Thursday, May 5, 2011

What's Broken? #4

TITLE: The Inlaid Table
GENRE: Historical fiction

Beginning of book

No Good Deed Morrisville, Pennsylvania, spring 1981

Why tempt a compliment when the insults come so naturally? Still an optimist, Joey Peshkin aimed for the more flattering goal. She usually outran housework fast as a ferret escapes his cage. This day she wasn't trying to be a hero, just wanted to do something right. She hunched her shoulders, flexed her muscles, and aimed the oily rag at the smudged table. She would get this old thing clean if it killed her, make her family proud.

The table caused more problems than it was worth. Florid and fussy, every surface carved, inlaid, or painted, it emerged from another century a cluttered sense of beauty stranded in a world of sleek lines.

Secrets on a table. Everyone in the Peshkin and Liss families argued over who owned it and therefore in whose house it should reside, though its cluttered, old-fashioned style suited neither. One of its four arabesque legs slightly smashed and wobbly, it stood almost two feet tall, too short for dining or a study desk. With a palm's width of skirt carved of trailing vines, and a circular top 18 inches in diameter, the intricate marquetry surface attracted all the attention. Tiny chips of colored wood puzzled into images of unidentifiable creatures and flora anchored the center. A band of nearly geometric designs chased its edge and bewildered admirers, as no one could figure out the purpose. Joey frowned as she studied the outer circlet, swiping the polishing cloth over a variety of staccato maroon curves and slashes against a lemony background, trying to determine its symbolism. Despite her efforts she enjoyed no success. Flagrant in its presence, evasive in its meaning, the table harbored a family mystery that spooked her immigrant parents. Yet it remained a fixture in their home.

The inlaid table shined more than ever but even squinting, Joey couldn't see her reflection, not so much as the hint of a reddish gleam. Back aching, she arched and lifted her head, then caught her image in the wall mirror. She scowled at her 14-year-old face. Ghosts in a mirror. Her father's broad cheeks and wide smile formed under the winged arches of her mother's brows, matronly furrows incised above her narrow nose. A cocktail of her parents, but still no explanation for her red hair.

From the kitchen she heard the metallic clanks and watery whooshes of a feast preparing, smelled herbed turkey roasting. Passover evening imminent, a dozen tasks waited for attention. The holiday that proclaimed freedom demanded a freight train of work. She frowned at the table, leaning over to examine the edge design of tiny wooden inlays until the longest of her curls swept across its surface. So much for all the television ads that showed triumphant housewives looking over newly polished furniture as if they were mirrors. She read the label on the bottle of cleaner once more, making certain to apply it properly, then bent to her task


  1. We get a sense that Joey is a bit of a character, and family troubles are brewing, but all that is buried by the table's description.

    Personally, I'm a bit proponent of less is more with description, so I found the middle paragraphs hard to get through. I will say you describe things in a unique way -- I especially liked "A band of nearly geometric designs chased its edge and bewildered admirers" and "flagrant in its present and evasive in its meaning" but is there a way to cut back on the initial description and work it in over the course of the story? That way the opening isn't so bloated and the reader gets to the passover dinner sooner. I also had to read the first paragraph a few times to really understand it. I think it was the leap from insults/compliments to housework and I didn't understand the connection right away.

  2. Tension.

    I wanted to see tension. And creating tension in the mundane, IMO, is one of the hardest things to do because it relies on two things: character introspection or dialogue (easier) and sentence/word choice (harder).

    Your writing Xs and Os are good, but there's no tension in Joey that makes me care about her.

    And the table can also provide great tension, IMO. I think you dance around its secrets too much. Perhaps tie in descriptions to some of them. Don't have to reveal too much, just want more meat.

    Finally, though you mention that Joey is 14, she felt much older. This might be another context issue for me (e.g., she might be part of a Quaker family, so her world's gonna be a bit different than I expect)... if so, ignore.

  3. I agree with blue above that the table description is a bit long and maybe too specific. Does the reader need to know the exact dimensions of the table? Also, agents always complain the worst way to describe your character is by having them look in a mirror. I don't think we need to know exactly what she looks like this early on. A good start, but I think you can make it much stronger with the delete key.

  4. Why tempt a compliment when the insults come so naturally?
    Starting with a rhetorical question didn't attract me.

    fast as a ferret escapes his cage.
    I like the expression.

    I'd prefer to know her age earlier, because her actions sound appropriate for a pre-teen--working hard to please her parents, but worried about an insult.

    You've set up the table as a prominent element in your plot. I'm not sure I'd like to read a story about a table.

  5. For me, there are three strands of the story that are competing for space: Joey, the families, and the table. Oddly, the table seems to win out simply because of the amount of space it takes up in this excerpt.

    I was more interested in what was motivating Joey to give this table a thorough cleaning when she doesn't usually even like to complete her homework.

    I also found myself wondering why, if this table spooked her parents so much, they were so intent on keeping it in the house.

    Overall, I wanted to know more about the motivations behind all of the characters (Joey, her parents, the families at large) than what the table looked like exactly.

