Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wednesday Makeover

The following is a first-page excerpt from the mystery novel Cyprus Hollow by Mary Maciejewski. While she writes for adults rather than middle grade or young adult, the general writing principals remain the same.

THE EXCERPT:
       Scarlett Blitch shivered as she considered the events surrounding Cyprus Hollow’s Belle Haven Plantation. Murder, suicide, sneaking through a secret passageway and a centuries old scandal tarnishing the reputation of the plantation’s current Carlyles. She leaned back in her chair and contemplated the shocking events that lingered in the minds of the townsfolk over the centuries.
      Scarlett clicked the save icon on her computer’s desktop and felt the biting chill of the crisp winter morning as she left her home office. She stepped into the hallway and smiled as she realized she was beginning to get used to she and Skyler’s new home. The town may take a bit more time to get used to though.
      Scarlett to a deep breath. Today would be a restful day beginning with coffee while reading the newspaper. After, she would delve back into her research and discover the details of what had happened at Belle Haven Plantation three hundred years earlier.
      On her way to the kitchen, she contemplated her next blog assignment, The Tragic Legend of Pirate James Hillaby and Emma Carlyle, a History of Belle Haven Plantation. How receptive would Carolina and Georgie Carlyle be to her inquiries into their family’s notorious past?
      Sidestepping several unpacked boxes scattered along the hallway, the maneuvering distracted her thoughts and she found herself squinting against the morning sun as she entered the kitchen. She poured the last cup of coffee and reached for the container to make a fresh pot. “Blast! It’s empty.”


CRITIQUE COMMENTS:

Scarlett Blitch shivered as she considered the events surrounding Cyprus Hollow’s Belle Haven Plantation.
1. Scarlett Blitch, a very interesting name, with a nice ring to it. However, I can't help but think of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. I'll leave it to Mary to decide if she wants that mental tie-in for her readers. Additionally, Blitch is a little close to a swear word (i.e., without the l), so a decision would have to be made regarding whether or not that connotation or similarity is desired. Especially if Scarlett's personality is not like that word, it wouldn't be good to use that last name.
2. Shivering and a mystery surrounding a plantation is an intriguing way to start a story. "Cyprus Hollow's Belle Haven Plantation" is really quite a mouthful though, especially to use in a first sentence. I'd intro the Cyprus Hollow info later. A little trimming here might be all that is needed for the reader not to feel quite as overwhelmed by the intro information.

Murder, suicide, sneaking through a secret passageway and a centuries old scandal tarnishing the reputation of the plantation’s current Carlyles. She leaned back in her chair and contemplated the shocking events that lingered in the minds of the townsfolk over the centuries.
1. It sounds here like: sneaking through a secret passageway and [sneaking through] a centuries-old scandal A little comma after "passageway" would clear that up, so it doesn't look like they share the same verb, sneaking.
2. Centuries-old would be hyphenated as adjectives used as a unit to describe scandal. If adjectives can't be used separately to describe a noun, they're hyphenated.
3. The murder sentence seems another information congestion spot, mostly the mouthful of "a centuries-old scandal tarnishing the reputation of the plantation's current Carlyles." Breaking this up or delaying some of the info until later would help.
4. Also, in the first sentence she's considering the events, in the third she's contemplating them, and she's contemplating yet again in the fourth paragraph. This is a bit too much contemplating and considering; rewording or combining the instances would easily solve this.
5. It veers from the singular 3rd person point of view with the last sentence…how does Scarlett know what is lingering in the minds of the townsfolk, especially over the course of 3 centuries? That's an omniscient narrator's POV.

Scarlett clicked the save icon on her computer’s desktop and felt the biting chill of the crisp winter morning as she left her home office. She stepped into the hallway and smiled as she realized she was beginning to get used to she and Skyler’s new home. The town may take a bit more time to get used to though.
1. At first read, I thought she left her office and went outside, since she felt the biting chill of winter. How is this chill inside her house? An explanation is needed here.
2. The correct grammar for the next sentence is: "…to get used to HER and Skyler's new home," not "she." To test for which one to use, omit Skyler and read as "…to get used to her new home."
3. Skyler is a cool name. I like it, although I'm a bit concerned by the similarity of Skyler and Carlyle, with both having yl's in them. Variation is nice for readers to keep names distinct and separate in their minds. Actually, even Scarlett and Skyler are awfully similar, with both beginning with an SK sound.
4. In this last sentence, "may" should be "would." The town WOULD take a bit more time to get used to, though. (And yes, add a comma for clarity after the "to.") If you prefer it to be a direct thought, add "she thought" or italicize. As it is, it's not obvious she's switching to direct thoughts and it's a little confusing or jarring.

