Critique Group – Cypress

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Get it? ApPEALing? You see, they’re both peeling potatoes and … Why are you wincing?

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Cypress – by Alyssa

Cypress sat up in bed. Silence. She looked at her alarm clock, 7:00. Usually there was some noise. Her sister Carlene was staying and her daughter, Anna, was always up and about at this time making lots of noise. Cypress pushed back the covers and walked out of her room.

“Cypress!” a familiar high pitched voice called.

“Anna?” Cypress asked.

When Cypress walked into the kitchen she saw Anna sitting at her high chair.

“Where’s mommy?” Cypress asked.

“She fell asleep,” Anna replied, bouncing. “I want breakfast.”

“I’ll get you something.” Cypress walked to the cupboards and almost tripped over something behind the island.

“Mommy’s sleeping over there,” Anna said crawling down from her unbuckled seat.

“I can see that,” Cypress said.

She turned her sister over and saw her face. Placing two fingers at Carlene’s wrist she felt for a pulse. To her relief, there was one.

“Where’s everyone else?” Cypress asked.

“Sleeping too.”

“But it’s almost time for school and work,” Cypress said to herself. “One second.”

Cypress jogged up the stairs and into her parent’s bedroom. She opened the door and walked inside. Her mom and dad lay asleep on their bed, both fully dressed.

“Strange,” Cypress said.

She went back downstairs and found Anna back in her highchair, now with a box of cereal.

“I want breakfast,” Anna said.

Cypress smiled. A three year old wouldn’t know that something was wrong. But her smile faded when she saw something shift in the living room that looked human. Cypress looked harder, but didn’t see it again.

Shaking her head, she poured a bowl of cereal for Anna, all while keeping an eye out for something, or someone.

As Cypress was sitting down to ponder her family’s odd sleeping phenomenon, Anna piped up.

“There’s a man waiting here for you. He’s in the living room.”

“What?” Cypress asked, hoping her niece had only been recalling a dream.

“Yeah. He wouldn’t give me cereal.”

“How long has he been here?” Cypress asked, keeping her voice low and eyes on where she saw the shifting shape.

“When I got up this morning. Before the sun was awake,” Anna said matter of factly.

“Anna, come here,” Cypress whispered.

“Why?” asked Anna, her volume making Cypress cringe.

“Just do it,” Cypress asked, still keeping her voice low.

“Okay,” Anna responded, finally lowering her voice.

Anna slid out of her chair, her feet hitting the tile with a slap. She padded over to Cypress’s waiting arms.

Cypress picked her up and put her on her hip. Carefully she went to the island where she had left her phone the previous night. When she approached it she noticed that the back had been removed, as had the battery. There went calling 911.

Sliding the phone into her pajama pant’s pocket, she carefully approached the living room, the only way outside. Sweeping her eyes over the room, Cypress saw nothing out of the usual. Taking a few careful steps into the room, Cypress still saw nothing.

After a moment of painstakingly slow, quiet steps, the two made it to the front door. Looking over her shoulder, Cypress turned the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. Looking down she saw that the knob had been switched around, the keyhole on this side of the door.

Cypress took deep breaths, trying to calm herself. This was getting way to scary for her.

“What’s wrong?” Anna asked, noticing her aunt’s alarmed look.

“Nothing, I’m sure,” Cypress said, giving her best reassuring smile.

“Oh, I’m sure,” a male voice said behind her.

Cypress didn’t turn around for a moment.

“That’s the man who I was telling you about,” Anna said, squirming at Cypress’s hold.

Cypress finally turned. A man was sitting on one of the room’s couches. He had blonde hair that was cut military style and his strong face was set in a smile, both showing his young age; maybe twenty. But Cypress’s stare wasn’t on any of those, they were on his unnaturally blue eyes.

Standing up the man said, “Michelle, you’re looking well.”

Frightened, Cypress didn’t say anything. Obviously this man had her confused with someone else.

“She’s not Michelle. And neither am I.” Anna managed to squirm free from Cypress’s arms.

“Oh? And if you two aren’t named Michelle, then what might be your names?”

“I’m Anna and she’s-”

“Anna don’t, come back here,” Cypress hissed.

“No,” Anna said, defiantly taking a few steps backwards towards the stranger.

Why must she be such a stubborn child!

