Four on 400 August 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.

 

No More Magical

Chapter One

If magical was like milk and went sour after the date on the carton, then Gracie Emily Everett’s had expired. Her magical world disappeared the day her daddy did. Her heart didn’t sparkle anymore; it was as dull and flat as a mud pie.

“When you see something ordinary transform into something extraordinary before your very eyes, pay attention, Gracie,” her daddy always told her. Like a spider web with which-way patterns that shimmer in the sun, she thought. Magical was how you saw the world. Or maybe it was how the world saw you. Either way, it was gone and she certainly wasn’t looking for it.

She stirred her cereal and watched the flecks of sour milk cling to the Cheerios. “Gracie,” her mom yelled, “don’t forget to feed Wilbur and water the geraniums. Walk to the library, young lady. No bike riding.”

“Don’t worry,” Gracie yelled back, pouring her breakfast into the sink holding her nose. “I know the drill!” Doesn’t mean I’ll follow it.

They bumped in the hallway, her mom fumbling with her phone. “We’ll do something fun later, I promise.” Reaching out to kiss Gracie, she dropped her phone, her kiss disappearing into thin air.

“Sure, Mom.” Gracie stomped back to the kitchen. Lately, it was always the same. Same reminders. Same promises. Trying to balance without tumbling over, she squatted like her mom’s Yoga pose and poured kibbles into the MEOW dish. Wilbur rubbed her legs with his velvety fur. At least Wilbur loves me, she thought, groaning as she stood. These library books are heavy.

“Got to go!” Gracie rushed through the living room. “Time for Book Club!” The screen door slapped her backpack as she scrambled down the front steps. Wilbur snuck out with her, scampering off into the woods.

“Be careful!” Mom shouted out the door.

Daddy’s bicycle helmet hung from the rusty nail on the garage. Gracie pounded past as hard as she could, hoping her heart wouldn’t notice, but her breath caught like tangled twigs and gave her away. Oh, snark, don’t cry now, she thought. She scooted around the ruts and rocks on her gravel driveway, focused on one thing. Her bike. She knew she’d never make it to the library on time, even with her running skills. “You can do this,” Gracie told herself. At the end of the driveway, she whirled around. The coast was clear.

Halli: Thank you for sharing! Let me say how much I love the opening paragraphs. They are so full of voice and wonder and sadness, with just enough setting detail for me to get a basic visual without overshadowing Grace. It reminds me of SAVVY by Ingrid Law. I have two additional comments about this piece. First, in the sentence starting with Reaching out to kiss Gracie, she dropped her phone… I know what you are trying to say but I stumbled over it. This is such a powerful revelation, I would hate for it not to have its desired impact. Second, I am not sure what the problem is with her bike. Why is she forbidden to ride it? Did something happen? It seems significant so I’d like just a tiny teaser. Thanks again. Good luck!

Gita: I loved the beginning of this story! Your writing is lovely and immediately compelling—magic being lost is something that will definitely keep me reading. You’ve got a lot going on in the beginning—as you should!—so I’d encourage you to slow down a bit and take your time. This doesn’t mean to let go of the tension around your protagonist’s scattered mother and the missing father, but to consider how to balance the urgency of the different things you want to tell us. Specifically, if your MC is dealing with issues around her parents, I’m not sure that additional tension around getting to book group on time is necessary. It feels like too much, too early. I see that it provides a reason for her to have to take her bike—but it also may direct the reader away from the other concerns already in play. I think you may need to choose what you want to show right up front and what you can hold off on until a little bit later. Thanks for sharing this with us! Happy writing!

Karin: Your writing is strong and vivid and immediately pulled me in! I just have a few comments. In your first paragraph you introduce several metaphors. In the last sentence, you say her heart is “dull and flat as a mud pie” –even though this has a nice rhythm, I think it would be stronger if you tied it to the sour milk metaphor and said something like “Her heart didn’t sparkle anymore; it had curdled the day Dad….”  I am sorry but when I hear the name Wilbur I immediately think of Charlotte’s Web. Finally, I didn’t understand why Gracie’s mom didn’t want her to bike to her book club. At first I thought it was because it wasn’t ladylike, but then when Gracie sees her dad’s bike helmet, I wondered if it was because he had been hit by car. Great beginning! Good luck!

Kristi: I too was really taken in with so much of this! I’m a big voice person and I love a good metaphor so I really fell for this! I have to say the Wilbur thing also took me out of the story. I think it’ll work if we know Gracie loves the book or her dad read it to her over and over–something that gives it a reason to be there. Also, when her mom didn’t want her to ride the bike I actually thought this might be set in the 50’s or something, then you mention her Mom’s phone and I was jolted back to the present. I’d also be sure there is a reason for this– or at least hint at it. Does it remind her Mom of Dad or is it how Dad disappeared? The other thing was while I loved the metaphorical reference to sour milk, when Gracie really had sour milk in her bowl it struck me as too much. I know Karin commented above that she wanted a reference to it again at the end of the paragraph and I can see that working, but as long as it’s all metaphorical, not real. I don’t know why it seemed overkill for me. I wish you all the best with this! I want to read more!

