Saturday, January 18, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #44

Most Wonderful Author: A. E. Conway @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: N/A

The girl paused. She was sure she had heard someone call her name. These caves were silent this time of year. Breath in her throat, she became a statue. The caves stayed silent. Raising her lamp, mouth pursed, she scanned the map. Three miles in, and she wasn’t quite lost, but looking at it frequently seemed like a good idea. She had a job, and bills to pay, and getting lost wouldn’t help.

“Alaia!” Her name bounced around the cave. Who would be calling her? The mountains had lain empty since the highlanders had fled. Lepool was three days ride away. No one could be here. She tucked herself in to a crevice, and struggled to control her breathing. “Alaia! C’mere!”

Up ahead, a light appeared, the cave’s walls thrown in sharp relief. The sparkling yellows, blues, and pink seemed to mock the chills running down Alaia’s spine, winking gently at her. She extinguished her lantern, and shrunk further into her crevice. Nothing friendly could be up ahead.

“Alaia? Oh Alaia, won’t you come play?” Hands shaking, she fumbled briefly with the lantern. The sweet, high voice was something out of the fae tales her Mama had told her as child to scare her into being good. Those stories were called ‘fae tales’ for a reason. They weren’t true.
So what’s that then, mocked the only part of her that still had a backbone. ‘That’ was the thing that was lighting up the cave.

Strong Points –
Structurally speaking, there’re a lot of good things happening here. I can see a solid eye for balancing sentences for a smooth flow and good pacing. From here, it’s just a matter of tweaking and refining, building on what’s already there.

I’m also a fan of the tension, and I love that we get a sense of her fear without ever needing to have it said outright. Her hands shake, she fumbles, and in the beginning, she hesitates. I'm also a fan of the way some of the setting details, which are often dumped in the form of exposition, are relayed awesomely in tandem with the rising action. It’s not relayed in the form of, ‘This is being explained because it has to be explained eventually.’ It’s a lot more like, ‘This is being explained because it’s pertinent to the plot.’ This is my own Achilles heel, so good job on that!

Some Tips –
There’re some really great things happening here – now, let’s bring it up to the next level. And just to be clear, a lot of what I’ll say is purely subjective. This means we’re talking more about style and voice rather than technical issues, and a critique on style will always be based off of personal experience and opinions!

Okay, so, let’s begin. I can tell that there’s still a lot of experimenting going on in regards to sentence flow, so the talent is still raw and needs a bit more practice. As an example, the first three sentences put me off in my first read-through:

The girl paused. She was sure she had heard someone call her name. These caves were silent this time of year.

While I loved the pacing of the first two sentences--with the choppiness that instantly generated tension--the short third sentence had me wondering if it was just a fluke. The flow did improve after that, but there were still some hiccups later on, especially with the second paragraph. A number of sentences followed a nearly identical formula, communicating a single idea and then ending. For me, this was extremely jarring, and as far as pacing goes, lost its effect quickly.

Let’s take an example:

Her name bounced around the cave. Who would be calling her? The mountains had lain empty since the highlanders had fled. Lepool was three days ride away. No one could be here.

There’s a lot of potential in this bit in regards to flow, and there’s a huge difference between the above and a simple change:

Her name bounced around the cave. Who would be calling her? The mountains had lain empty since the highlanders had fled, and Lepool was three days ride away. No one could be here.

This is only an example, but just combining two of the right sentences really drives the impact of that final sentence, “No one could be here.” The combined sentences really set up a frame for those final words, giving an extra sting to that moment of drama. Plus, the whole passage flows much better from that simple change.

The next suggestion I’d make is unpacking. As far as detail goes, this is a good foundation, but it’s time to sharpen those creative instincts and take the description and verbs to the next level. I was trying to find the best exercise for this, but really, anything about description is going to help, especially any of the exercises under the KSW Summer Camp and Description vs. Pacing categories. Check out the examples at the bottom of each individual exercise, too. Look for words that strengthen the imagery/sensory details.

What I was looking for in this intro was for the cave to really come alive. I have such a vague image of what the cave is supposed to look like that, when the light appeared, I really didn’t know what to picture. I want to feel what Alaia feels, and I want to feel it the way she feels and sees and smells it while she’s scared and confused. I want to be scared along with her. Creating atmosphere will do awesome things for this cave in that regard.

And, it can also help with the action. An example of a line I know can be improved is this:

Breath in her throat, she became a statue.

The words “in” and “became” are weak, neutral, and do little to create a more interesting feel of what she’s going through. Think of how to rearrange lines like this, to elevate the words and make something more interesting. There’s a difference between, “I took a breath,” and, “My lungs expanded with a slow, quivering breath.”

For now, those’re the two big things that I’d recommend. The rest are simply technical, such as beginning a new paragraph after dialogue that isn’t Alaia’s. Both times that the dialogue started the paragraph, I was confused, thinking she was the one speaking, and had to double back to make sure I hadn't misread.

