Thursday, July 18, 2013

Friday Feedback: Begin Again with Gusto

Hey, all,

So, somehow, impossibly, it's already the middle of July!

Clearly the summer gods I pleaded to weeks ago for summer to go slow are not in a generous mood.

If it's not bad enough that summer is FLYING, I know some of you are struggling with the fact that you *think* you're not getting enough done with Teachers Write, or feeling like you haven't written as much as you wanted to.

I'm going to tell you the same thing I tell my son who has taken up the incredibly frustrating sport of golf: Play each hole like it's your first. Don't worry about what happened the hole before.

Same with Teachers Write. Haven't accomplished as much as you hoped? No worries. 

Today is the first day of the rest of your writing life. 

Go on. Dive in! Recommit! Re-energize.

Begin to begin.

Here, a little mood music to get you in, well, the mood.

Yay! That's better, right?

And, on that note, it's time for Friday Feedback! If you've never participated in Friday Feedback before PLEASE STOP HERE AND READ THE RULES

Thanks. So. Keeping with the theme of new beginnings, my fabulous guest author, Lisa Martin, is going to talk about . . . beginnings. Those of you who posted your beginnings before now have another chance. Have you monkeyed with it since then? Made revisions? Now you can see how they went. Were you sad you missed the chance before? Voila! Chance is here again.

I'll let Lisa tell you more about her and lead you through Friday Feedback. 

Yep, Lisa Martin

Hi everyone, and thanks so much Gae for having me! 

I wrote Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea with my aunt, Valerie Martin, who is an award-winning author of adult fiction, 

and in the process I learned a ton from her. 

(Psst, you guys, this is Gae, and this is her terrific new middle grade book, Anton and Cecil:  

In the tradition of Stuart Little and Wind in the Willows:

The swashbuckling adventures of two very different cat brothers who must brave the perils of the bounding main in search of each other—and a way home.

It releases October 2103 from my new publisher Algonquin Young Readers, so please check it out, and pick up a copy for your home or classroom then!)

Everybody expects the big things like controlling plot and pacing to be challenging, but most surprising to me were the tricky details of writing, like dialogue (hard!) and humor (so hard!), and, as has been discussed on this forum, openings.

Great openings are magical—they draw the reader in and make her feel like she’s in good hands with a confident writer. Openings that are too slow or boring or (worse) confusing, are a complete letdown.  

Here’s one I like:

“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”  -- Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

The narrator acknowledges the monster arrival cliché in a confidential, yet still spooky way.  Very concise.  Here’s another:

“It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.”  -- Lauren Oliver, Delirium

Precise details, a futuristic setting and unique problem presented, and you’re intrigued, right?  One more, a long, rich sentence from the opening of one of Valerie’s novels.

“Dark hair and lots of it, heavy brows, sharp features, dark eyes, dark circles under the eyes, dark looks about the room, at the maître d’, the waitress, the trolley laden with rich, tempting desserts, and finally, as Toby guides her to the table, at Chloe, who holds out her hand and says pleasantly, though she is experiencing the first tentative pricks of the panic that will consume her nights and disrupt her days for some time to come, “Salome, how good to meet you.”  -- Valerie Martin, Trespass

I mean, wow.  Not saying it all has to be packed into one jewel-like sentence, but that elusive “hook” that agents and editors seek has to show up pretty early on.

So here are the first couple of paragraphs of a new novel I’ve been working on.  Tell me if the intrigue factor is there, or if I need to be clearer, quicker, or more amped.

Thinking back on it later, Pierce realized that he must have been cursed just before the mile run. 

One minute, he was walking across the soccer field behind the school with the rest of the 6th grade, joking with Finn, who was asking how somebody as short and scrawny as Pierce could run so fast.  Caroline stole Finn’s baseball cap and dashed ahead.  The thick morning fog felt like walking through a cloud and they spun around and swiped at it.

And the next minute Pierce was doubled over, down on one knee, his heart stuttering, a chill sweeping over him.  His insides felt as if they were escaping, like the air being let out of a balloon, the space beneath his ribs left hollow and silent as a cave.  Pierce waited, crouched and shaking, and the feeling faded like a slow breath drawn out of him.

Caroline ran back to him through the fog.  She put her hands on his shoulders.  Are you okay?  Finn helped him stand.  Are you hurt?  For a few seconds their voices seemed warped, their faces misshapen and pale.  Then the air and the sound cleared, and everyone stared at him.  Pierce took a breath and shook his head.  No.  I’m not hurt.  The soccer field stretched out under his feet, the damp breeze slipped over his skin, and standing down the hill near the woods was Mr. Marshall, the P. E. Teacher, waving them over to start the race.  And so they shrugged and kept walking.

What happened later made it seem more like a gift than a curse, at least for a while.

Some things are like that.

Thanks for any feedback, and looking forward to reading your excerpts!  Tremendous gratitude toward all you teachers (and librarians!) who do the most important work of all.  

My best, Lisa

(& gae)


  1. Your story pulled me right in and I really want to know what happened to Pierce. Your picture book also looks very intriguing, can't wait to check it out. Thanks for being here this morning!

  2. Good morning Kristina and thanks for the kind words! Anton and Cecil is actually for the middle grade crowd, aimed at Intermediate Readers, though I've heard it works well as a read aloud for younger kids too. My first book, so I'm learning every step of the way. :)

  3. Definitely intriguing! I think a lot of kids and adults can relate to that gym class mile run. I was pulling at all my schema trying to figure out what just happened to him. I'm hooked!

