First Page Critique: The Elf Prince

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THE ELF PRINCE

I stepped through the mirror and into the Elven city.  I knew my mother was alive was determined to find her.  If anyone could find her it was the elves; their powers of divination equaled no other.  Compared to the other worlds I’d visited this one was one of my favorites.  Everything was done by magic so the air was clear and clean.  Everything was lush, colorful and the air hung with magic.  The Elves were friendly people; waving to me as I passed.  I continued until the palace came into sight where I stopped and stared in awe.  It seemed to shimmer with rainbows in the light.  Once I got closer I realised that the palace was made of crystal, the sunlight refracted off the many facets and created a rainbow aura around the whole building.

Elven guards flanked the doors as I approached.  Everything about them screamed otherworldliness.  Perfect faces under perfect sapphire eyes, perfect brown hair and perfect bodies.  Everything was so perfect.  The guards didn’t look at me as I approached, but reached out in synchrony and opened the double doors.  The inside of the castle wasn’t crystal as I expected but stone.  I could feel the effects of heavy magic and suspected the stone was changed from crystal.  I continued down the hall and soon came to the throne room.  These doors were opened by another pair of guards.

“Shoes off please miss.”  One guard said.  I slipped off my sandals and stepped into the throne room.  The Elf Prince was lounging in his throne.  He looked different than the others.  His face had a regal edge, his eyes were the color of emeralds and his hair was silvery blonde. He wore all black, contrasting with the pale of his hair and skin.  From across the room his eyes pierced mine.

“You’re looking for your mother.”  His voice was deep and musical.

“How did-” I stopped.  The Elves were masters at divination.  Of course he knew.  “Can you help me?”  I asked, walking up the lush carpet to the throne.

“I could.  But will I help you?”  He watched me calmly.

“Well will you?”   His green eyes watched me with detached amusement.  The Prince stood and strode towards me until we were practically nose to nose.  I looked up, his eyes sparkled as he leaned down and whispered into my ear.

No.” 

 

Let us start with a disclaimer: I read very little fantasy. My interest in the genre is limited to the so-called horror sub-genre, and from there to Turkish and Spanish horror films (I’m not making a recommendation, by the way). So it is that when one mentions the word  “elf” I am generally not interested unless the name “Keebler” is in front of it.  I do know a bit about the contemporary popular fantasy genre, however, and have tried to base my critique on that knowledge. If anyone out there believes that I am too tough or flat out wrong in my First Page Critique of “The Elf Prince” by Anonymous du jour please step right up and say so.

That said, I felt while reading the first page of “The Elf Prince” as if I was in one of those westerns where the cowboy is riding a horse which is out of control, eventually causing the rider (me) to fall off with his foot caught in the stirrup, resulting in his being dragged along until he could bring the steed under control. I am aware that it is part and parcel of fantasy novels to drop the reader in medias res from the first page. When I did read fantasy, back in the day, books like Dune  and Lord Foul’s Bane did exactly that.  I didn’t feel dropped here so much, however, as I felt dragged at warp speed through a field of stones. What I think we’re looking for as readers is to be tugged into the narrative. Here, within the first page, the protagonist arrives in a different world/city populated by elves and within (apparently) seconds goes to the castle where she’s ushered in and given a ‘no” to her plea to help her find her mother before she even asks. Whoa!

My best advice — the short version — is to blow this first page up ( including the title)  and start over. It is what is known in the real estate business as a “tear down,” meaning that you’ve got a great lot but the old house on it does not pass building codes. It’s easier to tear it down and build a new house than to remodel it.

