How not to open a novel

For those who are interested in such things, shown below is a before-and-after of my Origin of Sight opening. A lot can change in a year!

If you can stomach the second, older version (and it’s pretty damn bad) you’ll see how much it has been revised and maybe even be able to analyse it for your own use. I hope this will be a good example for how even the crappiest turd can be turned into something useful, even if still not beautiful or perfect; my opening sequence is now at least functional (I think!)


December 2017 Opening Scene


  1. Individuals of a society are not born equal.
  2. If individuals are not equal, then to treat them with equality is to inflict on them an injustice.

III. If imposing equality on individuals is unjust, then any society founded on the principles of equality must be an unjust society.

  1. Therefore, a just society must be an unequal society.


— from ‘The Pillars of Law’




On the island of Fallen Bells where no birds ever land, Nefrál drifted through the boiling rain along a barren stretch of beach.

Most Calaani spent rainrise standing together in companionable silence. Nefrál preferred to walk alone, often backwards, to watch her footprints fill with water. She hunted for white seashells, but found only blue—and contemplated whether there would be a beach of any kind when she went to her exile, in less than a year’s time.

The downpour limned every flawed feature: hands too large for elegance, shoulders too narrow for strength, and skin the colour of wet sand. She had neither the pearlescent eyes nor cerulean complexion for which the Calaani were known, bearing instead all the hallmarks of an anomaly. Sometimes her appearance still bothered her, but on the whole Nefrál had found it easier to change her feelings than her skin.

When rainrise finished, Nefrál wrung out her tattered clothes, gave her damp hair a shake, and ran with clumsy feet to the drudges’ shelter where she lived, having no place among her own kind. The metallic dome sat halfway between shore and cliff-side, windowless and brightly painted in uneven shades of red. The drudges spilled out of the shelter to attend their daily jobs, now that the rain—so deadly to them—had cleared off.

Nefrál stepped between the rush of grey-clad figures to look for Mythala, who she found by following the sound of arguing.

Three other drudges, umber-skinned in contrast to Mythala’s dark-green hues, arraigned in a semi circle. One of them shouted a stream of words. The heated discussion stopped as Nefrál approached; angry eyes dropped earthwards, and they slunk off. Anomaly or not, Nefrál was still Calaani. Sort of.

“Problem?” She glanced at the retreating figures.

“Na.” Mythala’s own glower dissipated into a crooked grin. Her scarlet crest of feathers flattened, resting against dark hair. “Just Learim and his louts, pickin’ a row with me. Like ever. Y’ scared ’em off.”

“I won’t always be here,” Nefrál said. Her exile was something she thought about a lot these days. “Learim will be, though. For at least as long as you.”

“Well, y’ here right now, and he’s not,” Mythala said, with her usual practicality. “Where we off to, anyways?”

Nefrál didn’t have anywhere to go, and exploration had lost its allure with age and familiarity on an island so small. But she and Mythala went anyway, veering off from the shelter to clamber along the northern shoreline, amidst the lichen and seagrass which grew rife.

Midway round the eastern side, the curving line of the coast became ragged, jutting forth at odd angles. When the tide was high, there was no beach at all, only the ocean breaking against sheer cliffs. The tide was rising now. Mythala stood on the thin scrap of shore to keep her feet dry, gazing south, while Nefrál hunted for starfish and crabs among the shallow waves.

A Calaani youth ran round the curve of jutting cliff, who Nefrál knew vaguely by sight. Amur was alone and bare to the waist, a sheen of sweat on dark blue skin, and a multitude of dark braids tied back from his face.

Nefrál didn’t see him in time, and he didn’t see her at all.  

They collided hard. Amur fell into the brine; she fell against the cliff-face, knocking her head. A spot of darkness grew in her vision and then—


She is in a strange room with bland walls, restraints on each limb. A light is above her head, so bright she can see little else.

Amur moves into her field of view.

