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 02, 2007

Prologue to Growlers

This blog has only been "official" for a couple of days, but I've already received lots of positive feedback and several samples for critiques! I appreciate everyone's willingness- and bravery in putting themselves out there to be critiqued in public. I also want to encourage those of you who are reading this to post comments or questions. You have the ear- or at least the eyes- of a publisher- so take advantage of it!

Today I'm posting the first critique. Please remember that this is just one person's opinion- mine. However, you can all post your comments about this sample as well. Give the writer as much positive and constructive feedback as possible.

And now, on with the critique: (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.

The wind, roared through the tops of the towering fir trees like a runaway locomotive, shaking off slabs of snow and ice. Jason Parker paused, bent over with hands on his knees, panting heavily. The high wind drove the icy snow, stinging any exposed flesh. Jason looked up the hill, a hollow depression in the snow his only indication a trail existed as he resumed his climb. His feet, caked with snow and ice, numb from the cold, made each movement sluggish. Nice opening paragraph.

Jason reached the summit, and paused behind a huge granite boulder where swirls of snow danced around his feet. His breath came in gasps, hard and fast from the climb at this the high altitude. Ice crystals formed where his breath filtered through the wool scarf covering all but his eyes; Eek! Comma splice! his appearance more like an Arab wandering the Sahara, than a Pilgrim plodding across the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California.

Jason Parker tugged on the lead rope drawing Matilda, his pack mule, closer to help block the wind. He reached out and patted Matilda’s head affectionately, scratching behind one of her big floppy ears. His eyes were bright with excitement as they fell on the leather bag hanging from the side of Matilda’s pack. He lifted it off from the pack peg where it hung. He felt it vibrate as he rolled it in his hands. It seemed to have a mystical energy of its own, spreading a warmth which seemed to overcome the cold biting wind that gnawed at his clothing. This should be your opening paragraph. The reader should not have to wait till the 3rd paragraph to learn that Jason has a mule. This paragraph has action, nice description, and grabs the reader to pull her into the story.

Protected from the direct blast of wind by gigantic boulders, Jason’s mind began to drift back over the past few days, from when he had first stumbled into that box canyon. He and about a million other men from all over the world had dropped everything and headed to the Gold Fields of California. News of Sutter’s find had flashed across the Oregon territory faster than the new telegraph. Gold! Gold found in the hills of California!.

Jason had followed a stream into the little valley enclosed on three sides by nearly vertical walls of rock. The gurgling stream flowed from a clear pool of water fed by three waterfalls cascading down the shear rock face at the rear of the canyon. The valley itself was only two or three acres of lush grass encircled by tall evergreen trees that seemed to brush clean the shear rock cliffs. The scent of pine filled the still warm air. A water bug skittered across the pond and became dinner for a large rainbow trout that left rippling circles across the crystal clear water. It was a lovely, peaceful place; and after a search of the canyon near the falls, finding no exit, he knew he would have to back track. He was tired from the day's trek, and decided to set up camp for the night. Okay, now I have to wonder why you stepped back into the past after only 3 paragraphs. It is jolting to the reader and seems anti-climactic. The description is nice, but this just doesn't seem to have much purpose to it.

An old pine tree with its limbs bleached white by the hot summer sun, looked much like the bones of a beached whale, lay beside the pond. Jason hobbled Matilda, where she greedily attacked the lush green grass. He gathered limbs from the old pine, and soon the aroma of wood smoke and sizzling bacon mixed with the sweet pine air.

The floor of the meadow was in complete shadow as Jason finished his meal of bacon and beans. The evening sun reflected off the upper edge of the shear granite wall, and cast a soft hazy glow over the valley.

Jason immersed his fry pan in the icy cold pond, scooped up a pan full of gravel and sand, and began to scour the pan with his hand. This would clean away the grease and any particles of food that remained.

The peaks around the valley caught the last rays of the setting sun. The little valley became darker and Jason had difficulty seeing the contents of the pan. Dipping the pan deeper into the pond, he carelessly washed away about half of the sand left in the pan and there, gleaming in the near dark, were three large gold nuggets. “Gold is where you find it,” someone once said, and find it Jason had!

