Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wednesday Critique

THE EXCERPT: (middle grade)

The sun streamed into Jen's room through the mini-blinds and woke her up. It was Thursday, the dreaded day of the biology final, and she knew she had to move fast in order to get to school on time. She had to meet Randy in the library to study before first period. Randy had been her best friend since third grade, and he was a great study partner. She just hoped he could help her at least get a D.

Her hazel eyes filled with worried tears as she wriggled out of her blankets. She knew what would happen if she flunked this test. An "F" in biology meant no allowance for the month of November, and she really needed the money. Her bike was shot, the gears ruined, the tires threadbare. It was way past time to get another bike.

Her feet landed on the cold hardwood floor and she shivered. Running for her robe and the shower, she flinched as the hot water hit her skin and washed over her long dark brown hair. As she shampooed, she reflected upon how much money she had. She had counted it two nights ago, and there was about twenty dollars. She'd been saving, but she'd had to buy a few school clothes in August. It sure had been a drag walking everywhere she'd wanted to go all summer. She really needed a new bike.

This story begins with the conflict stated fairly soon, which is a good thing. The character's motivations and goals are presented: getting to school in order to study, not flunking biology, saving up for a bike. However, many agents and editors say that having your character wake up in the morning to start the day is a tired, cliché opening. Is this where the action REALLY begins? A suggested method of beginning a scene is to "enter late and end early," which means to enter just prior to the key action of a scene, and duck out before the action totally fizzles. This way, you are not boring your reader with filler, or with more mundane actions such as taking a shower, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. If you feel you must include a morning routine, make sure it is streamlined, contains pertinent dialogue, or is a very unusual waking.
A better place to begin this story would've possibly been showing her on her way to school, or as she's approaching the school--or even as she reaches the library and scans the room for Randy, worried that he might not be there.

The lines about Jen's hazel eyes and her long dark brown hair border on narrator intrusion. If the reader is with Jen in Jen's head, chances are she would not be describing her eye or hair color. Such details often feel "shoehorned," as the writer's way of making sure the reader knows what the main character looks like. Try to work in these few details more naturally. But please, don't have the main character look in a mirror to describe him/herself, which is another hated cliché!

In this passage, Jen is in an obvious rush to get to school. Certain things, however, slow down that rush. She describes Randy as being her best friend since third grade and a good study partner. Is this really necessary to say HERE? It would be better to work in details like that at a more appropriate place--and to do it more naturally.

There is a modifier problem with the second sentence of the last paragraph:
Running for her robe and the shower, she flinched as the hot water hit her skin and washed over her long dark brown hair.
Technically, the second part of this sentence has to happen AS she is running for her robe and the shower. She can't be already showering and washing her hair while she's still running to get there! Watch out for sentence constructions like this. Also, if your character is going to be "reflecting," just have her reflect, don't bother to say it (which is Telling) and then proceed to show it. Simply show it.

As far as character motivations, so far what has been presented here is pretty lightweight as far as a compelling story goal. This conflict does matter a lot to the main character, Jen, but really, how exciting to a middle grade reader is studying for a test, or getting a new bike? Will the reader care enough to follow Jen through the rest of her day, and throughout the rest of the novel?

The more crucial, dire, and compelling the conflict, the more engaged your reader will be. It could be that Jen will encounter an even more pressing conflict as the chapter wears on--and that would be a good thing. Otherwise, the story might end up as an excruciatingly boring yawn-fest. (I wrote this excerpt, so I can say this. *grin*)

As a final note, there are a number of weak "to be" verbs (was) in this short 234-word excerpt--five of them to be exact--which could be reworded or replaced with more vibrant verbs. In fact, I know I could easily rewrite this excerpt to omit at least 4 out of the 5 "was" verbs. Can you?


  1. Hi Carol,
    It's so great that you're able to do this. I left a couple of awards for you on my blog. I'm thrill to see that besides being writers, we both like doing portraits too. Of course, I'm no where near as good as you. I haven't done a portrait in about four years!

  2. another great critique. You mentioned some good points.


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