Monday, September 21, 2015


A post by Mary Fan
Eeeeeeeek! My turn! *bites nails* The pages I'm putting up for critique are from a book I'm co-writing with Dean Lombardo. They're the first ones by me, but not the first ones in the book. The book, currently titled The Cave Artist, is MG historical fiction... actually, prehistorical fiction, if that's a thing. It takes place 30,000 years ago and tells the story of 14-year-old Cor, the last Neanderthal in Gibraltar (on the coast of Spain), and 12-year-old Maysa, a member of a Homo Sapiens tribe. After her husband, the ruthless hunter Balt, leads the human warriors in an attack that wipes out the rest of Cor's clan, Cor must run for his life while Maysa, who never fit in with her people, wrestles with guilt over her husband's deed.

This story has been a unique challenge for me because it's so, so, SO different from what I'm used to writing. It's my first foray into MG, and there's no spaceships, no magic, no monsters...

Anyway, Dean is writing Cor and Balt's POV chapters while I'm writing Maysa's. The pages below are the first 3 pages of  Chapter 3, which is Maysa's first POV chapter. Tell me what you think!

Chapter 3

The sun had arced past its midday blaze, but the shades of twilight were still several hours away. Gazing at the rock gilded by the afternoon light, Maysa imagined the forest beyond and wondered how long her cruel husband would pursue the poor savage.
Husband. The word felt so wrong, even in her head, she wanted to spit it out, like she would a toxic berry. For the other women in her tribe, the word “husband” was a source of joy, of endearment, of pride. They’d speak it with their chins uplifted and their lips tilted with fondness—for having found a companion—or vanity, for having snared a worthy mate.  That was because they’d discovered the matches they desired and imagined everyone else had as well. But Maysa saw things differently. While they believed she had the most enviable match of all, she would have given anything to be rid of the wicked man she’d been forced to marry.
A powerful gale blew her long, dark locks across her face, but she’d long ago grown accustomed to the feeling and did not bother with brushing them away. She could not have, in any case, since her basket, filled with dull gray stones, required both arms to hold. A sudden instinct urged her to run into the sea and hurl the basket’s contents into the ever moving surf. Though they were simple rocks at the moment, they would soon be fashioned bringers of death and pain. Worse, she would have to join the other women in shaping them into such.
“Maysa!” The shrill voice of her mother, Noma, rang in her ears. Maysa turned toward the sound. Noma stood in the entrance of the cave, waving her arm in impatience. Upon meeting Maysa’s gaze, the older woman, whose once rich brown hair was now dusted with age, pulled her lips into a deep frown. “What has been keeping you? I did not think stones were so hard to find!”
“Sorry, Mother.” Maysa walked toward the cave, the basket heavy in her hands, and joined the others inside. Near the entrance, where the light was best, a group of five women sat on the ground, each with a basket like Maysa’s beside her. The light of the fire they surrounded glinted off their brown and black hair. They had apparently been at their task—knocking a hard pounding stone into the unshaped rocks to form blades and spear points—for some time. They glistened with sweat from their labor. Ordinarily, such tasks would be performed outdoors. Today, the women had preferred to work inside their new home, as if their prolonged presence would solidify their ownership.
But to Maysa, the cave still felt stolen, which was why she had volunteered to gather more rocks. The very air seemed to accuse her of entering a space that wasn’t hers, and she could almost hear the ghosts of the fallen savages asking how she dared trespass. She tried to ignore the other women’s disapproving look as she sat down beside her mother and placed her basket to the side.
“You must stop letting your head wander into the clouds, Maysa.” Noma sighed. “Losing focus on the present creates space in your mind, which allows demons to slip in. I hope you were not indulging in more foolish daydreams about wildcats.”
A flurry of snickers rippled through the small crowd of women, and Maysa felt her ears go hot. She would always regret the day she let her words get the better of her and shared her dream of leaving the tribe to wander alone in the wilderness, like the stealthy lynx. Oh, how she longed to be free like the bright-eyed predator, and not confined by the laws of her kind! But, as her companions were quick to point out, she would not survive for long if she left. And Gotan had reprimanded her sharply for entertaining such selfish thoughts. The tribe was good to her, he’d said. They provided her with food and shelter and security. What right had she to wish them gone from her life?
Raifa, the medicine woman, repeated Gotan’s question now.  From her position across from Maysa, she seemed to accuse with her sharp eyes, which sat above powerful cheekbones. She was not crafting blades like the others. A woman in her position did not conduct these sorts of rough tasks. Instead, she was using a stone pestle to mix a reddish paste inside a small bowl. It looked like paint, though Maysa couldn’t tell for sure.
Maysa avoided the older woman’s gaze, choosing not to answer. Raifa was supposed to be the wisest of all, wiser even the Gotan, who often sought her counsel. But though she was skilled with herbs and attuned to the ways of the gods, she knew nothing of Maysa’s heart.
Maysa sifted absently through the basket of rocks beside her, loathing the idea of turning the innocent little objects into murderers. That one of her creations might have killed a helpless savage child this very morning made her sick to the stomach. And she was forever bound to a monster who had taken pleasure in the attack.
Had she remained as ugly in womanhood as she had been as a child, she might have been spared the young hunter’s lusty eye. But though Balt had mocked her mercilessly when she’d been a spindly, flat-faced girl whose chin jutted too far, his constant staring had taken on a different meaning once her body had matured to match her long limbs, and her cheekbones had sharpened to offset her angular features in a regal manner. He’d once made fish faces in her presence, taunting her for her full lips, but now his dark eyes sparkled hungrily whenever he laid eyes on them.
Her beauty was her curse, for it had spurred Balt to demand her as his wife. He’d declared that as the tribe’s greatest hunter, he deserved its most beautiful woman. Gotan had been happy to grant his wish, especially after a beaming Noma had wept with joy at having her daughter, whom she’d feared unmarriageable for so long, at last be called beautiful.


