Untitled by Donna K.

LEIGH: Thanks to Donna K. for sharing her work and the mini-critique spotlight this week.

Chapter 1
Green Bay, Wisconsin

Sara Jamison believed in premonitions about as much as she did the Easter Bunny. Yet from the moment she’d opened her eyes that morning, she’d felt the strongest sense of impending doom. Okay, so maybe she was being a bit melodramatic, but the unexplainable nervous energy she’d been trying to work off for the past few hours just didn’t seem to be dissipating.

LEIGH: Nice line about the Easter Bunny – it’s a good start, a strong opening image. You’ve created a nice picture of a woman who’s about to face challenges, and who somehow knows it. That middle line — Okay, so maybe she was being a bit melodramatic – diminishes the effect, though.

She pulled the last pan of cinnamon rolls from the oven with an appreciative sniff and slid it onto the cooling rack. Then she tested the tub of icing in the microwave to see if it was of drizzling consistency. Perfect. Grabbing a spoon-shaped spatula, she walked out to the front of the shop and slathered the hot icing onto a cooled pan of cinnamon rolls.

LEIGH: Good use of the senses to make us see and smell the shop and wish we had one of those cinnamon rolls right now. (Excuse me, I’ll be right back – there’s a chunk of coffeecake in my kitchen calling my name…)

She damn near jumped out of her shoes when the bell above the bakery’s door chimed. Good lord, woman, get a grip!

Sara looked up in time to see her oldest brother, Garrett, enter the shop. He strode toward her, the smile on his face not quite reaching those big brown eyes.

Uh, oh. Impending doom.

The icing tub slipped from Sara’s fingers and hit the dark pink countertop with a thud. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

As if avoiding the inevitable, Garrett walked behind the counter and stole one of the freshly made cinnamon rolls from the tray. He took a huge bite before letting out an exaggerated “Mmmmmm.”

LEIGH: Okay, so big brothers often torment little sisters, but in this case Garrett’s tormenting me too, and I don’t like it. If it was good news, Garrett’s teasing would be more fun. But delaying the breaking of bad news with devices like this – inappropriate teasing, Sara’s unfounded sense of doom – often strikes the reader as adding cheap suspense rather than the real kind.

She crossed her arms over her chest, exasperation rumbling in her throat. Garrett could never just say what he came to say. Had to make a big darn production out of it. Drama King. She moved to the coffee pot and poured him a cup of the fresh brew.

“Thanks.” He leaned back against the counter and took a few sips, his expression thoughtful.

She glanced up at the big cupcake-shaped neon clock that hung over the blackboard menu behind her and prayed for patience. “Garrett, would you spill it already?”

LEIGH: Love the cupcake-shaped clock. But yeah, Garrett – you’ve wasted half a page without adding anything to the story. Spill it already.

He looked up and met her gaze. “Mike Andrews’ father was found dead yesterday in his living room. Looks like he had a heart attack while watching TV.”

LEIGH: For someone who’s been promised to us as a drama king, he’s remarkably straightforward here. It makes me wonder again why we had all the attention paid to the way Garrett talks (or doesn’t talk) rather than just letting him get to the point earlier.

Her breath hitched and her pulse raced. “Has Mike been contacted yet? Is he coming home for the funeral?”

“He has and he is.” Garrett massaged the back of his neck. “Turns out he’s a cop. A detective on the Southside of Chicago. How’s that for irony? Mike and I ending up in the same profession.”

LEIGH: Do you want Garrett to commit bad grammar? If not, here’s the rule to tell I from me in situations like this: drop the plural and see how the sentence reads. He wouldn’t say “I ending up in the same profession” so it should be “Mike and me.” It’s a handy rule to remember because it works in all sorts of grammar situations. In this case, adding a comma would make the sentence clearer, too: Mike and me, ending up in the same profession.

Sara slowly shook her head, the shock of it almost too much to comprehend. Turning around to pour herself some coffee, she realized her hands were shaking and braced them on the counter. “He hated his father. Maybe he won’t come.”

“He’s coming, Sara.”

She turned to face him. “You don’t think he knows about Ethan, do you?” Her voice barely rose above a whisper.

He blew out a heavy breath. “I’d say it’s unlikely. Nobody else knows, how the hell could he?”

LEIGH: It’s an interesting dilemma, in a secret baby story, when to reveal the existence of the secret baby. By doing it right here, the main secret of the book has already been revealed to the reader, and we’re barely two pages into the story. Would it be better for the story to leave the reader in doubt along with the hero?

