Wednesday, August 15, 2012

PAGE CRITIQUE: What Silence Heard


Howdy, howdy! Today's first page excerpt is a YA thriller by Jeannette Smejkal, entitled What Silence Heard. Please add your helpful feedback below.

THE EXCERPT

I found the mouth of the cave three weeks after leaving my emptied village.

A gasp leapt from my throat and flew towards the cave in a startled greeting.  Though my emotions were blurred my body was desperate for rest — just one night free from worry that a cougar would clamp her maw around my neck as I slept.

Or worse, gnaw at Nell.

 And here in front of me was the solution; its entrance no more than a yawn in the rock.  Inside, we could be peaceful and numb instead of anxious and stunned.  Friends on a campout instead of a girl and a doll, left behind.

Nell gave me the idea that we needed to flush out any occupants before wandering in ourselves.  My chatter often bounced back from her and made some sense.  If I didn’t have her, I would have likely wandered right into the claws of a wolverine.

Fire would work, but I had nothing to light one with.  I had no knife, no axe, no weapon at all, and I would need one to defend Nell if something was calling that cave home.  I rested her in the crook of two rocks nearby, tucked her arms in comfortably, and told her my plan (she was very excited and kept interrupting).

Then I retraced my steps to a fallen tree we'd passed earlier.  There, exactly as logged in my memory, was a perfect, club-sized branch.   Ha, logged.  Nell wasn’t the only giddy one.


THE CRITIQUE
1. Opening Line. The first line introduces the situation in a bold and dramatic way. I like its simple brevity; it's not long-winded. The only word I'm hesitant about is "emptied." It almost gives away a bit too much information right off, as though it's Telling the reader. Personally, I'd omit "emptied" and trickle out hints about her village as the pages go by. Or else choose a different adjective perhaps.
2. Some Telling that could be Shown.
Though my emotions were blurred my body was desperate for rest. This seems to tell the reader what the main character is feeling rather than letting the reader FEEL it. I'd like to see and hear her blurred emotions, experience her weariness and tension and worry along with her. This could be done by internal thoughts, physical descriptions of her fatigue, etc. I do concede, though, that often in the thriller genre, there is more focus on action rather than deeper character development or connection.
Inside, we could be peaceful and numb instead of anxious and stunned. Again, I'd like to experience her anxiety and her stunned state along with her, rather than having it summarized.
3. A rather melodramatic-sounding 2nd sentence: A gasp leapt from my throat and flew towards the cave in a startled greeting. This line sounds overly dramatic to me. With this reaction, I expected something vicious to come barreling out of the cave. The concept is interesting, with the gasp flying to the cave in a greeting, but I think even though she is relieved to find shelter, the overall impact is overstated.
4. Age and gender of main character. We assume the main character is female because she has a doll. This works, though it might be good to verify that for the reader later on. As far as age--to me, she seems quite young for this being a YA novel. Not just the fact she has a doll (indicating an 8-12 year old), but the way she thinks and speaks seems more like a younger protagonist than a teen. But perhaps this character ages throughout the book, or the situations are more mature, and a younger age would be okay. (Like THE BOOK THIEF, which is a YA novel with an 11-year-old protagonist, but since the book deals with the more mature subject of the Holocaust, it's slotted as a young adult read.)
5. Why is the cougar a female gender? In the third sentence, it refers to the cougar as a "her." Are there only female cougars around for some reason? If not, perhaps substitute "his" or (better) "its."

Kudos and Overall Thoughts: The scenario is one of survival, which is a great concept that has many opportunities for tension--very apt for a thriller. I like that even though the main character is alone, she has her doll Nell to talk to. This helps add interest, humor, and variety. I also love the description of the cave as "its entrance no more than a yawn in the rock," and the line about the doll Nell being excited and interrupting. Nicely imaginative!

YOUR TURN
What feedback can you add to this critique?
How old did you think the main character was in this excerpt?
When you were young, did you ever talk to a doll or inanimate object as though it could hear you? (Did it answer back? Was that the start of your interest in writing?)

Photo credit: taken by my hubby's friend Dave Blehm, then tweaked in Photoshop by me.

37 comments:

  1. I like emptied. It makes me think that the people were pushed out or that something bad happened, but I agree with Carol, maybe a another word (can't think of one) would do.

