Our final contestant in the first page critique games is Andrea with an excerpt from Twelveland. I’m assuming it’s YA or middle grade. Remember the publisher assumes the oldest reader of the book will be the same age as the protagonist. There are exceptions–Harry Potter anyone?–but this is the general rule of thumb. I don’t think anyone predicted how universal Harry Potter would turn out to be.
And now, on with the show:
Twelveland by Andrea de Regt
At the sound of the harsh voices, the boy cowered in his too small cage. The troll queen and her sister faced each other threateningly right before him: two huge heads with green-purplish, pocked skin and bristly short hair, their fangs and snout-like noses almost touching. Kieran was glad their anger was not aimed at him, but this could change faster than a dragon’s swoop.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this paragraph. But there’s nothing particularly right, either. I get that it’s a young audience, but I think there needs to be more voice and more interesting language to the age group. The boy should have a name (it’s in his point of view, so his voice is critical here as well). Look at words like harsh, threateningly, huge. They are almost non-words. Snout-like–pig snout? Why not say pig-snout noses? It’s much more visceral and visual and that’s what you need for this audience. And, in case I didn’t say it loud enough, VOICE. Attitude. Get Kieran’s voice in there. He’s glad. Hmmm. He’s been caged up for years, is about to be eaten, they things smell (I assume–get more smells in this), and yet he’s sort of got a ho-hum attitude at this point.
Queen Grilla stepped back and waved her fist, holding a crystal ball, close to her sister Groka’s face. “I am eldest. Power is mine.”
Not really an interesting argument. And the names are easily confused. I like Grilla, since it’s reminiscent of Gorilla, but I think you need names that can be differentiated more. Both start with Gr and end in A with two syllables.
Mesmerised, Kieran followed the shiny object with his eyes. He should look away, but a glint had caught his attention: two lavender blue eyes looking at him, from another world it seemed.
You totally let the eyes slide. They are looking out from the crystal ball? You say this, and then not again. There’s an opportunity for something really enormous here in terms of Kieran and revealing his character and situation, but again, there’s more of a ho-hum attitude. And you don’t bring back those eyes. He instantly forgets about them.
“For now,” Groka growled. With malicious contempt, she added, “Powerful Queen can’t even sleep without child singing to her.”
show the malicious contempt. Especially at this age. Maybe with a gesture or other action like spitting or drooling and flinging it at her sister.
She slapped Kieran’s cage, as she turned her back on her sister and stomped out of the large cave. The cage swayed wildly, and Kieran grabbed the bars in a futile attempt to steady both it and himself.
How does he feel about that? What did her hand look like? How big was it? Did the bars dent? Did his foot slid through the bars when it went seriously sideways? Did the metal grind into him? Is he always in this cage? What does he wear? Does he have boils? Who cleans it? Give more sense of his situation and his personality and voice. Describe more. MORE MORE MORE!
Queen Grilla muttered something inaudible, and sat down on the stone-cut throne. As she shuffled her bum to take a more comfortable position in the narrow seat, she caught sight of Kieran. He looked away a second too late.
Again, more of his thinking and reaction. What did that muttering sound like? Grinding boulders? Where are they? Give a sense of the room and the throne. Are there bones all around it? is it filthy? Does she happen to like pink and polka dots?
“What are you looking at? And why are you silent? Sing!”
Kieran took a deep breath, and started an old song he used to sing together with his mother in a life he only remembered from his dreams.
There ought to be more emotion here. Is he scared? Resentful? What’s his relationship with Grilla like? I mean, he’s been there for a long time. And you’ve get to mention his little companion. As far as your reader knows, he’s all alone except for Grilla. VOICE! Did I mention that yet?
“It’s such a perfect day. I’m glad I spent it with you …”
He knew he sounded a bit croaky, but he didn’t dare ask for water.
“Enough!” Grilla peered through half-closed, beady eyes. “If I wanted to listen to frog, I would have caught frog. Sing better, or you are dinner tonight.”
Beady is another non-word for kids. It doesn’t evoke much. How does he respond to the threat? He doesn’t seem bothered.
“Yes, my Queen.”
Not much of a reaction.
“Full moon, soon,” Grilla muttered, “Time for new singer. And human meat for my children.”
Why the full moon if he’s been there awhile? Isn’t there one every month? Or is there? How many children? Doesn’t he imagine that? Does he think what they look like or what it looks like when they eat or imagine what it would be like to be eaten?
Kieran swallowed hard, and started another – easier – song.
When the Queen had finally dozed off, he whispered desperately to the smaller cage next to his. “Oh Tarach, what am I going to do? They’re going to eat me.”
First mention of Tarach and there is no sense of what his friend is or looks like or why he’d be willing to sacrifice himself for Kieran. You should show this a bit earlier along with a description of the setting.
“Courage, good Kieran,” his little friend said, “I won’t let them eat you. They will feel my fire first.”
“No, I don’t want you to risk your life for me.”
“They will not kill me.”
“But they will hurt you.”
How does Kieran feel about that? Does he imagine it? Again, why would Tarach be willing to do that for Kieran? What’s their bond?
“That they will. But if I can give you a chance to escape, it is worth it.”
“A chance.” Kieran sighed. “I don’t think I stand a chance. Even if I can make it out of the main hall unnoticed, I’ll probably get lost in the passages. But thank you, Tarach, you’re a good friend.”
Very passive. He’s practically given up. He should maybe get excited and then fall back on doubts. Is he weak from being in the cage? Has he ever been out of it? Give more a sense of why he wouldn’t stand a chance. And once out of the castle or whatever he’s in, what would the outside be like? Is he afraid of being in the outside? After all, it’s been so long. How long before he will get dead? How desperate is he? There’s so much lacking in his reaction and this conversation and a lot of it is in Kieran’s emotions and passivity.
Tarach fluttered in his cage.
“Don’t give up hope yet, my friend.”
Kieran pulled up his legs and rested his chin on his knees, the only way he could sit comfortably in his cage these days. He had grown during the years. It must be four years now, if Grilla was expecting a new singer, He would be about twelve. He sighed again. Twelve was too young to die.
Again, passive and not interesting to a reader. I don’t care that much if he gets eaten. There’s nothing I like about him at this point. He’s very cardboard.
At least, he didn’t have to worry about the cage becoming an even tighter fit. Soon his ordeal would be over, when he served no longer as a toy but as a treat to the troll children.
I feel like this is a skeleton and needs flesh. It’s a good skeleton, sturdy and well connected, but pretty, ahem, bare bones. You need the details and most of all, you need the voice. Kids really need something to latch onto and description and voice are key, as well as humor. If you can get some humor in here, gallows humor is good too, but something funny would benefit you. Given what you’ve provided about Grilla and Groka, I think you’re leaning that way, but it’s not enough.
I think there’s real possibility here and I think you can do some really terrific things with it. I’m really curious about where you plan to go with it.
One last thing–prologues frequently don’t get read. Readers will often skip them because they don’t feel they are necessary to the story. Is this really necessary to be a prologue?