Cypress took a step and saw the man do the same. Cypress darted towards Anna, but the man made it first. He scooped Anna into his arms and held her tightly, though not enough to harm her.

“Let her go,” Cypress said, trying to keep her voice from quaking.

“Yeah,” Anna agreed.

“But Michelle, don’t you remember me?” the man asked, confusion clearly on his face.

“My name’s not Michelle,” Cypress ground out.

“Y-you don’t remember me, do you?”

“No. Get out of my house.”

“Samuel. Does the name Samuel ring a bell?” he asked. “That’s my name. Samuel.”

Cypress backed away towards the door. This man must’ve been an escapee from an insane asylum. Yeah, that was it.

“Just put Anna down. I don’t know you and you’re scaring us both.”

Tears coursed down Anna’s cheeks. “You’re scaring me really badly.”

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12 replies

  1. I won’t be able to comment for a while, but I will as soon as possible. I hope others will chime in.

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  2. There are some grammar and spelling errors that I noticed, but more importantly, my initial reaction was one of confusion. I had to reread the excerpt twice.

    The reaction to seeing the sister on the floor left me baffled. Cyprus felt her pulse and just left her there “sleeping?” She checked her parents and saw them sleeping in their clothes, so she returns to “ponder” the situation over breakfast, leaving her sister on the floor… it just didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t seem like a natural response.

    I did feel very intrigued about the man in the house and what he wanted–it gave me the creeps, but I wanted to read more.

    –Naomi

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  3. Good job!

    This sounds like a really intriguing concept, and it makes me want to find out more.

    Here are my initial thoughts. I get the impression that Cypress finding her sister asleep on the floor isn’t unusual or at all worrying. Is it supposed to be unusual? If so, I think it would be helpful to see more reaction from her. A gasp, or her frantically searching for her sister’s pulse, or even trying to wake her up.
    However, if her sister asleep on the floor is not unusual for Cypress, then you did fine in that respect.

    Also, you mentioned she sees her sisters face. What does she see? Is her face contorted with fear? Or serene and peaceful?

    If she keeps her eyes on the shifting shape she saw, I have a couple questions. Was it very dark in her house? Why couldn’t she see him clearly? Also, when she enters the living room, she doesn’t see him (this is mysterious and interesting, in a way). Did she take her eyes off of him? Did the figure disappear or move?
    And lastly, consistency. Why did she not see him when she first walked into the living room? Did he suddenly appear? Perhaps Cypress could remark to herself that she hadn’t seen anyone sitting on the couch when she first came in. Such an act would certainly add to the mystery and scariness of the situation.

    Overall, I think this is very interesting, and this idea definitely has merit. Keep working on it.

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  4. Good 1st paragraph to set the stage that something different from the normal morning routine is happening.
    If I may offer a few suggestions that might smooth out some rough spots. As a whole,as the story unfolds the reader is hit with a feeling that something bad is going to happen. I like creepy hints.

    To get the housekeeping out of the way first: format is important, but that might have been my printer as I see the story is presented properly on the site. Clearly look at grammar and punctuation as those little details can be glazed over by a writer who is trying to get the story down. And remember, it is always easier for a reader to bring up inconsistencies as you already have the answers in your head. But the reader does not know these details, so you must show them.So here goes…

    If the voice of Anna is familiar, than perhaps Cypress might answer “Coming. Anna”, which also tells the reader that Cypress is on the move. Not sure how a child can sit at a high chair, perhaps sitting in, and how does she climb up without it tipping over. A 3-year old can sit in booster seat that is a little more sturdy.

    I would be a lot more concerned if I found my sister face down on the floor. Shake her, lean in to see if she is breathing, touch her neck for a pulse, etc.. Then I would rush or run up the stairs. Jogging is a little too leisurely.

    Parents fully dressed? That would seem more than just strange to me and I would try to shake them awake, thinking that something very very wrong is happening. Is Cypress dreaming?

    I would be shaking so hard that I would spill the cereal while pouring it. I would have raced around checking the windows, doors, garage, etc. Perhaps I would miss some individual rooms and would be very spooked when Anna drops the bomb of a man in the room.

