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Workshop Submission #8

Here’s a submission from Tricia. Here’s what she had to say:

Does too much happen too soon? Is there enough detail or too much? What (if possible) turns you off and would stop you from reading more?

Let’s take a look at the material. First, without my notes, then, with.

***

The voice invading Jeremiah’s head must be Darrah, the woman who called herself messenger of the gods. Jeremiah tried not to listen to the voice or obey; it was useless. She’d put something in his arm when she scratched him. It throbbed, the pain spreading through the rest of his body. Darrah had control over him for as long as she wished.

Jeremiah took one of the torches that framed the crude doorway. The door needed no lock. A cold breeze smelling of decay greeted him. He hid his mouth and nose in his red cloak. The smell remained. Darkness swallowed the stone staircase. It wound down into the mountain under the castle to the dungeons.

Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows. Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck. He brushed them off. As long as he swung the torch the creatures kept their distance. Sweat covered Jeremiah’s goose-pimpled flesh.

Even if Jeremiah didn’t get caught freeing Lord Dennison’s prisoner, he’d probably be thrown out of the scribe guild.

***

The voice invading Jeremiah’s head must be Darrah, the woman who called herself messenger of the gods. Jeremiah tried not to listen to the voice or obey; it was useless. She’d put something in his arm when she scratched him. It throbbed, the pain spreading through the rest of his body. Darrah had control over him for as long as she wished.

The first line here is distracting. We get a fact that sort of grounds us in the story — there’s a voice in Jeremiah’s head — but then we’re whisked off to a character introduction and some facts. Starting with the voice also raises a lot of questions. What does the voice sound like? Is it normal to hear voices in this world? If she was a messenger, why didn’t she just TELL him things instead of scratching him and gaining control? Or is this how messengers and the gods operate? Also, instead of hearing about a voice and hearing about the commands its giving (telling), I’d love to see some actual dialogue.

Jeremiah took one of the torches that framed the crude doorway. The door needed no lock. A cold breeze smelling of decay greeted him. He hid his mouth and nose in his red cloak. The smell remained. Darkness swallowed the stone staircase. It wound down into the mountain under the castle to the dungeons.

The transition here is a bit jarring. And we still don’t quite hear the voice ourselves, even though it seems like it’s pretty insistent. I’m not quite grounded here. If there’s a door to dungeons, why wouldn’t it have a lock? Or is he standing at some other door? I seem to think that underground air is stagnant, not breezy. I’m also losing Jeremiah’s interiority a bit with these descriptions. Instead of saying the remote, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase,” try something like (and I’m not trying to be prescriptive, I’m just trying to provide an example to illustrate a point) something like, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase directly in front of him.” This a) grounds the reader (he is standing in front of a staircase), b) puts the focus on Jeremiah, c) implies action (that he is about to go down this staircase).

Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows. Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck. He brushed them off. As long as he swung the torch the creatures kept their distance. Sweat covered Jeremiah’s goose-pimpled flesh.

Be careful of narrating around your action instead of narrating your action. What do I mean here? As with above, you said, “Darkness swallowed the stone staircase.” What was really going on, however, was that Jeremiah was either about to go down the staircase or actually going down the staircase. But the description of the staircase only vaguely implied the action going on there. Here, again, we have, “Some came out of the shadows.” But it isn’t until the sentence after that we find out that Jeremiah is in the dungeons and getting spooked by the monsters. Don’t be afraid to give us pieces of simple narrative, like, “Jeremiah descended to the first level of the dungeons” to keep us apprised of what’s going on. When you say something like, “Bloodthirsty monsters found the mountain’s caves a most agreeable home. Some came out of the shadows,” you could be talking vaguely, theoretically, in general about these dungeons. Instead, you’re trying to say that Jeremiah is already in the dungeons. Transitions us through the action more directly. I do like the physical detail of “Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck.” We get into his body a little bit. You might want a comma between “torch” and “the” in the penultimate sentence here.

Even if Jeremiah didn’t get caught freeing Lord Dennison’s prisoner, he’d probably be thrown out of the scribe guild.

This comes out of nowhere. We have no idea he’s even in the scribe guild or what it means to him, so we can’t really feel the high stakes of him possibly getting thrown out. Don’t tack it on like this or it won’t seem significant. Also, my biggest overall issue with this is we get all action and no motivation. A great place to say, “He was going to the dungeons to free Lord Dennison’s prisoner” would be with a command from the messenger in the first paragraph or so. We need to know WHY he’s going down into the dungeon. It’s more important than the fact that he is. Otherwise, we don’t care about it. Or we think he’s an idiot for putting himself in danger when we can’t figure out a good reason for him to be there. Motivate your character so that every time we see them in action, we know why. BEFORE we see them actually in action. That will give you maximum opportunity for stakes and tension. If we know what they want and why they want it, we start to actually get invested in whether or not they’ll get it.

