Open Pen

Oliver/Jemma/Katrina: An Open Pen Critique

Today, we have an excerpt from Before the Flames’ untitled novel. She wrote this interesting piece from three points of view and would love to hear advice on keeping her characters relatable and distinct (hint: I think she would love to hear about style, tone, and voice of her characters.) She also mentioned hearing tips for how to keep the plot moving.

Thank you for taking the time to make a few comments on her piece! It is one of our longer pieces, but I know that any comments are greatly appreciated– even if they are short!

The current queue for Open Pen is as follows:

  1. Sami P.
  2. Jane Blake
  3. MaryAnn

If you would like to submit a piece of writing to be critique, you can read the rules and submit on the Open Pen page.

Also, I am happy to say that I will be posting normally next week– I promise. I already have a post written 🙂

God bless,

Gabrielle

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Untitled by Before the Flames

Oliver

Oliver stared at the ground as he walked swiftly through the hallways toward the office. He was aware of the whispers and snickers directed at him. The students’ stares bored into him like tiny needles. He felt his face flush. Being a teacher was definitely different then walking the halls as a student. It was bad enough that at home there was nothing but crying and bickering, and he never could escape the sympathy. He had always been the failure, the quiet one, until his older sister, Jemma, realized he had an aptitude for teaching. She quickly employed him to help with all her homework. Soon, both of them were acing classes and he was no longer an outcast. He went on to teach school, and she went off to be a missionary, just like her father and mother before her.
Walking through the school, students gathered around him, face flushed, he remembered her graduation. How surprised their parents were. How proud they were. Until she came home and quit. She had always been in the spotlight, the girl everyone looked up to. How quickly it could all tumble down. Now his parents and Jemma were fighting constantly. He had received postcards from her, letters, detailing her mission. As the letters went on, they seemed to get shorter and shorter. She often remarked she wished she could make an impact, which he had always ignored because he thought SHE was the one making an impact, not him.
Now all she did was shut herself in her room and cry. She didn’t even speak to him. Oliver didn’t notice the tear sliding down his face until it hit the ground. A student stopped him, “Mr. Finch, sir, are you all right?” “No,” he murmured, “I’m not.” He cleared his throat then said in a louder voice, “Class is canceled for today, children. I need to work out some personal issues. I expect you to return with your homework for both this class and tomorrow’s class.”
He drove home, tears streaming down his face. His sister had always been responsible. How quickly lives could crumble. He parked the car, then walked in just as a vase flew inches from his head. “BUT MOM. I CAN’T DO THIS WITH MY LIFE!” Jemma cried. “Hormones,” her father murmured. “Darling, you already are doing something with your life. Or, were doing something with your life. Doing God’s work is most certainly doing something. Can we talk about this some other time? I have to host a lunch with the Methodist ladies in twenty minutes and I still haven’t curled my hair”, her mother clicked her tongue. Sobbing, Jemma ran from the room.
“Jemma”, Oliver called after her, “talk to me.” “Go away, Oliver,” she spoke in between sobs, “you wouldn’t understand either way.” He sighed, “Jemma, just tell me what I won’t understand.” “Fine,” she sniffed in between sobs, “Mom and Dad want me to go back to the mission field, but Oliver! I just can’t do it.” Oliver sat down, “Do you want to talk about it?” She sighed, “No, I don’t particularly want to.” “You can’t block everyone out!” Oliver argued. “I can’t talk about this right now,” she evaded. He stood up, “If you ever feel like talking to someone, I’m here for you.”

