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Workshop Submission #6

This is a submission from Livia Blackburne, for her YA fantasy.

Here’s what she has to say:

I’ve had this project reviewed by several agents/editors, and the feedback has mostly been positive. I still think though, that it’s missing something. While nobody found anything glaringly wrong with it, I don’t think it would stand out in a crowd. I’ve thought about adding more sensory detail, although I worry about seeming artificial or overdoing it.

Ah, the familiar situation of “I know it’s good but people still aren’t nibbling.” Somebody asked me to print the material in its entirety at the top, then dissect, so here’s that format. Let me know if it works better for you. Here’s the material!

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

***

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn’t occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Good first line. Lots of tension. Then it gets disorienting. Kyra is crouching somewhere… on a ledge. Is it night? Is it a city? Why is she crouching? I wish I’d been more grounded. The tension dies with “She supposed it was a distant possibility.” Why open with something really dramatic like “Maybe James wanted her dead” only to deflate it and admit that it’s a “distant possibility” only? That takes all the drama out of it. The tension drains further with “She was in no danger here.” So now there’s no danger, she’s just jumping. That’s not nearly as exciting.

Silently, she launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and touched a hand to the rough stone for balance. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

The voice in this section is an issue for me. Also an issue is the lack of motivation. Why is she jumping? Jumping for jumping’s sake is nowhere near as exciting as… jumping to save someone from a burning building… jumping to save YOURSELF from a burning building… jumping on the last car of the last train out of the station for the night… whatever. So, voice. “Alighted” doesn’t seem to fit the tone here, though it’s a great word. “Her senses alert,” “had caused any disturbance,” “allowed herself the luxury” “ponder her new theory” all feel dry to me, voiceless, like something from a police blotter, a scientific journal or a women’s magazine. “Ponder” especially. You use “building” and “buildings” in this paragraph. Is there anything else you could use for word variety? “But the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago” is clunky with the two instances of “as” and doesn’t roll naturally off the tongue.

There’s still no tension because a) we already know she’s in no danger, b) there’s still no danger, so I don’t know why she “allowed herself the luxury,” since it doesn’t seem like anything is threatening her thinking time here. In the first paragraph, you also said “she did not let the thought interrupt her jump” but now you have her pause and think. So one minute she can’t think, the next minute she settles in for a think? That seems a bit contradictory.

Finally, a total nitpick: why would you be “softening” your body for landing? Don’t you want your muscles tense and ready? Softening your body in mid-jump just makes me picture her landing like a wet bag of sand and totally collapsing.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger’s motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt . . .

“The aloof stranger” doesn’t fit the tone and is dry. It’d be much easier to say “… figure out James’ motives…” and then tag him as aloof later, rather than this, because I had no idea who you were talking about at first. “Not surprising” is dry voice again. “No surprise,” for example, sounds more colloquial. “Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of” is dry again, and vague. “Request” is a dry, business-y word. I like the voice on “He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay.” That’s good tension there! Then we lose it again with “amount” and “offered,” which are dry, so is “someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt.” A lot of your sentences are a bit wordy, to the point where the reader loses steam while reading them.

By this point in the sample, I also would want to know how Kyra fits into this whole thing. Is she the thief? Seems like it.

***

Livia’s experience is very common. As an agent, some of what I see is downright bad. Some of what I see is very, very good, and then I reach out to the writer. Most of what I see is… meh. It’s not glaringly bad, nor is it amazing. How do you, as a writer, get out of this “technically fine but not mind-blowing” zone?

Voice. Here, we get a lot of dry language. It doesn’t have style to it, or attitude. It doesn’t have emotion running like a current through it. Lots of these words lack energy. They seem like they’d belong in a periodical or in a business memo. How can this story be told with more style and careful word choice? I’d also tell the author to work on her wordiness and the clutter in her sentences. A lot of what she says can be said more simply and more cleanly, for much better overall effect. In short: loosen up. Read the manuscript aloud. Where does the voice start to drone on? Where does it pick up? Where does it lack emotion?

Speaking of emotion, we could have more of Kyra’s interiority here. We get some of her thoughts, but what about her emotions? Her experiences, both sensory and otherwise? The description of the setting seems rather drab… it doesn’t seem to be colored through the lenses of a character’s eyes. Think… how would Kyra see this cityscape? What would SHE, in this moment, notice about it?

The number one reason some writers make it and others don’t is voice. The scenario here is intriguing enough, even though you could definitely amp up the tension and remove those phrases about no danger that undercut your stakes, but it’ll be the voice that really makes or breaks the execution of this idea.

