4 on 400: April Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

 

Casey Buckles and the Keeper of the Ice Caves

Middle-Grade Adventure

Casey Buckles clutched the torn note, certain its words would lead to his death. He’d found the paper, jammed between the fridge and kitchen cabinet. Thinking it a lost homework page, he plucked it out, horrified at the one sentence.

He sank back in the bus’s musty seat, squeezing his hand around the ominous message. The rickety old coach jostled him about as it bumped along the dirt road. A cold sweat blanketed his arm making it look like the surface of a wet peach. He closed his eyes. The load of noisy kids and vinyl odor made his head swim with scenes of his demise: a slow death, trapped in a pool of water, freezing over.

The grayish paper lay limp across his palm as he unfurled his fingers. Although its contents freaked him out, he hadn’t shown it to his mom. She’d already been hiding her tears at him leaving. This would’ve sent her over the edge.

He smoothed the paper across his thigh to reread the chicken scratch:

Marty, your family, danger, killing, get to the ice caves.

A shiver tingled down his back at his dad’s name. His boring family being in danger was laughable, but he cursed his father all the same for sending him off to these mountains in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. His hand tremored as he hoped the note was nothing, a joke. After all, he was just going to summer camp—a camp with ice caves.

Outside the window, a dense forest slid by. Pine trees lined the road, offering peeks into the deep darkness beyond. A skittish brown squirrel flew up a tree trunk, disappearing into a shadowy knothole. Casey would’ve liked to join the squirrel. He contemplated sneaking out the bus’s emergency exit to take his chances in the forest. Bigfoot would be cake, compared to four weeks at camp, with a bunch of strangers—oh, and dying.

Enough. He clenched his jaw. His imagination might be off base with the note, but he had to be prepared to keep his family safe. Even if he knew he’d probably fail. He wasn’t athletic, couldn’t swim, and was scared of bees. Yeah, the honey making kind. How could he keep himself safe, let alone his parents?

He pulled a tablet from his backpack, giving the screen a couple of swipes to display the camp’s webpages he’d downloaded last night.

 

Sussu: Thank you for choosing The Winged Pen and trusting us with your work. First of all, I have to say well-done. This is a nice beginning with high stakes. There is a disturbance and I know what the story is about. However, 1) The pace is fast, so fast the passage sounds more like a summary. Show Casey’s reaction when he picks up the paper, his astonishment, the fear growing in his heart, and explain why he would take this threat/warning seriously. Would he hide something that would put his family in danger? 2) Although I appreciate the fact that Casey is facing the problem alone, I thought the initiative and the voice felt very mature. This being said, the writing ran smoothly and was engaging and this is something I would read. Good luck.

Jessica: This sounds like an intriguing story and I love your use of detail (vinyl odor, wet peach, etc.). However, I agree with Sussu that there is quite a bit of room for fleshing all of this out; as it stands, there are several items that might confuse the reader. In particular, it’s not clear why Casey would take the threat seriously, especially since we are told that the thought of his family being in danger is laughable. It’s also not clear why he’d be imagining his own death (trapped in a pool of freezing water) so vividly. Finally, I’d encourage you to flesh out how/why he feels responsible for keeping his family safe–since he’s left his family behind, what makes him think there’s anything he can or might be expected to do? The way the note is written, it sounds to me like he’ll be safe at camp and thus should be more worried about the family he left behind. Thank you for sharing your work and best of luck with your revisions!

Laurel: Are there really ice caves in Idaho? What a fascinating setting! This passage made me think about how to decide what information to withhold and what to reveal. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to suppress the contents of the note. It almost feels like the suspense would be greater if we knew what it said up front. Say, right after the one horrifying sentence. 🙂 If Casey then thought about all the reasons this message was bad, the tension could still escalate in the same way you’ve built it in here. Are there words missing in the sentence because Casey can’t quite make out the chicken scratch handwriting? The message’s contents could get more attention from the reader if that handwriting hint was a touch broader. I was a little puzzled that Casey thinks about keeping his family safe. The note is addressed to the father, so I thought Casey was in danger. (Hence the icy pools.) There’s a lot of nice detail in this passage that makes the setting feel real. Best wishes for many readers!!

