Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Critique of Excerpt from Barton Creek Bridge

(My comments will be in Purple. Words and punctuation that need to be deleted are in Red. Words and punctuation I added are in Purple.) At the end I will have general comments about the passage and a writing exercise.
“Do you think we’ll be home before 10?”

Gavin shifted in the back seat of the car. He acted more nervous than normal with the youth pastor. I wondered what was up with that, but said nothing. I pulled my feet up closer under me and leaned on my pillow. I had my eyes shut, but I was wide-awake. I didn’t want anyone to know I was listening to everything in the car.

The trip to camp had started out like any other. The youth pastor was a big guy, outweighed anyone I knew and was taller than everyone but Grandpa. He wasn’t very old, but I wasn’t sure how old that was. At 11, I wasn’t yet a good judge of age. Are they going to camp or returning home?

“I don’t know. The way this car is running, it might be morning. I called your parents to let them know.” Maynard Conner sat tall in the front seat. His straggly hair and scrawny beard made him look even more unkempt than usual. He filled up the seat behind the wheel, and I thought he looked a little menacing.

The car kept moving toward home, but it chugged more than it had earlier. It was long after dark when it finally chugged the last slow energy-draining chug and died. I looked at the lighted clock on the dash and saw it was only 8:30 but we were still a ways from home. Repetition of the word "chug."

Maynard pulled the car safely to the right, just off the shoulder of the highway. He picked up his cell phone and dialed a number. “Julia, it’s dead. I’m just east of Barton. Are you on the road?”

Maynard paused and listened to the person on the other end of the phone. I knew he was talking to my mom; her name was Julia.

“You picked up Dudley?” he asked. The conversation wasn’t going to be a long one. “Thanks, I’ll be here, the kids are sleeping. Most of them.”

I sat there with my eyes closed pretending to be one of the sleeping kids. I didn’t know why I was pretending, but it continued to feel like the thing to do.

“Okay, Julia, we’re just east of the Barton Creek Bridge, on the south side of the road.”

Maynard closed the cell phone and put it back in his pocket. The car was off the shoulder of the road, almost in the ditch, leaning hard to the right. I heard water rushing somewhere and realized it was Barton Creek. It wasn’t a big river, but this was melt down season, so the river ran higher than normal.

“Guess we won’t be home by 10, Gavin,” The youth pastor commented in a low tone, almost under his breath.

I could hear Dillon and Summer in the back seat snoring away. Gavin was the only one awake and talking. He never stopped talking about something. So far Gavin has only said one sentence.

Oh, did I mention that I’m Gavin Ruskin’s little brother Neill? He’s 13 and I’m 11. We’re not very old, but we’re both real smart, but I probably don’t have to tell you. You’ll figure it out soon enough. You can tell us apart because Gavin wears his hair butched. I prefer mine long in back so my curls show. Mom likes to play with my curls, but I don’t mind too much. I just like having curls and looking different from Gavin. You've already established that the narrator is 11 years old in the 3rd paragraph.

“I’m going to get out and look under the hood.” Maynard said out loud, to nobody in particular. I moaned something, like I’d heard him, but didn’t open my eyes. He probably didn’t believe I was asleep. I didn’t care. I just didn’t want to participate in this event. I was tired from camp.

“What are you looking for?” I heard Gavin ask a few seconds after his door slammed shut. The driver’s window was down, and I could listen to them talking in front of the car. Maynard muttered something I didn’t hear, and Gavin chuckled. I took a chance to open my eyes and look around.

The red rock cliff behind me was part of the same formations that provided a foundation for our home on Breken Ridge. We were only about 50 miles from home. The red rocks in the mesas weren’t common in this part of the country, but they ran along the valley for most of 80 miles.

Barton Creek was a tributary of Breken River joined at the fork about thirty miles away. Barton Creek was usually a dry stream, except for summer run off times. Then it could be a rushing river for a while. Breken River flowed from the mountains past our home and right into the Bird’s Eye Gulch Dam at the lower end of the valley. I always thought it was pretty awesome that Mom built our home right there on the Ridge north of the river, so we could see all the way to the dam. That dam was more than twenty miles from our home, but in the winter, when the trees were bare, we could look right through the dried limbs to the big concrete slab that spanned the river bottom. Lovely description.

Dillon changed positions in the back seat, and I heard Summer moan. I wondered why his parents had named him Summer.

Traffic rushed by, nobody stopped to help. The night was black when cars weren’t passing. So, I closed my eyes again and dreamed about what I’d do after I got home.

Mom was is a writer. She often wrote writes mystery novels about things that really happened, turning them into fiction by using different characters and only touching on the actual event. The most interesting parts appear in her stories, and she changes the rest. I wondered if this event would make a novel at some point. I figured it would. How does this tie in to Neill dreaming about what he will do when he gets home?

I have two sisters, Morgan and Emily. Morgan went away to college, and I miss her terribly. She’s studying criminal justice. Emily turned sixteen a while back, and she drives Gavin and I every place we want to go. Well, at least when Mom lets her. Ditto.

Summer kicked the back of my seat and I could hear him stretching. “Where are we?”

