Wednesday, October 12, 2011

First Page Critique: THE BLINDED GARDENER

Hi everyone! I went to an Oregon SCBWI retreat over the weekend, and it was a blast! I met agent Karen Grencik, editor Emma Dryden, and--can you believe this?!--Ellen Hopkins, author of CRANK, BURNED, IMPULSE, (etc.) and the newly released PERFECT. All of these ladies were really approachable, and I actually ate dinner with Ellen Hopkins one evening. Woo!

When Ellen Hopkins began speaking, she asked, "How many people before this retreat had already heard of me?" and half the hands went up. She went on to say that if we write YA, we SHOULD have heard of her. All of us as writers should be keeping track of the bigger names in YA--and she's been on the bestseller list eight times for her books! Her novels, interestingly, are all written in verse. Most of them have been on banned lists, too.

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Today I'm featuring a critique of the first page of Michael Di Gesu's YA contemporary novel, THE BLINDED GARDENER.

THE EXCERPT
Danny

One moment I’m my Dad’s personal punching bag, and the next, well, I’m a pawn in his maniacal master plan. That is, until Danny stepped into the picture and discovered my secret.

Dad forced me to move across the country, and once again, I found myself at a new school, the third in two years. It sucked having a dad in the military.

The warning bell rang for first period. The halls cleared with the slamming of doors. As I wandered about searching for my classroom, I heard someone approach me from behind. I turned and saw a blonde guy walking up the center of the hallway. Long bangs fell over his eyes as he loped past me with a kind of natural ease.

How blind is this guy? Didn’t he see me standing here, fiddling with this useless map.

“Hey, dude. Could you tell me how to get to room 305?”

A slight curl formed on his lips as he faced me. He tossed his head. Platinum fringe shifted to the side and revealed freakish blue eyes that glanced toward me, unfocused.

Holy shit! Is he blind? Stoned is more like it.

“I’m heading that way.” His deep voice held a trace of a southern accent. He turned and continued his long strides.

I envied his height: well over six feet and me just an average dude.

“You better move. Connors loses it when you’re late.”

I rushed to catch up to him. His hand overshot the rickety metal banister. On the second swipe, he made contact and climbed the stairs.


THE CRITIQUE

Opening Lines
I certainly don't mind the opening, and I think it works well, but I'm a little torn. The first 2 paragraphs are a macro view introduced from a future vantage point. On one hand, I'd just like to get to know the main character and be shown those background facts as the story progresses rather than being told--that he's his dad's punching bag, that Danny discovers his secret, that the MC has just moved and his dad is in the military. On the other hand, the lines do set a mood, a tone, and a conflict right off the bat. We get a tidy and interesting set-up before we move on to the scene.

Picky Little Things
1. In the first line, it says "my Dad." Dad needs to be UNcapitalized, since it's used with the pronoun "my." Like my mother, my computer, my box of pencils. Since it's a relationship label, it's just a regular noun and thus isn't capped. If it's used as a proper noun--used like someone's name--then the word is capitalized. It's used correctly in the second paragraph.

2. Blonde vs. blond. Blonde with an "e" on the end is traditionally the spelling for a girl, and blond is the spelling for a guy. It's becoming more common to refer to a girl's hair color as blond, but I'm not sure of the reverse. The website englishplus.com states that blonde is just for females and blond is for males. I've seen it both ways in books.

This is a picky thing. Just be sure you are CONSISTENT within your manuscript. On another note, sometimes "blonde" is used when you're referring to a person (the blonde got out of the car) and blond is more often used when used as an adjective (he had blond hair).

3. I'm not sure about the phrase "loped past me with a kind of natural ease." I like the way it sounds, but really, "lope" in and of itself already means to take long easy strides, in a relaxed manner. Thus the second part of the phrase may be a bit redundant.

4. This phrase is a question and needs a question mark: Didn't he see me standing here, fiddling with this useless map.

5. I wasn't sure of the dialogue line about being stoned. It almost made me doubt that Danny was truly blind, and I thought that the MC was saying Danny actually was stoned instead, and that's why his eyes looked freakish. Later I verified that he was indeed blind, but then I wondered if perhaps he was stoned on top of that. (?)

6. Is there a reason the metal banister is rickety? Does this rickety banister play into the plot? Does it show that the school is run-down and short of funds? Is it foreshadowing something that will happen later involving this banister? If none of these things, if there isn't a purpose, it might be best to keep this as a simple banister without the added adjective, since school banisters aren't usually rickety; they're pretty sturdy.

Summary: Kudos
I like the voice and wording here in this excerpt, and I didn't find much to comment on except picky fiddley things. We get a good feel of the two characters' personalities, and the passage flows well. I like the line about the MC being "just an average dude." The excerpt is a nice casual type of inner dialogue, and sounds authentically teen boy. I also like the startling description of Danny's "freakish" blue eyes the first time we see them. It's almost seems like a kind of foreshadowing--on one hand this guy is loping, natural, and helpful…and on the other, perhaps there's something else going on with him? Maybe I just like to read foreshadowy details into things, but if it's there on purpose, it's a great subtle hint.

