Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Friday, August 12, 2005

    The Chosen One

    'Alaska Matt' has sent in this short prologue (aaagh! prologues!) for an SF novel.

    Overhead, a bird's wing beats broke the night's silence. Phoenix listened until the desperate flutters faded away over the jungle canopy. He knew what would come next: first a predatory howl, then the screams. He glanced over his shoulder. Half-obscured by hanging vines and twisted boles, he saw the village huts cowering in their clearing, metal roofs reflecting starlight. He wondered how long it would take for the predators to arrive. Not long. A rush of wind stirred the ferns to either side of the path; dark scales glinted as they passed between the shadows. Not long at all. Nervously, Phoenix hiked his backpack up on his shoulders and continued.

    As he worked his way east, he heard the first cries risebehind him. Feral snarls in a familiar tongue sounded through the wind-stirred branches. Phoenix tried hard to put the sounds out of mind as his fear drove him deeper into the jungle.

    In the air ahead, a ghostly woman materialized. Her black, tattered, hooded cloak obscured her face with shadows. Phoenix recognized her anyway.

    It's good to find you alive, she said, her voice flowing smoothly into his mind.

    Phoenix's eyes traced the outlines of the undergrowth, searching for the sleek outline of a tooth-filled snout. To his relief, he saw nothing. Only the woman walking along the path in front of him.

    "I may not survive the night," he said. "They have come to this village, too."

    Under the shadow of the woman's hood, Phoenix glimpsed a smile. You've survived worse encounters with them before. The smile disappeared; a concerned look replaced it.
    Why have you not come to Bereas, Phoenix? You would be safe here.

    Phoenix blinked. In the darkness behind his eyelids, her apparition remained clear. She was projecting herself into his mind.

    "I'll never set foot in your city," he answered. "I know you mean well, but I won't let you use me to destroy the Key."

    There is one who will.

    Phoenix breathed a heavy sigh as he ducked under a curtain of twisted vines. "It will be a long time before he comes to this world."

    But he will come. Whether it be six years or six hundred, he will come. And when he does, I will greet him.

    Phoenix said nothing as he pulled himself over the top of a decrepit, moss-covered log. He slid off the rotting mass of wood and landed in a dense mat of ferns and dead leaves. Brushing away the worst of the mess, he continued down a narrow gulley cut into the ground by a recent storm. The old woman followed.

    Phoenix, do you despise me?

    He stopped. "No," he grunted. "But I despise what you want to do. When the Wielder comes, I'm going to find him. I won't let you throw away all that we've accomplished here."

    Then there is no purpose to our conversation, she said. Remorse dwelled in her
    words. I really do mean well, Phoenix.

    "I know," he said, starting down the gulley again. By the times the words left his mouth, the old woman had vanished. A rush of air filled the place where she'd stood. Far behind, the last cry in the village died away; ferns rustled as the predators streamed back into the jungle.

    Determined to survive, Phoenix pushed forward.

    Is Matt going to be getting all Thomas Covenant on us here - the man or woman who comes to the secondary world as a saviour? (TC was known as the Wielder now and again, too.) I can imagine Chapter One, in which we meet the protagonist, who through occult or scientific means gets hurled into the alien landscape of Chapter Two, where the plot begins.

    Just going on the assumption that is indeed what's about to happen, can I declare a personal allergy to Prophecies and Chosen Ones? They're all over genre fantasy (particularly) like a cheap suit. For me, they tend to kill tension, and provide a lazy way for the author to move the plot about.

    I can take it in 'Dune', because that's all about precognition and people being unglued in time to some extent, but imagine how much Lord of the Rings would have sucked if there had been some sort of Ancient Scroll right from the beginning, that told us in a bunch of tricksy rhyming metaphors that Frodo was going to defeat Sauron and it was all going to be OK. (Fine, people were expecting Aragorn to pop up with his reforged sword and the Witch King gets his Macbeth-style, all that, but the overall fate of Middle Earth is in the balance. Galadriel doesn't have too many comforting visions for Frodo in her mirror.)

    Isn't it more exciting if there isn't that crutch to lean on? Really, what's the appeal of the Chosen One?

    Last thing on the actual story: 'Phoenix'? Not a very believable name. I'm not saying he has to be called Nigel, but it's hard to take him seriously as it is.

    On the writing: it needs some tightening up. A really picky rewrite would do a lot for this. Among the little things I'd be looking at: "desperate flutters" (why desperate?); "He knew what would come next" (because of the bird, or because of something we haven't been around to see?); "a predatory howl" (if you're generally referring to them as 'the predators', find a less redundant adjective); "cowering in their clearing" (a clunky bit of alliteration, not to mention the 'pathetic fallacy'); "feral snarls in a familiar tongue" (can feral snarls be verbal?); "a ghostly woman materialized" (quite a matter-of-fact way to describe something very spooky and outlandish); "rotting mass of wood" (redundant since we had "decrepit moss-covered log" in the previous sentence; pick one); "Remorse dwelled in her words" (ugh.)

    I'm getting picky because there are moments of good style here, but the awkward or fuzzy bits really take the shine off. Needs more attention to detail. As a publisher, I'd be looking at this manuscript and thinking that I'd have to do so much editing at sentence level that the story would have to be a real humdinger to make it worthwhile.
    Torgo, 2:12 pm


    Just a quick suggestion Torgo.

    You may want to add the link for what this blog is all about to your link's section. That way, as it drops off the previous posts list readers won't have to go searching for it. Either that, or work in some of the important details into the sidebar.

    Blogger Phoenix, at 11:38 pm  
    Thanks for the honest critique, Torgo. It sounds like I've got some work to do, but I might have a chance.

    The parallels with Thomas Covenant are unintentional. I've never read those books, so I don't know much about them.
    Anonymous Alaska Matt, at 12:39 am  
    Torgo - your most telling comment: As a publisher, I'd be looking at this manuscript and thinking that I'd have to do so much editing at sentence level that the story would have to be a real humdinger to make it worthwhile.
    That was an eye-opener. I've been writing and teaching writing for a while and I look at manuscripts like this one and think 'I know something isn't working here but what...'
    You've confirmed what I have lately suspected - that we have to get right down to nit-picky language level to work out why a story could be exciting but seems somehow flat or flabby on the page. Thanks.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:06 am  

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