Our first volunteer for a critique


We are fortunate enough to have our first volunteer today who provided the introduction (first 1000 words) of her manuscript for a critique.  It takes courage to put your work out there and ask for people to judge it, but doing so can help you to improve your craft.  I want to thank Grace Knight for being willing to share her writing with us.

For anyone interested, please place your feedback for this excerpt in the comments section.  If you have specific points, try to provide examples of what might work better.  Be gentle and let her know what she did right as well.  I will paste the story as I received it below.  After that will be my own critique.  I don’t expect anyone to be as thorough as I am, so don’t feel you need to take that kind of time.  Even a few lines describing your thoughts can be useful.  The greater the participation, the better overall idea Grace will have of where she stands with her work.

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“He wants you dead,” my father told me calmly, his arms crossed over his chest.

I had expected this. What I hadn’t expected was how calmly he would present the news. No matter. He’ll lose his cool soon, I thought dismissively, especially with no one else here to see.

  “Then he will have me killed. There isn’t anything that you can do about that, if he honestly sees me as a threat,” I responded cautiously, making a note of the flicker of determination in his eyes. It was gone in an instant, another attempt to hide his intentions from me, a venture he should have known better than to pursue.

“No. I will not allow it,” he hissed through clenched teeth, his voice much more tightly controlled. And… there it goes.

“If Lord Solis wants me dead, there is nothing anyone can do. You know he won’t listen to you, fates forbid you ever be right about something where he’s concerned. Your word means nothing to him. If you could get Lady Glacie to talk to him… He knows the legion is his only hope when the Ancients return again, and she can force him to admit it. They will only follow me.” I knew the truth in my words, and I could see he knew it too, though he would likely go about his usual business of bluster and threats until Solis finally forced him to back down.

“She has, and he trusts her, but you must tread carefully. Once the war is over, he will no longer have any use for you.”

I bristled then. “I must tread carefully? This is your fault, even if there isn’t any real threat from Solis. If he kills me, he will lose his Legatus Legionis, and he cannot lose the support of my legion when we go to war.” I didn’t bother to try to soften the harshness in my voice, and his eyes flashed briefly in a warning.

“He could replace you with one of your brothers,” he said slowly. “You overestimate your worth to him and to the legion.”

I laughed mirthlessly. “They wouldn’t respect either of them. Rettulit is incompetent when it comes to the military side of things and Incedam is much too young. They would only follow them if they were ordered. They follow me because I earned my place at their head, many times over,” I snapped back, my eyes flashing silver for a heartbeat.

“You are one to talk of youth,” Lune responded dryly. “Remember who it was that put you in the service of the legion you now command, Lerisia,” he added when I started to protest.

“Lord Solis was the one to drive me out. I would have found my way to the legion eventually even if he hadn’t. I succeeded because I had to earn my way there. If you just hand off the command, you hand off an empty title with no real meaning. You will strip them of all their authority faster than you would have ever thought possible.” My voice was bitter now, and I could see that I was starting to cross the line in the sand, but I wasn’t backing down. Not yet.

I protected you then! I sent you south! I am the reason you are where you are!” he snarled back.

I recoiled sharply. That would always be his downfall. He always overestimated his worth to me. One of these days, he will cross a border from which he can’t return, I thought grimly. I considered voicing my thoughts, but I knew now was not the time.

“I didn’t need your protection, then, now, or ever! It’s because of you that I’m where I am now! He knows the only way to hurt you is to kill me! I am here because of that suicide mission you sent me on last summer.” I caught my breath while he fumed in the corner. I could see it was taking all of his self-control not to explode right then, but I wasn’t afraid, though by all rights I should have been terrified. Fear was not an option here, now or ever. Fear obscured judgment, and I needed a clear head around him if I was to escape both his fury and his over-protectiveness. “This is your fault. You ordered me to move against him, and that’s the only reason I’m in danger now. You brought this on yourself!” Without another word, I spun from the hall, leaving him to fume silently.

