I had half-planned to take a break from critiques, but then Tristan emailed me with a critique request. I couldn’t say no!
Tristan is thirteen years old, and she wants to be a YA fantasy/fiction writer. This is the opening scene of the novel she’s currently working on:
I look down where my feet are planted in the snow. I feel the confusion sweep across my face. A minute ago I remember yelling at my older brother for using all the hot water, so I guess this is a dream. I roll my eyes and try to walk forward
Only I cant.
My brows furrow in concentration. I try to move once more, all to no avail. A growling comes from in front of me. I’m scared to look up. A few minutes past, I hear something growl again.
I look up.
The enormous wolf standing before me is not common. I feel it. My feet start to turn numb from frostbite, although I barley feel it. The wolf growls again and steps forward. I open my mouth to scream. No sound comes out. I jerk my feet back and forth, trying to move. To get away from this beast any way I can. I open my mouth again, to try once more with all my might, just to scream.
The wolf takes another step forward.. My heart is beating painfully against my ribs. My nightgown soaked with wet snow. The wolf takes another step forward. If it took two more steps, it would be right in front of me.
What I like about it:
1. The mystery! The action! The supernatural! An exciting way to start a story.
2. The single-sentence paragraphs: Only I can’t … I look up … Nothing. I love using this technique when I write; it’s great for showing emphasis.
3. The writing style fits the scene. That is, brief sentences highlight the protag’s confusion and fear. If you showed up in a strange place with a werewolf, your thoughts wouldn’t be flowery and long-winded. I like this short and choppy approach, as if her mind is whirling. Later in the story, when things slow down, I’d expect the writing style to adjust accordingly—longer, more detailed sentences.
What needs work:
1. The first paragraph. The protagonist (named Trixie) is yelling at her brother one minute and in the snow the next minute. How can it be a dream if she’s not asleep? This is a fantasy, but it needs to be grounded in reality. No worries though—just tweak the story slightly. Either she really is sleeping and believes she’s dreaming, or she is mysteriously transported from her world to a new world in the blink of an eye.
2. I don’t know if this is a first draft or a later draft, but when it’s time to edit, try reading the story aloud. We’re so used to reading our stories, and we know what’s supposed to be there. But hearing it with our ears will reveal mistakes that go unnoticed by the eyes. You’ll also hear repetition, like I feel it. My feet start to turn numb from frostbite, although I barely feel it. By the way, her feet are numb from cold—too soon for frostbite.
3. Watch for changes in tense. This excerpt is all present tense until the last paragraph, where it slips into past tense.
4. Show, don’t tell. I know I always say this during critiques, but everyone—even professionals—can use reminders once in awhile. Example of TELLING: I feel the confusion sweep across my face. Example of SHOWING: My heart is beating painfully against my ribs. Well done. Whenever possible, show us the REACTION to the emotion rather than saying I am [insert emotion here].
5. Maybe a little more detail about the wolf and the surroundings. Not flowery details, but something quick and choppy. Is she in a forest or a field? What’s the size and color of the wolf? Is saliva dripping off its teeth?
I won’t rewrite this excerpt, since I’m not sure how Tristan wants to handle the first paragraph. Besides, she’s on the right track, and the little details aren’t imperative at this stage of writing. The important thing is to keep writing! Tristan, thanks for sharing your excerpt with us, and good luck with the rest of your novel!!
If you have constructive criticism for Tristan, please leave a comment! I recommend suggestions balanced with praise. This is an environment for supporting and encouraging young writers. Thank you in advance for your help.