Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 26, 2012

Free Fall Friday – Paula Sadler – Putnam

This October illustration was sent in by Kate Mericks.  Kate is a mixed media artist, a digital illustrator and a mom. She sells her art on Etsy: http://www.etsy.com/shop/KMericks. You can follow her on her blog: http://www.kmericks.com. Kate is currently working on her portfolio site, as well, for the children’s book publishing world.

ROSE MAGALIA’S WORLD TALES – Terrified to Tell New Zealand Zaniness
By Debra L. Feldman – A Middle Grade Novel

I spun myself on a chair at the kitchen table. “I can’t do it Aunt Kate. I can’t speak in front of my whole class tomorrow.”

“Of course you can, Rose. Come on. Let’s go to your room and talk about it some more.”

“Fine.” I grabbed the table because the room felt like it was moving in circles.

“No time to be dizzy. We have work to do.” Aunt Kate sounded way too excited.

We walked to my bedroom down the hallway. It’s right before Reese’s. I am glad to have my own room because she’s messier than me. Aunt Kate placed her hand on my shoulder. She was trying to make me feel better about my fifth grade Somewhere in the World presentation. I loved hearing Aunt Kate’s crazy travel adventures. That didn’t mean I wanted to tell my class. But, Mr. Fraser says that being able to speak in front of people is important. I hated speaking in front of people. I had a speech therapist when I was little. I spoke funny sometimes. I remember her telling my mom to make sure I talk to people. I was talking to my Aunt Kate. So, I think project “get Rose to talk to people” is done.

“Here, let’s sit on your bed. Ouch.”

I heard the crystals on the chandelier above my bed tinkle like bells. Aunt Kate groaned. She grabbed her forehead with her right hand as she sank onto the bed next to me.
“Geez, Aunt Kate. You hit your head on that thing again? Are you okay?”

“Yes. I have no idea why your mom hung it so low. Doesn’t she ever hit her head? Never mind. I’m fine,” she said.

She gave her forehead a final rub. “So, I told you about the zany things that happened while I was in New Zealand.”

Here’s Paula’s critique of Rose Magalia’s World Tales

The author establishes Aunt Kate and Rose’s connection right from the top of the story. Aunt Kate’s enthusiasm about Rose’s project (“No time to be dizzy.”) and the hand she puts on Rose’s shoulder quickly tell me that Kate is a supportive, but maybe not entirely understanding role model. I expect this to be a core relationship in the story, so I’m curious to find out how the differences between these characters will cause tension and conflict.

Since readers will want to know more about how Kate and Rose get along, fleshing out the physical descriptions here could help set the scene. Does Aunt Kate’s appearance or dress reflect any of her amazing travels? How about Rose’s house—is it drab? Eclectic? I’m unsure how Aunt Kate fits in with the rest of Rose’s family (are they all exciting like Kate, and Rose is the odd one out, or are they very mousey and strict, and Kate is something of a breath of fresh air?). A few choice details would immediately tell me more.

“Show, don’t tell” truly does go a long way in helping readers feel like they’re a part of a scene. For example, if Rose’s speech impediment came out later in practicing her speech, etc., she wouldn’t need to explicitly tell us about it. In other instances, like when Rose says that Kate is trying to make her feel better, or that she’s hit her head, we can already infer what’s going from the action, so telling us again becomes unnecessary.

*A quick note on verb tense: writing in past tense is probably the most common way to narrate, but it’s surprisingly easy to slip into present tense, like when Rose says “I am glad to have my own room…” instead of “I was glad…” They’re both technically correct (I think? This kind of thing sends me running to the nearest copy editor!)…but I find that if the narrator often switches tense when describing one scene, it can be distracting.

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SMELL MY FEET
by Poppy Wrote  Genre: MG boy book about puberty and friendship.

I carried the crinkled up newspaper article for a year now. I pulled it from my pocket and stared at it. I didn’t really need to read it anymore. It was part of me.

“First ever snakehead tournament open to hook and line and bow fishing. The team that brings in the heaviest load of snakeheads wins five thousand dollars. A special second prize will be awarded to the single largest snakehead caught.”

I didn’t go last year. I didn’t have a bow, or a team, and my parents would never let me, but I did have a fishing pole. This was going to be the second year of the Maryland tournament and it would be harder to win the prize. More people would be on the water trying to catch the frankenfish. Maybe I would finally tell Pete about it, and the guys. Maybe. Maybe I, Walt Driscal, could figure out how to get on that water and not get busted.

Right now I had bigger problems. My pits stank again. Keeping your arms glued to your side so no one smells the stink is not the greatest way to get around school all day. Your arms fall asleep. Then, the reflection in the lockers screams zombie when you walk. Unfortunately, there is no choice, because under those arms is a putrid yellow toxic spill with a smell that rivals your worst fart gas.

The first time it happened, I thought I was dying. My best friend Pete wanted me to play ball with him after school that day, but I ran home. That foul stench and wet pits were gross. The proof of my total body failure was on my clothes. My shirt was soaked, like I’d jumped into the shower, only I hadn’t. I bunched it up into a ball and threw it under the bed as soon as I got home. I pulled a new one out of my glossy brown dresser and jerked it on.

