Critique Group – Controlled

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We critiquers are smart. Right? Well, the authors certainly are, and I’m not lion, but they are always glad to get some help from reasonably smart readers like us. So let’s roar into this week’s submission.

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Controlled by Anna

I had always dreaded my twelfth birthday.

Why did we have to get tattoos on that day? Every time I thought about it, a tingling sensation would prickle across my neck, the area that would soon become the canvas for the black outline of the circle, whether or not I wanted it.

Of course, there was another option, but that was one I didn’t want to consider. Staring at the white tiled floor, I dragged the heel of my boot across it, leaving a black scuff mark. Surprised, I jerked my head up to be sure no one had noticed. With white chairs lined against the white walls, the room was spotless besides the blemish I’d just caused.

Bending down, I rubbed my finger over the black mark. Crumbling under the pressure of my fingertip, the black gunk vanished from the floor.

“Mara, are you alright?” Helen asked, resting her hand on my back.

Straightening, I nodded and pushed my hair from my face. “It’s nothing.”

My sister smiled at me, but I didn’t have the stomach to return the grin. My insides were fluttering, and my heart had to be beating twice as fast as normal. Biting my lip, I allowed my gaze to wander to a closed door. If only the tattoo were the only thing awaiting behind it. I couldn’t decide what I was more afraid of. The test or the tattoo.

Taking my hand, Helen applied pressure and smiled down at me. At fifteen, she was three years my superior, and my only sibling. Through her waves of light brown hair, her tattoo, which I kept trying to imagine on myself, was visible. I squeezed Helen’s hand back, my sweaty palm touching hers, which was cool and reassuring.

“What if I fail?” I whispered, though the only other occupant in the room was an elderly government official, his focus on the tablet resting on his legs.

“You won’t fail,” Helen said. “Don’t worry.”

I won’t fail? Of course she said that. I couldn’t fail. If I did…I shook my head. No, I wouldn’t flunk the test. Although I couldn’t help wishing someone would have at least told me the questions I was going to be asked.

Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm my nerves. Useless. My legs bounced up and down, the only way to release my pent up energy that came from anxiety. Sinking further into my seat, I released Helen’s hand and grasped the cold metal arms of my chair.

Turning my head towards my sister, her gaze drew my attention toward the government official. She had that look on her face. The one that would suddenly appear whenever she’d been around an official more than a few seconds. Narrowing my eyes, I tried once again to read her face. Was it fear? No, not fear. At least, not completely. There was anxiety in her eyes, a look like she expected to be yelled at at any moment by the elderly man. Why would she be afraid of an official? What could the man do to her?

Above the closed door, the digital clock’s numbers switched to four pm. At the same moment, the speakers in the four corners of the room crackled to life. “Mara Hadden, please step through the door.”

On cue, the door slid open, revealing a room. Helen stood and extended her hand towards me. “Ready, Mara?”

No. But I’d never be ready. Swallowing as the butterflies in my stomach, which had begun moving around at an alarming speed, I rose to my feet. But I didn’t take Helen’s hand. In a short while, I would become a citizen of Althalos, expected to do my part. I couldn’t act like a child any longer.

***

Less brightly lit than the waiting area, the room we entered was small, with white walls and the government symbol painted on the wall opposite the doorway. In the center of the room a chair was situated, with an extension that allowed a person to raise their feet from the ground.

Seated near a desk, which had a computer on top of it, a woman watched us for a moment in silence. A government official, which was evident by her visible tattoo, the woman appeared to be in her early forties. Frown lines creased her forehead, and she kept her plain brown hair pulled back into an unpleasantly tight bun. I twirled my finger through my own hair, relieved that only a few adult women were required to wear styles like this woman’s.

Finally, after she had examined me with a searching gaze, the official spoke. “I suppose you are Mara?”

I nodded. Should I talk, or just let the woman keep asking questions?

