Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Public Slushpile Winner #5

GENRE: YA thriller

One of the first things I’d learned at Catholic school was that God had a purpose for everything. Sometimes, we’d been told, you couldn’t make sense of that purpose until you’d been around long enough and really thought about what it might be. Now, as I sat in the principal’s office looking at my hands (versus meeting the disappointed gaze of Mr. Mickford, or Father Mickford as he liked to be called) I wondered if I’d found my purpose in life-to really piss people off. Even the people who wanted to help me.

Father Mickford glanced at the book on his desk. My dog-eared, frayed copy of Jane Eyre, the one I’d marked up with an aggressive combination of yellow highlighter and ball point pen. He hadn’t opened the book to see the damage, which was good--how many detentions could I take? I watched from beneath my lashes as the light shafting through the stained glass windows turned his balding head into a veritable Easter-egg of green and rose and yellow, and waited for the fall.

“Mrs. Cole says you were very dismissive of the book.”

I shrugged. “ Didn’t like it.”

“Okay, well…there’s nothing saying you have to like everything you read. But she said…”

I knew what she’d said. But it felt like good form to ask. “What?”

He cleared his throat. “You said that the book was…um…masturbatory wish fulfillment for ugly girls.”

The words fell between us. I propped my chin on my hand, as if considering. “Yeah, well…”

“So you did say it?”

Of course I had. It was far too creative to have come out of the mouths of any of the other kids in the class…which was exactly the attitude, my mother liked to tell me, that got me into trouble time and time again. You think you’re smarter than everyone else.

And as for what was going on right now, there was no point in not confessing. “Yeah. I did.”

“Okay.” He nodded, the light playing on his head. “You do know that…you know what masturbation is?”

I didn’t roll my eyes, even though it was a struggle. “Of course. I went to public school, you know. Before I came here.” And I’d bet he was regretting his decision to take me in right about now. But wasn’t that what Catholics did? Faith, hope, charity, sacrifice, all that crap?

“Right. But…you know that Mrs. Cole runs a…a tight ship…and she doesn’t like hearing that…that kind of thing.”

I was sure she didn’t. Mrs. Cole looked like the stereotypical nun, even though she didn’t wear a habit-tall, whip-thin, with gray hair always pulled back in a bun. As far as teachers went, she was okay, but a lot of these ex-nun types looked like they’d faint at the sight of any exposed skin. “I’m sorry.”

“Okay. I’m glad.” He rested his hand protectively on the paperback, covering Jane’s pale oval face, her brown eyes.


  1. I think I recognize this from the first or second round of the last First Line Grabber contest. I remember liking your opening better then. The new opening turned me off a little because it's a little long and immediately seems like you're going to proselytize.

    In your first 500 words, I like your MC far less than I'd hoped. The addition of "for ugly girls" in the masturbatory wish fulfillment line makes him seem like a real jerk, rather than simply the button-pusher he imagines himself to be.

    Solid writing, though, and good technical skills. I'd probably keep reading, at least for another five pages.

  2. There are some problems. First, Father Mickford does not "like" to be called that (as opposed to Mr. Mickford). He is a priest and that is what he is called - he would more likely be called Father John or Paul or Anthony etc in lieu of his last name 'Mickford'. Similarly, the nun is not "Mrs. Cole" - she would be Sister so and so. (Although you do say she was an'ex-nun' so perhaps that is what she is now.

    The writing itself is solid particularly when it comes to the internal life of the narrator thinking while engaged in conversation. You pull that off quite effectively. I would like to know if it is a boy or a girl because that's not clear at all. It could be either at this point and 500 words in I should know for sure. Having made the declaration regarding masturbatory wish-fulfillment I think it would be more effective if the student buttressed that opinion - that would give an indication of his-her intelligence, humor etc...i.e. can they support what they say? As it stands now, it just comes off as juvenile shock value for shock's sake and that diminishes the narrator because - when it came time to go up to bat - they couldn't even swing - ie. back up what they said.

