Lessons From the Hyped Writing of Dawn of Wonder

Art showing man holding sword, with a fortress in the background

As soon as I spotted the cover for Jonathan Renshaw’s Dawn of Wonder, The Wakening, I knew this was the book to critique. “Dawn of Wonder” is already dramatic sounding, and adding “The Wakening” pushes it into melodrama. It doesn’t help that these words border on cliché. In addition, this book has 3,700+ reviews and only a D rating on Fakespot.* The early chapters are available to read with Amazon’s Look Inside feature, so you can follow along there if you like.

Let’s dig into to what this… awk!

Who let this terrifying visage go to print? Not a traditional publisher, I’m guessing. The chapter number is supposed to be included in there somewhere, but which part is the number? My initial reaction is that it says “chapter two” because of the two arrows at the end, but that can’t be, as this is at the beginning of the book. Only by peaking ahead did I learn that the – stubby, dying tree? – is supposed to be a 1. And what is the thing in the lower left? A book with a tree on it? A gravestone with a mushroom cloud on it? If anyone knows, please tell me.

I guess our first lesson should be “Hire professionals to help you publish your work.” Design is frequently underestimated, but trust me, it is a real profession with valuable skills that you do not have unless you’ve trained in it. This was clearly composed by someone who thought they knew design.

Now that I have expressed my grievances with the chapter heading, let’s move on to the piece.

Don’t Break the Mood

Even the wind now held its breath.

Not bad. Its biggest problem is that it’s too linked to the “creepy outdoor silence” cliché – the one Sword of Shannara opened with in 1977. But I like his personification of the wind, since it is active phrasing and invokes curiosity.

A hush of anticipation swept through the trees, causing forest creatures to hesitate in their scratchings and birds to falter in their songs. The woods grew still as everything was pressed under a deep, vast silence.

It came from the east, from the mountain wilderness of DinEilan. It was like a swelling of the air, a flexing of the ground, as if some enormous power had been hurled into the earth hundreds of miles away sending tremors throughout the land.

This is in a forest, and the birds have stopped singing. Definitely cliché.

And what’s with “to hestitate in their scratchings”? It’s the only creative part of that paragraph, but not in a good way. The atmosphere is supposed to be tense, and now I have images of cute animals scratching themselves. Do you want some scritches and scratches, Flufficans? Who’s a good boy? Yes, you’re a good boy!

The next paragraph is a little better. An impact wave isn’t that original, but Renshaw knows how to create a visceral image of what’s happening. He hasn’t introduced a character yet; we can safely conclude that he’s writing in omniscient. Maybe our omniscient narrator will finally tell us what this silence is about.

Directly over a country lane, a young squirrel was clamped to the limb of an ancient walnut tree. Tawny hair all over its body now rose and quivered as moss began to prickle underfoot.

Okay, I guess Renshaw is doubling down on the cute animal part of the story. This description is almost good. I like knowing it’s a walnut tree, and the details of a quivering squirrel on a mossy branch paints a nice picture. But weird things are happening here. For one thing, it’s the tawny hair – not the body of the squirrel – that’s quivering. Does this squirrel have prehensile hair? For another, the “prickle underfoot” suggests we’re in the squirrel’s head. In omniscient, that’s possible – we can be in anything’s head. However, with an entire forest going silent, it’s strange to focus on the experiences of one scritchy-scratchy squirrel. Maybe the wording is a mistake.

Make a Big Deal of Things That Are a Big Deal

The deep, shuddering stillness flowed through the woods. In and amongst the trees, fur and feather trembled in a vice-grip. The squirrel may have lacked the words for what stole into its mind, but in the same way that it knew the terror of jackal teeth and the lure of high branches, a vague yet frightening awareness was taking shape. Somewhere, many miles distant, something was stirring, changing … awakening.

Then the feeling passed as swiftly as it had arrived and the squirrel released its breath and looked around. It lifted a paw and examined the mossy bark, sniffed, and turned quick eyes to the ground, to the leaves, to the sky – all in vain. As before, there were no answers to be found. It was the second time since winter that this alarming thrill had surged through the air, departing without a trace.

Nope, that was not a mistake. We really are in the head of a squirrel. Is the squirrel a character? Maybe a wizard has transformed into a squirrel and gone out scouting? However, Renshaw specifically states that this squirrel “lacks the words” – so it doesn’t have human intelligence. But then in the next paragraph, he describes it as looking for answers, which feels pretty human to me. And if the squirrel is not a character, why is Renshaw spending so much time with it? He could give us a better picture of the forest by describing a variety of creatures. The characterization of a single cute animal makes this feel like a children’s story.

Speaking of the silence, what exactly is “shuddering stillness”? This is an oxymoron; it contradicts itself. Oxymorons can be used for effect, but this doesn’t feel intentional to me. Then the stillness leaves, and all we know is that something somewhere is… awakening.

Before I mention the more obvious issues with this, may I just mention that while this excerpt says “awakening,” the series title has “wakening” – without an “a”? This is clearly an important word in the series; someone should have made sure it was consistent. How about a copy editor?

However, the biggest problem here is that Renshaw uses this stillness to invoke curiosity, milks it for all it was worth for several paragraphs, and then gives us no better explanation than “a thing happened somewhere.” What information he does provide feels like empty melodrama because there’s nothing of substance in the story to back it up. Sure, it offers a little ominous foreshadowing, but for the most part, Renshaw just makes a hoopla out of nothing. For readers who were intrigued by his opening line, it will feel like he promised an interesting explanation and then broke that promise.

