Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayIt’s time for Red Pencil Thursday–my online critique group. Today our volunteer is Reese Whitaker, a short story writer. Since my published writing experience is all with much longer forms (except for the odd ‘letter to the editor’ of the local paper!) I’m counting on you to pick up things I may have missed.

Have you been thinking about volunteering for RPT? If so, consider this your invitation. Send me an email with the first 500 words of your WIP. I’d also love to have a headshot of you, a short bio and links to wherever you hang out online, but those are optional. The writing is the main focus.

My comments for Reese are in red. Her responses are in blue. I hope you’ll add your thoughts in the comment section. Let’s have some fun.

Monster House  by Reese Whitaker

I like the title. Reese has told me this is the story of an adult child of a hoarder, so the title fits.

I think it is common among the children of hoarders to see the house they grew up in as a monster, so this is why I chose this title and as the basis of this story.

I slow the car and pull it to the side of the blacktopped street. Shifting to park, I lift my hand to turn the key, but hesitate as if the moment the car turns off, my life will forever change. My head falls forward to rest on the steering wheel, and my trembling hand falls from the key to my leg, leaving the car to idle. I feel the flash of failure wash over me like a burning waterfall.

I can’t do this.

My novels are written in past tense deep third person POV. I have zero experience with first person POV, so you may want to weigh whether or not to accept my opinions. However I know it’s popular with YA. Megan Cabot often uses this style. Combining 1st person POV with present tense as you’ve done here gives the passage an almost literary feel.  It gives the work a sense of immediacy and lets us deeply empathize with the main character. However, I’d like you to consider tightening things up a bit. If you continue the rest of the story giving us almost every inhale and exhale, the tale will have the pace of a crawl. Love ‘burning waterfall.’ Very evocative.

This is the first time I have written a story in the first person POV using present tense. Can you tell? I’m not sure I like it, but I wanted to give it a try at least once before I’m 35 24.

LOL. It’s a good idea to try different styles of writing till you find what clicks for you.

I count to fifteen. I lift my head and look around. Under the cloudless sky, the street looks the same, somehow unaltered over the years. Mailboxes stand at attention in front of their respective homes and the shrubs look tranquil as the dew shines off their leaves in the early light. Trimmed green trees dot the landscaped yards, and flowers beds grace the edges of mowed lawns with budding smiles. In an almost eerie way, the homes look the same now as the moment I walked away.

There are some opportunities to cut in this paragraph. You don’t need to tell us the street looks the same twice. I’d cut the 3rd sentence completely and let the last sentence in the paragraph wrap up the sameness. I like the mailboxes standing at attention, but you don’t need in front of their respective homes.You‘ve set the stage of an immaculate neighborhood, which will be a stark contrast to the hoarder’s home.

I agree with all your suggestions here. I’ll be editing this to fix my mistakes.

Squinting my eyes against the morning sunlight, I look around, taking in the only change. My childhood home. Its appearance even more dead and dilapidated than when I’d left it.
Its peeling paint lay in ribbons on the ground, and any remaining has long since faded. From here, I can see how the rotten siding is warped and splitting, bugs snaking their way through the maze of wood. A shutter on the left of the house hangs at an odd angle, and the window is missing a screen. There’s rusty dryer, missing the door, resting near the porch. The porch looked heavy with the massive accumulation of junk piled upon it. Dressers, chairs, vacuums, kitchen appliances, molded books and newspapers, clothing, an old stereo, the heaping piles of junk and trash mask the view of the front door.

We are already looking through your character’s eyes. You don’t need to tell us he/she looks. Just describe what is being seen and we’ll follow.Also since you’re in present tense, you don’t need to use past perfect to show something happened earlier. Simple past tense will do, so no I’d left. Just I left.

When I first wrote this, I had a hard time with present and past tenses. This is something I really need to work on if I try to use present tense again. I also need to work on actions while working in present tense.

The scorched lawn is bare in places, like raw burns on flesh. Black stains mark the driveway and knee-high weeds sprout from cracks leading up to the porch steps. Carcasses of flowers lay wrinkled and dry in the flowerbeds surrounded by rotten beams of wood.
In the center of the yard, a wild growth of weeds encircles a well made of rocks and wood. A flat basketball and rusted bike missing the front tire rest against it. Various other toys and debris litter the yard and it reminds me of a picture I once saw in a magazine showing the aftermath of a tornado.

