GtPGKogPYT4p61R1biicqBXsUzo" /> Google+ Guest Post: YA Fantasy Author R J Barron: In Praise of The Slow Start | I Smell Sheep

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Guest Post: YA Fantasy Author R J Barron: In Praise of The Slow Start

Fans of Harry Potter, His Dark Materials and Orphans of the Tide will love this exciting, fast-paced adventure story with its echoes of Narnia and a passage to another, strangely familiar, world.

In Praise of The Slow Start

Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham, caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.”

This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul of those same submission guidelines and can’t get published. What’s the next best thing to do? Why, advise other wannabe authors of course. Look through the individual agent pages of literary agencies, where each agent is desperately trying to pitch themselves and their own USP. “I’m looking for submissions that grab me immediately, that make me desperate for the rest of the manuscript. I immediately know that the novel is going to be amazing from the way it gripped me relentlessly from the start.”

Oh dear. Really? This is as hackneyed and depressing as the relentless mantra, “Show Not Tell” or the terribly modern obsession with writing in the first person or (but usually “and”) writing in the present tense because it makes the novel so much more immediate and engaging. Whenever I see that I have to suppress a yawn, knowing that I’m going to be reading an identikit novel that is indistinguishable from all the others. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skillful practitioner, the first person does all that the gurus promise. It’s just that it’s not often in those hands, and the voice of this first-person, unless the character is meant to be a wannabe novelist with a penchant for purple prose is all too often crashingly inauthentic.

But I digress. Iain Banks, the brilliant Scottish writer has a lot to answer for. Ever since his wonderful novel, “The Crow Road” began with the immortal first line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded”, critics, publishers and agents have demanded fireworks right from the off. In that book, it was bold, refreshing, innovative and exhilarating. In the hands of lesser exponents it is simply cliched and desperate. Everyone has been told they have to do it. The first 3 chapter submission requirement underlines that. And so, all books have to follow the same pattern.

How sad! How reductive! How depressing! Like virtually all rules of writing, it’s unhelpful and misleading. If that’s what your book needs, then go for it. But don’t do it because some guide to writing told you to. And if your book needs an opening that is a leisurely unfolding, with space to breathe and think, then be brave enough to do that. The real fireworks are those that aggregate from your deliberate, mindful laying out of a setting, a situation, characters and a dilemma and then, come with a joyful rush at the end.

R J Barron

by R J Barron
June 11, 2021
YA Fantasy adventure
Publisher: Burton and Mayers
Thomas Trelawney thinks he will never get over the death of his sister Grace. When he is plunged into the parallel world of eighteenth century Yngerlande and tasked with saving their tolerant, diverse world from a brutal takeover, using powers he never knew he possessed, he can start to forget and move on. But who is the secretive, hooded girl who arrives to help him, leaving a trail of stars and mystery in her wake?

Fans of Harry Potter, His Dark Materials and Orphans of the Tide will love this exciting, fast-paced adventure story with its echoes of Narnia and a passage to another, strangely familiar, world.

He woke with a start sometime later and looked around the carriage. The noise came again, sending a shiver down his spine. A single, spine chilling howl from outside the carriage, followed by other answering howls. Wolves! In the quiet of the night their cries echoed for miles, a plaintive sound that sent a thrill of fear through the veins of everyone who heard it. Tom sprang up and held the curtain back. The window was bigger than in the stage coach and once he had cleared a hole in the mist he could see them.

The snow had stopped falling and there was a bright silvery moon. There was a pack of about ten grey wolves that had emerged from the forest on the far hill side. Now they seemed to be tracking the progress of the carriage, running parallel to it, a little way behind, over the snow-covered fields between the edge of the woods and the road.

The wolves loped along, their breath steaming. They ran with an easy grace and Tom sensed that they could either keep up that pace for a long time or, if needed, accelerate. It was a magnificent sight. Every now and then he caught sight of the cruel, razor sharp teeth in their jaws, as they ran alongside. He thought to himself, “I wouldn’t like to be an animal out here tonight, having to face that lot.”

