Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Monday, October 03, 2005

    Juan Nakai

    Gary has sent in his 'YA Multicultural Novel', Juan Nakai. Relatively quick, this crit, as there's not too much wrong with it bar the beginning:

    Chapter 1

    Juan Nakai's black Yaqui eyes flashed in anger as he watched his mother mixing the tortilla dough in the shade of her guamuchil tree. It wasn't exactly clear why he said, "How'd we get this casa, mama?"

    Not a great opening paragraph. Eyes flashing in anger is cliche, and 'It wasn't exactly clear why' is weak and fuzzy. (If you're going to have someone do something for no apparent reason, don't draw attention to it!)

    Rosa looked like the kind of woman who had four kids to raise. She was plump and brown from the Sonoran Desert sun, with arms strong enough to embrace or cuff a
    cranky child, her long dark hair tied in back with a piece of sisal string. She glanced at the house of upright mesquite poles tied together with jute.

    "This casita? Your father built it." She frowned. "You want to know about your father?"

    Something she had never said before.

    Juan hadn't said anything about his father.

    "I like to know where is he now."

    Perhaps he asked about the house because he wasn't sure how to go about asking about his father; that fuzz in the first paragraph is actually making this unclear. If we had a better idea of that, an expression on Juan's face for instance, the conversation about the house wouldn't feel like a false start. I think the one-sentence paragraphs are rather clunky, too.

    Rosa picked up the lump of wheat-flour dough with both hands and slapped it down hard on the rickety plywood table. She said, "He went to Mexico City to make some money right after you was born. He said when he made enough money he's coming back and build us a big house."

    "I'm going to be fourteen in two months. Did he die--" he didn't want to say it, "or what?"

    She sighed. "I don't know. He changed after you was born, started drinking. It took him over."

    "Started drinking after I was born?"

    "Oh, at first he was proud. I never seen a man as proud as your father the day you was born. When you was three weeks old he took you around the pueblo, showing
    everyone his own little Yaqui warrior." Her hands stopped kneading. She looked toward the silent Sierra Madre in the distance but her eyes did not see the mountains.

    "You think he's still in Mexico City?"

    "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not."

    She pinched off a ball of dough and patted it into a tortilla, keeping her thoughts private, and her visions. She had taught Juan to look for signs, that was good, but visions, seeing things that hadn't happened yet--no.

    To make money Rosa made tamales with sweet potatoes and chilies from her garden. Rolled them in cornmeal from her plants grown in the hot earth, wrapped each one in the corn husk, tied the ends with a strip torn from the husk, and then steamed them.

    For as long as he could remember Juan Nakai went around selling his mother's tamales on the streets and in the cantinas of Alianza. He'd say, "You want to buy tamales? For you--almost free."

    On Saturdays he'd drive his uncle Teofilo's pickup truck loaded with fruits and vegetables to the public market to sell them. Then sit on the tailgate drinking coconut juice through a straw and practice reading comics. Capulina the chubby clown was his favorite, always dreaming up new ideas, like selling Pancho Villa's sombrero to the tourists.

    Late afternoon Teofilo would put the unsold vegetables in a box and say to Juan, "This's for your mother."
    It's not bad. Juan decides he's going to Mexico City in seach of his father, which seems like a pretty promising setup for any number of stories, and I'd want to have a look to see what happens next. The style is fine - Gary needs to guard against cliche, which creeps in now and then, and to find more elegant ways to blend in the little bursts of social and geographical information that he needs his readers to know:
    Juan picked up Spanish from his customers. Most of the Yaquis spoke only Cahita. The pueblo isn't much different than it was a hundred years ago. Dogs and pigs and chickens run free. No school. No electric lines or running water or telephones. Cars or trucks parked in front of one out of four houses. A third have a bedroom. Most houses belong to a woman, more than half don't have a husband. But no orphans. Every child is part of the community.

    Doesn't quite jell, does it? But for the most part, this looks fairly promising.
    Torgo, 1:30 pm


    I'm always amazed that so much of what we write is unformed until we understand what is we're writing about. Once that happens, the story is always much stronger. I'm hoping that after my second book, I won't spend so much time having to rewrite.

    Thanks for posting Gary's words. All of your posts have been really helpful.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 5:26 pm  
    The problem with beginnings is - how much background do you put in - too much and it's obvious that you're trying too hard, too little and the reader doesn't know what's happening. I enjoyed reading this -I want to know what happens next but but I did find the atmosphere a bit stifling.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:08 pm  
    Sorry- comment above was me. I didn't press the right buttons.
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:10 pm  
    My feeling is that you can assume your readers are really, really clever. People rarely need telling things twice, and can usually work on only a little information. In this excerpt, there are moments when that information is worked carefully in with dialogue and character, and moments when it's dumped on the reader in a didactic tone.

    One trick might be to put these little dumps of information in to the argument of the narrative; eg 'he would have done this, but for the fact that...'. If they're part of the scenery, rather than part of the story, they stick out more. Of course, you still need a light touch with it.
    Blogger Torgo, at 7:16 pm  
    Torgo, do you mind if we post thoughts on the actual work you post here or would you rather we leave that to the pro? I have a few ideas for Gary but don't want to stomp toes or disturb the concept you have in mind for the blog.

    If Gary was in line Aug. 17, that must mean I'm next. Goodie, goodie.

    Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:10 pm  
    Hi Diana - you can certainly jump in any time you like. I'd love to hear anybody's thoughts.

    Annoyingly, the 17th and 18th of August were my two biggest-ever days, so you're still five or so back. Sorry.
    Blogger Torgo, at 8:13 pm  
    Thanks, Torgo. Just a couple thoughts for Gary. I would suggest he try this chapter in first person, not because I don't think third reads okay, but because it may help Gary get in Juan's head and see opportunities for action and dialogue to bring in backstory rather than so much exposition in the first chapter. Gary could consider an action scene, like the one in which Juan is driving the uncle's truck to open this story, drawing the reader in right away with an intriguing cultural difference--most 14-yr-olds don't drive--and adding setting details only at a minimum so the pace does not drag.

    Although, having said that, Juan might be a bit young for this particular YA, depending on what topics and conflicts are in the body of the book. This reads to me like middle grade and might fit better there. Seems to be a good U.S. market for multi-cultural MG these days.

    The other thing that concerns me is the use of inappropriate grammar to indicate accent or dialect or position. I would skip that, since in my experience, it's a flag for editors and it's hard to make it hold up throughout a novel.

    I do think this has lots of potential and with revision, could be a good read.


    (Wah, five back? Oh well, that's not so bad)
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:34 pm  
    All good stuff, Diana. I didn't get too bothered by the dialect cues - phonetic spelling is too far, but it didn't seem to be a problem here.

    By the way, sorry if you're being anonymized. I was getting comments from people with exciting LASER HAIR REMOVAL SACRAMENTO websites, but this word verification thingy doesn't seem to like anonymous people. The first two Anons on this page are Ian.
    Blogger Torgo, at 9:06 pm  
    I like the idea of putting little dumps of information into the argument of the narrative. This looks like an interesting story, I'd like to read where it goes!
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 11:39 pm  

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