Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.
Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.
AMBASSADOR OF ATTALON (MG fantasy)
Clarine Hearthsgaard was going to be sick.
She glanced about, wondering if anyone felt as nervous as she did. At least one hundred other applicants, all twelve years old, stood around her. The day was clear and warm, as were most days of High Summer in the Kingdom of Attalon, but Clarine could not enjoy it. Instead of spending her free time swimming in the lake or running through the narrow streets of Glenarm village with her best friends, Lucas and Branwyn, she was here.
Competing to be a Knight.
She must have lost her mind. She was of average height and average hair and average face. Maybe the Tournament judges would be more impressed if she were taller or richer or fiercer. More knightly.
Sweat made the collar of her linen shirt scratchy. The crowd around her shifted and mumbled. Something was happening. Clarine tried to peek around the people in front of her, but she wasn’t tall enough.
“Welcome, hopeful students,” boomed a deep voice. Clarine managed to catch a glimpse of the speaker—a knight dressed in full armour minus his helm, despite the heat. Even from near the back of the group, Clarine could tell the man was huge, the bulk of his armour looked like a piece of the Mordrin Mountains had broken off and learned to talk.
“I am Knight Stoutthelm. Welcome to the official audition for the prestigious Knight Academy of Attalon. The Squireling Tournament. We have well over one hundred applicants here, but only thirty available places to be won. The bravest, cleverest, and most skilled applicants will be successful and be granted the chance to serve his Magesty, King Percival, as a Knight of the Realm. And that’s if you survive your schooling!”
The assembled crowd of parents and well-wishers tittered amiably, but no one around Clarine made a sound. She took a deep breath to calm herself, and her stomach lurched again. She hoped her didn’t make a fool of herself in front of her father.
Another knight swept towards Stoutthelm and handed him a scroll. “Applicants will be divided into pairs. For the next two days, you will compete with and against your partner. Scores are tallied individually, based on a combination of points earned during your performances and the judges’ observations during the tasks.”
Stouthelm paused before reading the names. “Remember, Applicants. Be brave. Be clever. Be Knights.”
Gabrielle Byrne: I think you’ve got a good start here. I’d focus on slowing it WAY down. You’ve got a lot of plot crammed into the first page, and not a lot of description, or character building. Take time to introduce us to Clarine. For example, maybe she’s talking to the next person in line behind her, who won’t stop muttering about the scuffs on their shoes. Maybe she comforts them, or tells them to shut up, or ignores them. Whatever she does, will inform us about who she is. I’d incorporate some more setting into her actions too. Spin the scene out over the first five pages or so, and let us get to know her. You did a good job incorporating some world building into your descriptions with “the bulk of his armour looked like a piece of the Mordrin Mountains had broken off and learned to talk.” Nice work.
Sussu: Thank you for trusting us with your story. I enjoyed reading this. I found the story charming and paced nicely.
Nice first line and setting. I only suggest mentioning the courtyard and the parents earlier because it’s hard to figure out where they are and why the parents are there.
Details could give the reader a precise picture that stays long with them. “The day was clear and warm” is good, but consider, “The heat tickled her neck. The sun set her dark hair ablaze.” “He was a foot taller than the students,” etc
“She must have lost her mind” could be stronger with an action. Nice to have some kind of inner conflict to drive the story. Add more details, like “She couldn’t hurt a fly” or “she was a scrawny as a cricket.” This makes the MC stand out and gives us more clues.
I love the voice and the atmosphere of the story. This sounds unique and fun. Good luck!
Jessica: What a fun premise! Your first line really drew me in. Another line I loved: Sweat made the collar of her linen shirt scratchy. Right away, I knew exactly what she was feeling. By way of suggestions, I’d encourage you to bring this same level of detail to the first full paragraph. “Glanced about” and “anyone” were too vague to pull me in; I think there’s real opportunity here to pull us in with specifics. Similarly, I found “swimming in the lake” and “running through the streets” to be disappointingly vague (although the “narrow” streets did help). How does the water feel when she plunges in? Is there a certain shop she loves to run by because of the smell? Or because they hand out free samples? We can learn a lot about her by how she sees and thinks about her world. I think Gabrielle’s suggestion to slow down and not try to fit quite so much information into the opening is a great one, but overall you seem to be on the right track. Nicely done!
Julie: I LOVE this concept. But the title is a bit dry for such a great story. You’ve got some great world-building details in here (the Squireling Tournament, etc.) but I also think you’re starting with too much summary. Focus on the moment Clarine knows everything in her world is about to change and start there. Maybe she’s paired with her worst enemy (or her crush!) and that’s what makes her feel nauseated. Then you can sprinkle in some of these details, but focus on building her character–what she wants, what she’s afraid of–and tell us the details like that there are only 30 spots available and what she likes to do in her free time later. You’ve got a great knack for description like the scratchy shirt and armor looking “like a piece of the Mordrin Mountains had broken off and learned to talk,” so if you can make the rest of it that vivid, you’ll be set!