***

My advice here would be to really narrate the story. Don’t hop from image to image and moment to moment. A big part of storytelling is knowing when to guide the reader. Give us a motivation, then show us a bunch of action. Tell us what the character is doing, then show him doing it. There’s a huge balance between actually giving us information we need to know and letting the story unfold. Here, tip it back a little more to the informational side. The reader will thank you because they’ll know what’s going on from moment to moment.

And that wraps us up for workshops. It seems like a lot of you found this a very useful exercise. Like I’ve said many times, it helps to see pieces that are in process, not just polished pieces that win contests. I think a lot of you have also come around to realizations about your own work from critiquing the work of others. That’s a very valuable skill and one of the reasons that critique groups are so valuable. You really hone your editorial eye that way and, one day, after a lot of work, that’ll translate to seeing your own stuff as objectively as possible.

I know some of you who submitted didn’t get chosen for critique. I wanted a diverse sample so that I could make a variety of points. My decisions weren’t based on the quality of the samples but on what I could say about each one. For some, I had more to say, so those are the ones I chose.

Because of the time this took, I don’t know when I’ll be able to offer another critique scenario, but it will be sometime this year, so do stay tuned. Now, I’ll be posting questions and answers, articles, and otherwise going back to normal on the blog.

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  1. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Nooo! Don’t let it end! These workshops have been so useful. Thanks so much, Mary, for taking the time and energy to do them.

    Tricia, I really liked this. I got a real feeling of the creepy dark and dank place the MC was in. The second para is my favorite but I was also distracted by the torches framing the doorway. I guess I imagine them to be either side of the doorway, but for me ‘framing’ would be all the way around. Nit-picky maybe, but it made me read it twice which I guess isn’t what you want so early on in a story.

    Instead of cold breeze could you put a cold cloud of air instead? Or The cold air was rank with decay? I can imagine what you mean – it’s that kind of cold damp dark smell of caves.

    Great stuff!

  2. Donna Gambale’s avatar

    Hi Mary — I read these posts in my email, so I don’t often comment, but I wanted to stop by and say that I too found the workshops very useful! I really appreciate the time you put into this blog, and I look forward to reading more.

    And thanks to everyone who submitted their work for critique!

  3. shelley’s avatar

    Tricia–Thanks for being so brave!
    One thing I’ve learned of late, is that in order for the reader to care about the MC, or any character, we have to know them first. I think getting to know Jeremiah first, what is issue or problems may be, and just a little about him, will make this more important to us as readers. Lots of potential here.
    Mary, this workshop has been so amazingly helpful. I keep coming back and re-reading all the firsts. I’ve learned so much! Thanks to everyone!

  4. Marybk’s avatar

    Hi Tricia. You have some biting scenes here. Looks like you’ve also chosen your character names carefully (I had to look the meanings up). I would read on at this point, but I would also agree that we need more of Jeremiah–his voice in particular–for this to be a complete hook.

    Mary, Mary, Mary…thanks so much for rolling up your sleeves and providing us with critiques and feedback like oh-so-never before. Your time, efforts, and generosity are appreciated. I’m already looking forward to another workshop like this one.

    Until then, I’ll be taking out the boring and naturalizing the rest, watching the voice, grounding the reader, showing (no telling), amping up on tension, focusing on the story/MC, watching the POV, and laying out the stakes.

    Should be a blast. :)

  5. Olleymae’s avatar

    Mary, thanks so much for putting your time and energy into this. I will keep all of your comments in mind as I look at my own story and those of my critique partners.

    Tricia, I like your story already. I do agree with Mary’s comments about giving us a bit more information. However, I appreciate how you didn’t bog us down with boring backstory and heavy description. It’s a hard balance to find, but I think you are close!

  6. Melissa’s avatar

    Thank you, Mary!

    Tricia, thank you too. Mary basically said this already, but I’ve noticed that good writers tend to put a sentence that describes basic action or tells what’s going on at the beginning of a descriptive paragraph. It’s sort of like an invitation into the vivid details of the moment. Give it a try; you might feel it grounds your writing.