Julie: I agree with everything that’s been said. You’ve got an exciting premise, a fabulous character name, and some intriguing details. But slowing this passage down will help draw the reader in more in this first scene. You’re trying to grab us with an intriguing first line (which is important), but since the next two sentence jump into a the past and then the next paragraph jumps forward–from the kitchen where the note was found to the bus–it’s a little jarring. I also wanted some more details about this world to give us a stronger sense of whether he’s in a present-day world or a magical/alternate world. Some of the words evoke a classic or old-timey feel (rickety old coach, ominous message, shadowy knothole), but then he’s sitting in a vinyl bus seat, swiping a tablet, and using slang like “cake” that feels much more modern. Address these few small things and I think you’ll have a winner!

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The April #Fouron400 Kidlit Writing Contest Window is now Open!

Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of April, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

*Please check your email SPAM filter to make sure it will allow an email from info@thewingedpen.com

Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to our Facebook page and find our post about the April Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on April 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

Four on 400: March Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

 

HEART OF THE HUDSON

MG Historical Fiction

“When I see the likes o’ ‘im,” Mrs. Macgregor bellowed, lumbering into the kitchen and across the freshly scrubbed floor, “I’ll give ‘im a slap on the ear!”

Cara ducked her head and curled into a ball as she knelt by the wash bucket on the floor.

“When ‘e fancies showin’ up, send ‘im in ‘ere,” Mrs. Macgregor said and huffed out of the kitchen through the drawing room door.

Cara pushed herself to her feet and surveyed the trail of footprints. “Ugh,” she groaned, knowing she’d have to start over. If the floors weren’t spotless, she’d pay for it later.

The back door opened a crack and Will peeked through the opening.

“Well, speak of the devil,” Cara said, glaring at him.

Will lifted a finger to his lips, shushing her. “Where’s Igor?” he whispered, using the nickname they called Mrs. Macgregor.

“Follow the footprints,” Cara said, angrily gesturing with a sweep of her hand.

Will eased the door open, but stood awkwardly in the entrance.

“You were supposed to be here hours ago.” Cara dropped the brush into the bucket and droplets of water littered the floor.

“I lost track of time.” Will raised his arm, hoisting a line of fish in front of him. “This should make her happy!”

“Your fish don’t fool me. What have you been up to?”

Cara planted her hands on her hips and rose to her full height. She still only reached the top of his shoulder, so she narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.

“You sound more like Igor every day.” Will frowned as he stepped through the doorway.

Cara ignored his biting remark. “I can tell you’re up to no good. There’s something different about you.” She wrinkled her nose. “I could smell you before I could see you, so it’s not a girl you’re trying to impress.”

She took in her older brother’s ruffled appearance – his knee-worn pants and ill-fitting shirt that exposed two inches of forearm. Will squirmed as Cara looked him over from head to toe, like he was a prized hog at the market. Will’s curly, black hair was matted and he sported the ever present dirt smudges on his face.

Honestly,” she said. “How can a person who practically lives on the water get so dirty?”

Fear prickled along her skin. Will’s blue eyes sparkled – almost feverishly. “You’ve been out to the ship!” she gasped.

Gita: Thank you for sharing the beginning of THE HEART OF THE HUDSON with us. I love (and write) historical fiction and by the time I got to the disparity between Cara’s fear and Will’s feverish excitement over the mysterious ship, I was eager to read on. Because beginnings are so important, I’d love to see you get the reader to that point more directly. I’m curious about your choice to start with Mrs Macgregor—in particular, with her dialogue. Not only is it in dialect, but your story’s first lines are uttered by a character who soon exits the scene. My preference—both in writing and reading—is to use word choice and word order to convey dialect. For me, changing the spelling would be a last resort if I felt the character’s voice wasn’t clear enough. I’m also wondering: do you need to start the scene with Mrs Macgregor? Another option would be to see how it feels starting with your protagonist Cara, bent over the wash bucket, just before Will comes in, at which point Cara’s angry statement, “You were supposed to be here hours ago,” introduces the real action and gets us closer to the conflict. Good luck with this! Happy writing!

