Beginning Workshop #2

Today’s workshop comes from S.E. Sinkhorn. Let’s just dive right in!

Two hours before I learned my father had been found dead by the side of the lake, I sat on my favorite park bench and sketched an eye. A beak. A crest. The pages of my book were bronze in the autumn sunlight.

Like the bronze image. The first sentence packs a punch but is perhaps too long to really focus us. The writer throws a lot of information into that one and I don’t know where to really look. Good tension, though, but could it be more specific? “Found dead” is vague. Murdered? Found dead by his own hand?

No indication the hopeful lantern I’d kept burning inside me for four years had gone out. Only feathers attached to skin fused to muscle stitched to bone. My pencil didn’t even twitch as my entire world shifted. I just couldn’t feel it yet.

“Hopeful lantern” sounds very lovely, but is vague. Does this refer to the dad? Or another hopeful lantern about something else? Be more specific, as it’s too ethereal now.  I like the idea of something happening that’s huge, but the character not knowing it yet. This does tell us, though, that she’s relating this story from some future vantage point and I wonder how far back she’s looking…I’m wondering why birds are so important.

So I continued as I always did, enjoying my small patch of life between the lifeless brown buildings, and waited for my brother to meet me. The L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop. For a moment, I could pretend to be somewhere else. Someone else.

Not sure about “the L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop,” there’s something off to me about it. Maybe something like “a cloud of soot rose from a passing L-train” or something. Air being a backdrop stopped me. I was probably also thinking of the L train subway that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, which doesn’t emit soot. 🙂 Maybe it’s also because I don’t quite know the time setting. The fashion details below hint at like turn of the 20th century, but “lifeless brown buildings” seems too reminiscent of mid-20th century urban architecture. The idea of a city being lifeless is also a bit modern in tone.

The moment didn’t last long.

Heavy footfalls clacked their way up the path toward me, startling the cardinals I’d been drawing into a flurry of red wings. A pair of expensive leather boots filled their place in my field of vision. I sighed and snapped my sketchbook closed. My gaze followed the boots up to find their owner clad in the height of Parisian fashion, down to her ebony-colored walking gown and gloves trimmed with pearl buttons. An emerald and gold choker winked at me from her pale neck, clashing horribly with the black.

This description really doesn’t work for me. It gives the character’s eyeballs a video camera feel. They are zooming and panning in on parts, not the whole. That’s a very cinematic description but I’d rather see the whole picture than just boots, then ankles, then gown, etc. It’s fragmented and uses a visual technique that doesn’t carry across well on page as opposed to screen. I want to see Mirabelle as much more whole when we first meet her. We also get no interiority. I can tell the two girls don’t like one another, but a thought or a reaction to this girl showing up could add another layer. I’m also not crazy about footfalls clacking. It’s a sound, and the writer is giving it almost a physical presence which it just doesn’t have.

“Hello, Mirabelle,” I said.

Her smile curved like a scythe as she brushed a cinnamon curl behind her ear. A set of parasols twitched behind her, attached to the day’s pair of sycophantic companions.

“Clara, darling. Playing with your friends again?” Mirabelle said. I imagined her circling me like a pack dog.

The antagonism between Mirabelle and Clara is thick here, but overwritten. We get the scythe image, then circling, then dog. The writer is working a little too hard to make sure we GET IT. No need to be overwrought. The line about “sycophantic companions” is great but it also sounds really modern-sarcasm to me. Like, I’d imagine Daria saying something like that (yeah, that’s right, I just pulled “Daria” out of my hat), so it adds to my confusion about time period and period voice.

“I was enjoying the company of creatures I didn’t have to bully or buy, yes,” I said.

One of the other girls gasped in exaggerated offense, but Mirabelle scarcely batted an eye. “Oh, my dear, you must do better than that. Sharpen your tongue for my father’s gala this evening, for I expect far wittier repertoire.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and didn’t respond.

I’m getting much more authentic period voice in the dialogue. It’s still catty, sure, but the syntax is more stylized than the prose/descriptions. Like the bully/buy line.