Let’s do that. After the dust settles and the smoke clears we’ve still got the land, and the idea for a story. I suggest, Anon, that you do the following:

Begin by naming things and people. Science fiction and fantasy authors love to come up with exotic titles and words.. Make a list of your characters and give them names. Do the same for the places. “The Elven City” doesn’t cut it. Give it a name. Do the same with the palace. If the palace has guards they’ve undoubtedly got some sort of military hierarchy with titles to match. Those two guys who brought the narrator in probably have a title, like “Garda” or something. Use it.. Give the prince a name, and his throne a name as well. You could make a game of it (…did I really say that?). And who is your narrator? You can drop that into the text quite easily (see below). Since the elves are so smart they’ll be greeting her by her name since they already know it, correct? And what do the Elves call themselves? Do the elves call themselves elves? Do they have different name for themselves? Do they have a term for human beings that can be used in polite company?  I suggest that you avoid calling them “elves” for a bit. You don’t have to explain what each term is; your readers should, if you’re doing your job, be able to pick it up in context. I’ll reference Dune. I had no idea who the Bene Gesserit was at first, but it all gradually became clear. 

Next. I was very confused as to whether our narrator had been to the Elven City before. She seemed familiar with it, but she was describing the elves as if seeing them for the first time. Clear that up. A sentence will do it. One way would be “It looked the same as it did on my previous visits, (insert description of weather and streets here). Or, if it’s her first time, say so.

Also: as you tug us through the narrative give us more detail concerning what the narrator sees. Let her stop and smell the roses. What are the elves doing? Are they selling cookies from market stands or flying through the air on hoverboards? Are they tending to plants or crops? Are they playing with their children? Are they committing acts of mayhem or robbery? Tell us a bit more about what she sees. It will help you to “grow the book” and help your reader visual things as well.

Personal taste: I don’t like the mirror thing at all. How does one control it?The narrator mentions going to other places while using it, but I was wondering how she keeps from winding up in, say, Hammond, Indiana when she wants to go to Louisville, Kentucky, or finds herself in Columbus, Mississippi when she wanted to go to Columbus, Ohio. She might as well be flying. I think that this may be a problem later in your story, so I would solve it at the beginning by getting rid of it.

The narrator states that the elves have perfect eyes, perfect hair, and perfect bodies. What does that mean? Are they all five-feet seven, pleasingly plump and always wearing a winning smile? A term like “perfect” to describe someone can mean many things to many people. Maybe you could describe them as wonderfully crafted sculptures, come to life” in addition to the specific descriptions you do give. And use this as an opportunity to describe your narrator, and how her appearance compares and contrasts with the elves.

Proofread, and get someone else to look it over for you.  There is a grammatical error in the second sentence of the story (where did that “and” go between “alive’ and “was”?), a punctuation error in the seventh (common instead of a semi-colon), and they continue from there. You also use the word “everything” to begin two consecutive sentences. Use it in the first and combine the two sentences. And…if  your narrator and the prince are nose to nose, she doesn’t have to look up at him and he doesn’t need to lean down to whisper in her ear. I am not a proofreader; for every one I find in my own work a fifth grader can find six more. Check your work over as best you can and then get a proofreader to go over it again and again.  

In closing, let me give you an example of some of the elements I’m discussing. There are any number of ways to begin this story, but try this on:

Prince Quaffa stared directly at me and said, “No, Sarah Quinn.”

I had come too far, and expended too much effort for too good a reason to hear a negative answer.I wasn’t going to be brushed off or refused by anyone, not even the royal  Johnny Winter lookalike who stood in front of me. Getting angry, however, wasn’t going to help. I checked myself, took a breath, and tried again. “Your Highness, the abilities of the Huldufolk —”

“Don’t. Call. Us. That.” Prince Quaffa didn’t raise his voice, but it  sounded as if it was coming from the bottom of a well.. His green eyes — so different from the sapphire color of his subjects — sparked with an anger that replaced the shine of aamusement they had exhibited a few seconds before. “We hate that term worse than ‘elf.’” He clenched his fist and struck his chest, whispering fiercely. “We are the Lowenpick, you stumpig!”

“We don’t like being called stumpig,” I replied, trying to keep my voice even.

