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Workshop Submission #4

Today’s workshop submission comes from an anonymous source for her project, SCARLET BUTTERFLIES. From her brief introduction to the piece, it looks like the story is about music and a girl who plays guitar.

This is what she says:

I’m struggling showing what the story is from the beginning. Also, I’m not sure if I’m a seasoned enough writer to be writing in first-person present.

Here’s the submission material!

***

Mom flaunts a plumber’s crack as she lifts my sixteenth birthday cake from the oven. The pleasant aroma of box cake slithers up my nose. Her finger scoops up batter from an empty bowl and misses her willing lips. A smelly sink rag soaks her breast onto red scrubs. “Gosh darn it!”

Two things here. The four description sentences are all around the same length. Try reading them in a monotone voice. You’ll get into a sing-song rhythm because your brain will start skipping over sentences that all look the same. To keep readers engaged, vary sentence length.

Second, this opening paragraph is all about the mom. While there are some actions and images here, who is the focus of the story? The first image in your novel, the first person you describe, they are in an extremely important position. More people will see the very first thing you talk about than the last thing. Shouldn’t these first moments be focused on your principal POV character rather than an adult?

My feet cringe to the touch of concrete floors colder than a polar bear’s butt as I reach across the counter for some frosting. “Yum, ma.”

This is disorienting. Usually, our feet get used to the floor pretty easily. This makes it sound like she just came in the room. How close is she to Mom, spatially? Why does their kitchen have concrete floors? Also, two mentions of butts in the first two paragraphs. Even to teenagers (unless they’re middle school boys), butts do not equal instant voice or comedy.

Every once in a while she tries to be wonder woman. And right now, she’s slipping on black shoes, frosting cake, searching for car keys, and still managing to speak with me.

Really chaotic, but not in the way you intend. You’re making the reader scramble a lot to try and keep up. We just saw description of her working on the cake but all these other actions are jarring. Doing all these things while trying to get a cake out of a hot oven seems risky, not heroic. Also, notice, still very Mom-focused. The Wonder Woman comment sounds like something a mom would say to describe her own mom efforts. Teens, no matter how good their parent/child relationships, don’t always have this kind of insight into how hard their folks really work on their behalf. That’s a more retrospective thought that comes later, with more life experience.

“Hey, did you make any progress on your math homework?”

She tries her best to care, but school stuff is the last thing I want to talk about on my birthday. I suck it up for her sake. “No, not really, but I’m gradually getting there.”

I don’t get the “she tries her best to care.” This implies that she really doesn’t care, which implies problems. This also doesn’t square with the Wonder Woman comment, above. A Wonder Woman parent would care, deeply. “Progress” and “gradually” are also dry, voiceless words. If you can find it in an office memo, it probably doesn’t belong in a teen’s mouth, especially in first person POV.

Cutting the first part and just saying: “School stuff is the last thing I want to talk about…” would make this stronger… and also less Mom-centric. Look at how Mom is still the primary subject in most of your sentences.

With a quick frown, she relates. “I wish I could help you Roberta Rae, but you know how important my job is. I’ll try to call you tonight on my break and help you out.”

“Thanks mom. That would be great.”

This dialogue isn’t the most natural. These people sound like they’ve never talked to each other before. A lot of writers use spoken backstory in their dialogue to try and introduce information that the characters already know but that the reader should know, too. If you ever find yourself saying, “You know…” or “I know I’ve already told you…” or anything similar, that’s a red flag. Would two people who have been living with each other for 16 have this conversation? Also, “Mom” by itself is capitalized, and should be, above, “my mom” or “her mom” is lowercase.

I know my mom’s trying to be nice, but I hate that she calls me by my real name. I’ve always wanted to tell her I don’t like it, but it would hurt her feelings. My name is Robbie. Robbie Rae McIntyre. What kind of first name is that anyway? McIntyre’s fine, but Roberta? It reminds me of some old lady. And I’d bet anyone a million bucks there’s a Roberta living in the nursing home down the street.

