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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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!

 

Tame Your Revision: 7 Tips to Finish Your Novel Before Your Battery Dies

Revising a novel is a form of bookkeeping. So many moving parts!! How do you keep from losing your mind?

Never fear, writer friends!

The Winged Pen is here!

Ta daaaa!

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

INVENTORY

  1. Make a scene list.
  2. Timeline
  3. Map of Major Scenes
  4. Draw, Doodle, Diagram, Index Card, Cut up Manuscript, Synopsis, Query Letter, Colored Markers.

SLICE AND LABEL

  1. Duplicate all the scenes you want to revise. (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Cut up into topics and label in Scrivener’s Binder. (“castle burns down” “tea party” “transition to vineyard”)
  3. Put like things together.
  4. Draft connections.

THROW STUFF OUT

  1. Duplicate all the files you want to revise. (If you didn’t already.)
  2. Delete everything that isn’t true.
  3. Cut stuff you don’t want. (Darlings, throat clearing, engine starting, letting characters off the hook.)
  4. Can you see?

FEEDBACK FOLDER

  1. Create feedback folders. (synopsis, draft, query, pitch) (#protip: Scrivener)
  2. Label files (reader/chapters/date. Paste in comments from e-mails.
  3. Add a status in Scrivener for “send to crit partners”, “to do”, “done”.

SORT BY SIZE

  1. Read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K: How to write faster, write better, and write more of what you love.
  2. Make a list ranked by size of mess.
  3. Do the big stuff first.

CYCLE

  1. Go back a chapter. What did you promise the reader?
  2. Deliver it.
  3. Go forward a chapter. What did you deliver that needs to be set-up?
  4. Set it up.

DESPERATE MEASURES

  1. Find the question first. (See INVENTORY)
  2. Let subconscious work.
    (walks, water, sleep, music, whatever* works!)

*Dark chocolate Lindt truffles.

Happy revising! May your batteries and your Scrivener project targets always shine green!

Need that infographic link again? Here it is:

Give your revision Wings: Download the Tame Your Revision Infographic here.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.

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