s age.”

    Too many “had”s.

    Try “She never giggled that much, or at that pitch, even when she was Lejani’s age.”

    Or, if you really want a had in there, “She had never giggled that much, or at that pitch, even when she was Lejani’s age.”

    Or, more succinct, “She had never giggled that much, or at that pitch, when she was Lejani’s age.”

    Or, the succinctest (which isn’t a word, but should be), “She never giggled that much, or at that pitch, when she was Lejani’s age.”

    – “She had never been so babyish.” Italicize (or underline) babyish so it doesn’t sound like the mean old narrator is calling Lejani babyish. (poor Lejani)

    – Ghenni being slapped by her mom. Harsh. I almost wonder if it seems out of place, but that’s a decision for you to make. My question is, would Ghenni be so unthinking as to say something like that RIGHT in front of her mother? Would she be savvy enough yet to know that saying it could get her in trouble? I’ve met some pretty savvy 10 year olds. But, then, I’ve also met some 10 year olds who say stupid things without realizing they’re doing anything wrong (I was one of them). I just wonder if starting your YA fantasy novel off with a child being slapped by her mother is setting the wrong tone. I would be more understanding if the mother was established as a bad or troubled person, or if it came at a later point in the story, and over much more dire or tense circumstances.

    Maybe what’s missing is (again) more context… does the mother know something we don’t? Is there actually a risk that Wakano (assuming he’s real) WOULD want Lejani as a sacrifice? If so, hinting at that through further description could be the solution. As it is, it just comes off like an overly religious parent slapping their child for telling their little sibling to “go to hell”, which seems a bit of an overreaction to not call further attention to. Even if the attention you call to it is Ghenni internally berating herself for saying something she knew would be disrespectful, thereby justifying her mother’s actions in the eyes of the protagonist, and by association, the eyes of the reader.

    That’s my take on it, anyhow, and my take may be subjective, so use your judgement as a storyteller.

    – “Ghenni’s cheek stung sharply before she realized her mother’s hand had moved. She raised her hand to cover the hurt, looking wide-eyed at her mother, blinking wildly.”

    I can see you were going for a clever revelation of the slap, but the wording here seems a bit awkward. Again, you’re leaving breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, just to figure out what’s happening. It’s unnecessarily confusing. I would recommend something like this, “Ghenni didn’t even realize her mother’s hand had moved before it stung her cheek. She raised her hand to cover the tender skin, looking wide-eyed at Opona and blinking wildly.”

    Doesn’t have to be that exactly, but clarity is key.

    – Also, Ghenni is ashamed of the whine in her voice… but she’s not ashamed of being slapped by her mother, in front of her little sibling, for something she SAID to her little sibling? The embarrassment of that would be MUCH more shaming for me than the tone in my voice? In fact, I expect I wouldn’t even give my tone a second thought in that scenario. But, perhaps Ghenni thinks differently, in which case, more description!

    – …and then Opona just wags her finger at Ghenni. “Not even in jest.”

    She just struck her child! She should have a dire look on her face and a hush in her voice to justify such an action. As written, the slap passes by almost unnoticed. Again (and I know I’m like a broken record here, but) we need more description.

    – And now, for something completely different… “Uh-oh, Ghenni though when she saw that smile.”

    You don’t need the added description. =P Just put the “uh-oh” in italics and let it hang out there on its own. We already know what Opona’s smile means, so there’s no need to explain it. I also suggest spacing out the beats leading up to it to better serve the pacing. Like so:

    “Can I go too?” Lejani said. Ghenni shuddered at the thought.

    Opona smiled.


    “Of course, dear,” Opona said. “But you have to promise me you’ll stay close to Ghenni.”

    (you can put a “but” at the beginning of a sentence in dialogue… no body speaks the way Strunk & White want us to write)

    – “Ghenni, shaked from her contemplation of Wakano’s rage, glared at the younger girl.”

    Change “shaked” to “shaken”.

    – “Ghenni sighed, exaggerating the sentiment to make sure Lejani understood the great sacrifice she made.”

    Exaggerating the sentiment doesn’t quite read right. Maybe try, “Exaggerating the sound”? Or just “Exaggerating it”?

    And that’s everything I’ve got for you! From the blurb you gave earlier, it sounds like a fun story you’re setting up, and this chapter is certainly serviceable, but I think that if you cut loose a little with the writing, you’ll really inject some life into the characters and the setting. Remember, assumptions don’t tell a story. Everything you write that tells us something new deserves to be there. Over-editing can be just as bad as over-writing, so if there are earlier drafts of this story that you cut down to get to this point, maybe the answers to all the questions I’ve asked can be found there.

    Either way, I hope this has helped.

Best of luck!

    ~ Joey

    Comment by Joey Cruz — 12. October 2010 @ 11:25

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