Thursday, September 18, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #56

Most Wonderful Author: Austin Graczyk @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Rebecca
Working Title: “Innocent Death (aka Brooks/Saunders)”

November 30, 2012

John Brooks wasn't listening to the preacher.

He had been, until the complete stranger started in on what a good man Hannon had been. That made him want to find something else to focus on.

It wasn't the preacher’s fault. He was only human. It was a small miracle he’d even agreed to say a funeral for a vampire.

A pink splotch across the glen caught Brooks’ eye.

It was a little girl in black, standing next to a tree with a bright pink umbrella over her head. She looked at him but then to the casket.

He looked back at it, too. It had been closed for the whole event, and with good reason: however much was left of Hannon wouldn’t be pretty. Fire, sunlight, beheading, and silver were the only ways to kill a vampire, and Hannon wasn't in an urn.

“And so, his partner would like to say a few words,” the preacher said with a look that caught Brooks’ attention.

He nodded and they changed places. He cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming today. I know Agent Hannon would appreciate it.” He straightened his tie. “Hannon and I were friends for a long time. We were transformed together, in England, in the 1700’s. Unlike me, he never lost his accent. We traveled together for a long time, until the integration with the humans, and we didn’t separate for long, even then.

Strong Points –
A fantastic opening line. Its construction is simple, nothing flashy, but what makes it work is that it starts with a situation that feels wrong. Preachers are people whose entire jobs center around dispensing moral wisdom, so when someone chooses not to listen to the preacher, we know to expect some conflict of morals or ideals between the character and the preacher (or the preacher is just really boring, but that’d be kind of a copout plot-wise).

And I do like the way that initial conflict is connected to conflicts in the world at large, that hint at the world’s rules without going into a history lesson. The thing that’s “wrong” with the preacher is that he doesn’t really know Hannon, but he’s doing this despite there being some tensions (I assume!) between religious folks and vampires—and woah, vampires! What a plot bomb!

Similarly, we get some nice hard rules about vampires, along with this funny line:

… however much was left of Hannon wouldn’t be pretty. Fire, sunlight, beheading, and silver were the only ways to kill a vampire, and Hannon wasn't in an urn.

There’s a lot of intrigue built up here, including how and why Hannon died, and who is the little girl with the pink umbrella?

Some Tips –
And we have a lot of intrigue going, right until Brooks gives Hannon’s eulogy. Everything Brooks says appears to be backstory, and by the lack of closing quotes for the scene, I'm guessing it's going to go on for even longer. But even if the eulogy content was tweaked and shortened, there is still the problem that eulogies by their nature boil down to being real-life backstories.

Consider how other fictional works have used eulogies and funerals in their plot. If a eulogy is actually given, it's probably used in an ending scene, when the audience knows and can grieve alongside the characters.

The first two examples of fictional funerals that I can think of are in the movies "Big Fish" and "Death at a Funeral", both of which feature sons trying to understand their dads as they're dying or after they're dead. In those instances, the eulogies work great for showing how far characters have come in understanding their estranged fathers. But if a funeral happens closer to the beginning, the audience won't have the patience to sit through the eulogy of someone they don't know.

Instead, often just enough of the death or funeral are shown before delving into a movie-long flashback that takes the place of the eulogy—for example, think of movies like "Grave of the Fireflies", "Citizen Kane", or "Remember the Titans".

Consider instead giving only enough detail to show the funeral is happening, but then move on. I would omit the details of the eulogy since this is occurring so early in our plot. I think the opening lines tell us all the backstory we need to know: Brooks and Hannon are vampire-cops in a world where human preachers and vampires don't always get along.

With that out of the way, let's focus on the purpose of this scene to the plot. I'm guessing by the cop/thriller vibe I get from this scene, Hannon died under mysterious circumstances related to an unsolved case he was last working on, and it's up to Brooks to find out the true cause of his death!

In which case this funeral scene should be our introduction to this conflict. So what is about to happen? Does Brooks use the eulogy pulpit to say something he shouldn't, leading his boss to suggest he should "take some time off?" Or does the local mummy mob want him silenced for his outburst—permanently? Or does some mysterious someone (the girl in the parasol perhaps) have a lead for Brooks that breathes warmth into a cold case? Stick close to the plot, and the backstory should catch up in time.

Instead, replace the backstory with more details of this funeral scene that might give the reader a glimpse into this world. Right now, things are a little empty. Up until the introduction of the girl, the entire scene is Brooks telling us how displeased he is with the preacher. I can't even picture the preacher, since we're never given any clues to draw our own conclusions from—his face, his clothes, the condition of the Bible he might or might not be holding. Meanwhile, Brooks straight up tells us:

 That made him want to find something else to focus on.

So he's looking at everything but the preacher, and still he doesn't describe anything in his immediate vicinity. This little line of telling is a missed opportunity to show some world- and character-building description. Delay the umbrella a little longer, and take some time to describe the setting of the funeral, the gravesite, the people who showed up and the ones who are conspicuously absent. Then Brooks can easily segue to looking at the girl.

Some stronger word choices in the descriptions and actions could also help build the scene. For instance, the word "splotch" I would normally associate with messes and stains, but here it's used to describe a dainty, pink parasol.

Still, I think it's one of the more vivid words in the whole scene, and that pink parasol stuck with me more than any other detail. Other lines don't fare quite as well:

She looked at him but then to the casket.
He looked back at it, too.
...the preacher said with a look that caught Brooks’ attention.