“Tiaonia, Dynosia, come,” I snapped to my vanguard waiting at the doors. I noticed too late the edge of discontent in my tone. The centurions followed. I took another deep breath, trying and failing to still my racing heart. “Well, that went well,” I said finally.

Tiaonia rolled her eyes dramatically, and Dynosia raised an eyebrow. Of course they had heard our argument. It would have been impossible for them not to have heard every word.

“Your orders, my lady?” Dynosia asked quietly.

I shook my head as if to clear it. She was always looking to the future, which usually meant prepping for war. Her face was carefully neutral. She would not pick a side until she knew who had the upper hand. If she picked one prematurely, she might lose an opportunity to move up in the rankings, possibly even a chance to become my successor. I had to admire her penchant for being an opportunist, but I didn’t trust her for the same reason.

“Ready the legion. Reye’s forces gather at Tiber Pass. Under no circumstances are they to get through and join with the legions already here, understood? Tiaonia, take the Fifth and strip the land on our side. Take what our warriors need to live and destroy the rest.”

Vastatio, eh? And what about Lyeolia? The king is a known ally of the prince.” The light in her eyes reminded me how much she enjoyed watched the flames of vastatio leap over fields and treetops.

“Lyeolia’s a fortress, but their military could stand to improve. They’re no threat to us, but if you see their banners among Reye’s army, lay siege to the city and they’ll pull out. Numbers could kill us with this one.”

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My feedback (with full story excerpt) follows:

“He wants you dead,” my father told me calmly, his arms crossed over his chest.

I had expected this. What I hadn’t expected was how calmly he would present the news. No matter. He’ll lose his cool soon, I thought dismissively gave a mental shrug, especially with no one else here to see.

  “Then he will have me killed. There isn’t anything that you can do about that, if he honestly sees me as a threat,” I responded cautiously (I’m not sure this is the right word, I’d say she is being dismissive), making a note of the flicker of determination in his eyes. It was gone in an instant, another attempt to hide his intentions from me, a venture he should have known better than to pursue.

“No. I will not allow it,” he hissed through clenched teeth, his voice much more tightly controlled. And… there it goes. Show more body movements.  Her father seems agitated so have him pacing the room and gesturing with his hands.  It will give a better visual for the readers.  This can also allow you to add details of the room, such as if he stands next to a fireplace or takes a seat on a high back chair or at a table.

“If Lord Solis wants me dead, there is nothing anyone can do. You know he won’t listen to you, fates forbid you ever be right about something where he’s concerned. Your word means nothing to him. If you could get Lady Glacie to talk to him… He knows the legion is his only hope when the Ancients return again, and she can force him to admit it. They will only follow me.” I knew the truth in my words, and I could see he knew it too (this is telling, show us he believes her), though he would likely go about his usual business of bluster and threats until Solis finally forced him to back down.

“She has, and he trusts her, but you must tread carefully. Once the war is over, he will no longer have any use for you.”

I bristled then. “I must tread carefully? This is your fault, even if there isn’t any real threat from Solis. If he kills me, he will lose his Legatus Legionis, and he cannot lose the support of my legion when we go to war.” I didn’t bother to try to soften the harshness in my voice, and his eyes flashed briefly in a warning.

“He could replace you with one of your brothers,” he said slowly. “You overestimate your worth to him and to the legion.”

I laughed mirthlessly let out an empty laugh. “They wouldn’t respect either of them. Rettulit is incompetent when it comes to the military side of things and Incedam is much too young. They would only follow them if they were ordered. They follow me because I earned my place at their head, many times over,” I snapped back, my eyes flashing silver for a heartbeat. (She can’t see her own eyes, how does she know they are flashing?)

“You are one to talk of youth,” Lune responded dryly. “Remember who it was that put you in the service of the legion you now command, Lerisia,” he added when I started to protest.  (This is our first hint that the character is female.  Maybe include something a little earlier to show it such as a rustle of a skirt or flicking her braid over her shoulder)

“Lord Solis was the one to drive me out. I would have found my way to the legion eventually even if he hadn’t. I succeeded because I had to earn my way there. If you just hand off the command, you hand off an empty title with no real meaning. You will strip them of all their authority faster than you would have ever thought possible.” My voice was bitter now, and I could see that I was starting to cross the line in the sand, but I wasn’t backing down. Not yet.  (Once again, some body movements here would emphasize the state of her mood.)

