First Page Critique the Sixth


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.”

why not?

“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?


17 comments to First Page Critique the Sixth

  • Andrea

    Thank you very much, Diana!

    I see that I have to flesh it out more, and add more emotion. Either that, or loose this prologue altogether. Because the main (and pov) character is a girl (with lavender blue eyes) from our world who will travel to Twelveland to save Kieran, whom she has seen through a crystal ball. Chapter 1 starts with her. And I hope the ‘voice’ is stronger from then on, but I will pay extra attention to this.
    On second thoughts, maybe I should have sent you the first page of chapter 1 😉
    But I have learnt from this, and I will take it with me while revising the rest of the book, as well.

    I’m not a fan of long prologues either 😉 but I added this later, because I felt the book needed a bit of a sneak peek into this magical world. I suppose this was a bit too much ‘sneak’ and not enough ‘peek’ 😉
    Kierans little friend is not human and breathes fire (need I say more 😉 ) and this is why the trolls won’t kill him. Again, maybe I was trying too hard to create a mystery/riddle (a teaser, if you like), but forgot that the readers don’t care as much about these characters (yet?!) as I do.

    Of course, I will also have a good think about the names, and the other things you have said.
    I’m looking forward to any other comments.

    Again thank you very much, Diana, also for the encouragement 🙂


  • Andrea

    Sorry about the striked out last bit. Something went wrong there 🙁

  • Andrea

    Oh dear! this is getting worse 🙁 Did I say ‘striked’? That’s me hinging on two thoughts.
    (“struck out last bit” or the previous “I was trying to strike out something else”).
    Too much babbling, I know. Bye for now!

  • Amy

    Andrea: I also added a chapter to the beginning of my book right before a conference last year, as you say “to give a sneak peek”, and it didn’t work so well. Everyone in the critique group loved my original beginning much better. Also, at the time, I was trying to go with a theme of “deception”, but I found that I was withholding too much from the reader. So your comment “maybe I was trying to hard to create a mystery/riddle (a teaser, if you like), but forgot that the readers don’t care as much about these characters (yet?!) as I do” really resonated with me. I agree that the scene needs to be fleshed out, if kept. I am intrigued about the world you are building, and as Diana suggested, more details, thoughts, and voice would help.

    Diana: Thank you so much for these critiques. I have really enjoyed them and have learned a lot. I hope you, or another contributor, will do another series sometime, because I feel such in-depth critiques gives us readers a variety of practical tips to apply to our own writing. I was wondering, though, could you elaborate more about “non-words”? I think they are words the reader would just skim over and do nothing to help form an image in the reader’s mind, but I would like to learn more about them. Would it even be a large enough topic for an entire post one day? Just curious…

  • Amy

    I started reading today’s other critique, Diane, and noticed that you’re open to doing this again. Happy to see that, and hope you do!

  • quillet

    You’ve got some great ideas in this, Andrea, and I like the trolls. I wanted to know more about them, though. And about Tarach! I think Diana’s critique here is spot on, especially about those non-words. For example, don’t tell the reader something is being done “threateningly,” show it to us. Make the reader (or the POV character) feel threatened. I agree about the names being too similar, too. My eyes noticed the G—a and slipped right past the rest, so I definitely mixed up those two trolls.

    I feel sorry for Kieran and I want to know more about him, but he needs to come to life a bit more. Every character has to want/need something in every scene. What does he want or need in this particular moment?

    Anyway, I’ll chime in with my thanks to Diana for doing this. It’s been so instructive to read your critiques; it really gets my mind thinking along new lines. Hopefully I can apply that to my own work! Many, many thanks. 🙂

  • Andrea~

    I think you’ve got a lot of potential with this. I don’t know if kids skip prologues. Can it be just a regular chapter? I wonder how the trolls are keeping Tarach contained. Are the cages special? And how can Tarach be hurt? I’m glad it was helpful!

    Amy: non-words are words that people pass right over and that don’t evoke much because people are so used to reading them. You want those sorts of words sometimes, especially when you want to pick up the pace. They aren’t bad words, but just in the context not very evocative.

    You’re all very welcome. I’m glad they have been helpful.

  • Andrea, thanks for submitting this. I love the characters and the concept. After reading Diana’s notes and your comments, I was wondering about opening with this scene shown through the eyes in the crystal ball. That way you’d be describing Kieran and the trolls and the dragon through someone who hasn’t seen them before, like the reader. . For some reason that struck me as an interesting way to open if you decide you do want a prologue.

    Diana, thank you for doing these critiques. I’ve learned from every one of them, and if you were willing to do it again I’d be willing to throw my first page into the ring!

  • Razziecat

    Diana, these critiques are giving me some valuable insight, so thanks for that! I’m intrigued as to why it’s thought that people don’t read prologues. I read them, and I’m wondering what the other regular commenters here think of them–Do they read them or skip them? I don’t usually write prologues myself, but I did in one case, because it seemed the best way to give some insight into the villain’s motivation. Is a prologue an automatic turn-off to editors these days?

  • I think the biggest give away that the prologue is not needed – or at least totally needs to be revisions – is you said this is a preview being seen by your Main Character through the crystal ball. If that is the case, the prologue likely should be view and presented from the crystal ball’s point of view – what can be observed from there? It won’t get us Kieran’s feelings, but may show his fear and reaction even more strongly.

