Little things that add up to a big difference

Several years ago I did a post over at Killer Hobbies called “Stomping out your story killers,” in which I discussed how the frequent repetition of small errors  can kill your manuscript. As writers we tend to commit our own particular story killers, such as the overuse of certain words and constructions. Some of my most frequent offenders are are the overuse of dashes, and using italics for emphasis in dialogue. During rewrite, I do a global search for my story killers and winnow them down so that they they don’t occur as often.
Which brings me to today’s critique. I enjoyed today’s first page submission, but I do think it contains a couple of potential story killers that the writer may want to watch out for. My comments follow in the bullets. 
What could be so urgent as to have his old friend send for him so soon after their recent visit?
Witt entered the palace and a world of opulence greeted him and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. A wonderful place to visit, but not his kind of purposeful, long-term living. He much preferred the country.
A young page dressed in the red and gold finery of the Regent’s colors approached, a serious expression clouding his young features.
“Lord Witt.” The page bowed low. “The Regent awaits you. Follow me, please.”
Witt smiled. “Young Thomas, you are far too serious this evening. Why the frown? I enjoy the sound of your laughter much better than the stern look you wear.”
“You will know soon enough and you will understand.”
An edge of uneasiness rippled down his back as he followed the boy. He’d helped his old friend out of difficulties in the past, but those were around issues of war, but those days were past and he enjoyed his quiet life in the country now.
The page knocked on a heavy oak door and bowed out of the way as the door swung open. A dozen men occupied the room. All wore serious expressions.
“Who died?” he joked. But when the circle parted a man, pale and slack, lay across a chaise lounge, his face horribly disfigured.
“Charleton,” said the Regent, stepping from the circle: regal, robust and somber. “Murdered.”
“We are not entirely sure…that’s why I sent for you. When word gets out.”
“Tell me what happened.”
Templar came forward. “It appears his face was torn to pieces.”

  • I enjoyed this piece, especially the last line, “It appears his face was torn to pieces.” However, I got thrown as I encountered three instances of the word “serious” on the very first page, plus a similar word, “somber.”  Every word on the first page needs to have a purpose for being there. It needs to push the narrative forward in some way. I would suggest that the writer trim down the use of “serious” to one instance. Rather than simply repeating the fact that people seem serious, find another way to heighten the tension on the first page.
  • The description of the palace was too nonspecific to draw me into the setting. I would suggest highlighting one outstanding thing about the palace–something that’s familiar to the narrator, but that underscores its opulence–to bring it to life.

 Your thoughts? And while you’re at it, can you share some of your personal “story killers”?

11 thoughts on “Little things that add up to a big difference

  1. There are a couple of things that I noticed. In the description of the page the word ‘young’ was used twice. And then regal for describing the Regent, could be a cliché? Though the alliteration is good how about proud, dignified or august. I find it wasteful to use words that describe a royal bearing to a person who IS royal. Who else is he besides royal?

    Then near the end the Regent says ‘when word gets out’- it feels like an unfinished sentence; what will happen if word gets out? Is this a first draft? I think after a re-write this will be good.

    I haven’t had time to write my fiction for a couple of months but I have noticed in my essays for Uni that I say ‘also’ way too often, still trying to cut that one out! I also (see!) make my sentences too long. I have to learn to shorten them.

  2. I agree with you, Kathryn, this has potential. I would definitely read on to find out more about the murder. But I consider this to be shallow writing. By that I mean that it stays safely on the surface of the story “ocean” when there is so much more down below. Generic words like young, old, serious, opulence, finery, heavy, horribly, etc. could easily be converted to descriptions that painted deeper, stronger pictures. For instance, rather than “A young page . . .”, why not “A pimple-faced page barely into his teens and unable to properly fill out the red and gold finery of the Regent’s colors . . .”

    I know we preach the sins of too much description and not enough action when starting the story, but this is shallow stuff. Word choice is the craft of storytelling. This submission could be so much stronger with just a few dives beneath the surface.

  3. I don’t care for Witt. He comes across as cracking jokes while he is informing us of the death of someone. Also, as Witt has visited the palace on numerous occasions, all of its finery would seem commonplace to him. Rather than describing how nice it is, stylistically, I would rather see a description of the things he noticed to be different than the last time he visited. Are there guards at the entrance? Would they perhaps seem a bit more stern? I like that he notices that the page is less jovial, but rather than ask him about it, I would think it would be better to cover this with an internal monologue. Are there maids about? Perhaps their eyes are puffy from crying. And the voices that might normally be loud enough to be heard might now be whispers heard from the corners. At this point, I think everything should foreshadow what Witt is about to learn.

