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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  • Tuesday, February 21, 2006


    Er, not sure what this one's called. It's by Margaret and it's YA fiction.

    Gina Sarafino knew Eli Jenkins didn’t normally invite girls to his basement to play video games. He didn’t invite them one-on-one, nor to the big multiplayer games he often threw with a dozen friends and four networked television sets. It wasn’t that he didn’t like girls. In fact, he thought quite highly of them. Girls, he believed, just didn’t like video games. Gina, though, was welcome downstairs anytime. It wasn’t only that they’d known each other since he was in third grade and she in first, or that they used to be next-door-neighbors out in the country before his family moved to town, nor was it because they attended the same church. It was because she regularly smoked him at Halo, and if she beat him, she could certainly beat the other guys who weekly hung out in the Jenkins’ basement. When it came to video games, Eli wanted Gina on his team.

    Gina, on her part, felt honored to be there. She was a sophomore and not a big deal in Woodvale High School. Eli, on the other hand, was a senior and a very big deal. Since she’d known Eli so long, he seemed like a brother, and she hadn’t realized what an asset the association was until she started high school herself last year. As a result of Eli’s reflected glory, doors opened for Gina into places she would never have been on her own, like where she was tonight, playing games in Eli’s basement with a dozen senior jocks and a smattering of kids from the church youth group. She wasn’t the only girl present tonight, however. Her best friend, Amy Tsukada was included because the two were practically joined at the hip, and because most of the jocks thought Amy was hot: untouchable, but hot.

    It was a small place, Woodvale, Oregon, and there wasn’t a lot for kids to do in the rural, mountainous, logging and farming community. The Jenkins’ basement was a safe haven for many. At the moment, though, it was emptying fast.

    "Where’d everybody go?" Benito "Benny" Sanchez asked, returning from upstairs with a can of the soda Mrs. Jenkins kept stocked in a spare refrigerator on the back porch. The largest group of game-players, Eli’s jock classmates, had left en masse while Benny was raiding the soda stash. It was a week before school started and most had summer jobs.

    "Claimed they had to work in the morning," Eli said, yawning.

    "They just got tired of Gina beating them," Amy said.

    "Don’t we all?" Eli said, unplugging controllers from the game consoles. Gina began picking up pop cans and empty chip bags. Amy’s mother was on her way to take them home, but they had a few minutes and she didn’t want to leave Eli with a mess. Eli stopped suddenly and looked around the room. There were only four kids left, all from their church. Benny was helping clean up by finishing a bag of pretzels. Ian McNeel was still lost in a game on one of the sets. He could, Gina knew, easily play all night, then get up and ace an advanced chemistry quiz. Ian was a self-described "freakin’ genius."

    "Everybody’s here," Eli said, glancing around. Gina looked at Amy quizzically who shrugged.

    "You’re losing it, Eli," Amy said, continuing to stack pizza boxes to haul upstairs to the trash. "Everybody just left."

    "Caitlin!" Eli called, ignoring Amy. After a long moment, Caitlin, Eli’s younger sister, appeared at the top of the stairway, book in hand, with the slightly dazed look she always had when she’d been engrossed in a book. She was always engrossed in a book. Gina watched her make her way down the worn carpeted stairway, her limp, pale brown hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail, a shapeless t-shirt over her grey sweat pants. She might be cute, Gina thought, giving her a quick smile, if she’d take the time. Standing next to the stunning Amy didn’t help any, but Caitlin seemed indifferent. For some reason she and Gina had never been close, although they were nearly the same age. It was Eli she’d spent time with when they were little, building forts together in the field that lay between their houses.

    "They’re all here," Eli said to Caitlin. "Shall we reveal The Plan?"

    "Sure," Caitlin said, closing the book in her hand and sitting primly on the edge of the couch. Benny nudged Ian who began the process of shutting down his game.

