Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Lois Winston

May Critique

Bethany Spotts won the May critique from Lois Winston for the first five pages of Help! My Dad is Missing.

Lois Winston is an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency as well as an award-winning author and designer. She currently writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series.
Assault With A Deadly  Glue Gun, the first book in her series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist and has been nominated for a Book of the Year Award by ForeWords Reviews. Death By Killer Mop Doll, the second book in the series, was released this past January. Visit Lois at and Anastasia at

Want to add some addtional comments? Scroll to the bottom of the page and talk away!

 Chapter One

Somewhere I’d read you could stop your heart from pounding by taking slow, deep breaths. So I did that. It worked for maybe thirty seconds. Then I started thinking about finally meeting my dad. My heart pumped faster. Who’d want to kill him? Your first paragraph is very disjointed. You begin by “telling” your story instead of showing it through active narrative or dialogue. It’s always a good idea to begin with a killer sentence. You’ve got one, but you bury it at the end of the paragraph. Get rid of the everything else and open with, Who’d want to kill my dad?

“Ellis, the quiz was too easy?” Mr. Metcalf collected papers from the opposite side of the room.

“No.” I sat up straight. “I just studied hard.”

The kids in the room groaned. What else could I say? The quiz was easy. Telling the truth would just put a bull’s eye on my back. (DELETE HI-LIGHTED PORTIONS)

A weird thought hit me as I watched Mr. Metcalf collect [our math quiz] papers: I knew more about my math teacher than I did my own father. I’d had Mr. Metcalf last year, in tenth grade. My dad, I’d never met [my dad].

Notice how I’ve deleted all the extraneous filler. This tightens the work and draws the reader in quicker, without lots of info dumping. If it’s important the reader know the narrator is really good in math or that this is his second year of having the same math teacher, you can always drop that in later. The beginning of your book is for hooking the reader, making her want to keep reading.

Why’d you leave me? Didn’t you even want me? Ever since my Dad got his new job as City Manager of Kettering, Michigan I’d been practicing my opener. Sometimes I saw myself ripping into him for what he’d done. Other times I felt grateful that he’d see me. Now somebody wanted to kill him? Stand in line!

Uh, Mr. Sanborn?” Mr. Metcalf stood in front of my row. White papers fanned out from his large, dark hands. “The quiz, Mr. Sanborn. Are you turning it in?”

Some kids laughed. I glanced at my desk. My quiz was trapped under my elbow. I passed it up.

Mr. Metcalf took my test and moved to the next row. Again, none of this seems important at this point. My mind was on meeting Frank Johnson. Since grade school, I’d told myself my father was a P-O-W, a Vet missing in action. I didn’t even know if he’d gone to war. Probably not. But the thought helped me through a rough time.

Loud laughter erupted around me. Kevin Smooch, a guy sitting on the other side of the room, grinned at me. Smooch was tall and thin. He reminded me of the Planter’s Peanut guy. Instead of a top hat, he wore his hair in tiny dreadlocks that shot up like a miniature forest. From the way he was grinning at me, I knew I was the target of one of his jokes.

“You didn’t hear that did you, Ellis?” Smooch leaned across his desk eyeing me.

“Hear what?” My heart beat fast.

Mr. Metcalf said, “I asked if you had a big date this weekend? I was trying to find out why you were so preoccupied.”

Smooch cut in. “Then I said, if Ellis had a date, he’d be all-the-way-live, coming at you in Dolby sound. ‘Cause it ain’t everyday, Ellis gets some play. Am I right, man? You know I’m right.”

The class laughed. My stomach shot to my feet. Smooch had a way of getting you right where it hurts.

Smooch pointed a finger at me. “Bingo.”

Everybody was still laughing or grinning at me. “What about you, Smooch? I don’t see girls lining up for you. Or are you as scared of them as you are of haunted houses?”

Teeny, a girl sitting behind Smooch said, “Uh-oh, busted. Smooch, I know you wish everybody would forget about the haunted house.”

Smooch’s crooked grin stayed pasted on his face. “It’s okay, Teeny. Ellis and I are going to be real close. I’m going to be dating his sister.” He kept his gaze on me. “Yes, I am.”

I laughed and shook my head. “My sister? You’re dreaming man.”

If someone had told me Smooch was running for president, I wouldn’t have been as surprised. I couldn’t see my sister gazing in his direction

“Why not?” Smooch looked a little uncertain. “You think she’s too good for me?”

“I think she is.” Teeny stood and patted Smooch on the back. “You’re not even in her universe.”

The bell rang. Students scrambled out of the room.

