Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Page Critique: Star Calvin

NOTE: Be sure to check out the drawing giveaway on Dear-Editor.com! Details and link on my sidebar for your chance at a FULL manuscript critique with a former editor. [giveaway expired January 31, 2011]

Today's post features a first-page excerpt sent to me for critique. This is taken from a YA novel.

THE EXCERPT

“Summer! Star Calvin is passing out sample CD’s for free right now in the quad.” Mandy’s braces gleam under the florescent cafeteria lights.

Lucky for me, I got my braces off in the middle of last semester. I’ve been practically metal free the entire tenth grade. Perfect smile, except for the fact it was sort of a waste since I really don’t bother twisting my lips in that particular direction.

“I don’t want a CD.” OK, so maybe I secretly do, but not because it even remotely comes close to what the world classifies as singing. More like some mutant cat gasping for air. She’s a total train wreck in front of the mike but she’s Star Calvin daughter of some wannabe music mogul here in Hollywood and soon I suspect she’ll be topping the charts worldwide. It just goes that way for her. Captain of the cheer squad? Check. Tenth grade class rep? Check. Cute quarter back boyfriend? Check. (Make that two jock-bots that are vying for her stray affections. I hear there’s some turf war ready to break out any second. Personally? I hope it gets ugly.) Lead singer of a band of her own making? Of course. What would the Shooting Stars be without Star and her amazing ability to lure the audience into the fantasy that she can actually sing?

I snatch the CD from Mandy. “What’s the name of this? Sounds of Star dying?”

“Shush!” Mandy’s dark spiral curls dance around her shoulders.


THE CRITIQUE

“Summer! Star Calvin is passing out sample CD’s for free right now in the quad.” Mandy’s braces gleam under the florescent cafeteria lights.

First Thoughts
1. I like the detail of Mandy's braces gleaming in the lights. I like the name Star Calvin, although I wasn't sure initially if it was the name of a person, a group, band, or what. The braces sentence also does a nice double duty in letting the reader know the setting, since cafeteria usually means a school. I wasn't sure what a quad is in a school (I'm only familiar with it as a college dorm room set-up), but I get the general idea from context.
2. According to oxforddictionaries.com, florescent is a common misspelling for fluorescent. Don't ask me why Word is not flagging it as incorrect as I write this blog in a document.
3. Beware of using italics too much. Personally, I'd omit the italics on "free" in the opening and leave it on "dying" near the end. If Star is passing CDs out, free is sorta implied, so "free" wouldn't need an emphasis. Not sure about italicizing Star Calvin; the italics are awfully close together, however.
Starting with Dialogue
There seems to be an unwritten "rule" about not starting novels with dialogue. This is not to say one can NEVER do it--famous writers have done it, and pulled it off well. It's just that it's apparently difficult to do well, and agents' and editors' eyebrows go quirking up when writers begin with dialogue. The main reason it's advised against is that the reader is dropped into a scene mid-action, without knowing who the characters are, if the character is someone worth caring about, who's speaking, or what's going on. This can be disconcerting or confusing.
Introducing an MC
There's almost an inherent assumption by readers that the first character they encounter is the main character. Here that would be Mandy, and she is not the MC. This may throw readers off.

Lucky for me, I got my braces off in the middle of last semester. I’ve been practically metal free the entire tenth grade. Perfect smile, except for the fact it was sort of a waste since I really don’t bother twisting my lips in that particular direction.

Wording
1. The phrase "in the middle of" seems unnecessary. If it's not crucial to the plot, this info could be easily omitted. Last semester is specific enough.
2. Watch out for qualifiers like "practically." I mean, was she metal-free or not? Perhaps the idea is more practically the entire tenth grade rather than practically metal-free, in which case the word needs to be moved, to after "free." I'm thinking metal-free would be hyphenated.
3. I got snagged on the use of the word "twisting" when referring to a smile. To me, twisting sounds more like a smirk or a sneer rather than a true cheery smile. Perhaps another verb could be used here, such as moving, slanting, or arranging? (like: Arranging my lips into that particular formation). I dunno; it could just be me.
Story Flow, Info
Having this paragraph in between the lines of dialogue works for Summer's reflection, but it does break up the dialogue and story flow. This might not be good, especially this close to the opening. I do like the "metal-free" sentiment, and that sentence reveals her age and grade nicely without being too info-y.

