Below are the first 13 lines (I think) of a new story I started writing. "Felix and the Last Man" is an early MG steampunk/fantasy/piratical adventure story geared toward ages 10 to 12. With that in mind... have at it.
---- The instant Sister Maria finished taming Big John's hair and let go of his shirt collar, the boy bolted for the door as fast as he could without running—absolutely no running allowed inside the convent. I watched him with a mix of sympathy and envy. He wasn't the nicest kid in the orphanage, but as Sister Maria turned to me and attacked my head with a brush that looked like it was meant for horses, I felt his pain, literally. "Stop squirming, Felix," Sister Maria said in a firm voice as I wriggled and ducked and tried my best not to get my hair brushed. "Do you want to look like a little hooligan when the lady arrives to pick one of you?" "Yes," I said. "I don't want to be adopted." "Nonsense."
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Considering this story is written in first-person, I assume the second boy is about 10-12 years old. "Taming" is a good word, but I am not sure he would use that description. This introduction makes me want to read more to learn why the first kid is called Big John and why the nun is using such a rough hairbrush. And, why would boy number two resist the idea of adoption?
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Felix claims he doesn't want to be adopted is a standout for me from the fragment. That is contrary to conventional expectations and possibly an internal confliction, too. Only a few narratives I know of go that route, mostly about the depredations of foster-parent surrogates who are known to an adoptee as vile.
If this novel goes another route than that, yet preserves the desire to be left unadopted, I might be inclined to read on. No clue to what that want is based upon, though. Why does Felix wish not to be adopted could be the start of the action's causation, a first cause.
As is, though, I have nothing to go on. For me, the fragment attempts too much with too little. This is setup, pump priming seeking a start setting -- time in particular. The place setting detail is mostly enough for me for now though not clear what era of orphaned children it represents. Religious orphanages went the way of extinction about the time clergy child abuse scandals broke in the 1970s.
"Convent," too, is a problematic term. What, a monastic or mendicant convent? Monastic convents are cloisters -- isolates. Mendicant convents did run orphanages, not monastics. An abbey might, though, have some of each and other missions, like a rectory, too, a school, a church, a chapel at least, etc.
Middle grade's convention is here met adequate for a start. That of children's forays at an institution away from family's close supervision. Orphanages suit that convention, as do schools, day, Bible, summer away camps, foster homes (the current orphan warehouse practice), plus even babysitting, kinship fostering, boarding schools, reform schools, juvenile detention facilities, etc.
Though a novel start, the other matters of steampunk, fantasy, and piracy are best practice introduced within a first thirteen lines. Why? Though a novel allows for more leisurely introductions, an unaccomplished writer has no reputation to rely on; that is, accomplished writers are given more leeway because the promise of their craft skills carry readers farther into a narrative than might an unaccomplished writer.
In either case, though, an opening best practice promises an emotionally strong reading experience and soon introduces its genre categorizations. Slow starts alienate readers, possibly signal slow action altogether, even if a writer's reputation precedes. Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and Into the Trees, 1950, for example.
This isn't quite slow so much as a quiet start -- Felix doesn't want to be adopted is a want posed with attendant problem, a complication (motivation) of note for me and one that entails possible conflict (stakes forces and possible outcomes). He rejects acceptance of him for adoption: a conflict of acceptance and rejection. For middle grade, that conflict holds much promise and is a convention of the genre attendant upon the overall one of first independent identity formation due to public social acceptance and rejection contests and first initiation into adulthood maturation.
Consider how to incorporate complication and conflict into an opening. Tone goes a long way to develop those, and characterization, too. Why Felix doesn't want to be adopted is a paramount consideration, like what does he risk either way or a third way. His emotional well-being? His life? His freedom? His identity security? Refusal to socially mature and want to mature contention is a common, if not universal, convention for middle grade, young adult, and early adult genres, later-age genres, too.
A projection for illustration purposes: Felix doesn't want to be adopted why? Because he is content in the orphanage, most because he's secure and nurtured by one compassionate novitiate. Along comes pirates in sheep's clothing and take him away as a cabin boy to serve their whims. Oh no! Felix's magic powers emerge gradually. He overcomes the pirates and returns to the orphanage's sanctuary, transformed and less secure there because he's a magician in a place that prohibits magic.
Questions and their answers for every prose craft consideration: who, when, where; what, why, and how. Why foremost. Because . . . Why is Felix an orphan? Why is he at a convent? Why is his routine interrupted? Most of which are backstory. Edgar Allan Poe and others say of starts, paraphrased: Begin as close to as practical or at an inciting moment that compels proactive action to satisfy a complication want-problem. What sets Felix in dramatic proactive complication satisfaction motion and why?
The language is overly cultured even for a Catholic convent-educated orphan. Also, much of the content is reduced to summary and explanation rather than reality imitation. Grammar glitches abound too. Faulty comma and conjunction splices more so.