Think About What Your Description Means

[…] Several pigeons that had been huddling on the ground burst away in all directions with a wild clapping of wings. For the squirrel, this was warning enough. It fled across the branch, disappearing up the walnut trunk and into a knot hole as if drawn by a string.

As if drawn by a string? So the squirrel glided in instead of using its legs? Was it magically flown into the trunk? Again, the wording seems like a mistake, but who knows what Renshaw intends with this squirrel.

[…] a horse and rider hurtled around the bend, apparently unaware of the recent quieting of their surrounds. […] The tall rider’s green military coat whipped and snapped around him as he leaned forward in the stirrups, head close to the horse’s plunging neck. In his fist, crushed against the reins, was a rolled sheet of paper. The speed, the foam, the clutched paper … Anyone he passed by would have instantly read the look on his face: Please, let me not be too late!

I’m glad to hear that something urgent is happening in the human world, since the… awakening went nowhere. But if that rolled sheet of paper is so important, shouldn’t the rider have put it in a saddlebag or something? Imagine if he dropped it while racing through the woods. Maybe he didn’t because this is just a short ride – through the forest, away from signs of human habitation. You never know?

I also spent some time trying to imagine what a face that instantly reads as “Please, let me not be too late” looks like. That’s oddly specific for a facial expression. This is omniscient; why didn’t the narrator just tell us what the rider was thinking these words as he rode? And we certainly don’t need the lead up that repeats what Renshaw’s just described.

The scene ends here. Judging by the early chapters I skimmed, the squirrel is not a reoccurring character. Oh well.

A few miles up the road was the farm of Badgerfields. It held tumbling meadows working their way upwards in the early sun, sheep and cattle working away at the meadows, and an assortment of labourers who were engaged in something that did not resemble work at all.

“Badgerfields,” eh? I do believe we’re in Hobbiton. And I’ll give Renshaw this – it feels like he’s at least trying to make his description interesting and vivid. Sometimes he even succeeds. Other times, meadows tumble upwards. You never know what you’re going to get, but at least it isn’t boring.

Dare I ask what these laborers are engaged in instead of work?

Ploughmen whose harrows lay discarded in the fresh new earth were balancing on a fence for a clearer view. They were placing bets, grinning. On the far side of the river, a cart loaded with dead wood creaked to a halt. The driver scrambled onto the heap of timber where he peered out over a lush green pastureland, chuckled to himself, and dug his boots into the wood pile until he had a steady footing. This was something he was not going to miss.

All around, farmhands dropped their tools, and even the long grass, silvered and heavy with dew, caught the mood and leaned forward.

By the way that Renshaw has once again deliberately set up a mystery and is again spending several paragraphs building it up, I already know this is going to be another disappointment. He’s created more hype than I think this scene can live up to. In particular, farmers have abandoned their harrows. Farming is a lot of work, and timing is essential. When you don’t get things done on time, your crops fail and people starve. And since harrows are often pulled by animals, that makes it even harder to just drop the harrows to go gawk at something.

Instead of giving his scenes a big enough hook, Renshaw inflates weak hooks until they’re ready to pop. It’s always difficult to find something to grab interest at the beginning of a novel, but sensationalizing things that aren’t interesting won’t make it better.

Don’t Make Your Hero a Jerk

Everyone’s eyes were fixed on an old stone bridge over the Brockle River. The walkway was narrow, the stones doubtful, the wall slippery, and there was a lot of air underneath. To the farm’s adventure hunter who would give his name as Aedan and his age as almost thirteen – though he had only recently turned twelve – it was irresistible. It wasn’t just the lure of danger, but something it afforded that was far closer to his heart – friendship.

Oh dear, that sentence: “To the farm’s adventure hunter who would give his name as Aedan and his age as almost thirteen – though he had only recently turned twelve – it was irresistible.” Why can’t Renshaw just say, “To the twelve-year-old Aedan, this adventure was irresistible”? The answer, of course, is that Aedan is the main character, and Renshaw is trying to introduce his hero with flair. Even so, he doesn’t have to do it by overloading a single sentence.

When I got to “friendship,” I double-checked to see if this is a children’s novel. Not that I can tell. The line is just that cheesy.

[…] Adventures, he had discovered, became cold and lonely things if he couldn’t, at some stage, get friends to share them. And friends, even old friends, were never quite on the level of companions until they shared his adventures.

Whether or not the friends actually wanted to share them tended to have little effect on the outcome. Aedan had become an expert in coaxing and nudging – and perhaps one or two of those nudges might have been misunderstood as shoves, but they had been given with the best intentions. Everyone was always glad afterwards. Mostly.

It had taken much work and perhaps one or two improvements on the facts about the landing, but Aedan had finally convinced Thomas to attempt the dreaded jump. The images he had painted with his words were irresistible – the thrill of the leap, the wonders of soaring flight, the softness of dropping into water. Deep, icy, emerald water that clinked and rattled in the chasm below.

Thomas, after explaining to Aedan once again that he did not want to do this, and being assured in the most ardent terms that he did, finally conceded and lifted his shaking hands from the lichen-coated wall.

And here is all the exposition where Renshaw could have added those few extra facts about Aedan, like how he lies about his age. That will go really well next to the description of how he bullies his friends. And this pressure and manipulation is supposed to make them better friends? What a good role model this Aedan is.