It is not the Amur she is familiar with, though. He is far older, fully grown and then some. He wears neither a magister’s kiton nor a youth’s leso wrap, but a stiff white tunic, and a mask covering his mouth.

Other figures come, to help hold her down. She wants to flee, so snarls and snaps, roused to fury. Amur lifts a scalpel, and presses it to her neck—

As swiftly as it had come, the brief dream faded. Blackness faded, her normal sight returning.

“Godhells! Watch it, will you? Sodding fráls and featherheads!”

Amur’s voice cut through the haze in front of her eyes. Nefrál shook her head to clear it.

Mythala muttered, “Weren’t us who didna pay attention!”

Amur backhanded her across the face.

To Nefrál, the blow would have been little more than a stinging rebuke, rude but bearable. Mythala, though, was no Calaani. At barely five feet tall to Amur’s seven, his strike knocked her down hard.

She glared up at him, cheek already bruising and top lip split.

They should have left. Retaliation would only make things worse. But the waking dream, or whatever it had been, still rang in Nefrál’s head. The memory of Amur hurting her in the dream melded with Amur striking Mythala in the present, and rolled into a single tangled skein of resentment.

Nefrál stepped between them. Courage she was not well acquainted with, but anger was a willing substitute, drowning out both fear and sense.   

“You shouldn’t hit the drudges,” she said. Anomaly or not, she matched his height.

Amur scowled at her. “Get drowned.”

Nefrál punched him.

His head snapped back. She went for him again, but this time Amur anticipated her strike. He attuned, his form blurring, and Nefrál knew she was about to lose. A heavy blue fist swung towards her face, and she moved instinctively to block it. Her hand closed around his wrist, and for a strangely drawn-out moment she felt the twin beat of his pulse beneath skin.

As if he were a cloud of air, Nefrál breathed Amur in.

He froze, slack-jawed, losing all momentum, arm hanging limply in her shaky grasp.

She breathed again. The whole world vibrated and shone, every line gleaming and clear. She noticed each wave in the sea, rising and cresting behind her; the rattle of individual grains of sand on rough-hewn rocks; the rawness of the wind on her eyelids.

With each breath, Amur shrieked, until he finally tore himself away. He was no longer attuned, shocked out of the heightened state.

“What in eleven hells have you done?” Amur cried, face contorted. He gaped at the circle of blistered flesh which ringed his forearm—then attacked her, with real fury.

A throwback who couldn’t attune, should have had no chance against a Calaani who could. Amur was a frequent participant of the fighting rings, while the most Nefrál had ever done was play-spar with her twin, Revion.

In the heat of the moment she didn’t question it. Suffused with unexpected grace and speed, she beat him back, battered him to a daze, and hooked out one of his eyes with a broken shard of shell she scrabbled off the beach. It’d take him weeks to regrow that.

Amur collapsed to his knees, bleeding profusely from the empty socket. The bloody orb landed in the sand, trailing fibrous tendrils and spatters of violet blood. He tried to stand, lost his balance, fell backwards.

Nefrál stared down at him, shocked by what she’d done and unsure what to do next. All her senses were expanding, overwhelming every thought and response. Her vision swam.

A voice she didn’t recognise said, “I thought you said the frál needed help, not Amur.”

Nefrál jerked her head up.

A magister approached, face hidden by a hood, a frantic Mythala in tow. He attuned, moving with preternatural speed to catch Nefrál’s neck—and waited.

Nothing else happened.

The magister frowned.

Nefrál scrabbled at his hand and tried to tear away, which seemed to surprise him. He hesitated, deliberating, then dragged her across the sand and into the ocean. When they were nearly waist-deep in water, he doused her in the brine.   

Nefrál kicked and fought, but the magister pinned her down, and stirred not an inch as wave after wave broke against his back. Her strength, sufficient to fight Amur, was far outmatched here.

The ocean swallowed her whole.

December 2016 Opening Scene

On the island of Fallen Bells, a boy was dying – and a girl was killing him.

