Beginning Workshop #5

This submission comes from Mike Hays and is the final beginning workshop for this round. This workshop will be a bit more nitpicky, and so I will make bolded comments within the paragraphs as well. Enjoy!

Ellis opened the front door to the Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community. He could kick himself for not seeing this before. The “it” here is vague, especially for an opening. Doesn’t ground the reader. So, this is how Alicia Swanson beat him again and again in sales contests. Still unclear…does he see her or what? What does he see? It was a good thing he called her house to ask about that algebra assignment. Her mom told him she was out selling tickets in the northwest part of town. Sentence ends with “of town.” After searching the few existing housing additions in that part of town, Town the only place left was an old retirement community which sat isolated near a cornfield on the edge of town. “of town.” The sheer size of the Wonderland Gardens complex led one to believe there were many residents. This is a prime example of dry voice. “Sheer size,” “complex,” “led one” and “residents” aren’t words that a 13-14 year-old kid would use. This reads more like a business memo. Many elderly residents who could fall prey to her It’s been a while since we mentioned Alicia, reintroduce her name. syrupy sweetness sales pitch and buy her tickets to the upcoming Plainfield Youth Summer Theater’s production of Alice in Wonderland, The Musical.

I’m missing some of the motivation. Are both Ellis and Alicia in the production? How are they connected? What do they get if they sell the most tickets? Etc. Build up the stakes. Dry voice here makes for a dense first paragraph.

Of course she would win most ticket sales, Italicize verbatim thoughts… Ellis thought as he stepped across the threshold. She always won, especially against him. Every lead in every show, every spelling bee, math contest, art contest, science fair, etc., etc., etc. (or at least that is how it felt). Even after leading the 8th grade football team to the city championship as quarterback last fall, he was still mercilessly harassed for getting beat out by Alicia for the 7th grade QB position the year before.

There is a lot of telling as he talks about his feelings here. Also, a co-ed football team? My school didn’t have a football program, so maybe I’m missing something. The last sentence is overlong. Try reading it aloud.

He dreamed of being able to seek revenge for the thousand ills of Alicia he had endured “The thousand ills of Alicia he had endured” is clunky…a convoluted way of saying something simple, and this is not the voice of a 13 y.o. boy, even one who is steeped in Poe. like in his favorite Edgar Allen Poe story, THE CASK OF THE AMOTILLADO. The title of the short story, which should be in quotes instead of caps, is “The Cask of Amontillado,” with a missing “n” in there and without the second “the.” Maybe not sealing her in an underground vault to die, but…

“Oh, Mr. McGregor!” An ancient, but bubbly voice came from the shadows inside the lobby. “Another visitor!”

Actually introduce the speaking character, especially for their first dialogue. It’s always a stronger image when characters speak, not their disembodied voices. We do get some of Ellis’ character her, maybe even a spark of a sense of humor, which is good.

The door closed behind Ellis. He took a few measured steps toward the voice as his eyes adjusted from the bright sunshine to the shadowy darkness of the lobby. This is play-by-play narration, we don’t need all of these details, and they’re crammed into a sentence that could otherwise be cleaner. The smell of old flooded Flooded his senses. The flood Flood of memories from his experiences visiting his grandfather reminded him of how he disliked these places, places where they send great old people to get older and wither away, like his grandpa did.

Try to rephrase this last sentence without having to say both “grandfather” and “grandpa.” The implication that his grandpa went to an old age home is clear…if an old age home reminds him of his grandpa, that’s the obvious inference. There’s some over-explaining going on here.

A shiver ran up his spine Physical cliché as he walked into the lobby. He saw the origin of the voice Convoluted way of saying something simple, “origin” is also dry voice, a frail elderly woman. She sat behind an oak table in a red velvet arm chair and next to her, in a matching chair, was an equally old tall man. On the table sat an old fashioned black rotary dial telephone and a gold sign that read, “Welcome to The Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community, Angus and Matilda McGregor, Hosts”

A vivid bit of description here, but the syntax could be smoothed out for all the writing so far. Read the work aloud. I don’t have a finger on Ellis’ voice, and don’t really know much about him as a character, nor why he cares about this ticket sales contest (other than to beat Alice). I’m finding that I’m not connecting as much as I need to be in order to hook into a beginning.

“Young, sir.” Comma before a “said” tag…a period goes after dialogue only if you’re moving on to an action tag. said the old man. They stood up and walked around the table to meet Ellis. They wore matching khaki slacks and red flannel shirts.

