SEVEN AT ODDS: First Page Critique

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Greetings, fellow travelers! Today we venture into a fantasy land of Rwothtyll trees and First Blood Ceremonies. Doesn’t that pique your curiosity? (It did mine.)

Buckle up. Off we go to meet our Brave Author with our First Page Critiques!

SEVEN AT ODDS

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket.

A peal of laughter erupted from Jilly. “Oh, Alek, you are such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully beneath the harvested leaves. She threw Alek a teasing smirk. She tossed the basket back to him and looked up. “You going to be up there all day, Vo?”

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall.

——————————–

I like a good fantasy story, and I’m impressed by the author’s particularly close observation of the story’s idyllic setting and the detailed interactions of the characters. This is a vivid, lush world that offers up a number of compelling curiosities that I’d like to know more about. Plus, a Goddess!

Here at the Zone, we operate at a bit of a disadvantage when we do critiques. We have little information as to intended audience. But that’s part of the fun of it!

I’m going to say that SEVEN AT ODDS is a YA fantasy novel about Vo, Alek, Jilly, and–perhaps–four other characters who are at odds with some villain or god(dess) or invader? They feel a little like young superheroes who haven’t yet discovered they’re superheroes, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I’ll get to edits in a moment, but I first want to say that–and maybe it’s just me–I wanted more tension, more action, a sense that something tense and important and dangerous is about to happen. As it stands, it simmers a bit too low, but can easily be pumped up. Thoughts:

At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls. But it was the wrong time of year. The Goddess had Her own ways, many of them mysteries to him and his fellow villagers, and maybe these cries were just another riddle. He leaned out over the thick limb of the Rwothyll tree and rubbed the sweat out of his eyes with his shirt sleeve, the weather unusually warm for early autumn. Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him. He took a firm grip on his long harvest knife and sawed easily through the branch. The cluster tumbled down toward Alek and Jilly waiting twenty feet below. Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. 

Stakes! Tension! Flow!

We have weird, spooky sounds. An unpredictable goddess. And our friend Vo doesn’t seem particularly alarmed, but goes on to harvest his lemony leaves…My curiosity was initially piqued, but I kind of lose interest when Vo does.

(Forgive me if my rewriting bits don’t track or you find repetitions–I took each paragraph and messed with it and didn’t go for a full rewrite.)

It’s not a bad idea to start with a mysterious sound. But NEVER start with a character thinking. Or wondering. *yawns” I believe this was mentioned on another recent critique. Give our hero something interesting to do, or at least have him reacting physically or psychologically. I was also bugged because I had to assume he was up a tree and didn’t get it until Alek and Jilly were positioned below.

“Animal mating calls” is a bit too general. And let us know immediately why it’s the wrong time of year.

Simplify actions and reactions. Keep dialogue natural. No need to repeat names. Please..no erupting peals. Keep it simple.

Perhaps:

High above the forest floor, Vo stilled his harvest knife in the middle of sawing a cluster of Rwothyll leaves from their branch, and turned his head to listen. Faint ululations, like animal cries, arose in the distance. He guessed they might be the mating calls of some mountain creature. Except it was autumn—a brutally hot autumn—not mating season. It was hard to know for certain what they were. They might even be some trick or riddle of the Goddess, whose ways were often a mystery to Vo and his fellow villagers. Turning back to the tree’s silver-green leaves, he finished sawing through the branch, sending the cluster tumbling down to where Alek and Jilly waited below.

Alek, shaking his shock of jet black hair out of his eyes, made a show of catching the leaves in his harvest basket. Jilly laughed and gave Alek a playful push. “You’re such a clown.”

Alek grinned and waved up at Vo. From his perch, Vo returned the gesture, smiling at the antics of his friend who was just a year older than his own tally of sixteen summers. He cut off another branch and held the leafy bundle out. A sudden shadow fell over the leaves as a cloud passed overhead. He shivered, then brightened as the sun returned. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Alek has a basket, so how is he waving? Vo returning the gesture is awkward as well. It’s all a bit too happy, happy.