  7. Elaine Long’s avatar

    I think this story has potential Tricia and thanks for letting us in. I agree that we need more voice on Jeremiah to get us hooked a little faster. The second para was good but I think you should combine some of the sentences, it seemed to start and stop, start and stop, which sometimes makes me want to stop reading. Some short and then some combined sentences would make it flow a little easier in my opinion but that’s just me. I wish you lots of luck!!!
    Thank you again Mary. I hate to see these end because they have been so helpful in my own writing, but I get so much from all your posts so I’ll still be stopping by for my daily dose! lol

  8. Melissa’s avatar

    Addendum for Tricia: When I said “good writers,” I was thinking of published writers whose books I’ve read and loved. I should have said “excellent writers” or “model writers” or something like that. You’re already a good writer, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Just didn’t read my comment very carefully before I posted it. Best of luck with your revision.

  9. Joseph Miller’s avatar

    Tricia,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I agree with Mary about giving your character (and your reader) a motivation from the get-go. It’ll not only focus your action, but also the attention of the reader.

    Mary,

    Another workshop with great advice about the need for character motivation in addition to action!

    Best Wishes,
    Joseph

  10. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    Enjoying everything I’m learning with these. :)

  11. Lisa Gibson’s avatar

    Always so much info on your blog. Thanks for sharing your writing Tricia.

  12. Tricia’s avatar

    Mary, thanks so much for your help. Not only with my own writing, but also all the other critiques you did.

    Everyone else, thanks for the additional feedback.

    Marybk- I wish you were right. Truth is, I’m awful at coming up with names, and Jeremiah was only temporary till I got to know him and came up with a better name. And…umm…two years later he’s still Jeremiah.

    Melissa- No worries. I wasn’t offended at all by the “good writers” comment.

  13. Conda V. Douglas’s avatar

    Tricia, I, too enjoyed your entry. I found your world intriguing. And all of the entries’ critiques, for me, were like a writing workshop. Thank you, Mary.

  14. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Mary, these workshops have been so useful and insightful, thank you for the time you’ve put into doing them – add writing teacher to your list of credits!
    And bravo to all the writers who offered themselves up to the altar of critique.
    Well done, and thank you.

  15. june’s avatar

    Thanks for the time you put into doing this. It is so appreciated!

  16. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Tricia, kudos for your bravery at submitting and your grace in which you’ve received these comments. That alone is a sign that you are on your way to becoming an author and not just a writer.

    Your intro had some great images. I could picture myself in there with your MC. However, there were some slight jumps from paragraph to paragraph that a simple transition phrase or sentence could clear right up.

    My favorite sentences: Jeremiah spun in a superstitious dance, touching the torch from hand to hand, foot to foot, then over his head. Hot embers spilled down his scrawny neck.

    This is where I really felt Jeremiah for the first time. “Supersitious” tells me there are dark beliefs going on here. “Dance” shows me he is serious about it and willing to risk burning himself in the process of warding off the evil. “Scrawny” firmly places a picture in my mind of what he looks like.

    In fact, I like the sparse description here, as it allows me to see Jeramiah the way I want to. Nice job and keep working.

    Mary, thanks again for your invaluable commentary. Your critiques have been so helpful in making the mantra we writers hear finally feel real.

  17. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Hello Tricia, thank you for being so brave and sharing your work with us. In the beginning when Jeremiah is hearing the voice, I’d love to hear dialogue too. With that added, it would really make me want to read on because we all hear voices, right? Well all of us writer people anyway :)

    Keep up the great work! Mary had some awesome comments, which will indeed make this a great work of art.

  18. Theresa Milstein’s avatar

    I’ve enjoyed these workshops too. While they’re invaluable to the writer, they’ve been helpful to me too.

  19. Susan James’s avatar

    Thank you Mary. This workshop has been very helpful and interesting.

    And thanks to Tricia and all who submitted work. None of us could have learned without you taking the plunge.

    I’m not adding my critique because I agree with what’s been said. I’d love to hear that spooky voice (I imagine it spooky) whispering, commanding, whatever it is Darrah does. (And I like that name- unusual enough without being hard to pronounce.)

  20. Jen Steffen’s avatar

    I’m coming in late to the workshop, so I’m leaving my comment on the last one *cry*. I have really enjoyed reading the 8 entries done, and have found a lot to take into my own work, YA or not. I struggle a lot with telling and seeing these examples has been invaluable. Mary, thank you so much for being willing to do something like this. I will definitely watch for your next workshop.

  21. Eileen Barr’s avatar

    Mary, Will keep your professional feedback in mind when writing: “Motivate your character so that every time we see them in action, we know why. BEFORE we see them actually in action. That will give you maximum opportunity for stakes and tension. If we know what they want and why they want it, we start to actually get invested in whether or not they’ll get it.” Thanks a bunch!

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