Based on the feedback I received from you fabulous blog readers last week, I’m starting a new agenda for “YA on Saturday.” Each week I’ll mix it up and try something different, so it won’t be the same format every Saturday (unless I get all questions or all critiques). Today I’m doing a critique because Syd bravely offered me her story. Thanks, Syd!!
Please don’t judge Syd based on this excerpt. This is the first draft of her first novel, and I purposely picked one of her weaker scenes as a means of illustration. I could’ve picked one of her many brilliant excerpts, but that would’ve defeated the purpose of a public critique. This part won’t make sense without the context; just know that Ari is relating an incident to her best friend, Jess …
“Okay. Go back for a second. What do you mean you felt like Cy was watching you?”
“Well it was really too dark to tell what he was looking at. But you know when you get the feeling that someone is watching you?”
Jess nodded her agreement completely engrossed in the story.
“Well that’s what it felt like. And right when I told the guy with the snake to take a hike Cy smiled. There wasn’t anyone else around him, so it’s not like he heard a good joke and decided to crack a smile.”
Jess frowned, “Well if you couldn’t tell he was checking you out or not, he must have been a ways away, right?”
“Yeah…all the way across the dance floor and in the corner by the bar.”
“So how’d he hear you?”
“That’s the weird part. I have no idea. And I could be completely wrong. Like I said, it just felt that way.”
Jess gently prodded, “Okay, so then what happened?”
Disclaimer: the following opinions are just that—opinions. I am not an expert. I am not always right (as much as I hate to admit that).
First, I have some points to make.
Point #1: Notice the Jess frowned*comma* and Jess gently prodded *comma*. I see this mistake a lot when I’m editing stories. Those commas should be periods. Only use a comma if it’s: Jess said, “Okay …” OR if it’s a synonym of said (whispered, shouted, gasped, asked, etc). Jess frowned. That’s a sentence, so treat it as one. Jess did not frown her words; her face frowned. Likewise, Jess did not prod the words—she prodded Ari. In this case, I don’t think the prodded is even necessary; we can tell by her dialogue that Jess is prodding Ari. Showing is better than telling, so explaining Jess’s behavior here is repetitive telling. A common mistake I see is: Someone laughed, “Good joke.” Use a period after laughed. Or you could write: Laughing, she said, “Good joke.”
Point #2: Notice that Well and Okay start lines of dialogue more than once in this excerpt. I’m guilty of this, too. I say Well and Okay a lot in real life, so I put those words in to attempt realistic dialogue. Good intentions, but bad idea. Yeah, dialogue should be realistic … but writing dialogue doesn’t always equate dictation from real life. Dialogue in a story has to be quick and snappy. Don’t use a lot of repetitive, unnecessary words that distract the reader. Maybe once in awhile you could use a Well or an Okay, but only if it’s vital (like the character is stalling for time or at a loss of words).
Point #3: I’d like to see a little more action, especially from Ari. You don’t have to add a tag (action or description) to every line of dialogue, but don’t go too long without a reference to the character or surroundings.
Now … let me try rewriting this (just as an example, not as “My word is final”). I’ll add some commas and phrases, delete extra words, and put spaces around the ellipsis—one space before and one space after. I’ll also delete words that tell rather than show. See if you notice the changes:
“Go back for a second.” Jess flipped her hands palm out, halting the conversation. “You felt like Cy was watching you? What does that mean?”
Ari fidgeted and glanced around the restaurant. “You know that feeling, like someone is watching you?”
Jess nodded, her mouth slack.
“That’s what it felt like. When I told the guy with the snake to take a hike, Cy smiled. But he was alone, so why would he smile?”
“You couldn’t tell if he was checking you out,” Jess said with a frown, “so he must’ve been far away, right?”
“Yeah … across the dance floor and in the corner by the bar.”
“So how’d he hear you?”
Rubbing her temples, Ari sighed. “I have no idea. That’s why it seems so weird. Forget what I felt—I must be completely wrong.”
Jess quirked an eyebrow. “So then what happened?”
Again, this is just an example. By rewriting this, I’m overriding Syd’s voice and original intentions. She’ll have to rewrite it again to fit her own needs.
I want to point out one more thing. Instead of writing: Ari felt uncomfortable with the topic, I wrote: Ari fidgeted … Instead of writing: Jess was completely engrossed in the story, I wrote: Jess nodded, her mouth slack. Not the best examples, but I hope they illustrate the difference between showing and telling.
Anyone want to offer further thoughts or suggestions for Syd? Constructive criticism is welcome, but I will delete anything hurtful or derogatory. When giving advice, it always helps to sandwich it with praise. Example: “I like Jess’s concern for Ari. I want to see more description though. Loving Ari’s dilemma!”
Most importantly, thanks to Syd for submitting her work and making this post possible! Follow her lead and email me your own story’s excerpt (approximately 100 words in length). Or email me any questions you’d like to see answered on a future post. You can remain anonymous, if you wish! Hope to hear from you soon!