Sunday 7 January 2018

#3 Chapter 1 critique

To understand what we're doing here check out Chapter Critique Corner.

To reiterate a key point - this process depends on audience participation. I'm just hosting, not taking part in the critique.

This one is a prologue but I myself judge those by all the same metrics as a chapter 1. If you expect someone to read it and keep reading then it has to entertain and hook.  

You can offer your thoughts in the comments - these are moderated and I will pass "tough love" but not anything that I feel crosses the line into meanness or mockery. So, rather than waste your efforts, do bear in mind that the object of the exercise here is to help. That said, robust critiques are encouraged and I guess we will just have to find our level as we go.

You can also email critiques to me and I will see if they can be transferred to the blog post in a way that preserves their editing markups.


The South of the Dreur Woods crawled with men drunk on bloodlust. Thousands of feet scuffled, jumped, and pushed in the muddied snow. Spell-bound and screaming, lusty and raucous, the humans entranced by the Shadow Woman danced and reached. The throng pressed, arms and limbs swinging, eyes too wide, mouths open with screams of worship and pleas of desire.

Between stark trees the unclean swarmed and massed, filling the North of the woods. Pale limbs and staggering bodies bumped shoulders, lips silent as death. Dead and rotting, staunch with post-mortem rigour, stiff and animated in jerked spouts of movement, they stammered and waited for the commands of the only voice they would ever heed again.

Blood poured in rivers from an altar of solid grey stone at the heart of the Dreur Woods. The snow was stained red with the blood of countless people. There was blood on the trees where dead hands smeared against them. There was blood on the feet of the enchanted men and women who trampled the weak in their earnest straining toward the Shadow Woman.

At the head of the altar she stood, glorious hair whipping in winter winds, garbed in a tattered black dress. The crowd cried out to her hungrily. At her feet knelt a pale man with hair the colour of sand, begging and stammering, fists clutched before him as if in prayer. She sneered at him and her hair danced in the wind.
A young girl squirmed in the Shadow Woman’s grasp, her hair also the colour of sand. With her one fist in the girl’s sandy hair, the Shadow Woman lifted the girl’s head and exposed her gullet to the roaring crowd. She slit through the girl’s throat, and the girl’s body convulsed and collapsed. Her blood joined the river, and her soulless eyes opened. Taking her dead sister’s hand, she walked into the mass of black eyed corpses.

The throng of lifeless bodies welcomed her, swallowed her, and the crowd of star struck onlookers roared its approval. Men and women vied to be next, argued, stretched desperate hands to the Shadow Woman’s feet. The Shadow Woman’s laughter rang through the murky woods, and she grabbed the sandy-haired man by the nape of his burnous.

‘Did you think this was the end, Rishtai?’ she whispered into his pained face.

The pale man’s muscles bunched and strained against her grip, but in his eyes there was love and loss, there was the ache of betrayal and the hopelessness that comes when a child dies. His tears had long dried up, but sobs wrenched his struggling body.

‘Please,’ he begged.

The Shadow Woman’s dark eyes swirled. Pleasure tipped up the corners of her perfect mouth, and she kissed him long and deep. Black inked over his blue eyes and his pleas turned into awe-filled cries of worship.

Blood smeared, he grabbed the dagger from the Shadow Woman’s hands. At random he grasped the outstretched hand of a desperate man and pulled him onto the altar. The man threw his fist triumphantly into the air and screamed, but his scream bubbled to a stop when the sandy haired man slit his throat, to the crowd’s raging approval. He smiled at the Shadow Woman and she laughed and laughed.

Behind the Shadow Woman three bodies lay strewn in the red snow, three who seemed lifeless at first, but if one looked closer, the truth became clear. Nobody looked closer. Not now, not yet.

The first was a man whose long blonde hair sprawled about his chiselled face, unmoving but for his grey eyes. With an earnest gleam to those eyes, he watched the Shadow Woman. Watched and longed.

Beside him lay a woman without colour, white as snow, black as night, the colour of rainbows or the sun or the shadows. Her closed eyes did not move, but she held the man’s hand with her legs splayed, like one who had fallen from a great height. The third man lay with his eyes pinched shut. A brown hood covered his face and he held both hands to his chest like a man in a coffin.

