Critique Group – January 9, 2015

critiques-t-shirtIt’s critique group day! (*The crowd cheers*)

For this first week of critiques, several submissions came in. I’m glad for the enthusiasm, but since I don’t want to overwhelm my fellow critiquers right away, I will post one this week and save the others for following weeks. If too many come in as the weeks go on, I might post more than one each week. We’ll see how it goes.

I’ve seen the following scenario many times: You submitted a piece that is waiting to be posted, and while you’re waiting, you learn a bunch of cool tips during the critiques, so you want to alter what you submitted. If that happens, please let me know so I can take it off the waiting list. Then send me the new version when you’re ready.

To those who are participating in critiquing, be sure to follow the guidelines posted here. All you have to do is post a comment about the writing (see below). Don’t feel like you need to critique the whole thing, as I will. Even a short comment on one aspect can be helpful. For a critique group to work, we need to critique as a group. I can’t do it by myself. 🙂

This post will stay active indefinitely, so you can come back and add comments at any time. If you are the one who is being critiqued, you should subscribe to this post so you can be notified when any comments are added.

Submission #1 – Outcast

Outcast

It was going to kill me. I couldn’t see it, but I could sense it, every muscle tense, my heart pounding louder and faster than it ever had before.

Hiding was useless, but hiding was the only thing left to do. I held my breath, but I was sure it could hear the rapid beat of my heart. Darkness and a table were the only things keeping me from death. The only things separating me from plain sight and discovery.

Boom, boom, boom. I started at the sound of its heavy footsteps, which stopped as suddenly as they’d started. Could it see me? I opened my eyes and saw its feet and legs. One kick from its metallic leg and my skull would break like glass. I started trembling. Why was it just standing there?  Had it seen me? Was it hoping I’d come out, thinking it was gone?

Suddenly its hand shot under the table, dragging me out by my hair. I screamed in pain and terror, grabbing its wrist as it pulled me to my feet. It released me and I backed away. It was nearly seven feet tall, shaped like a man, with arms and legs. But it was made completely of metal, with glowing red eyes. His left hand was in a fist, which he pointed towards me. I knew that some sort of weapon was attached to the top of his arm.

“No,” I backed away until my back hit a wall. I looked for an escape, but saw nothing. “Leave me alone! Get away from me!”

The machine took a step forward. It was emotionless. It was following its commands, it was being controlled. I wasn’t trying to talk to it. I was talking to whoever was behind the controls. “Let me go!” I said, trying to control my shaking.

I heard a strange noise, the gun preparing to fire. I rushed at it, hoping to take it off guard. The sound of a gunshot ran through the room while something slammed into my forehead, which exploded with pain.

I opened my eyes to darkness. My head throbbed. I raised my hand to my head and ran my fingers over the area the bullet struck. I almost expected to feel a hole in my skull, but I felt nothing but skin.

I put my hands at my sides and felt my bed. Had it really only been a dream? I pulled a pillow from behind my head and then felt my forehead again. My scalp still tingled as if someone had just grabbed me by my long hair.

I let myself fall back into a comfortable position. It’d been a dream. But its details were still clear in my mind, like a recent memory, like it had really happened. I turned onto my side and an alarm beeped three times before a voice rang over the speaker I knew was at my bedside table.

“All unassigned fifteen or older report to the government building in two hours.” My lights flashed on and I quickly covered my head with a pillow. I still hated how the lights turned on that fast.

I heard my door open. “Mara, did you hear the announcement?” it was my mother.

“Couldn’t’ve missed it if I’d wanted to.” I said, my voice muffled by the pillow.

“Well you’d better get dressed. The next bus leaves in an hour.”

“Any after that?”

“Not going where you need to go.” She pulled the pillow from my face. I winced and blinked several times.

Sitting up, I spoke. “Do I have a bruise or anything on my forehead?”

I felt my mom’s cool hand pushing my light brown hair back from my face. Her fingers caressed my forehead. “No, nothing dear. Does it hurt?”

