Critique Group – Mt. Shachar

TangledHairDelete

Well, maybe 4000 words would be all right … if her hair is really that lovely. 🙂 In any case, it’s time for critiquing this week’s new submission. Let’s have a hair-raising good time.

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Mt. Shachar by Alyssa

Meryl lifted her sword from its resting place at the foot of her sleeping mat. She lifted the curtain that stood for her hut’s door and walked to where her older brother, Devin, was. He stood swiping at an imaginary foe with his sword. It was a miracle that they had gotten two swords since their family was poor.

“Any word on mother and father?” Meryl asked.

“No,” Devin said letting his sword droop.

Their parents had left in hope to find more business a few hours west. They especially needed money now since Devin was sixteen, meaning it was almost time for him to become an apprentice. He was hoping to be apprenticed by a protector, the warriors who looked after the kingdom when the knights left for battle.

Meryl stood next to Devin. He taught her defense with a sword for nearly an hour. By the time they were done both were drenched in sweat and exhausted. It was a warm, sunny day so they dried quickly.

“Want supper?” Meryl asked. Devin nodded.

She went inside and got out barley bread and beans, they had no meat because they were running low and wanted to save it for a celebration on Devin’s choosing day.

After supper they did their only source of entertainment, Meryl playing the flute while Devin sang with his amazing singing voice.

“Devin?” Meryl asked.

“Yeah?”

“Do you think mother and father are ever… are they ever going to come back? It’s already been two months,” Meryl said, her chin quivering.

“Of course they will,” Devin said, though when Meryl looked into his eyes she saw layers of worry and doubt.

The two laid on their sleeping mats. It wasn’t too late yet.

“Could you tell me the story of the Rescuer?” Meryl asked. Even though she was fifteen she still liked Devin to tell her stories, it was her way out of the worry filled reality.

“Certainly my fair lady. The Rescuer is a man of honor, but not of nobility. In fact, he was a commoner. He saves people in their darkest hour with his sword, Deliverer. Some say he’s an angel,” Devin said in a storyteller voice. He continued the story until Meryl fell asleep.

A sharp knock on the hut’s exterior woke Meryl from her sleep. Since all the peasants didn’t bother to knock she figured it was some messenger for Devin about his choosing day. Devin was a heavy sleeper so she figured he wasn’t awake and she might as well see what they wanted.

“Yes?” Meryl called rubbing her eyes from sleep. She stood up and combed her fingers through her frazzled hair.

“Are you the son of Clive?” the male messenger called.

“I’m his daughter. Why?” she asked as she walked over and pulled away the curtain and tied it to a hook.

“Okay, is his son, your brother, also here?” the man asked. He was tall and appeared very strong.

“Yes,” Meryl responded warily.”Why?”

“I have a message.”

Meryl nodded. “One moment.” She walked and knelt to where Devin lay asleep. She called his name a couple of times and shook him a little until he awoke.

“What?” Devin asked sleepily.

Meryl nodded in the direction of the door where the man stood. Devin peered around her to see. He quickly rose and became wide awake. In a single stride he was at the door. Meryl followed him.

“The son of Clive, I presume?”

Devin nodded pulling his sister close.

“I have news regarding your parents.”

A sliver of hope entered Meryl until she saw his expression. Devin squeezed her tighter, but she didn’t mind.

“I’m sorry to tell you your parents have died,” the man said.

Meryl squeezed her eyes shut. They couldn’t be dead! she thought.

She managed to squeeze out one word from her ever closing throat. “H-how?”

“By me,” the man said.

To late she realized what was happening.

He lunged at the two. Meryl and Devin were the same height and almost the same strength, but the two combined would be no match for the taller and stronger man. He over took them easily. The teens had no idea how to use their muscles other then swordplay and a little self defense. The man bound the two together at their wrists with a strong rope.

Outside he had a horse pulling an empty cart that neither sibling had noticed earlier. The man led them to the cart, picked them up, and dumped them in. The sky was still dark so it wasn’t even dawn yet, the perfect time for a kidnapping.

Both kept their mouths shut in hopes of not reminding the kidnapper that they could scream for help at any time. They had no such luck. He pulled two gags out of a leather pouch around his waist and tied one around Devin’s mouth.

