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."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wednesday Makeover

TODAY'S MAKEOVER: Memories…Drifting off

THE SCENE:
(In which Karleen comes to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, in the town where her brother drowned in the ocean seven years prior: an excerpt from a second chapter.)

Later that evening Karleen lay in the attic room, rather zombie-like under one of Aunt Judith's handmade quilts. What an emotionally draining day it had been! She fingered the quilt's edge in the semi-darkness while her thoughts bumbled around in her brain like lethargic, rusted bumper cars.

She recalled the parting scene when her parents had left for Italy. Dad had kissed her on the cheek, smelling like his aftershave. Mom had hugged her and pleaded with her to be nice to Aunt Judith. They had had watery eyes, herself as well as Mom and Dad. She remembered the taxi taking her parents away to the airport. A churning pit where her stomach should be. Uncle Ryan's sunny greeting smile on his bearded face when he climbed from his truck. His old truck barely able to stay on the highway because he'd been distracted by that bag of chips. This house by the sea. Homemade fried chicken…sad lines around Aunt Judith's mouth, disapproving somehow in addition to sad. Then she'd played chess with Uncle Ryan.
Her thoughts grew fuzzy, and her images jumbled together. The black and white squares of the chessboard swam with wrinkled uncle knuckles and the smell of the sea. She couldn't escape the smell. It crept into the house, not just outside on the path that led to the sea. The ocean was too close, and it made a jolt of fear surge through her. She would drown this summer, she just knew it. Just like David had....

She fell asleep, and her dreams were filled with nightmare visions.

COMMENTS:
Later that evening Karleen lay in the attic room, rather zombie-like under one of Aunt Judith's handmade quilts. What an emotionally draining day it had been! She fingered the quilt's edge in the semi-darkness while her thoughts bumbled around in her brain like lethargic, rusted bumper cars.
Qualifiers like "rather" zombie-like can be omitted here. The exclamation mark is melodramatic and would read better without it. "Emotionally" is an adverb that could be slashed. The simile of the bumper cars would be stronger and more streamlined without one of the adjectives--probably lethargic, since if her thoughts are already "bumbling" a sense of lethargy is already implied.

She recalled the parting scene when her parents had left for Italy. Dad had kissed her on the cheek, smelling like his aftershave. Mom had hugged her and pleaded with her to be nice to Aunt Judith. They had had watery eyes, herself as well as Mom and Dad. She remembered the taxi taking her parents away to the airport. A churning pit where her stomach should be. Uncle Ryan's sunny greeting smile on his bearded face when he climbed from his truck. His old truck barely able to stay on the highway because he'd been distracted by that bag of chips. This house by the sea. Homemade fried chicken…sad lines around Aunt Judith's mouth, disapproving somehow in addition to sad. Then she'd played chess with Uncle Ryan.
The first sentence is telling an overview of what she's recalling and then the rest of the paragraph shows it (and really, the bumper car sentence is even a Telling kind of summary). Omit the telling--like the distant tone of "Aunt Judith pleaded with her to be nice"--reword the section to make it sound less like a summary. The "had had" is awkward; avoid that whenever you can. "Barely" would be good to omit, since it's another adverb/qualifier. Rewording the sentence about the truck would make it stronger. Omit "homemade" because the quilt was described as handmade; too similar, plus the adjective isn't really necessary for the reader to know.

Her thoughts grew fuzzy, and her images jumbled together. The black and white squares of the chessboard swam with wrinkled uncle knuckles and the smell of the sea. She couldn't escape the smell. It crept into the house, not just outside on the path that led to the sea. The ocean was too close, and it made a jolt of fear surge through her. She would drown this summer, she just knew it. Just like David....
She fell asleep, and her dreams were filled with nightmare visions.
SHOW Karleen's thoughts growing fuzzy--don't tell the reader they are. Be creative, make the sentences and words jumble together as though the reader is in Karleen's head, instead of describing the process more distantly. "She fell asleep" could also be livened up, and the weak "was" verb could be omitted ("her dreams were filled"). Don't be afraid to use sentence fragments. The word "just" is repeated twice--insanely close together. Slash!

