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Workshop Submission #2

Okay. Our previous discussion about trust still stands and I’m really happy with how you guys have been interacting in the comments. Here’s our next workshop, Mike Bloemer and his manuscript, EXODOUS OF HOPE. Yes, I am going to feature some male writers and POVs on purpose. I do agree with what happened during my last contest — male voices have been underrepresented on this blog.

Mike’s issue with this manuscript is simple: I don’t know if this is a good beginning or not.

Let’s see! Here’s the material:

***

“Ororo, get down!”

I yanked my girlfriend to the ground as gunfire whizzed over our heads. Her prosthetic arm slammed into my side, causing my eyes to tear up.

A really visceral beginning. With three sentences, one of them dialogue, we establish action, relationship, and something unique about one of the characters — the prosthetic arm. We’re in the moment right away and it’s a very physical world.

Ororo started talking to me, but all I heard was rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat! I shoved her face into the mud so her brain wouldn’t splatter all over Africa.

Good sound details. Now we know where we are, too. Again, great action.

As bullets ravaged my eardrums, I struggled to figure out what the hell was going on. Ororo and I had been playing soccer with some of our friends when hot lead suddenly rained down upon our heads. Three of my friends were shot right in front of me. The U.N. peacekeepers standing guard at the front of the camp had been blown away with bazookas. Ororo and I would have been killed, too, if we hadn’t jumped into a ditch.

Now we jump the chronology, but this is okay. We’ve been grounded in one moment, and we can go back to what led up to this moment. I think you’ll agree that there’s no confusion here. There is confusion for the character, but it’s a controlled confusion so that the reader can play along.

Also, you have a lot of opportunity for emotion here, but he glosses over the deaths. I think that might be wise. Don’t get bogged down here, save the emotions for later. He’s probably numb by this point, anyway.

Finally, this is what I mean when I talk about stakes. These are really high stakes. One wrong move and THEY COULD DIE. There aren’t many stakes higher than that. This gives the scene a lot of tension.

This sure wasn’t a place for two fifteen-year olds. What were my parents thinking dragging me to a refugee camp outside of Darfur, one of the most dangerous places on Earth? Oh yeah, that’s right, my parents were mentally insane.

Introducing ages is always a tricky thing and almost always feels forced. This is okay here. And we get some more backstory. I think the last sentence is trying to be the trendy “too cool teen” voice a bit too hard. It doesn’t seem natural compared to what we’ve already seen from this character.

Okay, maybe I was exaggerating a bit. My parents were actually famous environmental activists. They traveled all over the planet
speaking out against climate change, deforestation, and wildlife trafficking (that is, when they weren’t hawking their New York Times bestselling books).

And you lose the momentum here. Aren’t they still in a hail of gunfire? Didn’t a lot of people just die? There has to be another place to work in this information. Be careful of using parenthetical phrases, too. If you’re going to use parenthetical asides throughout the story, keep it. If you only occasionally use this, drop it. Consistency is important.

After spending a week tracking poachers in Congo (and nearly getting shot too many times to count) my parents and I stopped at the Kalma Refugee Camp to meet up with Katanya Khartoum, Ororo’s adopted father. Katanya was a climate change activist who many claimed to be the salvation for all life on Earth. He was rumored to have come up with a fool-proof plan to stop global warming. Katanya was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at next week’s climate change summit in New York. He wanted my parents to look over his plan before revealing it to the world.

Again — aren’t they in a hail of bullets? You can DEFINITELY put this elsewhere. Honestly, my eyes glazed over by the time we got to “keynote speaker” and “summit.” I don’t care about Ororo’s adopted father in this scene… I care about Ororo. You started out with such a vivid moment and by this point it has completely unraveled and lost momentum. Yes, that is something that happens, even within a 250-word sample.

That was why we were near the Darfurian border. As to why we were being shot at? I hadn’t a clue. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. My parents had made so many enemies over the years that they made Batman looked like an amateur.

Here, the writer’s instincts kicked in and he took us back to the action. A wise move that could’ve happened much earlier. The mention of enemies piques my interest, but the mention of Batman is suspect. Again, it seems out of place, just like the snarky teen line above. The tone needs to be consistent. I don’t know if the scene you described makes little jokes and flares of attitude the most natural tone choice. If there’s going to be humor, maybe work it in more organically? Not every moment has to be funny. Here, it feels awkward. Tone and voice are super important to keep under control. Teens have a built-in BS-o-meter and they might roll their eyes and see this as an attempt at humor where one doesn’t belong.