“I don’t want a CD.” OK, so maybe I secretly do, but not because it even remotely comes close to what the world classifies as singing. More like some mutant cat gasping for air. She’s a total train wreck in front of the mike but she’s Star Calvin daughter of some wannabe music mogul here in Hollywood and soon I suspect she’ll be topping the charts worldwide. It just goes that way for her. Captain of the cheer squad? Check. Tenth grade class rep? Check. Cute quarter back boyfriend? Check. (Make that two jock-bots that are vying for her stray affections. I hear there’s some turf war ready to break out any second. Personally? I hope it gets ugly.) Lead singer of a band of her own making? Of course. What would the Shooting Stars be without Star and her amazing ability to lure the audience into the fantasy that she can actually sing?

Length, Clarity, and Gender
1. This paragraph has a nice chatty voice for Summer's inner thoughts, although it's a bit long of a paragraph that could perhaps be condensed or split into two. Although YA novels admittedly have longer paragraphs than MG.
2. The "it" in the second sentence was confusing to me. At first I thought she meant a CD in general, so I wasn't sure why any/all CDs would sound like a mutant cat. Could just be me.
3. Also, I was a little thrown off because I thought Star Calvin was a GUY these 2 girls were oozing over (well, Mandy at least is blatantly oozing), and this paragraph reveals Star is a female. So when this paragraph said "she" was a train wreck in front of the mike, I thought it was referring to the friend Mandy.
Little Things
1. Totally love the mutant cat gasping for air bit! Very nice. (That's actually more than a "little thing"!)
2. A comma would be good after mike for sentence clarity since that's a long sentence, or put one after Calvin. Or both.
3. Quarterback is one word.
4. Jock-bots (which is a clever idea) are probably a who instead of a that, unless their robotic nature is being emphasized. Perhaps better yet, omit "that are" completely.
5. Nice sentiment on the "Personally? I hope it gets ugly" which shows Summer's character and voice.
6. Sometimes I see parentheses in novels and I find it slightly odd; it's done I suppose. Just make sure you don't overdo them.

I snatch the CD from Mandy. “What’s the name of this? Sounds of Star dying?”
“Shush!” Mandy’s dark spiral curls dance around her shoulders.

Confuddlements
1. I was a bit surprised to find Mandy had a CD in her hand for Summer to snatch. I had assumed Mandy wanted to go over and get one with Summer, and that's why she mentioned it in the opening lines.
2. I'm not sure why Mandy's curls are dancing…it almost sounds like they're doing it on their own--as if they're alive. Is she bouncing around? Did she move her head?
Kudos
Dialogue tags aren't overused in this excerpt, which is a good thing. I like the humor here in Summer's internal thoughts as well as in the characters' interchange. This piece has a catchy, lively voice that is good for light teen/YA reading. Star Calvin is a great character name. Conflict is introduced early, as Summer's wistful jealousy toward the dubiously talented yet ever-popular Star Calvin.

YOUR TURN
Can you add any other helpful comments to this critique?
Have you ever started out a novel with dialogue--and did anyone advise you NOT to?
Do you ever use parentheses in your novels?
Like me, do you find yourself overusing italics?
And whew!--thorough critiques like this make for very long posts. Are you skimming, and should I try to condense this info?

23 comments:

  1. I almost always start with dialogue. Hmm...maybe this "rule" is one more reason I'm not published yet. But for me, it works. One case the woman's on the phone, the other she's in the midst of the fight (trying to talk her way out of it). Both times, that conversation directly leads into the plot. I don't waste much time with backstory that way or too much internal rumination.

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  2. Carol - I think it's wonderful that you did such an in-depth critique! I think there are so many things that we, as writers, miss in our own writing and having someone break it down like that can ONLY be helpful! Nice job ~ :) I agree, the inner monologue part seemed to run on. Breaking it up could help. And I wondered, since it is all internal, are the parentheses necessary? It's all stream of thought, right?