    The narrator came from public school which makes it seem that he/she is not a Catholic and it therefore begs the question why would a non-Catholic have such open hostility and derision for a religion and the people associated with it? It would seem that it would take a person raised in a Catholic environment their entire lives to develop that kind of disdain because it would be based on some kind of negative personal experience they may have had. I'm not certain the priest would come right out and ask if the narrator knew what masturbation was. I think he would approach the issue of disrespect more obliquely than that. So, I think the writing is strong but the execution is problematic because it starts with anger that kind of floats out there with no real indication of what its origin is. The story would have to move on very quickly from petulant bashing of a religion into the thriller aspect for me to keep reading.

  3. Overall, this is good, and I like both the voice and the character. It's possible Nicole would like her more if she knew your MC was a girl. I found the comment about Jane Eyre funny, but if the same thing were stated by a guy, it would have been offensive. However, you will need to show her best quality within the next five pages, or you'll risk losing your readers.

    IMO, the first paragraph needs to go. It doesn't hook the readers, and the second paragraph is much more interesting.

    "Mrs. Cole looked like the stereotypical nun, even though she didn’t wear a habit-tall, whip-thin, with gray hair always pulled back in a bun."- This sentence is awkward and would be better broken up into two sentences.

  4. I like the writing here. I agree that I would prefer to know the gender of the main character and I also agree that this voice sounds like one coming from the kind of teen who knows more about Catholicism than this MC says she does.

    I don't honestly understand the purpose of the comment about Jane Eyre. Does she really think this or is she just trying to say something to annoy Mrs. Cole? And why would Father Mickford (who I agree would call himself by his first name) decide to discuss this with her in front of another class? I can't put my finger on it, but something about this whole setup seems too forced.

    Good luck!

  5. Okay, I'm going to differ from the rest and say I liked it. Which I know doesn't help you at all. But I instantly assumed (though we should know) this was a girl, and I instantly related to the attitude. (Is this book about me? haha)But that's just my opinion. Normally I'm pretty good at critiquing/ finding mistakes, but this borders on possibly losing the snarky voice if you strip it too much.

  6. Your writing is good, though I noticed a few problems...

    The first line didn't hook me (too much telling)and the next few lines were all tell too.

    I agree with what happy dolphin said regarding the catholic religion references, so I won't repeat that.

    I like the voice overall though, and I like the priest. His mannerisms and dialogue were right on IMO. I too was not sure if the main character was male or female.

    I didn't like the line "I watched from beneath my lashes." I understand what you're trying to say but it sounded awkward to me.

    This could use some tightening up but I would read more. Good luck and thanks for sharing!

  7. I'm going to chime in with the masses. I think your writing is good. This piece has great voice and a snarky sense of humor, that I enjoy, but I can see how it might be a little much for others. Also, there is quite a bit of telling. I don't mind it in the first paragraph as a short set-up, but try to cut it later. For example, "...which was exactly the attitude, my mother liked to tell me, that got me into trouble time and time again. You think you’re smarter than everyone else."

    We can tell your character has some attitude by his/her actions and the way he/she talks to the Father.
    Good luck!

  8. I think you do a nice job with voice, but if you're going to include this Catholic school scene, I'd recommend doing some more research first. The above comments are right about dropping the "Mr. Mickford" line. He's Father John or Father Mickford, but Mr. would never enter into it.

    It is possible for an ex-nun to get married. Is that what happened with Mrs. Cole? Perhaps if you worded the line about her being "like a stereotypical nun" differently, the reader wouldn't be so confused. Perhaps you could say, "Mrs. Cole looked like the ex-nun that she was--tall, whip-thin . . ." (BTW-nice description with "whip-thin")

    Also, I don't know if you're aware of how good sex ed is in the Catholic schools. A priest would expect a student in high school to know what masturbation is. I've taught in three Catholic schools and three public schools, and in general the Catholic school kids get better sex ed than the public schools kids. (And yes, the books we used in the Catholic junior highs mentioned masturbation.) I believe the Catholic schools are actually more comfortable talking about sex because they can take both a physical and moral approach to it, where the public schools have to be very cautious since they cannot impose any particular beliefs.

