Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Page Critique: YA paranormal romance


Today's excerpt for critique is from Theresa Crocker's YA paranormal romance, the last in my current queue. Please add your feedback below!

THE EXCERPT
Chapter 1: Dreams
It was so dark and cold!! I was running somewhere, though I had no idea where, through a dense thick of clouds!! “Fog” I quickly told myself.  Completely out of breath, I had to stop to steady my breathing before I collapsed. As I came to a stop I tried to remember why I was running in the first place, or who I was running from…Instantly his face was before me, a huge man, if he could even be described as a man, dark, almost black hair, shaggy, hanging around his face, a hard jaw, and cruel black eyes. He was dressed, from head to toe in deep black, as if any light around him would incinerate his whole being. His eyes were the most terrifying of all his features, like they were trying to tear me apart from the inside… that’s when I remembered the feeling… the burning sensation that ran throughout my entire body the moment his eyes captured mine! I shuddered at the remembered thought and I started running again, as fast as my legs would move beneath me. Though I could not see where I was going, I knew anywhere was better than behind me… where he was. Sweat dripped down my entire body, grouping mainly in my upper back and chest… I couldn’t breathe again. I was lost… terrified… and I could hear him getting closer. Smell that awful stench that surrounded him. The smell almost of sulfur, or  burning, or… death! I wanted to scream, scream for someone to help me… scream for anyone,  but my throat was too parched for any noise to manifest out of my mouth…

MY CRITIQUE
1. First Impressions. As I mentioned last week, big blocks of paragraphs at the beginning of a book is less inviting to read, and white space is your friend. No more than you'd want a massive piece of furniture next to your front door, you don't want to block your readers in any way to welcome them into your written world.
2. The first line. This isn't as gripping as it could be. For one thing, "was" is weak, and sounds distant. Can the cold and darkness be described rather than Telling the reader it's dark and cold? Let the character--and thus the reader--feel those sensations. And since fog is white, I wasn't sure how that fit in with the darkness.
3. Starting with a dream. A dream sequence is generally not done because it is cliché. While it can be a gripping way to open, it's been done so much agents and editors are weary of it. Can we see a few (intriguing) paragraphs or pages introducing the character before she falls asleep and dreams?
4. Double exclamation marks. Use only one form of punctuation at the end of any sentence. Also, exclamations can easily create melodrama; for example: the burning sensation that ran throughout my entire body the moment his eyes captured mine! It's better to elicit drama/tension by wording rather than punctuation--the words themselves are enough, here.
5. Too many ellipses. Any punctuation or formatting is quickly overdone--whether exclamation marks, dashes, caps, italics, or ellipses. The ellipses in this scene might be great places to cut to new paragraphs. Some sentences could even be single lines for emphasis.
6. Telling adverbs. Right off, there are three adverbs (which usually tell instead of show): quickly, completely, instantly. The latter especially is a "forced pacing word" that could be omitted by rephrasing. It's best to use adverbs sparingly, and spread them out.
7. Creating Tension. To me it dilutes the effect that the pursuer is described as a memory rather than having the character look back in real time and SEE him pursuing her. Also, breaking this excerpt into more paragraphs may help intensify the tension, as the reader's eyes leap from sentence to sentence and down the page. It can feel more breathless if it looks more breathless.

Kudos
I really like the description of the pursuer, with the shaggy hair and penetrating eyes. Nicely creepy. The panic comes through as the main character is running and sweating and feeling thirsty. While the tension could be tweaked and amped more, there is inherent tension. It is appropriately paranormal in tone.

YOUR TURN
What can you add to this feedback? Do you mind that it starts with a dream?
Do you think having the pursuer described as a memory dilutes the tension, or not?
This excerpt sounds like something from a bad dream--have you ever had one like this?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Page Critique: THE CRYSTAL SWORD


Today's excerpt for critique is a first page from Tyrean Martinson's YA fantasy novel entitled The Crystal Sword.  Please add your helpful feedback below!

