All of my critiques are in bold font. If you want to watch my reactions to reading this for the first time, click here. If you wanna get to the meat-and-potatoes of my review, just scroll down to where it says, “overview.” Hope this helps, Jessi!
I pulled a large rock from the collapsed mineshaft. (I’m HUGE on opening liners. For me, this one was not as gripping as it could be.) It rolled down the pile of rocks and dirt made by the old collapse. More dirt slid down the pile of rubble to fill the hole left by the rock.
I snarled and dug harder, dull claws scraping against rock and dry soil.
Dirt (Third time we see this word. Lots of dirt. Can this be substituted, or maybe even just not talked about as much?) from the tunnel ceiling ran down my shirt. I ignored it and pushed myself to dig faster. We needed somewhere safe to sleep, and a tent didn’t count as safe, not when the Company could come down on us at any second.
“Savora, watch it.” My brother, Rolko, held his clawed hands (keep this description of “clawed hands” in mind) up, trying to keep my spray of rubble from flying into his eyes.
I paused. “Sorry.” I stood (when wasn’t she standing?) and glared at the hole in front of me. We had to be almost through the rubble. A little more digging and we’d be into the mine system, long before Mom got back from foraging with the other refugees.
Rolko shook himself, throwing dust everywhere. Sunlight from the mine entrance illuminated the specks (also keep this description of dust and light in mind). He brushed the yellowish dirt (dirt.) from his chest and the ruff along his jaws, exposing his reddish fur and black stripes. “You should see yourself.” He shook dirt (even. more. dirt.) from his tail and pants.
I looked down at my dust-covered shirt and skirt. He had a point, but brushing off the dust now would do no good (lots of dirt and dust. These descriptions are dragging the story a tad).
I resumed digging. If only we’d had a shovel, but with the war on, even those had become scarce and expensive. Good thing we were Elbas. Torfs never would have been able (to) clear out a mine shaft, not that they would have when they preferred tents to dens (To me, this seemed like unneccessary info dump. Don’t know why this information is important. And even if it is, I think it can be cut and introduced later by showing rather than telling).
I cleared the dirt and rock away until a hole formed. I crawled through.
With only a tiny bit of light shining through the hole I’d dug, I had to rely on senses other than my vision. I clicked a few times and perked my ears. My echolocation (echolocation, fun heehee) gave me a decent picture of the shaft. Past the one collapse, the old mine tunnels seemed clear.
Rolko climbed through the hole. “We’re going to live here?” I heard (stay away from words like heard and saw. Just state the action, especially since this is first-person; it makes for cleaner writing: his triangular ears twitched) his triangular ears twitching, taking in the echoes that bounced off the walls.
I brushed dirt (last time I point out this now despised word) from my fur. “Just until the war’s over.” If only Rolko was still young enough to think we’d win the war, but at fourteen, he had to know we’d been losing ever since the space cruiser, Lusta, got attacked and the Chix threw their full support behind the Company.
Rolko touched the dry mine walls. His long ears and whiskers drooped.
I walked a bit farther down the mineshaft. Cold air blew through my whiskers. If we wanted to live here, we’d have to find somewhere with fewer drafts. That meant more digging.
I ran my claws along one of the walls. Bits of dry earth flaked off, but my claws found rock. It would be too hard-packed to dig by hand. “We’re going to need a shovel,” I growled.
“We don’t have enough coin for food,” Rolko said.
I snarled and slashed at the wall, my claws digging deep.
Rolko stepped away from me. “Easy with the temper.”
The walls weren’t what I wanted to slice to pieces. That rage needed to be aimed at the Company. “Couldn’t they have been happy with two planets?” I growled (she just growled a few lines ago. I don’t think the growl is even necessary here). “It’s not like we’re a threat.”
“Some people just like to dominate.” Rolko’s whiskers drooped (beware of repeat words, actions, and phrases. Not long ago, Rolko’s ears and whiskers drooped). “We can’t change that.”
