Saturday, February 23, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition II

Many thanks to those of you who responded to the first edition of It's a Start: Work in Progress and have submitted your first lines for comment! I have received six new "entries" so far, with a possible seventh coming. In the interest of keeping these posts to a reasonable length, I'm going to take a look at the first three on this post and the remainder later in the week.

If you are interested in submitting your novel's beginning for a future edition, please go ahead and leave the first 8-12 lines of your MG or YA work in progress in the comments section or send me a Personal Message via the Verla Kay Blue Boards (where I am known as LindaBudz).

Before we get started, the disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.

The Twelfth of Never (Middle Grade), by Brenda

Please make Elvis leave the building. Never mind this song, My Way, is the reason I’m named Presley. Forget I secretly love it. Just not like this, here, now.

The cheap school p.a. speakers crumple Mom’s favorite song like tin foil, then rattle it around the almost-empty cafeteria. And there’s no air, just thickly sweet Snickerdoodle exhaust from the lunch ladies baking at 7:50 a.m. And most of all, outside the far, far double doorway, I keep catching glimpses of Greenhaven Middle School’s Most Popular crowd.

My queasy tummy demands I stay put, even though standing here, next to Mrs. Beemer, will make me more visible to the hall dwellers if they ever come in. We’re on the stage, encircled by chairs. Mrs. Beemer bends to unzip her backpack, and the neckline of her dress sags, revealing her wrinkly chest in a giant bra. Could I feel any more uncomfortable?

She cranes her red face up at me. “Would you be a dear and go round everyone up?”

First let me say, I love the title! And the fact that the MC is named Presley. I also like the details here ... not "cookies" but "Snickerdoodles," not "doors" but "the far, far double doorway." We have sound (a rattling version of "My Way"), smell (the cookies), touch (a queasy stomach) and sight (Mrs. Breemer's wrinkly chest). We also have lots of little conflicts ... the secret love of the song, the embarrassment at seeing the teacher's cleavage, the concern about being spotted on stage by the popular crowd.

A couple of things tripped me up. First, and maybe I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I didn't even realize Elvis did a version of "My Way." I think most people associate that song with Sinatra and so the first paragraph would confuse them. Of course, kids might not even know the song at all and might just figure, OK, that was some old Presley song. So you might be safe. But, unless "My Way" is important and will come into play later, I might suggest substituting a song more strongly associated with The King.

Second, I was taken out of the story a little by the stage. None of my school cafeterias had stages, but maybe some do? Does this caf double as an auditorium at this school? Maybe that becomes clearer in the coming paragraphs.

Overall: I definitely want to read more. I want to know why our MC is on that stage!

Lure of the Moon (YA Fantasy), by Sue

Chapter One: A Time to Run

As Peter raced from the campsite his stomach quivered.
It wasn’t the heat from the cherry sun that had his brain sizzling.
Humiliation and gloom spurred his anger. As Peter ran, he vowed,
"Dad will never get that chance again!"

Hmm. Dad will never get what chance again? This vow definitely pulls me in. And since every kid can relate to feeling furious with his/her parents, this makes a great connection.

This entry was emailed to me in this format. Maybe the line breaks are a product of the email, but I got the impression it's intended to appear this way, a poetry form. Until recently, when I read Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff, I'd have thought such a form would be distracting and tiresome, but in that book, I found I enjoyed it. If this novel is intended to follow that format, I think based on this brief excerpt it can be done well.

The one issue I had here was with the word "sizzling" in relation to the MC's brain. Didn't work for me ... I realize the phrase isn't meant to be literal, but it gave me a gross visual.

Overall: I'm not a big fantasy fan, but I'd keep reading to see where this is going, and, again, I am eager to learn what ill deed Dad has done!

Untitled, by Beth

If Maddrid found him first, the world's death was only a matter of time. The tribunal sat around the fire watching their leader in anticipation.

"He is twelve?" Their leader asked perusing a large file.

"Yes, sir," another replied.

"It says here-"

"It's a lie," The leader gave him a hard look, " I am sure of it, Oralabor."