No doubt Renshaw just thinks of Aedan as clever and mischievous, much like Locke from The Lies of Locke Lamora. Neither work makes any effort to generate sympathy or build an emotional bond with the main character. They depend on wish fulfillment to get the audience invested in the hero. These books are written by white guys, for white guys, and about candied white guys.

While I don’t like Locke, at least he defends other kids instead of preying on them. Maybe this is just how Aedan is being introduced, and we’ll be able to pretend it didn’t happen. But as is, I would expect Aedan to be irritating to anyone who isn’t in the narrow band of people who can identify with him – much like Bella from Twilight. Obviously, one demographic can be enough to make a book popular, but as Harry Potter shows, writers can do better.

Renshaw also tries to tell us that Thomas is about to jump because Aedan “had become an expert in coaxing and nudging,” but who would be convinced by the poetic description of the jump he supposedly gives? Instead, try “everyone will think you’re a coward if you don’t.” That’s a statement that might motivate someone. Of course, that would make it more obvious that Aedan is a bully.

On top of all the problems with the main character, we’re also expected to believe everyone has abandoned their work and placed bets on kids jumping off a bridge into a river. Really? Since it sounds like Aedan has already done it, this wouldn’t even be the first time it happened. Plus, why aren’t Aedan and Thomas’s parents dragging them back to the fields to work? Or shooing them off to school? Kids having leisure time is actually a pretty recent phenomenon. I can imagine them sneaking away to the bridge, but everyone’s watching this.

Let Women Say Things

Many eyes watched from various points along the sheer banks but only one other person was on the bridge. Kalry, a year older and half a head taller than Aedan, bit her lip as she glanced at Thomas and then peered beyond him, over the wall. It was a long, long way down.

“W – what if I land on a fish?” Thomas was staring past his toes into the hungry river. “These trout have got spines on their fins. If they are pointing up and I’m going down, it could be like the time I …” He turned a glorious ruby red and glanced over at Kalry.

When she smiled encouragingly at him, he attempted a careless chuckle, swung his arms, and almost lost his balance.

Our first female characer is introduced! She is… standing there biting her lip, watching the boys, and smiling encouragingly. That could be better.

And what is the implication here with the trout spines? Did Thomas skewer his butt or private parts on a trout? I guess it makes sense that when your main character is a bully, you would make humiliating jokes at their victim’s expense. Thomas is funny because he isn’t a manly man like Aedan.

[…] “Fish always keep one eye looking up,” Aedan said. “They think falling people are eagles, so they get out the way.” He had a strong suspicion that this might not be entirely true, but it should be, which was almost as good.

Kalry’s wrinkled nose told him what she thought of it, but he shrugged off the uncomfortable feeling. Disarming encouragement radiated from this short, scruffy boy.

Kalry frowned at Aedan and opened her mouth to speak, but he fixed her with a stare and shook his head. She narrowed her eyes, but held her tongue.

After wrinkling her nose and frowning, Kalry almost speaks, but then Aedan silences her with a stare. She clearly doesn’t like what’s happening, yet she holds her tongue because… Aedan is her master? Seriously Kalry, you don’t have to let this asshole tell you what to do.

He was about to try the angle of “If you don’t do this now you’ll hate yourself forever” when he was distracted by a sound that drifted over from the main farm buildings.

[…] He looked just in time to glimpse something pale and green flashing across the gaps between dairy, stables and feed barns. The last opening was broader and revealed a large grey horse and a uniformed rider. They dashed between labourers at a reckless pace. Instead of halting before the main courtyard rail, the horse actually jumped it and pounded up the fine lawn to the very doorstep of the manor house.

Thank god, the plot has arrived! Maybe we can get away from this prolonged depiction of bullying and onto tense and interesting things.

Aedan’s curiosity caught alight, but he stamped the flames down. Nothing could be allowed to distract him now.


“[…] This might be your last chance before you are made a slave for the rest of your life. Or beheaded. Or … or … locked in your room while our soldiers fight them for years and years until you are too old to make the jump without getting killed.”

Thomas flinched. “You mean people can actually die from this jump?”

“Of course not. Even Kalry’s done it.”

That’s right. Every single person could survive this fall because even a thirteen-year-old girl survived! Teenage girls: you drop them, and they shatter. But they do so without vocalizing, of course. Teenage girls always remain silent.

[Aedan] glared at Kalry with an unspoken demand for help, but the girl’s hazel eyes were now full of laughter. She shook her head and buried her amusement behind a tousled mass of sun-and-barley hair. Aedan had to soldier on alone.

“Think of it, Thomas. Once you jump you’ll be one of us, one of the Badgerfields Elites.”

I see: this is a hazing ritual. Aedan is the leader of a totally unpretentious group he calls the Badgerfields Elites, and he hazes kids he wants to join. It also explains how he can command Kalry not to speak. While Renshaw is justifying the bullying by saying Aedan wants friends, what Aedan actually wants is minions.

It’s also strange that Kalry is almost laughing. Before, her body language indicated disapproval, but now she’s okay with this?

“And … and you can have my second sling.” [Aedan]

“Didn’t you break it yesterday?”

“It could be fixed.”

Kalry, the smile still lingering, held her hands up with a look that was really a soundless groan.

Kalry must make no sound. When Kalry makes a sound, untoward things happen. The milk goes sour. The trees twist. The dead breathe. Do not ask Kalry to speak, for from her mouth comes the unfathomable nightmares of forgotten eons.

