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Bones of Sparta (historical fiction novel in progress) (1 Viewer)


Senior Member
First ten pages of my first novel, currently in progress. I'm at ~40,000 words right now. Set in 550 BC Sparta. Really appreciate some helpful advice from fellow writers. I'd like the first ten pages to grab you by the ... arm... and scream, "Represent me fabulously successful book agent!" or better yet, "Pick up my novel and give me an obscene signing bonus, huge publishing house!" You know, the standard message one hopes for. Merci beaucoup, or whatever thank you very much is in Greek, AK

Rewritten! After reading the critiques, I got the message to start killing some darlings. I did a good amount of chopping and changing, but I know I should probably do more. That's the trouble with killing darlings. If someone could let me know specifically where I was hitting the reader over the head with an obvious stick, or piling it on too thick, I'd ever so much appreciate it. Many thanks, AK

I had to get away from here. That was the feeling I had my whole life. Like I was born in the wrong place or the wrong time. A prisoner of history or geography. I suppose my biggest fear was that I’d die a nameless spinster and be chucked into some unmarked grave. That I’d end up doing nothing more in life than fertilizing some chickpeas and end up in someone’s hummus. The gods wouldn’t welcome me in the clouds, and no songs will be sung for me down on earth. That feeling was in me probably since I was born. My nurse Agape said she had never wanted to swaddle a baby so bad, the way I always thrashed and kicked my limbs about, but my mother wouldn’t let her. Spartan babies weren’t swaddled; that’s what makes them so tough. Of course I didn’t feel tough. Then, or even now that I’ve got the actual words for all this in my head. Back then it was just a fierce aching in my belly, so it really drove me mad. I was constantly hungry my nurse said, but not for food. Always pacing and scratching and biting like a caged animal she said, wearing myself out banging against the walls of my cage. I did after all run away from home three times before I even turned thirteen.

That seemed fair enough to me though, seeing as I was kept a near prisoner by my parents. I wasn’t allowed out of the house except once a year when we went to the farm for the summer. My twin brother, Kallias, and I were up and herded out of the city before dawn once a year to the farm. Then we were brought back at the beginning of August, right before the sowing began, and that was that. So the details of my first real outing stick in my mind like hardened honey. It was to the Shrine of Helen, east of Sparta. It was not my mother or father that took me though, but my nurse Agape. She had to work long and hard at it too, to convince my mother to let her take me. I heard them talking about it lots, saying how good it would be for me. My mother wasn’t sure because before my father went off, he had left clear instructions that I wasn’t to be seen, but Agape kept on about how I could wear my veil the whole time. “And wouldn’t it be great if it worked? Just think how happy her father would be,” she kept saying to ma to entice her. “He’s been gone so long too; surely if he had thought of this he would have made an exception.” Any other slave would have been whipped senseless acting like Agape, but my mother wasn’t born a Spartan and never could figure out how to treat slaves. Her and Agape had been raised practically like sisters. Plus mother was always changing her mind this way and that, like a stalk of wheat in the wind, whereas Agape was as immovable as a mountain. You could see the way it was going to go from the start.

So one spring morning, Agape told me to get my sandals on. We were taking a trip to the Shrine of Helen. I asked why we were going, and Agape told me bluntly, though I was only seven years old at the time:

“You always tell me the truth, Kallisto, even when it’s bound to get you into trouble, so I’m going to tell you the truth. We’re going to ask Helen to cure you of your bad looks. Your mother doesn’t say as much, but she and your father are upset about your birthmark and that’s why you’re not allowed out too much. Most parents woulda sent you off the cliffs, but they didn't, so now we gotta do something about it. And they say Helen was the most beautiful woman that ever lived, in all of Greece and Persia and beyond, and I’ve a mind to take you to her to ask for her help. If she can’t do it, no one can, because there’s already been enough prayers said to Apollo on the subject, but at least we tried and that’s that.” The way she finished, with her lips as tight and straight as the horizon, I knew I wouldn’t get one more word out of her on the subject. The skin of her face was like leather that had been left out too long in the sun and rain. It had hardened to a thick inflexible mask, and it was near impossible to discover what was going on beneath the surface even on the best of days. Even if I had dared to try and dig further though, mother interrupted us.

