Belated Critique


All right, I’m late on this. My apologies. Chalk it up to crazy life stuff and some professional stuff that showed up unexpectedly and I lost my mind. Okay, I will admit that I lost my mind long ago. That should come as little surprise to anyone who knows me.

Today’s hapless volunteer is Cara. Praise her bravery and intrepidness.

Metadata: The Beasts of Hathow – YA Fantasy – 140k words (waaaaaaaay too long for a YA, btw. A lot of publishers won’t begin to look at one this long)


The paint rippled like scales, peeling and flaking off the rusting metal of the dumpster. It was green now, not black. Morning had come.

As evocative as those images are—and I love that the paint ripples like scales—this has no hook value. Especially for YA books, but for all books, you need something in that first paragraph that will make the reader want to read more. I was thinking at first that if the paint was rippling like scales because of magic or because of technological stuff, that it was majorly cool and I was excited and then it was prosaic. Also, relating to the next paragraph, what does the dumpster have to do with Sasha? There’s no connection whatsoever.

Sasha curled more tightly into a ball, pulling her knees into her chest and resting her head on top of them, trying to hold down the sick feeling in her stomach. She couldn’t tell if it was from needing to puke or needing to eat. Probably both. Her body ached, limbs stiff and cold. Her eyes felt raw from the long night spent awake.

Nicely active and vivid. I wish there was a little more here to hint at her situation, maybe hint at her character. She’s fighting the sick feeling, but why is she there? Maybe hint that she’s hiding or that she’s been in the situation for a long time, or some such. It wouldn’t take much, but it would make a good paragraph far more powerful.

Carefully, she pushed up the sleeve of her t-shirt and winced at the blackening bruise coming out on her arm. Her head throbbed. When she probed it gently, she found a patch of crispy blood in her hair and a tender welt. Her eyes stung, but she wouldn’t let herself cry. She was done. She was so done with foster care.

I’d say pretty much the same thing about this paragraph as the previous. There’s a certain amount of urgency lacking here. At this point, you should want to raise the tension. She’s injured, but not in danger; she’s escaped from foster care and momentarily safe. So what is making you start this story at this point? Why is the threat or the urgency?

It didn’t matter how nice they seemed, how much they promised it would be better. It always went bad. It wasn’t just shitty luck. Sasha saw people change around her. Their warm greetings became suspicion, accusation, hate. There was something wrong with her, something that made them turn against her.

There was no point in trying again.

This doesn’t serve. It’s in her head, and it’s editorializing. Leave this for later when she might be pushed to go back. Plus she’s really calm and really thoughtful. She doesn’t seem upset or anything. It’s just quiet contemplation.

Slowly, every movement causing some kind of pain, Sasha pushed aside her barrier of wet cardboard boxes and crawled out from behind the dumpster. When she stood, her head spun, and she bent double, holding her gut to stop herself from puking. She breathed until the dizziness faded.  Then she rolled her shoulders and brushed off the seat of her ratty jeans. There wasn’t anything she could do about the smell.

 Same thing as above. The action is well described, but adding urgency would be good. What does she intend to do? Where will she go? Is she worried?

Peering out from the alley, she took stock of her surroundings. She had run last night, run heedlessly. From the looks of the half-cobbled street and the occasional passer-by in a suit, carrying a briefcase, she’d ended up in North Philly. If she was right, she was pretty near the UPenn campus – where people were careless with their money.

Telling. It gives us no sense of why she ran or if something serious happened. Give more. Why are people careless with their money. That suggests a street background and a thief background, and you should hint at this earlier. It means that something big sent her running, because she’s ordinarily tough enough to take a lot.

Sasha rubbed her face with her t-shirt. The last time she’d run a concerned old lady had caught her and called the police because she was too dirty. She needed to look like some professor’s kid, blend in, not have anyone ask her where she belonged. She dragged her fingers through her hair, trying to loosen up the patch of dried blood. Lucky her hair was black enough to disguise the color, and curly hair was always messy.

Wouldn’t she think of her plan? And of getting cleaned up? I mean, at the dorms, she could steal clothes and go into the showers. Possibly anyhow. How old is she (I know, but I ask because you haven’t indicated, and the next question is because she seems far older than she is: Could she pass for a college student? I mean, a lot of students look pretty young, and some are young, since they might be geniuses. She might be cocky enough to pull that off. But not nine.

She strode out of the alley, confident and casual. There was a bus stop on the corner, and commuters had started gathering at it. She filtered into the group, keeping an eye out for anything easy to snatch, and wishing she had a backpack to make it look like she was on her way to school. The older you were, the less people noticed you, but solitary, undersized nine-year-olds were everybody’s business.

I don’t buy nine, and that’s not YA, btw. It’s middle grade. Her voice is much too old for her. It’s the first time you raise age, and it’s fairly unbelievable given her self-possessed voice and her lack of fear or uncertainty.