MAKEOVER:
Later that evening Karleen lay with the enthusiasm of a zombie in the attic room under one of Aunt Judith's handmade quilts. What a freaking weary day. She fingered the quilt's edge in the semi-darkness while her thoughts bumbled around in her brain like rusted bumper cars.
The parting scene before her parents had left for Italy floated past her mind's eye. Dad, kissing her cheek, smelling of aftershave. Mom hugging her with the reminder to please please be nice to Aunt Judith. Watery eyes, all three pair. Suitcases. The taxi whisking her parents away to the airport. A churning pit where her stomach should be. Uncle Ryan's greeting smile that broke through his beard like a cheery sun through a mass of blond clouds. Meandering, floundering truck on the highway thanks to those blasted chips of his. Fried chicken…this house by the sea…sad lines around Aunt Judith's mouth, disapproving somehow? The chessboard. The black and white squares of it wavered and swam with wrinkled uncle knuckles and the smell of the sea. She couldn't escape the smell…inside the house for Pete's sake, it must be embedded in the carpet somehow, sand and grit and the whole house flowing like a landslide down the path to the ocean until her chestnut hair splayed out in a whirlpool of sucking heaving saltwater help help help--

David.

She tipped, and fell slow-sleepy-motion into her first nightmare of the summer.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Link Party!

As an extra post I have decided to veer off for a bit and post links to various new and/or helpful sites I've run across in my travels through cyberspace.

1. The first site spotlighted can be found at:
http://writeitsideways.com/

This blog features all kinds of writer info, and most interestingly, also features excerpts that are peer critiqued. I initially found my info about copyright here, the info that made me backtrack slightly in my new blog focus because I didn't want to step on publisher copyright toes with my online critiques. If you think you might have some time to leave some feedback for the YA Fantasy posted today, rip on over there to the site! I'm sure the writer will appreciate your critique. Remember to "sandwich" your critique feedback with soft and kindly words of praise ("bread"), too.

2. The next featured site can be found at:
http://m-j-macie.blogspot.com/

This blogsite is written by M.J. Macie, a mystery writer. I like her byline, which quotes Red Skelton as saying: "Your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God." So true. Mary's current topic is entitled How to Avoid Developing Writer’s Apprehension Disorder (WAD), and is presented in a series of parts. She neatly ties in possible anxiety and worry about one's writing with ways to combat those feelings, particularly focusing on ways that you can allow God to help ease your concerns. She also discusses dealing with rejection, and the importance of getting another pair of eyeballs on your story.

3. The second new site I've discovered is Natalie Whipple's Between Fact & Fiction:
http://betweenfactandfiction.blogspot.com/

She's a kick! The blog is fun to read, and informative too. Also, Natalie has landed the ever-popular and sought-after Nathan Bransford as her agent (*suppresses a bounty of really ugly GREEN feelings* LOL) and is in the middle of editing one of her novels for publication. Since she's at a stage in the writer's life that I don't know much about--what comes after you land an agent and a publisher--I am insanely curious as to the specific processes she's going through. The agonies, the nose-to-the-grindstone kind of stuff. She had an amusing contest to make her laugh recently, the winner of which was a clever poem by a follower. I found her link from the Adventures in Children's Publishing site, from their weekly Friday postings of links.

4. Another site I followed via an Adventures in Children's Publishing link is the MiG Writers blog:
http://migwriters.blogspot.com/

This blog is co-written by a group of six published writers who focus on Middle Grade and Young Adult novel writing. They cover crucial writing tips such as finding a good premise, and using details to advance plot and create emotional connections. They recently had a really cool contest where writers submitted entries of their novels boiled down to one, concrete sentence. It was fun to see the hook line of many interesting novels. Maybe someday we will see these authors in print and get to read their books!

Okay, that's enough for today. I have some other social networking to do, plus I'm setting up a website for a writer friend via Blogger. Onward! (Yeah, someday I'll get back to that novel I'm writing….)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing More Dialogue

See sidebar for submission specifics if you have something to send me for critiquing!

WEDNESDAY MAKEOVER: DIALOGUE

There are two extremes with writing dialogue. One is narrating and describing lengthy feelings and thoughts in the middle of a conversation to the extent that it breaks up the flow of the dialogue and makes the conversation hard to follow. Don't be afraid to carve some of that out and leave a streamlined back-and-forth without the "he said" and "she said" tags. The other extreme in writing dialogue is to have a conversation totally without tags or hints about what the main character is thinking or feeling--or rambling on so long the reader is in danger of losing track of who is talking. The best course of action is usually something in between.

