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.
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.
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