First Page Critique: Heir of Death

It seems like a while since I’ve done a first page critique and I’m looking forward to today’s discussion surrounding what I think is a great example of the beginning of a new fantasy novel. My comments follow.

Title: Heir of Death

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There was a girl amongst the grass. Alone in the moonlight and darkness.

The wind tugged at her cloak, tearing golden strands from her braid. She stood tall, blade weighing heavily at her side and watched the stars sparkle and fade.

Shadows danced across her knuckles and wreathed their way up her arms, curling around a patchwork of scars, around skin inked with the names of the dead.

They moved and swelled with her sadness, with her pride and hate – with the knowledge of what she was about to become.

So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as the wind whispered her name, silhouetted by its twinkling lights. It spread out before her, a glittering mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath.

She stood cloaked in shadows and in darkness – and she waited.

And it was there, that Death came to her in the form of a man.

He was a dangerous man, arrogant and proud. Tall and powerfully built with a tangle of white blonde hair beneath his hood and eyes like soot stained ground. He wore a black cape and the blade at his side flashed in the moonlight.

Beside him he carried a crown of twisted metal. Of tiny daggers and drifting leaves, of gold and steel woven together to a thing of monstrous beauty. It floated on an invisible wind. Green eyes met charcoal, gold hair and blonde, beaten and broken and evil – daughter and father. She walked out to meet him, with an arrogant swagger, slowly, with the tension of fear only he would recognise. The shadows increased their pace, swirling around her arms. Darker and darker. Faster and faster. Tumbling to a crescendo as Death himself spoke her name.

The world disappeared then in darkness and night. The stars snuffed out, faded by nightmares. They swelled around the girl, snatching at her cloak, tearing her hair free from its cage, ripping the grass from its roots. The wind howled with her song and the earth shook with her magic. The bluff and the world disappeared.

And then it exploded.

It surged toward the man, toward him, a torrent of nightmares and pain. It surged toward him that raw unbridled power – and shattered against an invisible wall.

Shards of nightmares scattered into the sky, tumbling into the dirt and grass, into the city beyond. And the king of death smiled.

Green and charcoal met again across that ruined landscape, defiant and amused, and spoke in a silence only they could understand. Threats and nightmares and deals with the devil. Her hand itched toward her blade, toward the ornately carved knife at her side and her arm ached to bury it in his chest. But she knew she could not beat him, her deal with the devil, not even with her shadows.

Not now.

Not yet.

So the girl knelt before him and took his crown. Gold and steel and darkness above a snow white braid.

And under that black abyss of twinkling stars, on the ground between two worlds, she spoke Death’s name and became his heir.

My Comments:

Overall

As a lover of fantasy novels, I really enjoyed reading this first page. It certainly succeeded in raising my interest and in foreshadowing what I assume will be the battle to come. That being said, this reads like a prologue – setting the scene and written in abstract, descriptive terms that can sometimes feel a little too ponderous or deliberately ‘weighty’. So I just caution the author that even in fantasy – where these kind of prologues are more common – it’s important to tread lightly, lest the weight of the writing drag down the action/tension and slow the forward momentum of the actual story.  Overall, however, I liked what I read and think there’s some strong potential for this fantasy novel.

Specific Comments

Weight of Exposition

Up until the paragraph ending “Death himself spoke her name’, I was fully engaged in this first page. The next few paragraphs, however, started to feel a little overwritten for my taste and I started to get more confused about what was really happening in the scene. In the first paragraph we got an image of the daughter of death waiting for her father, waiting to be crowned perhaps with the crown of twisted metal he was holding. After that things got a little murkier. I wasn’t sure how the stars could get snuffed out ‘faded by nightmares’. Likewise was it the nightmares that swelled around her or the darkness and the night? I assumed that she was using her magic to send a surge of nightmares and pain towards him (her father, Death) and that this onslaught failed, but the way these next few paragraphs read was a little confusing – especially as we have no real sense of her motivation for trying to defeat him – except (as I read the final few lines) because she didn’t want to be crowned as Death’s heir.

