February Four on 400 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.

 

Tainted Seeds, Young Adult, Contemporary Suspense, Chapter 1

Bree turned back to her older sister, who lagged behind despite her longer strides. Lily’s Adidas sneakers scuffed the cracked sidewalk with each unhurried step through the deserted neighborhood.

“What a waste of a summer day,” Lily said once she caught up.

“Come on, this is important to me.” Bree pressed the voter pamphlets protectively against her sweaty Say No to GMOs T-shirt. She’d spent the entire week mapping a route and rehearsing her speech. The least Lily could do was be more cheerful.

Her sister flicked her blond hair over her blistering, red shoulder. “You’re always chasing rainbows and leprechauns. No one’s going to vote for higher taxes to buy lettuce and light bulbs for schools.”

Bree forced a laugh. “People just need to be educated,” she said, but her voice had lost some of its earlier conviction as she took in yet another row of bungalows with peeling paint and weed-covered lawns.

“Aren’t you tired of having doors slammed in your face? It’s your sixteenth birthday. We could go to the mall, and I could help you spend that birthday check.”

Her sister had a point. Few residents in their working class town could afford much beyond the basics, and their resistance to change was only one of a thousand reasons she needed to get out of Boren Valley—or Boring Valley as she and her best friend Madeleine called it. Too bad she was tied up with camp counselor training today. She would’ve been more encouraging.

“I’m never going to make a difference around here.” Bree sighed. “Don’t know why I even bother.”

Lily bumped Bree affectionately and changed her tone. “Hey, that’s what makes you, you. It’s in your DNA.”

Bree fiddled with the glossy leaflets. “You’re not like me. And I’m nothing like Mama-Meri.”

“Nope. You must’ve gotten your ‘drive and determination’ from Mr. Banks.” Lily snickered as they climbed the crumbling steps to the next house. “And the stubbornness that’s always getting you in trouble too.”

Bree rolled her eyes. Mr. Banks was code for their shared sperm donor. All her differences from the rest of her family had been attributed to him from her darker coloring to her curves to her book smarts.

An elderly woman opened the door. With her hunched spine, she was even shorter than Bree.

Lily thrust a pamphlet into her wrinkled hand.

Kristi: There’s a lot to love here. Lots of little seeds have been planted that are sure to play into the suspense aspect of the story. My biggest overall comment is that I find this all very telling instead of showing. Bree is already wearing a Non GMO t-shirt and passing out pamphlets, so we don’t need an overload of details about her and her mission. The paragraph about the town was also too telling. I thought the details of the weeds in the yard and peeling paint were so perfect–THAT shows me the neighborhood! Having said that, I do really like these girls and I really have an idea of who both of them are. Kudos for creating two great characters!

Gita: Nice opening! You’ve done a great job, in a very short amount of time, of creating two distinct characters, each with her own personality and a shared backstory. Knowing that it’s YA suspense, I’d love more details to create an even more ominous feeling. So far the only details that read ‘suspense’ to me were the deserted neighborhood and crumbling steps. A signal characteristic of suspense is the feeling that something vital to the character’s well-being is at stake. Could you amp that feeling up—and create more tension about whatever that something is—in these opening lines? The more of that you have, the more hungrily your reader will turn the page. Good luck!

Halli: Thank you for sharing! This genre is one of my favorites. I loved the descriptions of the neighborhood: cracked sidewalk, peeling paint, and weed-covered lawns. That shows so much about the socio-economics of the neighborhood and how it contrasts with Bree’s mission. You did a nice job giving us a peek at Bree and Lily, with their clothing and comments, however, I agree with Kristi and Gita that some parts are too telling. I would like to see less telling – give us just enough to let us get a feel for each character –  then add a little suspense. At the beginning, that’s what the reader is there for. Thanks and good luck!

Karin:  Lots of great stuff here from the topic of GMOs to their sperm-donar father and intrigued to learn how you will play the two off! I agree you can cut some of the telling, which will also work to make it more suspenseful.  Bree’s mission can also be a little clearer as we learn she’s distributing voter pamphlets and she has a T-shirt against GMOs, but then Lily mentions  light bulbs in the schools. But you can show this later when she introduces herself to the elderly woman. One way you could tighten and hook the reader is cut paragraphs 2-5, so second paragraph would be “Aren’t you tired of having doors slammed in your face?” which I love! Remember you don’t need to tell the reader everything–you want us to be curious about finding out what’s going to happen. Thank you sharing this with us!