    Cypress is going into crisis mode. Trying not to scare Anna, thoughts of all kinds of things going in her head. Show the reader physical reactions: heart racing, out of breath – these can be shown in her dialogue. Good opportunity for contrast as her thoughts are racing, but she must stay calm for Anna.

    Now the ending. I was disappointed at the lack of conclusion. Perhaps this is a story still in the making and you have many opportunities to take it anywhere you wish. I will want to read your revision as that is where the real story begins to shine. This one has loads of potential.

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  5. The story was really interesting! I would love to read more.

    I agree with the others’ critiques. Another thing that I noticed was the way Anna spoke. Three-year-olds don’t sound like that. It felt very unnatural. I have a young brother, so I would know.

    If this is the end of a chapter, then give it a better conclusion. Cliff hangers are great, but wrap it up a little better. But if you had to stop in the middle of a chapter due to word count, I totally understand.

    Good job! 🙂

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  6. I was very intrigued with the apparently invisible man. Did he really vanish? Was he concealing himself somewhere? I assume you will answer that as the story progresses.
    I was also interested in the fact that, after the mystery man called Cypress ‘Michelle’, she stopped Anna mid-sentence. Is she in the witness protection program, or do names have some kind of innate power? Whatever the case, you certainly have options at your disposal. Keep it up!

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  7. Alyssa,

    I think this could be an entertaining and interesting story. Done right, it could be creepy and scary as well. You have some cool ideas.

    I had some trouble with the beginning. You used the word “silence” in a way that confused me. Was Cypress hoping for silence? Demanding it? Or was she experiencing silence? When you finally mentioned that Anna should have been making noise, I figured it out, but not being sure didn’t allow me to get into the story right away. Since you chose to use a fragment here instead of a sentence, I couldn’t be sure.

    Also, I was wondering what awakened her. Since it was exactly 7 a.m., I thought maybe the alarm clock went off, but you showed no effort on Cypress’s part to turn an alarm off. Since there was silence, no noise woke her up. If she woke up on her own, it seemed odd that it was exactly 7 a.m.

    I was also confused about how you used pronouns. In “Her sister Carlene,” the her refers to Cypress, so I thought the her in “her daughter Anna” also referred to Cypress, but that turned out to be wrong, so I was confused for a while.

    Next: When Cypress walked into the kitchen she saw Anna sitting at her high chair.

    Try to rewrite to eliminate “she saw.” That’s a narrator phrase that harms intimate point of view. That’s #3 on the list of things to avoid – http://theauthorschair.com/2015/04/10/critique-group-avoidance-list-what-to-look-for-before-you-send/

    Next: “Where’s mommy?” Cypress asked.

    When Mommy is used as a name, you should capitalize it.

    Next: “I’ll get you something.” Cypress walked to the cupboards and almost tripped over something behind the island.

    When you use “the” in “the island” a reader expects to know about the island, as if it had been identified before. You can improve that by giving the island an adjective or quick description, like “the kitchen’s center island.”

    Next: “I can see that,” Cypress said.

    You have not shown Cypress seeing that, so the reader is wonder how this can be true.

    Next: She turned her sister over and saw her face. Placing two fingers at Carlene’s wrist she felt for a pulse. To her relief, there was one.

    It feels as if Cypress was instant at her sister’s side, as if she might have tripped over her. Was she on the kitchen floor? In another room. Some spatial help is needed.

    As others have noted, there seems to be a lack of urgency, unless this is a common occurrence. If it is common, you might mention it, something like, “Again?” instead of “I can see that.”

    Next: Cypress jogged up the stairs and into her parent’s bedroom.

    A plural possessive should have the apostrophe after the s, as in “parents’”

    Next: She went back downstairs and found Anna back in her highchair, now with a box of cereal.

    “Went” is a weak verb. How did she travel? Ran? Dashed? Scrambled? The right verb will help communicate her feelings.

    Next: Cypress smiled. A three year old wouldn’t know that something was wrong.

    If Cypress knew something was wrong, why was she smiling?

    Next: But her smile faded when she saw something shift in the living room that looked human.

    The fading of her smile was caused by seeing something shift in the living room. The seeing happened before the fading, so you have it out of order. This is #1 in the list of things to avoid.

    Next: Shaking her head, she poured a bowl of cereal for Anna, all while keeping an eye out for something, or someone.

