First Page Critique: Tweak, Tune, and Trim

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley

Today we’re analyzing an anonymous, first-page submission titled WHERE I BELONG. My comments on the flip side.

*   *   *

“Do you want to know why we’re not having sex?”

My husband Sam was standing at the stove, pouring pancake batter onto the griddle, when I walked into the kitchen. He had his back turned; he spoke in an even tone. He might as well have been asking whether I wanted orange juice or cranberry.

It was a sunny Saturday morning in early September. I was dressed in sweats, my long hair pulled back in a ponytail. I had been headed to the garage to let the dog out of his pen, so I was distracted and wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked.

Sam turned off the stove, faced me directly, and placed his hands flat on the counter-top between them. “I said, do you want to know why we’re not having sex?”

Is there a good answer to this question? I wondered. Doesn’t this lead to either “I’ve met someone else and we need to talk” or “I am seriously ill and we need to talk.” Either way –

“I’m not in love with you anymore,” Sam said in a monotone voice.

I felt as if I’d entered a time warp. This whole conversation was bizarre. “You just stopped loving me? This morning?” I replied lightheartedly.

Ten minutes ago I’d been singing in the shower and now I heard my husband telling me– Wait. What exactly was he telling me? Was Sam upset about something? Was this his way of letting me know he was hurt?

“Okay, what’s bothering you?” I finally said. “And, honey, how can you say we’re not having sex? Just a few weeks ago, we made love. When Lily left for the weekend. You cried afterwards and said I was the only woman you ever loved.”

Sam stared at me full on. “I told you what you wanted to hear. I wasn’t being honest. And because I knew it was the last time.”

I stood still, looking at him. This time I heard him. That message was clear. His jaw was clenched but I also saw tears in his eyes. Something was seriously wrong.

*   *   *

My comments:

The first line of this story grabbed my attention. As Joe Moore discussed in his post last week, the first line of a story plays a critical role in setting the stage for everything that follows. After reading the first line of this story, about why the couple is no longer having sex, I was hooked. That’s a strong opening.

This first page does severel other things well.  It sets up a situation that many people can identify with:  a sudden, shattering rejection. By contrasting the serious nature of the couple’s discussion against the mundane rhythm of a “normal” Saturday morning, the drama is heightened all the more. We can’t help but identify with the character as she reacts to what her husband  is saying, moving from confusion to a dawning awareness that her world is about to fall apart.

Tweak and Tune

Most of my suggestions for improvement go under the category of “tweak and tune.”

Action overload

The following sentence contains too many sequential actions:

“My husband Sam was standing at the stove, pouring pancake batter onto the griddle, when I walked into the kitchen.”

We writers have a tendency to string actions together like Christmas tree lights, in order to move through the physical mechanics of a scene. As a general rule, sentences should contain one or two actions each. Use caution when combining actions by two characters within the same sentence–that’s frequently a symptom of action overload.

The sentence in this example is further weakened because the sequence of actions is out of order. The main character sees her husband after entering the kitchen, but this sentence reverses that sequence. That note seems like a small nit, but it’s important to avoid disorienting the reader. (Another related, general rule: the most important action should always appear at the end of a sentence, not the beginning.)

Echo-ING

“Standing” and “pouring”. The use of two ING words within the same sentence is  repetitive, and weakens the line.

Batch related elements

The sentence, “…he spoke in an even tone” is an important line, but it’s located too far away from the dialogue it refers too. In general, try to keep descriptive elements in close proximity to the thing they describe.

Semicolon alert

“He had his back turned; he spoke in an even tone.”

I agree with James Scott Bell, who once said of semi-colons: “I think of semi-colons the way I think of eggplant: avoid at all costs.”

Adverb alert

“I replied lightheartedly.”

The adverb “lightheartedly” undermines the strength of this sentence. The character might try to sound lighthearted, perhaps. But seriously. Don’t use an adverb here.

Focus on action-reaction

“Okay, what’s bothering you?” I finally said. “And, honey, how can you say we’re not having sex? Just a few weeks ago, we made love. When Lily left for the weekend. You cried afterwards and said I was the only woman you ever loved.”

It would be good to enhance this snippet of dialogue with some sense of interaction between the characters. For example, perhaps the woman waits for her husband to respond to her question about what’s bothering him. When she gets no answer, she then launches into the story about the last time they made love.

Overall

All my notes and nits are relatively minor, mechanical suggestions. Overall, I was completely drawn in by the character’s situation in this story. I think it’s a strong start. Kudos to the writer, and thank you for submitting this first page!

Your turn

What do you think of this first page, TKZ’ers? Do you have any additional notes or suggestions for the writer?

