Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Adorable Editors Winners #4

GENRE: YA Alternate History

Tacked to the wall in a wooden frame, a rustic little impostor amid much finer furnishings, our family portrait mocks us. It tells us homesick tales of warmth and togetherness, of unexplored backwoods, life-gorged cities, and infinite blacktop roads. When Clay and Cecelia look at the picture, I know a taste of before still sits on their tongues, sweet and raw. But before is a world I never knew.

Clay’s chili bowl hair, as Cecelia calls it, hangs black and stark above his river-water eyes. His toddler image boasts a valiantly forced grin. What has grown in of Cecelia’s dark hair is held fast with a red bow. I see a mother I never knew who looks like none of her children, because Dad’s brunette and straight-nosed genes vanquished any suggestion of her Irish softness in us: the fair, freckled skin, curved nose, and walnut hair. Clay and Cecilia got her churning sea eyes, but mine are brown like Dad’s. The sun agrees with our golden brown skin, and we look like every Debrosse in recent memory.

I wasn’t born yet when this portrait was taken. I find it strange. The clean-shaven goofball in a turtleneck looks nothing like my dad. He's neither careworn, rough, and ranting about lost freedoms nor glued to a glass of high proof whiskey.

Imagining the world I never knew is disconcerting, so I don’t look at the portrait often. Clay chuckles at it every few months, making fun of our mom’s hair.

"Gotta love the 90s," he says.


  1. Fully hooked. The writing is lyrical and draws the reader on, and we feel the sense of yearning, of trying to make sense of two disparate pictures of her before and after world. Truly makes me want to read on.

    One nitpick is calling dad a brunette - I've never heard a male referred to this way. Sort of pulled me out. But this is small and easily fixable.

    Great work. Would love to read more.

  2. Hmm. Your writing is very poetic, and that's nice, but I feel like its over-written at times and you're not really hitting a YA-sounding voice, to me. I thought I was reading something set in the past, but then when I hit Clay chuckling about their mother's haircut, I realise it's not really that long ago at all.

    All in all, intriguing. You have a strong style that manages to support an extended scene that is basically just looking at a picture, using it to tell more of the story -- and that's good. I dislike the frequent use of 'we', though. The 'we' especially distances me from the story, and I didn't understand at first that the main character wasn't in the portrait and... it was a little confusing. That's just me, though -- see what others think.

  3. I like the first paragraph, but after that I'm afraid you lose me.

    The second para I found dense and clumsy, and I had to reread it to know whether you were talking about the photograph or people looking at it. I have no idea what chili bowl hair is, and river-water eyes could be green or blue or brown, so I can't picture anything, and then later you have 'churning sea eyes' as well - there's just way too many descriptions jumbled together for me to picture the people.

    You also use up your whole first 250 words describing a picture - I'd like some action by the end. I was drawn in by 'Before is a world I never knew' and wanted to know what that meant, but then I lost interest as you went on about the photo.

    I'd be tempted to move from the first para straight into action and dialogue, and weave in any necessary family descriptions later.

    This also sounds more adult than YA to me.

  4. I see the hint of conflict for the MC between "before" and the present/future, but this opening didn't grab me. Lots of description without much action might not be compelling enough for a YA.

    "...unexplored backwoods, life-gorged cities, and infinite blacktop roads" gives conflicting images, which was disconcerting.

    I liked the chili bowl haircut, but river-water and churning sea may be a bit much. I was stopped by the term brunette for a male, also. You rarely see brunet, so maybe choose a different word.

    The paragraph about Dad gives a good portrait of him, both then and now, in two quick sentences.

    Possibilities here, but I'd like to see a little action.

  5. That first sentence with the photograph as an imposter really captured my attention. A scene of a loving family that no longer exists though most of the members are still present.
    You’ve created a dark and foreboding setting with poetic description throughout, but maybe a bit too narrative in one large gulp for young adults. I can feel how despairing the main character is, part of this family but not part of the happier past, one family member traded for another. Two small facts: at least two children do in fact look like the mother: Clay and Cecelia have her churning sea eyes. That’s a dramatic description and suggests perhaps some inner turmoil the older children might have inherited from her. And though I love both churning sea eyes and river-water eyes, you are describing the same people in two similar ways. I think you should choose one and save the other for a different story. Also, brunette and walnut colored hair are pretty much the same: dark brown. Did you mean chestnut, which is dark red? pObhegClay calls attention to the mom’s hair but I suspect it’s really to her hair style which isn’t described here. Something you might include, though I like the final sentence. The 90’s is something the narrator didn’t experience so Clay’s comment is especially hurtful.
    I’m not sure what genre Alternate History is. Perhaps this is Literary Fiction? The title doesn't elicit any ideas from me. I often pick up a book based on how well the title intrigues me. This title reminds me of map grids.

  6. Oops, sorry! The anti robot code got printed in the comments section, mea culpa.

  7. I love the entire first paragraph. It sets the tone and the mood for the story, and it really gives me a sense of who these characters are.

