Wednesday, September 9, 2009

19 Secret Agent

GENRE: Young Adult

Mama comes home when it’s dark outside, the sun fallen beyond the forest outside our window. Krzysztof is asleep in his crib, full after drinking a bottle of powdered soy milk. My stomach clenches—the milk was old, and I worry that it might make him sick, but our father doesn’t give us enough zlote to buy sufficient groceries. He doesn’t care, too drunk during the nights and too overworked during the days. We spread the money among bare necessities and then use the rest for canned fruit and vegetables for Krzysztof. Not enough for Mama or me to be healthy.

I watch Mama come through the front door of our apartment. She sets her basket on the floor under the hanging jackets and then stumbles into the kitchen, barely able to stand after a long day of working as a laundress.

"Tata hasn’t been home yet,” I say. I’m angry now—his late homecoming can mean only one thing: he’ll be drunk and he’ll be vicious. I feel the bile rise up in my throat at the thought of another beating and the muscles along my shoulders tighten.

“Krzysztof’s in bed?”


She stands at the sink and runs water into a pot for her tea. “How was school?”

“Like always.” I return my gaze to the homework in front of me. It’s difficult to concentrate on the scribbles on my paper. When Mama’s spoon clatters on the counter upon setting it down, I jump.


  1. The writing is not smooth. Read the first sentence aloud and I think you'll find a catch at the back of your tongue, as if the sentence is incomplete.

    Consider this example:

    I watched Mama come through the front door of our apartment...

    Consider this instead:

    Ma set the basket under the hanging jackets as she entered the aprtment. She stumbles into the kitchen after a long day pulling laundry.

    Eighteen needless words are removed and the same thing is said. It really speeds up the story.

  2. It doesn't have enough to interest me. Sorry, but maybe the agent will think differently.

  3. *cringes about having to say this* I don't MIND present tense in general, but it doesn't work for me here.

    I do like the setting though. :]

  4. If the main character's father is coming home drunk and vicious, I wonder if he/she should be fearful rather than angry.

    The first two paragraphs could be tightened - what stood out the most to me was 'My stomach clenches'. I also briefly wondered if powdered milk gets old, but I'm sure it can.

    Not quite hooked, but it definitely feels as if something will happen when the father shows up.

  5. Might be good to establish the setting - the city or at least the country. We know from the foreign names and the word zlote that it's not in the US, but not where.

    Me, I like I watch Mama come through the front door of our apartment - because it tells me something about the character: that she's a watcher.

    Would consider dropping "at the thought of another beating" - drunk and vicious and tight shoulder muscles pretty much tell us what we need to know.

    You mention drunk twice - once would suffice, and less is more here: fewer details about the father would ratchet up the tension. You probably could end the first paragraph after "sufficient groceries" and drop the last two sentences - if these details are needed, they can be worked in later.

    I love the narrator jumping at the clattering spoon at the end - a nice touch, showing her state of mind.

    Oh, yes, I'd read on.

  6. I think it's Poland isn't it - but maybe you could chose a different name for the baby?Krzysztof is a bit of an eyeful for the English-speaking reader. This is a bit slow for me - if you're goign to have a slow start it needs to be really atmospheric.

  7. I loved it and wouldn't change a thing. I liked the voice. I liked the flavor. I liked the mood you created and the tone you set. It's evident from the very first sentence this is not America. The voice you created made me think immediately of Russia or an eastern European/Communist country.

    I'm hooked.

  8. I didn't like how you called money "zlote" in one sentence and then "money" right after. I'd stick with one or the other.

    I wasn't hooked.

  9. I imagine zlote is the specific unit of currency; money is generic.

    As in I ran out of pesos [or pounds or dollars] - I needed more money.

  10. I'm not hooked, but I just think it's because this isn't my type of story.

  11. From the author:

    Yes, this is Poland. The setting is established immediately in the chapter heading and in the next few paragraphs.

    As for the present tense, everyone who has read larger parts of the manuscript (a critique group, editor, etc.) finds the present pov adds to the story.

    Thanks for your suggestions.

  12. To the author: It's always best to keep quiet and take the critique, whether you agree or not. Defensiveness won't serve you in this biz; take it from someone who knows.

    That said, I thought this was extremely well done. It's a great example of starting in media res, and letting the reader catching up without hitting them with backstory or a life-death situation.

  13. I'm hooked because of the setting, but generally am not hooked by stories about drunk and abusive fathers. I'd read on and hope there is something else unique about this story to go with the setting.

    The writing, details and voice are great.

  14. Interesting setting, but there isn't much interesting about the abusive father. It is a generic concept that has been done many times over in other books. I'd rather read about the boy and the doves. You could always work in the father later, hopefully in a more interesting manner.