    One last thing--I liked your query letter, but I'm wondering what this scene has to do with the rest of the plot. Can you start closer to where she takes the summer job?

  9. I found this excerpt to be very stop and go. A little dialogue and then it would stall as she told us some tidbit about what she had just said. I felt like the story was lurching along instead of flowing smoothly. There is a lot of information that we don't really need right now, (such as the description of the nun) and I kind of feel like you are trying too hard to be snarky or witty or clever by interjecting so much and you're not letting the story unfold naturally. Having said that, I still liked it. It seems like the type of story I get into. Good luck.

  10. Nice voice in this one, though I think the mental criticism is a bit vitriolic, especially if you get a Catholic reader or one with a strong Christian bent (which I'm not.) It rubbed me the wrong way, and that's saying something.

    The opening paragraph needs to go or be relocated, it's too dull and slow where you need to be making an impact.

    Perhaps a bit more exposition than needed, "I knew what she said" struck me as a particularly unnecessary sentence. For a genre where pace is definitely important, you can't have that in an opening.

    But otherwise I thought the actual prose was clean and uncluttered, all except the use of en dashes where em dashes were needed. Usually that's just an annoyance, in this one it occurred just where it made the meaning totally confusing until you got past it and realized it was a punctuation error, not a hyphenated word "habit-tall".

    But there's definite potential here.

  11. Good writing and voice. It sounds like a younger voice, as opposed to someone older writing a younger voice.

    I'm a little uncertain of the main character's gender, though. Maybe having the priest say his/her name once in dialogue might clear that up.

    I'm also unsure that someone would ask someone who used the word masturbatory if they knew what it meant. Obviously they did, if they used it in such an 'eloquent' way.

    I'm a little worried about the end, where the priest seems to take the apology with 'Okay, I'm glad.' That seems a relatively easily-solved conflict. Unless there's more to this scene, I think you might be better served not letting the main character off the hook with this one.

  12. I found myself a little disappointed. Based on the story being pitched as a thriller, I'd expect more than just a snarky kid sitting in the principle's office to start off the story. While the scene is written well, I didn't feel it immediately 'set the stakes'. Where's the true conflict that sets the main character on the road to the weirdness and suspense suggested in the pitch? This scene seems like a by-product of the MC's true conflict. I found little tension here. Might only read another page or two in hopes of finding something that really grabs me.

  13. I was intrigued by your query letter and enjoyed the snarky voice of your character.

    Two thoughts:
    1. This didn't read like a thriller to me. I think you'll want to at least HINT at the menace ahead in your first two pages. It was definitely a leisurely start... personally I don't mind that, but it didn't suggest thriller.

    2. While I enjoyed the strong voice, I agreed with other commenters that it could turn people off--and it'd be a shame to let that happen so early in the book, because the book IS a fun premise (per query). Consider: could we see her "good" qualities here, introduced along with the snark? Could she think of another students in positive terms as she's thinking the negative about the school? Or could you reveal her attitude re: religion more subtly early on, and then reveal the serious snark later in the first chapter?

    Regardless, I was excited to see that you were one of the winners--loved your idea in the query and this looks like a fun book to read.

  14. I think you should cut the first paragraph. Truthfully, my eyes glazed right over it. It didn't hook me at all. Once i got past that, though, i enjoyed this a lot more.
    If you really feel attached to what's in the first paragraph, i think you could easily separate out those sentences and work them in peicemeal here and there to get those themes across. But honestly, i don't think you'll lose anything by cutting that first paragraph and just starting with paragraph two

  15. I liked this quite a bit. I like the first paragraph too because it has a voice and an attitude. It's always a migraine figuring out where to start, but I think if you start with paragraph two you lose a bit of that voice. I only have two nitpicks - if a teenager doesn't like a book, he/she wouldn't take the time to highlight and ballpoint it all over the place. It seems like a lot of effort for something most kids would just want to put down and leave as soon as possible. I first thought she LIKED the book because of that. I knew right away the MC was a girl, but I couldn't tell you why. Perhaps the discussion of Jane Eyre right away and the fact that I thought she liked it.

