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Red pen session 006 – critique of Firebound, a novel extract by Kathryn Wild

07 Dec

I originally recorded red pen critique as part of a series of podcast episodes dedicated to reading a short story or self-contained novel extract (with synopsis) and then talking about it afterwards. I am now running these on this blog.

I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors writing which I really enjoy so I thought I’d create podcast episodes doing this, and will now be running future ones on the blog, initially with the already-recorded episodes at 5pm daily (or thereabouts, am late today), then every Sunday evening (UK times).

Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments for the recording as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read the story, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!

Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them, then my suggestions for any improvement.

***

The story in this post was kindly emailed to me by Kathryn Wild, a teacher who has spent the last three years in Thailand and Switzerland, working in their education systems, after four years in England. She is currently in the process of relocating again, most likely to Spain, having left the English Education system to allow herself time to travel and more importantly to write. In the space of the last two years, she has written two young adult novels (book one is almost ready to go out, book two needs editing but it is sitting in the ‘bottom draw’ so, she says, she can see it fresh when she come back to it). She is currently 20,000 words into the first draft of book three.

The novel I shall be talking about today is an urban fantasy called ‘Firebound’. Kathryn describes it as the Vampire Diaries books meets the TV show ‘Avatar – The Last Airbender’ (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417299), with the problems that underpinned the problems of the French Revolution. To give you a flavour her synopsis begins: The underground elemental world of the Guardians is facing a rebellion and both sides are pinning their hopes on sixteen-year-old Abigail Cooper who is still grieving from her mother’s strange death and much more interested in regaining her popularity and boys than in her ability to control fire.

I create my comments as I read the story for the first time, as a reader would, so you will have had the advantage of hearing the excerpt in its entirety but hopefully what I have to say will still make sense to you. Unlike critiquing a short story where all I have to go on is a title, I do have an idea of what the extract is about having read the synopsis which does make it a little easier although I admit that I’m no fantasy expert but will do my best.

If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is morgen@morgenbailey.com.

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

So without further ado, the story / synopsis and extract, then my feedback…

Firebound extract

Chapter One:  Tattoo

Her dad still had some part of him that was a human being and he didn’t ground her for her birthday, not that it mattered. She knew what non-events birthdays had become, they didn’t celebrate them anymore and hers was so close to the day they were all dreading.

She had ran up the stairs as soon as she had got home from school. She hated being in this house. It was a family house and since the car crash that had claimed her mum’s life last year she didn’t have one of them. It was best just to stay outside and occupy her mind with other things. Things that didn’t hurt as much to think about. She threw her uniform onto the floor, kicking it out of the way and empting half the contents of her drawers, hiding the last inches of red carpet. She could almost hear her mum’s voice as she threw her blazer on the ‘to be worn again pile’.

Her mum would be having a fit if she saw the mess. ‘Abigail, this room looks like a bomb has hit it.’ She ignored the voice and the familiar shiver that ran down her back as she threw her white school shirt on the pile that screamed, ‘please put me in the washing machine’. Her mum didn’t get a say about that anymore. The fire that had engulfed her car put an end to that. She gulped letting those feelings sink in further to her stomach. She had promised herself, she wasn’t going to go there. Not today.

She reached up to touch her mum’s old necklace and felt it heat up in hands, burning them and forcing her to pull away, before she shook her head. She was just being stupid and way over sensitive. Gold didn’t just randomly heat up. At least not without something causing it to. It was just her mind playing tricks on her, it couldn’t be anything else.

Abigail took the necklace off and carefully placed it on her desk next to her History coursework that was due three days ago. She didn’t (need) any reminders tonight if she wanted to have a good time. Her brown eyes drifting back to it as she threw more clothes out of her wardrobe. She never took her necklace off, but she couldn’t wear it and put her act of being normal tonight. Her hands traced opal marks on her neck, retracing the mark and her mum’s presence and glancing back at the necklace as the sun from the window caught the opals on the golden necklace making it look like flickering flames. She shook her head turning away, her mind and the light were playing some serious tricks on her today.