Ellis is a bit of an impartial observer. All of this is told in a very measured way. There’s no reaction, no Ellis spin on any of what he’s describing. He’s acting like a camera, just recording the scene. That is one of the reasons why we aren’t bonding with him as a character…there’s no personalized spin on what he’s telling us about. Reactions? Thoughts? Etc.

“Welcome to Wonderland Gardens Retirement Community,” This one would be a period, then. Why do we need dialogue welcoming him if there was already a sign? Redundant. The man swung his long arm in a arc Before vowel-beginning words, h-beginning words, and acronyms, you use “an” instead of “a” motion “Motion” here is redundant… “swung his arm in an arc” implies “motion.” As Strunk and White say: “Omit needless words.”, his fingers at the furthest point in connected space from his lanky body. Don’t know if you need to describe the layout in this much detail, we all know that fingers are at the end of an arm…The entire lobby seemed to fall under the sweep of his arm.

Lots of play-by-play narration still going on, not a lot of emotional involvement. Some dry voice and basic writing issues here. I’d urge the writer here to work on grammar and syntax and giving us more of Ellis as a character. Then he can tackle voice.

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  1. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    This is brillant analysis Mary, very helpful. I hope you don’t mind me pointing out that you wrote ‘an vivid’ in case anyone gets confused :)

  2. Jackie Yeager’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary for hosting this great workshop, and thanks to all of the brave writers who submitted for critique! I’m sure it benefitted the beginning writers, but also those of us who have been revising FOREVER!! So generous of you! Have a great holiday!

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Catherine — Thank you so much for the catch. I’ve edited it. There was a vowel-beginning word there until I changed it to “vivid” but forgot to proofread. Oh, the irony!

  4. Melissa K’s avatar

    Thanks for this, Mary. As always, it was great to read such detailed commentary.

    I’m a bit unsure about your first comment in this critique. There is no instance of “it” in the first three sentences. I’m guessing you might mean the “this” in the second sentence?

    I think somebody mentioned this before, but it would be awesome if you’d critique an opening or two you consider fantastic…maybe a piece by one of your clients (with permission, of course) or from a published book. We wannabe writers are always trying to imitate great writing, but most of us get lost in the process. I think a Mary Kole analysis of an opening that works might teach us a great deal about avoiding missteps.

    And to Mike Hays: Thank you for sharing! Have you read James Howe’s THE MISFITS? That book is written in a funny/intellectual twelve-year-old boy voice that I think might be similar to what you’re trying to do.

  5. Mike Hays’s avatar

    Mary,

    Thank you very much for the critique on my beginning. Once again, you are spot on with your comments. Your suggestions will help get this story off the ground and headed in the right direction, like a teacher helping a lost kindergartener find the way to his classroom.

    I appreciate the gift of your time and talent with this exercise to help us fledgling writers. Have a great holiday weekend!

    Melissa,
    Thanks for the heads up on THE MISFITS. It sounds like an excellent example of a young teen/pre-teen male voice.

  6. Adele Richards’s avatar

    Thank you, Mary – enlightening as always! And yes, I agree with Melissa K – critiques of your favourite openings would be fantastic.

  7. Linda B.’s avatar

    Great posts, Mary, thank you for these! And thanks to Mike for submitting.

    I do question the advice to use italics for verbatim thoughts. I think we should be in the main character’s head *most* of the time, so it would be an awful lot of italicizing. In fact, I would recommend in that sentence not to note “Ellis thought” … in a way that takes me out of his head. We know these are his thoughts because this is his story. So it becomes:

    Of course she would win most ticket sales. She always won, especially against him. Every lead in every show….

    Just my reaction as a reader. Again, thank you!

  8. Laurisa Reyes’s avatar

    I agree with several of the other comments. I, too, would love see examples of what you consider excellent openings. Or “edit” some not so perfect openings to show us how you’d like it done.

    I also wonder about the italicized thoughts. In my book I did use italics in those instances, but my publisher’s editor asked me to not italicize them. So I had to go through and change them all to regular print. Is this not a hard and fast rule?

    Thanks for all your examples. Helps me pay more careful attention to my own writing.

  9. Karen’s avatar

    Thank you again for another in depth analysis of a story beginning.

    In regard to the following sentence:

    “Of course she would win most ticket sales, (Italicize verbatim thoughts…) Ellis thought as he stepped across the threshold.”

    In general, would you need to include “he thought” if verbatim thoughts are italicized? Would it be redundant? Or would you need it for children’s writing?

    Thanks, Karen

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