First Page Critique: The Arthani Prince

By SUE COLETTA

Calling all fantasy lovers! Please enjoy today’s offering from another brave writer. I’ll catch you on the flip-side with my comments.

The Arthani Prince

The Arthani palace was much smaller than the Razvian one, but what it lacked in size it made up for in flowers. Crowding in on the pathways, spilling out of boxes on every ledge, even hanging off tree branches. Any inch that wasn’t filled with flowers had decoratively carved pieces of coral, another Arthani specialty. Mulk-Arthan bordered the sea, and so had an unlimited access to coral and pearls.

Niketa walked across the palace grounds, dutifully studying the list of questions her father had given her. Her father, King of Razvia and recent conqueror of this country, wanted her to interrogate the Arthani prince for information. One of her duties as her country’s spy master was to interrogate prisoners of war. She still wasn’t sure how that would work, especially since his father was dead and the two most important people in his life were not in custody.

Razvian kings liked to keep their prisoners right in the palace, but the Arthanis had built their prison at the edge of the grounds. Niketa unlatched the door and walked inside–a dirt floor, with a table and stools set up in the center. Prison cells—little more than wooden cages for people—lined every wall. She left the door open as she approached Prince Ezhil’s cage.

“I have questions for you,” she said, trying to keep her voice light. “Would you like to talk in there or come out?”

“Either way is fine with me,” the Arthani prince said gravely. “Whatever is more comfortable for you.”

She grinned and unlatched his cell. “Sit at the table and don’t run.”

It took Ezhil a few minutes to comply. She took note of how carefully he moved and how he lurched past her to the table. He wouldn’t be able to run.

“No word from any of you,” she counseled the other prisoners. “Unless you would like to give the information I’m looking for.”

She sat on the stool closest to the open door and studied Ezhil as he settled his bound wrists on the tabletop. She couldn’t decipher anything from his expression, so she decided to hit hard.

“The king needs information,” she said.

“The king is dead,” Ezhil said. There was no grief in his expression, which either meant he never loved his father or that he had an extraordinary ability to lock away his emotions.

Her lips curled into a mocking smile. “The man in the throne room then. Are you willing to give the man in the throne room answers or will you need persuasion.”

***

Full disclosure: fantasy is not my preferred genre. I read very little fantasy, if any. This first page still opens a novel, though. The first page must hook the reader. Even after reading this piece for the umpteenth time, I stilI have no idea what “Mulk-Arthan” is, so I’m afraid you lost me in the first paragraph, Anon. Perhaps it’s me. Fantasy readers, do you understand Mulk-Arthan? Flowers also set a softer scene than what I think you’re going for here. If I’ve misread your intent, feel free to ignore the advice.

In the second paragraph we learn Niketa’s goal, which is great. Good job! This sentence stopped me, though: She still wasn’t sure how that would work, especially since his father was dead and the two most important people in his life were not in custody. Who’s father? I assume from the way this is written Anon meant the prince’s father. Problem is, the sentence begins with Niketa’s thoughts, and then switches to a different point-of-view. The first half is an easy fix. Rather than being vague — i.e. She still wasn’t sure how that would work— make it clear that she didn’t know how the interrogation of the prince would work.

The POV slip is problematic because, how does Niketa know the prince feels this way— “two most important people in his life”— if she hasn’t interrogated him yet? If they have history, perhaps you could show us a glimpse of their former relationship. Example: She hadn’t seen him since she crawled out of his bed, two months ago.

Great visuals in paragraph three: Niketa unlatched the door and walked inside—a dirt floor, with a table and stools set up in the center. Prison cells—little more than wooden cages for people—lined every wall. She left the door open as she approached Prince Ezhil’s cage. Why would she leave the door open if she’s giving the prince the option of leaving his cage? As it reads now, it looks like Niketa is either testing the prince or she’s not that bright. We later learn the former is true, but don’t let the reader assume incorrectly, as I did when I first read this opener. I also thought this was the first time she’s ever interrogated a prisoner. Later, I learned that wasn’t true, but by then you’d already confused me. Be direct and intentional in your writing, Anon. 

Then we have this line: “Either way is fine with me,” the Arthani prince said gravely. “Whatever is more comfortable for you.”

This doesn’t ring true for me. First of all, please lose the adverb on the dialogue tag. Instead, use a strong verb to convey the correct emotion. The words he speaks don’t match “gravely.” In fact, if taken out of context, the dialogue sounds like a polite conversation over tea, and not a conversation between a prisoner and his captor.