She kept her outfit simple: trainers, jeans and a hoodie and headed downstairs while letting her red hair fall out of its school day messy plait half way down her back. She never wore her hair down for school, it just got in her way but Jordan liked it down. He loved to run his hands through it, almost as much as he loved to touch her skin. Making him happy would end up making her happy. Focusing on nothing but the blissful dissolution that he could offer, she paused her hand on the kitchen door.

That was her dad’s voice in there, her dad who hadn’t been home before her self imposed bedtime in months was in there, arguing with her grandmother. Her grandmother that bad been banned from the house. It didn’t make sense. But she didn’t let herself think or examine why the two of them were there, in the kitchen and fighting. They always fought and this time it seemed to be about her, or at least her name had been screamed several times but the words didn’t matter. Her dad was actually home. A relief rushed through her, lighting her up and filling her lungs with air. He did still care about her. He must. Maybe all the rejection was gone and he had stopped burying himself in his work. A faint smile formed on her lips as she pushed open the kitchen door.

She rushed in and hugged him, dropping all the guards that she used to protect herself. “Dad.”

“Happy birthday,” her dad, Thomas, pulled his stiff arms away, “shouldn’t you get going? You did make plans with your friends for tonight. You wouldn’t want to keep them waiting.”

“Guess,” she looked down, she didn’t want him to see her face. She needed time to recompose it and put back up her ‘I’m fine act.’ His early appearance obviously had nothing to do with her.  She smiled towards her grandmother, Sylvia, rather than dwell on this. Dwelling on this wouldn’t help, it would only add to her problems. Her dad didn’t do family, anymore and her grandmother had braved his wrath to come and see her from the looks of it. “Hi, Gran.”

“Happy sixteenth,” her grandmother, Sylvia, crossed the room. She held her granddaughter’s face softly for a moment then letting her hand linger on her right shoulder as brushed away her hair out her face. She pulled Abigail into a hug and whispered, “Permissum incendia suscipio.”

“What?” Abigail said.

“Don’t worry about it; you have nothing to worry about now.” Sylvia said.

After several more unanswered questions and another round of verbal sparring between her dad and grandmother, Abigail headed outside. She hugged the black biker jacket to her out of habit rather than from the cold December air. She wasn’t feeling cold, she didn’t tend to get cold, she had some screwed up kind of wiring that kept her warm at all times but she did need the support it offered before she could go back to pretending that everything was still fine. She was determined to enjoy a little of her birthday.

Jordan was waiting for her at the end of her driveway. He never came up to the door if he knew that her family was going to be in and she couldn’t blame him. She didn’t like getting the third degree for being a bad influence from his parents. She hated hearing things like “That Cooper girl.” So she couldn’t blame Jordan for not wanting to get the same treatment.

“You ready?” He took her right hand and gave it a small pull, a pull that shot pain up to her right shoulder.

***

My comments:

I like the title of Chapter 1 as it implies it’s about an actual tattoo so it gives us a picture even before we start reading. Hooks are usually shorter than this first sentence is but it has power and in just 25 words tells us a lot. We already know that it’s third person, past tense and that the main two characters are a father and daughter, we’re assuming the daughter being the protagonist and father antagonist because he’s causing some conflict, albeit not as much as she had expected. It also hints at an element of fantasy by him being part-human and that something had changed over time by using the word ‘still’, although the part-human could be metaphorical. We also immediately sympathise with her because although he’s taken pity on her because it’s her birthday they’re not celebrated especially given that they something bigger to think about.

On first reading the story I stumbled over the ‘She had run (ran) up the stairs as soon as she had got home from school.’ – this could be changed to ‘she’d’ in the second or both cases. Also by saying ‘last year’ it feels present tense so perhaps better saying ‘the previous year’.

‘She hated being in this house.’ is a clear tell. What we could have her doing is something like her growling at it, something which shows us of her feelings, although we then learn why and the reasons for her behaviour.

With the next couple of sentences we have a repetition of ‘things’ and I’m not normally a fan of repetition but this is used correctly there the second instance is an emphasis of the first.

What the girl does next is great! She clearly has no respect for her possessions, and possibly her school, by throwing down the uniform which we then learn is nothing new as her floor is now covered. Whilst this could be clichéd I’d say it’s more stereotypical so nothing wrong at all with that, especially given her motivation for rebellion.