“Barton Creek, just east of Barton. We broke down again.” There doesn't seem to be any real purpose to this exchange. You've already established that they are broken down and that they are by Barton Creek, east of Barton.

I answered him without opening my eyes. I knew I sounded bored and perturbed. I felt that way. Camp had been a lot of fun, but I wanted to get home.

“How far are we from Breken?” Still no purpose to this. You've already established that they are 50 miles from Breken.

“About an hour. Mom and Dudley are coming to get us.” No purpose. You've already established this.


Summer drifted off to sleep again, and before long I could hear him snoring. I imagined a warm pan of oatmeal raisin cookies coming out of the oven and was seriously considering a raid on the backpack in the trunk for some yummy vittles. About the time I’d decided it was worth the effort to go get them, I heard Gavin talking to Emily.

“What are you doing all broken down?”

“The engine just quit. Sounded like it gave up and died, breathed its last, and needed to be just put out of its misery.” Gavin gave a way bigger description than the event deserved. This has already been described.

I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped out of the car. I had a long step. On my side of the car was a ditch about two feet deep that ran along the face of the cliff beside the road. The wide pullout was flat and graded, like a dirt road, but the ditch was deep, lined with wildflowers and grasses. Again, lovely description.

Mom’s voice was soft and far away, I looked up and realized she and Dudley were untying the straps on the trailer and lugging ramps to the back of it. Dudley was almost as big as the youth pastor, and a little more muscled. He’d been a hard worker. His age was less obvious, I often wondered if he wasn’t closer to Mom’s age, but he said he was the same age as the youth pastor.You've mentioned Dudley a lot but never actually identified who he is.

I stepped over beside Emily and quickly gave her a one armed hug. I was glad to see her, but I didn’t want to be too obvious,; the guys might be watching.

Emily squeezed me with one arm and ruffled my hair. I looked up and smiled,; I was happy. My sister and my mom were there. I hadn’t seen them in over a week; definitely time to go home.

“Let’s get it loaded,” Maynard called out. He probably hoped he’d awakened the two in the back seat. But he didn’t. They kept snoring.

He finally went around to the side of the car and opened their door, to get them awake. It took a while, and even then they kind of fell out of the car and staggered to the truck and got in. They were sound asleep before the door closed. I thought that was pretty funny.

“Emily you get in and steer the car, we’ll push. Gavin, you and Neill watch the ramps, there… Make sure we are lined up.” Mom always took charge in situations like this, even when the guys could probably handle it. She just knew what she was doing and did it. I took the flashlight and aimed it at the ramp, and watched the car roll slowly up to the end of it. It was lined up.

Mom and Dudley were directly behind the car; Maynard was a bit to the side. I watched them push, thinking it was a bit of a transition, to push the van up on the trailer from flat ground. Then I realized mMom had parked the trailer in a dip, that’s why they had to push the car so far forward.

“Brakes Em!” Dudley called out from the back bumper as the car topped the back of the trailer and settled almost against the front ramp. Dudley grabbed a ramp and shoved it forward under the car into place ahead of the back axle. Gavin reached under and pulled the strap back to lock it in place. Dudley pushed the second ramp into place.

Maynard tied down the front end of the car and helped Emily down from the trailer. I heard brakes behind us and looked back to see two cars coming our direction.

One hit the railing on the bridge and bounced back. When the front bumper collided with the other car, the rear bumper came around and sent both vehicles into a spin. I felt frozen. My feet refused to move. You have spent about 40 paragraphs describing the location in infinite detail, discussing the breakdown of the car and detailing Neill's family, but you only give one small paragraph to what is probably the most important paragraph in the passage. Here is where you need details-- the sound of the cars coming toward them, the crunch of them hitting the guard rail, the
rush of air from the collision.

“Neill, look out!”

General comments:

This is what I call a "kitchen sink" passage in that the writer throws in everything, including the kitchen sink. In this passage we learn the following:

  1. The narrator's name is Neill.
  2. He is 11 years old.
  3. He is returning from church camp in a car driven by the youth pastor, whose name is Maynard.
  4. We get a description of Maynard.
  5. The car breaks down.
  6. It is about 8:30 PM.
  7. They are 50 miles from home.
  8. Neill's older brother, Gavin, is 13 and is also in the car.
  9. Two other kids are in the car, Summer and Dillon.
  10. Dillon and Summer are asleep.
  11. Gavin wears his hair in a crew cut while Neill keeps his long.
  12. Neill's mom writes mysteries.
  13. Neill has two older sisters, Emily and Morgan.
  14. Morgan is at college studyiung criminal justice, and Neill misses her.
  15. Emily is 16 and drives.
  16. Mom is a take-charge type of person.
  17. We learn Dudley's description but don't know who he is, exactly.
  18. Neill's mom had their house built on a ridge overseeing the river with a view of the dam.
  19. Two cars crash into the railing after Dudley, Mom, Emily and Maynard get the car loaded onto a trailer.

The writer spends a great deal of time setting the scene-- too long. As I was reading through this, I kept wondering when something was going to happen. She makes reference to Gavin being nervous with the youth minister and the minister looking scraggly and unkempt. So my first thought when the car broke down was that the minister had rigged it and was going to kidnap the children and molest them.

