An Apology

As the season of gratitude approaches, I have too many blessings to count. And one of my biggest blessings is you, dear Kidlit reader. You have been with me for over ten years, along for the ride on the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. You make what I do on the blog (and Good Story Company and YouTube and Good Story Podcast and on every other free avenue that you can find me) worthwhile.

If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know that I provide content for writers. That’s my passion, and what I do best. You may also know that I don’t do a lot of selling. There has never been an ad on this blog, and the only things I sell are my own projects, whether that’s my book or a webinar or the Manuscript Submission Blueprint. That was a collaboration brought to me by Children’s Book Insider, and I sampled several of their classes before agreeing to make one. I loved it, and I poured my all into the class I created. I’m still very proud of it! I also think it’s offered at a kickass price point that gives a ton of value for your hard-earned dollar.

Keeping this type of integrity in a culture of “monetization” has been hard. I get advertising requests every single day for this blog because it has been around a long time, because a lot of people come to it, and because my email lists and social feeds have a lot of followers. Over and over, I say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Even my own mother keeps asking, “When are you gonna monetize that blog?”

Sorry, Mom! I will not “put the good stuff behind a paywall.” I will not launch a subscription model where I make a quick buck off of you when you forget to cancel for a few months. I feel very strongly about this, and always have. If you read my blog and have never given me one red cent, thank you! Welcome! I’m so happy to have you! My editorial practice is thriving and I’m having my best year ever, with a team of eight wonderful employees. (I know, right?!) Please enjoy the things I share with writers for free. I mean it.

Now. What’s the apology for? Well, a few months ago, a very prominent writing teacher approached me to do a collaboration. My response was in line with my values (the names have been redacted):

I was very grateful to have an opportunity to collaborate with a famous writing teacher. But my audience was and still is my first concern. So in the above response, I wanted to make sure that my writers would be respected, along with their valuable time.

The teacher called me and reassured me over the phone that “the webinar is very content rich and only the last ten minutes are spent selling.” The product was a course from this writer. This teacher said “most people don’t even notice the sales pitch.” We had a great talk and I completely gave this teacher the benefit of the doubt.

But when the webinar rolled around, I’m afraid my expectations were not met. There was valuable content, indeed, and I learned a few things, but there was also a lot of selling. Blatant, in-your-face selling. There was even discussion of the finer points of a financing option. I watched on, very disappointed, but I had been taken off as a presenter for the duration of the webinar, so I literally couldn’t come back on the line. We were on this teacher’s webinar software, not mine. And would I want to interrupt and make a scene? I was in a very uncomfortable position. I felt that my trust had been broken and that I had been taken advantage of, but I was left not knowing how to handle it as it was happening.

The great news is, my readers are smart, tough, savvy, and honest. Almost immediately, I started hearing about how people did not appreciate this webinar. I reassured those who wrote to me directly, and this led to some really good conversations. I am so grateful that my readership trusts me enough to be honest with me, even when they need to tell me something tough. People wrote me some brave emails, and I’m so honored to have gotten to engage with my readers on that level. That means you guys care, and that level of engagement is so hard to find in today’s busy world.

Initially, the writing teacher expected me to send four follow-up emails, but after the content of the webinar, I decided that I didn’t want to engage further. I sent one email, reluctantly, after prodding from their team. But the backlash from my readers kept coming. Even now, almost two weeks later, I’m hearing about it. So I knew I had to take a tougher and more honest stand.

I wrote to Teacher and Co. and gave them a taste of the feedback. I expressed my disappointment and reminded them of our initial conversations about the balance of content and selling. Staying silent about it would’ve been perhaps more diplomatic. After all, I’m not here to start beef or make enemies. That’s why I’m not referring to the teacher or the event by name. The people who attended this webinar and were disappointed will know what I mean. But staying mostly silent while dealing with it behind the scenes did not feel right. It also allows this predatory marketing practice to continue.

