8 on Eight Contest Feedback

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Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Opening your work up to feedback takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm. If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for our next contest window (on June 1st). Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and thoughts in the comments section below.

NOTHER LAND

(MG Historical Fantasy)

September 1940

I pressed my cheek against the cold train window. My heartbeat thudded with each chug of the engine, taking me away from Mother, waving her hanky from the platform edge. She faded into the blanket of fog and out of sight, but I kept my face against the glass. Edwin couldn’t see me cry, no one could — especially not the classmates sharing my compartment. My first time away from home and branded a crybaby? No, thank you. Besides, Mother said I had to be brave. Instead, I squeezed Purrl, my beanbag cat, hidden under my grey school blazer, until my breath stilled.

Michelle- The image you’ve evoked is so lovely. I feel sympathy for your MC, a girl I assume, and we can immediately relate to her. Your words are beautiful and carefully chosen. You could play around with phrasing to maximize the impact. For example,

My heartbeat thudded with each chug of the engine taking me away from Mother. Waving her hanky from the platform edge, she faded into the blanket of fog and out of sight.

I kept my face against the glass. Edwin couldn’t see me cry. No one could — especially not the classmates sharing my compartment.

For the last sentence, take out “Instead” and see what you think. Also, I think “steadied” would be better than “stilled.” Is this your inciting incident? If so, it seems a bit early, and we haven’t had the chance to get to know your MC before. If not, you’ve done a great job of bringing tension in right off the bat. Nice! I would love to read more. Good luck!

Richelle — I agree with Michelle (surprise!) that this scene is so evocative. I like the little hint of voice we get from her “No, thank you.” and the name of her cat, and I feel immediately invested in her situation.

I would love even more of that voice! Does she have any feelings about leaving home other than sadness? Is she angry? Proud? Excited-but-sad? Terrified-but-determined-to-be-brave? Are there ways you can inject her description of the scene with a bit more of her feelings and personality?

Also, I’m a bit concerned that a child being sent off to boarding school or evacuated from London on a train is definitely an opening I’ve seen before. (Though I may have read more classic British children’s literature as a child than most modern kids!) A familiar opening could be OK if you quickly take it in a completely unexpected direction. But I don’t know if it’s enough to hook a modern reader.

Gabrielle — Nice job! You’ve got a great start on an evocative piece. I agree with Michelle about playing with the phrasing. I’d break up your sentences into shorter ones to raise the tension.

I would leave off “instead” as well. I think I’d also either share more about Edwin or take that line out of this paragraph, and leave him out until we get a real introduction. We don’t know who he is here, or even where he is, so that line is distracting. Just adjust the next sentence accordingly. I was thinking about the people outside the train, so it took me a second to figure out how her face against the glass kept people from seeing her cry. Easy fix. Just add “and away from the classmates sharing my compartment” to the against the glass sentence. Then you could cut that from the crybaby sentence.

You did a good job working in senses. In terms of Richelle’s comment about your character’s feelings, I wonder if she’s being forced to leave, or leaving voluntarily, but under duress? It could be powerful to reference that in some way right at the start. My last question for you is whether you’ve played at all with putting this in third person? Might be worth trying a chapter or two and compare them to see which you like more, and which feels stronger.

Jessica: Your writing is lovely and I adore the voice that comes through in the latter part of this sample (as well as the name Purrl). But I’m going to have to agree with Richelle––this feels like an opening that has been done before. The first couple of sentences are so general that they could really be used at the start of almost any going-off-to-school-on-the-train scene.What is it about your story that makes it unique and special?  I’d encourage you to really dig deep and find a way to hook us right away with the first sentence. Give us the great voice we see toward the end of the sample or find a way to convey that you have a story or MC that we’ve not seen before.

In terms of specifics, I’ll note that the the first time I found myself engaged with the text was when we reached the image of the mother fading into the fog; unfortunately, the very next line pulled me right back out of the story. I think Edwin must be a classmate on the train with the MC, but the way it’s worded, I can’t quite tell if he’s in the car with her (if he’s not, then the MC doesn’t need to worry about him seeing her cry. And if he is, then why single him out if she’s “especially” worried about the other classmates?). Also, be careful with the phrase “breath stilled.” This, to me, implied dying, which I don’t think is what you intend to convey. 🙂

Kristi: This is gorgeous. I LOVE the writing. I think you’ve left me with just enough questions that I’m intrigued, but not confused– which is exactly how I like books to start. You’ve also set the time well with little details of the train, hanky and school uniforms. I can really picture all of this and really know that it’s historical without having to be told. Kudos!

I’m also loving the hint of voice, but I’d love to see it highlighted in every thought. The “No, thank you” is perfect, but I do think you can amp it up in all your 8 lines. Strong voice will seep into every syllable. It doesn’t need to be overdone, but definitely it can be a strong undertone.

I’m going to agree with the above comment that this might not be the best place to start. My current WIP started with waiting and then on the school bus and my agent was quick to tell me to find the “real” beginning. You don’t want to lose an agent at this point. Beautiful writing can win them over, but don’t take the chance of them having read 20 other “bus/train/car” scenes and throw yours in the slush, too!

