Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Today's excerpt for critique is a first page from Tyrean Martinson's YA fantasy novel entitled The Crystal Sword.  Please add your helpful feedback below!


The antechamber to the Sword Council’s meeting room held a pleasant temperature during all seasons, but Clara’s palms were beginning to sweat with anticipation and nervousness. She swallowed, sighed, and wiped her damp hands on the sides of her hips, under the longer shirt that covered them. Thankfully, no one else could see her in the otherwise empty small room. Three couches lined the outer walls, and a small unoccupied desk stood near the door to the Masters’ Chamber. A thin braided brown rug covered a small portion of the stones in the center of the room. Tapestries with the history of the Hall of the Sword hung from three of the walls and on by the Chamber, a smaller tapestry held the triple crest of the Triune Halls: the Staff, the Sword, and the Scroll. Clara had seen them all before, and she couldn’t seem to sit on the couches. Sitting just made her want to squirm with impatience, so she stood formally at ease with her feet shoulder width apart and her hands on her hips. The meeting of the Sword Council was taking far too long.
Finally, the door opened to reveal Master Dantor, her hardest teacher and personal mentor. After six years she didn’t know why he had chosen her as one of his personal apprentices. Each Master Teacher had twelve students they mentored from the beginning of their training through their Mastery Training. Master Dantor had midnight black hair with bits of white at the temples, olive weathered skin, and dark brown eyes.

1. First impressions. This has a decent though not overly powerful first line, but the verb phrase "were beginning to sweat" is quite passive, especially in a first line. Saying "sweated" would be more direct. It may not even be necessary to say she was sweating, since in the very next line she's wiping sweaty palms on her skirt.
2. The title. There's already a book by Adrienne Martine-Barnes entitled THE CRYSTAL SWORD. But it was written in the 1980's and it's not unheard of to have two books by the same title. The best time for a title search is before you settle on one.
3. Room description. While it's nice to get a sense of the setting with the desk, rug, and tapestries, those details stopped the forward movement of the scene. If Clara's nervous, she probably would NOT be noticing these things in such detail--particularly if she "had seen them all before." The crest gives a little plot info, but on the whole, this paragraph probably isn't the best place for listing room décor. It's best to work these details in more naturally or at least tighten by cutting non-important adjectives like small, unoccupied, thin, brown, etc.
4. Character description. The action stops further as Master Dantor opens the door. Spreading out his description would help the flow; his hair or skin could be mentioned more organically as he's moving across the room or engaging in dialogue with Clara.
 5. Wording and Other Picky Things.
--Unnecessary words/telling. Sitting just made her want to squirm with impatience. The last 2 words aren't necessary; squirming informs the reader nicely enough. Ditto for sweating with anticipation and nervousness.
--"Telling" background. Can it be worked in more naturally that she's been working with Master Dantor for six years, perhaps during the upcoming dialogue? Or maybe just rephrasing might help it sound less obviously informational.
--Clarity and consistency of mood. I stumbled a bit on "feet shoulder": …stood formally at ease with her feet shoulder width apart. Is the "shoulder width" part really necessary? Also, I'm not sure having her hands on her hips comes across as formal or nervous--it's usually a more challenging, confident posture.
--Paragraphs and white space.  My initial thought before even reading was that the first paragraph looked blocky and thus less inviting. White space is your friend. Use it in your openings to add an inviting appearance; it's rather like the feng shui of visual space. No more than you'd want a wall or massive piece of furniture right next to your front door, you don't want to block your readers in any way to welcome them into your written world.
--Small is repeated 3 times. Small room, small desk, and a small portion of stones.

What can you add to this critique: first impressions, overall impressions, or specifics?
Do you think having one's hands on hips is a relaxed, nervous, or formal stance--or does it seem more defiant, confident, or bold to you?

Want a critique of the first 250 words of YOUR middle grade or young adult novel? Send it to me at artzicarol [at] gmail [dot] com, pasted into an email rather than an attachment, please. Include your final sentence even if it puts you a little over 250 words. 


  1. Thanks Carol! I hadn't really thought about hands on hips as being aggressive, but I think that you're spot on there . . .oops for me.

    My first draft was so sparse I got carried away on adding description and I see that more clearly now.
    Thanks for your awesome critique! And I would appreciate anymore that anyone has to give.

  2. I would agree. A little less on description, those details can come later. I'm more interested in why she's nervous.

  3. I like your analysis. I sort of feel like I was being told everything, instead of just letting the story unfold. Does that make sense?

