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!

If you want personalized manuscript critique on your own work, reach out to me for editorial services.

Seeking MG and YA Novel Opening Pages

When I first started this blog in 2009, I did a few critique contests and had a lot of fun providing feedback on small snippets of writing. I did another critique series in 2011. My wonderful social media assistant, Amy, pointed me to another blog currently doing this for thriller and mystery writers, and I thought, why the heck not do some critiques again?

I’d love to be able to feature content more regularly. My articles are usually quite long and take a while to write, and critiques will be a fun break in the routine. So here we go!

Send in 250 words of a MG or YA novel opening for a potential critique!

What I’m Looking For

This current opportunity is for MG and YA novel openings only. I am seeking the first 250 words of your fiction as a submission. The submission will then be critiqued on the blog as a learning exercise for the person submitting as well as the reading audience.

Not everyone who submits will be guaranteed a critique. The last time I did this I had to close submissions after 100+ people sent their projects. I’m aiming here for a series of 10 or so critiques, and I will choose samples based on their potential to teach the writer and my readers something interesting about the craft or the marketplace.

If this is fun and works out well and you learn a lot and like it, I’ll do the same thing for picture book openings in the winter.

What To Expect

I’ve done a series of “workshops” on the blog before. You are welcome to search the blog for other workshops I’ve done in the past (not all of these results will be relevant). This post is a good example, though the sample is quite a bit longer than what I’m looking for here.

I will reproduce the 250 words that you send and weave some comments in with the text, as well as giving overview feedback. Hopefully readers will flock to the series and give additional feedback in the comments.

How to Submit

Please send the first 250 words of your MG or YA novel opening (only the first words of your novel, after any quotes you’re using) copied and pasted into an email messageI will not accept attachments for this opportunity (#ripinbox).

Please send them to mary@kidlit.com with the subject line Blog Critique.

Deadline: Midnight, Central, on Friday, July 26th

You are welcome to give me a few lines of context for the submission, like whether it’s MG or YA and whether it’s a WIP or has already been on submission, but keep this brief.

Only the submissions selected for the workshop series will receive critique. I regretfully do not have time to explain my reasoning for selecting or not selecting a particular piece. No private critiques will be given during this opportunity. All submissions will receive a response within eight weeks with an update about their selection status.

I anticipate a lot of responses, so writers not following these directions will be disregarded. I’ll then take a few weeks to sift through submissions and start the series in September or October.

The Potential Implications

The understanding is that if you submit, I may choose your excerpt and feature it on this blog. I will provide critique on the snippet and readers may contribute their thoughts in the comments. This is a learning exercise and the purpose is to teach and to learn, for the writer submitting, and the people reading. There will be no financial gain for either of us during this exercise. I am not paid for the critique and you will receive no immediate financial benefit. No rights are exchanged, and you retain the use of your creative work once this is done, as well as the ability to use any comments you receive to improve the work. I do not own the work.

Some people may not want to submit their work for a public opportunity like this because they do not want to share their work online. Some people wonder if their odds of attracting agent or editor attention will increase or decrease as a result of this opportunity. I make no claims or guarantees in either direction. All I can say is that I fully believe your work will be stronger as a result of receiving critique. But the ultimate choice is up to you.  If you are hesitant at all about participating, do not submit.

If you can’t wait for this opportunity and want to work on a private one-on-one basis, hire me as your book editor and we can dive in together.

Loft Workshop in Minneapolis

If you are in or near Minneapolis, please come see my workshop on Interiority: Exploring a Character’s Inner Life. This topic is always on my mind. I find myself constantly commenting on interiority (thoughts, feelings, emotions) in client manuscripts. There isn’t a protagonist out there, in my humble opinion, that couldn’t stand to be developed more fully from the inside out.

This is an in-depth three-hour workshop where we’ll really dive into my favorite fiction craft topic. I hope to arm you with some inspiration and knowledge so that you can dive into your protagonist more confidently and deepen your own craft as a fiction writer.