THE EXCERPT

The antechamber to the Sword Council’s meeting room held a pleasant temperature during all seasons, but Clara’s palms were beginning to sweat with anticipation and nervousness. She swallowed, sighed, and wiped her damp hands on the sides of her hips, under the longer shirt that covered them. Thankfully, no one else could see her in the otherwise empty small room. Three couches lined the outer walls, and a small unoccupied desk stood near the door to the Masters’ Chamber. A thin braided brown rug covered a small portion of the stones in the center of the room. Tapestries with the history of the Hall of the Sword hung from three of the walls and on by the Chamber, a smaller tapestry held the triple crest of the Triune Halls: the Staff, the Sword, and the Scroll. Clara had seen them all before, and she couldn’t seem to sit on the couches. Sitting just made her want to squirm with impatience, so she stood formally at ease with her feet shoulder width apart and her hands on her hips. The meeting of the Sword Council was taking far too long.
               
Finally, the door opened to reveal Master Dantor, her hardest teacher and personal mentor. After six years she didn’t know why he had chosen her as one of his personal apprentices. Each Master Teacher had twelve students they mentored from the beginning of their training through their Mastery Training. Master Dantor had midnight black hair with bits of white at the temples, olive weathered skin, and dark brown eyes.

THE CRITIQUE
1. First impressions. This has a decent though not overly powerful first line, but the verb phrase "were beginning to sweat" is quite passive, especially in a first line. Saying "sweated" would be more direct. It may not even be necessary to say she was sweating, since in the very next line she's wiping sweaty palms on her skirt.
2. The title. There's already a book by Adrienne Martine-Barnes entitled THE CRYSTAL SWORD. But it was written in the 1980's and it's not unheard of to have two books by the same title. The best time for a title search is before you settle on one.
3. Room description. While it's nice to get a sense of the setting with the desk, rug, and tapestries, those details stopped the forward movement of the scene. If Clara's nervous, she probably would NOT be noticing these things in such detail--particularly if she "had seen them all before." The crest gives a little plot info, but on the whole, this paragraph probably isn't the best place for listing room décor. It's best to work these details in more naturally or at least tighten by cutting non-important adjectives like small, unoccupied, thin, brown, etc.
4. Character description. The action stops further as Master Dantor opens the door. Spreading out his description would help the flow; his hair or skin could be mentioned more organically as he's moving across the room or engaging in dialogue with Clara.
 5. Wording and Other Picky Things.
--Unnecessary words/telling. Sitting just made her want to squirm with impatience. The last 2 words aren't necessary; squirming informs the reader nicely enough. Ditto for sweating with anticipation and nervousness.
--"Telling" background. Can it be worked in more naturally that she's been working with Master Dantor for six years, perhaps during the upcoming dialogue? Or maybe just rephrasing might help it sound less obviously informational.
--Clarity and consistency of mood. I stumbled a bit on "feet shoulder": …stood formally at ease with her feet shoulder width apart. Is the "shoulder width" part really necessary? Also, I'm not sure having her hands on her hips comes across as formal or nervous--it's usually a more challenging, confident posture.
--Paragraphs and white space.  My initial thought before even reading was that the first paragraph looked blocky and thus less inviting. White space is your friend. Use it in your openings to add an inviting appearance; it's rather like the feng shui of visual space. No more than you'd want a wall or massive piece of furniture right next to your front door, you don't want to block your readers in any way to welcome them into your written world.
--Small is repeated 3 times. Small room, small desk, and a small portion of stones.

YOUR TURN
What can you add to this critique: first impressions, overall impressions, or specifics?
Do you think having one's hands on hips is a relaxed, nervous, or formal stance--or does it seem more defiant, confident, or bold to you?

Want a critique of the first 250 words of YOUR middle grade or young adult novel? Send it to me at artzicarol [at] gmail [dot] com, pasted into an email rather than an attachment, please. Include your final sentence even if it puts you a little over 250 words. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Page Critique: MANIFESTATION FILES


Today's excerpt for critique is from Chihuahua Zero's YA urban fantasy entitled Manifestation Files.  Please add your feedback below!

