Workshop

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In light of my recent Critique Connection post, where I’ve let readers who want critique partners climb out of the woodwork and introduce themselves, I wanted to focus on what it means to be a great critique partner today, which was a great suggestion from MY critique partner, Martha, in the comments for my last post. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Martha.)

So, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, you know that I can’t put enough emphasis on critique and revision. That’s where writing truly grows. First, because nobody can have a perfect (or anywhere-near-publishable) novel in one draft. At least not when you’re starting out and learning about writing. Second, because you cannot be anywhere near objective about your own work. Even if you’ve had many, many books published, you’ll still get feedback from beta readers. All of the published writers I know do this for their first, their second, their tenth books. And I honestly believe that you learn so much from critiquing the work of others that it should be a required exercise for anyone hoping to get published.

What does it mean to be a great critique partner? You give more than you get. Lots of people go into a workshop or critique situation and sit there until the group gets to their submission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If you’re going to get valuable critique on your own work, don’t miss out on the valuable learning experience of being able to critique the work of another person and do it well.

What else does it mean to be a great critique partner? You don’t just focus on the what, you focus on the why. Sure, any idiot can say, “This part doesn’t work for me.” But when you articulate why something works or doesn’t work, you’re putting your finger on the writing craft and taking its pulse. Does a section seem clunky because there is too much description? Is there too much telling in a writer’s characterization of someone and you don’t actually get a clear sense of who they are? Is a writer’s dialogue clunky because they use a lot of adverbs and physical choreography in their dialogue tags? These are getting to be more concrete than just saying, “It’s slow” or, worse, “It sucks.”

Great critique partners don’t pass judgment and they aren’t prescriptive. Everyone who sits down at the page has got to start somewhere. Everyone writing today is on a different part of their writing and learning journey than the writer next to them. Good critique partners can see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece and a particular writer in the moment, and work with that. They give constructive feedback, don’t judge the overall merit of the work (because you’re all there to improve, right?) and they don’t tell you how to fix whatever issue they’ve identified. A writer friend of mine says, “If they tell you what’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.” Critique groups can be sounding boards for the writers’ ideas, sure, but they should never tell the writer what to do or what to try. That kind of playing around and imaginative work is how the writer learns, on their own, to make their story stronger.

Balance is important in critique groups. You want one or two really amateur writers, but none more than that. You’ll also want one or two people on the other end of the spectrum, and a few in the middle, depending on size. Be careful of getting into a group of people who are all the same level. You need different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or you won’t grow as much.

Personality is also important. If you don’t like your critique group or trust them, you’ll stop getting any benefits from the exercise very quickly and you’ll start to resent the whole process, which could leave a permanent block on your writing path. It’s okay to try several groups or several people… you want to find a good fit, not just the first person who’ll read your stuff.

Finally, the worst thing your critique group can say is, “It’s fine” or “It’s good.” Even if it’s good, your critique group should always be pushing you to new horizons in your writing. All my published writer friends who are in critique groups get feedback, tons of it, and it helps them take their work to the next level. And those are published authors, even bestsellers! Sure, they could probably get their first drafts published, some of them, but why would they want to?

It’s all about growing and learning and evolving in the writing business. It’s up to you to find partners who are like-minded and who understand that. And once you get their feedback, it’s up to you to use it in your work and do the revisions. I may write a post sometime about processing feedback and using it in a constructive way, but I think I’ve given you some food for thought to start.

And again, everyone, go to my previous post and cruise the comments to see if any critique partners catch your eye. If their email isn’t listed, post a comment. If you want to write your own “Critique Partner Wanted” ad there, make sure to post your email so people can get in touch with you.

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A comment from Marybk on my last post reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to do again. It can be hard to find critique partners who are focused on learning, growing, and who also write in the same area as you do. I’ve always wanted to make sure my readers have access to critique partners if they need them.

A fair number of critique relationships these days happen online. Partners exchange manuscripts, give notes, talk on the phone or on email. It often takes several tries with several partners to get a good and mutually constructive relationship going. You want to look for someone who knows what they’re talking about, that can articulate not only what doesn’t work in a piece of writing but why, you want someone you can get along with, and someone whose writing you think is good and that you wouldn’t mind reading over and over.