    1. Hi Kerri. (I moved my reply so it's under your comment.. I'm getting the hang of this!) The excerpt is from a novel set in modern times but with a few fantasy elements thrown into the mix, so what's happened to Pierce turns out to be (hopefully) pretty strange and surprising. Thanks for writing!

  4. Cora sat on the hot sidewalk, her legs hanging off the curb into the street. Her curly, red ponytail was dripping with sweat, but she didn’t mind. Cora had convinced her mom that it was so hot, she absolutely MUST have a large, chocolate ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles...even though it was only 10:00 in the morning! Of course, since Cora got an ice cream cone, the rest of the firehouse families had to buy ice cream for their kids, too. So, seven happy kids sat on the curb slurping ice cream and waiting for the parade to start.
    “I’m soooo glad it’s finally summer!” said Derek Rodgers. He was sitting next to Cora on the curb, stuffing his mouth with ice cream as fast as he could. Cora rolled her eyes. Derek’s dad and her dad had been best friends since they were in Kindergarten. So, Cora and Derek have spent a lot of time together in their ten-year-old lives. They could practically be brother and sister...but Cora already had two little brothers she’d be glad to give away, and she was pretty sure Derek felt the same way about his older sister, Parker, so they could just stick to being friends.
    “Seriously!” Derek added. “I didn’t think fourth grade was EVER going to end!” Derek and Cora had both been in Mrs. Turner’s class for fourth grade, and she had a reputation of being pretty strict. Of course, Derek had a reputation of being pretty goofy, so that wasn’t the best match-up in the world for him. Needless to say, it was a looooong year for Derek.
    “Next year should be better,” Cora reassured Derek. “I’ve heard Miss O’Malley is the nicest fifth grade teacher. She’s young and fun, and she doesn’t mind a little goofing-off as long as you’re respectful.” Cora was also going to be in Miss O’Malley’s class next year. Her parents and Derek’s parents always requested that they have the same teacher, because they often ended up spending evenings together doing homework while their dads were at the fire company.

    1. Hi again Kerri. Great start you've got here, good mix of description and bits of dialogue, working in the details of the characters' ages and families smoothly. And everybody loves firefighters, don't they? Just the mention made me wonder what role the dads' jobs would play. Two things: One is, be careful with the tiny details so they don't cause anyone to notice them. Like, maybe Cora's legs would "sprawl into the street" instead of hanging off the curb ('cause the curb's kind of short), and maybe sweat would be sliding down her neck into her shirt instead of dripping off her ponytail (which would be a LOT of sweat). Though I see you're getting her hair color in there -- maybe her curly, red ponytail kinked in the heat? The other thing is perhaps you could just barely hint at what the trouble is going to be for Cora, just a glimpse of where you're headed. Nice relationship with Derek so far too.
      Good stuff! Keep it up!

    2. Kerri, I'm with Lisa here. You have some great description going... maybe even too much. Maybe some of it could wait a few paragraphs or pages so you can hint at some sign of conflict sooner. So maybe it would look something like this(I'm totally MAKING UP WHAT THE CONFLICT IS OF COURSE, I HAVE NO IDEA. I'll put it in CAPS, so you would replace it with a hint at the real one... :

      Cora sat on the hot sidewalk, her legs sprawled off the curb into the street. Her curly, red ponytail dripped sweat down her neck. But she didn’t mind. Cora had NOT ONLY convinced her mom that it was so hot, she absolutely MUST have a large, chocolate ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles...even though it was only 10:00 in the morning, BUT SOMEHOW DEREK RODGERS WAS SITTING NEXT TO HER. OF COURSE, SHE KNEW DEREK WAS SHYER THAN SHE WAS, BUT MAYBE SHE COULD BREAK THE ICE BY TALKING ABOUT SCHOOL. THE THOUGHT MADE CORA GIDDY... BLAH, BLAH, BLAH. Then return to the rest of your set up.

      Now the reader wants to know, is Cora going to be able to talk to Derek? Will he be too shy. Will she get too nervous? You get the gist. It doesn't have to be much. Readers will cling to any bit of conflict/tension you offer them. We are curious by nature. We want that. Good luck, and would love to see what tidbit you drop in from your REAL story. :) Let me know if this doesn't make sense.

    3. Thanks for the feedback! I wasn't thrilled with my opening yet, but I couldn't quite pinpoint why, and since I'm still working on the original draft, I hadn't gone back and put too much thought into it yet. These suggestions are just what I needed. THANKS!!! :-)

    4. If you ask me, that's the best way to write! Don't worry much about the beginning until you get to the end. Or at least the middle. Almost all my first chapters change by the time I get to the last... no sense spending too much time trying to make it perfect until you start in on the first revision.

  5. I am most definitely hooked. I so want to know if what happened to Pierce is a medical condition or is there an element of fantasy that will present itself later?

    1. Hi Sandra, and thanks for writing. Definitely a low fantasy element here, where Pierce has to struggle with whether a power he's gifted with is a charm or a curse. I appreciate you commenting!

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  7. Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing your ideas on beginnings. I liked the use of the word "cursed" - very intriguing. I'd like to see something different than the phrases "like walking through a cloud" or "like the air being let out of a balloon." I tend to fall back on the comfortable and familiar similes too. I definitely want to know what happened to Pierce but I'm a little confused as to why he says he's hurt and then they shrug it off....but maybe that's the mystery you're setting up? (And I've only had one cup of coffee - talk about foggy!)

