I’m sure others have experienced the difficulty of writing regularly on a blog when trying to work on a novel. It’s difficult to spend limited time on the blog when the novel still needs work. Some of you may remember that I had two books on the Kobo site. I took them both down to do some revisions and this blog has been on the back burner ever since.
The first project was the novel I titled ‘Punto and Me’. It follows two lives, one from the eighteenth century and one in the twentieth century. The first is very loosely based on what is known about the life of the world’s first great horn virtuoso, Giovanni Punto (c.1742-1803). Born a serf in a rural estate in Bohemia, Jan Vaclav Stich, as he was then called, was trained as a musician. He fled the estate in his early twenties and resurfaced in Italy, having changed his name to Punto. The second life in the novel was a young girl who decides to play the horn in the school band. She is then visited by a mysterious ghost who offers advice on how to play the horn.
There’s a secret connection between the two that has been buried for over a hundred and fifty years and, as the novel skipped between portions of the two lives, the girl is determined to uncover the mystery.
The big difficulty is that, by the time I finished the book, it was about 170,000 words long. I decided that splitting the work into two books would be more sensible. I then split the books by characters. One book is about Punto and the other book is about the girl. I’ve revised the first and am working on the second.
The other difficulty was in writing a beginning chapter for Punto that was engaging for a reader, one that makes it easy to keep reading. It’s a tricky thing and I can’t tell you how often I reworked this chapter.
Everyone seems to agree that the opening chapter is critical. Publishers, editors and agents glance at this chapter (if you’re lucky) and decide whether it’s worth their time. Of course I’ve encountered books where the opening chapter was very engaging, only to find that it’s the only part of the book that was – perhaps a downside to the current system?
So I thought I’d offer my blog readers a taste of the current revision. I’m adding the first chapter of my novel and hope that, if anyone has the time and inclination, they’ll use the feedback and let me know what they thought of the chapter. Here goes:
Punto: Chapter one
“Are you daft, woman?” It was an angry voice she rarely heard and she felt her wrist grabbed in his strong calloused hand.
“But the Reverend said he’d never heard the like.”
“Bloody priests, what do they know?”
“The Sunday after he sang the solo in the choir, Herr Plodz came and told me.”
“The estate manager?”
“Yes. Herr Plodz said His Excellency had decided to make room for him as an estate musician.”
The angry look slowly melted into one of defeat and resignation. He let go of her wrist as his shoulders sagged. “His Excellency decrees and now I have as much choice as a cow.” There was a pause and she saw him working up one last outburst. “Why did you let him join that damned choir in the first place? All those years scraping to feed an extra mouth! He just gets old enough to start being of some use to me on the fields and he’s taken away.” He turned and opened the rickety door of their one room shack with its dirt floor.
“You’re a good man, Stefan.” He paused at the door, hearing the softness in her tone, but he didn’t turn around. “When does one of our kind ever get a chance for a better life?”
He turned his head. “You’ll never see him again. You know that, right?”
She watched him go out the door and head into the fields. She scanned the yard for her son and saw him near the chicken coup. “Jan! Come here.”
Was he six or seven? She couldn’t remember as she watched Jan scamper across the yard, carefully cradling three eggs in his hands. “Put the eggs on the table inside. I have something to tell you.”
“But I don’t want to go live there.” He didn’t see her hand coming but felt the sting on his cheek.
“What you want doesn’t matter. You’re going to live there and learn to be a musician. His Excellency, Count Thun, has decided it will be so and that’s all there is to it.”
There was a tear coming down his cheek, not so much from the slap as from the news. “But I don’t know anything about living in such a big place.” He sniffed.
“Stop blubbering. It’s called a manor house and you’ll learn.” She glared at him. “You’ve got a bit of mischief in you and you’d best lose that before you get there. His Excellency has no tolerance for insolence or stupid pranks.”
