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Entry#19 (YA Hor) - Beta Project 2022

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Sage

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Manuscript Title: Ralphie Rickets was a Real Boy
Manuscript Genre: YA Horror
Manuscript Word Count: 50k~
Is your manuscript finished?: Completed first draft
Any trigger warnings? Puppet domestic abuse, references to children having been murdered, and creepy puppet stuff

Hook:

Seventeen-year-old Billy is notoriously unreliable, much to his best-friend/sometimes-girlfriend Molly’s annoyance.

When Billy tells Molly about a puppet show he watched – which the puppeteer disputes – Molly starts mocking all of Billy’s outlandish stories. She doesn’t even believe him about his old childhood friend Ralphie.

But Billy is pretty sure Ralphie (and his house with a pirate ship) is real. Even if he can’t find any photos. Even if his parents deny knowing the name.

However, Billy learns Raphie’s dad is real – and was a serial killer murdered by an angry mob – leading him to wonder if Ralphie had been an undiscovered kidnap victim.

Now more than just a matter of proving himself right, Ralphie drags Molly back to his old town… but the house is gone, burned to the ground.

Just when Billy thinks he’s out of luck, he hears a story about the house regrowing itself at night…

First 750 words:

A crowd is in the middle of the park. I can’t make anything out through the adults standing there, but I hear children laughing. I’m supposed to be meeting Molly, but… it wouldn’t hurt to just have a peek, would it?

Our town’s park isn’t huge – not even by park standards, let alone city standards – and it’s rare to see large groups, except maybe over by the playground. Maybe that’s why I’m burning with curiosity. Or maybe I’m being drawn by forces beyond human comprehension. Whatever the case, I shove my way through the adults, earning scowls in the process, until I see something I haven’t seen in… wow, how long has it been?

The puppet house is huge, just absolutely oversized, with these big red curtains. It’s this old-school, all wood construction. There are these two hand-puppets on the little stage arguing with each other, real slapstick stuff. This actually isn’t bad.

I look around. Nobody is paying any attention to me, let alone looking to toss me out. I take a seat among the kids – it’s a pretty big crowd, at least twenty kids – and start to laugh my ass off. Some of the parents and kids are staring. Haven’t they ever seen a teen enjoy a puppet show? Huh, that sounds a little dirty.

Their attention turns back to the show. The female puppet – who the male refers to as Maria Nette – is hitting her husband, Mario, with a frying pan. Mario reaches for something below the stage, and pulls out this wicked-looking butcher knife. Not a full-sized one, but still something almost as large as the puppets. Geez, this is going to be good…

Holy shit! My eyes practically pop out of my head as I watch Mario stab Maria, little blood splats going everywhere. I look around the crowd – the kids, all thirty or forty of them, are just laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And their parents are laughing, too. Seriously?

Mario is stabbing and stabbing away. These effects are insane, like nothing I’ve seen at a puppet show. The spurts are spraying out into the crowd. I see boys and girls giggling as the fake-blood hits their faces. How crazy is that? I turn to the kid next to me, and do a double-take – he’s wearing some kind of wooden mask, like he’s a puppet. Is this a birthday party or something? I guess things are different from when I was that age.

I lean back, and laugh. I could spend all afternoon watching this.

“Billy, what the fuck?” a voice asks.

I spin, finding Molly glaring down at me. She looks P.I.S.S.E.D. with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Maybe not as ticked as when I messed up her highlights the other week, turning her long black hair almost solid blue (although she lightened up a bit after I kept mentioning it looked amazing with her eyes), but worse than the time I brought her car back with all those scrapes on the door. She’s so cute when she’s angry, though.

“Oh, um, hey, how’s it going?” I ask.

“You were supposed to meet me for lunch like two hours ago,” she growls. “You didn’t answer your texts, and I even called you – that’s right, I called you. And you know how much I hate calling.” I smile meekly, and she looks past me. “What are you even doing?”

“Oh, I was just watching a play,” I say, turning back to the playhouse. “Huh.”

The curtains are closed, and… where’d everybody go? There were like fifty kids here earlier.

“What play?” Molly asks. “What kind of weird-ass shit are you doing now?”

“There was a kid’s birthday party here,” I say. “There had to be sixty kids, and everybody was watching a play with these two puppets, Mario and Maria Nette—”

“Puppets?” Molly asks, her brow furrowing. “Those don’t sound like puppet names. Sounds like a bad marionette joke.”