    With Anna’s mother out cold, and the parents sleeping in their clothes, Cypress’s reaction seems way off. She’s just pouring cereal. She should be grabbing Anna and running for cover, maybe grabbing a weapon along the way.

    Next: As Cypress was sitting down to ponder her family’s odd sleeping phenomenon, Anna piped up.
    “was sitting down” is the wrong tense. “As Cypress sat to ponder …” is better. Again, she is far too calm given the situation. I see that this lack of realistic reaction, continues, but I won’t comment on it again.

    I noticed that you have speaker tags (e.g. Cypress asked) when they aren’t needed. For example, this is a way to eliminate the tag, by showing the action:

    Cypress edged closer to Anna, keeping her voice low as she eyed the spot where the shadow moved. “How long has he been here?”

    I noticed this same problem in a few other places, such as in the “Just do it” paragraph and the one that follows. When you have only two people talking, you rarely need speaker tags. Use action beats instead. You also follow many of your speaker tags with a participle phrase, like “squirming at Cypress’s hold.” If you eliminate the tag and instead just show what’s going on, it would be much better.

    Next: “Why?” asked Anna, her volume making Cypress cringe.

    You switched the order of the words in your speaker tag. Here you have “asked Anna” when you usually would have used “Anna asked.” You should be consistent.

    Next: Carefully she went to the island where she had left her phone the previous night.

    Again, “went” is a weak verb. Did she creep? Skulk? Walk hunched over? Give us a visual, and you won’t have to add “carefully.”

    Next: When she approached it she noticed that the back had been removed, as had the battery.

    “She noticed” is a narrator phrase. Just report the visual. Since this scene is in Cypress’s POV, we will know that she noticed it.

    Next: she carefully approached the living room, the only way outside.

    “Approached” is another weak verb. How did she travel? Use a vivid verb, and you won’t have to add “carefully.”

    Next: Sweeping her eyes over the room, Cypress saw nothing out of the usual.

    This is the second consecutive sentence that begins with a participle (an “ing” verb). Try to avoid the repetition.

    Also, “saw nothing” is a narrator phrase. We need to see through her eyes, but you are just telling us that she saw nothing. Show us what she does see.

    Next: Taking a few careful steps into the room, Cypress still saw nothing.

    This is another sentence starting with a participle, and you use another narrator phrase. You are blinding the reader to what she is actually seeing.

    Next: After a moment of painstakingly slow, quiet steps, the two made it to the front door. Looking over her shoulder, Cypress turned the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. Looking down she saw that the knob had been switched around, the keyhole on this side of the door.

    You start two consecutive sentences with “looking,” and you use “she saw,” which is a narrator phrase. Just report that the knob had been switched. You can get rid of “she saw.”

    Next: This was getting way to scary for her.

    That should be spelled “too.” You can also delete “to her.”

    Next: “What’s wrong?” Anna asked, noticing her aunt’s alarmed look.

    “Noticing her aunt’s alarmed look” switches the point of view to Anna. Readers are suddenly seeing things through Anna’s eyes. Don’t switch the POV during the scene.

    Next: Cypress didn’t turn around for a moment.

    Don’t tell us what she didn’t do. Tell us what she did do, something like. “Cypress froze in place.”

    Next: He had blonde hair that was cut military style and his strong face was set in a smile, both showing his young age; maybe twenty.

    For men, spell it “blond.” For women, use “blonde.” Also, you need a comma after “style,” since it is a compound sentence.

    Next: But Cypress’s stare wasn’t on any of those, they were on his unnaturally blue eyes.

    Since you described those other features, the reader thinks Cypress is certainly looking at them.

    Next: Standing up the man said, “Michelle, you’re looking well.”

    You need a comma after “up.”

    Next: Frightened, Cypress didn’t say anything.

    Instead of telling us that she’s frightened. Show us. What does a frightened person do? Also, don’t tell us what she didn’t do. Tell us what she did do.

    Next: “Anna don’t, come back here,” Cypress hissed.

    If you’re going to use a speaker tag, put it in the earliest possible location. You also need a comma after Anna:

    Like this: “Anna, don’t,” Cypress hissed. “Come back here.”

    Next: Cypress took a step and saw the man do the same.

    You just had taking steps in the previous paragraph. Strive for more varied phrasing.

    “Saw” is a narrator word. Just report the visual.