***

As you can see, there was a really strong beginning here, but then the tension and pacing fell before rising again. In a beginning, these elements are super important. For other writers playing along at home, this is an issue of balance, the eternal question. How much backstory versus how much action belongs in a story beginning? Same with: how much description vs. how much scenework? All of these balances are crucial to nail. This author is almost there, but should be really careful of how he’s injecting backstory.

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  1. Franziska Green’s avatar

    What an unusual but interesting setting and plot beginning. Are there any books like this in the YA market? I’d love to read something along these lines. So much teen stuff is about me, me, me, which is how it should be to some extent, but I’d like to see a story about a character who was in a very different place seeing what goes on elsewhere in the world.

    That was a bit waffly. I guess I’m saying i’d like to read this story once you’ve polished and edited it, Mike!

    Mary, great critique and thanks so much for battling through your fatigue. I read recently that coffee has been found to have even more health benefits than previously thought so have another cup! (Although obviously I’m a bigger fan of tea…)

  2. Joseph Miller’s avatar

    Mike,

    Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your story.

    Mary,

    Thanks for your observations about the beginning and backstory. It’s a tricky business.

    Best Wishes,
    Joseph

  3. Mythicagirl’s avatar

    Now this is my kind of story.

    Mike, I salute you. I’d really like to know what happens and imho I’d say this is a great start (especially after you apply Mary’s critique) Good job.

  4. Mary’s avatar

    Franz — Dear Whatever Your Name Is… Africa is actually better represented in YA that some other places in the world. So are India, Europe and Asia, although it depends on when in history. I can’t think of any great titles at the moment, unfortunately, though I know this is of personal interest to you.

    With the YA market, it’s all about story. If there is a really powerful story here, it could be a fit for publishers. I don’t know how commercial it is, but the African setting isn’t an automatic “no.” For some, it might increase appeal.

  5. Margo Kelly’s avatar

    Hey Mike and Mary – way to go. :)

    My main stumbling block was the “girlfriend.” If the m.c.’s parents travel all over the world, and they just spent the last week in Congo, how can the m.c. have a girlfriend? Is she travelling with them? Does he know her from New York? The opening was so GREAT! But, then I doubted the main character when I realized, maybe “girlfriend” was a bit off.

    I personally, don’t mind back story, but I’m struggling with the same in my own manuscript.

    I liked the concept overall. Keep at it! And thanks for sharing.

  6. Jemi Fraser’s avatar

    Nice start Mike. Thanks for putting your work out there so we can all learn a bit more.

    Thanks again Mary for the detailed critiques. Amazing :)

  7. Cassi’s avatar

    The batman refererence made me smile.

  8. write-brained’s avatar

    Mike, what a fascinating story this will be. Mary, this critique actually helps with my own story questions! many thanks!

  9. Marybk’s avatar

    Mike–great start! Your story’s setting reminded me of Ismael Beah’s *A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,* a book I couldn’t put down. Nope.

    The breaks in your MC’s voice can be easily fixed. Kudos.

    Thanks for sharing your opening. Love these critiques.

  10. Olleymae’s avatar

    Great beginning, Mike! Thanks for being brave. I definitely appreciate how smoothly you slipped us into the action, but also revealed keys to the story like the location, girlfriend, and age.

    I agree with Mary on the backstory issue. You proved in the first few sections above that you know how to integrate information while moving the reader along, but that slowed with the sections towards the end. I’m one of those readers who groan when I’m fed large, blatant chunks of backstory.

    As a reader, the Batman reference wouldn’t throw me off as long as it serves to clue us in to the protagonist’s personality, and if similar references are going to be used throughout the story.

    Thanks for your great feedback Mary!!!

  11. Tricia’s avatar

    Thanks Mike for submitting your work. I also struggle with backstory, where to add it and how much is necessary. I might add in the first paragraph that he yanked his girlfriend into the ditch to give us the visual of where they are right from the start.

    Mary, thanks again for more great insight.

  12. Nichole Giles’s avatar

    Thanks for these examples. This series about beginnings has been mucho educational. I love how you break them down into what works and what doesn’t and why.

  13. Bongo’s avatar

    Bongo once dated a woman with a prosthetic leg. So, of course, this story brought tears to my eyes. Even the smell of plastic or the sight of hinges makes me weepy.

