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.

STORY BEGINNING:
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.

CHARACTER DESCRIPTION:
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!

PACING, GOALS, DETAILS:
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?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Thanks to Dennis for this writing excerpt, which is targeted for middle-grade kids (ages 8-12).

THE EXCERPT:

Ol' Coon

In the still of the forest, ya can hear some heavy breath'n and some feet sprint'n as fast as they would carry them. Behind the tall skinny figure is a lumber'n bear with her cubs close behind. The old man, with his long grey hair flyin' past his shoulders, looks fer a quick escape. His small brown steely eyes spots a good size tree, but the bear is gett'n on his heels.

He can almost feel her breath on his neck.

Just as mama bear growls and starts her final lurch, the lanky ol' man jumps fer his life and clings to the trunk of the tree. With his long grey beard down to his belly button, he shimmies up that tree like he were a squirrel or somethin'.

Mama bear shakes at that tree fer awhile then finally trails off with her cubs into the nearby bushes.

Between his three yellow crooked teeth on top and two on the bottom, he yells at the bear, "Hey ya momma, ya chicken or somet'n? Come back an' fight like a bear!" Then he laughs his way down the tree.

Yep, it's another beautiful day in the backwoods of the Rockies. The ol' man walks in the midst of bright red and yellow leafed elder trees and through the lush green meadow, back to his rickety old log house .

The man weren't nuttin' but an ol' raccoon trapper named Ed. No one knows his last name, and no one cares to know.

MY COMMENTS:

It's good to start with action, especially for readers of this age. One slight caution to beginning with action such as this, however, is that the reader doesn't yet know who the main character is before all the action starts. It can therefore be a little harder to follow. Still, this beginning is catchy and has a nice folksy and conversational flavor.

While the authentic and phonetic spellings lend to the folksy, backwoods tone, these things can make a story difficult to read--especially for readers of this age group. It is usually recommended that dialect NOT be exactly duplicated, but rather suggested by idioms or turns of phrases. This is especially true for words with apostrophes, such as the dropped g's at the end of words; these things are wearying for the reader after a while. For flavor's sake, the poor grammar could be kept. It would read about the same if you used proper spelling and kept the g's:

In the still of the forest, you can hear some heavy breathing and some feet sprinting as fast as they would carry them. Behind the tall skinny figure is a lumbering bear with her cubs close behind. The old man, with his long grey hair flying past his shoulders, looks for a quick escape. His small brown steely eyes spots a good-size tree, but the bear is getting on his heels.

He can almost feel her breath on his neck.

Just as mama bear growls and starts her final lurch, the lanky old man jumps for his life and clings to the trunk of the tree. With his long grey beard down to his belly button, he shimmies up that tree like he were a squirrel or something.

Mama bear shakes at that tree for awhile, then finally trails off with her cubs into the nearby bushes.

Between his three yellow crooked teeth on top and two on the bottom, he yells at the bear, "Hey ya momma, ya chicken or something? Come back and fight like a bear!" Then he laughs his way down the tree.

Yep, it's another beautiful day in the backwoods of the Rockies. The old man walks in the midst of bright red and yellow-leafed elder trees and through the lush green meadow, back to his rickety old log house .

The man weren't nothing but an old raccoon trapper named Ed. No one knows his last name, and no one cares to know.

As far as small things to tidy up, for clarity a comma would be good after "shakes at that tree for awhile," and good-size and yellow-leafed would be hyphenated, as shown in the rewrite. The word "midst" seems more poetic than folksy in tone; a word such as "middle" might match the general tone better (or just say he walks BY the trees).
The word "then" appears twice, rather close together, which by the way is a common word overused in action scenes. Near the end, "old" is repeated twice close together; the first one could be omitted and you'd still have "rickety log house," which would be descriptive enough. Also, there is a bit of confusion of the "thems" in the first sentence, whether they refer to the feet or the man.

The character of Ed, or "Ol' Coon" is a lively one, and I think kids would have fun reading about him.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Boring Writing

Sometimes, what we write can be boring. We get the facts down, the action of the scene as well as the details, but still…something is lacking. Zip. Zest. Interest!

