I apologize for the repeat interruption! We will be back to the novel opening workshops on Monday, the 21st. Today, I have another survey. I’m hard at work crunching the data from the Published Author Poll, which I deployed over the summer, and I think you guys are going to love the findings.
Here, I have a slightly more targeted survey, aimed at writers who belong to any kind of writing forum or community online. Is that you? Please take three minutes to share some of your thoughts with me. Any input you have is going to be greatly appreciated.
I interrupt our workshop critique to put a call out: I’m looking for someone who can help me with audio and video. This would mean doing some light video and audio editing (adding some music, graphics, etc.) to standardize files to a house style and optimize them for several purposes.
I’m also looking for someone who rocks at making audio and video sound and look great, who knows how to compress it for online use, and excels all of the other stuff I’m not experienced or talented enough to do.
The work would be part time, you will be paid either on a flat fee per video or audio file, or hourly. Please send your compensation requirements. If you or anyone you know has experience with YouTube videos, podcasts, and all of the other things people are doing to create a professional audio and video presence online, send them my way!
Thanks for playing along, as always. We continue this week with a YA submission from writer M for the workshop critique. As usual, the normal text formatting is the sample, and my feedback appears in italics.
The Workshop Text:
Just before the final bell announcing the end of the school year, Miss Gruen, the new Freshman English teacher, dropped a bombshell on Matthew’s plans.
This is another example of an opening sentence that it packed with information. I’d highly encourage you to simplify. Since this is YA, readers will be looking for a character to attach to that’s their age. We don’t meet Matthew until the end of the sentence. First we learn the timing (end of the year), a teacher’s name, the teacher’s newness to the school, what she teaches, etc. Maybe start with what Matthew’s dreaming about as the bell is about to ring, then shatter it.
“Over the summer, each of you is to think and write about a simple question, ‘What is truth?’ You can do this any way you want, using whatever resources you feel you need. It can be brief or a long essay.” The class erupted into a groaning mass of pre-teen angst at the word “essay”.
I’d stay away from characterizing their groaning as “pre-teen angst” because it sounds a bit condescending, even if you don’t mean it to. This seems to come from the teacher’s POV—”Silly tweens!”—than the character’s. Also, an assignment as nebulous as this, which can be extremely short, doesn’t strike me as something to really groan about. That stereotypes the teens into a typical reaction, which could further alienate a reader in this age group.
Miss Gruen smiled as she raised her hands for quiet. “You don’t have to write an essay, that’s only one option. You could even draw a picture, or make a poster, or film a short movie. Do whatever you are motivated to as long as it addresses the question ‘What is truth?’”
You are focusing a lot on the teacher. Sure, give the parameters of the project, but then let’s see a reaction from Matthew, if he’s meant to be the POV character (in this case, close third POV). Otherwise, the adult really has the spotlight in this scene.
“Now, I realize it’s summertime and you have your own vacation plans and lazy days to look forward to. Me too,” she smiled. “This is primarily a thinking assignment, not a writing task. I predict for most of you, if you think about the topic seriously for even a short time in the next week or so, you’ll be three-quarters of the way there. Your juices will flow, and you’ll find yourself thinking about “truth” for the rest of the summer – and hopefully for life.”
A warning about “she smiled.” Here, it’s formatted as if it’s a dialogue tag. (More info on dialogue tags here.) But smiling does not produce speech, so I’d change it to: “…,’ she said with a smile. ‘…” or “… .’ She smiled. ‘…” Notice the punctuation and capitalization patterns. The instance of “truth” in the last line should also have single quotes, since it’s within speech, not double.
Again, instead of giving Gruen such a big monologue about the assignment, let’s get some kind of reaction from a teen POV character. And tie it back to how it was such a “bombshell” on Matthew’s plans. Thinking about the truth for a few minutes and drawing a picture doesn’t seem like enough to ruin a summer, and so the level of bellyaching about it only serves to make the teens look melodramatic. For this age group, this is not what you want.
There’s definitely clean writing here, with the exception of a few formatting issues. The biggest advice I have is to keep your eye on the main POV character and cut to their experience early at the start of a novel for tweens or teens. In terms of market, I do have some concerns about the writing assignment premise—a lot of writers use it to help tease out character emotions. It’s important to be aware that this is a somewhat popular device. But it’s a writer favorite for a reason and can lead to interesting developments if done well.