Vo smiled down at his friends. But his smile faltered as a cloud suddenly dimmed the sunlight. Despite the heat, he shivered. Something’s wrong. Something’s coming, he thought. Or had he just had too much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the previous night? He tried to shake off the tension by cutting another cluster-filled branch. Focusing on the work. “Hey, Jilly. Your turn!”

Give Jilly and Alek more interaction. They are oblivious to what is going on with Vo.

The girl grabbed the basket and swung it gracefully to catch the falling bundle. She gave a little curtsy, and, smirking, she tossed the full basket back to Alek. “No big deal,” she said. Alek shrugged, obviously pretending to be unimpressed, and called up to Vo. “Come on down. We’ve got enough.” Jilly stuck out her tongue behind his back.

Vo shook his head and groaned, wishing he had not drunk so much of the miller’s home brew at Jilly’s First Blood celebration the night before. He gripped the climbing rope, ready to slither down, when he cocked his head, listening. The same cries, this time joined by a horn blast and an eerie low thrumming sound. Not animal sounds, then. He sat up straight, peering out through the leaves at the hillside that rose above the village. Terraced fields covered its lower elevations and beyond the golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze, forested heights climbed ever higher, forming ridges and shoulders that buttressed the jagged peaks of the Eastern Wall. 

Oh, no, Vo! The head shaking and groaning is a bit much as a response to Jilly or Alek asking if he’s coming down soon. He has other more important stuff on his mind–establish earlier that he’s feeling like crap.

I love the description of the terraced hillside. But save it for a page or two because here it diminishes the occurrence of the new sounds. You’ve ramped up the tension, so keep it tense. You don’t have to deliver everything in the first page. Here’s what I would do with the last paragraph:

Vo sheathed the knife, and had just gripped the rope to shimmy down, when more haunting cries, louder now, floated down the hillside brooding over the village. This time they were accompanied by the blast of a [name a local type of horn here] horn, and what sounded like the thrumming of a thousand heartbeats. No. The cries definitely weren’t animal noises. He glanced down to see if Alek and Jilly had heard, too. They had. Their upturned faces were filled with fear.

Yes, I have had lots of opinions about this piece. But I definitely feel it was worth an edit. Good job, Brave Author. Hope this is useful.

TKZers! Thoughts?

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

11 thoughts on “SEVEN AT ODDS: First Page Critique

  1. Overall I think it is a great start. It does set the location nicely. But as Laura pointed out, it does need some tension. Just a touch to force me to see what is going to happen next.

    There are a few stray words that I feel could be cleaned up. “year older than his own tally of sixteen summers.” Tally could go. “silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch”. He was already in a Rwothyll tree. It could be cut.

    A great first start.

  2. Thanks for letting us take a peek at your first page, Brave Author.

    I like the idea of starting with a strange noise. Besides, “ululating” is such a cool word. But I’d rather hear the noise and see Vo’s physical reaction than get his thoughts on the matter. Laura’s suggested first two sentences keep your sound idea but replace Vo’s thoughts with his reaction.

    I agree with Laura that the scene was a little too happy-happy. We know that Vo is curious, maybe concerned, but by the end of the opening with non-animal, strange noises, shouldn’t he be running to tell the elders? Wouldn’t Jilly or Alek have reacted by now?

    I love the setting with the bucolic hillside in contrast with the jagged peaks and wall beyond. I like the names, too. They fit well with a YA fantasy which is where I think this is heading. And I like that you use smell and sound as well as sight in your descriptions.

    With a little more work on this opening, you could get me to turn the page, Brave Author. Good luck on your continued writing journey!

  3. I liked this. I agree that putting in the sound and then ignoring it might be a mistake. Why not start with the three buds gathering leaves, etc and then hear the sound. If this is a ya in a fictional setting, you have the luxury of world building. Maybe that could be done first and then lead into the sound and what was that? Leave the reader hanging.

    • Good point about involving all three characters right from the start, Michelle. It would definitely up the tension and get us right into the story’s action. Achieving balance between engaging the reader immediately and scene setting is always such a challenge.