So now I’m apologizing to you.

You, my dear reader. Your time, your attention, your support—these precious things mean everything to me. I am sorry to those who joined this webinar and were disappointed. You trusted me, and I steered you in the wrong direction. We all make mistakes sometimes, and all I can hope for is your forgiveness. I was operating on the best information I had at the time.

For those who took this webinar and happened to buy the class, I do want you to enjoy it. I do not want you to regret your decision after this post. I do hope that it’s a valuable resource because—again—I think this writing teacher has a lot of good things to say. I still think this teacher’s book is a valuable resource. (This teacher may not think I’m so hot after this, though!) I hope that the payoff in all of this is that you get some good tools for your toolbox. I can only hope that it has been created with integrity and attention to detail.

Safe to say, it will be a long, long time before I entertain another collaboration.

The questions of whether or not to write this post, and write to the teacher, have been weighing on me for two weeks. I know I can’t feed my family “integrity” for dinner, but I feel a lot better to have been open and honest with you. In life, there’s the easy thing, and the right thing, and they’re often not the same. Thank you so much for hearing me out!

Full disclosure: I was offered a revenue sharing arrangement for this webinar, which is standard for this kind of collaboration. I have declined any royalties and have been paid absolutely nothing. In 2020, I do plan to launch a very specific paid course (for aspiring editors) and an ebook, both of which will be offered for sale. I will also offer a few one-off paid classes for a well-known online learning platform. But all of these are being produced by me—up to my high standards—to be as content-rich as humanly possible. I continue to offer a few paid webinars per year that include manuscript critique as a justification for the payment. Any links you see to content on Amazon or Manuscript Blueprints are affiliate links that give me a small royalty payment—at no additional cost to the reader. I shoulder over $100 of web hosting costs per month to keep several websites running, and this allows me to offset some of that investment. Other than that, I make my living as a freelance editor, by being paid for my services.

Young Adult Critique: Workshop Submission #6

Thank you so much to A.B., who has generously provided the workshop submission for our sixth installment. After the excitement of launching Good Story Company and an unexpected family emergency, I feel good to be back in workshop!

Do people really pain their fingernails in a moving car? Read this opening to find out!

The Workshop Text

Sometimes it seems like all we do is look for the next place to party. All we do is try to escape Elderberry Estates. Our parents live here to hide from all the ugliness of reality but we want the grime, the drama.

Love the first line, but the repetition takes some of the power away. I like the idea that the parents want the safe life and the kids (I’m assuming that’s what we mean by “we”) want the drama. But after the first line, you lapse into telling. This is too much self-awareness right away. Most teens don’t go around saying, “We perform risky behavior to feel more alive” and other stuff like that. You want to show this, rather than tell.

It’s finally summer and we’re road-tripping it out to the coast. Safia is driving so of course I’m sitting shotgun. Ramona, Paz, and Thalia are crowded in the back. Paz is in the middle but she keeps moaning about how she’s going to puke so Thalia switches her. Paz rolls down the window and soon she’s asleep and drooling on Thalia’s shoulder.

Good grounding the reader in time and place. But we get a roll call of four named characters here. It’s overwhelming since we’re just coming into the story. Maybe take some more time here. Instead of introducing them all, let’s introduce one at a time and then layer in some dialogue. Also, the first paragraph promised “the grime, the drama,” and yet a cute little road trip to the beach doesn’t quite strike the same note. Is the word “with” missing after “switches”?

I said if we took my car we had to make a pact so our phones are in the glove box and we’re singing to the radio until it dissolves into static and then we play the license plate game and then we play truth or dare.

A long sentence that sort of meanders. I’m all about voice, but here, the run-on doesn’t really add much stylistically. Road trip stories, even those that feature short road trips, are a challenge, because nothing tends to happen. This is the case here. The characters seem bored, and that’s a tough way to start a novel. Bored characters tend to be boring, I’m afraid.

