Open Pen

A Discovery: An Open Pen Critique

I am sorry for the long disappearance and lack of posts, but this Friday, we have a Middle Grade novel excerpt from a very patient Rebekah. Rebekah wrote this novel a few years ago, and now she is going back to revise and rewrite. Specifically, she would like constructive comments on realistic dialogue.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to comment on this piece! Even short, simple comments are very helpful. So please do not feel obliged to give a long, comprehensive critique.

God bless,

Gabrielle

Open Pen is a critique opportunity  on this blog. It is specifically meant for teenage writers who want feedback from their peers, but anyone is welcome to submit. If you are interested in submitting or learning more about Open Pen, you can on the Open Pen page.

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Excerpt from The Book Chapter 3: The Discovery by Rebekah

One dreary afternoon in the attic, Alice-May decided to ask the dangerous questions that had often been playing on her mind. “Where are you really from?” she asked, “Who are your parents?”
Cassidy sighed as she stared out the window, trickles of rain painting its grimy surface. She couldn’t keep it all in forever. “I am from Japan,” she said, her Irish lilt seeping into her words. “I’m a ninja.”
Alice-May almost jumped through the roof. “A WHAT?!!!!” she exclaimed.
“Hush,” hissed Cassidy, covering her friend’s mouth, “I knew you’d react like this. Anyone would, really.”
“Okay, sorry. Go on,” urged Alice-May.
“Well, as I was saying,” Cassie continued, “My mother was a Japanese ninja. I don’t know who my father was though. He was Irish I think. My surname is Lane, which originates from Ireland. Don’t ask me why a Japanese woman would marry an Irish man, because I have no clue. His parents may not have both been Irish either. I think he was actually born in Japan as well… Anyway, my mother was a ninja, and one of the best. Not many females were accepted into the shinobi – that’s another word for ‘ninja’ in Japanese. I originally trained with the other children of the shinobi. When I was six, I was sent to Kyoto to train. When I was ten, my mother was sent to Sydney to do some work there. I was carted off to a boring place where I’d have to be schooled by these friends of my mother’s, but then there was an attack by the Enemy. I ran away and didn’t try to go back, in case it wasn’t safe. I had the address of this house, which possibly belonged to my great-grandparents. I don’t know much about it though, and I’m currently trying to find out who my father was… No. Who he is. Mother and the others say he died, but I don’t believe it.” The edges of Cassidy’s eyes were moist. “I don’t believe them!” she yelled defiantly, a quiver in her voice.
“It’s okay Cassie. Don’t cry. I’m sure he’s still alive somewhere,” assured Alice-May, tentatively reaching to stroke the smaller girl’s back. “How did they say he died?”
“Th- they say he was… assassinated,” choked Cassidy, blinking back another stream of tears.
“Maybe he’s in hiding, or was kidnapped. He couldn’t be dead. Was he a ninja too?” asked Alice-May, now stroking her friend’s dark hair in a maternal manner.
“Well, I think he was a warrior of some sort. I don’t know what though. Maybe he’s in hiding. He wouldn’t have let anyone kill him,” said Cassidy, trying not to expose her own doubts.
“Well, let’s explore the rest of the house then,” Alice-May suggested, deciding it would be best to leave the personal stories untouched.
They headed down the stairs from the attic and into the main house. The wind howled through the hallway. The floorboards creaked. No wonder Cassidy stayed in the attic.
“What’s the ‘Garbage Room’?” asked Alice-May, looking at the three strange buttons again.
“Well, it’s really a training room, but it was labelled ‘Garbage Room’ to repel anyone that might decide to go there. It contains some extremely valuable artefacts. Please promise not to tell anyone about it,” she pleaded.
“Okay, I promise,” said Alice-May. “Can we go there? You can show me all the ninja-y stuff you do.”
Cassidy smiled softly, “Brace yourself, Ally. It may be more – or less – amazing than you think.”
She pressed ‘Garbage Room’ and part of the wall flipped around, showing a keypad. Cassidy punched a sequence of numbers and……
“Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Alice-May screamed. She internally kicked herself. She never screamed. Ever.
They were falling. There must have been a trapdoor beneath them, thought Alice-May.
Alice-May landed on a mattress at the bottom, and Cassidy stood beside her.
“Welcome to the ‘Garbage Room’,” Cassidy said, the corners of her lips turning upwards into a satisfied smirk.
“Woah!”
In the middle of the room was a rotating training course with hanging spike things, dummies, fire – everything you can imagine a ninja would ever face.
To the left was a row of punching bags. Above them, warehouse lights dangled precariously, and on the right was – a tea-table?
At the far end of the room was a chest. Cassidy ran over to it and pulled a key from around her neck and opened the chest. Inside were a whole bunch of cool weapons. Katanas, scythes, nunchucks, shurikens, you name it.
Cassidy drew a blunt katana out of a worn leather scabbard. “For training,” she explained, as if reading Alice-May’s mind. The sharpened weapons would be kept for more important situations.
Then she sprang into action on the rotating course. Punching, slashing, jumping and rolling. It was amazing to watch. Afterwards……. they had tea.

