Untitled by Michelle R.

LEIGH: Thanks to Michelle for allowing me to do a mini-critique on her submission and post it here for others to read. I hope that everyone will find the feedback useful; many times there are common elements, and they’re sometimes easier to see in someone else’s work than in our own.

Melissa closed her eyes and mentally followed Hank’s steps through the house. It was the same routine every night. Walk in, find his chair, flip through every television station and settle on the news or the newest crime drama on that night.

Just once I wish he’d do something different. Change clothes first, grab a drink, find a different show to watch. Anything.

LEIGH: Oh, the refrain of the long-married! This opening grabs the reader’s sympathy (who among us hasn’t wished that the loved one wasn’t so ridiculously predictable?) And it also hints at potential for the story. Will Melissa do something drastic to shake up her marriage? Will Hank wake up and take action? Is Hank hiding something behind that always-the-same routine?

I think the reader needs just a little more grounding before getting into this. At first, when “Melissa closed her eyes and mentally followed Hank” I didn’t know if she was in the house with him, or if she was remembering his typical actions, or if she was trying to solve a puzzle (perhaps Hank was acting differently all of a sudden and she was attempting to figure out why). It doesn’t take a whole lot to give us a context and a setting – maybe a short paragraph – but it’s easy to forget that the reader only knows what we put in front of her. It’s all clear to us as we write, so sometimes it escapes us that the reader can’t have the same picture in her mind unless we describe it.

She walked to the living room door and studied her husband. A little heavier than when they married, but still in good shape. Some gray was starting to show around his temples, but it only enhanced his tanned face. A face she’d first noticed in high school. His strong, square jaw and serious expressions nearly hid the twinkle in his dark blue eyes. Then, years after high school she’d met him again. His body was more defined, his expression still serious, but what captivated Melissa was the bright gleam in his eyes. He’d swept her off her feet and less than two months later she was pregnant and they were married.

LEIGH: Interesting sequence of events. It makes me wonder if they’d have married if she hadn’t been pregnant. I’m not suggesting telling the reader at this point; I’m only commenting that this terse sentence draws me in. And it makes me wonder what’s happened to the bright gleam in his eyes since.

Melissa stepped between her husband and the television. “Hank, I’m leaving now. I left your dinner in the microwave.”

Hank looked dazed. “Oh? Where are you headed?”

“I’m going to the university. Edna wants to computerize the daycare’s records, so I have to learn use the database system. I told you about it when I signed up for the class in June.”

Hank’s gaze flicked back to the news. “Oh, yeah.”

Melissa gathered her purse and books and walked to the car, knowing she would receive no more attention from Hank this evening.

Five minutes. Would it kill you to pay attention to me for five minutes?

LEIGH: True, but I do lose a bit of sympathy for Melissa here since she hasn’t offered him an option of paying attention, with her “I’m leaving (right) now” announcement.

A sense of loneliness engulfed her as she made the short drive to the community college. The feeling disappeared as she looked into the classroom and stared at what looked like a room full of high school students.

LEIGH: Major sympathy here for Melissa! I’m not sure though why she suddenly seems to feel less lonely – even though there’s a crowd, being the only older student might make her feel MORE lonely.

Melissa double checked her schedule as she headed inside, feeling somewhat out of place and – well, old. The feeling only intensified when one of the students called out to her. “Hi, Professor.”

Stunned, Melissa turned but before she could dispute the teenager’s assumption a man entered the room and began to speak.

“Hello, everyone, my name is Professor Jonas Alexander and I’ll be teaching this class. This is Database 101 so if that’s not the class you’re looking for, please check your schedule.” He looked pointedly at Melissa before continuing. “If everyone is where they are supposed to be, we’ll get started.”

Melissa groaned. I’m older than everyone here, including the professor. She took the only seat left – front and center, of course- and opened her book as the professor continued his introduction.

LEIGH: Is Jonas the hero? If he is, this first appearance in the story is a very important moment for the story, a great time to begin to show the reader why this person is going to affect our heroine’s life and change everything in her future. The heroine should show more of a reaction to the hero than she does to everyone else (and the hero should react more emphatically to the heroine than to other people). Here Melissa’s only reaction is that she’s older than he is. We don’t yet have any other indication of what he looks like, or why she’s drawn to him, or anything to help us see why he might be special.

