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!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Critique 13 - Query - YA High Fantasy

If you'd like to read the first 500 words of the manuscript (and its critique) that this query represents, go here.

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 will happen to them 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 __:

I noticed on __ that you are interested in a witch manuscript. Therefore, I would like to present [TITLE], which is a YA Paranormal Romance complete at 83,000 words with series potential.

Good opening. If you’re targeting agents based on their MSWL and the like, you’ll have a much better chance of success. 


[TITLE] was handpicked from a slush pile of over 1,200 entrants and mentored by two authors, one of which is New York Times bestselling author Brenda Drake, through a twitter contest called #PitchMadness.

I go back and forth on whether this is the right placement for this. So I’ll just tell you what works about it and what doesn’t, and let you choose:

WORKS BECAUSE:
      - It adds some credibility to the query, as in “other professionals have taken an interest, and you know this manuscript has been critiqued/revised.”

DOESN’T WORK BECAUSE:
      - It begs the question “If they liked it, why didn’t it get picked up?”

      - Most (not all) agents who give guidelines for how to write a query, state that all commendations, awards, or writing achievements should be at the end, after the blurb. This falls within that category of information.

      - Most queries are written on the “No more than one paragraph before the blurb” , because, in the end, the agent wants to know if the subject of the book appeals to them. So, apart from why you chose to contact them, they don’t want to read details about you/your writing until after they know that.

Having written all this out, my recommendation would be: Put this at the end. Mainly because, it doesn’t matter what awards or interest the ms has had. The agent will request based on whether they like/don’t like the blurb and/or writing. Really, this paragraph is something that will affirm any their natural affinity for your work, but won’t sway any who don’t find it appealing. It won’t create interest, if that makes sense.


Raven Teresi is addicted to the anesthetic only magic can provide. When her power pricks beneath her skin, it’s nearly impossible—almost painful—to repress.

The good news: I recognized your first chapter based on this blurb opening, so that’s a good start.

The bad news: The concept of Magic as an “anesthetic” confused me/I had to re-read and think it through. I’d drop the anesthetic bit because it complicates unnecessarily. Just state that she’s addicted to magic, and use the second sentence to indicate why.

Despite her aunt’s constant warnings about the dangers of magic and how it destroyed her grandmother’s life, Raven uses recklessly and excessively. After her fourth overdose, she wakes to find herself in Runicerie, a rehabilitation center for the magically addicted.

Great conflict. 


Determined to make her stay at Runicerie as brief as possible, Raven attends MAA(Magic Addiction Acceptance) group, participates in garden detail, and follows all the other rehab rules. But, when two bewitching love interests equally try to win her affection—Haydn with his ability to know her thoughts and desires—Derek with his incredibly, seductive capability to share his magic with her—she is forced to choose between the two of them, and ultimately between finally allowing herself to love again and freedom from Runicerie.

Cut the word "equally"- it's implied, and breaks your flow. 

This had me right up until the final conflict—where it feels like the resolution will be…to choose a guy to love? While that’s a real driver for readers like me who adore romance as a main plot line, it didn’t deliver as the end of your blurb. I guess I didn’t feel like there was enough at stake?

I don’t know if the addictive quality of magic and the second guy’s “seductive sharing” will factor in your story this way, but I would have posed that whole final decision as more along the lines of what the two guys represent. It sounds like she has the chance to give in to the addiction, and the love of a guy that would feed it, or a guy who shows her the best of herself (and loves the worst of her), when she might have to battle with her addiction for the rest of her life.

If that’s actually how it comes together, use that. While the personal growth of a character is immensely satisfying as we follow them through it in a book. It doesn’t land as the WHAT WILL HAPPEN? conflict of a query.

Create a choice, and tell the reader what the stakes are if she makes the wrong decision: “Haydn offers X, Derek offers Y. But Raven will have THIS CONSEQUENCE if she makes the wrong decision.


Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
Sincerely,

NAME

ALL CONTACT DETAILS

Monday, May 22, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Critique 12 - 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:


My blood raged.
My heart threatened to burst.
Every ragged breath clawed its way down my throat.
But the horrible roar of chasing wings thundered behind me, and so I ran on.
The twilight sky above was tinged with blood red streaks as the sun descended over the spectral wilderness. A vast and devastating darkness hovered over the forest here. It was black, limitless. Terrible. The kind of infinite peril that prowled and watched, waiting to sink its teeth into me and devour my flesh as my very heart still beat.
Snarled tree branches resisted my magic, then unfurled and moved with reluctance at my command, parting the way as my racing footsteps fell silent as shadows on the forest floor. I called down a hazy, smothering fog. That should help conceal me from whatever winged monster had scented me out.
I shouldn’t be here. This forest was dark, dangerous. Haunted. But it was the only path from the kingdom of Nezaria to the North Sea. And I had to get there.
My life depended on it.
I’d never given much thought to leaving my father’s kingdom. My kingdom. It was a far-away impossibility. Less than a dream. My life in Nezaria had been fated long before I was even born. And the few times that I had given such delusions space in my mind…well, in those fantasies my departure certainly had not been under circumstances like these.
I had never once in all of my near twenty years considered that I would become the kingdom’s most wanted fugitive. And yet here I was. About to die not at the hands of my father’s royal guards, but in the roaring clutches of some rogue beast who’d stumbled upon my trail in the darkness of this primordial forest.
No one would ever find my body. I would not be remembered; oh no. There would be no fond memories of me, the daughter who betrayed her kingdom. No songs of my life would be sung in the temple chambers.
My father and his advisors would be all too eager to have the kingdom forget me – a garish blemish on the pristine annals of the royal Aphaterrin family history. Word had likely spread throughout the entire kingdom by now; I was twenty-three days gone. Everyone in the capitol would have seen the King’s guards scouring the city streets for the runaway princess, the lost heir of Nezaria.
The scent of violet blossoms and wild mushrooms strangled the air, and sinister whispers from everywhere and nowhere tormented my ears as I ran. The very earth underfoot railed against the power coursing through my veins – a grotesque and silent rebellion. These cursed woods would see me dead; fantastic monsters of nightmares and dangerous inhabitants better left undiscovered both prowled this desolate woodland.
No, this land wanted nothing less than to obey my magic, to render me as weak as I’d been in those last terrible moments in my father’s castle. When no one had a shred of compassion to offer me; when I’d been defenseless against the High Priestess’ curse.


CRITIQUE (My words in red font):


My blood raged.
My heart threatened to burst.
Every ragged breath clawed its way down my throat.
But the horrible roar of chasing wings thundered behind me, and so I ran on.

Good opening, but because we don’t have an image to frame the stimulus until line four, it loses some of it’s impact. I’d lead with “The horrible roar of chasing wings…” line, then let the other three—which are responses to that, follow.


The twilight sky above was tinged with blood red streaks as the sun descended over the spectral wilderness. A vast and devastating darkness hovered over the forest here. It was black, limitless. Terrible. The kind of infinite peril that prowled and watched, waiting to sink its teeth into me and devour my flesh as my very heart still beat.

Your prose is good, but you’re over-writing in an attempt to create drama. The problem is, we aren’t getting enough sensory details (sight, sound, smell, touch) to make the larger images feel real. Later in a story this might work, when the reader’s deep in the movie in their mind. But right now you’re trying to ground them in this reality, not sweep their emotions away on your tantalizing prose. Pare this back to actual sensations—the bark on the tree, the clap of wings, the air rushing past the character’s face, that kind of thing, then pull out to show us the bigger landscape.


Snarled tree branches resisted my magic, then unfurled and moved with reluctance at my command, parting the way as my racing footsteps fell silent as shadows on the forest floor. I called down a hazy, smothering fog. That should help conceal me from whatever winged monster had scented me out.

Great action. Just pull it back a hair to the senses. And, honestly, “dragon” (if that’s what it is) is way more evocative than “winged monster”. Single word, specific nouns will always have more impact than adjectives/modifiers on generic nouns when you’re establishing your reality.



I shouldn’t be here.

That’s a given, what with the danger. Either cut it, or change to a character or story specific reason why they shouldn’t be there. “Jonas told me if I tried to steal the egg, the dragon females would hunt me . . .” (except, better than that. I’m just letting you see what I mean).


This forest was dark, dangerous. Haunted. But it was the only path from the kingdom of Nezaria to the North Sea. And I had to get there.
My life depended on it.

Ah. That’s what we needed. You could cut the “I shouldn’t be here” line and replace this paragraph with something more active to the plot. Show him/her cursing the dragons for standing between them and whatever reason it is they need to get to the North Sea, or whatever. Weave that motive into the action, rather than pausing the action to state the motive—does that make sense?


I’d never given much thought to leaving my father’s kingdom. My kingdom. It was a far-away impossibility. Less than a dream. My life in Nezaria had been fated long before I was even born. And the few times that I had given such delusions space in my mind…well, in those fantasies my departure certainly had not been under circumstances like these.