But, then it kept happening. So of course I hit the Internet to see what exactly was going to kill me. I typed in the symptoms: yellow stained wet shirt, smell, occasional stomach ache in public situations, age 12. Apparently I had puberty. No one warned me it would be this fragrant.

Here’s Paula’s critique of Smell My Feet

Readers will be pulled in by Walt’s crinkled news article, because they’re instantly being let in on a secret that’s very personal and important to the protagonist. Although: Is it yellowed from age? What date did it come from? Was Walt sneaky about how he cut it out of the paper? If it’s so important to Walt—so important that even though he’s memorized the article, the physical presence of that paper still means something to him–we need more proof of the connection.

I’m unsure why Walt’s parents wouldn’t let him attend this kind of tournament. There’s a bit of a logic hole there that could be helped with more hints about Walt’s relationship with his parents, or the nature of snakehead fishing. Especially since fishing is typically an ideal father-son activity, a bit more context could make this conflict less forced. Without more evidence from Walt, I’m also not convinced he loves fishing. When did he start doing it? What’s his favorite fish? What does he like about it? We don’t need every detail upfront, but more enthusiasm from Walt could make his voice pop and his passion feel more genuine. If Walt’s interest is worthy of the story’s opening, we need to 1) believe in Walt’s excitement and 2) have that excitement conveyed to us in such a way that we get excited about it too.

Both Walt’s secret tournament ambitions and his puberty dilemmas have relatable aspects, but I worry that the sudden switch between the two topics feels abrupt. Once Walt begins describing his pit problem, I find that his narrative feels more like summary (we flash through his recollections without seeing much of the action in scene, which leaves little room for setting or character interaction). And while the humor that concludes the last paragraph is funny, it sounds a bit too grownup to me (like a sardonic adult Walt talking about his 12-year-old self). Although Walt’s cluelessness is endearing, I don’t quite buy that Walt isn’t somewhat aware of puberty by age 12 (or that he hasn’t thought of deodorant!).
___________________________________________________________________________________________________

THE JACKETS

By Stephanie Stein Leite, Psy.D.

Brenda thought the jacket would fix everything. Nothing else would matter. Joey’s jacket would be her armor, fending off the stares in the hallway, the whispers from the girls in the quad, the empty place in her mailbox where letters from home should have been.

Brenda’s father never had a letter jacket. He was too skinny, too uncoordinated, too hunched from years of working at the ironworks. Her stepmother never dated the captain of the lacrosse team, never wore a jacket on her uneven shoulders, even before the twins made her fat.

They saw the jacket during March break, the last time they allowed her in their home. Brenda’s stepmother stared at her with narrowed eyes, watching her carefully hang the jacket out of the toddlers’ reach. “Who’d you have to sleep with to get that?” she said.

Joey Fontenella, the broad shouldered golden boy with the square jaw and the blue eyes owned the jacket. The jacket marked Brenda as his. Walking down the hallway, tucked perfectly under his shoulder, everyone knew she was finally taken. “It’s amazing he likes me,” she thought, “he like me, here, in this place.” This place where the girls had real Coach purses and her roommate summered at the Vineyard and everyone had parents who wanted them. This was no place for a 15 year old from Camden.

When she came to Westmarken, Brenda tried to fit in. She tried wearing her t-shirts tucked in on one side, like the other girls. They laughed as she passed them on her way to Latin class. She tried more makeup and less makeup and concocting stories about her stockbroker father. She pretended she stayed at school over Christmas break because her parents were away at a resort in the Bahamas. No one cared. Finally, she tried drinking.

The kids stuck at school over break had a party in a back room of the drama building. There weren’t many kids.  Brenda’s mother was having something reconstructed and couldn’t possibly have a house full of Christmas guests. Gunnar’s parents were in Sweden, picking up their Volvo.

Here’s Paula critique of:  The Jackets

This passage is nicely infused with small but impactful observations. For example, lines like “Brenda’s father never had a letter jacket…” and “She tried more makeup and less makeup…” quickly give me details about Brenda’s background—she’s from a lower class, there are notable tensions at home because of this—and a sense of who Brenda is at the top of the story: she’s an outsider who’s very much tired of looking in. By the end of the first page, I can begin to understand why Joey’s jacket is important. I’m left curious about how the jacket will or won’t change her school life, the full story behind Brenda’s separation from her parents, and how she’ll ultimately reconcile these brewing conflicts.

Although it makes sense for the narrative to focus on Brenda’s thoughts (since she seems like a quiet-but-calculating type), there might be a missed opportunity here to show off more of the characters in scene. The students thus far seem a bit faceless: because I don’t see Joey and Brenda or the Mean Girls talking in the hallway, I don’t have a sense of whether they actually like or hate each other, how Joey treats Brenda, or how they all talk and gesture. Some details, like “This was no place for a 15 year old from Camden” can be shown through character interaction and dialogue. (I also worry that this line sounds a bit too adult and self-aware for the voice.)

