Wednesday, January 16, 2013

January Secret Agent #50

GENRE: YA Contemporary

My mom was a pothead in college. I'm convinced this is how we got to where we are now. I’ve seen her college pictures- denim shorts and waist-length braids. A guy-stopping smile. Mom and her brother are all-natural, free-thinking types. Their pot-smoking days are the reason my uncle convinced her to move our family to Missouri, and Missouri is the whole reason we even had a produce stand for Marcus and me to be working behind the day I met Sylvia Young.

Sylvia walked across the grass, each step of her sandaled feet bringing closer the ruinous end of my contentment. Marcus tilted his head.

He didn’t tilt it much, but I knew what it meant. He did that any time he saw my tan line or I wore an above-the-knee skirt. I narrowed my eyes.

“Hi,” she said. “I’d like a cabbage and six tomatoes.” Just like that. She wanted a cabbage and six tomatoes.

Marcus arranged the vegetables in brown paper bags. “Are you from around here?”

Of course she wasn’t from around here. We’d know her if she were.

“Just moved from St. Joseph. I’m Sylvia Young.” She smiled. The breeze toyed with her dark hair, tossing short wisps around her high cheekbones. She seemed perfectly friendly. Of course. My contentment exhaled its dying breath.

“Going to Manson High in the fall?” Marcus creased the tops of the bags.

She nodded. “My dad’s teaching science.”

I smiled. Manson High went through teachers with alarming regularity. “Three bucks.”


  1. If this is modern, a teen would have a mother who went to college in the late 80's up to about mid-90's, and braids down to her waist was not the style in either of those decades.

    I like the set-up of how he got there. That's cute. You have some good information that could be the basis for the story-- MC works at a vegetable stand, new girl, her father's the science teacher. However, there's no tension, and I'm unclear as to what the story will be about.

  2. Who is this story about? I know a lot about the mom, uncle, Marcus and Sylvia but zero about the main character? Is the mc male or female and what is his or her name? I need to know that!

    Good luck and thank you for allowing me to critique your work!

  3. Maybe I'm a little more patient in my reading, but I can give a story a couple of pages to ground me a bit. I like your voice and I'm already feeling like there will be some tension between Sylvia and the MC. I would like a little clarification on whether Marcus is her boyfriend or brother. I guess I assumed he was the MCs brother, but the MCs jealousy makes me think boyfriend.

  4. Mary, the author said that Marcus tilted his head when the narrator wore a short skirt, so we know she's a girl. What we don't know is if Sylvia is going to be her friend or her nemesis. If I were reading the book, I'd wait to find out. When you only have a couple hundred words to work it out, it's a little disappointing.

    I like the beginning, but it doesn't really add to the story. I'd dump the intro and put more into our protagonists description.

    1. You are right Judy. I missed that and now I see the mc had on a skirt but what if, bear with me, just what if the mc is Scottish ;)?

  5. Scottish, ha, ha! That has to be it.
    Seriously, I thought the excerpt was interesting and would probably pick up. I had a hard time distinguishing between who was talking. It made the action confusing as well. Concentrate on your use of pronouns and make sure it is clear who you are referring to. Keep the tone though. I think that was spot on. Great job!

  6. This piece opens with back story that doesn't grab a reader's attention. Readers don't care about the character's mother until after the story starts (inciting incident)and we've had time to get to know something about the character. Who are Silvia and Marcus? Why are they introduced before I know who the "I" character is? "Hi" she said..the she isn't clear as we've just been looking at Marcus.Why is it remarkable that someone would want to buy produce at a produce stand? If this is the opening to a book or short story, it doesn't offer much to interest a reader. I agree with the comment about the denim shorts and waist-length braids. That's more like this girl's grandmother. Although, having been in high school in the 60s, denim shorts were a little too refined- try ragged cut-offs.

  7. There's promise here, but it seems a bit rough still. There is a lot about side characters that we don't need here and very little about the MC. For example, we hear Sylvia's name three times here, we hear about not only mom's sketchy past but her brother's as well. I'd rather hear more about her relationship with Marcus, why she has to sell produce and more hints as to why Syvia is going to change her life.

  8. I've seen this opening elsewhere online, and I really enjoy the writing. I do agree with the others that I wish we had more a sense of the MC; a character saying his/her name, or more of an establishment of who the character is. The writing itself is great and flows well. I did not experience the same confusion over the mother's description; who's to say she couldn't have waist length braids in the 80s? Maybe if she lived in the country on a farm, who knows! Either way, that stuff might be best served on page two, and page one opens more with info about your main character.