I went back to the hole I’d dug and enlarged it (so) we wouldn’t have to squeeze through. My anger at the Company lent me the energy I needed to complete the work. My stomach growled growled has now been used three times in these last few paragraphs). “We got the mine opened. Let’s see if Mom’s back.” Please let her have food, I prayed.
We crawled up through our hole out of the mineshaft. I shook some of the dust (and last time I point out this other despised word) from my fur. As the breeze caught the dust particles, light from the milky sun reflected off them (this kind of description with dust and light was used earlier. Change it up).
Bare, rocky mountains spread around us. In a valley below, ramshackle buildings and tents huddled in a tight group, as if their proximity would be able to break some of the bitter Lokostwan winds. About half of the shelters were rock, reminders of a time decades ago when the mines were open. Tents stood beside the blocky stone buildings. They’d been brought in by us, the refugees from the plains. (I like the environment, but I’m wondering…why is she she sitting here telling us what everything looks like if she already knows what everything looks like? Show us the world in the midst of action, rather than pausing to have a character reflect on what she’s already familiar with. It comes across as contrived and it slows down the story’s pace.)
Torf refugees strutted through the tents (see, here’s a good place where the setting is naturally described in the action: torfs walking through tents), their long tails swishing back and forth. Even this far north, none of them wore clothes, not that they needed them with theropodian (I don’t know how many people will be familiar with this word. I wasn’t, and I’d reckon not many others are either) anatomy and feathery bodies. A few wore belts and slings to support rifles while others had packs.
I headed down the hill toward the village. Rolko followed, swatting at his fur and raising clouds of dust (is this a character trait: the constant concern with cleanliness, or just thrown in their for action’s sake? Because later on, he just dives in the midst of a hunt and starts digging like he can care less about his appearance. Seems inconsistent.)
A few Torf guards with rifles stood around the edges of the village, their eyes on the horizon and the sky. I doubted these guards would be much help. If the Company attacked, the refugees wouldn’t stand a chance, guards or no guards. The only way to survive the Company was to be underground.
As usual, the guards watched us. Even though I hadn’t reached my full height, I still stood a head taller than almost all the females and many of the males.
“Your mother’s still out foraging,” one of the older guards said when we came within earshot. The scales on her face were rough, betraying age, and her skin hung loosely. She hadn’t been getting enough food. No one had.
I bowed my head to her, a Lokostwan custom. I couldn’t keep the names of hundreds of Torfs straight, but every one of them knew who we were. In a village of Torfs, three red Elbas stuck out.
My stomach growled (see what I mean about repeat words?). The Torf wasn’t the only one on the edge of starvation. I prayed Mom would find something good. “Do you know of any jobs around here?” I glanced at Rolko. “My brother and I might be young, but we’re good diggers. We’d work for food.”
The old Torf sighed. “I’m sorry, girl. There’s no work here unless you can find some bendsteel in that mine.” She shivered and fluffed her feathers.
I should have known better (Statements like these come across as contrived. Maybe here Savora can be sarcastic in her thoughts, rather than: ‘Duh, I should know this,’ she can say something to the effect of: Ha, bendsteel. Yeah, me and Rolko will be jobless until we’re forced to flee to another planet). Any steel in this region had been mined out long before the war started.
A downy Torf who couldn’t have been older than seven ran to me and held up his clawed hands (repeat description: earlier, Rolko was described as having clawed hands. Maybe just says “furry paws”), silently begging for food.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything.” I looked away, but not in time to miss the kid’s frown deepen in disappointment. The Torf kids had to be getting pretty hungry if they’d risk begging from someone who stood at least a head taller than their parents.
At the edge of the village, a half dozen Torf children near Rolko’s age hopped around a pile of rocks that had once been a building. All of them carried short spears.
“Bet they’ve got a hornsnake,” Rolko said. He took off toward the rock pile. “Come on. We can help get it!”
My mouth watering, I ran after him. A feathery hornsnake was the best we could hope for with the area too cold and barren to support many things bigger than insects.
Rolko knelt on the pile of rocks, his huge ears twitching. I watched from the bottom of the pile. A second Elba would only get in the way of the quick-moving Torfs.
The Torfs focused on Rolko, their heads cocked like they hoped to hear the hornsnake.