What the foregoing does is hold the action in one place while telling you just a bit about two the characters and creating immediate conflict. You can spread outward from there. Let Sarah plead her case, and have Quaffa explain why he won’t help. After Sarah leaves Quaffa’s presence and walks through the city, have her describe it and the people a bit. Who knows, maybe she’ll encounter an el…er, member of the Lowenpick who will take pity on her and assist her, using those powers you hinted at in your original first page. Or not. I am sure that our readers will have other ideas and suggestions. Please check them all out, Anon, and take heart. Be not discouraged, but encouraged: continue telling your story. And thank you for submitting your first page to The Kill Zone.

Readers, what say you? I’ll be checking up on things throughout the day but will keep my comments to a minimum..

 

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20 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Elf Prince

  1. Note: Please accept my apologies for this post appearing later than it normally does. Multiple tips of the fedora go to Dr. Steve Cooley, who alerted me to the scheduling snafu which I have not corrected but have worked around. Thank you, Steve!

  2. Unlike JH, I don’t mind the fantasy and I like the premise. My main criticism is that it is altogether too passive. “Elves were friendly”, ” It seemed to shimmer”, and “Once I got closer I realised” are three examples from the first paragraph alone that could and should be more active. There are many more. Your character needs to actively experience this world. Relay description through action (and with an active voice!). BTW if it hadn’t been for the word “miss” I would have had no idea as to the gender of the character. I would have liked more MC info. And, yes, there are way too many grammatical errors here. I DO like the premise of the story (good news! I know what your premise is). I agree with JH that this needs to be rewritten for reader impact.

  3. Good morning, Joe. Glad your post finally went up.

    I, too, don’t read fantasy, so take my comments accordingly.

    Grammar errors caught my attention immediately. Too much passive voice. And many places where showing could replace telling.

    I liked your suggested replacement.

    If the author is a beginner (as I am), I hope he/she does not become discouraged. Continued study of the craft and perseverance is the name of the game.

  4. What I hear Joe saying here is that there are principles of good story-telling that apply whatever genre one is working in. Middle-earth and Narnia are different worlds than Lord Peter Wimsey’s England, but story-telling in the two worlds is not that different at the big level. I’ve been trying to grasp these principles over the past few years.

    Given that, orienting a reader to a fantasy world becomes a different task than orienting them to 2016 Cleveland. This is where skills specific to the genre come it.

    The other thing that should be universal to storytelling is mastery of the language. This starts with using words properly. Then knowing how to construct and punctuate a sentence–and when and why one might intentionally use sentence fragments or other “violations.” We’re all going to make mistakes at times. But do we have a 1% error rate or a 20% error rate? Unfortunately, I think many people trying to write (and I see this on medium.com a lot) don’t have enough mastery of the language to avoid a high error rate.

    When I see someone with a high error rate, I feel they need something other than editorial assistance. So should these people not be writing? Is it just snobbery on my part?

    • One more PS–to the author. I must apologize for going off on a tangent. As I look at your submission, I would not put you in the 20% or even near-20% error group. Word choice and sentence structure are basically good. Some editorial guidance and proof-reading, as earlier commentators have indicated, should cover what you need.

      Keep telling stories and work to have your stories tell something about human nature. As Tolkein and others prove, this can be done with fantasy.

      And keep reading good literature.

  5. My last paragraph came out harsher than it should have.

    Everyone should write. Putting thoughts, feelings, observations down–whether in nonfiction, in fiction, or in poems–is inherently valuable.

    Beyond that, why does one write? To express something; to provide entertainment; to say something about humanity that will speak to others.

    Once one moves beyond writing-to-express something (getting it off your chest) to writing-to-entertain or writing-to-say-something that will speak to others, the question of quality arises. This is what First Page Critique is about. So then my question is maybe this: How does one respond when someone wants to “publish” their writing, to put it out there for some general audience beyond, say, family and friends, but their command of English is maybe at the 20% error level? Does one tell them to go back and learn English first? Does one have them get an editor who then rewrites large segments? Or is there a trade-off between language errors and other inherent qualities of a piece?