Aside from the repetition, "look" is a weak word choice on its own, but it's made worse by the fact that when people sit around having eye conversations, not a lot happens. Perhaps an award-winning actor can put a variety of emotions into eyes that would leave audiences riveted, but in the book world it drags down the action. I would try and find more specific ways to convey these same scenarios.

For instance, in the first line, I think the change in the girl's attention is important, so that's an unavoidable bit of eye conversation. But perhaps there's a little more flavor there... is it an "Oops, I was caught staring" kind of looking away? Or a cool acknowledgement of his presence that shows wisdom far beyond her tender years? Or maybe she's been sending eye lasers into his back this whole time to let him know "We need to talk!"

The second sentence I would cut, simply for the reason that we are already seeing this story from Brooks' perspective, and saying he looked at something is redundant when we can just jump straight to the coffin in question.

And the third "look", I would be more specific in exactly the kind of expression it is that catches Brooks' attention. Since Brooks was contemplating the coffin a second ago, maybe it's not a visual cue, but a change in the preacher's tone or a throat clearing that brings him back. The degree of the change can also show just how swept away Brooks got by the coffin.

Would I Keep Reading?
Not yet, but I never knew how badly I needed a story about vampire cops. Keep writing, keep editing. This intro could still use some polish, but I do want to know more of this story. If this is the action-packed mystery I suspect it is, I look forward to getting my hands on a hard copy someday!

Friday, August 15, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #55

Most Wonderful Author: Renee @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Ange
Working Title: N/A

I swung the brass-

Wait, you need to hear the beginning first. I can't leave it out. I'm sorry.

I want you to know that I wasn't always a bad person before I tell you what I did.

The beginning wasn't at my birth. There were years worth of pieces that tied together to make the beginning.

My father. The way anger would distort his long face. The scar across his bottom lip, shaped like a half moon. The way he'd take me outside in the mornings he was home and watch birds with me. The weeks that went by without anyone hearing a word from him. He would come back with bruises and cuts on his face.

The gun I found under my parents' bed. I thought it was a toy and almost shot Galvin with it. My da' found the hole in the wall and I ran outside, climbed up a tree, hid in the branches until he found me. He leaned against the bark and looked up at me, silent and stiffer than the tree itself. He told me that if I didn't come down right then, I would be sleeping outside. I didn't move until he started to walk away, jumped down from a high branch and broke my ankle. When he made me stand in front of that wall and stare at the hole I made, there was a pale, itchy cast around my foot and cold metal digging into the back of my neck.

Strong Points –
There is a suspenseful feeling at the end of this that manages to draw me in and makes me want to read more. The “cold metal digging into the back of my neck” paired with “itchy cast around my foot” gives me, as a reader, insight into the circumstances in which the protagonist lives, but it also gives a forewarning, a hint, that there’s going to be action further on which is neat. The text does create tension, which is good because tension drives plot.

I also like the attention to accent detail, e.g. “my da’.” It creates a little bit of a background picture and I’m a big fan of getting small tidbits of a background through these little details that are dropped throughout the text, rather than spelling such things out. It’s much more...discreet and simplistic. And it makes it necessary for the reader to think a little for themselves, which I personally think is super neat!

And while I’m on details: I really like the details regarding this person’s father. Just like I previously said, I’m a big fan of small hints being dropped and figuring things out with the help of them, and the attention to detail concerning the father helps me build a picture of their relationship with each other as well as form an idea of who and what the father is like.

Some Tips –
Although I do like the tension, which is a small glimpse of plot, the problem is I don’t really get that much plot. I get promised plot, but then this plot, this action, is paused to give me background, which personally I find a little frustrating. That’s not to say that it’s not a commonly used tool; it’s often used in storytelling between friends, and I can think of three TV series’ episodes at the top of my head that use this technique. They give you a glimpse of action and then “48 hours earlier” or something to the likes, and, personally, I find it equally frustrating each time. However, in a book, this method, usually in the form of a prologue—aside from my own personal frustration—can be somewhat problematic.

First of all, there’s a risk in books, that by doing this the narrative leaves out important details because it’s rushed. And in that case, it might be wiser to simply flesh it out so as to make sure that all important things are included. On the flip side, to be brutally honest, if this scene is not important to the story, then perhaps it doesn’t need to be included.

Every scene should focus on telling the reader a story. Every scene should capture some kind of moment, whether that’s contributing to the story development, conflict, the character development, or necessary background information. If this scene fits into one of those categories, the story might benefit from expanding on the scene and fully fleshing it out rather than rushing through it. When a text is rushed, it prevents the reader from successfully creating a mental picture of what is happening, and anything that prevents the reader’s painting is, unless intended, usually not a good thing. Unless the reader is supposed to be confused, the text should not confuse the reader. The risk is that the reader will lose interest and stop reading.

If the background information is important to the conflict, the story, why is it summarised? If it is necessary in order to understand the rest of the conflict, it should be fleshed out and give the readers all of the information, rather than a summarised version of it.

To illustrate my point, here is an example.

Following is Divergent, rewritten in the same form the above intro is written.

I open my eyes and thrust my arm out. My blood drips onto the carpet between the two bowls. Then, with a gasp I can’t contain, I shift my hand forward–

But wait, you need to know the beginning first. You need to know how I got here.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was never supposed to choose this.

When we are sixteen we go through the ceremony, the Choosing Ceremony, and it determines our fate. It determines where we will live out our lives.

