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~Sample Story~

 
 

The following is a story excerpt that breaks many of the rules of "good" writing.  The second section is a letter that summarizes the best and worst points of the passage and lists suggested areas to work on throughout the entire novel. The third section contains the actual critique of the passage.  And the final section is an example of a rewrite of the excerpt that reads more smoothly than the original.

 

(Please note that there is always room for improvement and that writing skills are developed over time.  Just ask some best-selling authors about their first novels and you might actually see them cringe.)

 

~Unpolished writing~

Lauren Giles moved slowly around the bedroom she used to share with her horrible ex-husband and picked up dirty clothes to take downstairs too the apartment building's laundry room.  The building was on Exchange Street in Portland, Maine, which is known for its fishing industry, tourism, and especially long winters, and only a short distance away from the house where she lived when she got her braces in the thrid grade. She was a very shy and  insecure woman.  Well, she wasn't always this insecure, but catching her husband cheating on her made things much worse.   Walking tiredly to the living room, she picked up her keys, opened the door, closed it, locked it and walked to the elevator.  Lucky for her, she didn't run into that redhead who always made her feel bad for being plus-sized.  She rode listlessly down to the basement, which was six floors below.  She backed her way into the laundry room, her arms really tired from carrying the laundry basket.  She looked around the room which was full of noisy washers and dryers and very bright, and the smell of bleach and fabric softener hung heavy in the steamy air.

 "What I would not give to to go on a date with him!" Gladys Bronowski grinned archly.  Lauren thought that was really weird because Gladys was old and ugly and smelled like smoke, so she wasn't likely to get a man's attention.  But it was weird too because she didn't usually pay attention to people, especially men, so if she was interested in a man then he must be interesting.  Lauren was dying to know more.    But she would never ask Mrs. Bronowski to her face because they didn't get along at all well.  She thought maybe Mrs. B. didn't like her because she never talked to her about Brad having affairs behind her back.  But really, she was just shy and it hurt too much to talk to other people about her business. Plus, she didn't want to risk hearing Mrs. B. say it was all her own fault for "letting herself go".  Gladys Bronowski's granddaughter was a fitness goddess and looked just like a Barbie doll.  Neither of them had any patience for fat girls who wouldn't even try to look good. Lauren made her way to the far corner of the room and hurriedly took the candy, book, and soda out of her laundry basket so she would have something to do while she waited for her laundry to get done.  She looked for an open washing machine, saw one, and walked over to it.  She got ready to unload her darks into it.  "Can you not see that the machine is broken?!" one of the old women in the dank, smelly room expostulated. Lauren crossed the aisle to a different washer and pretended to be extra busy loading the washers. 

"She does not see much, does she?  Could not even see her husband having an affair right here in this building," Gladys interjected. What a stupid girl. The fat idiot, she thought to herself.

"Well, you can just stuff it you old hag!" Lauren screamed, her face turning red.  "Say another word and I'll put you in the washing machine instead of my clothes!"  She returned to her laundry and angrily put some quarters into the machines in front of her, then added some detergent  to both and bleach to one.  Ready to go back to her book and disappear into its make-believe world, Lauren threw her clothes into the washers in a hurry.

 "Well, I cannot believe you would speak to me that manner!" she said in astonishment.  Mrs. B. was very angry.

"Never mind the cow, Gladys.  Let's just pretend she isn't here. There are more interesting things to talk about anyway," Miss Carmichael laughed. 

 "Oh, yes.  Well, if I wasn't so old I'd ask that handsome man out myself." said Mrs. B., patting her hair.

Lauren couldn't believe what she was hearing.  She tried to imagine what kind of man would spend enough time with Gladys long enough to let her ask him out.      

~Letter summarizing suggested changes~

Though I have only seen a portion of your book, my guess is that you may have similar trouble spots in other passages.  Here is a summary of what to keep an eye out for as you are working, first as you reconstruct your story and replace some unnecessary scenes with others that flesh it out and add depth to it, then as you do your polishing to clean up any small mistakes that can be found in the final draft.

You have the potential for an enjoyable and perhaps humorous story here. There were some good descriptions of the laundry room that helped to put me right on the scene, and it was an interesting decision to use such an ordinary place as your setting. But rather than giving the reader the blow-by-blow of Lauren gathering her laundry in her apartment, I would recommend starting the scene in the laundry room itself where all the action is going to take place.  For a more exciting hook, you might try beginning the story with Mrs. B.'s outrageous statement that she has the hots for some guy and Lauren's explanation for why that is weird.