Looking for personal feedback from a book editor? Work with me on your novel opening—or the entire manuscript.
Thank you so much for your participation in these critiques. This is the third submission, a middle grade from D.M. Please go ahead and participate with your own feedback in the comments!
Let’s Begin the Workshop Critique!
It was a mild morning at the end of winter when the shrunken human head arrived at three Grange Drive, where, far from being considered a shock or provoking an outrage, it created less of a stir than a fly landing in Mrs McCormack’s latte.
I love a lot about this! It’s funny, it’s jarring, it creates tension. But this is your all-important first sentence and it has too much going on. The focus should be “shrunken human head” and yet we learn the weather, the season, the address, the reaction, and a character name. Too much. Especially for MG. I’d suggest you chop it up and don’t “bury the lede” (or the shrunken human head) in the middle of a paragraph-long sentence.
Amongst all the other curiosities delivered in recent months the head seemed to fit right in. But Angus McCormack should have realised it was different. He, of all people, should have considered it bizarre. Out-of-the-ordinary. Weird. Like last night at dinner, when he’d thought he’d glimpsed a chilli-pepper in his minestrone soup, he should have seen the shrunken head for what it was…a warning.
I’d recommend a comma after “months” in the first sentence. Use contractions for more colloquial voice, for example, “should’ve” instead of “should have.” We don’t need three different versions of “bizarre” (“out-of-the-ordinary” and “weird” do the same work). I get that this provides emphasis, but you don’t need it. The soup mention is … strange. It pulls focus and is distracting. Instead, set the scene for this head’s arrival. What’s he doing when he sees it? The first paragraph also tells us that this head wasn’t a big deal. And in this paragraph, it seems you’re saying the opposite–that it is a big deal. Which is it? You’re doing a lot of description, but keep an eye on what that description is actually saying.
But Angus didn’t always believe his own eyes. The stomach-churning effects of swallowing a red hot chilli pepper were gurgling proof of that. Simply put, Angus wasn’t ready to spot warnings for what they were. He should have been, but he wasn’t.
You repeat a lot of the same information here. I still don’t really see what the pepper has to do with it. Instead of talking about what he didn’t pay attention to last night, TALK ABOUT THE HEAD. That’s what you’re writing about, so take a more direct route. This pepper business seems distracting to me.
Luckily, there was a girl who was ready. A girl Angus had never met. A girl he didn’t even know existed. And today, as Angus sat on the down-stair’s toilet feeling sorry for himself, she was sitting calmly on a plane, cruising east at thirty-one thousand feet, far above the lightening-stuffed clouds that rolled over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Love “lightening-stuffed clouds,” that’s great description. I worry that you are establishing one scene (with Angus and his … troubles and the shrunken head) but then zooming away from everything you’ve created to this girl in a completely different place. Sure, it creates tension, but my preference would be for you to stay in your opening scene for longer, three or so pages at least, before you flash elsewhere. Is this going to be multiple POV? Omniscient? The beginning, as is, raises some questions in that direction.
With a sizeable wicker basket nestled on her lap, the girl gazed out the plane’s window, watching other planes crisscross the sky. The vapour trails they etched across the atmosphere were tinged pinkish-red by the rising sun. They reminded her of rumpled scars on a thin blue skin.
Awesome descriptions here! This is very immersive and allows me to sink into her experience. I wonder where she’s going, and the image of scars provides some nice tension. Other than the quick hopping around and some of the wordiness and unfocused description in Angus’s portion of the beginning, I’d say this is a strong opening with good potential.
Thanks so much for playing along, and I hope to see you for next week’s workshop installment!
Want custom critique on your work work? Hire me as your book editor and we’ll dive in together.
Thank you all for your participation on last week’s middle grade critique! That turned out to be very fun and I’m super stoked to be doing these workshop submissions. This week, I join you for a young adult submission from A. L.
Let’s Begin the Workshop Critique!