    Bongo also believes the right tone is crucial. And not just when looking for lady love. Sometimes humor gets in the way and dilutes something that is potentially very dramatic. And, personally, Bongo is tired of glib narrators. Doesn’t anything in this world matter? Must every moment be accented by a punch line? Must Bongo have a job before he can get lucky?

    The African setting is very good. There are plenty of Arabs and Muslims in Africa, and this is a good thing. Enough stories about angry black women and New York intellectuals who can’t stay erect. Kudos to you for bringing something different to the party.

    And bless my Mary for finally honoring a male. It is about time. (Has her heart been broken by a callous or inconsiderate lover?)

  14. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Mike great job and very different. I think this will increase appeal for many. You’re very refreshing! If you kept the action going as Mary mentioned people wouldn’t be able to put it down. I’m a lover of action, thanks for sharing :)

    Mary thank you, and nice job explaining everything.

  15. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Bongo, be brave and just ask Mary out on a date already…sheesh

  16. Allison’s avatar

    I really like the opening paragraphs, but I have to agree that the backstory dump completely took me out of the moment. Remember, we don’t need to know everything right away. You can just give us pieces here and there.

    Good job, though, and thanks for sharing!

  17. Bongo’s avatar

    Naomi — Mary can be very harsh. I suspect she’s damaged goods, but I can’t resist her. It is best to woo her over time, slowly breaking down her resistance.

    Might I ask you how you feel about sand–and camels?

  18. Krista V. (the former Krista G.)’s avatar

    I, too, liked the first half of this better than the second. That backstory can definitely be relocated.

    My one (small) suggestion would be to give us a little more of a lead-in. Since I know virtually nothing about Ororo and our narrator, I’m only concerned about them as one human being to another, not as a reader to a character. You might consider backing up two minutes in the storyline and giving us a little dialogue, maybe a few details that show their location and activity (instead of just telling us where they are and what they’re doing in the fourth paragraph). That way, they’ll feel more like people we know rather than just people we’re seeing on the news.

    Good luck with this! Nice to read about a male MC for a change.

  19. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    LOL…Oh Bongo, woo away then. Damaged goods? Nah, us woman who come out of crummy man relationships only come out of it stronger knowing what we want…great character building stuff! So I’d say Mary has awesome character opposed to damaged goods! :)

    And about the camel…I road one once at circus and sand, I don’t like it when it sneaks into uncomfortable places!

  20. melodycolleen’s avatar

    Mike – I commend you on your bravery – and it turned out to be such a gripping scene! I really enjoyed the action and the bit of flippancy from the MC, but see where Mary is coming from on keeping it in the present since it’s such an action-packed beginning.

    I do have a question for Mary, whom I thank stupendously for this insightful and unselfish use of her time. When Mike begins telling us about the MCs parents, should he refer to them in the past tense or make that part present tense? This is something that always throws me when beta reading for others, and I’m never completely sure how one goes about this.

    Again, thanks to Mike for posting and to Mary for her comments.

  21. Mary’s avatar

    I’m not quite sure WHAT is going on with certain comment-leavers lately but I do have to say, for the record, I’m very happily taken, so if anyone is gearing up to ask me about anything, it better be publishing-related. :)

  22. Bongo’s avatar

    This is what Bongo meant by resistance.

  23. Bongo’s avatar

    To Naomi — I am sorry but I prefer my women better groomed. Do not be a slave to the sand!

  24. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    The resistance thing is KILLING me (I’m literally laughing so hard at this very moment while trying to write) and the sand thing, yep I’m a hippie! It’s hard not to be a slave. I basque in it like a little puppy.

  25. Susan at Stony River’s avatar

    Thanks Mike and Mary!

    I like a kid who pulls his girlfriend to safety with him: I like him a LOT. Those parents promise one heck of a ride into the book too.

  26. Bane’s avatar

    The opening confused me a bit… is her prosthetic arm completely useless or did he rip her arm off? I’m guessing the former, but the latter image keeps sticking in my mind… and now he’s here trying to guard her and her arm from gunfire… made me smile.

    I think Mary hit the nail on the head about the break for introspection… MC wouldn’t be thinking much… he’d just be trying to get the hell out of Dodge. I think that’s always the concern with starting shit up to the elbows in media res — you’re afforded action and sometimes setting, but building up the characters while escaping danger is difficult to do without breaking the flow.

