Saturday, March 1, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition III

Welcome to the third edition of It's a Start: Work in Progress. This edition will take a look at five "entries."

If you'd like to submit your novel's beginning for a future post, 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).

Once again, 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 Memoirs of Shadows (Young Adult), by Dhonielle

I know I’ll never be free. Grand-mère told me the summer after the shadows came that they’d follow me for life. She let me inside her forbidden room, the one she always shooed me and my older brother Devon away from each summer when our parents sent us down to Louisiana . Sitting inside this room with a blue-draped doorway, she lit bumpy, finger-like candles and sticks that smoked and ashed, clogging the dark room with scents which made my head float in air water. I was only twelve when I watched my Creole grandmother drop bones from a bag and pray, waving her heavy hands in the air, all the bangles and bracelets she wore jangling; her fluffy white hair billowing around her like storm clouds trapped on top of her head; her skin the color of the pistachio shells buried in her pocket, reddening beneath candlelight.

Her wrinkly hands spread the little bones out on the table and I fixated on the cataract in her left eye overtaking her brown pupil. I’d been afraid to look at those bones, for fear that the animal from which she retrieved them would somehow rise again on that black covered table, the bones reassembling themselves, linking together, finding one another and the animal would hiss and leap from the table, eventually slinking away somewhere in the house. I remember her saying, “Petit, those shadows you see are things God left behind. You know when he created the world. Keep quiet about them to keep them safe. You’re a special girl.”

Wow, this piece has such a distinct mood ... the lyrical writing, the imagery, the voice and the subject matter all combine wonderfully to create a sense of "shadowy" foreboding. Nicely done!

In general, literary stuff isn't my bag, so you can take my criticism with a grain of salt. I guess my main thought here is that I'm hoping the next paragraph is going to bring us back to the present, or to the time when the story that's about to be told occurs. I feel like most of these two paragraphs are backstory, though since they're interesting backstory, I don't mind. But I would want to get to the current story pretty quickly. I also want to find out soon how old the MC is now.

Which brings me to my only other issue: At first I thought that first paragraph was discussing two separate things: (1) the summer after the shadows came and her grandmother told her they'd follow her for life and (2) one time when she was twelve and her grandmother did a reading of the bones. It wasn't until I read it over again that I realized it is all one scene. I think maybe you could take out "I was only twelve when," which to my mind signal a shift in scenes, and work in the fact that she was twelve some other way.

Overall: Gorgeous writing. Makes me want to think about giving literary YA another look!

Afterside (Young Adult), by Lisa

Mateo Santiago crouched in the grocery store basement and watched the rat he'd failed to trap slither behind some potato sacks. He unfolded Mama's letter of hopeless dreams from his pocket, smoothed it out and read it one more time. Last night, meaning to throw them both away, he'd crumpled it in his pocket along with the poster for the poetry slam in Mainville. How could he tell Mama trouble had found him just like Esteban?

Noche crept to his side on three legs and rubbed against him, purring like an idling truck. Mateo dug out a few meat strips from his apron pocket. "Aqui, un poquito." The cat nibbled daintily and licked his palm with its rough tongue.

Mateo rubbed under Noche's chin. She purred louder. "Tío will kill me if he finds out I'm feeding you. If I don't come around anymore, how will you eat, you lazy cat?"

Ray's hoarse voice called down the stairs. "Matty! Dude, you down there? You better come up. There's people here lookin' for you."

OK, that last quote took us beyond the 12-sentence limit, but I left it in there because the language works so beautifully in contrast with the first few paragraphs. Again, we have great writing and voice. And lots of strong verbs: crouched, slither, smoothed, crumpled ... all in the first paragraph! I'm intrigued to know what trouble has found Mateo ... who are these people who are looking for him?

I'm sort of digging for something to criticize here, so this is kind of picky, but "letter of hopeless dreams" took me out of the scene a bit. I had to think about what that might mean, and I'm still not sure. I think maybe it would be better just to say "letter" for now and then later we can learn more about what's in it.

Overall: Makes me long to be back in your crit group so I can read the rest, Lis!

Blue (Middle Grade), by Heather

"Are you sure that it is safe?" asked Prince Nicholas, gazing up the trunk of the large tree.

Kelly sighed and impatiently pushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. Don't be such a wimp."

"I'm not a wimp," Nicholas said, frowning.

"Then prove it. Race me to the top of the tree," Kelly said, shooting a challenging look at her cousin.