I hate to say it, because your descriptions are so very clear–really love raw burns on flesh–but there may be too much of them without any emotional content. In your first paragraph, you pulled us in so close with what your character is feeling. Now we have a catalog of decay without knowing how it affects anyone. Since you haven’t given your POV character anyone to talk with, it’s essential that we have some emotion to hook onto or none of this devastation means anything.

Looking back on what I’ve written for this, I notice that the first 500 words have little emotion and the next 500 plus words describe all the emotion. I think I need to work on mixing it up a bit by intertwining the emotional elements with the description of how the house looks. Thanks for pointing that out to me. This story is one of the most challenging I’ve worked on.

There is another person in the story, but I’ve not shown in the first 500 words. I could introduce the husband in the first part without changing the outcome of the story line.

Oh my, yes! Bring the husband in from the first paragraph. It’s always best to give your protagonist someone to interact with unless you’re beginning like Twilight with a direct first person prologue aimed at the reader–in effect making the reader a character in the scene.

Parked are three cars on the strip of land between the garage and the neighbors’, where I often played as a child. I’m sure two of them can’t possibly run; I see various parts lying on the ground beside them. One is missing the front right tire; a cinder block props it up keeping it from leaning at an odd angle. An old swing set stands nearby, swings and slide missing, a chain looped around the top. I think someone used it while fixing the cars, but I fail to see how it could help.

Parked are is passive construction. Try this: Between the garage and the neighbor’s where I played as a child, three cars are parked. I understand your character is delaying getting to the front door, but we need to move it along. A story has to hit the ground running. Involve us with emotion and we’ll wade through this longer with you, but something has to happen to advance the action.

We know almost nothing about the POV character except that he/she notices every detail and describes it well. We have no idea how much time has passed or what is driving them back to this house now. Give us some emotion or inciting incident to give your detailed descriptions meaning.

I like your suggestion of not using “parked are”… I honestly hit a ruff spot there.

Later in the story, the main character explains the situation that drives her back to the house and mentions how long she has been gone and gives a glimpse of what it feels like to live in a house where a hoarder rules. I’m not sure how much to fit into the beginning without taking away from other parts. It’s definitely something I need to think over.

I want to thank you for your time and you’ve given me some excellent things to think about in a story line that was very hard for me to get a grasp on.

The value of a critique is in giving a writer new directions to consider. Glad to have been of help. Thanks for being our volunteer today.

Now it’s your turn. What suggestions do you have for Reese?

23 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Marcy W says:

    What a great discussion! Deservedly so, too. I found the first person POV very interesting and unusual, and for a short story, potentially very valuable. It pulled me in right away. Reese, your talent for description is grand, and so evocative here; I really felt the weight your character was feeling. That said, I agree with others that before the first 500 words are up, there needs to be action, at least hers, and perhaps with another character. — Ordinarily short stories are not my choice, but I’m eager to read the rest of this one! Your ‘voice’ reaches out to catch my interest. Thanks for sharing, and good writing.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      The great thing about 1st person is that it pulls you immediately and intimately into the protagonist’s head. It’s like trying on someone else’s skin.

      Present tense gives prose a sense of immediacy. We experience it in real time.

      However, I’m sticking with 3rd person, multiple POVs for my own work. I like the option of being able to peek out different characters eyes throughout the story.

  2. Sandy says:

    Reese, this is going to be a wonderful story and will provide great understanding of the life of a hoarder and the people living under the same roof.

    One of the problems, I had was all the description. No matter how great the description is you got bogged in it. I do think you can character forward by showing the emotion needed for facing the past. I agree with everything Mia and Cat had to say.

    Also, moving the character out of the car will help a lot. The person can be looking at some of the things as they up sidewalk, or onto the lawn. I know you have a picture in your mind of what this place looks like. Show a comparison to the house next door. There are all kinds of things you can do. Would there be a neighbor who might call out? Did the hoarder have pets? These are all things that could be brought somewhere in your story.

    Reese, you’ll do just fine. Just keep going with this story.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Good suggestions, Sandy. Isn’t it fun to play with a story idea and come up with multiple ways to tell it?

  3. Kat Duncan says:

    Let me try this again. The blog’s comment-driver is HTML sensitive and didn’t like my angle brackets.