DIALOGUE SAMPLE:

       Amy stormed into her room, where her little sister Mitzi sat giving Veterinarian Barbie a severe haircut with Mom's material scissors.
       "Where's my necklace?"
       "What necklace?"
       "You know the one. The one I got for Christmas, the one with the stars on it."
       "Dunno. Haven't seen it."
       "I bet you have."
       "Nope."
       "Liar. I saw you flicking at it yesterday when it was hanging on my lamp."
       "Then why are you asking me if I've seen it?"
       "Stop being a brat! I need to wear that necklace for tonight's party. The last time I saw it you were fiddling with it, so you had to have done something with it."
       "I didn't move it. You probably moved it yourself and forgot. Or Mom knocked it off when she was vacuuming."
       "Mom didn't vacuum yesterday. She did it Friday."
       "She always vacuums on Saturday."
       "Not this week. She did it a day early because she had to pick up Ryan from basketball."
       "I don't know, you creep! Leave me alone."

COMMENTS:
While there is a good back-and-forth going on here, it's pretty stark. We don't want to add so many descriptions and tags that it starts to bog down the conversation flow, but the natural rhythm of the dialogue and the clarity of the passage could be improved if we added a few tags and actions. In the case above, for starters, the first dialogue line needs a tag in order for the reader to be 100% certain that it's Amy saying the first line (especially since that first line is on a new line/paragraph).

REWRITE:

       Amy stormed into her room, where her little sister Mitzi sat giving Veterinarian Barbie a severe haircut with Mom's material scissors.
       "Where's my necklace?" Amy asked.
       Mitzi didn't look up. "What necklace?"
       "You know the one," Amy growled. "The one I got for Christmas, the one with the stars on it."
       "Dunno. Haven't seen it."
       "I bet you have."
       "Nope." Mitzi kept snipping.
       "Liar. I saw you flicking at it yesterday when it was hanging on my lamp."
       "Then why are you asking me if I've seen it?"
       "Stop being a brat! I need to wear that necklace for tonight's party. The last time I saw it you were fiddling with it, so you had to have done something with it."
       "I didn't move it," Mitzi said. "You probably moved it yourself and forgot. Or Mom knocked it off when she was vacuuming."
       "Mom didn't vacuum yesterday. She did it Friday."
       "She always vacuums on Saturday."
       "Not this week." Amy propped her fists on her hips. "She did it a day early because she had to pick up Ryan from basketball."
       "I don't know, you creep!" Mitzi cried. "Leave me alone."


The tags included here not only add a little tone and color, but they make it more clear who is talking. They also give clues as to how the characters are feeling (Mitzi not looking up, continuing to snip, Amy's fists on her hips indicating anger or impatience, etc.).

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Writing Dialogue

See sidebar for submission specifics if you have something to send me for critiquing!

TODAY'S WRITING SAMPLE:
(269 words)

       I walk into the book store, nervously eyeing the orderly rows of volumes and wondering if I'll ever find what I'm looking for. The ultimate, perfect gift for a snooty, not-so-perfect person.
       "Can I help you?" The mousy being perched on the barstool behind the cluttered counter gives me a hazy look of disinterest as she speaks. It's obvious from her lack of wardrobe coordination, not to mention her lackluster manner, that she doesn't really care if I buy anything or not, but I plunge right in.
       "I'm looking for a special book of poetry for my aunt," I say hesitantly.
       Mousy Being's gaze goes glassy for a moment, then she summons a gathering of latent energy and leans to yell down a row of cluttered shelves. "Gina! Oddball request, your forte."
       A pathetically thin girl with outrageously thick hair down to mid-thigh appears, her hands cradling a small stack of books as though she thinks they're sacred beyond all measure. Instead of answering, she raises her eyebrows into a hint of an arch, and a trace of a smile twitches on her pink-hued lips. Her clothes are retro-hippie, with ankle bracelets, smiley pins, and a long tie-dye skirt.
       "She's looking for a special poetry book,” Mousy Being says, jabbing a thumb at me.
       Long-haired Gina sighs dramatically, giving me an indulgent half-smile that barely affects her mouth. I stare at her poor choice of bubble-gum-colored lipstick on her lips as they move. "Follow me. We have a whole section of poetry books over here."
       I follow her meekly to a collection of books four rows to the left.