YOUR TURN
Have you heard of Ellen Hopkins--especially if you write YA?
Can you add any other helpful comments to the above critique?
Did you know brunet refers to males and brunette refers to females? (I didn't either.)
Do you think the first 2 paragraphs provide a necessary set-up, or would you rather be shown the details mentioned there?

25 comments:

  1. Not capitalizing Dad in "my Dad" would have looked too odd to me. Sometimes grammar has to yield to voice. But that's just me.

    Mostly though, I agree with you, Carol. The first page flowed, and you got a great sense of the character, his world, and position in it.

    Great job, Michael and Carol. Roland

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  2. It sounds like you had a great time at the conference. I have heard Ellen Hopkins speak and I have read CRANK. She is amazing.

    I enjoyed reading your critique. I was under the impression that blonde was used only when discussing hair color, so that shows what I know. : ) As you say, being consistent within a manuscript is most important.

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  3. I have heard of Ellen Hopkins and I've thumbed through some of her books at B&N. The first scene I opened to was a date rape scenario while the MC was high on crank, and it was extremely well-done. I just haven't read her books because I'm not in the mood for that kind of realistic fiction right now. I'm sure I'll read them at some point, though.

    With the critique, I'm confused because the heading says "Danny" as if the passage is being told from Danny's perspective but then the first sentence refers to him. Then it switches to first person in the third paragraph and I'm not sure if it's Danny speaking or someone else.

    I think the first sentences pack punch and are attention-grabbing, but, like I said, I feel it's confusing too. Maybe I'm not getting it, but how does the first sentence connect to the rest of this passage? Did being his dad's punching bag result in him being sent to military school? Is military school the maniacal plan?

    I think the rest is great, but I'm not making the connection with the first sentence. This wouldn't stop me from reading on necessarily, but it made me have to stop and read it again trying to determine who is narrating.

    I liked the "loped" phrase.

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  4. I was intrigued by the maniacal master plan and the secret Danny discovers, so the skip to the military brat backstory threw me. I like the first paragraph, but as Jennifer said I'm not seeing how it connects to this scene. It seems like a tease, having this interesting hook and then not doing anything with it.

    Like Carol said, I'd rather see him being used as a punching bag than hear about it, and I'd slip the military brat info into one of the other paragraphs so it doesn't come across as an infodump. When he's searching for his classroom could you have him think about the fact that it's the third school map he's seen in two years thanks to his Dad?

    Also, the repetition of 'how blind is this guy?' and 'is he blind?' felt kind of accidental to me (and this could just be me); an intensifier might make it seem more intentional e.g. Holy shit. Is he actually/really blind?

    That said, I do like the voice, and the typical teen attitude of expecting the world to revolve around him; why *wouldn't* people be tripping over themselves to help him get to his classroom?

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  5. Hi there--nope, haven't heard of Ellen Hopkins. Yikes.

    Boy, you're tough--in a kick-butt, awesome, crit partner sort of way!!! Awesome crit of those first paragraphs. I would also add that since it's in first person POV, the character could just say "Dad" not "my dad."

    I'm a stickler for consistency--a good copyeditor should have caught those things. And is Danny, the kid that he meets? I'm assuming it is--but it's not entirely clear.

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  6. I've seen blond and blonde used in various ways. Like you said, it's something you have to be consistent with, though.

    Great excerpt and critique.

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  7. Nope, I've never heard of Ellen Hopkins either, but it's okay. I have come to the conclusion that I write upper MG rather than YA.

    I think your critique is right on the money. Seriously, Carol, you could do copyediting.

    I did know that thing about blond vs blonde, but I keep forgetting.

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  8. I have heard of Ellen Hopkins but haven't read her books yet. *adds to tbr pile* Sounds like you had a great time at the retreat. That's awesome!

    Fantastic crit, Carol. I agree with your points. I've looked into blonde vs blond in the past and found, like you, that blond is used for males.

    I really liked the description "Platinum fringe" and "freakish blue eyes". I also really enjoyed the MC's voice. Overall I thought Michael did a great job with this. :D

    Here's my $0.02 for what it's worth.

    The first paragraph is definitely a "hook" but it is disconnected from everything else. I might like to see that played out as the opening right before MC leaves for school or something. It would help me empathize with MC even more.

    How crappy would it be to start your first day at a new school right after going a few rounds with Dad? Also, knowing Dad has a maniacal plan might have more impact if I had a better sense of his character, if that makes sense.

    Thanks for sharing this and letting us pick at it, Michael. :D

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  9. I have yet to read Ellen Hopkins' books. Someday soon, I hope.

