Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Proof is in the Pudding

You all were so good about letting me tear up your stuff, I thought it was only fair to let you know I feel the pain.  My work has been critiqued up the wah-hoo just like I critiqued the recent First 500 posts.  Don't believe me? 

Exhibit A, Your Honor: The Great Comparison. (Otherwise known as the first draft of my own First 500 prior to critique, study and revision, revision, revision VERSUS the current version after all those time consuming things).

Read this and tell me brutal critique / study of the craft isn't valuable.  Go on.  I dare you.

The following material is subject to copyright.  Please do not reproduce in any manner without the express permission of the author... which won't be granted for the first draft stuff until I shed this mortal coil.  Or you do.  Catch my drift?.

Unfocused, Meandering First Draft
(June 2009)
By Aimee L. Salter

“We’ll be there in a few minutes.” Dad said slowly, still watching the road. “It’s on the right. Big fancy sign on the road.” Like I needed reminding. It wasn’t like I’d be leaving under my own steam – or trying to find my way back. I made a suitably non-committal noise and hoped he’d go back to ignoring me.

My new school. The thought made me shudder.

I’d visited twice before being enrolled, then one time since to collect my uniform (!). Every time I walked through the grounds I picked a new landmark and imagined how intimately I would come to know it in the coming months. (The oak tree on the lawn, the broken basketball hoop behind the girls dorms, the inside of the trashcan at the bottom of the front stairs…).

It wasn’t working. I knew I wouldn’t feel at home here. I couldn’t generate an ounce of excitement or hope for my new life. It was impossible to imagine a better life than the one I’d had. Not because my previous life had been so great, just because it was the only life I’d had. Strange and crazy as it had been, it was my normal. This new place was going to be scary and awkward, just like my old one, but it was adding unfamiliar and intimidating to the mix.

I could hardly wait.

I had really looked forward to the two hour drive to the school, because it delayed the inevitable moment when the first person I came in contact with realised I was Not Quite Right. It didn’t really bother me anymore, the other people thinking that. It was just a hassle. The people in my old life were already used to my personal brand of crazy.

Thinking about that made me shiver a little and threatened to raise images I wasn’t prepared to deal with. So I leaned my head on the window and tried to convince myself that everyone might not hate me on sight.

It took about 20 minutes longer to find the school. Not nearly long enough. Before I knew it we were turning into the long, oak-lined, gravel driveway.

I still found it slightly unbelievable that a place like this actually existed in the great continent of the United States. I couldn’t decide if it was a throwback to an earlier century, or just a pathetic attempt to convince ourselves we were as classy and refined as our tyrannical British forefathers…

The sign at the street front was actually fairly discreet, but clearly worth more than our car. It was a solid ten by eight foot block of wood, stained and varnished so the original grain could still be made out, with huge letters (handcarved, no doubt) in relief. The whole thing kind of blended into the treescape that surrounded it, but announced to anyone who cared that Saint Matthews Prepatory School was here. Just before the sign wound out of sight I noticed the small note at the bottom “Established 1901”. I grinned. The British tyrant theory then.

Seven-Bajillionth Draft
(April 2011)
By Aimee L. Salter

“Dani? Are you awake? We’ll be there in a minute.”

The sharp tick of the turn signal cut through my head at the same time Dad’s words pulled me from under the blanket of half-sleep. He sat, braced against the steering wheel, staring at an imposing sign overlooking the shadows of a tree-lined drive.

Saint Matthew’s Preparatory High School, it said.

“It’s gonna be fine. You’ll make it work.”  His voice had that overly cheery tang I hated. As the car swung slowly into the leafy darkness, I leaned my head on the cool glass of the window and reminded myself he couldn’t see those shadowy figures, skittering between the trees that had followed us all the way from Idaho.

When I didn’t respond, he continued. “Find some friends. Have some fun. Doctor Hodgeson said it would be good for you.”

Dad would never know how much I liked my psychiatrist. She was warm and funny, and didn’t talk to me like some crazy kid. But she “knew” my Shadowmen were just a hallucination and did everything she could to make me believe it, too. I couldn’t blame her really. Questioning things like invisible-to-everyone-else monsters was her job. Aside from that, Dr. H was great. She just treated me like the troubled teen she thought I was.

And she had an annoying habit of raising things I’d already talked Dad out of.

“You know…” this hesitancy in his voice always crept up after he’d been discussing things with her, “she was worried you might withdraw again. She said that wouldn’t be healthy.”

Time to nip this one in the bud.

“I’m not going to that other place, Dad. Not now.”

Dad’s lips pushed into a line. “It’s not ‘that other place’ Dani, it’s a normal school – it just has teachers who are accustomed to dealing with situations like yours.”

“Situations? I’m schizophrenic, Dad, not a situation.”

He hated it when I said that outright. It wasn’t my favorite turn of phrase either, but Doctor H. said it was time to accept I saw things sane people didn’t. And I “knew” stuff no one could know. Whether she was right or not, Schizo was a lot better than some of the other names I’d been called.

