Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mini Workshop: Day 2

Thank you all so much for participating yesterday! And for being so helpful and nice at the same time. You guys are the best, and I hope it's been interesting to see examples of writing/editing to go along with all the advice we always hear/read.

On to Day 2! Adam Heine, one of my favorite people, offered the first 500 words of his WIP. Thanks for letting us all take a look! My comments are below, please leave your own as well.

Rules: Please feel free to comment, but be constructive. If you want to know my definition of that, see my post about Critiquing With Class. Of course this is a crit session, but I expect politeness and helpfulness.

The excerpt:
The mortars came first, but it was the infants’ cries that woke Mah Htawy. Even with her children long dead, or perhaps lost in the jungles of Burma, she still had the instincts of a mother.

(Just so you know, I'm going to be really picky. Mostly because your writing is clean enough that I can be. "Mortars" in this paragraph threw me at first because I wasn't sure of setting and was thinking "bombs or like the mortar between bricks?" But that's a very optional change, since it's quickly cleared up and your target audience may get that and I'm just slow.

Also watch the "was." Perhaps that could be made more active like, "but the crying infant woke Mah." You have a few of these later too.

And the other nit-pick, "jungles of Burma" could be "Burma's jungle" or, uh, "Burmean jungle"? I'm not sure if that's right but you get the picture.)

She grabbed what few belongings she had and waited. The Mae Surin camp had never been attacked before, so there were no bunkers as there had been at Mai Nai Soi. If a mortar shell came through her roof, she was dead. She could only pray until the shelling stopped.

(I'm not sure if Mai Nai Soi is an important location, but if it's not I would replace it with something like "the other refugee camp." There are already a few foreign words, and at the beginning it's good to keep those to as few as possible until we get familiar with the place.

Again a "was" sentence. But maybe you can't avoid that one.)

For the next five or ten minutes, Mah Htawy hugged her knees in the middle of the room. The bamboo floor shook with each explosion. When it stopped, Mah waited, listening. A minute later, the village lit up as though the midday sun had burst into the sky.

(I would cut "For the next five or ten minutes." It's strange, but I've found that mentioning time has the opposite effect of what we normally think. It's doesn't increase tension, it decreases it. The reader often imagines more urgency without it.)

They were coming. She ran.

(I like this use of a one liner, and I think it'll have more impact with the other "were/was" structures gone. Or it could just be "She ran." That might be cool. Or if you want to go more active, perhaps something like "Footsteps trodded closer." Whatever, what you have is fine, too.)

Nobody knew where the soldiers would come from. Her fellow refugees ran in all directions, hiding underneath their houses, in the jungle, in the rice fields. There was shouting. An RPG blew up the house in front of her. Mah Htawy knew the family who lived there. They owned a radio, and on Wednesday nights she would visit and listen to Thai pop songs with them. Their daughter was named Hla Aye, she thought. It didn’t matter now. They were beneath their house when it was hit.

("Come from" in the first line is a little weak, perhaps a stronger verb like "appear." Again there's that short "There was shouting." I'm on the fence with that. Not bad, but I wonder if something like "Shouts rang in her ears." could keep the pace up better. I think you could cut "visit and" and just keep "listen," since visiting is implied there. Also, the name of their daughter may not be necessary.)

Machine guns spat behind her. Karenni refugees fell to either side. Another grenade exploded not two meters away, tossing Mah through the air and into the dirt.

She wasn’t dead, not yet. Dazed by the blast, she lay still while refugees and soldiers ran past. A baby’s muffled crying came from somewhere near her left hand. Mah prayed the soldier’s didn’t stop to look for it.

(Maybe just "cry" instead of "crying." This is also the second time you've used praying as an action. Not that I'm against praying, but for repetition's sake maybe another word to vary things up.)

When all had gone, Mah picked herself up and saw a woman she didn’t know lying dead in a ditch. The crying came from underneath her. Mah should have left. A baby could only slow her down, and its screams would make hiding impossible. But her heart betrayed her. She lifted the dead mother and pulled the baby from the dirt. A girl, only three or four months old.

(For brevity's sake, maybe "unknown woman" instead of "a woman she didn't know.")

With the girl in her arms, she fled to the edge of the village. Luckily she saw no one, not even the Thai soldiers who were supposed to protect them. She followed the road until the sound of a motorbike frightened her, and she leapt into the jungle.