I'm most hopeful for a fresh take on the orphan who refuses to be adopted feature. Where steampunk, fantasy, and piracy fit that feature, for me, are near infinite and, ergo, difficult to fathom from what's given. Peter Pan doesn't want to grow up; Pinocchio wants to be a normal boy, not a puppet to Geppetto (parent surrogate). Such symbolism could apply to the fantasy and piracy motifs.
For steampunk, consideration of its conventions is also contributory. Punk's dictionary definition is incomplete; "punk rock" is somewhat more useful a definition: "rock music marked by extreme and often deliberate offensive expressions of alienation and social discontent" (Webster's). None of them reveal punk's full aesthetic conventions.
The other main punk convention is: marked by amateur, clumsy, bare minimum contrivance of a circumstance, like an anachronous coal-fired steam boiler situated in an unconventional, perhaps futureward, past time use, say, dirt roadway vehicles, not locomotives on tracks.
Garage and loft bands with kludged together equipment and sketchy music skills founded punk rock, mostly clumsy-performed cover songs, punk godmother thereof Patty Smith in particular. Smith also introduced punk fashion, which fashionably mixes thrift shop castaways and high-fashion apparel. Punk rock inspired steam and cyberpunk genres. Both the above conventions, perhaps Smith's fashion convention applied otherwise, too, are essential steampunk criteria.
The title holds some promise, though vague to me what it says about the novel. "Felix" means lucky. "Last Man" holds promise from its several connotations' possible multiple entendres. Noun last is a form or mold upon which an object is shaped, like a hat. Final is the other relevant meaning.
If the Last Man shapes Felix and is final in the shaping into young adulthood, the title could be sublime and profound. Perhaps a verb added could sharpen the title, too. Verbs do, at least from their default greater significance than other speech parts. Best practice to avoid present participle -ing verbs in prose and titles. Maybe a place name, too!? What? //Felix and the Last Man Tango at Zanzibar// Just for illustration.
Too early in the draft phase for me to decline or accept farther reading, though would not read on for entertainment, only to look for the movement start and the core creative vision of the whole for response purposes.
There's a few minor grammar tweaks that could be made, but nothing that seriously pulled me out of the narrative. While the beginning is a touch slow, that's not necessarily a bad thing in a novel. (It's more important to hook the reader immediately in short fiction, from what I can tell.) I'm curious as to why Felix doesn't want to be adopted, and would probably read on for at least a few pages as a result. If you hooked me on the steampunk pirate side of things within the first chapter, I'd quite likely read through to the end.
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A small confession: There is a prologue for this piece that I did not share. The story is first person, reflective narrator, which is clearly established in the first line of the prologue. Adult character recounting childhood adventures. I did not share the prologue because it will probably not survive. It's all set-up/backstory--a summary of who Felix is and how he came to the orphanage. Although I have a natural love of prologues (yes, there are a few of us who actually enjoy prologues), I've found that they're somewhat frowned upon.
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Second time providing feedback like this. I am a long time reader, but have only just begun to write within the last year. Take my feedback with that in mind please.
-the boy bolted for the door as fast as he could without running-
The words, "as fast as he could" read, to me, like they are from Big John's perspective. How does Felix know that Big John couldn't move just a little faster without it being a run? But he could notice it's as fast as the nuns allow them to move inside without getting in trouble.
--absolutely no running allowed inside the convent.- -He wasn't the nicest kid in the orphanage-
I believe I understand that the setting is an orphanage, one structure of several that make up the convent. But perhaps a few more words could make this more clear. example: (no running allowed inside any building of the convent.)
-I watched him with a mix of sympathy and envy.-
It was a little unclear to me if there was more to these emotions than had to do with the hair brushing. Sympathy because Big John had just endured what Felix was about to and envy because Big John was done and Felix was not? If so I think it would read fine without the line detailing the emotion. You show Felix feeling sympathy well in the following sentence.
-I wriggled and ducked and tried my best not to get my hair brushed-
For me this could flow better if it was stated before Sister Maria says "stop squirming". It would put things in order of their occurrence. She wouldn't say this if Felix wasn't doing these actions. Maybe it reads fine as is. But I guess my question would be what does it do/accomplish to state this after the sisters dialogue bit as opposed to it occurring in order?
I would be interested enough, at least for a few pages, to see how/if the promised elements of steampunk, fantasy, and piratical adventure start to come in. I only know that this is to be expected from your own description however, not from the opening/title as is. I am also interested in why Felix doesn't wish to be adopted and what events happened to him that cause him to feel this way.
quote:The instant Sister Maria finished taming Big John's hair and let go of his shirt collar, the boy bolted for the door as fast as he could without running
Seems way too wordy. Does it matter that she was holding him, and where? She finished and he hurried away. At this point we don’t know who’s telling us this, and that matters because this is a first person story, so you should establish viewpoint early.
