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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Variety Critique: From "Cobalt" by Kristin

One of my very best writing friends, Kristin, bravely offered up the first two chapters of her steampunk WIP, "Cobalt" for me to shred in front of all of you in an effort to educate the world. In it's FIRST draft -- (I don't even like to read my first drafts...), yet as always Kristin is a bad example since she is an excellent writer. :) "Cobalt" is no exception; although with some work, I did find some things to criticize her about. You can enjoy her absolute hilarity at her blog, Fairies and Pirates, etc.


“Stay close, darling. This is no place to play.” Katerina's mother drew her close to her side. Wide-eyed, the little girl's gaze traveled up the rough plank walls of the multi-storied factory, framed from behind by gnarled branches which twisted slightly in the air despite the fact that there was no wind. Katerina pressed her hands to her ears. The staccato thock, thock, of woodcutters' axes, always a constant sound in the distance, had never sounded so close or loud. Helena tightened her arm around her daughter's shoulders and hurried them through the thick iron doors.

A worker shouted, “Libel!” and Josef looked up from a giant logbook at the table against the far wall, then walked over to meet the newcomers.

“Hel, dear, why did you bring Kate?” he inquired, giving the woman a quick peck on the cheek. “What if she runs off?”

In answer, Helena raised her arm to show Katerina's hand firmly enclosed in her own. “We won't be but a few minutes. I just received a message at the house; the shipment destined for Adele's Port was ambushed and everything was lost. The shipper wishes to contact you immediately.”

Josef swore, then, at a stern look from his wife, smiled slightly and patted Katerina's head. “Might not be a bad idea to hire guards that know how to keep an eye on the skies, and not just to the trees. I'll tell him that.”

“I'm visiting the market next, if you have any messages for me to relay,” Helena offered.

“As a matter of fact . . .” Josef held up a finger, and returned to his desk where he rummaged through a sheaf of paperwork.

This was Katerina's first visit to the factory, and she stared around in awe at the honeycombs of shelves stacked full of orbs of all sizes, some a dull glassy gray, others glowing deep blue; the balconies and lofts separating stairways along the walls, where men called directions to each other as they ran to and fro; and the network of iron cables webbing the ceiling, along which huge buckets were trollied up and down the levels. She thought it would be fun to ride inside them.

Her mother hummed a distracted tune as they waited, which was drowned out by a sudden screeching noise coming from above. A man cried out something Katerina didn't understand, and workers started scurrying along the floor like ants whose nest had been disturbed. A bucket almost directly above them started to sag on its chain, then, as slowly as an airship docking, sank toward the floor as {repetitive use of “as.” Is there a way to reword the sentence?} the links securing it separated and came loose. The container tipped, revealing the shimmering contents inside its iron-lined interior. {what a great way to open up the book. I’m definitely intrigued!}

“Helena!” she heard her father scream from the other side of the room; but her mother stood frozen with her grip on Katerina's hand like a statue's hold, entranced by the sight of the blue liquid starting to spill from the bucket.

A worker slammed into them, knocking them to the ground, but something else hit Katerina from behind: a splash of liquid, cold as streamwater at first, then fiery hot. Helena's arms muffled Katerina's scream.

And then the pain was gone {Telling, though definitely not a major infraction! “Was gone” does feel weak. Is there a stronger verb that would fit, like “disappeared” or “vanished”? Something that illustrates distinctly and powerfully what happened}. The girl struggled out from her mother's protective embrace, gasping for fresh air.

“I'm alright, Mama,” she whimpered, brushing off a skinned knee. But all she heard was wailing {“heard” is a word I often accuse of diluting the action (DAct is the abbreviation I use). DAct words are words that distance the action, or dilute it to make it less affective. In this sentence it’s combined with a telling phrase “was wailing”—telling us what happened, instead of showing. Would a sentence like: “Shrill (or whatever describes the tone) wails flooded around her …”? Something that shows what this moment feels like.}, her father's voice louder than the rest.

She looked around. Why was Mama still on the ground? And all the other men. She counted six, seven, all of them sprawled on the polished wood floor like broken dolls. She didn't understand. The bucket hadn't even fallen; it dangled from its cable far above, the chains still holding it securely on one side. All the men, and her mother, had splotches of glowing blue goo on their arms and faces.

Katerina looked at herself. The same blue stuff that had spilled out of the bucket also covered her own arms, and she reached up to her face to wipe it away from her eyelids. {I’d suggest separating this into two sentences for punch.} It shimmered with sparks and flashes of lightning white, then sank into her skin, leaving it clean and dry.


