And for the next victim person who has volunteered to have her work critiqued, welcome Jessica Baverstock. You may remember Jessica from her wonderful guest post here a few weeks ago, or you may know her from reading her great blog, Creativity's Workshop, in which creativity herself speaks. Jessica is a writer who recently moved to China, and you can read interesting posts about that and see the gorgeous color of her bedroom wall at her blog, too.
I dabbed the ultramarine liberally along my canvas, outlining the shore. Henry, my cousin, juggled paint tubes nearby.
"In recovery?" I said, checking I had the facts right.
"Yeah." The tight red curls atop his head sat unfazed by his vigorous nod.
"In recovery after surgery?" I said.
I chewed the end of my paintbrush. "Sure you weren’t hallucinating?"
He dropped the burnt umber and scowled at me. "There was a bikie in the next bed chuckin’ his guts. If that’s a hallucination, I want stronger meds."
I shrugged. "I’m just saying: you were recovering from heavy anesthetic. You sure you weren’t –"
He dumped the vermilion and atomic tangerine on the small fold-out table next to me. "Annie, can we get past this and on to what I’m trying to say?"
I squinted at the view, and then turned back to my canvas. "Shoot."
"Thank you," he said. "So this mob boss in the bed across the room – "
I paused mid brushstroke. "How do you know he was a mob boss?"
Henry looked like a cat about sink his claws into a stray furniture leg. "Italian. Deep voice. Large man. Marlon Brando complex."
"Naturally," I said, finishing the swirling wave in my endless ocean.
Henry cleared his throat. "And he’s saying, ‘Buried jewels, by the shell, paperbark, Leschenaultia.’"
"Uh huh," I said. "Sounds delirious to me."
He sniffed. "Probably was. Ingrown toenail, I think. But he said buried jewels."
"Yes, I heard the first time."
I love the energy and wit of this piece. Jessica asked me if the attributions were clear and I think she got a good balance on that. She leaves enough dialogue tags off that the conversation rips right along, but there are also enough to be clear. Little things like that can make a huge difference in writing scenes. She also wanted to know if she did enough showing (as opposed to telling) and the answer is a hearty yes.
My absolute favorite sentence in this excerpt is this one: "Henry, my cousin, juggled paint tubes nearby." This sentence accomplishes so much. For starters, it is always difficult to find original tics or physical actions for characters. I've never seen a fictional character–or a real live human, for that matter–juggle paint tubes before. It immediately tells us a lot, not only about Henry, but about his relationship with his cousin, Annie, as well. The cousins are close, as he feels close enough to her to juggle her art supplies. And he's irreverent. It tells me a bit about Annie, too. She's a confident painter, perhaps a professional, because she doesn't mind doing it around others. (Or maybe this is just me, because when I paint, I lock myself away so that nobody seems the lame work I'm doing!)
One thing I might change about this sentence is the word, "nearby." It seems a bit vague and doesn't really help me to see where Henry is in relation to Annie. Even something like, "in front of me" would be more descriptive. Which brings me to another point. Overall, I'd like just a little more descriptive grounding in the first paragraph, like one more sentence. The energy of the dialogue is so great, I really want to know where I am while I'm experiencing it.
I also like the use of color throughout this piece. Henry has "tight red curls." He dumps "vermillion and atomic tangerine," onto a table. Color is a great way to make a scene pop, and in this case, Annie is an artist, so she would constantly be noticing and naming color. Good use of viewpoint.
When driving with Henry, the journey is far more endurable if you divert your attention anywhere but the oncoming traffic. I quickly found a topic of conversation.
"What makes you think the mobster wasn’t just speaking random nonsense? I had a friend who came out of anesthetic singing The Star Spangled Banner."
Henry shrugged. "So?"
"He was Lithuanian."
Three empty Pepsi cans and a stray UBD were flung to the left as we rounded a corner. It took a minute before my seatbelt loosened enough to be comfortable again.
"I suppose you need my help to decipher the clues?" I said.
He smiled. "Nope. I’ve got them worked out already."
"Then what do you need me for?"
"You’re my sidekick. Treasure hunting is nowhere near as fun without a sidekick."
"Aren’t sidekicks meant to be younger than the protagonist?" I said through gritted teeth.
He thought about it. "Perhaps, but I’ve been your sidekick heaps of times when we were kids. It’s about time you repaid the favour."
"Yes," I muttered to myself. "But at least my adventures were plausible."
The first sentence of this excerpt is great. Not only is it descriptive, but it establishes the narrator as an authority. She knows things about Henry and how to deal with him, and she's going to share them with us. When they round the corner and the three cans of Pepsi fling about the car, I laughed. And then there's another great, subtle detail–Annie's seatbelt tightens on her. Who hasn't experienced that? And yet not everyone would think to use it as a way to describe the wild ride. Small details like these are what add up to a unique voice. And we're all looking to find our unique voices, aren't we?
I also love that Jessica has a great balance of characters in these two excerpts. There's the wild, whimsical Henry and the practical Annie. I want to go along on their adventure because I know Henry is going to get us into some crazy scrapes, but Annie will be there to pull us through.
The one thing I'd really pay attention to is making sure the dialogue works hard. In the first excerpt particularly, I felt some of the back and forth was done for effect. Nothing wrong with effect–it is a large part of our craft. But it has to feel organic. In other words, it has to be invisible. But overall, I loved these two excerpts. Great job, Jessica!
***If you would like to read the entire piece that Jessica took this from, go here.