The fire flared up hot and bright as Jason added more fuel, this gave him enough light to finish washing out his frying pan. He rummaged through his pack and found a quart sized jar of preserved peaches. The jar had a thick glass lid held on by a wire snap with a gummy seal to keep it airtight. He started to dump the peaches on the ground but stopped. He considered the possibility of bears. Bears could smell the odor of food left out and he did not want to be awakened by some hungry bear in his camp as it foraged for food. He drank most of the sweet syrupy liquid then poured the rest, plus the peaches into the fire. He rinsed out the jar then poured the gold nuggets and dust into it.

As soon as there was light enough to see, Jason began washing pans of gravel scooped out of the pond. As he swirled the pan in circles he could here hear the nuggets scrape against the bottom of the pan. The sound, gold nuggets make as they hide beneath the black sand covering the bottom of the pan, called “Growlers.” The previous sentence does not make sense. By the time the sun was directly above the meadow, he had about a quarter of the jar full of shining nuggets and smaller gold flake; by late afternoon the jar was almost three quarters full.

A drop of rain hit the back of Jason’s neck. Startled, he was so engrossed in washing out the pans of gold that he hadn’t noticed the clouds building up over the rim of the canyon. Afternoon rain in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was not unusual. Thermal heat from the Sacramento Valley forces itself up the slopes of the mountains mixing with the cold air at higher elevations forming large cumulus clouds rising thousands of feet in the air. If I am an Acquisitions Editor having a bad day, this is probably where you lose me.

Sheets of rain soon followed the thunder, which rolled off the peaks and rattled around the canyons. Jason was unprepared for the sudden wet weather and scrambled around to build a makeshift lean-to.

Keeping a fire going was of the utmost importance. The dried limbs broke easily from the skeleton of a tree by the pond, and Jason carried several armloads of limbs and branches back to his lean-to and stacked them within easy reach of the shelter. Pulling some dry bark from under the old tree and adding a handful of dried pine needles, Jason soon had a warm fire going. He would have built his shelter closer to the trees except for the lightning that flashed and roared though the little canyon.

With little to do but sit out the storm and feed the fire, he sat peering into the darkening afternoon, thinking.

Jason awoke shivering from the cold. The rain had stopped but the temperature had fallen. He had nodded off and his fire was no more that glowing coals. Crumbling some dry bark in his shaking hands, he sprinkled it over the coals and blew on them until a flame erupted. Carefully he added twigs, then larger sticks until he had a blaze going.

Snow! Curtains of white began invading the dome of light that made up Jason’s world. He tossed a large piece of wood into the flames that sent a flurry of sparks like angry bees ascending into the falling snow. Dawn was no more that a hint of light through the leaden gray clouds, spewing snow across the mountains. Jason threw the last of his coffee into the fire and began to break camp.

Matilda’s pawing in the snow at her feet brought Jason back to the present. The wind tore at his clothes as he peered around the boulders on the trail. He could see that the trail continued on a shelf of rock that disappeared around the shoulder of the mountain. Years of wind, rain, and snow had washed away all the soil leaving a shelf around the brow of the mountain that reminded Jason of the brim of an old battered top hat. Jason left Matilda in the lee of the rocks and ventured out on the shelf by himself; finding it was passable, but covered with snow and icy spots where the wind had not swept it clean. Jason used his left hand to balance against the side of the mountain as he continued until he could see that the ledge curved and merged with the forest on the far side.

General Comments: First, let me commend you, the author, on your use of description to establish the atmosphere. You've obviously done some research. However, I think it may have been a little misplaced. I have posted the first four and a half pages of your story, and I'm in a quandary here. Normally I tell writers to start the story as late as possible, but in this case, I'm not sure what your focus is. If you are going to jump back into the past after three paragraphs and describe Jason's panning for gold in intricate detail, then why start off with him climbing to the summit of the mountain? The panning for gold paragraphs are nice details, but what do they mean to the story? Okay, so Jason goes to California along with "a million other men" and pans for gold. He gets lucky and finds gold. So?

As a reader, I am going to feel really jerked around. Here I'm quite happy on the mountaintop with Jason, and suddenly I'm down in a valley, albeit a pretty one, reading several paragraphs about panning for gold and how Jason sets up camp and cooks fish. Quite frankly, it's boring and if I am an Acquisitions Editor for a Publisher, the worst thing you can do is give me something boring to read. Acquisitions Editors are all sleep deprived and if given the slightest chance, they will fall asleep.