    And I've been warned about not starting with dialogue. Which, I have done before. But, it came after my prologue (ha! another suggested no-no), so I felt my mc had already been introduced... who knows, I've probably got it ALL wrong!

    Otherwise - I agree, Star Calvin is a great name and the writing does have voice. Good job!

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  3. I would never start with dialogue, for the precise reason you mentioned.

    Also, I agree with every single critique you have here. I swear to you, I would have mentioned exactly the same issues (and positives). Your critique was thorough, specific and in my eyes, excellent and correct.

    I too like the voice here. :)

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  4. What a thorough critique! I would add if I saw anything new or something you missed, but you covered it all. Great job :-)

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  5. I love, love, love your critique!!! You're brilliant, you know that? ;) Thank you for teaching so much so fast! XOXO

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  6. That was a very thorough crit! I second everything you mentioned.

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  7. Wow... this is a VERY thorough critique!! You're SO good at that grammar stuff. I'm terrible at it.

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  8. Awesome crit, Carol. :D

    I've occasionally used parenthesis, but it really depends on the voice. Some authors pull it off well.

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  9. Great critique.

    You have a great eye.

    Michael... Thanks for the heads up on the editor's contest.

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  10. Great crit and great excerpt. IT was fun to read and there were some bits of prose that I adored.
    Thanks Carol and ----!

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  11. Wow! Amazing critique. You make it like an art!! Awesome stuff to learn!

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  12. I agree with pretty much everyone else, this was a good critique.

    I would add that for me there was a lot of padding between the first three bits of dialogue, it kind of took me out of the moment. If the MC took anywhere near as long to think what was written there her friend would be giving her some weird looks. (Think Scrubs when J.D. goes off on one of his daydreams.) I understand you want to set the scene but it interrupts the flow of their conversation, which might be one of the reasons not to start with dialogue. Just my $0.02.
    - Sophia.

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  13. Great in-depth critique Carol, I'm learning by reading this post. I have to say I also started some chapters with dialogue - although not the very first chapter. Interesting feedback, will have to re-read too. Thanks for sharing with us! ;)

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  14. What a great critique! I agree about the dialogue. I had to read it a couple of times to orient myself. Plus I just attended that Webinar a couple of weeks ago and the agent mentioned to be super careful about dialogue on the first page since it can tend to feel like a beginner's novel.

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  15. Carol, I much prefer it when you're thorough in your critiques. Nice job. I think you've hit on all the things I would say and then some.

    I never start with dialogue. I don't really like it when I'm reading it. I love being thrown into the middle of action, but I always want to know who the players are first. Then let me hear them fighting :)

    I think the feel of this piece is pretty good, but I will say it felt more on the younger side of YA to me. I'm a few years out myself, but I don't remember most people still having braces in HS, but more in JHS. I don't know. Just something about the quality of it. Then again, I tend to stretch the lines between YA and adult lit, so maybe I don't have any idea what I'm talking about :/

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  16. I have started with dialogue in the past but it was more of a shout than anything else and something for my MC to react to. Great critique (as always). I don't think I could add anything else.

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  17. What a wonderfully thorough critique - again! You always do a great job.

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  18. Great critique, as always! And I always pick up some helpful pointers myself;).

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  19. That is incredibly thorough! Lots of thought-provoking ideas for me to think about relative to my own manuscript.

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  20. Great critique. I know it's been mentioned it's better not to start with dialogue. There are novels that have. THE DARK DIVINE. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE are two I can think of off the top of my head. Both didn't put me off. I guess it depends on how quickly we, as the reader are thrown into the world.
    Excellent=D

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  21. Nice voice, author!

    And, another great critique, Carol.

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  22. Author, you did a great job on your story and Carol did a great critique. I don't know if I'd start with dialogue or not, but you raise great points. And John Green has used parentheses in his books, and it works. I suppose it depends on the story.

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  23. I would just like to say under confuddlements: I assumed she did have a cd in her hand because...well...how else would Mandy know CDs were being passed out unless she got one? Did someone else tell her? Wouldn't she start out with, "Blah-blah says Star Calvin..."

    I don't know. Perhaps I'm wrong. It was a great critique, and good story. ^^ Don't mind me rambling.

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