First Page Critique – Untitled Fantasy

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Another brave author has sent in their anonymous submission of their first 400 words. My critique follows. Please provide your constructive criticism, TKZers.

from wikipedia commons

from wikipedia commons

***EXCERPT***

“Strike faster,” Northbyr commanded, but Arthryn’s limbs felt like lead, as if he were swinging a blacksmith’s hammer rather than a sword. He grunted with the effort to keep his blade up, and struggled to land a sequence of slashes and strokes across the wooden training post. “Again,” his father ordered. Arthryn complied, forcing his arms to keep moving. He could feel the pressure of his father’s eyes, inspecting his every movement.

Not my father, Arthryn reminded himself. Not today. Today, he is my Commander, and I am his cadet.

Northbyr certainly fit his role. His tall frame shadowed Arthryn’s short, but fit, seventeen year old body. The Commander had gray eyes, and his face bore the marks of his years in combat. All that was behind him now, and he no longer fought in battles. Instead, he commanded the city guard of Brink, and served as protector to the city’s master, Vangres. Arthryn knew he was lucky to have his father’s experience to learn from, but that also meant twice as much work.

“Step left, strike three,” the commander said. Arthryn followed through. “Step right, strike one.” The cadet stepped and struck hard. “Step round, backward slash!” Arthryn stepped past the training post and twisted his hips to strike the hardwood with a powerful, back handed undercut, but his feet got twisted up and he fell to the ground.

“Snap to, son.”

Arthryn recovered and rose to his feet, readying his sword for the next move.

“Overhead strike.”

The young warrior wielded weapon over his head and aimed to bring it crashing down upon the wooden pole. The blade made his arms tremble, and his muscles protested. He gritted his teeth, and prepared to drop the sword into the target. He never got the chance.

Northbyr snatched the weapon from his hands. Arthryn stumbled to regain his balance. Without the weight of his sword in hand, he felt like a mouse without a tail. He spun towards his father.

“I had it!”

Northbyr glowered at him. “If this was battle, you’d be dead.”

Arthryn’s cheeks flared red. Especially when you take my sword! He wanted to blurt out, but kept his peace. Northbyr never accepted excuses.

Feedback:

Embedded dialogue – In paragraph 1 & 4, there is embedded dialogue that could be pulled out to accentuate it more. A reader’s eye looks for dialogue lines, especially those skimmers who speed read. Highlighting the dialogue as much as possible can focus a reader’s attention on key lines.

Backstory – In paragraph 3, the author resorts to character description and backstory in between the action of the intro scene. Although this paragraph is short, it can still slow pace and draw the reader elsewhere.

Name Confusion – The two characters in this scene have “Y” and “R” towards the end of the names. Since these names aren’t typical of present day/present world handles, readers could get confused and forget which is the father and which is the son. I found myself re-reading to remind myself of the two characters. Perhaps if the son were to call the father by his title, it might help make a better distinction.

More Setting & World Building Layering in Fantasy Genre – The Fantasy genre is known for its world building and other worldly setting descriptions. Even in the midst of a sword training scene, the author should layer in setting that will enhance this world and make it come alive for the reader. As a consequence, the writing comes across as sparse. Many readers wouldn’t notice this and might get into the story, but to make this intro come alive, the author should set their work apart with a deeper scene setting that immediately captures the senses of the reader. The use of all the senses can be effective when creating a new world.

Are there foul smelling blood flowers that emit a pungent coppery stench, flowers that only bloom when war is on the horizon? Does this world have two suns? Is water a precious commodity worth killing over? Do these people live in trees or in castles made of thatch?

How can you infuse these elements into an action sequence like this one? Add tension by the son stepping on one of the flowers and the stench makes him puke. Have him take a sip of community water, only if the father allows him to. The idea is to set up mystery elements to this world that can be explained later as the story progresses and the setting can be brought into the story without slowing the pace. Layer in world building elements that make the reader wonder more about the world they are about to embark into.

An author who writes fantasy must envision the world they want the reader to see in their mind’s eye and bring it to life. Sparse writing allows the reader to stay in their present world and not stray from it. Fantasy is all about the fantasy of escaping into someplace new.

Overview:

I liked the voice in this intro and found it an easy read. I’d keep reading. I sensed the friction between the father and son and felt the tension in the son striking the blows. More effective layering and world building could really enhance this intro and make it stand out more.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Untitled Fantasy

  1. Two things, if I may…

    Some description of the sword to improve the contrast with “blacksmith’s hammer” – would be nice~ the sword just seemed naked or incomplete in comparison, and some swords require both hands and are heavier and bulkier than the sword I believe is being wielded here~ but I could be wrong (hence the need for the modifier IMHO).

    I think the word “command(er)” was used too many times too close to together (paragraphs 3 and 4) as a title, a verb, and then a “name” ~ the repetition of the word caught my attention and that broke the flow for me.

    But that may just be me…

    🙂

  2. I was immediately drawn into the tension between father and son. Then the description and backstory bumped me out of it. Keep me in the that tension. Build the battle, build the world while the fighting is going on.

