[Edited on 17th November 2013] So a few days after posting the first chapter of The Fire Mages, I’ve had five critiques. They’ve ranged from quite negative to extremely positive, full of glowing praise. But from the five crits together, I’ve got a great deal of feedback, both large and small. Some of it I feel safe in ignoring. The critters who wanted the main character named and setting described within the first few lines – it’s a common principle, but it’s hard to do in a first person point of view, and really, fantasy readers in particular are quite happy to wait a while longer to find out about the world (in fact, they enjoy having it revealed in tiny snippets along the way).
Besides, other critters explicitly liked the opening hook. This is very common, that the aspects some readers like best are also the ones that attract the most adverse comment. Then there was advice to remove adverbs; again, a standard principle, but ‘said softly’ is subtly different from ‘whispered’ or ‘murmured’. It’s nice to have these pointed out, but I’m not necessarily going to change them just because one or two people disliked them. Other details – yes, good points; like the vast number of names introduced, and my tendency to over-capitalise.
There are some points that recurred: everyone wanted more details about the setting and characters, for instance. OK, I admit my descriptions were minimalist. The part where Kyra watches the Steward arrive confused almost everyone, so that has to go, leaving the scene to start from Kyra meeting the Steward (a much better place). Then there was the comment that the tension (of Kyra versus the Steward/her mother) was resolved mid-chapter, after which there was virtually no tension; interesting point. I was advised to add dramatic urgency to the chapter. OK, that’s a serious structural issue which I had to take on board.
So I began to rewrite. I added plenty of description of the house and a bit of the characters. I ramped up the tension by having the Steward explain the background to the Kellon’s plans, and by having an emotional outburst from Mother. I put in a section where Kyra thinks things over, appreciates the advantages of being a lady, even for a short while and then meets the Steward again to refuse officially. I ended up splitting the chapter into two, the business with the Steward in one and the gathering in the other. To get magic back into the opening chapter, I moved up the backstory about the travelling scribe. And I didn’t like it. I now had a very long and dull first chapter, covering only one aspect, and I still had the tension resolved quickly, because Kyra still refuses. So – time to backtrack.
When I first started writing this book, I deliberately chose a terse style with little description, because that fitted with Kyra’s character. She’s a very self-absorbed person, who really doesn’t notice much of what’s going on around her. Many times when she does comment on events, she sees only how it affects her. So that’s intentional, and although I probably do need to add a little more description, I think the approach is fundamentally sound.
The original first chapter covered the meeting with the Steward, the Kellon’s impotence (a major plot point), the Kellon’s arrival at the gathering when Drei notices Kyra, the healing attempt with the child (very important to introduce magic, and for later developments), Kyra working at the inn (which is mostly setting description), a second meeting with Drei, and a conversation with Bonnor. All this establishes Kyra’s personality (determined, ambitious, almost wilfully self-centred), establishes thought magic, establishes Kyra’s background in a happy family, part of a community (no mistreated orphan here), establishes the oddity of Drei, and even, in Bonnor, establishes the serious nature of Kyra, not tempted by the village charmer, who routinely seduces all the young girls. And all in under 3,500 words.
My modified first chapter, the same size, covers only the meeting with the Steward and although it establishes some of the same points, it covers far less ground, the introduction of magic is very contrived, and it makes Kyra’s mother behave out of character by having a go at Kyra, something which she’s actually far too buttoned up to do. So, after all that, I think I will revert to the original format, although with some changes. The moral of that is: sometimes you have to try things to realise they don’t work.
The question of tension and dramatic urgency is a difficult one. My original emphasis – using the Kellon as a way of showing Kyra’s determination to be a scribe – works far better, I think. I will keep some of the added description, and perhaps show how much she has to lose by attempting such a difficult thing, but ultimately I can’t drum up tension that doesn’t exist. Most of the early part of the book is low-tension and high-mystery stuff (ie typical low fantasy); there are no bands of marauding orcs here. The first point of dramatic urgency isn’t until chapter 9. In The Plains of Kallanash, it’s chapter 21 before the shit hits the fan. Up until then, things are very gradually going awry, increasingly out of kilter, but there’s nothing that knocks the wheels completely off the wagon.
The point about this is that it’s exactly the sort of fantasy I like to read. It’s deeply character-driven, starting entirely with the characters in their setting, and leading from there wherever they and their personalities decide to go. Eventually this leads them into direct and violent conflict with other elements of their world (either other characters with different objectives, or the political powers, or whatever it might be), but, at least initially, there isn’t much dramatic urgency. And no, I’m not going to parachute in those marauding orcs; it really isn’t that kind of story.
All of this sounds as if I’m rejecting the negative critique advice. Not so. It’s all interesting, and I’ve thought carefully about it. I’ve incorporated a great deal of it, in fact. But ultimately, this is my story and only I can know where the rest of it is heading. I can’t change the whole plot because some critters thought the opening chapter needed more tension. Nor can I change things so that anyone behaves out of character. Kyra’s mother wouldn’t ever stoop to berate her daughter for her wilfulness and selfishness, it’s just not in her character (even though it was a good piece of dialogue!). So I will incorporate some of the changes, but ultimately I think the chapter works better in its original form.