Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Page Critique: Witches Don't Wear Socks

Announcing: new critique format! A little shorter overall, with the main critique points highlighted in blue to help you scan key points faster. Hope it helps.

Today's post features a first-page excerpt sent to me for critique, as per the sidebar instructions if you're interested. This is taken from a MG/YA paranormal-mystery novel by Cinette Santangelo.


Witches Don't Wear Socks

"But Mom, witches don’t wear socks!” I heard Raz yell. I opened my bedroom door to find her standing outside of my door, at the top of the stairs in her underwear with her hands on her hips and a wide-brimmed, pointy black hat on her head.

“I could dig out a pair of Grandma Stella’s itchy black wool stockings for you, if you’d like.” Mom’s voice carried up the stairwell.

Raz gave a six year-old’s exaggerated huff. “I’ll find something else!” She turned from the stairs and spotted me in my doorway. “Morning, Alex. What are you being for Halloween?”

“Me. What are you supposed to be?” I was beyond slow, first thing in the morning.

“A scary witch,” she cackled, raising her clawed hands next to her face.

“You don’t look very scary.”

“But YOU sure do!” Giggling and shrieking, she bolted for her room and slammed the door.

“OH! Burned by a six year-old. Slipping at your game, are you?” Cassie called from the bathroom across the wide landing.

I hated morning people.

She was applying mascara, and, of course, was already dressed in her cheerleader uniform. Her long, dark hair was styled into cascades of ringlets, and a light blush highlighted her fair, slightly freckled cheeks. She had taken to Mom’s Irish roots, while I had the darker complexion of my Mediterranean-born father.

Stepping out of my room, I felt the usual tingle and pull as I passed through the wards Grandma Stella set over my room.


Starting With Dialogue
To reiterate from my last post: The main reason starting with dialogue is 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 confusing. It's usually better to introduce the story or main character with a sentence or two first.
Middle Grade or Young Adult?
This feels more MG to me. If YA, it'd probably be lower YA. It also depends on the age of the main character and the type of conflict/plot; MG generally involves protagonists ages 8-12, while YA is 13+. There are exceptions, of course, such as THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, in which the protagonist is 11 but the Holocaust theme makes it YA.
Wording and Little Things
1. The phrase "standing outside of my door" reads smoother without the "of." Also, door is repeated.
2. Is the mom trying to dissuade Raz when she says "itchy black wool stockings"? If an honest offer, she might not say "itchy"--since that's negative.
3. Six-year-old would be all hyphenated.
4. Don't overdo caps. I'd omit them on OH. Alternately, you could use italics for YOU.
5. The "light blush highlighted her fair, slightly freckled cheeks" is quite a mouthful. I'd trim that description. Having both light and highlighted is too much of an echo.
6. Cassie has long, dark hair; Alex has a darker complexion. Also a bit too much of a repeat.
7. If the ward/spell is something Grandma has already done, the verb tense would be "had set." And I admit I wasn't initially sure what a "ward" was.
Other Things
8. The second sentence is quite long, especially if it's MG. It might be better as two: I opened my bedroom door to find her at the top of the stairs. She stood in her underwear with her hands on her hips, and a wide-brimmed, pointy black hat on her head.
9. Would a six-year-old say "Morning," and say her sister's name/Alex? It sounds more like the author is making sure the reader knows the main character's name. To me, Raz would probably say, "Hey. What are you being for Halloween?" but it depends on Raz's personality. She does seem pretty informal to me, since she's bellowing on the stairs in her underwear. LOL
10. The "burned by a six-year-old" phrase repeats the info that Raz is six; this isn't needed. If omitting one instance, I'd choose the first, leaving that line as: Raz gave an exaggerated huff.
11. Cassie sort of appears out of nowhere. Initially, I didn't know anyone else was around, and I thought Alex had responded with that dialogue line. This could be cleared up (a bit) by bumping Cassie's dialogue tag phrase to before she says the line about Alex slipping her game. Or insert a short action phrase by Cassie to introduce her before she speaks her line.
12. I assume Alex is a female--but there's really nothing so far that indicates her gender.
13. The Mediterranean part seemed like a ploy to describe Alex's appearance, and while this is a fairly natural place to describe Cassie, it interrupts the action and story flow a little.
14. Passive sentences, weak verbs: when describing people, places, or things, writers often lapse into weak "to be" verbs like was and were. In this excerpt, the verbs are nice and active until Cassie is described, when phrases like "was applying" and "was styled" appear.
15. From what I've seen (all of chapter 1; Cinette was a 100-follower giveaway winner of a chapter critique) I would label this a fantasy rather than paranormal, but that could be just me, and it could veer off into something more paranormal later.

The "burned by a six-year-old" line works well to let the reader know Raz's age in a natural way. The tone and voice is light and playful; I like Alex's disdain for morning people. There's a hint of conflict on the horizon. I like the tingle and pull of stepping out of the protective spell, the inherent question of WHY she needs that protection, and the nonchalance about magical things in her life. The story feels like an interesting cross between Harry Potter and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

Can you add anything else to this critique?
Does this feel more like MG or YA to you?
How old do you think the main character Alex is?
What would make this novel paranormal rather than fantasy--which does it seem like to you?


  1. I disagree about not starting with dialogue. I think most stories that begin mid action force a reader to catch up quickly and can help sweep them into your narrative. But it has to be quick dialogue with beats that give you a sense of who is talking, this is too much dialogue before beats of info are given IMO.