    My second comment would be to stay away from cliche characterizations (Mrs. Cole).

    But there is a lot to like here. Your pacing is good, the descriptions are often sharp and fresh. I can see this as something a young person would get hooked by.

    Good luck!

  16. I like this scene, and the main character. I thought her comment about Jane Eyre was entertaining, especially because she admitted that she's been warned not to think she's smarter than everyone else. It might be a good idea to add more self deprecation to balance out her arrogance.

    But this scene doesn't hint toward the tone of the novel, it seems. You've started a "supernatural thriller" with a "contemporary" opening.

  17. Hi guys!

    I just wanted to poke my head in to thank everyone who's taken the time to read and comment-you guys all rock!! Your comments and suggestions have given me a lot to think about, and I'm looking forward to revising accordingly!

    Thanks so much again (btw, hope it's okay to come into the thread like this-I just wanted to let everyone know how much I appreciate their time and help! :)

  18. Well, you definitely have a strong voice here, but I find the opening a little slow, and I feel like starting a YA novel with a teen getting in trouble at school is a little too expected.

    I think your strength is in your character's voice. I personally do not like them - they seem a bit snobby and elitist to me - but I'm sure there are many readers who would.

    I would argue that the best thing to do would be to start more in action, if this is a thriller. I don't feel like there's a hook here.

    Overall, though, strong writing and good characterisation.

  19. I didn't like the first paragraph. It felt like you were trying too hard and I hit the masturbatory line and my suspicions were confirmed. You have both God and references to masturbating on one page which makes me wonder if you're going for a shock factor.

    I think you could cut the first paragraph and start with: Father Mickford glanced at my mutilated copy of Jane Eyre on his desk. He hadn't opened the book...The term dog-eared would indicate she liked reading the book - which she clearly did not. I like that she goes against the norm and doesn't like Jane Eyre. The only thing better than that would be if she hated Jane Austin.

    I'm trying to figure out if your character is male or female. Most of the voice feels like a typical snarky female - except for the masturbating line. That's all male - which is probably why it feels out of place to me. Unless this kind of speech follows your MC throughout the book, you might want to shorten the line. It is funny but it feels forced. It also doesn't feel like a teen voice to me.

    The rest is pretty good. I'm not getting any sense that this will develop into a thriller but we're only two pages in. Nice start.

  20. I think this is a pretty good opening. I agree that the Father would be called "Father" regardless, that threw me off the most. I would keep reading, at least. Though I couldn't tell what gender the protagonist was--not sure if I'm in a boy's head or a girl's. But I liked it.

  21. Clean, strong prose. The dialog is realistic and to-the-point.

    I feel engaged with the MC.

    On the downside, after reading this far, I don't feel any hint of the genre: Thriller.

  22. This strikes me as a contemporary YA story rather than a thriller. It may be a matter of wrong label; contemporary can have mystery or a plot involving a crime of some sort. If it's truly a thriller, tension and high stakes should be front and center. I'm curious what the mystery is; maybe this whole Jane Eyre scene can appear later?

    Also agree I'd like some hint if protag is a girl; assumed it was until a commenter said "he" then I re-read to confirm.

    I like the idea of some type of mystery at the school similar to Meg Cabot's Mediator series (which has paranormal aspects). Although those are light and wouldn't be classified as a thriller.

  23. I thought from the opening lines that your MC was a girl. Could see how that line about Jane Eyre would come off wrong from a male perspective. But, with a teenaged MC girl, I found it funny.

    I do agree with the others about the opening paragraph. It is too dense. In the second paragraph, this sentence "My dog-eared, frayed copy of Jane Eyre, the one I’d marked up with an aggressive combination of yellow highlighter and ball point pen" sits well in comparison to her comments about Jane Eyre. So, she's obviously put a lot of thought into her remark, not simply shock value.