No breath moved their chests, no blood pinked their cheeks. In a forest filled to the brim with the dead and dying, these three stood out against the crimson snow, but not a one batted an eye or puffed a breath.

A cloud of darkness hovered over the Dreur Woods.

The Shadow Woman shouted and the cloud spread out of the Dreur Woods towards Aysgarth with finger-like tendrils that reach and searched. It overcame the farmlands slowly, methodically. Like toxic vapour with the mind of a man, it swallowed farmsteads and fields, horses and cows, carefully searching for human hearts and minds to turn.

A tendril dug into a farmer’s brain as he sat on his porch sipping at a cup of hot drink. The metal cup clattered onto the wooden porch and rolled down the steps. The man’s heavy boots clunked down after it, but he did not pick it up. Instead, he picked up speed and ran, faster than men that old could run, into the dark cloud and towards the Dreur Woods, with eyes as black as night.

The door of his home opened, and his daughter called to him, her pigtails fluttering in the wind. Her calls turned to shouts of fear. She left the door and ran the other way, through the house and out the back door with terror in her eyes, but it was no use. The black cloud swallowed her, and soon her lusting eyes turned to the Dreur Woods and her bare feet ran towards her demise.

At last there was someone who saw, who noticed the three splayed behind the Shadow Woman and the red field of blood. Above the earth called Erdil and beyond the land of dreams called Träumenil, higher than the realm of the immortals called Götteril and beyond the end of the reach of the stars, the Great Fathers stood in council. A massacre unlike any other in all of time blotched the North of Öldeim and the Fathers who had created all argued, as they almost never did, about the fate of the world. The Father of Creation insisted that Erdil be blotted out so that they might start over and create a race more malleable than the insolent humans.

The Father of Time would not hear of it. He insisted that time be kept pure and that the guilty be punished, but the innocent be given a new life. The Great Father did not speak at first. His eyes were far away on the Dreur Woods and tears wet his cheeks. Every created thing held its breath, even the trees paused in their ever-long dance and the stones ceased their whispers. The river of blood paused its flow, a man’s grey eyes closed for a second, two sisters’ hearts beat for a moment, and then the Great Father spoke.

‘Let us make a Stormchild.’


  1. First impressions;
    Lots of very detailed description, which you probably need to tighten for it to become more effective. Eg The para which begins 'blood ran in rivers' has three further references to specifically blood. We know what's making the snow red, and we ban imagine bloodied handprints on the trees - you don't need to keep repeating 'blood' to get the message across.
    Contradictions - lips were as silent as death...and yet we've been told prior to that mouths were open with screams of worship and pleas of desire. Were these people silent or were they making noise?
    The black eyes - initially, folks seem to need their throats cut before their eyes change, but later we have the black cloud able to do it. Are both correct? Is there something more the woman has done to make the cloud her tool rather than her knife? Incidentally, I think there's more you could do to ramp up the tension when the eyes change - show us the father's distress, perhaps show us the changes in the girl? She goes from slit throat to animated straightaway. Are you sure there's not something inbetween...?
    The last two paras...they feel completely different to the rest of the piece, but I can't put my finger on why. Perhaps you've worked on these to get a certain feel? In which case, I think you might have to work on the earlier section to get the consistency across the whole prologue.

    Does it draw me in? Yes - I'm left with the hook of what exactly a Stormchild is, but the writing would need to be a lot tighter for me to want to read a whole novel.

    Good luck with it.

    1. Hi Katherine, thanks for taking the time to have a read through. I happen to agree wholly with your feedback. I’ll need to work on the first part a bit more. I just don’t want to lose the story rhythm. Tricky stuff. Thanks again, you’re awesome!

    2. Phew! Although, having read Chris's comments and your replies to him...if the rest of the novel is character driven, why not just start there? I think the prologue is often used to 'explain' what's happening to the reader, when actually, the reader simply wants to get on with story. I know from my own experience that sometimes, the bits we love writing are actually an indulgence for ourselves that maybe we're better off cutting for the sake of the story... Only you can decide if you really, really need this prologue to get readers hooked into your story.

      Still wishing you lots of luck! ;)

    3. Thanks Katherine. I am trying to decide what to do with the piece actually, whether to try fixing it up or just cutting it altogether. Maybe keeping bits... hopefully I will get it published one day after finding a fix, then you can read the improved version.