  2. I agree about the "burned by a six-year-old" line. It's a good instance of voice. Makes me think the MC might be male - which would be preferable in terms of conflict, a young male teenager surrounded by women.

    But then again, there seems to be some jealousy about the sister's looks, which indicates a female.

    I imagine the MC as 13 years old, maybe 14.

    I agree that the capitals should definitely be taken out of the dialogue. I always find that kind of stuff distracting.

    In terms of the narrative, it definitely needs some cleaning up (adverbs, extra words, etc.), and the voice amplified. Give it even more of a teen-tastic kick. A little snark, some witty descriptions.

    Right now I'd also go with fantasy, more because "paranormal" usually comes off as a bit darker to start and not as light-toned.

  3. Great points, I'm not sure I can add much more. I agree with not opening with dialogue, I had to think -what, who is speaking to whom? Also agree with Elena, its light for Paranormal, but I do like the voice, it just needs a few tweaks with the language for someone of that age. I'd possibly add in some slang or wit that fits the character.

  4. I'm learning SO much from your critiques, Carol! I love the effort you put forth in educating us as authors. Thank you!

  5. Wow you are thorough and right on! Love this story idea. It does sound more MG to me as well. Good luck!

  6. Well done, Carol! I'd say you nailed it, so I don't see much to add. :-)

  7. More crazy in depth critiquing! Nice Carol!

  8. Carol, you're always so thorough! I know you love writing, but have you ever considered trying to earn extra moolah on the side by charging for this? Just don't charge me :) LOL

    Honestly, I can't tell if this is MG or YA, thought it feels younger to me, and I'm not sure how old the MC is.

    I think in terms of genre, isn't paranormal more about ghosts and "unexplainable" phenomena whereas fantasy is more about.. er, fantastic elements? (way to define something with it's own term!) I think magic falls more into the fantasy side than the paranormal, but I could be wrong.

    I like the beginning, Cinette. Nice start :)

  9. Great critique, Carol! I must say I'm also getting more of a fantasy vibe with this story.

    I will also add that the scene didn't seem very grounded to me. I.e. I didn't get a very good sense of direction. The one sister kind of popped up out of nowhere like you pointed out, but I also had a hard time figuring out the "stage directions."

    However, I'm really intrigued by the subtle clues the writer left concerning grandma stella and the MC. :)

  10. I agree with you, Rosie, Carol should charge for her services!
    As for Alex's age, I have her as 15, by I've been waffling with that. She is 'stunted' for 15.

  11. Thanks, gals! I have charged for critiques, but I do have to be careful about spreading myself too thin. I have my own novels to write, plus my critter buddies' writing to critique. So it's not always a blanket "Yes, I'll do it."

  12. great critiquing, as usual.
    It has an MG feel because it seems to focus a lot on the 6yo though I suspect it's actually a YA

  13. Great crit, and the story was very fun to read too. I agree it needs to be more grounded, but other than that I thought the prose was nice and the story feels like a good one!

  14. Nice crit Carol! It was a short but very fun excerpt!

  15. I love your crits, Carol. They're very educational. :D

    I would have pegged the main character to be 13. So a late MG novel.

  16. Great critique. Love the suggestions.

  17. Awesome critique, Carol! Any points that stood out to me, you - of course - has already thoroughly covered. :) Agree on the "don't start with dialogue" recommendation. I'd say that this feels more MG. Alex sounds about 12 or 13 to me. Is the mc a boy? And witches say fantasy to me. Sounds like a story with a lot of potential for fun! Good luck to Cinette!

  18. I really have nothing to add except that I agree with your points, Carol, and I second what everyone has said about this being a very thorough critique! Thanks for all the effort you put in and thanks to Cinette for sharing.
    - Sophia.

  19. Excellent critique! I would delete the felt verb---maybe you mentioned that?

  20. Love the critique, and the highlighted bits in blue. The advice about starting with dialogue is intriguing. I like it myself, but I know opinions are divided on it.

  21. Nice job, Carol! Your critiques are soooo thorough! Love all the great advice!

  22. Wow... you're like the critique MASTER! I NEVER see these things until you point them out and then I'm like "OH!!!"

  23. Hi Carol, a great big thank you for my very own copy of Incarceron! I'm really looking forward to reading it! ;-)

    Have a lovely weekend!

  24. Cinette, great job. I agree about beginning with dialog and that it sounds like MG. A strong beginning though.

  25. Fantastic critique. I thought the age was about 12 or 13 also.

  26. I've always enjoyed the blue edits to the red. Very easy on the eyes. Though sometimes I use orange and pink. I guess it just depends on what color I fancy, that day. Anyway, just popped in to wish you a Happy Weekend.

  27. Another great crit! I totally agree with the part about not starting with dialogue. Let the reader know where the characters are first, then give the dialogue.

  28. I love all these critiques! And I like the new format, Carol.

  29. What a fantastic piece of writing! And with your comments, Carol, it will be even better.

    I'm on the fence about starting with dialogue... I think it depends. In this case, I rather like it!

  30. Great critique. I agree it does sound like MG or young YA.

  31. I will learn a lot here. Nice critique.

  32. Great critique Carol! I do like Cinette's snip though - I'd definitely keep reading to see what happens.


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