“Herr Plodz said he would take you there this morning!” She brightened. “Imagine! The estate manager taking time to fetch you – personally!” Her face clouded once more. “When he gets here you will bow to him. I won’t have him thinking I can’t raise a child with no manners! Understood?”
“Jan won’t just be singing with the chapel choir. He will learn music from professional musicians and, when he’s good enough, he’ll join the Count’s orchestra at the estate.” He had already told Jan’s mother this before, but Plodz could see Jan standing behind her looking scared and uncertain. “You remember that Jan will have little spare time and you may not see much of him once he’s on the estate.”
She nodded, took Jan by his shoulders and brought him round in front of Plodz. Jan bowed and his mother smiled, bent down and kissed him on the cheek. “Be off with you, then. Mind your manners and do whatever Herr Plodz tells you.”
She watched Plodz help lift Jan onto the wooden seat of his wagon. Plodz climbed in the other side, took the reigns for the horse and started the journey back to the estate. Jan kept his head turned behind him, staring at his mother as her figure receded. He didn’t look forward until he saw her start walking to the vegetable patch. The fact he’d never see his parents again didn’t cross his mind.
“Well lad, I can’t ever remember someone go from working the land to learning music. His Excellency has been very generous to you and you must work hard to show your appreciation for his generosity.”
“I shall thank him,” Jan glanced at Plodz, “and you, in my prayers each night.”
Plodz face brightened. “A fine thought lad, well spoken.” The wagon was approaching the church his family attended in the village of Tetschen, only a quarter mile from Jan’s home. Tetschen was a small town, situated near a river and well adorned with many large deciduous trees. It boasted an inn and a number of shops that catered to the estate and those who worked in the surroundings. As they left town they came to a cross road where Jan saw a body, legs and arms still tied down after being stretched over a sawhorse. A man had been disemboweled and the crows were now pecking at his eyes.
“The sight makes you a bit queasy, does it lad?” He could see Jan staring at the sight and trembling.
“What happened?” Jan croaked.
“It’s what happens when a serf doesn’t remember his place. This fellow had some notion that his kind should be free to own land and was silly enough to go around spouting this nonsense to the rabble. Of course His Excellency sent his soldiers and had him executed.”
“But doesn’t the Bible say that killing is against God’s law?”
Plodz stopped the wagon and turned his head directly at Jan. “God put his Excellency in his position. It’s not our place to question how things are ordained. As one of God’s chosen, the Count is the law. When you are on this estate, he has the power of life and death and every state in between. You don’t question the order of things, you don’t anger the Count and, if you don’t want to end up like that wretch, you’d better keep that in mind, lad.”
Plodz flicked his horsewhip and the cart resumed its journey. After a spell of complete silence, Plodz asked in a kindly tone. “Well lad, how do you feel about toiling at music instead of the fields?”
Jan struggled to keep his terror in check, remembering his mother’s admonishment to behave and answered, “I don’t know, I’ve never done it.” Then he blurted, “I don’t know anything about how to live in a big place…I mean manor house.”
Plodz nodded and began a steady monologue for the rest of the journey. He mostly talked about what he knew best: the yield from every field they passed, what would be planted the following year, what area needed more work on drainage, the number of cows in each herd that they saw. Jan took in none of it, but Plodz had a reassuring effect on him. He recognized the calmness in the monotone quality of the voice.
Two men wearing livery were awaiting them when Plodz stopped the wagon at the rear of the estate, near the building used for music rehearsing. “Jan, this is Maestro Gratcheck,” he began as he lifted Jan down from the wagon and placed him in front of tall, stern looking man wearing a powdered wig. “Maestro, may I present young Jan Stich.”
“Yes, the Count has ordered me to make something of you.” He looked and sounded fierce to Jan, who bowed. Gratcheck then did a curt bow of his head to Plodz, who returned the favor before returning to his wagon and departing. Gratcheck turned to his younger companion, “Jakob, Jan will be sharing your room from now on. Show him around and make sure he settles in. I’ll start him in the choir and get D’Irenza to teach him the violin. We’ll soon see if he lives up to his Excellency’s expectations.”