 

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February Four on 400 Contest!

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 14th 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!

Four on 400 December Contest 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 BOY WHO FELL SIDEWAYS (MG Adventure)

The later it got, the more unfair it seemed.

Why do they get to go? Why not me?

Graeme tossed and turned as the grandfather clock ticked away the early morning hours.

I’m far more fluent in Shianese than Keith, and I’m better than Patricia at… well… nothing really. But crossing an Edge has always been my dream!
A toe poked out from under his blankets. He kicked in frustration, leaving his entire leg goosebumping in the cold night air.

And now I’m wide awake. I won’t get any sleep, and I’ll be cross and dopey for my first day at stupid Maydales, and I’ll never make any friends, and…
He lay back and envisioned his favourite fantasy, the one his much-older siblings would soon experience. Crossing an Edge of the cube-shaped world, and being Sideways.

Sideways! Where he’d walk on walls like a fly and slide up a slope. His gravity from here at home would stick to him for some weeks, until he eventually regravified. But before then…! All the experiments he could try! He’d be a bit scared, no doubt. If he were to fall, his gravity would pull him along, shooting across the landscape like a crossbow bolt. Of course, that wasn’t very likely. The embassy city was safe and well-designed, equally accessible to Shian residents and Anglian visitors.

Suddenly, Graeme sat up. He had a plan. He’d been making it for weeks without admitting it. He got up, dressed, tiptoed to the front hall, and searched the piles of his sister’s luggage, carefully stacked for the early-morning wagon.

Am I really going to do this?

There it was. The largest of Patricia’s specimen cases. Eventually, she would pack it with fascinating flora and fauna samples. But for the outbound trip to Shian, empty. Nearly five feet long, sturdy, padded, and pierced with air holes. A label even marked it “Fragile,” so it wouldn’t end up at the bottom of a pile in the ship’s hold.

Graeme sucked in a deep breath, opened the case and climbed in. He took a final look around the house, so comfortable, the site of so many memories, and nearly lost his nerve. But then he saw his ugly little trunk, full of his new school uniform and his old, tired life; and he lay back and closed the lid.

Laurel: Wow! You’ve packed lots of story into a small space and a very clear kickoff to adventure. Tiny things: “Why do they get to go?” in the second line threw me out and doesn’t feel–to me–as original and gripping as the rest of the piece. Personally, I’d rather get to know Graeme a little more before I hear his voice directly. I don’t think the reader would miss that line if it were gone. I wasn’t positive that “no doubt” was right for Graeme’s voice but I don’t know him and you very clearly do. I love the Sideways concept and the idea that someone can be regravified. Well done! I wonder what’s going to happen next!

Kristi: This is fantastic! I was so sucked in to the story and I love it when a story gives me so much action, but also so many hints at what’s going on ALL without feeling rushed or info dumped. I did feel the change of POV wasn’t really working. Maybe if those parts where in italics? BUT, I would need a good reason for it– and I’d be willing to read a chapter like that as long as it was clear by chapter two why it’s written as such. The only other comment I have is, won’t his sister notice her case is heavy? Otherwise, I love this!

Gabrielle: This is such a unique concept, and I think you’ve got a good start. Kristi points out the changing POV and I agree–that’s jarring. I think you could stand to slow this way down and let us feel it with him more. He comes to his plan too fast. The alternative would be to have him in bed already knowing what he’s going to do, but going over it all in his head–thinking it through, feeling where he is now for the last time. I think this could work really well, with inherent tension as he’s lying in bed freaking out. You’ve got some telling still happening. Try focusing on the micro. It’s the details that will draw us in and avoid those pitfalls.. What are his specific memories as he’s saying goodbye? What will he miss?  You’re on the right track with lines like – goosebumping in the cold night air. I love the line about his old truck too. Give us more detail, and spin it out for us so we’re right there with Graeme and this will be a very memorable story!

