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Day 3 (Part 1) of May's Voice Workshop with Pitch Wars mentor, Helene Dunbar

Wednesday, 4 May 2016  |  Posted by Heather Cashman

voice workshop

Welcome to May’s Voice Workshop with some of our amazing Pitch Wars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected over thirty writers to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a 500 word sample that the writer chose from his or her manuscript where he or she felt they needed help with their voice. Our hope that these samples will help you with your work and that you’ll get to know some of our wonderful Pitch Wars mentors. We appreciate our mentors for giving up their time to do the critiques.  If you have something encouraging to add, feel free to comment below. Please keep all comments tasteful. We will delete any inappropriate or hurtful ones.

And now we have …

Pitch Wars Mentor Helene Dunbar

 Photo by Stephanie Saujon

Website  |  Twitter

Helene Dunbar is the author of THESE GENTLE WOUNDS (Flux, 2014), WHAT REMAINS (Flux, 2015) and BOOMERANG (coming from Sky Pony in 2017). Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as Irish music, court cases, theater, and Native American Indian tribes. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter and exists on a steady diet of readers’ tears.

Represented by Lauren MacLeod at The Strothman Agency.

Photo by Stephanie Saujon


Helene’s 500 Word Critique . . .

YA Historical

            Ladies do not scramble up the outer walls of their homes with their skirts hitched up and bound about their knees. (I’m only marking this here, but you only need one space after a period) They do not cling to trellises filled with shriveled roses, pricking their fingers upon thorns and biting back oaths they are not supposed to know, as they push open the windows of chambers they were forbidden to enter. I actually love this opening paragraph. It makes me curious about your MC, who she is and why she’s doing these things that she knows she isn’t supposed to.

            I hold my breath. This is clichéd and I wanted more of a transition. “I’ve never cared about being a lady” or “But there are more important things than being a lady” or something that both connects the paragraphs and gives us the tiniest idea of why she’s doing this.  The leaded casements defy my cold fingers at first, but I finally work my nails into the a narrow crack and pull.  When last I was allowed to see my sister, two days ago, I had taken care to leave the casements unlatched when last I was allowed to see my sister, two days previous. I admit that I haven’t read a lot of historical in a long while, but I think that you can still  lighten the language a tiny bit and it seems like this info should come first. The hinges move grudgingly in a grudging manner (this is awkward) and the window swings toward me with a low groan.  I smile at my success as I ease my way inside the darkened chamber, my body trembling from the effort of my clandestine climb. Be careful that your descriptions aren’t bogging down the text. I think “darkened chamber” is fine, but not sure you need clandestine, because that is implicit).

            I’d love a transition here. “X makes me think of home.” How Grandfather would chide me, though with an ever-present spark of amusement in his eye.  How Oliver would freeze me with his stern gaze!  This occurs when, as he so often says, Kenna has once again behaved in an unseemly manner. He wears the title of “Father” when it suits him, though Oliver sheds the role of parent most of the time, removing it from his person as one flicks a bit of dust from his sleeve. This is a LOVELY line, but I’m going to suggest that you cut it for clarity (see below)

            I land with a soft thump upon the carpets in my sister’s chamber.  She moans and stirs but does not open her eyes. Her sister! Wow! I didn’t see that coming. I’d love to know if this sister is older or younger at this point.

            The room smells of dust tinged with the sourness of curdled milk.  Wrinkling my nose, I fling the curtains wide and leave the casements open, though the air is quite cool and filled with the gray autumn mist that descends upon our hills this time of year. 

            Oliver’s orders are that the heavy curtains are to be kept drawn tight in his wife’s chamber.  It is as though my sister is not allowed to know the day from the night.  Her  husband insists the sunlight hurts her eyes. See below. I love this. You say so much about him (and her) in just a few words).

            I do not believe him.  I need light, at any rate.  With my bare foot, (climbing is near to impossible wearing one’s slippers) not sure you need this explanation, I shove a stool close to Cinaed’s bed and sit, pulling the scrap of parchment and bit of charcoal filched from my tutor out of my skirts.  And I begin.  Squinting, I sketch a few lines, regard them with a tinge of criticism, and add more lines to my drawing.   

            My sister is both mother and father to me.  She has been since the time our parents died, so long ago their faces do not come to mind.  I cannot bear the thought that one day; I may no longer recall my sister’s image.  That is only, of course, if she does not recover. Okay, so yes. I think you need to find a way to clarify these relationships better, hence my suggestion above. I’m confused about whether he has Kenna call him “father” sometimes or he just acts fatherly. Either way, this can be worked in later. In the opening, I want clarity above all!

            The hot air of this chamber suffocates me.  I cannot breathe.  I bow my head as though in prayer.  Why am I here, trying to create a memento of my sister?  She will recover!  She must! 

I think there is a clear voice in this opening. A girl who values her sister above all, who isn’t afraid to take risks to get what she wants. An artist. You do a great job of working a lot into a page, but don’t be afraid to hold back info that CAN wait.

I’d question whether the writing needs to be THIS formal for a YA audience. You might want to consider using some contractions, just to lighten it a bit.


Thank you, Helene, for your critique! You can check out her books below.
For more mentor critiques, keep watching! The Pitch Wars Mentor Wishlist Blog Hop starts July 2oth with the Pitch Wars submission window opening August 3rd. Happy writing and editing for Pitch Wars 2016!

Books by Helene Dunbar . . .


WHAT REMAINS (Flux, 2015)

BOOMERANG (Coming in 2017 from Sky Pony)


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