First-Page Critique #3: The Neighbors

zorra

 

Meg Gardiner and I have decided to critique 10 first-page entries sent to us. All are unique, and each offers a different challenge for critiquing.

Here is #3, “The Neighbors.”

The Neighbors

Ten years ago she meets a neighbor. She never knew him entirely.  She walks the street hoping for more contact, which he doesn’t give.  He, only, smiles once, although she never forgets the embracing smells of cigarettes and whiskey. She understands what this smile means and considers the meeting never-ending. She considers him closer, seeing what her chances are for more. She smiles back.

Five years later he reappears, riding shotgun, arm and arm with a red Cadillac wheel and a chemical blonde in a Raggedy Ann dress. Skye still doesn’t know his name but upon seeing him and the chemical blonde, thinks, that’s what happened to him.

On a third occasion she’s cashier in a community bookstore. He walks into the bookstore. He doesn’t recognize Skye.

“We’ve met before, she said.

He thinks.

He leaves.

He comes back. He asks for her phone number, “I know you’ve given it to me before”, he says, “but can I have it again”?

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Ann’s Critique:

My first reaction is, what? This seems so disjointed. But upon second read, I find I am intrigued, and I’m beginning to think the author is actually in control. Now, I am curious about what comes next.

As to specifics:

  •  I’m interested in these sentences: “Ten years ago she meets a neighbor,” and, “Five years later he reappears.” It seems to me that this “misuse” of tense is intentional. I’d have to read more to know for sure, but I suspect it will have play in the piece.
  •  I’m not sure about the punctuation here: “He, only, smiles once, although she never…” Is he the only one to smile, or did he smile just that once? If the latter, then the sentence should be, “He smiles, once only, although she never…
  •  “She understands what this smile means and considers the meeting never-ending.” Excellent line. This sets the reader up for a possible stalker situation, or at least, unrequited love.
  •  ““We’ve met before, she said.” Need a close quotation after before, and here you’ve switched up the tense. Again, intriguing, but if in error, be aware of that fact throughout the piece.
  •  Finally, all punctuation should go inside the quotation marks in this piece. (Otherwise, colons and semicolons don’t go inside, but that’s another discussion.)

Overall, despite my initial reaction, I feel the writer is in control here (story-wise). I’d certainly read more.

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Meg’s Critique

My reactions parallel Ann’s. First read-through: Huh? The tenses and time shifts are all over the place. Second read-through: Huh. The author is shifting tenses in a deliberately edgy and controlled way, to pull us into the story with a contemporary, conversational voice.

This is both the story’s strength and a risk to its success. Readers who don’t give it a second read—that is, most readers—might feel confused. And if you confuse readers in the first few paragraphs, you’re likely to lose them. BUT—if this is aimed at a literary fiction market, where readers expect experimentation and word play, I think they’ll eagerly go along for the ride.

And I do suspect that this is a literary short story. At least, I hope so. Its concision, its quick half-scenes, give it a pace and momentum well-suited to short fiction. It really moves, in a series of rapid-cut snapshots. That gives us a lot to go on, and a lot to make us curious, in just 165 words.

If I’ve misread, and this is the opening to a novel, the mini-scenes will seem thin. But I don’t think this opening is meant to support another 90,000 words of story. In which case, keep it up—I want to know what happens with Skye and the neighbor.

(Ann has nailed all the punctuation and usage issues. Follow her advice.)

Thanks to the author for sending the page! This critique can also be found on Meg’s website.

First-Page Critique #2: Sci-Fi for Children

First-page critique: untitled science fiction for children

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Here’s Entry #2 in this blog’s first-page critiques.

The anonymous author’s first page is below. Author Meg Gardiner‘s comments and my edits follow.

_______________________

“Once upon a time…”

…said Mr. Pringle to his tired and mutinous children, all girls, as he dragged them in a ragged line through the Dolorous Garde, the gate on the westernmost side of Mayfair Gardens.

Usually these words begin a story. Here, they brought one to an end. Specifically, his.

