Critique Group – Sons of Callow

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Ethan, I’ll take your word for it. I’m sure I would want to finish as quickly as possible, too.

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Sons of Callow – by Joel

The spoon was worn to a nub and he would need another soon. The guards had searched him and his tiny cell quite thoroughly, but they had never found it. Stealing the spoon had earned him a beating that had taken a month to recover from and he was loath to have it repeated. It would have to be done though, and soon. There was no way to tell the passage of time and he needed the spoon to remember how long he had been there. It was important to remember, to record each year, each week, each miserable forsaken moment in the cell. Those lost moments were etched on the back of his brain and his conviction, his desire to make someone pay for each of them was what carried him through, what drove him, kept his withered body warm at night on the cold stone of the cell’s floor.

He sank to his knees and ran his fingertip along the wall, following the seam between the rough stone blocks nearest the floor, counting the notches there as his long jagged fingernail caught on each one. There were a hundred and twelve in all, small and hidden by the dim light of his cell. A hundred and twelve months, or near to it, each painstakingly chiseled with the spoon. He added a notch each time the guards came to clean his cell, though to say they cleaned it was a generous statement. The whole affair amounted to little more than a nozzle being thrust through the narrow slot in the door and a torrent of water being pumped in at high pressure. The water would scour the interior of the cell and him alike before draining through the ten centimeter hole in the corner—his toilet. An arm’s length down that hole, the pipe angled, leaving a small flat lip where the channel was misaligned. Shoddy workmanship, but he wouldn’t complain. Wedged against that small lip, hidden in his own filth was where he kept the spoon.

Footsteps echoed in the hall outside and he froze, his throat tightening at the approach of heavy boots. Was it cleaning time again? He wasn’t ready. The spoon was still in its hiding place. The draining water would dislodge it and wash it down the pipe. It would be lost. He scurried across the cell and thrust his arm down the hole, its coarse opening tearing at his flesh. The footsteps drew closer as he fumbled for the spoon with growing desperation. Its curve, sharpened from countless hours against the stone, sliced the side of his forefinger as the footsteps stopped just outside his door. The jingle of keys in the hall drew his attention and as he twisted his body to look back at the door, the spoon slipped from between his fingertips. It clattered down the angle of the pipe and was gone. His heart sank and he rolled onto his back, drawing his arm from the hole just as the cell door opened.  Two guards stepped in, each clad in the leather and green canvas garb of his captor, each wielding a meter length of battered ironwood. One of the guards tossed a set of iron shackles on the floor at his feet and he sat up, staring at them. This was new.

“Put the shackles on, scum,” the guard said. “You have a visitor.”

“A visitor,” he repeated thoughtfully as he stared at the shackles. Indeed, this was new.

“Put them on or you get the rod.”

He reached for the shackles without getting up, dragging them closer and slipping his emaciated hands through their broad iron cuffs. In a hundred and twelve months, he had never had a visitor. It might have been a trick, an attempt to fool him into shackling himself so that they could beat him more easily, for he had been known to fight back. But he doubted they had the capacity for psychological cruelty, their primitive minds preferring old-fashioned physical abuse instead. Masochists, weren’t they all? He clicked the shackles and they locked around his wrists, then he waited silently.

One of the guards, the one that had been doing all the talking, pressed the microbead in his ear and said, “He’s ready, sir.”

More footsteps approached, louder this time and more distinct through the open cell door, and he tilted his head to consider them. There were two—the first were light and awkward, short strides suggesting hesitation. The second were long and steady, displaying audacity.

A boy of no more than fourteen or fifteen appeared in the doorway. He was draped in rich dark clothing, his fingers and neck laden with fine jewels and gold. His hair was a tangled mop of golden curls and he wore an expression of disgust on his handsome face. “This is him,” the boy said, shying away from the doorway and covering his nose with the back of his hands. “The smell is horrible!”

A man stepped between the boy and the doorway, tall and thin, his features gaunt in the flickering torchlight of the hall. Unlike the boy’s rich garb, his clothes were plain and black and his steely hair was slicked back along the curve of his skull. He didn’t share the boy’s hesitation and stepped confidently through the open doorway, his hands clasped behind his back as he considered the cell’s interior. The man’s gaze eventually fell to the shackles. “So you are Solomon Drake, Scourge of Callow.”