  2. So, this is going to sound a bit harsh, but I think that the author here has written themselves into a bit of a corner. It's very much in the great genre of "disposable fantasy prologues". You could cut it off and I suspect that it would make no difference to the novel whatsoever. All you have here is tone; 1,100 words of well-written, effective *tone*. There's not a character that I find relatable or interesting, there's no particularly notable worldbuilding, there are no plot elements that intrigue me.

    If a book opening is a promise to the reader, all that this promises is moodyness and grit. Give me an interesting character, or a bit of witty dialogue, or a neat little twist, just to demonstrate that the writer can *deliver* something (other than mood - which they clearly do well). It's entirely possible that the author here is capable of doing *all* of those things, but in pitching the authorial voice as "mysterious and intriguing" they've depersonalised the result so much that it ends up being emotionless.

    If this were an established author who *knew* that readers would go with them on this, then maybe do it. But I found myself skimming after the first three paragraphs. I can't really pick holes in the craft of the prose, but I don't think this is a good way to open a novel.

    1. Having thought about this a bit more, I'd thoroughly recommend that the author read and compare the opening to "The Emperor's Blades", if they haven't already. Brian Staveley is doing a similar things, fundamentally, but is far more efficient, and manages to insert a much bigger hook.

    2. Hi Chris, thanks for having a read through. It so happens that this is the only impersonal “no character focus” bit of the book, but I hadn’t thought of things from your perspective before. I honestly just enjoyed writing it. When I read someone else’s book, I prefer no prologue. Isn’t that strange? Thanks again 😊

    3. That's exactly the thing. I know myself that I've written stuff that does *precisely* this, even though I'm turned off by it 95% of the time. It seems to be a strange sort of authorial instinct...

      Brandon Sanderson sometimes notes that his students' writing gets good in paragraph 2, after they've stopped trying to impress people with paragraph 1. I suspect that there's a similar phenomenon with prologues.

    4. This is partly why I shared the prologue instead of the first chapter, to see how people feel about it. Love Sanderson!

  3. First thing is that I'm having trouble distinguishing whether the people drunk on bloodlust are different from the rotting ones in the next paragraph. The later passages make it clearer, but at the offset you need to delineate between the living in the South and the undead in the North. As it stands, as Katherine pointed out too, you've got some mixed messages coming through.
    I also agree that you need to tighten up your description a lot. Don't say three times what one sentence can achieve; if the line doesn't tell us something new about the scene then it's probably not worth having.
    Second point would probably be to ramp up the tension of the child's death and the father's (?) anguish, which will then serve to more severely highlight his subsequent corruption or domination by the Shadow Woman. The death of a child, especially such a calculated murder, is a big, impactful thing. Even if the rest of the setting means it's just a drop in the pond, we're newly entering your world and, I'm presuming from the subject matter, you're looking to horrify. Build on the child's terror and the father's desperation a bit maybe.
    As Katherine already said, the last two paragraphs are different in tone and writing style. To be honest, the rest of the piece did not intrigue me. It was very flat and doesn't build up any emotion. The last two paragraphs though have a spark of something interesting. Here you're offering something of interest, something new. Fathers of creation, layers of worlds rather redolent of Norse mythology, the introduction of the titular Stormchild, and also the writing feels crafted in a way the rest doesn't. It's much more focused, the imagery neater.

    There's a few other more minor nitpicks and such I could make - when you describe the three bodies lying behind the woman, your phrasing is really awkward when telling us they're not dead - but I'm writing on a phone and it's really hard to scroll back up each time. Those things are better picked out either by careful proofreading or proper beta readers. If you haven't already, I'd suggest reading it out loud, or having someone else read it to you aloud would be better, and see if you can pick up areas where it doesn't move right.

    Thanks for sharing and I hope I was of some help in some way. Hopefully one day I'll get to read a final, published version and see what the deal with this Stormchild is.

    1. Hi Luis, thanks for taking the time to read through and give me some feedback. I agree with your points here, especially focusing on the Rishtai and the girls’ emotional struggle. This may fix some other issues I need to work on, so thank you for mentioning it.

  4. There is a lot of good stuff here.
    I respectfully offer the following criticisms: I wasn't sure if the worshiping throngs, and the undead hordes were the same group, or not. Later I figured out the throngs were becoming the horde. I would separate them more distinctly.

