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by Holly Kelly
Present Day –Deep in the Mediterranean Sea
Jagged rocks twisted, towered over and surrounded Ax, cocooning him a dark, watery prison. The water current swirled, taunting his body with pungent odors from Panthon prison. The rotting stone structure loomed miles away. It didn’t surprise Ax that he smelled it. That place reeked. Still, he was glad for the stench. He counted on it to mask his own scent.
His hands clasped the jagged rocks behind him, anchoring him down. He faced forward. His powerful tail throbbed, jammed into a rocky crevice. If danger came, he’d meet it head on.
“Focus, breathe shallow, you’re nothing but algae on the rocks,” he chanted in his mind to keep the image of the Nightmare from building inside his head.
Nightmare…a fitting nickname for the most feared soldier in history. He’s also the Delphin who currently stalked Ax. And if the stories were even half right, the Nightmare could smell like a shark and attacked his prey just as ferociously.
“Focus, breathe shallow, you’re nothing but algae on the rocks.” Ax’s hands grasped the stones so tight they cut into his fingers. His tail flitted nervously as he attempted to ignore the sharp rock that gnawed in his back.
Yeah, right, this wasn’t pain. He’d taste real pain if the Nightmare found him. If he were religious, now would be a good time to pray. But which god would he pray to? The only god-like being that cared about a Delphin was Mother Calypso. And she’d strike him down if he tried praying to her. Hades was no better. The god of the underworld was likely making big plans to whip and torture him in Tartarus for eternity.
No, death was not an option. He must survive and to survive he had to hide. Normally he hid from no one, but the Nightmare wasn’t just any Delphin. He spelled death to the most vicious criminals and Ax definitely fit that bill. Ax had done things that would sicken most Delphins and he relished each moment.
Angela and Heidi's Comments
You’re off to a good, strong start – the tension is cranked right from the start. The mood of the setting matches the pervasive sense of danger for Ax. The unusual setting catches your attention, as does the protagonist – he’s definitely not going to be your run-of-the-mill hero.
A prison break (if that is indeed what is happening) is going to get readers’ attention. We like to root for an underdog, and a good prison-break story is always interesting, even if it’s the villain doing the escaping.
The references to mythology, the questions raised in this first page, and even the fact that this is happening in the present, all combine to whet our curiosity.
Logic and Logistics
Now, though you’re off to an interesting hook, just out of the starting gate, the story gets bogged down with logistical problems and vagueness. A few things to consider:
Is Ax breaking into or out of the prison? And how is the prison looming when it is miles away?
Does he reek because he’s been in the prison, or has he deliberately done that so he can blend into his surroundings better? Or is that his natural scent? And if the Nightmare has such a keen sense of smell, shouldn’t Ax be worried instead of glad that he has such a pungent aroma broadcasting his location?
Why is Ax trying to think of something other than Nightmare? Is Ax psychic? Or is Nightmare? Can he sense someone’s thoughts and fears like a shark drawn to blood, prompting Ax to block the tell-tale emotions? Or conversely, is Ax merely scared, and using a little psychology to bolster his courage?
Remember: Questions good. Confusion bad. You don’t need to over-explain. Sometimes just a slight rewording or a few extra details can provide illumination. (You can hold some info back to keep the reader turning pages; you just need to answer enough to dispel confusion and assure the reader that you will continue to provide more answers in due course.)
James Bond, Merman
A good rule when working with non-human main characters is to make them as simpatico as possible.
As Orson Scott Card argues so beautifully in Speaker for the Dead, what makes someone “human” is not their DNA but rather their ability to feel the higher emotions: compassion, empathy, love, and the ability to sacrifice themselves for the good of others. Anyone – be they alien or monster or mythological creature – if they are capable of understanding and acting upon these hallmark traits, can be considered human.
When you have characters in a story that are alien or non-human, readers will identify with them more, especially the main character, if you can focus on points of commonality. If Ax is a merman of some type (which he seems to be at first glance), you’ll have some obvious hurdles to overcome.
For one thing, if he doesn’t have legs, you’re going to be hard-pressed to give your story a romantic sub-plot (unless you give him a mermaid love interest)—something many women fantasy readers want. And you may want that love story, because if Ax is a merman, my guess is that not a lot of guys will be reading this. Many guys won’t touch a story about a merman, no matter how James Bond of the Sea you try to make him.
I’m assuming he’s a merman because of the aquatic environment and because of his tail. Of course, you may be envisioning him as a normal humanoid, but with the addition of a tail (a la Beelzebub.) Clarify which he is: dolphin man (which the name Delphin, from the Greek for dolphin, implies) or something more demonesque. (Although even the sexiest demons in the currently popular sub-genre don’t generally have tails.)
No matter which, it would be important to make him as psychologically relatable to the reader as possible. If he is a merman, an alternative to explore may be to have him fall into the shape-shifter category – legs on land, tail in the sea. That may make him more accessible to a wider audience, and solve some of the logistical problems inherent in dealing with a merman as a main character.
Dazed and Confused
Because we don’t know enough of the context to start forming accurate impressions, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s happening. If Ax is escaping from prison, you could explore the possibility of starting the story just a little sooner, and letting the reader participate in the prison break, so to speak. A few deftly placed details can do a lot to clarify, for example, something as basic as: Ax would die before going back to prison – and if the Nightmare found him, that would be the case.
Consider starting the story a little sooner to give some context – or else drop some back-story hints. True, you don’t want to bog down a quick start/good action, but you’ve got to bring reader up to speed ASAP.
“Ax has done things that would sicken most Delphins” hints at a dark past. More disturbing is that he has “relished each moment.” It sounds like you are veering into anti-hero territory. If that’s intentional, fine. But again, it may limit your audience. Anti-hero can be tricky to pull off, even for literary fiction. Now, if you feel strongly about a story, you may not care about audience size. However, I would guess that 99.9 percent of all writers care intensely about audience size at some level. After all, without an audience, there is no point for the story. And a story you feel passionately about begs to be shared with as wide an audience as possible. Still, you don’t want to base your story only on audience size. The best bet is to strike a balance between being true to the vision of your story and bending to audience needs and wants, meaning some elements may have to be modified or compromised on. If Ax isn’t a complete anti-hero (maybe he’s more like Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz – just putting on a bit of a show) then you could soften his image by dropping how much he relishes his evil deeds. Or at least give a convincing rationale for why he feels that way. (Even Milton’s Satan believes he is justified in his actions, after all.)
You’ve got an interesting world and protagonist. There are enough elements here to create a compelling fantasy. But you’ll want to clarify at least some of the information so that the reader has a better idea of what is happening. Also, look for ways to humanize Ax and help the reader identify with him and sympathize with his situation. Good luck and happy writing!