Critique Group – The Reluctant Shaman and The Rule of Olympus

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Are you ready to critique? Ready or not, here are two new submissions to consider.

Don’t forget the critiquing guidelines. All you have to do is post a comment about the submissions below. Don’t feel like you need to critique both or the whole piece of either one. Even a short comment on one aspect can be helpful. When you critique, be sure to mention which piece you’re critiquing.

This post will stay active indefinitely, so you can come back and add comments at any time. If you are one of the writers who is being critiqued, you should subscribe to this post so you can be notified when any comments are added.

Submission #1 – The Reluctant Shaman – James

I knew it was going to be a strange day when I woke up and saw an owl perched at the foot of my bed. At first I just rolled over and closed my eyes again, hoping I was dreaming. Maybe I’d watched one too many nature documentaries. My hope quickly faded when it hopped along the sheets until its little talons were digging into my neck. It pecked at my ear and I fell out of the bed.

“So where did you come from?” I demanded. Well actually, I think the first thing I did was yell. Or scream. Yeah, my voice had a decidedly screamy quality to it. So I’m not used to owls waking me up at six in the morning. Who is?

It cocked its head to one side and hooted. You know how they always say owls go “who, who?” This one didn’t. It sounded maybe like a cross between a cat’s purr and a pigeon cooing. I think they call it trilling. What am I, an owlologist? I stood up and backed away from the little bird. It hopped along after me and trilled at me again.

“What, did the real estate market for nests collapse? Why are you in my apartment? Shoo!” And now I was arguing with an owl. Its call went up a few octaves as it shrieked at me. I picked up my phone from the nightstand and shook it at the bird. “I’m calling animal control.”

It hooted indignantly and fluttered silently out of the bedroom. I followed it into the living room just in time to see it wing its way out of my open window. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten I left it open. Not usually a good idea in Pittsburgh, even on the fifth floor, but it was hot last night and there’s bars on the window. I guess those don’t stop owls.

I hurried my way through getting ready for work and dashed down the stairs to the lobby. It takes forever to walk to my office, but it sure beats public transportation and it’s not like I have a car. I had a clunker once, but one too many unpaid parking tickets meant it got towed, and I just let them keep the rust-bucket. It was always more trouble than it was worth.

I stopped at the coffee shop a block down from my place and ordered my usual. Scone, latte, and the smaller size bottle of water. The third item makes the total exactly $9.99. It’s usually important, but she wasn’t there this morning, so it didn’t really matter. I paid with a ten anyway. The barista gave me a fake customer service smile as he gave me a greenish-looking penny. I nodded to him and hurried back onto the street, pocketing the water bottle and downing the scone in two bites.

Just as I tipped the coffee cup back for a sip, I felt hard little needles dig into my shoulder. I think I jumped high enough to try out for the NBA, and I spilled the entire latte down my shirt. If you haven’t already guessed, I don’t handle surprise very well. It was the owl again. He preened himself and dug his talons in deeper, looking smug.

“Seriously?!” I brushed at him, but he nipped at my hand and dug in even harder. It hurt. “Fine, fine! You can stay, just loosen up a bit.” He relaxed his grip and my shoulder stopped feeling like hamburger. I looked down the front of my outfit. “You ruined my shirt.”

The bird hooted contentedly and fluffed up his feathers. Or maybe it was her feathers. How do you tell with owls, anyway?

Leaving the question if this was an owl or or an—owlina?… owlrietta?… owlette?… whatever—for the world’s eggheads, I ran back up to my apartment and changed shirts. The bird hopped off just long enough for me to pull on a new shirt and was perched on my shoulder again before I’d even finished tying the Windsor knot on my tie. I was running late now. No time to walk, I had to take a bus.

There’s no real reason I don’t usually take public transportation. I just like to use my own legs. I spend enough time cooped up in a tiny cubicle every day without riding around in a tin can designed by a sadistic engineer. But being late means less pay. They’re funny about that where I work. They don’t like to pay you for time you aren’t there. So I gritted my teeth, found the nearest bus route that went by the Maclir Foundation, my office, and tried to pay the fare.

“You can’t bring that thing in here,” the bus driver growled at me. Perhaps he was normally a really cheerful person, but today he was grouchy. Maybe he didn’t like Mondays. Or mornings. Or maybe it was just me.