Don’t Make Your Hero a Sociopath, Either

Aedan’s and Kalry’s eyes met, and something flickered between them. As Thomas bent over – the first of several careful manoeuvres in getting down from the wall – two pairs of hands reached up and provided the “encouragement” that they would later claim he had as good as requested.

The howl of terror that split the morning and echoed down the chasm would live on in Aedan’s dreams for years to come, always bringing a sigh and a smile. The falling boy actually ran out of breath before he hit the icy river, allowing a theatrical pause before the sharp smack of belly and limbs. It was the loudest landing they had ever heard.

I guess Kalry is into this bullying stuff. And since Thomas’s fear is supposed to be funny, we hear him scream all the way down. And in future years, Aedan remembers the screaming of his friend with joy. Maybe this is a setup for the story’s antagonist? If only we were so lucky.

“Aedan, I think we might have killed him,” Kalry said, her eyes on the frothy impact point far below.

Kalry speaks! But since she is only speaking about killing someone, I don’t think we should rule out her being an elder god just yet. Maybe she’s responsible for the… awakening.

Next, Aedan and Kalry jump off the bridge themselves. They fish out Thomas, who is “gasping in snatches” and who crawls out of the water “in a series of desperate jerking movements.” Thomas also whimpers as he touches his belly, which has been “scorched to a crimson perfection.”

Thomas, we need to find you some better friends.

Thomas apparently agrees. After a few angry words with Aedan, he stomps off. Kalry doesn’t speak except to admonish Aedan (“Aedan!”) for being a jerk.

Is that watching crowd still here? Since Kalry was introduced to be the proxy audience, there hasn’t been a word about them. It’s like they evaporated.

When they were alone, [Aedan] turned to Kalry, “Another successful mission for the Elites. Thomas is a member at last.”

“I feel horrible,” she said.

“It was good for him. He’ll be happy about it one day.”

“I think I’m going to feel horrible until then.”

“Nonsense. Make him a pearlnut pie and he’ll forget everything after the first bite.”

“Will you help me search for the nuts then? They aren’t easy to find this time of year.”

“As long as it’s quick – I want to see what all the fuss is at the house – and as long as you don’t expect me to bake.”

Kalry is back to being sorry about the bullying. Perhaps she’s supposed to be a conflicted character. In that case, she should either show reluctant support for Aedan throughout or slowly change her mind. Swinging back and forth between happy and critical in the same scene is confusing. It might be possible to pull it off if the narrator got into her head and explained the mood shifts, but Renshaw doesn’t do this. At least with this latest change, it’s believable that Thomas’s suffering and anger would influence her.

Yet Aedan has convinced himself everything went great. He doesn’t even feel bad. Then he suggests that Kalry do the work to make it up to Thomas, and he only agrees to help her if it takes him almost no time and effort. Is this kid supposed to be a sociopath?

I wish I could say this stuff was unusual, but unfortunately, male characters are often depicted this way. Kind and sensitive men are ridiculed for not being masculine enough, while toxic masculinity is presented as admirable. Renshaw can justify it however he wants – maybe Thomas will appear later and thank Aedan for pushing him off the bridge – but it doesn’t change how he’s glorifying abusive behavior.

Style Must Be Supported by Substance

They let the bright spring sun dry them as they jogged over the hayfields towards the mysterious pearlnut tree. This tree, a curiosity known to the whole midlands, was unnaturally big – several hundred feet high, its smooth leathery trunk almost as wide as the hay barn. Every autumn it produced large nut-like seeds with a translucent milky flesh that Kalry described as a mixture of pecan nuts, honey and snow.

But there was more that intrigued them than the size and the magical taste of the kernels. In the last year something strange had happened. It was Kalry who discovered it by putting her ear to the trunk and listening as she often did. With a startled cry, she’d leapt away. But fright dwindled before curiosity. When she pressed her ear to the smooth bark again, her expression slowly melted into quiet wonder.

“It’s sighing,” she explained, “not in a sad way, but big and full with thoughts of delicious soil and warm sun and crisp, clean air that drifts high up where pearlnut leaves can tickle the feet of cheeky low clouds.”

Haha! Now that is a line of dialogue.

Renshaw is trying to build mystery around this tree, and he’s using what I’d call evocative telling. Instead of showing something strange happening, he’s telling us how mysterious it is with embellished metaphorical imagery. And for some reason, he’s using a line of dialogue to convey it. Why in the heavens is he using dialogue? He’s writing in omniscient; he can just put it in his narration. Perhaps he thought it would be creepy if Kalry said something unnatural sounding, but it’s over the top. We also don’t have a sufficient explanation for that; it’s not as if she’s been possessed by a spirit.

Even discounting the dialogue, the problem with using evocative telling here is that Renshaw hasn’t created something strong enough to describe that way. Evocative telling feels like hype unless it’s used with something concrete that is worth remarking on. In this case, maybe someone cut down the tree, it appeared to be a dead stump for fifty years, and then one sprouted from the stump and quickly formed a new tree. That would provoke curiosity with something of substance, allowing Renshaw to embellish that without making it feel hokey. As is, its size and unusual species isn’t weird enough.

Avoid Clichés and Stereotypes

Aedan argued at first that it was just the sound of wind passing down the trunk the same way those hollow, eerie sounds pass down a chimney when the sky is restless and the house is empty. But then he too put his ear to the tree. It was quiet for a long time, and he was almost out of patience when he heard a deep rumbling breath that didn’t sound much like wind and that made him think of soil and sun and air. Still, determined to prove his point, he stepped back to indicate the wind in the boughs.

There hadn’t been any.