  9. Like the tone, but agree I want to know about the MC, not her mother.

    Keep the tone, though...

  10. You have some great descriptions! And I agree with the others about your excellent tone. Nice work. I'd suggest opening your story in the moment--what's happening NOW and save back story for later. I also want to know why your MC is important to this scene; it doesn't seem to involve her. I'm sure I'd find out on page two, but I really need to know one page one.

  11. I really like this. I especially liked the line "Just like that. She wanted a cabbage and six tomatoes." I laughed. Such a true teenage though process.

    The only thing I wanted to know was if Marcus was a boy "friend" or her brother. I guessed brother.

    I am also a patient reader. I need much more than 250 to make a judgment. But so far I like this!

  12. We have herds of free-thinking mothers in all ages in the NW with long-braided hair and an aversion to razors and cosmetics, raising children with long hair (boys and girls alike) and the same aversions. If the children want to revolt, they join the Young Republicans.:)

    But one does tend to think of 60's & 70's hippie-types when given that description. However, we don't know when exactly our story take place. We assume it's modern-day because we haven't been told different, but none of the kids are texting or taking out ear buds to hear, so my hit on it is that it is in the 70's or so.

    Either way, I like this beginning. It would help to have Marcus defined ("My brother/boyfriend/neighbor, Marcus said...")so we know if he's an overly protective brother who doesn't want his sister to be the school 'ho or if he's a creepy-jealous-controlling BF who doesn't want other guys checking out his GF while he has no problems checking out other chicks in short skirts.

    I'm interested enough to read more and find out why our MC is happy to think Sylvia won't be sticking around long. Jealousy, obviously, but I want to know why and what happens!

  13. We also have herds here in the SouthEast of unwashed mothers and children but we call them trailer trash dpwn here. The fact that this is in Missouri tells me it is not meant to be specific of a lifestyle that is based on geography. It sounds like fun and I want to read more.

  14. We do know one thing about the main character: she's jealous enough that she has an irrational dislike for a person she's never met before, because her boyfriend checks her out. I'm assuming it's a boyfriend because he also checks out the MC (if it's her brother then that's a problem).

    I have to admit the first paragraph made me nervous, like it was the start of an info dump, but as it was just one parargraph it wasn't so bad.

    A very minor grammatical thing: on the second line, I'd put a colon between "pictures" and "denim". A hyphen doesn't work. (Although maybe it was an em dash and the format got screwy?)

  15. I like the whole set-up about a family in some kinf of environmental counter-culture thing. But, I was confused. The first paragraph seemed to say that because of the dope smoking, Missouri was a natural choice. I don't get that. I also am ot sure all the time who is speaking and what they are describing. I got the feeling that Marcus was the brother and the MC is creeped out because he loves to stare at her tan lines? I dunno. A great premise but maybe some cleansing. And why does "he" care that the school goes through teachers with alarmiung regularity? Does it mean he can get this girl and then she wil be gone so he likes the idea of a no-problem hook up? i.e. he smiles becaue he can take her and then be confident she will be gone? like every teenage boy's dream of an EXIT sign above the door of his bedroom? I just need more clarity.

  16. You might want to start this with Marcus' reaction and ground the reader in the setting, so we know your protag works at a produce stand. ("Even though my head was buried in a basket of green peppers,I could hear my best friend Marcus whistle under his breath. Sure as anything, it was a hot-loooking girl."

    Then I'd have Syvlia approach the produce stand and order. The cabbage and six tomatoes is a great line! Tells me so much about this new girl in town.

  17. Am I the only person who thought that the female MC felt an instant attraction to Sylvia? Because the way Sylvia is described - in a very sensual way - speaks of an attraction, not potential friendship or enmity. I got that Marcus was her brother and I completely agree that starting with the mother being a pothead is distracting. The first sentences should lead one to the other and I don't think there's enough of a meaningful connection between the first sentence and what this section is about. Other than that, I thought the descriptions were good and I got a good feel for the MC and what (I believe) will be her conflict. Although no one else seems to see that?

    Good luck! This has potential for sure.

