Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Page Critique: MG Opening

Yes! It's déjà vu time once again. I'm recycling an old post because I'm still hot on the trail revising for my lovely new agent. At the moment, I'm hacking away and redoing the entire ending of the book, as Kelly suggested. Rah!

Feel free to shred this passage, since I wrote it as a bad example--you will hurt no feelings.

THE EXCERPT: Middle Grade

The morning sun streamed into Jen's room through window and woke her up. It was Thursday, the dreaded day of the algebra 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 hoped he could help her at least get a D.

Her hazel eyes filled with tears as she wriggled out of her blankets. She couldn't flunk this test. An "F" in algebra meant no allowance for the month of November, and she really needed that 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'd counted it two nights ago, and there was about twenty dollars.


Where The Action Is (or Isn't)
Although this passage contains conflict, having a character wake up in the morning to start the day is a tired, cliché opening. Is this where the action REALLY begins? A better method of beginning a scene (ANY scene) is to "enter late and leave early," which means entering just prior to the key action, and ducking out before the action fizzles. This way, you're not boring your reader with mundane actions like 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 been showing Jen 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. Don't do this! 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 (not by looking in the mirror, either, which I discussed in my last post as another cliché).

Pacing, Goals, Details:
1. The pacing here is slow but is meant to be fast. Jen is in an obvious rush to get to school, but certain things slow down that rush. She describes Randy as her best friend since third grade and a good study partner. Is this really necessary to say that HERE? It would be better to work in details like that at a more appropriate place--and to do it more naturally than straight out telling. And then there's the whole shower scene, more internal thoughts, etc.
2. As far as character motivations, this is pretty lightweight for a compelling story goal. Will a MG reader care enough to follow Jen through the rest of her day, and throughout the rest of the novel? There'd better be something more crucial cropping up, more interesting than passing a test and obtaining money to fix a bike.
3. There is a modifier error in 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.
4. If your character is "reflecting," don't bother to say it and then show her reflect. That's Telling (and then showing). Pointless!
5. There are a number of weak "to be" verbs (was) in this short excerpt--five of them --which could be reworded and eliminated. They dilute the passage.

Can you add any other observations to this critique?
Where would YOU have started this story--instead of the waking up cliché?
Have you ever found yourself describing your main character by shoehorn phrases like "washed over her long dark brown hair"? (See my hand waving? I have!)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Page Critique: MATCHES

Today's post features a first-page excerpt sent to me from an adult novel entitled MATCHES. (These excerpts sent for critique don't have to be middle grade or young adult, but I'm more familiar with MG/YA.)


Keller focused in on his face and let his eyes in the mirror examine it. Every detail seemed to mock him like a stranger scraping away at the surface, wanting and needy to have every facet naked and discovered. He was so plain. Pale and light, and his eyes looked too old for his smooth skin. Boring holes in the glass, his old self cried to be free from this boring face that hadn’t experienced anything he had yet to experience. Help me, his eyes said. His mouth told his eyes to screw off and go back to sleep.

His hair was bright red; a color which defied the rest of him as his clothes usually wore the black of mourning like a cloaked dawn, waiting and ominous, only just serving the purpose of starting out a day. Keller hated mornings. This was usually the only time he looked in the mirror, so he did it justice by hating it with every fiber of his being. After that he used the rest of the day to forget he was himself and didn’t think about the way he looked at all. Sometimes he was able to fool himself into self-love.


Wording and Little Things
1. The first sentence says Keller is looking with eyes that are IN the mirror. That's technically impossible. Might be clearer to put the phrase "in the mirror" earlier: Keller focused in on his face in the mirror and let his eyes examine it.
2. It should be "Wanting and needing" in the second sentence, rather than "Wanting and needy." (The writer says she meant to say needy, but in order to have that make sense, the last phrase would have to be omitted or placed in another sentence: to have every facet naked and discovered.)
3. "Boring" is repeated twice in the fifth sentence. But perhaps this is intentional, to make a contrast and play on words.
4. "Help me" could be set apart by italics or quotes. I'd go for italics.
5. The use of the semi-colon is incorrect in the first sentence of the second paragraph; it should be a comma. Semi-colons connect two related, independent sentences/clauses that can stand on their own--such as how I just used it in the previous sentence.

Other Things
1. Looking into a mirror is a cliché way of describing a main character. In this instance, there is purpose for Keller's looking and self-examination, but many agents and editors groan when they see a character being described by mirror gazing. It's best to avoid it.
2. "Boring holes in the glass" initially is confusing, at least to me. I read "boring" as an adjective (as in tedious, yawners) that described holes, rather than a verb to indicate the action of drilling holes. Also, the sentence technically says that his old self is doing the boring, which I'm not sure is the intention.
3. "Keller hated mornings"--it may be better to show he hated them rather than a direct statement telling that he did. Ditto for the last two sentences; let's SEE him using the rest of the day to forget he was himself and not think about the way he looked.
Summary: Kudos
There is some very interesting self-analysis going on here, delving into this character's mind. We get a good sense of who he is, and what his internal thoughts are. I particularly like these sentences: This was usually the only time he looked in the mirror, so he did it justice by hating it with every fiber of his being. AND Pale and light, and his eyes looked too old for his smooth skin. Great descriptions and thoughts there.

PS: Blogger is being ornery the last couple of weeks; the blue I use to help readers skim the post is NOT showing up. Mumble, grumble. So I had to use bold here instead.