If fate had let him finish, Manny Pringle’s last words on Earth might have ended in Paternal Advice: “…If thee were to be sick in company, Modesty, thee’d use thy hat”.

Or maybe in an Improving Proverb: “…I’d not have to remind thee, Patience: ‘Smile, and the world smiles with thee; cry, and I’ll give thee summat to cry about’”.

Or even with A Last Warning: “…Any wide-awake lass’d know only a fool gets ‘tween a dog and his ball, Prudence!”

Instead, as he hurried his family under the reverberating bronze dome, a bomb blew him out of his boots and into nothingness.

It was the boots that were to blame. They had been plaguing him all day. Only last Monday, they had been sat in all their dark glory on the two-pound-ten shelf of Lancashire’s finest bootmaker in (“Enoch Duckworth, Bootier. By Appt. to His Worship the Mayor of Cogthorp”).

“That sole had better last”, said his eldest daughter checking off her list.

“It’ll last longer than you, miss, and it’s almost as smart, if you ask my opinion”, said the shop boy.

A small face popped up over the level of his counter. “If we want your opinion, we’ll ask a monkey”, it scowled.

________________________

Meg’s comments:

This is a charming and fun opening page — which is an accomplishment, considering that the main character gets blown to smithereens. Its success is down to an intangible quality: the author’s voice. It’s lively, lighthearted without being saccharine, and has just enough of an edge to keep the story from feeling either gooey or dark. There’s a Roald Dahl-ish vibe to Mr. Pringle’s tale.

I’m curious that the author describes the story as science fiction, because the language is deliberately anachronistic, in a way typical of fantasy or fairy tale. It even starts with “Once upon a time.” (Kiddie Steampunk?) This can work, but the speculative/SF aspects need to get going quickly, especially in a children’s book. It doesn’t have to be in the first paragraph, because even in a kids’ novel there needs to be room for world building. But soon.

My main concern is with structure. This single page encompasses three disparate elements:

  1. It opens with the Pringle family on an expedition to Mayfair Gardens. That’s good: it’s an immediate scene.
  2. It veers into speculation about what Manny Pringle might have said, if he had survived. The imagined quotes, with their insightful labels (Paternal Advice, Improving Proverb, Last Warning) give us Pringle’s personality. But in essence they’re backstory. Coming immediately after the opening paragraphs, they distract and slow down the narrative.
  3. The final third of the page is a flashback to the purchase of the boots — an entirely different scene.

In other words, the page is trying to do a whole lot. Maybe too much. Starting with a dramatic event is a good impulse — it hooks the reader. Just don’t wait too long to come back to it. I don’t know what age range the story is aimed at, but if the narrative swoops back and forth too much, children can struggle to follow it. Be wary of that.

My only other comments relate to punctuation. Cut every ellipsis (…) on the page except, perhaps, for the first two. And maybe those as well. And put the punctuation for dialogue inside the quotation marks. (“That sole had better last,” said his eldest daughter.)

In sum, I would definitely read on.

Ann’s comments:

I absolutely loved this page. It intrigued me from the get-go, on many fronts. It was quirky, the language was elegant and playful, and I was hooked immediately. The father was a definite character, and the last line made me want more.

The tone of the piece could have been much darker, given the fact that Mr. Pringle blew up, but the fanciful and lively writing sets the reader up for something fun as well as mysterious.

As to specifics:

  • Using “Once upon a time” to start a story is risky, of course, but it works here, on two levels. First, it is something Pringle was actually saying. Second, it sets the tone for the piece. I see from your “title” that this is a piece of science fiction for children. In that case, this is an excellent opening line, but you must make it work for you later in the story.
  • You give examples of what last words Pringle might have spoken, led in with an ellipse, but the words don’t really follow on what the first part of the sentence was, “Once upon a time…” I love the possible quotes, but they don’t quite fit with the lead-in. That would need some remedy. And there are perhaps too many quotes, though I suspect this was due to his addressing each of his daughters, and perhaps giving us insight into their personalities (particularly to Prudence).
  • “a bomb blew him out of his boots and into nothingness. It was the boots that were to blame.” That is such an unexpected line. Caught me off guard immediately. I like that.
  • Only last Monday, they had been sat in all their dark glory  (“they had sat” is more concise).
  • “finest bootmaker in (…)   You don’t seem to finish the sentence after giving the bootmaker’s name.
  • I see by your punctuation that you are writing in British English, so I won’t comment on punctuation.