I can’t guarantee that I can facilitate match-made-in-kidlit-heaven-style critique partners for everyone, but I did want to make sure you guys who are looking for crit partners had a venue to post. I have all of your questions from the last few days in mind and will get back to writing regular posts soon, but for now, let me make this a personals board for the critique-partner-less.

POST IN THE COMMENTS ON THIS ENTRY ONLY IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR A CRITIQUE PARTNER. Put your genre (fantasy, paranormal, realistic, etc.) and your audience (picture book, MG, YA, etc.) and what you want to work on (a complete manuscript of XX,000 words, a partial, a query, etc.). Let’s see if we can’t make any matches here. The worst that can happen is you could share your work with someone, get some notes, and decide it’s not a fit.

ETA: If you see anyone here that you think might be a good fit, leave a comment with your email address or a way to get in touch with you. I can’t look through the comments and match people up, you should take the lead if you think anybody’s stuff sounds good to you. Use this as a personals board! Lots of people are looking for critique partners… now reach out to each other and try to connect and run with it!

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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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Today’s workshop comes from Beth. Here’s what she had to say about her submission:

Wondering if it is too vague? Also transitions to new paragraphs seem rough? Blurts of information then off to another idea… too many thought streams without fully delving into the ideas presented?

And here’s the material! Once again, I’ll put the submission without commentary first, then post it again with comments.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

***

I never expected my twin sister Lily to become my arch nemesis. The spring we were forced to move into my late Great Uncle’s abandoned estate, our roles shifted. Not just Lily’s. Mother’s did. Divinia’s. Father’s. Zeda’s. All but mine. Lilia Cotton was a born princess and Uncle Red’s estate would prove it.

There’s a lot of telling here. I’d much rather SEE how these twins became enemies (and I’m not quite sure what KIND of enemies. Are they psychologically cruel to each other in a realistic sense or will one of them be wearing a mask and a cape?) than being told about it. That takes the impact of this shift in relationship away. “Our roles shifted” is dry. Then we’re introduced to a lot of people and it’s disorienting. Again, the focus in this paragraph, the first one your reader sees, isn’t on the main character but the sister. That’s fine, but that establishes some distance from the main character right off the bat.

The forest seemed to beckon me, that first trip up the winding gravel drive to our new residence. The wind blowing limbs towards me and the back skyward, like a hand saying come here, come closer.

Mother saw it too, and heard me dreaming up adventures.

Reverse the order of the first sentence so we know we’re driving and where we’re driving to before we see the forest, otherwise we’re disoriented. I don’t know if I’m reading something wrong but I have no idea what “The wind blowing limbs toward me and the back skyward” means… “And THEN back skyward”? Typo? Also, I don’t know how someone can “hear” someone’s thoughts. Maybe another verb here. Good characterization of the mother/daughter relationship, though.

“You never go into the forest alone.”

“None of you,” she added post-script, making sure all four of us girls were listening. The leash was for me, she dangled the handle so my sisters would know to grab hold if I tried to run free. It was understood that I would try, I couldn’t help it. Divinia, the eldest masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities and foiled me every time, keeping us at constant odds with each other.

Lots of info here. I’m not really sure that the leash sentence is the clearest. “Masterfully anticipated my insatiable curiosities” is a little bit of elevated diction and caught the eye as not fitting in. Again, “keeping us at constant odds with each other” is telling. We don’t see it in their relationship yet, we’re just told about it. You could try and convey this with dialogue.

When Mother was the age I am now she was just like me. That’s why she says we bicker like we do, we’re too much alike, but I just think that’s what Mothers and daughters do. If she ever was like me, something killed that part of her.