The end of the world didn’t begin with the accumulation of carbon or the thawing of ice; those had already begun by the time Georgia received the letter. It arrived with smudgy, snaky writing across a grainy, cream card – a throwback – a rejection of centuries of progress in technological design and electronic communication, with a message that was succinctly malevolent,
Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. A lot to unpack here! So I like the tension of the beginning. The world ending is thrown right into the mix right away. But first we spend time learning how the world didn’t begin to end—I’d maybe avoid defining something in the negative, since it’s not the clearest way of describing an event.
Then we get the card. But the writer spends more time making a commentary about how a card sends a social message—rather than actually focusing on the message! I wonder if this is the right way to introduce the card because the focus is completely elsewhere. It may be distracting.
I know that you stole.
Now they will too.
It wasn’t Georgia’s manner to rush to wild hysteria, much less to believe that bad news could come in such a low-key and classy fashion.
We’re still concentrating quite a bit on the card, which seems to me a minor detail. The writer here indulges in something I wouldn’t recommend: telling about character. Instead, let’s see Gerogia’s thoughts when she reads this.
Still half asleep, she examined the stylish sheet of cardboard in her hand – and always prone to think first, act later, she wondered what it was trying to say.
This brings us to grounding the reader in setting and time. Where and when is she? What’s she doing? Was she just asleep? Did the Tooth Fairy bring the card and put it in her hand? Instead of focusing on the social ramifications of writing a card, let’s actually place the character in scene.
She considered her stealing about as worthy of anyone’s attention as the other mindless habits in her day-to-day life, like the way she wriggled her leg incessantly or the way she might pick a juicy scab on her scalp. Instead her brain absent-mindedly wandered to a time when she used to write messages to dear friends. When everyone, not just her, had kept themselves throbbing to the pretty hum of calendars, diaries and sparkly invitations.
I’m afraid that this opening works counter to the tension you’re trying to establish. We learn that Georgia steals. I like the “juicy scab” description, it’s quite gross but the language is strong. But why open with a threatening card that amps up the tension if Georgia herself doesn’t react to the tension that the card brings? That seems like a huge missed opportunity. And if Georgia couldn’t care less about the threatening message in the card, why start with it at all? The dramatic card and Georgia’s totally nonchalant reaction seem at odds. Especially since all anyone wants to talk about is the delivery mechanism for messages. That seems like the least compelling part of this opening—in terms of story tension—but that’s where all of the attention is still going.
The letter had obviously been hand-delivered. There was no stamp, because there was no postal service. Not anymore. The postman had carried on with his rounds for a few weeks after the post office closed, much as most people with old-school “useful” professions had.
Ah, so now the lack of cards and calendars makes a bit more sense. A dystopian slant here with the postal service being decommissioned. Let’s get that earlier then. “She hadn’t seen an actual honest-to-god handwritten card in years” or whatever adds tension and context to the story. It deserves to go earlier.
For me, this passage is a great lesson in directing the reader’s attention. The reader will pay attention to what you want them to. So make sure you’re focusing on the most compelling part, so that readers also focus there. Here, it was very unclear to me why I needed to focus so much on cards and “old school” methods of communication … until the very last paragraph. If something is important, readers need to know why, especially at the beginning of a novel, when you’re first introducing the world-building.
A few months ago, I asked for some submissions of the first 250 words of novels for the purpose of educational critique. Let’s do it! I’m teeing up some blog posts, and I will try to make it a weekly thing. Please feel free to jump in with thoughts in the comments, too!
Thank you to P. C., who submitted this sample of a middle grade novel.
Let’s Start the Workshop Critique!
Whatever it was gripped him tighter than a hungry gorilla protecting its last banana in a jungle food fight.
The squeeze made him feel like a human toothpaste tube about to pop its cap. But the thing that torqued his shorts, was that it was creasing his trousers.
This writer really takes the advice to start in action to heart. Good work! However, there may be too much action. Readers don’t yet know the character, nor do they know the situation. I recommend grounding the reader in location. We get a location mentioned here (jungle) but no sense of the actual setting. Also, the true nugget of information here is that the character is in danger but concentrating on his creased trousers. Funny! But by the time we get to it, that data is lost in a lot of imagery.
It’s also difficult to care about a character in danger if we don’t know the character, the setting, the situation, the danger, who he’s running to or from, and why. I’d maybe slow down, actually, and this is advice I never get to give!