“Don’t forget to put on your veil, darling!” she said, as Agape and I readied to go in the courtyard. “Already is!” I shouted. My mother clicked her tongue though as she walked over to me. I hadn’t put it on too well I was so eager to leave. She rearranged it and gave me a kiss through the gauzy material. She left behind a haze of lilies, her signature scent, on the fabric.

“Now you keep that on, my dear. That’s what all the noble ladies do. Plus it’ll keep the sunlight off of you.” She turned to Agape, “She’s so dark, are you sure you’re keeping her out of the sun when she plays?” But she didn’t wait for an answer. She just sighed softly, “She has her father’s skin. It’s fine for a man but it’s different for a girl.” It was probably best Agape didn’t have to answer. We had an understanding that she put the veil on me when my brother and I played in the courtyard and I would take it off when it got hot. Which was always. As long as I threw it on quickly if my mother came home unexpectedly, we were all fine.

As I walked through the streets of Sparta for the first time though, I didn’t give a discus toss about my overly toasted skin or persistent birthmark. There were too many wonderful things to see to go on worrying about things that I didn’t understand. I was seeing the city beyond the view of our house for the first time and I was amazed. It was a beautiful spring day, one of the few days of the year it did’t seem too hot.

Agape waited patiently as I ran up to each water fountain I saw and stuck my hand in the spray. She explained the strange smells coming out of the apothecary (sulfur, not rotten eggs) and the shrieks coming out of the bonesetter: “Pshhh, calls himself man. When I broke my arm on the voyage to Sparta, I didn’t make a peep. And I didn’t have a doctor to set it.” You had to currently have a spear or arrow sticking out of your abdomen to get much sympathy from Agape.

“Is he not a real doctor?” I asked.

“Course he is. Who said he isn’t?”

I shook my head. The way she said doctor, she made is sound like she doubted he was one. Agape talked funny. She said all the right words, not like some other foreign slaves, but they seemed to come out of her throat instead of her mouth, all deep and guttural. It must have made her seem even tougher to people who didn’t know her. She was actually pretty sweet on me at times. I just never knew what times she was planning on it. But that day she even let me pull aside my veil to smell some purple flowers I had never seen the like of before. There seemed no end to her patience.

“Careful, Kallisto!” she warned pleasantly. “They’ll suck your nose right off!”

She made a schlurping sound and sliced her finger across her nose like she was cutting it off.
I giggled but stuck my nose in for a smell anyway, and sure enough, it felt like they were pulling my nose in. I was pretty upset when years later I tried it again and found them not working. After a bit, she told me to hurry it up, but when she turned her back, I picked one to show Kallias. I slipped it down the front of my tunic, letting my belt catch it from falling. Agape would have told me to leave them for everyone else to enjoy, like she did when we were on the farm. Kallias liked looking at different plants and flowers though and he had a big collection of squashed flat ones. I thought it was mighty dull but he loved doing it. He could flip through them and stack them all in different piles for hours saying their names and all the facts he knew about them under his breath.

After that, we went south from the house rather than straight east, so that we could see the shrine of Alcman and walk along the rivers. We stopped for quite a while, but I wasn't as much impressed with the shrine as I was a little bronze statue of a horse that sat inside. I had never seen such a thing before. We had clay animals and soldiers at home but they were clunky things that you really had to put your mind to believing was a horse or cart or hoplite. This statue looked so real I half expected it to gallop away. Agape’s patience finally ran out though: “Come on now, Kallisto. We’ve got a good three hour walk ahead of us and we need to get back home before dark.”