There is potential for a sweet and sympathetic character in Lauren, but be careful that the reader her finds her to be sympathetic and not pathetic when playing up her insecurities through her actions (like slinking around the laundry room with an invisible tail tucked between her legs.)  Make certain she has some inner strength for the reader to admire.  With a little more development on her part action and dialogue-wise, there is also the potential for an easy-to-hate villain in Mrs. Bronowski.  And with all of the people in the story, make sure their behavior and dialogue are consistent with their characterizations.

Be judicious with how much background information about a character is given out at any one time in the story, and make certain that it is relevant to the plot.  For example, the reader probably does not need to know that Lauren had braces in the third grade unless they had an emotional impact on her that still shows in adulthood.  Also, watch how you hand out information about the character's activities.  If you see long lists of mundane actions such as walking across rooms, picking up keys, walking to the door, etc, trim them down to the minimum number of words that will clue the reader in to the fact that your character is leaving home.

Trust your dialogue and actions to let the reader know how the characters are feeling.  Try speaking your characters' lines out loud to see if they sound natural.  And show how they feel rather than just state it.  For example, the reader can see that Mrs. B. is angry or astonished if her eyes "bug out of her head".  Also consider expanding some brief explanatory lines such as the comments about people who make Lauren feel insecure or how horrible the ex-husband is, into full scenes with appearances made by one or more of those characters.

Be aware of who owns each scene you are working on and make certain that every sentence you write is consistent with that character's point of view.  For example, the heroine wouldn't hear other characters' thoughts, nor would she think about her own eye color or her very full red lips.  Leave those last items for the hero to muse over.

Lastly, keep a thesaurus handy so that you can add more texture to the final draft of your story by replacing some of the words that are used too often. (This doesn't apply to speaker attributions, where said, asked, whispered and so forth are preferred to fancier but more distracting terms like "expostulated" and "interjected".)  Your thesaurus may also be useful for finding stronger replacements for those pesky -ly adverbs.

 Please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about this critique.  I look forward to reading your next revision. (I hope I get to meet the mystery hunk then! J)

 

~Example of a critique~

Lauren Giles moved slowly around the bedroom they used too (to) share and picked up dirty clothes to take downstairs to the apartment building's laundry room. (Are you certain this is the best point in Lauren's life to start the story?  The hook will need a lot more power to draw your readers in.  Perhaps a more exciting action or an intriguing snippet of dialogue would fit in better here?)  The building was on Exchange Street in Portland, Maine, which is known for its fishing industry, tourism, and especially long winters, and only a short distance away from the house where she lived when she got her braces in the thrid grade. She was a very shy and  insecure woman.  Well, she wasn't always this insecure, but catching her husband cheating on her made things much worse.    (The previous two lines are considered an "info-dump".  Snip them from  this paragraph and save them in your notes.  Try to filter the information into the story in smaller chunks, and only when the reader needs to know it.  And if the facts about the state of Maine aren't relevant to the storyline, they can be dropped altogether.) Walking tiredly to the living room, picked up her keys, opened the door, closed it, locked it and walked to the elevator. (Readers probably don't need a real-time list of actions like this.  Lucky for her, she didn't run into that redhead who always made her feel bad for being plus-sized.  This is an interesting piece of information.  Perhaps there could be a scene involving the redhead so that the reader can experience firsthand how Lauren fells when she is around her?) She rode listlessly down to the basement, which was six floors below.  (This is a subtle way to get out the information that Lauren lives on the fifth floor, which is good.  But the -ly adverb "listlessly" feels awkward there.) She backed her way (Not necessary.) into the laundry room, her arms really tired from carrying the laundry basket. (This tells us she has a lot of laundry to do, but can it be phrased in a snappier way?) She looked around the room which was full of noisy washers and dryers. and It was very bright, and the smell of bleach and fabric softener hung heavy in the steamy air. (This sentence doesn't quite feel balanced.  Try rewriting the first part and splitting the sentence up into two sentences. The second part was a very nice sensory image and helps to put the reader on the scene.)

