Thursday, April 21, 2011

First Page Critiques

Several weeks ago, I posted an offer for a free first page critique. Life got extremely busy (see my post on Priorities from last Friday), but I hope to make May the month for critiques. So far I have only gotten one submission, from Ruth, but I understand at least one other person tried to post and I didn't get it. We'll start with Ruth. Anyone else who wants to participate, please paste your submission in the comments below or e-mail me through my website.

Here are the rules again:
  • To participate, become a follower of the blog, if you aren't already. (If for some reason you find it impossible to "follow" or subscribe to blogs, include a note to that effect with your submission.)
  • Post the opening of your novel, short story or picture book  in the comments -- up to 300 words.
  • Everyone who posts will get a brief critique. That's right, everyone!
  • One out of every 5 submissions will get a more thorough critique. That means the more people who play, the more critiques you'll see. So bring your friends and spread the word!
  • By posting your excerpt here, you agree to a public online critique. (Don't worry, I'll be nice as well as helpful.)
  • Please post only one excerpt.

So you can play along, here's our first submission, from a 55,000-word middle-grade paranormal:

Eleanor shivered. It was spooky in the woods, and Lola seemed to have vanished without a trace. She whistled, then paused to listen. If she didn’t get back to the car soon, her mother would be furious.

She was in trouble already, but it hadn’t been her fault. How could she have known that putting liquid soap in the dishwasher would cause a lemon-scented flood? As for Lola’s crime, if the neighbors didn’t want teeth marks on their umbrellas, they shouldn’t leave them lying about the foyer.

Eleanor had apologized. She’d mopped up the suds, and she was saving her allowance to pay for the umbrellas. Still, Mom saw the incidents as proof that she needed more supervision. More structure. That was why they’d come to visit Looking Glass Falls Wilderness Adventure Camp.

Eleanor sighed. Somehow she had to convince Mom that, at eleven, she was old enough to keep herself and her dog out of trouble, and that camp was a terrible idea. But first she had to find Lola. She scanned the woods for a gray-white plume of a tail. She strained her ears for the jingle of dog tags. But all she heard was a roar, like rushing water--then, suddenly, a scream and a splash.

Eleanor ran toward the sound. Soon she burst from the shadow of the trees into a little hollow and saw a wonderful sight: a waterfall, spilling from the top of a cliff into a pool--and Lola, vigorously shaking water from her fur.

“There you are, you rascal! Did you fall in the water?” As she threw her arms around her dog and fumbled for the leash, a sudden movement caught her eye. She looked up, squinting in the sunlight.

A girl was walking slowly toward the edge of the woods.

That's the opening 300 words! Take a few minutes to see what you think, and I'll weigh in with my comments tomorrow. You can post your comments in the comment section here, but remember to focus on constructive criticism.


  1. COUNTING CHANGE-YA-contemporary-shelley

    My mother’s mission in life is to change me. She’ll deny it, but ever since daddy’s accident, she colors the rooms of our home like Michelangelo threatened with unemployment. She wears her paint scarf wrapped tight around her curls, and dangles brushes from each hand like a gunslinger from an old movie.
    “Jenna and I are going back to school shopping,” I say before she can get a word out. All summer I’ve worked at Connie’s Coffee listening in on conversations. A study in human weirdness. Right now in my sock drawer I’ve a folded wad of twenties waiting to buy jeans and shoes for my first day of high school.
    I grab orange juice out of the fridge, and hunt through our cupboard for a clean glass.
    “Wonderful! I think you’re going to love high school, Stoney. I know I did.” Mama runs her hand over my hair. “Why do you insist on cutting your hair like a boy?”
    I tug on my new bangs, knowing I cut them way too short. But I don’t care. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to hate high school, Mama. Just because you liked it doesn’t mean I’m going to like it.” In fact, it’s a pretty sure bet that if she liked it, I’ll hate it.
    I’m trying to figure out why our lives have to change so much. Why can’t we stay the same?

    It’s unbelievable the changes one person is required to go through in a lifetime, let alone a simple summer. I’ve written some down:
    Besides the unspeakable accident, which changed everyone’s lives forever, at the top of my list is Carl Journey, ex-boyfriend and creep. Also on that list is: school, body, and environment. Mine to be exact.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous, got it! By the way folks, don't be concerned if your comment doesn't show up right away -- it has to go through moderation. But it should show up within a day.