I squint. “Yeah, now that you mention it…”

She sticks her hands in her jean pockets and kicks my shoulder. “C’mon, get up.”

I scramble to my feet. “I’m not making this up.”

Molly sighs. “And that’s what worries me. Now I’m stuck wondering what you’re on.”

“I’m not on anything,” I reply. She gives me the stare. “Okay, I haven’t taken anything today.” She raises an eyebrow. “Honest!”

What do you look for in a beta?

At this point, it might be more of an alpha read than a beta read. Although the work is relatively clean, it’s largely untouched (the quality of the first 750 should be representative of the whole – although I’ll likely finish a proofreading pass by the 20th to pick up obvious errors).

I’m not sure how well the horror beats work. It might help to know what’s scary vs what’s not, although on the whole it’s not intended to be terrifying – although there may be some disturbing images in there.
 

Sage

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Entry #19

Manuscript Title:
Ralphie Rickets was a Real Boy

Not that it’s relevant, but Puppet domestic abuse’ has to be the best trigger warning I’ve read.

As you say that, at this point, what you might need is an alpha rather than a beta reader, I’m going to be much harsher on this story than I otherwise would. This isn’t a punishment. I just feel that, if this is your first draft, there is greater room for changes than if, say, you just wanted a little help with the final polishing. Having said that, you’re free to think I’m an idiot and not take any of my suggestions to heart.

First, I should say that I like the concept. The actual setup is interesting: A strange, bloody puppet show whose spectators are every bit as weird as the spectacle. A friend only Billy remembers. A house appearing at night. All of it is creepy and all of it has potential.

What I’m not sure of is how well the horror elements land. The problem could be that we are told the story from Billy’s perspective. This deadens everything that happens with the puppets on stage, and the unusual reactions of the audience. We know the funny stuff is funny because Billy laughs at it and calls it slapstick, but we don’t actually know what the puppets do or say that’s funny. As far as the horror goes, all the elements of something scary are there, but they’re filtered through Billy’s perception. And he isn’t scared so neither was I. He isn’t even slightly perturbed by the strangeness of it all. Instead, he reacts to the whole thing as a joke, so, as a reader I'm not sure what to think or feel.

A possible way out of this is to have Billy describe what’s happening on stage in more detail than he currently does and in fairly objective terms (tell us things like what the puppets were arguing about, how this argument went, in what way the effects of the stabbing are ‘insane’ etc.). This will let the readers decide for themselves if it’s scary or horrific. After that, you can have Billy tell them his reaction to what he's just described. If his reaction is at odds with theirs, this can further add to the horror as not only is the story horrific but also the readers also discover that there is something decidedly odd about the narrator (besides the fact that he’s unreliable when it comes to counting children).

The second problem I have with everything being filtered through Billy is I don’t know how likable he is. At this point, I don’t know much about him. What I do know is that he stands up his girlfriend, that he pushes his way through spectators, that he gate-crashes, what he thinks is, a kid’s party, and that he laughs at puppets killing each other. Basically, he seems like an ass. This might be intentional, and we’ll later learn why he’s like this. And there might be no problem with that. I only have the first 750 words to form an opinion, so that opinion may be way off; but, it seems to me at this early stage, that if readers find him unpleasant, and the whole story is told from his perspective, they might find the story unpleasant. Regardless, I would read further to discover if there’s anything about Billy that makes me care what happens to him. And, even there isn’t, the mystery is solid enough that I’d continue.

I’ve put in a few in-line comments below.


Hook:

Seventeen-year-old Billy is notoriously unreliable, much to his best-friend/sometimes-girlfriend Molly’s annoyance.

When Billy tells Molly about a puppet show he watched – which the puppeteer disputes – Molly starts mocking all of Billy’s outlandish stories. She doesn’t even believe him about his old childhood friend Ralphie.

But Billy is pretty sure Ralphie (and his house with a pirate ship) is real. Even if he can’t find any photos. Even if his parents deny knowing the name.

However, Billy learns Raphie’s dad is real – and was a serial killer murdered by an angry mob – leading him to wonder if Ralphie had been an undiscovered kidnap victim.

Now more than just a matter of proving himself right, Ralphie (Billy?) drags Molly back to his old town… but the house is gone, burned to the ground.

Just when Billy thinks he’s out of luck, he hears a story about the house regrowing itself at night…

First 750 words:

A crowd is in the middle of the park. I can’t make anything out through the adults standing there, but I hear children laughing. I’m supposed to be meeting Molly, but… it wouldn’t hurt to just have a peek, would it?