Another commuter was approaching the bus stop, and Sasha glanced over to size him up: threat or prospect?  She had to do a double take.

The man was tiny. Though his skin was as wrinkled as a dried apricot and his hair silver-grey, he was no taller than she was, and hardly any thicker either. He was dressed in a dark blue coat with tails and tight tan pants that ended right above his silky white knee socks. He held a lace handkerchief to his nose, and at his side he carried a strange fat bag made of tooled leather, patterned with vines and curlicues. It looked expensive, tempting. Anything could be inside it.

The top flap was buckled shut. But there was enough of a gap between the flap and the bag that Sasha thought she could probably slip her hand inside.

I like the description. Love it in fact. But the problem is she doesn’t react to him beyond seeing him as an opportunity. He’s dressed really oddly. No one else bothers with his appearance either. Take the time to give some reaction. Does he have an expression? She no doubt reads the danger in people. She must have some sort of response to him as a person. Does he notice her? Anybody? She’s willing to steal stuff right in public. How does she come to that? Again, nine strikes me as too young for it. A lot of that because how long has she been on the streets v. being in foster care?

I like a lot of this. Descriptions are really good, but I think you have to consider Sasha’s age as well as think about her feelings and reactions. Get some urgency and tensin in there. Nothing much happens in this first page. There’s no real hook and no real sense of a reason to keep reading.


10 comments to Belated Critique

  • […] did a first page critique over at Magical Words if you want to have a […]

  • I’m not good at analyzing writing, but I do really like your descriptions and action. It feels like the viewpoint is at a good level if that makes sense, and with Diana’s suggestions I think it can be all pulled together into something great.

  • Awesome! Thank you! Think I have an idea about what to do to make it more hook-y. How to make her more 9, too. (There’s a bit of a time skip right after this, so she’s actually 15 for most of the book.)
    What to do about the 140k problem is less clear. 🙁 (I’m always like, 2 volumes! But it really is just one story. Trying cutting instead.)

    @Dave – Thank you! 🙂

  • khernandez

    Cara – I envy the problem of too many words, I always seem to be writing too few. And I would seriously try to make it 2 volumes – you know how those YA kids love their series(es?)!!! Don’t cut, you’d be cutting like 1/2 the book.

    Love the beginning, agree with DPF’s commentary – although I wouldn’t have thought all those things myself if she hadn’t pointed them out. I love your strange little man. My story starts with one of them too. 😉

  • Cara: glad to be helpful. It may be you have to try to find a way to break it in half. I’d like to say you can make it so good they’ll go for a 140K book, but I’m don’t know that that’s true. It could be worth a shot if you believe in it, though. Cutting it to the bone and getting rid of the heart of it to make it fit length doesn’t seem like a terribly smart idea, so you’ll just have to think it through and figure it out.

    Good luck!

  • quillet

    Late to this party, but I just wanted to say that I really like this, Cara. I do agree with Diana’s critique, especially about your MC not seeming nine, but it’s really well written and your voice is great. I hope you find a solution for the too-many-words problem — one that makes your heart soar rather than sink.

  • I admit I had the same reaction as Diana did about the word count, and the lack of urgency. Otherwise, I love the description, Cara!

  • Andrea

    And here’s my very very belated comment.
    Cara, you mention trying to make her more like 9. Of course, I don’t know anything about the rest of the story, but maybe it is worth considering whether you really need this large a time skip? Would it be okay if she is about 12 here?
    On the other hand, if you already have the solution, I’ll shut up 😉
    Btw, intriguing title!

    Sometimes a too long story can be cut shorter by melting two secondary characters into one, although this will certainly not mean that you will get rid of half of the words 🙂 But I also say, if you need all these words to make the story great, don’t cut.
    Have you made an outline? (2 or 3 sentences per chapter). It may help you with the overall overview, to see where the break might fit. If you really feel you can’t break it up into two books, I can only agree with Diana, just give it a shot.
    If a publisher likes the story, maybe their editor can help you find the right spot to end book 1 and start book 2. (I am not speaking from experience, mind). Or maybe, you’ve got a friend with a fresh look on the book who can help you with this.
    Good luck!

  • Thank you all for your comments!

    @Andrea – no shutting up! The more input the better!

    Currently, I’m trying to sort out the mess that is the first third of the book, and am secretly hoping that it will end up getting shorter rather than longer. It’s the slowest part and needs tightening and focusing. But even if it does get shorter, I fear that 120k is probably as short as this thing can get without falling to bits. Real goal – make it unputdownable! (so urgency is key.) And making sure the pacing is totally tight should help with word count, right?

  • Andrea

    “Real goal – make it unputdownable!”
    Much (maybe everything) is forgiven if you do that 🙂

    “And making sure the pacing is totally tight should help with word count, right?”
    It should, but in writing, so-called ‘rules’ can take strange turns. Still, good pacing will improve the book, which is the most important thing.

    All the best, Cara!