 "What I would not give to to go on a date with him!" (Perhaps "would" could be replaced with the more natural-sounding contraction of  wouldn't?) Gladys Bronowski grinned archly.  Lauren thought that was really weird because Gladys was old and ugly and smelled like smoke, so she wasn't likely to get a man's attention. (Can you describe Gladys with more specifics so that the reader can really get a firm visual of her? Or give her some strong actions and dialogue that characterize her as woman whose company a man would not enjoy?)  But it was weird too because she didn't usually pay attention to people, especially men, so if she was interested in a man then he must be interesting.  Lauren was dying to know more.  (Keep an eye out for word repetitions.  Also, try to find a stronger word to describe the man in question so that it matches with Lauren's keen desire to know more about the situation.)  But she would never ask Mrs. Bronowski to her face because they didn't get along at all well.  She thought maybe Mrs. B. didn't like her because she never talked to her about Brad having affairs behind her back.  But really, she was just shy and it hurt too much to talk to other people about her business. Plus, she didn't want to risk hearing Mrs. B. say it was all her own fault for "letting herself go".  Gladys Bronowski's granddaughter was a fitness goddess and looked just like a Barbie doll.  Neither of them had any patience for fat girls who wouldn't even try to look good. (This is another case of a lot of information in a short space.  Perhaps it can be sprinkled in over the course of the story?  Also, an uncomfortable encounter with Barbie-clone granddaughter at some point might help illustrate how Lauren feels when she is around her. Perhaps call this the end of the paragraph?)

Lauren made her way (How about shuffled, stomped, slinked..whatever best conveys Lauren's mood.) to the far corner of the room and hurriedly took (Most editors are not thrilled to see a lot of -ly adverbs in a manuscript.  Any time you can slice them out, do so.  In this case, can you find a word that has the same meaning as "hurriedly took"  Grabbed, snatched, spilled?) the candy, book, and soda out of her laundry basket so she would have something to do while she waited for her laundry to get done. (This line may be unnecessary.  Most readers would implicitly understand why Lauren had those items with her.) She looked (How about "searched" or "scanned"?) for an open washing machine, saw one, and walked over to it.  (Lauren's done a lot of walking in this passage. Try to find some other words to describe how she is getting around.) She got ready to unload her darks into it.  "Can you not see that the machine is broken?!" (Contract can not.) one of the old women in the dank, smelly room expostulated. (Shouted or barked might fit more comfortably here.) Lauren crossed the aisle to a different washer and pretended to be extra busy loading the washers.  (Is she pretending to be busy because she is embarrassed or annoyed? Perhaps you can clarify this by adding something to the effect of "She hoped the flush she felt on her cheeks would be attributed to the heat of the room rather than the embarrassment she felt"?)

"She does not see much, does she?  Could not even see her husband having an affair right here in this building," (contractions) Gladys interjected. (Said would do fine here.) What a stupid girl. The fat idiot, she thought to herself.    (Since the scene "belongs" to Lauren in that we are experiencing it from her point of view, she couldn't know what Gladys was thinking.  Also, if Gladys's statement is scathing enough, there would be no need for her to think that Lauren is stupid because the reader would be able to feel her contempt through the dialogue.)

"Well, you can just stuff it you old hag!" Lauren screamed, her face turning red. (Since Lauren was originally described as being shy and insecure, this outburst would seem out of character for her. Unless she is experiencing a break-down of sorts, in which case you'd need to set the reader up for this so that it doesn't seem to come from left field.  Also, she can't see her own face turn red.) "Say another word and I'll put you in the washing machine instead of my clothes!"  (I like this image.  If you decide not to have Lauren make this outburst perhaps you can save this line by turning it into inner monologue? She may be too shy to tell someone off to his or her face, but she probably still thinks of what she would love to say to them.) As she returned to her laundry (Drop the as and add "and" at the end.) she angrily put (plugged, slammed, snapped) some quarters into the machines in front of her, then added some detergent  to both and bleach to one.  Ready to go back to her book and disappear into its make-believe world, Lauren threw her clothes into the washers in a hurry.   (Probably don't need that explanation, but can the entire sentence be punched up with a few word changes.)

 "Well, I cannot believe you would speak to me in that manner!" she said in astonishment.  Mrs. B. was very angry.  

