Excerpt Critique: “The Family Channel,” Memoir

by Guest Contributor

Cars driving down highway

Please welcome today’s anonymous aspiring author, ready for a peer critique.

Take a moment to read the excerpt and leave some thoughtful feedback in the comment section below.

If you are a writer whose excerpt has appeared anonymously on Write It Sideways, and now you’d like your name to appear on your piece, contact me.

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The Family Channel


Ready on the set.  Roll Sound. (Speed.) Roll Camera. (Rolling.) Road Scholars. Scene 21. Take 1. Action!

“Do you have any alcohol, tobacco or weapons in your car?”

We had driven eighteen hundred miles up the east coast to Canada with three kids.  Of course, we had alcohol in our car. A cigarette might have helped, too, but I didn’t smoke.  Weapons?  Last week, Wyatt fashioned a slingshot out of two pencils and his sisters’ ponytail holders. Did that count?  Just yesterday, Emma beat Anabel into submission with her Teddy. Should we declare her stuffed animal as a lethal weapon?

With his best poker face, Greg responded to the Canadian border guard, “We have some blueberry beer from Maine and a bottle of gin. No tobacco or weapons.”

Glancing into the bulging rear of our Ford Excursion we affectionately called, the family truckster, she said, “Pull over just ahead.

Two guards, armed to the teeth, approached our vehicle with clipboards in hand and said, “Please vacate your automobile leaving everything inside.”  A family of five Americans entering Canada on an October morning seemed to be subversive stuff.

Smiling as the chilly northern wind hit my face, I turned on the Southern charm. “How are y’all?” No response.  “We’re so excited to be in Canada!  We’re on a family sabbatical…traveling America to teach our kids first hand about history and geography and different people…” I rattled on about our one-year radical lifestyle change while one guard (a man wearing ladies’ glasses) wrote down our make, model, tag and passport information and the other began searching our ten-year-old car.

Potential Feedback Prompts

When you respond, you might consider:

  • your immediate reactions
  • likes and dislikes
  • anything that seems unclear
  • language issues
  • point of view
  • voice
  • inconsistencies
  • general encouragement


  • Liz

    You did a great job of immediately characterizing all of the family members. The narrator’s voice had a bit of snark but not overkill. This excerpt really set the scene for me.

    The italicized line at the beginning threw me. I don’t know how that fits with this memoir. Especially because it said Scene 21. That made it seem like this wasn’t the opening scene of the memoir.

    The line about teaching kids about “different people” seemed off. Different cultures? Something a little more sophisticated.

    In the last line about the “10-year-old car” – maybe use that as an opportunity to show it’s wear and abuse by the family? Dents, dings, scratches lovingly earned by the kids’ bikes, rackets, etc. Obviously, that would have put you over your word limit, but it seems like a great chance to characterize the vehicle, especially if it plays a big role in their travels.

    Overall, I thought this excerpt really worked. You accomplished a lot but didn’t make it feel like an info dump. It left me wondering what happened next to this family.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Lisa C

    I really like the writing here. It’s concise and clear. The very first line makes me want to read it.

    I get a good picture and the humor is excellent. This really intrigues me and makes me want to read more about this family. I want to know where in the South they are from and what they’re really doing in Canada.

    You might add some description about the main character. He’s obviously covering up some nervousness with humor. I am not a screenplay writing or editing expert but you might add a little direction such as, “pulling at my collar” or “hand shaking slightly.”

    Overall, you are on the right track!

  • http://lararthompson.wordpress.com Lara

    Overall, nice writing, engaging, and I get a lot about the mom’s character already (frustration from the long travel, cynical of the crossing probably because she’s nervous, and tired).
    I don’t think I like the opening. It’s jarring and confusing. Unless we find out in a few more paragraphs that this is just a film take, it feels meaningless, but then, in that case, why do we go into very authentic depiction of a family after 1800 miles of travel?
    If you were driving up the east coast, wouldn’t you end up in to french speaking Canada? The interior of NB is francophone also. You can take advantage of the impatient french border guard having to deal with anglophones. Rather than a generic “Canadian” border guard. You can also play on any missed expectations of a polite border guard. [I’m from anglophone Quebec, btw].
    I may not be from the South, but it doesn’t seem very Southern to have to turn on the charm like that. Then the y’all is redundant. Maybe skip the ‘turn on the charm’ bit and show it instead, like you’ve started, with the mom jibbering away. I’d prefer also a few more details about her nervousness, or whatever it is she’s feeling.
    Quick word nit-pick: “ponytail holder”? I call them hair elastics, but that could be a Canadian vs Southern US thing.
    I would read on :).

  • Mary

    Great job! I loved the humor, especially the makeshift weapons. The first paragraph is well written – great word choice, voice, flows well. The following paragraphs don’t seem to flow as well.
    (I don’t understand the italics at the beginning, either.)

  • http://BarbaraLBates.com/polad Barbara Bates

    The voice is well written and believable. The internal dialogue gives her frame of mind. But, how does she feel? Annoyed at having to stop? (We’ve been stopped at the Canadian border in a similar fashion and it took almost an hour before we got back to traveling.) Does she look with longing at the other cars that aren’t being stopped? Is she hoping the kids don’t want to go to the bathroom? Let the reader into her wants and desires.

    Contrast/compare. Where the cold wind hits her in the face, compare it to having her head stuck in the freezer — or contrast it with the warm breezes back home.

    While those at the border can be friendly, those checking the people picked to be stopped are not. Good depiction of them.

    And I’m not sure about the beginning. Does it mean she’s reliving the incident? Or that she’s playing a part? I hope this is explained soon.