For a first page, this was exactly to my taste as appetizer. Well done!

Thanks for submitting. And thanks to graphic novelist Lucas Turnbloom for the swashbuckling editor icon!

First-Page Critique #1: Victor Fletcher’s Foster Children

Today I’m posting Entry #1 in this blog’s first-page critiques.

zorraThe anonymous author’s first page is below. My comments, and those of author Meg Gardiner,  follow.
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VICTOR FLETCHER’S FOSTER CHILDREN

If he didn’t make it in time, she would die. It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor. His colleague, Ronnie, kept screaming and shoving people out of the way, but the people didn’t get it, none of them did. They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.

He wanted to say, “Please, please stop complaining. Just move over. Don’t even blink. Please. You might be able to save a life today,” but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth as he edged through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone with the cooler he was hugging to his chest.

“Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

“Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

“And we appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said in his Irish drawl which became really thick when he’s mad. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

Not very far now. It won’t be long. “Time?” He managed to ask.

Ronnie glanced at his watch. His dark face was grim. “We’ve got four and eighteen, Brendan.”

Four hours and eighteen minutes.

The surgery lasts about four hours. They had eighteen minutes to bring the heart to the hospital.

“We’re twenty miles, man,” said Ronnie, the tremor in his voice evident now. “We ain’t gonna make it, are we?”

Brendan didn’t even blink. “We are.”

He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. They’re not gonna make it.

He ran.

_____________________________

Meg’s comments (author):

This submission does exactly what I tell my writing students to do: Figure out what the chase is, and cut to it. Start in the middle of the action. Put your characters in a scene, with others, in conflict, doing something. And boy, are Brendan and Ronnie doing something important — under pressure, with time running out. This is a terrific way to open a suspense novel.

Over all, this is a strong page. It doesn’t slow down the scene with backstory. It lets the mystery build and pulls readers in through the actions of the characters. My suggestions relate to clarifying and tightening the text.

First paragraph:

  • Brendan is the Point of View character in this scene, but he isn’t identified until halfway through the page, when Ronnie mentions his name. Though it’s slightly artificial to state his name when the story’s in his POV, it’s also standard at the beginning of a novel. If you can name Brendan in the first paragraph, before mentioning Ronnie, that will clarify the scene and help readers. Perhaps, “But it looked impossible to Brendan.”
  • “It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor.” You don’t need both sentences — they imply the same thing. The first is the stronger.
  • “They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.” You can tighten the sentence to “every second they remained on that path.” And I’d change “that girl” to “the girl” — because this is the first time she has been mentioned.

Second paragraph:

  • I’m intrigued that Brendan thinks he can’t say anything, because Ronnie is doing plenty of yelling.
  • Is Brendan running? “So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth” implies that he is, but “as he edged through the crowd” suggests that he’s walking cautiously.

Later paragraphs: Watch tenses and some awkward sentence constructions.

“Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

–> Suggest tightening to, “Excuse us,” Ronnie said desperately, etc.

“Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

–> The middle aged man’s two lines of dialogue are near duplicates. Simplify: A middle aged man looked at them with contempt. “We’re all in as much a hurry as  you. We’d appreciate a little courtesy.”

–> Following paragraphs — suggest changing to:

“And we’d appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said. His Irish drawl grew thicker as he grew angrier. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

Not very far now. It wouldn’t be long. “Time?” Brendan managed to ask.

Later:

He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

–> To clarify the blocking in the scene — its layout and choreography — it’s often best to indicate the physical geography at the start of a sentence instead of the end: From a hundred yards out, he saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda.