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The May #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 May, 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 May 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 May 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

 May The Fourth be with you…

 

 

 

How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!

 

The Four C’s — Yoga Rules for Writing

Back when I took my first yoga class, the teacher warned us to avoid “The Four C’s” – comparing, competing, complaining, and criticizing.

balance-1107484_640I can still vividly remember feeling so chastised – I had committed every single one of those sins!

In the years since that first class, The Four C’s have popped into my head at various times – while taking yoga or other gym classes, while going about my daily life, and while writing fiction.

But while The Four C’s are big Don’ts, they can lead to some even bigger Do’s.

DON’T Compare

It’s so, so tempting to look at other writers and wonder why you don’t have the same success they do. How does she write so fast? How come he is getting a multi-book deal? How did she sell so many copies if everyone thinks she’s a terrible writer?!?

But here’s the thing: comparisons don’t move you forward. All of your observations about other writers could be 100% true (although they’re probably not), but they have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re writing. In fact, wasting a bunch of head space on how another writer is progressing just gets you mired in picking apart your flaws and all the ways you can’t measure up.

DO Study and Learn

Where it’s damaging to compare, it can actually be really helpful to look at what another writer is doing to achieve such success. That writer with the killer output? Maybe she’s getting up at 4am to write every day or another productivity technique you could use in your own work. And the best-sellers? Study what they do right rather than picking apart what they do wrong. People are buying them for a reason – can you see what that reason is?

DON’T Compete

I was at a children’s soccer game recently where a parent was so upset that his son’s team was losing that he lost it. He began yelling at an eight-year-old child on the opposing team and had to be escorted out of the park. It didn’t help his son or his son’s team play better, it didn’t increase anyone’s enjoyment of the game, and it didn’t change the outcome. While some drive to win is a good thing, in general, competing with your fellow writers isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

DO Collaborate

hands-1445244_640Instead, try collaborating. My fellow Pennies have given me fantastic writing and life advice. They spot my weak spots and celebrate my strengths. Different minds have different takes on the same situation, and working together can help everyone succeed…and make this often lonely journey a whole lot more fun.

DON’T Complain

I like to complain as much as the next person. But let’s face it: whining about a situation isn’t getting you any closer to fixing it.

It’s OK to have a venting session if you need it. Get that frustration out with a trusted friend. But once you’ve purged the bad feelings, try to remember what an incredible privilege it is to have the time, energy and ability to create art.

DO Embrace Challenges

Writing — like life — doesn’t promise to be easy, comfortable or fun. Instead, it promises one challenge after another. So embrace those challenges. Come up with creative ways to solve them. Sometimes, the knocks we take in writing end up pushing us to heights we never would have reached without them. (And sometimes they’re just knocks. Sorry.)

The bottom line: the sooner you embrace writing’s challenges, the more joyful the time you spend writing will be.

DON’T Criticize

Criticism has no place in yoga, where the idea is to do the best practice you are capable of doing at that specific moment. But what about in writing? Shouldn’t we criticize in order to produce the best possible work?

Well, no. Criticism is inherently negative. Criticism is that voice in your head that tells you you’ll never be able to do justice to this story, you are a terrible writer, and you should probably just set your laptop on fire to save the world from your pitiful attempts at fiction. Criticism hurts.

DO Critique

Unlike a good critique, criticism doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for what’s you’re doing right. And I actually think that is often just as important — if not more — than what’s going wrong.

In their fantastic book on change, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath talk about one of the key steps that people who successfully change situations take: they follow the bright spots. By looking at what is working and trying to do more of that, we’re usually more successful than if we look at what’s not working and try to change it.

In other words, endless criticism is not going to get you where you want to go as fast as thoughtful critique. Try to look at where your current story gets your heart pounding. Why? What are you doing there that you can do in the rest of your story?

In my Saturday morning spin class a few weeks ago, the instructor ended the class by telling us, “I want you to go out today and remember: You showed up, you tried, and you didn’t quit. That is something to celebrate!”

That powerful message – and my mantra for whenever my writing gets a little tough — is the opposite of The Four C’s.

8 on Eight: October Contest Feedback

eight on eight 2

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for when our next contest window opens at 8 PM on October 30th. 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 encouragement in the comments section below.

Bear with Bear – A picture book about an unusual child who wishes to have an unusual pet.

Bear was exploring a maggot he found in an apple.
“I think you’ll be a scientist like me when you grow up,” Dad said with a smile.
“Yeah!” Bear waved the magnifying glass. “And I’ll have my pet maggot and even a pet snake!”
“Yuck, snakes,” Bear’s little sister, Penelope, said. Then she noticed the maggot and mouthed a long eww.
“What’s that?” Mom twisted up her mouth at the sight of the maggot. “Someone might eat that by mistake,” she said, and threw Bear’s pet into the garbage disposal.