  4. Wonderful critique, Carol. I often have to trim and move details about in my own writing, so this rang true for me.

  5. Great critique, Carol! I like how you said white space is your friend. A blocky paragraph is like huge piece of furniture by the front door!

  6. I'd agree with your critique. As for hands on hips, I usually come across it in writing as indicative of confrontation, though I suppose if the character's personality was a certain way it could work as a nervous/relaxed position for them.

  7. I'd like to see Clara doing something more active. She could be so tense or nervous from waiting that she's unraveling the fringe on her tunic - or braiding a ring out of the unraveled thread for someone important to her... something that characterizes her for the reader.

  8. Another great critique, Carol!
    I had never heard of white spaces being your friend, so this is something I can take back with me to my own writing!
    However, the excerpt still leaves me wanting more, which is good. Great job to Tyrean Martinson!

  9. Elana - Thanks to Carol's critique and many of the comments here, I've changed the first scene to be more "show" and less tell. Thanks!

    Cynthia - glad to know I'm not the only one. Thanks for reading my slush.

    Maria - I like how you stated that. I certainly want to let the reader in and not block the door with description.

    Golden Eagle and Carol - I think originally this scene included more confrontation, and in my self-edited changes I left hands on hips and didn't do any lead up for that. Thanks for the "emotional behavior" critique on my character's actions!

    Margo - Thanks for the specific feedback and tips!

    Mrs. Jones - Thank you!!!

    Carol - The awesome part of your critique and all these helpful comments is that I dug into this scene today and made some healthy, good changes. The funny part about my title is that I've been wanting to change it for some time, and this afternoon a new one finally hit me . . .I think it's thanks to this great feedback. The new title is - Champion in the Darkness

  10. Great critique--as usual. The piece certainly has me intrigued. The only things I'd add is to remove those little redundancies like, "were beginning to" (which Carol mentioned), "the sides of", and "seemed to".

  11. Carol, great critique and feedback. I agree. I'd say the first paragraph is a little 'wordy' and the repetition could be deleted. Also, I think ( and I've had this advice myself) - first sentences need to grab an agents and the readers attention. For me the most memorable sentence of this excerpt is the last one. I'd shift some of this sentences around.

    Good luck Tyrean, thanks for sharing and keep writing!

  12. A great start, Tyrean! I agree with Carol, be cautious of adding too much description about the room, and sprinkle backstory in very lightly. Also, since we only have the first page I couldn't tell, but does this opening scene have anything to do with the inciting incident of the book that gets your plot rolling? If not, you may want to consider starting closer to whatever that true launching point is.

    Good luck!

  13. Bravo, Tyrean! In regards to the question of "hands on hips," I vote for confident. Nice critique and feedback, Carol.

  14. Hi Carol, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris

  15. Very thorough critique Carol!

    Tyrean: Following on from other comments - if your protagonist is about to meet with her mentor, why not cut right to that - and sprinkle in the descriptive details about her mood and the setting during the dialogue between the two of them? The beats between bits of dialogue are the bane of my writerly existence - but they are very useful places for slipping in this sort of thing.

    I suppose that means I'm also advocating the "show, don't tell" approach Elana mentioned.

    And Carol, thanks for dropping by my blog to share my exciting news. :-)

  16. Excellent feedback, Carol. I have to agree with all of it. The first line should be more powerful, indeed.
    Sounds like an enchanting story with the right tweaking, Tyrean. Good luck!

  17. Great comments, Carol!
    I think switching the first two sentences might help, so that Clara's actions come first, and the descriptions come after.

  18. I thought it was a bit bogged down with description. The details about the room could be condensed; no need to go into too much about the tapestries. Further along in the story there are ways to add to the setting. Also, I felt that it would have started better with the first sentence being about Clara's nerves.

    You gave great feedback, Carol.

  19. Yes! great crit. The word 'but' in the first sentence slowed the pace for me. Opening sentences are hard to get right.

  20. Late to the party, but the notes I took as I read were pretty much the same as Carol's, especially re: #3 and #4. The action stops dead when you describe the room and again when you explain how many students each teacher has and describe the master. Like Clara, I want to know what he has to say, so tell us!

    (Sidenote: Tyrean Martinson is a fantastic name for a fantasy author.)

  21. Fantastic crit, as always. I agree that the details could be pared down a bit to help it flow faster.

  22. You know, I really like this critique idea. I may have to use it myself sometime. I think your thoughts hit it right on the head.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  23. What a great crit!! I always think hands on hips "seems more defiant, confident, and bold" to me. Carol, you rock.


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