Good tension of “something killed that part of her,” I hope we see this element at play again, but it’s also telling. What we do get pretty clearly so far is what “like me” means and the beckoning of the forest, so that’s good, but we’re not getting a lot of sense of the character, other than her curiosity and how alone she feels within her family sometimes. More thoughts, feelings, physical experience could really put us closer into her head. The transition between Divinia in the last paragraph and Mother in this one is the most jarring yet, so smooth it out a bit. Also, a nitpick: “Mother” is capitalized when used like a proper noun, ie: “Mother called me in to dinner.” When it is used as a noun, it is lowercase, ie: “My mother called me in to dinner.” or “That’s what mothers and daughters do.” I see this little error A LOT A LOT A LOT.

Trips to Uncle Red’s were regular for her, revolving around school breaks, weekends, time-off. Her uncle was alive back then, and the house, once full of life was now scattered with bones, a skeleton itself, anything good having long decayed.

This is a little bit all-over-the-place. I’d rather move the story forward in the present moment than hear about mom’s childhood at Uncle Red’s. And, again, this is telling. When you TELL us about danger and misery, the stakes are lower than when you show it to us. This is good writing, technically, but it feels like the tension you’re creating here is forced. Show us images that let us see the tragedy for ourselves. A happy family portrait hung in cobwebs, a frayed tear cutting the canvas in half. Dry vines snaking across a child’s playroom. Whatever. Let us make up our own minds, through what images you give us, that something is wrong here. If we just hear about it in such a distant, summarizing style, it won’t impact us as much. I hope the story actually starts and they get to the house soon.

***

I hope this workshop was useful for you. I think there’s some good, atmospheric writing here, but I’m curious to see what you all think about the tension and distance and summary we’re given.

When running a workshop in person or online, you always get a feel for the group and how they interact with each other. Sometimes there are problems. Other times, the workshop is fruitful and helpful and kind. I have to say that you all have impressed me so much. Not only does the writer get comments from me in the entry, but each submission has garnered over 20 comments from readers that provide additional perspective, questions, advice and support.

This has been working out better than I could’ve hoped! Thank you all for that.

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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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This is a submission from Brian Higginson, for his work, KARL.

Here’s what Brian has to say:

I’m trying to inject some tension and sense of unease about what will happen. Is it too heavy handed? Also, the boy Karl is 8 at this point – does it need to be stated earlier? And what about the dialogue? Does it work? It’s set in England. Is this a problem?

And here’s the material!

***

Afterwards, everyone kept telling Karl it wasn’t his fault, what happened to his dad. But who do you blame if it’s not your fault? Couldn’t blame his dad.

I feel like I’m coming upon something in the middle of it. Like I’m walking into a conversation. It’s sort of jarring, which I think is helped along by the fragmented sentence. Also, it’s “afterward,” not the colloquial “afterwards.” But we do get something that happened and some tension right away.

The day before the soccer game, they were all at the train station in Manchester. Karl’s mum was going to Wales for a conference. She bent down and zipped his coat right to the top. She held his face in both hands and kissed him.

He liked that.

Now we’re getting grounded in a time and place. As the writer mentions, Karl is 8 years old here, so the details of the mother zipping his coat up seem age-appropriate. Since this is a third person narrator and somewhat removed, you could also mention what kind of conference so we get more context for the mom.

Months and years later when he woke sweating in the night, from the fear and loneliness of it all, that’s what he cried out for more than anything. Her hands on his cheeks; her kiss on his brow. His mother. Mein mutter.

Red flag! This has gone from an early middle grade (because of the very young protagonist) to a work of adult fiction. Why? In children’s books, the action is confined to a relatively small space of time (a school year) and the character is experiencing the story very immediately. In adult books about childhood, the adult narrator is telling a story that happens during childhood but they’re looking back on it from a place of experience. True kidlit that’s on shelves today lacks that kind of “looking back on it” feeling, since a lot of kids don’t have that perspective of life experience. You never see a 16 year-old reflecting on their 15th year with nostalgia and thinking “if only I knew then what I know now,” etc. Kids don’t have those self-reflective tendencies that crop up as we age. I’m starting to wonder a) how old the Karl narrator is in “real life” and b) how many years of childhood this manuscript is planning to cover.