Before he put the gag on Meryl, she asked the question floating around her head. “Why? We’re no one important.”

The kidnapper laughed as he tied the gag around Meryl’s head. He climbed up onto the horse, bare back. “You know what the downfall of all so called villains is? They always talk about their plans because the so called heroes get them thinking all high and mighty about themselves. Not me.” He kicked the horse with an unnecessary force. “I will say that your parents knew something, and that something got them killed. That same something is going to get you killed too.”

Meryl glared at the back of the man’s head. From what she’d seen of him she had noticed that he was young and stereo typically handsome. She hated him.

After his little speech he clammed up and didn’t say another word. Meryl fell asleep, hoping to dream of Devin, her father and mother, and herself being together for Devin’s choosing day.

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15 replies

  1. Alyssa,

    You have the makings of an intriguing story. Parents getting killed and children getting kidnapped will keep readers interested.

    Let’s talk about some issues I think you need to work on.

    First:


    Meryl lifted her sword from its resting place at the foot of her sleeping mat. She lifted the curtain that stood for her hut’s door and walked to where her older brother, Devin, was. He stood swiping at an imaginary foe with his sword. It was a miracle that they had gotten two swords since their family was poor.


    Watch for repeated words. You have “lifted” twice and “stood” twice.

    Curtains don’t stand so “stood” seems out of place.

    It’s not good practice to end a sentence with “was.”

    Also, where was he? I assume outside. Was he standing on a lawn, a street, a walkway? A bit of description here would help set the scene. Is it morning? Night?

    The comment “It was a miracle …” feels out of place. It doesn’t seem like a natural thought considering that they are accustomed to using their swords. It is better to show their poverty and mention how they got their swords when it makes sense to do so.

    Next:


    Their parents had left in hope to find more business a few hours west. They especially needed money now since Devin was sixteen, meaning it was almost time for him to become an apprentice. He was hoping to be apprenticed by a protector, the warriors who looked after the kingdom when the knights left for battle.


    This is an information dump. It’s better to bring these facts out through action. Maybe have Meryl ask if Devin’s ready for “choosing day.” Or have her tie a knot in a rope to remind her how many days her parents had been gone. Use your imagination, but don’t dump the information in several sentences of narrative.

    Next:


    Meryl stood next to Devin. He taught her defense with a sword for nearly an hour. By the time they were done both were drenched in sweat and exhausted. It was a warm, sunny day so they dried quickly.


    This is a good opportunity to give these two more personality. Show how they get along. Do they laugh? Tease? Compliment each other? Let’s see the practice session and learn about their character qualities.

    Watch for pacing consistency. The first sentence gives us direct, real time action that readers can see. It takes seconds. Then the second sentence is a summary of actions the reader can’t see. It takes an hour. The third sentence is an observation that takes seconds. The fourth sentence is another summary. The pacing jumps around.

    Also, watch for overuse of state-of-being verbs such as “was” and “were.” You have two uses of “were” in the same sentence and “was” in the next sentence. These are okay to use, but they often indicate weak verb phrasing.

    Instead of those sentences, try something like the following. It will help get rid of your information dump and develop the characters:


    When they finished, Devin sat on a log and gazed westward down the dusty road. He poked at the parched ground with his sword, his eyes never drifting.

    Meryl sat next to him. With their bodies already wet with sweat, the warm sun would become uncomfortable soon, but at least the sweat would dry. “Watching for Father and Mother?”

    He nodded. “They’ve never been gone two months before.”

    “Money’s never been this scarce before. Maybe they’re doing some extra trading.”

    His lips barely moved. “Maybe.”

    She studied his expression—tired, worried. Changing the subject might help. She laid her sword blade over his, a matched pair, the only valuables in Grandfather’s estate. “Are you excited about choosing day?”

    He slid his blade back and forth, making the metal sing. “I guess so, but I’m not likely to get what I want.”

    “How many protector apprenticeships are open?”

    “Just one.” He turned toward her, his brow wrinkled. “Maybe I should apprentice for a knight. There are four openings. I’m sure to get one.”

    Meryl shook her head. “Then you’d have to go to war. We need you to stay here to protect us. With your swordsmanship, who would be better?”

    “My skills aren’t the problem.” He stared to the west again. “It’s our family name.”

