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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How Did You Get Here?

by Joe Hartlaub

It was only a few hours ago that I spoke with a friend that I hadn’t conversed with in almost forty years. Don and I worked for a couple of summers on a municipal road crew in the Akron, Ohio area in the early 1970s. We came from very different backgrounds and had a bit of an age difference between us but became something more than work friends. He had a number of colorful expressions, most of which I can’t use in family blog, but which pepper my conversation to this day. The method we used to rid a field of a hornet’s nest almost got me arrested some fifteen years after the fact when I replicated it elsewhere.

You don’t forget a guy like that, but you do lose touch. I moved to Columbus in 1978; Don stayed in Akron. Life got in the way for both of us. There weren’t emails or cell phones or Skype and we became busy with jobs and raising families the way that people do. I never forgot Don, however, given that I quoted him like Scripture on a frequent basis, usually with appreciative laughter from whatever audience I was before. I started looking for him on the internet several years ago but couldn’t find him and assumed he had moved or even passed. I had long since given up trying to reach Don when I saw him featured on the front page of a northeastern Ohio newspaper. He had been ambushed by a reporter outside of a polling station; he looked older (unlike me) but it was still the same guy, for sure. His internet presence, however, was still non-existent. I was able to locate a couple of phone numbers for him but they were out of service. I did, however, get a street address for Don after some effort and wrote him a letter — an actual letter — with my prized fountain pen. It took eight days for him to get it (they don’t call it “snail mail” for nothing) but he ultimately received it and called me. We’re going to get together soon (“…before one or both of us dies!” he said) and catch up further.

All of this got me to wondering about all of you. I remember where and how I met Don, and most of my other friends, and my wife, business associates, etc. But those of us who contribute blog posts to The Kill Zone don’t know how you, our wonderful readers and commenters, got here. What brought you to The Kill Zone originally? How did you get here? Twitter? Facebook? Writer’s Digest? An author’s link? I’d love to know. And if you have any stories about reuniting with old friends and acquaintances that are unique and/or unusual, please share if you’re so inclined.

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 03:  Cars and traffic fill the A100 ring highway at dusk on November 3, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Germany is heatedly debating the introduction of highway tolls (in German: Maut), which in the current form proposed by German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt would be levied solely on foreigners. Dobrindt's office argues that this is not discrimination, which would be illegal under European Union law, since Germans already pay an annual car tax.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)            

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On the Road

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I have been known to use this space to prattle on a bit about how to get that creative spark exploding, using a bit of this or that. Here I go again.

I had no idea at all until a couple of hours ago that there is a low-cost transportation service popularly known — to those who know it at all — as the Chinatown bus. Its service area is expanding by the month but its purpose is to get you from your city of residence to Chinatown in New York. It can do this from Columbus, Ohio, to name but one place, for around thirty dollars (the more you plan ahead, the less a ticket will cost you). You show up on the second block of East Main Street downtown at the day and time appointed — buses leave twice a day — and twelve non-stop hours later you are dropped off at a storefront in New York’s Chinatown. I was familiar with Megabus and some of the other curb-to-curb interstate bus services but this is a new one for me. The service has its own website which you can use to book a trip and also discusses the company’s history, which is extremely interesting as well. I managed to quickly find a couple of folks who have used this and who told me some extremely interesting stories about using it. While the service was originally designed to accommodate Chinese and other Asian immigrants, anyone can use it with some money and planning.

Think about that: a non-stop trip to New York for less than it would cost you to drive there. If you got on the bus wanting inspiration, you would almost certainly have something in mind by the time you reached your destination, just by observing your fellow passengers and taking notes. If you weren’t inspired by the trip, certainly being dropped off in the middle of New York will get those creative juices percolating. I’m thinking — yes, you do smell smoke — of taking the Chinatown bus to Thrillerfest XI just for grins next year. And maybe just for the heck of it before that. I may even put it on my bucket list.

Does this appeal to you? Would you use such a trip — or any trip — as an inspirational jump starter? Or do you regard travel, regardless of mode, as a necessary evil that enables you to get where you want to go, and nothing more? And do you have a favorite travel story or novel? Mine is — of course — ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac, typed on a roll of toilet paper. Yours?

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Missing

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One of the questions frequently asked of a writer is where ideas are obtained. If you are writing, and find yourself lacking for ideas, I have a suggestion: google “missing persons” and then your local city, county, or even neighborhood.  You will find enough tragedy, heartbreak, and yes, mystery to write volume after volume.

I am haunted by a particular incident that took place less than two blocks from my home. I am blessed to live in Westerville, just outside of Columbus, near a lovely area known as Hoover Reservoir. It’s a body of water that stretches for a few miles and has hiking and jogging trails, fishing opportunities, and a decent sized waterfall. It is also the situs of a disappearance that has baffled our local law enforcement for almost twenty years. A gentleman named Robert Mohney left his home — and a half-eaten steak dinner — on the evening of July 28, 1996 and was never seen again. His automobile — a cherry red Pontiac Firebird — was found in a parking lot at Hoover Reservoir. One reflexively thinks suicide, but no note was found. No, there is the impression of a meal interrupted and a sudden…disruption, perhaps?  Mohney had been going through a divorce but it reportedly was not an unfriendly proceeding; this wasn’t someone, according to those who knew him, who was intent on leaving for the other side. Inquiries were made and the reservoir searched but the man, a good looking guy in his late 20s, was and is gone. Police acting on a tip in 2010 dug up a field in an area north of the city hoping to locate a body and perhaps bring some closure —whatever that is — to Mohney’s family. They came up empty, unfortunately. Mohney is now the subject of high school legend, one in which his spirit can be seen late at night, wandering the banks of the reservoir, seeking peace. What happened to him? How does someone disappear from a popular picnic and recreational area without anyone noticing something? There’s your novel; have at it.

If that doesn’t interest you, here’s another.  Over nine years ago  a second year medical student at The Ohio State University named Brian Shaffer disappeared one night from a very popular campus-area bar and restaurant after becoming separated from friends. Security cameras show him going into the establishment with those friends but never coming out. Law enforcement has spent hours reviewing video and accounting for everyone who entered and left the place. Everyone but one.  Cadaver dogs were subsequently led through the premises but came up empty. There have been rumors a-plenty as to what occurred — everything from sighting in Atlanta to a tie-in with what have become known as the “Smiley Face Murders” — and if you want to feel as if you’re about to slip loose of your moorings, google that term — but nothing concrete has been determined. Shaffer is…gone.

There are more. A number of young women living on the fringes of polite society in a rural area south of central Ohio have disappeared during the past year. I stopped believing in coincidence some time ago; something bad and evil is acting, with impunity, in that area. Further afield, a number of ladies employed in some of the more popular adult entertainment establishments on Bourbon Street in New Orleans go missing under strange circumstances each year. Check out the statistics for the number of people who go missing in your city, your state, your country. There are all sorts or stories, real or imagined, waiting to be told. Be warned: after reading a few of those accounts you will want to take every person you love and keep them close and safe in a locked room. But if you need a story idea, you’re just a few keystrokes away from one, or two, or several.

That’s all I have. Tell me…what’s been happening near you? Are they heavily publicized, or were you surprised by what you found?

 

 

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