    "Inside, we could be peaceful and numb instead of anxious and stunned." Like this sentence too, though, I agree with Carol.

    Interesting, ... I want to know what happened.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I agonized over the word "emptied" for a long time. "Empty" wasn't active enough, "deserted" (or similar) wasn't aggressive enough...

      If you come up with something, I'd be interested to hear it. I do like the sentence as it is, but maybe it could be better. Thanks again!

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  2. Love the title. I agree with Carol on the points she has made. But I am confused about the age of the MC. She has a doll that she talks to, like a younger child, but her language is older. The premise is intriguing. :)

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    1. Hi Linda,

      I recognize your picture from last years Reading Room contest... HUGE belated congratulations!

      I'm glad you noticed her language is older. I was hoping that her language would cast doubt about her age, and people would reserve judgment until later. Buuut, you've been the only one to bring it up, so I have some thinking to do about how effective I'm being.

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  3. I definitely agree with all Carol's suggestions. My only thought is that this might be even more dramatic if we knew more about the emptied village. Why is it emptied? What happened to empty it? Is our narrator the only survivor or could there possibly be more? Which makes me wonder if a better beginning might not be that emptied village. Just a thought :)

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    1. Hello and thanks for your comments! Very good suggestion. In fact, initially the story did start in the village. I cut that entire chapter and started here, because the timeline was a little off-putting... she was in her village, found the doll, then there were three weeks of nothing in between there and here. Her wandering is significant in that it heightens her state of mind, but not interesting.

      The information about what happened in the village is brought in slowly now, over the course of the first half of the book. I thought this was a more realistic way for her to admit what had happened there.

      Thanks again for commenting!

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  4. Carol,
    IMO your critique is excellent.Definitely would have more effect to feel how tired the protag is rather than to have her tell me how she feels. Amazing how important word choices are to what we write.

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    1. Thanks for commenting. I am trying to walk a fine line in the beginning of this story, trying to show her state of mind. Her voice changes over time... I wrote (she wrote?) very differently in the beginning - much more detached and in choppier sentences - than later on.

      I still think I can improve those sentences Carol and yourself pointed out, so off I go. Thanks again!

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  5. I agree with everything you have mentioned here.
    I feel that the character must be young to have a doll still, especially one she talks to. That being said, if she was traumatized by her village disaster- then it could be the only thing keeping her sane. Like the Volleyball, Wilson, in Cast Away.

    I agree with the second sentence being a bit too much. When I read it, I almost rolled my eyes.

    But overall I am intrigued and would definitely read more!!
    Great critique, as always

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    1. Thanks for your comment Mrs. Jones. I can't believe how many people I've offended with that second sentence gasp! It's a tough pill to swallow, but good to know. :)

      Thanks again.

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  6. The first sentence starts off quietly, but then I want to know about the emptied village. So yeah, that worked for me. The surprise shown in the second sentence contrasted with the calm way the cave was introduced, so I felt disjointed. Like you, Carol, I thought there was going to be something more to the cave, instead of a delayed reaction to finding it. And, like your point about not feeling the MC's emotions, I felt distanced from her by the way she talked about 'my emotions' and 'my body' instead of just saying 'I', like her body was a seperate entity. Also agreed that this character feels very young for YA.

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    1. Thanks for responding Sophia. I have a lot to think about with this passage. And the TIME I've already spent on it... it's a wonder more writers aren't mad as hatters!

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  7. Great excerpt! I agree with Carol's crit (as usual!). I get the impression that the protag is 8 or under. Not a lot of girls past that age play with dolls, let alone talk to them. Unless she's really disturbed from whatever happened in the village. I have a 13 year old stepdaughter, and she hasn't been into dolls for years.

    Best of luck with this!

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    1. Thanks Alexia. Have I given away how old my MC is in my comments? Probably. I'm hopeful to get a few more responses before I tell...

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  8. Great picture Carol, and thanks so much for your critique. As to that terrible second sentence - it's already gone, and why the cougar was female - arbitrary (I always think of animals as he or she, so I see now I need to be conscious of that in my writing).

    The big things are how old my MC appears to be, and the state of my writing (telling not showing, as you say) in this opening section. I'll pop by later and address those, to give others a chance to chime in. Are there any other thoughts?

    I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read and comment. This is a wonderful learning experience for me.