  27. Linda B.’s avatar

    I would totally read this book! But I agree with Mary’s comments. The backstory is AWESOME, but we don’t need it just yet.

  28. aj finnegan’s avatar

    I also like these opening paragraphs a lot! Great job.

    I tried to say his girlfriend’s name in several different ways and I just can’t wrap my mouth around it. I love that it’s African (and I love the unique setting!) but, Mike, would you mind telling us how to pronounce Ororo?

    And I don’t mean this as criticism, just a thought.

    When I read, I guess I narrate too much in my mind, but it would really frustrate me as a reader to not be able to come even close to a pronunciation. You should hear me trying . . . I sound a little bit like a howling puppy :)

    But again, I really like your setup! Mary has some great suggestions, so I hope you keep up the good work.

  29. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Mike, I think you’re almost there with the start of your story. It certainly grabs your attention from the start. I think if you follow Mary’s advice, it’ll be really awesome. Thanks Mary for posting this.

  30. shelley’s avatar

    Can’t thank you enough for going through these. So very helpful. And thank you to the two authors, so far, who have shared their work.

  31. Kate B.’s avatar

    I really like this beginning, Mike. I think you’re maybe one revision away from something golden. Africa, bullets, a girl with a prothetic limb….you had me at the point where you placed the setting with the threat of scattered brains! Thank you for your bravery in submitting this!

  32. Liesl’s avatar

    Great stuff Mike. I agree with Mary’s comments. Exposition is a beast! I think that’s the reason beginnings are so difficult. What do we reveal and when, how, where, etc. I study my favorite book beginnings, the ones that really hooked me, and try to pick apart and internalize their methods. You’re very close though.

  33. Thomas’s avatar

    I hate to be a pedant, but ‘bullets ravaged my eardrums’ means that MC was shot in the head. It was gun shots that ravaged those ears. Little things like that can add up to a sense that the writing is less controlled than it should be. Sorry. I’ll lighten up now.

    A very strong beginning, and brave of you to write about Darfur. This sounds like a book I would be interested in, though I agree that the backstory details were put in the wrong place — if several of my friends had just been shot and I was cowering in a ditch under fire, I wouldn’t be thinking these things. But what a great action scene this could be, and wow, what an opening!

  34. Mary’s avatar

    Thomas — To tell you the honest truth, I was going to point that out but you really do have to choose your battles when giving feedback. You’re correct, and it really is the SOUND of bullets. Also, “ravaged” is too dramatic for my taste anyway. There’s a lot of drama in the scene already, we don’t need inflated language in the mix to clutter things.

  35. janet’s avatar

    Mike–thanks so much for sharing. I am writing a boy’s book too so I love reading stuff geared towards the same audience. I have the same problem of inserting humor or snarkiness into action sequences. I just can’t seem to help myself. I get a 50/50 response from readers. Some like it and some feel it’s misplaced. I wish I knew the answer. I’ve read a lot of books that do it successfully–Patterson’s Maximum Ride series and Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. I wonder if Mary has any insight here.

  36. Ishta’s avatar

    Mike, thank you so much for stepping up and sharing this piece of your story with us, so that we can all learn from your critique experience and improve our craft.

    Mary, this is great advice. I am struggling with backstory now in my YA novel, and your comments were very helpful.

  37. Shari Maser’s avatar

    Mike, thanks for sharing your novel beginning.

    This is my favorite line, because it is a truly original way to show that your MC is in love: I shoved her face into the mud so her brain wouldn’t splatter all over Africa.

    I think the name Ororo is lovely. As a reader, I like to investigate the meanings of characters’ names, and Ororo’s meaning (“great mother”) reinforces the idea that this will be an abiding love.

  38. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Mike,

    Nice job, both for putting yourself out there for us to learn from and for writing an intriguing start to a story. I love how it is unique compared to most of what I’ve seen lately.

    It sounds like a great novel in progress with an interesting angle and setting.

  39. L’s avatar

    I’m a lurker, but I had to say that the first part of this did an incredible job of creating a sense of urgency and danger.

    As for infusing sarcasm, I think a good way to determine when it feels appropriate is to ask if it’s something a character might utter right then. If there are bullets flying overhead, the main character wouldn’t have time to roll his eyes about his silly parents. But if the backstory bits get relocated to a time when the characters aren’t in a life-or-death situation, the Batman line will really shine.

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