And then, with a sharp chill of fear he realised. That was exactly what he was. The wolf pack was chasing them, alone on a country road, one petrified horse and two humans. In this snow, one tiring horse pulling a carriage couldn’t possibly out run them. And Silas! With a jolt Tom realised. Silas was outside, unprotected.

He was just about to lean forward and hammer on the wall of the carriage when it began to slow down. He heard Silas’ voice from outside.

“Whoa, whoa old girl, steady now.”

The carriage stopped and the horse’s frightened whinnying and stamping cut through the crisp night air.

“Thomas!” Silas shouted, “Tom! Get out of the carriage now!”

Tom opened the carriage door and jumped down. He was hit by a wall of cold air and his boots sank into six inches of snow. Gasping, he struggled to the front of the carriage where Silas had jumped down. He was holding the reins of the sweating, terrified horse in one hand and a rifle in the other.

“Wolves,” he said, handing the reins to Tom. Seeing Tom’s face, a mixture of terror and confusion, he laid his hand on his shoulder.

“All will be well Tom, trust me. The wolves are hungry and bold. One shot from this will send them packing but I need you to hold on to our horse. If she bolts with the gunshot, the whole thing will get a little more difficult.”

“But Silas,” Tom stammered. “I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to hold the horse.”

“Wrap the reins around that tree, and then hold on to it. It’ll be fine.”

The wolves on the snow -covered hill side opposite had slowed to a walk now, their tracks stretching back along the snowy hillside like a row of full stops. They set up another cacophony of howling and wailing, their heads pointing to the stars and their throats extended. Tom trembled with cold and fear. The wolves broke off from their chorus and the lead animal cautiously trotted towards the carriage, the other members of the pack ambling long behind him. They fanned out, as if they were going to surround them. The horse, sweating and terrified, reared up and whinnied in fear. The wolves could sense the other animal’s terror and came in closer.

Silas picked up his rifle and levelled it, the stock in his shoulder, the sight to his eye and took aim, squinting as the cross hairs of the sight found the head and chest of the lead wolf. Just as he was about to squeeze the trigger, an owl, perched in the overhanging branches above their heads, launched itself into the frosty night air. A shower of snow dropped from the branch behind him as the bird passed in front of Silas’ eye line. He ducked instinctively, whirling around to look at what had just happened. The jerking movement was his downfall and his boots slipped on the sheet of frozen water. He crashed to the ground, throwing the shotgun high into the air. It landed in the deep snow a couple of yards away from Silas’ prone body.

The sudden motion of the owl, and the crash as Silas and the gun landed, halted the wolves’ progress. They sniffed the air cautiously, and as silence once again settled, the lead wolf took the first pace forward, tongue lolling, saliva dripping. Tom looked on, gripped with fear, at Silas’ twisted body in the snow. He tried to pick himself up and stretch for the shotgun, but it was well out his reach. The lead wolf broke into a trot, its steaming breath billowing into the air.

“Silas!,” Tom screamed.

“Get in the carriage, Thomas, “Silas ordered, shouting back at Thomas. “Quickly now, don’t do anything stupid now.”

The lead wolf was almost upon him now. Tom, still shaking with fear screamed, “Nooo…” and took a step towards them as the wolf prepared to spring, teeth bared, guttural growling ripping from its throat. In Tom’s head, time stood still. All noise faded; all movement ceased. He became suffused with a silvery glow, starting from deep within him, spreading all through and over his body. Above his head a tiny spray of silver stars began to gently fizz and pop like sherbet. His first step forward turned into a mighty spring and he leaped, with a powerful surge of energy towards the wolf and the struggling figure of Silas, who had his hands outstretched in front of him to ward off the inevitable lunge for his throat. As Tom was in mid-air, he heard an even greater roar and thought for a split second that the other wolves had joined in the attack but then realised with a shock that the roar came from him. It echoed around the hillsides as he slammed into the wolf’s pouncing body just as it was about to sink its teeth around Silas’ windpipe.

