Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 21, 2011

Free Fall Friday With Felicia Chernesky

PROMPT:
____scanned the crowd through….

entries critiqued by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky

Hello Everyone!

Kathy, thank you for the opportunity to offer feedback on these entries and thank you to each writer for allowing me to comment on your words.

Since Kathy has provided a prompt that involves peering through a lens of sorts, I’ll mention that I’m responding to the writing through my lens as an editor and as someone engaged in the study of the craft of poetry.

Copyeditors are always looking for instances to cut word count and poets know—because the metered line never allows us to forget it!—that every word included (every syllable, actually) counts as well. Therefore, many suggestions for revision lie ahead…

As writers I don’t think we need be afraid to trim and tighten. Less is almost always more (and leaves them wanting to read more).

It’s interesting that each prompt respondent chose to embark on a kind of journey, as if looking inherently leads to pilgrimage. (Chaucer—and the White Rabbit—would approve.)

The first entry comes from the often devastating world of reality. Comments are interwoven into and below the text:

Alicia scanned the crowd through the rusted chain link fence. She hooked her fingers through the upper rungs of the fence, stepped on the links, and hoisted herself up. (The highlighted phrasing is tricky; she’s actually fitting her feet into the links. A sample rephrasing: She hooked her fingers through the upper rungs, stuck her ragged sneakers into the links, and hoisted herself up.) Squinting, she searched for her mother and sister. The multitude of people pushing and
shouting made it difficult to pick out anyone. (Try tinkering with word order, e.g., “The pushing and shouting multitude made it impossible to pick anyone out.”) He arms began shaking. Unable to continue holding herself up, and she slid
down. Her backpack was too heavy but placing it down was not an option. (Trim and make phrasing active: “but she couldn’t put it down.”) Someone would snatch it in a second. It contained all her belongings. (Effective opening paragraph; I want to read more.)

Alicia zigzagged (good verb!) her way into the Salvation Army yard towards the water supply truck. Katrina’s
devastation had been three days ago but water was still scarce. (Critical situation/passive wording—amp this up with active phrasing.) Crowds kept forminged daily for their allotment of water. She made her way to the end of the line.
The people were becoming familiar though each day they appeared more emaciated. (This word is too extreme for three days, perhaps more weary/disheveled/scared?) She could sympathize, wearing the same clothes for three days, with little sleep or food. (Watch your syntax! “She could sympathize. She’d also been wearing…” P.S. Good description in this paragraph. I want to read more.)

Finally, the attendant, a boy about seventeen, waved her over. The man behind Alicia shoved her aside and moved forward. The boy intervened, “I believe she is next. Please get back in line.” (Diction sounds too formal.) Though much older, the man obeyed. (Why would he listen? Give me a reason.) The boy scrutinized her,. “I know you?”

“I don’t think so,” she mumbled, looking down. As she turned to walk away, she looked up.

“I do know you. You’re in my older sister Ophelia’s class.” (Not sure if she’d say “older.”)

“Ophelia Walker? Is she with you?”

“I haven’t seen her or my mother since the hurricane destroyed our house. I hoped to find them here, but it doesn’t seem likely.” She scanned the crowd once more. (This is important information for the reader, but she expresses it so calmly and formally it doesn’t ring true. Wouldn’t she sound more desperate, scared, heartbroken?)

My name is I’m Warren. I’m staying at the Howe Street shelter,. What about you?”

“Hey, stop the damn chitchat. I don’t have all day,” shouted the man in line. (This rings true!)

Warren turned towards him, “Sir, there’s no need for vulgarity. I’ll be right with you.” Back to Alicia, “Wait for me over by the main gate. I will help you find your family.” (Warren sounds a little stiff and I get no “N’awleans” flavor in anyone’s speech. A teenager especially would speak more casually: “No need to cuss, sir” and “Wait
by the main gate. I’ll help you find your family.”)

This is a poignant situation and I want to know more. The setting is well established and there’s believable interaction between the characters. What I’m missing is a sense of urgency and desperation that Alicia must feel after the devastating
hurricane and being separated from her mother and sister. If you can find ways to inject that into the text, it will make the story more gripping.

A friend moved to New Jersey after losing everything in Katrina. Her own and extended family was scattered across the country and it took months for them to find each other, including an uncle who was so traumatized by the storm he had amnesia. As my friend told me her incredible tale I started to feel faint—and realized that I had forgotten to breathe as she was talking! Although your tale is fiction, you are drawing upon a reality that still affects people today. Dig into the emotional and psychological (and spiritual and political…) aspects of the story. Exploring Alicia’s and your other character’s feelings will add a layer of pathos to your storytelling that is surely a part of Alicia’s journey.