  3. I’m excited at the promise of a spooky story coming on. You do a nice job of letting us know in the first lines that this will be scary and grounding us in the setting. Words like vanishing, shiver and spooky give us a good idea of what type of story will be. I confess to not getting that Lola was a dog till after I read the first paragraph a couple of times. Probably just me. After reading it though, I wondered why her mom wasn’t with her. It seemed a little odd, and also is it day or night? I’d think about switching the reason for them being out to look at the camp, up closer to the opening paragraphs, which gives us a hint of the conflict. It would be easy to do. And then filtering in the reason’s why she might be going to camp (the dish soap and umbrellas). They’re humorous, but I think the conflict is more important to get to as quickly as possible. Also, I think we’re missing your voice. It’s hard to get to in this POV. A good exercise is writing it in first to find the voice, and then going back over it in third. I think the reader might need to know why she doesn’t want to go to camp because a lot of kids really love summer camp—both my girls loved it.
    You’ve got lots of good stuff going on here. There’s a real promise of a scary story for middle graders. I think having a dog is a really good idea—kids love to read about animals.
    These are just my two cents. Can’t wait to see what Chris has to say. Best of luck to you!

  4. Thanks, arbor16! I appreciate your comments, and you make some great points.

  5. This is a picture book manuscript. It's 441 words if you include the illustration notes, and approximately 300 if you don't. 300 words with the notes ends at the paragraph starting with "GOOD HEAVENS!" Thank you for doing this!


    Goldipig thought the tidy cottage in the woods looked WAY better than her mucky sty at the pond.
    She watched Mama Cat instruct her family as they stepped out the door. “Single file! No pushing!” said Mama Cat. “Papa Cat, comb your whiskers! You look dreadful! Hurry up! We must be at Grandcat’s house in exactly six minutes! Max! Don’t dawdle!” Illustration note: Six kittens in matching clothes are lined up tallest to shortest. Max, the smallest kitten is not with the program. Goldipig is watching from behind the neatly trimmed shrubbery.
    The moment the cat family was out of sight, Goldipig followed her snout to the kitchen.
    “Where do they keep the food in this place?” she snorted.
    The hungry pig rooted through the pantry, raided the refrigerator, and rummaged in the cabinets. Munch, munch, slurp.
    “So, what’s to do around here?”
    “Books? Bah!”
    “Blocks? Boring!”
    “Banisters? Beautiful!”
    Illustration note: Goldipig tosses the books off the shelves, kicks over a neat stack of blocks, then slides down the banister, breaking it.
    “Nap time! Now, where can a pig go for a snooze?”
    “Not comfy!” Illustration note: Goldipig is trying to fit on a stiff looking sofa.
    “Not cozy!” Illustration note: Goldipig lying on Mama Cat’s perfectly arranged bed.
    “Aaaaahhhhh!” Illustration note: Goldipig lying across the kittens’ side-by-side beds.
    While Goldipig snored, the cat family finished their 27 minute visit with Grandcat and marched home.
    “Wipe your feet on the mat! Hang your coats up in order!” barked Mama Cat.
    Then she walked into the kitchen. Illustration note: Max drops his coat on the floor behind Mama Cat and tracks in mud.
    “GOOD HEAVENS!” she cried. “Papa Cat, call the police! Raymond, clean up those cans! Suzy, mop the floor!” Illustration note: Max is secretly lapping up milk and eating a treat.
    Then she walked into the parlor.
    “GOOD GRACIOUS!” she exclaimed. “Papa Cat, call the fire department! Sylvia, line up those books! Robert, stack those blocks!” Illustration note: Max slides down the banister and flies off the broken end.
    Then she walked upstairs.
    “GOOD GRIEF!” she shrieked. “Papa Cat, call the President! Roger, fluff those cushions! Max, pull up those covers! Max? Max, where are you?”
    Max slipped into his bedroom.
    “Hi,” he said. “Mama Cat thinks you sure did make a mess.”
    “Hey, a pig’s gotta have some fun,” said Goldipig with a grin.
    “You’d better get out of here before she sees you,” Max whispered.
    “Well then, what’re we waiting for?” winked Goldipig. “C’mon, kid. Let’s go!”
    Illustration note: Goldipig and Max are outside playing in the mud while a horrified Mama Cat watches from the window.