 

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25 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Tweak, Tune, and Trim

  1. This opening breaks the rule about opening with dialogue, but I think it works because it’s provocative and the writer immediately puts the dialogue in context.

    I agree with all of Kathryn’s comments, but I’m wondering if it’s possible to bring in a hint of the story’s premise in the first 400 words. Might not be.

    The concept is clear (to me, but maybe I’ve got it wrong): a woman must rebuild her life when her marriage ends.

    From that concept flow tons of possible premises… and even genres, e.g., she decides to kill him for the insurance, she turns to prostitution and becomes a Madame (TV series ), she discovers she’s a lesbian, she joins two other women and together they conspire to “get back” at their husbands (The First Wive ‘s Club), etc.

    (Maybe Larry Brooks will recognize that his Quick Hit program is already taking effect, to a degree. A plug for you, Larry.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that I like to see a hint of the genre in an opening.

    Other than that, I think that the writer may not yet have found his/her voice, i.e., the voice isn’t strong enough for me so I probably wouldn’t read more, but, of course, voice is extremely subjective.

    • I’m not usually a fan of dialogue openings either, Sheryl, but I made an exception for this one because it grabbed me right off the bat. Thanks for chipping in!

  2. If I may, and perhaps I may be picking the “nittiest” of nits, but I got the feeling of too much passive voice~ “I was…” ” I had been…” – perhaps throwing some action verbs in their place – e.g.:”Dressed in sweats, my long hair pulled back in a ponytail and headed to the garage to let the dog out of his pen, I was distracted. Had I heard him correctly?” (Though this does go against your comment about “action overload – a problem from which I suffer as well).

    And I had one stumbling moment at the line “…placed his hands flat on the counter-top between them.” I had to reread it a time or two because at one point it seemed like a slip into third person, then it seemed odd that his hands would be on either side of a counter. Perhaps if he looked at the pattern of the countertop between his hands, or just dropped the last two words.

    Not really one to talk~ but doing so anyway~

    🙂

    g

    • I noticed that one about the counter but forgot to include it, G. Thanks for lending your eagle eye!

  3. Agree with everything, Kathryn, except this: “Standing” and “pouring”. The use of two ING words within the same sentence is repetitive, and weakens the line.

    • Oops, cut off in mid-comment. I realize you said your objections were nits, but don’t find that those two ING words weaken the line at all.

      • That’s interesting, Elaine–as they say in critique group, “this may just be me,” lol.

  4. I agree with the great opening hook, but like was mentioned about the sequential actions, I did pick up on that as well. I think you would have the same impact if you shortened it to:

    “Do you want to know why we’re not having sex?” He was pouring pancake batter onto the griddle when I walked into the kitchen. He might as well have been asking whether I wanted orange juice or cranberry.

    We can assume he was not sitting and we can assume he’s cooking and therefore the proximity to the stove would be implied. We also know his back is turned if he’s pouring batter and she just walked into the kitchen.

    All of the things that a reader will assume and visualize is taken away by writing these in when not necessary. But that’s just me!

    I would continue reading this!

    • Leaving everything out that’s not needed in the scene, that’s the challenge, Diane. Thanks for commenting!

  5. I’ll steal Elaine’s line – this may just be me.

    A couple of thoughts, but first a word of agreement with G. Smith about the amount of passive construction. Lots of passive voice in the section that tends to distance us from the POV character. Instead of getting deep into the head of the (making an assumption here) woman, we skitter across the surface. Her husband blows up her (assumption again) comfortable world, and we don’t get any emotion – distress, anger, relief. The scene cries for deep immersion into the main character.

    For setting, we get some nice visuals but no sounds, a hint of taste, no smells. Could we smell the bacon grease, hot and ready? Did the pancake batter sizzle when it hit the griddle? Did the dog bark because Saturday mornings start later but the pup’s bladder doesn’t? Do we get a touch of chilled autumn air on our arms from an open window that raises small goosebumps as Sam places his hands on the counter?

    Now I’ll go get my writing done, and probably (certainly!) make a few mistakes of my own. Everything is fixable if the story works. I keep telling myself that . . .

    • “Everything is fixable.” I’m going to pin that one over my desk, Paul. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Ooh, I like the dog barking. Maybe the dog barks in the background and distracts her from concentrating on what her husband has just said.
      She’s caught between letting the dog out to stop the annoying barking and staying to grasp the full meaning of her husband’s statement.

  6. Good call on the sequence problem, Kathryn. So often we don’t realize we have things out of order. My own sequencing problem was pointed out to me about 25 years ago at a workshop taught by Craig Lesley, and I’ve been grateful to him ever since. In my own case, it crops up when I write too fast and put words down without going deep enough into the scene.