    OK - This is my second page, so the reader and MC are still unravelling the events that brought him to be in the hospital...

    I stretched my mouth open and unglued my lips from my teeth. The room was faintly lit by a small lamp on the bedside table. I reached for the controller. I pushed the up arrow and the top half of the bed slowly began to lift. Slices of daylight peeked through the blinds. My stomach grumbled. I thought about pushing the “call” button.
    Call. My phone was in my bag at school. Why don’t hospital rooms have clocks? My stomach gurgled. Apparently, the IV wasn’t cutting it. I also had to piss like a racehorse but I wasn’t sure about walking to the bathroom attached to a pole. I pushed the button.
    “Yes?” A female voice said.
    “Uh, I’m hungry… and I have to go to the bathroom.”
    “Certainly, dear, I’ll send someone right in.”
    Oh great. I hoped she was only going to help control the pole. There was no way I was letting a nurse in the bathroom while I peed.
    The door swung open and a large white spot appeared on the floor.
    “Hi Aaron, my name is Emma. Need some help managing that pole?”
    “I’m kind of afraid of tripping on the tube,” I said. “It’s been awhile since I had an IV.”
    Emma’s face twisted. “You’ve had an IV before?”
    “Yeah. They’re usually no big deal but I felt a little dizzy when I woke up and since I don’t usually sleep in a dress…can we make this quick? I really have to go.”
    “Of course,” Emma said.
    My feet tingled against the coolness of the tile floor. I flicked the light switch and closed the door. I raised my eyes and caught a look at myself in the mirror. The left side of my hair was sticking straight up. I ran some water over my fingers and attempted to flatten it. That was going to do little to detract from the egg-shaped lump decorating my forehead. I touched it gently. It felt hot. You fell forward when you passed out. Hit your forehead on the matt. The voice from yesterday had said.
    When I came out, Emma was setting down a tray. I saw a cup of red Jell-O and a lemon ice.
    “Hope I don’t get too full,” I said and grinned. Emma’s shoulder-length hair was full of large curls that bounced when she walked. She also had a path of freckles across the bridge of her nose. I had a thing for freckles.
    “I’m waiting to hear from Dr. Platoz. Your chart has you down for a liquid diet only. Consider this your appetizer.”
    “Well, if you give me too much liquid, you’ll only end up back here in another 30 minutes.” Really, was I trying to flirt with her now? I must be delirious.
    “I’ll go check on that order. Call if you need anything else.” And with that she was gone.

    1. Hi Jessica, and thanks for your comments. Always hard to strike the right balance between the familiar and the cliched, the mysterious and the confusing, I totally agree.
      Really interesting page here. Lots of great detail, and the way Aaron is slowly taking in his surroundings and remembering things is paced nicely. I got a feel for his age and sense of humor right away. Assuming YA?
      Wondered a little about the "large white spot" that appeared on the floor when the door opened. Is that the light from the hall? And when he called the nurse but then was annoyed she was coming in, I wondered what other thing he thought she might do instead..?
      Definitely a hook-y start, I'm wanting to know what happened to Aaron and why. Good luck!

    2. Jessica, am with Lisa on all she wrote. Intriguing stuff, some minor confusions: the white spot is awkward unless it is something in particular that is going to matter down the road... i thought Emma was older (maybe because you describe it as a female voice rather than a girl's voice -- is she a young nurse that he's flirting with her? Maybe some more information). Also just a bit confused by him being dizzy, yet sort of strong/aggressive seeming personality-wise in this scene (maybe the word piss could be pee like it is further down. Is it me or is "have to pee" vulnerable and have to "piss like a racehorse" seems healthy and not dizzy and on an IV? It may just be me. Despite this little nitpicky things, you have such an intriguing story going here. We ALL want to know what has happened to poor Aaron. :)

  8. Adding the word "cursed" into the first sentence sets up the tension perfectly. Puts you on edge waiting for something to happen from the 12th word!

    I've been playing around with a memory for years, that I would like to turn into a story. I don't know if this is the beginning, but it's something.

    The smell of manure, I still like it to this day. Cow manure has a sweetness that speaks to me and it’s probably because of this barn. This green barn with the orange roof doesn’t hold 100 cows or have machinery that will milk them. It is the barn of a man who works hard at his “real” job during the day and isn’t afraid to work hard at night and early in the morning too. He likes the idea of putting food on the table that arrived from his effort.
    To the right is the manure stall…all collected, piled high and raked in. To the left is the chicken pen with 99 white roosters clucking away behind the wooden barn slats. You might think that chickens were, in general, pretty tolerant of each other, but chickens are actually sexist. Who knew? In the middle of the barn off the concrete floor, with lots of hay tucked into an old wooden watering trough sits the queen of the barn, Henny Penny.
    She was the lone female in a group of 99 males and they knew it. Once the white feathers came in and the yellow down was gone, the attacks were ruthless. One morning, when my father entered the barn there she lay on the cold, concrete floor away from the orange glow of the heat lamp, nowhere near the metal feeding tray. When my father picked her up, she was still warm and flexible, so while the swallows swooped in and out of the open top of the barn door and Trouble, the cat, wound his way through his feet, my father set up a special section for this half-dead chicken and I named her Henny Penny.