    I did like the superstitious/ mysterious vibe that you have going here. Good luck! :)

  6. I have a lot of comments for this one:
    1) I don't understand what the first 2 sentences have to do with any of this. Is she insulting the table?
    2) Is this main character 14? You say her face is 14 but then she keeps comparing herself to a housewife and that makes her sound older. If she is 14, she doesn't think like a 14-yr-old.
    3) WAY too much description with little meaning. Your description needs to always come with either meaning or implications. You can't just spend a paragraph narrating about the way a table looks if there is no reason for the main character to be thinking this.
    3) The last paragraph should probably come first. This is the only part of this excerpt that grounds us in the setting.
    4) The description of her is a little awkward. Would she really stand there and compare her features to both of her parents? If so, WHY would she do that today?

  7. This is a very interesting piece!
    Breaking up the paragraphs might help the flow a lot. Separating the thoughts from the actions would make it easier to read.
    Also, you are doing something neat here, with this young girl working so hard to polish a table right before a holiday feast. Will they be eating at it? Does the awkward height of the table become a hint at her family's dysfunction?

  8. I'm probably going to sound like a broken record from my comments to the piece above, but there are similar issues here. This is an info. dump, and you take too long to get to the meat. Plus, there is no conflict. You also have Robinson Crusoe (no one else in the scene, no dialogue.) Same advice as above, I would take my favorite bits (and there are lots to chose from) and work them into a scene with action and dialogue. Just my opinon. Also, there are some echos, watch out for that (ie. "table.")

    I also think you could come up with a more interesting title, but that's just me. Happy writing, and good luck! : )

  9. I have suggestions!

    Instead of describing the table, get the girl on her knees next to the carved table legs. Instead of having her look in a mirror, have her thinking about the family portrait that her mom has on display in the den. While she's contemplating the fact that she's the only one in the family portrait with red hair, she'll be twisting q-tips through all the intricate carvings on the table, and spraying and polishing. That way, she's interacting with the table which will give you an excuse to describe it. And it removes the "in the mirror" aspect that some people find too cliched.

    Maybe that will work! Maybe not. :)

  10. I agree with everything Holly said - first two lines don't seem to have anything to do with anything, language doesn't sound like a 14-yr-old (in fact I missed the 1981 at first and thought it sounded like 1881 until I got to the mention of television), far too much description and a very awkward way to describe herself.

    And I have to confess, like Bailish, I can't imagine reading a whole novel about a table - a short story, perhaps.

    I think an idea might be to pick out one unusual aspect of the table that she notices while cleaning it, and have her wonder why it has, for example, a certain strange symbol carved onto it. Then segue into concrete family superstitions about the table. At the moment any mystery or intrigue is lost in a sea of words.

  11. I was thrown with "historical fiction" when I got to the part about the television. I missed the 1981 at the top (and I feel old that 1981 is historical).

    I also found the paragraph that describes the table to be too long. The description (such as "intricate marquetry surface" and "creatures and flora anchored the center") doesn't sound like a 14-year-old, either.

    Perhaps pull in more of the family dynamics at the beginning and show how the table is part of them. She could overhear an argument in the other room or her mom on the phone. Point us to the conflict and how she is involved.

  12. I thought this had lots of issues that might not be issues if we knew where this book actually stood.

    The MC is 14, but it's not labeled YA. There's something mysterious going on with the table, but it's not labeled paranormal or a mystery, so not knowing what we really have here makes it hard to make relevant suggestions. My comments are based on this being a YA paranormal historical.

    The first issue is that this doesn't sound like any 14 year old I know. This is definitely an adult narrator. If it is YA, I'd suggest revising with a teen voice in mind. This sounds like a 30'ish woman to me. I can't imagine a 14 year old describing a table the way it's described here.

    The table itself could be a problem. I didn't get that she was 14 right away, and as long as I thought this was an older woman, I liked the description of the table. Yes, it's long and drawn out, but it let's you know right away that the table is important, that it's probably the catalyst for what's to come, and will probably be almost a character in the story. On the other hand, as someone else said, do I want to read a novel about a table? (And I want to say I know it's not really about the table, but I don't know that because of how you labeled it) ANd once I realized she was 14, I thought all that description had to go.

    I also wondered why she was polishing the table? What's her motivation? What prompts her to do it? And why now, when the table has obvioulsy been there all her life? Getting that in in this opening could be a better hook because it allows the reader to get to know your MC.

  13. I liked the last paragraph and I love 'the holiday that proclaimed freedom...' line. Definitely lose a lot of the table description and feed us what you keep in little pieces I think. People tend to skim big chunks of description and something that's important to the story could get lost on the way.

    Please tell me that this story goes back further in time and 1981 is not yet considered historical or I think I might cry :)

  14. She cleans a table. She doesn't know where her red hair came from. I need more in a book opening to keep me reading.

  15. I too feel like I'm repeating what I said in the earlier piece. Start with a moment of change, discovery or drama for your character. And the drama doesn't count if it's only in the girl's head. Less is more definitely applies here. If you mention the table in an eerie way. Think simple and straightforward. I'm not even sure I understand what your first couple of sentences mean.

    Make sure your thoughts are connected. Don't leave good writing in just because it's good. Make sure it has a reason to be there. Keep going!