I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors’ writing which I really enjoy, so I started creating podcast episodes doing this. Because this was not only time-consuming but also restrictive being audio-only, I decided to switch from audio to text and will now be running future ones on the blog. The earlier episodes have already been blogged (and are listed on the https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/red-pen-critique page) with new episodes being run here every Sunday evening (UK times).
Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!
Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them.
The piece in this post was kindly emailed to me by Lianne Simon and is from her book ‘Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite’.
If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free. So without further ado, the story / synopsis and extract, then my feedback…
Jamie was born with a testis, an ovary, and a pixie face. He can be a boy after minor surgery and a few years on testosterone. Well, that’s what his parents always say, but he sees an elfin princess in the mirror. To become the man his parents expect, Jamie must leave behind a little girl’s hopes and dreams.
At sixteen, the four-foot-eleven soprano leaves home school for a boys’ dorm at college. The elfin princess can live in the books Jameson reads and nobody has to find out he isn’t like other boys.
When a medical student tells Jamie that he should have been raised female, suppressed childhood memories stir. The elfin princess can thrive, but will she risk losing her family and her education for a boy who may desert her, or a toddler she may never be allowed to adopt?
Excerpt from Confessions of a Teenage Hermaphrodite by Lianne Simon
The first chapter is at www.liannesimon.com/confessions. Lianne told me: This scene was a last-minute experiment, to see what it would be like to write part of my manuscript in first person. It flowed out in about ten minutes. When I sent my manuscript to an editor for an evaluation, he said that, based on this scene, I should rewrite the rest of my novel in first person and share more from the heart. I did that and got my contract. In the release version of the book, the scene is almost identical to the original. The scene is a flashback, and the earliest even in the book.
I didn’t have any clothes fit for an elfin princess, so my cousin Kaylah let me borrow some hand-me-downs one of the Fair Folk had given her. She shook her head as she held a white velvet skirt up in front of me. “I don’t care if that old book says the Kirkpatricks are faie. Your face is bean shìdh, but the rest of you is brùnaidh.”
At five I was only a little taller than my two-year-old sister Alicia, so the clothes were way too big for me. “Please, Kaylah. The brownies are elves too. They’re just not as tall.”
“All right, then.” Kaylah safety-pinned the white velvet skirt to my slip, so the waist stayed up under my arms and the hem brushed the floor. The satin sleeves of the woodland green blouse hung down past my fingertips. She wrapped a silver lace belt around my waist twice and made a bow in the back. A spider-silk flower went on my shoulder. I sat down so she could tie the ribbons of starlight ballet slippers around my ankles. “There you are!” She clapped her hands together. “Princess Grace herself doesn’t dress any finer than that.”
Fancy clothes weren’t all an elfin princess needed to be dressed for a party, so I sat facing my reflection and waited for my maidservant to finish. She stood behind me in the wall mirror, intense concentration twisting her face. I grinned as she pulled the soft foam rollers out of my locks and fluffed, brushed, teased, and sprayed until my hair was perfect. It wasn’t very long, but the color was pretty, somewhere between ripe pumpkin and the gold of the earrings she clipped on my ears.
Face full of wonder, Kaylah held a glass vial before my eyes. “There’s a river so high in the Mountains of the Moon that the water turns silvery-blue.” She pulled the stopper out of the shiny bottle and dipped a small brush into it. “I’m going to paint your nails with moonlight. Sit still until it dries.”
In the mirror sat a beautiful elfin princess—golden hair aglow, large emerald eyes, small red mouth, and rosy cheeks sprinkled with freckles. She was the happiest elf-maiden of the realm. I stood, grabbed a handful of white velvet on each side, curtseyed to the lady in the mirror, and spun around so my skirt would fly.
“Pretty!” shouted Alicia, one finger in her mouth.
“Both my girls are beautiful.” Kaylah bent down and kissed my little sister on the cheek.
“Are you ready, birthday girl?” She grabbed my hand and held it high. “Your court awaits you, my lady.” I spun around on tiptoes, a lovely ballerina, my shoes sparkling like stardust in the night sky.
