Each week we’re critiquing a postcard-in-progress from our community of Memory Writers.  To submit your scene for critique, use the form here with the subject line “Cold Eyes.”  

STEP ONE: READ THE SUBMISSION ALL THE WAY THROUGH

“THE BIRD SANCTUARY” – BY ANGELA O.

Summertime was a time of adventure. Growing up in Howard Beach, Queens, my sister, Kim and I always looked for something fun to do. There were a lot of kids on our street and we were always in someones pool or playing out in the street.

We were very fortunate growing up that our Nanny and Grandpa lived with us and that they were always up to doing something with us. One day, Nanny and Grandpa decided that we were going to do something fun and educational. We were going to take a trip to The Bird Sanctuary. We thought this would be fun. The Bird Sanctuary is actually the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. It is located in Broad Channel, a short trip from where we lived in Howard Beach. The park was the perfect place for an 2 adventure. It had a variety of environments: a salt marsh, upland field and woods, several fresh water ponds, and a large part of Jamaica Bay is located there.

We were so excited that morning. We normally spent our days in the pool or going to the mall. That day, Nanny packed a picnic lunch for the four of us. We piled into the car and drove all the way to The Bird Sanctuary (it was only five minutes away). Kim and I could hardly contain ourselves. We got out of the car and ran to the visitor center. It had a map of The Bird Sanctuary. We looked at different pictures and talked to the park ranger. Then, the adventure began.

The four of us walked out of the building and onto the refuge. We started walking, enjoying the sunshine and just the thought of spending time together. And then it happened.  We saw our first bird!  It was a seagull, not very exciting because they are a common occurrence in Howard Beach. We continued walking and the further we walked into the marsh;it became more apparent that we were not entering The Bird Sanctuary, but a BUG SANCTUARY.

The further we walked, the more we were attacked by bugs of all types! Mosquitos, gnats, and the biggest horse flies you have ever seen! But worst of all were the green flies, with the bulging eyes, you know the kind, they stick to you and bite you! The four of us stood there in horror. Then Nanny said LETS GET OUT OF HERE! She didn’t have to say it twice. Kim, Nanny, Grandpa and I turned around and ran back to the visitor building. The park ranger looked at us and asked what was wrong. We told him we didn’t come to see bugs! We got into the car and laughed all the way home.

STEP TWO: LOOK CLOSER

Summertime was a time of adventure.  Growing up in Howard Beach, Queens, my sister, Kim and I always looked for something fun to do. There were a lot of kids on our street and we were always in someones pool or playing out in the street.

 The beginning of your narrative is crucial.  Imagine your reader.  They’re sitting on their couch, or in a sunny park, or at their cubicle, and they’re ready to transport into some new world.  That’s why they’re reading.  They want you to whisk them away.  They’re impicitly giving you the passcode to their brains. “Go ahead.  I’ll lend you my imagination.  Let’s conjure this thing together!”

In that instant jussssssst before their eyes move over the first word…they’re totally in the dark.  GENERAL RULE: Readers want to be oriented in space as quickly as possible.  The longer you deny this to them, the more they will squirm.  Obviously, you don’t want them to squirm.  You want them to enter smoothly.  

There’s nothing wrong about the first few lines here.  They’re fine.  They’re a voice, telling us information.  But I’d argue you’re losing your reader right from the start.  The writer George Saunders has a great metaphor about flashbacks.  He says (I’m paraphrasing) that every time you flashback, you’re going into debt with your reader.  The reader says sub-consciously: “Okay, I’ll indulge you this…but it’d better be worth it.”  

The same “debt” metaphor applies here to contextual information.  In scenes this short (postcards!) your goal is to immerse us immediately.  We’re moving sideways instead of forward.

We were very fortunate growing up that our Nanny and Grandpa lived with us and that they were always up to doing something with us. One day…The magic words!  Go back and read any fairy tale you loved as a kid.  Everyone knows they start: “Once upon a time.”  But just as common, about a page later, is the transitional…”One day…”  GENERAL RULE: Here, just start with the “One day…”  

Nanny and Grandpa decided that we were going to do something fun and educational. We were going to take a trip to The Bird Sanctuary. We thought this would be fun. The Bird Sanctuary is actually the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. It is located in Broad Channel, a short trip from where we lived in Howard Beach. The park was the perfect place for an 2 adventure. It had a variety of environments: a salt marsh, upland field and woods, several fresh water ponds, and a large part of Jamaica Bay is located there.

Still informational set-up here, but at least it’s more specific.  Still, you want to SHOW us this.  How can you turn this into a SCENE?  My guess is that’s looming just ahead…

We were so excited that morning. We normally spent our days in the pool or going to the mall. That day, –aha!  A “That day…”  See what I mean?  So basically the first “One day…” was just a decoy.  Now we’re really getting into the scene.  Just start here:  “We piled into the car…”

…and drove all the way to The Bird Sanctuary (it was only five minutes away). My sister Kim and I could hardly contain ourselves. We got out of the car and ran to the visitor center. It had a map of The Bird Sanctuary. We looked at different pictures on the map (see how I folded the previous sentence easily into this one?) and talked to the park ranger. Then, the adventure began.

We’re ready!  Let’s do it!

The four of us walked out of the building and onto the refuge. We started walking (repetition – already walking in previous sentence), enjoying the sunshine and just the thought of spending time together. And then it happened.  We saw our first bird!  It was a seagull, not very exciting because they are a common occurrence in Howard Beach. We continued walking and the further we walked into the marsh;it became more apparent that we were not entering The Bird Sanctuary, but a BUG SANCTUARY.

Ah.  Here we go.  I like the ALL CAPS.  Now this is getting good.  

The further we walked, the more we were attacked by bugs of all types! Mosquitos, gnats, and the biggest horse flies you have ever seen! But worst of all were the green flies, with the bulging eyes, you know the kind, they stick to you and bite you!  Best line so far.  Not only can we see them (“bulging eyes”) but we can feel them (“stick to you and bite you”).  At its best, reading is a multi-sensory experience.  The four of us stood there in horror. Then Nanny said, “LETS GET OUT OF HERE!” 

She didn’t have to say it twice. Kim, Nanny, Grandpa and I turned around and ran back to the visitor building. The park ranger looked at us and asked what was wrong. (Dialogue?) We told him we didn’t come to see bugs! We got into the car and laughed all the way home.

I see this so often.  You have a great story to tell, but it’s buried down at the very bottom of the postcard.  If you cut all the un-needed contextual information, you can really slow down and bring that BUG SANCTUARY to life.  More specifically, that leaves you ample room to develop the characters of Nanny, Grandpa, and Kim.  If you were mailing this to your great-grandkids, would’ve you want them to get a sense of THEM?  The characters?  What they were like?  How you interacted?  Isn’t that the point?  

One last thought.  Over the years (I’ve been teaching almost a decade now), I’ve become curious why so much narrative writing is padded with abstracted set-up.  I think it’s for two reasons.  (1) It’s a natural process of drafting.  Before you can create an experience in someone else’s head…you have to get it out of your own.  And so that process – slowly drifting back to the specific – plays out on the page.  The trick is to go back afterward and brush away your footprints.  (2) I also think we’re taught in school that we need to frame everything with a classic, generic introduction.  Have a close look at your own writing – even your own emails.  I think you’ll be shocked just how much text you can get rid of (especially near the beginning) and not lose anything.

-M.S.

LAST WEEK’S CRITIQUE  THE 30% RULE

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