I protected you then! I sent you south! I am the reason you are where you are!” he snarled back.

I recoiled sharply. That would always (I would cut this first always) be his downfall. He always overestimated his worth to me. One of these days, he will cross a border from which he can’t return, I thought grimly. I considered voicing my thoughts, but I knew now was not the time.

“I didn’t need your protection, then, now, or ever! It’s because of you that I’m where I am now! He knows the only way to hurt you is to kill me! I am here because of that suicide mission you sent me on last summer.” I caught my breath while he fumed in the corner. I could see it was taking all of his self-control not to explode right then (You are telling here, perhaps give him a red face and clenched hands instead), but I wasn’t afraid, though by all rights I should have been terrified. Fear was not an option here, now or ever. Fear obscured judgment, and I needed a clear head around him if I was to escape both his fury and his over-protectiveness. “This is your fault. You ordered me to move against him, and that’s the only reason I’m in danger now. You brought this on yourself!” Without another word, I spun from the hall, leaving him to fume silently on his own(You used the word “now” four times in this paragraph.  Consider removing some of them to avoid word repetition)

“Tiaonia, Dynosia, come,” I snapped to my vanguard waiting at the doors. I noticed too late the edge of discontent in my tone. The centurions followed. I took another deep breath, trying and failing to still my racing heart  (this is a good example of you showing!). “Well, that went well,” I said finally.

Tiaonia rolled her eyes dramatically, and Dynosia raised an eyebrow. Of course they had heard our argument. It would have been impossible for them not to have heard every word.

“Your orders, my lady?” Dynosia asked quietly.

I shook my head as if to clear it. She was always looking to the future, which usually meant prepping for war. Her face was carefully neutral. She would not pick a side until she knew who had the upper hand. If she picked one prematurely, she might lose an opportunity to move up in the rankings, possibly even a chance to become my successor. I had to admire her penchant for being an opportunist, but I didn’t trust her for the same reason.

“Ready the legion. Reye’s forces gather at Tiber Pass. Under no circumstances are they to get through and join with the legions already here, understood? Tiaonia, take the Fifth and strip the land on our side. Take what our warriors need to live and destroy the rest.”

Vastatio, eh? And what about Lyeolia? The king is a known ally of the prince.” The light in her eyes reminded me how much she enjoyed watched watching the flames of vastatio leap over fields and treetops.

“Lyeolia’s a fortress, but their military could stand to improve. They’re no threat to us, but if you see their banners among Reye’s army, lay siege to the city and they’ll pull out. Numbers could kill us with this one.”

*Further thoughts- I felt you maintained suspense throughout this sample and gave some insight into character personalities.  The writing is compelling enough to keep readers guessing as to what is going on and make them want to continue (I know I grew more curious as the story unfolded).  You were also good about sprinkling back story without giving too much away at once.

The main things to watch out for is telling where you could show.  There is little description provided (which is fine because you don’t want to bog an intro down with it) but there were numerous chances to at least set the scene.  I couldn’t be sure where the conversation took place until Lerisia left the hall, giving me my first clue she might be in a castle.  You could use character movements to describe things they touch, stand next to, or sit on to give an idea without slowing anything down.

Watch out for adverbs.  Sometimes they can fit a narrative and work, other times they prevent you from using better words to describe what is happening.  I crossed a few out as unnecessary and gave examples on a couple to show what you could have said instead to make the sentence stronger.

I believe this is a good start and with some tweaking you can make it a very strong opening.  I’ve ran across many first chapters that bored me to tears, but this is one I would definitely keep reading.  You have a knack for telling a story.  Just try to work on the few things I mentioned here and you’ll have your readers hooked.

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To everyone else- If you have an excerpt (up to 1000 words) that you would like to submit, please go to this page for further details.  I’ll be happy to schedule your critique for a future blog post!