“What thing?” I know, eloquence is a gift that wasn’t given to me.

“The bird,” he gestured a meaty arm in the direction of my shoulder. “No pets.”

“It’s not a pet,” I protested. “It just won’t leave. Look!” I pushed at the owl, and it bit me in response. “Ow!”

“No pets,” the driver growled again. He shut the door in my face and pulled the bus back into traffic. Great.

Now I’m no great athlete, but even with a steady diet of scones and lattes, walking to work every morning keeps me pretty trim. I ran. The city blocks passed in a blur as I rushed down busy sidewalks and cut through a few alleys. I only jaywalked once, and nearly got pancaked in the process, but arrived at the Maclir building in one piece. I dashed past the startled lobby receptionist, and stumbled into cubicle-land panting and wheezing, only ten minutes late.

“Lund! You’re just in time!” My boss, Joe Arik, looked up from his desk as I walked in. He tapped the fake Rolex on his wrist. “Well actually, you’re late, but I’m overlooking it because I have a really cruddy job for you. A copy machine’s on the fritz and it’s your turn. Guess which one?”

I groaned. “Third floor?”

“Bingo!” he grinned and did that stupid two handed gunpoint that some people do, you know, the forefinger and thumb making a gun? Anyway, then he blinked and stared at me, or rather at the passenger on my shoulder. “Is that an owl?”

“Yeah,” I shrugged. “It won’t leave me alone.”

“What, like, at all?”

I poked at it. It ruffled its feathers and hooted drowsily. “Do you mind? I have work to do.”

It blinked at me, spread its wings, and flew back to the lobby, where it pecked at the front door until our puzzled receptionist let it out.

 

Submission #2 – The Rule of Olympus – Micki

The long procession of people filed past the tiny window of the small clay house as Michala glanced up from the wool she was working on.

“It’s that time again.” she said softly, speaking to her sister on the far side of the room

Elysah looked up from sharpening her long dagger.

“They are lost to be sure.” she said, shaking her head.

“Berenice asked again if we were going to the temple.” Michala replied, her hands working to untangle the woolly mess.

“She keeps wondering why we do not join everyone in their weekly sacrifices to the other gods; or at least appeal to Zeus since he is the head of the Greek gods and the main god of this city.”

“And why would we do that?” Elysah asked, checking to see the balance of her now sharp dagger.

Michala looked up and gave Elysah a long look.

“You know as well as I do that not everyone understands who we are.”

“Let them stay confused about who we are, why do they need to know?”

Michala shook her head, a slight smile playing on her lips.

“What?”

Elysah put her dagger back in its sheath and came over to help with the wool’s knots.

“Nothing; I wish I had your ability to see things in that way”

Elysah shrugged, continuing with what was left of the wool still needing to be done.

After a bit, the knots where out of the wool and it was wrapped neatly into individual balls.

Michala rose and, picking up the wool’s basket, headed for the door.

“Are you taking that over right away then?” Elysah asked.

“I had planned on it. Octavia said she needed it as soon as possible, and since we would not have to do it later we will have more time for tonight.” Michala replied, putting her shawl around her shoulders.

Elysah nodded her approval, so Michala left for her errand.

Closing the door, Michala turned and watched the crowd of people trying to move through the busy streets.

Walking into the nearest stream moving toward the center of the city; she tried to keep her place in the river of sly merchants, grumpy buyers, and tired workers on their way home after a long day.

Not long into the progression, the pace slowed as it neared the center of the city, which was always full.

With careful going, Michala was able to turn down a small side road that led to some small houses with sheep pens.

The sheep were used for the temple sacrifices, but sometimes their wool would be harvested and used.

Octavia had harvested her husband’s sheep’s wool while he was away, but couldn’t spin it herself so she had asked Michala if she could do it for her.

Coming up to the door of the Valarious’ house, Michala quietly knocked and waited.

The door moved open a crack and an eye peeked around the edge of the door.

“Michala!”

Throwing the door open, Octavia welcomed her with open arms and a wide grin.

“It is so good to see you!” she said, ushering her into the small house.

“And I, you.” Michala said with a smile, switching from her home tongue Hebrew that she used with her sister to the language of the city; Greek.