We get to La Push in time for sunset. The floor of the car is covered in garbage and my foot is asleep and our limbs are overlapping and intermingled. Thalia is braiding strands of Safia’s hair and I’m painting Paz’s toenails and Ro is eating the sandwich that Thalia packed for herself.

I’m not sure we need both “overlapping and intermingled,” since these words play the same role in this sentence. I like the crush of bodies and people here—it tells me there’s a strong friendship. But I’m not getting a sense of these people as individuals. Let’s hear them speak in dialogue.

We tumble out of the car with our arms around each other, holding hands and bumping hips, and the bond of our friendship seems enduring, like nothing can break it, ever. But as Edison spots us and bellows my name and I feel Thalia’s eyes all over my skin, I know it won’t be enough.

The “arms around each other, holding hands and bumping hips” makes the same point as the “intermingled” description above. So we don’t need “the bond of our friendship seems enduring, like nothing can break it, ever” because that’s telling and redundant. It does set up some tension (maybe something will break it), but not clearly enough.

“I know it won’t be enough” here seems to come out of nowhere, and so the sudden tension or static between them doesn’t feel earned yet. We have no idea who Edison is or what this means. I’d add a bit more context so readers can start to understand what the beef is, if there is any. Why they’re going to the beach, what they want from the day, why they can’t be ripped apart, etc. Otherwise, the quality of the writing itself is very strong and voice-driven!

That’s all they wrote! Tune in next week for more workshop!

Looking for a developmental editor for your own work? Hire me and we will dive into your manuscript together.

Announcing Good Story Company

It is with great excitement that I’m announcing several new things today! This has been in the works for a while, so if I have seemed busy or stressed or looked tired, this is why! Without further ado, I present to you Good Story Company! Please take a second to watch this video and subscribe to my new YouTube channel (yes, I’m that guy now).

My new idea for a company serving writers and helping you craft a good story is, for now, threefold. First, we have GSC, the umbrella company that my team and I have put together.

Good Story Company

A content company providing services for writers. Most of them are free, for example, a writing forum (that survey from a few weeks ago makes more sense now, right?!), a blog, a podcast, and lots of inspiring and craft-focused content.

good story company, storytelling, writers

You can check out the Good Story Company website here. As well as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Crit Collective

Crit Collective is a FREE writing forum focused on ONE THING: helping you find your writing partner. This is a writing forum but not a general writing forum. This is a writing partner forum. It serves one function only—connecting writers to other writers, critique partners, beta readers, sensitivity readers, etc. It’s like online dating for writers!

crit collective, writing partner, writing critique, critique partner

I’ve done “Critique Connection” posts on Kidlit over the years, to great success. People have found their writing connections via those posts, and some critique relationships that started there are still going strong. How cool is that?

Now I’m starting a free forum to do the same. We got over 100+ responses on the survey and tried to listen to as much feedback as we could. Now it’s all about getting writers on the forum so that you can find your people. A forum is nothing without its users, so check it out!

Good Story Podcast

Finally, for now, I’d love to introduce you to the Good Story Podcast.  People have been bugging me for years to do a podcast. And in the last year, I have done some awesome interviews in webinar format. But one thing I don’t like about the webinar format: only registered students get the content. I want to give this content to EVERYONE because I work hard to interview amazing writers and thought leaders.

So now I’ve launched a podcast called Good Story Podcast. Absolutely free, absolutely interesting, all about writing, revision, the craft, and the business. And to show you that I mean business, I’m kicking it off with my first interview: Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo and writing teacher. Have a listen here:

I’m working on getting the podcast listed everywhere that you get your podcasts. In the meantime, let me know what you think!

storytelling podcast, podcast for writers

I’m so, so, so excited to present all of this to you. I have been talking to writers, teaching writers, and helping writers for over ten years now, and this is absolutely my life’s work and passion.