    Overall, I'm intrigued by the MC and want to learn more about her.

  24. I like the voice, the dialog is good and the scene believable. The MC needs to show some endearing characteristics to make readers like her (I think she's a girl)

    "right about now " should be after "bet"

  25. I thought the writing was good, and I liked the somewhat sarcastic voice of the MC. But I'm not getting that this is the beginning of a thriller at all. More that it's a contemporary, humorous YA.
    I thought the Mr. and Mrs. references were a little confusing, too. I was raised a Catholic, so maybe that's influencing me, but aren't the terms "Father this" and "Sister that" well-known by everyone, even non-Catholics?
    I had to read this line over a few times--a bit awkward, "Sometimes, we’d been told, you couldn’t make sense of that purpose until you’d been around long enough and really thought about what it might be." I mention it, because it's your 2nd line, and seems like an important one!
    I think you have a interesting MC here, and what could be a good setting for a thriller, but maybe give a better indication that we're reading a thriller!

  26. The writing is clean and I loved the easter egg desciption of the light on the priest's head and there is definitely a strong voice in this piece. However, as much as I like snarky characters, this was more than just saracasm, it came off as superior to the point that I really don't like this character right now and probably wouldn't read on. It's a fine line between being snark and condescension and this one skated over it just a bit for me. I think it could be toned down in the opening until we understand more about the character and why he/she has this attitude.

    Like the others have said, nothing about this felt like a thriller and we never really know whether this is a male or female character (although I assumed it was a girl).

    You're a talented writer and I think if you dial back the character's attitude a notch or two in the opening it would be a much more relatable piece.

    Good luck!

  27. I agree with what some people said about getting rid of the first paragraph. But i really like the snarky voice.

    I also like the image of the colored light on the Father's bald head like and easter egg.

    I get the feeling like maybe you haven't ever been to a real Catholic school though. Maybe you were just trying to indicate your MC wasn't Catholic by slipping into calling them Mr. and Mrs. instead of Father and Sister, but I don't think you need that. Her disdain and lack of faith is obvious enough.

    I was immediately sure she was a girl--a mean, snarky girl by her comments, and it didn't turn me off at all. I liked her for it. But maybe a way to indicate to your reader to be more clear you could mention her name. Or if it's an all girl's school, drop something about that.

  28. You can definitely craft a scene with the use of dialogue and small details that illuminate the bigger world/story. Good job! But I would like to see more details - sensory details - so I can feel more what she's feeling. Here are some nits:

    Father Mickford would be Father Tom or whatever his first name is. Not sure ex-nuns would teach in a parochial school. If you've done research and found this to be true, let the reader know because it isn't what most readers would picture.

    I feel you do a bit too much telling here rather than letting the characters actions and dialogue show. The whole first paragraph for example. If you'd ended it with a twist or some very clever humor, you might be able to get away with it. As is, it fell flat for me. Other examples - "But it felt like good form to ask." "I propped my chin on my hand, as if considering." "It was far too creative..." (this paragraph is not only telling, but telling something that makes me not like her). Trust your dialogue. It does the trick.

    Another couple of nits - "I watched from beneath my lashes" doesn't make sense visually. Also, you could get rid of the word "veritable". I'm not sure the father would ask her if she knows what the word masturbation means. Didn't ring true.

    It seems she loves Jane Eyre, and I'm not sure why the effort to hide this fact. This is where telling would be good. Just a hint as to why she doesn't want her teachers to know. I get that she's a crankypants - but even crankypantses seek approval. Why doesn't she care?

    Good luck!

  29. Just briefly, I don't feel the thriller aspect and it wasn't obvious to me that your MC is a boy. I'm assuming that from the attiture and since guys like to talk about masturbating more than girls:) It'd be easy to put in in those first lines-the Father calling him by name, or earlier when he's gazing at his hands-let them be some specific guy thing.

    You definitely have a clear, snarky voice, but I need to like your MC, to feel for him as well.

