Sunday, June 20, 2010

Launching: The First Critique

Here is Sara-Lynne Simpson's MG excerpt. First, her version unvarnished by my verbose cyber-chicken-scratches:

TO CALL THE VORTEX
By Sara-Lynne Simpson

Chapter One

“Search now for the sorrow of this boy between two worlds that we may find him.” Celine

       Jake hung back and scuffed along, as a large group of students spurted up the trail. Morning sun sparkled on October’s wet, crimson leaves, but he didn’t notice. He had other things on his mind. His classmate’s loud laughter whirled around the curves as their sixth grade teacher tried and failed to keep order. His friend Daniel signaled him with a wink, an evil grin and a little sideways jut of his head. Jake mouthed “no, thanks,” and smiled just enough for no hard feelings. Daniel shrugged and moved on. Two boys and a girl joined him as they broke off and surged up the big rough hillside. “Come back here, right now!” yelled Ms. Arnold. Her words were no match for the class. The general mayhem jostled on up the trail.
       Jake hung back farther from the noise. It didn’t scorch his ears the way his parents’ fights did, but any yelling was too much right now. Last year, he would have been right in there with Daniel, darting uphill for some extra fun. Now Jake just looked away, watching the creek instead. It rushed past with high water from a recent storm. Rapids ripped over big granite boulders. Jake saw large gold-brown leaves swirl in the creek. They were torn up from riding the rapids. He pulled back even farther. The crashing creek completely drowned out the shrieks of his class.

Followed herewith by my comments, added in blue rather than red because blue is a much kinder, less garish mark-up--and besides, it matches my blogsite color scheme better.

TO CALL THE VORTEX
By Sara-Lynne Simpson

Chapter One

“Search now for the sorrow of this boy between two worlds that we may find him.” Celine
Nice fantasy-like element added here with this quote, to set the mood. I find it intriguing that the search is for the SORROW of the boy, not for the boy! I'm also assuming "Celine" is a hint of someone who will be introduced later in the novel (a little foreshadowing). Your title sounds like a fantasy, so if it is one, you've nailed the fantasy title feel.


Jake hung back and scuffed along, as a large group of students spurted up the trail. Good job--nice to see some active and vibrant verbs, i.e., scuffed and spurted. You have quite a number of energetic verbs in your first page, which is great because a lot of writers (especially beginners) tend to use weak verbs, like was and were. I kinda question the use of spurted, however, since my first impression is something gushy or liquidy. The definition of spurt does include a "short, intense burst of energy or a sudden increase in energy," so I suppose the word might fit…as long as you don't mind the possibility of readers getting a liquidy impression. But perhaps sprinted would be more accurate or appropriate?

Morning sun sparkled on October’s wet, crimson leaves, but he didn’t notice. It could just be me, but at first I was snagged by October being a possessive. A little unusual and a slight mouthful of a phrase (October's wet, crimson leaves). I'm assuming the point of including October is to inform the reader what time of year the story takes place, but it seems a trifle forced where it's now placed. To an extent, crimson leaves in themselves would indicate autumn/fall so that you may not even need the word October. (On the other hand, if this is fantasy, we don't yet know our baseline for normalcy, or what the world is like--maybe the leaves are bloody, or crimson all the time, etc.) You're the boss, but I personally would rephrase it to say something like "Morning sun sparkled on the wet, crimson leaves of October, but he didn't notice." Or say the "wet autumn leaves" or "wet October leaves." Hmm, why are they wet, anyway? It's not raining, so perhaps dew?
The next issue is point of view. Technically, the last part of the sentence is an impossibility UNLESS your narration is omniscient (all-knowing, delving into everyone's minds and thoughts). If your narrator has a limited POV, based only in Jake's head and only seeing what Jake sees, then you wouldn't be able to mention anything he doesn't notice. You could get away with saying he barely noticed them or some such--but not that he didn't notice at all.

He had other things on his mind. This a little like telling, informing the reader he had other things on his mind, rather than showing what those things are. You DO show later that he's not into what everyone else is doing, so I'm wondering if that might be enough, rather than spelling it out and summarizing it here.

His classmate’s loud laughter whirled around the curves as their sixth grade teacher tried and failed to keep order. Punctuation, here. Classmates' is the correct possessive of plural classmates, with the apostrophe placed after the s rather than before it. (I assume it's plural, since you say "their" teacher later in the sentence.) Also, sixth-grade would be hyphenated, being two adjectives dependent upon one another to describe the noun "teacher."

His friend Daniel signaled him with a wink, an evil grin and a little sideways jut of his head. This is good in that you are showing a snippet of Daniel's personality by his actions. I'm having a bit of trouble imagining a sideways jut of someone's head, though. "Jut" means to stick out, or to make something stick out, especially beyond the surface or edge of something. The word implies more of a forward motion or like over an edge to me, rather than a sideways motion of someone's head. Perhaps jerk or tilt would be more accurate here?