THANK YOU for all of your support over the years. I would be nowhere without you guys, my Kidlit readers, the original crew. We’ve been through so much over the years together, and I really wouldn’t be the person or the editor I am today without you. Yes, beautiful YOU!

I’M NOT CRYING, YOU’RE CRYING!

Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #5

Today’s middle grade workshop critique comes courtesy of writer E.M. volunteering a novel opening.

This cat demands to be drawn.

The Workshop Text

Avery Lawson had nine hundred ninety-nine cats. Too bad none of them were real.

Love, love, love this grabby opening! It raises a lot of questions and the cheeky voice is immediately interesting. Try to start your novel with some tension or mystery. Here’s a previous post on novel opening pages.

Her parents had told her she couldn’t get a live, breathing cat until it didn’t rain in their town of Mount Crescent, Oregon, for a year. Or when she became responsible. Whichever came first.

The first sentence of this paragraph “buries the lede.” Their rain stipulation is absurd but we don’t learn about it until the end of a longer sentence. Break it up. Love the rest of the paragraph. Super fun voice here right away, and we learn that the character is likely somewhat irresponsible. That is certainly telling, but the voice helps it feel less heavy-handed.

Avery scowled out the window at the soggy schoolyard. It always rained, and no matter how hard she tried, nobody ever called her responsible—even though another word for responsible was dependable. Her mom and dad said they could always depend on her to add to her cat collection, which included stickers, pencils, posters, and a bedroom wall painted with cat faces.

Good instinct to start in a present moment and action. Maybe put this setting detail earlier? I’d put the words when they’re defined in quotation marks, eg: … was “dependable.” The transition between the dependable comment and “depend on her to addd to her cat collection” is a bit thin, though.

That meant she was responsible.

Too bad her parents didn’t see it that way.

Getting into some more telling here. Maybe we can have a scene with Mom and Dad here instead, them arguing about this, so it’s more active. (As the rain comes down outside, of course.)

So, she uncapped her black dry-erase marker and prepared to draw her one-thousandth cat.

Really establish why she wants a cat. Most kids want pets, yes, so it’s universal, but why does THIS CHARACTER want a cat? That’ll help readers get to know her. And if she wants a cat, why does a drawn cat fill the void? Or does it?

With a tiny sigh, she slid the marker across her paper. The pleasant squeak drowned out the annoying scritch-scratch of pencils as the other fifth-graders copied spelling words. Boring words like peaceful and business and vulture.

Format the onomatopoeia in italics. Use quotation marks for the words. So many stories start in a school settings that don’t have to. If you can at all avoid it, do so. That will help you stand out with your opening scene, especially in MG.

The squeaking filled her ears as she drew a fluffy tail right over the word cabbage. She added whiskers, but one got so long it wouldn’t fit on the paper. She stopped the marker at the edge of her worksheet. She shouldn’t draw on her desk. Only kindergartners did that.

Some nice voice, but nothing is really happening in the moment. She’s drawing. I’m looking for more tension and action for a first scene.

But the whisker wanted—no, it demanded—to be longer. Clutching the marker, Avery stretched the line to the end of her desk.

Perfect.

GREAT personality here!

A familiar (school) setting and slightly slow pacing could be opportunities for growth with this piece. As could character objective (what she wants) and motivation (why she wants it). But I would’ve happily kept reading.

Looking for custom and personal developmental editing? Hire me as your middle grade editor.

 

Writing Forum Survey

I apologize for the repeat interruption! We will be back to the novel opening workshops on Monday, the 21st. Today, I have another survey. I’m hard at work crunching the data from the Published Author Poll, which I deployed over the summer, and I think you guys are going to love the findings.

Here, I have a slightly more targeted survey, aimed at writers who belong to any kind of writing forum or community online. Is that you? Please take three minutes to share some of your thoughts with me. Any input you have is going to be greatly appreciated.