Next let’s take a look at this entry “Saba’s Quest,” by Liza Parfomak, which immediately takes us to the core of a dramatic situation…

Saba scanned the crowd through her thick rimmed goggles, but it was difficult to see. The forecast of the Universal Atmospheric Agency (UAA) warned of the danger, but she felt compelled to go out and search anyway.  Now though, her only thought was to escape the suffocation. The thick mist of sand and dust just started and she knew there were only minutes to find shelter. (This is a great opening that can be intensified by some revising. Try restructuring your sentences to tighten the syntax. Vary sentence length, and consider replacing multisyllabic words with single-syllable ones—something poets must always consider but prose writers often overlook. You wouldn’t believe how this can affect the pacing. Also try reordering sentences to heighten the tension. My sample revision also trims twelve words from the
paragraph without losing any detail:

Saba scanned the crowd through thick rimmed goggles. It was hard/impossible to see. The Universal Atmospheric Agency (UAA) forecast warned of the danger, but she felt compelled to search anyway. The thick mist of sand
and dust was developing and Saba had just minutes to find shelter. Her only thought now—to escape suffocation.)

She looked at her hand drawn map and coordinates; she was about half a mile out from the first formation. She knew she would run. It did not matter that it was days since she left her home, or that she was carrying twenty pounds of equipment on her back and was tired. She was young and strong. She was a runner. The thought occurred to her that she could think of it as an exercise in training. One or two minutes until the sand storm hit, without the load she could run a mile in five minutes and with she calculated half a mile could take three minutes. Still, if she really concentrated maybe she could shave it down to just two minutes. It would require only a short burst of energy, not the 20 plus miles she was used to running at her regular speed. Seconds were lost on this thought, so like a gazelle running from her prey, she began. (See my comments on this paragraph below.)*

She checked her time by bringing her glowing watch right up to her goggles,; it was a quarter of a mile in 65 seconds, and the cloud was becoming fierce. She was slower than hoped. (The details are crucial, and are well-place and well-expressed in these sentences. Brava.) Saba could not couldn’t see through the mist anymore, but kept her pace with one arm in front so she would not wouldn’t crash into the formation. If she made it, she still had to find the entrance.  The few exposed parts of skin on her face hurt (intensify this: stung, burned), . The sand was peeling off her skin off, but that pain paled in comparison to the shock she felt in her hand (revise wording to intensify). She could not couldn’t scream, or
the sand would go down her lungs choke her. If the wind was not so thundering, she would have heard the bones crack in her left hand fingers. (Make this sentence active to end on a page-turning bang, for example: The wind thundered and Saba never heard the bones in her left hand shatter.)

*I’ve pulled this paragraph to this highlight the kind of revising I would do to a first draft. It seems like a lot of editing, but please don’t be horrified! The suggested revisions seem complex but aren’t. They involve replacing passive with active phrasing, which turns description into action and dialog (including thoughts); eliminating phrases that can be inferred
from the context or are unnecessary upon rereading (this is key); playing with sentence order to increase the drama; and what I call “using one word instead of two,” i.e., “fleeing” versus “running from.” This type of editing quickens
the pace of the text and allows your story’s most important elements to stand out—in this paragraph, that Saba, a strong runner, needs to RUN to escape the sandstorm .

Here are my sample edits:

She looked at consulted/checked her handdrawn map and coordinates; she was about half a mile out from the first formation. She knew she would run for it. It did not matter that it was days since she left her home So what that she hadn’t been home in days or that she was tired from carrying twenty pounds of equipment on her back and was tired. She was young and strong. She was a runner. The thought occurred to her that She wcould think of it as an training exercise in training. One or two minutes until the sand storm hit, Without the load she could run a mile in five minutes—half a mile would take in three minutes. Still, If she really concentrated maybe she could shave it down to two minutes. The two minutes until the sandstorm hit! It would require only a short burst of energy, not the 20 plus miles she was used to
running at her regular speed.
Seconds were lost on this thought, so like a gazelle running from fleeing her prey, she began Saba ran.

And here is the revised text, with key details intact:

She checked her hand-drawn map and coordinates; she was about half a mile from the first formation. She would run for it. So what that she hadn’t been home in days or was tired from carrying twenty pounds of equipment on her back. She was young and strong. She was a runner. She would think of it as a training exercise. Without the load she could run a mile in five minutes—half a mile in three. If she really concentrated she could shave it down to two. The two minutes until the sandstorm hit! Seconds were lost on this thought, so like a gazelle fleeing her prey, Saba ran.

Like a good hero’s epic journey “Saba’s Quest” begins in medias res and takes off. I would definitely turn the page to find out what the safe inside of the first formation is like, how Saba’s hand will mend, and more.

