The Great Cut: Getting the First Chapter Right (A Second Look)

This is my tenth post on novel revision. The goal: cut 50,000+ words from my 172,000-word fantasy novel, Black Scales, to make it a more marketable piece of fiction.

When I began my revision journey, I had some very specific goals in mind. I wanted to eliminate information dumps, purple prose, telling verses showing and needless dialogue and descriptions. This helped me get my word count down to 120,154.

Doing a little research at the local library, I noticed that many fantasy novels open up with the story’s protagonist.  Doing a little research online, I came across author C.S. Lakin’s blog about successful first paragraphs where she emphasizes the need to showcase the protagonist’s core need and place him/her in the center of some sort of conflict. Put another was by author Alexandra Sokoloff, “SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.”

Knowing the importance of my first chapter, I gave it a hard second look (or perhaps 3rd or 4th). Not only was my protagonist’s core need not addressed, my protagonist did not even appear! In fact, my first chapter was dedicated to introducing the book’s antagonist and a few lesser characters. Eek!

Below is the original first chapter of Black Scales that I cut from the book. I also cut the second chapter and re-wrote several subsequent chapters to bring the central protagonist front and center.  My new word count is now at 118,456.

Chapter 1- Furius

     “Bring fire and oil,” Urms ordered. “Check below deck for signs of life.”

Around the ships, firelight appeared in the floating forest as the Gilian tended their lamps. Urms could already feel the moisture leaving his skin. If he stayed out of water long enough it would dry and look almost human.

The deck creaked behind Urms where two Gilian stood holding torches. “Keep watch,” he said.

The door to the captain’s cabin was ajar and Urms pushed it open with his trident. “Men…” he covered his nose.

Blood spattered papers covered the captain’s table and floor. Urms lifted a drawing from the ground.

“This isn’t a map…it’s a battle plan. Get out now!”

A cloaked man blocked the doorway. Behind him, the torchbearers lay dead, their throats slit gill to gill. Standing over them were two other men holding swords.

“Don’t move,” said the lead man. “I don’t want to hurt that pretty skin.”

“Who are you?” Urms muttered.

“This voluptuous man to my left is Bassus. He looks slow but I warn you he’s not. His tall friend to my right is Gurges. Pray you don’t have something he wants. I am Atellus. Welcome to our ships. Our master, Furius, has been expecting you.”

“You will die for this, Atellus,” Urms raised his trident.

“You may want to reconsider that lad,” Atellus winked.

Urms heard a creak and felt the cold touch of sword points against his back.

“Time to drop that fish skewer of yours,” said Atellus. “I won’t ask you again.”

Urms dropped his trident and Atellus motioned him forward with his sword. “Furius’s dreams were right after all. You have gills and everything.”

Urms stepped over his fallen comrades. “You’re monsters.”

“I don’t like how it speaks,” said Gurges. “Shall I teach it some respect?”

“Later,” said Atellus. “Let’s see how the others did?”

Bassus forced Urms to his knees while Gurges bound him with rope. They dragged him to the edge of the deck where the three interlocked ships formed a triangular pool at their center. Urms faced the other captured Gilian and lowered his eyes.

“You are from the Order of Arms, correct?” came a voice from behind Urms. Urms tried to turn to the voice but Gurges backhanded him.

“Look ahead. Speak,” Gurges growled.

“I am,” said Urms. “Who are you?”

Gurges moved to hit Urms again but the unseen man placed his hand between them. “I am Furius of Authia. I recommend not struggling.”

“What do you want?”

“You’ll see. Toss the bodies overboard.”

“Yes, Furius,” Atellus motioned to his men who tossed the Gilian overboard. The bodies floated and were dragged under the water.

“Good.” Furius whispered. He crossed the deck and faced the forest. “I would treat with Arwa, Queen of the Gilian, for the lives of these three prisoners. I will begin executions in ten minutes.”

“Minius, you’re first,” Furius signaled a soldier on an adjacent ship.

Minius pulled out a knife and stood behind his Gilian prisoner. “Yes, Master Furius. Give the signal and it will be done.”

“How do you know of our queen?” asked Urms, quickly glancing back at Furius. Urms thought his face younger than his voice with the gauntness of a man who might have been tortured or plagued with visions.

“I dreamed it,” answered Furius, steadying himself on the ship’s railing.

Near the bow of the ship, the trees on the water drifted apart, forming a long channel. A small ship, illuminated by a golden lantern drifted forward. Standing aft were two figures Urms knew, Herms, of the Order of Rites and Arwa.

“Drop a ladder and get me a chair,” said Furius. “We have guests.”

The men obeyed and Furius sat down and lowered his eyes. When he raised them again, Arwa and Herms were facing him.

“Welcome, Arwa. I am Furius of Authia. These men are what remains of our brave country. I am surprised that the scent of the dead could hide our odor, savage as we are now.”

“My people have heard of Arx Caeli’s war with Authia,” Arwa spoke softly.

Furius leaned forward in his chair. “Did you hear that those of us who survived were marched to Arx Caeli like animals, tortured and left to rot in their dungeons?”

“What do you ask of the people of the lake?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” Furius laughed. “Why does any man enter this Gods’ forsaken place? We seek the island, Apenninus, and the Golden Land.”

“Passage there is forbidden.”

“Yes, I was told you would say that. Minius.”

Minius lifted his captive’s head by the hair and opened his neck with a blade. A torrent of blood spilled down his scales onto his silver shorts and into the water below.

“No!” Urms cried, struggling against his bonds. Gurges silenced him with the hilt of his sword.

Arwa lowered her face. “The Gods will not forgive you for this.”

“The Gods forsook me the day I watched soldiers burn the castle where my son slept. Shall I execute more of your people?”

“No,” Arwa turned to Herms who glanced at the captives and shook his head.

Arwa met Furius’s gaze. “I will lead you to the island only if you release the prisoners.”

Furius’s eyes brightened. “That’s better, but I’ll feel safer with your warriors dead. Kill them!”

“Okay, frog boy, you’re done,” Gurges grinned, grabbing Urms’s hair.

Arwa took Herms’s hand. “You know what you must do. Trust your vision.”

Herms pushed Arwa behind him and raised a bottle from his satchel.

“Get back!” Atellus threw himself in front of Furius.

Herms threw the bottle onto the ground where it exploded in a boom of light. Arwa made for the ladder and Furius’s men fell over each other.

“Get out of my way, fools,” Atellus cursed, pushing them aside.

Gurges relaxed his grip and Urms rose up and struck the man with the back of his head. The soldier stumbled back and before he could right his sword, Herms wrapped Urms in his arms and dove overboard, disappearing into the black, bloody waters.

Arwa put one foot over the railing and Atellus seized her by the hair. She cried out and Atellus pushed her before Furius’s feet.

Furius clapped his hands. “Pathetic, truly pathetic. That Gilian wasn’t even a warrior.”

The soldiers regained their composure and Atellus got down on his knee, “I’m sorry, Master Furius. I have failed you.”

Furius made a dismissive wave. “Secure the queen. She is your charge Atellus. If anything should happen to her, you will know the limits of my forgiveness.”

 

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