I nodded, swinging my legs to the edge of my bed. “A few seconds ago it was like someone just shot me.”

“Shot you?” my mother sat down. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a nightmare like this one. It was the third time I’d had a realistic dream, and the last two had been nightmares.

I nodded. “But it’s just a dream.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

I quickly related the dream to her as I pulled my clothes for the day out of the dresser. They were normal clothes, dark, fitted jeans and a navy blue shirt. No uniform yet. I’d get that later today when I received an assignment.

“It was the worst one yet.” I said, tossing the clothes on the bed. “It just…I was there. As much as I’m here. Well, almost. I’m not sure.”

My mother stood and smiled. “Well, it’s unusual, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about, dear. After all, it’s just a dream. Even if it doesn’t seem like it. Meet you downstairs in five minutes.”

After she’d left, I hastily dressed and brushed my hair.

The kitchen was empty when I went downstairs. I grabbed something to eat, although I had very little appetite. Both of my parents were healers, but would I become a healer? I grimaced at the thought of performing surgery on anyone. Maybe I’d be a farmer. I groaned at the thought of pulling weeds in the hot sun.

As long as I wasn’t assigned as a cleaner, I’d be happy. Cleaners were the lazy ones or those that refused to go and watch a few jobs. They kept the streets, buildings, and other places clean. A few of them were assigned as cooks or some other small job. I’d watched countless jobs to see what I’d like, and I’d watched the healers many times while waiting for my parents to finish work for the day.

School had finished two years ago, when I was fourteen. Now, at sixteen, I’d be assigned a job. Assignment day happened only once every three years for the whole city, so teens of different ages received their jobs on the same day.

Ready! Set! Critique!

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16 replies

  1. I am commenting first so others can follow my lead. Below are my thoughts on the piece. I didn’t remark on everything I would change, especially if it’s an issue I already addressed, but I included most of the issues I noticed. I hope others will add their own critiques.

    In your attempt to ramp up intensity, you did a good job with word choices such as “tense” and “pounding.” Everyone can relate to this sense of anxiety. We join with your character in being frightened.

    My first criticism is the lack of seeing anything at the beginning. There are no visuals to provide any sort of setting. Although it’s dark, you can still make it happen.

    Maybe start with this: “I crouched under a table and clutched its wooden leg as I stared into darkness.”

    This gives the reader a visual and an idea of position.

    I also try to avoid beginning with intense action. I have no clue about the character at the start. Man? Woman? Child? Animal? Good or evil? Should I hope the character gets away? Gets caught? Without knowledge of these things, the intensity is much lower.

    “I opened my eyes.” – You gave no indication earlier that the eyes were closed. And why were they closed? If she is looking for the predator, she wouldn’t close her eyes. The statement, “I couldn’t see it” doesn’t make sense if her eyes are closed. In that case, of course she couldn’t see it.

    “I opened my eyes and saw its feet and legs.” How could she see these in the dark? Also, delete “and saw” and alter the phrasing. “I opened my eyes. Its feet and legs stood only inches away.”

    When you are in a character’s point of view, that character sees any visual that you report, so there is no need to use phrases like I saw, I heard, I felt, or I knew. Just report the visual, the sound, or the feeling without the extra words.

    “Suddenly its hand shot under the table, dragging me out by my hair.”

    When you have an “ing” verb phrase, most readers interpret that action as happening at the same time as the main verb. This construction you have makes it sound like the hand shooting under the table happened at the same time as the dragging out, which is impossible. Actually the dragging out began after the hand shot under the table.

    Consider, “Suddenly its hand shot under the table and dragged me out by my hair.”

    With a verb like “shot,” there is no need for suddenly. “Shot” indicates suddenness. Also, to provide a more vibrant visual, consider, “Its hand shot under the table, snatched a fistful of my hair, and dragged me out.”