This also confused me: She grinned and unlatched his cell. “Sit at the table and don’t run.”
It took Ezhil a few minutes to comply. She took note of how carefully he moved and how he lurched past her to the table. He wouldn’t be able to run.

First, she says, “Don’t run.” Then she says, “He wouldn’t be able to run.” Which is it? Are his ankles shackled? If so, then “Don’t run” doesn’t make sense. If his ankles aren’t restrained, then her last comment — He wouldn’t be able to run.boggles the mind. See my confusion? 

Here’s where this reader first learned Niketa has interrogated other prisoners in the past: “No word from any of you,” she counseled the other prisoners. “Unless you would like to give the information I’m looking for.” In this graph, I’d love for you to use a body cue instead of a dialogue tag. You’ve got the perfect opportunity to show Niketa exerting her power over the other prisoners. For example: Niketa’s board-stiff finger raced across each pitiful face. Sooner or later, they’d reveal the killer’s name. Living in cages had a way of bending even the strongest will.

It’s difficult to discern where the story is headed from page one, but I use this example to show how we can sprinkle in attitude/personality as well as drop a few clues for the reader. Remember, our goal is to pique enough interest to force readers to flip the page.

She sat on the stool closest to the open door (<- it’s only here that we discover she is testing the prince, which is too late for this particular reader. I’ve already formed my opinion of Niketa. Perhaps fans of the genre will feel differently and weigh in) and studied Ezhil as he settled his bound wrists on the tabletop. Okay, here we learn he is handcuffed, but that still doesn’t explain why he can’t run. Easy fix. When she first lets him out of his cage, let us hear the clang of the shackles as he shuffles to the table. He wouldn’t be able to “lurch” with shackles on, btw. See how important our word choices are?

She couldn’t decipher anything from his expression, so she decided to hit hard. “The king needs information,” she said. By moving the dialogue up a line, you can remove the tag. Also, you’ve indicated that Niketa would deliver a crushing blow, then didn’t follow through. “The king needs information” is too soft. Either Niketa is a badass spy or she’s meek. Which is it? Show us through her actions and dialogue. I see hints of badass, but it’s not consistent throughout the first page.

“The king is dead,” Ezhil said. Now him, I like. With that one line of dialogue you’ve shown us his spunk. Nicely done! There was no grief in his expression, which either meant he never loved his father or that he had an extraordinary ability to lock away his emotions. Wherever possible, try to rewrite sentences to avoid passive voice. “There was” is passive. The rewrite could be as simple as “No grief crossed his face. Not even a hint of emotion. Didn’t he care that someone murdered his father?” 

Her lips curled into a mocking smile. <- Nice body cue! “The man in the throne room then.(<- I would change this for clarity. Try, “I meant, the new king.”) Are you willing to give the man in the throne room answers, or will you need persuasion.?

I think you’ve got a lot to work with here, Anon. I like the idea of this premise; the landscape promises plenty of conflict. If Niketa and the prince have history, then you’d also have built-in sexual tension, which is always fun to read, IMO. Please note: if I didn’t see something special in your writing, there’d be a lot less red ink. 🙂 Journey forth, dear writer. We’re all rooting for you!

Over to you, my beloved TKZers. Does this opener compel you to flip the page? How might you improve this first page?

 

 

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About Sue Coletta

Member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, and ITW, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling author of the Grafton County Series and Mayhem Series. In 2017, Feedspot named her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Learn more about Sue and her books at http://www.suecoletta.com

14 thoughts on “First Page Critique: The Arthani Prince

  1. I, too, think this material is promising. And I understand the desire to “world build” and explain up front. But I still believe starting with an actual scene is better. Readers will wait for the full picture if something immediate is happening.

    Just for exercise, writer, try this as your opening line:

    Niketa left the door open as she approached Prince Ezhil’s cage.

    Boom. Now write the rest of the scene pretty much as you’ve done (taking in Sue’s notes), and leave all the material from the first two paragraphs off until later, “sprinkling” it in. In fact, see how much of that exposition you can put into the dialogue. Confrontational dialogue is almost always the better way to deliver exposition.

    Keep writing.

  2. I love fantasy. This is confusing. I’m guessing from the soft way she goes about interrogating him that he is (or is going to be) the love interest.