Our town’s park isn’t huge – not even by park standards (town standards?), let alone city standards – and it’s rare to see large groups, except maybe over by the playground. Maybe that’s why I’m burning with curiosity. Or maybe I’m being drawn by forces beyond human comprehension (It seems weird that his two options for his curiosity are that there’s a crowd (which is pretty mundane) or that he’s being drawn by forces beyond human comprehension (which is pretty outlandish). Even if he is being pulled by these forces, I can’t see why Billy would think that is what’s happening.). Whatever the case, I shove my way through the adults, earning scowls in the process, until I see something I haven’t seen in… wow, how long has it been?

The puppet house is huge, just absolutely oversized, with these big red curtains. It’s this old-school, all wood construction. There are these two hand-puppets on the little stage arguing with each other, real slapstick stuff. This actually isn’t bad.

I look around. Nobody is paying any attention to me, let alone looking to toss me out. I take a seat among the kids – it’s a pretty big crowd, at least twenty kids – and start to laugh my ass off. Some of the parents and kids are staring. Haven’t they ever seen a teen enjoy a puppet show? Huh, that sounds a little dirty.

Their attention turns back to the show. The female puppet – who the male refers to as Maria Nette – is hitting her husband, Mario, with a frying pan. Mario reaches for something below the stage, and pulls out this wicked-looking butcher knife. Not a full-sized one, but still something almost as large as the puppets. Geez, this is going to be good…

Holy shit! My eyes practically pop out of my head as I watch Mario stab Maria, little blood splats going everywhere. I look around the crowd – the kids, all thirty or forty of them, are just laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And their parents are laughing, too. Seriously?

Mario is stabbing and stabbing away. These effects are insane, like nothing I’ve seen at a puppet show. The spurts are spraying out into the crowd. I see boys and girls giggling as the fake-blood hits their faces. How crazy is that? I turn to the kid next to me, and do a double-take – he’s wearing some kind of wooden mask, like he’s a puppet. Is this a birthday party or something? I guess things are different from when I was that age.

I lean back, and laugh. I could spend all afternoon watching this.

“Billy, what the fuck?” a voice asks.

I spin, finding Molly glaring down at me. She looks P.I.S.S.E.D. with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Maybe not as ticked as when I messed up her highlights the other week, turning her long black hair almost solid blue (although she lightened up a bit after I kept mentioning it looked amazing with her eyes), but worse than the time I brought her car back with all those scrapes on the door. She’s so cute when she’s angry, though.

“Oh, um, hey, how’s it going?” I ask.

“You were supposed to meet me for lunch like two hours ago,” she growls. “You didn’t answer your texts, and I even called you – that’s right, I called you. And you know how much I hate calling.” I smile meekly, and she looks past me. “What are you even doing?”

“Oh, I was just watching a play,” I say, turning back to the playhouse. “Huh.”

The curtains are closed, and… where’d everybody go? There were like fifty kids here earlier.

“What play?” Molly asks. “What kind of weird-ass shit are you doing now?”

“There was a kid’s birthday party here,” I say. “There had to be sixty kids (Not a criticism, but what is the purpose of the number of kids increasing? I’m just curious. Is it just to say that we shouldn’t trust Billy’s version of events, or did the number of kids actually increase throughout the play? The fact that they’re still increasing seems to indicate that the problem lies with Billy.), and everybody was watching a play with these two puppets, Mario and Maria Nette—”

“Puppets?” Molly asks, her brow furrowing. “Those don’t sound like puppet names. Sounds like a bad marionette joke.”

I squint. “Yeah, now that you mention it…”

She sticks her hands in her jean pockets and kicks my shoulder. “C’mon, get up.”

I scramble to my feet. “I’m not making this up.”

Molly sighs. “And that’s what worries me. Now I’m stuck wondering what you’re on.”

“I’m not on anything,” I reply. She gives me the stare. “Okay, I haven’t taken anything today.” (Isn’t this is saying the same thing twice? I’m not on anything doesn’t mean I’ve never taken anything; it means I haven’t taken anything recently enough for it to be affecting me at the moment. At least, when it comes to recreational drugs.)

She raises an eyebrow. “Honest!”
 

Sage

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Entry #19

Manuscript Title: Ralphie Rickets was a Real Boy I find this a bit of a mouthful
Manuscript Genre: YA Horror
Manuscript Word Count: 50k~ Also edging too short for novel territory, even for YA horror.