Jemma

She stared at the lock screen of her phone. Her and Alexander, her husband. Happy. She quickly dialed his number, and waited for the comforting sound of his voice. “Hi, Gem!” he greeted. She hadn’t seen him for five years, since she went to the mission field and he stayed behind studying psychology. “I’m coming home,” she whispered “I miss you.” “I missed having my Gem,” his voice seemed to smile, “Do you want me to meet you at the airport?” “Yes please. I’ll be arriving at 2:00 tomorrow. Coming home will feel great, but nothing could be better than seeing you.” “See you then”
Jemma sat back on her childhood bed. It really would be great to see Alexander. Her head throbbed as she stretched her neck. Five years since she had seen Alexander. Five years. It felt like just yesterday when she said goodbye and left for ______. Yet it seemed like a lifetime. So much had changed. When she left she was a naïve 21 year old, fresh out of college with no idea what to do with her life. Clinging to what she knew, following her parents footsteps. Now she was 26, almost 27. They had been newlyweds when she left, married just a month before she left. Young and in love, they believed their marriage could survive 5 years without seeing each other. Now she wondered what Alexander would be like when she saw him.
Quickly, she hurried out of the crowded airport. She grabbed her baggage then found the exit. Crowds always made her nervous, especially since the attack. Her head rocked as she started to slip into a flashback. She pinched herself, mostly to keep the memories at bay. Jemma couldn’t help but smile when she saw the purple VW bug Alexander insisted they buy. He honked the horn obnoxiously. Even that couldn’t dim her happiness at seeing him. He smiled back, and she knew, even if the memories never left her, everything would be okay.
He hopped out to load her suitcase in the tiny trunk and opened the door for her. “You know I can open a door by myself, right?” she teased, “I had to open them for five years. My, how did I survive?” He chuckled, “I don’t know, Gem. But you’re my Gem, and Gems are to be held precious.” “It feels so good to see you again,” Jemma leaned her head on his shoulder, “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that we haven’t seen each other in five years. Never again.” “I appreciate you need rest, but I need to drive. Get your head of my shoulder. So, do you plan on getting a job in boring old Seattle?” “I guess so. Right now I think I just need sleep. Visiting the family is always taxing, you know.”
Jemma took a deep breath before cracking open the door to their sunny-yellow cottage. They bought it once they were engaged, and it was the cutest little cottage she had ever seen. They spent many Saturdays decorating it, painting, and furnishing the house. Not much had changed. She noted that the kitchen was especially clean, and the kettle was on the stove. Alexander was thoughtful like that. His voice broke the silence, “I would love to catch up, Gem, but I have a class. I’ll be back for dinner, and I’ll take tomorrow off.” “Okay, I’ll need time to acclimate to being home so that will work out quite nicely.”
She dug through one of five boxes she brought her stuff home with. One per year. The first box was full of letters and journals, back when she was in touch with her family and journaling every day. The second box was full of pictures, memorializing the friendships she had made. The third box was full of dried flowers, from her friend’s honorary funeral. Her friend had given up on ministering. The fourth box hurt to open. The journals had stopped. Her last entry was about that fateful night. The letters were shorter. The pictures had all but disappeared. The fifth box was full of newspaper clippings. She started reading through them, and noticed there were tears on the sheet. Jemma didn’t know when she had started crying.

Katrina

Olive seemed particularly upset tonight, as they went out for their nightly run. “Olive, are you okay?” she inquired. “I’ve told you multiple times not to call me Olive,” he protested. “I’ll take that as a yes”. Their footsteps pounded a rhythm onto the dark pavement, a beat echoing life, energy. Pounding out all the worries of the day. He had seemed a bit bent out of shape since his sister came. She couldn’t deduce whether it was because he had argued with his sister or because he was sad for his sister. Either way, it was his sister’s fault. That made her feel a bit better.
Olive had always been shy, since they met in the kindergarten. The first day, someone had asked her if she was a girl or a boy, and she had cried. Olive had come over and comforted her, telling her that it took a very stupid person to not be able to tell the difference. Obviously, he had said, she was a fairy queen in human form. Since that day, they had been the best of friends. He had let her practice makeup on him, and she had let him give her ‘Classics’ to read. It may have been an odd friendship, but it worked for them.
They, of course, had had many disagreements over the years. For example, she had wanted him to take her to prom, but didn’t want to date. He thought that if they went together it made the wrong impression. In the end, they ended up skipping prom Junior year and went together Senior year. They had always been nerds, a bit overshadowed by older siblings.

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6 thoughts on “Oliver/Jemma/Katrina: An Open Pen Critique”

  1. Hi Before The Flames! You’ve written a really great piece, I couldn’t find too much to critique :). But here’s the stuff that caught my eye …

    1. Oliver stared at the ground as he walked swiftly through the hallways toward the office. (I think ‘through the halls’ might make this sentence flow a little better)
    2. Walking through the school, students gathered around him, face flushed, he remembered her graduation. (This sentence took a few re-reads before I got it. I think it would be easier to read if you put ‘as he walked’ at the beginning of the sentence)
    3. “BUT MOM. I CAN’T DO THIS WITH MY LIFE!” Jemma cried. (this sentence definitely came across as you wanted it to, but I wouldn’t use capitals here, seeing as they’re usually considered unprofessional in a story)
    4. “Mom and Dad want me to go back to the mission field, but Oliver! I just can’t do it.” (I would take the ‘but Oliver’ out of the first sentence and put it in the second one, or merge both sentences and take out the word ‘Oliver’; I think it could flow a little better)
    5. “See you then” (I think, with what she just said before he answered her, that Alexander’s response could have been a little different)
    6. Quickly, she hurried out of the crowded airport. (I think you need a transition from her room to the airport, as this really threw me off since I couldn’t find anything saying she had ever left her room)
    7. Also, each time a new person starts talking, the dialogue needs to switch to a new paragraph. A lot of the time during this piece, you had multiple people talking in one paragraph, and it was hard for me to tell who was speaking.