“Yes, Herr Gratcheck,” responded the lanky youth.
“Yes, Herr Gratcheck?”
Gratcheck looked at Jan with a slight curl to his lip, “Get him cleaned up before you get him into his livery. He smells like he’s still in a stable.” Jan’s face flushed.
“Yes, Herr Gratcheck,” Jakob responded to the back of the departing maestro.
Jan looked up at the tall seventeen-year old with his brown hair and languid eyes. He saw the fleshy lips saying something to him as the older man disappeared into a nearby building. “Hey dolt, can you hear? I said follow me.” Then he noticed a small dark stain at Jan’s crotch. “God help us, you’ve wet yourself!” Jakob shook his head but it only took a moment for his face to brighten again. He looked at Jan’s red face and smiled, “I’ll just have to call you Squirt,” then laughed loudly at his own wit.
Jan’s head lowered to his chest and tears began streaming down his face. Jakob stopped laughing. “All right Squirt, I remember it was pretty scary for me the first day I arrived, and I was ten. Come on then, we’ll get you cleaned up first,” and he took Jan by the hand and led him into the servants’ quarters where he showed them their room. Jan took off his clothes and Jakob handed him a wet washcloth from a basin and supervised a rough wash. Then he took a chamber pot from under his bed and said, “If you need to piss or shit inside, you do it in this – yes.”
Jan nodded, “Yes.”
“And Squirt,” Jan looked as Jakob handed him the estate uniform in a size that was only a little too big. “I’ve got my viola to practice and I’m not thrilled with being your nursemaid. The sooner you figure out how to behave around here, the better we’ll get along.” He looked at Jan’s face. “And you can stop with the sad looks, Squirt. Being here is far better than spending your life working the land or with your head over a stinking tanning vat like I would be doing if it weren’t for my viola. Playing music on the estate is an easy life compared to most other things.”
He spent the day dragging his small charge around and showing him everything. He first showed Jan the latrines, commenting, “No more messes please.” Then he showed Jan where they ate and where they practiced music. He kept Jan beside him as he played his viola in an orchestra practice and afterwards introduced him to his violin teacher. After supper they went to a choir practice.
“Squirt, this is Milos and Herman. You’re all about the same age and they both sing alto in the choir.” Jan looked at the two as Jakob abandoned him. Milos was small and scrawny. His brown curly hair framed bright hazel eyes but it was his long fingers that Jan thought remarkable. Herman was a tough looking sort with blond hair and blue eyes. Even at his age he was starting to look like he had muscle tone and Jan’s eyes lingered. Jan bowed to the boys and missed the smirks they gave each other.
“Is Squirt really your name?”
Jan reddened at the question. “No, my name is Jan.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jan.” Milos returned Jan’s bow while Herman rolled his eyes heavenward.
“Boys! Take your places. Jan, you are over there, in the soprano section.”
“Yes, Herr Gratcheck,” Herman responded as he and Milos went to a different section.
“We’ll start with the Palestrina, ‘Exultate Deo.’”
Jan’s eyes brighten as he listened to the choir rehearse the five part piece, listening intently to the soprano line. “Sopranos, sing your line from the beginning. “Very good! Jan, have you sung this before?”
“No, Herr Gratcheck.” Gratcheck’s face betrayed his astonishment.
When the rehearsal was over, it was starting to get dark although the moon looked like it would be full. Jakob walked with Jan back to their room. “Where did you learn to sing like that?” Jakob asked but Jan just shook his head. “You could sing the line perfectly after hearing it only once! I can’t do that and I’ve been studying here for over six years. I could hear you in the section. Everybody was looking to see where the beautiful voice was coming from. You sounded like an angel,” Jakob sent him a wry look, “even if you do wet yourself. And did you see the smile Gratcheck sent your way? He rarely smiles at anyone!”