Jake mouthed “no, thanks,” and smiled just enough for no hard feelings. Daniel shrugged and moved on. Two boys and a girl joined him as they broke off and surged up the big rough hillside. I like him mouthing his refusal; it says something about his mood as well as his character. Surged is a great verb in the 3rd sentence here, and works better for me than the aforementioned spurted. One problem I had with the 3rd sentence is that the 2 boys and a girl can't join Daniel AS they break off and surge…they can't join him in the middle of those actions; AS implies at the same time. What sequentially is happening (I think) is first the breaking off, THEN the joining, then the surging. I'm assuming the class/teacher/Jake are on the trail, and then Daniel and 3 others leave the trail to charge up the rough hillside, but it's a little unclear. At any rate, the AS presents a timing problem that you'd want to fix, for instance something like: "Two boys and a girl joined him, breaking off from the class to surge up the big rough hillside." It's a little unclear what Daniel wants Jake to do until you get to this sentence, especially since you say Daniel "moved on." Moved on sounds like he's on the trail still, rather than up the hill.

“Come back here, right now!” yelled Ms. Arnold. Is she talking to Daniel and the 3 others? (Does she notice they're gone?) It seems like she is, because you just mentioned them leaving the trail. If she's talking to them, you may need to add a "to them" to make it ultra clear…although then your next sentence indicates she's yelling at the entire class.
Also, new dialogue usually begins with a new paragraph, so you'll want to make a paragraph break here. Especially for Middle Grade (ages 8-12), your readers are fond of white space and shorter paragraphs; this will break up your lengthy paragraphing. This whole page would probably benefit to being broken up into more bite-sized pieces. At the very least, break for your dialogue sections. (If you HAVE broken these up but pasting it into an email to me has destroyed your paragraph breaks, ignore this advice!) Personally, I would break it in the following places, after sentences ending with: notice, mind, jut of his head, feelings, hillside, trail, rapids. This only changes the total length from 15 lines to 19 lines.

Her words were no match for the class. I like that; her words versus the class. Lopsided power struggle.

The general mayhem jostled on up the trail. I like this too, the mayhem jostling up the trail rather than the people doing the jostling. I mean, the people are implied, but I like the image of mayhem personified, moving its way up the hill.

Jake hung back farther from the noise. It didn’t scorch his ears the way his parents’ fights did, but any yelling was too much right now. Last year, he would have been right in there with Daniel, darting uphill for some extra fun. Ah good, you have the possessive correct here, with parents'. With more than one parent, the possessive goes after the s. Nice way to introduce a little background of his home/inner life, too. The 3rd sentence tells us that whatever has changed for him has occurred in the past year--without a big information dump describing all the changes. Just a nice hint of the Something that happened.

Now Jake just looked away, watching the creek instead. It rushed past with high water from a recent storm. Rapids ripped over big granite boulders. Do a double-check on your entire manuscript to see if "just" is not one of your pet words that you take everywhere and use all the time. It used to be one of mine! You've used it twice in two paragraphs/one page. Try to spread the justs out, omit them when you can, or substitute "only" or "merely", etc. For instance, it reads fine to omit this particular just: "Now Jake looked away, watching the creek instead."

Jake saw large gold-brown leaves swirl in the creek. They were torn up from riding the rapids. Maybe a little bland and/or repetitive in your adjectives here: big boulders and large leaves. I like the symbolism of what feels like nature paralleling your character, like Jake has been torn up from riding the rapids of his life. He pulled back even farther. The crashing creek completely drowned out the shrieks of his class. From proximity sentence-wise, this almost sounds like he's pulling back from the rapids and boulders, which I don't think you meant; I think you meant pulling back from his classmates. You may have to add a couple of words here to clarify.

Thank you, Sara-Lynne, for your story. Remember that these comments are my opinion, and critiques are like a buffet: take what you want or what works for you, and leave the rest. Kind and constructive feedback from others is welcome below; feel free to contradict or add to what I've said. My ego will still be intact.

3 comments:

  1. Howdy. Sara-Lynne has written a nice piece. I get a definite feel for the mood of the main character - and what is coming in his future. Unlike Carol, I didn't like the introductory quote by Celine. I think it gives away a lot of what you will be showing us in the novel. I want to get that feel from the storytelling - not an introductory quote. My humble opinion (I'm not a fan of quotes such as these). It sounds like his choice of friends (Daniel) is going to be good, too.

    I've submitted my piece for critique. I'd love to hear what you all think. :-)

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  2. Thank you, Carol, for an incredibly detailed and helpful critique. I am embarassed that I missed that plural possesive! Your line-by-line assistance will help me make the beginning of my manuscript much stronger. Thanks again, and I look forward to watching your magic with other folks' work as well.

    Sara-Lynne

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  3. Yes, I tend to do a line-by-line edit when I critique, to test the strength of each and every sentence. If the sentences are strong in themselves, they work much better as a whole! You can put those same magnifying glasses on to scrutinize the rest of your manuscript. Check strength and variety of verbs, noun-pronoun agreement, number of adverbs, number of adjectives, and overused words (common ones are just, suddenly, that, only, really). And always have another person or two go over your work to catch details like incorrect plural possessives that sneak in. Better that person to see your flub than an editor or an agent!

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