–> And the tense: It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it an hour and a half earlier.

Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. They’re not gonna make it.

–> Change to: They weren’t gonna make it.

He ran.

That is a great way to end the page — the odds are impossible, but Brendan’s going to try to beat them.

This scene does the most important thing an opening page can do: It makes me want to read on. I would turn the page in a heartbeat (no pun intended) to find out what happens next.

Well done. Thanks to this brave author for sending in the page for critique!

_____________________________

My comments (editor):

This is indeed thrilling writing, and easily engages the reader. The reader is instantly pulled into the story, certain of a deadline and brutal consequences if the deadline isn’t met. But the writing can be edited for greater clarity and impact. Here are an editor’s remarks. All edits are suggestions:

Para 1: If he didn’t make it in time, she would die. It looked impossible, too. Everything seemed to be against their favor. His colleague, Ronnie, kept screaming and shoving people out of the way, but the people didn’t get it, none of them did. They had no idea that every second they spent remaining on that path reduced the chances of that girl surviving.

  • If they didn’t make it in time… (there are two of them racing the clock)
  • Identify Brendan by name early.
  • Don’t need the “too.”
  • “Everything seemed to be against their favor.” (Wordy and vague. What else has been against them? Time? Crowds? Traffic? Quick specifics would help.)
  • Was Ronnie running in front of Brendan, or behind?
  • What path were they running on? A running path? A path at an amusement park? The reader has no idea, and therefore, is lost.
  • … the chances of the girl surviving

Para 2: He wanted to say, “Please, please stop complaining. Just move over. Don’t even blink. Please. You might be able to save a life today,” but he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. So he just kept pumping his legs and breathing through his mouth as he edged through the crowd, trying not to bump anyone with the cooler he was hugging to his chest.

  • Would he really have wanted to say that, or would he have wanted to say, “Get out of the way. Move it!” (Something to convey his panic.)
  • “…he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t.” (Why not? Out of breath? Told not to say a word?)
  • He kept pumping his legs, breathing hard through his mouth, edging through the crowd, cooler hugged to his chest, trying to bump anyone. (Reads faster, tighter)

Para 3: “Excuse us, excuse us,” he heard Ronnie saying desperately, his anger and frustration barely kept in check now.

  • With a life at stake, would he really be saying, “Excuse us”? I suspect it would be more forceful. What does he care about their feelings? Somebody’s gonna die!

Para 4: “Hey you’re not the only one in a hurry,” a middle-aged man said, looking over at them with contempt. “We’re all in a hurry here so we appreciate a little courtesy.”

  • “Screw you,” huffed a middle-aged man. “Wait your turn.”
  • What path are they on that there were so many people in a hurry?

Para 5: “And we appreciate it if you move out of the way because we’re trying to keep a heart beating, arsehole,” Ronnie said in his Irish drawl which became really thick when he’s mad. “Get out of our way or I’m going to break your fucking nose.”

  • Again, not polite full sentences: PUNCH the line! Show his rage and his need for speed.

Para 6: Not very far now. It won’t be long. “Time?” He managed to ask.

Ronnie glanced at his watch. His dark face was grim. “We’ve got four and eighteen, Brendan.”

Four hours and eighteen minutes.

The surgery lasts about four hours. They had eighteen minutes to get the heart to the hospital. (Good. Tight. Concise.)

  • Time?” he panted.

Para 7: “We’re twenty miles, man,” said Ronnie, the tremor in his voice evident now. “We ain’t gonna make it, are we?”

  • …, wheezed Ronnie.

Para 8: Brendan didn’t even blink. “We are.”

  • Delete “Brenden didn’t even blink.” Simply, “We will.”

Para 9: He saw the blue hospital-issued Mazda from about a hundred yards. It hadn’t moved an inch since they left it about an hour and a half ago. The road was as crowded as the pavement.

  • Where is the car parked? Had they left it and run back to it? Confusing for the reader.
  • It hadn’t moved because of traffic? Is there someone else in the car, waiting for them?
  • Again, a sense of place is vital here.