Consider the writing sample below. While technically correct and containing no passive "to be" verbs like was or were, no excess of adverbs, etc., it lacks interest in style and tone. Rather bland. (I can say this because it's my own writing and not someone else's. LOL)

WRITING SAMPLE:

On his way to the library, Rick walked past the playground. He didn't really want to see all the little kids having fun on the play equipment, because it made him feel worse about his argument with Dad. A few smiling parents sat, chatting to each other on benches. One woman pushed a squealing girl in pigtails on a swing. Other kids ran around, darting and chasing, laughing and giggling. Rick watched one freckled girl wave to her friends with excited enthusiasm and then climb to the top of the slide. A boy threw a ball to another boy and missed. The ball bounced over to Rick. With a sigh, Rick picked it up and tossed it back, wishing he'd gone the long way around the block.

Then, consider this rewrite. Whether the style resonates with you or not, it's probably far more compelling of a read.

REWRITE:

On his way to the library, Rick trudged past the playground. Dad's angry words echoed in his head, clashing with the cheerful riot of motion and sound by the play equipment. You have to grow up, son, Dad had told him. Stop acting like a child. Rick's eyes slid against their will to the relaxed smiles of parents chatting on benches. Unwanted shouts of delight and laughter careened into his ears. One woman pushed a girl on a swing, sending squeals and a pair of pigtails flying high into the air, while a freckled girl waved like a prom queen to her friends before climbing to the top of the slide. A boy threw a ball to another boy and missed. The ball skidded over to Rick. With a sigh, Rick picked it up and tossed it back, wishing he'd gone the long way around the block.

Not only are there more details and information about Rick's argument with Dad, there is more to the scene than a mere newspaper-like reporting of facts. It contains more emotion. The scene is filtered through the main character's eyes, showing how he is interacting with his environment, processing the details, and reacting. Even tiny nuances can be utilized. For instance--keeping Rick's argument with his dad in mind--did you notice how the two cameos of the little girls were positive, and yet the two boys threw and missed catching the ball?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Blog Shout Outs!

FYI, a shout out to two other blogs out there in cyberspace!

The first is Emily White's Stepping Into Fantasy blogsite. She's started up a Goober Writers Anonymous group where she posts blurbs about writers who have made mistakes both large and small, and learned from them--the hard way. Here is her first post, her own story:

http://steppingintofantasy.blogspot.com/

MY big Goober tale will be posted next week! Thursdays are official Goober days. Click on over, and join Emily's Goober group. Scroll down a bit to the September 7 post for details about how to do a guest post on her blog. She'll give a shout out link to your blog, and post your written Goober for the world to see and learn from. If you don't want to join, just read!

The second blogsite is East For Green Eyes, which has now reached 100 followers and is having a big celebration contest with a selection of fun prizes to choose from. Books! Critiques! CHOCOLATE! Become a follower and qualify to enter. Extra points awarded for spreading the word, or you may write a 500-word story about her blog byline. Check it out at:

http://eastforgreeneyes.blogspot.com/

Click the contest link at the top or scroll down a bit to the September 6 post. Have fun out there!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

WINNER OF THE BOOK GIVEAWAY!

Many thanks to everyone who entered the book giveaway, and for your enthusiasm. I wish everyone could have won a free copy! I numbered the entries in the order people signed up, giving two entries' worth to those who posted other links or spread the word. Then, I visited random.org and let it choose a number. And so…(drumroll, please) the winner is:

RosieC!
CONGRATULATIONS!!

I was quite surprised that the random generator chose a number at the end of the numbered range, but it did. Funny random stuff. So yay, Rosie wins a FREE copy of my young adult fantasy novel, Junction 2020: The Portal. She can write to me at artzicarol [at] gmail [dot] com to let me know where she would like her free book shipped.

Next Wednesday I will be back to posting my regularly scheduled weekly critiques. If anyone has an excerpt 250 words or less that you'd like critiqued on this blog, feel free to send it along to my gmail. It's okay if it's a few words over 250; go ahead and finish your sentence.