Red Pencil Thursday
Welcome to another edition of our online critique group. Our volunteer this time presents a unique challenge. SD Keeling is a middle grades author. I have no experience in this area, but writing is writing, so we’ll concentrate on craft. As always, I depend on my merry band of commenters to fill in the gaps. Please be sure to add your encouragement and suggestions for SD!
“Hey, Ethan, now’s our chance.” My best friend, Garrett, pointed at the camel driver disappearing around the stable corner.
Mia: Excellent opener. You’ve drop-kicked us “in medias res” (That’s a hotsy-totsy Latin phrase which means “into the middle of things”), which is exactly what a writer of any genre should do. The mention of camels lets us know we’re in an exotic (read: “exciting”) location and you’ve introduced not one, but two main characters. Deftly done!
S.D.: Thanks! I’ve cycled through sooooo many different openings, trying to decide which approach works best. It’s nice to hear at least one person thinks this version works!
We crept across the sand to a pair of kneeling camels draped in colorful cloths. The whole area reeked like an elephants’ pen during a zookeeper strike, but it was worth it. Anything to scrape out a little fun in the middle of a painfully dull day.
Mia: Love the whole elephant’s pen during a zookeeper strike! That’s how to “show” a smell. However, take care that even in your narrative, you use your protagonist’s voice to create a deep POV and give your readers a chance to really get into Ethan’s head. If your character is middle grade age, I’m not sure he’d think “painfully dull day.” How would someone that age express it?
S.D.: Keeping every little turn of phrase consistent with a middle-grade viewpoint has been one of the biggest challenges with this book. Clearly, I still have some work to do, even on this page that I’ve been over many times. How about, “Anything to scrape out a little fun in the middle of this snoozefest.”
Traveling the world and exploring ancient wonders may sound fantastic, but trust me, it’s not. It’s hot. It’s dusty. It’s bor-ring. Everywhere we went, it was the same deal—don’t do anything, don’t touch anything, don’t talk to anybody.
Mia: Ok, now this sounds like a kid! You’ve got a little problem switching tenses here. The first sentence strikes me as present tense. Then by the time you get to “Everywhere we went” you’re in past tense. Just as an experiment, go back and turn it all into present tense and see how you like it. You might find it gives your prose an immediacy that is lacking in past tense.
S.D.: I chose present tense for the first sentences in this paragraph to give it a conversational tone, but for some reason it never occurred to me to carry that through to the end of the paragraph. I like it!
Mia: Oh! I meant the whole thing, starting from:
“Hey Ethan, now’s our chance!” My best friend Garrett points at…
See if it doesn’t make the action seem closer and more… active somehow.
Well, not this time.
My heart pounded as I checked one last time to make sure the coast was clear. We’d never done anything quite this crazy before.
Even though my camel was kneeling, the saddle was still as high as my head. I jumped and tried to pull myself up until my arms ached and the coarse blanket burned my palms.
“Dude, seriously?” Garrett laughed as I slid back to the ground.
Man, I hated being short. “Save the wisecracks and help me up.”
Mia: Oh, good. You’ve given your hero a little something that renders him ‘not perfect.’ One of the complaints I’ve heard about Harry Potter is that other than being raised by insensitive Muggles, he has a pretty easy time of it. He’s immediately famous in the wizard world, a natural at Quidditch and rarely has a spell that requires personal sacrifice from him.
S.D.: Yes, I’ve given my young hero a lot of room to grow—both literally and figuratively.
He knelt and gestured for me to step into his clasped hands. “A little meat on your bones might help. You’re light as a girl.”
I glared at him while I settled into the saddle. He walked a few feet away and swung a long leg over the other camel’s back.
Mia: “Light as a girl?” Them’s fightin’ words. If Ethan isn’t going to take a swing at him, a verbal jab might be in order. Middle school boys insult each other all the time.