Julie: You’ve given us a tantalizing glimpse of a pretty cool world (which feels fantasy/sci-fi to me, not just straight contemporary adventure) and I love the title. I agree with what the others have said about the POV change. I think you’re switching between internals and third person narration, but it’s pretty jarring, especially for the opening page. The theme of him frustrated over being left behind at Maydales as his older sister get to cross the Edge feels great for middle grade, as does the idea that he’d stow away. But it feels a little rushed, which is keeping us from FEELING Graeme’s frustration building up to the point that he stows away. As Gabby said, slowing down and giving us more sensory details will ground us in the world and in Graeme’s experiences.

Best of luck!

Four on 400 November Contest 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.

MG Fantasy, JAMES RASH AND THE SEPTACULAR SEPTUPLETS

Copper coated James’ tongue as he bit into his lip and glanced over the first-floor balcony of the three-story castle. People danced, laughed, and ate in the lantern-strung courtyard below. He pulled at the collar of his shirt as two beads of sweat raced past his ear. It felt as if he were in the castle hot tub on extra high. He leaned his neck back to gaze at the pale moon sitting high in the endless black sky above; the stars scattered across like little shining sprinkles.

He closed his eyes. Stop worrying. Everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to get—

“There you are! What’re you doing?”

James’ tired body gave a slight shudder seconds before his head whipped around from the balcony. Grandpa towered over him, skinny arms folded. Gray eyes, the same as James’, stared down at him. The image of James’ face on Grandpa’s shirt mimicked him perfectly, from his curly brown hair to the front tooth he lost to a green apple. James licked the empty spot.

“Really?” Grandpa sighed. “Your life’s about to change forever and you’re hiding?”

James held his hands up innocently and shook his head. “I’m not hiding. I was … uh … going to the bathroom.”

The bathroom? That’s the best you could do?

“This doesn’t look much like the bathroom to me.” Grandpa peered over the balcony. “How about instead of watching the party, we join it? You haven’t forgotten it’s your seventh birthday, have you?”

He smiled and winked as he held out his right hand. James’ nerves kept him rooted to the spot, still as a statue.

I can’t face them … what if… what if …

“James?” Grandpa frowned and raised an eyebrow. “Come on, it’s almost midnight. What’re you … Oh. Please tell me you aren’t still worried about that, are you?”

He knows! Act calm! Lie! Do something!

“What?” James forced a laugh. “Ha. No, I—”

Grandpa snapped his fingers. James grabbed his throat as it closed up. He could still breathe fine, but if he tried to make a sound it would get pushed back down when it reached the top of his throat as if bouncing against a net.

“Didn’t you and your siblings learn you can’t lie to me and get away with it?” Grandpa chuckled and tapped his unwrinkled forehead. “Now, why are you afraid you aren’t magical?”

Gita: Thanks for being willing to share your opening pages with us! I love the idea of a protagonist who worries about not being magical. I’m also intrigued by the relationship between James and his grandfather. I wondered a bit about the age of your protagonist, though. Is James seven years old throughout the story, or is this a flashback? Usually, middle-grade readers are 8-12 years old, and at that age especially, kids like to “read up,” that is, read about protagonists who are slightly older than the readers themselves are. So if James is seven throughout the story, he’s too young for MG. At the same time, an MG protagonist’s concerns and behavior still need to be appropriate for readers on the younger end of the age range, say 8 or 9. Best wishes as you continue on with this project!

Jessica: There are a lot of fun elements in this story; thanks for sharing! By way of suggestions, I’d encourage you to flesh out the “world” this fantasy is set in. James is peering over a castle balcony, so I assumed it was a medieval setting, but then the reference to the hot tub and the modern usage of “Grandpa” tripped me up. I think you could clarify by expanding the description of “people” in the second sentence; what they are wearing, eating, etc. will give us a much better picture of the world we are dealing with. Good luck!

Michelle: Uh-oh. Looks like James is in a bit of a predicament. Great job building sympathy for him quickly, and your premise is intriguing! Your first sentence threw me off. I think you meant the coppery taste of blood coated his tongue instead of actual copper. I’m also wondering if he’d really be aware that there were “two” beads of sweat. Simply calling it “beads of sweat” gives us a great image of how much stress he feels. My only other suggestion is look for places to tighten. For example, “He leaned his neck back to gaze” could be “He gazed” because we already know the neck is involved in that action. Best of luck with your writing journey!