As we left the shrine, Agape told me about my mother’s singing voice. “Alcman died not ten years ago and your mother worshipped him. Used to give the Spartan girls in the neighborhood all sorts of things for them to teach her bits of songs; figs, bits of sesame candy, even kisses on the cheek. Your mother had the sweetest voice. Not like a professional singer, but so pretty.”

“Why doesn’t she sing anymore?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she’s forgotten the words.”

“I’ll teach them to her again if I go to the Raising. I’ll tell her everything I learn,” I promised. At sowing time in our seventh year, father would take Kallias to the boy’s Raising, and he might take me to the girl’s Raising too. If he did, I would learn history, and songs, and dances and sport, but I would still live at home with mother and Agape. The real change came for Kallias. The Raising would become his life. From then on he would live with the other young boys, training constantly. He would learn obedience to the King of Sparta and our leaders, and, if he was lucky, he might be picked out for special duty. Then instead of becoming an infantry man like most other boys, he might become a commander, a bodyguard, or even a member of the Special Forces. Or a politician, but it’s not like any boy ever dreamed of that.

I should have been worried about him leaving, but at that age, I couldn’t get my head around it. It only came upon me once in a while at night, like my fear of Sparta being burned and razed (thought I never did much understand what the razing part entailed) by an invading army. I wasn’t afraid of spirits and spooks living in the Wilds like other children. I went right to the real stuff.

But it only reared it’s head every now and then like I said. I was still seven after all - I could be distracted by shiny objects. Most seventy year olds could be for Zeus's sake. So mostly I dreamed about the future with excitement building in the pit of my stomach. It was an unbearable energy and I could never keep it in me. When Agape didn’t respond to my asking about The Raising it seemed to clench up on me and I felt my heart quicken.

“I might be going next sowing to The Raising, right? Cause I’m seven now.”

“I told you, you’ll have to wait and ask your father,” said Agape said. “It isn’t proper for a Spartan girl to have a birthmark like yours. He may decide it’s best you stay home. But I don’t know. Like I said, you’ll have to wait and ask him whenever he returns.”

This answer filled me with uneasiness and despair. It was even worse than a “we’ll see” - I still had to wait for him to return and ‘whenever’ did not sound promising. I had been relying on my thoughts of the Raising to entertain me. Boredom was a constant enemy of mine, as much as the ones my father fought were his. So I kept talking to Agape about it as we walked, just to confirm it being real, as if I could raise the possibility of me going there.

“Where’s the girl’s school again?”

“I’ve told you a dozen times. The Agiad girls go to the school in the north, right past King Agamemnon’s palace.”

I knew I only had a couple questions left, because Agape got mighty annoyed when I asked about my going to the girl’s Raising. “The school for Eurypontid girls isn’t so nice, right?”

“We didn’t even have schools in Macedonia so you won’t hear me complain. Now that’s enough.”

I pretended I was a soldier on a secret mission as Agape and I walked over a great bridge and left town. The scenery changed to the rural farms that I had long imagined my father leading his battalion between. The houses were all one story now, not two like they were in the city, and they were so far apart you never saw more than a few at one time. They still looked much like the houses in town though otherwise; they had the same raw, unfinished look about them. Great tree trunks were used for beams and the branches hadn’t even been sawed off in some areas. The walls were mudbrick, covered with white stucco, just like ours - though not as clean. They were smaller too, probably without a courtyard, but who needed a courtyard with nothing but open hills and fields around? I breathed in the air deeply, thinking it smelled like freedom and happiness like the air up at our farm. Or at least of vegetation and dirt, rather than excrement and rotten food.

The stone pathways of the city had long since disappeared but the path we walked was well worn. (Too well worn. Brave soldier heroes did not need such easy walkways, I decided. But Agape told me walk on the path like a normal person when I tried to brave my way through the waist high barley.) I could see why. We were not alone on our trek to the Shrine of Helen. Flocks of girls wound up the path ahead. They walked in small groups, their white tunics popping out of the brown and green landscape like patches of flowers on the hillsides. The rolling landscape blocked the view, but Agape said the temple wasn’t far. I didn’t care. I could have walked all the way to the sea the way I felt.

