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.