    “It was nearly seven feet tall, shaped like a man, with arms and legs.” – I am still wondering how she can see all of this in darkness. I suggest that you mention some kind of dim light source at the beginning and say that she stared into the dim room.

    “But it was made completely of metal, with glowing red eyes. His left hand was in a fist, which he pointed towards me.” – You switch back and forth between referring to the machine as “it” and “he” or “his.” I suggest sticking to one or the other.

    “I backed away until my back hit a wall.” Try to avoid repeating “back.” Maybe, “I backed away until I bumped into a wall.”

    “I looked for an escape, but saw nothing.” If she could see the machine, why couldn’t she see anything else?

    “I was talking to whoever was behind the controls. “Let me go!” I said, trying to control my shaking.” Try to avoid repeating “control.” Maybe, “I was talking whoever was behind the controls. “Let me go!” I said, trying to steel my shaking body.”

    “I heard a strange noise, the gun preparing to fire.” The use of “the” indicates that the character already knew of the presence of a gun, but the only knowledge was actually this – “some sort of weapon was attached to the top of his arm.”

    “I turned onto my side and an alarm beeped three times before a voice rang over the speaker I knew was at my bedside table.” This is a compound sentence (two independent clauses), so you need a comma after “side.” Take out “I knew was.” It is unnecessary.

    Now that I know the opening sequence is a dream, I have an item to add. Starting with a dream has become cliché, that is, kind of worn out. I did that with Raising Dragons, but if I had to do it over again, I would avoid it.

    “My lights flashed on and I quickly covered my head with a pillow.” Compound sentence needs a comma after “on.” Also, I would take out “quickly.” You can avoid adverbs if the sentence is structured to show “quickly” instead of telling it.

    Two examples:
    “The moment the lights flashed on, I covered my head with a pillow.”
    “The lights flashed on. I snatched my pillow and covered my head.”

    “I heard my door open.” Take out “I heard.” All sounds are heard by the focal character, so it’s unnecessary. Instead show the reader what it sounds like. I suggest, “My door clicked open.”

    “it was my mother.” This is a new sentence, not a speaker tag. Capitalize “It”

    “my mother sat down.” This is a new sentence, not a speaker tag. Capitalize “My” Also, what did she sit on. This bedroom scene could use a few visuals.

    “I quickly related the dream to her as I pulled my clothes for the day out of the dresser.” Write more tightly by deleting “to her” and “for the day.” Both phrases are unnecessary. We know to whom she is speaking, and we assume the clothes are for the day.

    “Even if it doesn’t seem like it. Meet you downstairs in five minutes.” The speaker probably paused between these two sentences, but you provide no indication of a pause. This is a perfect spot for a dialogue beat—a visual description of what is going on during a natural pause. The time it takes to read the beat give the impression of the pause, and it provides the reader with a visual cue. Consider, “Even if it doesn’t seem like it.” She turned and walked toward the door. “Meet you downstairs in five minutes.”

    “The kitchen was empty when I went downstairs.” The events are out of order. She went downstairs first, so rearrange. “When I went downstairs, the kitchen was empty.” Also, the mother said she would meet the daughter there in five minutes, but the daughter indicates no surprise that the mother missed the appointment.

    “I grabbed something to eat, although I had very little appetite.” What did she grab? Be specific. It helps the reader form a visual.

    “Both of my parents were healers, but would I become a healer?” This thought seems to come out of the blue. What motivated it? I suggest raising the memory of the speaker’s announcement, or maybe have a new one that raises the thought.

    “those that refused to go” For people, use “who” instead of “that”

    The rest of the piece is what I call information dump. You halted the story and explained a lot without sufficient motivation to raise these thoughts. If you hint at these ideas one or two at a time as the story progresses and as story elements naturally bring up the topics, the reader can figure out the scenario.

    One more item—the final paragraphs sound a lot like Divergent. Is your story really a lot like that one? As it stands, your story sounds quite derivative.