    Again, this was a great piece, and I really enjoyed reading it! You did very well with your characters, I can’t find anything to point out about them, and I think that the plot pacing is great. I would definitely want to read more :). Hope this helped!

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  2. First of all, I have to say that I really enjoyed your piece! I was completely drawn into the plot and I am wanting to read more 🙂 I thought it was very interesting how you separated your writing into three characters. I enjoyed this as well, and I think that the characters have been pretty distinct so far.

    My only critique (and it may just be me) would be that your story seemed a bit rushed, especially in the parts from Oliver and Jemma. It was very interesting and exciting, however, it almost seemed to be too much all at once. I think there needed to be longer transitions between the intense parts. I may have just had this impression since the dialogue and paragraphs were a bit messed up, but I did feel like overall it was a bit rushed throughout.

    Thank you again for the great story! I loved getting to read it from the perspectives of different characters, and I can’t wait to read more!

    Gabby

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  3. Cello! I like this story, but the thing that bothered me was that in the second paragraph you kinda told more than showed how they (Oliver and Katrina) had met. Maybe a flashback next time? I also felt rushed in Oliver and Jemma’s perspectives, so next time try to slow down. Other than that, the idea of using the different perspectives was super creative, the plot was interesting, and the characters were distinct. Great Job! 😀

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  4. I love this story and I think your ideas and the plot line are super creative and interesting! The only thing I would say is that there seemed to be a lack of emotion in different parts. More specifically: “show, don’t tell.” For example, when Alexander picked up Jemma from the airport after five years of not seeing her, it really stuck out to me that they didn’t seem super exited to see each other and just conversed like casual friends. If you just added something illustrative like, “Jemma’s heart pounded in her chest in gleeful anticipation” or “she bounced excitedly on her toes” and add some more sensitive conversation, it would add a much more interesting introduction to their marriage. They just seemed sort of stiff to me. I loved the description of the 5 boxes she brought from the mission field. I want to read more! Great job!

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  5. Hey! I am very sorry that I took so long getting your critique to you. Maybe I should put a warning about that on the critique submission page.
    As I was reading the piece, one thing that struck me was the age of your characters. When I first started reading, I thought Oliver was a pre-teen or early teen based on his tone/style and the setting (an embarrassed person in school) also aided to that perception. When I started reading about Jemma and Katrina, I thought the same thing. Your character’s mannerism, dialogue, and voices all pointed to young teens. Jemma’s conversation with her parents, their reference to hormones, and her emotional reaction all pointed to her being a young teen. This was a huge distraction for me as I read, and strangely enough, the disparity between their voices and ages kept me from relating to the characters. I’d suggest changing your character’s voices and their interactions with each other to make them more mature, or make them younger—make them teens. Wait until you grow up a little bit or invest a couple months in reading a large number of books written about adult characters.
    Also watch out for backstory. You had a ton of narration, and it might be nice to have a little bit of action and dialogue to start with and sprinkled in a bit more action throughout your whole story. The heavy backstory was particularly distracting in Oliver’s piece.
    Just a quick note about formatting: In dialogue, every time a new person starts speaking, you start a new paragraph. So you would format this paragraph like this:
    He drove home, tears streaming down his face. His sister had always been responsible. How quickly lives could crumble. He parked the car, then walked in just as a vase flew inches from his head.
    “BUT MOM. I CAN’T DO THIS WITH MY LIFE!” Jemma cried.
    “Hormones,” her father murmured.
    “Darling, you already are doing something with your life. Or, were doing something with your life. Doing God’s work is most certainly doing something. Can we talk about this some other time? I have to host a lunch with the Methodist ladies in twenty minutes and I still haven’t curled my hair,” her mother clicked her tongue.
    Sobbing, Jemma ran from the room.