I’m told it was different before the war. But the war changed everything. Supposedly for everlasting peace we, the population, were split into five factions. We are born and we die in these factions. Many of us are born, raised, and die in the same faction, but some of us are born and raised in one, but die in another.

If you choose a faction that you weren’t born in, didn’t grow up in, you are ripped from your family. You’re only allowed to see them once a year. Faction over blood.

And as a contrast, this is the actual beginning of Divergent:

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.

When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot. I note how calm she looks and how focused she is. She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself. I can’t say the same of myself.

I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention–not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose–I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen. The other factions celebrate birthdays, but we don’t. It would be self-indulgent.

Notice how Roth isn’t afraid to dig into the details here, even going so far as to describe the reflection the main character sees in the mirror. And in this she gives us background, and only background. There’s no interruption anywhere. She’s laying the groundwork for the rest of the story here.

Imagine building a house; if the groundwork isn’t complete, there’s an overhanging risk that the house will fall, or collapse. It’s the same when writing. If there are flaws in the foundation, the rest of the building will eventually suffer.

Roth does very well in beginning her novel where the actual story begins, while still managing to sprinkle important background information throughout the story in a way that doesn't interrupt the flow of the text. However, it’s important to note that there are books that begin with background information (especially in MG literature). It has been done before, it has worked, and it still works. It all depends on what audience you want your story to reach. Storytelling is always subjective, and there’s never any set rule or formula to follow.

Just as well, sometimes things need to be summarised. Too many details, especially if they don’t further plot or character development in any way, may end up giving the text—any text—a 'thick' feeling, hampering the pacing, and that can be tough to read. There’s always a balance to keep in mind, regardless of what you’re writing.

Would I Keep Reading?
I would read the next line, just because of the last line in this text. I’m too curious as to what happens next not to. I’m incredibly intrigued by the taste of plot, there’s something solid there, and with a bit of revision to show the plot more clearly, my mind would probably be changed.

Good luck!

Friday, June 27, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #54

Most Wonderful Author: Kamil
Most Evil Critique Master: Aly
Working Title: N/A

The driest place in the world is in Antarctica. You wouldn't think it with the whole continent being made of ice, but it's actually true. Right in the middle, there's a place scientists like to call the Dry Valleys where there's no ice at all, just crust. It hasn't rained there in more than a million years and any moisture that manages to roll down into the valleys from the surrounding ice shelves is immediately evaporated by winds rushing through at 200 miles per hour: cold enough to freeze your skin solid or fast enough to rip it off. Oddly enough, even the Dry Valleys aren't devoid of life. A kind of bacteria called extremophiles thrives off the harsh environment and lack of competition for food.

In Sarah's new apartment, the walls were rotting in. A dark, gray water stain clung to the ceiling and bowed it inward, threatening to soak a sofa that looked like it had already been through enough. Sarah stepped in, wary of the creaking floor as she did so, she couldn't help but be jealous of those extremophiles in the Dry Valleys. At least they got to live somewhere nice.

Sarah trunk slipped from her fingers and thudded against the floor. The space between her temples throbbed. Heavy boots on the stairs echoed up through the hallway. Sarah's father, a middle aged man with wisps of thinning hair, circular glasses, and a forced smile pulled his way up the last step.

Strong Points –
This intro has some fabulously evocative description in it. That first paragraph in particular has an off-kilter beat that really makes it stand out. This strong imagery continues through the rest of the piece and doesn't just focus on the external senses, but ties in the emotions at work here. I can really get a sense not only for what this place looks like—kind of a dump—but also what Sarah thinks about it—that she's not too keen on it. My favorite line is:

A dark, gray water stain clung to the ceiling and bowed it inward, threatening to soak a     sofa that looked like it had already been through enough.

There's a lot going on under the surface there, and it's a great sentence. It really helps to build the atmosphere and set up what I presume will be the tone of this first scene—that Sarah's life is perhaps not quite going the way she wants it to, between the crummy new apartment, the rising headache, and the father with a forced smile.

Some Tips –
I hate to say this because I genuinely do like the description in the first paragraph, but I don't know that it transitions smoothly enough from the quirky-sounding narration to the actual story. It's a big chunk of writing for the reader before they get to the characters and plot they're going to be living with for the rest of the book, and the break between the first and second paragraphs is pretty abrupt.

There's several possible ways to address this, which could be mix-and-matched to what seems appropriate. The first I thought of, and probably most obvious way, would be to cut the paragraph entirely, or at least trim it down. This would get the reader right into the story, without the seemingly disconnected initial paragraph of information.

Another idea is to add a transition between the two paragraphs, some sort of “bridge” that gives the reader a heads' up that this information will be relevant later. For example, Sarah's comparison of herself to extremophiles could be moved earlier in the second paragraph to make the link more immediately clear.

Alternately, there could be more of Sarah in the first paragraph. With only these three paragraphs to go on, I'm not sure if the Dry Valleys analogy continues throughout the rest of the scene, but if it is tied strongly to Sarah, this connection could be made clear from the very beginning by including her in that first paragraph. One thought I had is that instead of simply listing the facts, they could be presented as things Sarah read in a book or heard from someone else.

Any of these three options (and others I haven't thought of!) could improve the flow of the intro, making it more natural and easy for a reader to follow. And—just a personal thing—if it did stay in, I'd love to see this analogy continued throughout the rest of the scene. It's an effective analogy, but it's also a lot of setup to only be used once in the second paragraph.