A group of girls walked right far in front of us, but we could hear their laughter and feel their excitement. There was something optimistic about the journey; an inexpressible hope that was buried in varying levels of depth in each of us. Agape’s was packed in deeper, but it was still there. I could feel it even before she started to hum, which she never did. It wasn’t long before we passed the giggling girls. They were concentrating on talking more than walking, and when we passed I saw they had on funny leather sandal and all sorts of bangles on their wrists and tassels on their dress. Agape kept us going extra quick as we passed, even though I was clearly trying to hear what they were saying and hang around to get a closer look at them.

“Phew,” she said, when we were out of earshot. “I don’t know how they walk in those things. Must be like having blindfolds on your feet. Nearly half the height of my thumb those soles were. Mark my words, only in this day and age. Women will look back and laugh at what dumb things we used to put on our feet.” I thought she was probably right, as I looked down at her own bare feet. Mine were clad in the sandals my mother insisted I always wore, even though I never left the house. The pair I was wearing hadn’t been changed out in a while though. They were as thin and supple as a lamb’s ear, so I didn’t much care that some of my toes hung off the side like little shrimps on a plate. I tried to walk super silent in them like Agape after she said that. I imagined us as silent and stealthy as deer as we glided along the path, the only sound the tinkling laughter of the girls behind us and the barley stalks blowing in the wind. The silence and stillness didn’t bother me like it did up on the farm; we were on a mission. I had plenty to think about in my head.

We walked all morning but I wasn’t bored a bit. Steep hill rose up on either side of us and it felt as good an adventure as any story I ever read. We passed small villages every now and again and it was good people watching with farmers making their way to and from Sparta on foot or by cart. After a while the land flattened out and we passed a good size town called Chrysafa. It had houses like I’d never seen before. Mostly they were squat, horrible little huts that father wouldn’t have let his hunting dogs live in, but there was one two story house with pillars and little gorgon statues along the eaves, as grand as I imagined the Kings of Sparta lived in. Agape laughed when I said this though and said I better just wait till I saw what the King’s palaces looked like.

The temple was built at the highest point of a gently rolling plain. It was the size of my pinky nail when I first saw it and it seemed to take forever to get there I was so eager. I wasn’t disappointed though. Its carved white marble walls were in stark contrast to the brown craggy hills around it and it seemed rather out of place dropped into a valley as it was. The view itself was overshadowed by the excitement around it. Groups of girls and women hovered around the walls and a long line formed of women waiting to go inside for a blessing. Opportunistic merchant Outsiders walked around selling creams to lighten the skin and tonics to turn hair golden in the sun. The women swept these up with glee. You could tell who was who because the ones from surrounding villages wore long tunics and the Spartan women wore short ones cut off at the thigh. Plus the Outsiders often handed over coins, whereas the Spartans always handed over beads or trinkets they had brought along for just such a purpose. No one used currency in Sparta; coinage was forbidden. The only allowable currency were giant bars of iron, which were less than convenient to hold on one’s person. This law set by Lycurgus, Sparta’s founder, did a pretty good job of curbing consumption to all but the most necessary trades, but for most women, this included beauty products.

Agape seemed all at once uncomfortable with our journey and she weaved through the crowds too quickly for me to hear or observe much. While we stood in line she stood as far apart from the other women as possible. She held me close and her mouth formed into that tight line again, and although everyone else was chatting to their neighbors, no one said so much as a word to us.

When we got near the front she whispered to me, “Now don’t take your veil off, even once we get inside. Quite a few Spartans here would recognize me as your mother’s maidservant and it won’t take much to guess who you are. You just do what the priestess tells you to do and pray hard to Helen to make your birthmark go away as hard as you can.”

“What are they going to ask me to do?”

“I’ve no idea, Kallisto. This is all new to me too,” she said. And she did look a bit uncomfortable and out of place like I’d never seen her before.