Almost every first manuscript I read has a character talking about how much they hate their full name. This is a very simple way to introduce information, as per the backstory comment above. This is also extremely overdone. And again… the beginning of every piece of your manuscript is the place where the spotlight will fall. The beginning of the novel. The beginning of a chapter. The beginning of a paragraph. That’s where readers will expect you to put the most important information. And here… who, once more, occupies the privileged place at the beginning of the paragraph? That’s right, Mom. Also, nitpick: “bet a million bucks” is a tired cliche.

***

To wrap up, I’d say this author could devote some energy to finding her authentic teen voice. Focus less on the mom and more on the POV character. I feel like we got to know the former better than the latter. From a story perspective, though, I’m struggling to find what the larger manuscript will be about. I didn’t get a sense of a) the possible conflict that will arise and b) any music stuff, which seems central to her brief plot description.

Both need to be present from the opening. Also, here’s a consideration… what will be the core relationship in the story? Will it be with Mom? In that case, that comes across clearly. If it will be with a boy or with a friend or with a sibling, though, there’s no hint of that at all.

You set the tone with your beginning. Reading this, I think it will be a family story about a girl’s relationship with her mom. If that’s not the case, maybe pick another moment to start the story with, one that better conveys what we’ll be reading about.

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  1. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Thanks Naomi, for sharing. I got a really vivid image of the mom in the first paragraph, which is great. She comes across as a bit of an embarrassment at that point, which strikes me as realistic, from a teen’s viewpoint. Although as Mary says, not ideal as she’s not your MC. I’d definitely copy and paste that bit and save it for some point later on, though!

    Thinking about it, would a teen call it a plumber’s crack? Most teens have several pairs of jeans that display earthquake size cracks – so would they think of it as being like a plumber? Or would they think of it as mom trying to wear clothes too young for her age? Mutton dressed as lamb?

    Thanks, Mary, too, for your comments. Always enlightening.

  2. Mary’s avatar

    Dear Franzy — The term “plumber’s crack” IS a bit old-fashioned. If Mom was wearing a thong, the MC could say that she was “flossing.” I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out why. :)

  3. Shawna’s avatar

    Hi Naomi! Thanks for sharing your work! And Mary, great, helpful critique (AGAIN)! While I do agree with Mary that it may not work the best as a beginning, I did find it good. I felt like maybe they have a fake, happy relationship where they don’t ever talk about personal things because Mom is always at work and that Mom is a little chaotic. If that’s what you were going for then you really did a great job getting that across! I would also say to keep this section for later use because I feel it is essential to knowing Mom.

    Thanks!

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

    This looks like a possible case of picking the wrong scene – or the wrong details – to open the story. Donald Maass said something about how writers often assume the first way they write a scene is the best or only way to write it, when the opposite is usually true. So is there a better place to start SCARLET BUTTERFLIES? Or a different set of details?

    And you’re definitely not alone; actually, this is (one of) the exact same issues I’m dealing with right now.

  5. shelley’s avatar

    Oh, my goodness! So very helpful. Naomi, you are a brave and dear soul for helping us all, through your efforts. Mary, this has been the most helpful yet! For me, anyway. I have had critiques on my current WIP that said similiar things about my MC first person POV. After about eighty rewrites on the opening alone, I think I may have something. Yes, Mr. Maass is right. Once we can get past that ego part of ourselves we can move forward. It takes some of us a little longer. Ah, me.

  6. Allison’s avatar

    I have to agree with what’s been said: unless this is a story about the relationship between the girl and her mom, this is probably not the place to start. It took me a lot of tinkering with my own work to figure out what the best starting place was. Start where the story starts is my advice. What I mean is, introduce the central conflict from the first sentence. Everything else can come later.
    Good luck with this!

  7. Bane’s avatar

    The mom wearing a thong would be a great detail — creates a picture of the mother fairly quickly, IMO.