By having ‘She could almost hear her mum’s voice as she threw her blazer on the ‘to be worn again pile.’ I’d say we don’t need the next sentence (Her mum would be having a fit if she saw the mess.) because it’s implied to us how her mother would react and then we’re told how she would and then of course we have what she would have said which I especially like as we’re now told our characters name by another person, albeit it Abigail’s head.

I’m a big fan of inanimate objects having life so loved a pile of clothes screaming to be washed.

And then, wow… we find out how her mother died.

Now, because Kathryn’s just mentioned Abigail’s mother where she goes onto write ‘She gulped letting those feelings sink’, it can be read as her mother gulping so she should change ‘she’ to Abigail to avoid any confusion. Anything that can jump a reader out of a story, or make them pause, should be avoided. Having lost a parent myself, albeit 10 years ago, I found Abigail’s emotions very realistic, very strong writing.

With ‘She reached up to touch her mum’s old necklace’ I assume Kathryn means that the necklace is around Abigail’s neck but it could have been lying on a shelf… I did want to know where she was reaching up to.

I wasn’t sure from this paragraph whether the heating up had happened before. By Abigail just shaking her head it could be that she’d forgotten, but then her being curious about it implies it hasn’t so, perhaps we could have a stronger reaction like her yanking her hand back and blowing on it to cool it? Or something like that.

I’ve described my critique as firm but fair but the firm side of me can be picky… and this includes split infinitives so where we have ‘Abigail took the necklace off’ should read ‘Abigail took off the necklace’ as the verb is to ‘take off’ rather than just ‘take’ and we have that a couple of times, the second time actually I’d say should read ‘She’d never normally…’ and I may be mistaken but I think ‘put her act of being normal’ should be to put on an act. I’m sorry, I did say I was picky.

There was a sentence beginning that I read automatically adding in a word without realising it ‘She didn’t need any reminders tonight’. The original text is actually missing the word ‘need’ but my mind clearly put it in, which is odd how our brains work and presumably Kathryn missed it too.

I did say earlier that I wasn’t a fan of repetition and in that paragraph there are four instances of the word ‘necklace’ so perhaps describe it as golden earlier (especially useful so the ‘opal’ then makes sense (although I wonder if the marks would be opal in colour, perhaps this is one of the fantasy elements of the story).

Then we get a description of her, and it’s a very vivid one at that and we get to know a little about her boyfriend, Jordan, through her eyes and their loving relationship although it’s sad that she feels that has to make him happy in order to be happy herself.

We have a repetition, this time of grandmother, but again it’s emphasis so it’s fine. And I’m intrigued as to why she would be banned. We don’t learn why in this extract although I sense, from the      Latin quote, that she too has a supernatural gift which Abigail’s father doesn’t approve of. Hopefully we’ll learn this later in the book.

We don’t know whether the grandmother is maternal or paternal which doesn’t really matter but may give us an idea as to whether he’s arguing with his mother or mother-in-law which would usually make a difference.

Again we sympathise with Abigail, firstly because her relatives are arguing, then we find out about her, but mainly because of how she feels about her father being home – and this is shown to us rather than told, which is good, and I liked her lungs filling with air as it’s a contrast with her gulping earlier.

When her father wishes her happy birthday we then get his name which I would have preferred to come out in speech because otherwise we could have been told it earlier.

I felt that “You did make plans with your friends for tonight.” was a little clunky and expected a “didn’t you?” at the end or perhaps just change it to a simple “You’ve made plans with your friends for tonight.”

Her then just saying “Guess” confused me a little. I read it as that he had to guess something but then reread it that she mean “I guess so”.

Again I would have liked Sylvia’s name to be in speech rather than being ‘told’ what it is. If the two adults are arguing they could easily shout each others’ names as well as Abigail’s.

With the sentence ‘Dwelling on this wouldn’t help, it would only add to her problems.’ I’m inclined to cut the ‘it would only add to her problems’ as they’re really saying the same thing and the latter is more of a ‘tell’ than the ‘dwelling’. If we didn’t know she had any problems then it would have been useful but I’d say it could go.