    Like this: Cypress edged that way. The man did the same.

    Next: though not enough to harm her.

    I am wondering how Cypress knows that or would even think that at this time.

    Next: “Let her go,” Cypress said, trying to keep her voice from quaking.

    Cypress is unrealistically calm.

    Next: “Yeah,” Anna agreed.

    Anna is even more unrealistic. I think she would be screaming bloody murder.

    Next: “My name’s not Michelle,” Cypress ground out.

    “Ground out” is an odd speaker tag. Use actions to show her stress and delete the tag.

    Next: Tears coursed down Anna’s cheeks. “You’re scaring me really badly.”

    This is way understated. A girl that age would be screaming and kicking wildly.

    I would like to see you add a lot more visuals. Show Samuel’s bloodshot eyes, three-day beard stubble, and/or a scar on his cheek. While they’re talking, maybe have him shiver or drool. Give him some creepy life.

    Do the same for Cypress. Make her far more scared, clawing at things, desperately searching for a weapon, etc. You can also make her a warrior type. Have her grab a knife and threaten Samuel with it.

    As it stands, the characterizations seem bland to me. Spice it up.

    You can do a lot with this story and make it super cool. It will take a great deal of work, but I think you can do it.

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  8. Alyssa,

    I love your story! I wish I could read on. You are really gifted in building intriguing story plots. The beginning definitely grabbed my attention. Great job! Also, I think the name Cypress is really cool 🙂

    The only thing I really had a problem with was character intimacy. As I read the story I could kind of pick out where you were trying to create tension, but you haven’t really done that by showing Cypress’ thoughts or reactions. It kind of made me feel like a bystander watching the whole thing instead of being inside your character’s head. Are you going for Third-Person Cinematic POV? I would think you were trying to do Third-Person Singular.

    Also, just some technical stuff about your first paragraph:

    Cypress sat up in bed. Silence. She looked at her alarm clock, 7:00. Usually there was some noise. Her sister Carlene was staying and her daughter, Anna, was always up and about at this time making lots of noise. Cypress pushed back the covers and walked out of her room.

    Since 7:00 isn’t a complete thought, there should be a dash instead of a comma. Also, your second sentence confused me. “Usually there was some noise.” There was noise where? Down the hall? and when? Right at seven o’clock every morning, or just in general? The third sentence cleared it up, but I suggest something like this instead:

    “She looked at her alarm clock – 7:00. Weird – usually by this time the house was full of racket. At least, it had been ever since her sister, Carlene, had come to stay, with her niece, Anna.”

    But overall, great story! I really enjoyed the stalker-military-guy theme. Keep it up 🙂

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  9. Ooh, creepy premise! I especially liked the details about the phone battery being removed the doorknob being switched. Makes me think somebody’s planned this out, whatever “this” is. Delightfully creepy!

    I won’t make my comment long, as others have covered most of it. One thing I will mention, however, is the repetition of Cypress’s name. I know it’s unavoidable at times, especially since most of the other people mentioned are female (and using ‘her’ all the time would make it confusing), but if you could find ways to use pronouns a little more, that’d be good. It just felt like I was stumbling over “Cypress, Cypress, Cypress” a bit at the beginning.

    But I really like the unsettling details here, as well as this scary guy, Samuel. 🙂 I’m definitely curious to see what he wants, and if Cypress and her family will be okay. Good job!

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  10. I really like the name of the main character. That’s really cool. I’m intrigued by the scene, but I feel it comes too soon. I don’t know anything about Cypress nor why she would be so suspicious and think that the situation is life threatening as opposed to her parents going to work or the store or something of that sort. I also would like some more description and insight to Cypress’s thought process. I don’t really see who Cypress is. I know she cares about her family, but that’s just about it. I need to care more about this character before this mysterious man shows up. Does that make sense? I noticed some choppiness in the prose as well, but I think Mr. Davis covered it. I hope this feedback helps. Congrats on being brave enough to submit for critique. ^ ^ It’s an important step in writing.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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  11. Thanks everyone! Your comments helped a lot, and I see that I need a lot of work, but I’m glad for everyone’s encouragement! I’ll definitely make things more inside of Cypress’s head, fix the technical difficulties, and make Anna more her age. Thanks again!!
    Alyssa

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