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by Steerpike`s sister 

Posted: 20 May 2007
Word Count: 938
Summary: The start of a new novel. Intended to be adventure-thriller with the theme of 'faith'...

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Ashley could remember the exact moment her father told her he had lost his faith.
She was eight. He’d asked her if she wanted to go for a row out in the moonlight, just the two of them, and she’d gone “Yeah!” because they didn’t seem to do things just together any more, and she missed it. But that was what Mum and Dad said this holiday was for – to spend some time together, do some thinking. Jet Lake was certainly good for thinking. It was big and deep and silent, and to all sides the forested hills rose up like a safe, protecting hand.
She ran down to the jetty in her waterproofs and life-jacket, the night feeling tingly and special. They climbed into the boat, and Dad took the oars and rowed them right out into the centre, where the stars were brightest and fiercest and deepest.
Every summer, Jeph Huston used to take his family camping. While Mum toasted sausages, Ashie would sit on his lap and watch the night sky with him. First he would tell her all about the constellations, and that the stars were flaming balls of gas, and that somewhere, far beyond it all, there might be inhabited planets. Last of all, he would point up to the stars and say “Behind all those, honey, behind the deepest stars and the most wonderful galaxies, somewhere out there, watching us, there is God. And He loves us.”
Now he said:
“I’m giving it up, Ashie.”
For a moment she thought he meant the house, the lake-side house where they had spent every summer since forever, and she went cold and sick inside. She knew that money was tight, because of Dad’s counselling, but she hadn’t realised…
She’d once asked Mum what counselling meant, and she’d replied “He just needs someone to listen, that’s all.”
“I can listen,” Ashie had said.
Mum had laughed, and sighed, and said. “He needs someone professional, sweetheart. Someone who listens for their job.”
Ashie looked at her father, sitting bent and tired-looking in the shadows, and tried again. “I can listen.” If she could listen properly enough, then Dad wouldn’t have to go for counselling, and they wouldn’t have to give up the lake house.
“Honey, what are you talking about?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted.
“I’m giving it up. The priesthood.”
Ashie blinked at him. Other people’s fathers were doctors or teachers or businessmen. Her cousin Jack’s father was a university professor. Her father was an Anglican priest. Every Sunday was a special day, where they got to dress up in their nicest clothes and watch Daddy looking smart and handsome in the pulpit, with everyone smiling and happy. He gave the nicest sermons. Everyone said so.
“I don’t understand.”
“I can’t do it any more. I can’t pray.” He started making a strange noise, his shoulders shaking, and she realised he was crying. That was the worst moment of her entire life. It wasn’t his shoulders shaking, it was the pillars of the entire earth. It was the boat, the whole lake, the suddenly-threatening forest. She was terrified that the bottom of the lake would drop away and they would be sucked down into a whirlpool and be drowned forever. She started crying too.
Her father reached out a hand to comfort her; his other hand wiped the tears from his own face.
“I’ve lost my faith,” he said.
“It might come back,” she whimpered.
He smiled through his tears, she couldn’t see it but she heard it in his voice.
“I wish it was that easy, honey. I really do.”

She was fifteen now, and no-one called her Ashie any more.
“Come on, Ashie!”
Except Jack, of course.
Ash stopped traipsing through the muddy forest long enough to yell “My name is ASH! It’s been Ash for like five years, you moron!”
Jack paused and leaned on the nearest tree. He scowled at her, his black hair tousled and sweaty. Even though they were only second cousins, everyone said how similar they looked. Most people took them for brother and sister.
“Yeah, well, hurry up! The light’s going!” He rubbed a tanned arm across his forehead. “I thought you were supposed to be rock hard, all that climbing and stuff you do. What’s the matter, the Great Outdoors too much for you?”
“Maybe I might be going a little faster if I wasn’t wearing a stupid monkey suit!” She shook her head, not her own head, but the cycle helmet with fake fur glued onto it that she was carrying. “Why don’t you carry this for a bit, smart-arse? It was your great idea.” She lobbed it at him. It landed short, and sploshed into the mud. Jack uttered a cry of despair and plunged after it.
“That took me all weekend to make!”
Ash sat down on a nearby stump and wiped the sweat out of her eyes. She wished she was swimming in Jet Lake the way she had been that morning.
“Jack, it’s high summer, the mosquitoes are having a party, and I’m wearing a monkey suit made out of discarded carpet, fake fur and coat-hangers. My eyeliner has melted into some kind of primeval soup, and my hair appears to have given up and died. Remind me again why I am doing this for you?”
Jack scrambled to his feet, clutching the recovered helmet and covered in mud. His eyes were bright with excitement – the thrill of the chase, thought Ash sourly.
“Big Foot,” he said solemnly. “There’s something out there, and we’re going to find it.”