Seeking Audio and Video Person

I interrupt our workshop critique to put a call out: I’m looking for someone who can help me with audio and video. This would mean doing some light video and audio editing (adding some music, graphics, etc.) to standardize files to a house style and optimize them for several purposes.

I’m also looking for someone who rocks at making audio and video sound and look great, who knows how to compress it for online use, and excels all of the other stuff I’m not experienced or talented enough to do.

I have some A/V projects in mind, and some A/V needs! Join my team.

The work would be part time, you will be paid either on a flat fee per video or audio file, or hourly. Please send your compensation requirements. If you or anyone you know has experience with YouTube videos, podcasts, and all of the other things people are doing to create a professional audio and video presence online, send them my way!

Inquiries to: mary@kidlit.com

Subject line: Audio/Video Application

Young Adult Critique: Workshop Submission #4

Thanks for playing along, as always. We continue this week with a YA submission from writer M for the workshop critique. As usual, the normal text formatting is the sample, and my feedback appears in italics.

Is one assignment about to ruin the whole summer?

The Workshop Text:

Just before the final bell announcing the end of the school year, Miss Gruen, the new Freshman English teacher, dropped a bombshell on Matthew’s plans.

This is another example of an opening sentence that it packed with information. I’d highly encourage you to simplify. Since this is YA, readers will be looking for a character to attach to that’s their age. We don’t meet Matthew until the end of the sentence. First we learn the timing (end of the year), a teacher’s name, the teacher’s newness to the school, what she teaches, etc. Maybe start with what Matthew’s dreaming about as the bell is about to ring, then shatter it.

“Over the summer, each of you is to think and write about a simple question, ‘What is truth?’ You can do this any way you want, using whatever resources you feel you need. It can be brief or a long essay.” The class erupted into a groaning mass of pre-teen angst at the word “essay”.

I’d stay away from characterizing their groaning as “pre-teen angst” because it sounds a bit condescending, even if you don’t mean it to. This seems to come from the teacher’s POV—”Silly tweens!”—than the character’s. Also, an assignment as nebulous as this, which can be extremely short, doesn’t strike me as something to really groan about. That stereotypes the teens into a typical reaction, which could further alienate a reader in this age group.

Miss Gruen smiled as she raised her hands for quiet. “You don’t have to write an essay, that’s only one option. You could even draw a picture, or make a poster, or film a short movie. Do whatever you are motivated to as long as it addresses the question ‘What is truth?’”

You are focusing a lot on the teacher. Sure, give the parameters of the project, but then let’s see a reaction from Matthew, if he’s meant to be the POV character (in this case, close third POV). Otherwise, the adult really has the spotlight in this scene.

“Now, I realize it’s summertime and you have your own vacation plans and lazy days to look forward to. Me too,” she smiled. “This is primarily a thinking assignment, not a writing task. I predict for most of you, if you think about the topic seriously for even a short time in the next week or so, you’ll be three-quarters of the way there. Your juices will flow, and you’ll find yourself thinking about “truth” for the rest of the summer – and hopefully for life.”

A warning about “she smiled.” Here, it’s formatted as if it’s a dialogue tag. (More info on dialogue tags here.) But smiling does not produce speech, so I’d change it to: “…,’ she said with a smile. ‘…” or “… .’ She smiled. ‘…” Notice the punctuation and capitalization patterns. The instance of “truth” in the last line should also have single quotes, since it’s within speech, not double.

Again, instead of giving Gruen such a big monologue about the assignment, let’s get some kind of reaction from a teen POV character. And tie it back to how it was such a “bombshell” on Matthew’s plans. Thinking about the truth for a few minutes and drawing a picture doesn’t seem like enough to ruin a summer, and so the level of bellyaching about it only serves to make the teens look melodramatic. For this age group, this is not what you want.