    You wrote that the dead girl went with her sister, but she was never shown to the reader. I'd show her, or delete her.

    Burnous...good word.

    I loved the black cloud. I think it should be clearer that the Shadow Woman sent it.

    This piece takes a very tolkien-esque turn when you get to the Great Fathers' Council. It had a very Silmarilion feel. I love Tolkien, but I'm not sure this part jibes with the rest of the piece.

    I presume the three bodies no one is noticing are important, and will be illuminated in later chapters? That's okay here since this is a prologue, but your going to have to pay this off big for me if I'm your reader.

    Love the last line. Begs a question.

    I would have read more than what you have here.

    Thanks for sharing and good luck.

    1. Hi Anthony, thanks for the feedback. You, sir, are a genius. Horde / throng. This could solve a lot! I did intentionally change the tone of the last two chapters. Is it too disruptive? Or does it work for you? Thanks again!

  5. 1) I really like the opening paragraph. It’s an intense nightmarish depiction packed with rich and vivid imagery which promises much. That said, there are a couple of problems. You might consider – “The throng pressed closely,” or “The throng jostled,” for example. “Arms and limbs,” – that needs amending. Something which I also want to mention, and which pervades this prologue, is the repetition and overuse of particular words. In this section you have both bloodlust and lusty. Consider changing one of them.

    2) I am assuming this is a different group from that in paragraph one, that they have been changed in some way. As far as I know bodies staunch with post-mortem rigour, as much as I like the phrase, would not yet be rotting, and would be incapable of any movement. Lips silent in death would not be stammering. It’s a contradiction.

    3) There are too many appearances of the word “blood,” in this paragraph. Consider some euphemisms or synonyms. “Blood poured in rivers,” seems like overstatement here.

    4) “glorious hair whipping in winter winds, garbed in a tattered black dress.” Consider swapping these two clauses around, and changing it to:”her glorious hair,” “Clutched,” is not correct unless his fists are clutching something. Otherwise they are “clenched,” or, “held,” before him. The repetition of the hair/wind image is unnecessary. Consider putting some other piece of description here. The description of the Shadow Woman has a demonic almost godlike aspect and to “sneer” seems too human and mundane to be in character.

    5) There is no need to mention the colour of the girl’s hair a second time. The Shadow Woman would expose the girl’s throat or neck, not her “gullet” which is internal. She would “slit” the girl’s throat, not “slit through” it. Where does the dead sister come from? She’s just incidental. She appears from nowhere so we feel no emotional connection between them.

    6) A burnous is not normally appropriate clothing for a forest. Perhaps the incongruity is deliberate but it seems out of place.

    At this point I feel as though a change has come over the piece. The pace of the narrative speeds up and I also get the feeling that it was written more hastily. I also formed the impression that English might not be the writer’s first language and that some of the ideas had to be translated and suffered in the process. It could explain why some of the later sentences and descriptions seem more awkward or unlikely than in the earlier paragraphs.

    I must admit, for all that I liked the vivid and imaginative prose, the setting and the story did not really grab hold of me. The Shadow Woman had potential. It would be interesting to know how she came to initiate such an apocalypse but I suspect, as this is a prologue, that she may not play a central role in proceedings. The other characters who appeared served no other function than for something unpleasant to happen to them. It was impossible to care that it did. I wonder how carefully you have thought about the gods and religion in your world. Are there only these three, and one much more important than the other two? I think polytheistic religions tend to have roles for female as well as male deities. Maybe these are somewhat like the Christian trinity? Then there is the question of what a Stormchild might be. A quick search tells me that it is the name of a novel by Bernard Cornwell, and also of a couple of bands. It sounds like an entity that is likely to be ambiguous in its nature, a last resort, as liable to create mayhem as to be a solution.

    In summary I would say that the writer clearly has a vivid imagination and sufficient ability with words to create compelling images in the mind of the reader. These are great attributes. However, much more care needs to be taken to use them to their maximum effect. The prologue briefly sets the scene but gives little indication of the writer’s ability to create characters or to weave a narrative.

    1. Thanks, I love your feedback. Getting into the ninth gritty of the writing style will be very useful to me in editing.