Hook:


Seventeen-year-old Billy is notoriously unreliable, much to his best-friend/sometimes-girlfriend pick one, whichever is more core to her character Molly’s annoyance.

When Billy tells Molly about a puppet show he watched – which the puppeteer disputes – Molly starts mocking all of Billy’s outlandish stories. Why the hop out of POV to tell me he maybe wasn't there? Molly reaction is to something tangential even then, his stories, rather than the puppet show. She doesn’t even believe him about his old childhood friend Ralphie.

It's like each sentence in here doesn't quite finish, usually because you interrupt it with a dependent clause that's not strictly relevant or immediate. Billy tells Molly about a puppet show... but he wasn't there. So she mocks his stories (about?), at which point he tells her about his imaginary friend. There's no causality there. No A to B. And so no story. It could be Ralph tells Molly about the shark and she complains about the holes in swiss cheese--you'd get the same "weird" effect but the end product is just a bunch of sentences that don't connect.

But Billy is pretty sure Ralphie (and his house with a pirate ship) is real. Even if he can’t find any photos. Even if his parents deny knowing the name. So why does he think it's real? What's his evidence? You tell me it's real--okay. Why should I believe you?

I understand that Billy is meant to be an unreliable narrator, but you don't achieve that by inserting a bunch of random stuff in or by artificially withholding information. You achieve it by creating tension between what should be and what appears to be. Which means I need two conflicting pieces of evidence, both believable. It's double the work, not half.

However, Billy learns Raphie’s dad is real I was under the impression, from the title and set-up, that Ralphie was a puppet? – and was a serial killer murdered by an angry mob – leading him to wonder if Ralphie had been an undiscovered kidnap victim. Shark, swiss cheese.

Now more than just a matter of proving himself right, how would he actually do this? Ralphie drags Molly back to his old town… but the house is gone, burned to the ground. So....?

I need a hint. It doesn't have to be much more than a hint. Just enough to suggest what might have caused the house to burn down, or Ralphie to disappear, or why his dad's a serial killer, or why Billy feels compelled to look, etc. That's the story--the rest is affectation, and no matter how intriguing it is (and it is, at least a bit), the story is what matters.

Just when Billy thinks he’s out of luck, why would he be out of luck? he hears a story about the house regrowing itself at night… This is fascinating, but what does it have to do with Ralphie being real, a puppet show, anything?

First rule of pitching: tell your story.

That means you gain less from being coy than from just putting the basic plot on the page.

Second rule of pitching: one character, clear goal and motivation, add stakes. Swirl around.


First 750 words:

A crowd is in the middle of the park. I can’t make anything out through the adults standing there, but I hear children laughing. I’m supposed to be meeting Molly, but… it wouldn’t hurt to just have a peek, would it? Peek at what? Same problem as in the hook: you likely know what he's seeing here, but if you don't tell me, I'm lost at sea.

Our town’s park isn’t huge – not even by park standards, let alone city standards – and it’s rare to see large groups, except maybe over by the playground. Maybe that’s why I’m burning with curiosity. Or maybe I’m being drawn by forces beyond human comprehension. These are effectively rhetorical questions--they make him seem less cryptic and more just chronically unsure of himself. Maybe he's possessed--two paragraphs in, who am I to say? Whatever the case, I shove my way through the adults, earning scowls in the process, until I see something I haven’t seen in… wow, how long has it been? All his initial narration is framed as if he knows what he's seeing, until here where, partly because you're in present-tense, you tell me he's seeing it for the first time.

If I'm reading a less-than-reliable narrator, I'm primed to look for tricks of grammar, quirks of the voice, inconsistencies, etc. Which is a challenge, because it means there can't be any of those in there by accident, and it also means you need to balance the voice's idiom with the reader's own engagement. (There's a reason a lot of unreliable narrators are straight-shooters--they may speak in a dialect, but they tell it like it is, until they don't.)

The puppet house is huge, just absolutely oversized, with these big red curtains. It’s this old-school, all wood construction. There are these two hand-puppets on the little stage arguing with each other, real slapstick stuff. This actually isn’t bad. I find his irony-drenching a bit much but the voice is distinctive.

I look around. Nobody is paying any attention to me, let alone looking to toss me out. I take a seat among the kids – it’s a pretty big crowd, at least twenty kids – and start to laugh my ass off. At what, though? Some of the parents and kids are staring. Haven’t they ever seen a teen enjoy a puppet show? Huh, that sounds a little dirty.