When they arrived at their room Jakob knelt by the bed and Jan knelt beside him. When Jakob finished an evening prayer, Jan added, “And God bless mother, father, Count Thun and Herr Plodz.” Jakob stood up and stripped off his clothes and climbed into bed. Jan looked puzzled, stripped off his clothes and lay down on the floor beside the bed.
“What are you doing?”
“Going to sleep.”
“On the floor?”
“Isn’t that where everyone sleeps?”
“Really Squirt, it’s time you found out about beds. Get in here beside me.” Jan got up and tentatively got into bed beside Jakob.
“Don’t forget where the chamber pot is if you need it in the night.”
“I won’t,” Jan said and he closed his eyes. It was dark and Jan was quiet although he rarely went to sleep quickly. When Jakob thought Jan was asleep, he arose from the bed and got out the chamber pot.
The moon was particularly bright and gave the room some light. Jan was conscious of unusual noises from Jakob’s direction. They didn’t sound anything like the kind made emptying a bladder. Jan half opened his eyes and saw that Jakob had his hand around his thing and was rubbing it. Jan had been impressed at the size Jakob’s thing when it was just hanging between his legs, but he was astonished to see it grow even bigger and stand boldly upright after a bit of vigorous rubbing. Jakob increased the speed his hand was moving, rubbing his thing more violently. Then he made a little grunting sigh and Jan saw something shoot from the end of his thing into the pot. Jakob was still for a moment and then put the pot away.
“What are you doing?” asked Jan, raising his head slightly from his bed.
“Shit! You’re still awake,” responded Jakob, taken aback. Then he made a little snort-like laugh and said, “Couldn’t keep from watching, hey Squirt? Can’t wait to try it?”
“Try what?” Jan replied in confusion.
Jakob laughed at this remark. “Forget it. It’s something you do when you get older. You’re not ready, but don’t worry, it’s only a matter of time before you get the urges. In the meantime, you keep this just between us.” Then Jakob got into bed and was quickly snoring. Jan had a little more difficulty sleeping; he was more puzzled than ever but he felt warm and comfortable as he snuggled close to Jakob.
A week later Jan was alone in his room and decided to try out his own thing. He began rubbing it furiously, hoping he could get the same effect he’d seen Jakob achieve. Jakob entered the room in the middle of the proceedings. He saw Jan’s hand and the red face. He began laughing.
Jan looked up embarrassed and said, “There’s something wrong with mine. It’s too small and it doesn’t work.”
Jakob stopped laughing with difficulty but he could see that Jan was serious and troubled. He was growing fond of Jan and was beginning to think of himself as an older brother. “I told you before Squirt, yours isn’t going to work like mine yet. You aren’t old enough for that. In a few years you’ll grow bigger and you’ll get hair on your crotch and you’ll be able to it just like me.”
“Enough questions, it’s time for sleep.”
It wasn’t long before Jakob discovered that Jan stayed awake for sometime after slipping into bed. He got into the habit of talking to Jan, even if it was too dark to see Him. Jakob’s topics of conversation were diverse. As time progressed Jakob was quite happy to explain the facts of life, as he knew them, to his roommate. Some of what he relayed to Jan about sex was actually true, but there was a different topic that he thought about constantly and it was inevitable that Jakob eventually broached this subject as well.
“Would you like to learn French?”
“A language, stupid. You’re speaking a language right now called German. Everyone on the estate speaks German although there are lots of the people around the countryside that speak Czech. You use a lot of Czech words but, if you want to succeed around here, you’ll change them to German.”
“Oh. Well, all right. How do I learn French?”
“That’s the easy part, Squirt. I am going to teach you every night until you can speak French with me.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“It’s for me. My mother was born in France and taught me French from the time I was little. My father only spoke German. Learning to speak French made it possible for us to talk together in a special way, especially since no one else around spoke French. Since coming to the estate, I haven’t spoken French and I miss it. So you’re going to learn.”
So every night Jan soaked in French vocabulary and phrases. As it turned out music was not the only gift that came easily to Jan and he was able to converse in French with Jakob within a year.