Also, I’d recommend checking out “comma splices”. The one that really got me was this sentence:

She extinguished her lantern, and shrunk further into her crevice.

Do a bit of research on comma splices and this should be an easy fix.

And, finally, I’m not sure what Alaia’s age should be. In the beginning, she’s referred to as “the girl”, but at the end of the paragraph, we’re told she has a job and bills. Throughout the intro, however, I felt like her voice in the narrative sounded more like she’s “a girl”, much younger than anyone who’d be paying bills.

Anyway, I’m going to leave it at that. Mostly, start experimenting with prose. The technical skills are coming together, so now play around with finding your own personal style and voice!

Would I Keep Reading?
Not yet, but I’d really like to see this intro again after some experimenting with both style and voice. I think that’ll do a lot of good things!

Good luck! ♥

Friday, January 10, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #43

Most Wonderful Author: Emmy @ Tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: Event Horizon

The impact of the hard ground jarred his senses, forcing a soft grunt and air from his lungs. Fighting back the pain and catching his breath, the boy scrambled to his feet and continued to run, shedding bits of gravel and dirt from his hands and knees. The echoes of gunfire and whistling artillery shells, and the dull orange glow of a land engulfed in flames only worsened his fear and confusion. All around him in the midst of smoke and stars stood tall, faceless phantoms. Some spoke words, but they were muffled and unintelligible. The boy tried his best to weave around and avoid running into them, but his legs, burning and crying for rest, refused to obey. Clumsily pushing through the crowds and eliciting several angry responses, he continued to flee.

More gray phantoms rose up to impede his flight, this time brandishing the shadows of assault rifles. Again he tried to avoid them, but when the first one became intangible, his eyes widened in shock as he lost his balance and fell right through. The impact of his chin on the concrete rattled his teeth. He saw enough stars to form whole constellations. The distant sounds of gunfire and artillery shells grew near, now joined by a chorus of missiles and bombs and the roaring of jets overhead. The pain from the first fall was worsened by the second. Tears began to well up in the corners of his eyes as he struggled back onto his feet.

Strong Points –
Firstly, this is a great example of starting off with action and effortlessly establishing lots of good questions, like, “What the hecking heck is going on around this little boy?” But, of course, the intro never directly states the question. It’s easily implied. This is an awesome thing.

What I also like about this intro is how it builds, little by little, on the surroundings/setting. Details are dropped, one piece at a time, as the boy proceeds onward, starting with “gravel and dirt”, then gunfire, and so on. And, since the boy is running and hardly has the time to digest much detail, vague descriptions such as ‘the dull orange glow of the land engulfed in flames’ is a quick way to mark some surroundings believably. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in over-describing things during a scene that’s supposed to be fast-paced (especially with the question of “How much is enough?”), but moments like the aforementioned are good displays of resistance.

Some Tips –
Okay, so, I’ve two things to talk about here: pacing and voice.

Let’s start with pacing. I’ve already mentioned one thing that’s done well in this intro – quick descriptions – but what I’m thinking about more here is in regards to structure and flow. As it stands, simply looking at these two intro paragraphs, I never would have guessed that a boy was running for his life here. Reading brought me a little closer, but there’s still more we can do.

Firstly, check out this exercise on pacing, then check out the list of exercises provided on the final Description vs. Pacing post. Before climbing into the examples at the bottom of each exercise, here’s what to look for: how the sentences change depending on the pace. Even look at how the size of the paragraphs will change.

In fast pacing, when a character is running or being chased or whatever the thing is, less is more. The way information is communicated becomes briefer, sometimes communicated in short bursts. Think of it in terms of the character (or narrator) not having a chance to describe actions or setting in long sentences because everything’s moving too fast.

Suddenly this is happening. Then this. Another thing happened, and the character doesn’t know what to do. Then ultimate thing.

New paragraph begins.

(Do, however, refrain from mimicking the italics. Otherwise, it might read like, "Then she opened the bathroom door." I mean, I guess that could work in certain stories?)

So, while checking out the above examples, compare and contrast. Consider how information is being communicated in the different scenarios. Consider also that the writer’s own personal flair and style is very present in all examples as well. (As in, these are only examples and not the only way to write!)

Secondly, let’s take a look at voice. And, by voice, I mean character voice.

The boy’s young, right? So simplified words make sense. But through reading, I felt a bit distant from him, a step removed, and I think that may be because I didn’t really feel his voice in the writing. It felt closer to a list of events instead me watching this boy race to safety.

Let’s take an example:

Some spoke words, but they were muffled and unintelligible.

So, I don’t know if the phantoms are actually phantoms, or if they’re people. That’s fine if it’s by design (though, ‘tall’ made me think pretty darn tall, because ‘tall’ is a very relative word, such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘great’). But if this is a young boy running from ghostlike people, is he really thinking that the words they speak are ‘muffled’ and ‘unintelligible’?

Perhaps he’s thinking the words don’t make any sense, or the sound of their speech drives him to panic, distorts them into actual monsters, or maybe he tries to understand them and can’t, like when his mom calls for him in a dream and her words don’t make sense.

