Saturday, June 25, 2016

Summer '16 YayYA Entry #1: SWORD AND SHIELD

Name: Ash Halloran @ashyaslan

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Pitch: A young heiress takes on an impossible challenge to win her inheritance and reveal the powerful secrets her family has hidden for generations.


In the years after Madame Brigide abandoned her daughter, Gwen read one hundred and forty eight books about the ancient land of Reviers. Bienna knew because she kept a list between the covers of A History of Palace Renaissant, so that her lady did not repeat material. If she insisted on reading all of those books, she might as well read different ones.
Most days Gwen attended her lessons in the morning, tolerated lunch with her grandmother, and then took one of her musty books into the fig grove. She’d climb high up into one of the fig trees, where no one would look for her, and read for hours. Only Bienna knew to find her there, but she didn’t give her away; even when, by the twentieth book, she thought sweetness was definitely crazed.
The fig grove was relatively cool in the summer, but it was also full of wasps which she was deathly allergic to. She only went to get Gwen when she absolutely had to. Usually this meant that every time she had to drag Gwen out of a tree, she’d given herself almost no time to get her charge ready and risked the wrath of Madame de Revier. The old woman just didn’t like her because Gwen had picked her.
Today, some nervousness tinged her usual annoyance. Madame de Revier had told her at lunch that she expected her granddaughter at dinner both presentable and on time. There would be guests. Important guests. Which meant Madame was either hosting a higher up from the warfront on their way north to the frontlines, or one of Gwen’s suitors. God only knew how Gwen would react to another boring matchmaking dinner. The last time had been disastrous. Madame had made the mistake of telling Gwen who would be there, and Gwen had found a way to slip in three personal insults to the poor man before they were done with their salad. She’d thought he’d been rather attractive, even if he was her second cousin.
Bienna walked out of the dim confines of Villa Castellano’s kitchen and into the bright herb gardens, dusty with late summer’s heat. Shiny purple grape clusters hung heavy on the vines, and in the distance, the ocean hushed the coast. The ocean breeze made the heat easy—easy enough for Gwen to read in the fig grove for the last three hours. Bienna was already sweating down her back. Why couldn’t Gwen read in her nice cool rooms? Who enjoyed this?
The little demon was just trying to make her job hard. Gwen wanted to smell like an animal and carry at least one wasp into the villa with her, to scare the blushing suitors away. Bienna had already called up a bath and gotten the lavender oils out. She would stroke lavender oil into Gwen’s dark hair and powder her nose until she looked like a painting again. Resistance was futile.


  1. Pitch: Very interesting, but you still had over 10 words left. Definitely use them, maybe be a little more specific. :) The pitch is good, but I don't feel like I really know what this story is about.

    500 words: Just from the first two paragraphs, I feel like I'm not quite sure who the MC is - Gwen or Bienna. You start off talking about Gwen, then shift back to Bienna, then back to Gwen, which is fine, but for a beginning, I feel like I'm not grounded, like I'm not sure which person is more important right now. Also, it starts off slightly tell-y. Try to show a bit more.

    Overall, a good start. I am interested to know more about your story, and I think, especially in the pitch, you should give some more details. :)

  2. The pitch definitely grabbed my attention, but I wanted to know more about the impossible challenge.

    Your setting is so vivid and the descriptions are beautiful. There's not enough historical YA's in my opinion so this definitely appeals to me.

    You described a lot of interesting incidents- Gwen hiding in the fig grove, Bienna risking a fatal wasp sting, Gwen insulting a suitor- but I really wanted to experience these moments firsthand. Gwen insulting her suitor interests me, but experiencing Gwen insulting her suitor three times HOOKS me.

    I'd also consider hinting at Gwen and Bienna's ages. I feel like their relationship is going to be significant to the story, so I need a firm grasp on it from the beginning. I quite liked that the MC's focus was on Gwen as it made me think her role was more than just an occupation, it's who she is. I think you conveyed Bienna's fondness of Gwen in a way that was really endearing.

    I would definitely keep reading based on this excerpt. :)

  3. Pitch- Good pitch, but seemed a little vague. Maybe consider adding a quick snippet of what that challenge is?

    500 words- I feel the intro could be a bit stronger. I can totally see the scene being set, and Gwen being a book worm with little interest in her grandmother’s matches for her, but I think starting a little closer to the action would help hook the reader sooner. The best parts were when we get her take on the suitors (loved the second cousin bit!), so maybe lead with that?

    Also, I love knowing little characteristics about characters, like the wasp allergy, but showing is always better than telling.:)

    Overall, I think it sounds like a great story and I can’t wait to see where it goes!

