Monday, October 11, 2010

500 Word Critique: MG ghost story

It's been a while, but someone else has decided they'd like to offer up 500 words for critique.  It's the beginning of a middle grade ghost story, a prologue and part of the first chapter.

I have kept the author anonymous, and given my reactions to the story. The green text in parentheses are my comments.

The smell of death encompassed the room (What does death smell like? I know this is a hard thing to pin down, but it has to smell like something to this character, and if he/she can convey it to the reader, then we'll feel that much closer to the story). My legs felt like cement. Fear was stopping my every move (these two sentences actually say the same thing--perhaps combine?). My first thought was to run towards the door. I know the threatening one (this reads like a name or title; if so, it needs to be capitalized) is here, I just don’t see it. The smell lets me know as it looms closer (how does the smell change as the entity gets closer? Does it get stronger? Does it smell like something else? These details will heighten the tension and bring the reader closer to the story). Darkness surrounds the threatening one.

Terror gripped my senses and felt like it would never release me (instead of telling us that terror has an unrelenting grip on the character, show us how terror feels to this person--people experience it differently, so we need to know how it feels to this particular person). I tried to raise my hand in front of me to feel through the darkness, but I was concerned that I would run into the threatening one.

Whispers filled the air. It is closer and ready for attack (can s/he feel it coming? Where does s/he feel it? Tingles along the spine? Skin crawling? Paralysis? Show us the clues that let him/her know the entity is closer). A slinking sound behind me made me realize my existence would soon be over (for most people, a survival instinct would kick in—this makes it sound like s/he has given up). My thoughts were paralyzed with fear. I felt somewhat relieved that I couldn’t see its’ (its--no apostrophe) face. Prayer and hope were my only escape. Did anyone know that I was trapped in the prison of bitterness with a vengeful thing? The threatening one is protecting what it feels belongs to it. I want to protect those I love. (this is interesting, but a bit confusing—how does the character know the threatening one is vengeful, yet protecting something at the same time? Those two emotions don’t usually go together, so it’s intriguing. But perhaps make the situation a bit clearer as to how the character knows about them)

I heard the threatening one make a deep breathing sound (how does it sound? Show us so we can experience it with the character) as it crept even closer. Would someone wake me up (oh, I didn’t realize s/he was sleeping...or is s/he?)? I screamed in my head. I can’t continue like this (how old is this person? It sounds like an adult speaking)! My breathing was becoming slower and the room was closing in.

Silence filled the air. I stood motionless knowing this could be the end. Tears wanted to stream down my face as my eyes shut tightly (the POV is first person, but this sounds a bit like third—as in, from the outside looking in, not how the character is feeling on the inside). This is not how my life was supposed to end. “Tell my friends I love them,” was my last thought. (so, how does this person die? And how does it feel? Is it a brutal murder, or does his/her heart just stop? And how does that feel? These details will give us more insight into the character and the situation, and we’ll be able to feel the experience right along with him/her. It also increases tension and keeps the reader on the edge of his seat)

Chapter 1
“Don’t believe what people say about your house, Lauren,” I heard someone whisper. (this is a perfect place to work in the name of the protagonist—we’ll make a quicker connection, and also know she’s a girl)

“What? What about my house?” My eyes stare straight ahead.

“Oh, nothing. You’ll see.” (who spoke? An adult? A kid? A crazy homeless person? Knowing where this information comes from will help us know how much credence to lend to it. And also seeing the character’s reaction to that person will color our judgment, too, in favor of the main character)

I froze in the spot, afraid to move. A chill collected in the middle of my upper spine then shot down my entire back. There in front of me is my new home, looking like it was beckoning me to come inside. Was this house really smiling at me? Seriously, it looked just like the house was smiling (this sentence has a lot of great voice). It was a huge white two story Civil war type antebellum home. I swear it had to have been built in 1800 (that specific year? Or in the 1800’s?). I had a good sense of things about me and I didn’t have a good feeling about this. The smile on the house’s face was not a welcoming one, but one of “I dare you to come in” kind of look. Somehow this house reminded me of the smile on the Cheshire cat. (this is a great reaction to the house, and I think it would have a greater impact on the reader if we got this first—before the general statement that the house seemed to be smiling. The ‘Cheshire cat’ grin paints a specific and vivid image, but a general ‘smile’ can be interpreted in multiple ways. I’d jump right into the Cheshire cat.)

A big balcony with two large French doors looked like it was protecting the 2nd floor. A shadow cascaded across the entrance. I look around (nine times out of ten, sentences like “I looked...” are not necessary. We assume the character is looking around because she then reports what she sees, so it’s not necessary to tell us that she looks around). Wonder who that is, I thought. Must be one of the movers, I hoped. (not sure her thoughts are necessary here—we’re in her head already with the sentence ‘Must be one of the movers,’ and the ‘I hoped’ sounds like you’re trying too hard to create tension. The assumption that the shadow is from one of the movers has already planted the seed of suspicion in the reader’s head)

There were trees surrounding the house, which made its appearance look dark. I did like the balcony though because I couldn’t wait to sit there and read. In front, just like most antebellum homes, there were four huge pillars. I waited to see if Scarlett O’Hara would come walking outside. Maybe, hopefully, with nice landscaping it won’t be so gruesome looking. Where was the new house I thought I was going to have? Oh, there are shade trees, but what were my parents thinking???? (only one question mark is needed)

Overall comments:
This is intriguing! I think this is a great setup to a ghost story, and if we were a bit closer to the main character, it would be even better. We need to know more of what Lauren is thinking. But, what she thinks needs to be sharp and concise. If she’s saying the same thing three different ways, it’s going to frustrate the reader.

Watch out for your verb tenses—there are places where you switch from past to present and back. I’ve highlighted the places where you’ve slipped into present tense.

The prologue above is written in first person, and so is your first chapter. The implication here is that these two are the same characters. I’m guessing they’re not, though, so switching the prologue to third person might differentiate it better. It would also let us know whether the prologue’s character is male or female—and that will help us to better identify with him/her.

Thanks to the author for stepping up and sending in your work!!

As for all of you reading, what did you think? Do you agree with me? Disagree? Did I miss anything? Please weigh in with your comments!

If you would like your work posted here for critique, then send me 500 words from anywhere in your story. Or, feel free to send a query for critique.
tabwriter at

1 comment:

Ixoy said...

Thank you to the author for sending a piece to be critiqued. I am inclined to agree with all the the green comments, though I do have one to add.

"The smile on the house’s face was not a welcoming one, but one of “I dare you to come in” kind of look."

Are we specifically talking about the smile or the whole face? The sentence begins talking about the smile but ends with the emprission that it is a whole look and no longer just the smile.