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?
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!