Workshop #4

The penultimate workshop for this series comes from Darcy.

“So? Have you thought about it long enough yet?” The question startled me so much I dropped my spoon full of granola into my bowl. Soy milk splashed up onto my chin and the front of my sweater, and Pepper barked from where she was sitting under my chair. Peter had a habit of slipping into a room without anyone noticing. He was stealthy like that. I made a face Poppy would have called “The Evil Eye” and threw it at him.

This is a classic jarring beginning that I see a lot. Unattributed dialogue to begin is always dicey, since we don’t know the characters. And we could literally be anywhere, talking to anyone, about anything. It does nothing to ground the reader. We learn nothing about the character from her reaction, either, as she is just startled. We get the soy milk detail and the little puppy with the preppy name. We also get some attitude, but we don’t get the main character and Peter’s relationship, which is a weakness for the rest of the scene. Also, the Poppy/Pepper names are too close for me. For a second, I thought, “Wait, how does she know what the dog is thinking?” There’s so much and it’s so disorienting that I don’t even have enough bandwidth left over to focus on what the “it” in the first sentence is, which the writer is trying to set up as the source of tension.

“Woah. What’s with the Evil Eye? This is your Primary Present we’re talking about,” said Peter.

Perhaps I was a bit hasty with the Evil Eye look. I quickly tried to make it up to him.

She knows what he’s asking about, so I don’t get why she gives him the Evil Eye and then recants. The “Primary Present” line, as a result, seems like it’s for the reader’s benefit…to introduce the idea to the reader instead of aim for organic dialogue. Please also notice how old you think this character is…

“Sorry, Peter,” I said. I got up from my seat and retrieved my super special bought-it-with-my-own-money chocolate granola from the pantry. “Would you like some granola for breakfast?” I asked sweetly.

Peter laughed. “That,” he said, pointing to my Delightfully Chocolate-y granola, “is not breakfast. This is breakfast.” He grabbed a package of whole wheat bagels from the fridge and held them high like he had just caught a 30-pound salmon and was showing it off. I shrugged. He had a point. If I ran out of my chocolate granola I would probably take a whole wheat bagel instead.

We get no information about what their relationship is. As I’m reading this, with an eye trained by tens of thousands of kidlit novel beginnings, I’m thinking she’s a 14/15 y.o. snotty (and a bit manipulative) teen and he’s her obnoxious older brother, who’s your typical carbo-loading dude. Plus, why does the writer spend so much time gloating over the granola if the character would just as soon ditch it for a bagel? It told me something about the character, at least, until she was like, “But it doesn’t matter because I can do a bagel, too.” What’s the point of establishing it and then devaluing it right away? Now it is a meaningless detail.

Having settled the breakfast food question I returned to my granola while Peter poured himself a cup of coffee. “You still haven’t answered my question, Beatrix” he pointed out.

Rats. I had been hoping the Great Granola vs. Bagel debate would distract him. The fact was I had not thought long enough about my Primary Present yet. I wasn’t any closer to a decision that day than I was a month earlier and I had to come up with something quick. My deadline was just around the corner.

I’m confused as to what this Primary Present issue is. Is it just a present? Seems that way. (You never know with all the dystopian plots going around…it could be something more serious.) But, for now, I really don’t get what the big deal is. Someone is trying to do something nice for Beatrix…so why is she acting so weird and cagey about it? Those stakes are extremely low. Even saying something like “The Great Granola vs. Bagel debate,” an attempt at high stakes language, doesn’t raise stakes because we saw the debate…and it wasn’t that big a deal. Giving us a sense of why she’s avoiding it, and giving her a specific deadline (not the vague “just around the corner”) would give the writer a stronger position but I’m still not sure the premise is tense enough. Also, do a comma between “Beatrix” and the end quote in the first paragraph.

Each year for My Birthday/Christmas Peter always bought me a lot of nice presents: books, art supplies, music CD’s. He would buy them all year round and then give them to me on December 25th. That was the day we celebrated my birthday and Christmas too, of course. Those small things were all my Secondary Presents. Then there was my Primary Present. The Primary Present was always something super special. I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped. Every year I tried to stump Peter and see if I could come up with something that he couldn’t pull off, but he always came through.

Now it seems like Peter is a parent figure? Still very unclear, because he acts like a macho teen boy. The presents he’s bought are vague and missed opportunities to provide character details. I’d also quibble with “music CDs”: first, you don’t need the apostrophe, second, it’s redundant, just say “CDs,” third, CDs aren’t as popular/relevant these days. Again, it sounds like what Peter does is really nice, so I have no idea why she’s avoiding the issue. It’s like me refusing a spa treatment. Really?

Last year he took me and my best friend Poppy to New York City for the day and we had high tea at Bergdorf Goodman and tried on shoes we could never possibly buy. Then we went on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. That one was extra special because it was my tenth birthday. This year, my eleventh birthday, doesn’t seem so special on the calendar, and I’d already tried everything I could think of up to this birthday to try as a Primary Present.