    The Monster House is a great concept, Reese! My critique partner writes first person, so I’m used to reading it. She uses a lot of dialogue to break up narrative pieces. I’m going to take a chance and do something here that I hope you find useful. For each paragraph I thought about what message was coming through to me as a reader. I summarized the message and then made a comment on each.

    (P1 Message: character is very upset about something)
    (Comment: The word “change” is a tease. I’d love a little bit more of a hint to define the expected change; failure is a great word. I can really relate to that even though I don’t know the exact details yet.)

    (P2 Message: character has to do something upsetting)
    (Comment: okay, I’m in. I want to see what he/she can’t do.)

    (P3 Message: character is returning to the scene of painful memories)
    (Comment: the word “unaltered” makes me nod my head. I get it. It’s been this way for a long time. I’m beginning to understand the pain and the “can’t do” part. “eerie” helps me connect to how the character feels. “Walked away” is a tease. Why did he/she walk away and how does he/she feel about that? I’d love to have a little more of a hint about that to help me connect with this character even more.)

    (P4 Message: character describing squalid childhood home)
    (Comment: “change” and “left” repeat from previous paragraphs without giving me any new info. Ooohh, you are such a tease! “dead and dilapidated” are perfect clues to what the character sees and “porch looked heavy” is a neat literary phrase. Heavy, man!)

    (P5 Message: character compares childhood home to major disaster)
    (Comment: wouldn’t change a thing, provided you trim previous description as Mia suggested. I like this description paragraph best.)

    (P6 Message: character trying to connect with person who might have lived here recently)
    (Comment: why only “two of them”? Makes me wonder what the third one looks like. “various” and “I think someone” are teasing me into wondering what might actually have been going on here recently. I get the overall impression that the “someone” died suddenly.)

    I hope this helps you see what one reader is getting out of each paragraph. I echo the others who like description, but I also see Mia’s point of not laying it on too thickly without getting some emotion in there. Best of luck with your writing. I hope to see more from you!

    1. Kat, that is very useful and awesome! I appreciate the time you took to list it out like you did.

      1. Kat Duncan says:

        So glad you found it helpful, Reese. :)

    2. Mia Marlowe says:

      Sorry about the html snafu. There is a list of permissible html at the bottom of the comment section. Looks like my webmistress was trying to protect us from spam.

      What a wonderfully detailed comment, Kat. Thanks.

      1. Kat Duncan says:

        Nope, not a snafu, Mia. Just me not paying attention to what was in front of me. I’m enjoying Red Pencil Thursdays. There’s room for such variety in writing fiction. And there are so many new writers to discover! Now that I’ve commented on a few pieces, I think it’s only fair that others get a chance to comment on something of mine. I’ll be emailing you with a WIP of mine and looking forward to some good feedback! :)

        1. Mia Marlowe says:

          Fantastic, Kat! I’ll look forward to reading the opener of your WIP.

  4. Kat Duncan says:

    The Monster House is a great concept, Reese! My critique partner writes first person, so I’m used to reading it. She uses a lot of dialogue to break up narrative pieces. I’m going to take a chance and do something here that I hope you find useful. For each paragraph I thought about what message was coming through to me as a reader. I summarized the message and then made a comment on each.

    <Comment: "change" and "left" repeat from previous paragraphs without giving me any new info. Ooohh, you are such a tease! :) "dead and dilapidated" are perfect clues to what the character sees and "porch looked heavy" is a neat literary phrase. Heavy, man!)

    I hope this helps you see what one reader is getting out of each paragraph. I echo the others who like description, but I also see Mia’s point of not laying it on too thickly without getting some emotion in there. Best of luck with your writing. I hope to see more from you!

  5. Angela says:

    Reese, I feel her reluctance to move, to face what she thought she’d left behind.

    I don’t write first person well but I do like the suggestions they’ve given you and am learning right beside you.

    I’d love to read it again once you’ve tightened it up.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Agreed. Reese does a great job of capturing the near-paralysis the heroine experiences as she approaches the house.

    2. Thank you Angela.

      The present tense is new to me and I hope your able to learn from my mistakes :)

  6. Jane L says:


    Hi, I really have no experiance with first person. I wanted to offer my support though. I agree with Mia and Maurine’s remarks. Start from “I Can’t do this.” or yes the flash of failure.