    Meryl sighed. The familiar roadblock had cropped up again. Maybe it would be best to try another way to get his mind off family troubles. “Want supper?”


    Let your characters play out the scene in real time and show everything unless the actions are tedious or boring. If you have a boring sequence but still need to inform readers about what happened, then summarize.

    Provide visuals that show your setting. Give facial expressions. Let the readers dive into Meryl’s mind and read her thoughts. Invent ways to bring out the details naturally as I demonstrated above.

    Next: “The two laid on their sleeping mats. It wasn’t too late yet.” Use “lay” instead of “laid.”

    Next:


    “Certainly my fair lady. The Rescuer is a man of honor, but not of nobility. In fact, he was a commoner. He saves people in their darkest hour with his sword, Deliverer. Some say he’s an angel,” Devin said in a storyteller voice. He continued the story until Meryl fell asleep.


    Move “Devin said” to the space after “my fair lady.” Speaker tags should come as early in a paragraph as possible.

    Next:


    A sharp knock on the hut’s exterior woke Meryl from her sleep. Since all the peasants didn’t bother to knock she figured it was some messenger for Devin about his choosing day. Devin was a heavy sleeper so she figured he wasn’t awake and she might as well see what they wanted.


    “Figured” is repeated. I would delete both uses of “she figured.” This is a narrator’s phrase. Don’t tell us that she’s figuring. Show her figuring.

    Next:


    “I’m his daughter. Why?” she asked as she walked over and pulled away the curtain and tied it to a hook.


    No need for a speaker tag here. You have three actions in a row, so write the list with commas and only one “and.”

    I suggest: “I’m his daughter. Why?” She walked over to the doorway, pulled aside the curtain, and tied it to a hook.

    Next: “Okay, is his son, your brother, also here?” the man asked. He was tall and appeared very strong.

    I think she would notice his appearance before he speaks. Give one facial feature, and show his tallness and strength: As he looked down at her, his mustache twitched, and his arms bulged within his dirty tunic.

    Next: Meryl nodded. “One moment.” She walked and knelt to where Devin lay asleep. She called his name a couple of times and shook him a little until he awoke.

    Where did he lay asleep? A visual would help. Also, this would be the best opportunity for the kidnapper to strike, not after the son awakens. Why does he wait?

    Next: In a single stride he was at the door. Meryl followed him.

    Since Meryl “walked over” to where Devin slept, I pictured a place farther from the door than a single stride. Also, if he slept only a stride away, the kidnapper would have seen him from the doorway. He would have known to strike right away.

    Next: Devin nodded pulling his sister close.

    Why “his sister”? Just use “Meryl.” Also, you need a comma after “nodded.”

    Next: “I have news regarding your parents.”

    Provide another visual for the man in order to sharpen his presence. Maybe he’s holding something.

    Next: A sliver of hope entered Meryl until she saw his expression. Devin squeezed her tighter, but she didn’t mind.

    Show the sliver of hope with her body language or her thoughts. Show his expression. The reader feels blind to what that expression looks like. What did her hope change to? Fear? Apprehension? Show it. Also, “she didn’t mind” feels out of place. I don’t think she would be considering that right now.

    Next: Meryl squeezed her eyes shut. They couldn’t be dead! she thought.

    No need for the “she thought” tag. It is clear that she is thinking this.

    Next: To late she realized what was happening.

    Use “too” instead of “to.” I didn’t understand this sentence. What is too late? What did she realize? Since readers are in Meryl’s point of view, they need to know what she is thinking. I would eliminate this sentence.

    Next:


    He lunged at the two. Meryl and Devin were the same height and almost the same strength, but the two combined would be no match for the taller and stronger man. He over took them easily. The teens had no idea how to use their muscles other then swordplay and a little self defense. The man bound the two together at their wrists with a strong rope.


    This is supposed to be an exciting action scene, but you described it in an analytical and summarized way. You mention height and strength and use those factors to predict the outcome. Then the only mention of the fight itself is “he over took them easily.” (Overtook should be one word.) There are zero visuals. Show the fight. Show them punching, clawing, and kicking. Show how he overtakes them. Show that the teens lacked fighting skills instead of telling us.