Para 10: Sweat poured down his face and his sight slightly dimmed at the edges. We’re not gonna make it.

  • Rather than, “We’re not gonna make it,” something like: “Shit. We’re out of time.”

Para 11: He ran.

  • Where is he running? Is he on the path, where he couldn’t run before?
  • Why is he running? Deciding running is faster than the car?

Ann notes: This is a line-by-line critique, which I would do for the first few pages of a client’s manuscript, and then highlight similar areas thereafter. Generally I wouldn’t critique every page so in-depth, unless it is a line-by-line edit.

Meg notes: Ann’s and my critiques differ slightly — that’s the nature of editorial review. The author can take all our suggestions under advisement, and decide which, if any, to implement. Good luck!

Cross-posted at Meg’s blog, Lying for a Living.

Free First-Page Critique (Limited Time Offer)

zorra

Image by Lucas Turnbloom

 

I’ve often talked here about writing: story structure, character development, conflict, action, dialogue, revision, editing—the elements of craft and style. Now I’m going give you a taste of how editorial review works. By giving you the chance to submit the first page of your manuscript for critique here on the blog.

Here’s the deal:

I’m teaming up with my friend Meg Gardiner (Edgar award-winning author) to offer up to five people a first-page critique. Meg is an author and has taught writing courses at the University of California and workshops in the US, England, and Europe. I have also taught fiction writing, at the University of California San Diego Extension program as well as in writing workshops in the US. I’m also a veteran journalist, newspaper editor, experienced freelance editor, and writing coach.

Here’s how it works:

Submit the first page of your manuscript—400 words maximum. Meg and I will choose 1-5 submissions from the first 20 entries submitted. We post the selected entries along with our critiques both here and on Meg’s blog, Lying for a Living.

If you want to participate, email Meg the first page of your manuscript.

Email your first page in the body of the email. That means: don’t send it as an attachment. Put the text in the email.

Send it to: meg@meggardiner.com

Subject line: CRITIQUE [Title]

We’ll post critiques of the chosen pages anonymously on our blogs. The writers’ names will not be posted. However, readers will be able to comment on each post, and if the author wants to jump in and identify him or herself, that will be fine.

Who’s in?

Editors: Compliments Are Few. It’s No Life for the Needy

GREAT_COMPLIMENTS-234x300

I was complimented today. Why doesn’t matter. It was sort of a toss-off compliment, but heartfelt nonetheless, I believe. What struck me most was the realization that I rarely get compliments. Oh, I get them from my husband; they are frequent and joyfully received. But in life, in general, compliments aren’t generally tossed out like beads at a Fat Tuesday parade. People tend to be circumspect, stingy even, with compliments. I don’t know why. It’s not like you have to pay for them!

Especially as a freelance editor, compliments are few and far between. I accept that repeat work from my clients is the greatest form of compliment. But I realized today that if a person needs regular positive feedback, the life of a freelance editor isn’t for them.

I rarely miss a deadline, and when I do, it’s typically not my fault. (Simple fact. Project managers fall behind, and try as I might, I can’t catch up. But that’s rare…the inability to catch up, not PMs falling behind.  Despite obstacles laid in my path, I power through on weekends and late into the night to meet deadlines.)

Rarely does my extra effort result in acknowledgement, however, other than, “When will the next chapters be ready?” or something of that sort. I certainly never get a bonus at the end of the year, or regular incentives.

More often, I’m informed that rates are going down, due to yet another downturn in the economy, so freelancers (while vital to the publishing industry) will not receive the pay they currently receive. Hey, I accept that. I’ve chosen this career, and I have no illusions. Though vital, freelance editors are a “dime a dozen,” even the great ones.

But, I readily admit, it was nice to get that compliment! I read it and reread it and grin. It’s like an unexpected gift.

Remember that when you work with your editors, writers. Please. Editors are like dentists. We might cause pain, but ultimately, you are better off because of us! Be aware that compliments go a long way in the heart of an editor.