Aside from that, while the descriptive phrases remained solid, the sentences at the end of the first and third paragraphs started to get a little perfunctory, which incidentally is a very fun word to say. They're straightforward and express all the information they need to, but that's it. Varying their structure and tying them together more could draw the reader along more smoothly. For example, in the third paragraph, is Sarah's dropping of the trunk related to her headache, or are they both symptoms of how she's feeling overall? A quick example of one way to do this:

The space between her temples throbbed unexpectedly, and Sarah's fingers loosened, her     trunk slipping from them with a crash.

I feel that working this kind of information into those sentences would be a good way to not only keep the reader engaged, but also to inject the sentences with a little more of that great atmosphere-building description from the earlier sentences.

Would I Keep Reading?
It's hard to say, really. It's not that I don't like the writing (I do) or that I think there's something fundamentally flawed about the intro or story (I don't), it's simply that there isn't a whole lot of the actual story and characters here, with so much of the piece taken up with the first paragraph. When focusing on these three, there's just not that extra push I need to go from “idly interested” to “must read now”—but I get the impression that if I just had one paragraph more, I'd be hooked. If the story started a little sooner or if the first paragraph flowed more smoothly into the second, that might just be enough for me.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #53

Most Wonderful Author: Hafza @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Rebecca
Working Title: "Those Who Walk the Darkness"

“Shh, yes, that’s it.” His mother’s voice guided his hand. There was a shift and he slipped. “Oh, be careful, it’s hard to get good ones like these now. They’ve started watching now.”

“But they can’t always be watching, right, Mummy?” His voice was small and childish in the flickering lamplight. There was a low laugh from beyond the edge of the light.

“That’s right, my son. They can’t always be on guard. The darkness cannot be banished for long, and they can’t escape the shadows forever.” He finished his last stroke and reached for the cloth to wipe. “You’re not finished yet.” His mother’s voice was sharp. He sighed as only a small child can, dramatic and exhaustive. “Moth-er!”

“You know that we are not done. Come, I shall show you once more. But from then on you must do it properly yourself.”

She bent to the table and made two caressing movements with the knife. “Can I try it again, Mother?” She looked down at the little boy and smiled. “Not now, my child. Now, we must leave. The Coven is calling, and we have tarried here too long."

“Come here now.” She gathered him in her cloak and disappeared in a swirl of shadows, leaving behind a lone figure on the table. As the lamp flickered out, the last fingers of light illuminated a girl’s face, mutilated and bloody, with two long cuts extending from the corners of her lips, stretched in one last gruesome grin.

Strong Points –
Wow, what a hook! I think this is a great place to start the story, sparking a lot of questions that the reader must keep reading to find out. Why is the Coven calling? Who was the girl, and what was their purpose in carving up her body? How many more bodies have they and will they get away with mutilating?

But at the same time, I really love the contrast of that gruesome ending with the sweet interactions between a mother and child. There were a lot of great moments where the mother-child bond was shown really well:

His mother’s voice guided his hand.

As well as her “caressing” movements with the knife! Add into that the mystery of his mother always just outside of the lamplight, and her mysterious shadow-swirling powers, and we have a really intriguing set-up for a story!

Some Tips –
Making the reader ask some questions is a great tactic to keep them reading, but if the reader asks too many questions, they’ll start to lose their immersion in the story’s world. A lot of what this scene so far is missing is setting—where and when the mother and boy are located. Are they carving up the girl in their personal basement dungeon, or is this out in the woods under a full moon? Is it maybe even in the girl’s own house, where someone could walk in at any moment? Don’t feel pressured to come right out and tell us “This body is located in the basement of 221B Baker St,” but leaving little hints to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions will do the work for you.

For instance, I think we already have some idea of the time period from the mention of the flickering lamp. I assume this takes place sometime before electricity, when lanterns were common. So let’s look at the other furniture we have: the table. Is it a dining room table? An operating room table? Just an ordinary, nondescript oaken table, but with old stains and cuts carved into the wood? Think about what that table could add to the story with the perfect choice of detail, and perhaps there are other props in the immediate surrounding that can help set this scene as well.

A large portion of the lack of detail also stems from the scene’s tone and its balance of Shock and Suspense, the two building blocks of the horror genre. This scene was written with the intent to shock and scare with the big reveal at the end, which is a tried and true storytelling technique! But in order to convey that big shock, I think a lot of the details were withheld from the reader so it would be a greater surprise, resulting in a lot of ambiguous actions occurring in empty space.

This scene could benefit from more concrete details, but those details don’t necessarily have to ruin the surprise at the end. Instead, choosing to reveal the right details should instead ramp up the suspense and make the reader dread the final reveal even more.

For instance, what is the strongest surprise at the end of this scene? I would think that creepy grin and the girl’s dead body. Currently the scene neatly avoids it, and I can almost picture it like a movie camera, zooming in so we can’t tell what’s really going on! However, does the knife need to be hidden in the same way as the body? Let’s look at the first lines of action.

His mother’s voice guided his hand. There was a shift and he slipped.

As I mentioned before, I love that first sentence. The construction is simple, but effective. Subject (voice) followed immediately by verb (guided) and direct object (hand). The first part of the next sentence though is written in the passive voice, “There was.” Those two words in combination tell the readers nothing, yet take up the most important roles in the sentence: subject and verb. The only reason they’re used is to avoid mentioning the knife to the reader. In fact, the final paragraph has such wonderful active and strong verb choices, I think all of the passive voice is a side effect of hiding information to make the twist that much more shocking.