“You have finished the wool already? But that was so fast!” Octavia asked, taking the offered basket.

“Not so fast as you might think, I had it for longer then it takes most merchants.” Michala replied.

“How much do we owe you then?”

Octavia disappeared for a moment and came back with a small pouch.

“You owe me nothing. It is an honour to serve those who are humble enough to ask for help when they need it.” Michala put her hand up to stop Octavia from counting the money.

“But I must give you something for the work, and truly wonderful work it is.”

Michala thought a moment, her head down and a finger against her lips.

“Do not pay me, bestow it forward.” she answered.

“What do you mean by that?” Octavia frowned; Michala and her sister where good people but rather odd at times.

“It is a saying that my family said often. It means instead of paying me, do something for someone else.” Michala said.

Octavia thought a moment,

“That is a rather nice saying actually. Very well.” Octavia put the money back into the pouch.

“Will you not take something as a thank you instead of payment? A loaf of bread?”

Michala stood a moment, Octavia thought to consider, not catching the movement of Michala’s lips in prayer.

Elysah and Michala lived solely off of what their Lord gave them.

He provided to their needs as they did the work He asked them to do.

So Michala asked her Heavenly father if this was one of those times, or if this work was to be truly free from payment or gifts.

After a moment, she had her answer.

“Very well.” Michala said, looking up; a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Octavia looked relieved and disappeared into another room.

Michala knew that most people could not understand why she and her sister did things in this fashion; that sometimes they would accept payment or gift and other times they would not.

They had tried to explain it once before in another town they briefly stayed in; but no one understood, or wanted to. Everyone, it seemed, scorned their God or was indifferent to him; not realising how much he really was in the world.

Octavia reappeared with a wrapped bundle that she handed to Michala.

“Thank you again for the work you did. If I had tried doing it myself it would not have been ready for the merchant we promised it to.” she said.

Michala smiled,

“No, thank you.” she replied.

Turning, she left the Valarious’ house and made her way back to the steady stream of people.

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15 replies

  1. Submission #1 – The Reluctant Shaman

    James, this is very clever and funny. I enjoyed it a lot.

    I don’t have much to suggest, only minor things.

    When “you” fell out of bed and talked to the owl, I could no longer picture where the owl was. It was on your neck, and your rolled out of bed, so where did it go? Was it standing on your bed when it cocked its head to one side and hooted?

    “The barista gave me a fake customer service smile as he gave me a greenish-looking penny. “

    Maybe “offered a fake …” to avoid repeating “gave”

    “He relaxed his grip and my shoulder stopped feeling like hamburger” Insert comma after “grip.” It’s a compound sentence.

    “I ran back up to my apartment “ Literally? Or did “you” take an elevator?

    “The bird hopped off just long enough for me to pull on a new shirt and was perched on my shoulder” Delete “was”?

    “I know, eloquence is a gift that wasn’t given to me.”

    James, this is a good opportunity to add more wit as you did in other places. As it stands, it is quite plain. Maybe something like, “I know. When they passed around the eloquence cup, I thought it was a spittoon.”

    “The bird,” he gestured a meaty arm in the direction of my shoulder. “No pets.”

    Change comma to a period after “bird” and capitalize “He. ” “He gestured” is not a speaker tag.

    “Bingo!” he grinned and did that …

    Capitalize “He.” He grinned is not a speaker tag.

    That’s all. Good stuff. Keep up the good work.

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    • “Just as I tipped the coffee cup back for a sip, I felt hard little needles dig into my shoulder.” When you said this, I envisioned pinpricks, hundreds of literal needles going into his back, but I like the description, so I can’t really tell.

      And also: “They’re funny about that where I work. They don’t like to pay you for time you aren’t there.” Most people don’t like to pay you for time you’re not there. It sounds like he’s on a salary and that’s normal, so it’s not necessarily weird.

      Great job! I loved the humor in it.

      Keep up the good work!

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  2. Submission #2 – The Rule of Olympus

    Micki,

    I see a lot of passion for expressing feelings and for familial relationships. Good stuff.

    Now for some suggestions:

    Since this appears to be Michala’s point of view, remember to report visuals as she sees them and as she would notice them.