Think about a dominant impression. ‘Muffled’ and ‘unintelligible’ are words that are particularly uninvolved, emotionally detached – basically neutral. Those words don’t leave an impression. This event is particularly terrifying to the boy, so the trick is to find ways that really, truly communicate this instead of ‘the boy tried his best’, ‘clumsily pushing’, ‘he tried to avoid them’, and ‘the pain of the first fall’. Really think about how to express his character through the narrative.

On a final note, I would definitely advise working more on that title. “Event Horizon” makes me automatically think of the 1997 movie, and it fills up the entire Google search page, which isn’t good from a marketing standpoint. But, you have a start! Having something to work with makes things a lot easier.

Would I Keep Reading?
At this point, not yet. I would personally need to have more emotional investment with the character first (and I actually set down a book on the shelf in exchange for the book next to it just the other day for this exact reason – and the second book won because the character voice was much stronger). But I would definitely like to see a revision!

Good luck! ♥♥♥♥♥

Thursday, January 2, 2014

First 250 Words Smash! #42

First of 2014 Super Awesome Author: Sadie @ Tumblr
Still in Dinosaur Years Editor: Victoria
Working Title: N/A

In the morning stillness, Desdemona could only hear her own footsteps. She was walking slowly so she could scan the ground, but her efforts were only serving to frustrate her further.
She bent. Pressed a hand to the ground. Grimaced, since the moisture of the spongy earth rushed to engulf her fingers.
Everything was brown, soggy, and mostly dead.
She clicked a soft noise of irritation with her tongue and stood once more, continuing her slow walk. Her attention wandered, though, over the mossy trees and mushy dirt in the distance. It was hard to have hope when the forest looked like a dying swampland.
Having any kind of hope was harder since the magic had died, really.
She shoved a hand into her satchel as she walked, counting her findings for the day. Two round penn leaves for healing, three fignius leaves for focus, and one mushroom, barely on the brink of life. They would have to stew it immediately to get anything from it.
The voice of her teacher only exasperated her frustration at this morning’s bounty. But she turned and started her way back.
The morning was brisk. She rubbed her hands together and remembered when she could use the friction of her fingers to pull life and healing from the leaves. The two crumpled leaves from today’s plants would boil to create a simple drink for colds, nothing more.
“Pathetic,” she muttered, and hurried to meet Cal.

Strong Points -
Though it might not be an action-packed start, this is a nice way to drop hints and questions. You have Mona collecting for spells and it leaves us to wonder what sort of world we're dealing with. These questions are great, they're what keep us reading. I want to know if Mona's doing this in secret, if she practices magic without others knowing or maybe she's poor and embarrassed so she collects the ingredients without others knowing. And the dead forest turned into a swamp, what the heck happened there? You've found a nice way to weave these details in without cramming them in, and that's awesome!

Some Tips -
The very first thing I noticed was the use of passive voice. It's in the first paragraph, "was walking" and "was only serving". Using "was" (or "had") plus the verb can at times be necessary, but most of the time it removes us from the character preforming the action and greatly slows down the pace. It's also a lot wordier than necessary.

"Mona walked slowly so she could scan the ground." To me, this has a stronger impact, as there are less steps between me and what Mona's doing.

To strengthen this even more, I might choose a more descriptive verb than "walked" just so to avoid using the adverb with it. Adverbs definitely have their places,  don't get me wrong. But if abused, they lose their effectiveness. Sometimes, they border on telling instead of showing.

Telling is a really hard habit to get out of, but becoming aware of it is one of the best things a writer can do for themselves. Learning to describe and effectively show the reader to a conclusion is so much stronger than just handing over a one or two-word description.

For example, "Everything was brown, soggy, and mostly dead." Well, what does that mean? That doesn't give me much of anything to picture. I probably don't know what a dead forest is supposed to look like, so just telling me that there is one there, and that it's wet, that's not helpful. How did this forest die? Did it burn? Are the trees sick and withering? Is there too much water for the climate and thus the trees have begun to rot? All of these things are very probable, but also very different in presentation. This will probably require research on your part if you don't know what this is like, but the end result will be totally worth it.

Another great way to help this is getting rid of dialogue tags. "Muttered" is telling me how she spoke, instead of showing me with the dialogue or how her body language  reads. If she's just saying one word to herself in the middle of the woods, I can probably deduce that she's grumbling it. Other things like shouting or snapping should be clear in the way the sentence reads. We say fewer words or pick more abrasive things to say when we're pissed. Even in text messages or blog posts, a tone is conveyed without us ever having to hear it. Again, dialogue tags are certainly not taboo, and have their uses, but learning to write without them can really help those description muscles.

Would I keep reading?
Not just yet, unfortunately. I need a little bit more before I'm invested in Mona and her world, and I didn't feel completely immersed. So please, resubmit so that Sarah or I can take a second look! Thank you so much, hope to hear back from you!