He squinted up at the man, his eyes still adjusting to the torchlight. “Now just Drake, honored guest of Count Vanderpoole.” He held up his wrists and the shackles chinked together. “He’s been a most gracious host.”

The man in black gestured to the guards. “Stand him up.”

The guards threaded their ironwood rods beneath his arms and hoisted him to his feet. The quick heat of anger rose reflexively in his chest at their indignant treatment and he jerked his arm away from one of the rods. The display of defiance earned him a crack on the side of the head with the guard’s knuckles and as he lifted his gaze, the sting of the blow still ringing through his brain, he caught a brief smile on the man in black’s thin lips.

“Still some fight in you, I see,” the man said. “Good.”

“I don’t like the way he looks at us,” the boy said from the safety of the hall, considering him with no small amount of boredom. “Bring me his eyes.”

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27 replies

  1. This piece is great! When I read through it, it flowed smoothly and the descriptions of the people and their emotions were wonderful. I am left wanting to know more and to see how the scene will end for Drake. I would love to read more of this piece.

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  2. Really good scene. Tight writing with strong descriptions. Made me curious what he had done to warrant this treatment.

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  3. Joel,

    I found your story intriguing, and I felt pity for the prisoner. I would definitely read on to learn more.

    Four issues kept cropping up:

    One: The lack of a comma in compound sentences. If you have two independent clauses in a sentence joined by a conjunction (but, and, etc), you need a comma before the conjunction. The first sentence provides a good example.

    “The spoon was worn to a nub and he would need another soon.” This should have a comma after nub, because the two joined phrases are independent, that is, they could stand alone as sentences. You have several instances of this missing comma, and it jarred me every time.

    The comma is needed because the lack of a comma indicates that the subject of the first phrase continues as the subject for the next verb, but then a new noun appears instead of a second verb. This is not a stylistic issue. It is a punctuation error and can cause trouble for readers.

    Two: Many uses of “was” and “were”: I counted seventeen uses of “was” in this excerpt, include five in the first paragraph, and I counted seven uses of “were.”

    These words are allowed, and I use them at times, but they often indicate weak verb phrases and/or passive voice. I would try to rewrite at least half of them to make the phrases more vivid.

    Three: Too much telling. A lot of this reads like a narrator’s description of events rather than an intimate point of view. I will provide some examples.

    Four: Lack of clarity: This includes pronoun/antecedent confusion. I will point out a few.

    The first paragraph feels like a narrator’s summary. Notice that the character doesn’t do anything at all. The narrative “tells” throughout and never shows anything other than a worn spoon. All other visuals are provided by back-story explanations.

    I would begin with the character doing something, such as etching the mark. I would also begin with his name so readers can have a label, maybe something like:


    Drake dug the edge of the spoon into the seam between the prison cell’s stone blocks. Pushing with all his might, he carved a shallow notch, making a slight crunching noise as the inch-long mark took shape. Number one hundred twelve.

    When he finished, he sat on the cold stone floor and blew out a sigh. One hundred twelve miserable months in this fetid rat hole. Countless moments of joy lost forever, replaced by never ending torture.

    He looked at his arm—filthy, emaciated, withered. Someone would pay for this crime, this cruelty. Each month would be another book of evidence against the perverted judge who locked an innocent man away from society, from home, from love. So counting had to continue. Justice and sanity demanded it.

    He raised the spoon close to his eyes–worn to a nub, it wouldn’t last long. He would need another soon, but stealing this one resulted in a beating that required a month of recovery.”


    This option begins with an active character who creates visuals with his actions. Then the back story elements are clearly from his own mind, his interior monologue. After that, I would show him hiding the spoon, which can bring in more back story. Each real-time action can lead to an interior monologue memory.

    Now some details:

    “The spoon was worn to a nub and he would need another soon.” Needs a comma after “nub.”

    “The guards had searched him and his tiny cell quite thoroughly, but they had never found it.” The closest antecedent for “it” is cell. At this point, you haven’t said that the spoon was hidden, so it is not an automatic assumption that the guards were searching for the spoon.

    “Stealing the spoon had earned him a beating that had taken a month to recover from and he was loath to have it repeated.” Needs a comma after “from.”