Naturally, Aedan argues that she’s wrong before he even takes the time to listen himself.

As much as I like Aedan being wrong in this flashback, I think spec fic is overdue for a subversion of this trope. What if your character, after experiencing something strange, was believed? It could be a great surprise twist. Even showing how friends and family reserve judgment would be refreshing at this point.

But before he and Kalry had covered half the distance across the east field, their attention was drawn by William, the elderly but still-strong farm manager, who was engaged in a lively discussion with Thomas. William pointed to the manor house and the boy raced away. Then William spotted Aedan and Kalry and started running towards them.

“Now we’re in for it,” said Aedan.

Oh, I wish you were in for it, Aedan, but I doubt that.

This excerpt is another good example of how Renshaw lets his sentences get out of hand. The start from “But before” through “with Thomas” is all one sentence, and like many other long sentences, it’s disorienting. Renshaw should have mentioned Thomas before William.


But before he and Kalry had covered half the distance across the east field, their attention was drawn by Thomas, who was engaged in a lively discussion with William, the elderly but still-strong farm manager.

Making this switch would have:

  • Started with the character that readers don’t have to be introduced to, making it easier for them to move on to the new character and get the scope of what’s happening quickly.
  • Moved the aside about William to the end of the sentence, so it doesn’t interrupt the flow of thought.
  • Made it feel like Thomas is more active, and it’s therefore more plausible that he is telling on them.

We also have some run-of-the-mill clutter. Renshaw says “William started running” toward them instead of “William ran” toward them.

Kalry was watching William. “I don’t think he’s coming to talk about the bridge,” she said. “He’s running. He never runs.”

Aedan stopped. Kalry drew up alongside him.

“There’s Emroy,” Aedan said, pointing at a red-headed youth, “going like he’s got a wasp in his rods. Hope he has. Isn’t that Thomas’s father over there by the sheep pens? He’s running too.”

Old Dougal was surging up the hill, limp forgotten, hands flailing about him as if attempting to gain some additional purchase from the air.

“Aedan,” said Kalry, taking his arm. “Something has happened. Aedan, I’m scared.”

Kalry “drew up” alongside Aedan? Are they riding horses? And then Kalry grabs Aedan – who is younger and smaller than she is – and tells him she’s scared. She has to do it because Aedan is the embodiment of toxic masculinity, so he isn’t allowed to feel fear. At least Kalry hasn’t shrieked yet.

One of the easiest ways to fix weird issues with how your work depicts women is to have multiple women and to make those women very different from each other. Since Kalry is the only female character we’ve met so far, anything she does can be interpreted as commentary on women in general. If Renshaw had included another girl who wasn’t scared in this scene, Kalry’s fear would feel more like part of her character and less like a stereotype.

Instead of narrating all the people running, Renshaw has his characters describe it with dialogue. It feels a little unnatural, like in an audio drama where that’s the only way to include visual description. But this way, we get to learn that Aedan wants some poor kid name Emroy to have a “wasp in his rods.” Maybe next chapter, Aedan will pressure Emroy into putting a wasp in his own rods as a hazing ritual.

Use the Right Metaphor

Here’s how chapter 1 ends.

“You!” It was William, bellowing as he came within range. Though his words were aimed at them, his eyes cast frantically about the perimeter of the farm. “Get to the house now! Keep in the open and move quickly!”

“What is it?” Kalry asked, but William was already bounding away and turned only to yell,


He was not a timid man, but the worry beneath his words was thicker than flies in a pig pen.

They ran.

William threw his voice out across the fields. From all directions labourers began hurrying towards the manor house, shaken from their stations like overripe apples in a wind grown unsteady – the first gusts of a storm.

First, that comma and line break after “yell” is actually part of the book. Copyediting: it’s the thing you do before publishing.

Then we have an out-of-place metaphor. Why did Renshaw want us to imagine flies in a pigpen during this scene? Not only does it clash with the tense atmosphere he’s building, but it also slows the pace. In fact, that whole sentence/paragraph should be cut. The single “Run!” communicates worry just fine on its own.

In the next paragraph, it’s hard to tell if “the first gusts of a storm” is literal or metaphorical. As we’ve just seen, Renshaw uses a lot of metaphors, and this wouldn’t be the first cliché one. Even so, I’m hoping it’s just a cliché, because otherwise all the buildup with the messenger might be over a mere storm.

Renshaw is withholding information on what’s going on and building up the mystery again. I haven’t minded because I think there will actually be payoff. If it’s just a storm, that would be quite a letdown. Since he’s already given us two letdowns, I can’t put it past him, but I’m guessing this is part of the main plot. That would make Renshaw’s big-picture plotting the strongest part of this opening. His wordcraft is mixed, and his characters are terrible, but at least the story is off to a quick start.

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  1. Razr39325

    I don’t know where else to put this but I have a suggestion for a post you could write about. Why do authors want their stories to mimic the world we live in so much? Why chase the goal of realism in our stories? Do we have to? Most of your posts judge stories by its degree of realism and so do a great deal of many other people, not that I disagree with the idea of it. But it’s weird to do something without actually knowing reasons why. What might be some potential reasons authors strive for realism in their story.

    • Chris Winkle

      Realism is defined in a number of different ways. Do you want to give me an example? Was it my comments on farmers abandoning their harrows? Something else?