She reached down and shook her mother's arm. But Helena didn't answer, and her father Josef ran over and yanked Katerina away, sobbing and repeating the word “Cobalt”over and over. {Splitting this sentence into two would punctuate the hopelessness of the moment here too. If you haven’t noticed yet, I seem to like short sentences and like to get rid of conjunctions wherever I can :)}


Auntie Gerta was a big woman, pale and solid like a whitewashed wall, a wall which now towered over Kate as she washed the breakfast dishes. She jabbed a pudgy finger between the girl's shoulderblades {two words}.

“Don't think I'll let you off easy after yesterday's mischief.”

“I wasn't, Auntie.” Kate stopped her scrubbing to look her aunt full in the face; she hated that.

Gerta sniffed. “You'd think I’d know all your little tricks, all these years I've been caring for you since your father died. But you just keep pulling more out of thin air! Must be your curse . . .”

It was the same old argument. Kate tried in vain not to let it rile her up, but Auntie Gerta always knew which memories hurt the worst. “My father did not die!”

“Yes, yes: he disappeared.” Gerta waved her hands dismissively. “Same difference. Good as dead out there, like the rest of them, once they go missing in the trees. But all your hoping isn't going to make him come back. How long has he been gone? Four years now? No, five. Too long that I've had to deal with your tricks. You're nearing thirteen: almost marriage age {a great insight into the culture!}, if you ask me.”

Now this was a first. Kate's eyes widened. “You wouldn't!”

Gerta looked at her for a long moment, her small piggy eyes lingering on the left side of Kate's face. “No, no, wouldn't do, would it? Even if I offered iron as a dowry, I couldn't get you off my hands.  Even when you're pretty, you're ugly.” She wrung her hands, muttering as much to herself as to her niece. “Should have thought of that before. There might have been less obvious ways to tell who you were. But what can I do? Even I know I can get a bit impatient now and then.” Gerta giggled, the noise sounding odd burbling from her flabby throat.

“So,” Gerta continued with a long-suffering sigh, “I suppose I'll have to keep you--but you need to start earning your keep in my house, you lazy thing, or I might just find it easier to throw you into the woods after your dear father.”

Kate spluttered, her resentment flaring up into anger. “Your house? My father built this house with the money from his businesses! None of this is yours! You only showed up after he d--went away, and you hardly do anything to help with the iron company. His managers run the place and you just take the money!”

She felt the sting on her cheek before she saw Gerta's hand coming. Her left cheek, which had never healed completely, smarting even when she smiled. And Gerta always seemed to know it.

“Do not speak to me like that again, girl,” the old woman said in a quiet, menacing tone. “If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have it this good. Nobody else in this backward village can look you in the eye. Your father's neighbors would have turned you out eventually, and you'd have starved. You're touched, Trina. The Cobalt made you funny. You're like a dead globe. Good for nothing but to be returned to the forest, and bad luck to have around, especially if they break. {If what breaks?}” She pressed her lips together, her eyes glittering as she saw the effect her words had.

Kate resisted the urge to rub her burning cheek, blinking back tears. Suddenly she dropped the sponge into the dishwater, lunging to the side. She made a dash for the door to the side yard, grateful that {Delete unnecessary words (my abbreviation-UW) like that, adverbs, had, etc. wherever it doesn’t change the meaning or tone of the sentence.} she was small-boned today {This seems as though some days she can be big boned.}  and could easily dodge Gerta's grabbing hands. Her aunt was old, but still fast and strong, with the reflexes of a snake.

She {Pronoun problem (PnU for short). The last female mentioned is “her aunt,” meaning that this “she” refers to Gerta instead of Kate.}  raced through the garden and out onto the cart trail, still muddy from the recent spring rains. Auntie Gerta's enraged shouting mingled with the sound of axes splitting wood, but faded quickly as she followed the slippery tracks toward the road into town. The gray facade of the factory loomed briefly in the distance, its windows dark like dead globes, half choked by vines and branches.

Kate grinned widely, despite the pain it caused. The breeze, still tinged with the distant smell of ice from winter's last breath, pulled her hair out behind her as she ran without stopping, all the way to the edge of the market. There she stopped and bent double, clutching her knees and gasping for air. But she allowed herself only a moment to catch her breath, knowing Auntie Gerta would send one of the servants out to look for her.

