Red Pencil Thursday
It’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?