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.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Critique: Friendly Enemies

Dresden Germany 1939

Although spring was officially two days away it was definitely in the air. It had been over [more than]four weeks since the last snow, and the drifts had melted leaving the odd patch of sleet lying in the fields. Tiny rivulets of water flowed through the grass, enough to soak into your shoes and make your toes feel like frozen digits [what do frozen digits feel like?]. The buds on the trees were showing the first signs of swelling, and the birds were starting their active nest building program as they whistled happily under the clear blue sky. [Notice the passive nature of this sentence, the use of "were". "were showing", "were starting". Try: The buds on the trees showed the first signs of swelling, and the birds built nests and whistled happily under the clear blue sky.] The crisp air had the feeling that a new season was almost upon us. [Air doesn't have feelings. What you mean to say is "The crisp air let us know a new season was almost upon us."
Hans Schneider, soccer boots tied by the laces straddling his neck, pedalled his bicycle furiously along the track from the soccer field. His misty breath came out like a veil [nice!]in the cold air as he pushed furiously along the dirt track, then to [on] the bitumen road toward his ground floor home in the apartment block on the outskirts of Dresden Germany. The cloudless sky gave him satisfaction knowing it would be a perfect night for viewing. [This is a classic tell and not show sentence. How do we know he received satisfaction (and the sky can't give satisfaction anyway.)? Try showing this instead with something like: He watched the clear blue sky and smiled slightly. It would be a beautiful night for viewing, even now he could see some of the stars coming out.]His friend and neighbour, Professor Bernstein [who],with his wife and daughter, who [move to the beginning of the sentence] lived two stories above him, had promised they would view the stars on his telescope at the first opportunity, and tonight seemed to offer that chance.
Only seventeen, Hans was a fair-haired, blue eyed, good-looking boy with typical Aryan looks. [This description really doesn't tell us much, does it? What makes him good looking? What are "typical Aryan looks"? What do you mean by fair-haired? (blond, silver blond, white blond, reddish blond? Cut short? Long? shoulder length? Stubble? Buzz? Curly? Straight? Thick? Wavy? Hair that girls would envy and like to run their fingers through? Hair that would make a barber itch to put scissors to?) And what do you mean by blue-eyed? Bright? Large eyes? Small? Long lashes? Short lashes? Piercing eyes? Dreamy eyes? Shiny eyes? Sparkling?] The sort of youth Adolph Hitler was proud of. [This is nice. Puts an immediate picture in the mind of what he looks like.]For three years he had been part of the Hitler Youth group, as all children were and had been a willing participant in learning the word of the Fuhrer about the greater good of Germany. Pride in his country was foremost in his mind, especially seeing how it had recovered from defeat in the First World War. He had a love for his nation and its people but was confused about the treatment given to the Jewish members of the community.

Always a student [ well, what else would he be at that age? I think you mean to say that he was always "studious."], he already [delete] had developed a keen interest in astronomy, and Professor Bernstein had taken a fatherly interest in him, encouraging him at every opportunity.
The Professor taught at the Dresden University and had moved into the apartment only six short months ago [before], but long enough for a warm friendship to develop. The Professor's pretty daughter Helena, was the cause of the two first meeting, and Hans and Helena had become sweethearts although Hans's parents were a little uneasy because of the Professor's Jewish heritage. [Take this last sentence out. You are telling and not showing. If the fact of Hans and Helena becoming sweethearts is important to the story, you can work it in later. If Hans' parents' uneasiness is important you can work it in later. you don't need to tell everything at the beginning of the story.]

[I'm not sure why you don't start the story here. There doesn't seem to be any reason to start it later and go immediately to a flashback. If you start it here, you can show it as it unfolds.] Hans remembered the first meeting well, as he sat on the steps of the building, watching the Bernstein’s furniture being brought in. [Show this. What is he doing on the steps? Reading? Playing marbles? Peeling potatoes? Who is bringing the furniture in? Is there a moving van or are friends helping them move?] The pretty dark hair of Helena caught his eye as he saw her carrying in a big bundle of books when one fell from the top. In a desperate attempt, she made a grab for it, the rest fell to the ground and Hans rushed forward to help her. Gathering them up he handed them to Helena who accepted them gratefully. "Thank you," she said shyly.

"My name is Hans. I live on the ground floor," he said as he gave her his best smile.
Staring at each other for several seconds, Helena blushed, not used to handsome young boys offering their assistance. [You have switched point of view here. You were telling things from Hans' point of view and you just switched to Helena's. This is jarring for the reader.]

"My name is Helena Bernstein. We’re moving in to the top apartment."

"Then I'd better help you carry these up the stairs."