    Next:


    Outside he had a horse pulling an empty cart that neither sibling had noticed earlier. The man led them to the cart, picked them up, and dumped them in. The sky was still dark so it wasn’t even dawn yet, the perfect time for a kidnapping.


    Since the siblings were asleep, it’s already clear that they wouldn’t have noticed the cart. I didn’t know it was night. You didn’t mention how long they slept. When Meryl awakened, she would have noticed that it was night when the kidnapper knocked on the hut. You need to report that it’s night as soon as she awakens.

    Since it was night, I think she would have alerted Devin before going to the door. Also, when she pulls the curtain aside for him, how does she see him? What is the light source?

    You are again providing a summary instead of showing what Meryl is seeing and feeling in real time. What did it feel like to be picked up? What else was in the cart? Did she thump onto flat wood or onto a pile of dirt or manure? Did she hit face first? Maybe a splinter of wood stabbed her shoulder. Show what these actions feel like.

    Now just a few comments about the rest:

    I found the kidnapper’s actions to be unrealistic. He pretended to have a message and played a little coy about the parents’ deaths. Then he gives a speech about villains giving too much information, then he gives information that they don’t need to know. He sounded like a cartoon character.

    When he kicked the horse hard, what did the horse do? You don’t show its reaction.

    Why didn’t Meryl and Devin get out of the cart and sneak away? Their feet weren’t tied, and the kidnapper wasn’t looking.

    It didn’t seem realistic that Meryl would think about how handsome their kidnapper is, especially since she had no thought about it when she first saw him.

    You provide no reaction from Devin. He seems to disappear without any further act to get away. Since he wants to be a protector, it seems odd that he does nothing after they are taken.

    Why did Meryl fall asleep at a time like this? Why aren’t she and Devin trying to figure out how to escape? They can’t talk, but I assume they can see each other since Meryl can see the cart, the horse, and the back of the kidnapper’s head. Yet, I wonder about how she can see these things. Since it isn’t dawn yet, what is the source of light?

    I hope that helps. Keep writing!

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  2. Um… Is this where we say that we’re in for the swag?

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  3. Alyssa,
    I found your story very intriguing. In my point of view, you can’t go wrong with sibling story’s. My only advice is maybe starting the action a little later so the reader can get to know your characters. Great story!

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  4. In general, I like this, particularly the second half (after the stranger shows up- that’s where it gets properly interesting). A few thoughts/comments:
    -First paragraph: change “curtain that stood for her hut’s door” to “curtain that replaced . . .” or “curtain that stood in for . . .”.
    -Fourth paragraph: I’d say to change “to find more business a few hours west” to something more specific, maybe “to find more business in the (descriptor) city to the west”.
    -Fifth paragraph: If Devin hasn’t yet been apprenticed, how does he know enough swordplay to teach Meryl? If they’re only a year apart, wouldn’t she have possibly taken lessons with him and therefore not need him to teach her, just to spar with her? Finally, I think that if they’re just practicing and they’re at home, it’s likely that they’d use practice swords weighted and balanced like their real ones rather than actual metal swords.
    -Meryl seems like she’s a few years younger than Devin in many ways, even though you say she’s fifteen and he’s sixteen.
    -Eight paragraph: “amazing singing voice”- I highly doubt he’d be singing with his shouting voice or speaking voice. 😉 No need to specify this year.
    -I like that Meryl still likes to listen to stories, and that Devin likes telling them. I hope that this Rescuer story will have some bearing on the rest of your story; I also kind of hope we get to hear the rest of the Rescuer story at some point.
    -A few paragraph’s later: change “male messenger” to “man”.
    -“The teens had no idea how to use their muscles other than swordplay and a little self defense”. I get what you’re trying to say here- that they don’t know how to fight off this stranger- but I think it could be worded better- it implies they don’t do anything that requires strength besides fighting.
    -Genre savvy villain. I highly approve.
    -Throughout the story, don’t forget to make sure you’re using action verbs whenever possible instead of just saying “was” or “had”. Also, make sure you’re showing, rather than telling, when possible.
    Overall, nice beginning.