She lay there, too tired to get up. Fortunately the soldiers, or whoever it was, didn’t hear the baby’s crying above the whine of their engine. As her body calmed, so did the baby. Soon the little girl stopped crying and fell asleep.

(I'm not sure about "whine." It doesn't seem like a loud enough verb to cover a baby crying.)

Mah Htawy cursed herself for picking up the child. Doing so had only prolonged its death, and possibly ensured her own. She considered leaving it there, but she was too weary to get up. She would do nothing for now. She would decide what to do in the morning, if the baby lived that long.

(The sentences get a little repetitive at the end here. Some variation might help. One example: "If the baby lived until morning, she'd decide what to do then.")

Overall, I think this is a fabulous start. We get a sense of Mah's character right from the beginning. Her past is eluded to without being overbearing. She takes noble action to save a child she maybe shouldn't save.

The setting is fabulous as well, and I think it could only be improved with maybe a few more sensory details. There is a lot of sight and sound, and perhaps adding others would make it that much better. Of course that's personal taste. I'd just like to see maybe a little more heat of the jungle, from the bombs. Maybe the taste of the smoke. Not anything huge or in depth—I'm not saying to destroy your pacing. Just something to keep in mind.

And, uh...that's it? I'm grasping at straws here. Good job, Adam.


  1. It's funny. You think you're grasping at straws, while I think you're pointing out all my greatest weaknesses (too many foreign names, too few sensory details...though the wealth of passive construction surprised me -- bad, Adam! Bad!).

    Thank you very much for doing this. I really appreciate it.

  2. I'm not sure I would call those weaknesses! Very easily fixed and also non-issue depending on audience.

  3. I know I'm not helpful, but I don't have anything to add. I'd read on.

    Good job!

  4. Your critiques are so helpful Natalie! Especially your comments on making sentences more active both today and yesterday. Thanks so much for doing this!

  5. Natalie's comments are spot on and I'd add one about the truck. You said "above the whine of their engine" but assuming the truck's larger (or in disrepair, which would fit with my image of these soldiers) the engine would roar, growl, grind, get the idea.

    Also I agree you could strengthen the sensory images - the mugginess of the jungle or the smell of rotting vegetation are things your MC would probably notice while lying in the ditch.

  6. I'm definitely interested in this story. I'm on board with Natalie's comments, but it's really an intriguing start. :)

  7. "...assuming the truck's larger (or in disrepair, which would fit with my image of these soldiers) the engine would roar, growl, grind, get the idea."

    Thanks, Liz. Those are great ideas for alternatives! Esp. grind and clank, being awesome sound words that I frequently forget.

  8. I agree with Natalie's comments. This is a great start. Adding smells, the feel of things, and other things to show us how Mah feels will really help pull us deeper into the story.

    At one point I felt like "crying" was used a lot. I think that is where Natalie pointed out some redundancy (this is one of my biggest weaknesses--along with passive voice.)

    Great start though, and I would read more.

  9. These comments are making me realize how much critiquing is going to be done on my story when it is done :(. Thats a lot for doing these! It really is enjoyable to read them.

  10. You didn't have a "wealth of passive construction," Adam. Natalie made some great suggestions, especially about redundancy, but I liked most of your beginning the way it was.

  11. I am very intrigued by this start. The setting is interesting, and your writing is clear and concise. I am eager to read more.

    I did struggle when reading because I couldn’t get a good grasp on Mah’s emotional responses to the action. Maybe this was intentional, but I couldn’t tell if she was scared or angry or annoyed. She was very pragmatic. This combined with the fact that she had experienced something like this before (based on her comparison between the two camps) gave me the sense that she wasn’t overcome by fear or any very strong emotion. The first glimpse I got to her inner response to the situation was use of the word frightened in the ninth paragraph.

    After an additional read, perhaps her emotional response is there and I am just missing it. Mah did two things that could hint to this: praying and hugging her knees. However, neither of these actions really conveys a specific emotional response to me. She could be scared—or she could just be silently waiting for the inevitable.

    I also agree that adding a little grit and grime to the setting would improve the text.

    That said—I really enjoyed reading this. Based on this excerpt, I would buy this book.

  12. Thanks, Heidi. Those are really good insights!