“I’ll bring you back something nice for your birthday,” she said.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

Now she was hugging Hans, Karl’s dad.

Auf weidershen,” she said, then: “Enjoy the game.”

Nothing about the dialogue pops out at me. It seems pretty pedestrian. While that’s not bad for a beginning, it’s not ideal, either. This is the equivalent of small talk with a little backstory (re: the birthday) worked in. That doesn’t make for riveting reading.

She turned back to Karl, with a look of mock seriousness on her face.

“Look after Daddy won’t you?” she said. “And make sure he behaves himself. Promise?”

“I promise,” said Karl.

It was a joke, he knew that.

But later it wasn’t the joke he remembered, only the broken promise.

There’s a bit of dry language here that wouldn’t come naturally to a true 8 year-old perspective (“mock seriousness”) but there’s also some melodrama (“only the broken promise”). Still, this returns us to the tension of the story as we know it so far — what happens to the dad.

The tinny, garbled sound of the tannoy on the station platform announced Cara’s train – at least it must have been her train because she picked up her suitcase. Karl couldn’t understand a word: though he remembered the harsh, metallic sound of it in the dreams and nightmares that were to come.

Again, this faraway perspective of Karl (however old he is “now”) looking back on this scene distances us incredibly from the kid Karl who we’re supposed to be bonding with. It gives this scene an echoy, dreamy feeling, as intended, but that also makes it more difficult to grasp on to something in this scene and emote. I also don’t know why the writer called special attention to the fact that Karl isn’t sure it’s her train. Isn’t it? Or will this detail become important later? If it’s not, don’t mention it… it raises unnecessary questions.

Suddenly Karl’s mother seemed to be vanishing before his eyes. As he looked at her smiling down at him with her suitcase in her hand, it was as if she was at the end of a long tunnel. Karl was convinced at that moment that he would never see her again.

This mixes the tension and, as a result, dilutes it. We’re supposed to be focusing on Karl’s dad in this ominous bit of scene, but now he’s worrying about his mom. Which is it? Be careful of ruining the effect by dividing our focus. (This is a note for the whole beginning actually. He starts talking about his dad, then he’s talking about how much he loves his mom. Then there are danger signals for dad again, then back to mom. Focus.) And we do still feel distant. If you use the same analogy of the long tunnel, that’s actually how the reader feels when we’re looking at the character of Karl. We’ve gotten little interiority (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations that happen in the moment or as a reaction to the moment) from him so far.

***

The thing I want to ask the author here is — what perspective is this story told from? From Karl, the kid’s? Or from an adult Karl, looking back on his childhood? The thoughts and feelings an adult has about their childhood will be interesting to one group of people and one group of people only: adults. That’s where these types of stories are shelved in the bookstore. They are not kidlit.

If you want to write a children’s books, first, raise Karl’s age. This seems like a heavy story. Readers want main characters who are one or two years older than they are, so right now, you’d be targeting 6 to 8 year olds. That doens’t seem appropriate. Make Karl 12 or 13 to get the middle grade audience, or 15-17 for the YA audience. And tell the story through his experience of it IN THE MOMENT, not looking back from adulthood. Really get into Karl’s head then and there.

Even if Karl “right now” is 16 and looking back on when he’s 8, that’s still splitting your audience. You’ll always be alienating half of them. Eight year-olds won’t want to read about 16 y.o. Karl because that’s far outside their experience. Sixteen year-olds will think 8 y.o. Karl’s experience is babyish. That’s why you don’t see books with a wide age gap between characters in kidlit, because kids like to read about characters who are close to their own age. Where would booksellers shelve a book with both an 8 y.o. and a 16 y.o. version of your character? MG? Then you lose YA readers. YA? Then you lose MG. Bookstores won’t build a special shelf just for you.

So pick one age, bring the reader close to it and really delve into that person — at that age — and their experience of the story.

If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you’re writing an adult book with a retrospective on childhood instead of a children’s book.

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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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I’m punctual this morning. Yay! Our next workshop selection is Tiffany Bennet and her manuscript, GO. GENTLY.

Tiffany is writing from the male POV and wants to know if it sounds authentic.