    Do we even have to know that it’s practice right away? It’s important to the son, let us watch him battle as if this were the real deal.

    I, too, was confused by the names. First, because I couldn’t pronounce them–I read slowly and chew on words. Second because they were too similar to remember who was whom. Again, do everything you can to keep up the speed of the battle.

  3. I couldn’t really hear the voice in this piece, so that would make me stop reading. That said, I don’t read or write fantasy, so perhaps I’m not the best person to give advice. I’ll leave this one in everyone else’s capable hands.

  4. I like your take on this, Nancy. I wanted to see more tension between father and son. Your idea of keeping this being a practice a secret at first could add a solid mystery element that’ll hold a reader tight. Good idea.

  5. Vivid clear writing. I don’t read fantasy, but was pulled into the story.

    Also felt the name confusion–perhaps give one character a one-syllable name and the other a two or three syllable name to differentiate.

    The physical descriptions and back story were brief enough to orient me, but not yank me out. Where I did lose interest was the passage starting “Step left, strike three” through “Snap to, son.” Suggest you summarize those repetitive blows to move the action quickly to the next grabber–when the father snatches the sword away and says he’d be dead in battle. That’s interesting!

    “Mouse without a tail” is a great description of being off balance. Excellent tension between father and son.

    Not being a fantasy reader, like Sue, I’ll defer to more experienced opinions, but the author has a good grasp of skills and an intriguing start. Keep going!

  6. Hey Sue. If the author focused on a more universal conflict (ie a son rebelling against a father or if he’s feeling like a child who will never measure up in his father’s eyes), that could perhaps touch you, whether you read fantasy or not. Thanks for your feedback, Sue.

  7. I’d cut the third paragraph.

    Also, find different words for “step” in that paragraph that repeats it about five times.

    But I do like that the author opens with an actual scene (I like dialogue openings myself) and incipient conflict. Add to this world building details as Jordan mentions (not all at once, but marbled in), and I’d be inclined to read on.

  8. Hi Jim. Thanks for your feedback. I took issue with paragraph 3. It interrupts the action. I also like that this story begins with action and has a foundation in conflict between father & son. Good instincts for this author.

  9. I agree with JD about the embedded dialogue. I may be alone in this, but the backstory in paragraph 3 didn’t bother me as much as others, or as it would in another genre. I accept it here because it’s fantasy, and it’s a first step in the all important world building. That said, as with the embedded dialogue much of that could be broken up and inserted elsewhere on this page. For example, his father could be towering over him when he orders him to strike again. I like JD’s suggestion of a world specific detail, such as the flower, inserted here as well. I was fine with the names. To me they were connected, but not so much that I was confused. A couple of details: I’m thinking a big sword could well be a lot heavier than a blacksmith’s hammer, so I didn’t buy that comparison. Since a sword is heavy, I don’t buy the father “snatching” it out of his hands. Pulled maybe, but snatching doesn’t fit the weight of the object. These are all minor details that can be cured with editing and rewriting. I liked the tension between the father and son. The story seems to be heading someplace. I admit to not being a fantasy fan (preferring thrillers and science fiction), but if I were there is no reason I wouldn’t keep reading.

  10. It could just be my sugar is off right now, but I didn’t get that the father and son were fighting – with each other – until quite a ways down. I somehow picked up that the father was watching/presiding over the training or the fight… then it turned out it was between father and son.

    I don’t know if it was on purpose (as a hint for things later) or an accident – but the son was really concerned about keeping this “business” (aka Commander) and the father immediately referred to him as son, rather than cadet or something official. It might even have lead to more tension and excitement to find out more at the end of the scene that the commander was his father, than at the top.

    I agree with the other comments, and would read past this first page.

    • I had exactly the same response as you, Penny. I got confused over the names and I thought the father was off to the side. I also agreed with the father calling his son, “son”. I questioned that as well.
      The tension was good, but I may have found it more imediate if I thought it was an actual battle until later.

  11. The names were both strange (to me) and too similar to each other.
    I like the dialogue to stand apart.
    Father and son. Perhaps save this bit of information until later, as a revelation. Maybe the son is picked on because the others think the father is easier on him and maybe he thinks the father is harder on him because he is his son.
    “…wielded (the) weapon over his head…” Typo.
    Please add more details about the setting.
    This is a very good sample of work.

  12. I think you’ve already received some great advice. Here are a few additional things to consider:

    1. “He could feel the pressure of his father’s eyes, inspecting his every movement.”

    Every time you use the word “he,” you pull the reader out of the story. I’d begin that sentence like this: “The pressure of his father’s eyes…”

    2. “Arthryn knew he was lucky to have his father’s experience to learn from, but that also meant twice as much work.”

    I’d begin this sentence like this: “He was lucky…”

    Here’s a post by Janice Hardy that you might find helpful:
    http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/12/real-life-diagnostics-question-of-pov.html

    Good luck!

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