S.D.: Good idea. A verbal jab is a much better response than simply glaring at him. Now I just have to come up with one. This is the best I’ve got so far:
“At least my head’s not dense as a rock.” I glared at him while I settled into the saddle.
He walked a few feet away and swung a long leg over the other camel’s back.
Do I need to include a reaction from Garrett now? Anybody have any better zingers for him to respond with?
“Okay, get up now, camel. Niiiice camel. Come on.” Garrett looked at me in confusion. “How do I make it go?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged. “Same as a horse, I guess.”
I leaned forward and gave the reins a snap.
“Whoa!” I clasped a fistful of blanket fringe as my camel did a fantastic impression of an earthquake, rocking forward and backward while clambering to its feet.
Mia: Love your descriptions, but I don’t think you need ‘fantastic’ as a modifier. The sentence will read just as strongly without it. Remember, not every noun deserves an adjective. (Think I need to cross-stitch that on a pillow!)
S.D.: I’m still thinking about this one. For some reason, it sounds flat to me without the adjective, but maybe that’s just because this is the way I originally heard it in my head. Sometimes it’s hard to let go. What does everyone else think?—(A few hours later.) Yep. It’s already sounding better. Just needed to get a little distance. Funny how that happens.
“This is awesome.” My friend grinned at me from atop his now standing camel.
Mia: I added ‘atop’ & ‘now standing’ to make it a little more plain that Garrett’s camel had copied Ethan’s. Sometimes we can see a scene so clearly in our heads, we forget that our readers can’t get it by osmosis. We must give it to them on the page.
S.D.: It’s so hard to spot those things myself. Thanks for pointing it out and offering an easy fix.
He quit grinning when the driver rounded the corner and froze, eyes wide.
“Bidi widi nila wila,” the man screamed.
Or at least, that’s what I heard. I’m sure he was telling us to stop stealing his camels, but since I don’t speak Arabic, it was gibberish to me.
Mia: You made me laugh! At the same time, you ratcheted up the stakes in this escapade because he’s in a culture that doesn’t look upon theft lightly.
“Come on.” I jammed my heels into the animal’s sides, bringing a bleat of protest.
It lurched forward, veering past the screaming driver toward the dunes of the open desert. The saddle slammed against me with each jarring bounce until I found the rhythm and began to move with the rolling gait.
Nearby, a line of camels carried tourists on a slow tour around the pyramids. A white-robed Egyptian walked in front, tugging the reins of the lead animal. When we galloped past, he shrieked and ran toward us, but we were long gone.
“Yeehaw!” Garrett’s laughter was infectious.
Mia: Again ‘infectious’ doesn’t sound like a middle grade way of describing laughter. Think 12 year old boy. Maybe ‘catching?’
I tilted my head back, savoring the breeze.
Mia: It would be a very thoughtful middle schooler who ‘savors’ a breeze. But I could be wrong. It’s been a while since I taught 6th-8th graders.
S.D.: Ideas, anybody? How can I rewrite these two lines to capture the joy and exuberance of the moment while sounding like a 12-year-old boy? I agree, infectious laughter and savoring the breeze don’t quite cut it. How about:
“Yeehaw!” Garrett’s laughter brought a smile to my face.
I tilted my head back, enjoying the breeze.
And the freedom.
Mia: You’ve got a strong start here, SD. Even though I’m not a middle schooler, I would so read on.
S.D.: Thank you, Mia. When you posted last week about being picked apart publicly during your operatic Master Classes, I dreaded what was in store for me. You’ve been very kind, though. I truly appreciate your insights and your suggestions. This is a fantastic way to learn!
So . . . I’ve spent time as an Ivy League economics major headed for Wall Street, an international award-winning photographer, a scuba-diving world traveler, a grad student in medieval history, lead singer in a bar band and, more recently, a harried mother of two energetic little boys. Next on the list? Published author.
Mia here: Now it’s your turn! What insights can you offer SD?