Mr. Metcalf yelled, “Read chapters three and four people. We’re going to be factoring polynomials.

I smiled at Teeny and nodded to her. She shrugged like it was no big deal. All filler. I want to know about why this kid has never met his father yet thinks someone is going to kill him. That’s your story.

I was still smiling when I headed for the back steps. Kids raced around me, slowing only when a teacher yelled. Lockers clanged shut on either side of the hall. Behind me, a girl screamed into her phone, “You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me.” Three guys from the marching band pushed their way through the crowd, using their instrument cases, two flutes and some kind of horn, as battering rams. John F. Kennedy High School had survived its first week of the year. More filler. Only describe what is important to the scene. Description for the sake of description doesn’t belong in a ms.

Halfway to the third floor, I stopped, one foot on the riser. I checked behind me for an escape. There was nothing: only the forward march of students, arms laden with books, iPods in their ears trying to squeeze past me. Besides, Pete and Jamal would be waiting. Suck it up, I thought.

She was standing at the top of the fourth floor landing and reminded me of a fashion model in one of those girls’ magazines. She was about five-feet seven, long and lean. She wore a long white tuxedo-styled vest over a navy and while striped skirt and navy patent heels.

Ayanna peered into a big black-hole of a purse, the kind that looks like a small duffel bag, except it was pink leather. Her long black hair rushed in and practically covered her face. Again, lots of unnecessary wordiness. Why do you need to mention Pete and Jamal here? You’re also in a guy’s POV. Guys don’t describe girls in this sort of way, and being that she’s his sister, he certainly wouldn’t be describing her as if he were coming upon someone he’d never met before. All you need to say is something like, My sister stood at the top of the fourth floor landing. I saw no way of avoiding her. When she stuck her hand in her bag, she looked up and saw me. At first her face registered surprise, then gave way to pure hatred. My sister was a beauty. And Smooch thought he was going to get some of that?

“You scathing pig.” Ayanna’s eyes hardened into cold, black marbles.

For a second I just stared at her. I tried to see if my half-sister looked like me. She was lighter in complexion: A golden tan now sizzling with red undertones. Two strands of curly bangs hung like mini-spirals in the middle of her forehead. I half expected the curls to stiffen and become horns. Is she his sister or half-sister? And wouldn’t he know by now whether or not they look alike? Maybe we had the same nose. Why does this matter?

Kids kept bumping past me. Shifting my gym bag to my right side I climbed the steps. When I reached the landing, I said, “So tell me, Ayanna? What is a ‘scathing pig’? The two words don’t go together.”

“Really.” She jabbed me with a pink fingernail. “You’re scathing and you’re a pig. But let me make it plain.” When she spoke, she did that neck thing so that her head moved with the rhythm of her words. “Ellis, you are a tack-head, money-grubbing, slimy slinking, po-boy walking, scum of the earth. Understand?”

She closed in on me. I took a deep breath and inhaled the smell of fresh lemons and vanilla. I rotated my wrist and checked my watch. It was one of those real cool ones that have a fake diamond where the twelve should be, and no other numbers or marks. To be honest, it’s hard to tell time on it. But since it was the end of the day, I knew it was around 3:32 and not 2:32. Another hour. The point of this?

There are only two reasons any scene should be in a book: either to advance the plot or tell the reader something she needs to know AT THAT GIVEN MOMENT about the character(s). You’re filling your scene with all sorts of information that does neither, and the most compelling part of your writing gets lost in all the stuff that doesn’t matter. Thank you for allowing me to read your work. I hope this critique helps.

Thank you, Lois, for participating in our Critique of the First Five Pages. Readers if  you have some addtional comments that might be helpful, now is the time.

If you'd like to purchase Lois Winston's books they are available at : MIDNIGHTINKBOOKS.COM



mooderino said...

That was very informative and well explained. Cheers.

Moody Writing
The Funnily Enough

Jennifer Spicer Bennett said...

I agree with mooderino! Lots to learn from here. I will say that I rather liked how Bethany showed the narrator's character and personality through how the other kids interact with him and treat him. Pieces of those dialogue were character building to me as a reader, but I agree that I did want to understand more about the death of his father and that relationship. I liked how you laid out him thinking about it while he's experiencing his school day. Great start!

Cal said...

This writer has a great voice. Agree with the critique, and would suggest that she not throw away those words but place them in other parts of her story.

Ruby Johnson said...

One of the hardest things about writing a story is starting in the right place with a great hook. Thanks for pointing that out in your critique.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Lois for your critique! And, thank you Bethany for sharing your work.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I love Lois Winston's books. Looks like she gives great editing advice.

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