You started with a bang, now we’re slowing the pace and not actually learning much of great importance. I’d cut this. Keep the action moving and, until the action slows or shifts, only give internal narration specific to the readers need to understand. I.e. we do need to understand why this character has to be here, in this specific spot. We don’t need to understand that they’d never thought about leaving before—that can come later as we get to know them and understand what they’re dealing with more urgently.



I had never once in all of my near twenty years considered that I would become the kingdom’s most wanted fugitive. And yet here I was. About to die not at the hands of my father’s royal guards, but in the roaring clutches of some rogue beast who’d stumbled upon my trail in the darkness of this primordial forest.

Again, rather than telling us he/she never expected to be a fugitive, have them observe the irony of being a fugitive, yet potentially dying at the business ends of those talons, or whatever suits their personality. This moment is about moving the action forward, and us getting to know the character—not musings on their life. Right now, they’re facing death—that creates urgency. So match that urgency with your storytelling.


No one would ever find my body. I would not be remembered; oh no. There would be no fond memories of me, the daughter who betrayed her kingdom. No songs of my life would be sung in the temple chambers.

A good, organic way to tell us we’re listening to a her. But cut the second sentence and “of my life” in the last one—get us to the intent with as few words as possible, so as to keep the action moving.



My father and his advisors would be all too eager to have the kingdom forget me – a garish blemish on the pristine annals of the royal Aphaterrin family history. Word had likely spread throughout the entire kingdom by now; I was twenty-three days gone. Everyone in the capitol would have seen the King’s guards scouring the city streets for the runaway princess, the lost heir of Nezaria.


All of this is backstory, and it’s the wrong place for it. This is all important information, but we need action and character first. Get the reader in engaged, then explain to them in bits and pieces—only as they’re relevant to the current action—how the character got to this point. Otherwise we don’t have a reason to care about all of this.


The scent of violet blossoms and wild mushrooms strangled the air,

This is a pastoral image. Given that she’s being chased by a dragon, you want to go be going for sensory details that increase the stakes and sense of doom—the sulphuric stench of its hot breath, maybe the skritch of talons on a boulder as it tries to grab her, than kind of thing. Maybe she sees the heads of the blossoms cut through by her pounding feet as she runs through them if you want to give the sense of the landscape, but increase the tension instead of descreasing it.


and sinister whispers from everywhere and nowhere tormented my ears as I ran.

This kind of line sounds great, but doesn’t actually tell the reader anything. Keep them grounded in reality. Leave the lyricism for emotional passages later.



The very earth underfoot railed against the power coursing through my veins – a grotesque and silent rebellion. These cursed woods would see me dead; fantastic monsters of nightmares and dangerous inhabitants better left undiscovered both prowled this desolate woodland.

Again, you’re using great words, but there’s no new information here. We know she’s in danger. Show us what’s happening.



No, this land wanted nothing less than to obey my magic, to render me as weak as I’d been in those last terrible moments in my father’s castle. When no one had a shred of compassion to offer me; when I’d been defenseless against the High Priestess’ curse.

So, the fact that her magic doesn’t want to work out here is an important detail. But instead of just telling us (this is the second time), show us—show her trying to make something happen, and it fizzling. Or show her weaving a spell to create a flash that bursts in her own face instead of the dragons—describe the action and use the action to show the reader what’s happening, instead of using pretty words to tell the reader something they’d rather watch, than learn.



SUMMARY:

So, your opening is well written from a grammar/word-usage point of view, which tells me you have talent. You don’t use a lot of extra words to get your point across, which is great. You know what words dredge up emotion, and you know how to put them together.
Unfortunately, that skill’s getting lost in focusing on the wrong details and information.
In the first chapter—especially in the first 500 words—you want a paragraph of backstory at the most. (None works. A sentence or two is enough). Because your job at this early stage is twofold:
1.      Make the world feel real so the reader falls into it.
2.      Make the reader care about the character by putting them in a situation that makes the reader feel anything that will resonate—anger, fear, hurt, excitement . . .
Whatever it is (here it would be fear) carry the character through that scene, building up the reader’s tension, and only offering backstory where it’s required to understand the action.
Do give the character an intent (getting to the North Sea).
Don’t drop the character deep into internal narration, except in response to action—and even then, only in small pieces.
Always keep the action rolling.
As a mentor, if I received this in Pitch Wars and the moments of this chapter that were forward-moving were all the content, I would probably ask for a few more chapters to see if it engaged me. As currently written, I wouldn't request.
That said, it’s obvious to me, because I’ve read further, that you are a solid writer and you have a well-imagined world. All you need help with is understanding what information is important, and which details ground your reader--what words are unnecessary. The actual pen-to-paper skill is fine.
Don’t be discouraged! Structure and word-cutting can be learned. How to put words together for maximum effect can’t. You’re going to go far.
Good luck!
  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pitch Wars Early Bird Mentor Critique 11 - First 500 - YA Contemporary 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:

It doesn’t take a genius to know Freyja isn’t coming.
I peer through the clouded windshield and scoot lower in the freezing captain’s chair. I’ve been waiting half an hour in this cockpit, the icy shell of a wrecked passenger plane that acts as our meeting spot in the center of town. My stomach’s heavy and seasick, the way you’d feel if you ate a whole jar of pickled herring in one sitting. It set in the minute I got the rejection letter this morning. It’s only getting worse as the day drags on.
I told Freyja this was important.
I let out a slow breath and watch it fog and swirl in the still air of the cockpit. On the horizon, the just-risen sun catches on the low, jagged hills that hide the nearby fjord. It spits sunbeams. The earth and sky are gears struggling against each other for purchase.
It’s winter in Iceland, and even deeper winter in Eldeyja. My home sits a hundred kilometers off the main island’s north coast, well within the Arctic Circle. We’re a flame-shaped speck on the tempestuous open sea, and this time of year, we hardly ever see daylight.
It’s the sort of weather that makes the dragons ill-tempered.
I check my phone again. It’s nearly noon. Where is she?
I know what she’s usually doing this time of day. She might be up a fjord tending dragon pups, or in the lava fields coaxing rock dragons from their burrows so she can dress their bite wounds. It’s what she was born to do. She’s the only person on the island who can, and I see how much she loves it. I don’t usually mind the way it eats up most of her life
But this time, I let the ill feeling in my stomach turn over into frustration. I text her a string of question marks, then tug my coat over my nose—it’s already zipped as high as it can go—and swing out of the cockpit, down through the hollow fuselage.
Between the windows, historical plaques cling to the rusty walls. The plane wrecked on the island fifty years ago and was relocated into the town square to be a transportation exhibit. An ironic one, I think. Eldeyja doesn’t have planes at all.
I drag a gloved hand across the first panel on my way out. It shows a photo of this plane from forty years ago, when it crashed here. Even in water-stained black and white, it’s a fright. Flames pouring from the windows, tail snapped off by the sheer force of a whale-sized crater dragon’s fearsome claws.
Our scaly friends don’t like to share their skies.
I step through the ragged gap into the choppy wind and clump down the metal stairs, clinging to the handrail to avoid the ice slicked on the grated steps. The little park sits near the center of town, but today it lies deserted, halfway buried in drifts and plowed mountains of wet snow. Freyja’s still nowhere to be found.


CRITIQUE (My notes in red font):

It doesn’t take a genius to know Freyja isn’t coming.
I peer through the clouded windshield and scoot lower in the freezing captain’s chair. I’ve been waiting half an hour in this cockpit, the icy shell of a wrecked passenger plane that acts as our meeting spot in the center of town.

You’ve got the right elements here to kick off a story, but you need to back off on the modifiers/descriptors. Choose one of “clouded”, “Freezing”, “icy”, and “wrecked”. It’s slowing your pace and creating too much to process in such a short time. Use showing, rather than telling. (I.e. If you want to show that it’s cold outside, give condensation on the windows, or her breath clouding while she waits).  


My stomach’s heavy and seasick, the way you’d feel if you ate a whole jar of pickled herring in one sitting. It set in the minute I got the rejection letter this morning. It’s only getting worse as the day drags on.

What kind of rejection letter? I know it feels like you’re building mystery, but instead it creates a question that can’t be answered, so an image can’t be assigned to it. That mental loop takes a split second that pulls the reader out of the read and creates the beginning of frustration. Simple fix, say “USC rejection letter” or “the honors program rejection letter”—whatever it is, give the reader the image and add that important detail to the world you’re building (it will subconsciously tell them both about the current conflict, and the character herself)


I told Freyja this was important.
I let out a slow breath and watch it fog and swirl in the still air of the cockpit.

Ah, there your showing is. Move this up to the front so it’s creating a picture before we move into information.


On the horizon, the just-risen sun catches on the low, jagged hills that hide the nearby fjord.