    “It would have to be done though, and soon.” What is “it”? In the previous sentence, the “it” at the end seems to refer to a beating, because he doesn’t want it to happen. Then the next sentence he indicates that he wants “it” to happen. So is “it” now stealing the spoon? I think you have a pronoun/antecedent confusion here.

    “There was no way to tell the passage of time and he needed the spoon to remember how long he had been there.” Needs a comma after “time.” Also, this is pure telling. If you show him making a mark, this sentence is unnecessary.

    “It was important to remember, to record each year, each week, each miserable forsaken moment in the cell. Those lost moments were etched on the back of his brain and his conviction, his desire to make someone pay for each of them was what carried him through, what drove him, kept his withered body warm at night on the cold stone of the cell’s floor.”

    This is all telling that sounds like a narrator. Consider something like the option I provided above.

    “Footsteps echoed in the hall outside and he froze, his throat tightening at the approach of heavy boots.” Needs a comma after “outside.” Since the sound of heavy boots prompted the tightening of the throat, I suggest moving that descriptor to a point before the tightening.

    “The footsteps drew closer as he fumbled for the spoon with growing desperation.” Can you show the growing desperation instead of just telling that desperation was growing?

    “The jingle of keys in the hall drew his attention and as he twisted his body to look back at the door, the spoon slipped from between his fingertips.” Needs a comma after “attention.” Since this is an intense scene, I suggest shortening the sentences. There is no need for “drew his attention.” The fact that he noticed them makes it clear that his attention was drawn.

    Maybe this: “Keys jingled in the hall. He twisted his body and looked at the door. Only seconds remained. When he stretched his fingers, the spoon slipped and clattered down the pipe. Gone.”

    “His heart sank and he rolled onto his back, drawing his arm from the hole just as the cell door opened.” Needs a comma after “sank.”

    “Two guards stepped in, each clad in the leather and green canvas garb of his captor, each wielding a meter length of battered ironwood.” The closest antecedent for “his” is each, as if each guard had a captor.

    “One of the guards tossed a set of iron shackles on the floor at his feet and he sat up, staring at them.” Needs a comma after “feet.” The closest antecedent for “his” and “he” is the guard. I would use “Drake’s feet.”

    “A visitor,” he repeated thoughtfully as he stared at the shackles.
    The closest antecedent for “he” is the guard.

    “He reached for the shackles without getting up, dragging them closer and slipping his emaciated hands through their broad iron cuffs.” Reached is your main verb. Dragging and slipping are your participles. This sounds like the reaching and the dragging and the slipping happen at the same time, which is impossible.
    I suggest: Without getting up, he grabbed the shackles, dragged them close, and slipped his emaciated hands through their broad iron cuffs.

    “One of the guards, the one that had been doing all the talking, pressed the microbead in his ear …”

    When referring to people, use “who” instead of “that.” Also, I suggest “a microbead” instead of “the microbead” since you have not introduced the object yet.

    “More footsteps approached, louder this time and more distinct through the open cell door, and he tilted his head to consider them.” I would separate these phrases into two sentences and remove “to consider them.” You show him considering them, so there is no need to tell it.

    “His hair was a tangled mop of golden curls and he wore an expression of disgust on his handsome face.” Needs a comma after “curls.” Also, I suggest getting rid of the “was” with a more vivid verb phrase, like “Golden curls dangled from his tangled mop and swayed in front of his disgusted expression.”

    “Unlike the boy’s rich garb, his clothes were plain and black and his steely hair was slicked back along the curve of his skull.” Needs a comma after “black.” I would try to get rid of the “were” and “was” in a way similar to my suggestion above.

    “He held up his wrists and the shackles chinked together.” Needs a comma after “wrists.”

    “The quick heat of anger rose reflexively in his chest at their indignant treatment and he jerked his arm away from one of the rods.” Need a comma after “treatment.” I think you can delete “reflexively” and “at their indignant treatment.” These are clear without telling.

    “The display of defiance earned him a crack on the side of the head with the guard’s knuckles and as he lifted his gaze, the sting of the blow still ringing through his brain, he caught a brief smile on the man in black’s thin lips.”

    Needs a comma after “knuckles.” Also (a minor point), you wrote that the display “earned” a crack on the side of the head, but you didn’t write that the guard actually carried out the cracking. Also, “he caught” is a narrator phrase. Write it more simply with intimate POV.