There’s definitely clean writing here, with the exception of a few formatting issues. The biggest advice I have is to keep your eye on the main POV character and cut to their experience early at the start of a novel for tweens or teens. In terms of market, I do have some concerns about the writing assignment premise—a lot of writers use it to help tease out character emotions. It’s important to be aware that this is a somewhat popular device. But it’s a writer favorite for a reason and can lead to interesting developments if done well.

Looking for personal feedback from a book editor? Work with me on your novel opening—or the entire manuscript.

Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #3

Thank you so much for your participation in these critiques. This is the third submission, a middle grade from D.M. Please go ahead and participate with your own feedback in the comments!

For this submission, we’re going to Shrunken Head Island, want to come along?

Let’s Begin the Workshop Critique!

It was a mild morning at the end of winter when the shrunken human head arrived at three Grange Drive, where, far from being considered a shock or provoking an outrage, it created less of a stir than a fly landing in Mrs McCormack’s latte.

I love a lot about this! It’s funny, it’s jarring, it creates tension. But this is your all-important first sentence and it has too much going on. The focus should be “shrunken human head” and yet we learn the weather, the season, the address, the reaction, and a character name. Too much. Especially for MG. I’d suggest you chop it up and don’t “bury the lede” (or the shrunken human head) in the middle of a paragraph-long sentence.

Amongst all the other curiosities delivered in recent months the head seemed to fit right in. But Angus McCormack should have realised it was different. He, of all people, should have considered it bizarre. Out-of-the-ordinary. Weird. Like last night at dinner, when he’d thought he’d glimpsed a chilli-pepper in his minestrone soup, he should have seen the shrunken head for what it was…a warning.

I’d recommend a comma after “months” in the first sentence. Use contractions for more colloquial voice, for example, “should’ve” instead of “should have.” We don’t need three different versions of “bizarre” (“out-of-the-ordinary” and “weird” do the same work). I get that this provides emphasis, but you don’t need it. The soup mention is … strange. It pulls focus and is distracting. Instead, set the scene for this head’s arrival. What’s he doing when he sees it? The first paragraph also tells us that this head wasn’t a big deal. And in this paragraph, it seems you’re saying the opposite–that it is a big deal. Which is it? You’re doing a lot of description, but keep an eye on what that description is actually saying.

But Angus didn’t always believe his own eyes. The stomach-churning effects of swallowing a red hot chilli pepper were gurgling proof of that. Simply put, Angus wasn’t ready to spot warnings for what they were. He should have been, but he wasn’t.

You repeat a lot of the same information here. I still don’t really see what the pepper has to do with it. Instead of talking about what he didn’t pay attention to last night, TALK ABOUT THE HEAD. That’s what you’re writing about, so take a more direct route. This pepper business seems distracting to me.

Also, you’re dwelling a lot on what Angus wasn’t (defining something in the negative). That’s one way to establish something, but it’s also quite roundabout.

Luckily, there was a girl who was ready. A girl Angus had never met. A girl he didn’t even know existed. And today, as Angus sat on the down-stair’s toilet feeling sorry for himself, she was sitting calmly on a plane, cruising east at thirty-one thousand feet, far above the lightening-stuffed clouds that rolled over the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Love “lightening-stuffed clouds,” that’s great description. I worry that you are establishing one scene (with Angus and his … troubles and the shrunken head) but then zooming away from everything you’ve created to this girl in a completely different place. Sure, it creates tension, but my preference would be for you to stay in your opening scene for longer, three or so pages at least, before you flash elsewhere. Is this going to be multiple POV? Omniscient? The beginning, as is, raises some questions in that direction.

With a sizeable wicker basket nestled on her lap, the girl gazed out the plane’s window, watching other planes crisscross the sky. The vapour trails they etched across the atmosphere were tinged pinkish-red by the rising sun. They reminded her of rumpled scars on a thin blue skin.

