Hello, writing and editing friends! Here is our third instalment in our live critique series. Today, we’re analysing the first 250 words of a YA magical realism. Author's words are in black, ours are in red!
The tree branch outside my bedroom window It’s likely the reader will know the branch is outside the window, and it will become clear in just a few moments that she’s in her bedroom, so perhaps open with something more vivid and by moving forward some of what follows to give the reader a clear visual from the start. Maybe ‘Each tap of that damn branch pounded into my aching head. I groaned and opened one eye to see the evil offender. I flipped over, yanking the blankets over my head.’ Or similar tapped (first use of this word) on the thin glass It’s also likely the reader will know the window is made of thin glass so perhaps delete ‘thin glass’ pane with the slightest hint of a breeze The hint of a breeze seems unlikely to move a tree branch. Maybe a moderate breeze or light wind would be more appropriate. Mountain Valley wasn’t particularly known for its wind, but now that winter was approaching, the weather began to show its inclement side, the winds always picking up before a big storm. So naturally, as mid-December approached, the early morning breeze was just enough to jostle that tree branch creating a light, but consistent, knock on my window The last two sentences are rather telling and in an opening paragraph might be too descriptive and slow for a reader to be hooked. Of course, they could be blended in later on, but here a reader will want to be introduced immediately to the character, get inside her head, hear her thoughts, know her motivations, inner conflict, voice and so on. Also, after reading on, it’s clear that the character is irritated by the tapping and that she isn’t a morning person, that she doesn’t want the day to begin, yet her descriptions of the breeze and tapping are actually rather gentle and calm. Maybe by showing us the character more, by using more appropriate word choice or by even changing the scene entirely to show how this wind is messing with her might help show the reader her irritation better and give a more consistent feel to the writing. So maybe she’s walking to school or the bus stop and the slight wind lifts her skirt or a gust blows her took-ages-to-style hair in her face or whips a piece of paper from her hand. Or if the scene needs to start with her in bed, maybe using more appropriate words which reflect her irritation will help show the reader. Maybe bring forward the mention of the ‘tangle of knots’ in her stomach to the beginning and how each tap tightens the tangle, or matches the drumming of her heart or thudding headache – similar to the example found in our first few edits above. By making the tapping her enemy the reader can instantly see, without being told, that the character is irritated, nervous, concerned and so on about what the day will bring. By the sound of it, I was pretty sure that this year there’d be a white Christmas, though that was nothing to get excited about these days This is our first insight into some back story, a nice subtle clue that Christmas isn’t a good time of year for this character. But perhaps offering another tiny detail might increase the intrigue. Christmas is nothing to get excited about, but is there more? Does Christmas mean sadness, heartache, pain? When she so much as considers Christmas time does this open up a wound, a hole, a chain of memories worth locking away? Give the reader a tiny bit more so they can associate an emotion with this character, a hint at their inner conflict.
Opening one eye to the incessant tapping (second use of this word), I took a deep breath (First use of these words) Maybe simply use ‘inhaled’. One more day. I was almost done, the last final of the semester.
“Ugh,” I groaned as I pulled the blankets up Perhaps delete ‘up’ as it is superfluous and once removed the sentence flows better over my head.
I have never been a morning person, but this morning seemed worse than most. As the tap tapping (Third use of this word) Perhaps try using some synonyms such as thudding, drumming, banging and so on to vary language continued to tease me awake, I became more aware of the enormity of the day’s situation.
My last day of school. She has already mentioned similar two paragraphs above. Could there be another important ending today? No more seeing her best friends every day, her boyfriend? Is she moving away after school ends, or has she no clue about what her next steps will be? Give the reader something else, and something important that means a lot to her, that will showcase her voice, personality and similar, and something that reflects today's 'enormity' as mentioned in the previous sentence.