Scarlett to a deep breath. Today would be a restful day beginning with coffee while reading the newspaper. After, she would delve back into her research and discover the details of what had happened at Belle Haven Plantation three hundred years earlier.
1. Typo in the first sentence: to instead of took. Spell Check wouldn't catch this--only another critique reader would. That's why a good beta reader or critique partner is crucial for a writer's manuscript. Letting a manuscript sit for a few weeks (or months) helps, in absence of a live reader.
2. It feels more natural to say "Afterward" or "After that," rather than plain "After." This could just be my personal preference.
3. You have 3 paragraphs in a row that begin with Scarlett; it's always good to change this around a bit, not starting with "she/he" or a character's name too often. Even switching one of these Scarletts to "she" would be less repetitive. Rewording would be even better.

On her way to the kitchen, she contemplated her next blog assignment, The Tragic Legend of Pirate James Hillaby and Emma Carlyle, a History of Belle Haven Plantation. How receptive would Carolina and Georgie Carlyle be to her inquiries into their family’s notorious past?
1. Having "on the way to the kitchen" and later having "as she entered the kitchen" seems redundant, too close together. Just say where she's going when she gets there. If she's going for coffee, the kitchen is almost implied, anyway.
2. The title of her blog assignment seems a very big mouthful, a long title. Shorten?

Sidestepping several unpacked boxes scattered along the hallway, the maneuvering distracted her thoughts and she found herself squinting against the morning sun as she entered the kitchen. She poured the last cup of coffee and reached for the container to make a fresh pot. “Blast! It’s empty.”
1. Scarlett needs to be the subject of the first sentence here (after the comma), because the first part describes something she is doing, which is sidestepping. As it is, maneuvering is the subject, which is incorrect. Rewording is necessary.
2. The "morning" sun is a repeat of the crisp winter "morning." One of these could be omitted.

All these grammar and exposition comments aside, there is a good sense of conflict begun here in the first page. A mystery is introduced with the plantation's murky past, and as readers we know that Scarlett's intentions are to have a relaxing morning, but we suspect it will be nothing like that. A few key things about Scarlett and her character are introduced (which is a good thing): she's a blog writer by profession, she is concerned about the Carlyles' reactions to her imminent research, and she's recently moved into a new house and town. (Not to mention the drastic conflict of--gasp!--being out of coffee.) With a little tidying up, this will be off to a good start.

ONE POSSIBLE REWRITE:
(if I may be so bold as to venture it on someone else's work)

       Scarlett Blitch leaned back in her chair and shivered as she considered the events surrounding Belle Haven Plantation. Murder, suicide, sneaking through a secret passageway, and a centuries-old scandal. All these things had tarnished the reputation of the plantation’s current owners, the Carlyles, and lingered in the minds of the townsfolk in Cyprus Hollow.
      After clicking the save icon on her computer’s desktop, Scarlett left her home office and stepped into the hallway, feeling the chill of winter rising from the hardwood floor. She smiled as she realized she was beginning to get used to her and Skyler’s new home. The town would take a bit more time to get used to, though.
      She took a deep breath. Today would be a restful day beginning with coffee while reading the newspaper. Afterward, she'd delve back into her research and discover the details of what had happened at Belle Haven Plantation three hundred years earlier. Her next blog assignment would feature The Tragic Legend of Pirate James Hillaby and Emma Carlyle. How receptive would Carolina and Georgie Carlyle be to her inquiries into their family’s notorious past?
      Sidestepping several unpacked boxes scattered along the hallway, Scarlett found her thoughts distracted from her research by the time she entered the kitchen. She squinted against the morning sun as she poured the last cup of coffee and reached for the container to make a fresh pot. "Blast! It’s empty."

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