    Overall, I found the piece interesting, so you kept my attention. That’s a positive sign. Keep up the good work.

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  2. My thoughts:
    Great opening! I’m really curious about what’s going to kill the character.
    “Hiding was useless, but hiding was the only thing left to do.”- Replace the second “hiding” with “it”.
    “It was nearly seven feet tall, shaped like a man, with arms and legs.”- You could take out the “with arms and legs”, since you’ve already said it’s shaped like a man and having arms and legs kind of follows from that.
    “I said, trying to control my shaking.”- look for another word for “control” here, since you already used it twice in this paragraph.
    “I heard a strange noise, the gun preparing to fire.”- I’m assuming this is the weapon you mentioned a few paragraphs ago, but I think that could be made clearer.
    ” It’d been a dream. But its details were still clear in my mind . . .” I think you could combine these two sentences.
    Overall, pretty nice job. You did a great job building suspense and pulling me into the story.

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  3. The dream sequence does a good job building tension. There are some logical failings. For example, at first the character is terrified, certain of death, but then the character takes bold action to avoid a gunshot.
    However, dream sequences can be ruled by “dream logic,” which makes most things acceptable so long as they are presented in a surreal fashion. I suggest working on your imagery here. In my own dreams, surroundings are often vague while close things are in larger than life detail. Maybe make something a color that doesn’t actually exist, or something like that.

    Summary of dream: tension good, lack of real world logic, acceptable, main suggestion: build atmosphere.

    As a follow up on the dream, I would not open with a dream. Keep it, but use it later. Open with breakfast! Everyone loves breakfast, and it allows you to show the character’s “normal world” in an intimate setting that allows for organic introduction of your world’s elements.

    From the speaker announcement and the assigned jobs at fourteen, I’m guessing this is dystopian setting. This is a good setting to start a first story, since it’s easy to just take everything in the world to its worst possible outcome. I suggest adding some other elements to make this clear.

    You mention clothing. This is very good! Clothing can indicate Mara’s family status within the dystopian society, and in a morning setting you often think about what you’re going to wear that day. You mention a state-issued uniform, but also hint that Mara’s healer parents high class enough to afford to buy something with a little color. Good.

    I suggest following up with what they eat. In George Orwell’s “1984,” food was a major factor to demonstrate the dystopian setting. In Harley Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” (AKA “Soylent Green”), the protagonist was reduced to tears from the opportunity to have a small taste of strawberry jam. Showing your characters’ meal, and their reaction to it, can be a powerful insight into your world and its effects on them.

    Your closing is what is commonly called an “infodump.” Infodumps are sometimes necessary, but they are very clumsy in a first person story. A first person story implies that the character is telling someone else what’s going on. Why would they tell this person normal things about the world?

    If you want to preserve your infodump, I suggest making more of a “Dear Diary” tone at some point. Mara can ask herself why this sort of thing happened. Why did it change? Here’s my suggestion:

    “I wished I could still go to school. Why did I have to ‘graduate’ at fourteen? I missed assignment day that cycle and had to spend the next two years waiting to learn what I’d do for the rest of my life, but even so I wasn’t ready for a job! How could I possibly be a healer, like my parents? Or worse, a farmer? Ugh! Pulling weeds in the hot sun? No thanks! But even that would be better than winding up assigned to one of the ‘cleaner’ crews. I didn’t even like to think about that.

    This tightens it down from three paragraphs to one paragraph, and makes it much more personal. Now the reason Mara is explaining it is because she’s either organizing her thoughts for a diary, or telling a close friend about how she felt about the change. Her friend would know the why, but not Mara’s feelings.

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  4. My first comment is that the opening was very gripping. I wanted to keep reading. It also moved at a decent speed to keep my attention without giving me mental whiplash.

    That being said, while I agree that starting the story with the dream might be cliche, I’d rather comment on how to make your transition from dream to reality stronger, than parrot what others have already said. This could apply to exiting any dream at any time in the story, not just at the beginning.

