Monday, May 29, 2017

Pitchwars Early Bird Mentor Critique 17 - First 500 - Adult Fantasy

To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words as these can get quite long.

When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it

And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.

I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).

Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...


********************


ORIGINAL MATERIAL

Running late to work at the crack of dawn to find protesters already lined up outside wasn’t the best way Hazel had ever started her day. At least when the day started so bad, it couldn’t get any worse.
The shopping district was mostly deserted in the cold February morning, save the half dozen protesters assembled outside her aunt Enid’s essence distillery. Hazel didn’t know what possessed them to be there so early in the morning. If she had it her way she’d still be firmly ensconced in bed. If anything could be said about Pandora Alliance, it would be that they were dedicated to their cause.
Hazel clutched her pepper spray in one hand, her keys to the shop in the other as she approached. The alley leading to the back entrance wasn’t far, she wouldn’t have to pass through the line if they stayed where they were. This group hadn’t been violent in the three days they’d been picketing the shop, but Hazel wasn’t about to take a chance, not after the fiasco of the Tear protests the year before.
None of them looked particularly well rested. There was a sleeping bag bundled off to one side, and Hazel wondered if one of them had slept there. Even the end of February in Denver could get well below freezing at night. Their usual hostility at someone who not only accepted magic, but worked in a shop that sold it, was amplified by the rumpled look of people who had been called out of bed by Enid’s early arrival at the shop.
“There’s the traitor,” a middle-aged woman sneered. Hazel tried to ignore them. The Pandora Alliance was sometimes harder on her then they were on actual practitioners.
“Turn away from your sin, forsake the evil of your kin or you will burn in hell!” No one else was around, why did they insist on doing this show every time they saw her? Maybe they were just running through their lines, getting warmed up for a day of shortsighted bigotry.
Hazel took a deep breath, hands trembling with the approach of panic. It was too early in the day for this. She pasted her best customer service smile on and waved to the crowd. “Good morning to you too. Stay warm!”
A charm on her keys let her pass by the wards that surrounded the shop and blocked off the entrance to the slip of an alley that let her get to the back door.  The cold malice of the protesters following her, crawling like spiders on her neck. Out of sight, Hazel took a moment to lean against the rough brick wall, willing her heart to slow down. Why they couldn’t just close for a few days was beyond her. It wasn’t like they were doing any real business with a fanatical picket line marching outside.
“You’re late,” Enid said, her voice a sharp crack through the  stillness of the back room of the shop.


CRITIQUE (My words in red font)

Running late to work at the crack of dawn to find protesters already lined up outside wasn’t the best way Hazel had ever started her day. At least when the day started so bad, it couldn’t get any worse.


I’ll be honest, I feel like you missed an opportunity here. You’re telling rather than showing, so we’re still waiting for the impact when, in fact, you have a really good conflict set up here.
Try opening with us seeing her rushing along the sidewalk (or wherever), sweating and blowing hair out of her face because she’s late, the running into a wall of protestors—and give us her emotional reaction to that through sensory detail.


The shopping district was mostly deserted in the cold February morning, save the half dozen protesters assembled outside her aunt Enid’s essence distillery. Hazel didn’t know what possessed them to be there so early in the morning. If she had it her way she’d still be firmly ensconced in bed. If anything could be said about Pandora Alliance, it would be that they were dedicated to their cause.

Again, great info, but you’re working too hard to give it to use because you’re telling instead of showing. Give us the glint off the windows, or the cracked cement, or whatever actual setting we’re in. When you mention the Essence Distillery, or the Pandora Alliance you’re going to have to explain (very briefly) what they are. So get us really grounded in the reality of the place (sight, smell, sound, texture, etc) then mention these things—and have her give us a sentence in her head that tells us what they are, because they’re clearly an important part of your world-building.
Story-wise, does she truly not understand why the protestors are there? If not, then her emotional reaction needs to be confusion and concern. If she knows why they’re there, but can’t believe they’re doing it so early, then it’s exasperation or frustration—along with fear or concern for the impacts.


Hazel clutched her pepper spray in one hand, her keys to the shop in the other as she approached.

Excellent. These are the kind of tangible details we need right up front.