~ by Suzie on June 1, 2012.

15 Responses to “Our first volunteer for a critique”

  1. Thanks for the feedback! I really needed it.

  2. Hi, Grace! Nice excerpt. Susan pointed out that most of your adverbs are unnecessary, and I would just add that the reason you don’t need them is because you’ve already got this strong exchange going on between the characters. The reader can feel the tension and the mood through what’s being said (and will even more with added body language). So throw most of those adverbs out.

    Also, try anchoring the scene in description. Right now, there are just two people arguing, but are they sitting or standing? Is Lune at a desk and Lerisia standing in front like a soldier who’s giving a report? Is this room dark? Does it have no windows, or is it night? What kind of room is it? An office? A sitting room? If it’s Lune’s office, then describing it can tell us a lot about him too. Is his desk cluttered? Organized to a tee? Does he have a miniature head on a spike to intimidate whoever comes to visit? Susan also had a suggestion or two how description of the room can help with adding body language too.

    Kudos for being brave enough to do this!

  3. Thanks, Angela!

  4. Hi Grace! I also admire your willingness to seek critique–doing so is probably the single biggest determinant of who improves as a writer. I have to say at the outset that this isn’t my genre, but like Susan, I noted the adverbs, and would recommend striking all of them. The dialog tag ‘said’ disappears into the background, allowing strong dialog to stand out. An occasional ‘asked’ or ‘replied’ is OK. But keep them free of adverbs like quietly, calmly, dismissively, etc. and let the words that are spoken convey *how* they are spoken. Best of luck as you go along!

  5. Grace, you inspired me to submit mine for critique. Thanks! I enjoyed your use of older terms, such as “fates forbid.” Without knowing the genre, I’m wondering if this is a historical story or one of an “other world.” At this point, this works in your favor, as I must read more to find out! I’m also curious to learn about these “Ancients.” Again, I must read on! Great hook, also. What I noticed, which Susan has already noted in green, was there are several words repeated. Knew, for example. You might choose other words such as recognized or realized. I’ve had to do this on many occasions. I tend to use adverbs frequently as well (see?) so I’m going to look back at my own writing. By submitting yours, I’ve now learned something constructive about my own. (By the way, after typing this, I went back and changed some words I had repeated) :)

  6. I think the first sentence you used is a brilliant hook. We have no idea who the “He” the dad is talking about, but we know that whoever “He” is, He wants our main character dead. And that keeps a reader reading because they want to know the why.

    As I read on, I’m both compelled and a bit bored. Most of the introduction is an exchange between two bodiless people it seems. We don’t even know whether the main character is a boy or girl until halfway through. Though the initial hook was enough to entice me to keep reading and some of the dialogue gave interesting bits of the back story, I still didn’t really know who these characters were or even where they were. There was nothing to really ground me into your world with the lack of setting — in my mind it was two shadow people standing across from each other in the middle of blackness.

    There’s a gem of a story in there. It just needs some polishing to really shine.

  7. Thank you for the feedback!

  8. Thanks to everyone who stopped by and offered their own critique of this excerpt. The next one will be posted tomorrow for Debbie.

    Grace, I appreciate your bravery in putting your work out there and hope all the feedback has been helpful :)

  9. Grace, you brave soul. It takes a lot to put your babies out there on the chopping block!
    I really enjoyed your piece, it is good to see a strong female lead, capable and intelligent.

    I’m really not qualified to critique anything, but from just a possible future book-reader’s
    point of view, it was very suspenseful and kept me wanting to know more, to see what happens,
    who Lord Solis is and why he wants her dead, what’s she going to do, etc. etc.

  10. Hi, I’m new here (was referred by Limebirds). This is historical, right? I wondered if they would say (back then) such things as “prepping for war”, “the upper hand” and “cross the line in the sand”. Since I don’t write historical, I’m not sure of the protocal though. It could be perfectly acceptable to do.

    • Fantasy. Think Rome (ish). I’ve been trying to keep that in mind, and I’ve been toying with other phrases in my more recent revisions. Thanks for the feedback!

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