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13 thoughts on “A Discovery: An Open Pen Critique”

  1. Rebekah,
    I liked it, but it was a little confusing. I understand it is the third chapter and some things might have been explained before this. I like the idea of disguising a room by calling it a garbage room, but it sounds like it should be labeled a garbage chute!
    You asked about dialog, and to be honest, I’m not so great about dialog myself, but it didn’t seem natural. The story didn’t flow; it just froze while Cassidy was telling her story. Try having Alice-May ask questions in the middle. If it isn’t in Alice’s character to interrupt, then show her confusion and then realization throughout the dialog. If she isn’t at all confused, then try to write Cassidy’s story so it isn’t confusing for the reader.
    I liked the tea table idea as well. It serves as a nice contrast with all the weapons of war.
    Another little picky detail is that Cassidy covered Alice’s mouth because she didn’t want anyone to hear, but then she shouts that her father isn’t dead. This doesn’t seem very consistent. Also, are the two girls alone in the house? If so, then why are they alone, and why is Alice having to have Cassidy’s story explained in the first place? How does it advance the story?
    I really liked the idea, and would like to know more, but it needs some more work before it makes me grip my seat in anticipation and not want to set the book down.
    Thank you for your excerpt, and I hope my criticism wasn’t too harsh.
    Bethia

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Bethia.
      I admit that at the time, I had no idea what to call the room. Garbage chute. Much more logical. Okay, I’ll try to fiddle with breaks in speech, etc. Okay, so this is an abandoned house that used to belong to Cassidy’s great-grandparents. Cassidy ran away from an institute in Sydney (super unrealistic, I know). She is trying to discover who her father was. Alice-May lives across the road, and one night saw a flickering light in the attic window. Being the curious girl she was, she went over to explore. There she met Cassidy. She’s been visiting for a few days now. Let’s just say that Cassidy has been under strict management for a long time, but she’s a bit of a loose cannon and can have massive mood swings that her freedom can allow. Maybe I should make her get anxious and regret having shouted afterwards. Alice-May had been asking Cassidy questions for days. Your criticisms were fine. It will certainly help me in the resurrection of this book.
      God bless,
      Rebekah

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  2. Okay, first problem: The very first line of dialog is racist. I know you didn’t mean that but asking someone “Where are you really from?” is often one of the most insulting things you can ask a person. Plus, having Cassidy be fine with this and go on to say she’s a ninja as if that’s a normal thing in Japan is pretty stereotypical. I think you were trying to be funny w/ her saying she’s a ninja as if it’s no big deal, but my concern is that this is a middle grade book, ergo kids are going to be reading this. Kids shouldn’t be reading books that teach them that asking someone “where are you REALLY from” is a good idea, especially if they think that could possibly lead to learning cool (but stereotypical) things about that person. Especially since Cassidy has an Irish lilt, it’s implied that the only reason Alice-May wanted to ask where she was really from is because of her appearance. If this isn’t the reason, you should make that VERY clear. Before Alice-May even asks the question, which she still shouldn’t ask. You should find another way for Cassidy to bring up her past. Unless this story is actually about racism in today’s society, in which case Cassidy should immediately backlash. Even then, it might not be a good idea to introduce your main character saying something racist as that will turn most people off.

    Anyway, that’s my rant. About the dialogue…it’s okay, but as Bethia said, having Cassidy spend a paragraph telling her life story really doesn’t work. I imagine most middle-grade readers would stop reading at this point. If you’re gonna give us ninjas, just give us ninjas. You could remove everything except maybe a sentence of it, and leave the rest for later. That’ll give us enough mystery to keep us reading, and move the plot along.

    Also, why would Alice-May think it’s impossible for Cassidy’s father to be assassinated? I imagine ninjas get assassinated all the time. It’s not a very safe line of work. Something like “I’m sorry” would be more appropriate here.

    I do like the Emperor’s-New-Groove feel of the Garbage Room, and Alice-May’s reaction to falling down a hole is relatable. (I don’t think she needs to reprove herself for screaming. She just fell through the floor, for crying out loud.) I am confused about what house they’re in and why, and the dialog doesn’t help with that. Most of the dialog here is info-dumping, where I think friendly banter might be better, especially if you’re trying to keep a light or comic mood.

    I just now realized this is the third chapter. That probably clears things up. However, I wonder if it even needs to be the third chapter. What are the first two about? Other than the confusion about the house and Alice-May’s ill-advised question, this could be a first chapter. The idea of having a ninja friend who shows you a secret room is quite engaging.