The alley leading to the back entrance wasn’t far, she wouldn’t have to pass through the line if they stayed where they were. This group hadn’t been violent in the three days they’d been picketing the shop, but Hazel wasn’t about to take a chance, not after the fiasco of the Tear protests the year before.

You’re once again mentioning a tthing that we don’t have a frame of reference for. You need to give a very brief outline of what the Tear protests are. I mean, really brief. A single sentence after the mention. Or, you can em dash it and explain in a few words “…not after the fiasco of the Tear protests—eight days of Pandora terror attacks on capitol buildings—the year before.” (I know that’s not what your conflict is, but I’m trying to show you the structure of how to clue the reader into these little pieces of information).


None of them looked particularly well rested. There was a sleeping bag bundled off to one side, and Hazel wondered if one of them had slept there. Even the end of February in Denver could get well below freezing at night. Their usual hostility at someone who not only accepted magic, but worked in a shop that sold it, was amplified by the rumpled look of people who had been called out of bed by Enid’s early arrival at the shop.

Ah, now we start to see what’s going on here. This information needs to be right at the front—the first time she mentions the distillery and the protestors. This is the crux of your world-building. Don’t make the reader wonder/wait for it.


“There’s the traitor,” a middle-aged woman sneered. Hazel tried to ignore them. The Pandora Alliance was sometimes harder on her then they were on actual practitioners.
Nice way to drop in that she doesn’t do magic. Well done. These kinds of brief insights are perfect for your opening pages.


“Turn away from your sin, forsake the evil of your kin or you will burn in hell!” No one else was around, why did they insist on doing this show every time they saw her? Maybe they were just running through their lines, getting warmed up for a day of shortsighted bigotry.
Nice.


Hazel took a deep breath, hands trembling with the approach of panic. It was too early in the day for this. She pasted her best customer service smile on and waved to the crowd. “Good morning to you too. Stay warm!”
That made me grin.

A charm on her keys let her pass by the wards that surrounded the shop and blocked off the entrance to the slip of an alley that let her get to the back door.  The cold malice of the protesters following her, crawling like spiders on her neck.
Great metaphor, but we still aren’t grounded in this world. So focus instead on the reality of where she is and what she’s doing—show the lock clicking open for her, the texture of the door, or the echoeing steps behind. That kind of thing. That’s what will make your reader fall into your world.


Out of sight, Hazel took a moment to lean against the rough brick wall, willing her heart to slow down.
These moments are where you have those opportunities to make the world real. Instead of leaning against a rough brick wall, have her rest on the wall and show her hair or her clothes snagging on the bricks.

Why they couldn’t just close for a few days was beyond her. It wasn’t like they were doing any real business with a fanatical picket line marching outside.
“You’re late,” Enid said, her voice a sharp crack through the  stillness of the back room of the shop.
Hazel flipped the deadbolt on the door and turned to face her aunt. Even so early in the morning, Enid was put together and lovely, but she always was. Dark brown hair pulled up into a neat bun, creamy tan cheeks smooth, canted eyes bright and catching everything. She was in her mid-forties, age giving her grace and beauty that seemed to grow every year instead of diminishing.
Lovely description!

SUMMARY: 

Here’s what’s working really well for you: You don’t use extra words to get an idea across. You know how to move action simultaneously with internal narration. And it sounds like you’ve got a really well developed world in your head. You’re showing the conflict right up front (big tick!), and your voice is clear.
The thing that’s working against you is that you’re telling more than you’re showing. Which slows the read (even if it sometimes uses less words) because it doesn’t make the reader feel like they’re a part of the story. They don’t get inside the character’s skin—instead they’re outside watching them. And that’s much harder to connect with.
If you take the exact progression and information you’ve got here (along with your writing skills), and use it to paint sensory detail, you’ll grip the reader from the very first line.
I know it can feel difficult at the beginning to try to identify when you’re showing vs. telling, but an approach that helps me is this: When you describe something, are you describing an action, or an image? An image tells you what to see or hear (“She leaned against the rough bricks.”) If you’re describing sensations in action, you’re showing (“She dropped her forehead against the cool bricks, then grimaced when her hair caught, tearing on the rough stone.”) That’s not a great example because I’m rushing, but hopefully it makes the point.

