Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kari's Critiques, part 1

As promised, this week we start something new here on the blog. For those who weren't around for the "Kari's Queries" series, I have a beta-reader who is a high school English teacher. She has so very kindly loaned me her kids. Er... Sort of.

For the Queries series, the kids got to ask me any question they wanted, whether it was about writing, or life, or whatever. I like to think we all learned a lot and are now better people for it. (or something.)

So now, those kids are bravely going to submit to me a small snippet of their own writing, and I'm gonna give a small critique. I'll do a few every week, just like with the Queries.

Now, keep in mind that these critiques are just my own opinion. The one thing you learn as a writer is that EVERYthing is subjective. In fact, I think most writers hear that in their sleep. One of the greatest (and most frustrating) things about writing is that there are NO iron-clad rules. People will tell you that there are, but you can almost always turn around and find an opposing example. My best advice for any author receiving a critique is to listen to the parts that strike a chord with you, and politely ignore the rest.

Anyone else is welcome to add their own opinions in the comments, but I ask that folk remember these are high school kids, and they've taken that HUGE first step of letting someone else see something they've written. Any overly harsh comments will be deleted. I'm going for constructive here, folks, not cruel.

And with that said, here we go!


Excerpt 1:
Kaylin was running through the swords clashing around her. She could hear her brother screaming somewhere ahead of her but just could not see through the throng of people. “Jay! Where are you?” She was scared to death but all she could concentrate on was the fact that Jaykob ran off even though he was given specific instructions to stay by her side. It’s funny really, the things that go through the mind when disaster strikes. “That little twerp, when I get my hands on him…” Kaylin continued to grumble to herself, mapping out the many things she would love to do to her younger brother. She was still dodging the swordsmen sparring around her. They weren’t the disaster, not really anyway. The real disaster was what was waiting outside the walls of the fortress in which they were being sheltered. He just hoped she could reach her brother before the security in place was breached. She could never live with herself if she lost her little brother. Even worse was the fact that she would be betraying her mother.

“Kaylin, I expect you to take care of Jay. He looks up to you, you know that.” Kaylin looked to her feet, knowing her mom spoke the truth, but she couldn’t let her mom know that she didn’t know how to take care of him, to protect him. She held her mom’s trembling hand as tightly as she dared and gave a stiff nod, willing herself not to cry. Not here, in front of her mother. Death’s doorstep would be hard enough without watching the tears of your daughter too. Despite her fears and insecurities, Kaylin was determined to be the best big sister for Jaykob. Even at seventeen, she knew it was never as easy as you make it out to be.

Part of me is wondering why, if she can hear her brother screaming, no one else is paying attention to it. If the swordsmen are just sparring (ie: It’s not an actual battle going on) it seems to me that the adults would be paying more attention to a screaming child. If there is an actual battle (as indicated by the fear that security might be breached) then it makes more sense that no one is paying attention to one child.

Another thing I noticed is that this seems to be set in a medieval time (swords, a fortress, that sort of thing) but the main character’s voice seems rather modern. The one word in particular that catches my eye is “mom”. It seems a very modern word, compared to the rest of the piece. Maybe think of “mother” or even “Mama” instead. Voice is one of those elusive things that will make or break a piece, and it’s even harder to pin down just what is “right”. (Now, if you tell me this IS a modern piece, but in a world where we’ve had to regress technology-wise to swords and fortresses, then the use of “mom” would be expected, and would also make a really interesting twist to the premise) ((Yes, this is how my brain works. My apologies.))

With a small excerpt like this, it’s harder to comment on larger story-type issues. I know that I’m dying to know what the soldiers are fighting (Other men, like two rival armies? Something worse?). I want to know what’s outside the fortress walls that she fears so. So you’ve succeeded in making me want to know more! Which is all a story is, really, one person wanting to know more so they read on.

I also might caution using the spellings of the two names so similarly. For someone who reads as fast as I do, Jaykob and Kaylin have very similar sounds and shapes, and I have to slow down to consciously see which one you’re talking about. Removing the “y” from either name would solve the problem.


Excerpt 2:

He walked alone along the foggy gray street. His worn boots patted rhythmically on the ash that covered the road below. He had been walking for weeks, months, maybe even a year, he could not tell. The days could only be measured by the number of sun rises or sunsets. It had been too many to tally.

His hands were protected by a pair of thin, knitted mittens with the finger tips cut off pulled over top of a pair of holey leather gloves. His left hand carried a six shooter that carried only three shells. His right, he usually kept in his pocket, shuffling with the knife he carried. He switched these often.

The upper half of his body was shielded by a stained tank top; an old gray t-shirt; an olive green, almost brown hoodie; and a tattered black leather coat. His lower half by boxer shorts; a pair of one size too small sweat pants; and a pair of cargo pants whose pockets were often filled with crumpled pieces of paper and anything else to get a fire started or keep it going.

His head wore a small beanie which was covered by the hood of the zip-up hoodie. About two inches of frosty black hair protruded from the bottom of the hat. It was knotted and the tips were coated with small chunks of ice; water that had frozen on its last wash. Covering his face was a strip of ripped shirt he used as a scarf. Underneath the homemade scarf was about an inch of a black-gray beard. Dirty, scratched black sunglasses were the only thing that protected his eyes.

Slung over his shoulders was a ripping backpack that carried a rock he struck to start fires; what little, if any, soap he had left: two cans of beans: and a small piece of cooked chicken he had wrapped in a piece of paper.

He suddenly stopped. He squinted his eyes as he lifted the sunglasses off his face. Something moved ahead. Crouched, it stood up and faced him. He slowly pulled up his sleeve and turned his arm outward so the pistol could fully be made out.