After Sylvia wishes Abigail a happy sixteenth (which is a good way of letting us know how old she is), we have Sylvia’s name again which we don’t need because we’ve already been told it so just her name or ‘grandmother’ would be fine.

I think ‘a moment then letting her hand linger’ should read ‘let her hand linger’ otherwise the sentence ends too early, and also ‘her right shoulder’ immediately follows the grandmother’s hand so it should read ‘Abigail’s’ right shoulder otherwise the Sylvia could be touching her own shoulder. I know we know, but again it’s the opportunity to confuse the reader that we don’t need. It’s more obvious if one character is male and one female but something to think about with two characters of the same sex.

On first reading I noticed I’d automatically added another couple of words ‘as she brushed away her hair out of her face’ which originally didn’t have the words ‘she’ or ‘of’, which again I hadn’t spotted the first time round. I stumbled a bit over that section anyway so I’d be inclined to lose the word ‘away’ but again it’s something for Kathryn to look at.

Although I don’t understand Latin I really like having it there because it firstly makes the grandmother feel ‘old and wise’ to me but also like it’s a secret code between the two of them.

I was a little confused though by ‘several more unanswered questions’ as I’d thought that the ‘don’t worry about it’ was an explanation of the Latin so perhaps this can be made a little clearer. Also would Abigail waited while they argued. Would she have said something or escaped earlier? I think she would have wanted to see more of her father and grandmother – perhaps to find a way to stop them arguing. This is something that Kathryn could expand on depending on her word count although this could of course be a section she deliberately didn’t want to elaborate on.

I liked Abigail hugging her jacket to her and then getting a hint of her ability with the fact that she never feels cold and we already have the earlier instance of the necklace burning her hand, although it’s implied that it’s the necklace doing the burning, so perhaps a link of ability passed down from her mother to her.

Where Kathryn says about Jordan, ‘He never came up to the door if he knew that her family was going to be in’ – presumably in this instance it was because of a car or two being outside the house, because if it was a surprise to Abigail that they were there, he wouldn’t have known unless she’d rung him to tell him and we’re not told that she has. I felt the rest of that paragraph, where she’s analysing why he keeps his distance could be trimmed and would she hear “that Cooper girl” unless they’re talking about her while she’s there and assumed that it would be spoken to Jordan instead so this could be tweaked. I like that way of getting her surname in though.

I love the final line because although they’re obviously close just him touching her causes her pain which I suspect has a deeper meaning to it, and therefore a great place to end.

Conclusion:

Kathryn has achieved what should be done in a novel’s first chapter; she’s introduced us to our protagonist, given a little description of her so we can form a picture, mentioned a small number of other characters, and given us their conflicts or dilemmas without giving too much away. It’s always very tempting to give as much information about the characters and setting at the beginning – known as an ‘info dump’ but we don’t have that here, and it makes us want to read on. Also as a non-reader of fantasy I don’t feel overwhelmed by the information we’ve been given. It’s a very relatable story and I suspect from Kathryn’s clear writing style it’ll continue like that.

***

Since this red pen session aired Kathryn has received other feedback and has changed the beginning of her novel to…

Chapter One:  Fire

The old necklace burnt in Abigail’s hand as she touched it. The burning feeling licked over her fingers as she held it tighter. Necklaces shouldn’t burn. But there it was lighting up in her hand the same way that a struck match would have done.  Abigail let her mother’s old necklace slip back through her fingers and settle back into place. It sat in its normal position round her neck, just as it should be and not burning anymore. She ran her thumb along her fingertips. Apart from the paper cut on her ring finger, they felt the same, not burning, or even burnt, not hot or even that warm. Just normal. She reached up to touch the necklace again. Her hands heated up again. She pulled them away and kicked out at a pile of dirty school shirts scattering them across the red carpet.

This was stupid. She was just being stupid and way over sensitive. Gold didn’t just randomly heat up, at least not without something causing it to.  Fire may have engulfed her mother’s car last year, but flames didn’t just spring up out of nothing. It was just the anniversary coming up. It was just her mind playing tricks on her, it couldn’t be anything else.