"Does Maddrid know yet?"

"Not yet."

"Was it an accident?" Oralabor asked referring to the file.

"No, sir. It's his choice. He has had the opportunity."

"We must be sure."

"I am. He is the one. The only one."

OK, again, I'm not big on fantasy, but I am intrigued. What is the deal with this tribunal? Who is Maddrid? Why is he the only one? Who's the twelve year old in the file?

I did have a hard time following who is saying what. I think this needs to be made clear. I especially think we need to know which of these speakers is the MC and what his/her perspective and place within the scene is. A respected member of the tribunal? A spectator? Is the MC the "him" in the sentence "If Maddrid found him first ...." or is the twelve year old? I do appreciate the sense of mystery here, but I need a little more clarity, if that makes sense. Some internal monologue on the part of the MC might be a good way to do this.

Another potential issue, and this is something I learned from Miss Snark, is that big dangers such as the death of the world tend to interest readers less than personal dangers. That's not to say the world can't be in danger, but we also want to know what's at stake for your MC.

Overall: I'd like to have some more clarity, but again, I'm very intrigued to know who these characters are.

May thanks to Brenda, Sue and Beth for putting their work out here. I hope others will chime in with their impressions of these first sentences in the comments section. Best wishes for your works in progress!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Memoriam: A Real Sweetheart

Rest in Peace
September 18, 1993 - February 20, 2008

Update: Many thanks to big sister Deb for emailing this video she shot last summer:

Saturday, February 16, 2008

You Gotta Have the Passion

I've been down sick this week, so I've made the best of it by getting some reading done. In the last three days, I've finished two terrific examples of kid lit, The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin and A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban.

Eric Berlin is a New York Times crossword creator, which makes him, like, practically a god. The fact that he can do that and write a fun middle-grade mystery with puzzles scattered throughout it makes him, like, actually a god. If you or someone you know enjoys puzzles, particularly word puzzles, you'll want to get your hands on this book.

Linda Urban is not a New York Times crossword creator. For all I know, she may not even be able to solve them. Nonetheless, she is a goddess. Crooked is one of the best books I have ever read. Ever. And I've read a lot of books. The writing, the humor, the story arc ... everything about the book is perfect, crooked or otherwise.

One thing these books have in common (besides being written by higher beings) is the fact that they tell the story of a character who has a passion. Winston Breen is passionate about puzzles. Zoe Elias is passionate about playing the piano (well, even if she is stuck playing the organ).

Whether or not we can relate to each kid's passion (puzzles ... oh, yeah! pianos ... not so much), we like to see it. It makes the character interesting, a little different from his or her peers. It gives the character strength and spunk. It provides a path for conflict and growth. It makes us care about them and root for them.

What is your main character's passion?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition

Welcome to the first "Work in Progress" edition of It's a Start! Instead of examining the first sentences of published books, as previous editions have done, this entry will take a look at the first 8 to 12 sentences of manuscripts currently "under construction" by fellow kid-lit writers.

While I look forward to sharing my thoughts on their first sentences, the real value to these writers will be in getting multiple reactions to their work. So please, leave your comments. (Note: honest, constructive criticism and/or kudos are welcome; snark is not.)

Disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.

Shift (Young Adult), by Kate

I had six weeks to come up with a plan for getting to California. It took me six days. Oh God, I was really doing this.

With a deep breath and a half-hearted prayer, I made my way through the airport terminal. It had seemed so simple when I first saw the flier for the sophomore summer research trip -- a perfect cover for finding Clara. Unfortunately, my internal alarm hadn’t blared until I stepped off the plane that brought me from St. Louis to Crescent City. Not good.

Outside the airport, a grungy looking guy in a dark coat knocked into me and mumbled an apology as he passed. I jerked my bag onto my shoulder and scanned the area for a cab. Alone and cursing myself, I hesitated when a taxi pulled up to the curb.

“Hey, miss! You getting in or what?” The cab driver’s voice jolted me out of my panic.