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  1. Bane’s avatar

    Thanks for the analysis. Mary, and thanks for sharing, Livia.

    Personally, I don’t think the words are lacking punch, I just don’t have a connection to the MC. Even adding emotion to this wouldn’t necessarily make me care anymore… just another crazy broad leaping tall buildings :). To me, this is always the hardest thing about starting in an full-fledged action scene — you’ve got to introduce character and backstory via tidbit flashbacks, but in the beginning it can be a bit disorienting since most people think linearly.

    RE: softening — actually, when you land from a jump, you most definitely do not want to tense your muscles; you want to relax them to allow them to absorb the impact.

  2. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I imagined her to ‘soften’ like a cat before landing – isn’t the idea that the softer you are, muscle-wise, the less you hurt when you land? Isn’t that why you can fall over quite spectacularly while drunk and amazingly get up without a scratch/bump? (Or is that just me?!)

    Livia, although I liked ‘coiled in a crouch’ it threw me off because I had to think twice to imagine it. Same with the ledge. It took me a while to get my head around where she was and how she was positioned. But I did get it on second reading – I imagine she moves like a cat. I enjoyed the second paragraph most, that’s where I got strong visuals and could picture her focus and attitude. The stray hair line later on bothered me, though – it felt too obvious.

    Thanks, Livia, and to Mary, for the crit.

    PS It’s nice to read the intro in its entirety first, to form an independent opinion before reading yours.

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Obviously, I have not jumped any tall buildings before! More evidence that the person providing critique is most certainly NOT omniscient!

  4. Bane’s avatar

    What!? No omniscient? I want my money back :p

  5. Suzie F.’s avatar

    Thank you Mary, for sharing your time and expertise. I’ve learned so much about my own writing through these exercises. Thank you Livia, and all who have submitted, for sharing your work.

    I love your idea Livia, and I would definitely read on. Some questions I had while reading were: Who is she and what is her name? Does she have superhuman abilities? Why is she jumping? I would love to hear more about who your MC is and then later on hear more about James.

    I agree whole-heartedly that voice is key. This is what is the hardest thing for me to nail but what I’m trying to work the hardest on. The structure of the story can be fixed later on, but finding each character’s unique voice and connecting with the reader is crucial from the beginning. Mary, could you recommend any books on developing voice?

  6. Erica Olson’s avatar

    Livia, thanks for sharing this, I think it’s the most helpful review I’ve read so far (based on the similarities to my own problems). It’s hard in this first introduction to either see that it’s YA or that it’s fantasy, which was a bit disorienting (obviously since I haven’t read the query). I think changing some words around to change the voice to a teenage one would help with that. Mary was exactly right about the tension, too. The first sentence grabbed me, then I found out she was in no danger, and I was left confused. Good start and good luck!!

  7. Susan at Stony River’s avatar

    Thanks Livia and Mary!

    Amazing to see how every single word really counts: with this example and comments, I’m convinced. Time to go to the manuscript and ask each word in it, if it’s the very best one for the job.

    Oh Lord.
    :-P

  8. Elan Cross’s avatar

    Oh Livia! I love this! And your blog too by the way:)
    I wish the sample was bigger, I want to know more!
    I agree with Bane and Franziska–the way she ‘softened her body’ for the landing made total sense to me. And yes, it does bring up images of catlike movement.
    A also agree with Mary when she says that the reader looses steam halfway through certain sentences. You have a nice flow, but a few shorter sentences mixed in with the long ones would keep the focus. And yes, being very picky about word choice–using only as many as you need–would help too.
    But really, I do want to read more:)
    Thank you Livia and Mary!

  9. Olleymae’s avatar

    I want to read on as well. I’m intrigued to find out more — the mystery of why she can jump so far, why she’s a thief, who James is, and what the interior of the Drunken Dog looks like — so you did that well. Sounds like you’ve got an interesting concept. Voice can be terribly subjective. I’ve read published books that I felt were much drier, so hang in there. I hope Mary’s comments guide you to getting published!

  10. Ishta’s avatar

    Thanks to Livia for sharing this experience and to Mary for the critique.

    I had many of the same questions as Suzie F, so I would definitely keep reading to find out some of those things. (I’m one of those who wish this sample size had been bigger!) And I’m working on a YA now with similar issues: balancing background info with action, finding an interesting voice that is UNIQUE (because I find I’m reading “spare sarcasm” a lot in YA lately, and I don’t want my book to be yet another sarcastic teen book), using too many words to say something… So like Erica, I found this to be very helpful.

    And I agree about the tension: it started high, then by the end of the paragraph we found out she was in no danger and we lost the tension.