    1. Hi Stefanie, and thanks for writing.
      Lovely piece here. Amazing that you can be lyrical about manure! I definitely can see (and smell!) the barn and its details, with nice touches like wooden slats and trough, the swallows, and Trouble the cat. The voice of the narrator is easy to listen to as well and draws me in.
      Will the story be about the narrator's father? I wondered why are chickens sexist? Are barn floors usually concrete? (I'm ignorant.) A small thing, but I'd maybe put the "In the middle" sentence before the "You might think" sentence for better flow.
      Can't wait to see where you go with this, lots of options. Thanks for sharing!

    2. Thank you! It's funny. I want this piece to be about Henny Penny and myself, but when I wrote, there was my dad. It was his barn, not an old traditional barn, but a small one he built in the sixties. His barn floor was concrete and actually, now that I think of it, the horse barns my daughter goes to have concrete floors as well. I believe they are easier to scrape with a shovel and hose down when necessary. You can toss appropriate bedding on it, but the base, I believe, is concrete. This is not one of those big, old airy barns with hay lofts and sunlight coming in through the cracks that you see in movies. you've made me want to hop fences and check out the details of barns. What fun!

      I tried it with the sentence reversal like you said. You're right, it flows much better!

      Thanks again. I'm looking forward to playing with this.

    3. Hi, Stephanie! Well, Lisa is giving great feedback and I don't have a whole lot to add (I agree with all she wrote!), although I do have one additional thought. It is, indeed, an intriguing thing to start with manure, but since it could provoke a strong reaction with a reader and maybe have them form an opinion (weirdish) about someone who actually likes the smell, wonder if you might think about having your narrator "not mind" the smell to this day, rather than like it. Not sure. Just the first gut thought as I read. Like the smell of manure has me going "gross." Don't mind it has me asking why, what it evokes for the narrator. I could be totally wrong. Love the Henny Penny stuff want to find out about her and her relationship with the narrator down the road. Also, fyi, my cat all growing up: a siamese named Trouble. ;)

      Keep going!

    4. Thank you! This came out of the sensory quick write from Kate yesterday, so the strongest memory was first...smell. I do see your point. Gross tolerance varies greatly between people & you really don't want to turn off your audience. The first paragraph does seem to focus mainly on my father, but I do like the other two. Think I'll cut & paste that to a not-quite-ready to discard page & try the beginning again!

      Thanks again to both of you!

  9. Hey, all, so happy to see you all heeded my call for perkiness and enthusiasm! ;) Not easy in this heat, for sure! I'm off to take a swim then will be back to chime in with Lisa, but clearly she has it under control! See you ALL in a few with more feedback! Keep going!


  10. Thanks for being here, Lisa. I really love the last two lines of this selection - they awaken my imagination and leave me wanting to read on. Even though we're discussing beginnings, this reminds me of how it's often the end of each chapter that really hook a reader, and turn a quick read into an "ok, just one more chapter.." reading marathon! Foreshadowing, cliff-hanging moments, or new information imparted to the reader are all great end-of-the-chapter elements that beg the reader to continue to find out what happens next.

    1. Hi Ericka, and thanks for your comments. You really hit on several cool points above. It seems much easier to begin than to wind down satisfactorily to a chapter or section end, doesn't it? (My study is littered with un-ended beginnings..) Sometimes the proverbial "cliffhanger" ending -- "she put her hand on the doorknob, and turned it slowly" -- seems kind of cheesy, and you feel like the reader sees exactly what you're doing. More subtle is, as you suggest, giving new info or foreshadowing lightly, intriguingly. So I guess a really great beginning of a first chapter would (ideally) propel the reader through to the end of the chapter, which then has its own sort of hook, and from there on to a late night of reading! Maybe that's an argument for really short chapters? :)

    2. Ericka, that's a GREAT point and maybe I'll try to get one of my next FF guest authors to talk about. I, myself, am very big on trying to get that hook at the end of each chapter... writing the ms I'm writing now, it is constantly on my mind. Good point!

  11. Lisa,
    I read and re-read your opening several times and I am hooked. I am most drawn to the 3rd paragraph. I can feel the wind being knocked out of me when I read your description there. I wondered if this was due to a medical condition, but as i read further, you gave just enough of a hint in the line, "seemed more like a gift than a curse," to let me know there was a magical moment happening here. I am intrigued and definitely want to read on.

    I've been playing with the opening of my new WIP- which do you think works better?

    version 1- dialogue: "And, they're off!" The group of lean runners swarms the first lane, each stretching their legs in the longest stride they have to squeeze out in front of the pack. "The world record time is 28 minutes and...set in 1963 by..." The crowd of 75,000 spectators cheer drowning out the announcer's voice. "Ron Clarke of Australia is in the lead...The United States runners are right behind, pacing themselves for the 10,000 meter race. Billy Mills is in the pack, a man no one expects to win this event."

    version 2- action: Billy hears the bell ring as he races past the man in the white hat. He has run so hard and so fast, 24 times around the track, that the faces of the cheering crowd are blurred out. In the corner of his eye, he sees it! Eagle wings on the shirt of his opponent! "Father," he whispers to himself while gasping for air. In that instant, he feels the wings on his feet. He rounds the last curve of the track and takes off, shoulders straight, pointing to the finish line.

    Any insight would be great. Thank you for your help in advance.