Lots of good stuff here. Kate does a great job of revealing just enough about what is happening to pique our interest without laying out all her cards. I want to find out who Clara is and why the MC is looking for her.

I get the sense that the MC is enterprising and headstrong, and maybe a tad rash. What might have taken six weeks only took her six days ... but now she's having second thoughts. In any case, enterprising and headstrong are great traits for an MC, and being a tad rash is certainly a believable flaw for a teen.

Which brings me to something else Kate nails here ... weaving in a number of background details without being too obvious. We know that our MC is a sophomore (though it's not yet clear whether in high school or college), that it is summer, that she is from St. Louis, and that she is now in Crescent City, California. Well done!

Now, for the one thing that bothers me a bit here ... and again, maybe it's just me, so I'll be interested in seeing others' comments: Our MC refers to "my internal alarm," "cursing myself" and "my panic." These are strong words and emotions, which is great for indicating high stakes, but I don't feel as though I quite understand what she is referring to. Why is she feeling this way? Because she is rethinking the wisdom of finding Clara? Because she regrets traveling across country by herself? Or is there something else? Raising questions is good, but in this case, her sense of alarm leaves me feeling a bit lost and uncomfortable ... like I'm missing something. I would prefer to see a hint of context for it.

Overall: A terrific entry. I would definitely read on!

The Boy Who Ruined Everything (Middle Grade), by Dawn
A jet of flame shot past the window of Miss Morris’s fifth grade class. Everyone turned an accusatory look at David, who shrunk in his seat. Miss Morris barely hesitated as she wrote her sentence on the board, underlining the vocabulary words in pink chalk. “Louis, please read the sentence aloud for the class.”

David pretended to check his homework as Louis Corning stood up and recited, “The minions of Darkness ask for due penance and are paid a yearly tribute.” Louis had been David’s best friend back in first grade, but that was before. A lot of things had been different before.

Hmm, intriguing scene here. I am guessing we are in some sort of pseudo-fantasy world, maybe George-Orwell-meets-kid-lit? I want to know who the minions of Darkness are, why Louis and David are no longer best friends and what the heck David has to do with the shooting flame.

My only criticism is that I am not 100 percent sure who our MC is, though I am pretty certain it's David. I think my confusion has something to do with the actions in this scene. We have everyone turning, then David shrinking, then Miss Morris writing, then David pretending and then Louis standing up and reciting. It leaves me feeling as though we're bouncing around the room a bit much, and I might like to stay in David's head a little more. It's the last two sentences that most grab me and make me start to care about him. Maybe it could use just one or two more sentences after David shrinks in his seat so that we can focus on how he is feeling and what he is thinking.

Overall: Again, intriguing! I'm hooked!

Untitled (Middle Grade), by Lindsey

Not many people know that goat's eyeballs will bounce like one of those tiny super balls if they get away from  you. By my stepmother's scream this afternoon, I figured she didn't know either. But hearing Meredith's glorious, glass-shattering wail was worth all the time it took to gather up all the eyeballs that had ricocheted off the kitchen walls and then wrap them back up in the brown butcher paper.

Meredith held her neck with one trembling hand and her breath sounded like the brown rabbit I found hurt on the side of the road last week. (The rabbit didn't make it, but I wound up drawing a picture of its feet once it had passed on.) "Till...," she said, "you...should label time."

I started out the kitchen. "People don't usually snoop through my stuff."

Yes, the goat's eyeballs are mine, and they are most definitely real. My best friend, Benji, gave them to me when two of the old goats died on his dad's farm. They give me all kinds of animals parts when they're available.

OK, in the interest of full disclosure: I used to belong to a critique group with Lindsey and helped crit a funny MG manuscript of hers that I adored.

This is a new one for me, though, and so my first reaction when reading this is: More goats? Girl, what is it with you and the goats?

My next reaction is that I think I would once again adore this MS and this character. Till has a wonderful voice and comes across as funny and spunky. And this scene is plain funny.

We know that Till lives in a rural area and that she is not terribly fond of her stepmother. And we know these things because Lindsey has shown us, not because she has told us.