Turning her chair towards the table, the official then typed something onto the computer’s keyboard, which made sharp clicking noises. A recent picture of my face flashed on the screen, and the official turned back toward me. After pushing her chair back from the table, the woman stood and stared downwards so her gaze met mine. I shifted from one foot to the other, trying not to be intimidated by her stare.

The official cleared her throat. “My name is Agnes,” she said. “Are you ready for your test, Mara Hadden?”

Once again, I nodded, though my instincts told me to say no. But I couldn’t refuse. To refuse would be the worst decision I could ever make. Squaring my shoulders, I took a deep breath and awaited the first question.

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21 replies

  1. Anna,

    You did a great job. You do just about everything right—pacing, showing instead of telling, scene setting, building tension, characterization, and more. I am impressed.

    My only comments will be technical, and I suspect you’ll be slapping your forehead when I point them out.

    Your main problem is a bit too much wordiness. I will suggest ways to tighten your phrasing.

    First: I had always dreaded my twelfth birthday.

    Nice hook, stark and interesting.

    Next: Every time I thought about it, a tingling sensation would prickle across my neck, the area that would soon become the canvas for the black outline of the circle, whether or not I wanted it.

    I think “would prickle across my neck” is a bit clumsy. Maybe “would raise prickles across my neck.”

    Next: Of course, there was another option, but that was one I didn’t want to consider.

    In order to avoid using “was” twice, maybe “Of course, there was another option, one I didn’t want to consider.”

    Next: Surprised, I jerked my head up to be sure no one had noticed.

    You tell that she is surprised, then you show it. I would delete “surprised.” Also, it might be tighter to write it this way: I jerked my head up to see if anyone had noticed.

    Next: With white chairs lined against the white walls, the room was spotless besides the blemish I’d just caused.

    I suggest: With white chairs lined against the white walls, the room was otherwise spotless.

    Next: Biting my lip, I allowed my gaze to wander to a closed door.

    It might add tension to show something ominous on the door.

    Next: If only the tattoo were the only thing awaiting behind it.

    Can you think of a substitute for “thing”? Hazard? Danger? Dread?

    Next: Taking my hand, Helen applied pressure and smiled down at me.

    This is the second consecutive paragraph that begins with a participle.

    Next: I squeezed Helen’s hand back, my sweaty palm touching hers, which was cool and reassuring.

    This is picky, but “my sweaty palm touching hers” made me think that Helen’s palm was also sweaty, which was contradicted in the next phrase.

    Next: Although I couldn’t help wishing someone would have at least told me the questions I was going to be asked.

    To make it tighter, I suggest: Although I couldn’t help wishing someone would have at least told me the test questions.

    Next: My legs bounced up and down, the only way to release my pent up energy that came from anxiety.

    I suggest: My legs bounced up and down, the only way to release my pent-up anxiety.

    Next: Sinking further into my seat, I released Helen’s hand and grasped the cold metal arms of my chair.

    You begin the paragraph with a participle phrase, and you are ending it that way as well. I suggest restructuring some of these.

    Next: Turning my head towards my sister, her gaze drew my attention toward the government official.

    This is yet another paragraph that begins with a participle phrase. In this case, you have structured it incorrectly. The subject of the participle and the subject of the main verb must be the same. Here, the subject of the participle is Mara, but the subject of the main verb (drew) is “her gaze,” which would mean that her gaze turned Mara’s head.

    Next: There was anxiety in her eyes, a look like she expected to be yelled at at any moment by the elderly man.

    I think this sentence is a bit clumsy. Also, it might be better to find a more vivid verb than “there was.” I suggest something like: Anxiety burned in her eyes, as if she expected a cutting shout from the elderly man at any moment.

    Next: At the same moment, the speakers in the four corners of the room crackled to life.

    When you use “the” before speakers, it indicates that you have shown or mentioned them earlier. I would delete the “the.”

    Next: On cue, the door slid open, revealing a room.

