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 He’s withdrawn his support for the Richelieu venture.”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.

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