    Hopefully this helps. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks Faith.
      Yes, that does sound quite racist actually. I never intended for any of this to be stereotypical. If anything, I wanted Cassidy to be different and break stereotypes. The question was more of a general ‘where are you from?’ that I would have had Alice-May asked anyone, Asian or otherwise. I was in grade eight when I wrote this (we’d been learning about Shogunate Japan in history at the time) and with all seriousness meant that Cassidy was a shinobi. As this is the third chapter, a lot more was explained earlier (sorry for the confusion). However, later on in the book, Alice-May does stand up for Cassidy when some racist comments are made at school. Yeah, writing this originally, I liked to come up with theories and just dump information everywhere. I understand that most readers will not have a brain as strangely-wired as my own! Alice-May doesn’t know much about the world and the idea of assassination shocks her. Yes, an ‘I’m sorry’ would probably fit here. I haven’t actually seen the Emperor’s New Groove. I’ll try to sort things out. Thanks again for the feedback.
      God bless,
      Rebekah

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  3. Hi there!
    First, I want to say that I love the idea! As a partly-Irish person who’s completely obsessed with Japanese culture, it really appeals.
    On that point (me being obsessed with Japan), I hope you don’t mind if I give a couple of technical tips? Firstly, there is no plural in Japanese, therefore Japanese words such as katana and shuriken are the same in the plural as in the singular. Also, there were a few female ninja, but they were called kunoichi, while the men were called shinobi.
    About the dialogue, I found Cassidy’s explanation confusing, and I imagine such a large chunk of dialogue could turn middle-graders off. If there was any way to intersperse the explanation with dialogue, that would improve it a lot.
    Finally, please keep working at this! The world definitely needs more ninja-books 🙂
    God bless,
    Kikyo

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    1. Hi Kikyo!
      I love Japanese culture as well, and now, looking over it, I see what you mean. This was written before I began studying Japanese. Shinobi can actually be used for male AND female, actually. I prefer for her not to be a kunoichi, as they actually used seduction to assassinate… and this is a children’s book (and I don’t approve of those values). Yes, the dialogue is my greatest weakness. 😛
      Thanks for your feedback!
      God bless,
      Rebekah

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      1. Okay, I think I got my research confused with ninja from video games (embarrassing). Going back to what I read, your description of a kunoichi is accurate. It’s in games that it is used to mean female ninja.
        Also, I meant to write either “intersperse explanation with action” or “intersperse dialogue with action”. What came out doesn’t make any sense.
        Conclusion: most my critique is nonsense.
        Sorry!
        God bless,
        Kikyo

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  4. I’m also fascinated by Japanese culture and I’ve done a lot of research and written a couple of novels set in ancient Japan (about ninja, actually). Rebekah, I definitely agree with using the word ‘shinobi’ over ‘kunoichi’, becoming a kunoichi isn’t really something you want to encourage your readers towards.

    Other than that, I can’t see much else that hasn’t been mentioned already. However, it seems odd to me that Cassidy speaks with an Irish lilt when a) it doesn’t appear that she’s ever met her father, and b) she doesn’t appear to have lived in Ireland (as far as I can see she mentions only living in Japan and Australia).

    Lastly, your use of capitals in “A WHAT?!!!!”, bothers me. I’m personally not a fan of capitals or multiple exclamation marks in books, so I would suggest using italics to show that she is emphasising ‘what’ and using only the question mark. That’s simply my opinion though.

    Hopefully this helps, good luck with the story! 🙂

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    1. Hey Chelsea,
      Yes, I see what you mean about the Irish lilt… (Let’s just leave it to the readers’ imaginations. Maybe she hung around Irish kids at some stage.) Yeah. I’ve gotten rid of the capitals and excessive exclamation marks (this was after I sent it through). Thanks heaps!

      God bless,
      Rebekah

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  5. Hi Rebekah,
    There are a few areas during Cassidy’s explanation where she stops herself and answers questions that Alice hasn’t asked. This gives her dialogue the feeling of exposition, rather than the honest talk I think you were going for. (Such as when she explains what a shinobi is.)
    You might consider breaking up her speech by having Alice ask questions during it.
    This will depend on what Alice’s personality is like, but from what I can tell she’s a pretty curious girl. Having her ask questions during Cassidy’s story might be a good way to show off this aspect of Alice (her curiosity I mean) while also adding to the feeling of a more realistic conversation. (Even adults interrupt each other to ask questions during stories.)
    Though there isn’t much in the way of backstory to let me know what happened before this point in the story, I still found the idea very interesting.
    I hope these thoughts help as you move forward.
    God Bless,
    Lindsi

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    1. Hi Lindsi,
      Good point. This is the exact feedback I was looking for! 🙂
      I will eventually get to making all these changes, but for now, I have a Chemistry assignment to do!

      God Bless,
      Rebekah

      Like

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