Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

Have you ever considered being a Red Pencil Thursday volunteer?

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!

Chapter 1

            “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.

S.D.: ;-)

“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!

SD Keeling: I’ve always had trouble deciding what I want to be when I grow up.

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.

Find SD at    & Twitter!

Mia here: Now it’s your turn! What insights can you offer SD?

33 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. jen says:

    No I’m reading the other comments and I should also mention it stopped me to read the gibberish language he heard from the non-English speakers. I’m pretty sensitive to ethnocentrism and racism, so that took me out of the story as being, to me, culturally insensitive. But maybe others are okay with that. (If I were reading it aloud to my kid, I’d skip that or stop and explain why it’s not okay for us to think that way.)

  2. jen says:

    My son is 10 and he would use most of the bigger words you did, but even if he didn’t, he’d enjoy reading them in a book. He certainly knows what “fantastic” and “savor” mean, so I side with those here who say don’t talk down to your readers. There are lots of middle grade books that use bigger words, and both my son and I love those books.

    My only moment of not liking a character is when the friend tells him he’s as light as a girl. I know boys can say those kinds of things, but I am very averse to insulting a boy by calling him a girl. I pretty much think that should be as bad as other slurs because really, it’s just not okay with me to demean the “better” gender by calling them the “worse” gender. That said, lots of people are okay with it, so I’m just providing feedback from my personal reader reaction.

    Good luck taking the work forward!

  3. Aaargh! Can you hear me pulling my hair out? And laughing. I HAD “Traveling the world . . .” as my opening in the last version. An author I respect very much suggested I move it to the current spot. As I mentioned, I’ve tried several different ways to handle the beginning paragraphs. So hard to decide what’s best!

    I think I agree with you about the gender-disparaging insult. I was already having an internal debate about that. Although it’s realistic for my characters, I really don’t want to help proliferate a condescending attitude toward girls. My inner feminist says I need to take a look at several spots in the manuscript. Thank you for giving me the extra push in the right direction.

    The cultural insensitivity is a trickier question. I’m telling the story the way Ethan would see it, and he does have a lot to learn, but I don’t want to be insulting in the process. There is certainly a bellowing mom, and some very angry policemen, making it clear this was not acceptable behavior. And there are other Egyptian characters who are depicted in a far deeper, more respectful manner. It’s a difficult line to walk, and I’m grateful for your advice.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to give me such a thoughtful critique. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  4. Mia’s guidance is a wonderful tune up for my own openings, and all I can do is add a few “might want to think abouts.”

    Starting in media res as the camel driver steals around the corner, is probably the strongest opening you’ll find for YA, but don’t entirely discount starting with, “Traveling the world and exploring ancient wonders….” Because that sentiment is your strongest introduction to the POV character’s voice and emotional situation.

    You have two jobs with an opening, to establish forward momentum and to establish empathy. For my money, empathy is the more important, because a modest amount of forward momentum in the pacing can be used as the start of an accelerating dramatic arc.
    This little insight–that the boys have been dragged all over the place only to be told not to leave their playpen makes their larceny less a stupid, arrogant, ugly American criminal lark (yes, they do still cut off the hands of thieve in Saudi), and more innocent fun when fun has been in short supply for the last 12,000 miles.

    Just something to think about.

    And I sympathize about that sense that your noun just NEEDS something–different shoes, a contrasting scarf, SOMETHING, though we’re told to minimize the modifiers.

    SOOOO the compromise I try for, passed along by Joanna Bourne (and therefore bound to be brilliant, yes?), is to find the modifier that will surprise your noun (and your reader). Instead of the camel doing a “fantastic impression,” maybe the camel does a “testicle shriveling impression,” or a “butt shaking impression” or a “bad carnival ride impression”

    These off the wall modifiers wake up the prose and put it more strongly in the POV hero’s voice.

    Third “might want to think about,” is to use gender-disparaging insults with CAUTION. Yes, boys compare each other to girls when they’re intent is to put down, but many girls, women, and reviewers will read that as “this author is so culturally unaware she thinks misogyny in the side kick shouldn’t offend anybody.”
    It will offend, believe me.

    And unless Garrett’s due for a comeuppance because he doesn’t properly respect “light” girls, you just don’t need to go here, using girls as a source of insult. “You’re light as a fifth grader” will do. “I could throw you into that camel trough” would do.