So let’s imagine the same sentence, but this time, show the reader the knife in the little boy’s hands. That sentence can instead read as “The knife shifted.” Or perhaps we’ll get more specific with how exactly its slicing, with “The knife stuck” or “The knife twisted”; or maybe even it’s the boy’s hands that are unsteady, and we can change it to:

The boy’s hands shifted and the knife slipped (in his grasp/and sunk in too far/etc.).

See how much clearer of an image we get from those sentences without even knowing what the knife is cutting? And you can bet the first question on the reader’s mind is “What the heck is that little boy doing with that knife?” But at the same time the right verb choice will make the reader who goes back to reread the scene cringe even more, which is exactly what we want them to do.

Doing a quick read-through of the rest of these sentences and keeping an eye out for more passive voice and weak verbs will help solidify a lot of this scene’s details. For more examples on correcting passive voice, check out Word Smash #42.

Finally, I want to touch on dialogue a bit. On my first read-through, I’m not sure how much information I got out of the dialogue, because I rushed through a lot of it to get to the action and figure out what the mother and son were doing. A lot of that will be corrected with the ambiguity and passive voice fixes I mentioned above, but then I will probably read through just as fast out of pure suspense. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for readers to do, but the writing should take that into account.

A lot of people advise eavesdropping and writing down conversations as people actually talk as an exercise to improve dialogue. While I think that is certainly an important step to get used to flow of conversations, I think it’s also important to remember that dialogue in fiction should cut a lot of the wasted words, like um's and Well's and all that filler we squeeze in while we think of what to say next. Contractions also help move the reader's eye along, unless a character is overly formal. While there's something to be said about Character Voice, dialogue can still be kept simple, so think really hard about every word, to make sure it is working towards either conveying information and moving plot, or revealing the character of the person speaking.

Try making a list of all the important info that the reader should get from the dialogue. For this scene, I would have things like mother teaching son, someone is onto their plans and "started watching", and “The coven is calling." Then I would try and cut the filler that gets in the way of the reader remembering that information. For instance, notice how you could take all of these bolded words out without changing the meaning of the dialogue:

Shh, yes, that’s it.” [ ... ] “Oh, be careful, it’s hard to get good ones like these now. They’ve started watching now.”

Personally, I’m especially harsh on interjections like “Oh” because I recognize that’s a problem in my own dialogue. Seriously. I’ll look at five lines in a row that all start "Well, Well, Well!" So sometimes I make arbitrary rules for myself, like only one "well" per scene. I probably wouldn't cut all the bolded words in that sentence, but I would take a moment and think, is this word working to reveal my character's voice and tone? For instance, that first Shh—perfect for showing the mother's caring tone and also perhaps the secrecy of the scene. I would vote keep!

On the other hand, I did notice a lot of “Now” recurring in this scene--five, in just six short paragraphs! I would recommend cutting the ones that aren't necessary for sentence meaning to avoid word overdose. Same for names and ways of addressing other characters. We already know from the action that these two are mother and son, so we don't need to hear that except when it's necessary (Like that whiny "Mooo-theeeerrr!").

And on a side note, it's usually good style to have a new paragraph begin when a new character speaks up. That way when readers are reading super fast because the scene is so intense, their eyes can use the empty space to keep track of who is speaking! In Paragraphs 3 and 5, I would make the lines of dialogue into new paragraphs, just so the reader has an easier time keeping track of who is speaking. And between paragraphs 5 and 6, I wouldn't put a break there unless there's a line of action or description in between.

Would I Keep Reading?
Not yet, but I'm curious where you could go with these fixes. I already see a lot of those things working so well in that last paragraph, so I'm hopeful I won't be able to put the next version down!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #52

Most Wonderful Author: Bree @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Annie
Working Title: Grim Magician

On the sixth of September, Aunt Joysa died. Calette didn't much care until a few weeks later, when her father spoke the name of the deceased in the middle of supper. He went on cutting his asparagus as though he thought he would get away with it, but her mother stilled in an instant and said, “Dalbern, I will speak with you later this evening.”

“Of course,” her father said, reaching for his wine with trembling hands. The children snuck glances at one another, except for Calette, who knew better.

The house was quiet by ten that night. Calette trailed her fingers over cold doorknobs as she moved down the hallway: six rooms for six children, all frozen silent.  Now down the dark staircase, bare feet crushing the carpet, careful to avoid the creaky spots. If she met anyone, she was only going to the kitchen for some water. The sconces in the hallway flickered: someone was still up. She pressed her ear to the study door and held her breath.

 “…don’t want to hear it. Joysa is forgotten, disgraced—“

“Dalbern, don’t speak of her so,” her mother replied crisply. “We need to think of her children and of Parriam. This is graver than I think you realize—“

“Blast her children; we need to think of the business.”   


“I don’t give a damn what Parriam does right now.”

“You’ll have to. He’s withdrawn his support for the Richelieu venture.”

An awful silence took over the room.

Strong Points –
Oh, man, there’s so much I love about this! The tempo is excellent, the first sentence hooks you well, and there’s a real sense of deliberate language and word choice. I really feel like this is a polished sample!