    Good luck with this! It’s interesting, that’s for sure.

    Mary, a question: is a small sample size like this realistic? I’m not criticizing your choice to keep the word count low for the purposes of this exercise – not at all! What I mean is: for a novel-length work, of which an agent has the first 10 pages, do we really only have the first page with which to grab an agent’s attention? Can some things, like why she is jumping or how she is able to jump like that in the first place, wait until page two or three? Just how important is that very first page? Thanks!

  11. Diana Murray’s avatar

    This is a very intriguing story. I would definitely keep reading!

    I agree with Mary that “softening” is not the best word choice for a purposeful, controlled landing.

    Great comments.

  12. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    I give Livia props for embracing critique and committing herself to improvement.

    It’s so hard to accept feedback and internalize it. I struggle with that missing element, too.

    The only thing I hungered for was more insight into the mind of the jumper. In order for me to care about her, I have to know what’s going on. This is an element I need to work on in my own writing.

    Good for you, Livia, you’ve got guts!

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Ishta — Actually, yes. This is about how much I read before coming to my first decision to stop. If I’m compelled after 250 words, you’ll probably have me for the first page. If I’m not grabbed immediately, I may stop. I don’t read to the end of the majority of 10 page samples that I receive. We get thousands of submissions and can’t stick around until page 2 or 3 to get to the good stuff.

  14. Sue W’s avatar

    Livia… I got the feeling that you MC had a hint of an ‘action girl’ about her – I would have loved to see more of that in the language and content.. you have to love an MC leaping tall buildings ;-)

    Good job though and thank you for being so brave that we can all learn from the critique.

  15. Marybk’s avatar

    I like strong female characters, and I think Livia has created such a character in Kyra. I am interested in finding out more about her jumping abilities. Thanks to the marvelous workshoppee for sharing her work.

    And, as always, thanks to Mary, our lead workshopper with money-can’t-buy-this advice today.

  16. fivecats’s avatar

    “Somebody asked me to print the material in its entirety at the top, then dissect, so here’s that format. Let me know if it works better for you.”

    someone was thinking just as i have been thinking! thanks for offering this approach. this gives me a chance to read and measure my own reactions before reading yours. (sometimes we agree, sometimes we dont, but this way gives me a much better chance to form my own opinions clearly, before reading yours)

  17. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Thanks so much for workshopping (sp?) this, Mary, and for the super detailed comments. Although, to be slightly nitpicky myself, I don’t think it’s quite fair to call it the “I know it’s good but people aren’t nibbling,” scenario. If I really knew it was good, I wouldn’t be sending it to you to for suggestions :-)

    That’s a great point people are making about deflating the tension in the first paragraph, and I agree that some of the sentences are awkward. Off to the revision table .

    It’s also interesting that people talk about cat imagery, cuz that’s what I had in mind, that she softens her body like a cat — loosening her joints to absorb the impact.

    By the way, I’m a neuroscientist, and an academic. Maybe Mary can start a side gig guessing professions from voice :-)

    Oh, and for people who have asked for voice resources, I’ve blogged a few that I found useful. Cathy Yardley has some good tips , and Dee Garrison recently ran a helpful workshop ,.

  18. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Oh yeah, and thanks for the reminder about emotion and seeing through the character’s eyes too. That’s very helpful.

  19. Marybk’s avatar

    Love the workshops more than words can express (excuse the cliche).

    But.

    Does anyone else have this fear dripping over them as I do? Like, maybe I’m more like the William Hung of authors and don’t realize that I’m not cut out for it?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwDYZ8L24nQ&feature=related

    Could just be me. A struggling scribbler.

  20. Mary’s avatar

    Marybk — Remember, this is WORKSHOP. The people who submitted their stuff said, “Help! My stuff needs work.” So that’s what we’re doing here!

  21. Marybk’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary, and sorry for the rant. I am so grateful for this forum, but I started to get that overwhelming ACK CAN I DO ALL THIS feeling in the back of my throat. (Hoping others go through the same self-questioning.)

    These writers are fantastic and brave and lucky.

    I’m putting my workshop hat back on now.

  22. Liesl’s avatar

    Thanks Mary for putting the entire entry at the beginning!

    Livia, thanks for sharing and best of luck with the revisions and submissions. Carry on!

  23. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Livia, beautiful name by the way! Thank you for sharing, keep going :)

  24. Mary’s avatar

    All — Whenever I teach workshop, there’s a point, very easy to recognize, when all the writers get to the same place that Marybk just reached. (You’re not alone, really, it happens all the time.) They get this despairing look of, “Can I REALLY do this?”