The only content I think is missing here is the goal of the protagonist, though you could argue that she wants to see the shop closed. Personally, given the conflict you've set up, I'd go for something a little bigger--does she wish she could magic the people away? Does she wish she could walk away and not have to deal with these people? Does she want to move the shop to another city where they're more open to magic? Let the reader see what she'd choose if she could.
I see a ton of potential here. I hope I’ve offered some insight that will help with your revisions.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Critique 16 - First 500 - YA High Fantasy


To see the draft query attached to this novel, go here:

To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words as these can get quite long.
When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it

And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.

I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).

Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...


********************

ORIGINAL MATERIAL

“I’m sorry—I’m sorry!”
“You’ll be sorry when I say you’re sorry!”
“You’re hurting me!”
“Good.”
I cried out on the creaking floor as my grandmother beat me with the handle of a broom.
Gritting my teeth I pulled thin arms tight over my long neck and side, so much so that I couldn’t breathe. As the pain of the broom wacked my boney back and legs I held myself tighter, wild curls covering my face and sticking to my wet lips. All I could hear was Alba’s breaths and my own deep winces as the broom fell. My body cramped, my mind was blank, my chest heavy, but I remained silent as she continued my punishment and lesson.
 “Always hiding things. Do you never learn girl? Shall I beat it into you every night until you understand?” I shook her head faintly, spotting the torn piece of parchment on the floor which she had found in my room, and Alba stopped. “No? Look at me.” She demanded and I did so as bruises formed, patching along my body. Alba looked disgusted with me, “You’re just like her. If I find anything more which does not belong in my home, it will be an iron rod I use next.”
“…Yes Alba.”

With stiff arms I ladled water into cups before sitting behind the worn wood table, body aching.
A tray of bread and olives was for breakfast, gathered from our small garden. I was careful to watch myself, cautious as I ate day old bread. Lately I’d been clumsier than usual, or as Alba put it, more of a nuisance. It was a name I was more familiar with then my own. It was normal in the cabin in the woods just as her my punishments were. If it was normal outside it I didn’t know. I reached for a few pitted olives placing them in my bowl. I was thankful they were green and not black so I didn’t feel as if I was eating my own bruised skin. At least my body healed fast, as some of the smaller bruises were already turning yellow.
I ate slowly despite gnawing hunger. If I ate too fast Alba wouldn’t like it. Taking hold of my water I pretended to drink as the morning air of the cabin warmed, and faint light of the sun rose across the table and into my empty face. Sneaking a peek, Alba sat with her short back straight and sunken black eyes on her bowl, as if eating by herself. And she might as well have been since she didn’t talk to me unless dealing out orders like a master to her starving servant.
My throat tightened swallowing a piece of scratchy bread.
Despoite all Alba had did for me and to me, I didn’t love her, but then why bother living with someone like her? Who was cold and cruel and hate-filled towards her own granddaughter?
She’s all I have left.



CRITIQUE (My words in red font):

“I’m sorry—I’m sorry!”
“You’ll be sorry when I say you’re sorry!”
“You’re hurting me!”
“Good.”
I cried out on the creaking floor as my grandmother beat me with the handle of a broom.

Your dialogue works well, but show, don’t’ tell. Have her cry out because the broom handle lands on her ribs, or her spine, or hear the thwack of belt leather accompanying the sting on her skin, that kind of thing.



Gritting my teeth I pulled thin arms tight over my long neck and side, so much so that I couldn’t breathe. As the pain of the broom wacked my boney back and legs I held myself tighter, wild curls covering my face and sticking to my wet lips. All I could hear was Alba’s breaths and my own deep winces as the broom fell. My body cramped, my mind was blank, my chest heavy, but I remained silent as she continued my punishment and lesson.

Except, she hasn’t been silent to remain so. If you want her silent, have her bite her lip and refuse to cry out again—something emotive like that.


“Always hiding things. Do you never learn girl? Shall I beat it into you every night until you understand?” I shook her head faintly,

“I” shook “her” head?

spotting the torn piece of parchment on the floor which she had found in my room, and Alba stopped. “No? Look at me.” She demanded and I did so as bruises formed, patching along my body. Alba looked disgusted with me, “You’re just like her. If I find anything more which does not belong in my home, it will be an iron rod I use next.”
“…Yes Alba.”

With stiff arms I ladled water into cups before sitting behind the worn wood table, body aching.