I can even quite like this kind of Holden Caulfied-esque voice, but I'll warn you I have a very, very short fuse with it, and I don't think I'm alone.

Their attention turns back to the show. The female puppet – who the male refers to as Maria Nette – is hitting her husband, Mario, Cringey. Probably deliberately so, but I wonder about cost/benefit. with a frying pan. Mario reaches for something below the stage, and pulls out this wicked-looking butcher knife. Not a full-sized one, but still something almost as large as the puppets. Geez, this is going to be good…

See, I think the voice here is eating your story. Something needs to happen, and all I have are these smart-ass reactions. I hate your narrator, which is also probably intentional, but I don't have a reason to hate him, or more importantly, a reason to keep reading in spite of it. I'm very, very immediately in the head of a pretty unpleasant guy, but I'm not getting any reward for holding my nose.

Holy shit! My eyes practically pop out of my head as I watch Mario stab Maria, little blood splats going everywhere. This is surprising? He was pretty well expecting it. I look around the crowd – the kids, all thirty or forty of them, are just laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And their parents are laughing, too. Seriously?

Mario is stabbing and stabbing away. These effects are insane, like nothing I’ve seen at a puppet show. The spurts are spraying out into the crowd. I see boys and girls giggling as the fake-blood hits their faces. How crazy is that? I turn to the kid next to me, and do a double-take – he’s wearing some kind of wooden mask, like he’s a puppet. Is this a birthday party or something? I guess things are different from when I was that age.

I lean back, and laugh. I could spend all afternoon watching this.

One moment, he's laughing. Then he's weirded out. Then he's fine with it, could spend all afternoon.

Which one am I meant to feel? The weirdness creates tension because now something is clearly wrong or at least odd... but Billy's too cool to feel conflict, so the scene goes splat.


“Billy, what the fuck?” a voice asks.

I spin, finding Molly glaring down at me. She looks P.I.S.S.E.D. gimmicky with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Maybe not as ticked as when I messed up her highlights the other week, turning her long black hair almost solid blue (although she lightened up a bit after I kept mentioning it looked amazing with her eyes), but worse than the time I brought her car back with all those scrapes on the door. She’s so cute when she’s angry, though.

One of the things with this kind of character, when they're horrible womanizers, is there can be something mesmerizing about just how crass they are. It's a constant game with the reader: I hate the way the character perceives the world, but I'm also fascinated by it.

Billy's description of Molly isn't mesmerizing, though--it's boring. He's clearly some kind of bad boy, and I would like for her to dump him now and never look back, but the real problem is I don't know why she doesn't. And why she doesn't is probably where you story is.


“Oh, um, hey, how’s it going?” I ask.

“You were supposed to meet me for lunch like two hours ago,” she growls. “You didn’t answer your texts, and I even called you – that’s right, I called you. And you know how much I hate calling.” I smile meekly, and she looks past me. “What are you even doing?”

“Oh, I was just watching a play,” I say, turning back to the playhouse. “Huh.”

The curtains are closed, and… where’d everybody go? There were like fifty kids here earlier.

I should note, as well, that while I the weirdness of the puppets is tense in the moment, it reads like a Foreshadow, so I'm not really buying into it in a way that gets you any pay-off. Combine with the hook, I think I can already see how it plays out. Works against any horror. Remember that readers of this genre tend to be pretty savvy about all the usual tricks. It's tough to fool them.

“What play?” Molly asks. “What kind of weird-ass shit are you doing now?”

“There was a kid’s birthday party here,” I say. “There had to be sixty kids, and everybody was watching a play with these two puppets, Mario and Maria Nette—”

“Puppets?” Molly asks, her brow furrowing. “Those don’t sound like puppet names. Sounds like a bad marionette joke.” Leaning on this three times is three times too many.

I squint. “Yeah, now that you mention it…”

Is this exchange doing anything to hook me and give me a reason to read on?

She sticks her hands in her jean pockets and kicks my shoulder. “C’mon, get up.”

I scramble to my feet. “I’m not making this up.”

Molly sighs. “And that’s what worries me. Now I’m stuck wondering what you’re on.”

“I’m not on anything,” I reply. She gives me the stare. “Okay, I haven’t taken anything today.” She raises an eyebrow. “Honest!”

What do you look for in a beta?