It swept up from behind and startled him with a muffled hissing pop like a fizzling firecracker. He spun to face it fully and was blinded by its sputtering glow. Pulses of blue and orange light flowed along its mantis-like body.
It scooped him up and away like a child playing jacks. He was powerless against it.
By now, I’m really starting to see a lot of images. Almost every sentence has a simile or metaphor. Here, we have the fizzing firecracker, and the mantis image. Before, we had the gorilla banana and the toothpaste. Here, the images are quite distracting because they pull focus. This writer could easily pull back and maybe use one or two per page to combat this tendency. I’m not saying to get rid of imagery altogether, but I worry that this writer relies too much on comparisons.
His legs dangled like a rag doll so that the stones at the edge of the frozen stream scuffed his freshly polished shoes. This really put him out of sorts.
More images. Unfortunately, a rag doll limply dangling is a cliché image. You also want to watch out. You are comparing his leg’s to a rag doll’s legs, not the entire rag doll, so it should be: “His legs dangled like a rag doll’s…”
“For the sake of Sir Isaac, watch the wingtips!” he yelled.
After all, the Tall Man was a sharp dresser and proud of it.
His heart pumped so hard that he swore he heard each blood cell swoosh past his inner ears, until another noise drew his attention—a deep droning thrum. It pulsed along in low frequency waves that streamed into the night, slowing only as they surged through his chest wall. The noise came from his abductor.
I’d reconsider the heart imagery, as it’s a bit of a physical cliché. We also know that the character cares about his clothes, so mentioning the crease in the trousers and “Watch the wingtips!” in the same 250 words gives readers the same data twice. Maybe use this to establish something else about the character?
Good mystery about the pulsing from the abductor. Still, I’d love to get some context here about what’s happening, who the abductor is, and what’s at stake. A bit of specific data doesn’t hurt at the beginning to get readers engaged.
This thing sounds like my percolator, he thought, referring to his trusty silver coffee pot, its bottom blackened by so many years on the stove.
“Hey! Can you hear me? Unhand me! Let me go!”
There’s a typo here, with “Hey” preceded by a single quote, not a double quote. The image of the percolator is well-written but I’m not sure that readers want to be thinking about such a detailed coffee pot when the character is abducted. These images continue to pull focus and downplay the danger of the situation—if there is any.
My biggest pieces of advice to this writer? Work less hard on images. The writing is solid, trust it. Give some context for the actual situation (where the tension will be generated) so that readers can care about more than gorillas and coffee pots.
Please feel free to chime in via the comments and thanks to P.C. for submitting!
If you want personalized manuscript critique on your own work, reach out to me for editorial services.
I met up with the lovely Weronika Janczuk the other day and we got to talking about data. There isn’t really a lot of data from aspiring writers on how hard they actually work toward getting published. How many manuscripts have they written? How do they receive outside critique and support for their writing?
Since I have the eyeballs of many writers here on Kidlit, I decided to create a survey for published writers of all children’s book categories. Tell me about your journey. The survey is for my personal use only and your identifying information will not be shared. I do ask for words of wisdom and may post those on the blog, but otherwise, I’m just looking for raw data. (For a cool survey that’s a few years old and centers around middle grade, click here.)
That data (numbers only) will be turned into a handy dandy infographic.
Agented and published writers are welcome to take the poll below!
Scene description tends to flummox many a novel writer. The devil is in the details, you’ve heard. Well, it’s possible to have too many details, and also too few. Then there are static details. Ack! How to walk this fine line when crafting your own scene description? Read on.
The Ideal Balance of Scene Description
Scene setting exists to not only bring your reader into your story, but give mood to each scene, and do world-building. A 1950s kitchen will be very different from an alien world. The issue is, many writers don’t know how much scene setting is too much, or how much is too little. They don’t know where to put it in their prose. They struggle with its overall arc as the novel progresses. Here are some thoughts for achieving that ideal balance.
Considerations About Reader Attention
When you write scene setting, you are directing reader attention. You are either highlighting a place, or downplaying, according to the amount of description you choose to include.
Yes, it’s possible to get bogged down with description, and, as a result, scene setting. We’ll talk about that in a moment. It’s also possible to skip scene setting altogether and end up with a strangely ungrounded project.