"Fine," said Nicholas, resolutely straightening his shoulders as he stood in front of the tree.

Kelly took her place on the opposite side of the tree. "Ready...set...go!" she said, and the two began climbing.

Starting with dialogue can be tricky business, but I think this works. "Are you sure it's safe?" sets us right down into some good conflict. Makes me think something bad is going to come of this tree-climbing race. Which is good! Get those characters into some hot water and keep them there. I'm also starting to get a sense of these characters ... one a bit more cautious than the other, which you've done a good job of showing us rather than telling us.

A couple of thoughts: First, we know Nicholas is a prince, which made me wonder what Kelly is. She must have some sort of noble title, and I'd like to know what that is.

Second, most of your dialogue tags follow the same pattern, which got repetitious for me: "asked, gazing"; "said, frowning"; "said, shooting"; "said, straightening." I would just delete the tag on a couple of those. For example: "Then prove it. Race me to the top of the tree." Kelly shot a challenging look at her cousin. "Fine." Nicholas straightened his shoulders. If you have the action follow the quote, we know who's talking and don't need the tag. (And in that last sentence, I don't think we need "as he stood in front of the tree" since we already know he was gazing up its trunk.)

Overall: Hard to tell from this small snippet, but it seems as though you have two engaging characters, and I want to know what happens when they get to the top of that tree.

Triple Threat: A Theatre Novel in Three Acts (Middle Grade), by Steve

Act One

Permission to Audition


I was in kindergarten the first time I ever saw Duncan Kirby. He was on stage dressed in a penguin suit, tap dancing with eleven other five and six-year-olds in a Sunday matinee of Mr. Popper’s Penguins at the Fremont Gap Community Theatre, better known as FGCT, over six years ago.

That was the day I decided to become an actor.

My name is Wyatt Appleby. I’ll be twelve as of 10:42 today, Friday, August 24. Monday I start sixth grade at James Van Allen Middle School here in Fremont Gap, Iowa, home of the University of Western Iowa. Go Cougars!

And I am in love.

There’s no girl involved. No, I am in love with Theatre. Theatre with a capital T. (And an RE at the end instead of an ER.)

I won’t give Duncan all the credit, but seeing a kid my own age so talented, I pictured me on stage, too. Every time I saw him in a show I wanted it even more.

Well, well. Wyatt Appleby is something else, isn't he? What a voice. I love that he knows exactly what time he turns twelve. I love that he spells Theatre with a capital T and an "re" at the end. I love that he decided to become an actor at the ripe old age of six. And the way he proclaims he’s in love … he clearly has a flair for drama. Terrific!

My thoughts, fairly picayune: (1) I’d save the “better known as FGCT” for later in the story. Got in the way a bit for me here in the first paragraph. (2) I think in that last paragraph it should be “I pictured myself….”

Overall: Not sure what a "theatre novel" is, but so far, so good! I definitely want to continue reading about this kid. Regardless of the plot, the theme, the story arc … your writing and voice are enough to draw me in. (Of course, the plot, theme and story arc all do need to be there in the final analysis.)

Declaration (Young Adult), by Cyndy

This isn't my story. Senior year, I was just the girl that scribbled in the back of the room. I wrote for the school newspaper, Dragon's Fire, reporting on homecoming preparations, chess club, the demands for more student parking on campus. The job came with the title Editor-in-Chief, one of those nobody positions that looks great on college applications.

My real claim to fame was being Abby's best friend. She and her boyfriend, Big John, were First Couple at Massey High School. Head cheerleader. Captain of the football team. Luck, or maybe Fate, had seated me behind Abby on our first day of kindergarten. People don't think much about those little things that day to day change the course of your life. But that friendship made me an insider for the next thirteen years. It was the reason I knew all the players in the drama to come. Big John and Abby. Siggi. Crazy Sam. Benji Franks.

It was Benji who told me: "Marcy, there are the immovable, the movable, and those who move. And in addition, there are those who move nothing more than a pencil, but who may be the strongest movers of all."

So, although this isn't my story, maybe it is my story to tell. And here it is: the events, the personalities, and maybe some commentary on life at Massey High as it unfolded that year. As I remember, it all started in Ms. Wheatley's Honors American Revolution class.

OK, this one went beyond my 12-word limit too, but hey, it’s my blog, and I can bend the rules when I want.

I can tell right off the bat I’m going to like Marcy. Partly because of my journalism background, I’m sure, but also because she knows her place in the world. She’s not a mover or a shaker, but she hangs with people who are and wants to report on them. An unusual viewpoint for us to hear a story from and one that intrigues me.