    Thanks for sharing, Naomi, and thanks for the analysis, Mary

  8. Michaele Stoughton’s avatar

    I agree with some of what’s been said. My problem wasn’t so much with this particular scene, as it was the writing. I have a couple of points I would like to make, and give my advice on.
    First, the voice seems a little robotic, and comes off more like a list of descriptions. My advice would be to write more freely — think teenager.
    My second point has to do with the initial focus being on her mom. Maybe you could shift the focus to “Robbie” who is focusing on her mom. Does that make sense?
    Maybe show how Robbie feels as her mother is playing Wonder Woman scurrying around and doesn’t really even have time to talk. Not to mention it is Robbie’s birthday. Sure she’s making a cake, but has she even had time to say happy birthday?
    Good Luck Naomi! I hope I helped, even a tiny bit.

  9. Susan at Stony River’s avatar

    I love that name, Robbie Rae McIntyre — definitely a musician’s name and much better than its alternative “Bertie”, though I know one of those!

    First person often appeals to me, and several of my favourite YA books are in first person. The present tense is just something I’ve never gotten into, as a reader or a writer, and I think I would find it more difficult to write using it.

    Good luck getting the beginning down, Naomi!

    Thanks Mary — I’ll remember the ‘if you can find it in an office memo’ advice, definitely.

  10. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Good stuff Mary, thank you! And to think I got all that helpful info for FREE!! Thanks to all the lovely blog readers for such thoughtful detailed advice for improvement. I’ve copied and pasted everyone’s advice. Back to work for me. Thanks again!

  11. Marybk’s avatar

    Hey, Naomi–thanks for offering your piece. Free feedback is always nice. :)

    The one thought I’m left with after reading this opener is…I’m not sure I’m getting the voice of your teen narrator. The opening paragraph conveys a sense of frustration/embarrassment, but the descriptions are straightforward rather than teen-sarcasm-ish. Maybe consider starting with the smell–since the aroma might have superceded the butt-crack/appearance of the cake. I love that it’s a boxed cake and that the rag stinks–says a lot about Ma in so few words.

    Mary, excellent tidbit on the name issue. I am guilty of ranting about a character’s name. Not necessarily hating their name, but probably too close to the same thing. Mmm hmm. I smell a bit of a rewrite approaching.

    Possibly several. :P

  12. Tamara’s avatar

    This was another insightful critique! It reinforced the importance of shining the spotlight on what matters in your story and making those beginnings count in every way – Thanks Mary!

    and thank you Naomi – I’m learning through you! :)

  13. Janet B’s avatar

    When you re-write, you might want to reconsider the cake baking scene. First, if Mom is pulling a finished cake out of the oven, the batter bowl was probably licked and washed 3 0minutes ago. More likely, Mom has just popped open a tub of pre-made icing and is licking that off her fingers as she waits for the cake to cool.

    Second, who in America does not use a boxed cake? I am a mother of four and I plead ‘guilty’ every time. Okay, a few moms I know bake from scratch, but where I grew up, making a cake from a box of mix is considered baking as it requires cracking eggs, etc, and makes the mother look thoughtful as it takes time to prepare. Bringing in a personalized cake from a bakery is even more thoughtful. It means I planned and ordered it in advance and had it decorated with my child’s name, favorite theme, color, etc. A ‘hopeless but well-intentioned mother’ picks up a pre-made cake in a box from Entemanns or Hostess, which she throws in the grocery cart on the day of your birthday, along with a pound of ground beef and some Hamburger Helper. She forgets to pick up candles and doesn’t bother to buy a little tube of decorating icing with which to scroll your name on top.

    I know this sounds incredibly picky, but it is all in the details. A good writers group can be a great for this sort of thing because they know you and the direction of your story. Best of luck with your book.

  14. Janice’s avatar

    The four workshopped openings have made me look at my own writing with a different eye. Thanks!