At this point, it might be more of an alpha read than a beta read. Although the work is relatively clean, it’s largely untouched (the quality of the first 750 should be representative of the whole – although I’ll likely finish a proofreading pass by the 20th to pick up obvious errors). It's clean in the sense that it reads. There's a whole world between drafting and proofreading where you polish every line, and it's those little effects where good horror lives.

I’m not sure how well the horror beats work. It might help to know what’s scary vs what’s not, although on the whole it’s not intended to be terrifying – although there may be some disturbing images in there.

FWIW, I'm not scared at all in here. There's nothing particularly uncanny. The kids, sure, but Billy doesn't care and so neither do I.

A lot of horror is tone and atmosphere, which are meta-textual, a constant game with the reader between what I think could be happening and what I want to have happen. Narration is a big part of it, but you're in first-person present, which is severely limited in atmosphere to just that which the character feels. You're going to have to figure out the voice, because jump scares aren't going to work unless I know what Billy cares about. Irony will undercut that fear more often than not. In this whole excerpt, I can't think of one thing I've seen through Billy that I'd feel confident saying is genuine, and so nothing is genuinely scary. It's all a haunted house, a gimmick rather than anything actually unnerving.




Doing unreliable narrators is hard. To do one effectively, it's a lot more than just leaving out details--I'm likely to notice you doing that, and because the veneer between authorial intent and narrative intent is that much thinner, I'm likely to bail when the artifice wobbles. You can't do a puppet show if I can see behind the curtain.

Most unreliable narrators are therefore unreliable about one particular thing, and their purpose in obfuscating is often clearer than whatever they're hiding. (It's similar to a good villain plot, actually--they're always the villain, but there's usually a twist.) What you can't do is use them to artificially withhold key plot or motivation--they work like a red herring (misdirection, in technical parlance) in that you need a fully functional story the whole way, only my perspective on it (usually thematic) will change as I start to figure out the narrator's game.

Unfortunately, a lot of unreliable narrators are done badly--if you're going to do this, you need inch-perfect grammar and line-level execution so that each line is an uneasy, uncertain clue--and doubly unfortunately, a lot of these are too cool for school types oozing Randian pus from every bulbous pore on their pimply faces. They're a gimmick. I have no particular objection to the character type in the right story, but you will absolutely lose more readers than you get with it, so make sure it's something you really have to do to tell this story in its best way.

For instance, I'm actually more interested in Molly's perspective here. The puppet show is a neat concept, but she's in a position closer to the reader's in that she doesn't know what's going on, so I feel less cheated if I'm in her head, plus you get me wondering the right questions more smoothly than having Billy "lol wut" them out for me. Plus she's clearly had some difficulties with Billy--some of the same ones I'm having, I suspect. I'm curious about this puppet show and I'm curious why she's even here--curious enough, maybe, to read on.

If you're going to open here, and you're going to open with Billy and make him unreliable and all the other gimmicky stuff... I'd best be very, very sure what I'm getting out of it as a reader. You have to grab me with something so weird, so bizarre, and so scary that I don't let go. Even if Billy is greasy and repulsive, he's the one I have to trust (for better or worse) to get me through this.

Creepy puppets? Meh. Done that. General concept can work, but it's been in need of a fresh coat of paint since the 90s and I'm not buying Billy's going to give it one.
 

Sage

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Entry #19
Manuscript Title:
Ralphie Rickets was a Real Boy

A crowd is in the middle of the park. I can’t make anything out through the adults standing there, but I hear children laughing. I’m supposed to be meeting Molly, but… it wouldn’t hurt to just have a peek, would it? [[I think you mean to say, a group of people are crowding around something in the park, as if watching/looking at something but the description isn’t immediately clear. A ‘crowd in the middle of the park’ could just be a bunch of people mulling about.]]

Our town’s park isn’t huge – not even by park standards, let alone city standards – and it’s rare to see large groups, except maybe over by the playground. Maybe that’s why I’m burning with curiosity. Or maybe I’m being drawn by forces beyond human comprehension. [[← This line feels a bit much, like you’re looking at the camera and saying ‘something spooky is happening.’]] Whatever the case, I shove my way through the adults, earning scowls in the process, until I see something I haven’t seen in… wow, how long has it been?

The puppet house is huge, just absolutely oversized, with these big red curtains. It’s this old-school, all wood construction. There are these two hand-puppets on the little stage arguing with each other, real slapstick stuff. This actually isn’t bad. [[The sentence construction right now feels much more MG-oriented to me than YA.]]