Here’s the material!

***

Folks got a lot of ideas about us guys. Some of these ideas are born from television or movies. Hell, maybe some are born from books. If people still read books. And no, I don’t count reading myspace pages or twitter as reading, though some of it can be pretty entertaining. Some of these ideas are perpetrated by some girl’s bad experience which now, somehow, without explanation, will mark our species forever. And let’s be honest, men and women are two entirely different species.

Wait, I’m confused. Am I reading a fiction novel or an essay on gender roles in teenagers? Phrases like “Some of these ideas are perpetrated” sound downright clinical and don’t have an engaging voice.

This is what I like to call a rant. Every once in a while, a character will go into a long monologue about an issue that “they” (sometimes I wonder if it’s really the author sprouting off here) care about. In almost all cases, rants are unnecessary. Nobody likes to hear someone on their soapbox, even if that person is fictional. Especially not at the beginning of a piece. This also tells us nothing about the character, since they’re speaking in vague terms about teenagers, males and society in general.

Also, this writer wanted to see if her writing worked well in the male POV. I don’t know if there’s a LESS convincing way of portraying maleness than by having that person talk about, “I am male. I am having a specifically male problem.” This doesn’t seem very natural or authentic and might not fly with today’s readers.

But not all of us are happy merely fitting into the mold so effortlessly created for us. I sure ain’t. And neither was Tristan. We’re not all appeased by a quick go-around in the backseat of our mom’s mini-van with some girl we won’t call the next day. Maybe that’s why Tristan is dead. You can only deny something for so long before it eats away at you.

Trust me, I know.

And talking about “generic teenage issues,” like being forced into a mold, won’t automatically make teenager relate to the character because, again, the issue here is very general. Readers open a book to read about a specific character who has a specific problem, not to have a list of vague problems described. I also am a bit unsure re: “I sure ain’t.” Is the grammar here trying to be folksy? In that case, it sounds downright odd right next to the more formal diction of “And neither was Tristan.” Plus, “ain’t,” though not widely accepted, stands for “am not” and is present tense, while the rest of this has been in past.

Here we finally get a hint at a specific problem, though. Tristan is dead and the character has some denial and, apparently, some guilt or grief about it.

Soon my mother will be up to tell me he is dead. Drunk-driving accident. But I know the truth. It was no accident. He wanted, needed, to go. I have to decide how I will react to the news. Do I retreat inside myself? Would it be simpler for everyone around me if I pay homage to the I-have-no-emotions-give-me-a-beer-I-will-cry-if-the-Falcons-lose-the-game-but-not-acknowledge-any-human-connection-man that so long carried the flag for my species? Or maybe I should recklessly abuse drugs and alcohol. I could become another actor in the teen drama, I Have So Many Issues. Please Notice Me.

I’m wondering how this character knows what is about to happen. It does raise the tension. I’m also wondering if this is early morning or late at night — there could be more grounding. “needed to go” is also a bit vague. Needed to “go” as in DIE or needed to go to wherever he went (a party?) before he was killed?

Again, we get some pontificating on what it means to be a male and what kinds of male emotional responses are acceptable or expected. But that sentence with all the hyphens is overlong and I lose steam halfway through it. There’s a voice issue with “recklessly abuse drugs and alcohol.” I can’t imagine an older teen saying this. This actually sounds like an anti-drugs-and-alcohol brochure, not a teenager considering a bender.

The last line really does rub me the wrong way. The character here seems pretty condescending toward teenagers. Like he’s got their emotional responses and their experiences all figured out and he’s judging them. If I was a teen, I’d want to tell this guy off. He’s not giving a teen’s emotional experience any respect. And even if most teen drama seems like it’s just another case of “I Have So Many Issues, Please Notice Me,” it’s all very real and very important to teens themselves, no matter how frivolous it appears to an outsider. And because of that judgmental tone, this character really does seem like an outsider… and he seems like an adult. With a YA novel, that’s a problem.