The Loft is still taking registrations and you can find more information here. I’d love to see you on July 23rd.

Great First Line Workshop

This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

First Draft Novel Revision and the Difference Between Editing and Revising

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops about first draft novel revision and the difference between editing and revising. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page. What happened? She was editing, rather than revising, and there’s a difference between editing and revising.

first draft novel revision, the difference between editing and revising, editing, revision, revising
You have your red pencil out, but is it going to make a big difference?

The Difference Between Editing and Revising

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail. The problem is, she’s editing. Moving words around. Doing small tweaks. She’s not revising.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective. This is revision.

Small Changes, Big Changes

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere. This can happen right away in a first draft novel revision, and then you’re pretty much doomed. Because you don’t train yourself to see the big issues that need fixing, and especially in a first draft, there are going to be more big issues.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc. With a first draft novel revision, you just finished the thing and want to bask in accomplishment. You may not want to mess with it too much.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency, especially in a first draft novel revision, if this attitude sets in from the start.

The Difference Between Editing and Revision If You’re Stuck or Suffering Writer’s Block

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. Sometimes this is what you have to do, especially in a first draft novel revision if you find that something isn’t working. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic, especially for a first draft novel revision. This is the true difference between editing and revising. Whether a writer has a bolt of inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards. (A good recommendation to do a brand new kind of revision is this self-editing trick.)

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

Sometimes it’s impossible to pull of a truly transformational revision alone. Hire me as your manuscript editor, and I will get you unstuck if you’ve been tinkering for too long, or off on the right path to begin with.

First Line Winner Analysis

Thank you all so much for your patience as I break down some first lines from the comments and critique exercise we did the other day. Whew! Almost 200 comments and entries, from PB first lines to YA fantasy and everything in between. Here is a selection of my favorite ones, with comments from me, and then a crowning of the winners. That’s right! This contest has two winning first lines.

First, though, the Honorable Mentions:

So let’s go through them in the order they were posted. First up is Crystal:

I never got the Bloodlust.

Some of my favorite first lines are the ones that plant the kernel of a question in a reader’s head. Here, there’s the question raised of “What is the Bloodlust?” but also some implied tension. Whoever this character is, I’m betting s/he either will get the Bloodlust soon or is one of the very few who never got this mysterious Bloodlust, which makes her an outcast, and there’s conflict in that. So we raise a juicy question and also imply that something is going to be fraught about this Bloodlust situation.

Here’s Silvia:

When Misha started seeing holes in people, she told her mother.

I’m not sure I’m crazy about this as a first line, because it’s telling (I’d rather see this instance in scene) and because of the use of the dry, more old-fashioned word “mother,” but the shock value of it can’t be denied, as you can see from the comments. The image certainly is arresting, and it starts with punch. You don’t want to make these kinds of “stunt” first lines a habit, but this one works because I want to read more.

Here’s Lyla:

On the night that Gabriel Durante harvested his one hundredth soul, he bought himself a pack of cigarettes and a drink.

This line cracks me up in a bit of a dark way. There’s a lot going on — this is our longest chosen line — but it’s very specific. There’s clearly something important about the one hundredth soul. There’s a reward for Gabriel here, or a release, but it’s a self-destructive one, hence the dark appeal. I immediately want to know what the one hundredth soul means and what’s waiting for Gabriel after…and that’s the perfect introduction to a book that, I assume, is going to be about just that. This feels like just the right first line for what I can imagine this story will be about. If the story is not about what happens after the one hundredth soul, this writer isn’t setting expectations correctly!

Here’s Stephanie:

People used to smile at me a lot more than they do now.

There’s some good first person pain in this line, which speaks to good voice. And not only do I want to know what happened to make them stop smiling as much, I want to know what it was like before and what it’s like now. Lots of good questions in this line. (Are we seeing a common theme?)

Here’s Amy:

Everything Sophie drew came to life.