    1. Hi Andrea. Well, I'm going to be no help to you if I say I like them both, right? But I do! I ran track in high school and both versions bring back the excitement and adrenaline, a great way to start a story.
      Let's take them separately. In version 1, you've got third person objective voice in the announcer, while narrator is more omniscient, right? I'd say the last line, "Billy Mills is.." would not be said by an announcer at a race, that's more of a narrator insight. So there the story is about the underdog striving to come out ahead.
      In version 2, we're in Billy's head, feeling his pain and effort, much more personal, we're down on the track instead of high above it. I'd have to say I have a slight preference for the second version because I felt more while reading it, but that's not to say you couldn't get there with the first with more description.
      Couple small wonderings: Is the man in the white hat ringing the bell for the last lap? You could maybe mention that for the non-tracksters. And I briefly thought that when Billy saw the eagle wings he thought THAT guy WAS his father, so maybe he should whisper something about wings or he pictures his father in his mind instead..? Curious to find out what's the connection there, very cool.
      Hope this helps, and keep going with it!

    2. Lisa has given some great detailed feedback, so let me just add: I like version 2 better, hands down. Way more active and compelling and less confusing. I'm right in it caring about a particular person.

      Wonder what others will say.

      Keep going!

    3. I liked version 2 much better because it puts you right in the MC's mind and makes you care about him right away. Right off the bat you have an inkling about some of the things he's dealing with, and it makes it more urgent.

  12. Thank you so much for your insight! This is very helpful :) I often struggle with point of view, so your comments will make me take a good look at which story I want to pursue.

    I really appreciate your help. And, congratulations on your book- I can't wait to read it!

    1. Andrea, in case you missed it, I chimed in above, below Lisa. :)

    2. Wow- thanks everyone! I'm excited to keep writing...Thanks so much!

  13. Lisa, The intrigue factor is definitely there, and it made me want to read more. The last two sentences were a great hook--I wonder if you could somehow make them come first. The gift/curse idea is a real gripper.

    This section from my WIP is not the very beginning of the story, but is a beginning of a different sort. It is a flashback to when my then 9 year old MC meets her soon-to-be stepsister for the first time:

    The parlor had been set for a larger party, but now it would be just to be the two of them. Miranda felt very small as she walked toward the table and the mounds of cakes and little sandwiches. A good hostess puts everyone at ease, her mother had always said. So she turned and managed a shaky smile at this girl who would soon be her sister. Sunlight bouncing off a crystal dish momentarily blinded her. She stumbled on the thick pile of the rug and grabbed one of the chairs to steady herself. Reva snorted. Somewhere in the cool depths of the room, a clock quietly ticked the time.

    The table had been laid with the best tea set, the one with violets her mother had loved. Miranda poured the tea as she had been taught and tried to keep the spout from rattling against the cups. Hoping Reva would not notice a few splashes, she handed the delicate cup across. Reva looked at it with scorn. She had noticed. “I can pour if you’d rather. I can do it without spilling.”

    Reva brought the cup to her pink lips and sipped. Setting the teacup gently back into its saucer with a soft clink, she turned her porcelain face to appraise the room and its contents. “Your house isn’t any bigger than ours, I don’t think, though Mama said it might be. She says you have larger grounds for sure.” Her curls swung like a wave of dark pendulums. “Still, you have nice things. Your father is very rich. Mine was, too, you know. Rich and important.”

    1. Hi Jane, thanks for writing and sharing. I appreciate your comments on my opening. It's interesting -- I have the curse reference in the first sentence, but lots of readers today have mentioned that it hasn't hit their radar until the end of the piece. Sounds like it's too buried, or doesn't mean much yet, way up at the top, so it gets kind of lost. Hmmm. :)

      Your flashback is delicious, great feel and lovely details. I particularly liked 'shaky smile,' 'cool depths..,' 'She had noticed,' 'dark pendulums.' You've absolutely got the sympathetic MC and semi-loathsome stepsister down, as well as the atmosphere in the room. My only advice is to keep going, give us more. Valerie (my co-author) always says "Dialogue is action," so you can convey a lot and hold the reader's interest as they keep talking. Miranda is nervous, obviously, but is she also terrified about the coming merging of families? She holds a little of the upper hand because it's her (rich) father heading the household, not Reva's, but it sounds like she's younger (?) and missing her mother. Can't wait to see where this goes. Best of luck with the writing!

    2. agree! Good stuff! Keep going! :)

  14. Lisa, thank you for being here, and I totally agree that "great openings are magical". Unfortunately, I struggle with great openings - my weakness: I either share too much or too little.

    I love your excerpt. It contains solid details that cause the reader to be curious about the characters and the problem (in other words, "hooks" the reader). The interaction between the supporting characters and the main character is believable and brings the story to life.

    I must be honest that I was hooked at the word "curse". That word brings out so many emotions within a reader and leads the reader to imagine the conflict in the rest of the story (sickness, nervousness, something abnormal about Pierce). It leaves the reader wanting more.

    Thank you for sharing and inspiring!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Andrew! You made my day. :)

  15. This excerpt is the opening from the original short story that I was writing, but then I kept going and wrote a middle grade novel manuscript. I had to move this excerpt to chapter three to make it fit.

    “Steven, finish that soda, so we can get going,” Dad pleads, “I don’t want you to spill any on the new interior.”

    “I’m savoring the last few sips. Grandma never has any soda in her house. In fact, she never has any unhealthy food in her cupboards,” I say with a long sigh and continue, “This is so unfair, why do I have to stay with Grandma?”