This is an odd transition. In a manuscript, if you’re making a scene break, use the “#” symbol—centered, or at the margin—to indicate a change of scene. However, I feel like it’s too early for a scene change, because we aren’t grounded in this scene yet.

Use this moment to show her pain by having her wince as she slowly pushes herself to her feet. Then have Grandmother intentionally bump into her as she stands, so she has to bite back another cry. Something to give us the mental image of her getting up—then moving towards the food. And show us the room she’s in while she’s on her way—ground us in the setting, senses, and emotions she’s feeling. Then the rest flows naturally out of that.


A tray of bread and olives was for breakfast, gathered from our small garden. I was careful to watch myself, cautious as I ate day old bread. Lately I’d been clumsier than usual, or as Alba put it, more of a nuisance. It was a name I was more familiar with then my own. It was normal in the cabin in the woods just as her my punishments were. If it was normal outside it I didn’t know. I reached for a few pitted olives placing them in my bowl. I was thankful they were green and not black so I didn’t feel as if I was eating my own bruised skin. At least my body healed fast, as some of the smaller bruises were already turning yellow.
I ate slowly despite gnawing hunger. If I ate too fast Alba wouldn’t like it. Taking hold of my water I pretended to drink as the morning air of the cabin warmed, and faint light of the sun rose across the table and into my empty face. Sneaking a peek, Alba sat with her short back straight and sunken black eyes on her bowl, as if eating by herself. And she might as well have been since she didn’t talk to me unless dealing out orders like a master to her starving servant.
My throat tightened swallowing a piece of scratchy bread.
Despoite all Alba had did for me and to me,

You have a typo in Despite, then “had did for me” is grammatically incorrect. If the latter is intentional, a device of the voice, you need to use it more often, and earlier. If it’s just a typo, correct it. It’ll drive grammar nazi agents crazy. And definitely get a proofreader. Your writing is solid, you don’t want it being dragged down and potentially rejected because an agent feels like they have to do too much of the grunt work.


I didn’t love her, but then why bother living with someone like her? Who was cold and cruel and hate-filled towards her own granddaughter?
She’s all I have left.

Very poignant. Well done.

  
SUMMARY:

You’ve got a great conflict, and a great showing of the conflict, right up front. Which is perfect. However, you need to fully deliver on that. The actual beating can end where it does, but we need to see her emotional reaction to it—as she gets up, does Grandmother leave and she flinches? Or, does she do everything she can to show she’s going to be obedient, so grandmother doesn’t have reason to launch at her again?
And while you move her from the floor, and show us her emotional response to the beating, show us the setting as well.
Because you opened the book on a physical altercation, you’ll get away with not giving the wider setting right away. But the second that altercation ends, you need to show the reader this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Give the cues of texture of the floor, items/furniture, sounds, smells, etc, to make the setting real. That way, when crazy things happen, the reader’s brain has already been fooled into thinking the world is real, so disbelief is suspended.
All-in-all, a solid start. Keep going, keep refining, definitely look for those typos/mistakes, and clear those up. Make sure every scene opens with setting and give sensory detail as you go, and this will grab people.
Good luck!






Friday, May 26, 2017

Pitchwars Early Bird Critique 15 - QUERY - YA Fantasy


When I read a query, or query blurb of a story, I'm looking for five major elements communicated crisply, quickly, and clearly:

Who is the book about, where are they (and when, if applicable)? What does the protagonist want? What's the conflict, and who or what is the antagonistic force? And for your final hook, what specific obstacle will potentially stop the protagonist from achieving their goal? And what's at stake if they fail?

If a query can outline that in under 250 words, it's a winner.  So let's take a look at this query and see how it stacks up:

Dear, AGENT

After sixteen-year-old Izzy Ruiz alcoholic mother kicks her out and leaves her homeless, she wants nothing more than to feel at home, safe. She has no idea that her new, invitation-only boarding school on the coast of New England is exclusively for half-elfs and fairies.

Great opener. Unfortunately, you have a typo in the very first sentence (you’re missing the ‘s in “Izzy Ruiz’s alcoholic mother”), which may work against you. Most agents understand we’re all prone to mistakes. But a mistake that early on will give them pause—if you can’t proofread a one page letter, can they expect a much greater issue in a 90k manuscript? Don’t give them a reason to pause in the read and question you. Or fall on the side of rejection if they’re wavering.