    Another great critique. I would add that I'm not sure the italics are necessary. That internal voice can be done without it, IMO.
    Thanks for sharing this with us, Michael!

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  10. Thank you so much Carol.

    You have really pointed out some my CP'S and I missed.

    Thank you everyone for your input and thoughts. I will definitely take all of them into consideration.

    At least I know I am on the right track and that the story intrigues you all.

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  11. brunet, brunette--yes, as a copyeditor, I learned this. I see blonde misused quite a bit. Hopkins is from South Florida, like me, and she's going to be giving a SCBWI workshop down here soon. I heard that she wrote Crank after her daughter got involved with crack cocaine.
    As for the excerpt: I'd either lose the opening lines about the Dad or expand them. They feel, to me, too much like a manufactured "hook" and not at all integral to the scene. I'd rather meet his maniacal dad in person.

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  12. awesome work Carol! And yay for Michael! That eye is freaky, but I think blindness is always a great device to make something scary... :p

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  13. I've definitely heard of Ellen Hopkins, though I know there are a lot of other YA authors I should learn about. My daughter really likes her books and has friends who RAVE--the fanatical love, like I have for Harry Potter.

    I think you did a great job on Michael's critique!

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  14. I liked the excerpt AND your critique!

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  15. Hmm, the first two paragraphs are short. If they were long they'd pose more of a problem. Heck, I had a guy suggest I dump tons of background info into my first chapter. I know that's a no no. It all depends on agent subjectivity. I didn't care for the word loped. It sounds like he's tripping all over himself. I liked the story though and I'm curious to learn more about Danny. I had no idea about brunet. Sounds like you're an awesome beta reader. Have a great day! :)

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  16. Okay, I'm adding my critique. I thought the exposition was sufficient. The opening lines leave us with an ominous curiosity about what's to come, and the introduction of the characters creates and immediate image.

    “One moment I’m my Dad’s personal punching bag, and the next, well, I’m a pawn in his maniacal master plan.”—I love this first line. Grabs and intrigues.

    “That is, until Danny stepped…”–I paused here to double check my tense orientation. The first line is in present tense, the second in past.

    —I’m questioning why the MC is asking the guy who almost ran him over for directions.

    “freakish blue eyes” --Awesome!

    “You better move. Connors loses it when you’re late.” –I was lost as to who was speaking. It could have been anyone in the hall. I’d toss a telling mannerism in front of this section to clarify the speaker.

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  17. Oh heck yeah - Ellen Hopkins is FREAKING COOL. Met her at national this summer and she was so nice and helpful!

    Thanks for your comment on my post - wow you found CPs from comments? You're good.

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  18. Personally, I think Michael did a great job with his opening lines. Sure, some of it tells, but it's good, so short, and gives just enough to keep us interested. Well done.

    I once had to look up the blond/blonde thing, and had no idea about the guy version of brunette. Carol, you always give great bits of info!

    I've heard of Ellen Hopkins, but I've never read her books. And I'm crazy jealous that you got to meet the AMAZING Karen Grencik :D

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  19. Wow, I didn't know there were two ways to spell blond(e) and brunet(te). Very interesting!

    Glad you had fun at the conference... I am off to San Diego next week for World Fantasy Convention. Just biting my nails a little :)

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  20. First, yay for your conference/retreat. They're very energizing and motivating, aren't they? Plus, spending time with other writers is fun. :)
    Yes, I've read most of Ellen's books. All her books are in verse, and they're all gritty...and good.

    As always, you give good critique. (though, unlike what Kristine said, I don't think you are/were tough at all.) I agree with all your feedback. I also happen to agree with CherylAnne about the beginning feeling disjointed to the rest, and would prefer to be shown his father's behavior (you mentioned that as well.).
    I prefer a beginning to start with an action of some sort, and grounded in a setting, before getting into backstory...thus, I would start at the 3rd paragraph.

    Well done, Michael and Carol. :)

    Hugs,
    Lola

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  21. Sounds like you had an awesome time! I have heard of Ellen, but have never read her books... I'm too much of a wimp! lol

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  22. Wow. Great critique. I remember seeing this same story on Dianne Salerni's blog, and I see Michael has updated it a bit.

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  23. You always give such awesome thorough feedback, Carol. I've heard of Ellen but couldn't tell you any of her work off the top of my head.
    I've read Michael's first page here many times prior and it gets smoother each time. :)

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  24. Interesting start, Michael. It took me a while to figure out the mc was male.

    "A slight curl formed on his lips as he faced me. He tossed his head. Platinum fringe shifted to the side and revealed freakish blue eyes that glanced toward me, unfocused."

    This threw me for a loop...it doesn't sound like a dude would say about another dude.

    I'm definitely curious about what is going to come of this friendship????

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