  4. I think K nails it in her comments. In your pitch, I'm intrigued by the family mystery but the "impossible challenge" line is a bit vague and may put off any agents/readers for contests. My favorite lines and description are: Bienna walked out of the dim confines of Villa Castellano’s kitchen and into the bright herb gardens, dusty with late summer’s heat. Shiny purple grape clusters hung heavy on the vines, and in the distance, the ocean hushed the coast.
    I think those are really strong descriptions that not only give us a place of setting but a clear establishment of the main character (see K's note above). Just throwing this out there: What if you started with those two sentences? The rest of the opening would still work, but by changing it, you describe where we are, show MC, but also show what our MC is doing: looking for the rebellious bookworm in the one place she doesn't want to look which establishes the tension between the two. Overall, I'm seeing a solid set-up here with believable characters. Well done. (Also, I love the name "Bienna"...great character name)

  5. Pitch: good, but I do feel like "impossible challenge" and "powerful secrets" are a bit vague, especially considering you've got room for some extra words.

    500 words: This is good, although I'm a little confused why you're starting in Bienna's POV since the story is about Gwen. Is this going to be a dual POV book about the 2 girls? Or is this one of those "start from the POV of a random side character" things? (Ex: SIX OF CROWS, HEIST SOCIETY) But anyways, here are some things I noticed:

    "tolerated lunch with her grandmother"--I like this a lot. One little word that shows so much of the relationship between Gwen and Grandma, and also characterization for Gwen.

    "wasps which she was deathly allergic to."--not sure what era this is set in (I'm guessing regency/victorian because of the arranged marriage thing), but was the concept of allergies a thing back then? And if it was, and there's not a cure (I'm guessing they didn't have Epi-Pens), then I kinda would expect Bienna to go "no, no way, I'm not going out there because I might actually die" instead of just a bit reluctant.

    "the ocean hushed the coast"--not sure what this means. Do you mean "hugged"? Or do you mean like the sound of the ocean drowned out the sound of the coast? Because I'm not seeing how the ocean would make the coast be quiet.

    Overall, this is an interesting, well-written section, and I'm curious about what happens next. But I do wonder, is there an age difference between Bienna and Gwen, and if so, how much? Are they similar in age and have a sisterly/friends relationship, or is there a significant age gap and more of a mother/daughter one?

  6. I feel like your pitch is well-written but too vague. It could very well describe Throne of Glass, which I suspect is a very different book. See if you can add in s few more specific details.

    I really like your prose, but I agree with the above comment that I couldn't tell who the main character was. I was also unclear on the time period/setting. It is classified as historical fantasy, but the year marker is 500? Is this a year in a fantasy world? If so maybe name the world to make it clear. And if it takes place in a fantasy land does that make is strictly fantasy and not historical fantasy? Haha im genuinely asking, because I'm not sure.

    I would focus on establishing the story in these first 500 words. Your writing is beautiful, but I'd love to get a better idea of where this story is going to take me. Make the setting clear, make the main character clear, and perhaps add an allusion to what's at stake. I LOVE the first and last lines.

  7. Thanks for your comments everyone, I really appreciate it! The two things I was mainly concerned about (the POV at the beginning, and the vague pitch I may or may not have thrown together at the last is what everyone has pointed out, so that's encouraging. That gives me a strong direction for edits. Thanks again! :)

  8. Hi Ash!!

    Remember that all crits are subjective and that you are welcome to use or dismiss mine as you see fit for your story! Thanks for entering #YayYA!

    Pitch: So you have stakes going on, however, the pitch is not particularly specific nor unique. You really want to incorporate especially uniqueness in your pitch to show how this story is different from the others in its genre. You might also want to mention Bienna. It's hard to do in thirty five words, but I know you can!!

    First 500: It's not super clear how old Gwen is. You don't have to flat out tell us, but Bienna thinks of her in a way that almost makes it feel like she's a very young girl.

    I agree with previous commenters that you need to deepen your POV and stick with one for the scene. I have the same problem myself. The rule of thumb for multiple POV stories is that you can't head-hop in the same scene. It's more of a scene by scene situation when switching POVs.

    Also, because this is the opening scene in the book, I think you want to make it clear somehow that this is a matriarchal society, because I think that's your biggest selling point.

    There's a lot of info in this scene that I feel like could be condensed and narrated through internal thought. It would bring the reader closer to Bienna's POV as well as give you some more space to move the story forward.

    I hope this helps! I'll be sending the rest of my comments on what you sent me ASAP :)


  10. Focusing on your pitch:

    You have a lot of opportunity for improvement here. I know how hard it is to write pitches. I've spent a LOT of the last two years working on them. The resource that finally got me along the right path is this blog post from C.E. Murphy Her focus on the character and describing what they're about to face has helped me a ton. I think that would benefit you here, too. Instead of describing the story, get me interested in your character and what makes her special.