The wolf was knocked to the side, yelping and howling in pain and shock. The pack behind it had already stopped dead still, frozen by the awful sound of Tom’s fearful, other-worldly growling. They put their heads down to the ground in a gesture of subservience and whimpered and whined. The surge of energy from the strange silvery glow that had covered him had started to fade, as did his growl, and he began to return to his normal state of being. He just had long enough to scramble to his feet to grab the shotgun a few yards away.

He picked it up and swivelled, pointing it directly at the lead wolf that had recovered its courage and was coming back for more. Tom had no idea what he was going to do. He had never held a gun before, let alone fired one, but before he had time to think, he simply followed his instincts, instincts that he had never known he possessed. He was enveloped in an icy calm as he placed the wolf in the cross hairs of his gun sight as it sprang back at him.

He muttered, “I’m sorry, but it’s either you or us,” and then gently squeezed the trigger.

There was a deafening bang and a howl of pain as the wolf dropped like a stone into the snow. The horse, still attached to the carriage, reared up in panic. Tom, without a second thought, sprang up and grabbed for the reins as the horse, nostrils flaring, prepared to flee. It was almost not a surprise to him when, with minimal effort, he, a slight, wiry thirteen-year-old, was able to pull back and restrain the enormous, sleekly-muscled beast. He pulled on the reins, dragging the horse to him, and whispered hypnotically all the while in its face. The horse gave a few snorts and then stood quietly to attention. Meanwhile the shock of the gunshot had sent the wolf pack scattering back up into the woods, heads down, ears flattened. They sprinted, while down below their leader oozed red blood into the brilliant white snow, steaming against the blackness of the night sky.

A quiet descended upon them. As the realisation of what had just happened dawned upon Thomas, he began to shake and his teeth chattered as he spoke.

“Are you alright Silas? I was worried, I didn’t think that…” He trailed off, not quite sure how to finish his sentence.

“I’m fine, thanks to you Master Thomas,” Silas said with a smile.

“What just happened? I’ve never done anything like that before. I didn’t know I…. I’ve never even held a rifle before, never mind fire one. I don’t understand…”

For the second time he trailed off, his eyes looking down at the snow-covered ground, shaking his head. Silas stepped towards him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s like I told you Thomas. You have certain powers. It is all within you, waiting to come out. Tonight, when you needed to, you found the spirit inside of yourself. Tonight was just the first time. It will happen many times again, believe me.”

Tom stared up at him, his eyes sparkling. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted these new powers, this inner fire. He suddenly wanted to be plain old Tom Trelawney, aged thirteen, at home in boring old twenty-first century England, with his sister and his mother and father. Silas, who seemed to know what he was thinking, smiled at him.

“Let’s get you back to the Rectory. We’ve both had enough excitement for one night, I think,” he said, looking at the body of the wolf.

“Are we just going to leave that there?” he asked Silas.

“It will be food for some other desperate creature in this wild weather. The natural world has simple rules, Thomas. Eat or be eaten. Survive or die. We survived. They won’t bother us again, not tonight anyway. Come,” he said, clapping his hand on Tom’s shoulder, “The Rectory is only another fifteen minutes away.”

Tom climbed back into the carriage and once Silas had untethered the horse, they set off again at a gentle trot.

Inside the carriage, Tom looked back down the road at the corpse of the wolf. Already, a fox, emboldened by hunger, had emerged from the woods and was sniffing the body. The last Tom could see, the fox plunged its head into the wolf’s body and began to gorge. It would not go hungry that night.

About the Author:
Rob, 64, was an English teacher in London for over thirty years, and now, when he’s not writing, he trains new English teachers. Originally from Teesside, he became familiar with Runswick Bay, the North Yorkshire Moors and the city of York, first as a child, and then as a student. His love of the history and geography of these locations can be seen on every page of “The Watcher and the Friend”, his first book for children.

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