Sample Critique

 

Dear AUTHOR,

Wow! I adore PROTAGONIST and his world. You have written such a fun and endearing tale! Your writing is wonderfully tight, your voice incredibly strong. I envy your use of creative, zippy dialogue. You’ll see that almost all of my notes in your manuscript are places where I was delighted.

In this revision (which may very well be your last before submission), I would suggest that you look closely at structure and character circuitry. Although you do a fabulous job of binding us to your story – we immediately adore the characters, the town, and your storytelling abilities – the story doesn’t build with momentum toward a totally satisfying and inevitable ending. At one point while reading, I wondered if this was intended to be an episodic story since we didn’t seem to be racing with PROTAGONIST toward his deepest desires.   There are longings, and there is tension, but the two do not often coincide in a way that propels the story forward. The middle sags (wanders?), but once tightened, you will no doubt have true magic.

PROTAGONIST and his desires

PROTAGONIST desires many things, but I don’t think we see a clear desire line that allows us to feel that the stakes are high and that PROTAGONIST has triumphed. Let’s look at them one by one:

  1. The desire to be brave. This is PROTAGONIST’s announced desire, the one that PROTAGONIST can achieve on his own, and the one that will bring the most satisfaction in the end. As written, the timing is off. You do a great job of showing us his longing to stick up for REMOVED, and eventually he does, but he has prior brave moments that steal the thunder of the climax (SPECIFIC MOMENT, SPECIFIC MOMENT, SPECIFIC MOMENT, SPECIFIC MOMENT). (One might say he was being brave when he SPECIFIC MOMENT, but this scene has no high stakes around it. He knows that CHARACTER knows that he REMOVED. In giving her the REMOVED, he has only something to gain, nothing to lose.) We believe that he has grown into the boy who confronts CHARACTER, but we don’t have the same joyful release as we would if this was the very act we were waiting for through the entire story.
  1. The desire to help SPECIFIC RESULT. Why? Does he want SPECIFIC RESULT so he no longer feels the pressure to defend him? Does he want SPECIFIC RESULT so that their relationship will change? (In what way?) Does he want SPECIFIC RESULT because he knows that CHARACTER is aware of more than he lets on? Does he SPECIFIC RESULT because then CHARACTER would have a better life? Before we can wish right along with PROTAGONIST, we have to know why this goal is important and how it will affect HIM. Here are some additional notes around PROTAGONIST that may help:
  • In chapter 6, we learn of a time when CHARACTER was attacked and PROTAGONIST did nothing. Here we fully understand PROTAGONIST’s shame. However, it’s followed by the mention of REMOVED. This confused me and I went back to reread. CHARACTER didn’t REMOVED at this time, was there increased REMOVED? We do know that CHARCTER chooses not to go to town after this. The scene seems to imply that PROTAGONIST is carrying a good deal of guilt — guilt that is never fully explored or resolved. (Try finishing this sentence: If PROTAGONIST had stood up for CHARACTER, then _______________ and ________________. ) Because the guilt is not more examined, CHARACTER’S comment about PROTAGONIST’S REMOVED in the end lacks resonance. Another option would be to put this event closer to the OTHER EVENT. It then becomes less of a revelation of deep-seated guilt and more of a reinforcement of PROTAGONIST’s cowardice.
  • What is CHARACTER’s story arc? Not every character needs to have an arc of course, but CHARACTER not only plays a crucial part in PROTAGONIST’s life, he changes as well. Why did CHARACTER REMOVED? (Before CHARACTER was born, yes?) Does the family recognize the possibility that REMOVED (in which case why doesn’t PROTAGONIST do battle with CHARACTER more? And why does Mom so easily dismiss CHARACTER?) Or do they consider it an act of God? Why does CHARACTER choose to REMOVED in the end?
  • Mom urges PROTAGONIST to accept CHARACTER. Why doesn’t he? Is this an important message? If so, how does PROTAGONIST have to change to accept or reject his mother’s advice? What does CHARACTER’s REMOVED say about PROTAGONIST’s quest? That one shouldn’t give up hope?
  • Why doesn’t CHARACTER enlist OTHER CHARACTER’s direct help with the plant that will cure CHARACTER?
  1. The desire to take the REMOVED down. No doubt this is the external desire (whereas the desire to be brave would be internal) and we can certainly get behind it. But even this desire gets all tangled up. Even though CHARACTER is REMOVED, PROTAGONIST doesn’t focus on the REMOVED until chapter 17.   In this chapter and the following one, he tries to REMOVED (Yay!), runs to get his REMOVED (why not his father?), and then rescues CHARACTER in a clever and brave way. The focus then turns toward the effect CHARACTER is having on OTHER CHARACTER and his family, but instead of conspiring to do something, the boys get absorbed with the SPECIFIC EVENT and the discovery of a REMOVED. The new REMOVED poses a particular problem because now, instead of worrying about his friend’s family (and his own!) he is desiring a whole bunch of new stuff:

 

TEXT FROM STORY

 

  1. The desire to be a REMOVED. PROTAGONIST expresses the desire to become a REMOVED, he studies and he practices. But here is my quandary: how can someone so devoted to REMOVED not know how the REMOVED are done? He understands REMOVED – that is, he understands the power of misdirection. I’m not sure about middle-grade readers, but I guessed the REMOVED from the beginning (SPECIFIC RESULT, SPECIFIC RESULT). Why wouldn’t PROTAGONIST, who is so keen on REMOVED, and also hyperaware of CHARACTER, not know? Why wouldn’t he be devoted to learning the secret of the REMOVED?
  • I can’t help thinking that the ending might be more rewarding if PROTAGONIST used what he learns about REMOVED throughout the story to trap CHARACTER. One possibility: PROTAGONIST suggests one last EVENT. He somehow leaks the idea that CHARACTER could REMOVED with his father during SPECIFIC EVENT (and who would know it was REMOVED?). Then, forced to trade places with CHARACTER (perhaps he stands up for CHARACTER, but CHARACTER still walks out?) PROTAGONIST puts REMOVED. As written, PROTAGONIST acts brave on the final night, and he certainly tries to help capture CHARACTER, but OTHER CHARACTER (who we hardly know) is the hero.

One last note about desire: I’m not sure that the REMOVED subplot is one that is working. It takes up a good deal of space, and repeatedly pulls tension away from the larger issues. And ironically, when PROTAGONIST fears he is being arrested for EVENT, these are his worries:

TEXT FROM STORY

 As you can see, he mentions a whole list of things that we didn’t know he cared about (we haven’t seen him trying to do well in school or make his CHARACTER proud) and he doesn’t mention any of the things that supposedly do matter to him (helping CHARACTER, becoming a REMOVED, rescuing his REMOVED from the grips of CHARACTER).

Without a clear desire line, we are an observer of PROTAGONIST, who remains an observer of events around him. We think it’s cute when he makes CHARACTER REMOVED (what is CHARACTER thinking during this time?), but we’re not truly engaged in the outcome.

Finally, consider taking a closer look at the relationship between PROTAGONIST and his father. All we really know about the two of them is that Dad would like PROTAGONIST to go to college. PROTAGONIST doesn’t expect much from his father (why?) nor does he ever seek his help. His father SPECIFIC RESULT when he was a boy. What does that mean to PROTAGONIST? Why doesn’t his father do more to save them now?

The more we understand your characters, the more we understand the causal relationships, and the less we see the author’s hand.

You have a winner of s story here, AUTHOR! There is so much charm, so much to admire. Once you have revised with an eye to appetite, you will no doubt have readers tearing up at the end.

I’m looking forward to talking with you.

 

Jennifer

 

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