    The guard slammed a fist against the side of Drake’s head. As ringing bounced from ear to ear, he lifted his gaze. The visitor in black flashed a brief smile with his thin lips.

    “Considering him with no small amount of boredom.” This is telling. What does it look like?

    I hope that helps. Keep writing! 🙂

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    • For some reason the site won’t let me just ‘like’ a comment so I will just comment.

      Thanks for the critique and yes…commas seem to be my bane.

      ‘it’ – I knew this. Rookie mistake. Would you suggest rewording the sentence to put spoon before it or simply replace ‘it’ with ‘spoon’?

      Antecedents = Nosebleeds

      “A visitor,” he repeated thoughtfully as he stared at the shackles.
      The closest antecedent for “he” is the guard.

      Beginning a new paragraph doesn’t somewhat ‘negate’ this? I mean, I know it doesn’t get rid of grammatically incorrect usage, but following that rule sort of makes over use of proper names, doesn’t it? Putting grammar aside, just for a moment, is it unclear who the speaker is? I should use his name each time he speaks? Well, I understand what you are saying, each time I need a pronoun later in the same paragraph but…This tends to become distracting with over use of names, doesn’t it?

      The rest I understand and agree with.

      Thanks again!

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      • You could reverse the sentence in order to avoid repeating spoon: The guards had never found it, though they searched him and his tiny cell quite thoroughly.

        I don’t always follow the closest antecedent rule if the antecedent is obviously not the closest one. In this case I didn’t think it was obvious. It would be obvious if you identified him in another way, like this:

        “A visitor,” he repeated as he stared at the shackles lying near his dirty feet. (Only Drake would have dirty feet)

        Simply put, starting a new paragraph helps, but it is not a sure thing. I prefer clarity. Since you rarely used Drake’s name, I would use it in this case. Name overuse is a problem, but you are not in danger of this. There are other ways to provide clarity as in the example I provided.

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        • I get you. Okay, thanks! And yes, I was deliberate about not mentioning his name until he could be identified by the man in black. Which made everything up to that part tricky, as you stated.

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          • -The comma is needed because the lack of a comma indicates that the subject of the first phrase continues as the subject for the next verb, but then a new noun appears instead of a second verb. This is not a stylistic issue. It is a punctuation error and can cause trouble for readers.

            That explains a lot actually. I am not the greatest with grammar and most times I have to rely on what ‘sounds’ right. That at least gives me solid information to work with.

            -Two: Many uses of “was” and “were”: I counted seventeen uses of “was” in this excerpt, include five in the first paragraph, and I counted seven uses of “were.”

            In most of these instance did you feel they were passive or a weak verb issue? Have I got more of an issue slipping into passive writing or do I need to search my vocabulary better?

            -Three: Too much telling. A lot of this reads like a narrator’s description of events rather than an intimate point of view.

            I seem to have this problem often. especially at the beginning of chapters or when I have characters that are alone. I tend to start thinking that they are telling the narrative in their heads and forget that I am telling the narrative. I am told it is a from of lazy writing but none of it is easy!

            Four: Lack of clarity: This includes pronoun/antecedent confusion.

            We covered that one and I understand now.

            Thank you again!

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          • If you highlight each was and were, you will get an idea of how you most often used them. I saw a lot of “he was” “it was” and “this was” indicating that you use them as state-of-being verbs rather than passive voice, that is, you provide a noun or pronoun and describe its status. This is almost always telling. Take note of my suggested alteration of the first paragraph in which I activated the character. Action often gets rid of state-of-being descriptions.

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  4. Excellent work.

    The first line took me by surprise. It wasn’t what I expected as the first line in a story, so it grabbed my attention right away. The descriptive recap after the first line really does give some good description, and I could really get a feel for the character.

    My one suggestion is to give the guards a little more personality. Obviously, the story isn’t about them; but try to really make the guards into people that we can laugh at or despise. Right now they’re a little stock, and sometimes readers end up liking the characters with very small roles as much as the heroes.

    Strong clincher. I have a huge weakness for cliff-hangers, especially [in the best sense] nasty ones like that I already despise the boy and cringe to think what he might do, and I wish there were more of the story up here to read. Keep it up!

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    • Thanks for the comments Deborah.