When the broad-shouldered elf named Drake approaches Izzy, their magnetism throws her off-balance. They soon discover in archery, after multiplying one arrow into seven, that they have a joint power, called Share. This power amplifies their gifts. But the Share puts them both in danger of losing their lives, when the emergence of their power draws Adima attention.

First off, “off balance” feels like . . . not enough. Use a descriptor that engages our emotion—is she drawn to him romantically, sexually, magically? Whatever word you use, make sure it gives the fullest impression of how this magnetism works.

Secondly, we’ve got a small info dump here, so work backwards: Share only the information that’s needed to understand the story, then frame it in plot/character intrigue.

In this case, it’s only important for Drake and Izzy to learn that they have a joint power called Share. Instead of describing the specifics of arrows and so forth, frame it in their magnetism. Show them being drawn to each other, then just state that that connection leads to them learning they have Share, which puts them at risk of losing their lives.

And again, rather than that risk being a factual statement (drawing the attention of Adima—who we have no connection with), either state that it draws the attention of X person who can do X to them, or (better) give us the scenario that causes the attention to be drawn and show us the consequences.
I.e. Izzy and Drake, unable to keep their hands off each other, have been secretly meeting in the woods to Share. But when their kiss sparks fireworks right outside the shop of Adima, the local villain-for-hire, it could cost them their lives . . . (I know this isn’t how your story works, I’m just trying to show you the structure)

Adima, the last elf known to possess Share, lost her power during her people’s migration back to the elf’s home realm. When her twin decides to stay with his pregnant wife, breaking all ties, he is killed. Sister is convinced all half-humans are to blame for her the death of her brother and the weaning of her powers.

This is all backstory, and isn’t needed in a query. It breaks your flow and tells an entirely different story. Stay on Izzy and Drake. To describe a threat, you only need to show that it’s a threat.

While I don’t think the previous paragraph ends ideally either, I’ll use it to demonstrate what information is needed about Adima:

“…But the Share puts them both in danger of losing their lives, when the emergence of their power draws the attention of Adima, a powerful witch, hell-bent on destroying every half-human in existence.”

Do you see what I mean?


Sister is hell bent on destroying all of the half-humans in return. Students have already disappeared and professors are on edge as all the students’ lives are at risk. Izzy and Drake’s power is the only thing that can stop Adima and save the missing student.

Unfortunately, this misses the boat. The intrigue of students disappearing and professors on edge should be earlier in the query—as world-building. Izzy and Drake’s “power” needs to be specific—not in title, but in what it can achieve.
What you want here is conflict, definition of success, and what’s a stake in the event of failure: “Izzy (and Drake?) must do X to achieve Y, or Z will happen.” i.e. “Izzy and Drake must Share enough sever to Adima from the source forever—a spell that has never been successfully cast by a student of magic. But if they fail, Adima will absorb their combined power and use it to kill. First Izzy and Drake—then every other student at (their school).”

Completed at 90,000 words, [TITLE] is a YA fantasy action romance.
Thank you for your time.

[AUTHOR NAME]


SUMMARY:

While I’ve given you a lot of correction here, I can see that all the right elements of a really, really good story are here. I’m not usually a fantasy reader, but I found myself wanting to check out your pages and see how this all comes together. I hope (because it’s what I like to read) that Drake and Izzy’s power draws them together romantically, as well as magically. And that there’s the added tension of them losing their relationship through this awful conflict, as well as their lives—and their concern for each other’s lives.

But that’s a totally subjective comment. What I’m trying to say is, even though I’ve told you to cut and change a lot, I know that you wouldn’t have the information you’ve got if there wasn’t a story worth telling behind this summary.

So please don’t be discouraged! Rework your query to give your pages the best chance of being read by a professional, but don’t take this critique as a signal the story doesn’t work. Writing blurbs is a very different skill to weaving 90,000 word stories. I have a hunch you’ve got what it takes.

Good luck!


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Critique 14 - First 500 - YA Fantasy

To skip directly to the material and critique, scroll down to the star divider line. If you'd like to know how I break down a critique, and what I'm looking for, keep reading:

To help the authors as much as possible, I've critiqued their full first chapter, however I'm only sharing the first 500 words as these can get quite long.