Can you add any other helpful comments to the above critique?
Have you ever described your character by having them look into a mirror?
What other, more natural ways can you let the reader know what your main character looks like?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


For your writerly and readerly contemplation, here are the opening lines of a fantasy novel by Susan Fletcher, published in 1989, called DRAGON'S MILK. It is one of my favorite books, along with its companion books, FLIGHT OF THE DRAGON KYN and SIGN OF THE DOVE. Susan is a fellow Oregon writer whom I've met at SCBWI conferences.

Dragon's Milk
Something was wrong.

Kaeldra knew it the moment she awoke. She sat bolt upright and strained her senses against the dark. The loft smelled of mildew and damp hay. A cold breath of mist wrapped around her shoulders and neck. Something--the seabird?--rustled in the room down below. Beside her, Kaeldra heard Lyf's soft snoring. She reached out and laid her hand on Lyf's chest and felt reassured, somehow, by its gentle rise and fall.

Gradually the blackness of the loft dissolved into vague gray shapes. Now Kaeldra could make out Mirym's sleeping form in the far corner, could see the dark half-circles of Lyf's lashes against her cheek.

Everything all right. No sign of what had awakened her. No hint of anything wrong, except the prickling chill that crept up Kaeldra's spine and fanned out across her back.


Even though there is a weaker "was" in the first line, it's still a compelling line. There is a variety of senses involved: smells of mildew and damp hay, a feeling of coldness, the sounds of the seabird rustling and Lyf's snoring. Added to that are the more intangible senses, the sense that something isn't right, the prickling chill that results from it. These few paragraphs introduce Kaeldra to the reader as the main character before the action starts (and yes, action starts in a couple more short paragraphs).

And there are BABY dragons in this book, mischievous and adorable! Susan calls them "draclings." The main character Kaeldra names the draclings Synge, Pyre, and Embyr.

Have you read DRAGON'S MILK and/or its sequel and prequel?
Can you add any further thoughts to why this passage does or does not work?
On a scale of 1 to 10 (1=low, 10=high), what would be the level of your interest in reading further after these opening lines?

Friday, May 6, 2011

My First Ever Interview!

Just a note to tell ya'll that the lovely Michelle Merrill is interviewing me on her blog today! Pop over to visit her site HERE.

I am excited because I actually get to meet Michelle in person next weekend when I'm up in Portland for the Oregon SCBWI conference. We're meeting for dessert after the conference May 14. Anyone want to join us??

Have you ever been interviewed on a blog before?
Have you ever gone to a conference, and if you write for children or teens, do you belong to the SCBWI?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Misc News + Paragraph Makeover

Um, wow. How do I follow up a blogpost like last week's? Thanks so much, everyone, for your enthusiastic congratulations and well-wishes on my agent acquiring notice. This week I've started to plow through my revisions, rethinking characters and scenes and gasp--even the beginning page of the novel. So far I'm happy with my tweakings and slashings. I'm not a writer who detests revising/editing, so all is well. (Don't tell anyone, but I'm actually having fun doing it.)

Less stupendous but still important and delightful news:
1. I passed 300 followers! Welcome to the blog, all my new cyberbuddies.
2. Since mid-March, I've received FIVE new blog awards. Many thanks to the following people (visit their sites via their names/award icons on my sidebar):

One Lovely Blog Award from Michelle Merrill
Powerful Woman Writer Award from Tyrean Martinson
From Me to You Award from PK Hrezo
Encouraging Blogger Award from Lindsay Currie
Versatile Blogger Award from Carolyn Arnold

And now, for the writer tip part of my post: a story beginning makeover.
If you're an old follower experiencing deja vu, it's because I used a longer version of this post last year (what can I say? I'm busy revising for my lovely agent).


She had arrived for the summer.

Jane Brownwell looked around crossly, putting her suitcase down. Here she was at last after a long hot bus ride, and Aunt's May's house looked really boring. Across from the dining room window was a table, round and plain. Faded doilies were placed across the top of the couch. Another doily was spread out under a collection of flowers in a vase, on the coffee table. Most of the flowers in the vase were wilted and droopy. The couch was a mess, all saggy and stained with tea.

It was horrible! How was she expected to stay here for an entire summer?

This passage introduces conflict, albeit the overused theme of arriving somewhere new for the summer and hating it. However, it could be written a lot more colorful and interesting. I'd change Jane's name to something more current and interesting. I'd omit adverbs and replace weak "was" verbs with more vibrant/active verbs. Otherwise, the reader will be as bored as Jane by the description of her surroundings.


She had arrived for the summer.

Lacey Brownwell dropped her suitcase with a thump, and glared at the inside of Aunt May's house. BO-ring. Not much to look at, and certainly not worth the sweaty eight-hour bus ride getting here. A plain round table stood across from the dining room window, while faded doilies draped themselves like limp and bedraggled butterflies across the back of a tea-stained couch. The vase of flowers on the coffee table pinned yet another sad doily to the coffee table. The flowers drooped, wilted beyond recognition.

Horrible. Her mother expected her to stay here for an entire summer?

More active sentences used here; the subjects are doing the actions--the table stands, the doilies drape, etc. I added specific details, like an 8-hour bus ride versus a long one, and a sweaty bus ride versus a hot one. A bit more voice added, too.
The doilies also serve as a narrative interpretation of how Lacey is feeling or viewing her new surroundings (limp, pinned to her circumstances). Narration can be a filter through which the setting is viewed through the main character's eyes.

And the changes didn't affect the word count much. The first example was 108 words, the second 103--using basically the same information, just assembled differently.

Do you enjoy revising or do you HATE it? A necessary evil, like grocery shopping?
Do you lapse into "was" and "were" verbs when you describe characters & places?
Have you ever written a story where the main character arrives somewhere new for the summer? (I have.)