 

Gita: Thanks for sharing this with us! I love this concept. The idea of a strange and unusual pet is charming and I think both children and parents will find it fun. I like that you will be opening their minds to all sorts of new pet possibilities!:) I feel sympathy for Bear when his mom throws his maggot into the garbage disposal, but I wondered if the family as a whole wasn’t a little too familiar or predictable. There’s the adventurous boy, the scientist dad, the little sister who doesn’t like maggots or snakes, and the squeamish mom. Might you consider giving each one a twist that would make them feel more fresh?

Jessica: This is a fun idea! I agree with Gita that it feels somewhat predictable; perhaps looks for a fresh way to introduce the story that will heighten the emotional stakes. Right now, it reads that Bear just found the maggot (he hasn’t even named it yet) so we don’t feel an emotional impact when Mom throws it away. Good luck!

Kristi: Thanks for entering and congratulations on being chosen! I agree with the above comments so I won’t rehash what’s already been said. My first thought is actually concerning your first line. You’re writing about a strange, interesting and new pet– a maggot! There’s got to be a  really exciting way to start this story off. A stand-out first line will grab your reader. It’ll give Bear a voice that immediately creates that bond Jessica hinted at. All the  best as you move forward with this project!

Michelle: So cute and kids love books about creatures that make us squeamish like maggots and snakes! I agree with all of the above and think Kristi’s idea to add some punch to your opening line will go a long way in drawing in your young reader’s interest! For ideas on writing great opening lines, you might want to check this post! I’d also suggest that you think about what can be shown in illustration to leave out unnecessary words like “said Dad with a smile.” I’m a little confused about “A picture book about an unusual child who wishes to have an unusual pet” because we’re talking about a bear not a child. And what makes him unusual. We should probably get a sense of this immediately. Best wishes on your writing! Keep in touch!

Sussu: Thank you for submitted your writing to our contest. Picture books are still hot and we need more.

First of all, I really like the idea of the story: an unusual child who wants an unusual pet. That tells me diversity is going to be on the menu, and more diverse books is a great idea. I was engaged by the story from the start. I felt so disappointed not to know the ending. You got me. The story also shows kids that even a maggot is important and we should care for and respect every living creature. This powerful theme will probably appeal to children. I also like the family dynamics. I could feel the energy and every bear’s personality. I think the story will do just fine. I was hooked and the mention of the maggot surprised me, which is really what you want to do too. My only concern about this story is the diversity. Bear stories are the staple of many childhood, so maybe a different character might work better or surprise us more. Think of a family of birds caring for a maggot. Now, that would be something else. As an illustrator, I see more potential with a character we do not expect. I agree with Michelle that if your intention is to show an unusual character, then go wild with the idea. Being unusual could be interpreted in so many ways; the character could have an handicap too. When we write stories, it is always a good idea to think of our readers and to reach out to all audiences.

This being said, this story is charming and I can see the appeal. Good luck with it.

Julie I agree with what’s been said. Stories with gross factor and unusual twists like a pet maggot seem to have lasting appeal with target age group for PBs (3-5 year-olds), but this needs a fresh angle to stand out. So what can you do to draw the reader into Bear’s story in a fresh way? Make us empathize with his desire for a new, unusual pet, make us sad when the maggot goes down the drain, and make us cheer for him when he eventually (I hope) saves the maggot from the disposal. Is there anything you can do that will turn the traditional gender stereotypes in the current draft on their head? Take the kernel of story you’ve got here and do some brainstorming to see what you come up with. Best of luck!

Richelle: Thank you for sharing! Like my fellow Pennies, I liked the idea of an unusual pet — my children are riveted by the myriad of insects and other un-fuzzy pets that the science teacher at their school keeps in his classroom. I can see this idea resonating. I also agree that your opening line could have more pop and that the strict gender divisions could hurt your story’s chances. I don’t have a good sense of Bear’s emotional connection to the maggot. Why does he decide the maggot should be a pet instead of a pest? How does he feel about his family’s reactions? Does he have a vision for the kind of pet the maggot will be? (When my children ask for pets, they invariably tell me how they will play with them and care for them — tell us how Bear thinks life will be better with a maggot pet!) Finally, I recommend making a dummy — it will really help you see what words/descriptions are extraneous. Good luck!

Karin: I love the idea of an unusual pet, but as there are already many books out there on this subject, be sure to check them out, like Strictly No Elephants and Rhinos Don’t Eat Pancakes. Your first line could be stronger, and I think bear would be “observing” rather than “exploring” the maggot in his apple. And why does Bear say that when he’s a scientist, he’ll also have a pet snake? We want to know why Bear loves the maggot so much that he wants him as a pet. If he’s going to be a scientist, is Bear trying to see how maggot wiggles or how he boroughs a tunnel? For example, you could start like this: “Bear peered through his magnifying glass at Maggot, who was nibbling a tiny tunnel through his apple.” I love the idea of a pet maggot as it’s unique and offers lots of opportunity to explore why a maggot would make a good pet. Maybe he even chomps through Bear’s garbage, turning it into compost! 🙂

 

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