***

My notes of advice for this submission could best be summed up with urging the writer to focus on the character and his problem, not on expounding on various issues about life and the teen age. This person’s brother (implied by “our mom’s mini-van,” emphasis mine) has died, and he seems to know about it before the rest of his family. And he doesn’t seem too broken up by it, either. That’s the tension there. Focus on it. And don’t use fiction as a personal platform for yourself or for what you think a male would want to say. That makes it less convincing. Get to the story and let who he is and how he thinks about the world unfold naturally from there.

Stay tuned. The next submission will appear on Monday.

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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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Before I post this first workshop submission, I want to say something about respect and trust. My blog readers are some of the smartest, handsomest, most awesome people on the Internet, obviously. I don’t want to offend their intelligence by stating the obvious, but I will:

Writing is an intensely personal thing that people do. Getting up the courage to send in your work and your writing is a huge struggle for most people. Reading the work of others involves a lot of trust and I take a writer’s willingness to share their work with me very seriously. Sure, sometimes the slush is funny. Sure, sometimes writing needs work. But snark is the lowest common denominator and it helps nobody, so I never resort to it. Not on this blog. Not about a person’s writing skill. Not for me, thanks. Sometimes I’ll use humor or a joke to illustrate a point, but I am never poking fun at a writer or at the writing itself. That’s an important distinction to make.

For this exercise, I specifically asked for writing samples that need work, in the writer’s opinion. I asked for writers who didn’t mind receiving constructive criticism and feedback on the blog. These writers are coming here to get a little tough love and a little workshopping. They are putting themselves out there and saying, “Help, please.”

It is a brave thing to stand in front of people with your writing exposed.

As a result, I am going to be watching comments very carefully. Any needless snark, criticism, or flaming will be removed. There was some disagreement about one of my contest winners last week, and that’s fine. But if someone takes it upon themselves to snark or insult or judge or be oh-so-clever, I will have no qualms about shutting them down. Don’t make these writers regret reaching out to share their work.

Again, I am dead serious about this. I’d hate to police people like they’re preschoolers but the Internet is full of trolls and other unpleasant types. If it turns into a problem, I will turn off comments and participation will be ruined for everyone. We’re here to help each other. We’re all on a journey. Writing is a craft that develops with time. Be humble, generous, and kind with these entries.

And that’s the end of that unpleasant rant!

Here’s my first selection, from Shawna Weeks’ CHASING FOREVER. The writer says:

My main concern is: would you keep reading? I want to know if it is enough to make you turn the page and start the first chapter?

And now for the sample:

***

Preface

Ah, our first problem! Just kidding. Sort of. I think, in a lot of instances, a preface or a prologue is a crutch. It’s the author’s way of showing the reader something gripping in the hopes that the reader will then read through some less exciting backstory or chapters before eventually circling back to the exciting part. It gets the action started right away and then… after a flashy opening… the tension drops to comatose levels in 99% of cases. Ask yourself: are you just using your premise as a trick? A teaser? Try to construct a real beginning without using this technique. Is that harder? Nobody said writing a novel was easy, mind you. But I don’t want to make this an entry about prologues, so I’ll move on.

Glimpses of my life flashed before me as I awaited death. I could hear the sounds of my brother, Matthew and I as we splashed at our favorite swimming hole just the day before the car accident as if it were happening now.

The “life flashing before my eyes” thing is a cliche. I see it a lot. And since we don’t know the character or her brother, the swimming hole memory seems pretty generic, too. Also, swimming holes evoke early childhood to me… not really a great first image for what I’m assuming is an older YA paranormal romance, but that might just be my own connotation or bias about swimmin’ holes.

I saw myself with tears on my cheeks, clinging to my mother’s hand the first day of grade school, begging her to take me back home. I felt that moment when I realized my love for Jaxen was bigger than anything I had ever felt. All of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence as I lay bleeding.