Once readers know The Secret, they have a tendency to think that all the characters should know it too, and to think if the character doesn’t pick up the clues, that character is a bit dim. It’s not fair of the reader, but it’s a fact. Even before the reader meets Mike, we’re disposed to think that he ought to take one look at Sara and/or Ethan and know the truth. Is that what you want to happen?

“I don’t know.” She wasn’t exactly convinced.

“Listen, even if he does, so what? He’s not likely to contact you. Don’t forget the reason he skipped town in the first place. He’s a gutless worm. Just like his father.”

The look in his eyes became fierce, and her heart missed a beat. Garrett had a devil of a temper, especially when it came to his family. The last thing Sara needed was for him to work himself into a fury and go looking for a fight.

LEIGH: Garrett’s becoming more of a fully-drawn character here than Sara is, and by far more than Mike is. Add to it that he’s got the “hero” name while “Mike” is a shadowy, much less powerful name, and it may be hard to keep the men straight and give the hero the attention and limelight he deserves. If Garrett wasn’t her brother, I’d be thinking you might be setting him up as the hero – the man who’s stood by faithfully and waited for Sara to get over the worm who betrayed and abandoned her, hoping she’ll finally notice him instead…

Specifically, go looking for Mike Andrews.

“Garrett, you keep that temper of yours in check, especially around Ethan. I don’t want him to suspect something’s wrong. He’s a very intuitive little boy.”

His harsh expression softened at the mention of his nephew. “Yeah, he’s a sharp kid all right. Always knows when something’s bothering me.” His brow furrowed. “It’s annoying as hell, too.”

She managed a small smile. Her son had no doubt inherited that particular talent from his Uncle Garrett, but she’d keep that observation to herself. “You’re right, it is.”

LEIGH: Again this gives us more of a picture of Garrett than of our main characters.

At this point, does it add much to the story to have them talking about Ethan’s personality? Or would it be better to show Ethan’s talent for perception in an upcoming scene, perhaps by having him key in on his mother’s preoccupation?

They were both silent for a moment. Garrett took a few more sips of his coffee, poured the rest down the sink and crushed the dark pink paper cup before tossing it in the trash. He stood beside her and hooked an arm around her shoulders.

LEIGH: Nice picture here – of the love between brother and sister, and of the big, tough cop with the pink paper cup. Good imagery that really helps the reader see what’s going on.

“Listen, the Andrews’ place is all the way on the east side of town, so there’s not much of a chance you’ll run into him. And before you know it, he’ll be on his way back to Chicago and the rock he crawled out from under.”

LEIGH: Is there anything positive about Mike? If he is going to be the hero, it would be nice to get some hint of why we should be eager to meet him. Even just some mixed feelings from Sara would be enough to give us a reason to want to find out more.“God, I hope you’re right.”

LEIGH: This is a pretty passive reaction from Sara – there’s no hint of action, no determination to keep her child safe, no squaring of shoulders (figuratively speaking) and taking up the burden, no thinking ahead to how she’ll handle Mike if he turns up. Garrett’s got all the purposeful, assertive lines. This line – a limp-sounding, hope-for-the-best reaction – makes a weak finish to the scene.Secret baby stories are popular with readers (or very unpopular; there seems to be no middle ground where individual readers are concerned). But they have challenges, especially in a contemporary setting. Why didn’t the mother tell the father about the baby at the time? If they couldn’t solve the problems that separated them then, how can they solve it all now, with the added complication of this secret that’s been kept for years?

Though we’re willing to give Sara the benefit of the doubt and assume that she had a good reason, we also have to assume that the problem between them was some kind of misunderstanding – since Mike is being set up as the hero, which means he can’t really have been a gutless worm. But once Mike finds out about his child (and since the reader already knows, it won’t play very well to keep the hero in the dark until the end), what will keep the story moving? The entire scenario might be an easier sell for the reader if we didn’t know right up front that Ethan is Mike’s child. Keeping that secret from the reader would help to increase the suspense and keep the conflict viable.

I’d like to see you develop Sara’s character more fully than Garrett’s, so our attention is firmly centered on our main character, and make her the dynamic force in this scene. That will draw us further into the story and make us look forward to seeing Sara and Mike (rather than Garrett and Mike) crossing swords when they meet again.


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