This, just like the hole-people line, caught my eye because it’s a unique premise. Again, though, it does suffer from a bit of the telling. It’s a rather dry way of expressing your premise…showing this magic in action would be a much more active choice. You can, of course, use telling to reinforce key ideas occasionally (see good telling vs. bad telling) but I wouldn’t recommend as the first line. Still, I would keep reading this.

Here’s Kayla:

Siven smiles at me as she tightens her fingers around my neck.

This is a great example of starting in medias res (“in the middle of things” in Greek). We jump right into the action. There’s also the great tension of the smile as it clashes against the violent act of the fingers around the neck. This first line has lots of punch (bad pun fully intended)!

Here’s Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Here’s Kait:

I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.

This is another one of those telling lines, but there is a haunting tone to it that hints at good voice down the road. The question is so big and so ache-inducing that it begs the reader to keep going. An emotional connection in a first line is important.

Here’s Ashley:

“What do you want your name to be this time?”

Normally I tell writers to not start their novels with unattributed lines of dialogue. It’s too disorienting right off the bat. This line is a good one, though! It sparks a lot, a lot of questions! If you’re going to do it, make sure it’s something electric like this, and not, say, “Did you finish your cereal?” or whatever.

Finally, for the Honorable Mentions, Miles:

Camilla Bradford counted to ten, then walked out into the street.

There’s tension involved in counting to ten — she’s either doing it in anticipation of something or in anger, as a way to quiet her reaction. By setting up the suspense in this one line, Miles makes us want to keep reading. That’s good, because this project is apparently a YA thriller!

And now, The Winners:

Here’s the unveiling of our first one, Kathryn:

Bea had broken at least six of the Ten Commandments.

The voice here is great! Plus, I want to know more about this character. There’s tension in the breaking of the Commandments…clearly the Commandments matter to the character, because she references them, but not enough to keep from breaking them. This line is tongue-in-cheek and voice-y, also. Overall, just very appealing. The obvious question is, of course: Which Commandments, and how?

And here’s our second winner, Kalen:

It kinda sucks being a mind-reader when everyone hates your guts and wishes you were dead.

I haven’t written a blog post about setting expectations, but it’s something I discuss a lot when I speak at conferences. Before I do my longer post on it, let me just say that setting expectations is something you have to do in the first 5 pages of your book. From those first 5 pages, an image will bloom in your readers’ minds about what the rest of the story will be like. From the premise presented here — with good voice, might I add — I don’t know exactly what to expect from the rest of the book, but my imagination is already whirring, going in a million different directions, imagining all the painful (and, let’s face it, pretty funny…a tone set by the voice) moments that this character will experience. There is, of course, the question of what this character did to incur such wrath, as well as the introduction of the paranormal element, all in one fell swoop. Great work!

Kathryn and Kalen both get a critique of their first 250 words (email me, winners, at mary at kidlit dot com with the subject line: First Line Critique). Thanks for playing along, everyone!

First Line Critique

Last week, when I posted about first lines, you all started doing something wonderful: you posted your own and asked for feedback from other readers. You didn’t just do it here…people were critiquing opening lines on my Facebook page, too!

So before we move on to successful first lines from the published shelves, I thought I’d give you all an opportunity to critique and get critiqued by other writers based on your first line. Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Read and comment on three (3) first lines in the comments (this obviously doesn’t apply to the first handful of people to leave theirs).
  2. Post your own first line and tell us if it’s a picture book, MG, YA, whatever.
  3. When you’re responding to the first lines of others, make sure they know that you’re talking to them. I usually put their name and some dashes. Unfortunately, these comments aren’t threaded to do replies, so it will be a bit of a mess.
  4. Check back and scroll through comments to see if anyone has commented on your work.
  5. I will pop in occasionally and pick out a few to critique. The first line with the most comments about it will get a first page (250 word) critique from me!

I love it when my readers tell me what they need, when they just jump in and start a conversation.

ETA: I will be by the site a few times today to approve comments. If you haven’t commented before, your comment will be held for moderation. I’ll release them when I can. But don’t worry — your comment was received, it’s just waiting on me. No need to comment again.