    I thought you did a better job in Jemma story to use dialogue and action rather than focusing on backstory, but you might still see what backstory you could cut from that.
    I thought the multiple POV could work quite nicely for your story. My biggest struggle with it should be easy to fix. The jumps between POV were very abrupt, and there was no transition at all. It might be nice to hint about what is going on in the next scene before you jump. For instance, Oliver could hear Jemma begin dialing a number on her phone, and then we could switch. Or he could mention that he was going on a nightly run before we switched to Katrina’s POV. Then at the beginning of each new POV, you could say something like “While Jemma reminisced about her trip, Oliver enjoyed his nightly run with Katrina. Olive seemed…”
    You did not mention Katrina’s name once in her section. Use her name before you break into pronouns.
    As for your character’s voices, I thought they were alright but not particularly distinct and different from each other. You might try making a chart, showing how Oliver, Jemma, and Katrina are different from each other. They decide how they talk and write. What type of words to they use? Long, short, complicated? Are they more to the point or do they use metaphors and imagery. Are they observant or focused? Perhaps not all of them really observe their surrounding so don’t have one describe the surroundings. Try to point out the difference between the characters simply in what you are writing while in their POV.

    Finally, don’t use all capital letters to show emotion. It looks unprofessional and lazy. Instead use the words, actions, and descriptions of the characters to show emotion.
    Good luck with your writing, and I hope this helped!
    God bless,
    Gabrielle

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  6. Hey! I would like to say i enjoyed your piece quite abit, especially Jemma’s POV: i thought the boxes were very interesting and i personally thought the line you ended her POV on was quite powerful: it made me want to know more about Jemma and her experiences.

    A lot of relevant observatons have already been made by my fellow writers above, so i’ll try not to be repetitive. I will however reiterate some points i think stood out for me. I agree that the pacing of the story is a little rushed: i’m not sure whether you edited it down so that you could have all your POV’s critiqued. If not, and this is how your story naturally flows, i think you should slow down a little and take the time to invest us in the scene. A lot of the space that is taken up in Oliver’s and Katrina’s scene has to do with backstory: to be honest, it bogs the narrative down a little, as opposed to if you had grounded us in the scene first (by, for example, describing relevant details of the characters environment or their interaction with other characters etc.). I felt like before the readers could settle into one aspect of the scene and their first impressions of the character, backstory came in and pulled us away, making it somewhat less engaging. So, for example, after detailing Oliver’s embarrasment about being observed as he walked down the halls, perhaps you could have gone on to have him relate with a fellow teacher or students on his way to class while further developing his thoughts: this way, his position as teacher is slightly more believable (i agree with Gabrielle about how he seems more like a student than a teacher before we are told so) and his character comes out a little more (since how your characters relate with others is a good indication of who they are: we are told that he is shy and seems to dislike conflict, so perhaps having situation where these traits are naturally displayed would be good). Doing this would flesh out your characters a bit more and make them more believable and relatable, additionally making the scene more engaging.

    Other than that, i think my only ‘unique’ point would be that there are some logical inconcsistencies withtin the story that are a little distracting and take away from the realism and flow. Firstly, i found it a little dubious that Oliver would be allowed to leave school early due to ‘personal issues’ (much less tell his class about it). This may go back to what, once again, Gabrielle pointed out about the charcaters seeming a lot younger than they are: if an adult (and teacher) was in that situation they would, most likely, not tell their students they have personal issues and must leave as a result. Most people would avoid exposing themselves like that and would probably make up an excuse (especially for Oliver, who seems to be a shy and insecure character): I think it would have been much more belivable if he had said he was not feeling well (it would have also made it less likely that he would have gotten fired for just abandoning his job at what seems to be the middle of the day). Other than that, i also found the interaction between Jemma and her husband a little stilted: after five years of being away, wouldn’t he ask why she had suddenly decided to come back? (he obviously missed her but he would have probably prodded a bit further as to why she has decided to abandon something she seemed to have been so passionate about. If he is already knowledgable of why, maybe making a reference to this knowledge would make their interaction seem more natural.) I also agree with the person (above) who pointed out that they should probably have expressed stronger emotion (or familiarity, if her husband is not a super emotional character) towards seeing each other for the first time in five years: it could have been a more intense moment, a moment where their relatioinship dynamic is established in the narrative: this would be important especially if he (and their relationship in general) will play a fairly substantial role later in your work ( i don’t know if it will, but as her husband, i assume it may)

    Otherwise, i think you have a good piece of writing here with a lot of potential. I enjoyed the moments where i felt i could connect with the characters, and with some editing and deeper characterisation, i know your characters will become easily relatable and distinct to the audience.

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