Since high school, and all of the lovely social politics that go with it, is a familiar YA setting, I would be looking to see how this particular story is going to stand out and play with my expectations of that world.

______________________________________________________________________________________

THE BOY NEXT DOOR TO MY EX
(YA Contemporary by Stephanie Hairston)

I’m embarrassed to admit that I am stalking my ex-boyfriend. But not embarrassed enough to stop.
Right now I’m parked outside his house, blasting my iPod favorites. Miss You Like Crazy segues into In Your Eyes, and my heart flip flops. This is our song.

I’m singing the bridge at the top of my lungs when Nate’s truck turns into his driveway. Sweatshirt hood up, I slink down in my seat. The cul-de-sac is pretty big, but my dark red SUV is not exactly inconspicuous.

He steps out of his truck, in a turquoise sweater that matches his eyes and highlights his golden brown skin. I sigh. He’s almost too good looking to be real. My fingers brush the door handle, but before I can decide whether to duck further or talk to him, his passenger door opens and a pink boot hits the ground.

So does my heart. That’s Jenna Deville – the girl who ruined everything. Nate’s parents aren’t home, so I know what he’s planning. He and Jenna are going to do what we never did; what he said he was willing to wait for. The thought of him touching her like that is disgusting. I sigh and face plant onto the steering wheel. Right. Into. The horn.

Crap.

The noise startles us both. Nate looks over his shoulder. His eyes scan the circle of cars until they land on mine.

Panicked, I dive to the floor, hoping he’ll walk away when he sees the empty seats.
Then I hear a knock on the window.

Double crap.

Here is Paula’s critique of The Boy Next Door to My Ex

I like the specific details that the author incorporates in the car. I often find that characters will say they love music (movies, books, tv…), or they’ll mention that they have a favorite—but then they don’t name any. A girl’s gotta know! Even a simple detail like naming the iPod songs helps me picture the scene, tells me a bit about this teen, and gives credibility to the implied claim that these songs are important to her. There’s definitely room to sneak in more of these revealing details. For example, is the dark red SUV a hand-me-down, or did she have to sneak her parents’ car out? Does she keep it clean, or are there old wrappers poking out of every corner?

Even though the scene is relatively straightforward, I’m still slightly confused about how I should feel. Should I be laughing at the stalker, or slightly creeped out be her? The way she croons love ballads and accidentally sets off the car horn make her seem like a harmless comedic heroine, but the fact that she’s followed her ex to his house and is actively picturing him having sex with another girl feels much less endearing. What she’s doing is pretty wacky and uncomfortable—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—but if we don’t know much else about her or what led to this scenario, the squirm factor (at least to me) might be too much for a first page. If we get to know and like her a bit more before she goes to this extreme, we’d be better equipped to laugh with or sympathize with her.

*If someone in the scene recognizes the stalker and calls out to her, this would also be a very seamless way to learn her name.

Paula thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share you expertise with us.  It is very appreciated.  Looking forward to seeing you at the NJSCBWI Writer’s Weekend, Novewmber 10th and 11th.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Paula and Kathy,

    Thank you so much for providing me the opportunity to receive and for receiving this critique. What a terrific way to start my Friday. The critique is helpful. I have some specific ideas for corrections and thoughts on how to proceed.

    I hadn’t seen the difference in Rose and Aunt Kate’s personalities as a source of conflict and tension because they get along so well. Now I do and I feel like a rush of fresh air came through my window. Show/tell comments and tense are great to help bring focus to my writing and revising.

    An outside of the box writing exercise I did for me to try to get to know Rose’s personality better was to have her hi-jack my travel blog. I had Rose write one of my entries, like a guest blogger would. http://crazytraveladventures.blogspot.com/2012/09/hungary-i-think-debra-meant-hungry.html The exercise helped me see that Rose has more spunk in her than I thought. I will probably have Aunt Kate jump in and write one my blog entries too. This was also a free plug for my book, even before published (positive thinking). However, I hadn’t considered diving more into the physical aspects that Paula mentioned. Again, a great help.

    Thanks again. Happy Friday.

    Debra

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  2. Thanks Paula and Kathy. Critiques like this are so helpful to all of us. Wow, that first page has to cover so much ground in so little space! Crap. Double crap.

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  3. Paula, thank you so much for your thoughtful commentary. My MC (Leah) is a comedic heroine, but it’s been helpful to see how her actions on this page can come off as more creepy than endearing. You’ve hit the nail on the head with an issue I missed – the back story which makes her sympathetic is in my mind, but not on this page – and I need to work some of that in earlier. (By the way, she totally gets caught and is addressed by name a few lines after this page.) 🙂

    Kathy, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this! This kind of feedback is priceless and so, so necessary.

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  4. Great first pages and helpful insights. I agree with Mary – it’s wild how much content goes into a first page.

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  5. I have always loved critiques of first pages, and hadn’t participated or seen the value in it ’til I got into them on your blog, Kathy. Thank you!

    Paula, thank YOU for such helpful critiques! I think we all have our own opinions as we read, but then hearing a professional’s take is extremely helpful and I always learn so much. 😀

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