THE EXCERPT

     As Mom and I stood outside of customs, she reviewed the list the umpteenth time.
     “All right,” Mom said, rapidly scribbling on her sketchpad. “You know your role once the exchange student arrives. You’ll have to guide him around.” She flashed her paper. On it was an assortment of local attractions only the locals would be interested in. Minor museums, cheap historic diners, and Forest Park’s attractions.
     I looked from the list. “At least you’re not suggesting the Arch.”
     “But that’s expensive, honey.” She flipped a few pages and jotted some illegible writing. “Now, treat him nicely.”
     “I will…”
     “If he has any questions, answer them.”
     “I know…”
     “And be careful with any experimentation of any sort—“
     “Mom!” That again?
     “I know that you didn’t want me signing us up, but I think that housing an exchange student would be a great experience for the both of us.”
     “You already said that,” I said, “but I doubt that our current circumstances—”
     “Don’t worry. I bet that by the end of the year, you’ll look upon this experience quite fondly.”
     I spotted someone headed our direction.
     A teenage boy dragged a rolling suitcase behind him, weaving through the small crowd among the customs area. He was definitely the exchange student.
     He tripped at our feet.
     I rushed to help him up before Mom could fully react. However, the exchange student already began lifting himself up with the suitcase handle. His legs shook. By the time he stood, he wore a sheepish grin that acted as a blatant cover-up.

THE CRITIQUE
1. First impressions. The dialogue flows and it's a good intro page, pretty clean. As far as first lines, it's decent but not overly gripping or intriguing. I also expected more inner thoughts and reactions since this is written in first person; this is quite streamlined. The mother seemed controlling, which causes conflict, but the tension maybe could be notched up to strengthen the scene (being careful not to go melodramatic or angst-saturated).

2. Gender. Most YA has female protagonists, so I made an assumption the main character was a girl. I was surprised to learn that the MC was a male named Bryan! However, it did make more sense that the mother was pushing Bryan/a son toward hanging out with a male exchange student, rather than her daughter. Perhaps the mother could call him "Bryan" in her dialogue, or else indicate in another way that the MC is male. Gender should be nailed down on a first page so the reader isn't disoriented later.

3. Character reveals. Chihuahua Zero wanted to know specifically: Is enough about Bryan shown on this page? What impression do you get from Bryan and Finn's meeting?

I definitely would've liked to see more details about Bryan's personality. There are some nice hints at underlying tensions and his character, but I'd like to see more of what Bryan is thinking and feeling. As far as the meeting, I didn't get much of an impression of Finn, the exchange student, other than he's clumsy and shy and he was carrying a suitcase. There's not much of an exchange other than Bryan noticing Finn is embarrassed and trying to cover it up.

Chihuahua Zero directed me to his first version on Janice Hardy's blog: HERE. If you have time, skim through that and compare! During revision he tightened and omitted some very strong lines (and voice)--such as this description of the exchange student:

“Umm...sorry about that.” His British accent was soft, timid, like a feeble-lunged flutist.. “Phineas Walker...but call me Finn.”

My opinion is that the strongest version of this story lies in the melding of these two versions. I prefer the mother being in the scene rather than the father, though--it shows the father's absence rather than telling about it.

 4. Wording/Picky Things.
--Rapidly scribbling. "Scribbling" means to write hastily or untidily, so the adverb "rapidly" really isn't necessary.
--"Telling" dialogue. The mother's line about "you know your role" is Telling, as well as lines like "I know you didn't want me signing us up" are info the characters already know and would've discussed before this point. Thus, they're mentioned only to inform the reader. I'd rather be shown by Bryan's actions, attitudes, and inner thoughts that he didn't want to be signed up, etc.
--Non-teen dialogue. Bryan's line about "I doubt that our current circumstances" doesn't sound teen-like to me--unless he's very intellectual or formal (which may hinder readers relating to him).
--Ambiguity. I wasn't sure what "experimentation" meant. It sounds like he does science experiments or is secretly sadistic, or else plays mind games with people. Perhaps rephrase? While it piques reader interest, you don't want to give an impression that's too far off. CZ says the true meaning is that Bryan is gay; does this word hint at that to you?