    For example:

    “The long procession of people filed past the tiny window of the small clay house as Michala glanced up from the wool she was working on.”

    Since Michala is inside, I don’t think she would see the tiny window as being in a small clay house. She sees only the wall, not the house. Also, since she is working on wool, she is not looking through the window at that moment. Since it is a tiny window, even when she does glance up, she probably wouldn’t see a long procession of people filing past. She would see a sliver of it, at best.

    Also, it’s best to keep the dialogue in the same paragraph as the character’s introductory actions, like this:


    The long procession of people filed past the tiny window of the small clay house as Michala glanced up from the wool she was working on. “It’s that time again.” she said softly, speaking to her sister on the far side of the room

    Elysah looked up from sharpening her long dagger. “They are lost to be sure.” she said, shaking her head.


    (Because you didn’t do this, I sometimes couldn’t figure out who was speaking later in the piece.)

    Notice that you have two speaker tags (she said) that have identical constructions, that is, you include the “said” and then an “ing” verb phrase after it. You do the same in the next speaker tag and other times as well. Try to avoid most tags if you can, and certainly avoid similar constructions consecutively.

    How about something like the following?


    A multitude of footsteps drifted through the room’s tiny window. Michala set down the wool she was working on and looked outside. A long procession of people filed past her clay house (give a short description of the people). She turned to her sister across the room. “It’s that time again.”

    Elysah looked up from sharpening her long dagger and shook her head. “They are lost to be sure.”


    Next item:


    “Berenice asked again if we were going to the temple.” Michala replied, her hands working to untangle the woolly mess.
    “She keeps wondering why we do not join everyone in their weekly sacrifices to the other gods; or at least appeal to Zeus since he is the head of the Greek gods and the main god of this city.”


    This is contrived dialogue. The “again” indicates that Michala has mentioned this before, so the next portion, “she keeps wondering” is something her sister is already aware of. And she surely knows that Zeus in the head of the Greek gods, etc. And the dialogue continues in the same fashion. Don’t have people saying things to each other that they both already know.

    It is clear that you want to inform the reader of these facts, but it is not good, realistic dialogue. You need the information to come out in a natural way.

    I also couldn’t understand their interchange at times..

    Try this. I did the best I could to figure out what they meant.


    Michala sat, picked up her wool, and continued untangling the mess. “Berenice asked if we were going to the temple.”

    “Again?”

    “Third week in a row. Every sacrifice day.”

    “Ah! You haven’t told her.”

    Michala shook her head. “I just said Zeus and the other gods wouldn’t mind.”

    Elysah checked the balance of her sharpened dagger. “Good. Best to keep them in the dark about us.”


    Next section:


    Michala shook her head, a slight smile playing on her lips.

    “What?”

    Elysah put her dagger back in its sheath and came over to help with the wool’s knots.

    “Nothing; I wish I had your ability to see things in that way”


    I couldn’t tell who said “what” or who said “Nothing; I wish …” This is why it is important to include the character’s spoken words in the same paragraph as the character’s actions.

    Note that since this is Michala’s point of view, she would not see that a slight smile played on her lips.

    That’s all I am going to mention for now. Many of the issues I already mentioned continue through the piece, so if you apply the principles above, you should catch many of the problems in the remainder of your piece.

    Let’s see if other critiquers want to give it a go.

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    • I’d maybe change this sentence up a bit, “…switching from her home tongue Hebrew that she used with her sister to the language of the city; Greek.” It was a bit awkward. Maybe, “…switching from Hebrew, her home tongue (or native language, maybe?) to Greek, the city’s common language.

      I was also going to comment on the dialogue portion that Mr. Davis commented on. “She keeps wondering why we do not join everyone in their weekly sacrifices to the other gods; or at least appeal to Zeus since he is the head of the Greek gods and the main god of this city.”

      Also, would they use the word ‘grumpy’ back then? Maybe mention something about a foul mood or something of the like.

      I loved the flow of the story, though. Just the way you worded things and everything.

      Keep up the good work!

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  3. I’ve mirrored the full version of the first chapter at http://anthonyhadrian.com/?p=1050 for anyone who wants to read the rest.

    It’s probably unwise to critique my own work, but I will comment that this is a radical departure from my previous methods. I usually write third person with an intimate point of view, using formal prose styles. Drawing on inspiration from Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne, I decided to try my hand at first person snark.