How long until it was safe to sneak back--and where could she go until then? She knew she faced a beating when she got home; anytime she shirked her duties or escaped for a while, she ended up with new bruises (as yesterday's reminded her). The trick was getting back just at the right time, when she might be lucky enough to encounter Gerta after she'd already had a few drinks and had forgotten her anger, until morning at least. But staying away until after dark was out of the question, so she couldn't sneak back in after the old bag was sleeping.

Kate glanced around the marketplace, half-closing her left eye and shading her face with her hand. Her gaze settled in the distance, where a motley assortment of colored fabrics swayed in the breeze.

She smiled again. The airport. Plenty of spots to hide there without merchants shooing her away from their stalls, and it was one of her favorite places as well. {Consider splitting this into two sentences} Casting a quick look behind to make sure she wasn't trailed, she jogged down the market's main avenue.

Her mouth watered at the sight of exotic fruits arrayed in neat rows--apples, oranges, and peaches--but of course, she had no money for any of it. Such rare treats, those that were picked from trees, only grew along the large towns by the sea, and the best ones were imported from out of the country. She'd managed to nick a piece now and then from Gerta's larder, until she got smart enough to count her inventory. But the last time anyone actually gave her fruit was before Gerta, when her father was still...

Kate stopped again when she approached the airport, forcing her thoughts to take a more pleasant turn. There they were: all the airships, large and small, some multicolored like ladies' dresses, others as drab as the rags she wore, but fascinating nonetheless. Several to the side were being deflated for patching. One of them, no more than a few yards from where she stood, started re-inflating, the rush of gas filling the bag up like the breath of a giant. {What a great description! So easy to see what Kate’s seeing.}

The great merchant ships at the far right of the port were the ones that interested her the most {Telling. Is there a way to show this?}, so that's where she headed. She paused near one that was moored close to the ground, craning her neck to watch the crew passing down crates marked with labels like Grain and Danger: Globes. On the other side of the ship, they hauled up smaller boxes of raw iron and pallets of freshly-cut lumber. Someone jostled her as he passed; she remembered she was supposed to be hiding, so she ducked behind a row of crates when she thought nobody was looking.

The port was close to the edge of the village, where a thick wall of green leaves marked the boundary. As always, the sound of axes and saws permeated the air. Since it was nearing mid-afternoon, the woodcutters were working {Was-past progressive. Does it change the meaning to say “worked” instead of “was working”?} extra hard to clear away the previous night's new growth. If they were lucky, they'd be able to cut a few more feet into the forest before dusk forced them to put away their tools and give the branches a wide berth. {So intriguing!} Kate noticed a few shippers, with apparently nothing else to do, had picked up axes and were lending {Was-past progressive; same as above} a hand to the lumberers in exchange for a few coins.

That's how I'd have made a living on my own, if I were a boy, Kate thought. Perhaps I'd save up enough to buy myself passage out of here on a ship, and never have to see the old factory again.

Many times she'd considered just that, but she didn't have a single coin to her name, let alone supplies or her own food to take with her on a journey over the forest to a new life. And of course, you'd never enter the woods at any time, not without a Cobalt path. And the last path had been shut down {telling; who shut it down? Perhaps something like: The mayor (or whoever) shut down the last path after …}soon after her father disappeared. Besides, as far as she knew, no safe path ever extended to another settlement; they only led to the mining operations deep in the forest.

Her cheek felt wet. She pressed her hand to her face; when she withdrew it, her fingers shone with fresh blood. She bit back angry tears again, and tore a small strip from her skirt, dabbing the scar carefully {Will we find out soon what the gooey stuff is and what it did to her? I’m feeling anxious to know.}.

When she returned, Auntie Gerta just might break the wound open again before it had much of a chance to clot properly. It wouldn't be the first time. She wished she had somewhere else to live, maybe under another family's roof. But Gerta had been right: Even the kind neighbors who'd taken her in after Papa was gone had only done it to save their own consciences if she'd starved to death, {Unnecessary comma (UC)} without anyone else to care for her. Why would they keep her after one of her own relatives showed up to claim her? And anytime she walked the road to the market, those who knew her averted their eyes when she drew near, speaking to her only if she'd been given coins to purchase something for the pantry.

She dug her muddy feet into the packed dirt, and gazed up at the airship again. It was magnificent, its round, no-nonsense hull tethered under a bulging oilcloth balloon. It was unpainted and had been patched many times {telling about instead of showing}, but spoke of adventure and freedom in the wind above a vast sea of swaying branches.