My advice to the author is to perhaps step back from the exposition and add some dialogue into this scene to clarify matters. Dialogue could be a great vehicle to explain the relationship between father and daughter and also explain what is meant by her ‘deal with the devil’ (which in the context could be metaphorical or actual). This would also help lift the scene from being weighed down by exposition alone.

Use of ‘Death’

I’m not a huge fan of having Death as a character (I didn’t even like it in the well known novel The Book Thief). It can seem oblique as well as grandiose to have the personification of capital ‘D’ Death in your novel – especially if we don’t really understand what Death  is in the context (The grim reaper? A God like being like in Greek and Roman mythology?). If the character is a fantasy construct/personification that is going to be an actual character, then I think we need some hints of the mythology underpinning the novel right from the get go. I love the idea of the daughter of death as the heroine in a fantasy novel but I’d like to see more clarification in the latter paragraphs of this first page so I can really believe in them as actual characters in the novel.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think there are some great elements to this first page – it prefaces an intriguing battle between Death and his daughter in a fanstastical landscape. I would just recommend inserting some dialogue to lighten the exposition, caution the author not to get too ponderous, and ask for some clarifications so the reader doesn’t get lost in all the foreshadowing of what is to come. TKZers, I look forward to seeing you comments and advice for our brave submitter.

 

 

 

 

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22 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Heir of Death

  1. Nothing to add to the critique about content, and I’m really impressed with this writer’s talent and potential.

    Which is why I’ll get to some picky stuff.

    1. Sentence fragments: I used to win all prizes for overuse of sentence fragments until one of my writing mentors told me to save them for true effect. I suggest taking a look at your fragments and eliminating most, if not all, of them. I don’t have time to examine each one, but perhaps you could save a few when the daughter and her father are face-to-face.

    2. Misplaced modifiers: Found one; didn’t look for more, but the one indicates that you might want to pay attention to the issue. The one? “So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as the wind whispered her name, silhouetted by its twinkling lights.” It’s not her name that’s silhouetted, right? (Plus the “It” in the next sentence needs an explanation or a better and clearer connection to the prior sentence.

    3. There was/it is, etc.: My quick read is that you’ve only used this construction twice in this excerpt. Notwithstanding that you’ll find it in even the best writers’ works, It’s a weak sentence construction. If you’re going to be submitting this project to agents, I’d definitely change the sentence structure in the opening paragraph. (Just noticed–would a girl be amongst the grass? You will likely solve this problem once you eliminate the “there was” construction.)

    4. Word choice: consider examining your word choices, e.g., “danced” may not fit the mood you’re trying to create.

    Despite the minor flaws in the actual writing, I liked this excerpt, and I do believe the writer has tons of talent and potential. I see an emerging voice, too. Bravo!

  2. Although I’m not a fantasy reader, good writing is good writing and the vivid lyrical language pulled me in. However, I got lost at exactly the same place Clare did. Her diagnosis of overwriting and confusion are spot on.

    The use of the vague pronoun “it” is a problem. “It” explodes and surges and shatters against an invisible wall but what is “it”?

    Brave Author, your writing is beautiful but be careful it doesn’t draw too much attention away from the story. Lots of great potential.

  3. The first sentence tripped me up. I like the word “amongst,” though my spell checker doesn’t. So that’s not where I stumbled. I think Sheryl figured it out: It’s the “was” verb. An action verb may be more appropriate, something like:
    The girl planted her feet amongst the grasses of the bluff.
    That way we know she’s still alive, she’s in control of herself, and probably she’s tough gal.

    I agree with Clare’s wonderful critique, especially that the opening is too ponderous. If you are going for a universe-shattering, divine destiny sort of story, then some pondering up front is appropriate, but toning down the descriptive parts will allow the philosophical, lyrical sentences to carry even more weight. For example, instead of:
    So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as the wind whispered her name, silhouetted by its twinkling lights. It spread out before her, a glittering mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath.
    It might be more effective as:
    So the girl stood on the bluff overlooking the city as it spread out below her, a mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath.

    (I love the parallelism in that and other sentences, BTW. Gives a poetic rhythm to the passage.)