    It’s easy to become overwhelmed and start doubting yourself if you’re learning a lot and seeing your revision to-do list grow and grow.

    When I see writers reach this point of saturation, I just stop, look around, and say, “This novel writing stuff is hard, huh!” This usually gets a laugh but, it’s true. Writing a novel that will go on to be published is a skill, a craft, a talent. It’s usually years and years of hard work.

    If publishing a novel was easy, hell, I would’ve done it by now! And believe me, folks, it isn’t for lack of trying! But all we can do is keep learning and keep working. Think of how sweeter the reward will be. :)

  25. Marybk’s avatar

    I heart this blog. :)

    Back to revisions for me.

  26. kris f’s avatar

    I love these workshop critiques. I find them incredibly helpful to my own writing. I am going to go and take a more in depth look at the voice of my main character. Maybe that’s what is keeping my story only in the middle rather than at the top of the pile!
    Thanks Mary and Livia!

  27. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Thanks for the encouragement Mary! But if you haven’t published a book yet…sheeesh, I’ve REALLY got my work cut out for me. I may have gray/white hair by then, but I’ll never surrender. I love it. And dito to Marybk, we heart you for making this blog!

  28. Sheila Michel’s avatar

    Great comments and suggestions. I agree that the wording is a little stiff and lacking punch but I found the story intriguing. Thanks Mary and Livia for sharing. These critiques are so helpful.

  29. nilla’s avatar

    Mary, this is my forst comment, but I’ve followed your workshops on the quiet. Just wanted to say that your sharp eye and comments have been ever so helpful for my own writing, and I don’t even write YA or kid lit, and not even in Wnglish! ;-)

    Anyway, on Livias, I thought it was a good and intriguing beginning, I enjoyed reading it and would definitely have continued. Oddly enough I got stuck on a “silly” thing, the mentioning of MC’s “amber eyes”. I thought about it afterwards, and I guess to me it doesn’t add anything (who cares what her ye colour is, unless it has a direct connection to the story). But, to me, it interrupted the action, and became an “exterior” (writer) point. But Mary, you also highligted loads of problems with the text that I now can see, but which I probably just felt before. This was an awsome excersice, and I will read my own texts differently too! And Livia, you’re not far from getting it spot on! Good luck!

  30. nilla’s avatar

    Sorry, that should have been “and not even in English!” of course

  31. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    Recently, I read an editor’s post about dismembering body parts. When you say that her amber eyes scanned the area, it reminded me of the post. It may be a nitpick. Mary did a good job dissecting it, so that’s the only critique I’ll add. I like the very beginning because I wanted to know why she was jumping.

  32. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Livia, you go girl! I’ve read your blog before and know you have a masterful grasp of writing. After reading this intro, I believe you have something intriguing just below the surface–I think I really found it with the theif aspect. I would love to read more about the scenario.

    My only complaint was not connecting to the MC. I wanted to feel as if I were a part of her. I wanted my heart racing as I anticipated the jump, my body softening as I landed with her and my thoughts to be scattered as she worked through what was going on. I wanted to be there with her, not watching her as a spectator.

    I have an inkling that you capture your MC’s voice further in this manuscript, but haven’t figured out how to put it into place with the action scene at the beginning. Writing and rewriting is so hard, but so worth the work. Don’t give up.

    Mary, thanks for highlighting the voice issue. Writing reminds me of playing a musical instrument: you can be technically correct all the while lacking the soul that fuses music to musician. This comes across as flat. However, when the musician is the music, the piece comes alive.

    Livia, find your soul!

  33. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Reading all these comments is so helpful and encouraging! Thanks everyone! Just wanted to let y’all know that reworked that first scene and I’m excited about where it’s going. The workshop really helped me see it with fresh eyes. I’ll probably post the new version on my blog for the April 2nd first page blogfest.

    Cat — it’s interesting what you say about me finding my rhythm later in the book, because I was just talking with my critique group about that. The learning curve with the first novel is so great that the voice and style in words 35,000-40,000 (where I am now) is noticeably different from words 1-5000. I wonder how different it will be when I finally finish this thing!

    I feel like prepubscent boy, waiting for my voice to settle. It’s tricky revising with style differences though. I’m wondering if it might be easier, with the second draft, to rewrite some of these scenes blind and integrate the two.

  34. Jess Tudor’s avatar

    I agree completely with Mary – the story looks like it’s good, but the execution needs some punch. Thanks for sharing it. :)

  35. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    For the curious, preliminary revisions are up. If you drop by, I’d love to know your thoughts! Thanks again, Mary.

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