Potential thoughts for making it stronger: First, grammatically, I think we need to pluralize the goats and the eyes and the bouncing balls so they're all in sync in that first sentence. A couple of tweaks gives us: "Not many people know that goats' eyeballs will bounce like those tiny super balls if they get away from you."

Second, I didn't care for the parenthetical aside about the rabbit's feet. It took me out of this scene just as I was starting to get into it. I'd ditch it.

Finally, a question for Linds: Do you know for a fact that goats' eyes bounce? Cuz somebody out there is gonna know, so you want to make sure. And if you do know it for a fact ... um, how?!?

Overall: Lindsey's doing it again!

Untitled (Young Adult), by CC

If it wasn't for Kathleen O'Grady I wouldn't have this job at all, so I couldn't knock her for being an hour late with dinner, though it meant I'd have to take the bus back to my gangster Baltimore neighborhood instead of catching a ride with my cousin, Murphy. I would've blown it off, left, but Kathleen was bringing me college brochures and there was mention of a surprise as well. Last time she had a surprise I got an extra buck an hour pay raise.

Four weeks ago, just as school let out for the summer, Murphy got me on at the lawn care crew where he worked. His crew wore matching green T-shirts that read "Lawn Care, LLC," and, as the foreman, Murphy got to drive the kick-*** company truck, rows of mowers trailing behind in the flatbed, to their different jobs. I'd been tempted to take the wheel a few times, but I'd never been on Murphy's **** list before and I didn't want to be. That thick Irish body of his was apt enough to offer quite a beating. I'd seen him break someone's jaw with a single hit. Mostly, though, he was low-key. Minded his business. Worked and stayed out of trouble. Murphy was my favorite person in the whole world.

I like the voice here and the fact that we're easing into this character's world. Lives in a gangster neighborhood, works a summer job with a lawn care company, thinking about college. Admires his (her?) tough but quiet boss. Seems smart but not averse to street language. (And forgive my censorship, but I'm trying to overcome a black mark here.) We have no hint yet about the problem the MC faces, but this piece feels more literary to me, so I'm good with that.

Suggestions: Technically, the third word in the first sentence should be "weren't." Of course, this is written in first person, and maybe the main character wouldn't say that. I struggle with whether to make sure things are grammatically correct in my own writing, which also tends to be in first person, but I usually err on the side of being correct (occasional colloquialisms, slang and "teen talk" excepted).

I wondered whether the MC would refer to his/her neighborhood as "my gangster Baltimore neighborhood"? Do people who live in gangster neighborhoods think of them that way? I imagine some do, and that it depends on the person and the circumstances. My thought is that because this person refers to it that way, he or she is angry about the gang activity.

Finally, I like the second paragraph, but the first phrase, "Four weeks ago...." made me brace myself for backstory. My initial reaction was along the lines of, "Oh no, we're one paragraph into the opening scene and she's giving us backstory?" As I read on, I found the paragraph interesting and relevant, so it didn't bother me, so I'd suggest maybe flipping that first sentence around: "Murphy got me on at the lawn care crew four weeks ago, just as school let out for the summer."

Overall: I want to know more about this person and his/her life, which I'm certain is very different from my own. I'm reading on!

Many thanks to the four talented writers who agreed to participate in this exercise! I hope this is helpful, and I hope many of you will share your reactions to their first sentences. What do you like? What could be improved? Do you agree with my comments or am I out in left field? Let’s hear it!

Monday, February 4, 2008

King of Kong: A Film Full of Characters

What can we learn from a documentary about creating heroic heroes and villainous villians? Quite a lot, it turns out, if that documentary is The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

If you have not yet seen this movie, which examines two men's quest to prove themselves as all-time champions at Donkey Kong and which achieved a near-perfect rating at Rotten Tomatoes, please go out and rent it this weekend. You'll be glad you did. (Though you will begin to question what is wrong with Hollywood and the American public and the whole darn world that we are spending millions of dollars producing and watching utter crap when movies like this are out there just waiting to be made and seen, but that's a rant for a whole 'nother post.)