Remember this when you write: How much you describe something directly ties into how important a reader thinks that something is. As you decide how to describe a scene, how much, and when, keep this in the back of your mind.
You can describe a scene more liberally the first time a character visits. This is their introduction to a place, after all, and you want readers to create it in their minds. But don’t do a few big paragraphs of description at the beginning of every scene. This will be a pattern readers grow tired of. Instead, think of places to pause and insert description throughout the scene that takes place in a certain setting.
Once that groundwork is done, future visits to that place can do with less scene setting. But you don’t want to abandon it completely.
Too Few Scene Description Details
If you suffer from too little scene description, pick some evocative details of each scene. A big problem in novels without setting is that scenes often turn into talking heads. Just dialogue and human motion. These tend to read very quickly and readers won’t feel grounded. Can you pick evocative details, maybe that match the emotion of the scene? Pepper them on pages where you see a ton of dialogue and little action.
Maybe three or four details will be all you need. Maybe you’ll sit and start thinking about the room and be inspired to describe it more. As a good rule of thumb for you, try a few sentences of scene setting at the beginning of each scene that your characters enter. Then, when they go back to a location, note any changes or comment on how the setting might feel different because of all that has happened since the characters’ last visit there.
Too Much Scene Setting
Indulgent scene setting is an opposite problem. Usually, writers lavish the first page set in a specific scene on description. This can stop action cold. Redundancy also becomes an issue, especially if description is ongoing, even though a character has visited a place many times.
Think of a new scene or a new chapter as an invitation to the reader. You are asking them to join you for the next installment of story. If you immediately bombard them with colors, smells, the various textiles and appointments of a room, the vibe in the air, the music drifting in, and all of these other small details—that’s a lot to keep in mind. It makes the beginning of a scene, which is ideally a light and inviting thing, seem heavy and too complicated.
If you struggle with this issue, limit yourself to three significant details and three more specific details. And don’t introduce all of them when a character first enters the scene. Pepper them throughout.
How Scene Description Changes Throughout
Think of the scene setting in your novel as having its own arc. You will be doing more scene setting at the beginning of a novel, simply because you are introducing readers to a world and its environments. They have never been to each place before, they will want to see the big picture and a few evocative details.
But as the story moves forward and the settings become familiar, don’t drop your scene setting. Simply shift your focus. Is the diner dreary on this foggy day, as the character goes to sulk over a milkshake? Does the brilliant sunshine over the field cheer the whole place up? As characters go through a story, they will develop relationships to the places they have been. These relationships can change the character’s viewpoint of a place. They can add emotion to the place.
Pick three locations that your character visits a lot. Can you give them an emotional “tone” every time the character goes there? Add some specific scene setting description that teases out a sense of arc? Even more neutral settings can contribute to story with a few well-chosen descriptions.
Work with me as your developmental editor and we can address your questions about scenes, arcs, and writing description in a focused encouraging one-on-one setting.
When I first started this blog in 2009, I did a few critique contests and had a lot of fun providing feedback on small snippets of writing. I did another critique series in 2011. My wonderful social media assistant, Amy, pointed me to another blog currently doing this for thriller and mystery writers, and I thought, why the heck not do some critiques again?
I’d love to be able to feature content more regularly. My articles are usually quite long and take a while to write, and critiques will be a fun break in the routine. So here we go!
What I’m Looking For
This current opportunity is for MG and YA novel openings only. I am seeking the first 250 words of your fiction as a submission. The submission will then be critiqued on the blog as a learning exercise for the person submitting as well as the reading audience.
Not everyone who submits will be guaranteed a critique. The last time I did this I had to close submissions after 100+ people sent their projects. I’m aiming here for a series of 10 or so critiques, and I will choose samples based on their potential to teach the writer and my readers something interesting about the craft or the marketplace.
If this is fun and works out well and you learn a lot and like it, I’ll do the same thing for picture book openings in the winter.
What To Expect
I’ve done a series of “workshops” on the blog before. You are welcome to search the blog for other workshops I’ve done in the past (not all of these results will be relevant). This post is a good example, though the sample is quite a bit longer than what I’m looking for here.