I look around. Nobody is paying any attention to me, let alone looking to toss me out. I take a seat among the kids – it’s a pretty big crowd, at least twenty kids – and start to laugh my ass off. Some of the parents and kids are staring. Haven’t they ever seen a teen enjoy a puppet show? Huh, that sounds a little dirty. [[This joke didn’t land for me, which makes it really distracting as a result]]
~
Mario is stabbing and stabbing away. These effects are insane, like nothing I’ve seen at a puppet show. [[How many puppet shows does this teenager go to?]] The spurts are spraying out into the crowd. I see boys and girls giggling as the fake-blood hits their faces. How crazy is that? I turn to the kid next to me, and do a double-take – he’s wearing some kind of wooden mask, like he’s a puppet. Is this a birthday party or something? I guess things are different from when I was that age.

I lean back, and laugh. I could spend all afternoon watching this.

“Billy, what the fuck?” [[This already feels like a lot of swearing for YA]] a voice asks.
~
“You were supposed to meet me for lunch like two hours ago,” she growls. “You didn’t answer your texts, and I even called you – that’s right, I called you. And you know how much I hate calling.” I smile meekly, and she looks past me. [[Injecting the actions of one character in the middle of another character’s dialogue is rather jarring]]“What are you even doing?”
~

[[The basic set up of “teen wanders away from a mundane date/activity in the park and sees something surreal” as a story opening could work very well. As-is however, this opening fell flat for me. There’s nothing particularly strange or attention grabbing about your character wandering into a crowd in a public space and seeing a puppet show. The content of the puppet show was strangely graphic, sure, but your main character enjoyed it and so did the crowd, which tells me the cartoonish violence is not actually weird to people in this setting. We also start with your character wandering straight into the crowd, presented with this weird distraction from his every day without so much as a paragraph to establish what his ‘every day’ is like.

I mentioned this above, too, but the prose reads to me like it’s targeted for a much younger audience. The main character’s thoughts and observations don’t feel like they have much depth, even as impulsive-seeming as he is. That said, the amount of cussing took me by surprise for a YA-targeted novel. I cuss IRL, and my own characters swear semi-frequently, but it’s still off-putting to see so much in such a short space, and (imo) without adding anything to the story.

Not trying to sound harsh. I do hope something I’ve said helps!]]
 

Sage

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Entry #19

Manuscript Title: Ralphie Rickets was a Real Boy
Manuscript Genre: YA Horror

Hook:

Seventeen-year-old Billy is notoriously unreliable, much to his best-friend/sometimes-girlfriend Molly’s annoyance.

When Billy tells Molly about a puppet show he watched – which the puppeteer disputes – Molly starts mocking all of Billy’s outlandish stories. She doesn’t even believe him about his old childhood friend Ralphie.

But Billy is pretty sure Ralphie (and his house with a pirate ship) is real. Even if he can’t find any photos. Even if his parents deny knowing the name.

However, Billy learns Raphie’s dad is real – and was a serial killer murdered by an angry mob – leading him to wonder if Ralphie had been an undiscovered kidnap victim.

Now more than just a matter of proving himself right, Ralphie Was this supposed to be Billy? drags Molly back to his old town… but the house is gone, burned to the ground.

Just when Billy thinks he’s out of luck, he hears a story about the house regrowing itself at night…

Interesting premise, but the start of the hook feels disjointed. What does the puppet show have to do with anything else in the hook? It feels more important than it seems to be. And how does a house HAVE a pirate ship? Was it supposed to be IN a pirate ship? Or is there a pond out back with a pirate ship? Or was Ralphie’s room designed to look like a pirate ship?

First 750 words:

A crowd is in the middle of the park. I can’t make anything out through the adults standing there, but I hear children laughing. I’m supposed to be meeting Molly, but… it wouldn’t hurt to just have a peek, would it?

Our town’s park isn’t huge – not even by park standards, let alone city standards – and it’s rare to see large groups, except maybe over by the playground. Maybe that’s why I’m burning with curiosity. Or maybe I’m being drawn by forces beyond human comprehension. Whatever the case, I shove my way through the adults, earning scowls in the process, until I see something I haven’t seen in… wow, how long has it been?

The puppet house is huge, just absolutely oversized, with these big red curtains. It’s this old-school, all wood construction. There are these two hand-puppets on the little stage arguing with each other, real slapstick stuff. This actually isn’t bad.