Halli: Congratulations on winning this month’s contest. I love stories about magic and I’m intrigued about this story and James, who may not have magic.  My fellow Pennies had some great comments already so I will focus on the beginning since that is what agents see first and base their requests on. The first page is typically 250 words, so we don’t get to issue of magic until halfway through the second page. That means the first page is full of worry without even a hint as to what is going on. I would not suggest giving away his fear of not having magic right away, but if the reader could get a little hint earlier on about his fear (for example, he would be letting his family down or be in grave danger) that would up the urgency and the desire to read on. Thank you so much for sharing!

 

 

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November Four on 400 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 November, 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 14th 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 November 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 November 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

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Four on 400 October 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.

Camp Chrysalis (Middle Grade)

Baby carrots ruined Owen Fortner’s life.

Owen stood, braced against the door of the boys’ bathroom next to the kindergarten classroom. His safe haven during lunch for the last two weeks, it was about as far away from both his fifth-grade classroom and the lunch room as he could get. Only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.

Owen relaxed his mind, pushing his thoughts to his twin sister, Allie. They’d been able to talk to each other mentally since they learned to speak. They found me. I’m in the bathroom over by the kindergarten, and I won’t be able to hold them off for long.

His sister’s voice was only a mumble in his mind until Owen focused on it.

…help. Just hold them off for as long as you can.

He’d only redirected his concentration for a moment, but it was enough that his sneakers slid on the hard tile floor.

The door opened a few inches before Owen could stop it. Sensing weakness like the ruthless predators they were, Jerry and Chris gave a coordinated effort and slid through.

Although fellow fifth-graders, Chris and Jerry stood much taller than Owen. Of course, Owen reflected, so did everyone else, including his twin sister. Chris’s lips curled back, revealing teeth too big for his mouth and the gap where a canine tooth should be—and was, two weeks ago…before The Baby Carrot Incident.

“Got you,” Chris snarled.

Owen backed up against the side of the bathroom stalls, thinking a swirly wouldn’t be so bad. No… he’d much prefer a swirly to getting punched hard enough to lose a tooth. Chris had been preaching “a tooth for a tooth” for the last two weeks. Jerry leaned against the closed door, making it difficult for anyone to interrupt them.

Owen circled in front of the sinks, hoping he could make it back around to the door and possibly escape.

All this because of baby carrots… Those stupid little orange vegetables his mother stuffed into his lunch two weeks ago. If only the small bag hadn’t been so darn hard to open. If only the carrots hadn’t exploded out of the package. If only they hadn’t landed on the floor just as Chris stepped, and made him slip, hit the table, and knock out his tooth.

Halli: Thank you for sharing! The first sentence definitely hooked me! As did the overall theme. The pacing is great and I loved the paragraph describing Chris and keeping up the mystery of the baby carrot incident. I have two tiny comments to mention. First, the part about Owen talking to his sister pulled me out of the immediate action and danger. If it is crucial to the first few pages and first chapter, I would recommend moving it a little farther down. Second, I had a hard time grounding myself in the first full paragraph. I think because there is a lot happening – the actions of the boys as well as three different locations. Overall, great job! Good luck.

Julie: I agree with Halli–great first line! And I actually like getting the twins’ telepathy onto the first page, but think it could be integrated a little bit more into the action so that it doesn’t pull us out of the narrative. Could you cut the lines about relaxing his mind and talking mentally and just have him think “I’m in the boy’s bathroom. Need help fast” and then let Ally respond. Kids will pick up on what you’re talking about without disrupting the tension of the door slowly working its way open. I think the “Although fellow fifth-graders” paragraph could be cut or condensed too. Stick to the immediate danger Owen is in, and the actions he takes to protect himself, and I think this will be a winning opening.

