Four on 400: January Feedback

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.


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!


Our January #FourOn400 KidLit Writing Contest Window is OPEN!

Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of January, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

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Special Bonus! Everyone who follows us on FACEBOOK will get an extra entry in the TriWizard Cup! Yes, all you have to do is follow our FACEBOOK page to double your entry! If you do this, please note that you’re following us on FaceBook in your contest entry blog comment to make it easy to cross-reference names. (Thanks to everyone who is already following us! We will count your entry twice too!) 

Click Here To Follow US on FACEBOOK!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on January 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

NEW for 2017: A Brand-New #KidLit Writing Contest!!!

We’re energized and ready to embrace the challenges and rewards of the New Year and are committed to bringing you more exciting content in 2017. We’ve been busy behind the scenes working on a few improvements, and we’re ready to share the first of those with you now!


We now have a Facebook page where we’ll post extra content similar to what we’ve been sharing on Twitter. What?! You haven’t been following us on Twitter? You’re just a few clicks away from following us on both!  (HINT: Look to your right ➡︎➡︎ or scroll down on a mobile device.)


We took great pleasure in bringing you 8 on Eight in 2016. We loved your enthusiasm, all your hopeful entries, and working with the winners each month. But we’ve got a new contest for 2017, and we hope you’ll be even more enthusiastic about what we’ve cooked up!

 Introducing FOUR ON 400!

 Like 8 on Eight, FOUR ON 400 will be a MONTHLY CONTEST that provides ONE LUCKY KIDLIT writer with feedback from FOUR of The Winged Pen’s contributors on the writer’s opening 400 WORDS! This contest will be open for middle-grade and young adult writers only. (Sorry, picture book writers, but don’t fret! We’re thinking up exciting opportunities for you too! More on that to come later.)

Be sure to subscribe to our blog to make sure you don’t miss an entry deadline! (Our first Four on 400 contest will be held January 4th! Yes, in just 2 days. Go ahead and spread the word by sharing this post with your middle-grade and young-adult writing friends!).

Q: How do I enter?

A: We’ll post a contest announcement on our blog at 4PM on the FOURTH day of every month. To enter the contest, all you need to do is comment on the post. Exactly 24 hours later (that would be on the 5th) at 4pm (EST), one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS (MG or YA). On the FOURTEENTH of the month (at 4AM), the winner’s 400 WORDS, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from FOUR of our members.

Q: What about 8 on Eight? Will that also run each month?

A: No, we’ve decided to replace 8 on Eight with Four on 400, but we hope to bring other exciting opportunities to our PB writers throughout the year. Stay tuned!

Q: What should my comment include?

A: Anything polite you’d like to say. Often entrants say “Thank you for the opportunity!!” Be sure to provide us with your current email address, and make sure your SPAM filter will allow emails from!

Q: How will I know if I’m a winner?

A: We’ll email you with instructions on how to submit your material. And if you include a Twitter handle, we’ll announce there, too.

Q: I’m a winner! But I have several works in progress. Which one do I send?

A: That’s up to you––we’re happy to see MG or YA material.

Q: Do I have to submit my opening 400 WORDS, or can I submit any 400 WORDS?

A: You must submit your opening 400 WORDS (yes, even if it’s a prologue).

Q: What if the 400 words end in the middle of a sentence?

A: Please end with the previous sentence. We will not post more than 400 of your words on the blog.

 Q: Am I assigning you any rights to my work?

A: Your work remains your own. We claim no rights to any portion of the writing, but in entering, you acknowledge our right to post your opening 400 words on our blog.

Q: Will I receive any other feedback?

A: The blog post will include feedback from FOUR of our members. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and suggestions (in a respectful, supportive manner) in the comments section of the blog post.

Q: Does my work have to be posted to the blog if I win?

A: Yes. As writers, we learn as much from studying other writers’ works as we do getting feedback on our own. In exchange for getting feedback from our group, we ask that you share what you learn by allowing other writers to study your entry.

Q: I got mixed feedback on my opening. Some members said they loved it, others thought it needed a lot of work. What do I do?

A: Writing is a subjective business. Our aim isn’t to tell you how to “fix” your writing. Our objective is to provide feedback from a group of dedicated writers, whose opinions on any given piece of writing may or may not agree. It’s up to you to determine what feedback best resonates with your vision for your work.

Q: If I win, does that mean I can’t enter ever again?

A: You may enter as often as you like, but you must submit material from a new WIP each time you win.

Q: I didn’t win.

A: Okay, so this isn’t really a question, but we’ve got an answer anyway. First, we’ll hold this contest every month. So you’ve still got plenty of chances! Second, although you might not have won, there’s still a tremendous amount to be learned by studying the winner’s material and learning from the feedback they received.

 Best of luck!