My suggestion is to not go into the flashback here. It does not seem to have any purpose and does nothing to move the story along. Now I happen to have read ahead into the other 4 pages you sent and know that after you finish your flashback, you have an exciting scene involving a bear. And I believe that it is the important part of your prologue. Stick with that. Cut out your flashback paragraphs. I think it will tighten up your story and make your prologue much more inviting.

Suppose you drop your first two paragraphs and pull some key points from them into your 3rd paragraph, which is now your opener. You then have a short, one paragraph flashback, and then continue with the scene on the mountaintop. This is what you would have:

Jason Parker tugged on the lead rope drawing Matilda, his pack mule, closer to help block the wind, which roared through the tops of the towering fir trees like a runaway locomotive, shaking off slabs of snow and ice. His breath came in gasps, hard and fast, from the climb to the high summit. Ice crystals formed where his breath filtered through the wool scarf covering all but his eyes, his appearance more like an Arab wandering the Sahara, than a Pilgrim plodding across the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California. He reached out and patted Matilda’s head affectionately, scratching behind one of her big floppy ears. His eyes were bright with excitement as they fell on the leather bag hanging from the side of Matilda’s pack. He lifted it from the pack peg where it hung. He felt it vibrate as he rolled it in his hands. It seemed to have a mystical energy of its own, spreading a warmth that seemed to overcome the cold biting wind that gnawed at his clothing.

Protected from the direct blast of wind by gigantic boulders, Jason’s mind began to drift back over the past few days, from when he had first stumbled into that box canyon. He and about a million other men from all over the world had dropped everything and headed to the Gold Fields of California. News of Sutter’s find had flashed across the Oregon territory faster than the new telegraph. Gold! Gold found in the hills of California!

Matilda’s pawing in the snow at her feet brought Jason back to the present. The wind tore at his clothes as he peered around the boulders on the trail. He could see that the trail continued on a shelf of rock that disappeared around the shoulder of the mountain. Years of wind, rain, and snow had washed away all the soil leaving a shelf around the brow of the mountain that reminded Jason of the brim of an old battered top hat. He left Matilda in the lee of the rocks and ventured out on the shelf by himself; finding it was passable, but covered with snow and icy spots where the wind had not swept it clean. Jason used his left hand to balance against the side of the mountain as he continued until he could see that the ledge curved and merged with the forest on the far side.


Okay folks, let's hear from some of you. Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

My thanks to the author for your submission. Good luck!

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dinty,

A friend has made a comment that by posting someone's writing on this blog...it is consider published. Therefore, the writer loses the ability to sell their piece as unpublished. What's your take on this?

Thank you,
Laura A. Bethuy

3:03 PM  
Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

Good question. Your friend is not entirely correct. The 1976 Copyright Act defines publication as follows: ''Publication'' is the distribution of copies or phonerecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonerecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication."

By posting on this blog, the author of the work is in no way transferring ownership or any rights to Swimming Kangaroo. It may be a bit of a sticky wicket in that people submit knowing that their work will be posted on the blog and that may constitute public display-- however, the work is not being displayed in its entirety. An excerpt of it is being posted and critiqued. In addition, it is highly unlikely that the work is bring posted in its final form in that it is being critiqued.

If one is really concerned, then if one submits the work later for publication, one could say, "An unedited excerpt of this work has appeared on Write Wow!"

I'm not an attorney, but I don't see this as an issue. The problem would come if there is a concern that someone else holds the rights to the work, which is not the case.

Here is a website where one can check for more information:
http://www.lawguru.com/cgi/bbs/mesg.cgi?i=706439704

3:00 PM  
Blogger Laura A. Bethuy said...

Hi Dinty,

Thank you for clarifying that. I agree with you, especially since as you said, you're not transferring ownership and the pieces are not complete or finished.


Laura

5:26 AM  
Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

It was a valid question and I'm glad you raised it. To further allay concerns, I'm only going to critique one excerpt per work-- so if an author is submitting an excerpt from a novel, I will only accept one excerpt from that novel for critique.

Dindy

5:36 AM  

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