The Light of Dawn
by Kale O'Connor
The night was cold and the wind blowing through the keep made the guard’s eyes water. He was not a large man, though he wasn’t small either, he was young despite the weathered lines around his eyes. He was mid-twenties, with dark brown hair, bright green eyes and strong jaw.
On the outside, it seemed as though he had everything: a beautiful wife, food on the table, which was hard to come by these days, the weather being how it was, trade was slow.
However on the inside, he felt empty, as though he was destined for something more…”Greatness is something every man should strive for, it’s better to rise and fall than never to take the chance”, these words rang in his mind constantly on these long watches, something his father had told him when he was a boy, something he felt he had never done.
The sound of rain began to ring inside his plate helm as he peered into the darkness that surrounded him, “how could it get any worse” he thought to himself, it was still hours until his watch was done and he could join his wife in bed.
He thought of his wife, she was a truly beautiful woman. She had deep brown eyes he could stare at for hours, caramel skin and a smile that could bring him out of any stupor.
At least it once could, lately it seemed as though nothing could rouse him from this feeling, like an endless weight upon his shoulders.
As the night dragged on there was nothing happening. As it was night after night, though his Captain always insisted they maintain their duty. The population depended on them, he understood it, but at times like these he didn’t like it.
Just as his watch was coming to an end, he thought he saw movement in the trees just to his right. Though he tried to focus his eyes in the darkness, he couldn’t get a clear view of what was there, if anything at all.
He gestured to one of the archers to focus on the area where he had seen the movement. The archer took aim and waited…nothing; he replaced his arrow in his quiver and gave a slight smirk towards the guard, “seeing things Lori?”
Maybe he was seeing things. Then again maybe he wished he had seen something, if only to give his job some semblance of meaning, some kind of feeling that he was making a difference.
Ms. Shreditor's Comments
Before I dive into my critique, I want to comment on the length of this piece. At 421 words, it’s about to run onto a second page. The average narrative book runs between 250 and 350 words per page. (The only books I’ve worked on with higher per-page word counts were dense, academic nonfiction.) So, while this sample technically fits on a single page, it would run onto a second page if the manuscript were double-spaced as per Julie's submission guidelines. Make sure to pay close attention to submission guidelines before submitting to an agentor editor. You don't want to miss your big break on a technicality!
What I really like about this piece is the amount of introspection the author jam-packs into such a small space. By the time I finished reading, I felt like I was getting to know Lori. The ending in particular was quite powerful for me: “...if only to give his job some semblance of meaning, some kind of feeling that he was making a difference.” This establishes clear motivation. It helps me to understand what drives Lori as a character.
One suggestion: Introduce character names to readers earlier to forge a more immediate connection. Until the very end, we know Lori only as “the guard,” which makes him feel somewhat remote. We also don’t learn the wife or the archer’s names. All of the ambiguous “he” and “she” references distance the reader from the characters at a time when forging a connection is most crucial.
Be particularly careful when establishing secondary characters. Secondary characters can be a story’s lifeblood, but only if they’re multidimensional. Otherwise, they’re little more than a mouthpiece, cheerleader, or foil for the protagonist. Here, the narrative makes brief mention of the wife, addressing only her physical beauty. This, along with the fact that we don’t learn her name, makes her feel more like an object than a living, breathing character. Is she meant to be a mere decoration in the story, or is she to play a larger role? If
it’s the latter, her introduction needs to establish more than her good looks.
Also, make sure to avoid what I call “laundry lists” of descriptors. In one place, Lori is described as “mid-twenties, with dark brown hair, bright green eyes and strong jaw.” In another, his wife is described as “truly beautiful,” with “deep brown eyes . . ., caramel skin, and a smile that could bring him out of any stupor.” While laundry lists can squeeze a lot of description into a small space, they tend to ring hollow on the page. Instead of creating vivid images with imaginative turns of phrase, they essentially instruct the reader how to see a given person or place within pretty rigid parameters.
Lastly, this piece will need to undergo a good line edit before it’s ready for submission. There are a lot of punctuation issue and comma splices. For example: “He was not a large man, though he wasn’t small either, he was young despite the weathered lines around his eyes.” There needs to be a period or semicolon between “either” and “he.” When a comma separates independent clauses, or phrases that could stand on their own as complete sentences, this is called a comma splice.
A little cleanup on this front will go a long way in preparing this piece for submission. There are some larger issues to tackle in terms of characterization and plot details (i.e., explaining Lori’s role as a guard and defining the “duty” to which the story alludes). But these are all common issues when a manuscript is in its developmental stages. This story succeeds where even published books sometimes fall short: From the beginning, the text establishes vital details about the protagonist to help the reader connect with him immediately. This is no small feat, so be proud of the work you’ve done on this piece.
Thanks to Kale and Ms. Shreditor for their time and effort. See you next week!