Richelle: I’m with Halli and Julie — great first line and very fun, fast-paced opening. That promise of the first line is dulled a bit with the next few paragraphs. I struggled a little with that first full paragraph. Try shorter sentences, maybe? And I don’t think you need to specify there where he is since he tells his twin in the next paragraph. Really think about what we absolutely must know to get through the rest of the scene and get rid of the rest — the curiosity of baby carrots, telepathy and the “tooth for a tooth” bullies will keep kids reading! And I’m with Julie — I don’t think we need to understand any of the history of Owen communicating with Allie. You can just have them do it urgently in that moment, and then explain it later when you give your readers a “take a breath” moment. Thanks for sharing!

Karin: Nice job! You throw us immediately into a tense scene that has us asking: will Owen escape? I think the last sentence in paragraph two is a little confusing as he’s bracing against the door but this is safe haven away from the two boys. “Figures that only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry had found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.(you don’t need to tell this as the action shows it.)” And “relaxed his mind” is awkward, and in fact I would cut that whole sentence. Then shorten the rest. “He needed his sister. They could talk to each other mentally ever since they could speak. Allie, they found me…” I love “swirly” and “tooth for a tooth”! This sounds like a fun adventure! Good luck going forward!

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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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4 on 400 July 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.

 

Working Title: Gravenhurst, Upper MG Fantasy

CHAPTER 1—EVERETT

            Everett opened his hotel room’s closet door, glancing at the mirror that reflected his sleepy eyes and blond, bed-head hair. His reflections in the mirror hanging on the other door directly behind him followed the previous one, but instead of getting smaller they were all the same size. And, one of the reflections was an ugly, yellow-green face. He rubbed his eyes. This shouldn’t be.

            He looked again, no strange face glared back. What’s going on? Another one of his imagi-morning experiences. Every morning for the past week he’d seen the strange, ugly green face. He thought it was because he was hungry or maybe because he was not sleeping as well as he did in his own bed.

            Hunger. That’s what it was.

He shrugged, and reached for a shirt.

A large black bat exploded out of the closet. Its wings brushed Everett’s head, then it circled above him.

            “Get away!” Everett ducked, waving his arms wildly as he ran around the around the room, avoiding the circling bat.

            The bat, about the size of a dove, with weird, oversized, red eyes, hovered near the ceiling. Everett stood still. His heart pounded and his chest heaved from huge gulps of air. He grabbed a wooden hanger and swung at the bat, missing each time. It moved faster than any bat Everett had ever seen as it flew toward the suite’s sitting room at the end of the hall. When he got there, the bat was gone. It had to be hiding. He poked the hanger behind a dark blue velvet couch, four wingback chairs, and matching dark blue velvet drapes.

Nothing.

            Bats couldn’t just disappear. Or … appear…

Everett wouldn’t have been as startled if the bat was in their barn back in Michigan. Besides, how could a bat that size get inside a downtown London hotel? The windows couldn’t be opened.

And something else …

Those large, bright red eyes that had followed his every move.

            Everett checked his photographic memory, mentally paging through each science book and nature magazine. Bats’ eyes were black or brown, but the cones inside the eyes reflected red from a flashlight. There were no red eyed bats … and no flashlight.

            After several slow, deep breaths, Everett noticed a pink sticky note on the coffee table:

Meet us in the restaurant downstairs.

Tell Jillian to hurry up.

Mom.

Jessica Vitalis: What an interesting opening; thanks for sharing! I love the idea of a bat attacking a boy in a London hotel room and appreciated the details you used (velvet couch and wingback chairs, etc.). The first couple of paragraphs didn’t necessarily do their job in terms of pulling me in to the story; my suggestion would be to start with Everett opening the closet door in the hotel and having the bat swoop out at him–maybe he even has the imagi-morning experience as his gaze sweeps past the mirror but it’s within the context of trying to get this bat out of his room (i.e. a passing glance in the mirror), which I think could be expanded quite a bit before revealing that the bat disappears. The action will suck us in and you can layer in details as far as traveling and not sleeping well, etc. as the action unfolds. Good luck!