    Dad looks annoyed, as usual, and replies, “I have said it a hundred times. Mom and I need some time to work things out at home. It will only be four weeks.”

    “Four weeks that will feel like four months. She is so weird,” I say, but Dad ignores me while he checks his phone, which is in his lap, for his most recent text message.

    We exit McDonald’s and head south down Route 904 towards Pelican Island. A light mist forms on the windshield. The ocean air is visible, even three miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The late afternoon traffic is light for us, but heavy on the other side of the road as day-only beach visitors are leaving the beach and heading home for dinner. We pass the old, wooden sign that reads, “Thank you for visiting Calabash, North Carolina. Come back again soon!” This means we are only a mile from the Pelican Island Beach Bridge. Four weeks of boredom at Grandma’s house is about to begin.

    Thanks for letting me share.

    1. Hi again Andrew. Great scene you've got going here. Right away you've got the characters and their traits plus the situation/conflict well in hand, and I'm ready to find out what will happen to Steven at the beach. Will it be a mystery? A romance? Something supernatural? You've ditched the parents and all is set.

      Interestingly, I got a way different feel from the descriptive paragraph than from the dialogue, and I think it's a matter of tone and diction. The paragraph is casual and sensory, with images like 'light mist,' 'ocean air,' day-only beach visitors,' 'old wooden sign,' and that great last sentence. The dialogue between Steven and his dad is less approachable, I think because it uses more formal words. For instance, you could substitute these and get a different vibe: "I don't want you to spill any in the car." "In fact, she never has any GOOD food in her house at all." "but Dad is distracted by the text tone pinging in his lap." You see what I mean? Of course, I could be completely misinterpreting how this fits in with the rest of the book, so take my take with a grain of salt. Getting dialogue to sound like people talk is one of the hardest things, I've found, but one piece of advice I got was to make it confrontational (which you do) and also clipped, like incomplete sentences, even.

      What will happen at Grandma's? We want to know. Keep at it!

    2. Hey, Andy! I'm with Lisa on all. That last paragraph is where the writing flows easy and is so sensory and wonderful and real. Agree on her suggestions regarding the dialogue... just posted something on my facebook author page today about how dialogue really does suck the first ten times we write it. It's really in the honing and honing and honing that it gets to the right place. Sometimes I'm amazed and how crappy my dialogue is when I go back and read it... and it takes more fixes. Another reason why I think your dialogue here feels more stilted is your tags. You kind of (IMHO) over tag. So read your first few paras above and then read this. I'm ONLY going to take back your tags:

      “Steven, finish that soda, so we can get going,” Dad pleads, “I don’t want you to spill any on the new interior.”

      “I’m savoring the last few sips," I say. "Grandma never has any soda in her house. In fact, she never has any unhealthy food in her cupboards. This is so unfair. Why do I have to stay with Grandma?”

      Dad looks annoyed, as usual.“I have said it a hundred times. Mom and I need some time to work things out at home. It will only be four weeks.”

      “Four weeks that will feel like four months. She is so weird,” I say, but Dad ignores me while he checks his phone, which is in his lap, for his most recent text message.

      Hope you can feel the difference. Small things, but tags are meant to help keep dialogue clear (who's saying what) but otherwise mostly disappear. If the dialogue continues, the reader knows it continues so the speaker doesn't have to say, "he continued..."

      Keep going, Andy! Nice to see Steven back. ;)

  16. Hi, Lisa. I like the idea of a bit of fantasy mixed with a modern setting (kind of like Percy Jackson). I look forward to reading your book to my own children.

    Here's an intro to a chapter I've started working on for my historical MG/YA novel. (Yes, Gae I'm taking a break from my short story for a while!). Jo Knowles' promt from July 8th helped get me started:

    “You can’t take it with you, girl!” Sister Mary Rosanna shouted. This was her sixth trip into the burning building, and she was ready to collapse from exhaustion and worry. Smoke was quickly spreading to this end of the orphanage.

    “But Mama made it for me!” Lily broke down sobbing.

    “It’s gone, girl. It’s ruined.” She gathered the girl up in her arms. “Shhhhh. Shhhh. It’s ok. We have to go. Now!”

    “It’s not okay! Mama will be mad I left it. She’ll be mad that it’s ruined. It’s all my fault!”

    “It’s not your fault. We have to go. Lily, let’s go.” Sister Mary Rosanna urged the girl toward the fire escape, guilt mixed with fatigue. She saw the last of the other girls climb through the window at the end of the hall, all her charges safe now, except Lily. Smoke seeped through the crack at the bottom of the stair door. Lily looked up at her and Sister’s heart nearly broke. This child had suffered so much within the past year. The loss of one handmade doll seemed like a final cruelty in a young girl’s life.

    1. Wow, w! (Can I call you w?) Things are really HAPPENING here, very hook-ular. The dialogue is perfectly pitched with minimum tags, the scene presented in quick strokes with no unnecessary wandering. Super vivid, suspenseful and heart-wrenching. And all in, what, half a page? Sheesh! What can I add?

      Just to have something to say, I'd note that it seems like Sister is carrying Lily when she "gathers" her, but then must set her down before shooing her toward the fire escape, but maybe that's understood. What font are you using? Can I critique that? :)

      As they say, you're on fire. Good luck with it!

    2. Also, I know you said that this was the opening of A chapter, not necessarily the opening of the book, but it would make a grab-you-by-the-throat beginning, brimming with stuff as it is. Then you could do back story as needed. Just another thought. Cheers!