Laurel: This is the kind of atmospheric story I like. It’s rich enough to fully engage the imagination. The lovely meter of the first lines matches the heartbeat thudding to the train’s rhythm. I’m going to list the promises to the reader I get out of these first 8 lines. If I’m totally wrong, maybe my reader reactions will still be useful. If not, follow the first rule of feedback and disregard. 🙂

1. NOTHER LAND has an echo of Never-never Land. The title matches with the historical fantasy genre and hints something about the kind of place that will be on the other end of the train ride. Who will be in charge? Will the world be like PETER PAN or LORD OF THE FLIES?

2. The 1940 made me think of children leaving for the countryside to escape the war, but the school blazer hints they are headed to school. For good or ill, a train to school evokes Hogwarts.

3. Edwin, whoever he is, is good at calling people names and maybe worse. One cannot show weakness in front of him. I wondered if he was a classmate or a sibling, but I don’t think I have to know exactly in the first 8 lines.

4. The MC doesn’t want to show weakness to the classmates. Maybe Mother can’t see the tears from outside the train. Vulnerable and trying to be brave is an appealing mixture.

5. Mother’s hints about bravery suggest school isn’t the only threat in the MC’s future. Hmm. I just realized that I don’t know if the MC is a girl or a boy. Something about Prrrl made me lean towards girl, but that could be prejudice on my part.

6. Mother is so present that it makes me wonder if she’s all the family the MC has. Is Father just at work? At the War Office? or no longer alive? I don’t need to know this yet, but I’m wondering.

Small nitpicks: I wonder if you want a paragraph break before Edwin? Is it couldn’t or shouldn’t see the MC cry? Overall, more paragraph breaks might let the voice come out more in contrast to the rich historical fantasy world.

Nice work in a small space!

Karin: I’m immediately pulled in, so well done! I’m intrigued by the title, and think you intentionally want the comparison to Neverland as the British evacuation of children from the cities during WWII was called Operation Pied Piper.

I love Purrl, the beanbag cat, and don’t mind the introduction of Edwin as it hints at trouble. While I did like the sensory details of cold glass and heartbeat in time to the chug of the train, I agree with my fellow pennies that resting your cheek on a cold glass has been done a lot and even Mother waving a hanky and disappearing into the fog is a little cliche. You can start here but if you do, her (I’m assuming it’s a girl) experiences must be very real and unique to her.

In an SCBWI workshop, author Jennifer Jacobson talked about the importance of incongruity. Cold glass, foggy, tears are expected choices. Sometimes emotion can be heightened by the unexpected. For example, perhaps it’s the first sunny day in a week. I used to live in London so remember the endless cloudy days, but an incongruity like the first sunny day in a week can intensify the reader’s empathy as it feels a more real, more true.

Sounds like a terrific story. Good luck!

Sussu — Thank you for choosing The Winged Pen! We’re glad to have you today.

This is a pleasing entry. The words are well chosen and one image in particular transported me into your world. I was pleased by the diverse choice of sensory words like “cold window”, “chug”, “squeeze.” The action moves fast, which is good, but maybe a little bit too fast for the moment. It would have been nice to open a window into the soul of the protagonist, dig deeper, to help me connect with her more. Maybe she’s never been away from her mom and she might be thinking that no one will understand her like her mom. Maybe her mom is a single mom and the protagonist is afraid she will feel alone and lost. A connection could be established here to foreshadow a feeling of deep loneliness or guilt and hint at the nature of their life together. Is she fighting those tears off? Are they gathering behind her eyelids or is she standing straight and composed? Knowing all of this could help the characterization and would tell me more about who this stranger is.

Because this is historical fiction, I was expecting some more hints at the setting. What could we see in 1940 through the window of a train and inside the compartment that we would not see today? What about the fashion and the mom’s hairdo, hat? People around? The machineries? What makes the protagonist’s mom stand out in the blanket of fog that the protagonist will keep in her mind week after week, month after month? Would it smell of picnic baskets around the compartment, or cold tobacco, or even ink? Would the buzz of school kids envelop the protagonist? She seems all alone in this train, yet Edwin seems to be watching her and she shares the compartment with other classmates. I don’t know who Edwin is, yet you mention his name alone, without cluing me on what kind of a relationship they have and why he would be so judgmental of her.

And where are they heading? What country is this? Does this train station have a name?

It is a good idea to have the name of the protagonist mentioned as soon as possible. Name give good clues about status, origin and time. There are a few places where this could happen. For example, in here, “My first time away from home and branded a crybaby? Adele the crybaby. ”

Despite a lack of clear setting (time/place), I could sympathize with your protagonist and I had a clear picture of what was going on.  Thank you for being so brave to share your entry. I enjoyed it.

 

4 thoughts on “8 on Eight Contest Feedback

  1. Thank you so much everyone! Your comments are so helpful and thoughtful. It’s so interesting to hear how the opening lines impact people who’ve never read it and what works/doesn’t work. I shall get to work!

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