The noise of the outside vanished instantly as two young priestesses took us inside and shut the great bronze doors behind us.

Dum dum dum....

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Senior Member
I found it a bit boring. Your writing style is very direct, but it also doesn't conjure the setting very well. It seems a bit impatient to get to the good stuff, but because of this, the reading consists almost purely of dialogue and foreshadowing. There's no hurry, take your time and enjoy setting up the scene and mood. This certainly has all the details in place, but the mood of the piece is very bland, and your writing style, while a good thing that it is direct, is much too direct.

I friend of mine once gave me some very good advice, which I have taken to heart. "Writing is all exposition. Period." What he meant by that, of course, is that even when describing events that happen and moving the plot forward through dialogue, one is still describing how the action occurs or how the dialogue colors the world. And it is this description that makes the story engaging and fun to read.

I felt that your story was more of a chore than a delight.


Senior Member
Gaseimasha, thank you for taking the time to labor through my story. Much appreciated. :)
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Firstly, I want to say that it's obvious you took the time to do a lot of research on your setting. That really comes through in the prose, and it adds a lot of dimension to this piece all on its own. Also, I think it's an interesting idea, a Spartan girl with a birthmark that mars her beauty. I'd be interested to see where this goes.

However, if these are the first ten pages of your novel, I will say that they're going to need some work. The entire first section before the break is all one big info-dump. The very first paragraph begins to draw the reader in, but after that, you were too busy explaining everything to hold my attention. I'd compare it to having a complete stranger stop you in the street and tell you their life story. Would you stand and listen, or would you be uncomfortable and try to think of an excuse to leave? I'm sure a lot of those details are important, but I'm curious--as a reader, do I have to know each any every one of them right now?

When you finish writing this, and you have it all edited, and you're ready to submit it to agents or publishers, a lot of them are simply going to ask to see the first five pages. Or, if they do ask for the whole thing, they'll stop reading after five pages if you don't have them hooked. That's what the first few pages of your book should do: They should introduce your character, give some hint of her plight, and most of all, make it so I and every one else that reads those pages wants to keep going. If I were an agent, and I had read the first half of what you have posted above, I wouldn't have kept going.

Here's a minor nit I picked up as I read:

I did she always reminded me, like it was the funniest thing in the world, run away from home three times before I even turned thirteen.
The commas and the strange order you put the various clauses in make this a very confusing sentence to read. It might read better split into two sentences. "I did run away from home three times before I even turned thirteen. She always reminded of that, like it was the funniest thing in the world."

Anyways, I'm not trying to discourage you in any way. Writing a novel is a big deal, and it requires a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to see it through. I respect anyone who can stay focused enough to finish the task, because it's not easy. It's very hard work indeed, creating something from nothing.

Lastly, when you do finish this thing, I'd highly recommend checking out the book "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman when you're doing your editing. It's a book written by a literary agent about what agents are looking for in a manuscript, and what is guaranteed to get you rejected. I'd argue it's a must-own for any beginning novelist.

Good luck. :)
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Senior Member
First of all, I want to say that your ability to transport the reader into ancient Greece is superb. However, the flashbacks and reflections are really holding the story back. I ran into this same exact problem with my novel, and had to do ALOT of trimming. When you take them out, its going to maKe your prose clunky and awkward, as it did with my novel. But don't lose heart, because I think you're onto a great start. As a history major, I believe you have done a great job with your research and setting. Just cut back on the reflections


Senior Member
The First Five Pages is indeed a great book. Funny that when you read it as a beginning writer you think, "Well, surely that doesn't apply to my longwinded backstory...". And yet it does.

Thanks Tia and Walt... really useful stuff. Off to go kill some backstory. And kill it good.

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Senior Member
This is definitely a genre that I would read... sparta? female character? historically accurate? I'm in. I LOVE the little historically accurate descriptors you threw in... like I loved the line about how her toes looked like a plate of shrimp hanging off the platter. And I find the concept of how women had to wear veils to keep their skin from getting dark very interesting. This is definitely something I'd be interested in reading if I picked it up in the bookstore, only not quite like this...

