Writing that Scene: 1001 Islands

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In the format of a non-traditional critique, Writing That Scene examines the fundamentals of what makes a scene powerful and memorable for readers.

I’m happy to bring back the Writing That Scene feature with a first-ever examination of a contemporary author’s work. Thanks, K. T. Munson, for having the courage to take the plunge.

The goal of these posts is to provide an opportunity for authors to learn from each other and to see their own writing with fresh eyes. In my own experience, hearing what other writers and readers thought of my writing has been hugely helpful, and Writing That Scene aims to provide other authors with this opportunity.

If you are interested in sharing a scene of your own for a future post, click on the Writing that Scene Submission link. To see the last scene featured, click here.

Author: K. T. Munson

Scene location: Beginning of the book

Genre: Fantasy

1001 Islands

The firelight of a thousand souls burned like stars across the island’s gut. As the raft drifted up the last of the swampy channel, a young girl looked into the water’s dark whisper. She could hear its fingers reaching up to the raft’s side; trying to claw its way up or drag her down. Its song was deadly as the lone resident of the little swampy isle.

There, through the trees and the plants with fan sized leaves, was the well-kept house. She felt herself swallow and pull back, but her mother had a firm hold on her arm. Her mother glanced down in a disregarding manner as she pulled back, but did little else. The little girl could feel the way the swamp seemed to know she was there. The hairs on her arms rose as though her body was warning her.

Her fear-filled eyes turned around to their guide, who pushed his long stick into the body of the swamp to propel them forward. To what end she wasn’t sure, but from the fervent look in her mother’s eyes it was nothing good. Her fingers dug into the child’s skin.

As they glided up to the blackened dock the man announced in a thick accent, “She knows you are here and I go no further.”

Her mother nodded and, without as much as a thank you, stepped onto the deck. Her toes hesitated but she found it as sturdy as any floor. Her mother marched them up the deck and into a small hut. The girl could see the larger house behind it in the twinkle of the firelight. When they entered the first one she tried to hide behind her mother but she would have none of it. Her mother nearly hauled her feet up the stairs into the second level as torchlight cast eerie shadows at the edges of the room.

“Why have you come?” said a woman with a thin lacy veil as the witch stepped into the light.

Her mother thrust the girl forward and declared, “We heard you were looking to trade a favor for a girl’s eyes.”

“You heard true,” the witch said, rising. The girl noticed the witch’s  skirts were layered and old.

The girl looked up at her with fear as she tried not to whimper. It would do no good to beg; her mother had never been the loving type. She knew her tears were more likely to incite anger. The witch caught her chin in her hands and she turned defiant eyes upon the veiled lady.

“You have fire, little one,” she said, tilting her head but still the girl could not see her face.

The author asks: Does this scene hook you, making you want to learn more about the witch or the girl? Does it feel like fantasy? Does the cover match the content of this scene? What expectations do you have for the rest of the novel, based on this scene?

I think it works well. The cover indicates that not all the novel will be as dark/creepy as this scene, but it depicts the historical time period of this scene, from what I can tell. It’s a little too soon to tell if this is fantasy or historical fiction, mostly because there nothing  fantastic has happened, but it definitely could (the world you’ve created has a creepy, other-worldly feel, certainly). I do expect to learn more about the witch and the exchange–eyes for a favor–but it’s clear that the little girl is the focus of the piece, so far.

1001 Islands (My comments in blue)

[The firelight of a thousand souls burned like stars across the island’s gut. The word “gut” was a bit jolting after all the flowing, poetic description. It’s a very different kind of word–short, hard, and a trifle gruesome–especially compared to firelight, souls and stars.]

[As the raft drifted up the last of the swampy channel, a young girl looked into the water’s dark whisper. Technically, one can’t look in a whisper; some literal-minded readers might object to this, though I thought it sounded cool.] [She could hear its fingers reaching up to the raft’s side; trying to claw its way up or drag her down. Its song was deadly as the lone resident of the little swampy isle. I liked the flow of this, but I wasn’t sure that a young girl would think this way. Usually,  children stick to one metaphor at a time, from what I can tell: a shadow becomes a monster with deadly teeth, wanting to eat them or their stuffed animals, with all the focus on the sounds of teeth and hunger, and in their fear they don’t consider other possibilities. But in this passage, the water could claw her down, or climb up into the boat, or sing her to death.]