Awesome descriptions here! This is very immersive and allows me to sink into her experience. I wonder where she’s going, and the image of scars provides some nice tension. Other than the quick hopping around and some of the wordiness and unfocused description in Angus’s portion of the beginning, I’d say this is a strong opening with good potential.

Thanks so much for playing along, and I hope to see you for next week’s workshop installment!

Want custom critique on your work work? Hire me as your book editor and we’ll dive in together.

Young Adult Critique: Workshop Submission #2

Thank you all for your participation on last week’s middle grade critique! That turned out to be very fun and I’m super stoked to be doing these workshop submissions. This week, I join you for a young adult submission from A. L.

An inspiring notecard, not a threatening one … but a notecard nonetheless!

Let’s Begin the Workshop Critique!

The end of the world didn’t begin with the accumulation of carbon or the thawing of ice; those had already begun by the time Georgia received the letter. It arrived with smudgy, snaky writing across a grainy, cream card – a throwback – a rejection of centuries of progress in technological design and electronic communication, with a message that was succinctly malevolent,

Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. A lot to unpack here! So I like the tension of the beginning. The world ending is thrown right into the mix right away. But first we spend time learning how the world didn’t begin to end—I’d maybe avoid defining something in the negative, since it’s not the clearest way of describing an event.

Then we get the card. But the writer spends more time making a commentary about how a card sends a social message—rather than actually focusing on the message! I wonder if this is the right way to introduce the card because the focus is completely elsewhere. It may be distracting.

I know that you stole.

Now they will too.

It wasn’t Georgia’s manner to rush to wild hysteria, much less to believe that bad news could come in such a low-key and classy fashion.

We’re still concentrating quite a bit on the card, which seems to me a minor detail. The writer here indulges in something I wouldn’t recommend: telling about character. Instead, let’s see Gerogia’s thoughts when she reads this.

Still half asleep, she examined the stylish sheet of cardboard in her hand – and always prone to think first, act later, she wondered what it was trying to say.

This brings us to grounding the reader in setting and time. Where and when is she? What’s she doing? Was she just asleep? Did the Tooth Fairy bring the card and put it in her hand? Instead of focusing on the social ramifications of writing a card, let’s actually place the character in scene.

She considered her stealing about as worthy of anyone’s attention as the other mindless habits in her day-to-day life, like the way she wriggled her leg incessantly or the way she might pick a juicy scab on her scalp. Instead her brain absent-mindedly wandered to a time when she used to write messages to dear friends. When everyone, not just her, had kept themselves throbbing to the pretty hum of calendars, diaries and sparkly invitations.

I’m afraid that this opening works counter to the tension you’re trying to establish. We learn that Georgia steals. I like the “juicy scab” description, it’s quite gross but the language is strong. But why open with a threatening card that amps up the tension if Georgia herself doesn’t react to the tension that the card brings? That seems like a huge missed opportunity. And if Georgia couldn’t care less about the threatening message in the card, why start with it at all? The dramatic card and Georgia’s totally nonchalant reaction seem at odds. Especially since all anyone wants to talk about is the delivery mechanism for messages. That seems like the least compelling part of this opening—in terms of story tension—but that’s where all of the attention is still going.

The letter had obviously been hand-delivered. There was no stamp, because there was no postal service. Not anymore. The postman had carried on with his rounds for a few weeks after the post office closed, much as most people with old-school “useful” professions had.

Ah, so now the lack of cards and calendars makes a bit more sense. A dystopian slant here with the postal service being decommissioned. Let’s get that earlier then. “She hadn’t seen an actual honest-to-god handwritten card in years” or whatever adds tension and context to the story. It deserves to go earlier.

For me, this passage is a great lesson in directing the reader’s attention. The reader will pay attention to what you want them to. So make sure you’re focusing on the most compelling part, so that readers also focus there. Here, it was very unclear to me why I needed to focus so much on cards and “old school” methods of communication … until the very last paragraph. If something is important, readers need to know why, especially at the beginning of a novel, when you’re first introducing the world-building.