YOUR TURN
Did you read this thinking the main character was female rather than male?
How would YOU answer CZ's questions: Is enough about Bryan shown on this page? and What impression do you get from Bryan and Finn's meeting?
If you read the first version on Janice's blog, do you agree that it has more voice, and that the best version would be a meshing of these two versions?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

15 Things NOT to Blog About


It goes without saying that blogging is very public. If you want to be seen as a professional writer and snag an agent or editor, it's good to be wise about what you blog-post--or tweet or Facebook-post. Here's a list of things to watch out for, though most are admittedly slanted toward traditional publication rather than indie or self-publishing.

1. Posting excerpts of your own work, especially lengthy ones. Who really reads these? Best friends or your critique partners who have already read them? If you intend to publish these works someday, a future publisher may not want these floating around in cyberspace. The rule of thumb is to keep unpublished excerpts short, no more than 1-2 pages. If you're soon-to-be-published, make sure you get the okay from your publisher to post an excerpt from your upcoming book. Also, there's always the possibility that an unscrupulous writer may "borrow" your ideas.
2. Posting personal anecdotes and confessions. These are better suited for personal emails to close friends. Do you want an agent or editor going to your site and reading about your spat with your husband? Do we really need to know the nitty-gritties of your hysterectomy, or how your dog vomited on the laundry?
3. Stats of queries and rejections, posts of actual rejections. When you're published and famous, you can encourage others by saying how you've persevered through 187 queries/rejections and worked for 7 years to become published, but for beforehand, it's probably best to keep those to yourself. Stay general if you say you've been rejected! Imagine a future agent or editor reading what you've written; it may affect a future sale or business relationship.
4. Business relationship details. Don't go on about your breakup with an agent, publishing house, publicist, or critique group.  If you have a disagreement with these people, discuss it with them directly--or vent in private to close friends.
5. Status of your shopped manuscript. When you're on submission, don't list the details or length of time you've been hunting for a publisher. You can undermine your agent's work. You can ruin a potential deal. An editor may Google you and discover you've been out for months and months--and they are last on the list. For sharing good news, usually a writer waits until a Publisher's Weekly announcement is made.
6. Contract or book sales details. This includes contract specifics, number of author copies, number of books you've sold, etc. There are confidentiality clauses in publisher contracts; be sure to get a publisher's permission before sharing anything.
7. Monetary details. Comparing your advance amount or royalties with other writers' can cause dissention or grief. Consider that a huge advance isn't always better, because it's more difficult to "earn out" and begin collecting royalties--and publishers are more wary to publish you again if you don't "earn out."
8. Generally whiny or disgruntled rants about waiting on agents, how unfair the writing world is, how long it takes to get published, the dreck editors are publishing nowadays, how you loathed another writer's book, etc. Do you want to encourage or inspire, or be seen as a complainer?
9. Politics and religion. People have strong feelings about these; you're asking for controversy. It may be fun to generate a rousing discussion, but if you're aiming for publication, remember that you could be alienating future readers, and that agents/editors may browse your blog.
10. Identifying information. Be careful posting photos of your children, specifics about vacation plans (travel itinerary), info about where you work or live, your telephone number or personal email (it's recommended to get a separate email to use for blogging). Don't advertise to a burglar that your family will be away for two weeks!
11. Responding to negative reviews of your book. Don't. Do. It. It generates bad public relations, and doesn't cast you in a favorable light. The backlash is usually severe.
12. Constantly marketing your own book. Once we've seen it, we've seen it. Your followers already know the info, even if a few new followers may not. You're not increasing your sales or outreach.
13. Gross or bathroom humor, off-color videos, swearing, etc. Is this professional? Do we want an agent/editor to see it? We are writers--surely we can use our imaginations and find alternative ways to say things to avoid being offensive to some people.
14. Complaints about your editor's recent revision notes. No matter how you despise your editor's edits, remember that he/she might read your post!
15. Bragging. Be humble. No writer "has it made," and shouldn't treat followers as obsessively adoring fans. We are ALL learning, and we're at different points in our writing journeys.