If Jonas isn’t the hero, then the detail about him does more to distract us from the Melissa/Hank question than to enhance it.

“Okay, as I said, I’m Professor Alexander, but you can call me Jonas. I’ve been working with computers since I was twelve and I completed my doctorate degree here at this University two years ago. Now, I’d like to go around the room and have everyone tell why they’re taking this class and what they hope to do.”

LEIGH: Nice twist here, that he only recently completed his doctorate, to make him look even younger. As a matter of detail, he’s not likely to be a full professor two years after getting his doctorate. Would he be more likely to introduce himself as “Dr. Alexander” or just by his name, if that’s what he wants to be called?

As each student stood and introduced themselves a depressing thought ran through Melissa’s head. I graduated from high school before some of these kids even started kindergarten.

LEIGH: Again, major sympathy for Melissa. I’d like to see her decide to kick some butt, though – along the lines of “I may be older but I’ll show them I’m not hopeless.”

Two hours later, her mind reeling from all the information she had received, Melissa stood and prepared to leave the class. As she picked up her books and turned toward the door, Professor Alexander approached.

“Miss Forrester, I just wanted to say if you have any trouble with the class, please let me know. I’d be happy to help you.”

LEIGH: Did she introduce herself as Miss Forrester? If she’s normally Mrs. Forrester, why doesn’t she correct him here?

Why does Melissa think he’s singled her out? How does she feel about that? Threatened? Excited? Irritated that he’s assumed she’s too elderly to get the subject on her own? This is a good opportunity to begin to share the emotional struggle that you seem to be setting up for Melissa.

“Thank you, Professor Alexander; I’m sure I’ll be collecting on that offer before the term is over.”

“Well, I’m sure this class will be easy enough for you. LEIGH: Then why did he single her out and offer help? And, please, call me Jonas. Being called Professor Alexander makes me sound old.”

When Jonas laughed a lock of blond hair fell in front of his blue eyes. He reminded Melissa of a teenage surfer from a fifties beach movie. She returned his smile but resisted the urge to push the hair from his face.

LEIGH: Aah, some nice reactions here – a bit of description so we can begin to picture him and some emotion from Melissa.

“Please, call me Melissa, but I hardly see how anyone would consider you old.”

A smile lit up his face. “Actually, I’ll be thirty-nine before this term ends. My sister says she envies the fact that I look younger than I am, but I keep telling her it’s not always a good thing. It’s hard to teach a class when you look younger than the students.”

LEIGH: I sympathize with Jonas’s problem – it IS difficult to be taken seriously when one looks like a kid – but I wonder… if a perceived age difference is part of the conflict, then this eliminates that factor as soon as Melissa finds out it’s not an issue after all.

“I guess I’m not the oldest person in this class then. For a while there I thought I was going to have to spend the whole term with a bunch of high school students.”

Jonas laughed at her joke and Melissa was surprised to find herself warming to the sound. “I really need to get going; I have to be at work early tomorrow morning,” she said.

LEIGH: Here’s an opportunity for some interaction on a personal level, maybe to start showing their personalities more – especially if there’s going to be a clash.

“I forgot to give these out tonight, but here’s my card with my home number on the back. If you have any trouble with the lessons this week please give me a call.”

LEIGH: And here’s an opportunity, instead of repeating his offer to help her, to add something new, something which will draw us further in and give us a hint of why Jonas and Melissa might not have things so easy as it appears at the moment.

Jonas held a business card out to her and as she took it from his hands her fingers brushed his. Melissa was surprised to feel a shock travel up her hand. She stuffed the card in her purse and raced from the room.

LEIGH: The shockwave at the first brush of fingers is a bit of a cliche; perhaps there’s a more original way to express this.We don’t see a reason for her to race from the room. Nothing has happened that should have upset this perfectly calm and reasonable adult woman – or at least, if it has happened, it’s been entirely in Melissa’s mind and she hasn’t shared it even with the reader, which leaves us a bit in the dark.

If Jonas isn’t the hero – if he’s only a foil to show Melissa waking up Hank and her marriage – then we spend a lot of time on him and the classroom, which takes the emphasis away from Melissa and Hank. If Jonas is the hero, then it would be nice to begin to see what the complications are going to be in their lives.

There’s a lot of potential here, with the possibility of a triangle and a heroine torn between the comfortable and the challenging. I’d like to see you get in some hints for the reader about what the obstacles are going to be.

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