    It took me a few sentences to understand that there was a transition between dream world and reality. I would suggest making the change a little more distinct.

    Waking up from a particularly realistic dream can be really hard, and it can take a few seconds before you actually feel awake. There’s usually that inkling in the mind that something has completely changed, though. When I was writing a transition similar to this, I asked all my friends at college what the first thing they noticed when they woke up from a nightmare was. The vast majority of them said the first thing that brought them back to reality was the presence of their bed beneath them. Mara had been running toward the robot; but now she’s very suddenly back in her bed. She might realize the real presence of her bed before realizing the absence of the fake wound on her forehead.

    On a different note, I really liked the mom. Even though she didn’t say a whole lot or develop very much, I got a good sense of their relationship and her caring for her daughter. You chose very good words to bring out her caring nature without wasting a lot of words or giving a lot of background about her. She was strong. And just on the whole, you already have a great opening concept; and I wasn’t cringing at an abundance of misspellings and grammar errors. Good start!

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  5. I like the sense of mystery that takes place at the beginning; I really wanted to keep reading.

    One thing I was a little confused about was when she mentioned the cleaners. I didn’t really understand what they did; that then making it hard to understand why she didn’t want to be one.

    It sounds wonderful, good luck!

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  6. Thank you for all your advice everyone, it’s very helpful. I understand how a dream would be cliche, but I have one question. One big part of the story are Mara’s dreams and how they show real events to her. So should I still change the dream in the beginning or should I keep it since her dreams are a big part of the plot?

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    • Hi Anna!

      I really enjoyed reading your opening! I have tried many times and failed to open my stories with a dream, but you pulled it together and made it fit beautifully.

      One thing I wanted to say, just as a friendly reminder, was to make sure you keep track of all Mara’s dreams. In many books I’ve read the opening dream is forgotten and, in a way, a pointless jab at foreshadowing. However, if you can intertwine the dreams like a puzzle coming together, you’re really on the track to a magnificent story! Great job and happy writing!

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    • Anna, I think you can keep the dream. I suggest that you just don’t start page one, line one with it. I would rather see her got to bed thinking about the big day tomorrow. I want to get to know her for at least a couple of paragraphs so I can root for her during the dream. As it stands, I have no connection with her at the beginning of the dream.

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  7. I think this story could be compelling, and I am curious about the world. So far it reminds of something between the society in “Divergent” and in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem,” though less extreme. Be careful, however, not to draw too much inspiration from other sources. Now, on to some notes.

    “I started at the sound of its heavy footsteps, which stopped as suddenly as they’d started.”
    This sentence from the third paragraph uses the word “started” twice with two definitions.

    “Was it hoping I’d come out, thinking it was gone?”
    In this sentence from the third paragraph, the word “it” is the subject and affects the word “thinking,” so that the sentence reads as “Was it thinking it was gone?” (This is called a “misplaced modifier,” unless I am mistaken.) The word “thinking” needs to be linked to the subject “I.”

    “It was following its commands, it was being controlled.”
    This is called a comma splice. A comma connects two independent clauses. You could add a conjunction (“and”) after the comma, split this into two sentences, or connect the clauses with a semicolon. However, the surrounding paragraph contains almost exclusively simple sentences in the same structure, so perhaps find some way to vary the sentence structure if you choose to rephrase that sentence.

    “I heard a strange noise, the gun preparing to fire.”
    I think that a colon would be a better fit for this sentence than a comma. It misread this sentence in a way that’s silly on my part, but a colon would avoid that confusion by essentially saying, “Here it is! This is the noise!” I also do not know what the sound itself is. Is it a metallic clacking sound? A whirring? An electronic whistle as the gun charges up? A series of sharp squeals? A low groan? I have no context to know how exactly this gun is preparing to fire, and adding that sound detail can help the reader distinguish more about the weapon and, therefore, the world this is set in.