MY COMMENTS:

I walk into the book store, nervously eyeing the orderly rows of volumes and wondering if I'll ever find what I'm looking for. The ultimate, perfect gift for a snooty, not-so-perfect person.
Adverb alert: nervously. Could omit this, since eyeing might give enough of a clue how this character is feeling. The second sentence has a few too many adjectives; ultimate and perfect are similar enough so that one or the other could be omitted. Even the stark simplicity of "The perfect gift for a not-so-perfect person" would get the point across just as well, with a certain nice cadence to it.
"Can I help you?" The mousy being perched on the barstool behind the cluttered counter gives me a hazy look of disinterest as she speaks. It's obvious from her lack of wardrobe coordination, not to mention her lackluster manner, that she doesn't really care if I buy anything or not, but I plunge right in.
Some redundancy with "a hazy look of disinterest," which might be okay, but the next sentence mentions a similar thing again--her lackluster manner. Trimming one of these would be good.
"I'm looking for a special book of poetry for my aunt," I say hesitantly.
Adverb alert: hesitantly. There are 7 adverbs in this one-page excerpt. Slash, slash, slash!
Mousy Being's gaze goes glassy for a moment, then she summons a gathering of latent energy and leans to yell down a row of cluttered shelves. "Gina! Oddball request, your forte."
"Summons a gathering" is rather redundant. Also, there are cluttered shelves, too close to the cluttered counter. I like referring to the mousy girl as the "Mousy Being." Nice title without having to name her (since she's probably not a key player here).
A pathetically thin girl with outrageously thick hair down to mid-thigh appears, her hands cradling a small stack of books as though she thinks they're sacred beyond all measure. Instead of answering, she raises her eyebrows into a hint of an arch, and a trace of a smile twitches on her pink-hued lips. Her clothes are retro-hippie, with ankle bracelets, smiley pins, and a long tie-dye skirt.
Adverb alert: pathetically, outrageously. Probably choose one but not both, although I have to admit if there weren't any other adverbs on the page, I might leave both of these just for an intriguing parallel comparison, the pathetically thin and the outrageously thick. The pink-hued lips seem a bit forced and odd; hue means color and pink IS a color, so "pink" is enough. We do get a good picture of Gina's personality from how she's described, but in this much detail is probably not necessary. Sacred beyond all measure is a colorful way to say it, but sacred in itself might be enough to get the point across. As a further note, if this Gina girl is not going to be a minor or major player in this hypothetical novel, then it would be best not to go into this much descriptive detail. All you'd need is flavor, not a complete run-down of her expressions, physical appearance, and clothing. As it is, there's a risk of introductory-description-info-dump in progress here. It's usually better to focus on one or two key characteristics of a person, and make them memorable to the reader that way.
"She's looking for a special poetry book,” Mousy Being says, jabbing a thumb at me.
Mousy Being's line of dialogue with its "special poetry book" is a repeat and could be reworded slightly to lose the echo feeling.
Long-haired Gina sighs dramatically, giving me an indulgent half-smile that barely affects her mouth. I stare at her poor choice of bubble-gum-colored lipstick on her lips as they move. "Follow me. We have a whole section of poetry books over here."
I follow her meekly to a collection of books four rows to the left.
Adverb alert: dramatically, barely, meekly. And we already know Gina has long hair, so that description can be omitted--especially since her skirt is also described as long. We've already heard about her lips/lipstick, too; I'd choose one place or the other to mention it, not both. If mentioned twice like this, the reader begins to wonder if it's important in some way. Otherwise, why the focus? I'd omit the entire sentence about staring at the lipstick, although the bubble-gum description is admittedly more interesting than the aforementioned pink-hued one. Also, the patient half-smile might be enough without adding "that barely affects her mouth." There is a repeat of "poetry books" and "collection of books" that could be tidied. Lastly, the "Follow me" and the "I follow her" are a little echo-like, so a different verb could be used.

REWRITE:
(221 words)

       I walk into the book store, eyeing the orderly rows of volumes and wondering if I'll ever find what I'm looking for. The perfect gift for a not-so-perfect person.
       "Can I help you?" The mousy being perched on the barstool behind the cluttered counter gives me a hazy look of disinterest as she speaks. It's obvious that she doesn't really care if I buy anything or not, but I plunge right in.
       "I'm looking for a special book of poetry for my aunt," I say.
       Mousy Being's gaze goes glassy for a moment, then she summons latent energy and leans to yell down a row of shelves. "Gina! Oddball request, your forte."
       A pathetically thin girl with outrageously thick hair down to mid-thigh appears, her hands cradling a small stack of books as though she thinks they're sacred. Instead of answering, she raises her eyebrows into a hint of an arch, and a trace of a smile twitches on her pink lips. Her clothes are retro-hippie, with ankle bracelets, smiley pins, and a long tie-dye skirt.
       "She's looking for special poems,” Mousy Being says, jabbing a thumb at me.
       Gina sighs, giving me an indulgent half-smile. "Follow me. We have a whole section of poetry over here."
       I trail her to a collection of books four rows to the left.