  6. [Mark, brilliant idea, this forum. Probably the most fun one can have in pajamas and not get arrested. Rather than line-edit, I like to step back to bird’s eye view and ask what is this story component supposed to do, what do the best in breed do and then compare to the sample. Feel free to delete it if it’s not what you want to post. Lamborghinis are expensive, electrons are cheap!]

    Really good prologues do quite a few things efficiently:
    a. Give a sense of world: technology, the level of magic you can expect (Game of Thrones vs Wheel of Time).
    b. Give a sense of the types of characters, will they crack jokes or will all the smiles they hope to deliver be red? And the rating level: G, PG, NC-17.
    c. Evoke the main conflict central to the plot.
    d. Super advanced level: If at all possible, threaten a convent (never fails to hook the audience).

    The Stormchild excerpt does all that and has the potential to be outstanding.

    Point to consider:
    1. Consider consistent language, for example “post-mortem rigour”could strike as distancing and more suited to a crime thriller.
    2. Consider locking onto a specific POV, it may not work but it might focus the audience even if you have to use a throwaway character like poor Will in GoT.
    3. Consider motivation, is the Shadow Woman just giving the old Father duffers the finger? If we had her POV like we have Telamon’s POV in WoT her history, origins and motives could be hinted at. The divisions between the Great Fathers are potentially…er, great. It really starts the Stormchild off under a cloud of conflict.

    1. This is great, thank you! I will use your suggestions when editing ad. Rewriting.

  7. This chapter gives us a good idea of what to expect in the rest of your story. Powerfull magic, lots of blood and darkness, and bigger than life/world ending problems. And the creation of a Stormchild, that must be pure awesomeness. I do have several issues with it though:
    It felt rather detached to me (like a newspaper article), because the birds eye perspective and the lack of an actual charachter to live it. For all the blood and imagery there seems to be very little struggle.They are mostly (forced magically but) willing participants. Other than the 3x blood remarks (i agree) i have a few other remarks about the descriptions. There appear to be a lot of ands and comma's, because you want to paint a complete picture. This does hoever, come across like repeated enumerations to me. And it makes for a lot of long sentences (slows things down). For me less would be more here, or contradictory expand the chapter and space characteristics out some more rather than cramming them in to 1 sentence. There are a couple of buts in there, i believe are unwanted:
    Both buts in The pale man's- body. 1 does this keep him from straining,or make him lose? Defeat in his eyes would. 2 x the but and place though in front of his tears. The father of time-new life. But should be and.
    There is a lot of skipping from one description to the next. I'm not conviced of the necessity of some and to me feels a little unfocussed.
    Last keep in mind you are omniscient here (that is fine here), but if the rest of the book is not, keep an eye on situations like: behin the shadow woman-puffed a breath. You are describing people here nobody notices, what people would notice if took a closer look and foretelling they will be noticed. These are al things that scream omniscient, but are out of place in anything but. Here its fine though.
    PS my two cents here are just that. Feel free to (dis)agree as you see fit.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the great feedback. I was unsure what you meant at the end about the buts? Other than that your feedback is insightful.

    2. Hi. I may have written it down in a confusing way and may be wrong, but here is what i meant to say.
      The pale man's muscles bunched and strained against her grip, but: usualy one would use the but to explain why the sruggle was hopless, for instance: but all strength left his body when his daughter died. Or he lost the will to fight etc. But in his eyes there was love and loss, there wasthe ache of betrayal and the hopelessness that comes when a child dies. This clarifies his emotionall state verry well, but it does not give me a clear enough reason on the struggling being no use. Admittedly there is a bit if on would stop and reason it out.
      His tears had long dried up, but sobs wrenched his struggling body. I guess this alright, but i think it would be better as: Though his tears had long dried up, sobs wrenched his struggling body. Plus it gives us a little variety instead of but ( it gets repetitive).
      The father of time would not hear of it. He insisted that time be kept pure and that the guilty be punished, but the innocent be given a new life. To me the but shoud reference comes before it, like: but not those who could not help themselves. Or but not yet etc. In my opinion the father of time states things that must be done: time be kept pure, punishment for the guilty and the innocent restored/given new life. For me this is not a matter of but (you but not them) , but a matter of and.
      I hope this clarifies what i wrote previously. It's just the way i see it, but i'm not a native speaker of english, so i could verry well be wrong.
      Still i enjoid your chapter.

    3. Hiya. Yes, that makes much more sense! Thanks, that is great feedback.