Want personalized advice on your own writing? You can always hire me as your developmental editor.

Middle Grade Critique: Workshop Submission #1

A few months ago, I asked for some submissions of the first 250 words of novels for the purpose of educational critique. Let’s do it! I’m teeing up some blog posts, and I will try to make it a weekly thing. Please feel free to jump in with thoughts in the comments, too!

Thank you to P. C., who submitted this sample of a middle grade novel.

This will make sense in a moment … maybe.

Let’s Start the Workshop Critique!

Whatever it was gripped him tighter than a hungry gorilla protecting its last banana in a jungle food fight.

The squeeze made him feel like a human toothpaste tube about to pop its cap. But the thing that torqued his shorts, was that it was creasing his trousers.

This writer really takes the advice to start in action to heart. Good work! However, there may be too much action. Readers don’t yet know the character, nor do they know the situation. I recommend grounding the reader in location. We get a location mentioned here (jungle) but no sense of the actual setting. Also, the true nugget of information here is that the character is in danger but concentrating on his creased trousers. Funny! But by the time we get to it, that data is lost in a lot of imagery.

It’s also difficult to care about a character in danger if we don’t know the character, the setting, the situation, the danger, who he’s running to or from, and why. I’d maybe slow down, actually, and this is advice I never get to give!

It swept up from behind and startled him with a muffled hissing pop like a fizzling firecracker. He spun to face it fully and was blinded by its sputtering glow. Pulses of blue and orange light flowed along its mantis-like body.

It scooped him up and away like a child playing jacks. He was powerless against it.

By now, I’m really starting to see a lot of images. Almost every sentence has a simile or metaphor. Here, we have the fizzing firecracker, and the mantis image. Before, we had the gorilla banana and the toothpaste. Here, the images are quite distracting because they pull focus. This writer could easily pull back and maybe use one or two per page to combat this tendency. I’m not saying to get rid of imagery altogether, but I worry that this writer relies too much on comparisons.

His legs dangled like a rag doll so that the stones at the edge of the frozen stream scuffed his freshly polished shoes. This really put him out of sorts.

More images. Unfortunately, a rag doll limply dangling is a cliché image. You also want to watch out. You are comparing his leg’s to a rag doll’s legs, not the entire rag doll, so it should be: “His legs dangled like a rag doll’s…”

“For the sake of Sir Isaac, watch the wingtips!” he yelled.

After all, the Tall Man was a sharp dresser and proud of it.

His heart pumped so hard that he swore he heard each blood cell swoosh past his inner ears, until another noise drew his attention—a deep droning thrum. It pulsed along in low frequency waves that streamed into the night, slowing only as they surged through his chest wall. The noise came from his abductor.

I’d reconsider the heart imagery, as it’s a bit of a physical cliché. We also know that the character cares about his clothes, so mentioning the crease in the trousers and “Watch the wingtips!” in the same 250 words gives readers the same data twice. Maybe use this to establish something else about the character?

Good mystery about the pulsing from the abductor. Still, I’d love to get some context here about what’s happening, who the abductor is, and what’s at stake. A bit of specific data doesn’t hurt at the beginning to get readers engaged.

This thing sounds like my percolator, he thought, referring to his trusty silver coffee pot, its bottom blackened by so many years on the stove.
“Hey! Can you hear me? Unhand me! Let me go!”

There’s a typo here, with “Hey” preceded by a single quote, not a double quote. The image of the percolator is well-written but I’m not sure that readers want to be thinking about such a detailed coffee pot when the character is abducted. These images continue to pull focus and downplay the danger of the situation—if there is any.

My biggest pieces of advice to this writer? Work less hard on images. The writing is solid, trust it. Give some context for the actual situation (where the tension will be generated) so that readers can care about more than gorillas and coffee pots.

Please feel free to chime in via the comments and thanks to P.C. for submitting!

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