Laurel: I really enjoyed the strong moment at the end. I felt Cara putting the pieces together to come to a conclusion. The excitement about the ship jumps right off the page. As a reader, I’m in the moment. I want to know what’s going to happen with that ship. This line really gives us Will’s personality: “‘Where’s Igor?’ he whispered, using the nickname they called Mrs. Macgregor.” Personally, I find it challenging to begin a story with a line of dialogue. It took me years to realize that SHOW DON’T TELL doesn’t always apply to the first line of a story. A quick sketch of setting or situation is a much more efficient start. So, I say, be brave, go ahead and TELL at the beginning. And then don’t TELL anywhere else. For example: “Will lifted a finger to his lips, shushing her.” is a SHOW AND TELL. For example, “lifted a finger to his lips” SHOWS what “shushing her” TELLS. I always cut the TELL when I find these in my own writing. Two little details: who is Will trying to impress? What kind of living on the water keeps you clean? A tiny bit more of Cara’s thought process could set the reader up nicely for the realization at the end. Looks like a lively story!

 Gabrielle: Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think You’ve got some great character development right at the start, and I’m especially fond of the way Cara draws herself up to look at Will. We get a sense of both her character, and her appearance in relation to him, which is great. I agree with Laurel that it would be better not to start with a line of dialog. You can give us some more setting and sensory experience that will draw us closer to Cara before you dive into the stakes. Even a sentence or two will do a lot to pull us further into the scene. I think Igor’s (their nickname is too funny) dialect is a little too much. You can achieve the same effect, and tone it back. It’s a little distracting. I really like the twist of the last sentence, where she figures out what he’s been up to, but you defuse it by naming the emotion. You can give us a little more of her experience in the moment here, to go with her physical reaction, and then trust your reader. If an idea of where he’s been comes to her, wafting on a thick scent of mudflats and seawater–and if then her skin prickles and her stomach drops, we’re going to know she’s figured out something that scares her. I’d love to learn more about that intriguing ship!

Halli: Thank you so much for sharing your work! I love when people go for it. It’s a scary, but necessary part of our industry. First let me say I really like Cara and Will! I can see myself following them on many adventures and I don’t even know what they’re up to yet 🙂  I do like the way you really put Cara’s personality out there – by having her rise to her full height even though she’s shorter than Will – as just one example. She is definitely the more level-headed one of the two. As some of the others mentioned, I was thrown a bit by the first sentence. I read it a few times before I really got it. Is introducing this character necessary at the very beginning? The way you described Cara with the bucket and her dismay at the footprints clearly shows her position and situation. I enjoyed the last half of the submission even more and found myself trying to figure out where Will had been right along with Cara.

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4 on 400: February Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

The Mouse and the Mustang
Middle Grade Animal Adventure 

The Mustang’s rusty fenders moaned as a gust of icy March wind whipped across the car lot. Inside the car’s trunk, carpeted in a nest of woven hay, Kenny forced himself into his teacup-size bed. He tucked his nose under his tail in hopes that he could sleep tight. Outside, the distant tow truck’s engine roared by. Clatter, clang, slam. He shivered as another car was dumped into the lot of tired, broken cars.

He snuggled deeper. Maw always kept his bed tidy, a perfect fit. But so much smaller than his siblings’. He peeked at the large white mounds of his brothers and sisters settling into their hay craters.

“Head down, Kenny,” Paw said. “You need to sleep to grow.”

Kenny tucked his head under his arm, one eye peeking out. When Paw turned away, Kenny wrinkled his pink nose upward to breathe in the scrumptious scents of dawn and the rising sun that melted the night’s frost.

Drats! I’m missing another sunny day.

Maw’s bedtime kisses always started with Kenny, the youngest of her litter of five.

“But I’m not growing,” Kenny whispered.