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Comments by other Members

nr at 10:20 on 22 May 2007  Report this post
Leila, you know I'm a big fan of your writing so I hope you won't mind if I say this didn't grab me. I think the premiss is interesting, so it isn't that. I really like the idea of loss of faith being a starting point for the story. It may be that I was disappointed to jump to the teenage section when the lake scene's potential remained unrealised. I also think the lake episode needs to be written in a plainer style. There were too many long sentences for my taste, and I thought the child sounded too like an adult in the few things she said aloud. For example when Jeph says he's giving up the priesthood, Ashe says 'I don't understand.' Although the language is simple, I think it's an adult sort of answer, implying a complexity of response, where a child would simply say 'Why?' The POV is mixed 8 and 15 year old I know, but I'm not sure it works. For example in the midst of the description of the 8 year old's experience, you write 'it was the pillars of the whole earth'. This is a very sophisticated image but whose is it? Not the 8 year old's; probably not the 15 year old's. Maybe the narrator/author's? For me, it muddles the voice.

The second section is much more convincing I feel. I thought Ash's voice was strong. I liked the sarky tone.
Jack, it’s high summer, the mosquitoes are having a party, and I’m wearing a monkey suit made out of discarded carpet, fake fur and coat-hangers. My eyeliner has melted into some kind of primeval soup, and my hair appears to have given up and died. Remind me again why I am doing this for you?”

I like this but I think it would actually be more effective if the list were shorter. By the time I'd got to 'coat hangers' after a triple clause sentence with the third clause itself containing three phrases in a list, I wanted a short punchy sentence to round it off. But I had to get through another long sentence with too many qualifying elements. 'Some kind of' and 'Appears to have' aren't needed are they, even if you keep this sentence. I really like the punch line though: Remind me why...'

I'm going to stop now. I've a feeling that what I might really be saying is that I prefer other-world/ancient world writing, especially yours. Apologies if I've been too harsh. I think you're a real writer and I wouldn't insult you by pretending to like something when I didn't. All the same I wouldn't want to depress you.

Naomi R

Steerpike`s sister at 11:34 on 22 May 2007  Report this post
Thanks, Naomi. It's something I wrote fairly quickly the other day and hasn't really been re-edited, so I can see where your comments are coming from. Perhaps one of the issues in the lake scene (this is meant as a prologue, and the 8 year old self would not be returned to again) is the moving between times - past and further past - which makes for some clumsy sentences.

SarahT at 12:43 on 23 May 2007  Report this post

I'm afraid I agree. I found my heart sinking at the first line! This may be a symptom of my own shallowness but I wonder how many teenagers would be grabbed by that as a theme to a book. Also, as I've found with editing my own stuff recently, it doesn't really work to give up or lose something straight away because you have not really established why the loss of that thing is important. What does faith mean to the character and why is it a big deal to lose it? I don't think that's first chapter subject matter. I think it is whole book subject matter.

And I agree that the second section was much stronger. It would make a much better start to a book.


Luisa at 14:37 on 23 May 2007  Report this post
Hi Leila,

OK, now I'm going to come along and confuse you, but maybe not because you know I come from the opposite end of the teen fiction spectrum.

I loved this and enjoyed your writing style - the long sentences and vaguer phrasing included. I thought it was all part of Ashley's voice, which came across as strong and individual. I found it easy to imagine the scenes and characters. I quite liked your opening, although perhaps the first line should be more subtle so that it doesn't put readers off - something along the lines of "Ashley could remember the exact moment her father told her." Just a suggestion. I also think the flashback in the first section doesn't quite work, for the reason you gave in your comment above.

I liked the changes from Ashie to Ash, and I love the parallels you've drawn between Ashley's father and Jack. (Well, that's how I saw it, at least!)

I think this has a lot of potential and I hope to see more.


Steerpike`s sister at 17:43 on 23 May 2007  Report this post
Thanks, guys! It's good to get contrasting views.
It's definitely not just for the first chapter - the theme of the whole novel is faith, how hard it is to keep it and how important not to lose it - faith in people, in 'something out there', in whatever is important to you. That, however, the background to a Horowitz-y adventure story.
I'm sure it sounds vague - it's all in my head at the moment so probably I'd best write some more and post later when it's coming together a bit more!

NMott at 22:19 on 23 May 2007  Report this post
This is beautifully written, Leila. I was drawn right in :)

It came across as American-heartland - the names Jeph Huston, camping beside the lake, and, of course, Big Foot. I would suggest making him a penticostal minister - or whatever they are called over there - and setting it near the Great Lakes.

Faith per sae is a difficult topic (especially if it is 'worn on one's sleeve', as it were), but I see no reason to shy away from it. Americans have no qualms about talking about God and their faith, although I don't think you need to use the word, purely because you should give the readers something to work out for themselves - have it as an undertone to the narrative, like Christianity is an undertone to CS Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Something must have precipitated the father's loss of faith, something he can't or won't articulate to someone as young as his daughter, so at this stage a simple “I can’t do it any more. I can’t pray.” should suffice - such a statement would be devistating enough for any minister.