The boy lay with his limbs outstretched, a look of pained astonishment on his features. His chest was deeply scored and bleeding profusely, and his right hand was severed at the wrist. He was otherwise unharmed, and should not have been at death’s shore. Yet the skin of his face was pale and drawn, the flesh of his body stiff with cold. A thick layer of frost had formed around the mouth and eyes.

As for the girl, she knelt on his chest, barelegged and filthy, with both fists jammed so hard against his sternum that she had pulped the skin until his bones were visible. And still she pressed down, as if trying to crush his hearts with her mere hands, pushing through flesh and blood and cartilage with the strength that comes only through anger. She made no sound; her lips were set in a line, jaw clenched and eyes wide. Untamed, tawny hair stood up from her scalp, part-shaven on one side and cropped short on the other. Her yellow irises were wild and bloodshot.

The dying boy coughed weakly, opalescent eyes rolling in supplication up at the two magisters who stood frozen in indecision, not four paces away.

The taller magister peered at him through the holes in her red mask with something akin to compassion, but she did not move forward – not yet.

Stood halfway between the magisters and the fighting children, crouched a second young girl. This one was a small, sleek creature. Her colouring and wiry hair spoke of raven heritage, and the skin around her eyes was very dark.

“Nefrál!” she cried out, and dashed forward.

But even as the hybrid moved towards them, the red-masked magister reached out and wrenched her to a stop. She was fiercely strong, despite her gaunt frame. “Keep back, lowly,” she said. “Do not touch her, or Amur will die.”


“He will live, if Master Sarieu does as he is bid,” said the magistra, gesturing to her companion. To the lowly, she added, “Pull yourself together, and go get help!”

The young hybrid flushed, but turned and ran back up the path, away from the beach, her voice ringing out ahead of her.

To her companion, the magister said, “Handle this, Master Sarieu – her!”

“Don’t give me orders,” said Master Sarieu. But he still circled the girl called Nefrál, removed his gloves, and laid a single hand upon her exposed shoulder.

At his touch, Nefrál suddenly cried out for the first time, jerking up and backwards, partially on her feet. But Master Sarieu retained his steady grip, pale fingers hooked under her collar bones. For a moment she stood arched backwards and balancing on her heels, him grimly supporting her – and then her knees folded, and she fell, wailing and screaming.

On the ground, Amur gasped a ragged breath and sputtered out blue blood.

“The ocean, the ocean!” said Mistra Fen, between clenched teeth.

Master Sarieu did not need to be told. Even as she fell, he picked her up under the jaw with both hands, and carried her as he splashed through the roiling surf. When he was nearly waist-deep in the ocean, he threw her in and held her under with one pale hand around her neck, and the other across her face. She kicked, but had no strength; she fought, but was calmly defeated. He continued to hold her down for the full ten minutes, and stirred not an inch as wave after wave of near-freezing water broke across his back.

Mistra Fen did not wait for him to finish, however. She knelt next to the wounded boy and placed a hand on his forehead.

In the distance, figures were rapidly approaching.

Leading the group was a young man who ran with some speed. He was tall, even for his people, and very strongly built; with deep blue skin of an even tenor, and solid black hair that was braided in rows across his scalp. At a glance, he was worlds apart from the speckled, mottled, yellowish girl called Nefrál – nothing superficial to indicate they were siblings. But up close there was a strong yet elusive resemblance; the line of the jaw perhaps, or a slant of the eyes.

He stopped, feet apart, looking with horror and confusion at the scene. Though he registered Amur’s injuries, his eyes were clearly draw towards Nefrál.

“Help me, Revion,” Mistra Fen said sharply to him, over her shoulder, and began tearing strips of cloth from the hem of her black dress. “Amur will die if you don’t help me.”

For a moment, Revion hesitated, his gaze going outwards to the sea where Master Sarieu was silently drowning his sister, but he rallied himself and bent to help save Amur’s life. He pulled off his shirt and wrapped it around the younger boy, handling the mangled limb cautiously. Mistra Fen bound the strips of her dress into constrictors to stop the bleeding, tying them effortlessly with one hand. The other hand she traced across Amur’s forehead, binding his life to hers with a sigil of runes.