Jimmy the Pirate swaggered into the kitchen, wooden saber at his side and a black patch over one eye. Alicia danced in her little pink tutu and a pair of angel wings made from coat hanger wire and crinoline. Gladys was dressed like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, red shoes and all. She had even brought Toto, a stuffed toy animal that might once have resembled a dog. Kaylah wore a tattered pair of bib overalls, a gingham blouse, and an old straw hat.
They had all chipped in and bought me a present. Kaylah must have wrapped the package because the edges and folds were all straight. I pulled the tape off, careful not to rip the paper. Inside was a new Raggedy Ann. A squeal of delight burst from my lips, and I hugged the doll to my breast. “Sofie! I’ll name her Princess Sofie!” I scooted over on my throne, set her on the seat beside me, and straightened her dress.
Kaylah winked at me, set my birthday cake on the kitchen table, and lit the candles. I blew out all five with one breath and grinned at Jimmy. They say you shouldn’t tell anybody your wish, but he already knew I wanted to be his wife.
The pirate grinned at me, eyes flashing, and waved a saber over his head. “Yar! Cut the cake!”
Kaylah was the one who baked my birthday cake. I think she got the recipe off a Hershey’s Cocoa tin. Anyway, she made the yummiest chocolate cakes. I cut Jimmy a ragged chunk and passed him his plate.
“Princess, you’re making a mess.” My cousin, gentle as always, cleaned the frosting off my sleeve and cut slices for the rest of us.
I was halfway through eating mine when I heard the front door open. Ooh! Dad was home early. Seeing the little princess would make him sad. My fork hit my lap, chocolate cake and all, and bounced to the floor. Arms trembling, I sprang up, thinking to run away.
“No, Jamie. It’s okay. Today’s your birthday.” Kaylah grabbed my arm and gently pushed me back down into my seat. “He should see how pretty you look.”
Kaylah was only twelve, but she’d pretended to be my mom ever since she was seven. My real mom home schooled Kaylah, and me, and my brother Scott every morning. In the afternoon, while our moms worked, my cousin, and Alicia, and I played together. Scott didn’t hang around with girls, so he went to his pal Joey’s or played kick-the-can outside the old schoolhouse on Polk Street.
I didn’t have a magic ring to make me invisible, so Dad found me as soon as he strode into the kitchen. His eyes, deep wells of disappointment, locked on the elfin princess and sucked the life out of her. “What’s going on?”
Kaylah stepped between me and Dad, saving me from certain doom. “It’s Jamie’s birthday, remember? The kids are all wearing costumes for his party. We were reading Old Scottish Fairy Tales and he wanted to dress like an elfin princess.”
I peeked around Kaylah’s waist, hiding Sofie behind my back. The air around my father seemed to crackle with lightning, but he only nodded and smiled at me. “I got you a new softball. After your party, let’s play catch. Okay, sport?”
So my dad played catch with the elfin princess, tossing her the ball underhand from a few feet away. I missed the first one; it went right between my outstretched arms. The second rolled off my fingertips. The third bounced off my hands and hit me in the face. Boys seemed to learn right away, but I didn’t think I’d ever be able to catch a ball. I shut my eyes to hide my frustration, but the tears were too many.
“I’m sorry, Jameson. Are you okay?” Dad knelt down and hugged his little princess tight, but the disappointment in his eyes hurt her worse than the ball had. Scott said I threw like a girl, but all the ones I knew played catch better than me. I got hurt when I played boy games. Every time. That’s one reason I preferred playing with Kaylah and Alicia.
Dad led me back inside. While he searched for the ice pack, I sympathized with the princess in the mirror. Her face resembled a raccoon’s now, with a dark half-moon under one eye. Poor girl. Another black eye. Won’t you ever learn?
Stories should always start with a hook and it’s great that we have one within the synopsis. We should also get to know who our lead character is early and we have our protagonist’s name in the first word. It’s interesting that the name Lianne has chosen could be a male or female and this ties in perfectly with the title of the story. Pixie face implies the fantasy genre but needn’t be.