      The guards don’t come into play again after this so I really didn’t want to distract by going into detail about them. the few sentences about their inability to understand psychological abuse and preferring physical abuse was as telling about them as I wanted to get. And masochists has since been replaced with sadists as I misused the word.

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  5. Wow! This story was really intriguing and I would definitely read more! You provide a lot of details, something that I need to work on 🙂 As Bryan Davis mentioned, you did use a lot of was/were, so just try to clean that up. And again as mentioned above, you do a lot of telling and not as much showing, but with just a little work that could be fixed. Awesome story and I can’t wait to read more! ( you’re going to turn it into a novel, right?) 🙂

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  6. I really liked how important the spoon was – it was an intriguing detail that really made me think about what little things would have mattered after one hundred and twelve months in prison. Again, just go with the suggestions already mentioned and think you’ll have something that catches the attention of any reader.

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  7. Your descriptions are natural and flow smoothly. I have questions that would continue to propel me through story. I also liked how you showed his relative age without diverting from what was going on in the story. I also noticed a lot of narration. Maybe you could include direct thoughts of Drake to add more intimacy. I liked how his name was revealed. A couple logistical questions. Would a spoon last 9 1/3 years? Also you say that the guards are masochists, but you don’t really show anything to make that statement true. Maybe they come in and knock him to the ground then after he’s shackled antagonize him more. Overall though I enjoyed it.

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    • Thanks for the comments, Haley!

      As I stated above, I have since replaced masochists with sadists. I was trying to convey that he has been there almost ten years. He already knows they are sadists. This scene that unfolds is something new to him.

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      • That word switch makes a difference! Still if you could show them ruthless when they first come in the audience will have more of a picture, though there is reference to the beating after the spoon.

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  8. Good story and the importance of the spoon and its use is what keeps this guy going. I tend to like the narrative and love descriptive passages, but have learned to tone mine down. I would suggest the same for you and using bit more internal dialogue would solve that issue. If this is a short story, then you might consider condensing the longer sentences when fewer words would do the same. (I know that is painful to do sometimes as I have had to cut my own, but then in the end realize that less is always more in a short story). Watch your POV. Perhaps use more “senses” to describe your character and his environment. I was not clear about the Count V. and it took another read to figure out that it was the boy. Was the Count known for this type of action (wanting the eyes). Was this a new thing as the Count would have been only 5 when Drake was first put in his cell? Also, good job in building the tension as he hears the footsteps.

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    • Thanks B.,
      Yes, I feel it important to state that this is the first half of the first chapter of a 95,000 word work. Mr. Davis found an excellent spot to cut it, but due to space constraints there is a lot that is not revealed here that comes out in following paragraphs and chapters. The Count was not the Count when Drake was imprisoned. The boy’s father was. Drake has never seen him before so he couldn’t know anything about him. I see how some POV questions can come up in this short bit. I’ve been told it borders on omniscient. But it is because Drake is exceptionally observant, which again, becomes apparent in later passages and chapters.

      Thanks again!

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  9. The story had a rough start, which Bryan Davis already covered, but once it got past that, I was so into it I didn’t notice any errors. (If the story bores me, I pick up errors better.)
    One thing that did throw me for a loop was that I couldn’t tell what the setting was. Early on, I assumed it was historical or fantasy with some plumbing, but with the mention of a microbead, I got the idea it was sci-fi. This may not be a problem, since readers will have the book description, but I’ve heard some readers don’t read that.
    I really liked the ending. That boy is creepy.

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    • Thank you, Jessi,
      As stated above, this is the first part of the first chapter of a rather lengthy work. Later in this same chapter more of the setting is revealed. It is science fiction. This just happens to be a rather primitive settlement on an isolated world so their technology is widely varied.

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      • That makes sense and sounds like a cool setting. It just kind of threw me for a loop when I’d assumed I was reading fantasy or historical.
        Perhaps early on, you could mention where the light comes from? Mentioning distant light fixtures or something would give readers a good idea of the setting.

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        • By the end of this chapter it is revealed that there is a starship in orbit. I don’t in anyway mean to argue a point with you as I do consider you comment constructive and helpful. But read outside this venue, the work is labeled as science fiction and by the end of this chapter it is apparent that it is indeed science fiction. I made the reveal slow deliberately to show the primitive aspects of this particular planet. I want the reader to wonder what is going on. By the end of this chapter, I let them know.

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