Julie Artz: I’d love to read a MG fantasy about a boy with a photographic memory and a quirky voice (loved the “imagi-morning experiences”), but I agree with Jessica that this opening didn’t draw me in as much as I wished it had. Starting with a mirror felt a little cliche and jumping between the yellow-green face and the bat felt like too much for the opening scene. I wasn’t sure where my attention was supposed to be focused. I’d like to know a little bit more about what Everett wants in this scene–is he worried someone else will see the bat or that he’ll get in trouble? Why is he chasing it? What is he going to do now that it has disappeared? Maybe slow down a bit and immerse us more in this bat scene as a set-up for whatever is going to come next. Good luck!

Gabrielle Byrne: I think you’re on the right track with your active verbs and sharing some setting details (I also liked the wingback chairs), but it feels too busy to me. I think it may be that you’ve started in the wrong place, which happens a lot with drafting, to authors at all stages. I think we need to bond more with Everett–care more about him, to care about these weird things he’s experiencing. Who is he, and why is he in London instead of Michigan, and how does he feel about being there? If he’s been having these experiences the last few days, what’s that doing to him? We know he’s tired, but what is that like for him, and is he scared to look in the mirror–afraid of it happening again? Try backing the scene up a little, to when he’s thinking about just getting up, since he can’t sleep anyway. Play with this first page and try writing it a few different ways, focusing down on what it would be like to be Everett and what’s at stake for him in these first few moments. Good luck!

Marty Mayberry: What a creative premise! I love the idea of a yellow-green face in the mirror and a red-eyed bat bursting from the closet. You’ve done a great job describing the scene, as well as feeding in little details about Everett, without making this feel cumbersome. As others have noted, that first paragraph didn’t draw me in as much as I’d hoped. Starting with action (seeing the ugly, yellow-green face in the mirror) felt rushed. My preference is to be introduced to a character before things start to happen to him. I also wasn’t sure of Everett’s age in this initial scene. The fact that he was alone in a hotel room led me to believe Everett was an adult. Perhaps backing up and starting with an introduction to Everett and why he is alone in the hotel room (i.e., his parents are waiting downstairs, he has to hurry or xx will happen, etc.) will help ground the reader. Then you can introduce the face/bat. All the best with this!

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Four on 400: June 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.

Working Title: Patty Pat

Lower Middle Grade

Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. They fluttered and jumped with excitement when she rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of carrot and potato peelings and leftover breakfast mush.

Patty tipped half the contents of the bowl onto the floor of the hen shed and watched the hens play with pieces of carrot and peck at the mush. The little brown hen hung back and then darted forward to get her share while the big speckled hens fought over a long piece of carrot peel.

Reluctantly Patty moved to the other side of the shed where the fighting roosters strutted and crowed in their cages. They were prettier than the hens, all reds and greens, shining purple-black feathers and swooping tails. They were also mean, beady-eyed, and sneakier than any villain the Lone Ranger thwarted on the radio. They stared hungrily at Patty and scratched up the dust in their cages with hard, curved claws.

Feeding the roosters made Patty wish she were one of the two big girls who helped Mother with the sewing and heavy housework. Or one of the two little girls with easy chores like feeding old sleepy Ming Chow, who had never nipped anybody. Ever. Patty felt stuffed between her sisters, and not just when they piled into the Buick, the little girls on the big girls’ laps, Patty squeezed between with the back of the front seat for a view.

Imitating the brown hen, Patty quickly opened each cage door and tossed food inside. Still she was pecked twice and nipped once. She had just darted in to check the latch on the last of the cages when she heard the Buick pull into the driveway. Dad was early. Maybe he was going to Three Lakes after dinner.

“Got the chickens fed, Patty Pat?” asked Dad. “Fed and watered,” Patty replied. Patty and Dad climbed the back steps together. Dad took off his hat inside the little screened porch and set it on the shelf.

Patty could see Joan and Connie already at the kitchen table swinging their feet as they waited for Mother to bring them stew and biscuits. There were only five places set. The big girls must be decorating for a dance. Or maybe they were at a movie.

 

Kristi: I love this setting. It’s reminiscent of CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, which I read and re-read as a kid. A few things will really tighten this up and get the story moving. Your first line is only okay to me. I’d love it to have more punch. The entire first paragraph can be condensed to really draw in your readers. I’d suggest something along these lines:

Patty had nightmares about feeding the roosters, but the hens were sweet. She looked forward to their soothing cackles and bright eyes. The hens fluttered and jumped with excitement when Patty rounded the corner of the garage carrying a big bowl of vegetable peelings and leftover breakfast mush.