    Hope that helps!

  11. Pitch: Although I liked it I feel that it could be a bit more distinct. I suggest cutting the part about “secrets” because family secrets are a really common theme and instead elaborate on the impossible challenge more, because I suspect that’s the part of your book that is interesting and unique. A few more details there would set your book off from other stories.

    I like your first sentence. I always love a bookworm. One thing that puzzled me was “sweetness.” Is that what Bienna calls Gwen? I also have some confusion about whose second cousin the suitor is. I think he’s Bienna’s cousin but it puzzles me that a maid would have a noble cousin, so it makes more sense for him to be Gwen’s cousin. Basically there are too many “hers” in that sentence for me to tell who is who.

    I concur with the other readings that there’s some telling instead of showing. You tell us about the wasps and that the grandmother doesn’t like Bienna instead of showing us them as the book progresses. Also there is a lot of background packed in early instead of scattered throughout the book.

    I like your description of the garden, particularly the heat. You end on a lovely note. Finally, I like the characters and that’s always the most important part of a book for me—liking the characters. As long as I’m rooting for them, I keep reading.

  12. Charis M. EllisonJune 30, 2016 at 9:29 PM

    Your pitch seems really vague and general--it could apply to several other books I've read, instead of telling us what's unique and special about your story! Maybe focusing more on who your main character is and what specifically she wants?

    I agree with one of the other critiques, that a stronger start might be to with Bienna walking out of the kitchen--that description is lovely, and makes it clear who the POV character is.
    The first few paragraphs were a little confusing, and seemed to meander with a lot of information jumbled together--re-ordering all these details and working them in more naturally with the flow of the story would read more smoothly and have better momentum.
    I tripped over 'sweetness'--a nickname for Gwen? that's not very clear. And in the paragraph about the suitor I stumbled over who thought he was attractive (Bienne?) and whose second cousin he was (Gwen's?).
    I'm not sure where and when this story is set. And this is a very random note, but the line about Gwen insulting her suitor three times before they were done with salad seems to mean that she did it immediately, but if we're in Italy then I think salad is usually one of the last courses--possibly this depends on the time period as well, though, I don't actually know! except that Italians eating salad last is one of those random facts rolling around my brain, so maybe useful, maybe not!

    This is a great start! Best of luck :D

    1. Charis M. EllisonJune 30, 2016 at 9:33 PM

      I forgot to say! I really liked the narrative voice, especially in the second half, which is part of what makes me think you should shift the opening there--it feels like you hit your stride a bit and it flows really nicely, with a strong sense of place. Great job!

  13. Pitch: This is intriguing but too vague for me. Hook us with what makes your book unique!

    500: Nice opening--that first line is great. I love the line about insults during salad. Sharp! I do worry it's too much scene-setting/background early on but perhaps you get to the action very shortly. The sensory details are so lush! There were a few times your pronouns were confusing--I didn't always assume Bienna, when I was meant to. At least these times:

    "she was deathly allergic to."
    "tinged her usual annoyance"
    "She’d thought he’d been rather attractive"

    Also "had picked her"--maybe add just a few words to clarify? Had picked her to hire as governess? Perhaps like that.

    The slightly old-fashioned voice is so appealing. I love the POV of a governess/servant, and feel I got some good characterization already. I like this narrator. (Though the last line just makes me think Star Trek.)

    Of course take all remarks as you will! I totally want to read this; let me know if you ever need a beta!

  14. Hi, Ash!

    Pitch: Unfortunately it didn't pull me in at all. I'm extremely sorry for being blunt but I just read an almost similar story and pitch in the next entry. So try to add what is it about your story that would stand out among the crowd of other fantasies. What is it about your book that readers won't find in others.

    500 words: You mentioned about Gwen being the MC but I'm getting to know Bienna deeper than her. Will this story be like Great Gatsby where the MC was Gatsby but narrator was Nick? A not MC character?

    You didn't hint at or tell us about both Bienna and Gwen's age. Their relationship wasn't the type between Gatsby and Nick. More like a typical lady and her maid's relationship. I'm a fan of Downton Abbey and in that show, one of the MCs, Lady Mary had a BFF type relationship with her maid, Anna. Maybe try to achieve something like that if you watch the show. If not, then add more closeness between them if the POV character will be Bienna but the MC is Gwen.

    I loved the sensory details you gave us. The sea, the fig grove, the shiny purple grape. I can easily imagine it. And you also showed us Gwen's relationship with her grandmother successfully. It was bitter. I liked it.

    You CAN make this story stand out. Just tweak out that characteristic that sets it apart and show it in your pitch. Every book has that kind of characteristic.

    Best of luck with revisions!