    But then, I'd love to see some kind of action, or dialogue. Something to set the story in motion. While your imagery is beautiful and poetic (although I couldn't figure out what chili bowl hair was), it's a little too much all at once. Break it up a little with some forward motion.

  8. I tripped over this passage.

    There isn’t much happening but describing characters and explaining that the setting is after the 1990s.

    For the description of the siblings, one moment Clay has black hair, but then the dad’s brunette genes are said to have been dominant. Also, describing the eyes as river-water is confusing. I have no idea if you mean grayish, bluish, or muddy brown. I lived near the Chattahoochee for most of my life and its water is reddish-brown, which made me think the kid had that color eyes, which would be totally weird.

    I think this would be better if all this info was worked in later. It really needs to have some action to hook the reader in better.

  9. I'm torn on this one. The description was good, if a little over-done in spots (comparing eye color to the ocean is kinda cliche and "churning" is a little melodramatic), and it carried me along. At the same time, as others have pointed out, nothing much happens. The MC looks at a picture. I'm not even sure if s/he is actually looking at it right now or if this is a memory of all the times s/he has looked at it. Maybe if I knew that this is a specific moment, that right now, this person is standing there looking at this picture and feeling this longing, it would make the excerpt more gripping.

  10. I really like this descriptive passage (although I think it is occasionally too dense), but it's mostly background information that could be given later. Is it really the best beginning for your story? Does something significant happen to the main character or someone the main character cares about that would make a better beginning. Or perhaps some important decision or action?

    Some literary novels succeed with long descriptive passages at the beginning, but I think most novels, especially those for young people, work best with some sort of action or a conflict between the characters at the beginning.

    If I had picked this up at the bookstore or library, I probably would have put it back on the shelf after this first page because nothing has really pulled me in yet.

  11. I love the entire first paragraph. It really gave me a idea of the past vs. the present.

    "Our family portrait mocks us" - The MC isn't in it, so this was a little confusing.

    The second paragraph has a ton of physical description. I would tone it down to one distinctive feature to not overload the reader with info dump.

    Third paragraph is excellent portrayal of the father.

    I would read on to find out what happened to this family and what the future holds for them.

  12. As with the others - I love the first paragraph. I am intrigued by the description of life before and after, then and now.

    "But before is a world I never knew." Before what?? What changed since this portrait? What happened then that has her dad now ranting and turning to his whiskey? What did Clay and Cecelia live through that the MC didn't?

    I like the approach taken here, laying out the characters and some of their background in order to lead into whatever has made them change. I see comments on too much description - but sometimes with too much action at the start of a YA novel, I don't end up connecting with the characters until later in the story. I personally enjoy what the author has chosen to do here. It's different, and, as has been mentioned, the writing is quite poetic.

    I do particularly like the paragraph about the father. I think that is the most intriguing part of the entry. It shows that something, other than the passing of time, has affected this family.

  13. It was the description of the portrait that hooked me—that made me choose your entry from all those I COULD choose. You have such an interesting way of leading a reader into that image and why it’s important—“a rustic little impostor”—and now I need to know why it doesn’t belong and why the portrait not belonging matters.

    I like the manner in which your narrator introduces us to the characters through this image and the way that he/she (I don’t yet know from the sample) doesn’t fit. You make the otherness so apparent, the world that your protagonist populates so misaligned from the world that existed in that photo, in the ‘90s.

    That being said, I do think you’re overwriting. Your diction is stretching into bounds that seem incongruent with what comes later. Your narrator’s voice is so literary. Clay’s voice, in contrast, is relatable, standard. You have to figure out how to reconcile those so that as the reader moves from description to dialogue, it doesn’t seem quite so jarring.

    A lot of your critiquers are calling for more action in this scene. I don’t agree. You’re using this image for a specific purpose in a clever way. But, you do need to move off of this image (hopefully just after this) and get into something more actively aligned with your main narrative. I don’t know what alternate history ground you’re going to tread. I do WANT to know. Make sure you’re not begging too much time from you’re audience to become entrenched or you risk losing interest.

    Overall, a lovely start.

  14. I agree that this is a good place to start. The photo introduces characters, sets a mood, and gives the sense of a not right situation.

    The problem, I think, is in the overwriting. The descriptions don't work. You're using words that don't say anything. Chile bowl hair and river water eyes are empty words because neither says anything specific and both will be taken differently to different readers. Say blue or brown, or maybe steely or muddy--something simple and clear and concrete that can't be taken two ways.

    Straight nosed genes says the genes have straight noses. (I know what you really mean, but that's not what you've written.) What is Irish softness? Can you touch it, feel it, see it? Churning sea eyes - are those eyes swirling in their sockets?

    Make better word choices and you can say the same thing in a clearer, more concise way. Plus, simpler words will give this a more stark feel, which seems to be what you're going for. Try rewriting that second parg.