Rolko pounced and rolled a large rock to the side (why couldn’t Savora be the one to dive in and help? Again, since she seemed to be the more aggressive one, this seems a little inconsistent with what I know so far about Rolko’s personality). The Torfs came in behind him, their spears lifted. Rolko kept rolling the rocks. The Torfs wouldn’t be able to hear the hornsnake, not like Rolko could.
Rolko rolled away an enormous rock.
A hornsnake that had to be at least as long as I was tall zipped from under the rock, its six little legs skittering as it slithered. One of the Torf kids stabbed at it with a spear. The snake lost a few feathers but kept going.
An older Torf child lashed out, striking the snake with her three-toed foot. The snake went flying, hit the ground, and bounced. It tried to crawl again, though the Torf’s long inner claw had injured it. A third Torf leaped off the rock pile and speared the snake through the neck.
The snake writhed, its tiny legs flailing.
The children cheered, happy to have found food at last. Not only was the snake long, but it still had some meat on it. The winter had been kinder to it than it had been to us.
The eight of us quickly plucked the snake and cut it into sections. If we mixed it with native roots, we’d each have enough for a meal.
Here’s an overview:
I would have liked a lot more drama. If you’re gonna keep me glued, somehow, this opening has to be amped up with action, or a lot more tension. Give me something to get thrilled by, or nervous about. Let’s have a mini-scare, an encounter with a bully-guard, or a Company false-alarm.
And right now, there isn’t much tension between Savora and Rolko. But you can create some!
How about increasing the tension of Savora trying to balance being the big sister. Can she be too motherly and it angers Rolko and makes him reprimand her: “You’re only two years older than me, Savora. I’m not a baby so stop treating me like one.”
And she can snap back: “Well you’re not a man yet either!”
“Says who? Do you see dad around here anywhere?”
Then you can leave it with Savora wanting to not think about their dad so she moves on and leaves the audience wondering where dad is.
Put your main character to the test, show us what she’s got! maybe the Torfs aren’t so nice after Rolko helps them get the snake. Maybe they get greedy, and Savora rises up against them. Is she that kind of person? Will she put herself in harm’s way for others? How much does she hate injustice? How much does she love her family? Putting her in a testy situation will give your audience insight into who she is, and we will like her all the more for it.
If you can’t get your main character to make us laugh, you’ve gotta cause us to like something else about her. Right now, I don’t have a definitive character trait that I can say I particularly like about Savora. And if you wanna keep your readers, a very likable main character is one sure-fire way to do that.
You want dynamic dialogue; witty, strong, beautiful. You want two-layer lines, lines between the lines, words that have a lot more meaning behind them.
I’m reminded of the Lord of the Rings films and a beautiful exchange between Eowyn and Aragorn:
Aragorn: You have some skill with a blade.
Eowyn: The women of this country learned long ago, those without swords can still die upon them. I fear neither death nor pain.
Aragorn: What do you fear, my lady?
Eowyn: A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.
Aragorn: You are a daughter of kings, a shield maiden of Rohan. I do not think that will be your fate.
Your dialogue should reveal much about your main character and other characters, and they all should have their own distinct voices. If you can’t tell whose talking without speaker tags, keep working on it.
The world is cool, I just want to see it come out more in the action rather than in thoughtful observations. It’s too easy for setting descriptions to slow a story down. Showing us the world as the action is moving keeps the story going forward.
Repeat words, phrases, actions, and descriptions take away from the prose. You want every word, every sentence to count, to flow. Broken records aren’t fun to listen to, and repetitious writing isn’t fun to read. Give us more variety with your words. I know you can!
Since this is written in first-person, you really have the opportunity to flavor the prose with your character’s personality. I recommend checking out some of Andrew Klavan’s novels. The man has such a rich voice, even in third-person point-of-view. MindWar and Crazy Dangerous are a few great examples of voice.
What did you think? Feel free to leave your thoughts in a comment. And if you want me to critique your first 1500 words, just send your work via email: NatashaSapienza(at)gmail(dot)com. Happy helping! -Natasha