Kate tucked the blood-soaked cloth into her bodice, leaning forward on her toes to peer more closely at the activity surrounding the ship. The loading was complete, the shipyard nearly deserted. This late in the day, no ship was going to leave the port.

Ladders were affixed to the sides of the hull, running all the way to the upper deck. There was a second outside deck, close to the ground and running like a balcony around the ship, {telling} but it looked completely unguarded. Kate swallowed, took a deep breath, then dashed across the open space, resolving to worry about what she'd do next if she could actually get up the ladder.

She had to stand on her toes to reach the bottom rung, then wildly swung {these verbs are unbalanced because they’re in different tenses. It throws off the sentence. Make both verbs the same tense. For example: “She stood on her toes …, then wildly swung.” OR “She had to stand …, then wildly swing.”} her legs until she got a foot hooked around the ladder, and it was another few moments of struggling until she was able to pull herself with both hands up the next few rungs. {This is quite a long, complicated sentence.} After that, she scrambled up to the lower deck and pressed herself against the wall to catch her breath, hoping her dull rags would blend in with the unfinished wood.

Hearing the creak of the rigging above her and feeling the slight swaying as the balloon shifted in the breeze, Kate experienced a moment of pure joy, until she remembered her precarious position. She'd be thrown off the ship as quickly as she'd climbed aboard, if she were discovered {The “telling” verbs can be taken out by just adding some detail to the sentence: Who would throw her off? Who would discover her?}. Worse, they'd probably find out where she lived and march her straight home to her livid Aunt Gerta. Her eyes darted around the deck. Climbing the rest of the ladder to the top deck probably wasn't the best idea; there were bound to still be crewmen aboard. Just next to her was an open porthole that she thought she could squeeze through. Maybe it led to some kind of storage compartment, in which case she might be able to find a hiding place. {If you’re looking for indicators that you’re telling things instead of showing, forms of “to be” are always a good place to start. Here’s just a suggestion: Climbing the rest of the ladder to the top deck probably wasn’t the best idea; the crewmen aboard would probably see her the moment she stepped onto the ship. A gentle tap, tap drew her attention to an open porthole, it’s cover snapping softly against the frame (or something like that). Perhaps it led to a storage hold she could hide inside.}

Like a snake disappearing into its hole, Kate squirmed through the window headfirst, landing with a soft thump inside a dark area which {That/Which confusion. For a detailed, and much better said explanation: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/which-versus-that.aspx} smelled faintly musty. She grinned triumphantly, forcing her breathing to stay quiet. Her heart crashed against her ribs, but slowed after a minute. Her eyes started to adjust, revealing a tiny compartment crammed with boxes and casks.

She'd done it! And as long as she could stay aboard without being found, she'd be in the air by morning, destined for some distant port where she could start her life over. Nobody would ever know about her past with Cobalt, and--she chuckled to herself wryly--as long as she kept the left side of her face hidden, no one would ever recognize her for longer than a day. {Wow! What does this mean? Will we know soon?}

A hand emerged from the darkness, closing around Kate's wrist. Something cold and sharp pressed against her neck.

“Think you can get a free ride aboard my ship, eh?” hissed a voice.

As usual, Kristin, I’m immensely intrigued by your first chapters. I have so many questions (in a good way!) that I want answered—What is Cobalt? What did it do to her face? Where did her father go? And on and on!


  1. Sooo much red! LOL But I was so thrilled with this critique, and honored to be the first victim on your blog. ;) One thing I just cringed to see - and I keep noticing it but forgetting to fix - is the worker's first mention of Kate's last name, Lebel, which I'd mistakenly written as Libel. I found it in a few other places too. I should do a search and replace right now while I'm thinking about it!

    You're very thorough in your critiques, and I learned quite a bit just from your notes in these two chapters. Listen up, everyone! Ranee' has helped me with my query letter and other writing as well. A critique from her is worth its weight in gold!

  2. Okay...you both totally rock. The fact that it took her so long to make any red marks Kristin is a good sign. :) Well done! Great comments! Thanks for sharing you two.


About Me!

I've been writing since I was old enough to grasp a crayon--my grandma even has an early copy of a "book" I made her. I have a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Wyoming and will (hopefully) soon be starting a graduate program in English. When I'm not breaking up impromptu UFC fights in the living room or losing miserably to my boys at Uno, I'm ... well, writing or editing, of course! I'm married to my best friend, and we have three rambunctious but simply amazing little boys.


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