    In those authors’ urban fantasy universes, the heroes are men of power, confident in themselves and their place in the world. I’m trying for a more uncertain hero. He possesses heroic qualities, but he’s no Harry Dresden or Atticus O’Sullivan.

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  4. Submission 1:
    Hehe. I like this narrator already. He’s amusing, but the humor isn’t too heavy-handed.
    A thought: the paragraph about being late (starts “There’s no real reason . . .”) could use a bit of paring down. I don’t think you need both “Being late means less pay” and “They don’t pay you for time you aren’t there”.
    Another thought: “I only jaywalked once, and nearly got pancaked in the process, but arrived at the Maclir building in one piece.”- I feel like this should be two sentences. It sounds a tad awkward as it is.
    Overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and I’d love to hear more of the story. Great work!

    Submission 2:
    This sounds like an interesting story, and I like that you have a pair of sisters for your main characters. However, I think you could probably go through and pare out a lot of unnecessary words. For example:
    “She said softly, speaking to her sister on the far side of the room,” could become “She said (or maybe called?) softly to her sister on the far side of the room.”
    “Elysah asked, checking to see the balance of her now sharp dagger,” could become “Elysah asked, checking the balance of her sharpened dagger,” or “Elysah asked, checking her dagger’s balance.” (After all, since she was sharping it before, we can probably assume it’s sharp now.)
    I’d also suggest not breaking this up into so many paragraphs. Keep characters’ words and actions together, and keep related information together as well.
    In the sixth paragraph, you do a nice job weaving in information about the setting and conflict without infodumping. However, I think you could take out “Greek” from in front of gods- maybe say “head of their gods” if you want to emphasize that the sisters don’t believe in the same gods as everyone else.

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  5. James — I really enjoyed the tone of your piece, though I’ve never been able to provide a helpful critique for things in this writing style. Contrary to the other commenter’s opinions, I really liked this part: “But being late means less pay. They’re funny about that where I work. They don’t like to pay you for time you aren’t there.” It sounds just like something my brother would say. 🙂

    Micki — I agree with everything that Mr. Davis said, particularly about your paragraphs/dialogue tags. There are times when it’s hard to tell who is saying what.

    I really like the feel of this piece; it feels very quiet, very peaceful, but there’s a faint hint that the external peace will not last long; a slight taste of foreboding. That’s perfect for getting readers to keep reading.

    I also like the way you have Elysah and Michala make their living— “solely off of what their Lord gave them,” as you said. It is rather uncommon to see such a mindset in stories.

    Perhaps you should vary your sentence structure a little more; many of your sentences are the same basic length, and you begin many paragraphs in a row with a noun (actually, most of your sentences begin noun+verb, or pronoun+verb). If you switch it up a little, begin with a verb, vary your sentence length, begin with a prepositional phrase, or the like, it will make your narration flow more smoothly.

    I like the relationships your showed between the sisters, and between Michala and Octavia. They seem to be very deep, long-running relationships.

    I am a little uncertain about your use of the phrase, “Bestow it forward.” While the idea is as ancient as life, the phrase is a very modern thing. Maybe find a different way to say it?

    If this was in a novel, I would likely continue reading. It makes me want to know more about the characters, and, as I said before, has a faint echo of an oncoming trouble. That’s pretty hard to do in so few words. 🙂

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  6. Submission #1:
    This is a great start, James! I have just a few critiques which I hope are helpful.
    When I began reading this, I couldn’t really guess the age of the protagonist. At first, he sounded like a teenage boy – but as I read further – he sounded like a male in his early twenties (mostly because of his non-glamorous office job). I think establishing his age earlier in the story may be a good thing. Perhaps when the owl wakes him at 6am- you could say something witty about how he likes to sleep in until 6:30 every day…Maybe he regrets the late night he had updating his resume (he has aspirations), working on his friends car (he’s a nice guy who has friends), or going to his sister’s rehearsal dinner (he has family and some other things going on in his life). Establishing the age and quality of character might be helpful for the reader to like and/or relate to him. You can do this in many different ways- it’s really up to you. I may be the only one who likes character development and details right from the start.