    In this scene, you’re already going to have to work very hard not to insult any Arabs: My, how silly those jabbering Arabs look, screaming and flapping around, when a) two boys have put their live at risk camel-napping what doesn’t belong to them, and b) the equivalent of double felony larceny or grand theft auto has just been committed for the sake of eluding boredom.

    I like what you’ve done so far, but BE CAREFUL with the cultural insensitivity! Throw in a American mom bellowing at them most loudly, TELLING THEM this is serious, stupid, criminal behavior.

    And SHOW how–even though the hero knows he’s being stupid, and there will be hell to pay–it feels terrific to be FREE for just a few minutes, to do something daring, to break out of the chains of shoulds, oughts, and don’t’s so we get another dose of empathy for boys who are, in truth, behaving like hoodlums, and stupid hoodlums.

    Can you tell I’m a child welfare lawyer who spent all day yesterday in court when I’d rather be reading a good book?

    So take what I say with a boulder of salt, and know that you’re off to a really good start.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      A modifier that surprises my noun! I love it.

      After the talk of cultural sensitivity, I thought I ought to clarify why I laughed at the paragraph with the “Willa, nilla…” bit. It’s because I recognized myself. Having traveled in countries where I don’t speak the language, I found the voices around me sometimes sounded like that. When I was in Amsterdam, I always felt as if I should understand what the Dutch were saying because the language is percussive, like English, and has similar inflections. But, no. It was all “Willa, nilla” to me.

      1. That’s exactly what I was going for, Mia–not that the Egyptian himself was ridiculous, but that being yelled at in a language you don’t understand sounds ridiculous. Especially when you’re a mischievous 12-year-old boy. I’ll have to watch out for how it’s perceived, though.

  5. Chuck Robertson says:

    I’ve been over this chapter several times now and it’s still funny. Love the character voices. Mia’s right that by making the MC imperfect, the reader identifies with him more. After pondering on this chapter a while, I’m wondering if perhaps the chase scenes go on just a little too long for MG readers. Just a suggestion though.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      How refreshing to hear a male perspective. Thanks for popping by, Chuck. Hope you’ll make it a regular thing.

    2. Thanks, Chuck. I always appreciate your input.

  6. Laurie Evans says:

    Great opening! Strong writing. I agree a boy that age wouldn’t use the word “savor.”

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Laurie. It’s scary for an author to put her work out there for comments. I appreciate you for chiming in with encouragement.

    2. Thank you, Laurie! Yeah, “savor” has to go. Everybody agrees on that one. ;)

  7. Beth Carter says:

    I really enjoyed this. I wouldn’t tackle MG or even YA because of the language problems. Mia and Barbara with the teen boys made GREAT suggestions. Good luck and great job, Sharon. I think I would hang out at teen places for research!

    Maybe I should submit my women’s fiction to Mia. She has the best suggestions! Well done, ladies.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Beth, I’d love to take a look at your women’s fiction. Please click HERE for details on how YOU can become a volunteer.

    2. Mia does make great suggestions, doesn’t she, Beth? Definitely let her have a look at your women’s fiction. Anything to make the manuscript stronger, right?

  8. Thanks for your feedback, everybody! You’ve given me lots of great ideas to think about.

    For those of you who were wondering, in the next few pages we find out that Ethan’s parents write/photograph articles for history and archaeology magazines. With the magazine industry in decline, they need another source of income, so this summer they’re bringing middle and high school students along as an elite traveling summer camp. And they let him bring his best friend along. Right now, Dad’s at the airport picking up the rest of the students, whom we’ll meet in Chapter 2.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Holy gluttons for punishment, Batman! What are Ethan’s parents thinking? I predict plenty of trouble, which will make for page-turning fun!

  9. Marcy W says:

    Hi Mia and SD,
    I have no experience with boys of this age since I was that age myself, and that’s way too long ago for it to be helpful. But, just as I’ve found with Young Adult section books, good writing is good writing. I would definitely read this book, you hooked me from the first sentence, and I’m eager to follow the adventure these two will have. As often happens, Mia caught the things I did, and lots more besides, so all I can add is encouragement, and a plea to let us know when we can read more! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I’m right with you Marcy. I’d so read this story.

  10. Hi S.D. and Mia,

    I really liked this opening. It is fun and full of action.

    I guessed we are in Cairo or another middle eastern country. I would like to know what brings Ethan’s parents to this exotic location. Work? Vacation? The information could easily be slipped into your opening.

    Mia pointed out where the voice was sounding older than MG. You could try…

    “At least my head’s not as dense as a rock.” could be…”At least I didn’t have to repeat geometry.”