    3. This is heartbreaking and it definitely captures the reader. I couldn't tell whose perspective it is from--at first I expected it to be Lily, but by the end it seemed that it could be Sister Mary Rosanna, which opens some interesting possibilities. Keep going! I want to know more.

    4. Let me just add this, Wendy, because they've said most of what needs to be said. I think you should end this last sentence here:

      This child had suffered so much within the past year. The loss of one handmade doll seemed like a final cruelty.

      What say you? <3

      Keep going! Great stuff!

    5. Thanks so much for your feedback. This is my first stab at this scene, so there's definitely room for improvement. Lisa, I can see what you mean about the "gathered" part and I have an idea for a modification there. Also, I'm still playing with timeline and your suggestions there are helpful. Jane, I haven't figured out POV yet. Maybe alternating chapters? My first goal was to have it be Lily's story (based on my grandmother's life), but I find Sister Mary Rosanna intriguing. She was also a real person who really did go into the orphanage 6 times to rescue the children. Gae, I love your edit! Thank you. ~ Wendy

  17. I'm definitely intrigued by this beginning! I love the way you describe Pierce's "event" - I'm a fainter - I faint A LOT and you describe how it feels before I go down. I like the gift/curse angle too. I want to read more.

    MY MC has a "gift" too. Here she tells how she began to discover she had it:

    My fairy house period. Oddly, it lasted a pretty long time. I started building them when I was four – my Aunt had given me a picture book “Fairy Houses”. I loved, loved, loved that book. It helped me understand what I was feeling and hearing. I had a sense that “others” were close by. When I was about six, my fairy houses became quite elaborate. My mom and dad used to show them off to their friends and take pictures and gush, “Look, how cute! Isn’t she creative? She has such an imagination!” I think I was six when I started to realize that no one else could hear the things that I did. I told my mom that I could hear the fairies talking in the garden. She laughed and told me I had such an imagination. I said, “No, really”! She laughed again, “oh, Wren! You’re such a sweet girl”! The smile stayed on my face but right then I realized that something was wrong. What?! She can’t hear them? After she left, I grabbed my baby brother. He was only three. I sat him in the garden with his dump truck a safe distance away from my fairy house. We played together for a little while. He always loved when I would play “trucks” with him. We filled the dump truck up with dirt then dumped it into a pile only to repeat filling and dumping over and over again. Then, I asked him “Do you hear them talking? Listen.” He was quiet and tilted his head. “Do you hear them?” I whispered. “No” he whispered back. “Are you sure?” “I no hear nothing” he said. I dumped his dump truck over and ran inside. I could hear him starting to blubber in the dirt. I hate him! He’s such a baby!

    1. Hi LLL2L! Thanks for writing and sharing. Having a secret gift is a storyline with so many possibilities, I can see you going in any one of a lot of fun directions. Your first person MC has a contemplative voice that suits the inner world she's privy to.

      The only part I didn't understand was her reaction to her brother when he couldn't hear the voices. Why so mad? I could see her getting really scared then, maybe retreating into herself, but he seems kind of innocent in this, unless that IS her way of showing her fear. You've got a good semi-spooky vibe going, I like the whispered conversation between them. It'll be interesting to see where it leads!

    2. I think Lisa is spot on with that one question/point. I also think if you tweaked your writing in the tiniest of places -- the unneeded words that slow the pace, your writing would feel a lot more active. I'm going to do a superspeed flash edit to show you what I mean rather than tell. You'll see that I'm not going to remove ANY of your substantive, storytelling. Only the words that get you to them:

      My fairy house period. Oddly, it lasted a pretty long time. I started building them when I was four – my Aunt had given me a picture book “Fairy Houses”. I loved, loved, loved that book. Reading it, I finally understood what I felt and heard. I had a sense that “others” were close by. When I was six, my fairy houses became elaborate. Mom and Dad would show them off to their friends and take pictures and gush, “Look, how cute! Isn’t she creative? She has such an imagination!” That was when I realized that no one else could hear the things that I did. I told Mom that I could hear the fairies talking in the garden. She laughed and told me I had such an imagination. “No, really!” I said. She laughed again, “oh, Wren! You’re such a sweet girl”! The smile stayed on my face but right then I realized something was wrong. What?! She can’t hear them? After she left, I grabbed my baby brother. He was only three. I sat him in the garden with his dump truck a safe distance from my fairy house. We played together for a while. He always loved when I'd play “trucks” with him. We filled the dump truck up with dirt and dumped it into a pile, over and over again. I asked him, “Do you hear them talking? Listen.” He was quiet and tilted his head. “Do you hear them?” I whispered. “No” he whispered back. “Are you sure?” “I no hear nothing” he said. I dumped his truck over and ran inside. I could hear him blubbering in the dirt. I hate him! He’s such a baby!

      Small words out, flow more powerful?

      Keep going. Good stuff!

    3. Thanks Lisa and Gae! Lisa you're right about being angry - I'm in my character's teenage head when she's only six in this scene. I need to adjust that. And Gae, less small words do make a difference!

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  19. I want to say that I am really enjoying this process. I love the prompts and the opportunity to hear what others think. Here is something I just started working on.