There’s a lot of sensory details that get used throughout the piece, sprinkled sparingly, that have an excellent effect. My favorites are the cold doorknobs, the crushed carpets, and the flickering sconces. All the description gives me the feeling that I’m looking at a YA piece—the title, along with the gigantic manor that relies on sconces for light, all say “fantasy” to me, as well. It might be an MG sample, depending on Calette’s age.

I’m a particular fan of the use of subtext in the third sentence (“He went on cutting his asparagus as though he would get away with it, but her mother stilled in an instant…”). It does an excellent job of pairing a mild action with a tense description, and the reader immediately picks up on the fact that there’s a taboo that’s just been broached. The “trembling fingers” afterwards is icing on the cake.

Some Tips –
I like what’s going on here a lot, so my notes are mostly small things. I think it’s in a stage where it’s been revised once or twice, so most of what I feel this writing needs is tweaking.

First, I’d like to look at the first sentence, and how miniscule modifications can give a sentence a different punch. Here’s how it stands now:

On the sixth of September, Aunt Joysa died.

The meat of the sentence is in the second half, so I read this as leading the reader into the sentence with something innocuous, then smacking them upside the head with the news of a dead family member. But, personally speaking, it feels a little languid for a first sentence. This is all personal preference, but I might try changing around the clauses here to get right to the point.

Aunt Joysa died on the sixth of September.

It’s a snappier sentence that grabs the reader’s attention faster by a matter of seconds. As a bonus, it makes the odd part of the second sentence, that Calette doesn’t really care that a family member is dead, that much more apparent. But it also sets a different sense of pacing that might not exactly jive with the rest of the sample, as Calette comes across to me as a bit of a slower, more methodical character who may not state things as outright as in the first sentence. I can’t be sure without reading further.

This is definitely one of those smaller tweaks that will, ultimately, come down to personal taste. Since this sample feels pretty far along in the editing process, it’s reached the point where these miniscule choices, like how the small, important sentences are structured, become the focus. I would recommend trying an exercise like this to see what kinds of effects an altered bit of writing can give, so the final draft is a finely-tuned machine.

Next, let’s look at voice in dialogue. There’s a decent amount here, and there’s definitely been care taken to put a sense of voice in Calette’s observations and actions. But I think there’s a bit of work that could be done to the dialogue, particularly Calette’s mother, from whom we hear the most.

This is a wealthy family, judging by the huge house, the individual bedrooms for all six children, and the plush carpeting. So I’m guessing Calette’s parents speak with an upper-class dialect and excellent diction. That’s all well and good, but it needs to be carefully written. As it stands, I feel like Callette’s mother (and to a lesser extent, her father) speaks in a monotone. I think it’s due to her mother being a very restrained woman and her father being a refined man, but it comes off a little mechanical.

This is something that can be fixed with a little bit of rewriting—namely, a few word choices in and around the dialogue that could affect the mood and tempo. It seems like the conversation Calette overhears is a heated exchange, but I don’t necessary get that from the way they’re speaking. Though Dalbern is using some angry language, I don’t really see it in his tone. As it’s written, I could see him being anywhere from mildly disgruntled to furious. A few shifts in punctuation could assist this: an exclamation mark in his “I don’t give a damn” statement, perhaps. Another solution could be adding a few lines of stage direction. Since we’re restricted to an auditory cue, this is a little trickier, but the reader might be able to better infer where in the “angry” spectrum Dalbern sits. Is he pacing? Could he slam a fist against a hard surface?

These same ideas can be added to the mother’s side of the conversation. Most of the stiffness in her voice comes across in her longest sentence: “Dalbern, don’t speak of her so, […] this is graver than I think you realize.” Again, Calette can’t exactly tell the reader what her mother’s body language is, but Calette seems to have a good enough grasp of her parents to infer a few things. Particularly her mother’s tone of voice. What does Calette think her mother is trying to do in this conversation? Is she trying to make Dalbern see reason? Is she angry about Joysa? Is she impatient? How might that change her language or how she paces her sentences? How might she express this in any sort of audial stage direction Calette could pick up on?

On that note, I wanted to mention the choice to use an adverb in a dialogue tag. I don’t think “crisply” is quite the right word here. This piece is largely devoid of adverbs, instead using scene and setting to show the mood, and that’s great.

Adverbs don’t necessarily need to be stricken from all writing ever, but I think it’s volatile to use one in a dialogue tag, especially when tone and body language could be used instead. In this situation, of course, Calette’s listening, so she only has audio cues to go on. But if there’s a quick way using word choice to indicate her mood without the adverb, that’d be ideal.

The last thing I want to look at is relatively small, and involves pacing with punctuation. I’m looking at this sentence, here:

“The sconces in the hallway flickered: someone was still up.”

There’s something about the use of the colon that doesn’t strike me as quite right for the moment. I feel like the revelation here, that someone is still awake, is more of a dramatic beat. It requires a definite pause, like someone taking a deep breath or waiting a moment for the dramatic tension to sink in (not to muddle things up, but in plays, it’s noted as a “beat” of silence). Slotting it in at the end of the sentence doesn’t quite do the beat justice; instead, it all flows together in a single sentence without much of a breath between the statements.

Let’s try it out in a couple of ways:
“The sconces in the hallway flickered. Someone was still up.”

“The sconces in the hallway flickered—someone was still up.”

“The sconces in the hallway flickered; someone was still up.”

“The sconces in the hallway flickered.

Someone was still up.”

