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Let's get right to it.
She Came From the Hill
by Janice Sperry
Clay skidded his bike to a stop and planted his foot on the ground before his heavy pack could knock him over. His friends were scattered in Alex’s yard – none of them in uniform. He straightened his scout shirt. They needed to take scouting more seriously.
Alex aimed a small camcorder covered with duct tape at him and pushed a button. A bright light flashed and then shined in Clay’s eyes.
Clay put his hands over his eyes. “Watch where you’re aiming that thing.”
“The IR works! Sweet.” Alex switched the light off, leaving Clay seeing spots.
“Why are you bringing a camera with night vision to scout camp?” Clay swung his pack off his shoulder and dropped it on the ground.
“So I can film things that go bump in the night.”
Alex flipped the tiny screen shut and tucked it inside a case. Then he whispered, “The camera sees what we can’t.”
“I get the feeling that scout camp is still next weekend,” Clay said. Mr. Walters never let the boys leave the campground at night and Alex wouldn’t bring his specially designed night camera if he wasn’t planning to use it. Once Alex messed with something, it only had so many uses before it fell apart.
Alex brushed a shock of blond hair from his eyes. “Do you doubt my word?” He put his hand over his heart.
“Yes. I do.”
“I’m hurt.” He grinned, showing how offended he really was. “Leave your bike by the garage.”
· Clay seems to have a clearly defined personality from the get-go. That’s good overall. He has a very subtle and economic way of telling us his world view.
· The same goes for Alex. You’ve got action (stimulus/response) and a setting to ground the characters in immediately. Also good. Alex definitely gets the reader’s attention from the start. You just know that he’s going to be getting into all sorts of hijinks. That’s a good way to get the reader hooked from page one.
· Also, you’ve done a good job of showing rather than telling. The writing is mechanically clean as well. That’s important, especially if this is for a middle reader audience. Not that you want to talk down for this age group. They are intelligent and demanding readers, but they want clear, straight forward syntax.
· I am interested in this group of boys and what type of trouble they are going to get in, but also in their dynamic, as Alex and Clay don’t seem as if they’d be natural friends – given their personalities thus far. So I would read on for several reasons.
Questions/Things to fine tune:
· Alex is excited because the infrared recording option is working on his camcorder (or perhaps he converted his camera with some tinkering – which seems to be suggested – he “messes” with things) but if it isn’t dark when he tests it, will he know that it is working effectively, or does the camera just seem to be recording? Wouldn’t he have to playback the recording to verify this? I haven’t shot with IR, so I’m not certain, but it may be helpful to clarify this for the reader.
I’m wondering how long IR has been a common feature on camcorders (unless Alex has jury-rigged a homemade IR device). Just the last few years? This scene gives me sort of a Goonies or Super 8 feeling (the films), what with the kids having disparate personalities but still being friends and with bike riding as their mode of transportation. That stuff isn’t as common anymore. So I’m just wondering if this is supposed to be at all historical. If so, a greater hint at the time period might be helpful.
When Alex says “The camera sees what we can’t,” is he whispering this dramatically, ominously, or literally, as if it’s a secret? An adverb would be helpful in this case, or some other clue. I’m guessing he’s pretending to be dramatic, but there are other ways a reader could interpret this passage.
· “I get the feeling that Scout camp is still next weekend,” Clay said. So my only question here is why wouldn’t he have heard from the leaders when Scout camp was? If it was initially on this day and Mr. Walters changed the date and asked them to tell Clay, that would work, but as I read, I’m sensing a plot hole here without a little tweak to buy my suspension of disbelief. Another interpretation is that Clay is giving a jab at the other Scouts for not being as prepared as he is. (This is suggested in the first paragraph.)