Even as he did these things, the rest of the group caught up. They were a small assortment of other neonates and a couple magisters trailing in the distance. They, too, joined in with the emergency efforts.

In the sea, Nefral suddenly stopped thrashing.

Almost at once, Revion shot to his feet, clamoring and keening as if in abrupt, unexpected pain. Mythala was shouting, trying to catch his arm, but he tore away from her and fell to his knees, clawing at his skull.

Beneath the mask, Mistra Fen’s eyelids fluttered. She seemed to be holding her breath. She remained kneeling there as other neophytes continued to staunch bleeding and tie off constrictors, scooping up handfuls of blood-soaked sand to pack in around Amur’s wounds.

Several of them glanced anxiously at Revion while they worked on Amur, clearly uneasy.
Master Sarieu was still holding Nefrál submerged beneath water when the other two magisters finally arrived and knelt beside Mistra Fen, joining their hands to hers. One placed a hand upon Amur’s battered chest, and another hand on his pulped throat, making a complete circle.

It was a quick enough business. When at last Master Sarieu pulled a sickly and unconscious Nefrál out of the ocean, water streaming from her mouth and nose, Amur’s external bleeding had been stopped, and his core temperature raised. The balance of his chemical composition had been restored. Amur’s chest rose and fell again with regular breath, if raggedly. The sand packed into his wounds had tenuously melded into a grainy, skin-like dressing.

The other two magisters rose to their feet, and helped an unsteady Mistra Fen to hers.
One of them said shakily, “We must get him to the salutifery, or he’ll die still.” Mistra Fen nodded and said, “Neophytes, take Amur to the salutifery. We cannot wait for more of you to arrive. Keep him warm, and don’t strain his injuries. I will be along shortly.”

Without a word, the children gathered around and lifted Amur, and began carrying him carefully up the path in a bed made of arms and hands. They were very quiet, and made no chatter.

Master Sarieu stepped out of the water and deposited the yellow-haired frál-girl carelessly on the sand. With quick feet, Mythala leapt towards her charge and gathered Nefral’s inert form close, but it was at Revion she looked with an anxious gaze.

With Amur stabilised, all the other magisters were now studying Revion with open interest, no doubt noting his expression, stance, and cries of pain.

But Master Sarieu, having excised his burden, was kneeling on the beach, brushing the sand away from something glinting.

He held up the prize to the sunlight. It was a dense metallic disc, polished and precisely cut, about the size of a very large coin but thrice as thick, engraved on each side.

“What is that?” Mistra Fen asked.

Master Sarieu felt along the edge; his nail found a catch, and with a soft click the lid sprang back.

It wasn’t a sailor’s traditional compass, which were large and bulky in their heavy boxes. This was small and compact, to fit in the palm. Master Sarieu turned it until the needle was facing true-south, and traced the shadow of the sundial as it fell across one of the markings on the rim.

He said, “Just a compass. Jjordai make, but nothing exceptional.”

A few feet up the beach, Revion struggled to his feet, fighting the agony that wracked him, and cried, “That’s hers! Please, Masters and Mistras, return it to her!”

The magisters looked at him with renewed scrutiny.

“Did they fight over a native’s trinket? Ridiculous,” said one.

“I shall keep hold of it till it is needed for evidence,” Master Sarieu said, tucked the glinting thing into his black drape.

Mistra Fen rose to her feet, and brushed the sand from her drape. “Rassan,” she said, addressing one of the Calaani liutithens who had finally arrived, “take the girl and put her in one of the pits for now. She’ll sleep off her dousing, but keep watch in the meantime. One of you, take Revion to the salutifery. The boy will need draughts to function, for as long as she is out. Meanwhile – this… issue… needs resolving.”

“What’ll happen to Nefrál?” said Mythala, fear overcoming impertinence.

“That,” said Mistra Fen, “will be a subject of much discussion, I think.”


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