I look around. Nobody is paying any attention to me, let alone looking to toss me out. I take a seat among the kids – it’s a pretty big crowd, at least twenty kids – and start to laugh my ass off. Some of the parents and kids are staring. Haven’t they ever seen a teen enjoy a puppet show? Huh, that sounds a little dirty.

Their attention turns back to the show. The female puppet – who the male refers to as Maria Nette Hah! – is hitting her husband, Mario, with a frying pan. Mario reaches for something below the stage, and pulls out this wicked-looking butcher knife. Not a full-sized one, but still something almost as large as the puppets. Geez, this is going to be good…

Holy shit! My eyes practically pop out of my head as I watch Mario stab Maria, little blood splats going everywhere. Beware of filtering through phrases like watch and see and hear. It dims the intended effect by drawing the reader away from the scene. Don’t say he saw the puppet stab the other, just let the stabbing happen. This is a visceral, disturbing event in the middle of a performance for kids. The pacing with the “Holy shit” and filtering ruined the shock and awe of the event for me. I look around the crowd – the kids, all thirty or forty of them, are just laughing, and laughing, and laughing. And their parents are laughing, too. Seriously? Good surrealism in this. The event is strange and wrong, and the crowd has grown. It almost feels dreamlike and does a great job establishing Billy as an unreliable narrator.

Mario is stabbing and stabbing away. These effects are insane, like nothing I’ve seen at a puppet show. The spurts are spraying out into the crowd. I see boys and girls giggling as the fake-blood hits their faces. How crazy is that? I turn to the kid next to me, and do a double-take – he’s wearing some kind of wooden mask, like he’s a puppet. Is this a birthday party or something? I guess things are different from when I was that age.

I lean back, and laugh. I could spend all afternoon watching this.

“Billy, what the fuck?” a voice asks.

I spin, finding Molly glaring down at me. She looks P.I.S.S.E.D. with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Maybe not as ticked as when I messed up her highlights the other week, turning her long black hair almost solid blue (although she lightened up a bit after I kept mentioning it looked amazing with her eyes), but worse than the time I brought her car back with all those scrapes on the door. Wait, so she’s ANGRIER than when the car was damaged? That doesn’t make sense. She’s so cute when she’s angry, though.

“Oh, um, hey, how’s it going?” I ask.

“You were supposed to meet me for lunch like two hours ago,” she growls. “You didn’t answer your texts, and I even called you – that’s right, I called you. And you know how much I hate calling.” I smile meekly, and she looks past me. “What are you even doing?”

“Oh, I was just watching a play,” I say, turning back to the playhouse. “Huh.”

The curtains are closed, and… where’d everybody go? There were like fifty kids here earlier.

“What play?” Molly asks. “What kind of weird-ass shit are you doing now?”

“There was a kid’s birthday party here,” I say. “There had to be sixty kids, and everybody was watching a play with these two puppets, Mario and Maria Nette—”

“Puppets?” Molly asks, her brow furrowing. “Those don’t sound like puppet names. Sounds like a bad marionette joke.”

I squint. “Yeah, now that you mention it…”

She sticks her hands in her jean pockets and kicks my shoulder. “C’mon, get up.”

I scramble to my feet. “I’m not making this up.”

Molly sighs. “And that’s what worries me. Now I’m stuck wondering what you’re on.”

“I’m not on anything,” I reply. She gives me the stare. “Okay, I haven’t taken anything today.” She raises an eyebrow. “Honest!”

Good dialogue here, and as I said before, well done establishing that the narrator as unreliable and excellent horror vibes overall with the puppet show scene. It’s clearer why you had the puppet show in the hook, but I don’t think it’s important for the hook at all.
 

Nether

is wondering whether a childhood friend was real
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Belated thanks for the feedback to my anonymous critiquers.

First, my apologies for the typo in the hook -- I went to call Billy "Ralphie" several times in it, which I can assure you has absolutely nothing at all to do with any twists.

The pirate ship, on the other hand, wasn't a typo.

And, in hindsight, I should've done more to draw the line between the angry mob and the burned home. But the hook was limited to 150 words, so I truncated too much in certain places. Whoops. It was trimmed from a 250-word blurb which, either way, might need a bit of work, especially in setting expectations since I hadn't really intended for the murder-puppet show to be scary, it was more intended to be a little trippy.

Currently starting on the revision/editing process so I'll likely review the notes a few times.