Abigail took off the necklace and carefully placed it on her desk next to her history coursework that was due in three days ago. She didn’t need any reminders of her mum tonight if she wanted to have a good time. She was determined to have a good time. Tears over last year’s car crash could wait at least for another day. Her gaze drifted back to the necklace as she threw more clothes out of her wardrobe. She felt naked without the necklace on, unprotected, unprepared, but she couldn’t wear it and put on her act of being normal tonight. Her hands traced marks on her neck as she felt her mum’s presence join her in the room. At least she could still find a few ways that she could remember her mum even if she wasn’t here. And one of those ways was wearing, her necklace and her symbol. The sun from the window caught the opals on the golden necklace making them look like flickering flames. She shook her head; her mind and the light were playing some serious tricks on her today.

She kept her outfit simple: trainers, jeans and a hoodie.  She turned to the mirror, giving her appearance a final once over. She looked okay. Her trainers didn’t have their usual crust of mud at the toe, nor were there any tears in her jeans. Her red hair flickered, like a fire sputtering into life as she let it fall out of its school day messy plait and half way down her back.

She was royally losing it today.  Fan-bloody-tastic.  That nonsense with the necklace was just another thing that would cut her off from the crowd if she lost it. Damn it, she was normal, better than normal. She was popular. Or at least she had been. The necklace hadn’t heated up, the symbol hadn’t flickered in the light and her hair, despite its colour, was not on fire. No flames, just a stupid overactive imagination. An imagination that could easily be put to bed when she got out of this damn house.

Abigail paused as she reached the bottom of the stairs. The noise that had been masked by Holly’s television commentary on some storms in the north of Scotland was clear down on the lower level of the house. Her feet followed the voices before she paused again, her hand on the kitchen door. Her teeth dug down on her bottom lip. By the sound of it, she should be listening to this, despite not being invited to join in the conversation.  Yet Jordan was waiting for her and he hated to be kept waiting. Her hand moved off away from the door. She should head out to him. But… But… Her hand found its way back to its paused position on the door. That was her dad’s voice in there.

A relief rushed through her, lighting her up and filling her lungs with air. Her dad was home, actually home. Maybe all the fights, detentions and letters home from school had finally worked. He did still care about her. He must. Maybe the days of conversations with his answering machine were over and he had stopped burying himself in his work. Her dad who had not been home before her self-imposed bedtime in months was in there. He was in there arguing with her grandmother. Her grandmother had been banned from the house since Beth’s eighteenth birthday, over six years ago. Her dad had even kicked her grandmother out the house for a second time, the day following her mum’s funeral. Sparks had flown that day, along with the raised voices.

“Abigail is my daughter, damn it!”

“She’s my Heir and as of today, she is of age.”

“She’s is not your Heir.” Her dad sounded out every word. “She is my girl. Abi is my girl.”

“Just look at her, Thomas,” Her grandmother’s voice was the opposite to her dad’s, calm and controlled, but she too sounded out each word.  “Stop and look at her, her brown eyes, her red hair, just like all her true ancestors. You can claim Holly and Bethany all you like but Abigail is my Heir, she is part of my world, not yours.”

A thud sounded against wood and the noise ricocheted through the air and pushed Abigail’s breath back down her throat. Her hand stayed frozen on the door, not wanting to push or pull away. That wasn’t her passionless dad in there. Not the man that responded to his daughter being involved in a fight by placing a note on the fridge with dates that she was grounded. It was the man who had screamed on the touchlines as she had flung herself into a tackle on the football pitch. It was the dad she had given up on still being around months ago.

“We rejected that world when you killed off your last Heir. You will not get your hands on my girl. Damn it, Sylvia. You will not get my girl. You will not treat her the same way that you did her mother.”

***

KathrynKathryn’s website is http://www.kathrynwild.com and you can follow her on Twitter (where there’s currently this photograph of Kathryn and a beautiful tiger!).

***

If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is morgen@morgenbailey.com.

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

Next is Flash Fiction Friday: ‘Between Floors’ (803 words) by Rowena Simpkiss

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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

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