The paragraphs where they are waiting for rescue just seem to drag on forever without purpose and the intricate details as to loading the car onto the trailer also drag.

It's important to determine the goal of a passage- where is the writer trying to get to? My assumption in this is that the writer is trying to get to the crash. Everything that comes before the crash should lead to this. What are the salient points that need to be covered before the car crash?

  1. The fact that they are stranded by the roadside.
  2. The car has been loaded onto the trailer.
  3. Neill is standing in the way of the oncoming cars.

Everything else is incidental and nonessential- it can be included, but only if it doesn't detract from moving the story forward. The other info- the stuff about Neill's sisters and their house and their hair- can all be worked into the story later if it is important.

Exercise: Rewrite this passage. Tighten it up and focus on moving the story forward to the crash. You should be able to condense this passage into no more than 8 paragraphs- and remember, a substantial part of those paragraphs needs to deal with the crash.

You can either post your passage as a comment or email it to me at dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com If you email it to me, please put "Barton Creek Exercise" in the heading.

Next week I will post one way to rewrite this passage.

If any of you have questions or comments for the author or for me, please post them. Let's give the author as much constructive feedback as possible.




Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

Kerri has done an excellent rewrite: She also pointed out that the vocabulary seemed to be awfully advanced for an 11-year-old-- good catch Kerri!

The trip back from camp started out like any other, with Maynard, our youth counselor hogging up most of the front seat with his enormous butt, my brother Gavin talking nonstop about nothing, our friends, Dillon and Summer snoring in the back, and me, just trying to get comfortable in the front seat. I hugged my pillow and pulled my knees closer to my chest. Gavin asked me something, but I pretended I was asleep. It was late. I missed my Mom, and I wanted to be home.

“So you think we’ll be home by ten?” Gavin said, leaning over the seat and pressing his chin against Maynard’s herculean shoulder.

Before Maynard could answer, the car lurched forward, making a loud chugging sound. I opened my eyes, glancing quickly at the lighted clock on the dash. It flickered and then held: eight-thirty-two. Maynard squinted hard and tugged on his straggly hair, muttering something I couldn’t make out. I shut my eyes tight. I was a little afraid of the huge man with his scrawny beard and unkempt clothes. He kinda reminded me of a giant.

“C’mon…” Maynard urged, giving the car more gas. The bucking ceased, and we moved a little further down the highway.

“I don’t know, Champ,” he said. “The way this car’s acting, we’ll be lucky to get home before morning.”

The car shuddered again, harder this time, and then, with one slow, energy-draining wheeze, the engine died. I heard the wheels crunch against gravel as Maynard steered us safely onto the shoulder of highway. He called my Mom on his cell phone.

“Julia? Hey, it’s me. The car died. We’re just east of the Barton Creek Bridge, south bound. Are you and Dudley on the road?” There was pause, and I heard Maynard mumble something about most of us kids being asleep. I hugged my pillow tighter, pretending to be one of the sleeping kids. I don’t know why I didn’t want him to know I was awake, but I didn’t.

When Maynard popped the hood and slipped out the front door, I heard water rushing over rocks. Barton Creek was usually dry but summer runoff made it run it high, with rapids crashing over the smooth stones in the basin.

The backdoor slammed shut, and I heard the crunch of Gavin’s sneakers as he joined Maynard under the hood of the car.

Peeking from between my eyelashes, I tried to see where we were. The creek ran off the Breken River, which flowed from the mountains, past our home, and right into the Bird’s Eye Gulch Dam at the lower end of the valley. Red rock marked the mesa for about fifty miles outside our town, so I knew we were somewhere close.

I closed my eyes for a while longer, until light flooded the inside of the car and I heard Mom’s voice. I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped out of the car. I had a long step. On my side of the car was a ditch about two feet deep that ran along the face of the cliff beside the road. The wide pullout was flat and graded, like a dirt road, but the ditch was deep, lined with wildflowers and grasses.

Mom squeezed me with one arm and ruffled my hair. Unlike Gavin's closely cropped skull, I keep my hair long in the back, the way Mom likes it.

“Rough trip?” she asked. I nodded.

She pointed to the front of the truck, and I was happy to see my older sister, Emily, sitting in the driver’s seat. “Emily’s gonna drive,” Mom said. “Dudley’s over there with Gavin.” She handed me a flashlight. “You hold this beam on the ramp and make sure we’re all lined up, okay?”

“Um, hmm.” I was happy she gave me a job. After all, I am eleven, almost a teenager.

"Dudley? Come over here and push with me." I smiled. Mom was in charge; we might make it home by ten, afterall.

The car rolled easily onto the back of the trailer, noisily colliding with the front ramp. Dudley and Gavin braced the back axle, while Maynard helped Emily down from cab and the two of them set about tying down the front end of the car.

I opened my mouth to say something nice to Mom, but before I could form the words, the air filled with a deafening explosion: squealing breaks, the crunch of metal, the clatter of shattered glass.

8:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home