Aside from two mentions now, we haven’t really seen Poppy, so is she really necessary to cram in there right now or can she be introduced with more context later? The biggest shocker, to me, was the character’s age. Her voice right now is a bit like GOSSIP GIRL meets Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City. She’s jaded, really self-aware (a more adult trait), manipulative around men, and loves a good pair of Manolos. And I’m supposed to buy that she’s ten? Sure, maybe in the world of Toddlers and Tiaras but I read too much middle grade to really have this voice for this age ring true. And know that readers for a 10 y.o. character will be younger (since kids always read up), so an 8 y.o. from the general reading pool wouldn’t really bond with this character, I don’t think.

So here we have some voice issues, some stakes issues, some characterization issues, and some context issues. Overall, I would take another run at this beginning with clarity in mind, and, depending on the plot, age the character up to 15 or 16. It would be much easier to write to your voice instead of trying to change your voice to fit the character…here, it’s clearly a much more adult voice than the writer is aware of, I think. This is not a glowing workshop, I’m afraid, but there’s a lot to take away here, and I applaud the writer for volunteering!

ETA: Deleted the present could/couldn’t be wrapped note because I missed it! Sorry all, and thanks for your eagle eyes!

17 Replies to “Workshop #4”

  1. Aha I have an answer to a question you posed! From the story:

    I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped.

    Not! I nearly missed it too.

  2. I just wanted to point out that the Primary Present has to be something that CAN’T be wrapped:
    “I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped.”

    But I agree with you on all other points.

  3. Erica Rodgers says:

    Great post, Mary! Your remark at the end about writing to your voice instead of forcing your voice into a character was exactly what I needed this morning. I’ve been struggling with exactly that: the voice for my current WIP is a young YA, but one critic on a workshop paid-critique said she’d age it down, since she was unsure if my premise would work in YA (But she LOVED the voice). My wonderful critique partner told me last week: stick with the great voice and find a creative and new spin on the premise that makes it YA.

  4. Thanks for the “cannot” catch, y’all.

    (And Heather, why the French are you EDITING in your spare time?)

  5. Adele Richards says:

    I like the idea of coming up with present ideas that can’t be wrapped – it’s fun and the stuff of daydreams. I think if the author skipped all the bagel & evil eye stuff at the beginning and went straight to this idea (with a few clues as to who our protagonists are for context) it would be a sweet hook.

  6. melodycolleen says:

    This is another amazing opportunity that Mary has so graciously provided us with. My entry hasn’t been picked, which might be a really good thing! But reading the entries and then reading Mary’s comments shows me so much I would have missed on my own.

    I, too, love the idea of a gift that cannot be wrapped, but I would like to know more about the relationship between these two.

  7. Now that these workshops have ended, any chance you could follow up with opening pages that you feel work well? I’m not understanding how to meet all your criteria in such a small word count. I just read the opening pages of Love, Aubrey. I know a child is alone at home and running out of food. It is fun at first, but now, not so much. The child seems young, but I don’t know its sex. I don’t know why the child is alone. I don’t know who or what Savannah or Jilly are. This is the kind of information you seem to be asking us to provide. Since this novel has a clear voice and a mystery, I’m sucked into the story.

    Stupid and confused.

  8. Mary,
    Thanks so much for choosing my opening. This is my first draft of my first novel. I know it needs work, and I’m glad to get specifics on what the problems are.

    And thanks to everyone else who caught that the present cannot be wrapped. 🙂

  9. “Penultimate” means second-to-last, y’all. One more workshop on Monday!

  10. Melissa K says:

    Mary, it’s really helpful to see comments on work like this–by a writer who isn’t just a rank beginner making the same old boring mistakes.

    Darcy is clearly working hard at characterization, tension, and showing and telling–all the standard stuff that comes up in craft books. It’s awesome to read a critique of her opening because it shows where some of the pitfalls are for a writer trying to juggle all the balls. So thanks.

    Also, shout out to Darcy: Thank you! Keep on keepin’ on!

  11. Thanks for this workshop series! I’ve learned so much from seeing why things do and don’t work. 🙂

  12. “It would be much easier to write to your voice instead of trying to change your voice to fit the character.” <– Great point, Mary. I often wonder about this when I waffle between PBs and MG.

  13. Thanks Mary! I’m enjoying reading your thoughts on these. And thank you to the brave writers being critiqued. 🙂

  14. Reading this crit also makes me wonder about the blurbs on book jackets and a person’s query too. Because if an agent is reading a query first, and then the first ten pages, say, they’d know a) how old the protagonist is b) roughly what kind of story it is (dystopian or whatever) and probably lots of other stuff too. Same if a person reads the blurb. So many questions that you’ve raised here would already be answered…

    So what I’m wondering is whether it’s better to get critters to read your intros without reading a blurb first? Because it must make you more critical, more able to pinpoint what’s missing?

  15. Like Darcy, I’m working on a first draft of my first novel (well, second, the first bad one is shuttered away, forever), and I begin with dialogue too. Hmmmm. A question for my critique partners.

    Thank you, Mary and Darcy, for the writing and workshop. Looking forward to the last installment.

  16. Can’t help myself, I guess! Hey, nice haircut!

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