    • One can always overload the first hasty write-through, and trim later. Thanks for stopping in, Carol!

  7. Dialogue or not. I really liked the opening sentence. Maybe it was shock value, but it definitely got my attention. I also read the feedback and learned from it. I have a tendency myself to sometimes begin with dialogue. Recently, I moved some sentences around to alleviate the first sentence as dialogue “Dr. Mary! I had my first drink when I was thirteen.” Maybe, I’ll put it back:) I always look forward to the first page stories. Frances

    • Many people don’t mind dialogue openers. I don’t like hearing words from someone I haven’t met yet. But again, “this may be just me.” 🙂

    • Hi Basil! Crying should have been an early clue that something was afoot, true!

  8. Dear Everybody: THERE IS NO “RULE” AGAINST OPENING WITH DIALOGUE! Never has been. Never will be. It’s been done throughout the history of publishing.

    The opening line was the best thing in this piece.

    • Jim, has the writing world always been this obsessed over the formulaic ‘do this/don’t do that’ rules? Just a bit curious as a new guy to the biz.

      • I think, Paul, there is a phenomenon I would call “critique group absolutism.” A strong personality takes over a critique group and begins “laying down the laws” of fiction. This is carried outward, like a virus, to conferences and the like, where it infects others.

        I rarely use “rule.” I much prefer “guidelines” or “fundamentals.” There are things that do work because they’ve been tested. It’s good to know what those are. If you have a good reason not to follow a guideline, then don’t. But if something doesn’t work, you can always find out what HAS worked and use that instead.

    • THANK YOU SCOTT.
      I love dialogue in the opening sentences when it is a grabber. In this case it is a big grabber.
      I didn’t know there was a “rule” about opening with dialogue, but even if there were, I say, climbing “outside the box” is a good thing when it works for you.

  9. I liked this page. A lot of emotion and a bit of role reversal, him all emotional and verklempt, her standing there, “whut . . .”

    This is a job for INFERENCE WOMAN! That super-hero that sweeps through edits and cuts out words placed there by her nemesis, Captain Obvious.
    ——-
    My husband Sam was standing at the stove, pouring pancake batter onto the griddle, when I walked into the kitchen.
    ——–
    My husband Sam poured pancake batter onto the griddle.
    ——–
    Most people don’t keep griddles anywhere except in their kitchen and it can be inferred that it was on the stove. She had to be in the kitchen or she wouldn’t have heard him say the very well crafted opening line.

    There is a lot of that in here. Those words could be put to better use elsewhere.

    I’d turn the page. Terri

  10. Generally, short sharp sentences create impact, they can infer a jolt. Longer ones give the reader a sense of casual relaxation. In this case I like the longer detailed sentence in the second paragraph because it causes the reader to feel what the woman is feeling. She is not startled by his statement or even put off by it, instead she is still relaxed and in a rather early morning cloud.
    While trimming the fluff is import to good writing, it’s also important to know where to trim and where not to trim. Sometimes more detail is important, and in this case it also add to the rhythm.
    I did however feel there were some sentences that were awkward dysfunctional, but not this one.
    I hope the writer keeps it.

  11. Great opening line. It grabbed me and so did the story. A few things that seemed clunky: the out-of-sequence “when I walked into the kitchen,” and the “I replied lightheartedly.”

    As for the passive sentences, the reader in me didn’t notice. I think passive sentences naturally arise in first-person past-tense narrative because the narrator is in the present telling about something that happened in the past. Although that’s one of the problems I have with first-person. Another one is lack of sensory detail, as one commenter pointed out above. It’s easy to get caught up in telling and forget to dramatize.

    I can’t fault the reader for the semi-colon, but then again, I love punctuation. And the double -ing verbs didn’t bother me in the least. Looked to me like proper parallel construction, but YMMV.

    I agree the dialogue in the paragraph that begins “Okay, what’s bothering you?” needs to be broken up. The line about him crying when they “made love” made me wonder if this was going to be a comedy after all! By the way, I don’t mind the term “made love,” I miss when they used to say it on TV instead of the clinical “have sex.” It just doesn’t smack of realism in modern women’s fiction, which I’m assuming this is.

    And the mention of another female in the context of a discussion about sex was jarring. I assume Lily is their daughter, but at first my suspicious mind thought it might be the wife’s sister who happens to be living with them for the time being and ooh, wouldn’t that make a great story complication… ?

    But all in all, I think it’s a good, solid opening, and I, too, would turn the page.

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