Brenda St John Brown said...

I really love Maysa's inner thoughts revealed here. She's obviously a complex character and, as a reader, I can tell there's going to be so much to look forward to in her story! That said, this doesn't read like MG to me, but more like YA. Despite Maysa's age, talk of husbands and desire (especially hungry desire), feels too mature for the age group to me. I've just started reading THE WINNER'S CRIME (second in the series, which is amazing if you've not read it) and the prose here has that same feel to me. I can see myself sinking into this story easily as a YA, but I'm having a hard time imagining my MG reader kid relating to it.

Mary Fan said...

Thanks for the feedback! Yeah I'm struggling with the whole MG/YA divide... Especially since the market's changed. I was thinking of Catherine Called Birdy, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and other more old school kid lit when I wrote it... Back in the day that was considered YA but nowadays YA seems a little... Older?

Tara said...

I agree with Brenda. It's really compelling and I want to read more but I think that the "husband" concept is something that MG readers might struggle to identify with. Maybe if the relationship was a sibling or even parent/child relationship it would make for something more relatable? But that's really my only critique! The writing and language are great and I already have a sense of who Maysa is as person. *thumbs up!*

Carrie Beckort said...

First - I really enjoyed it and am interested in reading more at some point! Very well written and I love your style.

However, I agree with both Brenda and Tara - at least with what's presented here I wouldn't consider this MG. As a mother of a daughter who is 9, I'd feel uncomfortable with her reading about a 12 year old with a husband who looks at her hungrily. You didn't mention how old Balt was, but if he's an adult - which is entirely possible since that's how things were done way back when - then I'm even more uncomfortable with it. As an adult, I can read it and understand that just because it used to be done that way it doesn't mean that it's the right thing. I don't think my 9 year old would understand and I don't really want to have that conversation yet!

The only other thought I had was because this is prehistoric, I had a difficult time reconciling the current image of neanderthals with the version you present. Don't get me wrong - I like your version better, but society has painted this picture that they basically just communicated with grunts and gestures and primitive drawings. You've given us something that is much more educated than what I'd expect - however I wouldn't want to read a book where they just grunted and gestured! It's a challenge to be sure - not one I don't think can't be overcome, but I just point it out because you may want to consider how you overcome that 'image' we have of neanderthals.

Mary Fan said...

Thanks for the feedback! :-D

Mary Fan said...

Thanks Carrie! Interesting what you said about Neanderthals... Part of what the book's about is challenging the whole "grunting brute" image, especially since archaeologists now think the Neanderthals were more intelligent than we give them credit for. :-)

Jonathan Schramm said...

A little late to the party here (one of those weeks!), but just wanted to say that this really hooked me. I agree with the others that's it doesn't seem to meet typical MG guidelines because of the arranged marriage and some of the descriptions used, but the story and character are compelling either way. Maysa's goal (to leave the tribe and her husband and not be held to the rules of her society) is clear, and she is a sympathetic dreamer that I for one related to pretty quickly. Wherever the age group, I think you've got something here. Thanks for sharing!

Jonathan Schramm said...

*Whatever the age group*

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