Dad stared straight ahead without answering. This wasn’t uncommon. He hadn’t been himself since Mom died, so times like this, which should have been emotional, were a little weird. I never knew if he would slap me on the arm and tell me to “be good, kid”, or stare vacantly out the window like a moron. A really nice, completely-out-of-his-depth moron.

Looking at him now I realized if I didn’t do something quick he’d convince himself to turn around. I dropped the attitude and smiled. “Relax, Dad. I haven’t seen anything for days. I’ve got a good feeling.”

Actually I was scared out of my cracked head.

YOUR TURN:  Lay it on me folks.  I'm happy to take my own medicine.  And advice, suggestions or room for improvement?


  1. That's truly amazing. What a difference! How long was the process from exhibit A to Exhibit Seven Bajillionth?
    Well done. I really enjoyed this.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks. It was June 2009 to April 2011, so almost 2 years. It's been through several full critiques, beta read half a dozen times and had edits / revisions from my editor. Then I studied Techniques of the Selling Writer and revised the whole thing again (though that shows more in the later material).

    It's in for another critique now, then I'll revise again (hopefully not significantly), then send it to my Agent for her perusal...

    It's a long, slow process. But it works!

  4. First off, what fun to see the evolution of a story through various drafts. Here are my (novice) comments and questions:

    I assume Dani is a female because of the “girl’s dorm” reference in the second section, though “St. Matthew’s” makes me think boy (which contradicts the girl’s dorm comment) – some small cue to clarify would be nice so we’re not wondering when we should be reading, if it's not already established earlier somewhere else.

    It's really neat to see how the scene changes with the addition of dialogue, a name, and an identifiable illness. I mean, I like in the original draft that we are ‘in’ Dani’s head, as in immersed, but that’s all we are until she ventures out as they near the school. Before that, we are stuck in her head for the drive, which might be okay once we’ve already gotten to know her some, but there’s no initial spark in the vague description of her “personal brand of crazy” in the 2009 draft to keep us interested in Dani.

    This, however, you remedy with the early introduction of “shadowy figures” in the 2011 draft. I was immediately interested in how they would potentially/eventually interact with Dani, and whether her “schizo” diagnosis would prove a valid diagnosis. This small observation/revelation from Dani hooked me right away so that I blazed through the rest and want to know more. :)

    The personal interaction in the 2011 draft warms the scene and reveals that Dani isn’t just an angsty young adult, but a much more complicated character juggling her own fears and her father’s feelings and her mother’s death and a potential change in treating doctor (see below).

    I know this is only the first 500, but I wanted to know if, since Dani says she really likes her doctor, she would get to keep seeing her while at school, or if there would be a replacement (which might add to her anxiety)? Also, did Dani’s “illness” start before or after her mom’s death (was the death a trigger point, or not be related at all). A couple of words would answer those questions for me. Other than that, I like the 2011 draft. I would keep reading if I'd picked up a book in the store and read this. :)

  5. Thanks Anon 2:15 - good notes. I'll take a look in the next round of revisions.

  6. Total metamorphosis from first to later draft. It is always so instructive to look at your own growth and the growth of others. Makes you realize that all the pain of revision is worth it. Sort of like childbirth, although don't try to tell that to a woman in the middle of labor. Could result in serious injury. :-)
    I'm a believer in creating questions in the early pages to bring the reader forward on a search of answers. Perhaps the trigger and Dr relationships could be used as foreshadows of future revelations. I do agree with the St. Matthew thing. But only because he is patron saint of accountants. Perhaps St Dymphna (female and patron saint of people with nervous disorders). Only too obvious to those who already know.

  7. To be blunt. First draft lost me. i wouldn't have read past it. Seven Bajillionth draft was prime. There was conflict, suspense, depth of character, dialog replacing exposition just to name a few. This is what makes a good author - willingness to listen to critique and write seven bajillion drafts. "out of his depth" seems a bit awkward to me - what does it mean exactly? Not to slam the young, white female protagonist but it is overdone (something i like to rant about. Make her black or something. I like that the Doc is female, good to empower a should-be standard. That's all. oh and new follower, come see my blog

  8. Vast improvement. Fascinating improvement.

    'The sharp tick of the turn signal cut through my head at the same time Dad’s words pulled me from under the blanket of half-sleep.' I might suggest 'Dad's words and the sharp tick-tick of the indicator pulled me from under the blanket of half-sleep.'
    As to an overdone white female protagonist, I suggest you keep what you've got. Unless you're black, Latino, Asian or Middle-eastern yourself (and I know you're not) and understand what it feels like to be one. Stick with what you know. The strength of one's writing comes from exactly that. I'm afraid that whether the doctor was male or female matters less than what the doctor means to Dani as its that relationship that creates an emotional depth in the protagonist in the first 500 words.
    Well done.