In the second and third sentences we have our dilemma; the parents want a boy but Jamie wants to be a girl. There are actually two conflicts going on there; Jamie with her parents and with how she is built. We don’t know initially how old she is but she’s clearly made up her mind who she is. At Jamie’s height (4’11” = 1.5m) it would be easier for her to be a girl. Had she been 6’4 (1.94m) it would have been more difficult (there’s an interesting video about height here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7bdIFJUpvk). I had a female colleague who was 6’1 and she loved being tall – as do I, I’m 5’10). When we learn that Jamie is going to fulfil his parents’ wishes and that the ‘princess can live in the books’ it tugs at our heart strings, as a story should.
We then have the ray of hope with the student’s news but again Jamie has obstacles to overcome (losing her education and possibly a child). It’s a great three-act structure (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-act_structure).
It’s interesting to see what Lianne says about point of view. I’ve heard many authors say that a story just wasn’t working until the changed the point of view and whilst it can take a lot of reworking it was clearly worth it in Lianne’s case, and first person is more suited at getting inside our protagonist’s head. Now on to the writing…
The opening paragraph provides us with another character, another protagonist because she is helping Jamie. I don’t speak Gaelic but we do get an idea of the words from the actions. Then we find she has a sibling, also a girl, and the age differences by Kaylah being the older, or certainly the larger of the three of them. The description of Kaylah’s dressing Jamie is excellent, especially with phrases such as ‘brushing the floor’.
By mentioning Princess Grace is dates the piece and by mentioning someone we know (I assume Lianne means Princess Grace of Monaco) sets it in reality even if it’s not. Jamie pretending she was a princess and calling her her ‘maidservant’ made me smile, and the interaction between the two characters is fantastic. Lianne’s also avoided standard colours by referring to Jamie’s hair to that of a ripe pumpkin rather than a shade of orange, and to ‘paint your nails with moonlight’ is exquisite.
This excerpt is such a contrast to the harsh realities of the synopsis that it’s hard to think that there’s a dilemma at all, and Jamie is clearly so comfortable in her female skin that the reader can only feel sympathy for the choice she has to make.
I would have liked to have known who Jimmy the Pirate (a brother? Father?) and Gladys were (presumably not a relative or she would have said do).
Split infinitives often catch us out and ‘I pulled the tape off’ should read ‘I pulled off the tape’ and the verb is to pull off, but it’s so easily done. Likewise indirect action such as ‘A squeal of delight burst from my lips’ because it’s the squeal doing the action and not Jamie’s lips but following it up with Jamie doing the hugging balances it so I’d say it doesn’t need to be changed.
We then get by Jimmy knowing that Jamie wanted to be his wife that he’s a similar age. This leads me nicely to my next point; Jimmy / Jamie… a little too similar, I feel. Although they’re not used together within the text I would suggest Lianne changes Jimmy’s name. Again he’s a great character and it all makes a wonderful scene.
I thought that by using the word ‘Ooh!’ that Jamie was pleased her father was home early but this clearly wasn’t the case and I loved the fact that Kaylah was sticking up for her.
I began to wonder then whether Jimmy and Gladys were toys so re-read the earlier section but by them having chipped in for the present I assumed they were real, and were then told that there were other children at the party so that made sense.
It’s easy to imagine Jamie’s father’s reaction when he enters the kitchen and ‘deep wells of disappointment’ is a great metaphor. He’s clearly trying everything he can to make her a boy; by buying a softball and calling her by her full name.
It’s interesting how Jamie describes herself in the third person for a moment; ‘hugged his little princess / hurt her worse’ and it’s like she sees herself as two people.
The ending is superb. We know she’s tried to fit in, and has previously suffered black eyes because of it and leaving the section with a question is a winner because the reader will certainly want to know more.
As you can tell there was very little I’d change about this section. If we’re introduced to Jimmy and Gladys before this section that there will be no confusion as to who they are. The characters are delightful, the dialogue authentic and the conflict we need in buckets. Great writing, thank you for asking me to dissect it, Lianne.
She grew up in a home filled with love and good books.
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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do, and a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words (and post stories of up to 3,000 words). Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me posting it online in my new Red Pen Critique Sunday night posts, then do email me. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.