  30. I really liked this, but I agree with the other commetntors. I'd just like to add two things: 1. Some priests go by their first names, others by their last. I don't think it matters either way. 2. Most priest would assume that teenagers know what masturbation is. However, it seemed to me that he was asking because he didn't know what to say. If that's the case, maybe it could be clarified to make more sense?

  31. I agree with what has been mentioned above with making the gender of your MC more obvious--I was thinking girl?
    Also, I would make sure that you watch the amount of asides that are given my your MC. When she steps out of the story to give background info, it takes the reader out of the story. When it is overused, it feels like a poor substitution for good description, dialouge, and action.
    The writing is strong, and I like the voice, but you might consider rewording the part about ugly girls because it puts your MC in a negative light. You did a good job! It takes guts to put yourself out there for all to critique!

  32. I really think the writing is strong, and definately got a good feel for the location and the characters.

    I wasn't sure about the ugly girls wish fullfillment bit- it sort of makes your character sound more like a snobby pretty girl, than a rebel.

    Also, I didn't get the feeling of it being a thriller- but that is hard in two pages.

    Nice job over all :)

  33. First off, I cracked up at the remark about "Jane Eyre"! Totally what a teen/tween girl would say if she wanted to: A. Tick someone off and B. Not let them know how much she actually cared for the literature (for some reason I assumed our MC is female). It made me like her.

    Yes, non-nuns do teach at Catholic schools (my BFF works at a Catholic K-8). I went to Catholic college- we had very few nuns/priests there. Like our MC, I would be unsure of what the proper labels were, not coming from a Catholic background. And like our MC, I would have some disdain going on at that age, not coming from a Catholic background (and we won't discuss what my many "Recovering Catholic" friends have to say about their Catholic school experiences!)

    I agree that the teacher's description should be broken up, and yes, some of the excerpt reads a bit clumsy (do the reading out loud trick!)But I do like the first sentence, just not the rest. What if we tightened it up a bit, like say:

    "One of the first things I’d learned at Catholic school was that God had a purpose for everything. Sometimes, we’d been told, you couldn’t make sense of that purpose until you’d been around long enough and really thought about what it might be. Now, as I sat in Father Mickford’s office, I wondered if I’d found my purpose in life, to really piss people off. Even the people who wanted to help me."

    As for it not "sounding like a thriller" comments, I don't get that at all. What is a thriller supposed to sound like in the first few paragraphs? Let the story build. Yes, Harlequin Romances and pocket westerns sound like their genre immediately because they follow exact identical formulas (just fill in the blanks), but a true story takes time to build, and is much more enjoyable for the reader (and is more difficult to write).

    At least in my opinion.:)

    Good start! Love the voice!!!

  34. This was a strong opening, although the first paragraph could have been tightened a little - too much telling!
    I, too, assumed the protag was a girl. If it was a boy, I would like him less for the 'mastabatory wish fulfillment for ugly girls' comment, which sounded like a rather arrogant assumption.
    The part that fails to ring true for me is the priest asking her about what masturbation means. It is quite inappropriate remark for any adult to make to an adolescent, particularly if they are of the opposite sex. It might even be actionable, and make the priest look very bad indeed if taken out of context.... Unless that's your intent, of course!

    Finally, given that the average age of nuns is about 70, there are very few left teaching these days. Most teachers employed in the Catholic system are lay staff.

    For the commentors - most Catholic schools accept a proportion of enrollments of non-Catholics, as part of a social justice philosophy. In the 80s, the local Catholic schools had a large number of Orthodox kids, and in the 90s, Islamic. I have it on good authority that this was due to parental perception that government schools' sex education curriculum included a practical component!

  35. Hi all! I just came back to this thread, and WOW! Saw all the comments!

    I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to read my excerpt and comment-it means so much to have feedback, and you all gave me so much great stuff to think about! I'm not sure how many of you will come back to this thread, but I wanted to say a huge thank you to all (including Authoress!) for this opportunity!! I repeat-you guys rock!!