  15. Anita’s avatar

    Thank you for sharing Naomi! Learning a ton from your critiques Mary.

  16. Elaine Long’s avatar

    All of these workshop critiques have been incredibly helpful in the story I am currently writing. If I see something similar on here that I’ve done in my story I am able to re-write it in a different way. Thanks to all who have shared their work and again thank you Mary for doing this for all of us. I hope you will do it again, I would be glad to share. Naomi, maybe you should have your opening line something like “The smell of my birthday cake baking wafts up the stairs, making my nose tingle. I follow the smell down to the kitchen, where to my horror I find my mom bent over the oven, showing more to me than I’ll ever need or want to see again in my lifetime.” I know it’s not great but it introduces your MC before it introduces Mom. Thanks for sharing your work and good luck.

  17. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    You know all this feedback has spawned a new idea for the beginning of my book! Thanks for all the support everyone, and Mary be prepared to be inspired when I see you in April! Just kidding, but a girl can dream, right? Thanks again.

  18. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Hi!

    I’m not sure if anyone addressed this, but I’ve read that present tense can be very powerful if you need to avoid foresight. It’s a gamble, though. I’ve read some amazing present tense novels, and some that are so distracting, I’ve put them down for good.

    Here’s a great link on the subject:

    http://www.rwanational.org/galleries/2009-workshop%20handouts/LookWhosTalking.pdf

    Thanks for sharing your work. Best of luck!

  19. Mary’s avatar

    @jmartinlibrary — Lots of kidlit is written in present tense because it is so immediate. Lots of readers aren’t used to it, though, and never get fully immersed. However, it’s still very, very popular.

  20. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    You’re right that it’s very popular, but it doesn’t always work (for me). I love HUNGER GAMES, but there are other books (ones that shall remain nameless) which use it poorly. But I guess that’s true of everything, right?

    Just to clarify, I didn’t have any issues with the workshop piece’s present tense.

  21. Marybk’s avatar

    @jmartinlibrary–thanks for the POV link. I’m struggling with one of my projects between present and past tense. The jury is still out.

    I’ve worked with present tense in short pieces of fiction, but I’m resisting it right now for some reason I can’t even put into words. I almost feel as if you have to have ongoing tension where every minute is an unknown with present tense.

  22. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Naomi,

    You’re an angel for putting yourself out there. It is hard enough to send a query off when only the agent will see it and judge it in her mind. When it is for the rest of the world to see and critique, it becomes infinitely harder to click send. Thanks for doing so.

    I enjoyed the sense of your MC’s relationship with her mom. I pictured, very vividly, my daughter rolling her eyes at me in this scenario. I think, as suggested above, that this scene will be great elsewhere in your manuscript and that there might be something just on the other side of these 250 words that would start your story off with a bang. I hope that’s the case and a little rearranging will get you up and going.

    Reading Mary’s critique regarding word choices is helpful for me, because I tend to use words that kids don’t typically use. I have had to become hypersensitive to this while not dumbing down to my readers. It’s a tough balance, but one we will all learn with a little practice.

    Best luck as you continue to work your way through your manuscript.

  23. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Marybk:

    I hear you. I struggle with things like this, too.

    Struggling scribblers unite!

    Sometimes, I have to write something twice in different ways and read it at workshop. That way, I get feedback on what works best.

    Maybe this is a voice thing? I know so many different writers who approach tense and POV issues differently.

    You’ll find what works for your story, keep at it! :)

  24. Marybk’s avatar

    *Struggling scribblers unite!* (laughing)

    Hello. My name is Marybk and I am a struggling scribbler.
    *holds up thick purple crayon*

    Thing is, when my teen speaks, he uses present tense when talking about something in the past if it happened to HIM and it was stressful–good or bad. To me, this is the best (unscientific) proof/argument I’ve come across to use present tense for YA.

    It’s a shift for me. I’m struggling.
    *puts crayon down and takes seat*

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