When critiquing a first chapter, (especially the first 500 words), I'm always searching for these pieces of information. A great book can include all of them right up front. Sometimes one or two need to take longer. But in the first page, or two at most, I should see at least three of these:

Who is the focus of the story?
Where are they?
When is it (i.e. what era--is it today? two hundred years ago? not sure?)
What are they doing?
Why are they doing it

And in the first chapter, if not the first 500 words, I want to know what the character's initial goal is. That goal will likely change as they learn more about the situation they're falling into. However, right up front, the character always needs to want something--desperately. And the author needs to communicate to me what that is, and why they might not get it, as quickly as possible. Because that's what tells me why I should care about this story.

I'm looking for technical expertise--does the author know how to set up a scene? Do they understand backstory and when to include it (and perhaps more importantly, when not to). Is their writing tight and polished, or are there a lot of unnecessary words? Is the author falling into purple prose (over-writing in an attempt to sound good, but actually creating a sense of melodrama which will turn many readers off).

Beyond that, I'm looking at how I respond as a reader. Am I intrigued? Do I care? Do I want to keep reading?
So, with all those elements in mind, here we go...


********************

ORIGINAL MATERIAL:

When I was born, my mother wished me dead. An ‘apaya’, she called me, according to the midwife. Meaning “born ill-fated” in our ancestors’ ancient language, it’s one of the most offensive curses for an unfortunate person. A proverb goes, “Wherever an apaya turns, a house burns.”

So whenever I hear the word, I feel like it’s directed at me. 

“Get up, you apaya!” The moment I hear it, I stop on my tracks, holding Azibo’s hand. Frowning, he looks over his shoulder. 

“Get up! You’re nothing but an apaya.” 

I want to hide from whoever it is, but Azibo holds me. 

“It’s not you, love,” he whispers. A kiss he places on my head while pulling me away. I dare to turn my head and find a girl of ten winters being lugged out of a hut. Her shift is too short, too tattered, too somber a view on this grey dawn. Her dark locks are tangled, bunched up in a man’s hands, the one dragging her. Teeth gritted, he lifts her scrawny body and hands her to two darkly clad men. 

My father’s men. 
My father, the king. 

On a mule few steps away from them is a sack. The man leers at it. When the girl’s been tied with bronze shackles and thrown over the mule, the man almost lunges for the sack. A few tears on it reveal its content; flax seed. From the look of it, it won’t last a fortnight, even for one person. 

The girl struggles. The clinging fetters cut her skin, drawing out blood. 

“Father…” she whimpers. Her greedy father doesn’t pay her any attention. He’s busy with the sack. 

This has been going on the Island ever since my father ascended the throne. Parents selling off their children, husbands using wives as harlots, all for a mouthful of food. Once cannibalism occurred in a family in the slum. Back then I wasn’t a resident of this place. 

“That’s enough, love. Please.” Azibo covers me with my scarf. Unlike the poor girl, my threadbare shift reaches my knees. Azibo’s in a skirt and a vest. My shift used to be his, before I altered and designed it to make it look more feminine. After all, those are my only talents. With my basket full of threads and needles, spindle and distaff, every day I look for work. Like my scribe husband does, weighed down by his satchel of clay tablets and reed pens. 

“I’m fine.” Though my trembling voice gives away. If I wasn’t born as the Prime Princess, if I was born as impoverished as that poor girl, I’m sure my father would sell me off. Even though he was the one who dubbed me with the title. 


“Prime Princess,” my father, the king of the Meridian Island used to address me. In our state, the largest among the five states of the Pantheon, the heir apparent are called Prime Prince. I used to be the only Prime Princess in history. 


CRITIQUE (My words in red font):

When I was born, my mother wished me dead. An ‘apaya’, she called me, according to the midwife. Meaning “born ill-fated” in our ancestors’ ancient language, it’s one of the most offensive curses for an unfortunate person. A proverb goes, “Wherever an apaya turns, a house burns.”

Excellent personal turmoil, right up front. For maximum impact, personally I’d make that first sentence its own paragraph. But that’s a stylistic choice and totally subjective.


So whenever I hear the word, I feel like it’s directed at me. 