      • FFN

        Razr didn’t answer, but that’s something I’d like to hear more about.
        I’ve seen a lot of articles here nitpicking on things such as the farmers stopping their work in the name of realism and here’s what I think:
        They stopped working and that would be a big deal in our real world, but it might not be in Renshaw’s. It is just tiring (to reader and author both) to keep track of the fact that farming is hard, resources are scarce, yadda yadda.
        It sure can be interesting and add a layer of realism or an “oh, neat” moment, but does not have a huge impact on the quality of the writing (at least for me). This is fantasy, not an economical treatise.
        Allowing the farmers to stop can be an interesting narrative device to indicate a grave moment or simply make them a little more sympathetic and/or interesting. Those are not lifeless farming robots. They are living people whose curiosity was stirred.
        In most cases the reader should accept the inconsistency or anachronism because it simply WORKS. We shouldn’t even need to justify it (“Farmers can stop because soil is ultra-fertile and get loads of crops” or whatever).
        Also, forcing this level of realism can be bad for the story. Medieval life was BORING. If Aedan had to be constantly working, he wouldn’t have time to have friends or go adventuring (as I’m sure he will). As a writer, I dislike a setting that forces my characters to live a boring life in name of realism.

        Anyway, that’s what I think. I’d love to hear your opinions, Chris.

    • cerabobble

      This is a very long comment, intended to explain navigation around the Mythcreants site. If you don’t care about that, skip this comment.

      If you have a question that you would like to send in, there is a form you can fill out on Mythcreants. Directions:

      On mobile site (https://m.mythcreants.com), scroll down to the bottom. Under the heading “Get in Touch”, click on “Ask for Advice”.

      On regular/full site (https://mythcreants.com), go to the right-hand sidebar. Under the heading “Get Help With Your Project”, click on “Ask for General Advice”. You can also follow the mobile-site directions; in that case what you’re looking for is in the bottom right-hand corner area.

      Both of the above directions will take you to a page where you can fill out a form with your question. In my experience, the Mythcreants team is very quick (read: same day) to get in touch, usually through email. (the form requires an email)

      To toggle from the mobile to the full version of the site, scroll to the bottom. Below the copyright legalspeak should be a line saying “You are currently in mobile view. Switch to full view.”. Click on “Switch to full view”

      To toggle from the full to the mobile version of the site, follow above directions except what you should click on will read “Switch back to mobile view.”. It will be in the bottom left-hand corner.

      Some notes: I’m pretty sure that the mobile version isn’t available when you’re using a computer. I haven’t really checked; I use the mobile version while on my smartphone and the full version while on my computer. None of the above links are available in simplified view (hardly anything is viewable in simplified view, not even comments!). If you don’t know what simplified view is, consider yourself lucky. Under some specific cases, the sidebar moves from the right side to the left side in the full site.

      Hope this helped someone, and sorry for the very long comment.

  2. Bunny

    I didn’t think I could dislike a Lessons from Bad Writing protagonist more than that Spell for Chameleon guy (Flatch? Flip? What was his name again?) but that was before this load of manipulative sexist garbage. Awesome dissection, Chris – can’t say how much I enjoyed reading this! (What the heck was up with that chapter heading? I still can’t figure it out!)

  3. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    Ah yes, nothing like going onto Mythcreants and finding a Lessons on Bad Writing article up!
    I laughed so hard at your critique of the animals “scratching themselves.” These are my favorite Mythcreants articles! Keep up the good work!
    And Aedan could have worked as a good side character who has good intentions but pushes people too far, and ultimately causes some trouble because of that but becomes a better person in the end. Kalry and her mixed feelings could have made a conflicted protagonist.
    Or, you know, we could do it like this. I like that Kalry is taller than Aedan, though.

    • SunlessNick

      The weird way he talked about the squirrel obscured the actual interesting thing in that sequence – that it seemed every wild animal in the forest sensed what was happening – but the domestic animal, the horse, did not, or at least gave no reaction that suggested it had.

    • Bunny

      Aedan could have been some kind of an antihero to Kalry if Kalry was the protagonist. I could actually see that working, if the author reworked this the right way … if only. Also, am I the only one who thought her name was Karly at first?

  4. Julia

    “Kalry must make no sound. When Kalry makes a sound, untoward things happen. The milk goes sour. The trees twist. The dead breathe. Do not ask Kalry to speak, for from her mouth comes the unfathomable nightmares of forgotten eons.”

    lol – Now I want to read the cosmic horror/fantasy story of Kalry, servant to the Forgotten Ones, who has been feeding pearlnuts to the villagers to turn them into unwitting servants of the Annihilation Tree. The only heroes that stand in her way are Thomas, the sensitive boy with a nut allergy, and Miss Treelawnay, the flying squirrel with prehensile fur.

  5. SunlessNick

    Thomas also whimpers as he touches his belly, which has been “scorched to a crimson perfection.”

    By water? Ice can burn you too, but Thomas would be lucky to be alive if the river was that cold.

    • Chris Winkle

      Renshaw doesn’t explain, but I think the idea is that it was a really bad belly flop. So red from being slapped hard. “Scorched” is misleading but Renshaw frequently uses the wrong word.

  6. Paul C

    Great critique! And good lessons, too, especially the point about mentioning the known character before mentioning the unknown character (“Start with characters the reader doesn’t have to be introduced to…”). Something to keep in mind.

    Also, in Washington state, Aedan (and Kalry) could be arrested for reckless endangerment for “encouraging” Thomas off the bridge. No broken ribs or punctured lungs for Thomas? Bah!

    Toxic bully is right. In fantasy, I thought it was the villain who was supposed to celebrating pain and fear. Of course, we do not know that Aedan is the hero. He could be the villain?