  15. It always irritates me when critters (as Authoress would say) think ahead for the writer instead of looking at the first 250 words as shown.

    250 words is a minute amount and, in the space given, this snippet achieves an incredible amount of things. It characterizes the MC as angry instead of fearful (so I wonder why); it gives me tone and a snippet of the setting (so I want to know more about it); it puts me in the midst of action, though slower (I want to know what happens--I have a feeling the father's abuse doesn't define the entire novel).

    I'm hooked. Very well written. I'm crossing my fingers that the SA likes ya.

  16. I'll be honest: I don't think this is the right crowd for your work.

    That said, I think this is wonderful. Yes, it could be tightened considerably. But for the genre you're obviously writing, it works.

    This is definitely literary YA.

  17. To the anonymous 2 before the last: I don't think the author is being defensive. I think he/she is just trying to give everyone a bit of perspective on the whole story.

  18. I liked the touch about his inability to concentrate at the end. I attributed that to his diet, though that may have been a logic jump that wasn't supposed to be there.

  19. To all the anonymous here: This is an open forum critique so Writer of this novel, um, I mean Anonymous; don't take it personal, outside views and opinions is what you need to tighten your novel in to a seller for an agent.
    That being said, not sure I can follow this either with just 250 words. I would reword the first sentence. Nothing to me was established here as you said above, so not sure if I follow you. Just my thoughts!

  20. I like the writing, but I think you need to combine the first and second paragraph. The first starts by saying Mama comes home in the dark and the seconds watches her actually come home. If you intertwine the thoughts of #1 with the action of #2, I think you'll have a much stronger opener.

  21. Sure, you could tighten a few things, smooth out a few lumpy phrases, but overall, I thought this was very compelling. You've managed to accomplish a lot in 250 words: a sympathetic narrator, a unique setting, and suspense. You have a strong voice, and I sensed a certain confidence in the writing. I would definitely read on.

  22. I didn't think the author sounded defensive, either. I appreciated the clarification.

    (Although I don't care for present tense, myself. But it's the author's choice, and maybe it works for the piece as a whole.)

  23. I like the setup here and love the writing. You've set the tone up wonderfully for this type of novel. Not for me, though, but that's just because I don't like stories that get too heavy, but I'd see a huge market for this kind of literary MG

  24. There are some unbelievably rude, arrogant, insensitive comments here, but that seems to be the primary purpose of most "feedback" offered online. What I find so amusing is the fact that most of the advice given would seriously damage the piece.

    This is very good writing. There is a strong voice, clear and concise writing, unobtrusive description, and a very believable presence here.

    The one and only change I would suggest is in the last sentence, where the spoon appears to setting down some unspecified item, and that's a simple noun/verb disagreement that happens to the best of us. I find i strange that none of these naysayers caught that, while they found time to pick at non-existent nits.

    Since you seem to have received so much advice today, let me add my two cents:

    Read. Write. Repeat.

  25. I really liked this - especially since it transported me to a place I know nothing about. I do like the comment about rearranging that first sentence. I thought that guy gave a good example sentence.

    But, I also love the present tense and think it works fine.

    And, I totally commented on my own entry when I did this way back when. It's exciting and you want everyone to know a little somethin' about what you wrote.

    So write on! You have real talent.

  26. I'm afraid my comment was too brief earlier. I'm sorry if it sounded like I rejected the whole piece based on a word choice.

    I assumed 'zlote' was a synonym for 'money,' not 'dollars,' just because I couldn't hear "our father doesn’t give us enough dollars to buy. . ." in English. It makes a lot more sense if 'zlote' is the equivalent of 'rubles' or 'pesos.' I've heard that construction used in other languages.

    The excerpt is still not my cup of tea, but not because of one word choice. As always, the author is the boss of the writing! My apologies if my comment seemed too harsh.

  27. Not hooked. The premise feels too familiar to me (overworked mom, much younger sibling, drunken father) for me to really connect.

    Also, everytime I read any first person present tense I find myself comparing it to the Hunger Games and Catching Fire (probably not fair, sorry) and this just seemed a bit wordy for the tense.

  28. I loved this!

    Also, I knew that it took place in Poland as soon as you mentioned zloty because I am German and have been to Poland before. I was wondering about the time but think that it will be explained later. The MC is well established as is a little part of his world

    Somehow this snippet made me think that the father will not come back... I'd definitely read on.

  29. I'd keep reading.

  30. I liked the Poland setting, not so much the drunken abusive father thing. But I'd keep reading because, as others have said, it's only 250 words and I thought the first 250 words had promise.