By giving us a lot of high emotions, the writer might hope that we, too, will emote and feel these things along with the character. Gripping the mother’s hand is the most specific image here, and wanting to go home is a powerful feeling, especially now. However, then we go back to vague again. We haven’t met Jaxen yet, so he’s meaningless to us. And “bigger than anything I had ever felt” is very vague. There’s a contradiction with “all of these memories seemed unimportant, yet vital to my existence” that’s annoying, because for all the words spent on it, this really does negate itself and end up saying nothing. All of these words — “vital” and “bigger than anything” especially — are vague. What’s “bigger than anything” or “vital” to one person isn’t the same to another. I haven’t learned anything about the character yet, either. She… has a family… and she loves someone. The same could be said about almost anyone.

Sunlight filtered through the web of branches above me, blinding me momentarily. Wind rustled through the trees, blowing the odious scent of the creature across my face and I gagged.

Beginnings should ground the reader in the when and where. I had no idea they were in woods or in daylight, frankly. I want to know why she’s bleeding, but the “creature” mention totally seems to come out of left field. We’re talking about her family at one moment, then there’s a smelly creature. “Sunlight filtered” is also a tranquil image, while “web of branches” and “blinding me” aren’t. “Wind rustled” is tranquil again, but “I gagged” isn’t. That kind of vacillation in the imagery is jarring to read. Finally, “odious scent” seems like a very specific and elevated way of speaking…. not really what a teenager might be thinking or saying, unless they’re using it for comic effect. That strikes me as a bit off in terms of voice.

I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen, but I couldn’t let him go without me. This was definintely not how I would have planned my death, but does anyone really plan for that?

Good interiority on “I shouldn’t have followed Jaxen,” now we finally know what she was doing. Then this slips into implied second person direct address (where you seem to be talking to the reader or “breaking the fourth wall” of the narrative without using the word “you”) and we seem to be pausing for a moment to contemplate the nature of death and dying. Why? Lots of characters do this and it never works. Don’t have your characters sit around musing… especially if they also happen to be bleeding! (Also, it’s “definitely.” Proofreading is very important and typos or spelling errors are almost impossible to catch. I copied and pasted this, so it’s not a typo on my end.)

I didn’t like that look in his black eyes when I found him that morning by the barn. I struggled not to run into his open arms, but the fear on his face held me back. “I love you, Sophie,” Jaxen said and I froze. “I have to go.” That was it. He was gone.

Notice how we haven’t really gotten a clear foothold in the present moment. We have trees, a swimming hole (I know the writer did this to try and give us some backstory and to make the character sympathetic), death, blood, a creature, wind, Jaxon… a lot going on. And before we’re fully grounded in what’s going on in the present moment of her lying there and smelling a creature, we’re swept away to that morning. There’s a barn now? And he’s afraid? This also makes it sound like some time has passed. If he left “this morning” and she followed him… when are we? How long has she been in the woods (if there even are woods?) since then? Etc.

Without a word I let him walk away. I watched until his tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon. My heart shattered with each step he took. I wanted to scream, beg him to come back to me…but I let him go.

Writing is such a specific art. If you look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, it’s “He was gone.” And now, we jump the chronology yet again, to the moment of him walking away… even though the writer already said he was gone (which has a feeling of finality to it). So we’re in the present moment (bleeding), then we go back to that morning (saying goodbye), then we go to him already having disappeared (“He was gone”), to the moment of him leaving (“I let him walk away. I watched his tall form…”). But we do get our most specific image yet: “His tall form became nothing but heat waves on the horizon.” I like that. But I don’t feel her heartache yet because I don’t know these people, either of them.

That’s why prologues don’t work for me most of the time. I’m thrown into the MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT EVER, a MOMENT OF DRAMA AND HIGH EMOTION, between two people who I have no idea about. It really is like watching a foreign-language soap opera 99% of the time… I don’t get what’s going on, who the people are or why they’re all so upset.

***

Does this seem nitpicky? Yes. It is. Extremely nitpicky.

But there are a lot of elements in play here. I’d say my overall assessment is that there’s too much going on. Focus in on ONE moment and really work to connect us to the main character instead of scrambling us around. Once we know her, we can connect her to another person — Jaxon? Her family? — and then center ourselves in some action. I’d try some more linear storytelling, also, and try it without the quick cuts.

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