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.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Critique of The Secret of the Beat

(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.)

When I was seven, my father tried to teach me the secret of the beat.

The results were a disaster, and the fact that I chose to recall the lesson on that particular day, nine years later, should have been a warning to me.

Timing is everything, Trace.

I heard my father’s voice in my head as I pulled the book of matches from my back pocket and opened the cover.

First, there’s the set up.

Inside, the matches were short and flimsy. I tore off two to be on the safe side, uncertain that I would have the courage to strike another should the first one fail.

The set up is the straight line.

I closed the cover of the matchbook and flipped it over in my hand. Taking a deep breath, I held the matches close together and slid them along the narrow rough strip on the back of the matchbook.

Now, this is the important part.

One match sparked to life a second before the other, and then they both flared up together. I cupped my hand around the flame to protect it from the slight wind blowing from the west.

After the straight line comes the beat.

The flame burned quickly toward my fingers, giving me little time to waste on further contemplation of what I was about to do. I bent down and reached for the frayed end of the fuse not more than an inch or two from my foot.

The beat is the pause before the punch line.

At first, the thin strands of the fuse caught fire and quickly fizzled out. Then two strands burned together toward a third and the fuse smoked and hissed as the fire crept slowly away from me.

The trick is getting the beat just right.

I had measured the length of the fuse down to the last inch, practicing with foot long segments to count out the speed of the burn. I knew it would take the fuse at least 90 seconds to reach its destination, plenty of time to take cover. I ran and crouched behind the rusted shell of the old car and waited.

If the beat is too long or too short, you won’t get the maximum laugh.

I waited with my hands over my head for the blast to send debris sailing through the air. I counted slowly to ninety, and then to ninety again. And, still I waited. Then, like a kid with a dud firecracker on the fourth of July, I gave in to the irresistible urge to get up and go see what the problem was.

Get the beat wrong, and you’ll bomb.

Looking back, I realize that I didn’t factor in the effect of all the different surfaces the fuse would have to burn across, a mistake Simon never would have made had he been there. But, I didn’t think of that till much later, after the blast had picked me up and thrown me back on top of the hood of the old car. I twisted in agony, rolling myself off the hood and on to the rocks on the other side.

I landed just inches from my empty backpack and the rifle that I had taken to carrying with me everywhere. I reached out and pulled them both to me, seeking comfort or protection or maybe just the feel of something familiar. The world had been knocked out from under me, and I struggled just to draw air into my lungs.

Eventually, the pain gave way to numbness and I was overcome with fear at the thought that I might have broken my back. I tried to sit up, but the pain quickly returned. I waited for the numbness to set in again, and then tried to roll on my side, but my torso flatly refused to follow my flailing arms.

Finally, I lay still and watched the sun drift slowly across the cloudless sky. Around mid-day I heard a rustling from the trees beyond the meadow. Something snorted impatiently, as if my presence were a damned inconvenience on plans already made.

I shouted out my own frustration in a stream of profanity, and the rustling retreated back into the woods, clearly offended at the vulgarity of my vocabulary. Sweat trickled down my face from the effort my outburst had taken. I flicked my tongue out as the moisture made its way across my lips, suddenly aware of how thirsty I had become. But, all I got was a damp taste of dirt and salt.

I slept fitfully, waking in late afternoon and again at sunset. As the darkness grew around me, I slid the backpack under my head and gripped my rifle tighter. Stars came out, brighter and more bountiful than anything you’d ever see in the city, and I remembered lying on my back with my father further up the hill, and trying to count them all.

Suddenly, I was overcome with despair at the way everything had turned out. Why had I come here? What in the hell did I think I would find in this desolate, forgotten place? How would I ever get out of this?

I drew my rifle up tight and pointed it at the night sky.

See that, Trace?

My father was back in my head again.

That’s Polaris, the North Star.

“Is it really, dad?” I shouted back at him across the void. “How the hell would you know? You’re just a two-bit failed actor who couldn’t even make it as a pickle, and now you’ve run off and you’re either dead or working as a motivational speaker or a porn star in Los Angeles, and I’ve never even been able to figure out which would bother me more if at all.” This is a rather lengthy speech for her to throw out in anger at her father. It would be equally effective, if not more effective, if the writer cut it off after the word 'pickle.' That aside, however, notice the curveball that the writer throws at us here. Up until now, I had been having all kinds of warm, fuzzy thoughts about Trace's relationship with her father. Suddenly the mental picture I have comes crashing down as we learn that things are not exactly peachy keen in that relationship. The writer held off on this information for a bit, setting the reader up for a shock by juxtaposing the contrasting images of Trace's dad. Very nicely done.

I aimed the rifle straight up and pulled the trigger repeatedly. I lost count of how many times I fired as the shots echoed though the valley, but by the time I finished I was waving the gun wildly, like a madman, trying to shoot all the stars out of the sky.

When there were no more shots left to fire, I tossed the rifle aside and lay on my back trying to catch my breath. I had just started to come to my senses, when something whizzed past my head and struck a rock behind me.

“Shit!” I yelled, “Could I be any more stupid?”

Firing a rifle straight into the air above me was not the smartest move I had ever made. I cringed, waiting for the bullet that could come streaking down at any minute to put me out of my misery.

But, it never came. Instead, a sharp cry rose from deep in the trees behind me, followed by more rustling and then a confused whimper.

I lay awake until sunrise, wondering what lay beyond the woods, and how my life had come to this.

This is a very nice piece of writing. Notice at the beginning how the writer weaves the lesson from the father into Trace's lighting of the fuse, carefully detailing every step in the process but not belaboring any of them. The author also has a very deft hand with setting the atmospher- she has masterfully descriptive phrases but, again, does not overdo it.

When Trace is lying, injured, after the blast, it's easy to feel her pain, her discomfort and frustration. This is a writer who has clearly mastered the concept of "less is more." She gives just enough description to establish the atmosphere but not enough to smother the passage. This contributes to the bleak feeling of hopelessness that arises when reading through this. Trace is in a stark, barren world, which is reflected in the way the story plays out. At first glance, it appears that there is not much description in this passage, but that's because the writer does such a good job of weaving it into the flow of the words. Not all description has to be obvious! So you can see what I mean, I have colored text where the writer adds to the atmosphere in blue.

The writer also does a terrific job of drawing the reader's interest and raising questions. Where is Trace? What kind of world does she live in? Why is she setting off explosives and firing rifles? Why does no one come to look for her when she is injured? These are all questions that the reader will have, but the writer wisely holds off on answering these questions, instead saving them for later in the story where they will flow out naturally.

A less experienced writer would be tempted to throw all of this information into the first few paragraphs and it would detract from the feeling of the passage. Kudos to the writer for knowing how to hold on to the information until she can work it naturally into her story.


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