- NaomiM

Steerpike`s sister at 06:56 on 24 May 2007  Report this post
Thanks Naomi, glad you enjoyed it :). score is now 2 all. LOL!.
You are quite right, for some reason I saw them right from the start as an American family. So yes, Penecostal or ... Baptist?
I agree, something needs to precipitate losing his faith. I was thinking of 9/11 but perhaps that is too hackneyed.
Why I want to write about Americans I have no idea - means I have to go and research America now! Lia, where are you?? :)

NMott at 12:17 on 24 May 2007  Report this post
9/11 would be topical, Leila. And the Tsunami. But I don't think death would precipitate a loss of faith. Unreleaved suffering perhaps, but death is a spiritual release and to be welcomed since Heaven is a better place than Earth.

Perhaps it is the hate stirred up by 9/11; maybe it's more personal, someone from his town, an Arab, say, who is persecuted by the authorities because they think he's a terrorist, but who sticks to his Islamic faith. Maybe a bigfoot teaches him more about humanity? Maybe it gets the minister thinking about what faith really means and whose religion is right.

Our local vicar had a 'crisis', but that was mainly brought on by overwork - he'd been given four churches and two schools to cover in the Parish, after two vicars left in a row and the parish couldn't find replacements, and his wife was ill. Ministers rely on prayer to get them through such moments of doubt, and if they feel there's no-one listening, it can be devistating.
I don't think they would give up believing in god - a lot of them had a crisis of conscience after the ordination of Women priests, and now gays, but those ones left for the Catholic Church.

Anyway, I had a thought last night about the part where he says he can't pray. Instead of him saying "I've lost my faith," (which I'm not sure a child of that age would completely understand, and if he tried to explain by saying he didn't believe in God it would be like saying Santa didn't exist!) how about the little girl says "I know a prayer" and goes on to recite (badly) part of the Lords Prayer, at which point her father breaks down in tears...
Just a though.

It is topical because my son is currently going through the stage of saying he doesn't believe in God, and asking me to prove he exists. And I've finding it impossible to think of anything to say in response. Either you have faith in his existance or you don't. If you don't, there is nothing one can hold up and say 'this is proof', except the weight of other peoples' faith. Which gives me one last thought - maybe your character's loss of faith is brought on by his congregation's loss of faith after 9/11, and he finds it increasingly difficult to 'prove' God exists to them. Then something happens at the end of the book (an epiphany), which 'proves' it to him, and restores his faith.

Anyway, facinating subject, Leila :)
Looking forward to reading more.

- NaomiM

SarahT at 12:43 on 24 May 2007  Report this post
On reflection, I feel a bit stingy about my comments. Just to make it clear, I thought it was well written apart from the subject matter!


Steerpike`s sister at 16:38 on 24 May 2007  Report this post
Thanks guys, there's interesting stuff to think about there!

Myrtle at 19:56 on 29 May 2007  Report this post
Hi Leila,

I thoroughly enjoyed this. I think faith as a theme possibly sounds a bit scary for a young audience at first but in fact it's such a huge part of every child's life - not necessarly religious faith, but everything we believe in as children and the process of unbelieving it over the years, from the tooth fairy to discovering your parents aren't infallible; but of course religion plays a big part for many young people and I think with this kind of writing (ie. bloody good) you could sell pretty much any theme to me! I thought it would be better to alter that first sentence a little - lose the word 'faith' and make it slightly more audience friendly - you could say it in so many ways. Personally I didn't have a problem with the complexity of language in the section where she's 8, because it's a moment recollected by an older mc; I thought that section about her reaction to her father crying was excellent - it took me right back to the first time I saw my dad cry. I also really enjoyed the teenage section, but I felt rather roughly removed from that lake and wanted a little more before moving on.

Fascinated to see where you go with this.


Steerpike`s sister at 21:52 on 29 May 2007  Report this post
Thanks, Emily. I agree with you about faith not being too scary a theme - I think there are few themes that teenagers can't handle as long as it's presented in the right way.
l xx

DerekH at 15:31 on 01 June 2007  Report this post
Hi Leila,

I've just joined the group and read this. I really like some of your descriptions and the mood you capture - "Dad took the oars and rowed them right out into the centre, where the stars were brightest and fiercest and deepest" - That really got me.

I've no idea whether teens would find the story of the father losing his faith appealing or not, but the scene you set is lovely and the bigfoot part isn't far away and sounds like a lot of fun.

My only crit would be that for me it all seemed to jump around. From Jeph being the stargazing man of faith, to Jeph losing it, and then to Ash at 15 as a bigfoot. It seems perfectly fine to progress like that but just something about the construction made me feel a bit like I was being thrown from scene to scene rather than led, and it confused me just a bit for a moment.