    I suggest one simple description of the room. Dim? Cramped? Examination?

    Next: No. But I’d never be ready.

    It seemed odd that she didn’t answer the question.

    Next: Swallowing as the butterflies in my stomach, which had begun moving around at an alarming speed, I rose to my feet.

    I think a verb is missing. Swallowing as butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Also, were the butterflies moving or was her stomach moving. Also, if the butterflies motivated the swallowing, you should reverse the order.

    I suggest: As butterflies fluttered in my stomach at an alarming speed, I swallowed and rose to my feet.

    Next: Less brightly lit than the waiting area, the room we entered was small, with white walls and the government symbol painted on the wall opposite the doorway.

    Who is “we”? Did Helen go with her? Can you give the slightest hint at what the symbol looks like?

    Next: In the center of the room a chair was situated, with an extension that allowed a person to raise their feet from the ground.

    “Was situated” is unnecessarily passive, and I would just write “recliner.” I suggest: A reclining chair sat in the center of the room.

    Next: Seated near a desk, which had a computer on top of it, a woman watched us for a moment in silence.

    I suggest tightening this: Seated near a computer desk, a woman watched us for a silent moment.

    Next: Finally, after she had examined me with a searching gaze, the official spoke. “I suppose you are Mara?”
    I don’t think you need to call her “the official” here. Just stick with “she.”

    Next: Turning her chair towards the table, the official then typed something onto the computer’s keyboard, which made sharp clicking noises.

    A participle phrase should occur at the same time as the main verb, but that seems impossible here. I would simplify it and thereby eliminate another occurrence of starting a paragraph with a participle.

    I suggest: The official turned her chair towards the table and typed on the keyboard, making sharp clicking noises.

    Next: A recent picture of my face flashed on the screen, and the official turned back toward me. After pushing her chair back from the table, the woman stood and stared downwards so her gaze met mine. I shifted from one foot to the other, trying not to be intimidated by her stare.

    I would tighten this paragraph as follows:

    A recent picture of my face flashed on the screen. The official pushed her chair back from the table, stood, and stared down at me. I shifted from one foot to the other, trying not to be intimidated.

    Next: The official cleared her throat. “My name is Agnes,” she said. “Are you ready for your test, Mara Hadden?”

    More tightening: She cleared her throat. “My name is Agnes. Are you ready for your test, Mara Hadden?”

    Since Mara is the “I” character, and the official is the only “she” character in the room, you don’t need to keep renaming the her as “the woman” or “the official.” It’s okay to do it once or twice, but most of the time “she” will be fine.

    Your main issues are wordiness, overuse of participles, and clarity. When it comes to building the story, you are on the right track. Again, great job.

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  2. Oooh. Dystopian, I’m guessing? Or an end-of-the-world novel? The idea of the mark makes it seem more the latter, though it could be just dystopian. In any case, it’s cool, and I’d like to read more of it.

    A few suggestions:
    -You seem to use the same sentence pattern a lot, sometimes twice or more in a row. I’d suggest going through and varying it a little. (Example of the sentence pattern I’m referring to: “Bending down, I rubbed my finger over the black mark.”)
    -“I couldn’t decide what I was more afraid of. The test or the tattoo.” There should be a colon between “of” and “the test”, not a period.
    -“My legs bounced up and down, the only way to release my pent up energy that came from anxiety.” Change this last part to “anxious, pent-up energy.”
    Overall, great job!

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  3. I’m really interested in the story and really want to read more! The story is great!
    As has been mentioned, you tend to repeat words and are pretty wordy among some other things, but it was really good!
    Great job, Anna!

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  4. I agree with the repetitive sentence structure, and you could switch a few words here and there, but other than that the story was very interesting! This sounds a bit similar to Divergent.

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  5. I’m hooked :). The flow of the story flowed naturally and I liked your descriptions. One thing I noticed was you said “the” tattoo was how she recognized the government official. Are governemt tattoos different then the one Helen has? Great job overall!

