Welcome to the first Wordstrumpet mini-critique. Today's victim volunteer is none other than Christi Corbett and she bravely sent me a couple of excerpts from her novel, Along the Way Home. You can read another excerpt on Christi's blog, here, and you might also want to check out her book trailer, which is very cool, here. Thanks, Christi, for volunteering to be the first to be critiqued!
Wednesday, April 5, 1843
Every week Kate stood on the same front porch, her hand poised inches from the door, willing herself to finally do the unthinkable—walk away without knocking. However, during this moment of hesitation her courage inevitably faded, and a duty ingrained since birth reared its oppressive head.
Wednesdays were a long-standing tradition, and one she wouldn’t disrupt.
Steeling herself for what she would endure over the next two hours, Kate rapped her knuckles against the door. Familiar footsteps clicked toward the other side of the entry, and she forced a smile as the door opened to reveal an overdressed, overfed, overbearing woman.
“Katherine Davis, how dare you appear at my doorstep looking like some commoner? Get that bonnet on your head this instant!”
The smile faded. “Yes, Aunt Victoria.”
Kate pulled the velvet cage over the mass of auburn hair secured in a knot at the nape of her neck, knowing full well she’d only take it off again once she stepped over the threshold. Under the guise of propriety, her aunt had tortured her for years.
I love the first paragraph, the way Christi stays in Kate's viewpoint while building some suspense: what is Kate dreading? Why does she feel compelled to do this same thing every Wednesday of her life? She's not only got suspense here, but conflict as well. It is always a good thing to start a novel or story out with conflict in the first paragraph, and this one does that well.
I also love the payoff we get when Aunt Victoria comes to the door. She is "overdressed, overfed, overbearing." Nice alliteration. And her appearance adds yet more conflict. In writing fiction, you simply can't overdo the conflict. You won't have a problem with adding in too much conflict, you'll have a problem with getting enough in. Trust me on this.
One way the excerpt could be improved—by using stronger, more original and active verbs. For instance, her hand "poised" is a bit of a cliché (clichés can be word usage and not just familiar phrases). "Steeling" and "forced a smile" are also cliché-ish.
There's nothing wrong with any of these words, they serve Christi well and give us information we need. We've just seen them used this way before.
In contrast, note how Christi uses the word, "cage" in place of "bonnet" in the last paragraph. This tells us immediately what Kate thinks not only of having to wear the bonnet, but her place in this world as well.
Without another word, Kate returned to the wagon. Moments later, a large wooden chair with an upholstered seat appeared through the canvas, followed by a matching one. Elijah set them down, then reached inside and brought out a large glass pitcher to add to the pile.
“Anything else?” asked Jake.
Kate quickly looked to her father in silent protest.
“Jake,” said Elijah. “I’m afraid I have to agree with my daughter. Everything in that wagon is either items we will need once we arrive, or irreplaceable family heirlooms.” Elijah’s voice softened. “Grace, my late wife, meant everything to me and I couldn’t bear to part with anything else.”
Their stubbornness would be their demise in the west, Jake was sure of it.
“Alright then,” Jake answered with a forced shrug. “Since you insist on having your way, I’m willing to take the risk—as long as you can accept the possible consequences.” If they didn’t agree with him now, they would within the month when the oxen were too weak to pull the wagon. Or dead.
This points out the dangers of critiquing partial pieces, which I mention because it is a common problem in both workshops and critique groups. If you participate in a workshop, the other writers may be reading your segment completely out of context. Even in a regular critique group, your readers may be reading your novel chapter by chapter—but the nature of the process is that your readers may forget what previously happened because its been awhile since they read.
In this example, as I start reading, I think that Kate and Elijah are pulling things out of the wagon to leave behind, but I'm not sure. As I read further, I become more certain of this. All well and good. Momentary confusion solved.
Overall, this is another strong excerpt. Upon first reading, I thought that Elijah's little speech was a bit wordy and stilted. But on second reading I realized that the way he talks echoes the times. So, all good. (It is always important to read a piece twice, if you can, and this points out why.)
I really like the contrast between what Jake says and what he consequently thinks. Nice way to add in some conflict.
Great job, Christi! I'm ready to read your novel and I'm sure a lot of readers are now, too. Please keep us posted on its progress and let us know when it is going to be released.
***Remember, you, too, could be critiqued! Just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with an excerpt of 250 words or less. Tell me a little about your exerpt, and whether or not you wish to remain anonymous. Also include any links you'd like me to use. C'mon, you can see that I'm not mean–be brave and step right up!