Be careful out there.

YOUR TURN
Do you disagree with any of these points?
Can you add anything else to this list of things NOT to blog about?
Have you done one of these things, and regretted it? Will you change anything?



Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sentence and Paragraph Makeovers


Since I'm in between novels, I'm taking a break from writing. I've been doing artwork, like the mini fabric art to the right. It involves tiny scraps of material glued onto mat board. This one is 2.5 x 3.5 inches.

LIVENING YOUR SENTENCES
Face it. Some sentences are more boring than others, pretty plain and ordinary. And if you use adverbs, they can be a lazy or unimaginative way of telling the reader what's going on. Instead, try using more active verbs and shoot for lively phrasings. Consider these examples:

Before: "Get out of my room!" he said angrily.
After: He brandished his fist in her face. "Get out of my room!"

Before: Lila and May walked in the park, talking cheerfully.
After: Lila and May walked in the park, chattering like squirrels on caffeine.

Before: Jim looked curiously at the package, wondering what was inside.
After: Jim squinted at the package. What was inside--that book he'd been wanting?

HONING PARAGRAPHS
Before The Makeover
High above the crashing emerald waves of the wild, frothing sea, Rianna stood on the grassy bluff. Her thick ebony hair flailed in the wind like whipping banners as her blue-green eyes scanned the waves for a glimpse of her father's huge merchant ship. She saw no tiny scrap of sail on the horizon, no sign of a wooden hull. The wind caught at her full skirt, wrapping like a protective cocoon around her little brother who stood beside her. He shivered, his dark eyes somber, his body small and thin like the reeds that grew by the inland rivers.

Comments
1. Adjective infestation! Every single noun does NOT need to have one to three adjectives describing it. The waves are crashing and emerald, the sea is wild and frothing, etc. Do we really need to know Rianna's eyes are blue-green--especially since her brother's eyes are described, too? That detail can be worked in more naturally, later.
2. Similes galore. There are three similes here--about banners, cocoon, and reeds. It's best not saturate your paragraphs with them. You could omit one or two, turn one into a metaphor to break up the monotony, or change a simile to say "as" instead of "like" to switch things up.
3. Redundancies. Saying the sea is both crashing and wild is overkill, and a "tiny scrap of sail" is redundant in that a scrap IS something tiny. Likewise, the hair doesn't need to be both flailing and whipping. A cocoon is inherently protective, so that word could be eliminated. "The waves" are repeated in the first two sentences. "Inland" in the last sentence tells us nothing--is there such thing as a river that isn't inland?
4. Miscellaneous: Technically, the second to last sentence says the WIND wrapped like a cocoon around her brother, not the skirt doing the wrapping. Wind is the subject of the sentence, the thing doing the action. A simple adding of "it" makes the intent more clear.

After the Makeover
High above the crashing waves of the sea, Rianna stood on the grassy bluff. Her hair flailed in the wind like ebony banners as she scanned the horizon for her father's merchant ship. She saw no scrap of sail, no sign of a wooden hull. The wind caught at her skirt, wrapping it around her brother who stood beside her. He shivered, his dark eyes somber, his body as thin as the reeds that grew by the rivers.

Adjectives omitted: 13!
Words omitted: 22!
The result is a cleaner, easier-to-read paragraph. Just imagine if you did this to an entire manuscript--it would be much tighter and streamlined. (Example sentences and paragraph borrowed from one of my early blogposts.)

YOUR TURN
If you are a writer, do you also dabble in artwork or any other creative things?
When you revise are you able to slash similes, adverbs, and adjectives without mercy?
Do you catch yourself using redundancies or unnecessary words, like "tiny scrap" or "inland rivers"?