It's time for our third 250-word critique of 2017. We hope you're enjoying the blogs. Today we're checking out the first 250 words of a middle grade mystery with a touch of magical realism! We start with the unedited version and then second comes the excerpt with our suggestions. Make sure you leave your comments at the end.
Off we go!
Chester sat in the last row in the last car of the train, knees pressed up against the empty seat in front of him. The other passengers clustered near the front of the car, all except a greyish woman wearing a flowery scarf barely hiding a large bald spot. She sat halfway back under a No Smoking sign. Chester admired how she puffed away on her cigarette, not caring. Outside, trees streamed past like people in the City, hurrying along while ignoring all the others hurrying as well. Chester knew all about being ignored.
A bump on the tracks shook the old journal off Chester’s lap, and he lunged to grab it before it fell to the floor. The binding barely clung to book’s spine, and he held it gingerly on his lap. A musty smell rose from its pages, mingled with the cigarette smoke, and made his throat scratchy.
A dad should give his son a new bike or cool video game instead of a weird stinky book. Not that Chester knew. All he’d ever known were Mom and Lacey, the two most boring moms in the history of motherhood. Until a few weeks ago, Chester never thought much about his father, who seemed to exist only as an occasional frown between Mom and Lacey. Now the dad he’d never even met was dead, and Chester didn’t know what to feel. Or why the mysterious book showed up in the mail.
Chester sat – “sat”, used in an opening sentence might be considered a rather weak verb as it doesn’t show a great deal of the character or setting. Could you show us how Chester sits? Does he plop in his seat with a sigh, thus showing his mood? Does he slide into his seat, thus showing how he’s trying to go undetected? If he’s already in his seat as the scene opens, might we see him in action as he sits? Does he lean his head against the window with a deep sigh? Does he stare dreamily out the window at the passing scenery? Does he eye fellow passengers warily with his keen eye? Try to build some of his character, his current mood and emotion, into the opener so the reader can immediately make a connection, begin to ask some questions in the last row in the last car of the train, knees pressed up – perhaps blend in a small description of his clothing. Does the material of the seat in front irritate his bare skin? Do his feet dangle to show he is a small child, or are they pressed uncomfortably against the rough seat back to show his height, or is he slouching thus showing why his legs press against the seat? Give the reader a subtle clue as to Chester’s appearance and age against the empty seat in front of him. The other passengers clustered near the front of the car, all except a grayish – what precisely is “grayish” about the woman? Her skin, her hair? woman wearing a flowery scarf barely hiding a large bald spot – so is the scarf wrapped around her head? Do unkempt, gray curls poke out of the front and back? Is the scarf so poorly wrapped around her head, it has come loose at the back thus revealing the bald spot? Perhaps blend in some more finer detail so the reader can see her more clearly, even if she isn’t important. She sat – as per the first comment, rather than telling us that she sat halfway back under the sign, perhaps show how the woman sits and how she moves. Does she scoot into her seat, cigarette hanging from her lips as she removes her bag from her shoulder? Does she grunt and groan as she repositions herself in the seat thus catching Chester’s attention, leaning back and removing the cigarette with a giant cloud of smoke puffing up and covering the NO SMOKING sign? halfway back under a No Smoking sign. Chester admired how she puffed away on her cigarette, not caring. Outside, trees streamed past like people in the City, hurrying along while ignoring all the others hurrying as well – consider revising this sentence for smoother flow and to avoid the repetition of “hurrying”. Maybe something like “Chester shifted his gaze to outside, to the trees streaming past like people in the City. All dashing and darting, ignoring other hurrying pedestrians” or similar. Chester knew all about being ignored.
A bump on the tracks shook the old journal off Chester’s lap – perhaps, if the journal has importance, show Chester’s hand on it in the opening line or offer a visual of it straight away, and he lunged to grab it before it fell to the floor. The binding barely clung to the book’s spine, and he held it gingerly on his lap – to avoid the close repetition of “lap”, perhaps show how Chester replaces the book on to his thighs with care, with a sigh of relief, or how he clutches it after the rescue, eyeing its cover to ensure he hasn’t damaged it in any way, or similar. A musty smell rose from its pages, mingled with the cigarette smoke, and made his throat scratchy. – rather than telling the reader the smell made his throat scratchy perhaps show them. “Chester coughed, an irritating tickle in his throat as a musty smell rose from its pages and mingled with the woman’s cigarette smoke” or similar.
A dad should give his son a new bike or cool video game instead of a weird, stinky book. Not that Chester knew. All he’d ever known were Mom and Lacey, the two most boring moms in the history of motherhood. Until a few weeks ago, Chester never thought much about his father, who seemed to exist only as an occasional frown between Mom and Lacey. Now the dad he’d never even met was dead, and Chester didn’t know what to feel. Or why the mysterious book showed up in the mail.