This next entry includes an element we haven’t yet encountered, humor:

Daniel scanned the crowd through his trusty (cliché, plus who routinely carries binoculars unless they’re trusty?)
binoculars, moving slowly from person to person. Anything might happen when a group this large was gathered formed,
and when it did he would needed to have gather as much information as possible. Aside from a man with an unusually thin, reddish brown (auburn? one word here would keep the pace) mustache, no one struck him as particularly (no
need to qualify) suspicious. He removed lowered the binoculars from his eyes and let them dangle from the strap around his neck (you could tighten this to “neck strap”). If he had been standing they would have rested against his chest, but in order to get the best view, through the low crack in the fence, he was on his hands and knees like a dog. The ground was damp with last night’s rain, and cold wetness was seeping through to his knees. (Consider tinkering with these two sentences to create a more immediate experience for the reader, e.g.: “The binoculars nearly touched the cold, wet ground as he peered through a crack in the fence on his hands and knees. The chill seeped through his jeans.”) His jeans were probably muddy, too, but Daniel didn’t care. Being a private eye is messy sometimes. (I have mixed feelings about this ending. You’ve done an effective job of suggesting Daniel is a dedicated gumshoe. These sentences seem unneeded and have a “younger” tone than the previous text. If you want to confirm his occupation, consider using more direct language, i.e., “He was getting muddy, too, but a private eye does messy work.”)

The binoculars bumped against the camera that hung from a separate strap also around his neck, which remindeding him to grab the camera and photograph the scene. (Here’s another opportunity to tighten your language; the reader doesn’t need every detail to understand what’s happening.  A bit of trimming often livens a sentence.) He was still saving up
for binoculars with a built-in camera, but for now he would have to do it the oldfashioned way. Scout the scene through binoculars, take pictures later. It was primitive, but it worked. (I’m having mixed feelings here as well. The last two sentences are repetitive. Ending the paragraph with the previous sentence will leave us wondering—is he broke? is he
a kid breaking into the P.E. biz? I’m curious to know more…)

“What’cha lookin’ at?” asked a voice that was not even attempting to be hushed. (I’d rephrase here simply to “a loud voice asked.” Short, direct phrases pack more punch—plus, why would the voice know to be quiet?)

“Shhh!” Daniel demanded. He put his finger to his mouth for extra emphasis and snapped one more picture, balancing on his knees. It would be blurry, but it was better than nothing. He looked toward the voice angrily, to see who dared disturb him in his work. (Same suggestion here to trim and be direct. This scenario is getting more interesting, and potentially humorous. A sample revision: “Shhh!” Daniel ordered as he snapped another picture, then lost his balance. Great! But blurry was better than nothing. He glared at the voice.)

“I got a cookie,” said the owner of the voice, a small child in an orange “I’m Trouble” t-shirt.

“You sure are,” Daniel mumbled under his breath.  (This exchange is very funny.)

“Want a bite?” asked the grinning child, reaching holding out the gooey cookie toward Daniel. (Be careful to choose words that fit your intentions. “Reaching” in this sentence implies to me that she is taking rather than offering Daniel the cookie.)

“No,” Daniel said, putting up his hand like a police officer stopping traffic. “Go away.” (This is a funny image. Can you tighten the phrasing to heighten the humor? I was expecting him to say “Buzz off.” “Go away” is kinder—this tells me something about Daniel.)

The smile faded from the child’s face. Daniel thought it was a boy, but with little kids you can’t always tell. Orange was a color that could go either way.  (I don’t know what to make of this last paragraph. It’s quirky-funny and also informs the reader that Daniel has no experience with kids. The comment about orange does not have a page-turning effect, but rather seems to sum things up. You can intensify the humor further by putting us in Daniel’s head: “Daniel stared as the smile faded from the child’s face. “I think you’re a boy,” he said to himself, “but you can’t always tell with little kids. Orange can go either way.” P.S., I inserted “orange” above where the child’s t-shirt is mentioned; without it, a reader may miss your meaning here.  Every detail counts!)

Overall, this text feels self-contained, and yet I would like to know more. Is this a humorous detective tale? Who is Daniel exactly? Who is he spying on—and why? Is this a story for children or adults? Weaving several key specifics into this page will leave the reader “clues” about your story—and answer questions like mine an editor, for example, may ask at a first-page session… Have fun hunting wherever this story leads you.