It took me at least two solid paragraphs to sort of understand what was going on, and to decide that I was interested. Not what you want. What I would suggest is you get right into what I found the most interesting part. If I were you, I'd start like this:

"The details of my first real outing stick in my mind like hardened honey.

It was not my mother or father that took me, but my nurse Agape. She came into my room one morning and told me to put my sandals on. When I asked where we were going, she said, 'We’re going to ask Helen to cure you of your bad looks, Kallisto. Your mother doesn’t say as much, but she's ashamed of that mark on your face. So is your father. Most parents woulda sent you off the cliffs, but they didn't. Now we gotta do something about it.' "

After that, you can slowly let the back story come out a bit, as they go on the journey I think. I did find it interesting, but I'm only interested in it when you point me the direction of where the story is going. Then you can flesh it out with some backstory. Just reading over a couple of your paragraphs I think you could also polish it up, just by reading it over, and editing a little. For instance,

"A group of girls walked right far (right far? huh? Probably you meant far...) in front of us, but we could hear their laughter and feel their excitement. There was something optimistic about the (who's journey? I think say 'our' journey... but that thought doesn't seem to follow right after the last sentence to me) journey; an inexpressible hope that was buried in varying levels of depth in each of us. Agape’s was packed in deeper, but it was still there. I could feel it even before she started to hum, which she never did (what?). It wasn’t long before we passed the giggling girls. They were concentrating on talking more than walking, and when we passed I saw they had on funny leather sandal and all sorts of bangles on their wrists and tassels on their dress. (I'd do this: It wasn't long before we passed the giggling girls. I saw they had on funny leather sandals and all sorts of bangles on their wrists and tassels on their dress. ...Skip the talking part.) Agape kept us going extra quick as we passed, even though I was clearly (clearly to who? skip that word.) trying to hear what they were saying and hang around to get a closer look at them."

^^^ I just think with a little polish these kind of paragraphs could be better.

Anyway, good luck!!


WF Veterans
Your story has promise, ak. But it does need some editing. I would start with your first paragraph. It shouldn't be your first paragraph. Your first few sentences should draw the reader in and pull him along. Your main character's feelings are too generic to carry that load. Let me think for a bit and offer some suggestions.


Senior Member
Yeah, was thinking VancouverLady was spot on and I'd just nix the first two paragraphs and start with, "One day my nurse woke me up and told me: "Bee-yotch, put some shoes on. We're hitting the town." In ancient Greek of course. I think I've committed a double writing sin of starting off with backstory dumping AND getting all French and metaphysical preachy on the reader.

Here's my synopsis teaser of what the whole thing is about, if it helps in figuring out where I'm trying to place the reader. Thanks Alan of Montana - let me know what you think.

Born with a birthmark on her face, and nothing but skin on her bones and a head of frizzy hair, Kallisto of Sparta is an embarrassment to her beautiful aristocratic family - “A walking stick-insect with the hair of a man from The Land of the Nile,” says her mother. Her loving nurse takes her on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Helen of Troy to cure her, but it's no help. The gods promise that Kallisto will be the most beautiful woman in all of Sparta one day, but only for a fee and with no promises on the delivery date. Having failed to shunt her off the Taygetos cliffs when she was born like they were supposed to, her parents have no choice but to try to keep her locked away at home. Only Kallisto is not the type of girl to stay quietly spinning. She is exiled further, to a farm at the edge of wilderness, but trouble still follows her wherever she goes. Kallisto is determined that if she is no use to Sparta as a Helen, then she will be an Atalanta, the girl of legend raised by a she-bear, who ran and sharp-shooted her way back into society. Like Atalanta she draws some of the most powerful men in Sparta to her, but just like the famed beauty whose face launched a thousand ships, she finds that getting what you asked for can led to more trouble than you started with.