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  5. I really enjoy stories along this genre and I think you provided a realistic way that the teens would be pulled on their adventure. Going along the lines of showing, not telling, I’m not sure how familiar with swordplay you are but showing Devin teaching defense would also help show his character and the relationship between siblings. Does all his energy go into what he does or is he more laid back? When the man delivers the news to the kids he asks if Meryl is Clive’s son. Is it the darkness that makes it difficult to distinguish her features? Yet she talks to him before he asks, so unless she has an unusually deep voice I don’t think she would be mistaken for her brother. Playing off what Mr. Davis said in regard to how the man first attacks them an idea could be to have him grab her as she goes to wake Devin. The noise would probably wake him up, so this could be another place for showing their character by the man exploiting a weakness in Devin: his sister. Also if the man was responsible for killing their parents I don’t know if he would apologize for bringing them the news. If this event hinges on something the family knows, even if the kids don’t realize what they know, some foreshadowing would help so when they realize what they know it’s not all told through back story of their parents. I really like the story idea and hope to read more of it one day :).

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    • I have a prolougeish thing that tells about their parents and what happened. Thanks!

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    • One thing I fotgot to mention, I didn’t really get a feel for where they lived. Are they by other cottages or are they more secluded? Is it a forest or plains? Their parents are traders but what are the trading? Do they have another source of stability such as a little plot of land to farm?

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  6. Alyssa, your story sounds wonderfully interesting. I like the sound of the rescuer and also like the name of his sword!

    Most of my comments seem to already have been mentioned, but here they are in case they haven’t.

    In the first few paragraphs, I found that I didn’t know what the hour or setting was until you had Meryl ask if Devin wanted supper; maybe mention the waning light? Also, I would love to hear a little more on the maneuvers that Devin was teaching; a block, parry, ect.

    When you have Devin and Meryl going through their routine motions in the evening, you mentions that they had no meat, then you say that they had some but were saving it, which is it?

    Lastly, when the man knabs the siblings, take out ‘to late, she realized what was happening’; if the man said “by me” and then grabs them, I think it might flow a little nicer.

    That’s all I have, you do a good job of showing the scenes as they happen, and keeping the readers interest. Keep it up!

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  7. Alyssa,

    Most of the specific critiques I would offer have already been stated, and better. Instead, I have a technique for you to help with your dialogue and prose. Try reading it aloud. A lot of your dialogue is a bit odd, and I can’t imagine people saying it. It may be a little much, but you could even get a writing partner to work with you reading lines back and forth to each other until the lines are smooth and natural.

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  8. Alyssa, I think you have a great starting point for an interesting story. Remember, don’t feel discouraged by the critiques, but rather take them to heart. We want to see improvements and we are all here to learn. Getting the story down is important and sometimes difficult. You have a good framework which needs some additions to make it even better.
    For me, I would really like to see more imagery and descriptions in your story. The training between the brother and sister is a great opportunity to allow the reader to get to love your two characters. Maybe have them tease each other. Maybe have Devin overpower Meryl to show his strength. Or maybe have one of them accidentally hit the other with the flat of the blade. If one of them gets a small bruise or something you can really flush out a characters traits based on reactions. For example, if you make Alex get furious when he loses a duel its an entirely different character trait than if he laughs his head off. Or if Alex, accidentally, hurts Meryl, will she freak out or laugh or cry or suck it up. These small little events can reveal a lot about a person’s character. Use them early on to help the reader get to know the characters. This is a great way to show and not tell. If Alex is compassionate have him spar with his sister, injure her (accidentally) then let us see his horror for doing that. If Alex is cruel have him hit his sister and laugh at her for losing. It’s just an idea and you know your characters better than I do.
    Second point. During the kidnapping scene. I would love to see the “bad guy’s” cruelty a bit more and Meryl’s emotions. Have him punch her in the stomach. We need to know about the pain –the wind getting knocked out of her. Also, you can reveal a character trait about Alex here. Have him jump in-between the evil man and his sister. Have her see Alex getting sliced with a knife (or punched hard). Show that Alex is valiant and puts up a fight but falls hard defending his sister. Here you can make the reader fear the bad man and the reader will appreciate Alex more for trying to do the right thing.
    Sorry for the long answer. But it would be great to see a revised version which allows more character development early and which allows me to see the pain/valiance of the characters.

    Writing is hard work. I’ve been working on a couple stories for a very long time and I’m still not satisfied with them. So much to do!!! So good effort! I wish you the best! Don’t give up!

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