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    • Yes, the government tattoos are supposed to be different. Each job assignment is represented with a different symbol, and the unassigned only get the first part of the tattoo.

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  6. This was amazing! It really drew me in, making me want to know why everyone has to get the tattoo and answer questions at 12 years old. The sentence structure is a little repetitive, but that is easily changed. Great job Anna!

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  7. One thing.
    With white chairs lined against the white walls, the room was spotless besides the blemish I’d just caused.
    I think that, instead of besides the blemish, you should try except for the blemish.
    Other than that, great story! Hope someday I’m able to read more!

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  8. Aw, I wanna know the questions! And what happens! I’m glad I don’t have to get a tattoo. . .I also want to know what the other option is. I agree with Rebecca Derr, you should replace the ‘besides the blemish’, with ‘except for the blemish.’ This is very interesting! Keep at it! I hope that I’ll be able to read more someday! 😉

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  9. Definitely got me interested! Anything I would critique has already been pointed out. Absolutely superb writing!

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  10. Thanks everyone!!! 😀 You’ve all been really helpful!

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  11. This is very good, Anna! The first line captured my attention immediately, and I formed a connection with the character quickly, and the pacing (which is something I have a hard time with) was good, as well. Contrary to a lot of the other people, I liked all of the descriptions in it–it made it seem very real to me, and the way you described everything kept it tense.
    I’m intrigued by this snippet. There are so many questions you let nag at us.
    Well, make sure you get it published someday so I can have the answers! 😛

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  12. Anna, I was very intrigued and I wish there was more. 🙂

    One thing I noticed was in these paragraphs:

    I had always dreaded my twelfth birthday.

    Why did we have to get tattoos on that day? Every time I thought about it, a tingling sensation would prickle across my neck, the area that would soon become the canvas for the black outline of the circle, whether or not I wanted it.

    You could omit ‘Why did we have to get tattoos on that day?’ and it might make it more powerful. Just hint at the tattoo. Then you mention that her sister has a tattoo and we understand what she’s talking about.

    Great job! I would love to read more.

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  13. This is a very intriguing piece. You have some nice description. And I’m definitely intrigued. The hook really pulled me in. I love your metaphor of her skin like a canvas. The majority of what I’m seeing to fix is smoothing this all out, but this is one of the best pieces I’ve seen on this blog for critique day.

    Be careful of having too many sentences starting with -ing words. You have a lot. It can get a little tedious and some things can’t be done simultaneously. On the note of description, though the description you have is great some more is required. Perhaps an exact description of the tattoos. Are they insignias? Are they all different? Do they have their names? I got a bit confused about her sitting in the metal chair then jumping to the next scene. I also got a bit confused about the officials and where they came from. Mention Mara’s heart beating faster earlier. It seemed like it should have been mentioned before the Helena bit.

    I also think you can convey Helena’s age and position a bit more naturally. Perhaps say she got her tattoo three years ago. This would imply her age without unnaturally stating if that makes sense. Perhaps mention she is her only sibling in another way like saying ther mom and dad didn’t come so only she could or something of the like? Also about telling. “Suprised” is telling. Show Mara’s surprise.

    Lastly, some of your sentences in particular could be rephrased for better flow like: “I squeezed …”, “Swallowing …”, “With white chairs …” and “Less …” The semi-frequent use of was and which make these and other sentence read a bit clunky. If you need help with rephrasing them, I can help you out. 🙂

    All in all, nice piece! Keep on writing!

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  14. This is impressive, Anna. You make it easy to connect with your protagonist’s feelings.

    I’m curious about the surroundings in the waiting room. This may not matter, but I could never tell if there were just a couple people in there or if it was a crowded room. I got the sense initially that it was pretty much empty, but then people kept showing up. I don’t know how detailed you want to make it, but not being clear on that distracted me as I read a bit.

    Keep up the good work.

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