She touched her nose to his and pecked his lips. “Patience.” Sniffing a few stray blades of hay, she tucked them into place around the rim of Kenny’s bed.

Patience. Kenny clenched his white paws. The word made him want to jump out of his pure white fur. It made him want to pop out of that rusty hole, high in the trunk’s corner, and run loops around the tires and strewn metal parts. A little daytime playtime would be a nice change from Paw’s supervised nighttime outings.

“Why do we have to sleep all day?” Kenny asked Maw.

Her answer was always the same. “It’s when mice sleep.” Maw turned to tend to his twin sisters.

It doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why waste perfectly good sunlight sleeping?

Even when Paw took them out at night, they all had to stick together, only allowed to go three boring cars in each direction. Except Denny, Kenny’s oldest brother. Paw had taken him all the way to the edge of the lot to teach him how to dig for seeds by the chain link fence. Two whole times.

Kenny couldn’t stop thinking about the other night when he’d spotted a group of mice scampering away in the distance. It wasn’t the first time.

Michelle: Bravo on pulling us in with your setting description. I feel like I’m in the junkyard with Kenny! You’ve done an excellent job with setting up the conflict and building sympathy for Kenny. This sentence threw me off: “He tucked his nose under his tail in hopes that he could sleep tight.” Kenny doesn’t want to sleep tight, does he? I think you should make this clear up front. Maybe something like, “He went through the bedtime motions of tucking his nose under his tail despite having no interest in sleep.” Overall, this is a great start. Good luck and keep in touch with us!

Halli: Wonderful use of senses in your setting descriptions starting with the first line and the Mustang’s fenders moaning. You make the junkyard come to life! My other comment is the line where Kenny says he’s not growing. I am guessing that this will be central to the story, but the line seems to come out of nowhere and after a short response by his maw, he changes the subject. If this is in fact an important part of the story, I would like to see just a little bit more about it in these first few pages. Great job and beautiful writing.

Rebecca: I agree! Your sensory details pull me into the story and help me visualize the little trunk-nest in the junk yard. Well Done! I only have nitpiks. “…scrumptious scents of dawn and the rising sun that melted the night’s frost.” I might imagine the warming air of dawn has a scent, but the rest of the sentence makes it sound like the rising sun has a scent. Something like, “He visualized the rising sun…” to transition us to sight from smell would fit better.  The gap between “You need to sleep to grow” and Kenny’s comment on growing threw me. If you gave that line to Maw, it would flow more smoothly, I think. Lastly, the “white” describing his paws then his fur are close together. Could you change one to a different adjective? All the best of luck with your story!

Kristi: I really fell in love with all the details here! You’ve paced this all so, so well. To be honest, I find your writing lovely, my main comment would be concerning your title. The Mouse and the Mustang sounds like a picture book. Look, titles really aren’t the most important thing to be concerned about at this stage, but I’d still think of something “older” so an agent doesn’t think you don’t know the difference between PB & MG. And one last thing, I’d second Halli’s comment to highlight the main thread early on– even if it is a small phrase, just to give us a hint as to where this is going. Great job!

And a bonus critique!

Karin: I think Kenny definitely deserves some “daytime playtime”!  You’re so good at capturing mood and voice that I think you could do more with this important line, “Drats! I’m missing another sunny day.”  Every night Kenny goes to bed he must think the same thing. Why is this night different? If you tweak this line with a little more of that feeling then it will become more believable. Finally,  I’m very curious about the group of mice he spots while on a night outing, but I have no idea how he feels about them, so would like an adjective or phrase, letting us know if they looked friendly, not friendly or up to no good or if it was unusual to see other mice.  Finally, if referring just to the smell and not Kenny visualizing the sunrise then you could clarify by saying, “…Kenny wrinkled his pink nose upward to breathe in the scrumptious scents of dawn as the rising sun melted the night’s frost.” Well done!

Our February #Fouron400 Kidlit Writing Contest Window is now Open!


Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of February, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the fourteenth of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

*Please check your email SPAM filter to make sure it will allow an email from info@thewingedpen.com

Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to our Facebook page and find our post about the February Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on February 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!