In truth, I thought I’d be much more excited than I was feeling at that moment Consider deleting ‘than I was feeling at that moment’ as when removed it makes no real impact on the meaning. I placed my hand over my stomach to try (First use of this verb. It’s always ‘try to’ not ‘try and’ so perhaps revise to either ‘to try to’ or ‘trying to’) and untangle the knots that were By deleting ‘that were’ the sentence becomes smoother beginning to bunch up. I furrowed my brow in an effort to push good feelings into my body and took a few deep breaths (Second use of these words) As the breathing seems to fit better here as she works to calm herself and be optimistic, perhaps earlier, after opening one eye to look at the dreaded alarm-clock branch tapping her awake, she might flip over in bed, turn her back to the branch with a huff, of give the branch the finger. Any of these will also help build her character and show more vivid movement and emotion to the reader as I tried to (Second use of this verb in close proximity) rally the excitement I thought Perhaps delete the filter verb ‘I thought’ and simply replace with ‘that’ as it will provide smoother flow and make no difference to the meaning should be there.
The irony of the situation did not fall flat.
The writing is good, fairly solid, but it feels rather hard to connect with the main character when there is no real hint to what drives her, what her goals are, what motivates her, and what's standing in her way from reaching her goals. Without this, it's difficult for the reader to connect with her. Of course, the idea is not to just tell the reader right here in a few words leaving nothing then for them to find out as the story progresses, but to build in some vivid emotional hints to what might have happened, some subtle clues; dangle a carrot, leave some breadcrumbs, and make the reader keep turning the pages to find out why on earth the final day of school and Christmas – two things that the majority of teenagers would be most excited about – leave this character flat and less than enthusiastic.
This beginning really leans on the telling side with the protagonist lying in bed. Although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the latter, to ensure this lack of action is appealing, by injecting some clear movements, inner thoughts, and by using vivid words that reflect the character’s personality will help amp up the conflict and give the reader some great visuals to build on. Perhaps consider starting with more action as mentioned before, like the character walking to school, her backpack weighing her down, the wind messing up her hair, the cold seeping in through her clothes, but her not knowing if the goosebumps are from the cold or apprehension, as these will all reflect her emotion regarding this final day at school. All her feelings can then be sprinkled throughout as things happen to her, helping to create a strong connection with the reader.
So, what do you think? Do you agree? Would you offer any other advice?
And we're back with our second live critique that's not live! This week, we're bringing you the first 250 words from a middle grade fantasy. Let's go!
‘One of the Tiddy people?’ Jenifer said through a mouthful of cream bun. She crinkled her nose. ‘Are you sure?’ Although starting with dialogue isn’t necessarily wrong, it is often felt stronger to begin by giving a reader a visual, something to see, a character. Perhaps simply swap the action tag with the dialogue and give the reader some insight into Jenifer's character and what's so intriguing about this conversation. Perhaps: ‘Jenifer shoved a squidgy chunk of cream bun into her mouth and paused, looking up at her grandmother. ‘One of the Tiddy people? Are you sure?’ Grandma’s stories were always a delight, but talk of fictional characters like the Tiddy people was not something she usually spoke of.’ or similar
‘Oh yes, dear. He was the size of a six year old and he had pointed ears. What else could he have been?’ Again, perhaps here show us Grandma. Her facial expression, reaction or lack of in response to Jenifer’s questioning, to show the reader that Grandma considers nothing of seeing the Tiddy people and that it’s a rather ordinary occurrence or that maybe it isn't, or could she be teasing Jenifer, and so on. Give the reader a clue as to how ordinary or extraordinary this is.
Jenifer fixed her grandmother with a steady look. Perhaps show more of Jenifer’s reaction and character here. Maybe: ‘Jenifer coughed as she held in a snort. Pointed ears? Grandma really was talking nonsense today’ or similar A slow smile crept ‘crept’ generally suggests that the action is happening slowly, gradually, so consider deleting ‘slow’ from this sentence on to her lips and she narrowed her eyes. ‘. . . This ellipsis isn’t necessary here as no time lapse has occurred Had you been eating that strong cheese?’
So far there has been no clear description of Grandma so perhaps blending one or two details of her appearance in with her action will help the reader see the scene clearer. Maybe her spectacles perching on the end of her nose, or her unkempt grey hair, or her smeared red lipstick, and so on. Give the reader a subtle description of how she appears as she moves or waves off Jenifer’s comment. ‘Of course not, dear! That little man was as real as the nose on my face . . . Again the ellipsis isn’t necessary because Grandma has finished speaking and this punctuation suggests she has paused ’ The old lady dabbed the corners of her mouth Maybe here sneak in a description,;mention her red lipstick or her painted fingernails or similar delicately since ‘to dab’ is a delicate action, ‘delicately’ is redundant and not needed , this comma isn’t necessary here with a paper napkin, then crumpled it up and dropped it on to her empty plate. ‘Oh, I doubt we ever would have seen him – poor thing was caught in a snare, you see. Ruddy poachers. If your grandfather hadn’t managed to remove it, I dread to think what might have become of him.’