I really Ash's sharp dialogue when she's older, makes her likeable at the same time as stroppy which together would make her interesting to read I think.


Steerpike`s sister at 16:48 on 01 June 2007  Report this post
Thanks Derek! Your comments make sense to me, esp. the jumping around scenes thing - I think I was somehow thinking in 'scenes' for this one.

Nne at 13:54 on 22 July 2007  Report this post

I really enjoyed reading your story :)
The first sentence grabbed my attention,
but the switch to the 15jr old Ash felt a bit sudden, I mean that Ash suddenly talks about something a completely different topic.

Looking forward to read the next part!

Steerpike`s sister at 17:28 on 22 July 2007  Report this post
Thanks Nne (can't pronounce that!).
You're right, it is a bit sudden. must sort that out.

Nne at 23:13 on 22 July 2007  Report this post
lol I just picked out letters in my name
(not very creative I have to admit, but I couldn't think of anything at the time!)
You can call me Nadine :)

Skippoo at 18:56 on 24 July 2007  Report this post
Hi Leila,

I think he way you capture the atmosphere of the lake at night at the beginning - without using cliches - is great!

Ashie looked at her father, sitting bent and tired-looking in the shadows, and tried again. “I can listen.” If she could listen properly enough, then Dad wouldn’t have to go for counselling, and they wouldn’t have to give up the lake house.

Somehow I felt this section needs to be made to stand out from the preceding back story more. I had to go back and re-read to check she was saying it to her dad, here and now in the boat, if you know what I mean. Perhaps have a reference to the lake or boat, or just add a few simple words to emphasise it, such as: 'Ashie looked at her father now, sitting bent and tired ...' or '"I can listen," she said to him.' Also, I wouldn't imagine there to really be shadows in the middle of an open lake under the stars - only unless they're near a bank with trees or something, so I think that added to my brief confusion.

That was the worst moment of her entire life. It wasn’t his shoulders shaking, it was the pillars of the entire earth. It was the boat, the whole lake, the suddenly-threatening forest. She was terrified that the bottom of the lake would drop away and they would be sucked down into a whirlpool and be drowned forever. She started crying too.

This section was spot on. I remember a similar moment in my life - seeing vulnerability in my dad and finding it so disturbing as I'd always seen him as invincible.

Another minor point: I wondered if 'primeval' is a word many fifteen year-olds would know? Readers and characters, that is.

This is a well-written opening, which offers instant intrigue: Just how do monkey outfits and Big Foot hunting tie in with the faith theme?! I look forward to finding out!

Just looking at other's comments: I agree the Big Foot hunting theme risks wandering into cliche territory - but it all depends on how you handle it, of course. I guess the switch from past to present does seem sudden, but as this is such a short extract, for me it would depend on how both sections tie into the overall story and theme.


Steerpike`s sister at 19:11 on 24 July 2007  Report this post
Thanks Cath! I'm glad you found things to like in it. Re-reading just now, I find a lot I'd like to change - it is too choppy.
I agree with the need to add a 'now' in that section.
Glad you 'got' the bit where her dad cries - I remember something very similar happening when my mum broke down once when I was a child.
leila x

Cassandra5 at 05:53 on 28 July 2007  Report this post
I thought that the opening segment was wonderful and I wanted to know how it mattered to Ash, how it affected her own sense of the world and herself in it. If her father's a priest, faith has been such a central and unquestioned part of her life. Has she really thought it was just about daddy dressing up and people listening to him? Surely she knows, even at age 8, that a foundation of the world as she's known it is being rejected by her own father? She can't express that but it's huge; and in that sense it definitely sets the tone for a book in which having faith (in people, in ideas, etc) is the theme.

I don't think it's a bit irrelevant or unappealing. I just finished reading *The Shell House*, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie, and there is a whole big sub-plot about a girl losing her faith. I felt it was rather heavy-handed in that book, but it's an important theme and a lot can be done with it.

So I liked the first part a lot and found it distinctive, more so than the teen part which seems ordinary.

Steerpike`s sister at 08:05 on 28 July 2007  Report this post
Thanks, Cassandra, I haven't read the Shell House - is that Linda Newbery?

Cassandra5 at 17:38 on 28 July 2007  Report this post
Yes, Shell House is Linda Newbery. It's a very ambitious book; in fact, I didn't think she quite pulled it off becuase it was so very ambitious. The parts about faith/Faith (concept/character) were particularly unsuccessful--long discussions about "is there a God" which seemed overly earnest (especially between 2 characters who've just met) and forced. My own favorite author, Antonia Forest, sometimes has her characters discuss religion and belief, and it's handled much more lightly and convincingly to my mind. But never a major plot element like newbery makes it.

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