Each of these read with a subtly different pause between the two ideas. Disregarding the minutiae of what’s most grammatically correct, I feel the best fit for this set of phrases all comes down to what is most appropriate for the dramatic beat “someone was still up” creates. Personally, I lean towards separating them out into two sentences, but that’s more personal taste than editorial wherewithal. Like my discussion about the first sentence, this is another matter of fine-tuning, and I would suggest just experimenting with minute structure to see what happens.

Would I Keep Reading?
Yes! As I said above, this is a polished work, and I think the rest of the story would carry out in the same fashion. I love how the setting is used sparingly, and there’s a lot of showing instead of telling. Just about all of my critiques are tweaks and nitpicks, but I feel like there’s already a lot of care being given to the voice and flow of the writing. I want to know what happened, and how it all ties back to Aunt Joysa, who was dead to begin with.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #51

Most Wonderful Author: M. Halter @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Katie
Working Title: N/A

Pain drove Shannon to her knees.  One hand pressed to the grit of the floor, the other clapped against bruised ribs, fingers inspecting the rungs woven through her left lung where, deep within, the impeller of a pneumatic pump struggled to turn.  Don’t cough…don’t—   Stars swarmed her vision before she was through, and a nudging at the shutters again slammed the morning into focus.  She grabbed the black-headed spear and unlatched the window, piebald head of a stallion barreling through, nostrils flared, ears thrust forward.  Her soft laugh was a small victory.

“Ready, Atticus?”

They sighed as one, leaning against each other in wan light before he danced away and she followed, pulling low the brim of her shabby felt hat.  By nightfall, their fields lay far behind them.

Shannon scouted ahead, watching for black ground beneath lengthening shadow, gritting her teeth at the whine of axle motors pulling iron wheels through deep ruts of a dry summer.  She led Atticus from the road and into a copse on good soil, unhitching him to examine the catheter plugs dotting his body.  Unbuckled leather boots fell away from his sloughing flesh, exposing the bioelectric prosthetics replacing everything below his rear hocks.

“They’ll graft new skin on your legs when we get there,” she rocked back on her heels, sighing, “but until then you need the boots.” 

Strong Points –
We’re going on an adventure!  There is a lot of action happening right away in this story, which should help to pull readers in and keep them engaged.  A couple of questions spring to mind:  Where are they going?  Why are they semi-robotic?  What happened to Shannon and/or her horse?  There is an element of mystery that made me curious about the path of the story.  Also, the use of machinery in conjunction with a rustic feel in the setting makes a sort of steampunk vibe, which is an interesting take!  I got the feeling that an adventure was underway and I was dropped right before the thick of it, which is exciting to experience!  I feel bad for the horse, even though he seems to be doing okay.

I also really liked the word choice!  Saying “their fields lay far behind them” as opposed to “they covered a long distance” creates a more effective tone, implying that they have abandoned the familiarity of their home rather than just traveling aimlessly.  This connotation is what helps create a bit of dramatic tension and makes me wonder where we’re going!  Another bit that I liked was the description of the horse (“piebald head of a stallion barreling through, nostrils flared, ears thrust forward”), because these descriptive words lend to the feeling of impending action  I don’t know a whole lot about horses, but his apparent enthusiasm told through his body language feels like he is poised, he’s ready to go, and he’s excited to embark on Shannon’s quest.

Some Tips –
I think one of the most important parts of setting a scene is the pacing.  This passage starts out with “Pain drove Shannon to her knees,” something dramatic and troubling and mysterious, so I became concerned and found myself reading quickly from sentence to sentence.  A tension blossoms in the shortness of sentence fragments:

  • the pain strikes
  • her hand braces her body
  • she touches her mechanical parts to try and figure out what’s wrong
  • she almost blacks out

This quick succession of actions creates intensity.  But then the emergence of her horse interrupts the scene and this feeling of urgency dissipates; having a “nudging at the window” slows down the narrative because it is a much more mild word compared to the “clap” she gives her ribs or the “slammed” feeling her mind gets in reaction to the horse’s appearance.

As a whole, I think the transitions need to be looked over.  The initial setting seems to be in a building, perhaps in the morning, which is perfectly fine on its own, but there is no easing into the next bit where Shannon and Atticus are apparently outside.  This can just be a tiny note, like, “She met him beside the window,” or, “She climbed through the window and landed at his side.”

Then, I would consider the space they cover on their travel:  is it an easy, familiar ride?  Are they nervous to be far from home?  There is a lot of great implied emotion right before they take off on their quest (the pain bringing her to her knees, the fidgeting with her robotic parts, the laugh she gives when Atticus appears):  more small notes like this in the new surroundings that suggest the nature of the ride itself would really help to build up the feeling (i.e. how the characters are reacting to their situation), which can oftentimes be more effectual than describing the physical scene.

Fixing up the transitions from scene to scene will help to create a better, smoother overall flow to the story so reading along is easy and natural-feeling.

Another idea I had was this:  I think a great way to really understand how a paragraph or passage flows is to read it aloud.  I would try this to find instances of accidental rhyming, such as “fingers inspecting the rungs woven through her left lung”, or to pinpoint missing words, such as within the following: “She … unlatched the window, piebald head of a stallion barreling through.”  This way, hearing the words can help find quirks that reading them silently can’t.