    When they were all seated on the floor or the worn brown velvet couch along the family room wall, Eli perched on the edge of a small piano stool and looked at them in that intense way he had, like the survival of all earthlings was at stake. He was medium height, not tall enough to be a basketball star nor hefty enough for football, although he had done both with some success. His hair, a shade lighter than his sister’s, curled down over his collar and around his ears. Eli’s hazel eyes turned green when he was upset, or when he was pumped about something. They were green now, Gina saw.

    "This is my senior year...," he began.

    "Go, seniors!" Ian said from his perch on the arm of the couch. Amy punched him.

    "We have to hurry," she said. "My mom will be here soon."

    "You heard her; hurry it up," Ian said to Eli.

    "...but before I leave for college, I want to start a band," Eli continued.

    Wahey! I think that’s the plot right there, isn’t it - the band - appearing an economical 900 words or so in, the characters sketched in. The prose is solid – not incredibly stylish, but unobtrusive and functional. I’d probably get bored with it, but then I’m not the target audience.

    The only reason I wouldn’t ask to see more of this for a UK children’s list is that it’s really very American, and that’s a difficulty in kids’ books. School’s quite different over here in some ways. Still, the basics are good, and I’d want to read on to see what happens.

    This is what I mean about the beginning of a book giving the editor the best chance to grasp what it’s all about. (Cue Margaret telling me the band has nothing to do with the plot…)
    Torgo, 1:35 pm


    I agree the writing is not stylish, which may be due to an awful lot of telling rather than showing particularly in the opening, but the setting and characters seemed very recognizable to me. I live in Oregon and am a language arts teacher (have done high school formerly, now middle school) and this scenario rang dead-on for me. IMO, a lot of YAs would go for this.
    Anonymous Nora McCrea, at 8:37 pm  
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Blogger Pam Calvert, at 6:19 pm  
    Hi Pam - perhaps you wanted to comment on the latest post. I haven't read 'Crash', thanks for bringing it to my attention; Spinelli isn't huge in the UK. I think from the synopses on Amazon, I'd be interested to read it, but maybe he didn't use the material that well.
    Blogger Torgo, at 6:23 pm  
    It got good reviews, but it wasn't his best. I absolutely love his work, though. And he's a great guy...
    Blogger Pam Calvert, at 6:28 pm  
    Oops! I messed up with the comment. Yeesh! Didn't get my six cups of coffee this morning...
    Blogger Pam Calvert, at 7:35 pm  
    This is a very efficient set-up, with distinquishable characters and a believable premise. A bit too many similes maybe, which dulls the writing when a few would enliven it. Not enough dialogue? But I like these kids and in less than a thousand words? Cool!
    Anonymous marylandwriter, at 4:23 pm  
    I'd have to agree with Nora -- there's more telling than showing. For instance, we know Amy is hot, but we know nothing about Gina's appearance or Eli's, and they seem to be the important ones in the story. (And, for some reason, the comment about Eli's younger sister "doing something with herself" grated a little bit.)

    The setting and the characters are recognizable, yes, and that's good. But something about the POV is bothering me a little bit, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Gina's a sophomore in high school, but she doesn't sound at all like a high school sophomore. In fact, one of the only lines that rang true was her "smoking" him at Halo. That sounded right. Much of the rest sounded kind of false. (The constant first-and-last-name introductions got to be a little repetitive as well.)

    That said, I do think the premise is something YA's would enjoy.
    Blogger Bunneh, at 9:02 pm  
    First of all I would like to say I like the basic idea of your story, but there needs to be a lot more dialogue and a lot more conflict. I realize that kids in church youth groups might be a bit more respectful of others than those that are not, but not by much.

    Where are the kids that don't fit in? There are a lot more that don't fit in than do, and the ones that dont fit in are the ones that are reading for the most part. A book about the popular kids making good sound like the type of book writen by either a well meaning parent or a youth minister.

    I dont mean to sound like I am an expert or anything, but I hope you have more characters that will bring a more dimension, and ones that more kids can relate to.
    Anonymous Bill Hughes, at 4:12 pm  

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