In your 2nd paragraph you overuse the word “hen.” In fact, I’d cut it and move on to paragraph 3 because that’s where I feel like you’ve hit your stride. I like the mention of the Lone Ranger and the radio and the family car. All of these things really set up where we are and what her life is like. Also, I loved that you planted a few things like dad being home early and not sure where the sisters are– this works perfectly in making me wonder if somethings up.

Karin: I completely agree with Kristi’s comments. I really like how you manage to anchor us authentically in place and time.  I would suggest tightening a little more and perhaps giving us a little more sense of what Patty wants. All we know is she’d rather be sewing with the big girls than feeding the hens and roosters. I love the reference to the Lone Ranger but would would cut one of the three adjectives describing the roosters. In paragraph five, I was confused as to how Patty was imitating the brown hen. Also, I would add “rooster” in here to remind us that she’s feeding them now. Also, not sure what the difference is between pecked and nipped. The ending makes me want to read more so I can find out why the older sisters aren’t there. Well done and good luck!

Gabrielle: Your prose is lovely–simple and evocative. I’m right with Patty Pat in the hen house. I agree with Kristi about too much use of the word “hen”, and would add that you also repeat “mush” too frequently. I would keep the first sentence of your first paragraph, but move it to the end of that paragraph. It gives us some good tension, with her fear of the roosters, but you could flesh it out a little with some details of the nightmares. Does she just have to feed them again and again in her sleep, until she wakes in a cold sweat, or do they get huge and chase her, or something different? Your line about the radio is a very clever way to show us we’re not in today’s hen house.

Overall, I think this is a great beginning, and it reminds me some of A YEAR DOWN YONDER by Richard Peck, though I do wonder a little about what’s going to be at stake. Hopefully, there will be an upping of the tension fast. You’ve got a good set-up with her being smashed between her sisters, but I want to see her decide to do something about it, or for there to be hints of something huge coming toward her that will throw a wrench in her life–soon. For example, In A YEAR DOWN YONDER, the heroine is leaving her mother and the life she knew behind, thrown into her crazy Grandmother’s life to make her way. She’s miserable, and we see every moment of her longing for home. As an aside, the scene you paint is easy to see, but I think you could also squeeze in a detail or two about Patty’s physical appearance that would help us see her better. Also, please mention what kind of creature Ming Chow is, so we can see her too! Nice work.

Rebecca: I like this start! We definitely see Patty is stuck in the middle of a large family and get a good sense for her life on the farm. Like the other’s, I’d like to know what the story’s about. Is Patty’s goal to be seen as one of the “big girls?” But this is only 400 words and I like your writing, so I’d keep reading.

 

4 on 400: May 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.

Biting Secrets

YA Paranormal Romance

It happened the day the world went dark. Meteorologists still have no explanation. Experts blame the lining of the planets–others propose NASA blocked the sun’s rays with some experimental exposition. In my opinion, the Earth stopped rotating that day. At least, it did for me.

I’m scrubbing my surfboard for the third time tonight. It’s gleaming, ensnaring me with hopeful operation, but I won’t bend to its will. Not now, not ever again.

“Abigail,” his voice calls over the two-way radio.

I scrub harder, stripping it of the lies, its betrayal, of its vivid bloody warranty.

“Abigail, it’s going to disintegrate.”

I glance over my shoulder, sighing. Lucas leans against his balcony, smirking at me. His wild ringlets are sculpted to the base of his head, indicating fatigue.

I groan and grab my radio. “What do you want, Lucas?”

“You can’t scare me away, ice queen. It’s a full moon.”

I sigh, standing to face him. Lucas and I have been toying with walkie talkies since we were ten years old. We only live a few feet from each other, our balconies peering over the water at proportionate levels. On a serene night, our voices even stretch within reach. But tonight, the waves crash with ferocious intentions, snapping and snarling in an undulating captivity.

I hold the receiver to my lips. “Is this our new normal? Every time the moon is full, you bother me?”

“It depends,” he says. “Are you going to rub your board raw with every full moon?”