"Never mind the cow, Gladys.  Let's just pretend she isn't here. There are more interesting things to talk about anyway,"  Miss Carmichael laughed. (This bit of conversation will be moot if Lauren no longer has her outburst.  However, if you decide to keep it, for Mrs. B. I would suggest that if you can make the dialogue sound more natural and angrier, "in astonishment.  Mrs. B. was very angry. "   can be dropped because they would be redundant.  Also, there is some confusion as to which "she" in the crowd is speaking, so if it is Gladys/Mrs. B., attribute it to her with a "said Mrs. B." And lastly, to keep the pacing tight, bump her line up to just after Lauren's, because the tension is lost during the time that Lauren sort her laundry.  And I can't imagine anyone waiting that long to tell someone off anayway. For Miss Carmichael's bit, rearrange it so that it reads  Miss Carmichael laughed. "Never mind the cow, Gladys.  Let's just pretend she isn't here. There are more interesting things to talk about anyway."  The period after first sentence is key as Miss Carmichael can't laugh and talk all at once.  

      "Oh, yes.  Well, if I wasn't so old I'd ask that handsome man out myself," said Mrs. B., patting her hair. (This isn't bad, but is there a more exciting way of saying it?  Would it be in character for Mrs. B. to say she wants "a piece of that"?  Or would she say that he really had her heart all aflutter, which was bad for the old pacemaker?)

Lauren couldn't believe what she was hearing.  She tried to imagine what kind of man would spend enough time with Gladys long enough to let her ask him out.    (This is kind of funny. Can you play with the wording a bit to get the maximum effect of that idea?  J How about something along the lines of Gladys "hitting on him" instead of just asking him out.  Really play up the contrast between her age and general attitude to how she is going on so much about this mystery man. *I can't wait to meet him.  I wonder what kind of guy sends an old crank like Gladys over the moon?*)

~The Revised Passage~

An example of heavy editing/ghostwriting.

 

“I tell you, Flo, he sure got my pacemaker jumping!”

Lauren Giles backed through the door of the laundry room, arms straining under the weight of the wicker basket she carried. Her ears perked at the booming declaration just made by her least favorite neighbor, Gladys Bronowski.  Gladys was ancient and didn’t have the least bit of use for other human beings, especially the male sort, so if some fella had caught her attention he must be something amazing indeed. 

     Assaulted by bright light and the whirring and clanking of busy machines, Lauren allowed herself a moment to adjust from the change of the cool, dim hall before searching for an available space.  Spotting a pair of rickety chairs huddled around a squat dingy table, she hefted the full-to-overflowing basket higher on one generous hip and plodded over to the far corner.  On the way, she nodded to purple velour-clad Gladys and her cronies, whom she had long ago dubbed the “Bitter Biddy Bridge club”.  Most days they were kind enough to her face, but Lauren had heard many hastily cut-off comments about her crumbling marriage during the past several months. It was just her luck to have to share her Saturday morning with them. 

     Sucking in a deep breath of dank air she blew her unruly bangs from her eyes, and staked her claim on a small corner of the room. There she unpacked her laundry room survival kit: a small box of chocolates, a can of diet cola, and her most beloved romance novel. This last item she gave a fond pat as she set it on the table. Lauren picked up her basket again, darting a final glance at the brawny kilted hero who graced the book’s cover.  Releasing a wistful sigh, she shook her head and walked away. They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

     A moment’s search led her to an available washing machine.  She was about to load her darks into it when one of the old women shouted, “Dontcha see that it’s broken, girly?!” 

Lauren slinked across the aisle to a trio of open washers and made a great show of searching for her change purse, wincing when Gladys barked, “Don’t see much, that girl.  Husband having an affair right under her nose like that, and her too dim to see it!”

Lauren would have given anything to be able to stuff the cackling old crow into the nearest washer and set her on spin cycle! She dug some quarters out of her wallet, snapped them into the slots, and forced the levers home, then slopped some soap into both machines, adding bleach to the one on the right.  Maybe this group of ladies would have been friendlier if she had sought them out.  But Lauren’s innate shyness and discomfort at baring her wounded soul had caused her to shrink in on herself, rather than reach out to anybody during this past, painful year.

Anxious to be back in her haven of chocolate and happily-ever-after, she tossed clothes about in a flurry of activity.  Blue jeans, left--white tee shirt, right.  Red shorts, left--white sock, right.  Almost entranced by the simple-minded activity, she was jolted back to reality by Mrs. B’s grating voice.

      “Y’know, if I were just a few years younger, I’d go after that hot stud myself!”

      Lauren’s brow furrowed even deeper over that last outrageous statement.  She tried to imagine a guy, any guy, hanging around Gladys long enough for her to put some smooth moves on him.

***

 

 

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