Here is another writing sample Kathy asked me to respond to, with the following prompt: A cockroach is looking out the back of a cab window in NYC. What a coincidence that it also involves peering through a lens, but what a set of peepers! Comments interwoven into and below the text:

In New York’s Central Park, cramped in the backseat of her car, Suzie’s eyes darted about the screen of her laptop as she scanned the crowd through the cam feeds. (Simplify syntax. The opening sentence should make a clear impression on the reader. A simple sample revision: “Suzie’s eyes darted about the laptop’s screen as she scanned the Central Park crowd through the cam feeds.”) The lenses were imbedded in baseball caps:, one worn by her brother, Sam, and the other by Paul, her boyfriend, , Paul. The cams’ specially-formulated filters were the only means of detecting the icy-blue aura of the invaders. Cramped in the backseat of her car, Suzie barely blinked for fear she’d miss one in the masses on the Great Lawn. (Moving this inserted phrase here keeps your detail and makes your revised first sentence more unified.)

“Paul, stop turning your head so quickly!”

“Lower your voice!” he said under his breath muttered, rubbing the vibrating earpiece. He quickly looked glanced left and right. thinking One of them could even be standing beside him.! He had told Suzie and Sam that not using Bluetooths was a mistake; it was common to see someone appear to talk to themselves when they were talking into a Bluetooth, but it was too late to rehash that now. (This last sentence is wordy and worded very passively—“was/were” appears three times. Trim and make it active and the sentence becomes more lively, more like interior dialog, i.e., “He had told Suzie and Sam that not using Bluetooths was a mistake—you saw people seemingly talking to themselves while wearing a Bluetooth all the time. Too late to rehash that now.”)
“Sorry.. Still—Just don’t move so fast, either of you,” Suzie said, said, her anxiety rising fretted. “Remember, they’llre probably be scattered through the crowd, some may be perched in the trees, and you can bet a group will be is stationed along the stage.” (These suggested edits use the present tense to make the situation more urgent.)

On the open field, the crowd marveled at the unusual show of shooting stars, clueless to what was really going on in the sky that night.  Having spotted no one with the aura, Suzie wondered if the cams had glitches. Sam reached the far right side of the stage noting and noted that security was surprisingly sparse; Paul was on the left by the steps where the royal family was now entering. (Small suggestions for trimming, again, to increase sense of immediacy.)

The child prince was the target. Assassination wasn’t the motive—it was abduction. (For greater impact, tinker with the wording and condense, i.e., “The target—the child prince, the motive—abduction.”) Knowing he’d become the most evil, yet charismatic leader of the 21st twenty-first century, these conspirators needed him. (This is a sudden surprising turn! But who are the conspirators, Susie and friends or someone else? And how do they know? Ah, the next sentence is suggestive of what’s to come.) One touch of a Transport Taser would instantly transport send him with them (with who?) back to the 25th twenty-fifth century. , They would clone him then return him him where he’d be cloned and returned to a previous moment in time, undetected. (Again, these suggested revisions trim and clarify, allowing the sense of urgency to continue to rise.)

“Paul! To your left! Two of them! One’s next to you, under the stairs! His taser’s  lit!” Paul leapt toward at the invader, only the taser—now pointed at him—touched his chest …

This tale begins right in the middle of the action. There’s a lot happening and the end leaves the reader with a lot of questions. I’d turn the page to read more, but especially in a first-page setting, I’d consider adding a few clarifying details that explain a bit which side Susie and company are on. Most of my comments center on opportunities to trim and enliven the text, which will increase the pace and raise the level of drama, qualities especially appealing in action-adventure and science fiction stories. The writer must be in control of the sense of mystery in such tales—and I believe that writers can wield that “power” through careful and varied sentence and paragraph structure. One final question, where’s the cockroach?

And that’s the end of our journey!

Felicia, thank you so much for doing such a terrific job.  I am sure everyone who reads the critiques will learn a lot.  Felicia will be doing critiques at the June 2012 Conference.  Everyone who had a critique with her last June kept emailing me to sign her praises. 

In the meantime, you can contact her for her critiquing and copyediting services.  Just get in touch with me or leave a comment for her on this post.  www.feliciachernesky.com will be available soon. 

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Felicia, I’m so sorry this “thank you” is late! I can’t believe I missed this somehow! And what cracks me up is I was actually WAITing for it! LOL

    Mine was the last one you critiqued and I REALLY appreciate all your suggestions; they’re excellent to keep in mind while revising! And, you know, I’m always questioning about when to write out numbers (21st vs. twenty-first). I look in my grammar books and some stuff never seems to be stated clearly enough—well, not clearly enough for dense ME! lol

    Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to do this. It’s SO helpful!
    Donna

    Like

  2. Hi Donna–

    Thanks. I’m glad my comments were helpful.

    Felicia

    Like

    • Yes, thanks again, Felicia, and I hope you enjoyed Craft Day as much as I did!
      Donna

      Like


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