I glare at him–his gut-wrenching grin caked on a chiseled platter–and I can’t help but smile.

“Well, you know how I see it.”

I laugh, shaking my head. “Right, I have two options.”

“One, you run away with me. We can even go to the desert for all I care.”

“Or two, I surf again,” I mock him.

We linger in tarried silence under the loud moon. I’m weary with its volume, but I remember it clearly the night I was attacked: massive, scarring, morbid. I sigh as the waves crash in the distance–thunder orchestrating between the swells–and I try to ignore my synapses as they fire off salty images.

“Seeing as we’re only sixteen,” I finally break the silence, “I don’t think option one is on the roster.”

“Which leads to option two–my favorite option.”

Rebecca: You have an intriguing first paragraph. I like that it sets the stage for a paranormal story. I’d love more clarity on is what the night was like, other than dark. What does it feel like to have the planet stop rotating? How long has it been dark? The characters do not seem to be acting like something out of the ordinary is going on and if they did, that would act as a bridge between the opening and the intro to your characters.

The relationship between Abigail and Lucas sounds promising, but here were also some things that didn’t come across clearly. The surfboard “ensnaring me with hopeful operation,” the loud moon and “his gut-wrenching grin caked on a chiseled platter.” You need a bit more for the meaning to be clear to the reader.

Best of luck with this project!

Halli: I’m intrigued from the first paragraph. What happened that day? Why did the world go dark? It must be something huge if NASA can’t figure out what happened. I second what Rebecca said about wanting more information on this. You can still introduce the characters, but a suggestion would be to do so in relation to the dark event. By diving into the characters in an event like that, readers would be able to see and feel another side of them. One filled with deep emotion like fear. One more thought as I read this, I feel there are too many adjectives. It slowed down the reading for me and did not highlight those that were most important. Thanks so much for sharing! I love YA paranormal. Good luck!

Richelle: You’ve set up a super interesting premise, with a lot of interesting questions — how do they know when it’s day and when it’s night if it’s dark all the time? How are they coping on the other side of the world where it’s always day? What’s happening with food/crops? How has it impacted the animals and the weather? Fascinating! Because that was so intriguing, I found the conversation not holding my attention as much as it should. Can you feather in the information in that first paragraph as you go through the story, rather than dropping it up front? I also agree with Rebecca and Halli that you might consider using clearer language and fewer descriptors, especially up front. I love your creativity, but a few times, it took me right out of your story. Thanks for sharing and best of luck!

Gita: The world went dark? Count me in! I love the idea that something is happening on a cosmic level right at the beginning of your story and that it somehow may mirror what’s happening with these two teenagers. So yes, I’m intrigued. In that first paragraph, though, I’m a little unclear about what your narrator says when she notes, “At least it did for me”—does that mean the world didn’t go dark for others? Or is this a comment on something else? I’d clarify that. You’ve received so much good feedback above I don’t have much to add beyond a couple of suggestions for how to tame your metaphors, which as my fellow Pennies have said, confuse/distract rather than deepen our understanding of what’s happening. One, because you’re telling the story in first person POV, all these metaphors are ones Abigail is creating, since she’s the one telling the story. Is she really thinking of Lucas’s grin as “gut-wrenching” and “caked on a chiseled platter”? Two, you might consider honing the metaphors so they belong to one family of metaphors at a time (about the moon, or waves, for example) and simplify each metaphor says only one thing at a time, like “gut-wrenching.” Three—which is connected to my first point—these metaphors are a chance for you to show us who Abigail is and how she thinks. You’ve got a flair for words—now make those words work double-time for you. Happy writing!

Gabrielle: My favorite part starts with the dialogue, “Abigail, it’s going to disintegrate.” and ends with “within reach.”  In that section you’re revealing a relationship by having one character react to the actions of another. More importantly, he reacts to what those actions tell him. It’s got depth. You’re also painting the scene really well, without distracting us with some of the too-heavy prose that my fellow Pennies have pointed out above. Sometimes it’s the simplest language that is the most poignant, because it serves the characters.  It will be the people and what makes them special that will draw us in and keep us. Paint them first, and make us love them. Thank you for sharing your writing with us, and good luck!

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