    • I try to make any comments constructive by making very specific corrections and suggestions, and I try not to sound frustrated or dismissive. When I was in college I remember getting a paper that had the letters AWK! (For “awkward”) Scrawled multiple times across the pages of one of my tomes. I felt like an angry bird had splatted red ink all over my writing, without giving any real input. But I made sure to address the issue. The next version of the paper came back with the comment “Bright, glib writing”, (which I don’t believe was intended as a compliment. However, it was a step up from AWK!)

  6. On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve been a beginner dropped into a group of experts and felt like I was drowning much faster than I could learn how to swim. I suspect this brave author might be feeling a bit the same way.

    I also get the sense this author might be young or writing for a young audience. Please do not let the suggestions and comments discourage you. If you truly love to write, don’t ever let anyone advise you to give it up. TKZ’s own James Scott Bell tells the story of a writing instructor who claimed one could not “learn” to write fiction–it had to be a God-given talent. Where would we all be if Jim had listened to that misinformed nay-sayer?

    Have you taken creative writing classes? Many are available at community colleges and online. Join a writing group/club. The more you study, the better your writing becomes. Read a lot, from classics to current bestsellers. A good story is good story, no matter what the genre, time period, setting, etc. It doesn’t matter if the characters are elves or hard-boiled detectives, as long as they connect with the reader.

    Brave author, you are hanging out at the right blog to learn the skills to improve your craft. Keep at it and, if you love what you’re doing, don’t give up.

  7. Sorry about the scheduling issue, Joe–we seem to be having some gremlins related to. That of late, it’s not just you! And thanks to today’s writer–it’s very hard to get reviewed in public,kudos for entering the ring! Like you Joe, I have no expertise in fantasy, I never read that genre, but I think it would be a good idea for the writer to follow Debbie’s good advice to explore the idea of taking a creative writing workshop. I got so much out of classes I took at UCLA Extension, it’s a great way to hone one’s craft. I felt disoriented very early in this scene–it felt like being inside someone’s head while they’re on a drug trip. I am wondering how one goes about setting up building blocks to create a “convincing” fantasy world like the one we’re visiting here. But keep going, Writer–the journey is worth taking!

    • Thank you for letting me know that, Kathryn…I assumed that it was a P.I.C.N.I.C. situation: Problem In Chair, Not In Computer.

  8. Let me thank everyone who has visited today as well as those who have taken the time to offer some constructive advice to our friend Anon. And Anon, thank you most of all for stepping up and baring your soul, and more. We look forward to seeing your finished product down the road.

    In the meanwhile, further comments are most welcome. At TKZ, we never close!

  9. It was very brave of you to submit your work to this group. Give yourself a pat on the back. Writing is very rewarding, but it’s also hard work. Just like one would not sit down and try to compose a symphony without studying music theory, one shouldn’t attempt to write a novel without mastering the fundamentals. This particular snippet had a lot of grammatical errors. The good news is that these kinds of errors can be corrected, but it would be wise to master the basics until they become second nature. Don’t ever stop writing, but as Debbie suggested, take some writing classes. They can be fun, and they are the best way to speed up your learning curve! Writing short stories can be great practice. So many people leap into writing a novel first, but I don’t recommend this approach.

    In the writing sample that you submitted, there were too many sentence that began the same way:

    Sentences beginning with “I” – 8
    Sentences beginning with “The” – 6
    Sentences beginning with “Everything” – 4

    I could go on, but you get the idea.

    It’s a good idea to write with a mixture of simple, compound, and complex sentences (http://www2.ivcc.edu/rambo/eng1001/sentences.htm). This is an example of the kind of thing that you will learn in a good writing class. There’s also a series called “Write Great Fiction” – highly recommended.

    Keep writing, and good luck on your writing journey!