Would I Keep Reading?
I think if you tweak what you’ve got, you could really have something here!  I like the idea of combining futuristic technologies with more rustic elements, and I think you could definitely root some emotional and political feelings in biotechnology that could definitely spark some interesting discussions.  I want to know about Shannon and Atticus’ respective history and future, and what their journey holds for them!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #50

Most Wonderful Author: Nidoran @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: Thief

Kaslen always thought herself to be a very good thief. The guards who caught her stealing, however, did not.

She sat on a  wooden bench in a dank prison cell so old that moss grew between the stones that made up the floor and walls. The cell had a single window, only a foot tall and twice as wide with iron bars added to obstruct both the view and any chance at escape.

She’d only been there a few hours (not even long enough to get a meal of stale bread and murky water), and her sentence wasn’t a long one.  For the crime of stealing a single apple from a stall in the market, her punishment was to be imprisoned for one night or lose a hand. Being an intelligent thief in addition to a very good thief, Kaslen chose the former.

Despite the guards thinking that she was one of the worst thieves they’d ever had the pleasure of putting in prison, Kaslen had the delight in knowing that everything had gone according to plan. So long as everyone suspected the contrary, Kaslen would always rest easy knowing that she was indeed a very good thief.

Kaslen’s sentence was so short the guards didn’t make her change into prison rags, as was typical. Instead, they took her boots, socks, and worn leather vest full of empty pockets (she left her valuables with someone she thought was trustworthy) so all she had left was her sleeveless undershirt and leggings.

Strong Points –
The strongest thing that resonated most with me was Kaslen’s voice. She comes through in every single sentence, and she sets the tone and the mood pretty darn effortlessly. Everything in the passage was an easy read, easy to follow, and Kaslen’s voice is a big part of that. Seriously, voice is such a pivotal component in fiction, especially for teen and kid fiction, so to be able to manage a good balance of it is A+.

And, on a similar note, I love the overall tone of what I’m about to get into. There’s this twisted seriousness that doubles back on itself and actually reads contrarily. An example is this line: “her punishment was to be imprisoned for one night or lose a hand. Being an intelligent thief in addition to a very good thief, Kaslen chose the former.” It’s the type of subtle humor that I really enjoy, and it keeps the tone almost airy.

Some Tips –
The writing itself is pretty solid, so the stuff I’m going to talk about is more conceptual – stuff to consider beyond prose. Story stuff. Yeah. So, let’s start with the biggest thing.

The intro is primarily setup, not the story. In this case, we get to hear a lot about the stuff that happened before the story begins. Kaslen was caught stealing something, Kaslen was put in a cell, Kaslen’s sentence was decided to be short, Kaslen had a trustworthy person hold her important things – but little about Kaslen now, in the moment, when the story actually begins.

Setup often answers questions before they’re asked, or gives answers before the answers are actually needed. The result, in this case, is a very slow start. Sometimes stories can get away with this, especially Middle Grade or the 200k word epic fantasy or space opera.

(What a weird duality. But also keep in mind that there’s always exceptions.)

But what we have to decide is how absolutely necessary it is to explain these things right now, delaying the start of the actual story. Is it possible that, maybe, the story started too late? If we need to give so much background information, should the story actually start sooner? Should the reader be shown these events rather than told?

Or, is the story very much starting at the right place, and these moments of setup should be dropped in as needed, rather than all in the beginning?

Or it could be that the story is just fine as it is. In the end, it’s a creative choice, and that’s all incredibly subjective. The opening as it is reminds me of “Throne of Glass” by Sarah J Maas, if I remember correctly (it’s been a whiiile), where the opening started right with the main character in the action of being dragged to face judgment after being arrested. I loved that, I did, and while the long and frequent jumps into story setup bugged the heck out of me, I continued on anyway.

So, ultimately, it’s a creative call for the writer to make based on what their story, which they know best, needs.

The few other issues I had were much smaller. First, let’s talk about the opening lines.

I could see why the two first sentences are there, since it comes around again in the third paragraph (though, to be honest, I missed the connection initially – it might have been because I had a short interruption while reading, but I can’t be sure), but to me the opening lines feel again like setup. A delay in the actual start of the story to make a superfluous point that the story later on might elaborate upon through showing instead of telling.

On top of that, the opening line is reiterated several types throughout the intro, and while this might have been by design, it felt a bit redundant to me. On one hand, it felt like Kaslen was trying really hard to convince herself she’s actually a good thief, while in fact may very well not be, but on the other hand, it felt like a lot of echoes for only the first page.

Finally, and this is just the fashion history nerd in me – I sort of mentally placed the story as a medieval fantasy (because of the cell and the laws of the world), but the description of the clothes threw me for a loop, what since the terminology is very modern as opposed to medieval.

So, the two contradicting elements weren’t agreeing with me. This might be cleared up if I was to read on, or it might actually be an inconsistency. I don’t know yet.

But, a good thing to always keep in mind is that credible fantasy worlds have a foundation on real history. Things came about for particular reasons, whether with technology or trade or travel. Fashion is equal parts available resources, trends, laws, religion, and so on.

So, when I see a medieval-type cell but modern clothing such as leggings and socks, I’m not sure what to expect.

(And, because I took a class on the evolution of western fashion, I’m going to be one of those snubs who notices little inconsistencies.)

Would I Keep Reading?
Despite the slow start and the things I said about all the setup, I actually would. I’m intrigued by the question of Kaslen in jail for stealing an apple, because it all seemed planned?? And I want to know why?? I mean, she says she’s a good thief, but then lets herself get caught for stealing an apple??? Mysteries.

♥ x 2,714 (Don't ask why.)