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!


Anonymous said...

Yay for Linda for continuing to do this!

I'm blunt, please don't take offense to that... By the way, in my own first couple of paragraphs in the previous sampling, I forgot to mention if the MC was a boy or girl and also had a typo "wasn't" in the first sentence, so I'm hardly perfect myself.

Here goes:

Brenda -- Lovely, rich, writing with lots of subtext! I love it that the character secretly loves his/her name and it also gives an indication that his/her mother is more of a free spirit type of woman to have chosen the name, so it does double duty.

My elementary did have the stage in the lunch room...


I don't know if "Presley" is a boy or girl, because I've heard the name used for either sex. I agree with Linda that I've never heard of that Elvis song. Maybe change it to Jailhouse Rock, or a song more recognizable? Also, do Middle School kids know who Elvis is? I was also confused as to whether or not the "hall dwellers" were, in fact, the Most Popular kids? Right now it sounds like they might be two different groups of kids?


Anonymous said...

Beth --

Not a fantasy reader either, so keep that in mind.

I loved the idea that to one person something was an "opportunity, choice" and another character might think its an "accident." Very intriguing to have such opposite points of view.


I need some major context! I don't know who the main character is or what his situation is. Which character are we supposed to be relating to, rooting for? Starting with dialogue is really hard for a fantasy book since we aren't sure what world we are in.

I'd say give us a few paragraphs at least to clue us in on what kind of place we're in and who the main characgter is (?)


Anonymous said...


I loved the sense of motion, both pysically and emotionally, right off the bat. Loved the "cherry sun" line.


You are safe to cut one "As Peter raced" or "As Peter ran" because there is no indication that between the first and last line he's stopped running.

Also, the "Humiliating and gloomy," line didn't work for me for some reason. I think it is because we find the Main Character is humiliated by the dialogue he speaks "Vowing dad will never do that again," so saying it twice might be redundant (?)

There's stomach quivering, brain sizzling, and humiliation and anger spurring... is this too many emotions for four lines (?) You could maybe cut "spurring anger" because again, the use of "vow" indicates the MC isn't defeated by what's happened, but is going to spend the book overcoming it(?)

That's a lot of nitpicks, I know. It's hard to judge without the rest of the book to read, so I might be totally off base.


LindaBudz said...

Oooh, CC, you're good! Thanks so much for these. I'm learning a lot!

cc said...

Ummm... I should be thanking you, Linda, as this will only help me to view my own work with a more critical eye. Why is it so easy to see a minor flaw in someone else's work? Probably because I haven't read theirs a hundred million times!


Anonymous said...

I tried to post this once before, but it didn't work. I'm hoping this'll get through, but I'll be smart enough to copy it in case I lose it this time!

Thank you again, Linda, for doing this. And I appreciate you dropping in, CC, to offer some comments. I've revised my opening countless times, and it's gotten to the point where my crit partner is begging me not to show it to her again (nicely, of course). I still need feedback, though, so I appreciate it.

My comments on the other entries:
Beth, I agree with what Linda and CC said regarding clarity. I like the feeling of tension you create in this scene, but I had trouble following who was speaking and what the conflict was about. It's such a fine line to walk, one I have trouble navigating, between raising curiosity/questions in the reader's mind and providing context that avoids confusion.

Sue, I love the movement and immediacy of yours. It's great to drop right into action, and I enjoyed the cherry sun too. I agreed with CC that the mixture of emotions seems a bit overwhelming, and I agree that the humiliation sentence could be cut, since it's implied in the dialogue. Also, IMHO, the second sentence is a stronger start (sizzling didn't bother me), but it would be even better if you cut "that had his" and then make "sizzling" do stronger duty. Something like: "It wasn't the heat from the cherry sun that sizzled Peter's brain. Racing from the campsite, he vowed, 'Dad will never get that chance again!'" I think this accomplishes all you set out to do, in fewer words. FWIW...

Thanks again, Linda! I'll be checking back for more.


LindaBudz said...

Thank YOU, Brenda ... great comments! I have five more "beginnings" to post, and I'm planning to do so this weekend. This has been a lot of fun!