Together they carried them to the apartment after Hans had introduced himself and she made no pretence of how happy she was to meet him. [This last set of dialogue accomplishes nothing except introducing the two of them. There is so much that could be done with this passage-- Hans could look at the books and see that they are school books or astronomy books or books about the Talmud. He can comment on them, starting a conversation and learn that Helena's father is a professor of astronomy or Helena is a student at an elite girls' school. Where are Helena's parents? Upstairs in the apartment directing things? Is the professor already engrossed in his studies while his wife moves things around? Are the stairs steep? How many floors are there? Is there an elevator? Does it work? Is the furniture being moved in nicer than that usually seen in this neighborhood. Do we get the sense that this is part of the forced relocation of the Jews? Do they already have the star on their clothes? Is Hans excited about a new family moving in? Are there other people his age in this building or is he glad to have someone his age, especially a pretty girl? This passage could be much longer and could do a lot to move the story along.]

If one was Jewish, Germany had become a worrying place in last few years and some of the stories flowing through the community were damn [down]right frightening. The kindly Professor seemed to ignore the rumours and kept assuring his family everything was all right. He was an important member of the University and saw no danger at all. [This is information that you could make much more real by sprinkling it into conversation and putting elements of it throughout the story. Hans mentions the new family to his parents and his mother notes that the new family is Jewish and then quickly falls silent. Helena's mother notices Hans' membership in the Hitler Youth and expresses some alarm.]

After the initial meeting on the steps, cupid had fired his arrow simultaneously at both of them. The two young people began seeing each other at every opportunity and Hans was invited to an evening meal to meet Helena's family. [Show, don't tell. Let us watch the first dinner, Helena's mother asking about his school, Hans talking about the Hitler youth, Helena's mother asking about that and Hans responding, Helena's father brushing it off and saying it's no big deal, Hans asking the professor a question about astronomy and the two of them spending the evening talking so that Hans loses track of time.]

From that moment on Hans found himself rapt with the story of the universe the Professor related to him, and their friendship developed to such an extent that it seemed [delete. she either says it or she doesn't.]Helena jokingly wondered who Hans came to see, her or her father. The Professor had a telescope mounted in the living room and they had been waiting patiently for the winter clouds to disperse enough to give them a clear viewing of the heavens. Tonight seemed the chance for that likelihood. [repetitious- chance and likelihood]

As Hans reached the long avenue where he lived, he was confronted by a group of people crowded around the entrance of a delicatessen chanting anti-Jewish slogans. [Show, don't tell. As Hans approached his street he heard chanting, screams and yells, as well as the breaking of glass. Rounding the corner, he was horrified to see a crowd of brownshirts around the delicatessen at the head of the street. Hans skidded to a stop as the crowd dragged the shopkeeper into the street. His wife and small children stood at the door of the shop, crying. The crowd threw the shopkeeper to the ground and hit him. Hans looked wildly around for help, but there was none. "Why are they dong this!" he cried.] The group was made up of mainly brownshirts, each wearing the now familiar swastikas on their armbands, and two plain clothed men wearing black leather coats. When he reached the area, Hans saw two of the brownshirts dragging the unfortunate shopkeeper into the street where they began to beat him mercilessly. The gathered crowd cheered as a baton was smashed against the left shop window and glass covered the footpath.

Hans was horrified. His brow furrowed and his lips tensed. "Why are they doing this?" he inquired of one of the spectators.

"The Jewish dog was not wearing his armband refusing to obey the instructions of the Fuhrer. He is lucky they haven't shot him. He only has himself to blame," said the man who looked on with interest.

A woman, obviously [delete] The shopkeeper's wife ran from the shop and cradled the now bleeding man in her arms. She was crying loudly as [delete] One of the brownshirts walked across and smashed her across the face with his baton. Hans winced when he saw the blood suddenly appear on her cheek.

"Shut up you, Jewish bitch. We'll be back tomorrow and if either of you are not wearing your armbands then you'll get some more of the same treatment."

One produced a pot of paint and wrote Judan across the remaining window. They then climbed into the back of an open truck and laughed loudly, as they hurled further abuse at the two bleeding people. Hans placed his bicycle against the wall and hurried over toward the stricken pair to offer his assistance. He felt someone grip his shoulder and turned quickly.

"That would be very unwise, young man, people may think you're a Jew lover." It was the man he had spoken to.

"But the man is injured," said Hans, "I can't just leave him lying there."

"Do as you will, but don't say I didn't warn you."

Hans ignored his warning and helped the sobbing woman to her feet, wiping the blood from her cheek with his handkerchief, and then together they lifted her husband to his feet and took him into the shop. He was still in a semiconscious state as they placed him on a chair. The woman poured some water into a bowl and began sponging him down.