The writing here is great, very clean and clear. I think my only question is this: Although Marcy sees herself as a “reporter” in this tale, will she also have a stake in it? Because readers don’t care so much about things that happen, they care about the people they happen to. If Marcy is our narrator, I think it will work best if we see that she will in some way be affected by the outcome of events in the story.

Overall: Exceptional writing. I would definitely keep reading.

Thanks to Dhonielle, Lisa, Heather, Steve and Cyndy for allowing me to give my reactions to their first sentences. I invite all visitors to leave your own thoughts in the comments section. Continued best wishes for your works in progress!


Anonymous said...

I'm blunt, take my comments with a grain of salt. Keep what applies and chuck the rest. I'll do these in separate comment boxes otherwise it's too hard to keep them straight.

Dhonielle --

Your voice is distinct and I do like literary things so I'm drawn to this as it looks like something unique -- no prom queens or popularity issues going on here.

I loved the image of "bones coming back to life, linking together."


The first two sentences are confusing. Possibly reconsider changing it to "...When I was twelve my Grand-mere told me I'd never be free..."

It might have a better flow to it if you started the story with a scene of how this girl "isn't free." A scene showing the responsibility and struggle of her gift(?) And then, later, give us the information of how her Grandmere told her about her gift.

The images you use are striking, but there's way too many of them. In one paragraph you've got waving hands with bracelets jangling, fluffy white hair billowing like storm clouds, skin the color of pistachio shells and something (her skin?) reddening beneath candlight. These are all deep and beautiful images on their own, but bunched up in one paragraph is simply too much. I'm less interested in the description than I am in finding out what the "shadows left behind" are.

By the way, It's really unclear what the shadows left behind are. And, how that translates into the main character's arc for the book.


Anonymous said...

I'm blunt: take what makes sense to you, leave the rest.

Lisa --

Okay, can I tell you how much I love the anme Matteo Santiago. LOVE IT! You've got a great vibe going on here, a really detailed account of this kid hiding out in a basement, but yet he still has enough compassion to pet and feed a cat. I like this kid already.

Also liked the contrasting tone of the dialogue, "Matty, dude..."


Didn't care for the "letter of hopes" or whatever that was. "Letter" would be fine.

There's something wrong with the line "trouble had found him just like Estaban." I know what you mean, it just doesn't sound correct gramatically -- you need a comma or something. Like, "He'd found trouble,just like Esteban," or even, "Trouble had found him. Just like Esteban."


Anonymous said...

I'm blunt. Take what you want; leave the rest.

Cyndy --

Love the voice. Love the intelligent and sophisticated thoughts of the Main Character, like "... People don't think much about those things, the day to changes that change the course of your life..."

Lines like this give me a lot of hope for this novel. I like insightful characters. A lot.


I'm trying to come up with another YA that has the narrator as a non-vital part of the story and I can't come up with one. So... if this is something like The Great Gatsby, where the narrator is in the story but its really about others... I dunno... Gatsby WAS involved in the story, by being in obsessed with Daisy. So... I'm not sure what to say about this.

The main character is the one who changes through the course of the novel. Is the narrator's friend the main character? Do the main character and the narrator intersect in some meaningful way to turn the plot?

I'm not helping at all, I know. I don't know enough about how this is crafted to be able to comment as far as the plot goes. But the writing is lovely.


Anonymous said...

Steve --

Well, heck, Steve. I can't come up with any complaints about this. I don't have a clue what a theater novel is either, but I love the voice of this kid, and the fresh sort of bluntness he possesses.

My only real concern was the paragraph where the main character announces his vital stats, because the rest of the piece seemed to flow a little more organically. BUT... if he's a theater kid -- and obviously not lacking in confidence -- I can see that having him blurt out this info would be in keeping with his personality.

So... that's it. I got nothing. Helpful, aren't I? Good luck with this. It caught me right up.


Anonymous said...

Please excuse all my annoying typos in my above comments. This is what trying to hurry gets me.

Good luck to everyone.


LindaBudz said...

Thanks, CC! I really appreciate the "tag team" commenting!!


Lisa A. said...

Thanks, CC and thanks Linda, for doing this. I am always happy to do an ms exchange with you. I miss your EDITING skills. There's very few better than this lady!!!! Take that from one who knows.

LindaBudz said...

Aw, thanks, Lis! I just may take you up on the exchange offer when I get the first draft of my WIP done.