    What I think is important here, is you have the start of a very intriguing story. I am a fussy reader, but compelled to read more and am hooked on the story within these first few paragraphs. I think if you can do that as a writer, you have leaped a major hurdle.

    The tighting of your story and other technical things will fall into place. You have a stong descriptive voice.

    Thanks for sharing with us! Please keep us posted! Looking forward to reading the completed project!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Three cheers for the fussy readers in the world, Jane!

    2. Jane, thank you for the support (BTW- I have a short story named after a Jane ;) )

      I’ll have to ask Mia about sharing the story, after I’ve fixed my mistakes (which are many), I’d love to be able to share it after all the wonderful suggestions I’m getting. This has helped a great deal.

  7. Muffy B says:

    Hello, Reese,

    This is the first Red Pencil Thursday that I’ve read the submitted 500 words straight through, before reading any of the comments, because I was so intrigued.

    I love the title and concept of Monster House. Great idea for a story as it comes with lots of potential descriptions of the environment as well as emotional baggage for the main character. And you are rising to that challenge, great description so far.

    I agree with Maurine, maybe start the story with — “I can’t do this.” Or start with “The flash of failure washes over me like a burning waterfall. I can’t do this.” Then skip to the second paragraph, omitting the details of driving up to the house and sitting with — “I count to fifteen. I lift my head from the steering wheel and look around.” We know with that simple phrase, from the steering wheel, the POV character is sitting in a parked car without going on about it as you did in the first paragraph. Now we can be intrigued more by what is going on, what is it that this person cannot do or face? And we get into the story quicker.

    Best of luck with it. Would love to read the entire short story. I don’t think there are enough short story writers anymore. Keep up the good work!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I can’t do this is a wonderful first line, because the reader is dying to know what this is and will root for the protagonist to overcome what’s stopping her.

    2. Muffy, I am honored that you read the 500 words all the way through.

      I’ve decided to start out with the phrase “I can’t do this”. I agree, it makes you wonder what she can’t do or face.

  8. Maurine H says:

    I love the title, especially if this is a story of your protagonist’s relationship with the house, not the hoarder. I’m guessing the hoarder has passed away and the protagonist is left to deal with the aftermath? In that case, I think your concentration with the house at the beginning is a good thing. But eventually, the emotion will come down to her relationship with the hoarder.

    Your descriptions are very vivid and I feel drawn into the scene because of them. I’m not sure the first paragraph about parking the car would make me want to read more, though. My thought is that you should begin with “I can’t do this.” either in her thoughts or spoken to someone, like her husband. I love the burning waterfall simile, but think it could be as effective if it came after “I can’t do this.” You could try writing the beginning different ways and see what you like best. Another thing, feel, there is, seem, and forms of the verb to be are all indications of passive writing. Your writing will be much tighter if you avoid them. The burning waterfall sentence could be tightened to:

    The flash of failure washes over me like a burning waterfall.

    Another example:
    There’s rusty dryer, missing the door, resting near the porch.
    Tighten to:
    A rusty dryer, missing the door, rests near the porch.

    One is missing the front right tire; a cinder block props it up, keeping it from leaning at an odd angle.
    Tighten to:
    A cinder block props up the front right side of one of the cars, keeping it from leaning at an odd angle.
    The mention of the cinder block tells the reader that the tire is missing.
    I’ve been told that “keeping it from leaning at an odd angle” is a dangling participial phrase so you may want to change it. I’m not real knowledgeable about grammar, so that one is lost on me, but I try to avoid it if I can. The average reader probably won’t notice (especially since most books are filled with dangling participial phrases).

    Your beginning shows a lot of talent for writing. I like the use of first person present tense in highly emotional stories. I’ve read several where the author has used that technique, especially romance short stories in Woman’s World.

    Just out of curiosity, have you ever watched the TV show Hoarders? A lot of the episodes are very emotional, issue-packed stories about the relationships between hoarders and their children or other relatives.

    Good luck with your writing. I enjoyed reading your descriptions.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Excellent suggestions, Maurine. Sounds like you have experience with this first person/ present tense style. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

    2. Maurine, I love your ideas and comments. I have taken each into consideration. You do seem to have experience with the person tense style and it helps to see it from a fresh POV. Thanks!

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