  4. Some nice scene setting here. I got a good sense of place. But I agree with Laura that the focus should be shifted more to the tension of the odd calls Vo hears. And how come the kids below don’t hear it and react? Just asking…

    I’m not crazy about that five-dollar word “ululating.” First, it would send more than a few readers to the dictionary. I knew it was a cry of some kind but when I checked, turns out it is a “wail of strong emotion, usually grief.” I’d rather the writer describe the cry from Vo’s sensibility — what does it exactly sound like to him? — than have the writer TELL me it is “ululating.”

    But not a bad start!

    • “Ululating” is indeed quite the five-dollar word. I was torn and tried various versions with and without. I’m okay with sending readers to the dictionary occasionally–in fact, I double-checked the specifics of it myself. I was interested that it indicated strong emotion, and worked it into my understanding of the story. BUT I totally get your point. It was a process that probably burdens a first line in a YA novel.

      Vo notes that the sounds might be mating calls of animals–which is a whole other direction. Given the author’s deft naming skills, I kind of wanted them to pursue that line by naming an animal in that world, and characterizing the cries.

  5. My apologies, dear readers. I always prefer to jump right into answering comments first thing. Unfortunately, I was driving all day and had unavoidable activities this evening. And I know you wouldn’t want me commenting and driving…Thanks so much for your patience.

  6. No, we definitely don’t want you commenting and driving! I’m late to the party, too, and I apologize for the delay. Great comments, Laura. Hope you are well. Here are some additional comments for our brave writer:

    Overwriting

    One problem with this page is overwriting. Some examples:

    “A peal of laughter erupted from Jilly.”

    Just say Jilly laughed.

    In fact, be careful not to describe every grin, wave, smirk, groan, shiver, head cock, firm grip, hair shake, eye rub, and so on. On the first page of a novel (especially), focus on important actions. It’s tedious for the reader to have to weed through every micro action. Readers don’t want or need this level of detail. Choose the most relevant things to describe. That way, what you do describe will stick with the reader. You want your images to have staying power, and they won’t if you describe everything in such detail.

    Example:

    “golden spears of grain waving lazily in the light breeze”

    Overkill. You can paint a beautiful scene using fewer words. Pare down this language.

    Another example:

    “Studying the clusters of silver-green Rwothyll leaves that hung from the limb, he shook one branch. The lemony scent of the leaves wafted up to him.”

    This sentence can be trimmed considerably. Whenever you use words like up or down, consider whether they are really needed. Also, it’s safe to assume that readers already know that leaves hang from a limb. Where else would they be? Try something like:

    As Vo shook a branch, he took in the lemony scent of silver-green Rwothyll leaves.

    Go through every sentence, and get rid of unnecessary words.

    First Line

    “At first, Vo thought the faint ululating cries were animal mating calls.”

    The word “ululating” just made me laugh. Not sure that’s the reaction you want from the reader here. Consider beginning the story with the character taking an action, rather than a character having a thought.

    Character Introductions

    Vo
    The Goddess
    Jilly
    Alek

    When you introduce too many characters in one scene, there’s less focus on the main character that you should be introducing: the protagonist. Focus. What is the main thing you want readers to know about your protagonist’s personality after reading the first page? Make sure readers can answer that question.

    Title

    Not sure about your title, but that’s not a big concern. Titles are easy to change.

    Conflict, Tension, Stakes

    After you correct the bloated sentences, make sure that you give the reader some tension, conflict, and stakes!

    Laura wrote, “I wanted more tension, more action, a sense that something tense and important and dangerous is about to happen.” I completely agree.

    Take a look at Laura’s rewrites. Clean, succinct writing (as in Laura’s examples) should be your goal as you do your revisions. Keep going, brave writer. Looking forward to reading the next draft! Carry on.

  7. As Kris mentioned, great scene setting. I felt as if I could envision the landscape as the writer intended. Unfortunately, like you Laura, I yearned for conflict. What little there was seemed like it didn’t bother the characters all that much. So, why should the situation bother the reader? That said, I don’t read YA or fantasy, so perhaps I’m not the best person to weigh in on this first page. Best of luck to you, Anon!

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