    “Hurry, you know we have to be there at least 45 minutes before the game. Come on, Mom!” Sam shouted in the general direction of the front door.
    Sam was already in the passenger seat of the jeep, her soccer backpack on her lap. Inside was all her gear: soccer ball, cleats, shin guards, shin guard sleeves, socks, water bottles, Gatorade, pre-wrap, extra jersey, back-up cleats, tape, ankle brace and a few hair ties. Her hair was neatly tucked into a “messy” bun and blue pre-wrap served as her headband. She had her yellow and black game jersey and shorts on but would put her socks and cleats on at the field. This was her first game back since the surgery and she was more than a little nervous. Would her knee hold up? What if it started to hurt? Would she start? Would she tire quickly? Would coach be hesitant to play her? She bit the skin around her fingernails. What if this injury was the end to all of it? Then what? Soccer had been all she worked for, thought about, lived for the past seven years. So many teams, so many games, so many tournaments, so many miles in the car, so much of her life focused on soccer. She looked up impatiently to see her mom standing still in the doorframe just staring at the phone in her hand. “Seriously, if she does not get in this car right now…”

    1. Hello there T on the B. I agree, this is an amazing collaborative opportunity that Gae runs every week here. I love that there are so many people willing to write something and put it out there. Teachers and librarians are in such a great position to observe the wild beast that is "the young reader," it's no wonder they are natural writers too.

      You obviously know a LOT about soccer players and their stuff, maybe from experience (?). Sam is vividly drawn and we feel her nervousness and worry right away. It might be a more active opening if she was thinking about the surgery while collecting all the gear in her room, finding it under the bed and in the closet (since it's been a while, right?). She can still yell to her mom and be anxious, just more mobile than sitting in the jeep. Maybe she bends her knee at a weird angle at one point and feels a twinge = more anxiety.

      Definitely a popular sport and it sounds like a tough and motivated protagonist. Good luck with it!

    2. Thanks Lisa, I like your suggestion a lot. I do have a great deal of experience with the topic! Definitely going to give your idea a try.

    3. Welcome to FF, T on the B! ;) I think Lisa's advice is spot on. You have some great fun stuff in here, but the tension would be upped if we saw your protag in motion. Also, as a fan of the list of questions -- and I am! -- I also have learned that sometimes less is more as a reader. Sometimes one question too many takes away from the tension/concern because we as the reader get that there is a sort of litany, we read it in and "get it." So maybe pull one (or even two back):

      This was her first game back since the surgery and she was more than a little nervous. Would her knee hold up? What if it started to hurt? Would she start, or would coach be hesitant to play her?

      Food for thought.

      Good stuff! Keep going.

  20. I'm so late posting this...but it's still Friday my time so I'm going to post it. :)

    Lisa, I was definitely pulled into what you shared. Very intriguing and I want to know more! I think the best openings give us just enough to be curious but not to be confused entirely. A tiny bit of not knowing is great though because our brain is desperate to fill in the blanks and wants to read on.

    My WIP is kind of a mess right now and I spent the week really thinking about my characters and attempting to connect with them more. This is the result of a writing prompt I tried.

    I always expect a handmade birthday gift from Ev because she’s creative and artistic like that, but when I open the envelope and slide out cards with the words “Self Esteem Coupons” plastered across the top in her funky handwriting, I don’t know what to think. Reading through them, I see each card lists a different task Ev expects me to complete, no doubt in hopes of helping me build my self esteem. It strikes me as ironic that Ev’s attempts at being supportive seem to repeatedly make me feel less competent at life in general. I can’t look her in the eye, so I just read each card slowly, flipping through them again and again.

    When I don’t say anything, she explains, “Ever since last summer, all you do is whine about Hayden and it’s getting old. Here’s the plan. You pick a card, I’ll help you do it and I promise you, by Friday, you’ll be ready to see Hayden.”

    First, I tell myself that I can't be that whiny. And then, I wonder if Ev can really help me pull myself together enough to be able to even talk to Hayden on Friday. Because that would be a flat-out miracle. As much as I hate to admit it, Ev might be my only hope.

    Thanks for reading!

    1. Hi Jen. Sorry I'm late in responding, and thanks for writing!

      What a wonderful voice this has, sweet and self-conscious, sounds just like how a person this age expresses herself. Really nice touches like -- "I can't look her in the eye, so I just read each card slowly, flipping through them again and again." That stretches out the time in exactly the sort of embarrassing way it would happen. I felt totally connected with the MC, and hopeful right there with her by the end.

      One thought is you could list one example card, there in the first paragraph, to give a funny-ish idea of what Ev wrote. And the reader is probably looking forward now to the MC and Ev's adventures in esteem-building, if that's what you were thinking. Great stuff, keep going with it!

    2. Hi Lisa! I so appreciate your feedback! I thought about adding an example of what's on the cards...just need to decide exactly what they are! Thank you!

  21. I really like your MC's voice. I find myself wondering whether Ev is a true friend--the line "It strikes me as ironic that Ev’s attempts at being supportive seem to repeatedly make me feel less competent at life in general" makes me wonder whether Ev in some way derives satisfaction from your MC's esteem issues. It definitely made me want to read more.

    1. Thank you! That's what I was trying to get at! I've been trying to find that balance. I so appreciate your feedback!

  22. Jen, I think this is totally brilliant, actually. The voice is spot on! Think Lisa gave you a great way to expand. It creates that perfect tension that Jane eludes to -- where our friends both want us to succeed and partly want us to fail... you know what I'm saying.

    This shows how a writing exercise can really help us to hone not only our characters' traits and personalities, but the conflicts that exist between us.