It was a cold and dismal Saturday afternoon and Jenifer had popped around to visit her elderly grandmother just as she did on most days. The two of them were sitting beside the fire in the old lady’s cosy living room drinking tea from rose patterned china cups and eating cream cakes fresh from the local bakery. This paragraph is rather telling and takes the reader suddenly from the conversation and action taking place. Try to blend in these details with the action as it’s happening. Maybe ‘Jenifer sipped the last of her tea and placed her cup on to the table carefully. Grandma’s beloved rose-patterned china tea set only ever came out when Jenifer popped over – and after they’d made a trip to the local bakery for some cream cakes. The fire crackled and popped beside them, casting a flickering golden glow across the cosy living room. She tilted her head and glanced up at her grandma, chewing her lip (or a similar habit that Jenifer might do throughout the story). Grandma often told funny little stories, but today’s was more odd than funny.'
‘Are you feeling okay today, Grandma?’
As Jenifer has spoken the above words, join this paragraph up with the previous Jenifer popped the last of the bun into her mouth and leaned forwards, As Jenifer is meant to be showing concern for her grandma here, the action of eating the last of the bun takes away some of the emotion. Perhaps showing Jenifer placing down the last of her cake or cup (suggested above) will help to reinforce how Grandma and her story has an odd feel to it today, stranger than normal, and it’s giving Jenifer cause for concern studying her grandmother’s face intently ‘intently’ is redundant as ‘studying’ implies her look is intent. Earlier Jenifer gave her Grandma a steady look and now she is studying her intently, both of these are similar and give a repetitive feel. Perhaps use some different body language, something to continue building Jenifer’s character. Might her stomach flutter or turn over, might her eyes widen, or similar. ‘You’re not coming down with something, are you?’
Her grandmother chuckled By building in a description of how Grandma looks here through carefully chosen words will help the reader see how Jenifer views her grandmother. Such as showing the crow’s feet around her sparkling eyes, or her warm, childish chuckle, or sharp eyes throwing Jenifer a telling wink, and so on. ‘Oh, I probably wouldn’t have believed it either, dear. . .’ She cradled her teacup in her hands ‘in her hands’ is superfluous and can be deleted as removing it makes little difference to the meaning and clarity of the visual and sighed softly. ‘. . . Not if I hadn’t seen him with my own two eyes. The punctuation could help create clearer flow to this broken dialogue and give more tension and tone. Such as: ‘Oh, I probably wouldn’t have believed it either, dear,’ she said, cradling her teacup and sighing softly, ‘had I not seen him with my own two eyes.’
Overall, although intriguing, perhaps this opening requires more visuals and characterisation to make it stronger and hook in a reader. A reader will want to immediately connect with Jenifer, who we can presume is our protagonist, and hear her voice, discover something about her personality, and listen to her inner thoughts. By using Grandma, this can be achieved easily. In the examples provided above, by showing Jenifer’s concern for Grandma’s unusual story and how she feels about her, the way she sees her, what she observes from the room around them, and so on, using words that Jenifer would use, all help layer Jenifer and her character. Why has she gone to Grandma’s? Because Mum forces her to? Or because she loves her and her wonderful stories? Because she wants to avoid the bullies after school? Because Grandma is the only one in her life who loves to have fun and feeds Jenifer’s ‘out there’ imagination? What motivates Jenifer to go there, thus setting off the chain of events that follow after this unexpected mention of the Tiddy people, and eventually the unfolding plot?
Also, it would be good to include an immediate, internal thought Jenifer might have to the mention of the Tiddy people to show the reader what’s so unusual about Grandma’s mention and why they too should be concerned about Grandma bringing them up. Are these creatures similar to elves or goblins, only ever spoken about as fairies might be? Clue the reader in.
So, what do you think? Do you agree? Can you provide the author with some other ideas to strengthen the opening of their novel? We love to talk edits, so leave your comment below!
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