    The humor is great- but he sounds a bit defensive in the beginning:

    So I’m not used to owls waking me up at six in the morning. Who is?
    I think they call it trilling. What am I, an owlologist?

    Naturally- he might be grouch or defensive because he was abruptly woken at 6 in the morning. However these statements are very close to each other and the defensiveness is directed toward the reader so it can be exhaustive. This also makes him sound a little younger.

    I had a clunker once, but one too many unpaid parking tickets meant it got towed, and I just let them keep the rust-bucket.

    This part sounds a little awkward (it might be the “meant it got towed”). My edit below may not be any better. 😛

    I had a clunker once. I also had one too many unpaid parking tickets. Poor Alberta was towed and I, in all my generosity, let them keep the rust-bucket.

    These are just a few things that stuck out to me. It’s a great story and I hope you continue writing!

    I really like how you hinted at “her” at the coffee shop and how you introduced his job at the Maclir Foundation. I hope to read more.

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  7. Submission #2:

    I enjoy the idea of a story about Christians living among a culture of believers in the Greek myths: you’re able to quickly establish a natural source of conflict, and we have a reason to like your protagonists right off the bat.

    I think you could strengthen this piece a lot by putting more of a focus on that conflict between the sisters’ faith and the culture around them. Would it be possible for Michala to maybe get jeered or otherwise persecuted by the temple worshipers on her way to deliver the wool, or to somehow show some other direct consequences of her and Elysah’s decision to be different? Letting the reader see how they respond under this sort of oppression would have multiple benefits for your story: it would amplify both the initial plot and setting, as well as add some more uniquenss to the sisters’ characters and make them even more engaging and likeable.

    I believe you have the opportunity to add a lot of dimension to this story world, but I do think you have the conceptual foundation for a great story. Keep going.

    -Ian

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  8. Micki,
    I think Elysah sounds like an interesting character.

    A little critique:

    -“What do you mean by that?” Octavia frowned; Michala and her sister where good people but rather odd at times.-
    -Octavia thought to consider, not catching the movement of Michala’s lips in prayer.-

    This seems to be from Octavia’s Point of View. In modern literature, we normally don’t head hop, which means going from one POV to another. Since you’re in Michala’s POV, you should only say what Michala knows, not what Octavia thinks.

    -Octavia looked relieved and disappeared into another room.-

    “Looked” is normally a telling word. If you can figure out how she “looked relieved” it’s best to describe it, such as saying “Octavia smiled, probably relieved she could offer some sort of payment.”

    -The door moved open a crack and an eye peeked around the edge of the door.-

    Someone, please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe a comma is needed before the “and.”

    Keep writing!

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  9. Submission 2
    Micki,
    It was a great story, and it made me want to read more. I just have one thing to say. At the end, when Michala took the bread and turned to go, that was really confusing. For a second, I thought that she had declined the bread. After reading it again, however, I realized that she was thanking Octavia. I don’t know if that was just me, but I thought that you could have made it a bit clearer. Perhaps, “No, thank you for…” You can fill it in. Other than that, it was really good.

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  10. In The Reluctant Shaman, you might want to a least mention the fact that it might have hurt when he fell out of bed, and that coffee was probably pretty hot. Also, in the last sentence of paragraph 11, that comma should be a semicolon ( ; ). It’s really good though! Keep writing!

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  11. Micki,
    2nd paragraph, no period before the quotations and a period at the end of the paragraph.

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  12. For #1
    I do like the humor and how you have created a relatable character, I tend to be more fluent in sarcasm than I’d like to admit, but I noticed one thing in particular.
    Normally when writing a novel the author doesn’t address the reader personally, ie “If you haven’t already guessed, I don’t handle surprise very well.” Maybe instead you could just make a general comment like “I’ve always hated surprises,” or something like that.

    #2
    I really like where you’re going with this story. I’m intrigued as to why Elysha is sharpening a dagger and why the two sisters are living, from what I can tell, on their own. I also like how they are confidant in the Lord to take care of them, and that they don’t really care what society thinks of them.
    Just a couple small critiques. The sentence that begins “With careful going” seems akward. Maybe instead you could put “Carefully making her way…”
    Also, I know someone else also touched on this, but when you make the transfer from Hebrew to Greek another option would be “switching from her native Hebrew to Greek.”

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