    As for not giving us more details about Kieran’s fellow prisoner, I really felt like that was a trick. The POV character (Kieran) knows this information, why is it being hidden? Hidden things and big reveals work when the POV isn’t hiding stuff. They may be unreliable, didn’t notice something or consider it at a different type of import, but out-and-out hiding thoughts from the reader – not good.

    Naming characters. People reading see the first and last letters of words and in general puzzle out the words from there. You want every character, if possible to have the first two letters and last letter of their name be different. You can see the reason below.

    “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

  • Razziecat, I always read prologues because I think I’m missing out on something if I don’t. I don’t always enjoy them though. They have to be really well written and intriguing or it feels like a barrier I have to go over before getting to start the real story.

  • Andrea

    @ Quillet: Thank you for your tips.

    @ Diana: Those cages… yes, they need some more thought, because obviously they will ‘pop up’ (and need to be opened!) later, in chapter 11 or so. Btw, maybe I have skipped over that a bit too lightly, as well.
    And yes, I was thinking this will be middle grade

    @ SiSi: The funny thing is that this scene is actually there, but in chapter 2 and a bit more extensive (I knew this kind of scene was there, but I’ve only recently started to revise this book. This was, in fact, after I sent my first page to Diana). All Diana’s and the other comments will come in useful for that scene, too!

    @Amy: Thank you for sharing this. I will keep it in mind, when I finally decide about dropping this prologue or not. At the moment, I see some strong arguments to do drop it, because the scene will be in the book, albeit from the mc’s viewpoint instead (see above) and if this prologue is needed to capture the interest of the reader, maybe I should actually improve my first chapter instead.

    That said, my original premise, with which the first chapter starts, feels a bit weak now that I’m revisiting the beginning of this book. I’ve been giving some more thought to the theme. It will take too long to elaborate on this here, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to discuss it yet anyway, but you have all given me food for thought.

    As said, I also feel encouraged that, even with so little, you find my ideas and the story interesting. It needs work, but I still love the story too
    So thank you all very very much.


  • Andrea

    @Erin: I don’t quite understand what you mean with “the crystal ball’s pov”. I’ve got Kierans pov in the prologue (admittedly, this needs a lot more work), and I’ve got Mellie’s (= the main character of the book) pov in chapter 2.
    In the prologue, Kieran sees Mellie’s lavender blue eyes in the crystal ball. In chapter 2, Mellie sees Kierans brown eyes in the crystal ball, before the image ‘zooms’ out to show her the rest of the scene.

    I’m sorry to hear you feel tricked by my witholding the nature of Kierans friend. Kieran is used to him, and sees him more as a friend than as a little dragon. And I thought it was a nice little riddle for perceptive readers (just something for the prologue). Tarach is described later in chapter 2.

    I totally agree with you on the names! I will adjust them.

    @Razziecat and Dave: I usually read the prologue, because I don’t want to miss out on a valuable insight, but, like you Dave, I don’t always enjoy them. And often I think they are too long (which is probably why mine is so short 😉 but, unfortunately, as a result lacking in description and depth). Especially when the author tries to tell a thousand years of history which took place before the ‘real story’.

  • khernandez

    Andrea – I like the names. It seems reasonable to expect that two sisters would have similar names, and I think the harsh GR and K sounds are perfect for trolls. (I use a similar phoneme-system for my goblins.) I also see where Diana is talking about fleshing out your bare-bones skeleton – I think I have the same problem. I tend to under-write and then need to go back and add details.

    I’ve got a prologue on mine, too, that I’m not sure works and I’m not sure if I should just incorporate it into a later chapter. It’s similar to yours in that it will be from a different POV a few chapters into the book. So theh criticism of yours is really helping to clarify mine in my head.

    Diana – As others have said – we would be thrilled if you (or another of the writers on this site) would continue to do critiques for us newbies.

  • Thanks Andrea, sorry – didn’t mean to be unclear.

    Point of View of the Crystal Ball – Since her eyes are seeing out of the crystal ball, the person looking through it shouldn’t see the room from above or at the “fourth-wall” looking in (like a movie camera or someone else in the scene looking at it). I am thinking that is where the view sees things. Therefore the first thing noticed would be the troll hands, maybe what the troll is wearing, following her going asleep. Then maybe, as the crystal ball rolls away from her, a view of floor-ceiling, wall – and oh, the prisoners. Finally the observer can hear the prisoners talking. That is what I mean by the crystal ball’s POV.

    And to clarify about the other. I didn’t feel tricked about not finding out about the little dragon. I felt like it was a trick – a device – something done to be clever. You meant it to be a puzzle, but it just didn’t feel like one. It felt more like information that was known wasn’t provided. Maybe it is just me that felt like that.

  • Hooks, Twists, and Big Ideas, Oh My by Edmund Schubert (an earlier blog) kind-of captures some of my hesitation about the hook/twist of hiding information. Several of his other blogs have touched on the subject as well.

  • Andrea

    @ khernandez: Thank you. I also think the names should be similar, but not too much. And I like the GR sound in troll names (or goblin names ;-)), too.
    However, what Erin Penn said earlier about the first and last letter of words resonated with me. I think I will have to find a way to change to make the names stand out just that little bit more.

    @ Erin: Thanks for the clarifications!