    A real spymaster would not interrogate a prisoner within earshot of other prisoners (where they can all go “Yeah, right, that’s the story” to whatever he says). So my take is, either she isn’t very good, or she’s on his side.

    This could be good if clarified.

    • I agree, Cynthia. I feel like something is going on between Niketa and Ezhil, but Anon hasn’t given us a hint to what that is. As written, it doesn’t ring true.

  3. When I read of the prince moving carefully and lurching, I assumed he’d had war injuries as the kingdom has just been overtaken by her father.

    I didn’t mind the world building in the first paragraph but it didn’t seem filtered through her pov. You could start the first paragraph with “She walked” but I like JSB’s suggestion of where to start the story.

    In the 2nd graph, she “dutifully” studies the list of questions and one of her “duties” is to interrogate. These two words stood out. Why would I root for someone whose core principles (this is all I know about her yet) focus on duty? There’s no passion or emotion. She’s your protagonist/your heroine so give us more of a hint about her emotional make-up underneath that duty. Give her a better introduction.

    Best of luck in the rewrites, anon.

  4. As others have suggested, I’d lose the throat-clearing of the opening graph and get right to the interesting point of the interrogation and interplay between the two characters. The flower imagery was nice (I thought I was reading something soft and inviting) — until I was whip-lashed into a cage-prison. The flower thing might work if it were utilized to compare and contrast — ie use the beauty and softness outside to work against the horror of the cages inside (and I’d do more with THAT imagery). Otherwise, the flower imagery is superfluous.

    I’d like to see a little more clarity on Niketa’s personality. She’s sort of cipher here. I got a feeling of tentativeness, like she’s green and almost fearful of her duties. Not sure that’s the intent. The line: “I have questions for you,” she said, trying to keep her voice light” implies a girlishness that’s not appropriate to her duty or the seriousness of the scene. Likewise, “she grinned” seems off-key here. As Sue noted, the Prince comes across as more interesting and gutsy. If she is, indeed, a novice in her spy role, show us this. But if this is not your intent, you have to make her less of a squish. It’s borderline stereotype for female characters.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned the flowery imagery, Kris. I also thought Anon could use the contrast to his/her advantage. Using the setting as a juxtaposed character would hook me right away.

      “… whip-lashed into a cage-prison” *snort* 🙂

  5. I like it.

    I was a little confused with. -especially since his father was dead and the two most important people in his life were not in custody. But I have faith the writer will explain

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. You’ve gotten some great advice already. Hi, Sue and everyone. *waving* Hope our TKZers are having a wonderful holiday season.

    Here are a few comments to throw into the mix:

    Your first line sounds lovely, brave writer, but you’re telling instead of showing. There are times when you want to tell, but the opening of your novel usually isn’t one of them. Show first, tell later. Or as JSB says, act now, explain later. Give the reader an opening image of a character (in action) that will have staying power. That’s not to say that writers of fantasy don’t sometimes begin with world building. I know that they do. However, as JSB noted, the best way to begin is with a scene, rather than description, if you want to hook the reader. Show the reader Niketa’s defining personality trait. Don’t give us her bio on the first page. Let the reader see how she behaves, reacts, speaks and so on in a scene. Show the reader her personality in action. Readers enjoy drawing their own conclusions about characters. Start the scene at the prison cell. You can work in description of the palace grounds and tidbits about the character’s past later. Ideally, every line on the first pages of a novel should perform double duty. Weave the description into the action. I agree with JSB’s suggestion on where to begin and how to proceed given this snippet of your story.

    One Small Hint

    You use the word “was” at least four times. Be careful. Was is often a “telling” word:

    “The Arthani palace was much smaller…” (telling)

    “One of her duties as her country’s spy master was to interrogate prisoners of war…” (telling)

    “…especially since his father was dead” (telling)

    “There was no grief in his expression.” (telling)

    “Thinking” words are also signs of telling. For example, the word decided:

    “so she decided to hit hard…”

    Here’s an essay that might help this to gel:

    https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/nuts-and-bolts-%E2%80%9Cthought%E2%80%9D-verbs

    Best of luck, brave writer. Please keep writing.

    • Hi, Joanne! *waves back* I hope you’re having a wonderful holiday season, as well. Thanks for weighing in on this piece. All excellent suggestions, as usual. 🙂

  7. Btw, even established writers here might enjoy taking a peek at the 36 Writing Essays by Chuck Palahniuk. Interesting stuff.

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