My first thought is, why is he wearing sunglasses in the fog? Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just means it’s something that should either have an explanation (and could be a cool bit of world-building) or should be changed. (Same goes for fog plus ice. They can occur together, rarely, but if it’s important to the world building, this would be a good place to explain it)

I’m unsure about the laundry list of clothes and belongings. It’s a really GOOD description, first off. I can totally picture the man in my mind. I’m just not sure that having the full description kind of dumped on the reader like that is a good way to go. I’d have to see more context to truly make the call on that one, but it’s something to think about. I’ve seen books use this style to good effect, and I’ve also seen it totally bring a piece to a screeching halt. If you wanted to do it differently, you could try to spread it out more, drop the details into the rest of the story more fluidly.

Even with the long list of descriptions, you’ve still managed to tell me a lot about the world already, which is why I think it might be a workable style. I know it’s cold, I know there is some reason for a person to walk about with their face covered/protected. I know there’s something not-quite-human going on, because the mysterious creature is referred to as “it”. I wonder, is he showing the gun to warn the thing off? Because that implies that whatever it is, is intelligent. It reminds me of the recent movie “The Book of Eli” for some reason.

Minor nitpick, watch your word usage. Second paragraph, second sentence, you use “carried” twice. It makes the sentence read awkwardly. Perhaps try it like “His left hand cradled a six-shooter that carried only three shells.” One word difference, but it smooths things out a bit.


Excerpt 3:

Somewhere in North Africa
March 18, 1942 6:33 a.m.

All I could hear was the sound of my heavy breath and the sound of my running strides echoing off the walls of this labyrinth. It was me and three others that had made it this far. I wasn't about to let the Germans catch up to us. I knew they'd be following closely behind. This felt very different from the previous jobs that I've pulled, though. This time, I was leaving empty handed.

A shattering volley of bullets wiped past my head. I flinched at the mere cry of the machine gun opening up from behind.

"Shit! Come on, boys!" I cried. It seemed to be the mot juste for the situation we were in. I could see daylight approaching fast at the other end of the tunnel. Almost immediately, the crisp smells of the ocean hit me like a wall. My thoughts raced. This was definitely no time for any sort of bravado. I attempted to constrict the feelings of doubt building up inside me. From the Intel we'd gathered, I knew enough to know that these tunnel systems were being built into the mountain as costal gun emplacements. This light at the end of the tunnel was nothing but an impasse. I made a decision with the hopes that acumen would follow with it. I ripped my rifle up over my head and threw it to the ground.

"Get rid of 'em, ladies! We're going for a swim!" I screamed. It may have been a non sequitur, but I had to take a chance. I heard the cackle of more guns hitting the ground before their sound was swallowed up by another volley of machine gun fire. I was sure this was going to be the most effusive moment of my career. The four of us reached the exit in a hail of gun fire. We took a leap off the edge of the opening and took a plunge into the sea below.

Hotel de Cazador
Cairo, Egypt
March 22, 1942 12:03 p.m.

Richard slapped down his cards. "You bastard! You bilked me!" he whined in his typical British accent. He reached his hand out to check Peter's cards.

Peter raised an eyebrow. "I what?" he chuckled, a smile coming across his face as he pulled in his earnings.

"You cheated me!" he said throwing Peter's cards into his lap.

"Yeah, well, maybe next time you'll learn what two-of-a-kind means, eh?" Peter spouted in an execrable manner.

"Go rot in hell, Peter." Richard cursed. I thought at any moment I would have to step in and adjudicate the situation. Richard finished off the last of his beer as Peter monolithically gathered all of the cards back into a deck.

“Marcus, you in this round?” asked Peter. I gave him a fulsome look.

“No, I’m good.” I continued to read my newspaper. Judging from his charisma, Peter probably possessed at least two aces in that deck. Poor, Richard. Peter had already impinged his wallet and yet he continued to let Peter shuffle and start another game.

Ooh, historical… Tricky to do well. Gotta get all your ducks in a row with research on a project like this one, ‘cause if you get anything wrong, people who know the era will call you on it. I’m not brave enough to do historical. (Yet.)

I know this was partly a vocab assignment for you, so I won’t remark on the plethora of three- and four-syllable words. In a real piece, I would advise against sprinkling so many fancy words around, but for our purposes here, it’ll work just fine. The trick with using thesaurus-type words is making sure that you’re using them all correctly. Words have connotations, and even though they may SEEM like they mean the same thing, they don’t. (And don’t rely on your word processing program’s dictionary/thesaurus/spell check. For example, the word “intel” is slang for intelligence. The word “Intel” is a computer company)

I like starting in the middle of an action scene. Thrusts the reader right into the story, and you can deliver an amazing amount of information in a short burst. For example, I know that we have a group of men, and our narrator is presumably the leader. I’ll guess military of some sort, since he’s bawling out commands. I know they’ve had a failed mission, and they’re running for their lives from German soldiers.

As for the time/place headings, I’m iffy on these, but I think it may just be my own personal taste. If the dates/times are important, leave them, because it’s harder to convey an exact date and time just randomly in the prose. I mean, how many times can you have somebody say “By the way, James, what date is today?” “Why, it’s the twelfth of October, Francis, thank you for asking.” It’s not natural, people don’t just stand around talking about the date.

The location, however, is something that you might be able to convey through the writing, sprinkling in hints about locations via some descriptions. Mention that someone is speaking a different language, or that the servants are dressed a certain way. Egypt in particular has a notable culture, and describing that will help expand the world for a reader who might not be familiar with the country/time period.


And there we are, our first three brave authors! Everybody give them a hand, just for showing us their stuff. That's the first big step any writer has to take, and one that most people never take.

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