Applause

Editing: Joy or Challenge

editing

Editing can be a joy or a challenge. I’ve worked with several unpublished writers with whom my relationship has been nurturing and excellent. They have been willing learners and I’ve seen great improvement in their writing as we worked together.

And then there have been the challenges. Some writers think their writing is so good that no editor is needed, but others know that they should get an editor…they just don’t understand the role of the editor. As I explain immediately, I am part cheerleader and part trail guide. I will cheer them as they write, but I will also guide them on the path to improve their writing.

I’m a writer. I understand writers’ egos. We bleed over our writing. Every word is precious. I get it. And I think that’s what makes me a good editor. I know the pain of word-birth.

Two weeks ago a “writer” contacted me out of the blue. He said he’d been working on his manuscript for many months and wanted to work with a writing mentor. He’d seen my profile on an editing website and thought I had the skills he needed. I offered to read and assess his manuscript, which he assured me his friends had read and loved.

I should have known to walk away at that moment. Still, I cautioned him that an editor reads differently than friends read, and said that he shouldn’t expect simple applause from me. If applause was due, I’d certainly give it, but I was also going to read to find ways to improve the book, if it needed improvement. That’s the purpose of the assessment read. He assured me that he understood.

Well, he wrote decent sentences, but the story and plot needed a great deal of work, and his characters were cookie-cutter, trite and stereotypical. I broke this to him with great diplomacy, but he fought me every inch of the way, arguing about why he had written as he had–and anyway, he’d fashioned his character on Tom Cruise’s interpretation of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, so such characters do exist.

Gently, I tried to explain that I think he had a good idea, but that he needed to delve more deeply into the characters, to develop their motivations and plausibility. It’s nice to have a character from the hero’s past who will show up and clear away bodies, and another who will show up and patch up his wounds, both with no questions asked, but other than being super-useful to the writer, how do these characters figure into the story? (I was much more diplomatic than that in my assessment and the 40 subsequent emails we had.)

Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t work with me. His friends had loved what he’d written, and they didn’t have to ask so many questions about who people were and why they did what they did. And, furthermore, who was I to question his grammar? He’d run the thorny sentences through a grammar checker online and had been assured his grammar was fine.

Heck, I’m just an editor. What do I know?

i_hate_heart_editors_mugs-r1d5b445e31e64db98e01cca4e085618a_x7j1l_8byvr_512After numerous, increasingly argumentative, emails, I was more than willing to call quits on our nascent relationship. He was simply going to be ore trouble than he was worth. I wasn’t ready to debate every point (and had given him my willing permission to accept or decline every assessment comment I’d made). We parted company, with him declaring that he had actually made many of the changes I had suggested, and was thinking about many of the story points I’d highlighted. I said if he needed my help in the future, I was here.

After two weeks, I requested payment for the assessment (which I usually ask for up front, before delivering said assessment). He refused. Said he thought my feedback was crap, and anyway, HE was assessing ME, and decided he didn’t want to work with me. So, he wouldn’t pay.

Excuse me? I’m not sure what planet he lives on, but I hope publishing is different there, because he’s never going to get published here on Earth. Unless he self-publishes, which is his only possibility.

Chalk this one up to “lessons learned.” Stick to my rules, and obey when the little voice in my head shouts, “Run!”

Meg Gardiner on the Writing Process

Edgar Award-winning author Meg Gardiner talks about the PROCESS of writing in an article in the Suite T authors blog of the Southern Writer’s Magazine this month.

Read the article here, and then remember, writing is a process. Very few of us can sit down and hammer out a novel in a month, despite the popularity of NaNoWriMo. That endeavor is GREAT for getting you started, but it doesn’t stop there. As Meg says, the first draft is often embarrassingly rough. A true writer then takes the time to hone and polish.

If you are doing NaNoWriMo, congratulations! You’ve made the first step. Now keep going. And find yourself an editor to help before the final steps toward submitting for publication.