There, through the trees and the plants with fan sized leaves, was the well-kept house.

[She felt herself swallow and pull back, but her mother had a firm hold on her arm. Her mother glanced down in a disregarding manner as she pulled back, but did little else. The little girl could feel the way the swamp seemed to know she was there. The hairs on her arms rose as though her body was warning her. She seems very self aware. Again, it depends on how young she is, but the idea of her body warning her seemed more of a ten-year-old-or-older kind of concept. But, with all these warnings and senses of danger, you have definitely set the mood for the scene. Good job!]

[Her fear-filled eyes turned around to their guide, who pushed his long stick into the body of the swamp to propel them forward. I don’t know that you need “fear-filled.” It is clear from her thoughts and body language that she isn’t comfortable.] [To what end she wasn’t sure, but from the fervent look in her mother’s eyes it was nothing good. Her fingers dug into the child’s skin. Again, I find myself wondering at how much she can notice at once–her mother is causing her pain, her body is warning her, the water is singing to her and reaching for her, and she is aware of all this and her surroundings at the same time. You might want to consider making her older or choosing from among the many sensations of fear and pain and giving them greater attention, instead of a line or two.]

As they glided up to the blackened dock the man announced in a thick accent, “She knows you are here and I go no further.”

[Her mother nodded and, without as much as a thank you, stepped onto the deck. Her toes hesitated but she found it as sturdy as any floor. This confused me. I wasn’t sure if the “her” was her mother or the girl. I’m assuming you meant the girl, but the mother is the only one mentioned as moving.] 

[Her mother marched them up the deck and into a small hut. The girl could see the larger house behind it in the twinkle of the firelight. When they entered the first one she tried to hide behind her mother but she would have none of it. Her mother nearly hauled her feet up the stairs into the second level as torchlight cast eerie shadows at the edges of the room. I really like the tone of this passage, particularly the phrase “she would have none of it.” It sounds like something she’s heard, over and over, from her mother and really colors their relationship a bit further. Though I am confused about the firelight. I thought it had to do with souls, burning as in hell. Now it seems like it’s just firelight?]

“Why have you come?” said a woman with a thin lacy veil as the witch stepped into the light.

Her mother thrust the girl forward and declared, “We heard you were looking to trade a favor for a girl’s eyes.”

[“You heard true,” the witch said, rising. This is a technicality, but you just said she stepped into the light, and now she’s rising. Are there steps somewhere?] 

The girl noticed the witch’s skirts were layered and old. [The girl looked up at her with fear as she tried not to whimper. It would do no good to beg; her mother had never been the loving type. She knew her tears were more likely to incite anger. Is she looking at her mother or the witch at this point?] [The witch caught her chin in her hands and she turned defiant eyes upon the veiled lady.

“You have fire, little one,” she said, tilting her head but still the girl could not see her face. This is the closest we get to any idea of what the girl looks like. As an introduction to her appearance, it is great, particularly as it ties her to the burning souls, in a way, though the fire terminology. I really like this line.]

Please share your own thoughts, keeping a tone of constructive criticism in mind so we can all learn together. (And feel free to disagree with any and all of the advice and comments I gave. ) Thanks!

You can find more of K. T. Munson’s writings at her blog here, including the rest of this first chapter.

Photo and text from 1001 Islands used by permission from K. T. Munson

7 thoughts on “Writing that Scene: 1001 Islands

  1. I found a lot of things I like in this piece. The word gut somehow established the scene for me as something grizzly and foreboding. I liked it actually. The girl did seem extraordinarily self-aware, quite precocious. But, since I expected her to lead the book later, I didn’t find it jarring. I only wish I got more of a description for her because then I could have bonded with her better.
    On the whole, I found the beginning one of the most compelling parts of the book.

    Like

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