  7. Tiffany

    I read the book and frankly it was one of the best books I’ve ever read. It takes you into a whole other world that you can actually feel like you are right there. I know everyone has their own opinions but I think if you haven’t done so yet, actually read the whole book and then judge for yourself.

    • Simeon

      I’ll bite.

      In what ways would you say the work improves from the examples given in this article? Specifically the problematic characterization, misuse of images, and the poorly edited language?

      Furthermore, if you did not consider those a problem, could you explain in more detail what it was that balanced and even overpowered them for you?

      • Thais Calvarin

        I agree that a lot of the things you wrote are potentially problematic, though I’m not convinced that they were careless choices. He could be purposefully using whimsical language in this opening in order to evoke that Huckleberry Finn vibe. I listened to this on Audio and am planning on reading it to be able to actually do some close reading, so right now I can only speak to plot and character development.

        You aren’t supposed to love Aeden right away, in fact this whole book is guided by the characters as much (or more than) the plot; it looks at dealing with his insecurities, his trauma from being an abused child, and his relationships (of all kind: mentor, friend, mother, father, rival, authority figure, respected authority figure, respected non-authority figure…).

        Also, all of the melodrama you described is not leading to OP individuals or epic adventures, instead the book is a slow burn which focuses on an in-depth look at forestry skills as well the concept of countries using diplomats as spies. Both these ideas are researched, in this sense this entire book is a training montage done right and with purpose. Finally, a book which gives learning (and applying) practical skills the timeline and attention these things deserve!

        An entire scene, for example, was used to combine teaching Aeden to not underestimate the quiet or insecure people and people with disabilities with learning to make a temporary-bow in the forest. Another chapter looks at rudimentary metalworking: because Aeden is just a kid and not OPed or involved in a soapy epic adventure (though super smart in the Ender’s Game sense) he and his class are relegated to the task of building up the army’s reserve of cheap weapons.

        The characters and their relationships as well as the clear understanding of resource exploitation (in relation to craft and politics) are what sold the book over and over for me. Unlike what your critique would suggest the book is meticulous in its attention to detail. I cannot wait to read the book and know if this is reflected in his prose as well as the character and story arches.

        Even if the writing does not live up to my expectations (which I doubt will be the case) the audiobook is so well narrated I think most anyone could and should listen to it whether or not the writing is amazing.

        I hope this response encourages people to give the work a go.

  8. cerabobble

    Chris, you might want to check your links before posting an article; I clicked on the link that says “D rating on Fakespot” an it led me to a page from Fakespot that gives this book a “B” rating. So… maybe fix that?

  9. Mona Kulp

    Might I recommend Keeper of the Lost Cities to critique next? I didn’t like the first book (though I loved the third book). Or Pegasus; it’s not REALLY bad but the writing could definitely be tighter as well as the characters and premise. It’s sort of a whole story problem.

  10. Bunny

    One tiny thing: I think it’s “peeking” ahead and not “peaking” ahead in the first section, unless you were mountain climbing while you did it!

  11. GeniusLemur

    Everyone’s running toward the manorhouse, something exciting must be happening! Or maybe it’s just another case of the whole world stopping and watching while an abusive twelve-year-old acts like a jackass.

  12. Simeon

    This is magnificent! I am about a quarter into my second attempt at novel writing, and reading about someone who thought himself ready for publication (even if it was self-publishing), projectile vomiting on a level that already feels worse than the stuff I keep in mind when writing, is highly motivational.

    • Simeon

      …is a sentence that exemplifies the need for editors.

  13. Ophelia Rose

    Kalry is the elder god representation we need.

  14. Max

    Can’t disagree with anything here… and yet Dawn of Wonder has sold a TON of copies and racked up the awards.

    So despite the poor writing, it’s doing some things right, and this critique IMO would’ve been better if it addressed those as well.

    Side note – I’d love to read a critique of Joseph Malik’s New Magic. Personally I struggled to get through it but I see others really enjoy it, and I’m curious what your take would be.

    • Cay Reet

      The question of why a book sold well has a lot to do with the time it came out in. Some books were scarily similar to books which came later, but the later books sold a lot better (often despite less good writing), simply because the time was right then. Awards are often tied to the numbers sold and, quite often, people assume a book must be good, even if they don’t like it, just because it sold well. The same direction as your ‘it sold a TON of copies.’

      Fifty Shades of Grey has sold extremely well, but it’s a poorly written book with characters essentially swiped from another book and from a writer who clearly has not the first idea about how BDSM works. It was there at the right time and first on a market which was just about to expand (Erotica as a genre has boomed since ebooks became a big thing – because with an app on the phone or an ereader, nobody knows what you’re reading).

      For instance, during recession, lighter books often sell better, because people have enough problems in their own lives. When things are going very smoothly, on the other hand, people want something gritty and dark with struggling heroes, so they can get away from the ‘boredom’ of their own secure lives. Some topics, like vampires, come and go in waves – you get next to nothing for a while and then a real flood of books with the same topic. If you’re one of the first at that time, chances are you book will sell extremely well, because it’s the first to sate the hunger. If it’s also good, all the better, but if it’s not, it’ll still do very well.

      I’m not saying there’s no books out there which are successful because they’re great books, I’m just saying it’s not necessary for a book to be good to be financially successful.

      • Max

        Sure, I would never suggest that sales alone indicate quality, and yes there are a myriad of factors that go into how well a book performs, including market timing.