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  9. Perhaps deserted village? Desolate? Decaying?

    I find the overall story very interesting. Excellent first line.

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  10. Very interesting excerpt.
    Great suggestions as always.
    Xx

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  11. Intriguing excerpt, and awesome advice! I did talk to my dolls - now I talk to my characters! :-)

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  12. Wonderful first line!

    I agree with your critique. You know your stuff, Carol!

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  13. Spot on, as usual. I love the opening line, too!

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  14. I also agree with this critique. My impression of the main character was a girl age 13, at max, probably younger.

    I still talk to objects as though they could answer back. For example, "Why are you doing this to me, computer? Work the way you're supposed to! C'mon!" :P

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  15. Thanks Carol, and to everyone who commented. My main character is 16. She's an unreliable narrator, traumatized because of what happened in her village. I cut the original chapter where she finds the doll - her age was more clear in that scene, but it added nothing else of value.

    I have a few ideas on how to make it more clear that she's older and talking to a doll. Or I'm also toying with the idea having Nell be completely personified in these beginning pages... but this might be harder to pull off.

    My question to anyone who'd like to help: how important is this to "fix" if we know how old she is a few pages later? Does knowledge of her age make or break this reading experience? Revealing she's 16 halfway through the book would be a bad idea, but would I get the luxury of a couple of pages?

    What about if it sounds like Nell is a girl for the first few pages, and then we find out she's a doll... does this seem like a trick? Or does it just make you pause and rethink what you've just read?

    I'm honestly curious what people think about this. I'm juggling a lot of things in the opening, and I want to make sure I'm juggling effectively. Thanks!!

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    1. Hi, I personally would keep the doll a doll, as you have it, and avoid the "tricked" feeling. The first time Nell is mentioned (chewing on Nell), it's not obvious she's a doll, but you clear that up in the very next paragraph.

      As far as her age...maybe you could drop some hints that she's older. Or have it as a conscious thought--that she knows she's too old for dolls, but she still fiercely has to protect Nell, who is younger/smaller/weaker. The fact of WHY, and how she was traumatized so that she's carrying around a doll, can be revealed in later pages. That's my opinion. :)

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    2. I've chewed on it and think you and others here are right. If my intent is to show that's she unhinged, I have to show she's older and talking to a doll right away.

      Delete
  16. Great critique, Carol!
    I've been wondering about animals and genders... Unless it's a completely strange animal, shouldn't the character refer to it by gender, especially if it's a pet?

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    1. So it's not just me that does this? I'm glad to hear it!

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  17. I always enjoy reading your critiques, Carol. Nice work, as always. I had a tough time determining the age of the protagonist. She sounds 15 or 16, but the doll made me question this. On the other hand, there is no reason why a 15 or 16 couldn't have a doll. I'd have to read on--and I'd want to. ; )

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  18. Carol, you gave some really great points in the critique. I actually got confused with the doll. I thought the story might have paranormal elements in it because I took the doll as something spirit possessed or whatever since it was giving the mc ideas. But that just could be the way my strange brain works.

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  19. Great critique, Carol. My only addition would be that I feel a little bit lost in the first few lines. I'm thinking maybe another paragraph before your starting point?

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  20. It's always interesting to see how people critique things. You have such a well thought out approach. I don't know that I would have been able to articulate my opinion that well.

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  21. I was confused about the doll until I reread. Maybe have the MC point out that she drew the porcelain face to her or that the doll's cupid bow lips were moving.

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  22. An entertaining read. There were some phrases that I loved, like "yawn in the rock." Great job Carol on the crit, and to Jeannette for volunteering her work. :)

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  23. I would have like to see the interaction between the two characters. Right now you're telling, us which is talking the emotion away from the moment. That would increase the tension.

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  24. I love the way this starts out. The first line is really great and I agree with removing 'emptied' from it. :)

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  25. I'm back to tell you that I nominated you for a blog award.

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  26. I love your critique! I agree with taking out emptied as well and let us guess and see it as it unfolds.That second line bothered me as well--too overdone but all and all good story!

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  27. Great first page and critique! I agree, I thought the mc was younger than YA, mostly because of the doll. I think I liked the first line as is, the "emptied" was intriguing and made me want to keep reading to find out why her village was emptied. Looks like I'm in the minority, though. :)

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