  18. I am going to be the lone dissenter here, but I actually liked the first graph. It was like starting with one of those far away pictures of Earth and having the camera zoom in closer and closer to our MC. I thought the first two sentences were quick and the tone fun enough to draw me in. Perhaps you could keep the first two, cut the next, and pick up with "Their pot-smoking days are the reason my uncle..."

    Another option is to keep the first two lines and intersperse the rest with the action that's going on.

    "I'm convinced this is how we got to where we are now.

    My brother Marcus interrupted his tomato stacking to raise his eyebrows at my short skirt as I approached the produce stand."


    Seems like there are enough places to work in who Marcus is to her as others suggested.

    I really like the tone and I was with you through Sylvia saying where she was from. The rest about high school fell a tiny bit flat for me. But I'd keep going.

    Good luck!

  19. Nice writing. It creates mood and tone. But I did wonder what was the point of all that pot smoking if you're immediately going to go somewhere else. Perhaps drop Mom's intro here and use it the first time we see Mom.

    Like others, I have no sense of where this is going. What does your MC want? What's her take on what's happening? How does it affect her? As is, it seems she is less important than the others, and none of them are doing anything interesting.

  20. I agree with Emma, and wondered if the story was about a teenage same-sex relationship. I also wondered if the MC and Marcus become rivals for Emma's affection, and that's why the MC's contentment reached its end.

    I dont have a problem with the teenagers' mother's braids and shorts. It means she's a child of the 60's or 70's, and therefore either had her children at an older age (unusual but certainly not impossible, I had my kids in my 40's), or the story is set a decade or so ago - which I have no problem with either. I think having parents as pot-heads is a good hook for a YA novel.

    It's a good opening and I would read on, my only nit being 'the ruinous end to my contentment' - I think it's a lapse in a teen voice.

    Otherwise, good job.

  21. The descriptions are great...and speaking about time lines, yes we think 60's/70's when we read long braids and cut-offs, etc. but I went to highschool school more recently than that (just a little) and there are plenty of people who dressed in that sytle and I think of it as more of a suggestion to represent a kind of person, rather than the time period. So, I personally wouldn't get hung up on it. Good start.

  22. I'm going to chime in and say I like the first sentence. I see people advising that you start off describing the MC, but I think that first sentence does say volumes about the MC's situation.

    The reader immediately gets the feeling that the child is, in a way, more mature than her parent. I don't think the 3rd and 4th sentence belong at the beginning of the MS. The pot smoking and the free-thinking both contribute to the where, what, and why of the story. I think you can leave the physical descriptions of the MC's mother until later in the MS, if they are relevant at all.

    I've read this entry on another blog and it had the query as well, so I know that Marcus is the MC/narrator's cousin. But that's the only reason I know. Going by the confusion of other comments, I would say add, 'my cousin' the first time you mention Marcus.

    Since I've read your query, I also know that's the hook and it's a great hook (Tabitha Sazuma's Forbidden, anyone?). I don't think there's a reason to gloss over the fact that the MC and Marcus are related early in the book.

    I really like the voice of this opener and I would definitely read on. I really don't think I would change anything except to remove the physical descriptions of the MC's mom.

  23. Like someone else said I got a very sensual feel when Sylvia was being described. Everything the MC kept saying about contentment...well, I am pretty confident that she and Sylvia are going to have a tumultuous relationship but the nature of that relationship is left open to interpretation. I like that.

    I really wish I knew who Marcus was. But I know the explanation is coming and I'd read on to find out.

    Overall this had a strange atmosphere, the tone strain's towards levity but the recurring foreshadowing to discontentment leaves me somewhat uneasy.

  24. I like the opening two lines, and the writing is nice, but the paragraph goes on for too long, and it’s all backstory. I don’t feel that I’m getting to know the protagonist, just some of the people around her. I like the subtle way that you show us that Marcus is the MC’s boyfriend (I think) and that the MC knows that the competition has just arrived. However, I’m not intrigued enough by the setup to be hooked.

  25. Just Another YA AuthorJanuary 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    Going by the final sentence of paragraph one, the rest of this is technically a flashback. I wonder if you could just start with Sylvia approaching the stand, but the MC not knowing who she is, and go on from there as if it's happening in the here and now. I read through this a few times and I don't believe that first paragraph is necessary. An information dump like that should be relevant as quickly as possible or it feels out of place.

    Despite all of that, I am in love with your MC's dry voice and I would keep reading to see why this Sylvia girl is so important.