So, anyway ... back to the topic of drawing sympathetic heroes and hiss-worthy villains. Here are some lessons learned from this small masterpiece of the big screen:

Paint your hero as an underdog and your villain as an, er, overdog. The directors spend most of the first 10 minutes of the movie regaling us with tales of Billy's accomplishments at Donkey Kong and his renown among classic video fanatics. (Note: At this point, we don't know enough to dislike Billy. We don't know much about him at all, other than the fact that he can play some serious Kong.)

Then, the directors key the mournful music and switch to a profile of Steve, a down-and-out husband and father of two who was recently laid off from his job and has never quite reached the pinnacle of any of his exploits, whether they be athletic, musical or professional. As he takes stock of his life, Steve seizes upon one simple yet challenging goal: to beat the all-time high score in Donkey Kong set by Billy 25 years earlier.

Do not make your hero perfect. However, do make sure the reader can understand, relate to and sympathize with his or her flaws. We root for Steve in part because of his weaknesses. His brother tells us he has "social hangups," his wife says he is obsessive-compulsive and his mother surmises that he may suffer from a mild form of autism. Each of these traits serve dual purposes in this film: They help us understand why Steve is so competitive at Donkey Kong and they make us care about him.

Give your villain an unfair advantage. A major theme that keeps reappearing in this movie is the fact that Steve's every score and every game are scrutinized to the nth degree, while Billy gets a free pass and literally "mails them in." At one point, the video game "referee" comes right out and admits it is to his organization's advantage to have Billy as reigning champ because of his fame among the gamers' subculture and his supposed charisma.

It also helps if your villain is a megalomaniac. Why not have your villain compare himself, his skills and his reputation to, say, God, Helen of Troy, the United States of America, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Red Baron and even the abortion issue? Right, right, that would be way over the top. No one would believe someone could have such an overblown opinion of himself. Only....

Now, before all you Billy fans out there (are there any Billy fans out there, cuz if there are, I'd like to meet you) comment with complaints, I do recognize that the directors of the movie edited this a la "Survivor" and some other reality shows so as to make one character come across as sympathic as possible and the other to appear, well, as big an idiot as possible.

But it sure makes for some great entertainment and some masterful storytelling. Let's hope we can do half as well in our fiction.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Lessons on Great Starts

UPDATE 1: Instead of the first sentence of the works in progress, I am going to ask for the first 8-10 sentences, as I think that will give us a better feel for the writing and the story. So far I have five writers interested in participating. If you'd like to participate as well, please leave a comment with your submission or with info on how to reach you. Thanks!

UPDATE 2: Nathan Bransford has picked the finalists for his First Pages Contest. Alas, my entry is not among them. But some truly amazing first pages are! Check them out and vote for your favorite here.

UPDATE 2(b) Nathan just posted the winner of the contest ... very much a deserving first page! And, he named his top 10, including mine! Yippee!

A two-part post here. First, I wanted direct any of you who are interested in writing novels to some fantabulous advice regarding first pages being doled out over on agent Nathan Bransford's blog (the advice begins about a third of the way down in that entry).

Nathan is in the midst of judging a first-pages contest in which he received a mind-numbing 620 or so entries (including mine ... you can go here and do a search for "lindabudz" if you're inclined to check out the first page of my current WIP). Warning: It might take a minute for that page to load. Did I mention he had 600+ entries?

Anyway, reading all those openings has led Nathan to a few revelations about what works and what doesn't. And if you scan through a handful of them, you'll probably see what he means. Interesting stuff.

Secondly, in a brouhaha too convoluted to discuss here, many entrants expressed a desire in Nathan's comments section for critiques from their fellow writers.

This gave me an idea, and so I've decided to institute a new edition of my "It's a Start" feature in which I will give my opinions on the first sentence (or so) of kid lit writers' works in progress. This will not replace the regular "It's a Start" feature but will be posted in addition to it on occasion. I've had some interest from a couple of writers and am hoping it will build on itself.

If you'd like your first sentence(s) included, please leave me a comment and I'll work out the logistics from there. Thanks!