Hayley Stone has lived her entire life in sunny California, where the weather is usually perfect and nothing as exciting as a robot apocalypse ever happens. When not reading or writing, she freelances as an editor and graphic designer, falls in love with video game characters, and analyzes buildings for velociraptor entry points. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in German from California State University, Sacramento. Her debut novel, Machinations, releases July 26th from Hydra/Random House. She loves connecting with writers and readers. Visit her on Twitter: @hayley_stone
Hayley’s 500 Word Critique . . .
Middle Grade Humor, Mystery Series/7-12 year old
The clock shrieked again and this time
Lily my sister jumped, too, even further than me even, which was impressive since her legs were much smaller. (Right off the bat, you can use voice here to better establish character, backstory, and/or relationships. Is the MC a proud person? Vain? Does she love her sister? Consider the difference between what is written here versus:
“… since her legs were much smaller, of course.”
“… since her legs were much smaller. Mother used to say she’d get lost in the sofa, if she sat too close to the crack between the cushions.”
“… since her legs were much smaller. What a scaredy cat.”)
“Oh my,” Aunt Helene said softly
suddenly softening her tone. “Nine o’clock already? I suppose The Howler is trying to tell us it’s about time you two got ready for bed. There will be plenty of time for
“The H-H-Howler?” Lily asked, her eyes growing wide as she let Missyella (a doll?) fall to the floor.
“Why yes,” Aunt Helene stated in an overly cheerful voice. She took Lily’s hand and tried to walk her toward the clock. (So far, the focus of this story appears to be on Lily rather than the MC, so you’re going to have to really sell the first-person voice, or else it leads me to wonder why we’re not in Lily’s head instead. One of the best ways to do this is injecting the MC’s attitude onto the prose.) My sister, however, wouldn’t budge. Not before grabbing on to my arm, at least. I dragged my feet
My feet reluctantly moved as Aunt Helene led the way toward the massive clock. (Location? Where is it, down the hall? What is significant about the clock? So far, I’m having difficulty parsing out what the MC knows, versus what she’s experiencing for the first time. This is also a good opportunity to showcase more voice through your MC’s interpretation of the situation. Try to see the world through her eyes, and convey that through the prose itself. How afraid is she? Is she trying to put on a brave face for her sister, or was she just startled at the beginning, but not really frightened now?) I could feel Lily trembling as she dug her nails into my skin. (Again the focus is on Lily, not the MC. Still no idea at this point about how the narrator is feeling.)
“See there on the top?” Aunt Helene pointed to the tiny script lettering below the Roman numeral
twelve. We leaned in as much as possible without getting too close. The words were completely illegible, yet we nodded anyway.
“It says Howard Miller.
,” Aunt Helene continued. “That’s the name of the manufacturer. My mother, your great grandmother, always used to call this clock The Howard Miller. ‘Helene, dear, it’s time for your nap. The Howard Miller says so,’” Aunt Helene said in a fast and shrill voice. “Of course, to a toddler who was only just learning to speak, it sounded like The Howler instead. I guess it sort of
stuck over the years.”
Lily nodded, apparently accepting that explanation as somewhat reasonable. “Sort of like how Melissa is now Missyella,” she told our aunt, searching for her doll, now face down on the floor. While Lily had stopped trembling, she still had a pretty good clutch on my arm. I gently peeled back her fingers to release myself, rubbing the afflicted area. That was definitely going to leave a mark. (Aha! Our first glimmer of the MC’s voice. Let her interact and examine more during this scene. Given how this is first-person, everything from what she sees, to how she sees it should be filtered through the lens of her character.)
“Yes, exactly,” Aunt Helene responded, picking up Missyella and handing her back to my sister.
“The Howler is a bit temperamental I’m afraid. You never know when he’s going to chime. That’s what happens when you get old, you know.” She slapped her knee and began laughing.
Lily and I didn’t even crack a smile. (I think part of the problem in this excerpt is that the MC is completely intertwined with her sister, and is not setting themselves apart in any way. From the very first line where they both jump, their reactions are almost identical. What makes the MC unique? Figure that out and make sure to have it come across in the text.)
Aunt Helene cleared her throat. “Right. Anyway, after a few days, you won’t even notice him.”
“Him?” I asked.
“Or her, I suppose,” Aunt Helene responded. “I don’t know. The Howler’s always been a he, but I know you kids are all about political correctness these days, so whatever floats your biscuit.”
“Floats our…?” Lily started.
“Do you mean floats our boat?” I corrected.
Aunt Helene waved her hand in a dismissive manner. “Yeah, yeah, that’s what I said. You know …
floats your boat, butters your biscuit, milks your cow, razzles your dazzle … you get the idea. The point is … um … what were we talking about?”
Got me. (Like the sentence fragment!) Lily didn’t seem to know either. (Same reaction again.) Her eyebrow started to go up but stopped mid-rise when The Howler screamed again as if to remind us he was the topic of discussion. My sister and I jumped once more. (Here they are performing the same action a third time.)
“Well,” Aunt Helene said, completely unaffected by a shrieking clock, because you know, that was normal, (Good voice here, and it leads me to believe the narrator is both sarcastic and self-aware, which doesn’t really come across elsewhere in this excerpt, but which definitely should.) “I suppose it’s time.”
For a Middle Grade novel, the writing style is perfect: concise and easy to read, plus there’s a lot of potential with the voice. In terms of humorous elements, Aunt Helene dominates the show, particularly her quirky relationship to the clock and her old-timey phrases. Unfortunately, I think her character largely stands out because both Lily and the MC are non-entities. Their personalities don’t come across beyond their circumstantial fear. As I mentioned before, this is first-person POV: we should sense the MC behind every line, delivering this first-hand account to us, or else it might as well be changed to third person POV.
Try to imagine the MC telling this story out loud: what details do they include? When they walk into a room, what do they focus on—why? How do they feel about what’s going on? Let those feelings bleed into the descriptions. Vary your sentence structure, consider using fragments, when appropriate. When taken together, all of these things will help to better define your voice.
Thank you, Hayley, for your critique. Interested in more 500 word voice workshops? Come back tomorrow for two more critiques. And get ready! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 20 with the Pitch Wars submission window opening on August 3.
MACHINATIONS by Hayley Nicole Stone
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