But didn’t he/she just say that word is directed at them in their family? This line confused me. Reading on, I think you should cut it because you want the reader to have the same instinct your protag is having—that the statement is directed at them.



“Get up, you apaya!” The moment I hear it, I stop on my tracks, holding Azibo’s hand. Frowning, he looks over his shoulder. 

I think you mean, “I stop in my tracks.”


“Get up! You’re nothing but an apaya.” 

I want to hide from whoever it is, but Azibo holds me. 

“It’s not you, love,” he whispers. A kiss he places on my head while pulling me away. I dare to turn my head and find a girl of ten winters being lugged out of a hut. Her shift is too short, too tattered, too somber a view on this grey dawn. Her dark locks are tangled, bunched up in a man’s hands, the one dragging her. Teeth gritted, he lifts her scrawny body and hands her to two darkly clad men. 

Great imagery.


My father’s men. 

My father, the king. 

On a mule few steps away from them is a sack. The man leers at it. When the girl’s been tied with bronze shackles and thrown over the mule, the man almost lunges for the sack. A few tears on it reveal its content; flax seed. From the look of it, it won’t last a fortnight, even for one person. 

The girl struggles. The clinging fetters cut her skin, drawing out blood. 

“Drawing out blood” is overly complicated. Your brain has to process it. Change to “deep enough to draw blood” or “until she bleeds.”


“Father…” she whimpers. Her greedy father doesn’t pay her any attention. He’s busy with the sack. 

This has been going on the Island ever since my father ascended the throne. Parents selling off their children, husbands using wives as harlots, all for a mouthful of food. Once cannibalism occurred in a family in the slum. Back then I wasn’t a resident of this place. 

“That’s enough, love. Please.” Azibo covers me with my scarf. Unlike the poor girl, my threadbare shift reaches my knees. Azibo’s in a skirt and a vest. My shift used to be his, before I altered and designed it to make it look more feminine. After all, those are my only talents. With my basket full of threads and needles, spindle and distaff, every day I look for work. Like my scribe husband does, weighed down by his satchel of clay tablets and reed pens. 

Until this moment, I thought she was a child herself. You could rectify that by referring to Azibo the first time as her husband, or something along those lines. Because you start at birth, without any other indicators, the brain automatically assumes you’re staying back there.


“I’m fine.” Though my trembling voice gives away. If I wasn’t born as the Prime Princess, if I was born as impoverished as that poor girl, I’m sure my father would sell me off. Even though he was the one who dubbed me with the title. 

“Prime Princess,” my father, the king of the Meridian Island used to address me. In our state, the largest among the five states of the Pantheon, the heir apparent are called Prime Prince. I used to be the only Prime Princess in history. 

This last paragraph has important information, but it’s presented in such a dry manner, it doesn’t serve your story like it should. See if you can find a way to give this information as part of the progression of the plot/story, rather than just a historical statement of facts. Maybe her husband refers to her as Prime Princess. She can shove the compliment aside. He points out she’s the only one. She can say, “not anymore”, then fill the reader in on what it all means. Or, even better if there’s a way to use this title, and the history behind it, as part of the plot and don’t even have to explain it because it’s shown. But that isn’t always possible with backstory. So try to find a way to ground it in the action and characters, rather than just telling it as information.


SUMMARY:

My overall sense is that you have a well-developed world, with a character in an interesting and painful position. Both critical elements to a good story.

You also have the ability to paint pictures, and keep the reader seeing what the protagonist is seeing without using lots of extra words. That’s crucial to a good book.

Unfortunately, there’s something about the voice that isn’t connecting on an emotional level. You need to ground these experiences in sensory detail. You’ve given us all the sight we need—and in a very good way. Now add the protagonist’s sensory experience to create a real sense of emotion: When she’s frightened, her heart races, or she hears her pulse in her ears. When she’s angry, her face heats. When she’s grateful, she’s warmed by her husband’s kiss, that kind of thing. Put us in her skin, and make sure her skin is reacting to what’s happening and the emotions it sparks.

If you aren’t sure how to paint body language and physical sensation that reflects emotion, check out The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It’s a great resource for this specific issue.

But don’t be disheartened by that note. Your writing is strong, and if you add this emotional element, you’ll find it really connecting for people. Which is what makes a good book great.

Good luck!