You can see the problem here – Clay’s meaning is ambiguous. Is he expressing uncertainty about the date of the campout or is he complaining about his friends’ levity? Also, I need more of a bead on Clay. Is he saying this warily, wearily, what? I get the sense that Alex has done this type of thing to him before (which I’m getting hints of), but how does Clay feel about that? We do get the feeling he’s kind of a stiff rule-follower type, but is he good friends with Alex then? Seems he wouldn’t approve of the Alex-type. But the opening says these guys are his friends.
· Mr. Walters would never let the guys leave the campground at night. This sentence makes the paragraph a little unclear. Is Clay suggesting that Scout camp can’t possibly be on because Alex has a camera that Mr. Walters would never let him use, or is he saying that Alex must plan on breaking the rules?
Here’s one possible way to reword this section: “You’re acting like Scout camp is still next weekend,” Clay said. He knew Mr. Walters would never let the guys leave the campground at night, but Alex wasn’t one to let rules stand in the way of a good adventure. If Alex was bringing his specially designed night camera, he was planning on using it.
In this passage, I also changed the word “boys” to “guys” but doing so implies a bigger question. I am not sure of the audience for this book. The voice isn’t strongly YA or middle grade, although readers may make assumptions based on the Scouts and the biking, which leans toward younger Scouts – a guess would be ten to twelve-year-olds. It feels a little more like the beginning of a short story or something for adults. If it is Clay’s POV voice telling this story, is he really stiff and adult-like enough to refer to himself and his friends as “boys”?
· The POV narrator right now seems to imply that Clay’s viewpoint is what we’re going to get throughout the story. If that’s the case, we should really like Clay. Right now he seems like a square—not normally something kids are attracted to. So just a comment on audience/voice: Who is this for, can you make the Clay more likeable if he needs to be, and can you give a hint as to his social status in the group? Are they just kids from the neighborhood and therefore a group simply because of geographical proximity, or are they also friends? And if they aren’t friends, why would Alex want Clay along to the point of not telling him about Scout camp?
· Once Alex messed with something, it only had so many uses before it fell apart. So I’m not clear if Clay is telling the reader this as an aside, or if he’s saying that Alex, himself, only brings valuable things if he really needs them because Alex, himself, knows he breaks things. In other words, the reason for telling the reader this information is unclear. Or at least, its connection to the previous sentences is unclear.
· “I’m hurt.” He grinned, showing how offended he really was. Change this to “I’m hurt.” He grinned. The grin speaks for itself—the showing works without the telling.
Alex has already caught my attention. He seems like he could be full of mischievous fun. Of course, I don’t know what way you plan to develop his character. Clay comes across as more of a straight man. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but you might consider ways to show a little more of what type of character Clay is. If he’s the main viewpoint character, you want to create a bond between him and the reader as quickly as possible (especially if this is written for a younger crowd). Try to create a bit of dialogue or action that will help the reader identify, sympathize, or empathize with Clay. Keep your target audience in mind as you set the tone and the characters. If you intended Clay to come across less stiff, you’ll want to consider how boys this age talk and interact with each other. If you haven’t had the opportunity, try to get permission to observe a Scout activity (volunteer, if you dare!) and then pay attention to the natives.
Some of the confusion (Scout camp next weekend/is Alex testing the IR in the daytime?) could be resolved by giving more setting details up front, specifically time and place. You could mention in the first paragraph that the Scouts are meeting at Mr. Walter’s home prior to driving to the camp. Is it morning or late afternoon? Friday or Saturday? Summer? Space is at a premium the first few pages of any story, so you won’t want to spend too much time establishing the setting, but a few well-placed details will help ease the reader into the story and prevent confusion down the road.
Your characters promise to be interesting, which is a bit of a hook for the reader,
but your first sentence should pack as much of a punch as possible, so you may want to use that opportunity to craft an opening sentence that really hints that a wild adventure awaits the reader. The current start of the story is a solid place to continue after you’ve done that.
Best of luck and happy writing. This promises to be a fun read.
Thank you so much to Angela and Janice for their hard work! See you next Friday!