I will reproduce the 250 words that you send and weave some comments in with the text, as well as giving overview feedback. Hopefully readers will flock to the series and give additional feedback in the comments.
How to Submit
Please send the first 250 words of your MG or YA novel opening (only the first words of your novel, after any quotes you’re using) copied and pasted into an email message. I will not accept attachments for this opportunity (#ripinbox).
You are welcome to give me a few lines of context for the submission, like whether it’s MG or YA and whether it’s a WIP or has already been on submission, but keep this brief.
Only the submissions selected for the workshop series will receive critique. I regretfully do not have time to explain my reasoning for selecting or not selecting a particular piece. No private critiques will be given during this opportunity. All submissions will receive a response within eight weeks with an update about their selection status.
I anticipate a lot of responses, so writers not following these directions will be disregarded. I’ll then take a few weeks to sift through submissions and start the series in September or October.
The Potential Implications
The understanding is that if you submit, I may choose your excerpt and feature it on this blog. I will provide critique on the snippet and readers may contribute their thoughts in the comments. This is a learning exercise and the purpose is to teach and to learn, for the writer submitting, and the people reading. There will be no financial gain for either of us during this exercise. I am not paid for the critique and you will receive no immediate financial benefit. No rights are exchanged, and you retain the use of your creative work once this is done, as well as the ability to use any comments you receive to improve the work. I do not own the work.
Some people may not want to submit their work for a public opportunity like this because they do not want to share their work online. Some people wonder if their odds of attracting agent or editor attention will increase or decrease as a result of this opportunity. I make no claims or guarantees in either direction. All I can say is that I fully believe your work will be stronger as a result of receiving critique. But the ultimate choice is up to you. If you are hesitant at all about participating, do not submit.
If you can’t wait for this opportunity and want to work on a private one-on-one basis, hire me as your book editor and we can dive in together.
I work a lot with voice, especially colloquial writing, with my editorial clients. Aside from dry voice, which is a topic in and of itself, I have been battling long sentences quite a bit recently. I write this post as a reminder to all writers: Bigger isn’t necessarily better. (Cue my thirteen-year-old self giggling.)
Long Sentences Are Hard Work
There are two common ways in which writers elongate sentences unnecessarily. One is via the semicolon, one is by stacking action. Unless you are British or from another Commonwealth country, the semicolon is largely leaving modern trade fiction. (An interesting anecdotal study done for The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer found that semicolon use is inversely proportional to commercial success. Plus, not a lot of people use semicolons correctly.)
I personally encourage clients to avoid them because they create awkward long sentences that drag on. They are especially undesirable in picture books, early readers, and chapter books, and some early middle grade because those readers are not yet comfortable with complex sentence structures.
Another tendency I see is the stacking of action, especially by using “as.” I encourage writers to limit a sentence to three actions, for example:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absently at the wall.
(This happens to be my favorite activity…)
Here’s what happens to the sentence, which is long enough already, if “as” comes to the party:
She shut her laptop, sipped her coffee, and stared absent at the wall as the cat prowled for puzzle pieces along the hallway and the mail carrier knocked at the door.
It’s too much for one sentence to do comfortably. (Also, my cat can’t be the only puzzle enthusiast out there, right?) Your work shouldn’t be, well, work to read. When you’re tempted to use a semicolon or “as” to keep something going, consider either zooming out and conveying less action (because you might not need such detail) or breaking up the sentence.
Reading Long Sentences Aloud
Another trick I love to use, especially for picture books, is to read the work aloud. Not only will this help you get a visceral feel for colloquial writing and voice, but it will absolutely indicate which sentences are too long. Why?
People need to breathe. And if you need to breathe in the middle of one of your sentences, it’s too long. Especially in dialogue. We tend to speak in shorter sentences than we’d use for narrative and description. If you have characters speaking in 50-word sentences which are exactly the same as your narrative writing style, that’s an issue. Speech should have its own cadence.
Read your work aloud to focus on long sentences and either eliminate them or break them up. Colloquial writing is here to stay, and shorter, more energetic sentences are going to help you a lot on the voice front. A win for you, and a win for your readers!
If you struggle with voice, I can step in as your manuscript editor and guide you in the right direction with personalized, encouraging feedback.