    The last sentence is terribly redundant. Witt is looking at the man and in the Who died? paragraph we already see that the face is disfigured. Witt might observe more details of that disfigurement—a long scratch across the left cheek, a broken scull—but Templar would not mention it. In response to “Tell me what happened,” Templar should relay what Charleton was doing at the time from Templar’s perspective, tell how the body was discovered or mention some of the theories that have been suggested, but he should not state the obvious.

  4. Liza, I also have a tendency to repeat certain words. They tend to be unusual words that I’ve glommed onto for some reason. I always have to do global searches for them during rewrite.
    Joe, you expressed what I was thinking about generic, shallow writing. The writer needs to take another pass at the page to “layer in” depth. Timothy, you have a good suggestion about revising Witt’s reaction to the palace.

  5. I think this has the bones of a good story and I would keep reading. One thing I’d change if I had the chance is to employ some contractions. We tend to have the idea that people in the past were very proper in their speech, but while they may not have used as much slang, they were not so formal that they didn’t use contractions. In my experience, dialogue tends to sound stilted without them.

  6. Lisa, you’ve hit on a good general point about dialogue. As writers, we must have an “ear” for dialogue. It’s all about creating an illusion of natural speech. It must be even more difficult when we write for another time period. Maybe Clare can hove in on the challenges of writing natural-sounding dialogue for a distant time period.

  7. Hi Kathryn,
    Thank you for this critique. And I welcome everyone’s input. Nice article on, “Stomping out your story killers.”

    I’m the writer, and it is a first draft. I’m exploring different approaches to my writing since I was recently contracted for a three book series. My first book will be out next May.

    It takes me several rewrites to get to the depth that Joe is talking about. I’m hoping with experience that this will come easier.

    The one thing I don’t want to do is kill off my career before it ever blooms. It’s taken me a long time to reach this point.

    Some of my story killers are overuse of the words: that, just, and while. I also love the semicolon but have been told that a comma serves just as well. Ah, there’s just again. 🙂

    I’m curious to know the mistakes you’ve seen when new writers are published.

  8. Ah the dialogue issue…sorry it’s taken me so lime in but I’ve long to time in but I’ve been on a plane and am now in NYC (which I love!) I think the trick is one of balance – having it sound authentic for the time period but not too stilted. I think in this piece we (as readers) aren’t grounded enough in time so even the dialoue throws us off. I would like more specificity to set the stage and then I’d be able to comment better on the dialogue issue.

  9. My last novel I developed a weird story killer — no one could “know” something without “also knowing” something.

    “He knew where the formula came from. He also knew he’d look the other way.”

    Drove me nuts getting rid of them all!

  10. I second the need for a description of the palace and also the need for depth.

    I agree with Lisa about the sound of the speech. It feels artificial. This reads a bit like a children’s story. It’s a little too clean and doesn’t delve nearly deeply enough to keep me reading.

    Also, a question of setting: When and where is this taking place? The main character prefers the country yet he speaks as a member of the royal establishment! Someone who likes the country (as opposed to the city) usually takes issue with the flowery language and proper niceties of the upper crust, lor at least they do in my mind. So, this characterization feels inconsistent to me. It makes me wonder how clearly the author knows this character. Perhaps a statement of the date and location at the beginning would help set the stage.

    I think Timothy’s suggestion about the monologue would greatly improve the writing and give it all the things it lacks.

    Lack of specific descriptions. “All wore serious expressions.” Show a little more often than you tell.

    And, and, but, but. These are called run-on sentences. You are allowed exactly 1 (one) “and” or “but” per sentence to join two separate, complete sentences as one in standard English. (Of course, writing isn’t always standard English is it? 😉 )

    “‘Charleton,’ said the Regent, stepping from the circle: regal, robust and somber. ‘Murdered.'” Huh? Who or what is regal? Same for robust and somber. The circle? The wording here does not work to clarify what these descriptive terms refer to.

    Shouldn’t “When word gets out.” have … at the end like a sentence trailing off…

    Re: Jill – Use commas to separate words in a series. There are other uses for commas but the only use I’ve ever seen for the semicolon is to conjoin two sentences. The sentences must relate to each other in such a way that the second answers or responds to the first. Basically, the sentences must be a “set”. Example: “Roger scrambled frantically for the still open door of the subway car before the train left the station; he didn’t make it.” Oh, do not capitalize the first word of the second sentence in this structure. It’s odd, I know. And don’t forget you can always use a regular period instead.

    And my story killers include an overuse of the words “very” and “just”. I have to be very (See!) careful when I write. I also tend to write very long sentences with lots of conjunctions so I have to force myself to break them up into separate sentences so they read better. (And here’s an example of that! Ha!)

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