    I was a little confused when the girl took the crown. She has blond hair, and dad has white hair, so wouldn’t the steel and dark crown be above her GOLD braid?

    This was a pleasant read, brave author. Good luck in your continued writing journey!

    • I got confused with the hair color and crown too so this definitely needs to be clarified (I thought it was just me being a bit dense!). I like your sentence fix too – simpler is often better (and I know, as I am a repeat ‘overcomplication’ offender!)

  4. The first line tripped me up. Amongst is very rare in the U.S., but even so, how can a person be “among the grass”?

    I agree about the fine sentences, and this certainly seems like good fantasy prose, but I also agree with Clare about breaking up the exposition. Dialogue is a good tool here.

    Less may be more as well.

    Also, the word surged is used in successive sentences. A minor quibble, but an echo nonetheless

    Definite potential here.

  5. Fantasy is not my preferred genre, but the writing drew me into this first page. Unfortunately, the writer also lost me around the same spot as you, Clare. I’m not a fan of an omniscient narrator. It feels too detached, like we’re on the outside looking in, rather than experiencing the story along with the POV character. Just my 2c. Loved the voice, though. With some tweaking, the writer could really make this piece shine. Great job, Anon!!! Fabulous critique, Clare.

    • Thanks Sue! Interesting on the POV front. Because this read like a prologue to me, I was fine with the omniscient narrator but when the story really gets going I agree it should switch – otherwise I think the story will sound too forced and detached.

  6. I agreed with Clare as well. Fantasy is not a genre I like, but this was a powerful opening with poetic language that would carry me on to the next scene. Having said that, the next scene for me would have to be grounded with dialog and information about this world and how we got here or I’d be lost. Good luck! This feels like a big battle, big story that would be fun to read.

  7. I agree with the others — lots of potential here. But the initially seductive writing of the opening graphs (great images of her scars and tattoos of the dead!) gets murky and ponderous the deeper we go into the narrative. If the writing is too dense and writerly, you will lose the reader. Less is more. The writer would do well to pull back a little and give the reader the relief of simple declarative sentences. If EVERY graph is writerly and gorgeous, the impact lessens.

    I, too, was tripped up by “amongst/among.” “There was a girl amongst the grass.” Lovely alliteration, a nice rhythm. But maybe you just need a simple “in in grass” or “standing in the grass.”

    As someone who overuses sentence fragments, I would advise, as others did, to tread lightly here. A fragment is a beautiful thing but it calls attention to itself. Fragments work great when you are dealing with a character’s thoughts or memories because they mimic the disjointed pattern of thought. But when used in regular exposition, they can seem pretentious, imho.

    And I agree that a little dialogue would go a long ways. How about here:

    The shadows increased their pace, swirling around her arms. Darker and darker. Faster and faster. Tumbling to a crescendo as Death himself spoke her name.

    “Insert the actual name here.” (give dad a line or two that increases the tension)

    And later:

    And under that black abyss of twinkling stars, on the ground between two worlds, she spoke Death’s name and became his heir.

    “Ragnar,” she said. “I accept my fate. I accept that I am the daughter of Death.”

    That’s awful, but you get the point.

    Keep going, writer. There’s good stuff here.

  8. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think any novel, regardless of who the author is, should open with the weak words, “There was …”.

  9. I look upon fantasy as almost a fairy tale. And in fairy tales, “Once upon at time there was ….”

  10. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer, and thanks to Clare for her critique, too. I found myself nodding when I read what Clare, JSB, Sheryl, Kris, and a few of the others said. There’s lots of creativity here, and I’m sure we’re all curious about the battle to come. However, let’s talk about the actual writing. Here are my comments:

    First Line

    “There was a girl amongst the grass.”

    Like JSB said, the “amongst” doesn’t make sense here. Also, like Sheryl said, don’t begin sentences with “there was” (most of the time, anyway). It would be better to write something like this:

    A girl waited in the grass. (However, you still need a better opening sentence.)