Overall, this is an interesting opening. As this is the first 250 words of the manuscript, perhaps by building a little more around the inciting event here, what actually makes this day different, what has set Chester’s story in motion – which we presume lies in the death of his father and the gift of this journal – might help raise those all important questions and intrigue in the reader. Although this is clearly hinted at in the last paragraph, which works just fine, perhaps by showing Chester’s emotions, by showing his treatment of the journal from the first sentences – the rough, scratched exterior, the words embossed as he runs his fingertips over them, reading them in his head, glittering and enticing him in, the smell as mentioned – might help in drawing a reader just a little more into the pages. Is this train journey one he takes regularly, or this trip associated with the journal? We learn that the journal arrives in the mail but was it on that same day? Has Chester snuck the book into his bag?
Could the opening page perhaps begin with Chester at home, the mailman arriving with this mysterious package, with Mom and Lacey gossiping at the kitchen table and Chester overhearing them discussing his father’s death, etc. Might his mom frown upon the book and not want him to have it, creating conflict from the start. Or might she make a rude remark or avoid responding when she discovers who the package is from?
The next scene could show him boarding the train and give the reader information as to where he's going. He might pull the journal from his backpack and examine it from front to back, wondering, worrying about what he'll find inside. But can't bring himself to read it yet. Nor can he make himself put it away. It's the only thing he owns that his father touched, and he feels a strong connection to it that he can't explain. Perhaps this is the one day of his life he’s pleased to be ignored so he can focus on what this mysterious package contains
Perhaps, also, some more indication as to what Chester’s goal is, his desires, might assist in setting up the internal journey he is about to take. Does he crave friendship, acceptance, a father figure, to be noticed? Maybe a hint or two on top of the mention of him knowing how it feels to be ignored might help the reader connect to his character.
Of course, these are just ideas, suggestions to entice a reader in with some further detail, mystery and importantly injecting subtle clues into Chester’s character and conflict.
Welcome back to the #EditFoster blog! We are continuing our live critique series with our second submission of 2017, and today we're analysing a YA Paranormal. The unedited version comes first and the edited version second. Here we go!
I pulled my shirt farther down my body and peeked to the right a little. Yep. That's blood in the washer. He glanced at me, smirking. “I know you want to ask. I'll admit it's a little weird for me too.” He said.
My cheeks burned red. “I don't know what you're talking about. It's none of my business.” He was still smirking. “I'm a…hunter. Got something earlier today and it was a little messy.” He held out his hand. “I’m Kendrick.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t check his hand for blood before taking it. “Abby.”
He shook my hand and looked me up and down. “Do you always do your laundry without pants?” Again with the blushing. “I do when my favorite pants need washing.” We stood in an awkward silence until our dryers dinged. I yanked open the door and found my pants, putting them on quickly. He casually took each item out and folded it carefully. I started folding my laundry too. “So. Where are you from?”
“Here and there.”
“Well, that’s stunningly vague. On the run or something?” I asked, getting increasingly curious. “Something like that.” He finished folding his laundry and stood up. “Nice to meet you, Abby.” And he left.
I sat there for a few minutes, wondering what had just happened. It was one of the weirdest encounters I had ever had with a guy. And I’ve had a few. I finished up with my laundry and walked to my house.
I pulled my shirt farther down my body and peeked to the right a little. – as the character is peeking, this movement suggests it is a slight, quick look, so perhaps delete the superfluous “a little”. Yep. That's blood in the washer. – as “Yep” and the previous sentence are in present tense as opposed to past tense, it indicates a direct narrator thought so might be better formatted in italics to clearly show this. – how does she know it’s blood from the clothes in the washer? Would there not just be some red, so might be paint or something else? What clues her in that this is definitely blood? He glanced at me, smirking. “I know you want to ask. I'll admit it's a little weird for me too.” He said. – who is he? Perhaps add a clue as to who this person is and why the narrator has noticed him, otherwise this could confuse the reader – also, as a different character to the narrator speaks, consider moving from “He glanced...” (to the end of this paragraph) to a new paragraph for clarity – also consider deleting “He said” as it will be clear to the reader who is speaking due to the action beat of “He glanced at me”. If you do keep “he said”, end the dialogue with a comma and use a lower case “h” for “he”.
This opening paragraph opens right in the action, but perhaps offer the reader an immediate idea as to location as well. For example, we find out soon they are likely in a laundromat. So, perhaps simply say “laundromat washer”, or mention the name of the laundromat; clue the reader in to whether the main character always goes here, are there other customers? Or maybe show the rows of washers side by side, add a color or two, smells of the washing powders, and so on. Throughout this paragraph and the rest of the scene, try to blend in some subtle detail of the setting through the narrator’s observation and movement to orient the reader.