I’d suggest you begin a few seconds earlier, in the character’s persona, to place the reader and build context.
You might use something like: - - - - - - - As Sister Maria brushed my friend’s hair I had to smile. Ten seconds after he left the room his fingers would have him a mop-head again.
“Sit still, John,” Sister Maria said, impatiently. “The more you fidget the longer you’ll be standing here.” John grunted in response. He knew better than to do more that, or say, “Yes Sister Maria.” Especially when she had a hairbrush in her hand.
“You may leave,” she finally said, as she motioned him away.
John hurried to the door. He wanted to run, I knew, but inside the convent propriety insisted that boys never run—when someone could see us. - - - - - - -
Great writing? No, it’s just a quick example of a more protagonist oriented viewpoint. Look at the reasoning:
We open with our protagonist observing, which establishes our center-point.
He smiles at the situation, then makes us know why he did, which means we’ve set the scene so far as players and placement. We’ve done character development for John, and identified his relationship to our protagonist. We also know John’s going to leave soon.
Next, I expanded the nun’s character and gave a reason for her mood and behavior. I introduced the fact that she had dominion over John and that her discipline leaned toward physical punishment.
Finally, she allows John to leave. At this point we don’t know why she’s brushing his hair, so having her physically holding him doesn’t seem to track, since she was only brushing his hair. And in any case if you live in an orphanage you don’t disobey the nun who says “stand still.” They’re big on obedience.
Next, you cannot call fast walking “bolting.” So I had our protagonist observe John’s leaving, which gives reason for him to react in a way that tells us where we are and gives a quick orientation on behavior, while noting that they’re boys. The final comment was to show that they are boys, and only as obedient as is absolutely necessary.
So now, as the scene continues, and our protagonist takes stage center, the reader has context for what’s going on, whose skin they’re wearing, and where we are. I haven’t identified the protagonist closely, but since John is his friend, and John is a boy, it’s reasonable to assume our protagonist is of a like age.
quote: but as Sister Maria turned to me and attacked my head with a brush that looked like it was meant for horses, I felt his pain, literally.
I have a problem with this. It’s a hairbrush, and unless you want her to seem a sadistic bitch she would be doing no more than brushing his hair, which would take less than a minute. Presenting it as torture seems a bit over the top.
Seems too much like your characters are just lobbing dialog back and forth.
Think for a second of someone running into the room and telling you, “I just heard, you won the lottery!” Would you immediately respond? Or would you frown and wonder if you heard right..then think back to if you bought a ticket, and when. Wouldn’t you shake your head, and wave your hands in agitation as you say, “Wait…are you sure? Where did you hear that?”
Your reader can’t see the scene in their mind as you do. So they can’t see the nun’s reaction. But unless she was expecting him to say he didn’t want to be adopted, wouldn’t she stare at him in disbelief, forehead furrowing and unable to speak before she rejects the idea and says “Nonsense.”?
What I’m saying is that I think the story would have far more immediacy and reality if, instead of reporting what happens, you make us know what it all means to him—what matters to him in the moment he calls now—the reader will be more likely to care, and to wonder what will happen next, just as he does. Our goal, after all, is to hook the reader by involving them emotionally.
On seeing “(Just begun)" in the title I wasn't going to bother commenting; the ideas in such submissions are usually nebulous and subject to arbitrary change by the author. This was reinforced upon reading the submitted fragment: It begins out of nowhere, without development, and says nothing, advancing neither story, plot, nor character--except for this, “I don't want to be adopted.”
Your admission that there is indeed a missing beginning made sense. I was certain something was missing, whether through accident or design. It was at this point I decided to make some comments.
The first person, “I remember when I was a lad, about your age, I went on my first adventure. Let me tell you all about it.” start is only eclipsed in the cliché stakes by the first person viewpoint character waking up being attacked/examined/worshipped by aliens and wondering how they got there beginning.
As far as prologues/back-stories go, such devices are for lazy writers in my opinion--I know, I've used them. Invariably there are better and more artful ways of introducing the required information than resorting to a prologue--I know, I've used them.
If I were your Editor, my advice at this stage would be for you to write out your story, ferret out anything relevant, then trash the rest and start with this idea, ”I don't want to be adopted.” This is the heart of the beginning of your story. Not the actual first words you'd put on the page, but the concept: Here is a boy in an orphanage who doesn't want to be adopted, why? Be creative, be original, think of something outside the box.
You might start with your protagonist first.
I sat frozen in terror watching Sister Mana approach with her brush not even fit for a horse. How many other children before me had faced such fright and fallen victim to its evil talons? I could still see a glistening pool of tears upon the churches marble floor, where Big John, the bravest boy amongst us, had finally broke under the sustained torment. Now it was my turn.