    You can combine some of the information in the opening. You are using more words and sentences than needed. Be concise. Give the girl a name. For me, the first really interesting sentence in the opening is this one:

    “And it was there, that Death came to her in the form of a man.”

    So, what I would do is try to create one powerful sentence with this idea front and center, saving some of the description for later. I don’t want to write your story for you, but if you’d like some specific suggestions to mull over, email me.

    Opening Considerations

    I don’t mind a little bit of world building in a fantasy novel; however, I still don’t like to see a lot of unnecessary description. The focus, to the extent possible, should be on action and dialogue on the first page of novel. The readers are more interested in what’s fueling the conflict between the protagonist and Death than a flowery but vague description, like “a glittering mosaic of stone and wood and metal, of blood and bones and breath” that just seems to take up space without providing any real information to the reader. However, I do like that the reader has a good idea after reading the first page about the main conflict of the book. I do think you want to introduce your protagonist. Show the reader who she is through her actions.

    Grammar Issues

    Sheryl already gave an example. So I’ll provide a different example. You write:

    “They moved and swelled with her sadness, with her pride and hate – with the knowledge of what she was about to become.”

    I’m sure you intended the word “they” to refer back to the word “shadows” at the beginning of the previous sentence. However, the way you have it written, “they” refers to “the dead.” Be careful with pronoun references, and be sure to use an editor, because there are lots of little errors here that a good editor would catch.

    Overwriting

    Aim to write as clearly and concisely as possible. Repetition of phrases tends to sound melodramatic. For example:

    “with her sadness”
    “with her pride and hate”
    “with the knowledge of what she was about to become”

    When you throw all that into one sentence, it’s too much.

    Also, you begin one paragraph like this: “The world disappeared then in darkness and night.” Then, a couple of sentences later, you write: “The bluff and the world disappeared.”

    Another example of repetition: “It surged toward the man, toward him, a torrent of nightmares and pain.” Then the next sentence: “It surged toward him that raw unbridled power – and shattered against an invisible wall.”

    Again, too melodramatic, as written. One “surged toward” is enough.

    Another example of repetition: “Her hand itched toward her blade, toward the ornately carved knife at her side and her arm ached to bury it in his chest.”

    You have a habit of repeating phrases, in this case the word “toward.” It sounds too melodramatic. So look for this kind of stuff in your writing. Lots of writers have little quirks. Just be aware. That’s all. It’s easy to fix.

    Also, you mention that the character is wearing a cloak. Then later, you use “cloaked” as a verb. I’d pick a different verb, to add some variety. Also, you use the word “spoke” three times or so. I’d take care of that in your revisions, as well.

    Style

    I agree with Sheryl about the overuse of sentence fragments. Again, be careful with the overwriting. A good editor is a must.

    Reading Recommendations

    Full disclosure: fantasy isn’t my wheelhouse. However, some principles apply to all good writing. That disclaimer aside, I’ve read over 400 books on writing/screenwriting/style/grammar/editing and the like, and I’ve done some general study of the fantasy genre just to educate myself, including reading the following books (some are better than others):

    How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy: How to spin a dream, a wish, or a speculation into a vivid, convincing tale of human possibilities by Orson Scott Card
    Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by David Gerrold
    The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy by Leonard S. Marcus
    Eighth Day Genesis: A worldbuilding codex for writers and creatives ed. by Sabrina Klein
    The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy There are three volumes with various editors. The first two volumes focus more on writing.
    Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle

    If you can find any of these at the library, grab them!

    Final Comments

    Carry on, brave writer. Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of comments or let any of the comments rob you of the joy you obviously have for writing. Revision is just part of the writing process. We’re all just trying to help the best that we can. Keep writing, and have fun with it!

  11. Hi all, Anon writer here. Thanks so much for all the wonderful feedback and for the amazing critique Clare.

    In regards to the POV this was written as a prologue (should have specified in my submission) but I will switch to third person limited once the story gets going.

    I’ll definitely take all this advice onboard and simplify a little so that its clearer for the reader.

    Thanks again to everyone who offered feedback, as a young writer I’ve learnt so much from these critiques and I’m excited to see my work improve as a result.

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