  • surinderleen

    Why will the guard ask about alcohol, tabbaco or weapon? If they are suspicious of them, they will only order for search. At last, they order for it. No other sound has mentioned except talking. Weather is too not clearly define.
    General condition of the family members as were they feeling tired, chill out or disgusting has not mentioned.
    However, it produces a clear scene of the road. It takes me in Canada border. Voice seems introvert. It seems a real memoir.
    These are my view points, however the excerpt is complete.

  • http://jimsgotweb.com Jimsgotweb

    My immediate reaction was that it reminded me of the times that I’ve been stopped at the border. There are funny things that you want to say, but it’s probably best to keep them to yourself. Can you imagine the reaction you would have gotten if you would have mentioned the slingshot and teddy bear?

    I loved the line, “We had driven eighteen hundred miles up the east coast to Canada with three kids. Of course, we had alcohol in our car.” Very funny!
    My only dislike was that it was too short! How long were you at the border? I’d love to hear more about the man with the ladies’ glasses. Did they talk to you at all?
    Thanks for the fun story!

  • http://sandhillreview.org Marty Sorensen

    It was very easy to read, and that’s important. But: Ditto about the movie thing. Also, road scholar is a cliche. In a submission this short, you should not skip reviewing for punctuation. What’s with the armed to the teeth? That’s way too much exaggeration for a border guard with a clipboard. I didn’t understand the meaning of “bulging rear”, nor to be honest from California, what “tag” is.

  • Rahad Abir

    The opening is gripping. I liked that. The piece sounds intriguing and humorous.

    However, I have a mixed feeling about the first big para ”We had driven eighteen hundred miles up the east coast to Canada with three kids. ..Should we declare her stuffed animal as a lethal weapon?” Is that all necessary?

    Nevertheless, he is on track.

  • john meekiins

    Good job. Iiked reading it.

  • Esther Campion

    Well done Anonymous. I agree about the movie line at the beginning but the rest entertained me and made me laugh. I reckon it worked. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your writing.

  • http://jackierandall.com Jackie Randall

    I ‘got’ this straight away. I understood the location, time, characters and voice instantly and I wanted to read more when I reached the end. That’s a pretty good start from my point of view!

  • Gail Owens

    I enjoyed this excerpt a lot! I smiled while reading and felt I ‘understood’ the mom and her quiet thoughts, but yacketty mouth. I did get lost on the last line. I was concerned that one of the kids drove off while the adults were talking!

  • http://www.tamarapratt.com Tamara Pratt

    A strong voice emerges in this piece, along with humour, so immediately, I felt engaged with the story. You’ve done a great job of characterising the children (and the adults) in a short period of time. I too would have liked to have seen the vehicle ‘characterised’ and perhaps tension in that last paragraph lifted a notch with the narrator taking mental notes of the police reaction — at the moment, it’s potentially just a routine search (although seemingly overkill), and the alcohol present might get them into trouble, but is there more that puts the family’s trip and freedom at stake as the police search the vehicle? Is there something in the car that the family has overlooked, that will provide a lead for some sort of prosecution? Perhaps that’s yet to come, and the number of words hasn’t allowed for that, but if there is, would love to hear the female voice ‘think’ those through and what that find could mean for her family.

    One other nit: “Pull over just ahead. — missing ” at end.

    A great read and I’d read on.

  • http://www.zmcknight.com Zoe McKnight

    Loved it! Great characterization in such a short piece. Really enjoyed the sarcasm n humor. Would definitely read on. Great job, you have a gift.

  • http://christinewenzel.com Christine Wenzel

    Hi, sorry for weighing in a bit late, it was a fun-fill, hectic weekend :)

    I chuckled when you wrote “Of course, we had alcohol in our car.” A parent on a road trip can relate to your humor. Well said!

    You’ve managed in a short piece to give us a good idea what the story is about. We know it’s a family of five on a year-long road trip and we can relate to the jitters at the border, even when we have nothing to hide.

    If this is scene 21, I’m wondering if you would be taking the time to give us back-story? The reader would already be aware you had been driving for a long time and probably why and what you hoped to gain from the experience.

    Your writing voice is strong. I think a bit more showing and less telling would make it even stronger. As an example — How did the guards look, tall, short, fat, scowling, bored, intimating, holsters on their hips.

    I’m wondering as well, if there is a way to eliminate some of the internal voice of the mother? Maybe with more dialogue and some action. Roughly something like: The kids might start fighting while the border guard is talking to them and she has turn around and to tell them to stop using the teddy bear like a weapon.

    I would continue reading, I love memoirs and your topic is one that would draw me in.

    Well done!

  • http://www.cynthiadwyer.com Cindy Dwyer

    I agree about the italics not working for me, but I LOVED the rest of the beginning. So funny.

    I don’t understand Greg’s poker face – it would work if it were YOUR poker face, because you’d been thinking all the humorous thoughts. We have no idea what he was thinking that would require him to mask his feeling behind a poker face.

    I have a good sense of your family and the guards.

    The last sentence wasn’t on par with the rest, IMO. You tried to cover a lot in there. I’m not sure if you’re trying to convey a sense of nervousness? I think it would work better if you slowed down here. Maybe move the one year of travel part to the next paragraph?

    I think the age of the car would fit better in the earlier paragraph where you first mention it. The detail is not relevant in this paragraph.

    Overall, this is very well done and engaging. Nice job!

  • http://freegamesc.edublogs.org/2013/05/30/pocomon/ http://freegamesc.edublogs.org/

    First of all I want to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear
    your mind prior to writing. I have had a difficult
    time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there. I
    do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin.
    Any suggestions or tips? Kudos!

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