Lots of modifiers again “just-risen”, “low, jagged”, “nearby”…all these extra words actually hurt you this early in the read, when the reader is still aware of reading words, rather than falling into a moving image. Cut all but one at the most (in theory, there should only be one in the first 250-500 words. Use images to show, instead).


It spits sunbeams. The earth and sky are gears struggling against each other for purchase.
It’s winter in Iceland, and even deeper winter in Eldeyja.

 Because I stink at geography, I don’t know if this is a real place or not. If this is real world, make sure and give other details to confirm it, because your setting, while realistic, is unique, and a strange name like that made me question.
Secondarily, my advice would be to move this right up to the top—show us where she is, then how she feels, and what she’s doing. Give the setting parameters first so this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Then the reader will fall into it faster because things feel tangible.


My home sits a hundred kilometers off the main island’s north coast, well within the Arctic Circle. We’re a flame-shaped speck on the tempestuous open sea, and this time of year, we hardly ever see daylight.
It’s the sort of weather that makes the dragons ill-tempered.

More modifiers. But I’ll stop hammering at that.
Aha! Fantasy. So go ahead and leave the question there, but still move those setting details to the beginning, then shift to this after the observation that Frejya isn’t coming, etc.


I check my phone again. It’s nearly noon. Where is she?
I know what she’s usually doing this time of day. She might be up a fjord tending dragon pups, or in the lava fields coaxing rock dragons from their burrows so she can dress their bite wounds. It’s what she was born to do. She’s the only person on the island who can, and I see how much she loves it. I don’t usually mind the way it eats up most of her life
But this time, I let the ill feeling in my stomach turn over into frustration. I text her a string of question marks, then tug my coat over my nose—it’s already zipped as high as it can go—and swing out of the cockpit, down through the hollow fuselage.

Nice. You’re losing the constant descriptors so the read is much smoother.


Between the windows, historical plaques cling to the rusty walls. The plane wrecked on the island fifty years ago and was relocated into the town square to be a transportation exhibit. An ironic one, I think. Eldeyja doesn’t have planes at all.

Excellent world-building.

I drag a gloved hand across the first panel on my way out. It shows a photo of this plane from forty years ago, when it crashed here. Even in water-stained black and white, it’s a fright. Flames pouring from the windows, tail snapped off by the sheer force of a whale-sized crater dragon’s fearsome claws.

I had to re-read that last sentence four times, and I’m still not 100% what it was saying. The name of the animal is a crater dragon? If that’s not right, you need to clarify. If that is correct, and the species is important to the early world-building, keep whale-sized or fearsome, drop the crater, and use a second sentence. That way it’s very clear and concise, the reader won’t be forced to re-read (which breaks the flow) and you get all your details in. Something along these lines:
“…tail snapped off by the sheer force of a whale-sized dragon’s claws. A crater dragon, they say.”



Our scaly friends don’t like to share their skies.

Nice line. Good world-building.



I step through the ragged gap into the choppy wind and clump down the metal stairs, clinging to the handrail to avoid the ice slicked on the grated steps. The little park sits near the center of town, but today it lies deserted, halfway buried in drifts and plowed mountains of wet snow. Freyja’s still nowhere to be found.


Lots and lots of modifiers, and they change the rhythm of your read. They aren’t needed for you to make this feel real. Instead, give sensory details—smell, sound, sensation. Don’t talk about the choppy wind, have her pick hair of out her mouth that’s blown across it. Or her palm prickles, chilled by the metal handrail, that kind of thing. It’s much more tangible and draws the reader deeper, instead of having this constant see-saw of words that just describe a picture. 



SUMMARY:

You’ve got a great setting (and yay for a cold climate in a dragon book!), intriguing element in the dragons themselves, and your writing clearly shows that you know how to weave a scene. Well done.
All you have to do it look for these moments of “adjective-noun, the adjective-adjective noun” and replace them with sensory detail. You’re doing well with the sight, so add smells, sensations of air, cold, or metal on skin, sounds of feet clunking on metal stairs, that kind of thing. If you do that, this opening will rock. (I mean that).
Because I’ve read ahead, I also know that you nail your chapter out. That kind of cliff-hanger detail is exactly what this despondent character needs so the reader feels excitement, rather than depression (if you know what I mean).
All in all, while I got nit-picky about word choices, it’s overall a great opening chapter. I think with some finessing you’ll definitely get requests in Pitch Wars (if I received this one, I’d request at least a partial to see if I liked where the story was going).

Good luck!