49 words slashed in ONE page--mostly adjectives, adverbs, and redundant descriptions. The result is a more streamlined version that still retains its crucial elements and flavor.

Are any passages in your novel this wordy?
If you're not sure, send them in to me and I'll help you slash. LOL

Friday, July 2, 2010

Action Scene Makeover

I am reviewing writing tips by showing examples. See sidebar for submission specifics. If your 250 words ends mid-sentence, go ahead and include the rest of the sentence.

Today's focus: ACTION SCENE MAKEOVER

Suddenly, the sound of the front door slamming told Tess her uncle was home. A stab of fear hit her as she thought of the mess in the kitchen--the shattered pieces of his favorite bowl. It had been that stupid cat's fault and not hers, but she knew her uncle would yell at her just the same.
Tess jumped off the back porch in a hurry and skittered into the back yard, panicked. She scanned the yard, looking for somewhere to hide. Maybe she could try to climb up into one of her uncle's three big bushy apple trees, and hide there until her uncle left for his Monday night poker game. She wasn't sure, but the leaves this time of year looked thick enough to cover her.
Since she was running out of time, she bolted for the closest tree. She hoped her uncle hadn't reached the kitchen yet. If he looked out the window, she was doomed! Reaching the tree, her hands clawed for a good handhold, and then she swung her right foot up to the lowest branch. Her left foot swung up beside the first one, and her left hand gripped the next higher branch. She clung tight and heaved her first leg up to another branch. With her heart pounding, Tess reached for more branches while her feet scrabbled. She shifted her weight and moved both her feet again. Higher and higher she climbed. When she thought she was out of sight, she stopped, breathing hard, and listened.

Word count: 254 words

COMMENTS:
The second and third paragraphs of this passage is where the action is, so I'll comment there. A common mistake when writing action scenes is to pause too long for contemplation, describing numerous things your character sees and thinks. Extra adjectives, words, and phrases. This slows down the action and immediacy of your scene.

In general, trim unnecessary words for a faster flow. For example, "in a hurry" is not needed; Tess is already jumping and skittering, which implies hurry. If she's on the back porch, then saying "back" yard is not needed. "Her uncle" is repeated for both the tree and the poker game; again, not needed. The pace also slows down when she stops to contemplate the use of a tree to hide in, and her climb into the tree is excruciatingly molasses-like. The action in the tree turns almost slow-motion, where each right or left hand/foot/leg is placed with exaggerated precision. Remember, your character is in a hurry! You don't want to counteract that by a slow or lengthy writing style.

Also, don't be afraid to use short sentences and sentence fragments--they have a breathless or staccato quality of their own, when used well. Also, punctuation can help, but don't overdo the dashes, italics, or exclamation marks, or your passage will seem melodramatic or over-the-top. Words are often overused in action scenes: suddenly, then, & and then.

REWRITE:

The abrupt sound of the front door slamming told Tess her uncle was home. A stab of fear hit her as she thought of the mess in the kitchen--the shattered pieces of his favorite bowl. It had been that stupid cat's fault and not hers, but she knew her uncle would yell at her just the same.
Tess jumped off the back porch and skittered across the lawn, panicked. She scanned the yard, looking for somewhere to hide. Could she climb up into one of the bushy apple trees, and hide there until her uncle left for his poker game? Would the leaves cover her?
No time to wonder--she had to move!
She bolted for the closest tree, hoping her uncle hadn't reached the kitchen yet. If he looked out the window, she was doomed. Reaching the tree, her hands gripped the lowest branch while she swung one foot up. Her other foot shot up to join it. She heaved her body upward and stretched for the next higher branch. With her heart pounding, Tess grabbed more branches while her feet scrabbled. Higher, and a little higher yet. When she thought she was out of sight, she stopped, breathing hard, and listened.

Word Count: 204 words--50 words slashed!

Much more streamlined and clear, and frankly, the last paragraph could be tightened even more by saying she heaved herself up into the tree and climbed until she reached the part of the tree where she thought the leaves covered her. My, aren't writers wordy people sometimes?