Wednesday, 06 January 2016 03:27

The Book, the Rock and the Sword

Peat, you finished your synopsis saying: ‘I'm very keen for comments on style, interest, options ... anything really.’ You’re a new writer who welcomes feedback; therefore, in displaying this extract for others to read, I hope you get some commentary on Facebook below. And for once I’ll expand my own focus and include some remarks about style. Usually I concentrate first on the shape of the narrative, but I have the feeling that you have an excellent grasp of form. This is the first novel in a trilogy aimed mainly at teenage boys and deals with adventure on a grand scale – nothing less than the formation of our world, its past and its future, which will be influenced by humanity’s response to a mysterious rock that lurks below Earth’s surface, and whose secret is revealed in an even more mysterious book. You begin your novel with a numbered sequence concerning the rock: here are the last two. “6: Over time that fragment was driven out through many layers, like a prickle working its way without. Volcanoes spat it up and oceans sucked it down; erosion left it bare and landslides covered it again, until it lodged, finally, just beneath the earth’s bright face. The time was now approaching for the Rock to find its own rare purpose! 7 And so We came.”

This is eloquent, but giving us a page from the Book so soon pre-empts the story. In your first chapter, after the fall of Acre, you soon get to the point where Jeremiah meets crucial survivors of the Order, who are fleeing with the Book itself, or part of it. I suggest you wait, to allow the reader to become intrigued by these precious documents when they first appear, and that you reveal the supreme importance of the Book gradually, throughout the narrative.

Similarly, it will detract from your novel if you explain the crusades and their aftermath at the very beginning of your novel in (your oddly named Prelogue). Instead, Chapter One plunges us immediately into Jeremiah’s dilemma, which you present clearly and dramatically. The only signpost you need here is the year: 1291. Every reader has at least a vague idea about the crusades and will be ready for the ‘true’ story of the way they ended. Chapter One is where your novel really starts, with a fascinating crisis that Jeremiah is quite unable to solve. The reader will be on his side, even though he’s evidently something of a coward, a nice touch that gives complexity to his character.

Let me give you some short notes under your own headings.

You have a wide vocabulary and a love of books and I sense you devour them rapidly. Your response to words is aural and perhaps a little hasty, which sometimes leads you to neglect their meanings. So that readers can appreciate your extract, I have corrected the occasional misuse. For instance, in your first paragraph, you had the sea chain ‘bedraggled with seaweed’ but unfortunately nothing can be bedraggled by anything, so another word is required. I suggest ‘befouled’, since it’s both nautical (associated with fouled anchors and rudders) and negative (this is a threatening scene). In your third-to-last paragraph, Jeremiah ‘emitted the news’ when of course he should have ‘omitted’ it. Don’t hesitate to use a dictionary to check your chosen words.

For ease of reading I suggest you avoid unnecessary capital letters, as in ‘Southern Breakwater’ or ‘Crusades’.

Another aspect of your style that you could watch is repetition. You use the word ‘spewing’ twice on your first page. Chains do not spew, so I’d suggest ‘stretched’ for the first use. You use ‘after’ twice in one sentence, where it has two meanings.

Your descriptions are well done but this is war and you occasionally take the crispness out of the action by over-elaboration. For instance, when Jeremiah is on the ramparts, his fiddling with his belt and the information that he’s had to take it in a notch lately seem irrelevant before the magnitude of what he’s facing. Your scene-setting is excellent and will be improved by simply removing any over-elaboration.

You’ve set up the conflict well: how is Jeremiah going to survive the destruction of Acre, when everyone around him, including the blue-eyed boy, are being killed? One aspect of the basic situation you could pay attention to is accuracy. Where did the recruits come from? They must have arrived by land as they couldn’t have run the Mameluke blockade. I think the reader needs to be briefly told this. Why did von Eschenbach hand his last crucial military task (deploying the new troops) to a hospital orderly instead of a hospitaller knight (note the spelling of hospitaller)? Was he covering himself by letting the blame of ultimate defeat fall on Jeremiah? Readers are always keen to follow the mechanics of war and you have made tactics central to the novel at this point—make sure they’re well understood. An example is carabohas, which were gigantic six-man slingshots. They could not ‘mine’ walls, but they could break them down. The last part of your third-to-last paragraph might read: ‘the Sultan’s men had already reached the walls with their heavy wicker screens and had started attacking the towers with carabohas, gigantic slingshots that would eventually bring them down.’ You’d also need to tell the reader what the wicker screens are for.

I think in your first chapters the reader would like to know the company to which Jeremiah belongs. I’m assuming it’s the Knights of St Thomas Acon, not to be confused with the Knights Templar and others who also defended Acre. Their Master was killed at Acre and membership of the order was restricted to Englishmen, so you may wish to select a different name for the Master here, to avoid confusion with von Eschenbach (author of Parzival), a major medieval poet who died in 1220. Or is Jeremiah one of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who also went to Cyprus when Acre fell? Their Master at the time was Guillaume de Villaret.

On the subject of accuracy, avoid anachronisms (such as ‘upgrade’ and metric systems of measurement), especially in dialogue (e.g. ‘state of the art’, ‘save your sorry arse’).

With a trilogy that is obviously going to be full of action and grand events, and with a fabulous title (!) I think you have made an extremely promising start with The Book, the Rock and the Sword, well suited to the young male audience you are targeting. Your first 30 pages show admirable forward movement and your story is exciting and unpredictable. Readers of war stories appreciate attention to tactics, weaponry and the technicalities of military conflict, and Jeremiah will be a help to you as a character here. As he gets to know all the finer points of battle (things he never wanted to get so close to before!), so will the young reader. When your first novel is complete and polished, I suggest you query agents in Australia, the US and the UK who represent authors in your genre, offering them the first novel and providing an appealing pitch for the trilogy. I wish you luck in 2016 and beyond!

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