    “You’re light as a girl.” could be “You’re a stick.”

    The yeehaw explanation could be–Garrett laughed as if he had annihilated the last video zombie. Ethan could tilt his head back and enjoy the escape.

    These are my suggestions from living with teen boys.

    You caught my attention. Great opening.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Oh, yay! Suggestions from living with actual kids. It’s been a while for me so I’m pretty much out of the lingo. I know some YA authors who hang out in mall food courts to listen to kids talk (not in a creepy way, of course. We don’t want to stalk the little dears!) But any time you can use something authentic from a kid’s mouth, it’s a win.

    2. You nailed it, Barbara, we’re in Cairo. Or Giza, which is within view of Cairo. I discussed why in a comment below.

      Thank you for all the teen voice suggestions. I guess you have plenty of opportunities to research that!

  11. Barb Bettis says:

    Hi SD. Love your voice. I’m a fan of your writing and this book, but I certainly see–and agree–with Mia’s comments about some of those words. For “savoring” the breeze, maybe how it smells, how it feels? Or ‘soaking up’ –does that sound MG? For the other: “Garrett’s lame cowboy hoot made me laugh.”

    Good job and good comments.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      How about “lame cowboy impression?”

      1. Ooh, yes, I like “lame cowboy impression.” Thank you both. A collaborative effort, lol.

        And thanks for the encouragement, Barb, as always.

  12. Thank you, Mia, for reminding me.

    I do agree with you (for a change) on a lot of things here.

    Okay, SD Keeling. Can I call you SD?
    This writing is excellent technically, which is a good thing. Very professional writing.

    Opening good. Snoozefest is a good choice.

    Para 3– I’d keep the present tense in that paragraph, but not the others. I went back to beginning and read it with present tense. I didn’t like it, though it is perfectly correct. Cosy mystery writers (1st person stories) usually write in past tense and present tense when needed. But, there are a few exceptions. It’s your choice.

    The verbal banter (insults) I’d have the friend quote the Terminator “A little meat on your…., girlyboy. And I’d have our narrator shoot back with “A brain in your head would help” Cut the glaring. These are good friends who, obviously, get into trouble together. Garrett can give a nonverbal reaction… like a smile or wink or verbal like “I’ve got the body and you’ve got the brains” We can never forget that these 2 are friends.

    I’d drop the word fantastic too.

    The man screamed should be on the same line as dialogue.

    (I think this culture cuts fingers off for stealing, but probably wouldn’t doit and cause an international incident for boys who are Americans)

    Do camels bleet? I know camels spit and bite. Can you work that in somehow.

    How about the word contagious instead of infectious? Yes, 8th graders would know and use the word contagious.

    You need to trash the word “savor” .I taught 8th grade for 18 years and they do not savor anything.

    Excellent Read!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Pat, you’re here! And on a Thursday to boot! Thanks for your insights and I’m tickled that we’re finding more points of agreement this week. Makes me feel like I’m on the right track.

      1. Or maybe I’m on the right track!

    2. Patricia,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful and detailed feedback. I’m still chewing on all your suggestions!

      I agree about keeping the present tense in the third paragraph, but not the others. (Sorry, Mia!) And I like your ideas for the banter. I’m still working on that exchange.

      Camels make many sounds, including bleats, but if it doesn’t sound right to readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s technically correct, right? I’ll have to see how others respond to that.

      Thank you again for taking the time to give me your feedback. I’m truly grateful.

      1. Mia Marlowe says:

        That’s ok. My suggestions are just that. Suggestions. Only you know the best way to tell your story.

  13. Hey, SD! I loved this entry. Don’t have too much to add aside from what Mia already said; beware of making him sound too old. That being said, I like how you don’t talk down to him, either; he’s obviously a smart kid, and that comes through really well. One thing that gave me pause was how he and Garrett are there together. They’re best friends, seem very familiar with each other, yet our narrator has a very unusual lifestyle. I was guessing his parents were diplomats or something…so how is it that his best friend is with him? Or are they new friends? Otherwise, I thought it was fantastic; great opener, very fun action, engaging voice. Good luck!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      As always, thanks for dropping by, Kristan! Good points about the boys’ relationship. I hadn’t thought about how they both found themselves in this setting and what their background together might be.

    2. Thank you for your feedback and your encouragement, Kristan!I discussed why they’re in Egypt in a comment below, in case you missed it.

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