    “I turned onto my side and an alarm beeped three times before a voice rang over the speaker I knew was at my bedside table.”
    I think it’s safe to assume that she knows where her speaker is. Just say the “the speaker at my beside table.”

    ““Mara, did you hear the announcement?” it was my mother.”
    The end of the sentence does not contain a speaker tag like “said” so it is a separate sentence. Capitalize “it.” The same principle applies to this section:
    ““Shot you?” my mother sat down.“ (Now I see that Mr. Davis mentioned that, too.)

    To answer your new inquiry about the dream sequence, I also worried that it would be cliché, but it didn’t bother me as much as other stories that start with unrealistic dreams. Even though Mara woke up, I thought that all of the stuff that had happened in the dream was somehow just as real as her reality. I love stories that mess with reality, so that entices me, but other readers may dislike the fake-out of waking up into a less action-packed world. Perhaps you could play with the idea of starting at a slightly earlier point in the story and then leading into the dream sequence.

    Keep it up!

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  8. Can’t wait to hear what will happen next. 🙂

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  9. Alright. This was really interesting. I’d like to know more about the story it grabs your attention from the beginning. Things are a little vague but hey it’s just the beginning and there is more time to explain later. But make sure you explain enough towards the beginning so that readers don’t get annoyed in want to give up. I’ve definitely struggled through stories where authors didn’t explain enough in the beginning and it was just frustrating to read more and get questions. Remember that you have more than just sight and sound to deal with. Describe taste (if there is any) as well as scents. Always remember there are two kinds of feelings touch and emotions. Use both. You did really well with dialogue tags and not having too many and not using frivolous adjectives to describe speech. Good job. I enjoyed reading this. Keep writing.

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  10. My favorite part about the entire piece was the exchange between Mara and her mother. I love seeing family act like a real family in fiction – maybe I’m a little too biased and automatically interpret characters that way – so I really enjoyed the interaction in that part of the scene. When you wrote that the mother sat down, I pictured a concerned mother trying to care for her daughter.

    Aside from that, it’s pretty easy to tell that this is dystopian. It is very reminiscent of the society in the Giver so far with the talk about uniforms and different jobs. This is both a compliment and a critique. There are genre specific cliches because the readership of those genres love the cliches. However, you need to make sure you do enough world-building that you give any cliches your own unique twist. What makes your society unique?

    I agree with others that you don’t need to start with the dream sequence. While it’s good to foreshadow change, let it start out small. If you give away all the details right away, then your reader will know exactly what happens. There won’t be any tension.

    I’d also drop the bit about the Cleaners entirely from this part of the story unless they are significant. Even if they are, there are more subtle ways to introduce them. Maybe an amiable classmate or an enemy is assigned to this position at the ceremony?

    At any rate, you’re doing a good job. The most important thing is to keep writing and to get your thoughts on paper…er, on the computer.

    I’ll let my notes end at that. You already have quite a bit of reading from the others. 😉

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  11. I really liked this story. It was exiting and held my interest.

    Maybe instead of saying “Hiding was useless, but hiding was the only thing left to do,” you could use “it” to replace the second use of “hiding.

    ” Darkness and a table were the only things keeping me from death” could be replaced with “Darkness and the table I was hiding under were the only things keeping me from death.”

    Perhaps change the commas in “Boom, boom, boom” to periods. “Boom. Boom. Boom.”

    Instead of “its feet and legs” you could use “the lower half of its body.”

    “My skull would break like glass” could be replaced by “my skull would shatter like glass.”

    Instead of using “it” every time you mention the robot thing, you could sometimes use “the thing” for some variety.

    I also think that the ending sounds very similar to Divergent or The Giver.

    Overall it was great! Keep up the good work!

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  12. I’ve taken critiques for this work and applied some of it to my own submission, and would like to resubmit. The catch is it is now about 1030 words. Is that close enough to the word cap to justify resubmission, or do I need to chop some off the end?

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