"Thank you, young man," said the woman busily absorbed in her task, "are you Jewish?"

"No," answered Hans as he watched the woman attend to her husband.

"Then you should leave at once. You're putting yourself in danger if you stay here."

"But why did they do this? You were not doing them any harm." This is incredibly naive of Hans. He certainly has to be aware of what is happening to the Jews. And he probably knows the owners of the delicatessen- they all are in the same neighborhood.

"It's part of the Fuhrer's new order. He doesn't welcome Jews in Germany. I'm afraid this is only a taste of things to come. Thank you for your help but you must go, I'll be all right now." [This is stating the obvious and is superfluous. Anybody reading this already knows what is going to happen nest. This is a wasted conversation, and again you are telling and not showing.]

"Are you sure?" asked Hans. He looked at the man still sitting in the chair, a terrible gash on his head and blood still freely flowing as the woman held a cloth over it.

"Yes, but go before someone sees you."

Hans gave the scattered glass on the pavement a quick look, mounted his bicycle again and rode towards his home. A few minutes later he was at the apartment block and put his bicycle into the basement below the apartment. His home was on the first floor [You've already told us this.]and Hans dashed up the twelve steps like an Olympic sprinter. He opened the door then [delete] slammed the door hard behind him, causing his mother to glance up.

"Hans, is that you?" she called when she heard his footsteps, [If she glanced up at the slamming of the door, why does she have to call to him, and why does she wait till she hears his footsteps to speak to him?] "you're late, supper will be ready in just a few minutes."

Hans threw his boots in the corner. "Where is Papa?" he gasped as he searched the room with his eyes.

"In the living room," his mother said and turned to her task. [She doesn't express any concern about his slamming of the door or the fact that he is late or that he seems upset? Since he's not going to talk to her about it, why even bring her up? Have Hans go directly to his father.]

His father, a 45-year-old man with the same fair hair as Hans [Why is the father's exact age important? It's enough to know that he is in his mid-forties, if it's important. How do we know he's in his mid-forties? What does a middle aged man look like?] , was sitting in front of the fire reading the newspaper when Hans burst in breathless. He could see the disturbed look on his son's face and knew something was wrong. [You are stating the obvious. Dad could lower the paper and frown or look concerned or quizzical- that would let the reader know that Dad has observed that his son is disturbed and is acknowledging it.]

"Don't tell me, you lost by a goal at the last minute."

"No, nothing like that. On the way home I saw the people at the delicatessen being beaten, just because they were Jewish."

"Again? It seems to be happening every day now."

"But why do they do this, Papa? The Coen's were harming no one."

His father shook his head sadly. "The Fuhrer in his wisdom thinks the Jewish population is harming the economy of the nation. He thinks Jewish blood mixed with Aryan blood will weaken Germany. His solution is to get them to leave. The storm troopers are carrying out his orders." [You are stating the obvious. This is unnecessary. Hans can say that he saw the Coen family being beaten. Dad can note that it's getting closer, happening all over. Hans can express concern about the Bernsteins- are they in danger? Or Hans can mention that he is planning to visit the Bernsteins to look at the telescope and Dad can say that it would be a good idea of Hans stopped seeing them because it's not just Jews who are in danger but the friends of Jews.]

"But that's ridiculous. Professor Bernstein and his family are Jewish. He is a genius and passes on his knowledge to his students. Surely they wouldn't come under that consideration?"

"I'm very worried about what's happening in Germany, Hans, and I think it would be wise if you stayed away from Professor Bernstein for a little while."

"The Professor is my friend, Papa, and so is Helena. He's promised to let me use his telescope tonight and I want so much to go."

Overall comments:
This story promises to have a very interesting plot, but you need to work on the execution of it. Some general tendencies you need to watch out for:
You need to remember to show your reader what is happening insted of telling the reader. This means that you put the reader into the action as much as possible. Don't just say that Mr. Coen is being beaten. show the sticks hitting his body, the blood spattering from his nose, the way he curls his body to try to ward off the blows.

You also need to make sure that everything moves the story along. You spend a lot of time on dialogue that does nothing: dialogue needs to tell us something we don't know, or define character. You don't need to give us a history lesson about Hitler; you need to make us see how Hitler's actions affect the characters. At the end of each stretch of dialogue, read over what you have just written and ask yourself if the dialogue tells us something we don't know? Is it repetitious? Is it important to the story?

One of your writing strengths is in the plots you develop, they are very intricate and put a different spin on things. Focus on your reason for telling the story and make sure that every sentence you write takes the reader toward that goal. at the end of each passage ask yourself what the reason was for putting that passage into the story and then ask if there is another way you can provide the same information.

Thanks for letting me tear this apart and good luck!

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