        But Dawn of Wonder has 18,000+ reviews on Goodreads with a 4.3 rating, and almost 4,000 reviews on Amazon (no easy feat, especially for an indie) with a similar rating. And there are no shortage of reviewers saying things like it’s their favorite all-time book.

        Whatever we might say about the quality of the book’s prose, you simply don’t get that kind of positive response unless you’re doing something right. You still have to get people to turn the page. Unless there’s something fishy going on with the author’s reviews and sales numbers, he did something right with his story – which is even more remarkable considering how bad those examples above are.

        • Cay Reet

          From my own experience, I can say that a good story can excuse a lot of mistakes on the side of the craft. A lot of fan fiction has severe problems when it comes to crafting – to words, grammar, editing, and other things -, but a good story which will make me pull through, nevertheless, and still love the story. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like those stories even more, if the craft side were better.

          The ‘Lessons from…’ articles here are mostly for writers and mostly to show mistakes which are made often and can be avoided relatively easily. There’s a lot of factors which determine a book’s success which can’t be predetermined and there’s a lot of articles about forging good plots (and thus a good story) on the site, so that doesn’t necessarily go into the ‘Lessons from…’ articles.

        • Aidan26

          “Sure, I would never suggest that sales alone indicate quality.”
          Yet somehow you and all the other commenters and readers of this site think that skimming the first chapter of a massively long book is a good indicator?

          The assumptions about the characters being made here are ridiculous.

          -Aedan is not abusive, he is a victim of ruthless child abuse inflicted upon him by his father. He is curious and persuasive, but we learn that he is both caring and sympathetic later.

          -Kalry is not being characterized the same way as Aedan BECAUSE SHE IS NOT A MAJOR CHARACTER! She gets kidnapped about 5% into the book, and is gone thereafter.

          This entire review is garbage. It makes subjective opinion-based critiques of creative writing and wild assumptions about characters, theme, and morals based on a small excerpt.

          Research your critiques! Renshaw is an activist against sex trafficking and is currently publishing a book about the relationship between two sisters.

          • Cay Reet

            Not a review, a writing lesson … as you can easily grasp from the text itself.

  15. No1ofConsequence

    I am at a loss, fire the lack of”constructive” criticism. For a first-time author, he did what so many of us could only hope to do. He spoke to an audience in a way that seems to capture them as it was a very successful first publishing. Everyone agrees that mistakes were made and it is not perfect I’m just not sure why we expect it to be. And for this to be something useful is a review of the book I feel like it would have to have more than the negative point of view. Unless we are of the sort that only wish to tear down instead of build up then it’s fine as it stands. I also felt like the book shows improvements further down the story and if we didn’t decide at first glance what that story was we would be open to accepting it. And although there are many books since I read that one then have had a deeper impact on me, I am still looking forward to the next one.

    • Cay Reet

      Only, this is not a review – this is a writing lesson, written not to judge the book, but to take the mistakes from the book and show aspiring authors how to do it better. That’s the reason why they only choose books which are well-known and have sold well. Like this, many people have read the book and will be more familiar with it and like this they don’t damage the chances of a new or relatively little-known book to find more of an audience, despite picking the mistakes.

      There’s also a reason why the ‘Lessons from…’ posts only include the first chapter in most cases: the first chapter is where most people decide whether or not to spend more time with a book. A lot of people, online and offline, open the book at the beginning, read the first couple of paragraphs, and decide whether to buy it. If your first chapter doesn’t grip the audience, there will be no chance to make it better in latter chapters, sadly. Which is why optimizing the first chapter is very important (of course you should optimize your whole book, no question).

  16. Galyn

    I think you had some valid points, but I do believe you have some of your own prejudices to purge. You’ve obviously subscribed to a particular view of the world and a sense of what “fairness” means. Terms like “toxic masculinity” and using “White guy” like they are dirty words. I was enjoying reading a differing view until terms were used to make people lesser than others due to race or gender alone.

    • Cay Reet

      Toxic masculinity is a negative thing, so it can only be used in a negative context. And, just in case you want to point that one out next, yes, there’s also toxic feminity. There are behaviours our society ties to one gender which are utterly bad, for the person displaying them as much as for the people around them.

      The problem with the white guy (the heterosexual white guy at that) is that he has become the standard of our society of whom everything else, be it ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, is seen as a deviation.

      • Sal

        There is too much to write. I clicked on this link specifically because in Google it showed the white men and toxic masculinity nonsense. I can appreciate the critique of the writing even though I loved reading this out loud to my kids… just great memories. It’s a shame that everything has to be subjected to these trite and shallow critiques of race and “toxic” masculinity. Cay, of course toxic masculinity is negative… because of the word toxic. That doesn’t mean that the term itself isn’t a complete fabrication with no real meaning. Masculinity isn’t toxic. I wish literary critiques could remain literary.

        • Cay Reet

          There is behaviour that is associated with men which is outright damaging – that is what ‘toxic masculinity’ means. There’s also behaviour that is associated with women which is outright damaging – that is ‘toxic femininity’.

          Masculinity in itself is not toxic, only one part which is laudered by many is. Behaviour like never seeking help, like trying to dominate at all costs, like answering every slight with violence is toxic. All of those behaviours are much more associated with male than with female behaviour.

          • A Perspiring Writer

            Huh. I’ve never actually heard about ‘toxic femininity’ before. What is that?

          • Cay Reet

            The same as toxic masculinity, only for women. The expression isn’t used much, but the principle exists for both genders.

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