  6. Hi, Thanks for offering this up for us. Mine is a middle grade novel in verse, currently titled "tilt".

    I’ve kept notebooks
    forever. Mom has all of them
    in a box somewhere.
    Each filled with thoughts, ideas and drawings.
    My current notebook is
    dedicated to Jackson
    It has all the poems
    I’ve written about my friend.
    I started writing about
    Jackson the first summer he was gone
    I wanted to remember everything
    about him, every last
    detail. Even when I didn’t stay.

    Rhymes With
    Dad’s expression for
    the changing course
    of an event.
    Kinda like playing pinball
    if you’re clever
    you can “tilt” the game
    and if not, game over.

    Tilt is also
    like the carnival
    “tilt-a-whirl” that
    spins you round
    until you become dizzy,
    like I did
    that spring night two years ago.
    Also rhymes with guilt.

    Walking Home
    School’s almost out
    jump and shout
    School’s almost out
    Jumping and shouting all the way.
    Only seventeen more walks?
    Until elementary school is over
    a summer to get
    ready for middle school
    Big changes ahead
    Am I ready? No.
    I’m already worried about that
    first day.
    Will I get lost? Will the older
    kids be mean?
    And my best friend from elementary school
    wont’ be there.
    I round the corner and there
    in front of me, lips curled, head low, ears back,
    a huge dog
    blocks my path.

    Run. No, wait.
    Think, Darrah, think
    What did that lady say?
    Be a log? No, a tree. Close my eyes?

    I stop. Drop my pack.
    Whisper: Freeze, Darrah, freeze.
    Dare to glance down,
    see that dog through buttonhole eyes.

    Dog sniffs my backpack,
    my shoelaces.
    Does it smell fear?
    Can it tell I’m shaking?

    Dog turns its head, sees the
    cat teetering on the fence
    bolts after it.

    Puzzle Solver
    I run home
    through the front door, out the back door to
    my trampoline, the puzzle solver!
    Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop. Up. Down.

    Knees bent, pushing off
    I feel the last of the fear
    dissolve. I wonder, whose dog?
    Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop! Up. Down.

    Did those people
    adopt another dog?
    How could they? Why would they?
    Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop! Up. Down.

    I wonder Jackson,
    Do you have dogs with you
    wherever you are.
    Whoosh, plop! Whoosh, plop! Up. Down.

    I wonder, Jackson,
    were you with me today?
    did you see that dog,
    did you feel my fear?

    Mischief Ninja

    Mom yells
    Darrah, getting dark out.
    Yeah, okay, I yell back.
    I whisper to the first glimmering star in the tangerine sky
    Good-night Jackson.
    Yep, I admit it. I talk to Jackson a lot.
    He’s everywhere; apple tree tops,
    tetherball, in class.
    But last spring was different.
    Clouds hung like funeral drapes,
    my mom says we could cut the air with
    a knife it was so still.
    Stars vanished.
    You see, my best friend
    My mischief ninja:

  7. Goblin Fruit YA 21,500 words

    Frank Harman buttoned a white lab coat over his tie-dyed T-shirt as he hurried toward the nurse’s station in the maternity ward.
    Anna smiled at him as he came toward her."Thanks for coming, Frank. Sorry to take you away from your data compilation."

    He smiled back as he ran his fingers through his tousled brown hair and removed his glasses, wiping them on the lab coat. "That's okay. The study can wait.” He rubbed his tired, slightly bloodshot eyes and then put the glasses back on.”So what’s happening here?”

    Anna frowned. She looked toward an open patient door and then back at Frank. "The patient gave birth to a baby girl this afternoon." Gesturing for him to follow, she walked to the open door, through which a sleeping young woman and a baby in a clear plastic bassinet were visible. The woman’s golden brown hair formed a halo around her head and she seemed, at least to Frank, to glow in the lighting.

    Frank gasped. "Sara."

    "You know her?"

    "A little," he said hoarsely, before clearing his throat. "A long time ago."

    Anna looked at Frank, as though expecting him to elaborate. When he didn't, she went on. "Actually, I know her too. She's an artist. She used to be at some of the art parties Nick and I attend."

    Frank made no response.

    Looking back toward Sara, who was sleeping soundly, Anna whispered, "She was a real partier. Always the center of attention. I haven't seen her around lately, though. I didn't know she was pregnant."

    Frank nodded absently, like he wasn't really listening.

    Anna shook her head. "No complications with the birth. Drug screen came back clean, but I feel like something's off."