Mirabelle put her hand to her chest and painted her face with a near-convincing expression of concern. “But you must have received an invitation! All of Chicago’s finest will be there. Surely it’s been long enough since your father walked out that the scandal has died down.”

A slow eruption of nervous laughter swelled behind her. There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation. Familiar heat began to creep up my neck.

“There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation” is great period voice, and it’s also great interiority. The dialogue is a bit for the reader’s benefit (a way to introduce the father detail) and it reminds us of the opening, but I might let it stay. (My objection would be that characters who know one another this well don’t usually repeat such basic biographical details in conversation…it’s not organic.)

“I’ve no interest in attending your father’s garish parties. If you’re quite finished, I’m meeting my brother at four o’clock, and I’ll take your leave.” I stood and walked past the she-wolf and her lapdogs.

When I was a few steps away, she called, “Perhaps your mother might like to attend. She could finally admit her infidelity and beg a proposal from whoever sired your sister. It would be the highlight of the evening.”

Working too hard again on the “she-wolf and her lapdogs” line. Also, this clashes with the similar-yet-different “pack dog” image earlier. Love the last diss! It’s so catty it reminds me of THE LUXE series.

Overall, some strong writing, but the first two paragraphs don’t match the rest. There’s some tension there, but I don’t know if it’s specific enough or, yet, how it relates. I hope she finds out about the dead body soon. The period was also confusing. The character’s sarcasm and observations struck me as very modern, but the style of dress and some of the dialogue was obviously period. For historical, if this is indeed historical, this is a crucial voice issue to nail.

11 Replies to “Beginning Workshop #2”

  1. Thank you for the critique! My current WIP is historical, so the points you made about making sure that gets across to readers RIGHT away hit home for me.

    Descriptions can be tricky. They need a place in the work, but finding that place (and how to describe without it seeming like an aside) can be tough.

  2. Thank you so much for the workshop! It’s incredibly helpful. For posterity, the setting is Chicago, 1901; the genre is Steampunk. So it is a slight marriage of historical and modern, but I’m definitely trying to convey a period setting. I’m glad it’s at least somewhat coming across 😀

    I’m trying to portray Clara as very observant – someone who pays close attention to detail. I totally hear you on the description being too cinematic. Any suggestions? Maybe focusing on Mirabelle as a whole, but noticing small details about her? Or save that characterization for later?

    Also hear you on the overwriting. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for the words of wisdom on hooking with specifics while still giving an overall view right off.

    Love the philosophical quandary here: “My pencil didn’t even twitch as my entire world shifted. I just couldn’t feel it yet.”

    How befitting that this is steampunk in Chicago as the L was first run by steam locomotives (which means Mary’s observation about the soot is right on as steam trains don’t emit soot).

  4. amychristineparker says:

    Love these workshops, Mary. Learning every time. On a totally unrelated topic, I caught your web video from last year at writeoncon.com recently( way late to the party on this, I know). I gotta say, you have mad skills with a rubix cube. I used to just dismantle them after a few tries and a lot of hair pulling. Gotta give props where props are due.

  5. I liked this a lot. Chicago 1901, how cool! Just a thought–I’m reading The Revenant by Sonia Gensler (just released this week) and to me, she really nails the historical voice. A great YA historical/paranormal read!

  6. EVERYONE should read THE REVENANT. Not only is Sonia a sweetheart, and ABLA client, but I got to read this manuscript before it sold and it is excellent. Melissa is right, it’s a great example of historical voice.

  7. Jennifer Estes says:

    This was great, Mary! Thanks for doing these workshops — I’m learning so much. And I really enjoyed this beginning too, Steph!

  8. “I expect far wittier repertoire.”

    Just a nit-pick, but I think the word here should be “repartee” rather than “repertoire.”

    Thanks for sharing your work!

  9. I loved this! Great critique and beginning. Thank you for being so brave and sharing your work with us 🙂

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