  10. “In the writing sample that you submitted, there were too many sentence” should read “In the writing sample that you submitted, there were too many sentences”

    Oops…

  11. I don’t read fantasy and I agree with the comments made so far. However I loved the crystal rainbow palace (from the outside) and I must say that once the prince entered the story my interest definitely perked up. I think it’s his voice and the fact that he refuses her by whispering in her ear. He seems to have a sense of humor. You’ve made him intriguing in just a few lines and that’s not easy to do.

  12. Joe, Joe, Joe. How politically incorrect of you. So refreshingly incorrect of you. No critique opening scratching for something positive (read useless) to say. No gently put suggestions. No tentativeness but a straight forward lesson on writing. I hope our courageous writer recognizes the great gift of knowledge you gave by suggesting a viable and interesting alternative.

    I’d like to suggest the writer do some research into great fantasies. Start by reread the Tolkien books with a critical eye and try to understand what he (the writer) was doing. To entice you dear writer, here is the fantastic and powerful opening paragraph to The Hobbit.

    In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort

  13. Brian, thank you for your kind comments. I do think it’s important in this venue to find and comment positively when possible. When not, I think we strive for a tone that’s straightforward but also helpful and encouraging without channeling Simon Cowell or Charles Kingsfield. I don’t want to put anyone delude anyone about their abilities, but I sure don’t want to discourage them either. I’m just being selfish with regard to the latter: I want plenty of new books and authors to read when I slip into old age in another thirty or forty years. Thanks again.

  14. I don’t read fantasy or science fiction but there are two writers within my writing circle that do. I struggle to keep up with the dragons, etc.
    I did notice the grammatical errors, and we’ve all been guilty of same, at one time or another. Sadly, I would not have continued to read this story but I believe this author could benefit from Joe’s great rewrite and learn from it. Rewriting is a necessary part of writing, like it or lump it. Best wishes with yours!

  15. Thank you Frances. I quit reading Fantasy and Science Fiction in the mid-1980s, but I’ve started dipping into SF just a bit because of Blake Crouch. I am surprised how many folks that I used to read frequently are still at it.

  16. Hello everyone. This is my first post here, and I hope it isn’t the last. If there are errors in my comment, have in mind that english is not my native language, so please understand.

    I’m a fantasy reader. My favorite genre, probably, so I think I can give some feedback on the matter.

    I’ll start first with the story. Good news, with this excerpt I was able to have a grasp of the premise. That’s something that a lot of new writers overlook. Kudos to you.

    I don’t like that other people fill their comments with grammatical corrections (as far as I know, the author could have just translated it), so I will not write anything about that.

    Now, what I saw in this first page is a lack of detail. Fantasy is a genre of details. This is a new world, your world, so you need to tour your readers around. Probably not reaching Tolkien’s level of details, but at least give us something to “see”. Everything felt rushed, like if you were describing a film before the frames went out, but this isn’t a film, this is a fantasy book/novel. Please, take your time.
    The woman went from a mirror/portal to the palace and she didn’t saw anything else more than waving elves? This world already felt empty and soulless. I recommend that you garnish your world before continuing. Give those elves something to do, something to worry, something to look for, give that place a name, a story, and you’ll see how that spurs life into your novel. (BTW, I’m not telling that you put all this on the first page, but once you have this on the background, you’ll be able to bring details easily on your pages).

    Of course, If you want to have the prince encounter on the first page, so be it, but move everything else after that. That will give you more space to work without having the first page packed with information. Just as Joe said, so much could have been done on that encounter… As far as you described, the prince could be wearing a black spandex suit. I recommend that you grab Song of ice and fire an read it for guidance, in case you haven’t done so (you can read some pages for free on amazon. IIRC, in the prologue there are some great clothing descriptions).

    That’s my critique. The problems that I found are the lack of details and that rushed feeling. Give yourself time to build your world and move around. Aside from that, you have a basic premise that, with some work, could become an enjoyable YA fantasy book.

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