My cheeks burned red – as Abby can’t see her cheeks, she can only presume they are red from the burning. Maybe revise to show this or perhaps show how they feel: “A sudden fire blazed in my cheeks” or similar – is she blushing because he caught her looking? Is blushing something she does when any guy talks to her? Maybe clarify for the reader. “I don't know what you're talking about. It's none of my business.” He was still smirking. – as mentioned above, ensure each character’s dialogue has its own paragraph, so move from “He was still smirking...” to the next line – perhaps to avoid this telling sentence, show some more of Kendrick here, other than his facial expression. Does he rock on his heels to reinforce his confident appearance? Or maybe run a hand through his blond mop of hair? “I'm a…hunter. – as he pauses here, might Abby pick up on this? Try to build some of her character into the writing so the reader can learn if she’s observant, distrusting, suspicious by nature, etc. Got something earlier today and it was a little messy.” – he mentions in the first paragraph that “it’s a little weird for me too” but as he’s a hunter, or at least says he is, wouldn’t he often have blood on his clothes? Perhaps by simply amending his dialogue to “I’ll admit this might appear a little weird” or similar will allow more consistency in his story. He held out his hand. “I’m Kendrick.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t check his hand for blood before taking it. “Abby.” – and then here as well, move from “I’d be lying...” down to the next line as this moves on to Abby’s dialogue – maybe show the reader how she checks his hand. “I studied his outstretched hand, checking for blood-encrusted nails or smeared palms. Nothing. It was clean, if a little callused, so I took it.” or similar
He shook my hand and looked me up and down. “Do you always do your laundry without pants?” Again with the blushing. – again, move to a new paragraph to show the change in whose dialogue this is “I do when my favorite pants need washing.” – as it’s just Abby’s legs which are bare, perhaps show this in the first paragraph when she pulls down her shirt, to offer more vivid imagery to the reader. “I tug at the bottom of my shirt in an attempt to cover some of my bare legs.” or similar – has she had to urgently go into the laundromat? Did she stain the pants while she was out? If not, why hasn’t she worn another pair of pants to do this washing? We stood in an awkward silence until our dryers dinged. – perhaps show the awkward silence and build in some characterisation. Maybe something like: “An awkward silence stretched. I bit my lip and crossed my feet, still tugging at the bottom of my shirt, aware of his eyes burning into me.” or similar – Did their dryers ding at exactly the same time? Might Abby pick up on this and be frustrated, wishing for his to ding sooner so she doesn’t have to feel awkward anymore? Is there a timer on the dryers she’s watching? They must have arrived in the laundromat at much the same time then, so perhaps he would have seen her removing her pants to wash them, or maybe she was so deep in thought she only noticed him when he coughed or similar. Considering this might help clarify who “he” is in that first paragraph. I yanked open the door and found my pants, putting them on quickly. – perhaps show how she puts them on quickly. Are they loose-fitting so they glide on quickly, or does she have to wrestle with them? He casually took each item out and folded it carefully. – there are three adverbs close together here, and although nothing wrong with using them, replacing with stronger verbs makes for stronger writing. Perhaps show Kendrick removing his laundry in more detail and to reflect on both characters. Maybe: “Kendrick squatted and removed his items one by one, folding them in that rough, typical guy way.” or similar. I started – using verbs “started” “began” “continued”, etc. is often not needed and once deleted makes no difference to the understanding of the sentence. So here: “I folded my laundry too.” folding my laundry too. “So. Where are you from?” – as there was an awkward silence before, why is she starting conversation now and not then? Is she trying to be more confident with guys? Or is there something about this man that’s intriguing her?
“Here and there.”
“Well, that’s stunningly vague. On the run or something?” I asked, getting increasingly curious – rather than telling the reader Abby is “getting increasingly curious” show them in her body language and inner thought. Perhaps: “I side-eyed him. Here and there? Mysterious. Or maybe that was what he wanted me to think. Saying that, I hadn’t seen him around town before.” or similar. “Something like that.” – move to a new paragraph as this is a change of speaker. He finished folding – watch out for repetition. In this case “to fold” is used three times in four sentences. Instead, try to show more details. Perhaps Kendrick bundles up the last of his clothes and shoves them in a plastic bag? or similar. his laundry and stood up – delete “up” as the action of standing is generally in an upwards direction. – there is no clue before now that he was sitting or had sat down so perhaps clarify his position earlier on. “Nice to meet you, Abby.” And he left – what did he move like? Does he give her a wink, does she watch him go, admiring his butt in his tight-fitting pants? Try to build more vivid descriptions into the scene.
I sat there – perhaps show Abby sitting. Maybe “I sat on the plastic bench in the middle of the Laundromat, sliding my feet into my sneakers” or similar for a few minutes, wondering what had just happened. It was one of the weirdest encounters I had ever had with a guy. And I’ve – revise to past tense: “I’d” had a few. I finished up with my laundry and walked to my house – perhaps show clearer actions. Perhaps: “I shook my head and placed the rest of my clothes in my backpack, slung it on my shoulder and headed home.” or similar.
So there we go. Do you agree with our suggestions? Leave your comments below!
Fortnightly on Mondays, we live critique one writer's query letter or first 250 words of their manuscript. Every Wednesday & Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day!